Time Out

2 April 2014

I’m a bit ambivalent about this particular post, as I don’t know if it’s what I really, really want to do. Perhaps it’s driven by Spring fever, cabin fever, or the constantly overcast, sun-robbing weather. Whatever the reason, I’m walking away from this blog for a bit.

This blog, Bill’s Meanderings, just weighs on me more than I like right now. I’m always aware of it in the background, the constant, albeit self-imposed, weekly deadline, but most of all, I’m very much aware that it has no “direction” at all.

I’ll still post here from time to time, for example if I put out the new Pa’adhe short story. If there’s something I really want to share I’ll post it. I’ll check for any comments awaiting moderation. But that’s all I plan to do for a while.

It feels like I need to take some time away from here and think about where I really want to go with this blog. Astronomy/Astrophotography? Ham radio? Photography? Writing? Outdoors? Continue rambling? Drop it entirely? What?!?!?

The same goes for my Tales of Pa’adhe.

Yeah, I heard those groans from all three of you that actually read any of the Tales on your own. Sorry about that, truly.

This latest tale has the final feedback in to me, but I just have no interest in doing the last bit of editing and getting it out there. I’m sure I will, eventually, but right now…meh.

Maybe it’s tied to the same reasons as walking away from this blog. Only, in addition to that, it seems like I’m now writing for the three readers I have and not for myself or for the Tales. It’s not quite so much fun any more. I used to love looking at the map of Tenalpa and dreaming about new voyages, new challenges, new places to add to the map. Maybe there’s an unknown island here…that kind of stuff. Now, I look at the map and just think how pretty it is as a fantasy map. I don’t see any new voyages in my mind like the map is a real window into the Captain’s world. I haven’t added any new Pa’adhe story ideas to my idea file in almost a year. I used to add one every two months or so.

Yet, I don’t see myself giving up either the blog or the Tales, at least not right now. I need a respite, a Caamora or a Walkabout if you will.

When things like this are no longer fun, it’s time to step aside and try to find out why they’re not and how to make them so again. If there’s no way to make them fun again, then it’s time to move on to a new whatever. I’m at that point, I think, and since I don’t want to quit writing these yet, I’m hopeful that indicates there’s still an enjoyment factor and I just need to get away for a bit.

So, I’m going to focus on some other things like Morse code, astrophotography and time lapse projects, staying up with a tub of icecream reading into the wee hours until I can no longer stay awake, programming the Arduino or Raspberry Pi or Android phone for some ideas I have, re-reading some old favorites, re-watching the entire Lord of the Rings in one go, exploring the Owyhees…just random fun stuff.

For the serious side, I want and need to focus on studying for my Extra ham license. This General is ready to upgrade.

Check in from time to time, if you’re not automatically notified, as I’ll probably post something every once in a while.

In a while, crocodile.

Morse Code

26 March 2014

For quite some time now I’ve been thinking of getting into using International Morse Code with my ham radio hobby. I’ve even been “practicing” by tapping on my leg or other surface, trying to memorize the patterns of various letters, prosigns, numbers, punctuation, etc. but not really making an effort to do so.

Recently I came across a mention that apparently many of the newer radios have built-in keyers. Curious, I did some research into “keyers” as such. What I read has me very interested in actually getting on the air using Morse.

I have three straight keys, similar to this one. It’s what most people think of when they think of someone sending Morse. However, I’d been practicing in a way that is more consistent with the use of paddles than a straight key. Not only that, but apparently also I’d been doing it “backwards” compared to the way most are set up. I’d been using my thumb for the dahs, and my finger for the dits. Most paddle setups seem typically the other way around: thumb for the dits, finger for the dahs.

It’s not that big a deal, it’s just a matter of how you wire up the device. It does comes into play if you go to another ham’s shack and use his system, though. This is a situation where, I think, I will conform to the norm. It’s not that hard to switch around, especially if I do so now, but it’s hard to break the habit of thinking of a dah when I tap my thumb against my leg in practice. But it’ll be easier for me to participate in Field Day and other such events using another ham’s gear.

So, why Morse?

Admittedly, I’ve performed no formal research nor spent countless evenings/nights scanning the bands, but it seems that more people regularly run Morse than PSK-31 or the other digital modes for simple QSOs, or chats. When I see discussions of QSOs, usually they’re QRP (low power) Morse contacts. That may just be because Morse users are more fanatical and vocal. ;-)

Originally I got into ham radio because I wanted a way to chat with people all over the world. Ironically, I couldn’t wait for the code requirement for a ham ticket (license) to be dropped so that I could get my license and get on the air. My plan was to use the computer to generate and read Morse. Nobody’d know I was “cheating,” right?

Yet here I am, seriously probing what I need to get going with Morse. The appeal to me is the chatting component prevalent in Morse. The other digital modes don’t seem to quite have that level of just chatting about things. I could easily be wrong, but there’s also the simplicity of the system: no computer required, just the radio, key, power, and an antenna.

So, knowing my Yaesu FT-857D has a built-in keyer, I asked around for a single or double paddle to try out. I was able to borrow one from a fellow ham and plan to do a little experimenting with it this weekend. My goal is to find out just what the keyer does and how the output sounds. Does this keyer allow me to select a dit or dah and the keyer generates the proper size output to produce the actual dit vs. dah? Do I need to create the dit and dah lengths by holding the paddle in contact similarly to a straight key? Most of what I see on YouTube and elsewhere imply not…the keyer will generate the dits and dahs but I want to verify that for myself. And see what my crude sending will sound like. I’ll have two people listen to my sending on the other radio and let me know how bad I am. ;-)

I’ve also seen various comments about starting with a straight key so that you “learn to properly send a dit and dah” but I’m ambivalent about that. I see the point of both sides but being lazy, I like the idea of the keyer itself generating the proper dit and dah. Besides, I’d have to generate my timing by guess until I learn the correct rhythm and habits. Since I can’t hear my own sending…using a keyer if I have it simply makes sense. Eventually I might switch to a straight key when I’m more comfortable using Morse, but at the moment I’m more curious about the keyer itself. What does it do? How touchy is it? What can I set up?

Once I learn just what the keyer in my FT-857D does and does not do, the next step, obviously, will be to concentrate on receiving. I’m confident that by the time I have that worked out to my satisfaction, I’ll have the necessary skills to get on the air using Morse.

At the moment, my biggest problem with pursuing Morse is still simply being able to identify it when I encounter it on the air. Being deaf, I can’t rely on my hearing to identify it or to judge my sending on the fly and I simply haven’t yet found something that works reliably for me. People have suggested various transducers, LEDs, etc. but none of these have worked out where I am willing to trust them. Of course, part of the problem is that I’ve not stuck with any one method long enough to give it an honest test under actual operating conditions. Part of that is due to me having no true feedback other than that transducer as to whether or not what I am feeling is actually Morse or just static that is very similar.

Let me give you an example…

Using a vibrating transducer, I plug it into the earphone/headphone jack. I adjust the radio to where it’s quiet, i.e. not vibrating. Now I begin to tune the radio and I hit something that feels regular. Not having enough experience, I can’t tell if it’s actually Morse or if it’s some kind of cyclic noise. Since there’s no-one around to ask to listen to it and tell me, should I remain there and see if I can actually detect any letters? Will the letters I detect actually be Morse, or will it be my imagination and desire to find some code to listen to? With no actual feedback, how do I know if I’m actually learning code or just think I am? Should I stay on that frequency or should I move on and hope to find something better (or real)?

That’s my typical experience when scanning the bands by myself. Sometimes I’ll hook up the oscilloscope and look at the waveforms, but mostly I am just playing around and when I’m mobile I don’t have the oscilloscope to play with anyway.

We’ll see how all this works out. I’ll provide an update next week.

Until then, 73.

Exploring Chinese Chess

19 March 2014

Late last year I was introduced to Chinese Chess. I don’t remember the path that took me to that interest, but I mentioned my curiosity to one of our Chinese engineers who happened to be coming to our site for training. She brought me a wonderful Chinese Chess set and we spent some time after work with her teaching me Chinese Chess and my reciprocating with Western Chess, which she had an interest in.

After she left, we played a few games online but for various reasons (holidays, family, etc.) what had started out as a regular time to meet online and play petered out. Recently we’ve been emailing about resuming and I look forward to doing so.

Chinese Chess, or more properly Xiangqi, is easier to learn than the Western Chess version that most of us Westerners are familiar with. The overall premise is the same: battle between two armies to capture the enemy general or king. Yet, my familiarity with Western Chess caused me to have some problems playing. For example, the Horse may move like the Knight in Western Chess, but unlike the Knight, the Horse can’t jump over intervening pieces. The other rule I had difficulty remembering translates basically to “there is no stalemate” in Xiangqi such as I’m used to in Western Chess.

I naturally went looking for a Xiangqi program that I could use to learn and practice with. Eventually I wanted one that I could study with as well. In the end, I wound up installing and playing with three programs: HOX Chess, Qianhong, and XieXie Master. I find myself using XieXie Master the most.

Screenshot of the About popup for the XieXie Master computer program.

The About information from XieXie Master.

Along with not playing much over the holidays, I haven’t been playing much on the computer either. Recently, I began studying the pieces in a couple of interesting, to me anyway, problems. My original intent was to learn how to use certain pieces together.

Towards this end, I set up several mental problems involving the only four pieces that could cross the river: Chariot, Horse, Cannon, and Soldier. Naturally the General is involved. By mental problems, I mean that I simply worked them out in my head over time. I did set up one or two in XieXie Master to verify. The first problems I set myself were: Given the two Generals and only the two pieces of any one of the four pieces, how would I capture the Red General if it were Red’s turn to move?

Image of Chinese Chess (Xiangqi) board showing the starting positions of the pieces for the two piece problems mentioned in the text.

Typical start setup for the two piece problems.

The opening position of the piece between the two Generals was deliberate to give the Red General as much play as possible. As you can see in the above image, I set myself the challenge of figuring out how to force the Red General to move into checkmate. The two Chariot were no problem at all and quickly resolved. The two Cannon, likewise, but due to the way the Cannon captures, there was an interesting defense situation I had to keep in mind that could allow the Red General to briefly escape the trap. The two Horse took some doing, and this variant is what drove home the stalemate issue (more below). The two Soldiers likewise took some thought and had the same issue as the Cannon, but once I figured it out for one piece (Cannon or Soldier) the solution was obvious in either case: neither piece should ever move in front of the General once the opening sequence was played to lock down one of the outside Castle files.

What I learned is that any two identical pieces working together with no interference can put the opposite General in checkmate. I also learned more about making them work together.

The Horse problem brought up an interesting situation. From my Western Chess background, the only way to avoid stalemate, in which you don’t really win, is that I had to time the placing of the two Horse. To checkmate, I thought, the sequence of moves had to be one Horse would force the Red General out of the corners of the Castle, say f0 or f2, to f1 immediately before the next Black move which positions the other Horse to move on f1 in the final Black move. Checkmate! If I did not sequence the moves correctly, I risked trapping the Red General on f1 unable to move to f0, f2, or e1 but not yet attacked on f1.

This image below shows this situation.

Image of Chinese Chess (Xiangqi) board showing the four pieces mentioned in the text

This is not stalemate under Xiangqi rules.

In Western Chess, it being Red’s move, this would indeed be stalemate: the Red King cannot move into a location where he would be in check. With no legal move for the Red King here under Western Chess rules, it’s stalemate and neither side wins. In Xiangqi, though, this is actually still a checkmate for Black. By Xiangqi rules it’s a case of Red having to move but he has no move that does not end with his capture by Black’s next move. This I had to send to my Chinese friend for verification, even though I read and re-read the Xiangqi rules several times. It was just difficult for me to get my Western Chess raised mind to accept this as checkmate and learn not to focus on achieving a Western Chess style checkmate. I like it, though.

My next set of mental problems was similar, but this time with only one of the four pieces able to cross the river. The setup used is illustrated below with each piece starting where the Soldier is.

Image of a Chinese Chess (Xiangqi) board showing the setup of the pieces at the start of the new problems.

Setup for the problems involving a single piece.

As fully expected, checkmate of Red can be accomplished with all four pieces except the Cannon. There’s just no way to trap the Red General against the side and still have the Cannon able to completely block the Red General or attack him. The Chariot was once again trivial, the Black General and Chariot easily trap the Red General against a corner in just a few moves. The Horse and Soldier can similarly take advantage of the “no stalemate” rule but do need some careful maneuvering to do so. The Cannon’s need to jump over a piece to capture is its undoing in this situation but with any second piece available, whether it can cross the river or not, the Cannon can also force checkmate.

This has been a fun exercise and I feel I’ve learned quite a bit about the capabilities of the four pieces. I feel more comfortable teaching others to play now and giving stronger players than I a good game for their time.

Next, I’m going to play with any one of the four pieces and learn how to efficiently work it with any one of the other three.


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