Monday, November 23, 2009

No more drink til you die calculator.

It appears that barstools.net must have either had too many hits on their servers with their "How many drinks will it take to kill you" calculator that I had posted on here, or they had were afraid of the bad publicity.  In any case, they've taken the calculator down, so I have as well.  Too bad, it was good to find out that it would have taken 50 Bloody Marys to kill me.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Hamfest treasures

My intentions this year were to sneak into the DurHamfest, look at everybody else's junk, maybe find a "treasure" or two, pick them up, and then split. That's my usual M.O. at the DurHamfest, but this year was a little different.

After finding a place to park Phoenix (my pickup truck - don't you name *your* vehicles?) which was no easy feat - most of the primo spots were already taken, and my truck is fifteen feet long - I parked, and headed up the steps into the "flea market".

My first impression was, "where is everybody?" Durham's never been known to be a big hamfest, although years ago, when it was held at the old South Square Mall parking lot, it *felt* bigger. On this day there were maybe 15 people tailgating. I have to admit that I arrived half an hour later than my intention due to some unforseen difficulties at the office, but I had expected more.

Regardless, I knew that the real treasures were to be found inside, so I headed for the main entrance to the Little River Community Center Gymnasium. Naturally, it took me ten minutes to get beyond this obstacle, between filling out my name on 16 prize tickets, and doing some initial "catching-up" with an old BBS buddy, Lenore Ramm, who was assisting at the ticket booth.

Lenore was a frequent denizen of the computer BBS's that we ran and logged into back in the late 80's and early 90's. You remember - before the interweb. Her father was a bigwig in the CS department at Duke, and her older brother Karl kept threatening to write his own BBS to outshine all the others, but as far as I know, this never happened. Last I heard, he was teaching up at MIT.

In those days we had a weekly gathering at a local breakfast place on Saturday mornings. The joke was that wherever we decided to meet would go out of business within 6 months. This held true except for the couple of places that either had the common sense to chase us out and tell us to never return, or those for which we weren't their biggest client base. We'd all get together, talk about computer software and hardware, order multiple breakfast and drink items, and waste most of the otherwise productive part of our Saturday mornings and early afternoons. Lenore came most frequently when we were at Time Out Chicken and Biscuits on the Durham/Chapel Hill Boulevard, which by the way went out of business during the time we met there.

So having the opportunity to "catch up" if you will with miss Lenore was a pleasant diversion for awhile, but I had marvelous treasures to seek, so once my onslaught of writer's cramp was complete (remember, I had to fill out 16 prize stubs) I bid her adieu and entered the hallowed ground of the "exposition hall".

It took only a few minutes to go around the inside of the gymnasium to see all the exhibitors. It was gratifying to see that a couple of vendors that I recognized from other shows were there. In particular, Cedar City Sales from Lebanon Tennessee, and DBJ electronics from down east were there. I'm sure there a couple of others, but those were the two that caught my attention, simply because I had seen them either at Charlotte or Raleigh, or both.

I was on the lookout for a new magnet mount for my 2 meter mobile antenna. My current mount is too easily knocked over any time I go through a low clearance area, like the parking deck at the Durham Bulls games. I wanted to find a five inch diameter magnet, and a small spring. Cedar City had the spring, but they only had three inch magnets, so I kept looking. I wasn't going to buy the spring if I couldn't find the magnets. First time through the gym, I didn't find one single thing to buy.

One thing that happens to me when I go to hamfest is that I meet people there that I know, sometimes people I never expected to see there, but there they are notwithstanding. I had already met Lenore, and on my way over to the exit to take a closer look at the tailgaters' goods, I ran into my co-worker, Big Red, WA4OPI. Red's been a ham for awhile, has radios and everything, but doesn't get on the air. He just listens. He introduced me to another ham whose name and call I don't remember. We should all really bring QSL cards to hamfests to exchange like business cards. It might help the remembering part. Anyway, we spoke for a few minutes about not much of anything, and I excused myself, and went outside.

There really wasn't anything of interest to me outside, although there were bits and pieces of things that I used to be interested in, or already have the same bits and pieces at home. A quick five minutes through the tailgaters brought me to the food booth.

Wilson, W4BOH, was cooking up some tasty-smelling hot dogs and hamburgers, and the ones I saw leaving the booth certainly looked appetizing, but all I wanted was a Diet Dr. Pepper, which of course they didn't have, so I settled for a Diet Coke. Why that particular bit of trivia is important is because I was nursing a hangover, and was ever-so-slightly dehydrated.

That was truly the pause that refreshed. I deposited my empty into the nearest recycling bin, and headed back inside. My brain being rehydrated, I now found lots of things I wanted. At DBJ, they had the five inch magnet mounts with the NMO connectors. Yippee! The next table yielded a nifty flush-cut wire-cutter. I've been wanting one, so I bought one. The next table had teflon dogbone insulators for antennas. You never know when you might need to throw together an antenna, so I bought six. Now having my magnet mount, I could go ahead and buy that spring so I headed back over to Cedar City and picked it up. I told the lady I would have bought everything there if she had it in stock. She called me honey and apologized, and said she wished she had it too.

Treasures in hand, I headed back out the door, stopping to talk again with the lovely miss Lenore for a few more moments. After a quick trip around the tailgaters for a last time, I headed down the steps to my truck, but I never made it that far. At the bottom of the steps was a Mercedes sedan with a license plate that immediately caught my eye, "N4GOP".

"Wow," I thought. "This guy must really wear his politics on his sleeve!" There were some bumper stickers on the car as well, and it quickly became apparent that this was the car of yet another of my old-time BBS buddies, Eric Weaver. Eric's had a number of interesting jobs over the years, but the one thing that has been constant throughout the years has been his conservative Republican political beliefs. Of course, this didn't keep us from being friends when I thought I was a liberal, and it doesn't keep us from being friends now that I'm a Libertarian, although I don't see Eric much any more. He lives in Cary, and I live in BFE. He'll tell you that he doesn't really live *in* Cary, but instead is surrounded by it. I dunno, if you have to drive through a place to get anywhere, in any direction, you might as well be from there, but he sees it differently. In any case, I immediately turned around and headed back into the gymnasium to look for Eric.

There he was, in the middle aisle with his young son, Eric Junior. We caught up on stuff from the last year or so that we haven't talked, which took quite awhile. So, I was impressed that his son didn't seem to get bored or start fidgeting or anything. He was very well-behaved. Good for you, Mr. Weaver.

As I headed out again to my truck it occurred to me that the real treasures I had found at the hamfest had nothing at all to do with the electronics parts that I had purchased. Rather it was the re-kindling of friendships, the memories those meetings had stirred, and the fellowship I shared with people who share my passion, amateur radio.

73, de N4QM

Saturday, May 9, 2009

It's *my* toy, dammit!

This is the newest addition to our family, Napoleon. He's a 14 1/2 week old beagle, who shares his birthday with our faux Siamese cat, Sunny.

Sunny was born in a storage shed at my office on Groundhog Day, 2003. The momma kitty decided that the Sony box was the perfect place to have a litter of kittens.

When I first saw Sunny on the second day of his life, I could tell he was going to be a Siamese. Of course he wasn't purebred, but he looked Siamese anyway. He's quite full of himself, and goes out of his way to let you know that this is his world, and he's just letting you share it. Sunny was my addition to the animal farm at our house.

After our lawn tractor was stolen in 2002 at the rental house on Geer Street in Durham, Donna decided we needed a German Shepherd Dog to act as a watchdog and protector for her and the girls. That's when we got our Rio Grandé Girl.

Donna trained her, and she's a pretty smart dog although she still likes to play with the black and white striped kitties too much (see blog entry entitled "Things that go skunk in the night").

Well Rio and Napoleon get along *most* of the time. Nappy's doing his best to keep our old girl in shape, and she really enjoys chasing around the yard with him. But, when it comes to who's rawhide chewy toy is who's, well all friendships are tossed out with the garbage. Rio will simply not tolerate Napoleon touching the rawhide chewy that she thinks is "hers".

This morning was a perfect example. Rio was lying down under the kitchen table, and Napoleon went around the corner of the kitchen island. Now Rio *knew* that her rawhide chew toy was there, and even though Napoleon was out of sight, she also "knew" that he was playing with it. Well yes, he was. She got up from her repose, and promptly walked around the island and bit the puppy on the head, while emitting a fierce, blood-tingling growl.

If you've never heard a beagle "cry" when it's startled or hurt, let me tell you - it will melt your heart. Napoleon started yelping and crying with his eyes closed. Picking him up did nothing to comfort him at all, so Donna took him out of the kitchen onto the back deck. He finally stopped crying, and crawled under a plastic deck table for protection.

Meanwhile, Rio was told in no uncertain terms that what she did was bad. She got the idea. She's a shepherd after all, and they're pretty darn intelligent. Smarter than some people I know.

But, in a few hours all will be forgotten and and forgiven between the two dogs, and they'll be romping around together again - until the next time Napoleon tries to play with Rio's rawhide chew toy, that is.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Shattered pipe dreams

Back in the dark ages of my ham radio youth, Rohn 25G was the holy grail of radio tower for me and my teen buddy hams. I had a 60 foot high tower of Rohn 11G holding up my 4 element triband beam, secured to various fence posts and tree trunks using 5/8 inch polypropylene rope. In those days I didn't know about how much rope stretches, or how badly polyprope rope deteriorates from UV exposure. It didn't matter that everything in my antenna system was inadequate for the job, it did the job, for as long as I had the tower in the air.

My buddy Rick WB4NFQ up the street had 50 feet of Rohn 25G supporting his tribander. 25G was at the time about twice as expensive as the 11G I had, and was a much better support structure. I just didn't have the money to buy the "good stuff", so I was always secretly jealous of him. I always said to myself that if I ever got a place of my own, I was going to put up a 100 foot Rohn 25G tower. I'd show him, I would!

Then I got out of the hobby for about 25 years, and time marched on. The gold standard of ham radio towers moved upwards as it should, and I got a lot rounder in the middle.

Last year, I got the ham radio bug again, bought some used equipment, and got back on the air. I put up a simple inverted vee at first, then bought a 160m OCF dipole, and finally put up a full-wave 75m loop antenna. Always in the back of my mind was the intention of putting up that century-height tower.

So, over the ensuing year I accumulated sections of Rohn 25G tower, with the intention of putting up that hundred footer. My initial intention was to put it next to the house, with a house bracket at the 30 foot level. I would then put two levels of guy wires, one at about 65 feet, and the next at about 95 feet. Never mind that 25G tower isn't really strong enough to do what I wanted to do with it - my experience with 11G in my youth told me that anything is possible! I would put up the tower, and from it would run all manner of directional wire antennas, and would put up some sort of 5 band beam antenna on top, all but guaranteeing me DXCC honor roll within a month.

Now, every time I put up a new experimental antenna of some sort, or do some work on an existing antenna, I hear this from Donna: "Why can't you just put up just one antenna?" I have tried my best to explain to her that in general you really need a different antenna for every band you operate, but that has fallen on deaf ears. She's not a ham, and has no intention of ever becoming one. She has her cellphone if she ever wants to talk to someone in Montenegro.

So, I knew that I was making a mistake by telling Donna of my intentions for the tower sections.

"You're not putting that thing up next to the house, are you? It will attract lightning and the house will burn down," she proclaimed. "And if it ever fell down, it would damage the roof!"

"Well, I *was* going to do that, because it would make supporting it a lot easier, and I wouldn't need as much feedline and antenna control line," I retorted, thinking that a logical explanation would sway her over to my side. "Besides, the tower would be grounded, so any lightning stroke would mostly be diverted to the ground."

"You're not putting that thing up next to the house, are you!" It wasn't a question this time.

"It's not going to have guy wires, will it?" That was a question and an order at the same time. We've been together long enough that I can fill in the blanks.

"No, I guess not since you put it that way," I cleverly replied, knowing now that I was out of options, since 25G will only go to 40 feet unguyed.

So now I have 100 feet of Rohn 25G in a neat stack in my back yard. The only way I'm going to be able to get a tower up that passes the S.O. test now is to get a self-supporting crankup, and about the highest I'm going to be able to afford is going to be about 55 feet - or not high enough for the radiation angle of whatever beam antenna I put up there to clear the hill behind the house.

Anybody need about 100 feet of Rohn 25G?

Things that go "skunk" in the night...

We live in what passes for the country. At various times of the year we have bobcats and coyotes near or in our yard. The deer use the Progress Energy HT transmission line right-of-way near our yard as a highway to move through our mostly-rural county. The hawks and vultures ride the thermals generated by the open fields nearby, searching for prey.

Across the street from us is a 120 acre farm, inhabited by 20 or so of the nicest beef cattle you'd ever want to meet. Occasionally the farmhand amigos visit to give the cows tasty, round hay bales. When they yell, "Vacas! Vacas!" the cattle come running, no matter how far away they are in the pasture. In fact, if they even think they hear the farm truck driving up, they'll come running.

We sit on our front porch in the summertime during thunderstorms watching the lightning in the distance, and we listen to the thunder sweep across the panorama of the farm in front of us, from east to west, and back again.

I set this scene so you'll understand that in the country, there are lots of country things. There are farms, domesticated animals, and wild animals. In our little corner of the hill, there are also skunks.

Our German Shepherd Dog Rio has a stick up her butt for skunks. This latest time makes four that she has encountered a black and white striped "kitty", and tried to play with it, only to learn the hard way that not all kitties are fun to play with, and doggone it, sometimes they just want to be left alone.

The first time it happened was about two years ago, and she must have gotten a full load of spray because when she ran into the house, she proceeded to try to rub off the scent from her muzzle on every piece of furniture in the house. As a result, the entire house and all our clothes, smelled of skunk for several months. After multiple launderings, carpet shampoos, and dog baths, eventually the smell wore off.

We had hope that she had learned her lesson. She hadn't.

Last spring it happened again. This time we realized what was going on, and didn't let her into the house. Even so, she smelled of skunk for a good 3 months. She must have learned something from her first experience, because this time the skunk only managed to get one side of her face.

Then last fall - you guessed it - she tried *again* to play with that pesky black and white striped kitty, with the same result. By this time she'd gotten to be an old hand at avoiding a direct hit of skunk spray, and she only smelled bad for a couple months.

"Okay, third time's the charm," I thought. "Now she's learned her lesson!" Not so fast.

Last weekend, Saturday morning, I was sleeping on the daybed downstairs after an especially long and wet, Late Night Radio session. I figure I hit the mattress sometime after 2am. The back door had been left open because it was nice out. At some point Rio decided to take a stroll outside, and yet again encountered her favorite black and white striped kitty friend. I awoke about 4:30am to the unmistakable, sulphurous smell of skunk.

Donna came downstairs, took the dog outside, and immediately gave her a shampoo. That was good enough for the rest of the night. The next day, she washed the dog in de-skunk bath, (doesn't perform as advertised) and later, lemon dishwashing detergent (works great).

Five days later, Rio still retains the pungent, skunky smell, but at least we can stand to be in the same room with her.

I think tomorrow night I'll make sure the back door is closed before I get on the air.