Ham Radio Public Service Activities – Rewarding and Useful

“Hi! I’m Rud, Kilo Five Romeo Uniform Delta.” That’s me introducing myself at a ham meeting. Ham radio operators kid that we don’t have last names, we have call signs.

Becoming an Amateur Radio Operator (ARO), our more formal name, is not difficult and opens a world of interesting activities, including hacking. As with anything new, becoming actively involved with an existing club can be daunting. The other hams at a meeting are catching up with their buddies and often seem uninterested in the new guy standing nearby. Some groups will invite new members to stand and introduce themselves early in the meeting, which helps break the ice.

Regardless of how anyone else acts at the meeting there is one ham who is always looking for someone new – the ham who manages public service events, where amateur radio operators help establish communications for large public gatherings. These can be local bike rides, walks, or runs; I’ve even seen hams working an art show. In the nomenclature adopted since 9/11, these are “planned incidents” in contrast to “unplanned incidents” like hurricanes, tornadoes, forest fires, snow storms, and other natural or man made disasters. Working planned incidents is training for unplanned incidents when that need arises. The basic activities for AROs are the same.

Here in the Houston there are two very big events that enlist hundreds of hams. The big one in January is the Houston Marathon. The other large event is the Houston to Austin Multiple Sclerosis 150 (MS 150) mile bike ride in April. That event starts on Saturday morning, takes a break mid-way on Saturday evening, and finally wraps up late on Sunday evening. Starting in the fall there are warm-up events for the Marathon and in the late winter bike rides to prepare riders for the MS-150. There are also other marathons, Iron Man races, walks, runs, and races throughout the year. Wherever your are, there are probably events nearby and they can always make use of your radio capability.

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Hams in Space: Project OSCAR

In early December 1961, a United States Air Force rocket took off from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California carrying a special payload. The main payload was a Corona surveillance satellite, but tucked just aft of that spacecraft was a tiny package of homebrew electronics stuffed into something the looked like a slice of cake. What was in that package and how it came to tag along on a top-secret military mission is the story of OSCAR 1, the world’s first amateur radio satellite.

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Stallman’s One Mistake

We all owe [Richard Stallman] a large debt for his contributions to computing. With a career that began in MIT’s AI lab, [Stallman] was there for the creation of some of the most cutting edge technology of the time. He was there for some of the earliest Lisp machines, the birth of the Internet, and was a necessary contributor for Emacs, GCC, and was foundational in the creation of GPL, the license that made a toy OS from a Finnish CS student the most popular operating system on the planet. It’s not an exaggeration to say that without [Stallman], open source software wouldn’t exist.

Linux, Apache, PHP, Blender, Wikipedia and MySQL simply wouldn’t exist without open and permissive licenses, and we are all richer for [Stallman]’s insight that software should be free. Hardware, on the other hand, isn’t. Perhaps it was just a function of the time [Stallman] fomented his views, but until very recently open hardware has been a kludge of different licenses for different aspects of the design. Even in the most open devices, firmware uses GPLv3, hardware documentation uses the CERN license, and Creative Commons is sprinkled about various assets.

If [Stallman] made one mistake, it was his inability to anticipate everything would happen in hardware eventually. The first battle on this front was the Tivoization of hardware a decade ago, leading to the creation of GPLv3. Still, this license does not cover hardware, leading to an interesting thought experiment: what would it take to build a completely open source computer? Is it even possible?

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Hackers and Heroes: Rise of the CCC and Hackerspaces

From its roots in phone phreaking to the crackdowns and legal precedents that drove hacking mostly underground (or into business), hacker culture in the United States has seen a lot over the last three decades. Perhaps the biggest standout is the L0pht, a visible 1990s US hackerspace that engaged in open disclosure and was, arguably, the last of the publicly influential US hacker groups.

The details of the American hacker scene were well covered in my article yesterday. It ended on a bit of a down note. The L0pht is long gone, and no other groups that I know of have matched their mix of social responsibility and public visibility. This is a shame because a lot of hacker-relevant issues are getting decided in the USA right now, and largely without our input.

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But let’s turn away from the USA and catch up with Germany. In the early 1980s, in Germany as in America, there were many local computer clubs that were not much more than a monthly evening in a cafeteria or a science museum or (as was the case with the CCC) a newspaper office. Early computer enthusiasts traded know-how, and software, for free. At least in America, nothing was more formally arranged than was necessary to secure a meeting space: we all knew when to show up, so what more needed to be done?

Things are a little different in the German soul. Peer inside and you’ll find the “Vereinsmentalität” — a “club-mentality”. Most any hobby or sport that you can do in Germany has an associated club that you can join. Winter biathlon, bee-keeping, watercolor painting, or hacking: when Germans do fun stuff, they like to get organized and do fun stuff together.

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LUX Searches in the Deep for Dark Matter

The Homestake Mine started yielding gold in 1876. If you had asked George Hearst, the operator at the time, if the mine would someday yield the secrets of the universe I bet he would have laughed you out of the room. But sure enough, by 1960 a laboratory deep in the mine started doing just that. Many experiments have been conducted there in the five and a half decades since. The Large Underground Xenon (LUX) experiment is one of them, and has been running is what is now called the Sanford Underground Research Facility (SURF) for about four years. LUX’s first round of data was collected in 2013, with the experiment and the rest of the data slated to conclude in 2016. The method, hardware, and results wrapped up in LUX are utterly fascinating.

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Hacking Online Reviews

For this post, I want to return the word hacking to its nefarious definition. We prefer the kinder definition of a hacker as someone who creates or modifies things to fit some purpose or to improve its function. But a hacker can also be someone who breaks into computer systems or steals phone service or breaks encryption.

There are some “hacker battlefields” that are very visible. Protecting credit card numbers from hackers is a good example. But there are some subtle ones that many people don’t notice. For example, the battle for online reviews. You know, like on Amazon when you rate the soldering iron you bought and leave a note about how it works. That might seem like a strange place for hacking until you stop and think about why people do bad hacking.

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Hackers and Heroes: A Tale of Two Countries

Hacker culture in Germany and the US is very similar in a lot of ways, from the relative mix of hardware versus software types to the side-affinities for amateur radio and blinkenlights. Reading Hackaday, you’ll find similar projects coming out of both countries. Both countries have seen hackerspaces bloom in the last decade to the point that there’s probably one or two in whatever city you’re living in. But there’s one thing that hackers in the USA are still lacking that German hackers have had for a while: respect.

Say the word “hacker” in different social circles, and you never know what kind of response you’re going to get. Who exactly are “hackers” anyway? Are we talking about the folks blackmailing you for your account details on Ashley Madison? Or stealing credit card numbers from Target? Or are we talking about the folks who have a good time breaking stuff and building stuff, and taking things apart to see how they work?

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The discussion over who’s a “hacker” is as old as the hills, by Internet standards anyway, and it’s not going to get settled here. But think about the last time you heard the word “hacker” used in anything but its negative sense in the popular press. If you can’t remember a single instance in this century, you’re living in the USA. If you answered, “just yesterday, in one of the nation’s most important newspapers”, then you’re living in Germany.

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