Yes, DO Touch That Dial!

Becoming a “BCB listener” or “BCL” is one of the world’s easiest-to-begin hobbies. Just switch on your AM radio and start turning its dial.

A broadcast-band (BCB) listener seldom leaves his or her AM radio locked onto one favorite, local radio station. Instead, the goal is to tune to other frequencies and hear “local” stations in distant cities, states, and even other countries. The AM broadcast band has hundreds of “local” radio stations transmitting news, weather, sports, music and other matter to their regional listening markets on “medium wave” frequencies between 530 to 1700 kHz. These stations generally use amplitude modulation (AM) to help convey voices, music and other sounds to radio receivers built to receive AM signals.

AM radio has been around for about 100 years, and its popularity has waned after the creation of higher-quality FM (frequency-modulated) radio and then television, computers and the Internet. Still, many stations remain on the air, broadcasting from cities of all sizes and from rural areas, as well.

What is DX?

During daylight hours, medium-wave signals typically travel a few hunded miles at most. During the night, atmospheric conditions generally improve, and an AM broadcast station’s signal may traverse thousands of miles.

Dedicated BCB listeners keep simple logbooks of the distant (“DX”) stations they hear, with goals such as receiving stations located in as many U.S. states or Canadian provinces as possible or distant stations in Mexico, Central America, the Caribbean, and beyond.

They also may post and share their latest DX reports or get useful information from websites such as DX World (http://dxworld.com/bcblog.html), the Facebook group “I Love AM Radio, ” which recently had nearly 7,700 members, or the National Radio Club (http://nationalradioclub.org/the-nrc/about-us/), among others.

A Long-Enduring Avocation

The broadcast-band listening hobby got its start about 100 years ago during the very earliest days of radio. In the 1920s, as more and more households purchased radios, distance listening (a.k.a. DX’ing) became something of a national mania.

Jerome S. Berg noted this trend in his book On the Short Waves, 1923-1945: Broadcast Listening in the Pioneer Days of Radio (https://amzn.to/2XbaIGT).

“Until the creation of networks and the ability to receive the same program in different parts of the country,” Berg wrote, “many ordinary people spent a lot of time tuning the standard broadcast band, seeing how far their receivers would pick up. The 1920s probably boasted the highest percentage of long-distance radio enthusiasts.”

Do You QSL?

For many years, chief engineers and others at AM broadcast stations valued getting reception reports mailed to them from faraway listeners. They, too, were fascinated by how far their “local” radio signals could travel during good atmospheric condtions. Indeed, they often would respond by sending out “verification” letters or station “QSL” (verfication) postcards that BCB listeners collected and liked to show off to friends and relatives.

Today, some AM broadcast stations still respond to listener reports (https://swling.com/blog/2015/08/obtaining-qsls-from-am-broadcast-stations/ ). But email and budget cuts have dried up many sources of collectible QSL cards and letters.

But a personal log can be kept and shared with others, using a simple notebook or an Internet blog site. You can list date, time, frequency, station call sign, location, quality of the received signal and other information, such as how you identified the station.

Two Reception Problems

At least two problems can stymie potential broadcast-band listener hobbyists. In some locations, spurious radio signals generated by nearby computers, televisions and other electronics devices can interfere with the reception of weak AM radio signals from distant places. You may only be able to hear very strong local stations, unless you can find a listening location with a lot less radio spectrum pollution (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Radio_spectrum_pollution).

Also, much of today’s AM standard broadcast band has been taken over by politically conservative “talk radio” and religious broadcasters seeking money to support their ministries.

Fortunately, you can time your listening efforts to the top few minutes of any hour, when U.S. radio broadcast stations are required to identify themselves with their “call signs” issued by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Other hints to a station’s location often can be gleaned from local news breaks, weather forecasts, traffic reports, sports broadcasts, and advertisements. And this information, along with your radio’s dial setting (such as 670 kiloHertz or 1200 kiloHertz, etc.), can be compared with online lists of radio stations, such as this one: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lists_of_radio_stations_in_the_United_States .

How I Got Started

In my Vietnam War memoir, Dark Signals: A Navy Radio Operator in the Tonkin Gulf and South China Sea, 1964-1965 (https://amzn.to/2IrWSwm), I describe how my interest in listening for distant radio signals began at age 10:

My parents put a small table-model AM receiver in my bedroom so I could hear baseball games, music and dramas such as “Sergeant Preston of the Yukon.” But soon, I was turning the dial and discovering that I could hear stations far beyond Little Rock, as well.

One night, clear as a bell, an announcer said: “This is radio station KOA, Denver, Colorado. Soon, I heard another announcer say: “This is WBBM, Chicago.” I was hooked.

For another view of the BCB hobby, check out this blog post titled “How to Get Started as a Radio Hobbyist without Really Trying” (https://www.qsl.net/kc2fng/amdx.html).

— Si Dunn is an Austin, TX, novelist, screenwriter and nonfiction writer. For more information, visit http://www.sagecreekproductions.com.

Arduino Workshop – An excellent hands-on guide with 65 DIY projects – #arduino #bookreview

Arduino Workshop
A Hands-On Introduction with 65 Projects
John Boxall
(No Starch Press – paperback, Kindle)

If you’ve been wanting to tinker with a tiny Arduino computer, this excellent book can show you how to do much more than simply get started.

Indeed, John Boxall’s Arduino Workshop can keep you busy, challenged and intrigued for a long time as you work your way through basic electronics, basic Arduino programming, and a big selection of interesting and useful projects. The book’s instructions are written clearly, and they feature numerous close-up photographs, diagrams, screenshots, code listings, and other illustrations that can help you perform the how-to steps for each project.

The devices you can build with the open source Arduino microcomputer platform range from a battery tester for single-cell batteries to a GPS logger that records your travels and displays them on Google Maps. Some other examples include a digital thermometer that displays temperature changes on an LCD screen, a device that reads radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags, and a remote-controlled toy tank that you steer with an infrared TV remote. You can even create and program your own breadboard Arduino microcontroller using a handful of parts and Boxall’s instructions, diagrams, and photographs.

If that isn’t enough projects, the book also shows how to create a couple of games, plus an Arduino texter that sends your cell phone a text message when a particular event occurs. And you can rig up a simple Arduino device that will allow you to control its digital output pins by sending it a text message from your phone.

With Arduino projects, you not only do some computer programming (to create the “sketches” that control the microcomputer), you likewise learn to work with electronic components such as resistors, capacitors, LEDs and LCDs, oscillator crystals, voltage regulators, and other small parts and devices.

You also can meet and learn from other Arduino enthusiasts, Boxall notes in Arduino Workshop. “The Arduino project has grown exponentially since its introduction in 2005,” he writes. “It’s now a thriving industry, supported by a community of people united with the common bond of creating something new. You’ll find both individuals and groups, ranging from interest groups and clubs to local hackerspaces and educational institutions, all interested in toying with the Arduino.”

Si Dunn

Control this! Four new how-to books that use Arduino – #electronics #programming #bookreview #in

The Arduino microcontroller and programming environment let you create, program, and control a variety of devices that interact with the physical world.

Some of the things you can do with Arduino are very simple, such as adjusting the color of an RGB (red, green, blue) LED under program control. Other projects are more complex, such as creating a system that will notify you by email when a package has been left at your front door or controlling a small robotic arm.

According to the Arduino website: “Arduino is an open-source electronics prototyping platform based on flexible, easy-to-use hardware and software. It’s intended for artists, designers, hobbyists, and anyone interested in creating interactive objects or environments.”

Four new Arduino-related books recently have been released by O’Reilly and Pragmatic Bookshelf. They are: Arduino Cookbook, 2nd Edition; Programming Your Home; Programming Interactivity, 2nd Edition; and Making Things See.

Arduino Cookbook, 2nd Edition
By Michael Margolis
(O’Reilly, paperback, list price $44.99; Kindle edition, list price $35.99)

If you’ve been curious about Arduino, this book is a fine place to start and learn a lot about what you can do with the popular little microprocessor hardware and its software. And don’t be intimidated by the book’s hefty size: 699 pages. It is packed with how-to projects, and you won’t need experience with electronics or programming to get started.

Michael Margolis has updated his Cookbook to cover Arduino 1.0. A variety of “official boards” can be found via the Web, according to Margolis, but the “basic board that most people start with [is] the Arduino Uno.” Radio Shack and other outlets sell it. The Uno has a USB connector “that is used to provide power and connectivity for uploading your software onto the board.”

Speaking of software, you will want to install Arduino’s Integrated Development Environment (IDE) on your computer. The software, available for Windows, Mac, and Linux, can be downloaded here. Margolis explains how to set up each version and also how to set up the Arduino board (and some new boards such as Leonardo).

In the Arduino world, a piece of source code is known as a “sketch.” Virtually every how-to-program book for computers starts out with a simple “Hello World” example. And the Ardunio Cookbook is no exception. It shows how to load a very simple program into the board and make an LED blink on and off. From there, the projects become increasingly more robust, until you are generating audio tones, controlling motors and servos, reading temperatures with digital thermometers, and even using Arduino to send messages to Twitter.

This well-written and well-illustrated book nicely lives up to its tagline: “Recipes to Begin, Expand, and Enhance Your Projects.”

The three other Arduino-related books focus on more specific applications of the microprocessor and its software.

Programming Your Home: Automate with Arduino, Android, and Your Computer
By Mike Riley, edited by Jacquelyn Carter
(Pragmatic Bookshelf, paperback, list price $33.00)

For those who have some basic experience with Arduino, Programming Your Home offers several fun and useful home automation projects, such as an electronic guard dog, a Web-enabled light switch, a door lock you can open or latch from an Android phone, and a package-delivery alert tool that can send you an email.

Programming Your Home is well written and shows, step-by-step, how to wire up the external components to the Arduino board, program the applications, test them and use them. A second goal is to give you the skills and confidence necessary to create “custom home automation projects of  your own design.”

The author states:Programming Your Home is best suited to DIYers, programmers, and tinkerers who enjoy spending their leisure time building high-tech solutions to further automate their lives and impress their friends and family with their creations.”

He adds: “The projects also make great parent-child learning activities, as the finished products instill a great sense of accomplishment.”

One family-oriented example is an Arduino-controlled bird feeder that time-stamps bird visits and their durations and stores the data. It also sends out Twitter tweets that alert nearby bird watchers and signal the need for more bird food. 

The most complex project in his book is also one of the coolest: a smartphone app that lets you call home and unlock or lock a door remotely. It uses a first-generation Android phone, a Sparkfun IOIO board and a few other components. This project does not use the Arduino board, but the programming and hardware experience gained from working with the Arduino comes in handy.

Programming Interactivity, 2nd Edition
By Joshua Noble
(O’Reilly, paperback, list price $49.99; Kindle edition, list price $39.99 )

“This book,” says Joshua Noble, “is called Programming Activity because it’s focused primarily on programming for interaction design, that is, programming to create an application with which users interact directly.”

His 704-page how-to guide is aimed at readers who “don’t have a deep, or even any, programming or technical background [but] you’re a designer, artist, or other creative thinker interested in learning about code to create interactive applications in some way or shape.”

The tagline for this updated edition is: “A Designer’s Guide to Processing, Arduino, and openFrameworks.” Those are the three key areas covered in the book.

Processing,” Noble points out, “was the one of the first open source projects that was specifically designed for simplifying the practice of creating interactive graphical applications so that nonprogrammers could easily create artworks. Artists and designers developed Processing as an alternative to similar proprietary tools.”

As for Arduino, Noble focuses first on programming using the Arduino IDE. Then he introduces wiring parts and devices to the board and making them work. Soon, he jumps into object-oriented programming using C++, and then he moves to openFrameworks (oF), “which is a collection of code created to help you do something in particular.”

He adds: “Specifically, oF is a framework for artists and designers working with interactive design and media art.”

From there, his book moves into physical input, programming graphics, bitmaps and pixels, sound and audio, Arduino and creating physical feedback (such as turning on motors, servos or household appliances), protocols and communication, graphics and OpenGL, motion and gestures, movement and location, spaces and environments, and further resources.

Noble covers a lot of ground, using a mixture of text, illustration and code examples. And he offers plenty of links and additional topics. Unlike many how-to guides, he includes “interviews with programmers, artists, designers, and authors who work with the tools covered in this book.”

Making Things See: 3D Vision with Kinect, Processing, Arduino, and MakerBot
By Greg Borenstein
(O’Reilly, paperback, list price $39.99; Kindle edition, list price $31.99)

Arduino becomes a key factor beginning on page 353 of this fascinating and challenging 416-page book aimed at gamers, artists, technology hobbyists and others.

The microprocessor becomes the brain of a small, easy-to-build robotic arm that can, within  limits, “reproduce the motions of a real arm.”

Much of this book focuses on the Microsoft Kinect, a popular peripheral for Microsoft’s XBox 360 video game system, which the author of Making Things See terms a “depth camera.” A Kinect contains an infrared projector and infrared camera, an RGB camera, and some microphones. “The Kinect…records the distance of the objects that are placed in front of it…[and]…uses infrared light to create an image (a depth image) that captures not what the objects look like, but where they are in space….[A] depth image is much easier for a computer to ‘understand’ than a conventional color image,” Borenstein writes.

There is focus, as well, on Processing and on 3-D printing using a MakerBot ReplicatorG or the Shapeways online service.

The book offers several projects, and, in the final one, Kinect and Arduino are linked together and the Arduino is programmed to control a basic robotic arm that responds to forward or inverse kinematics. Using two servos, the arm can move up and down at “elbow” and “shoulder” and follow the movements of a particular point.

“Our bodies respond to physical objects differently than graphics on a screen,” Borenstein states, “and there’s something powerful about closing that loop by making interactive objects that can see us move around the room and respond by moving in kind.”

He adds: “Rather than just waving at computers, now we’ve taught them to wave back.”

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Si Dunn is a novelist, screenwriter, freelance book reviewer, and former software technical writer and software/hardware QA test specialist. He also is a former newspaper and magazine photojournalist. His latest book is Dark Signals, a Vietnam War memoir. He is the author of an e-book detective novel, Erwin’s Law, now also available in paperback, plus a novella, Jump, and several other books and short stories.

Make: Electronics -Learning by doing & messing things up – A fun how-to book #bookreview

Make: Electronics
By Charles Platt
(O’Reilly, paperback, list price $34.99; Kindle edition, list price $27.99)

Okay, big confession time. I learned electronics back in the day when vacuum tubes were still state of the art, and ham radio hobbyists happily tinkered with World War II surplus aircraft radios, tank transmitters and telegraph keys that had thigh clamps so radio operators could communicate with HQ while bouncing around in Jeeps.

Electronics is still one of my hobbies. But I haven’t kept good pace with advancing technologies, and I don’t tackle as many do-it-yourself projects as I used to. I have a large cache of small electronics components stashed in plastic crates in a shed. And those crates seldom have been opened in recent years.

This book has changed that. Make: Electronics by Charles Platt has gotten me excited again about wiring up simple projects. It is not a new book. It was published in 2009. But it is still up to date in the teaching of electronics fundamentals. 

Platt’s book approaches electronics the same way I learned it, by burning things out, messing things up and then studying some of the theory, learning how to read schematic diagrams, and learning how be more careful and thoughtful as circuits are wired up. Of course, in my day, some mis-wired electronic projects literally caught on fire, and more than one exploded.

Platt’s how-to experiments, fortunately, use low voltages and low currents, typically 9-volt batteries or a few double-A batteries. The projects can be constructed on small breadboards or perforated boards or even built “dead-bug style,” where the leads of the components simply are soldered together without any other kind of support.

His well-organized and well-written book keeps its promise to be “a hands-on primer for the new electronics enthusiast.” But it can teach some new tricks to some old electronics hounds, as well.

Make: Electronics begins with a small shopping list. You will need a few inexpensive components and tools to get started. Then it moves into some very basic and classic experiments, such as touching a 9-volt battery to your tongue, making a battery with a lemon, using resistors to reduce the voltage in a circuit, applying too much voltage to an LED and burning it out, and shorting a small battery to feel its heat.

Some fundamental theories of electricity and electronics are introduced. Proper soldering is illustrated. And then, as more theory is examined and explained, the book’s experiments move into progressively more complex projects, such as amplifiers. By the end of the book, the reader is tinkering with basic robotics and microcontrollers.

Platt provides numerous helpful resources and references for further examination, as well.

The only disappointment for me is that radio-frequency projects are limited to the construction of a basic crystal radio. But the author deftly covers a lot of ground in his book, and even simple RF circuits admittedly are better handled by those who have mastered the fundamentals first. 

Bottom line, this book has some circuits I am eager to wire up, because I am in the mood to learn again. Plus, I already have a boatload of parts and tools in storage, just waiting to be used. 

With luck and attention to detail, maybe nothing I build this time will blow up.

Si Dunn‘s latest book is a detective novel, Erwin’s Law. His other published works include Jump, a novella, and a book of poetry, plus several short stories, including The 7th Mars Cavalry, all available on Kindle. He is a screenwriter, a freelance book reviewer, and a former technical writer and software/hardware QA test specialist.