ePISODE 212 - fRANK bRICKLE - ab2kt tRANSCRIPT
Eric: QSO Today episode 212, Frank Brickle, AB2KT. This episode of QSO Today is sponsored by ICOM America, makers of the best rigs for HF, VHF, and UHF for every level of amateur radio operator. And by QRP Labs, my favorite kit company and makers of the QCXHF transceiver kit for under $50 US. Please support the QSO Today podcast by supporting these fine sponsors.
Welcome to the QSO Today podcast. I'm Eric Guth, 4Z1UG, your host. You may remember from Episode 208 with Dr. Ulrich Rode N1UL that the development of the SDR or software defined radio started years before it became popular in the amateur radio world at RCA or the Radio Corporation of America, close to Princeton University.
My guest today, Frank Brickle, AB2KT, took a professional path to music composition at Princeton and combined his computer skills and technical knowledge from amateur radio to both compose classical music and opera and develop the software used first by the government and later by the industry for software defined radio. I know that you'll enjoy this fascinating QSO Today with AB2KT.
AB2KT, this is Eric, 4Z1UG, are you there, Frank?
Eric: I'm great Frank, thanks so much for joining me on the QSO Today podcast. Can we start at the beginning of your ham radio story? When and how did it start for you?
Frank: I think I was 11 years old and for some reason I managed to wander into a radio store in Pennsylvania somewhere, I think it was Scranton, Pennsylvania. I don't even remember exactly why. And the gear just looked cool. It just looked wonderful. And it basically was a bunch of Hallicrafters, receivers, and things like that. So I grabbed some of the information sheets and took them home, and they sat there for probably a year. And then I do as I usually do, which is go to the library and kind of buried my head in everything I could find out about it, and discovered to my surprise that there was no age limit on being licensed as an amateur radio operator.
So at age 12, and also I should point out my father, at that time, had an office in New York City, 30 Church Street, which was right around the corner from Radio Row. So I mentioned this to him. He was an engineer, he was very much in favor of my getting involved in this kind of thing, so he got one of the old Ameco code practice LPs, and I started learning Morse. And got the ARRL manual for the novice licensing. So I was first licensed at age 12.
And then in those days, the novice license was only good for a year so I had to work pretty hard to get my code speed up to 13 words a minute and study for the technical part of the examination, and I was licensed as a general at age 13, which would have been 1964.
Eric: Wow. So in 1963 you got your novice.
Frank: That's right.
Eric: That's cool.
Frank: That's right.
Eric: And what was your first call sign then?
Frank: It was WN2GRK, Gulf Romeo Kilo. And then it became WB2 Gulf Romeo Kilo.
Eric: And did you have any mentors that helped you along or was your father primarily the guy that pushed you through?
Frank: He taught me most of the technical stuff. So for example, he was a mechanical engineer but he studied a lot of electrical engineering, so he taught me that stuff. As far as the practical issues were concerned, there were two people in the town where I was living at the time, which was Tenafly in New Jersey. And one of them was a wonderful man named Burt Holtje, W2TQS, who helped me a great deal. And he was also the one who administered the novice exam to me.
And there was another guy in town, his name was Joe Benzler, and I have been trying to remember or look up his call sign ever since we arranged to have this conversation and for some reason I can't remember it. But he also was extremely helpful to me. So there were those two.
Eric: Perhaps there's a listener who will remember Joe's call sign.
Frank: Yup. I hope so.
Eric: You never can tell. So what was your first rig?
Frank: It was a DX40 heath kit and a Hammarlund HQ110A. And then when I got my general, I added the ICO, what was it, 7-something VFO. And one of the things very early on that I developed an appetite for was experimenting with antennas, so I went through a whole mess of different sort of antennas, starting out originally when I was a novice just with the usual 40 meter di-pole. And then various kinds of NFED antennas. At some point I built a home brew L-match. Which was an interesting thing to learn to use because I didn't have an SWR meter so I had to figure out some way to figure out when it was in resonance. And that I felt like was my first major technical accomplishment, was figuring out how to do that.
Eric: And what did you do? Did you use a light bulb or some kind of-
Frank: It was sort of-
Eric: Did you make your own SWR meter?
Frank: No, no, not at all. Basically it was a combination of things. I figured out how to tune it close to resonance, simply by maximizing the noise, combination of moving the tap around and just tweaking the cap. And then a field strength meter, little field strength meter, to them just optimize from there. And it worked fine, it worked great. I wouldn't want to do it with any of the current rigs, but with one of those old heath kit tank circuits, it was fine.
Eric: And what mode did you like to operate? I mean obviously as a novice you were operating CW but once you got your general did you stay on CW?
Frank: Absolutely. Yeah. And that's true to this day. I absolutely love Morse. I love listening to it, I love using it. And even at that time, that sort of sparked an interest, a parallel interest in maritime radio, maritime radio history. So I find all of that, kind of the romance of CW, just to be really intoxicating to this day.
Eric: So David Sarnoff was one of your heroes growing up then? He was the young man that received the Titanic's distress message and went on to found RCA.
Frank: Right, what I was thinking of was, what shall I call him, one of his major victims after he became an industrialist was Edmond Armstrong, of course. And there was a big tower, I live not far from the huge tower up on the Palisades in New Jersey that Armstrong had put up and was used in the first experiments in FM broadcasting, so I was taught to think of Sarnoff as being kind of a bad guy because of how badly he screwed Armstrong.
Eric: Ah, so Armstrong might have been one of your heroes.
Frank: For sure, for sure. Oh there was one other person actually I should mention, because I did get involved in RACES in the town that I was living in. And he was an engineer for AT&T. Again, I don't remember his call sign, his name is Willard Felch. And he was very good to us local kids because there was a lot of two meter gear that was associated with, basically, anticipating some sort of nuclear disaster. There were a lot of the Gonset two and six meter rigs sitting down in the shelter in the school, and he used to let us take them out and experiment with different kinds of configurations all over the town to get some kind of nice saturation of coverage. So he was another guy and he was very good to us also.
Eric: Well being licensed at 13, did you have a number of contemporaries then, that were your age, that were your ham radio friends, maybe throughout high school?
Frank: Yeah, for sure. That was at the really lowest point of the Sun Spot cycle. And what it meant among other things was that 15 meters was completely abandoned. There was nobody on it at all. And there was a crew of sort of adolescents and teenagers all over the place in northeastern New Jersey there who used to talk on a 15 meter phone every night for a long time. As I say, there was nobody else on the band at all. And surprisingly the ground wave was pretty good, so I think we probably had about a 50 mile radius, reliable range of contact. So yeah, I got to know a lot of the local hams and kids at that time.
And to this day, it's funny, because that was, and this is more important than you might think, that's how I got acquainted with Gene Shepherd, K2ROS, because everybody who was on 15 meter phone, all the phones, would listen to Gene Shepherd every night. And of course he was ham. And that also was an extremely important thing to me, was kind of get aware of the world from listening to Shepherd and I owe that directly to all of my ham friends.
Eric: And did that create a love for the oral story then, as well?
Frank: Absolutely. Absolutely.
Eric: He was a master, Gene.
Frank: He was incredible that way, absolutely incredible. I still go back and listen to a number of his old shows, and it's amazing how many of them remember in detail from those days.
Eric: And it's amazing that those shows are available now on the internet, as is everything else, it was available on the internet, but it's nice to be able to find them and to play them even here.
Did ham radio play a part in the choices that you made for your education and career?
Frank: I thought it would. In the end it turned out not doing that, at least not at, no actually it really didn't have much to do with it at all. I expected, because of all this background, I expected to be a student of math and science and go on some sort of technical career, either engineering or something else. I wound up not going to the local high school but instead going to a prep school in New York City. Which made things a little different. When I got there, I discovered an appetite for classical languages. And things like that.
So I wound up studying Latin and Greek and a number of other things, and didn't really have an awful lot of time for technical studies at that point. So at the time what it seemed like that was doing was sending me off in a completely different direction that was completely unrelated to ham radio. And by the time I went to university, I really didn't have the time to be on the air, to be doing much of anything associated with radio.
However, what it did mean was that, and this was one of the other advantages of being in that high school, was we had pretty much free access to the computer at Fordham University, which was an old IBM 1420. So I started learning to program at that point. And a lot of the technical stuff, maybe I should call it comfort with technical stuff, that I had acquired from being licensed and being active in ham radio, rolled over pretty naturally into work with the computer. So I kind of had these two things going on in parallel. I was a student of classical languages and I figured, change in plans, I was probably going to wind up, at least for a lot of the time I was going to wind up being a writer.
And also programming computers, simply because it came pretty easily to me. And there was nobody else was going to do it for you. You had to do it yourself in those days, there were no canned applications.
Eric: Were you punching cards?
Frank: Oh, absolutely. Yeah. And learning to do that was probably the most frustrating part of the whole thing.
Eric: Well you stuck with it, I gave it up, because I just wanted a quick return on my investment and I couldn't wait two hours for the paper to run.
Eric: To individual out I had, what, a syntax error on line 10.
Frank: Yes, well that was, I think it would have been different if we had had to submit decks of cards to people behind a desk to run them. I mean most of the time we had to operate the machine ourselves, so the turnaround on the disastrous mistakes was pretty quick.
Eric: Oh no, I had to submit my deck of cards to somebody behind the desk. Maybe that was the difference.
Frank: I think so.
Eric: I gave it up.
Eric: It wasn't for me, but I'm glad it was for you because obviously you went on to do some other things. So what happened after that?
Frank: Well again, there's another twist as far as my high school career is concerned, and that is that I had started playing the piano when I was seven. And I really wasn't considering, I mean I was a pretty good player but I wasn't considering doing it professionally or anything like that. And through a series of kind of accidents, it occurred to me that maybe this name might mean something to people or it might not. The New York State Arts Council used to send Julliard students around to all the students in New York City and have them play and just expose kids to something other than the usual run of popular music.
So one day this piano trio came to my school, and among other things, what they played was a piece by a friend of theirs. And remember, this is probably 1966 or 67, they played a piece by a friend of theirs named Philip Glass, who was a fellow student. And if anybody who's marginally conversant in contemporary music will know that Philip Glass is at this point one of the most famous composers in the world. And I said wait a minute, you mean people are actually still writing music for piano trios and things like that? It was instantaneous. That was the point at which I decided oh that's absolutely what I have to do. And so I mean that moment kind of determined the rest of my life.
Eric: Wow. And so you went on, did you go onto Julliard?
Frank: No, I went to Princeton, I did all my degrees at Princeton. And the reason for that, among other things, was it was at the time probably the best graduate school for composition in the world. And it was a center for all kinds of things musically. And again, I didn't find this out until I got there, it was also one of the centers for computer music and the extremely early stages of digital signal processing.
So that's where the technical background and experience with the computer merged with everything else that I was interested in. So for the period of time that I was there, which was sort of the bachelors through the PhD, I was enormously immersed in doing the signal processing and computer music, and with some of the foundational people in the field. And one of the few places where you could do it pretty much to your heart's content.
Eric: And were you composing at that time?
Frank: Oh yes, absolutely, yeah. That's when I decided that that's what I wanted to do, I started doing immediately. I wrote a Broadway style musical in my senior year. And I haven't stopped, haven't stopped since then.
Eric: You're still a composer and you're a composer of operatic music. What piece or what composition is, in your mind, your best work?
Frank: My best work? Actually I think it's the one I just finished. I don't always say that, but in this case, yeah. It's a song cycle for mezzo soprano and guitar that uses texts, a whole bunch of texts, in German and French, that have already been set by extremely famous people like Brahms and Schuman and Hugo Wolf. So this is really a sort of wise-ass thing to do is to take these texts and put them together in a single song cycle. But I managed to sort of bring together a lot of things that I've been working towards for about 20 years in terms of control of harmonic motion and the kind of blending of the instrumental support with the singer. So it's really pretty good, it's going to be premiered in New York in October.
Eric: That's not what I'm seeing on YouTube right now, because you actually have a series of videos on YouTube with soprano and a guitar?
Frank: Yeah, this is written for those people. The things that are on YouTube are just individual songs that I had written for them. But this is a much larger piece that they commissioned, yeah.
Eric: What are you calling that, so that we know what to look for in the future.
Frank: It's called Song Cycle in the Form of 32 Variations. I was just going to say, in terms of the pieces that you can find easily on the internet, I think one that probably will appeal to people a lot is the little puppet opera, The Creation of the World and the Fall of the Angels.
Eric: Okay, yeah, all you have to do is put Frank Brickle into YouTube, you get a lot of returns of people performing your music.
Frank: Yeah, there's a lot of stuff on Sound Cloud too.
Eric: It's very cool.
Frank: Oh thank you, thank you very much. I appreciate your giving me the opportunity to wave the flag for all of this. It's great, thank you.
Eric: You're waving the flag to ham radio operators as well.
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Not to cut this short but I think what we should jump a little bit into the ham radio side of your life as well. When you Google Frank Brickle, AB2KT, there are a lot of references to you and SDR software defined radio. Can we start, I mean I have a sense based on what you did at Princeton, maybe how this kind of evolved. But can we start at the beginning of your SDR story and how did it begin?
Frank: Yeah, actually, the beginning of it is kind of a continuation of what we were talking about a moment ago. Most people who have my background, my educational background in music wind up being professors of music someplace or other. And I knew that I didn't want to do that. I had no appetite for spending the rest of my life in an academic institution. So I wasn't really sure exactly how I was planning to support myself because it's really hard to do that starting out as a composer.
And through a combination of, again, almost accidents, I wound up, because of the technical skills and everything else, I wound up getting an invitation to come to work on the research staff of an organization called the Center for Communications Research in Princeton. And one of the great things about this place was that it was understood that you were going to devote a certain proportion of your time to doing your own work, which in my case was composition, as well as working on their problems. And nobody ever stipulated exactly what the proportion of time was. Basically, the way you were evaluated was in terms of the kinds of contributions you made over a span of about five years. And beyond that-
Frank: To contributions you've made over a span of about five years. And beyond that, there was no management at all. The specific task of this organization, this intercommunication research, is to do research and technology development and transfer on problems related to secure communications, which basically means codes and ciphers, but it also refers to things like “cyphony”, which is encrypted speech. Pretty much any of that stuff, and it involved a lot of signal processing, a lot of common and trial mathematics. Again, all the stuff which was sort of right down my alley. I was there for 17 years. I left in 2000, actually just before 9/11.
One of the consequences of that was that the sponsor of this organization was the US Department of Defense, and we were encouraged to stick our fingers into whatever interesting problems we can find. One of the most interesting source of problems for me personally towards the sort of the latter half of my time there, was a group of people who were actually doing the very first work in fieldable software radio for a lot of reasons. But my first exposure to it was in people who were developing systems for RF surveillance so that they could be collecting broadband samples, extracting channels, doing real time decryption.
I got very seriously involved in all of those problems, and again, it was sort of like the early days of the computer. I mean, if you wanted to do that, the only thing you could possible do was write the programs yourself. So that's what I did. And because I had this background in signal processing and quite a few other things, and not coincidentally with issues involving real time programming because those are very lively issues in real time musical performance in computers.
It was just a very natural fit. That's kind of what I wound up doing. I wound up actually writing code for Software Defined Radios, fieldable Software Defined Radios, as part of my work. It was unfortunate because over, again, for the period of the last five years or so, it got more and more difficult for me to do both things, to do the technical work and do my own musical work, which wasn't helped by the fact that I was kind of in the doldrums musically.
I mean, I know I wanted to do something different, but I didn't know what it was. Anyway, the long and the short of it was that I decided that it was probably time to start thinking about getting out of there. My wife, she also was a professor, was getting ready to take a sabbatical. I figured, "Well, when she gets ready to do that, I'm going to leave and start devoting more time to musical composition exclusively."
Well, again of course this whole story that I'm telling you just has one twist after another. At the point that I did leave there, that's when Gerald Youngblood first came out with the SDR-1000. With that vector being off in a completely different direction where suddenly there was a premium on developing some sort of standalone SDR transceiver application that could work SDR-2000. It had some interesting constraints.
Namely, it had to be able to work, and transmit and receive, in half duplex because those were the only kind of sound cards that people had in those days. It had to be minimal latency, which again, is extremely difficult on sort of these little computers with sound cards. It was technically a huge challenge, and that's what led to the development of DDTSP, which was the SDR core for Power SDR and a bunch of other things.
I should also point out that my partner in crime in a lot of this, because we work in the same place, was Bob McGwier, N4HY. A lot of this wasn't exactly joint development. I mean, we kind of did it in parallel. We worked together, but it was more ping ponging off of one of another-
Eric: Parallel play.
Frank: Yeah, sort of. Sort of. That's right. That's right.
Eric: Gerald my guest in Episode 57 of the QSO Today podcast.
Eric: Well that's very interesting. The SDR-1000 was what, 2001-2002 when he did his first paper?
Frank: That's right.
Eric: Right at the turn of the century as it were. So that explains then what your association then is with Flex Radio and Power SDR, Gerald was one of the first out there.
Frank: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah, he came up with set of boards. Actually, I think I got the third set of boards that he put out, which I have to admit, I never really got working properly for reasons I haven't been about to ... Nobody could figure out at the time. But it sort of didn't matter because my attention got diverted much more into working on the software.
Eric: Did you and Bob then write the Power SDR software that Gerald ultimately used?
Frank: Yes, that's right. What happened was basically Bob and I jointly developed the algorithms. I suspect that was probably about 60/40 thing as far as developing the specific algorithms where concerned. I did pretty much everything else, which involved a lot of concurrency, a lot of threaded programming, which was a real pain in the neck to get right. He was continuing with algorithm development and the technology transfer, finding different places for the software to go.
Thanks to him, totally outside of Power SDR, it's probably no longer true, but for a long time there, there were 15,000-20,000 installations of DDTSP, which is the SDR core for Power SDR that places all of the world. A lot of government sites.
Eric: Wow, interesting. Now, Power SDR wasn't just exclusive to Flex Radio. I think wasn't it kind of adapted and used by all of the SDR radios that came along later?
Frank: Not all of them, among other things because Power SDR was and is a very problematic thing.
Eric: Why is that?
Frank: For one thing because it runs on Windows.
Eric: Oh, okay. Enough said.
Frank: Yeah, no, I mean-
Eric: No, I'm kidding.
Frank: Yeah, no. I can't describe to you the number of headaches that have been engendered in amateur radio SDR by this dependence on Windows. From my point of view, it's just been a catastrophe. But there it is.
Eric: Well because there's always a ... I mean, I hate to say this to Windows users, and I am one. As I told Frank at the beginning of the show before we started recording, I think I've used my last Windows operating system. But I think Windows I always a moving target, isn't it? With every update or something like that?
Frank: Yeah, and also the simple design of Windows is such that it's very ... Anything you need to do that actually has to have minimum guarantee latency is going to be as difficult a thing as you can possibly do in the operating system because in order to guarantee maximum responsiveness to the mouse, and anything that was appearing on the screen, the stuff that Windows wanted to do with the screen and the mouse, and the keyboard, took precedence over pretty everything else that you wanted to do. They found ways to try and cooperate with the world, but it's a nightmare for trying to do that kind of programming still to this day.
Eric: Now you told me earlier that you do most of your work on an Macintosh, or no longer a Macintosh, but Apple Mac equipment. Is Power SDR available in the Mac environment and also in the Linux environment?
Frank: I have no idea. I honestly have no idea. I stopped paying attention to that long ago.
Eric: Does that mean that you're no longer doing SDR, or you're no longer using Power SDR as a software to drive your SDR projects?
Frank: No. I'm really doing very little technical work of any kind at this point for the simple reason that the turn that SDR Software Defined Radio, for amateur purposes, and the development of a turn that it took, I don't know, starting about 10 years ago maybe a little less, was very discouraging to me. It just kind of squashed all the interest I had in working in the field out completely.
I mean, we can get into that later if you want, but even though there are now commercial products which are extremely successful that rely on SDR technology, it seems to me that in the long run, they are going to turn out to be as problematic for the development in the field as anything else. I mean for a lot of people, SDR means at this point basically just having a pan adapter. If you give them something has a pan adapter, they're happy.
Whereas, it became clear very early on to me the potential for SDR, for Software Defined Radio, and that technology, to revolutionize everything about the way amateur radio was done, was enormous. And it wasn't even that tough, technically. But hams tend to be very conservative, and what's happened is they've tried to squash all of it. Look, it's just like the early automobiles were made to look like horseless carriages. All of the SDR technology has been squashed into something that looks like a conventional radio that just has a nicer user interface on it.
Which, on top of that, most of it has been pushed into firmware, which is understandable for commercial reasons. But essentially what it means is that the total azimuth available for experimentation with any of this stuff is extremely small. I mean, there are only very few people who are doing anything that's even remotely interesting as far as I'm concerned at this point. I have better things to do with my time.
Eric: I thought that the original promise of SDR, and I'm not an SDR user. It's not because I don't want, it's just I'm not there yet. But I thought the original promise of SDR, at least for amateur radio, was perhaps the ability to listen and decode and decipher signals in multiple places at the same time. So if you were a contester, for example, you could have your eyes on other bands and opportunities so you'd have that opportunity to pounce. Am I off base here? Is that-
Frank: No, no. I think you've put your finger on it. That's merely one of the working media applications of exactly that sort of thing. You're absolutely right. That's a good application of the kind of background technology that I'm talking about, that it should be ... Well, I was talking about the synthesizers and how when they originally came out, they were monophonic. In other words, you had a keyboard there that looked like a piano keyboard, but you could only play one note at a time.
Lo and behold, somebody came with a way of playing two notes at a time. So the question was, is this an improvement of 100%, or one eighty-eighth?
Eric: Right. And you have 10 fingers, too. So is it an improvement at all?
Frank: That's right. That's right. That's sort of where we're at. I mean, most of the SDR technology that lets you do anything remotely like what you're describing, is it's just a fractional improvement. When in fact it should be completely generalizable, and it's not even conceptually that difficult. The fact is, that people are kind of slow to pick up on sort of what the potential is.
Here's another example, okay? One of the things that's easiest to do with SDR is to achieve frequency agility. For example, frequency hopping spreads spectrum, which I'm not necessarily suggesting, but frequency hopping spreads spectrum is a triviality with SDR transmission.
Eric: And with encryption, frequency hopping spreads spectrum with encryption.
Frank: Right. But the central issue here is not so much the specific kinds of signals, but the fact that you gain easy frequency agility using SDR.
Well, it's also true that with some limitations, you ought to be able to comparably achieve something like time agility, which is to say you ought to be able, to some degree, to look back in time for a signal so that if you noticed something, you're in the middle of a transmission on some channel that's going on, and you say, "Oh, this looks pretty good," you ought to be able to jump back in time earlier to when this thing started in order to get the entire transmission.
Essentially what you'll want to be able to do in SDR is have agility in two dimensions within limits, obviously. As far as I know, this is potentially a huge problem in user interface design. But from a technological point of view, in terms of actively achieving it, making it possible to do that is not a big deal.
Eric: So nobody's doing this yet?
Frank: Nope. Well, no I take that back. I take that back. One of the things that I've worked on when I was still working in the field was some new applicants for the Agilent 3238-S broadband surveillance device.
Frank: RF surveillance device. What I was working on was the automatic identification of signals, which was another issue than something I've worked on a lot. You kind of point and click and say, "What is this," and it will tell you out of the possible signal types in the world what is it. One of the things that was necessary for that system, if you use it, was to have this big silo that was storing old samples so that if you found a channel that had something interesting on it, you could go back and say, "Oh, find the beginning of this," and then offload a trimming he recorded somewhere.
That's actually been an active application in the Signiant role for a long time. There's no reason that you can't do it in amateur radio, absolutely no reason at all. But you mention it to people and they kind of scratch their heads and they say, "What?"
Eric: Is that Agilent device, is that a headless device, or does it look like Agilent test equipment with a lot of knobs, buttons and display?
Frank: No. It's a fairly big box. It's like the size of an old minicomputer, with some stuff hanging off it, and a really high grade screen and a mouse.
Eric: One system, one box.
Frank: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Eric: Yeah, cool.
Frank: Yeah. For that, I worked on a system which would automatically pick out certain kinds of transmitted speech, and flag for an analyst to look at.
Eric: For example, if you're intercepting cellular telephone signals from an enemy country.
Eric: Or, even in a friendly country.
Frank: Sure. Yes.
Frank: And similarly, for example, if you're looking for tactical communications among a bunch of covert operators, what you do is you just essentially set up a schedule for scanning those frequencies, and if certain kinds of voices on certain kinds of FM channels show up because they're using cheap handy talkies, then you know something's going on.
Eric: Oh, that's really cool. You wrote a paper with Bob McGwier N4HY, you had mentioned earlier.
Frank: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Eric: The paper was called AMSAT Oscar Echo SDR-1000 High Speed FSK. Now, this is an old paper.
Eric: You proposed using an SDR transceiver as a way to work satellites.
Eric: If one of the listeners, even me, wanted to get into satellites for the first time, can you suggest a route to building the first SDR base station, as a project rather than maybe going ... Not to knock anybody's radio, but to go into a commercial vendor and getting the solution?
Frank: Absolutely. Unfortunately, I'm forgetting the acronym. I think it's called the Open Research Institute. There is a project that's been put together by Bruce Perrins, K6BP.
Frank: And Michelle Thompson, W5NYV. The goal of this project is to develop a ground station for general use with satellites of all kinds, and it includes, among other things, broadband multi-channel, multi-media up and down, and using the DVB standard for modulation. But it will also do pretty much everything else. They're actively working on this project.
The core of it uses GNU radio, which I would suggest anybody who's interested in doing some sort of experimentation should start there. Using GNU radio for the software and any number of different hardware interfaces from the little RTLSDR dongle to all of the RF interfaces from Ettus Research and any number of other things. I mean, there are more them now than you can shake a stick at, but that's absolutely the place to start.
I mean, you could put together a simple FM transponder-based SDR station with GNU radio and one of these devices. If you knew what you were doing, you could put it together in a couple of days.
Eric: For under $200.00 perhaps?
Frank: Possibly. Possibly. I don't know …..
Eric: I'm thinking the transmit side might be more.
Frank: Yeah, you can certainly do the down link, though. I mean, easily, for less than that.
Eric: Right, I think those RTL SDR dongles are $20.00 and less on eBay.
Frank: And the software, of course, is completely free. It's totally open source. You do have to pretty much run it on Linux, though.
Eric: Of course, what else is there?
Eric: For us newly converted.
Frank: Yeah, no and for this kind of work, you're kind of nuts to do anything else.
Eric: And now this message from QRP Labs. Hans Summers G0UPL, informs me that he has sold over 5,000 QCX transceiver kids. I hope that in large part this is due to the promotion on the QSO Today podcast, of this amazing single board transceiver kit for under $50.00 from QRP Labs. The QCX is a feature packed, high performance single band five watts CW transceiver kit, with Whisper Beacon and built in alignment and test equipment tools.
It is available for 80, 60, 40, 30, 20 or the 17 meter bands. It has a rotary encoder synthesized tuning, VFO A/B split, I am the Keyer, CWD Coder and more. You can assemble this kit yourself with standard tools and a soldering iron. There are no service mount components to solder as the two SMD ICs are already factory pre-soldered on the board.
Of course, Hans has a whole range of accessories to trick out this ride, using the language of hot, broad cars. Since Hans has shipped over 5,000 QCXes, there is a rapidly growing community of builders and users who are fine tuning the QCX in an open source kind of way and sharing it with us on the Internet.
So if you're ready to build your own rig, or want to save money, or just want that proper rig for your bomb shelter, use the link on this week's show notes page to get to QRP Labs. Please use my link as it tells Hans that you heard about it here on QSO Today. QRP Labs is my favorite kit company. It should be yours, too. QRP Labs. And now, back to our QSO Today.
You are associated, or at least I found an association for you, with the Odyssey Project, and how it might be implemented in Ham radio projects. I was thinking of FM or digital mobile radio. Could you talk a little bit about what the Odyssey Project is or was, and what applications to HAM radio it might have?
Frank: To tell you the truth, I'm a little vague on the whole thing at this point, because this was the stage at which I was starting to exit the field in any big way. I think the more general aspect of it, and this relates directly to what I was saying before about things like time and frequency agility, is actually putting the software out there on the Cloud somewhere.
When we were just talking about this beautifully before we started recording, you had raised the question of what do you do about hardware. Well, in some ways, that's easy.
Eric: Well we were talking about a Cloud-based SDR receiver, like maybe putting the SDR receiving on a digital ocean droplet or something like that.
Frank: Yes, that's right. That's right. I'm going to raise a technical issue now, which is extremely important. In some ways it's kind of a kernel of further SDR development. That is that the base-
Frank: ... further SDR development. And that is that the basic design for any SDR device at this point should involve multi-rate processing, which means basically, you grab a big gulp of spectrum all at the same time, extremely broadband, and find a way to selectively extract, or re-inject, narrow band channels from within that wide band gulp.
It's basically the wide band processing and the channel extraction, or insertion, that's going on in the Cloud. You say "Okay, give me this much spectrum from this time to this time and just feed it to me in real time, please, and I will do the rest of processing locally." Again, it's pretty obvious, to me that for a lot of applications, this is how it ought to be done. That there's some sort of central server that's just doing nothing but sucking in or spitting back out broadband spectrum.
You have a bunch of other applications which really can be anywhere, given a network. What they do is they request specific channels at frequencies and bandwidths to be extracted and sent to them in real time. It's extremely straight forward.
Eric: What's interesting about that question is, is for example, if you're putting it on a DigitalOcean Droplet, which is just a company that sells hosted server or hosted desktop service or whatever, or also Amazon AWS, where do you put the receiver? Can you convince Amazon or these guys to take your SDR receiver and plug it into a port on their server farm? Or do you need to have a very large uplink connection from wherever you put the receiver in order to get that much data into the Cloud for processing?
Frank: I don't know the answer to that. It's one of those things that is difficult to answer in principle because there's so many practical considerations involved.
Eric: You want the USB port in a data center to plug your receiver in, right?
Eric: If you were doing it from your house on ADSL then you wouldn't have enough upstream bandwidth in order to give you the desired result, I think, in the Cloud.
Frank: In practical terms it's tough, because I have a fast down link to my machine here just in my apartment. The uplink speed is nowhere comparable to that, so what you really need ... you need a special interface. It's one of the problems still with consumer machines of any kind. Even very high grade ones, this kind of application, because the limiting factor is always how fast you can get data in and out of the memory of the machine. That's still not very fast for most consumer machines. You probably have to do something, at least for the time being, something a little special.
Eric: It's a great question to wrap your head around, though.
Frank: Yeah, it sure is, it sure is. In some ways.
Eric: It's almost like creating an internet of things IOT devices, IOTSDR receivers planted all over the place and then kind of aggregating their tiny signals into a large signal.
Frank: Yes, very much so. That would seem to be the solution for it, and I think you put your finger right on it. Again, that's not an extremely difficult problem. You can do it and the technical means for taking those ... Each of the individual channels has to be little bit over-sampled in such a way that when you merge them, you can afford to throw away a little bit of the bandwidth, but you can do that. You can get individual sub-channels of various sizes and merge them into one broadband channel from which you then in turn go and extract sub-channels. Yes, that would appear to be the solution at the moment.
Eric: I hope you don't mind free associating here. The SETI project, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, has a screen saver that's used for doing data processing on your computer for SETI while you're not using your computer. What an interesting idea that if you could get people to subscribe and take one of these RTL-SDR dongles and plug it in with an antenna someplace, that if you get enough of these receivers out there, then you could actually do something very similar where you're actually taking samples from all of these subscribers and then putting it up into the Cloud and then doing some real processing to actually see what's happening out there.
Frank: Yeah, it's even at the level of how much duplication, how much random distribution over the entire spectrum given the bandwidth of the individual devices. How much do you have to overdo it? How much do you have to supersaturate the array of receivers in order to guarantee that you're going to get full coverage pretty much all of the time. That, in itself, is kind of an interesting combinatorial problem, I think. But that's a really good idea. That's a really, really, good idea.
Eric: So it's out there for any of the listeners to remember QSO Today if you make a million bucks.
Frank: I have a box that's sitting off my cable modem that does nothing but use unused cycles to constantly monitor what the bandwidth is in and out from my apartment. The boxes are all over the place here. I don't know whether they're anyplace else, but they're all over the place in Vancouver. They don't eat much. They just sort of sit there and they sample the bandwidth and they provide a very accurate picture of what the network performance is. It's a little bit like that, I think.
Eric: Yeah, I think it could be. I asked you about this at the beginning, because I told you that I think I'm on my last Windows operating system, which is Windows 7, that you're not on Windows and that you're using something else. Are you an advocate of any particular kind of development system, or operating system, and why is that?
Frank: I think I mentioned I have one Linux laptop, which I really don't use for much of anything anymore. Everything else I have runs OS10 or IOS or something like that, but that's 100% because I spend all of my time using music applications, whether it's sort of an engraving program like Sibelius or a digital audio workstation, like Logic. So all of those programs, the best ones, the top end ones, and the ones that are best suited for my purposes all run on Macs. That's what I've got and that's what I use. There's really no more thoughtful decision involved in that. Of course, OS10 is underneath its Berkeley Unix, so if I need to something like that, which doesn't happen very often anymore, but if I need to do something like that, it's just like opening the door and being home all ready.
Eric: There's a picture on your GitHub site. Now, unfortunately you don't have anything posted to your GitHub site, but there is a great picture of a monument or marker with Hebrew at the top and English writing at the bottom, that talks about a Philco radio shop on Allenby street. Can you explain what that is and why it's on your GitHub site?
Frank: I was in Tel Aviv about three years ago and this is right near the Shuk Ha'Carmel.
Eric: That's the Carmel Market behind the resort hotels.
Frank: That's right, it's a zoo all the time.
Eric: Best hummus, though, in the city.
Frank: Absolutely. I don't know how people can survive on a diet of bowl after bowl of hummus every day, but that's a different ...
Eric: But they're looking pretty good, don't you think?
Eric: It's my favorite food. I think I tell people that's why I moved here.
Frank: That's a pretty good reason, actually. But in any case, right up on Allenby Street, there's this little monument. Oh my God, I mean this was the sigint center of early Israel right here, in this tiny shop. All my old friends, I think, in that world, I thought were entitled to see sort of what the monument was of and for all of that activity sort of right there out in the open with no other particular drama associated with it. That was the hotspot. In some ways, that was the ... I mean aside from human intelligence, that was the signal's intelligence center for early Israel for who knows for how long. I thought it was notable for that reason.
Eric: Yeah, Israel history has a lot of interesting radio background. I think in Episode 9, I'll have to make sure and put that in the show notes page, I had Amnon Bar Giora, who was one of the founders of the Israel Amateur Radio Club, which is the national club of Israel.
Eric: And the Amateur Radio Service in Israel.
Frank: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Eric: There's a long history with radio, and I think Motorola had its first out of country research and development center in Israel in like 1962. So there's a long history.
Frank: Yeah, yeah, yeah. And well, still to this day. I mean if you want to buy an HF radio for your plane these days, that has ALE, I mean there aren't very many places you can get it, but one of the places you can get it is from Mobot, right?
Eric: Right. Yeah, it's pretty amazing.
Eric: What kind of impact has Amateur Radio had on your family life?
Frank: It was very direct, actually. I mean, my late wife wasn't particularly happy that I was spending a lot of time in the shack doing this sort of thing. She had mixed feelings about it and she wasn't entirely crazy about antennas. But, she was extremely active physically. We liked to hike and ride bicycles on extended trips and things like that. When I discovered HF Portable, it's like I developed a new enthusiasm for taking these trips, to doing these excursions together.
So we wound up doing a lot of things, doing a lot of hikes, going to a lot of places for that purpose, which for her were aesthetic and for me were an excuse to do some HF Portable operation. It was actually pretty good. It worked out very well. She was a lot happier when I was out hiking with her. She had no problem with my setting up for a while on a top of a hill somewhere playing some radio. So it was actually pretty positive.
Eric: Now, are you still playing radio with HF Portable?
Frank: It's about the only thing I can do because, again, I'm not sure it's clear. I mean, I migrated to Canada in 2010. I've been living in Vancouver. I've been living in Vancouver part-time for a while, but I've been living here full-time since 2014. I have a wonderful apartment which looks straight across at the mountains on the north shore, I can see all the Olympic sites. Which means I have absolutely no coverage southward. The RF environment here really sucks. It's just really bad. So about the only thing I can do is HF Portable at this point.
Eric: What's your HF Portable rig?
Frank: I use one of two FDA-17s, and sometimes a manual tuner, and sometimes automatic. I have an 857, which I run at low power sometimes. It's been the same thing I've used for a long time. For quite a while, what I used it mostly for was doing QRP Portable for the VHF/UHF contests, which is something that I really, really enjoy doing. I'm thinking about getting a KX-2, but unlike a lot of people, I find the VHF/UHF coverage to be very important. I like it a lot. It's nothing very complicated. I'm just in the process, also, of getting a new car, so I think I might have a mobile rig where I can actually take down the antenna and things like that. It's pretty simple, but it's just too noisy to operate at home.
Eric: Do you operate Soda or Radar, or any of those contests?
Frank: I actually was originally involved in trying to get Soda to expand into North America, which it didn't at the time. I would now, too, except my knees kind of won't let me do the climbing anymore, which is sad. I would really love to do it because the peaks around here are fabulous. What I'm hoping to do is I'm hoping to do some more IOTA operations, especially from the Kyuquot and some of the Gulf islands here just off Vancouver.
Eric: Right, my father lives near Port Angeles, so he's looking out across the Puget Sound towards Vancouver, and Vancouver Island.
Eric: It's a beautiful area and certainly with IOTA, which is Islands on the Air, there's a lot of islands to work in there.
Frank: Boy, there are. And it's surprising how few of them have had much activation at all considering how easy they are to get to. I'm kind of rubbing my hands and sort of keeping it to myself.
Eric: Are you thinking of doing IOTA by canoe, or something like that? It would kid of be like summits on the air, except you save your knees.
Frank: Absolutely. I happen to like ocean, going kayaking quite a bit, although I haven't done it in a while. That always seemed to be an ideal way to go to sort of combine those things. Although my wife, I was telling you about that we did a lot of activities together, we started an ocean kayaking tour together, and she found herself incapable of steering the damn thing, so we got kicked off the tour. I think it's something I'll to pursue myself at this point. But yeah, that's very appealing.
Eric: What excites you the most about what's happening in Amateur Radio now?
Frank: Right at this very moment I think, and again this has to do with the Ground Station Project that I was describing before with W5NYB and K6BP, you're getting a lot of people who are in the position to make serious technical contributions to what will be, I think, commonplace amateur activity. A lot of people who weren't really technically involved in the hobby before, it's kind of like the effect that Joe Taylor had by-
Eric: Right. With the digital modes.
Frank: Exactly right. Imagine that kind of squared in terms of the different kinds of activity that becomes possible when you have broadband digital modulation schemes available with relatively inexpensive rigs, both terrestrially and to satellites. I mean the potential for it is extraordinary. There's some awfully smart people who are coming in. Also, the other thing, this is just sort of my hobby horse, but really happy that there are so many people who are not merely expressing an interest, but actually acting on the desire to learn CW even if they don't have to.
Eric: It is kind of amazing, isn't it? It seems that I think there's more people operating CW now than before when CW was required.
Frank: Yeah, when they had to do it, it was unappealing. But yeah, no very much so. I kind of miss some of the old high speed operators. I mean, that was something else entirely. What was interesting, I thought, was that the high speed CW operators had almost a unique dialect of English because the way you hear slow speed ops or slower speed ops, and this is not a criticism, this is just sort of a historical fact, I mean people tend to spell things out and they tend to use punctuation. You know, the old high speed guys, I mean, there were only two forms of punctuation. There was a comma, which they would use sort of while they were thinking of what to say next, and then the BT, the brake. And that was it. It was just a very different conversational style. I kind of miss that. It's sad that you don't hear it much anymore.
Eric: But it seems to be with groups like CW Ops, which are working on bringing CW operators in that that could be the PhD program for CW Ops. Some of those ... you know what I'm saying? It's just that you're bringing people in and you want to get to the high speed style. I know that the Europeans have a whole international contest of high speed CW operation, which appears to be that they're just using code oscillators when they're not doing it on the air. But there's a lot of people learning Morse Code and doing it very high speeds, very high speeds.
Eric: I guess that we should figure out a way to get them on the radio.
Frank: That would be terrific, actually, if you could do that.
Eric: Yeah. I don't know.
Frank: It was sort of a surprise. Kind of a long story, but it turns out that the building that I live in, the building manager, she's a terrific woman, but it turns out her husband is this really big league Canadian contester.
Eric: Ham Radio contester?
Frank: Yeah, right.
Frank: Right. Yeah, he's originally Serbian and moved here. I mean, this guy is really kind of amazing as far as that sort of thing is concerned. Apparently, he's sort of a legendary figure. So I always sort of figured two things. First of all, if I ever really work up my nerves, she might be willing to let me put an antenna up on the roof. Also, apparently this guy's station is also amazing. I'd love to have a look at it and just kind of watch him in operation sometime because he's-
Eric: It's in the Vancouver area?
Frank: Yeah, that's right.
Eric: The land lady doesn't live in the building, she's-
Frank: Not anymore.
Frank: They have an office and an apartment here, but they don't live here anymore, yeah.
Eric: Oh, I see. Oh, well that's too bad. Well I guess you'll have to get the nerve at some point and-
Eric: And see what you can do.
Frank: After I get my refrigerator replaced then I'll start [inaudible 01:02:15].
Eric: What advice you would give to new or returning Hams?
Frank: Oh, just jump in. Spend more time listening than you do talking. Spend a lot of time just listening to what's going on on the HF bands. Devote a weekend just to sit there listening to what happens during contests, and how that all works. Do a field day, and just do a lot of different things and don't get stuck on repeaters or think that that's representative of anything other than a tiny, tiny fragment of the activity. But just listen, listen, listen. Copy people doing PSK on [inaudible 01:02:57] meters. I mean, just do all of this stuff and see what the activity actually is. From that, decide where you want to position yourself. It's such an easy thing to do.
Eric: Especially with an SDR receiver.
Frank: Yep. Yep. That's right.
Eric: For example. Yeah.
Frank: For example, yep.
Eric: Frank, you've been a wonderful guest. I really appreciate your coming on the QSO Today podcast.
Frank: Oh, Eric. It's been great.
Eric: With that all, I wish you 73.
Frank: Very good, and happy holidays.
Eric: Thank you.
That concludes this episode of QSO Today. I hope that you enjoyed this QSO with Frank. Please be sure to check the show notes that include links and information about the topics that we discussed. Go to www.QSOToday and put in AB2KT in the search box at the top of the page.
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Until next time, this is Eric [inaudible 01:04:52] at IUG73. The QSO Today podcast is a product of KEG Media, Inc. who is solely responsible for it's content.
PART 3 OF 3 ENDS [01:05:03]