Meanwhile, off the net...

Well, the clocks have changed, the evenings are lovely, and I'm right in the middle of a four-day weekend.

First things first

Everyone is enjoying the trailcam pictures and footage, so here are the latest episodes from Dan's computer.

I noticed on the film that all my coming and going has left the bank of the ditch with a bit of damage. I'll have to be more careful not to disturb the moss and mud when I go down there next time. Though, in my defence, it's a quite well-hidden spot and not immediately accessible. When we get our next camera I would love to set up another one looking up the stream in the opposite direction. There are just so many obvious animal runs around there and not enough cameras!

Dan turned up on Tuesday to check the cameras, bringing with him not only two pizzas, but a new pair of binoculars. Once we'd said goodbye to Cabbage the very excitable dog, we spend a little while in and around the woods scanning the hedgerows and trees, followed by a walk with views of the valley. They're a good thing to bring on walks to make them more fun, like maybe GPS loggers and radios (depending what you're into, of course).

On Saturday we checked the cameras again, and had a think about what kind of camera we could get to improve things. We had a look at all the fancy stuff available like cellular integration, flash photography, and decided we didn't need it. Even those cameras that looked okay were closed-source and we knew that eventually we'd want more control over its behaviour. We got a slightly upgraded third trail cam for now, chosen because it looks like a Cylon. But we also resolved to make our own trail cam, suitable for our needs and interests now and in the future. We'll likely begin with a small single-board computer like a Raspberry Pi, and combine it with an IR-capable camera. With this established, Step one is to find, or likely 3-D print, a suitable waterproof casing.

The bull calf on the farm is now less wary of me and when I walk out to the woods past his stall, he'll let me scratch his ears and rub his neck. I don't know whether this is because he's more comfortable with me now or because I tend to walk past him around feeding time and he thinks I've got his dinner ready. On Friday he got stroppy when I walked past and didn't stop and kept making a noise until I came back to say hello.

Weak-signal chatting

Lockdown is weird. My morning routine after the usual 'startup sequence' is to get the coffee brewing, check my emails, and then go outside and tie my half-wave, 20-metre-long dipole antenna to the trees, come back in, tune the ATU, and send out a quick @ALLCALL QUERY MSGS on JS8Call. If other stations hear this and have a message for my inbox they'll tell me. This morning I got a response to my network heartbeat: EI2GYB: 2E0RLZ HEARTBEAT SNR -20 MSG ID 14, meaning that my radio penpal Steve in Ireland was hearing me at an impressively weak -20dB signal-to-noise ratio, and that he had a message waiting for me. A couple of minutes later it was in my inbox.

All this is a bit like using a conventional text chatroom like you'd find in IRC. JS8Call, though, has message store-and-forward functionality, has a set of automated commands to understand the network from another station's point of view, and (not least) allows you to route anything you'd say direct through any number of intermediate stations, including these commands. With all the centralised communication mediums out there on the internet, and all the problems that entails, there's something cool about being able to sling a wire into a tree, hook it up to a computer via a radio, and being able to join a totally decentralised chat network. Not only that, but one that copes with extremely weak signals, bad propagation, low power resources (such as with portable stations), broken antennas, or just people talking or sending data on the same frequency. These networks self-discover, each node contintually refining its model of who can hear whom. The callsigns you see often span Europe and beyond.

With all that in mind, I guess another difference from IRC is that it'll work after the apocalypse. Seriously though, there are clear applications for off-grid communications, something that has been tested by Julian OH8STN from a remote off-grid camp in Lapland. As well as for off-grid use, it's not hard to imagine its utility for extremely-weak-signal, solar powered field communications in an emergency or disaster situation. In such a situation, and if the frequency is chosen well, near-vertical incidence skywave antennas can be used to send radio waves travelling near-vertically to the F layers of the ionosphere, where they are refracted back down to a 600km radius on Earth. In this way, shortwave can be used for regional communications. Or, conventional antennas can be used to get European or worldwide contact.

Anyway, on Thursday and Friday, things stepped up a bit with JS8. When I lived in London I participated in the London Hackspace Packet Radio network with Sam Keating-Fry and many others. The GB7NWG packet BBS was one result, but we also had fun meeting up at places like Greenwich Observatory and generally working out how to send data over the air in a very noisy environment like the centre of London. On Thursday we got chatting on #lhs-radio. I told him a bit about JS8, and we gave it a go on 40m. We couldn't hear each other directly so we had to go though EI2GYB's station. However, the day after I was happily chatting to Étienne F4FQN all the way down near Perpignan, near the border between France and Spain, and the day after that to Antonio IU7LUB in Bari in Italy.

Later that day, Sam noticed on his SDR that the 80m band looked a lot more promising, so we hopped onto 3.578MHz. It was a totally different experience. I think, at least at the time we tried it, there was less interference and better propagation. We could chat at a higher data rate direct, leave messages in each others inboxes, route messages and commands about, and hear about half a dozen stations from around the UK. I made contact with Paul 2E0OPV, who I'd previously seen on 40m and been unable to connect with. Initially I was struggling to tune my antenna for the long 40m antenna Dan and I had made. No combination of dial positions would produce a half-decent standing wave ratio. A bit frustrated, I bypassed the tuner and transmitted direct, and it worked like a charm. The antenna was already resonant on about 3.578MHz. Sometimes you don't need a tuner in the system. Lesson learned.

But on Friday I just lurked around JS8Call on the 40m band. Propagation just kept getting better over the course of the day. Before dinner i had a chat with Paulo CT2KCK in Lourinhã in Portugal about the country's best surf and diving spots. We were both pretty wordy and so the chat was happening at a pretty glacial pace, so it wasn't long before we both had to break to eat. I left the computer just participating in the network while I worked on other things.

At about 8.30pm, I got a heartbeat response from VK2XOR, a station in New South Wales in Australia. However, I couldn't contact it. Later, about 10pm, I noticed on PSKReporter that there were more and more spots of my station from the central USA. I got another intercontinental heartbeat response, this time from W8NUT in Ohio in the USA, telling me I had a -12dB signal-to-noise ratio. I'm new to HF and had no idea distances like these were possible on my 10W of forward power to the antenna, and with a pretty much dead waterfall display. I tried to get into contact, firstly directly, then with a stored message. Eventually I saw the text slowly making it through, and, after negotiating slow mode, we had a couple of overs. They were very slow but they were readable with only the occasional repeat required, and not routed through any intermediate station. Just me, with my length of wire between those two trees, bouncing a wave off the ionosphere, and it landing somewhere over there in the USA. Magic.

A home that's turning into a hackspace

I was thinking the other day that what with all these nerdy interests and all the equipment they need, my home is beginning to look like a hackspace. Over the week, that began to feel more like a feature than a bug, and my office was cleared out to make a space for visitors to crash, when guidance permits of course. Visitors can come to the downstairs floor, where the television (a passive activity) is now relegated to the corner, and tables and desks are set up opposite storage boxes full of items to hack, make or do things with. Not just technological stuff, but art and craft for when my niece and nephew come to visit, or beekeeping stuff for when we want to go and check on them, or whatever projects we have going. Well, that's the idea anyway. Right now it's a massive pile of cables, paracord, and empty coffee cups.


They say to learn the game, you should lose a ton of 9×9 games first. Reflecting on my games from last week, there were a few things to correct for. One is to actually notice when I'm about to go into atari. Chris B got me into double atari more than once. Secondly, try not to defend all the time. Have not just one plan of attack, but several, even on the tiny board. Realise when you can't kill, and early, so you can do other things. Conversely, try to mess up the opponent's eyespace if you can, and realise when you can't. Finally, remember to tenuki if it's a good idea. I also need to learn my jōseki (standardised opening sequences), but I don't have a great memory for that it seems. Or maybe I just remember things better when there's a game against a tough opponent to give it a bit of gravitas.

Next week

Human contact is beginning to be permitted again. Up to six people can meet outside already. Not only that, but this coming week will be the last one before we can sit in a beer garden, with up to five other people drinking actual pub drinks. And so, six months after moving to a new town, I will finally be able to go to the pub. I'm not particularly desperate to, if the truth be told. I've become quite used to my own company. But the possibility of having a beer after a long walk in the country does sound very good.

But for the coming week, I expect to be busy at work and not particularly tempted away from that work by the cold weather that's coming.