D-STAR Myths

Published at 21:03 on 18 October 2013

Some time ago I wrote a post about D-STAR. It’s time to revisit the technology and do some quick summarizing.

D-STAR is an Open Standard

Maybe in an abstract theoretical sense, but in practice, it’s proprietary. Only one major ham radio manufacturer (Icom) supports D-STAR. None of the others have announced any intention to. In fact, one, (Yaesu) has come up with a digital protocol of their own. Plus, there’s plenty of hams utilizing used P25 digital equipment. So not only is it not “open,” it’s also not really a “standard.” The actual standard for local VHF/UHF voice communications remains FM, because that’s what all manufacturers support, and what the vast majority of repeaters continue to use.

D-STAR is the Wave of the Future

Highly unlikely. Digital modes in general are the wave of the future and will probably eventually displace FM and most other analog modes for most communications. But it’s hardly clear that D-STAR is the technology which will prevail. In fact, its lack of widespread adoption argues against it being the digital technology which will prevail. More than likely, that will end up being some yet-to-be-invented mode which offers far better weak-signal performance than either D-STAR of FM, and audio quality at least as good as current analog modes. That way, users will put up with the unavoidable “fall off a cliff” because it will happen significantly further out than where FM starts getting a bit hissy and choppy.

D-STAR, being Digital, Offers Better Audio Quality

No, it doesn’t. It offers worse audio quality. This isn’t CD-style digital audio we’re talking about; there’s significantly less bandwidth available than that on a ham radio channel. Circumstances dictate a slower sampling rate and very aggressive compression. Lossy compression. Quite audibly lossy compression, in fact.

It gets even more dramatic in weak-signal situations. Like all digital modes, a D-STAR signal quickly “drops off a cliff” when usable range is exceeded. Audio gets totally lost, first little bits, then big bits, then all of it. And it’s a much more disconcerting and intelligibility-compromising loss of information than one gets in analog FM, where rising background hiss provides an early warning and the drop-outs are not so sudden or so total.

D-STAR Is Needed Because We’re Out of Repeater Pairs

Maybe in Manhattan, Tokyo, or LA this is the case but for the vast majority of the Earth’s surface it is not. Most places have plenty of repeater pairs available. Others, such as most big cities that fall short of being megalopolises, might be short on empty repeater pairs but the repeaters themselves end up being mostly empty (you can listen all day and you’re lucky if you as much as hear another station ID). There’s plenty of room for more chit-chat.

D-STAR Therefore Is Useless

Not so fast. Nothing says you must use it for voice. There’s two parts to D-STAR, a CODEC for moving between the analog and digital worlds, and a way of sending streams of bits over the airwaves. The former is actually where most of the cost for the equipment comes in (since it’s a proprietary CODEC), while the latter is 100% open. So if you need a digital point-to-point link, the technology has some use.

In other words, it’s a specialized mode for special applications, not any sort of general-purpose replacement for FM.

I-517 WTF?

Published at 19:36 on 17 October 2013

Executive summary: It’s yet another piece of crap from Tim Eyman. Vote NO.

“WTF?” was my first impression on reading a summary of the thing.

Increase the amount of time for gathering initiative and referendum signatures? Why? It’s not as if the current time limit, which to my knowledge has worked just fine from the day the Washington State Constitution was written, is excessively onerous or anything. It’s not unusual for a measure to get enough signatures then to be shot down at the polls. If that almost never happened, then there would be basis for arguing the existing time limit is too short.

That alone had made for at least a 90% chance I’d vote NO, without having any idea who penned the measure. Or without having yet read this little gem:

The measure would provide that interfering with signature gathering for a state or local initiative or referendum is illegal. Interfering with a person trying to sign a petition, stalking a person who signs a petition, or stalking or retaliating against a person who gathers petition signatures would constitute the misdemeanor of disorderly conduct. Such conduct would be subject to the civil anti-harassment procedures available under RCW 10.14, and civil penalties. Interfering with petition signing and signature gathering would be defined to include, but not limited to, pushing, shoving, touching, spitting, throwing objects, yelling, screaming, being verbally abusive, or other tumultuous conduct, blocking or intimidating, or maintaining an intimidating presence within twenty-five feet of a petition signer or signature gatherer. Initiative or referendum petition signing and signature gathering would be legally protected on public sidewalks and walkways and all sidewalks and walkways that carry pedestrians, including those in front of entrances and exits to stores, and inside or outside public buildings.

So, let’s see now. First, if you’re circulating petitions, it’s likely you’re going to be doing so in multiple places at multiple times, particularly since the same Mr. Eyman who authored this measure pioneered the use of paid, professional signature-gatherers in Washington state. If you oppose a petition, it is likely that you will engage in counter-petitioning at multiple places and multiple times. As such, it’s likely the same counter-petitioner will end up opposing the same petitioner more than once, without any motive other than opposing the petition. But this would seem to qualify as “stalking” on the part of the counter-petitioner under I-517.

Second, there’s wording about the vague concept of “an intimidating presence within twenty-five feet,” without ever clearly defining what such a “presence” is. Is it completely in the mind of the petitioner? Does this give a hypersensitive petitioner the right to accuse any person encouraging passersby to not sign the petition of being “intimidating” if said counter-petitioner is within 25 feet?

Given that doing anything within 25 feet seems to become risky under such legislation, one would expect counter-petitioners to stay further away. If so, how on earth would one attract the attention of prospective signers without raising one’s voice? Which neatly falls into the “yelling” or “screaming” categories of prohibited conduct.

Or suppose a counter-petitioner starts out being nice and polite and mild-mannered, and is goaded into an escalating verbal battle by the petitioner (entirely possible, since counter-petitioners have no special protections under the law, only petitioners). Then once the counter-petitioner responds to an insult or a raised voice with a raised voice of his own, bam! guilty of “yelling”.

In short, I-517 would appear to be attempting to criminalize pretty much any sort of counter-petitioning whatsoever. It is simply an attempt to infringe on the freedom of speech of those who wish to oppose the signing of a petition.

Note that actually assaulting or threatening petition gatherers is already illegal under the same laws which make such conduct illegal generally. So it’s not as if a NO vote here is for legalizing actual attacks against anyone.

Make that a 100% chance of earning my NO vote.

Are HSA’s a Capitalist Scam? I Think So.

Published at 10:28 on 13 October 2013

One of the propaganda pieces in favor of them, which alas I can’t seem to find on the web, shows someone in a grocery store where prices are not marked on anything yet where the clerk occasionally mentions things like “Oh, that’s sure an expensive item.”

The customer asks to see the prices, and is condescendingly scolded “Oh, that’s called ‘shopping’ [complete with air quotes]. We don’t do that here.”

It’s a profoundly dishonest statement of the problem, because the setting implies the unstated premise that the prices being charged are as simple, straightforward, and easily comprehensible as they are in a grocery store. When it comes to health care, nothing could be further from the truth.

One of the biggest sources of waste in the US Medical-Industrial Complex is how both providers and insurers employ vast armies of paper pushers. Providers employ them to come up with new ways of billing and charging insurers. Insurers employ them to come up with new ways for disputing and refusing charges.

Neither side’s paper-pushers contribute one iota towards providing actual health care, yet of course they must be paid wages and benefits. It’s the main reason why the USA both spends more per capita on health care than any nation, yet covers a smaller fraction of its citizens than any other developed nation.

It may be wasteful, but at least the battle of the paper-pushers the status quo represents is a fair fight. But with the new high-deductible plans, I am now expected, mostly on my own, to match my wits against an army of creative billers with centuries of collective experience in coming up with ways for separating payers from their cash.

Can you say “unfair match?” But, hey, what would the insurance industry care? They are not going to be the ones conned into paying more. In fact, quite the contrary: providers will naturally focus most of their energies on creatively billing consumers who haven’t yet reached their deductibles. Con artists always go after the easiest marks, after all.

So insurers get to both outsource a good chunk of their labor and they make the remaining billing disputes they don’t outsource easier for themselves. Such a deal. For them, that is.

Congressional Hypocrisy

Published at 09:02 on 13 October 2013

Shut down the government, but proclaim perks like your gym and your catered meals to be “essential” and don’t shut them down. Because obviously, the services you as a Congress critter use daily must by definition be more important than those used by the mere peasants.

Really, every support employee used by Congress should be furloughed. That means the secretaries and the janitors as well as the chefs and personal trainers at the gym. Everyone but the Capitol police — and I’m being overly generous there. But I figured I’d make my proposal truly modest, just to underscore how deep the hypocrisy of the ruling elite runs.

Let their phones go unanswered. Let their bathrooms get dirty until the Congresscritters themselves have to open up the janitor’s closet and start having to unclog and clean their own toilets.

You want to shut down “non-essential” public services? Fine. Complementary gym memberships, free catered meals, personal secretaries, and maid service are not “essential”. Most of the USA gets by just fine without any of those services, in fact.

Capitalist Health Care Always Sucks. Always.

Published at 14:59 on 11 October 2013

So, there’s this new option available where I work called a “Health Savings Account”. The one offered by my employer is actually a very generous plan. And it sucks less abjectly than the ironically named “flexible” accounts, which you have to use within a calendar year or lose, forever.

But, there’s still a whopper of a catch. In this case, it’s called “You must save your receipts. Every last one. For seven long years.”

Good heavens, I can’t even keep one week’s worth of notes on a project straight. I could not fathom what would be required to care for hundreds or thousands of slips of paper for seven long years.

And note that these aren’t pieces of letter-sized paper one gets delivered by mail; they are randomly-sized small slips that get handed to you at the pharmacy or the clinic, ones that you must not, ever, leave in your pockets when doing the laundry. You must not let one fall out of your wallet unnoticed, ever. You must not forget and leave one on the sales counter. You must not toss one in a sidewalk waste-basket by mistake. You must not leave it in the bag then toss the bag in the recycle bin. Ever. Or woe unto you if you are audited.

Obviously, there’s people in the world who are intrinsically organized. My parents, for one. When they work on a big project, every item on the desk is at a neat 90-degree angle with respect to the other items and in order, always. It’s just the way they’re wired.

It’s also just not the way I am wired. Even if I make conscious effort to organize my things during a project, within a minute or two after said effort is ended, a significant degree of chaos and disorder will have emerged. It doesn’t bug me; in fact, I never even try to achieve strict desktop order anymore. It’s just not the way I work.

Sure, there needs to be greater cost control in the medical establishment, but I’d much rather get it like, say, the Canadians do, by having a Medicare card that I can just use, with other people (you know, the intrinsically organized types) being paid to professionally do all the receipt-tallying minutia that I am personally so ill-suited to do.

And I don’t think I am the only one. Really, now, saving every last medical receipt? For seven years? This is someone’s idea of “reform?” Seriously?

Pleasant Surprise of the Week: Fountain Pens

Published at 19:30 on 7 October 2013

Oh, sure, you can spends hundreds (or even more!) on a literally gold-plated Montblanc or Waterman. That’s no secret. But I’m not into status symbols, and I’m simply too thrifty to consider blowing that kind of money on a mere pen.

The pleasant surprise is that they still make reasonably-priced ones intended to be used for routine writing instead of as snob-appeal devices.

Years ago, I bought an inexpensive Sheaffer cartridge pen in college. I had always been intrigued by the bits of older writing I had run across; the letters weren’t pressed into the paper as with a ballpoint pen. The imperfections were different, too. Ballpoint writing is marred by tiny little semicircular skip marks where the pen fails to deliver ink. The old fountain pen writing had its imperfections in the form of ink density that varied gradually instead of abruptly (darker at the end of each stroke where the ink had pooled more). It looked more appealing to me.

I soon discovered that the fountain pen tended to tire me much less, because I didn’t have to press it into the page to write. It became a favorite of mine, despite it having a tendency to come uncapped in my pack and sometimes make inky messes.

After college, I lost it, and because I was no longer a student who spent many hours per week writing, didn’t miss it. Until fairly recently, that is, whenever I would happen across some sample of my writing from my college days.

I was in the neighborhood for a dentist’s appointment, so on a whim I decided to check to see if the University Book Store (which has one of the best school and office supplies departments in Seattle) would have any such thing as an inexpensive fountain pen.

I was pleasantly surprised to find that while Sheaffer is basically defunct, in Europe many countries require students to learn how to write with a fountain pen as part of the public school curriculum, and as a result there’s still very much a market for inexpensive fountain pens in Europe. So I came home with a shockingly lime green and modern-looking Pelikan Pelikano.

P1050777wBest of all, despite its modest price, it’s made in Germany and exhibits the typical German quality control; it writes much better than I remember that old cheap Sheaffer ever writing.