Propagation predictions and reality

Once again a contest proves that propagation prediction tools are naff. 🙂

I decided to spin the dial on 17m this evening before sneaking to bed and spoke to Eric, SM1ALH in Sweden for a few minutes but it was pretty rough, although 17m this late at night is always a bit of a crap shoot.

Conditions have been poor the last wee while due to a solar storm, with good visible aurora from my QTH but I decided to pop down to 20m to see if anyone was awake down there.

Low and behold the Scandinavian Activity contest has magically opened the band and I can hear a whole bunch of Europeans, JA’s and some VK’s plugging away in standard contest style.

Contest Log

Scandinavian Activity contest log

I promptly shoved a bit more coal in the direction of the afterburner and gave out some multiplier points to some folks up the other end of the planet before I got my beauty sleep.

In the mean time the propagation prediction tool in my logging software is saying “don’t bother” and the published solar numbers suggest getting shares in skype rather than HF gear.

So, once again, all together…

Turn on the radio and listen for a while, the bands are always open somewhere!

73, Chris

Etomite on php 5.6

This post is on the geeky end of the scale a bit, but might be handy for someone out there in the interwebs.

Back in the mid 00’s I was a big fan of a CMS called Etomite that begat MODX which I still use for some projects. You can read about the death of Etomite and the rise of MODX on wikipedia.

Anyway, I used etomite for an earlier blog site at which is the name of an electronics development company I ran from about 1996 till 2004, ish.

When I sold the rights to the then-current products and designs the new owner wasn’t crazy enough to take on the meaningless company name and oddly spent domain so I kept it for my blog.

That blog was used to record progress on a couple of microcontroller projects I was working on at the time and got enough traffic that it was worthwhile putting google ads on the site.

As I was earning one or two cents a week in advertising revenue from the site I kept it online until May last year when I rolled my web servers over to Debian 8 which included PHP 5.6.x.

Unfortunately PHP 5.6 was a bridge to far for Etomite and my efforts were rewarded with a dreaded deprecation error which are quite often journey to no-where to unravel.


Deprecated mysql library error in Etomite

I was already running the last version of Etomite released, Version 1.1, and as it was the only site out of a few dozen on that box that did not survive the operating system upgrade I went for the cop-out option and put up a cop-out home page and forgot about it.


Cop-out offline message that lasted over a year.

Skip forward to this weekend and I decided to re-visit it as I’m back on the blogging kick again and I still get the odd email about broken links to one of the projects on the site for a CNC stepper motor controller design I posted to some forums.

Long story short, here’s how I fixed up my Etomite install so you can get your crusty old Etomite site working again as well and revel in the y2k feeling of the admin interface.

To silence the error handling, add a new line at the top of index.php:

error_reporting(E_ALL ^ E_DEPRECATED);

Then pop down to the executeParser() function and line 605 or there about’s and comment out the handler and reporting calls.

  function executeParser() {

You should also comment out any other calls to error_reporting in index.php.  I had four of them but I think they were from my original half-hearted attempt to fix the deprecation error in 2015 but they may have been original.

Lastly put an ‘@’ in front of the deprecated mysql_connect statement on line 1323 or just after given you’ve added a new line at the top.


    if(@!$this->rs = mysql_connect($this->dbConfig['host'], $this->dbConfig['user'], $this->dbConfig['pass'])) {

to be:

    if(@!$this->rs = @mysql_connect($this->dbConfig['host'], $this->dbConfig['user'], $this->dbConfig['pass'])) {

And your Etomite will rise from the ashes, sorta, ish.

Now that you’ve got Etomite running again, shift the website to something else before you go much further.  There are some common open-source components in Etomite that have had long published exploits which could bite you in the proverbial bum if you leave it online.

At the very least make the entire site read-only to protect against the TinyMCE injection issues which surfaced after Etomite last received an update.  I’ve made mine read-only and have an IDS monitoring for file system changes but it is not what I’d call a ‘trusted’ site on the server and I’ll probably chroot it as well.

There was an attempt for a couple of years to get Etomite moving forwards called etofork on github but it seems to have died and if you want a similar CMS toolset MODX is the way to go now, or if your site was a blog you could go where everyone else seems to have and use WordPress.

For my part I’ll probably move the content to this site, as maintaining two blogs is kinda silly, but given my on-again, off-again blogging style that might have to wait another year or so. 🙂

Icom IC706MKIIg self-oscillation problems

The Icom IC-706 in all it’s versions is one of the best know amateur transceivers of the last 20 years. Originally released in 1995 with the last in the line being the IC-706MKIIg which last rolled off the production line in 2009.

I managed to pick up a MKIIg a while ago in excellent condition which appeared to be fully functional as Icom intended it apart from problems with the microphone I posted a short note about a while ago.

After I fixed the microphone issue I made a few good DX contacts on 20 and 12m. I was getting a good impression of the shack-in-a-box and was looking forward to taking it out for portable VHF contesting which is what I bought it for.

Unfortunately it wasn’t 100% as intended though as a fault which was addressed in a service bulletin from Icom back in 2002 appeared. Long story short the final amplifier goes into self oscillation when transmitting in any mode on 15 or 17m.

The rig transmits correctly into a dummy load or perfectly matched antenna but if the wind is slightly up hill the visible effect is that SWR pops up to infinity because the final amplifier is generating a carrier somewhere out of band.

A quick google revealed the Service bulletin along with a bunch of forum posts about successes and failures in fixing the issue.

The recommend repair from Icom involves improving the earthing of the PLL and filter boards.

The factory earthing is some wee spring contacts that touch the aluminium chassis in various places and the screw-down points for each of the circuit boards. These springs slacken with time I imagine and some received a new spring ‘MP6’ on the filter board as part of the service bulletin.

My example had the ‘new’ spring on the filter board but another one on the rear side of the PCB was visibly not making a good contact at all. On the filter board I replaced both the ‘new’ contact (MP6) and the obviously faulty one (MP4) with solid copper wire links to chassis. With the filter board out I also re-tinned all of the mount points and cleaned the surface of the ‘posts’ they screwed down to.

On the PLL board one of the spring clips came away from the board due to a dry joint when I tried to re-tension it but otherwise the contacts appeared to be sound and I stuck the whole thing back together with great expectations.

Unfortunately my great expectation turned to greater disappointment as I could still not transmit on 15 or 17m into my Hexbeam which is by all accounts a good match on both of those bands. Oddly enough I could now key up if the lid was off the case so I had at least changed the fault, but not fixed it at all.

Clearly there is something critical in the RF deck that does not like stray RF back into the first IF / mixer section of the rig on those bands.

About now we’ll go for the ‘long story short’ option. I took the rig apart a few more times, added more earthing and generally tried random things and did actually manage to have one QSO on 15m with a JA station with the lid off but a fix based around the service bulletin was not even in the ballpark for my example.

That matches up with some very frustrated forum posts I found which starting to cause me some concern as I only really bought the rig to prove or disprove it’s performance on 2m SSB during a contest and selling the rig on fairly quickly was part of my grand plan for not filling my small shack with rigs I don’t use very often if it wasn’t up to the job on VHF.

Somewhere along the way I’d emailed a local ham who does some repair work asking about the problem and we’d had a bit of a conversation about the problem during which he suggested a ferrite choke between the mixer/modulator board and the filter to stop the feedback in it’s tracks.

I’d run out of things I could earth and it’s one of those suggestions that makes so much sense you wonder why you didn’t think of it yourself. Many thanks to Tony, ZL3HAM for pointing me in the right direction as without him I’d be pondering what to do with an all-band rig that didn’t work on two very useful HF bands.

I validated the idea by un-plugging the coax between the filter and mixer board and transmitting on 15 and 17 into the hexbeam at full power and it worked fine. Listening on another rig the modulation sounded fine and aside from the rig being effectively stone deaf it worked.

That started a hunt through my junk boxes and misc cables for a suitable donor ferrite that I could get one turn of the annoyingly rigid internal coax through and still get the lid closed. The one that finally presented itself came from the power lead on an LDG tuner that could quite happily survive with a much larger one and I set about threading the coax through the proverbial needle.

The thin grey coax they use in rigs between boards is interesting in that it is quite rigid for it’s size and has crimped connectors I’d have no show of replacing if I chopped it off so I had to gingerly trim the ‘wings’ of the crimp to fit through the hole in the middle of my little metal oxide donut.

Once through the first time getting one turn on the thing and still reach the connector on the board while allowing the lid to shut was a long painful process which would not have been much harder if I tried to do it wearing leather welding gloves.

The effort paid off though and I can now key up on 15 and 17m into truly lousy antennas and the rig folds back the power as it should but remains steadfastly on the set VFO frequency.

Hopefully someone else will find this article useful when they find their rig doesn’t respond to the ICOM prescribed fix. I understand in a lot of cases the earthing fix does work and that should be your first port of call. It was the combination of earthing and the ferrite that fixed mine.

Some relevant links:

The original Service Bulletin Courtesy of W1MJ:
W1JM’s comments on the issue:
AD5X’s comments on the same issue:

Footnote: I actually wrote this article in 2014, but never got around to posting it to my blog. The rig did good service for a year or so before I sold it on as I had too many in the shack.

Two years and another revamp

Has it really been two years?  Early in June 2014 I posted about the Nineties wanting their website back and since that re-vamp I’ve only posted one other item to the blog.  Talk about slack.

So now I find myself in August 2016 and re-building the blog again. This time a shift to WordPress along with a cleaner visually light weight template.

I considered scrapping all the old content as some of it was just link-bait for some SEO experiments.  There were even some very dodgy affiliate marketing links in a couple of posts from when I worked at Xtend-Life doing e-commerce work and I was trying to figure out in indexing / SEO impact of overt affiliate links.

After a bit of head-scratching I decided to pull across all the old content kicking and screaming although the link structure has changed and comments are lost so the value is probably marginal. I may even 301 some pages if I find a lot of traffic to some pages, but I’m doubting it. 🙂

On a personal front I’ve had a bit of a change of career in 2016 so I’ve got more time for experimenting and hobbies so I hope to be able to post a bit more regularly than once every two years on the blog but We’ll have to wait and see on that count. I said that a couple of times in older posts and it never really happens.

On the blog topic front I’m back into the R/C model aircraft club scene again again after a break of 15 odd years so there’s another random topic or the mix, just in case you were not already confused enough about my target audience!

IC-706 Audio weirdness – Check for One Big Punch

I picked up a 2nd hand Icom IC-706MKIIG to add to my eclectic collection of gear earlier in the week. The rig is excellent condition and aside from a loose wire on the molex power lead there were no visible problems which one of the best known Icom boxes of tricks there is.

I re-crimped the power cable and plugged into a dummy load and tested transmit on all bands at lower power and all was well until I got to 2m and the audio was horrible. Really harsh with a pulsing buzzing/grinding noise in the background. Worse than that, going back down the bands the fault was apparent on all bands.

After trying a few random things I found the fault was intermittent so I swapped the microphone for another Icom compatible job and the audio returned to the normal smooth Icom defaults, better than when the microphone was working as it happens so into the back of the microphone I dived.

one big punch

One Big Punch board in IC706 hand microphone

Once the back was whipped off the microphone I found a poorly installed ‘One BIG Punch’ W4RT speech processor stuck inside which had a loose earth connection making all the noise if you held it just so.

I’d never heard of the product before but I yanked it out on the basis that Icom probably knew what they were doing. Only difficulty there was having to replace the .33uf SMD capacitor which was removed during the installation of the module.

As luck would have it the W4RT module had a donor capacitor and the repair was complete after some tweezer and squinting at small components soldering action.

Once plugged back into the 706 and tested locally into the dummy load everything seemed to be in order so I connected up to the antenna and promptly worked VP8AIB/100 in the Falklands and BX3AH in Taiwan on 20m SSB barefoot so I’m picking the One BIG Punch wasn’t really needed.

I don’t understand why folks mess with the audio to get ‘more punch’ but in the process make themselves sound like they’re talking through a toilet roll with corks shoved up their nose. Is this really helpful?

The Nineties have been calling

For the last three or four years, possibly more there’s been this niggling little noise in my head every time I looked at my own blog.

It’s not that it’s the most important site I look after, and I really only set it up to test ideas and post the occasional rant but it turns out the 1990’s were indeed calling, asking for the website back.

So here we are, in 2014 and I’ve finally embraced HTML5 and CSS3 for my own site two years after the big ‘5’ became a candidate recommendation of the W3C, and in the year it is set to become the recommended standard for websites across the board.

Hang on, what do you mean? Isn’t HTML5 the standard? HTML 5

Amazingly although a large number of websites use HTML5 for their rendering now and it’s been a buzzword for at least five years it’s not actually a recommended standard yet. The W3C plan indicates that will happen this year. 1

This is the reason you hear website developers bemoaning the state of browser ‘X’ and device ‘Y’ rendering their latest creations. Or at least that’s why you heard those noises if you travel in circles frequented by web developers who like new toys.

So, off I went to themeforest and bought me a shiny responsive template, chopped up the source files and slapped it down on top of MODX without too much pain considering how long I put it off.

So far the result has been pleasing although I need to re-code the blog comments bits as they look horrible and there are some nasty kludges going on in the back room to get my old content to work in the new template.

Once I’ve fixed up the last couple of visual elements I suppose I’ll have to fix the validation of the old content as well but who really does that any more?

So here is it, my first post in the new template. It remains to be seen if it injects some enthusiasm so I start posting regularly again. Only time will tell.

  1. W3C 2014 plan

Should this be forgotten?

A tale of my slightly oblique involvement in transgender employment experiences.

The recent news about the ruling in Europe around the concept of the ‘right to be forgotten’ got me to thinking it was time I did a bit of ego surfing earlier on tonight.

For those not entirely familiar ego surfing is putting your own name into Google or another search engine of your choosing if you are so inclined.

For me it’s somewhat topical I suppose as I’m currently contemplating a change in career and I’m sure some prospective clients or employers will be searching me out and finding all sorts of dregs around the internet.

I know of only four other people on the planet with my name so it’s not like I can even use the ‘Bill Smith’ defence and claim it wasn’t me who did whatever it is that the search engines find attached to my name.

As a curious segue I’m facebook friends with one of the other Chris Hellyar’s who resides in the UK. He too is employed in IT, has a beard and glasses. Small world, apparently.

Book CoverAnyway, I’m ego surfing earlier tonight and there are always lots of hits as I’ve been a netizen for a while now and although I prefer to keep my private parts that way a lot of my club activities and work life is available in bits and bytes somewhere.

Part of my working world is stock photography. You know the stuff; photos of smiling people doing happy things. Photos of books, logs, pins, ducks… Stock photography is the essential furniture which graces the virtual and print media world with images of almost anything you can think of.

I see my images popping up all over the place. Bank websites, book covers, advertising for shoes, travel, health conditions, pet food.

Some of the hits are often obscure and tonight I found one that really caught my attention a listing under my name in the search results for ‘transgender employment experiences’.

After a bit of hesitation I clicked on the link to find a fairly serious bit of literature by a Kyla Bender-Baird with one of my images on the cover no less. Google had found the copyright notice for the cover image a couple of pages into the book.

I’m not fussed to be honest and I’m happy that Kyla’s publishers honoured the copyright terms and credited the image. I do wonder what a prospective employer might thing of that in the search results though, given I have a beard and I like to think I’m a pretty manly sort of figure!

Is this the sort of search result that the complainants in the EU want to have forgotten? I do wonder.

(You can see the preview to the book on google books here. Here is the book publishers page on the book if you wound up here looking for the book!)

Responsive Design Best Practice

A wee while ago I wanted to create a new single-page landing site for one of my online properties. Just a logo, company name and contact details. Nothing more, nothing less.

Now, because I’m a really cool guy and I’m down with all the latest jargon and web stuff I decided it would be a responsive website.

Not so much responsive in the sense that I’ll ever respond to inquiries from there any more than I did when there was just a logo on the website and no details you understand!

This is responsive in the sense that all the hip crowd using mobile devices to access the site will get a nice experience and not have to scroll or zoom around to see the three lines of text on the site.

Responsive design is not a new idea and I’m certainly not going to claim to know much more than someone who looks up the term on wikipedia about the dark art of CSS3 @media rules.

In fact, I’d like to encourage everyone else to stop claiming they’re experts as well!

I thought about buying a single-page website template and slapping my info on it but because that would involve parting with money for something I can do myself I decided that roll-your-own was a better plan. And it’s just one page, right?

I figured someone would have a good guide on the rules for responsive design so I put ten cents in the Google roulette machine and crafted a search for responsive design best practice.

If you search for ‘best practice responsive design’ Google says there are about 7,440,000 results which took a grand total of 0.33 seconds to dig out of the dusty corners of the web.

Without reading them I’m guessing that there are probably about 1,488,000 unique and differing opinions to be had in those results about what in fact the best practice is.

And I’m being pretty generous there, allowing for one fifth of all the results to actually be something new and interesting.

Another problem I found was a number of what I thought were reputable sites quoting other similar well respected sites that had bugs in their @media statements and simply didn’t work on the small range of devices I had to test on.

So, the quoted best practice was actually pretty poor practice if you used an iPhone 4S, or Samsung Galaxy 3 which didn’t like the overlapping @media specs defined in some CSS which I think originally came from smashing magazine but so many people quote it that I have no idea where it originated!

So; I suppose seeing as I link baited with the title, you’re wondering what my best practice advice is for responsive design? Here goes:

Get off your adjustable office chair and learn how CSS works, understand what the @media max-width, min-width and pixel-ratio actually do and test it on a good sample of devices!

When the Cloud goes bad

Before you read too much further this is a bit of a self-serving rant, bought on indirectly by the heartbleed bug published a couple of weeks ago.

I’m a fan of cloud hosted virtual Linux servers for hosting and messing about of the geeky kind.

The ability to spin up a box and play with it to your hearts content then just shut it off again for cents an hour has to be one of the greatest enablers of growth in online services since caffeine laden fizzy drinks hit the market.

I evangelised the use of cloud boxes for web hosting a while ago with some of my geeky friends, which of course rubbed off onto some of the not-so-geeky ones as well.

That’s where the cloud goes bad, right there, just at the end of that last sentence.

I even went as far as to help a couple of the not-so-geeky folks set up cloud servers and migrate their websites in a flurry of command line goodness with bash scripting that is in fact a native language for sandal wearers in many countries.

That was 2009 and skipping forward five years I now seem to have become the Linux agony aunt for a few of the converts and even some of the ones I considered to have strong bash-foo had dug a hole so deep that apt-get and yum can’t rescue them.

One whole day, almost to the minute, after CVE-2014-0160 was published and about four hours after I’d finished the initial patching of all *ix boxes for work my inbox was showing signs of the darker side of the cloud.

The questions were varied, to be fair, but all symptoms of the same underlying issue. “Is my server vulnerable?”, “My server wont update, how do I upgrade it?”, “I googled it but apt-get gives me xxxx error”.

Some of these machines had not been updated by their well meaning owners since they were spun up, in some cases over five years ago. The distribution in the case of Debian 5 now unsupported. This is my problem how?

The next morning I was due to start a three day holiday in the form of being parent helper on a school camp so I really didn’t want to be a part of someone else’s IT dilemma. For work I would keep an eye on things while away, but the other folks? Hmmm.

I replied with a pretty generic message to all of them, along the lines of ‘Patch OpenSSL, replace your SSH keys and if you’re using https get the certificate re-issued’.

So, instead of just relying on the trusty iPhone to keep up I ignored the rules for school camps and packed my netbook along with my toothbrush, socks and bug repellent. My plan being to get online tethered to the phone at least a couple of times during the break.

Well, you could have knocked me down with a feather. About midnight on the Wednesday I get online and there’s about forty emails waiting for my weary eyes.

Half of them unhappy replies to my apparently useless advice and the other half from more people who clearly shouldn’t run public facing servers on the internet without first putting on their overcoats.

Where I had credentials I made a half-hearted effort to get on and update OpenSSL in the wee hours between mountain biking, making hundreds of filled rolls and hut building in the rain but generally I just deffered them as my enthusiasm for cloud computing was being sorely tested. I’m not a very good agony aunt it seems.

And here’s the rant, in a nutshell:

If you don’t know how to keep a server secure and up to date you should not be running your own virtual servers online. Windows or Linux I don’t care. Just don’t do it.

If the concept of migrating applications or websites between releases of Linux Distro is foreign, or you think a public key is something used by kids to sneak into the school pool, get yourself some cheap shared hosting. Virtual servers are not for you.

If you think the scope for a Windows firewall is a tube with mirrors at each end allowing you to peer over the wall…. Well, you get the idea.

I hereby retract all of my former enthusiasm for cloud hosted virtual Linux servers.


One for the Petrol Heads

(Originally Posted 28th Feb 2007 to

Covering bike speedway for the paper a couple of weeks ago, and got this cool shot.

0702117201”Close racing action in the first turn at Moore Park on Sunday as Martin Emmerson of England, Andrew Alridge of Halswell and Craig Ramsey from Hastings all jostle for position in the fourth A grade heat of the Robin Mackinnon Memorial speedway meeting at Moore park on Sunday. Andrew Aldridge was the eventual winner of the Robin Mackinnon Memorial Plate.”

These are 500CC single bangers, on tuned pipes. Tuned for power that is, not tuned for making the neighbours happy while they prune their lilies before green tea at 10 with the Smythe-Joneses.

Off the line they reach about 100km/hr before the first turn, which is only 50m on loose dirt. Not fast, but enough to make it difficult to pan the camera without looking like a silly spinning top.

Just watching the bikes get off the line is an event. Waiting as the bikes line up I’m checking settings on the camera, looking for numbers on the front of the bikes, need local riders for the paper. Checking where the safety marshals and other photographer are standing so I don’t take a portrait of their high-viz jackets instead of a bike, and wondering if I let the cat out before I left home. It all leads to rising adrenaline, and that funny tingling feeling you get when you lick a nine volt battery.

The five bikes are all lined up behind the starting gate, and tension is building, the riders scuff their boots through the loose top layer of clay. I assume to get a kick off on the ground to help with the launch, or because they play cricket as well, I’m not sure.

0702117298The arena announcers are talking about how Jim wearing number 12 has come back well this year from an ingrown toenail, and the cousin of number 17 once had a horse that was lame. It really doesn’t matter what they say, it merges in with the barp-barp blap-blap-blap of the miss-timed 5 cylinder idling orchestra like an other-worldly chatter from long lost friends you’ve never met.

The starter drops his hand, or a handkerchief, the speedway equivalent of the yellow lights on a drag tree. The five pot band leaps from oddly timed acid jazz tempo to roaring death metal faster than I can shell fresh peas, which is pretty quick I’ll have you know.

The tingle down my spine is now more of a sizzling as adrenaline and the five cups of coffee I had for breakfast leap to attention and fire off a 21 gun salute in my synapses.

1000th of a second, F/4.0 Don’t change the settings. Centre focus point on my man, Number 1, Andrew Alridge. Half press the shutter button, focus tracking.

The wild animals are left clawing at the fence for no more than a second, the fence lifts, and they burst free. Roaring and snorting towards the waiting corner, like 2 tonnes of prime beef in a Spanish village.

Don’t take any photos till the day-glow of the first safety marshal blurs past the lens. He’s standing closer to the action than me, but at least he has a red flag, the bikes will stop for him. All I could do would be to throw six grand worth of camera gear and hope it takes one of them out.

A blur of orange and plumbers butt-crack dances through the now wildly shaking viewfinder. Press the shutter button full down, get some photos. The camera fires off the images, clack clack clack.

Concentrate. Zoom back, keep some space to the left side of the frame, number one, white vest, blue leathers, centre focus point. Clack Clack Clack.

As the bikes slide past I can feel them more than see them. The view I have though the viewfinder is odd, constrained and disturbingly close to the action. The thumping, vibrating sensation in the core of my body is more real, believable. The sound of the five bikes on the first corner while they are bunched up is thunderous, and resonates off the wooden walls around the track. Clack Clack Clack.

The caffeine and hormones are messing with my nerves and and possibly my judgement, I’m sure it’s moments like these people agree to join pyramid schemes to pawn off odd products on unsuspecting friends. I think I got a good one on that pass, I’m sure they were close together this time. Finger off the shutter button.

The left side of my face is blasted by fine clay dust from the passing cacophony. I stopped ducking three races ago, they remove all the stones from the track, don’t they?

0702117222At least one of the bikes is running castor oil, a shot of sickly sweet exhaust fumes, mixing with dust and sweat.

By the time the riders come back my way, seventeen seconds later, they are spread all over the place, I half-heatedly rattle off some more shots in their direction. Three more laps to go.

5 minutes till the next race. Get my next fix.

Good thing I’m not a petrol head, I could get hooked!