Category Archives: Jay’s Notebook

Broadcast Memories: Das Eurosignal

My first radio in the late around 1980 was a Palladium Mono Tape recorder with 4 band radio. It had a big dial on the right, a display with a moving stick, and four buttons to select FM, AM, Shortwave and Longwave bands. Even with its many limitations I loved this thing!

The FM band was always the strongest. We used to call it UKW in Germany, as in Ultra Kurzwelle (very short wave), a much more accurate description of this band. FM sounds much cooler and more “American”, but it really means Frequency Modulation which is mainly what this band is used for today, rather than describing the band itself. Anyway…

As I explored the FM band I inevitably came across two things that are difficult to forget for a young child: East German Number Stations, the monotonous voice of a woman reading strings of numbers, and something rather undecipherable like polyphonic tones (see video above).

The latter was on 24/7 at the upper end of the spectrum, at around 87 MHz. Mysterious, yet everpresent. Creepy. Much like Eastern Germany.

I never found out what this thing was – until today while browsing through a German Wikipedia article about the UKW Rundfunk (or FM Broadcasting in English). The article mentions something called the Eurosignal, and it turns out that this polyphonic shite in the eighties was indeed that very signal. Totally legit after all – who would have known! I always assumed it was in some way connected with the number stations or the Stasi!

 

So what’s the Eurosignal?

First of all it’s a thing of the past. It was switched off in 1998 and only ever existed in Germany, France and Switzerland. Other countries were thinking of using it, but it took them several decades to decide – by which time there were better technologies out there.

The idea was this: you paid a monthly fee for the precursor of “beeper”, and if someone wanted to reach you, you could leave your number with the Eurosignal service. But because it used the FM band, it needed a rather long antenna to receive things – so it wasn’t something you’d clip onto your belt.

Your device would constantly listen to a given frequency, and if it finds a message for you, it would display it. When I say message I mean a 10-digit string of numbers, nothing fancy or descriptive. Those could be either phone numbers that you would call back, or pre-defined codes between two parties (for example, 23 could mean”put dinner on”, or 37 could mean “assassinate El Presidente at 23:00″, that sort of thing).

According to the radio broadcast below, in its heyday the device itself was DM 1000 (about £300), and the monthly fee to use the service was DM 25 (about £7.50).

This Eurosignal was used way before other beeper systems and mobile phones as we know them today. Germany were the first to introduce it in 1975, France came in a year later, and Switzerland sometime in the eighties. Even by the mid nineties the German company EuFuRD who operated it had 90.000 subscribers.

Many other beeper services were introduced in the early nineties in Germany (Scall, TeLMI, Quix), all of which seized operations when mobile phones took over  less than 10 years later. By 2002 those were all gone.

 

I personally skipped the hole beeper thing and went straight to a Nokia 2110 sometime in 1996/1997. In fact, I probably abandoned personal one-way radio communications a few years earlier when I realized that listening to adverts and commercial ntss-ntss wasn’t really a pastime I could enjoy without brain pain.

Not until today, in December 2014 I’m beginning to develop a healthy interest in the radio spectrum again (read: obsession). I’m fascinated by being able to receive something without the internet being involved, like back in the good old days. My latest gadget, the Tecsun PL-880 has arrived – a world band radio. It’s wonderful! I had no idea shortwave and AM broadcasts could sound THAT good! The PL-660 is on its way already, bringing the total radio count in our household up to 4.

Too many radios you say? Well I see it this way: shortwave transmissions are getting fewer and fewer. Numbers stations used to be so common, but they’re being phased out. Technology is moving forward, and some may argue that analogue is so retro it no longer has a place in our high-tech world. There were talks to switch off all analogue radio services on the FM band in Germany since 2000 and replace it with DAB – unsuccessfully mind you, but sooner rather than later we won’t be able to listen to analogue stuff on the airwaves anymore. It’s already happened to television, and undoubtedly radio will be next.

And until then, I’d like to play with it for as long as I can.

Discovering the NOAA Weather Radio Service

304px-Noaa_all_hazards.svgWe have something here in the US that most Europeans don’t know about: a nationwide weather radio service called NOAA Weather Radio. The service is broadcasting 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and it has been around since 1953.

Transmitting from over 1000 towers across the US, they have 7 frequencies just above the FM band. Those can only be received with special radios. I was very excited to find out about it!

We recently bought such a radio because we live in a hurricane prone area – and because I’ve always liked broadcast technology.

Canada have a similar system called Weatheradio Canada which uses the same frequencies to broadcast and the same devices work with both services.

 

NOAA’s National Weather Service

The NOAA Weather Radio sounds a bit like a numbers station, probably because it uses computer generated voices instead of “real people” – which I understand was the case many years ago. By using computer speech the service can be highly targeted to very small areas.

Here in Miami Beach I can hear three towers, and even a fourth one at night:

  • KHB43 on 162.550 MHz (for Miami and Fort Lauderdale)
  • WNG663 on 162.425 MHz (for South Florida and the Upper Keys)
  • WZ2531 on 162.500 MHZ (Hialieah, in Spanish)
  • WWG60 on 162.425 MHz (for the Florida Keys, I can only hear it at night)

The service gives detailed weather forecasts and descriptions, including tide times and what the waters around us are like (such as “bay water is a moderate chop”). It’s all quite pleasing to listen to, and very educative.

We have three voices here: Tom reads the main bulk, and he sounds a bit like the “classic British Siri” voice, or the voice from the Kindle Keyboard. Then there’s Donna, his female equivalent, who reads sunrise and sunset information as well as tides and maritime things.

Before these two were introduced, the first electronic voice was called Tom – but most audiences didn’t like him from what I understand. Rather than ditch him completely, he’s used to read the Station ID every 10 minutes (like “This is the voice of the NOAA Weather Radio, station XXYZZ, broadcasting on a frequency of xyz”).

Showbiz is tough! I personally enjoy all three voices they have, but from what I read other counties have different voices (mainly pitch variations of the existing ones), or hold votes as to which voice the audience prefers – which then gets to read them.

 

Emergency Broadcasts

Weather and maritime news aside, the service may also broadcast other warnings from time to time, such as national security emergencies, natural, environmental and public safety announcements.

NOAA Weather Radios have an option that leaves the device in standby mode, and if something drastic happens a special 1050 Hz tone is broadcast for 10 seconds, at which point such devices kick in and switch themselves on. Allegedly there are tests once a week but sadly I’ve not managed to get one of those transmissions yet.

Some devices can even tune into a subset of the area served by a frequency so that a very narrow part of the country can be alerted. This is done using something called SAME Technology (stands for Specific Area Message Encoding). Fascinating stuff!

 

So which radio did you get?

You can’t pick up the weather band with standard radios, so we needed a special one. This seemed a great idea anyway because we neither read the papers or watch TV – so if anything drastic is happening in the world we’re probably the very last people on earth to find out (we sleep extremely well at night by the way).

Julia did some research and decided to buy the excellent Ambient Weather WR-335 with Solar Bag, also known as the Adventurer 2. It’s exactly what I would have picked too. Not only does it get the weather band, it also has an FM, AM and Shortwave Tuner and so many charging options that even in the biggest time of crisis this thing isn’t going to run out of juice:

  • rechargeable Li-ion battery, replaceable
  • charges via micro USB from anywhere
  • comes with a standard mains charger
  • built-in mini solar panel for self-charging in sunlight
  • larger solar panel bag for full charging
  • also takes optional AAA batterie
  • a then there’s a hand crank if everything else fails

IMG_2568

The device can even charge other devices like mobiles and tablets. It’s very rugged and comes in a rubber casing – it even has a flashlight and a siren to attract attention. In a nutshell: your best friend if the rest of your neighbourhood lies in ruins and batteries count as currency – which could happen at any moment.

Check out Julia’s very detailed review of the Adventurer 2 here – it’s on a temporary URL (I’m testing a new server on that domain).

I can’t get enough of the soothing voices from the NOAA Weather Radio. I also enjoy discovering what’s happening on the local FM and AM bands, as well as the mysteries of the Shortwave Band.

In fact it’s so addictive that I’ve ordered two other radios specifically for Shortwave Adventures – but I’ll tell you more about those another time.

 

But I haven’t got a weather radio…

There are several online streams of many stations available here. These are not provided by NOAA and instead rely on some dude plugging his radio into a computer. I hear that some local broadcasters carry local NOAA audio when they’re not on air.

Someone even made an iPhone App that allows you to listen on the go (it wasn’t me).

Turning my iOS Dev Diary into a Membership Site

iOS-Podcast-Icon-2014I find it extremely important to document the things I learn on my coding journey. It has saved my (coding) life many times before. I do such documentations in form of websites which allows me to refer to my notes from any device in the world.

One of those sites is my iOS Dev Diary.

It’s on a spare domain I had lying around that wasn’t doing anything, and when I started adding notes to to the site in 2011 I hadn’t intended it to be a public facing project: I would usually add links to my other sites, add social widgets and make sure the site looks nice so that it makes for a pleasant reading experience.

I dispensed with all that for my iOS notes. I didn’t event pay attention to the traffic it was getting – because seriously: who would read scattered notes and ultra geeky code snippets without a context?

Turns out I was in for a surprise.

The site really isn't anything special to look at - but it's functional, human readable, and people seem to like it.
The site really isn’t anything special to look at – but it’s functional, human readable, and people seem to like it.

One day I tried some CSS tweaks and installed Jetpack so that I could easily apply additional CSS styles without the need for a Child Theme. Jetpack also counts the daily visitor traffic which was about 20 users per day when I installed it in March 2013, not including my own visits.

You can imagine my surprise when I saw that the traffic was steadily increasing to a point that impacted the server the site was hosted on. Today I’m getting nearly 700 hits per day on that site (!), a little less less at weekends, accounting for a whopping 15k visitors per month.

Stats at the end of March 2014

 

Luckily I’m in charge of the server that’s hosting my iOS Dev Diary, so I could use it as a test case for high traffic, and to see how different servers would cope with the load: I tried moving the site to a small Amazon AWS instance running Plesk on CentOS – which promptly crumbled under the load. I increased the power of that instance gradually and found that only a C3 Extra Large instance would hold out – not really an option considering its $300 per month price tag.

Other dedicated servers are more cost efficient, and currently the site is hosted on a dedicated machine at Strato which copes very well. The test provided me with valuable insights on many levels, but at the same time it poses a problem: I still need a place for my notes, and I’m happy for others to use them too. But without locking the site down to “private” I’m still stuck with a lot of traffic and therefore quite a bit of hungry infrastructure overhead.

Unless I find a way to subsidise the cost – which leads me to another exciting adventure: turning my iOS Dev Diary into a paid Membership Site.

Thanks to a couple of WordPress plugins I can partially protect content and ask visitors to join the site for a small fee.

Access is granted instantly after the system processes the payment. The membership protection is live since the beginning of the month and meant quite a bit of work and restructuring for Julia and me. Let me tell you more about the project.

Continue reading Turning my iOS Dev Diary into a Membership Site

Play From Your F***ing Heart

Screen Shot 2014-04-25 at 15.58.44I’ve finished a new website last week for my friend Jerry Hyde. We go back at least 15 years, and I’m excited to tell you that Jerry has written a new book that will be released on July 25th.

I’m not swearing when I tell you it’s title: Play From Your Fucking Heart.

It’s a self-help book with a spin: the author acknowledges that there is no “new wisdom” to be told – instead every piece of philosophy is recycled and indeed old news.

Jerry doesn’t say that this makes it invalid or untrue – quite the opposite: fact is that we as readers already know all these wisdoms, and merely recognise them as significant when we see them presented in yet another package.

It’s Genius! You can find out more about the book here – and don’t forget to put your pre-order in on Amazon!

 

The Website

I’m extremely pleased to have been involved with this project, and I’m very happy with the way it turned out. It makes such a difference when you work on something that you believe in – something I have the luxury to do exclusively these days. Let’s face it: it’s the number one reason that I live where I live today.

Naturally the site is build on WordPress and went live just as version 3.9 came out.

Jerry wanted something “dark” and likes unusual designs. Because the calendar says it’s 2014 we also needed a template that looks equally nice on a phone, a tablet and a laptop. After looking through several options I showed him AppifyWP Single – a theme that’s meant to be used as an App Website.

Not many changes were necessary, however I do make it a habit of creating child themes for my projects in case the original codebase ever gets updated.

Screen Shot 2014-04-25 at 16.11.33

The few things I did change were references to the fact that we’re selling an app: Jerry didn’t want like his book cover hovering on an iPhone so I’ve replaced it with a grubby old book cover – courtesy of Graphicstock.com. I also removed the “Download on the App Store” logo and replaced it with the release date.

One thing I did not want to change about the theme was its App Icon – but because books don’t have App Icons I had a look at the cover image and got creative with the blanked out swearing bit. In case we ever write an App with “Jerry’s Wisdoms” we’re covered already. Imagine a Magic Eight-Ball type app.

 

Site Functionality

The theme is special in that all “tabs” on the left are WordPress pages, but all of them are presented as one long block of text, and each tab is merely an anchor point to a new position. It’s like a bookmark system – thanks to the ingenuity of its designer Cory Show who developed AppifyWP.

Therefore the order of those tabs was important – the pages need to flow, like the book itself: we start with a quick introduction, tell you about the author, give you endorsements, the foreword and a reading sample. The reader doesn’t need to know the techie bits in the background, but s/he can certainly tell when they’re not right.

We also invite readers to have a look at Jerry’s other projects, like his website as well as his previous two books (and where to buy them). While scrolling through all this content, both the menu bar with navigational tabs and the sidebar with Social widgets sticks in one place so there’s always something new to discover.

Jerry also writes a monthly column for Seymour Magazine – so it’s easy to pull in his feed via the wonderful FeedWordPress plugin by “RadGeek” Charles Johnson: every time a new article in Jerry’s category is published by on Seymour Magazine, we syndicate it with teaser content and link back to it on the originating site. Automagically.

Screen Shot 2014-04-25 at 16.49.29

Key Biscayne by Bike

key-biscayne-mapA couple of weeks ago we went on a 32mile (52km) round trip from Miami Beach to Key Biscayne. This whole area is ideal for cycling due to its flatness and reminds me of the North Germany or Holland: no hills, only the occasional bridge to climb.

If you go by boat it’s only 5 miles tops, but due to the man-made island setup we have here you can’t always go in one straight line.

The way to Key Biscayne has a lot of sights to offer and only mild to medium traffic along the way. Incidentally this is where “Tennis from Miami” comes from: Crandon Park is located there, and at the very south tip at Mile Marker Zero is Bill Bagg’s Cape Florida State Park. It’s so quiet there it almost hurts your ears!

Continue reading Key Biscayne by Bike

Projects for 2014 and how they fit together

Social-Compilation

I’ve decided to re-think my approach the Social Networking Scene for 2014. With too many profiles and too many projects, streamlining is the magic word that springs to mind.

And so I won’t forget my reasons 4 weeks from now I thought I’d share with you how I’m doing it.

Current Projects

I’m so glad that every of my idea strands has a different and dedicated website. I’m into very many things, but they don’t really mix or cross over very well. For example, iOS Development doesn’t go together with tips and tricks on WordPress and how to host websites.

Likewise, my sketches have no place in all this techie talk. And my photos don’t mix with creative app reviews either. And how about my company site that keeps track of all my iOS Apps?

Let’s examine where we are right now (2013/2014) and what is posted where:

  • pinkstone.co.uk – my personal iOS Dev Diary, contains code snippets and really complicated stuff. It’s for developers and code junkies.
  • pinkstonepictures.com – all about our iOS Apps and customer support. It’s for humans rather than code brains.
  • wpguru.co.uk – my WordPress Dev Diary, including my own Theme and Plugin releases, a place for support with those, as well as related things such as Plesk, Linux, MySQL, etc. Fairly techie, but less code focussed than my iOS Dev Diary.
  • wphosting.tv – dedicated site for my web hosting customers, specifically for sales and support. If someone wants to buy a website, I no longer send them to The WP Guru, I send them here.

That covers the left side of my brain. On top of that, and o balance it all out, I have several creative outlets too (for the right side of my brain I guess):

  • versluis.tumblr.com – sketches I draw on my various digital devices
  • flickr.com/versluis – pictures I take with anything from a Holga to a Polaroid, and various apps
  • Impossible Gallery – they have a user gallery where I post only Polaroid shots (they don’t have a proper user URL though)

How it’s all connected

How to use an iPhone on AT&T GoPhone – 2nd Edition

Since I travelled to the US last, AT&T have made some changes to the way you can use mobile data on your GoPhone plan. As of April 2012 you can no longer add data packages to the $2 per day plan. What a shame!

You’ll now have to go on a monthly plan to use data (which you can cancel anytime without commitment), everything else remains and works with my previous instructions.

AT&T still do not officially support the use of iPhone on GoPhone plans. The closet thing is a GoPhone Smartphone Plan which comes with a $65 per month commitment… a little harsh if all you need is to not get lost in a foreign country and then tweet about it.

Lucky for us there’s a much cheaper way to do this – so without further ado here’s a detailed “how to get your iPhone working” guide for all those who are spending a few weeks in the US and don’t want to pay £6 per 1MB roaming charges.

Continue reading How to use an iPhone on AT&T GoPhone – 2nd Edition

I’m doing NaNoWriMo 2012

There’s an annual National Story Writing Contest called NaNoWriMo. It happens every year in November and participants have exactly 30 days to write furiously to come up with a 50.000 word novel.

The idea is not to finish a masterpiece in this time, but rather to establish a daily routine in which the goal is to “do writing” rather than procrastinate, edit, try to perfect or think yourself out of a good idea. There are even local groups that come together and write in silence, but also to encourage each other to pull through to the magic 50k.

Many creatives have often remarked that there is no special spark that needs to happen for anything creative to happen, it’s rather about “sitting down and doing it” and not about “thinking about it”.

You know me, I’m up for a challenge – and it dawned on me that with such a cool writing tool as Storyist on my hands, plenty of forthcoming time ahead of me, and an amazing story to tell, NaNoWriMo is just what I need in the forthcoming twilight season I’d like to call Stateside.

Continue reading I’m doing NaNoWriMo 2012

Exciting Broadband Connection

Let me test something here real quick: speedtest.net

Yowser… that’s friggin fast dude!

We take speed for granted and that it’s getting faster and faster by the month. This here is the upload and download we’re getting at work in 2012 (and over the last few years). This isn’t even possible with my home “g” WiFi. In a few years we’ll laugh at this of course when our iPhone does 50x this speed and we’re still complaining that it’s not fast enough.

The other thing I wanted to test here are images captions: I’ve noticed with WordPress 3.4 most themes aren’t displaying them properly anymore due to a deliberate code change. We’re discussing this here.

Thankfully Thesis 1.8.5 has a patch that makes it all look smashing again. Thanks, Thesis ;-)