SBE36.ORG Ten Years Later

In July of 1997, Dave Biondi in Texas offered free webhosting for SBE chapters wanting to create a site. Having wanted to learn HTML and the various allied technologies, I went for it. Netscape’s browser came with a decent HTML editor, so with a Sams book in my lap, I created the first chapter web page. We registered an independent website a couple of years later, still using the Texan.net servers. That first web page still exists, though the logo has been updated and the site is now hosted in San Diego at Aplus.net.

The idea of informing the San Diego broadcast engineer about the SBE chapter and local industry news seemed obvious. At that time, Ron Foo and John Barcroft at KGB were working hard publishing the monthly SBE chapter print newsletter. I wanted more local content and eventually to help relieve them of some of the laborious processes of composing, copying, folding, stapling, stamping, and addressing. Some chapters, like Portland, do such a consistently good job of covering local events that it just seemed possible to do that here. And the intended audience was supposedly wired, so wouldn’t it also be possible to set-up web and e-mail distribution?

In 1997, I had a brand new screaming 160 MHz Macintosh Performa 6360 and quickly bought the BBEdit text editor and some cheap graphics software. With some Apple Quicktime macro programming, I could create a webpage from plain text paragraphs in seconds. I created web banner ads for our sponsors and at one time had 24 in circulation, some artistically pleasant, others not so much.

The only problem with this technique is that it creates static web pages. If your design later changes or you get new sponsors and need different banners to rotate, you have to re-render the HTML. I looked around for a more dynamic web page publishing technique, but I couldn’t find anything well enough documented that I could learn it in what little spare time I had. I did learn and implement Cascading Style Sheets, or CSS, which is a cool way to write a central design structure with a single text document.

In 2001, when I gave the job a rest for a year, webmaster Tim Toole won the SBE Chapter Website of the Year award.

In 2004, I created a potentially commercial site called Benx.us (Broadcast Engineers’ News & eXchange), but it really demanded collaboration and everyone else had their own gig going and didn’t want to combine efforts. Hackers seemed to enjoy exploiting the PHP forum vulnerabilities so that I had to reload the site daily for a while. With respect to the forum, people had different interpretations about freedom of speech. I took it down after a few months.

In 2005, I discovered the underworld of open source content management systems (CMS). These systems, depending on the increasingly popular open source PHP web task language and SQL database, automate all the dynamic web pages. All you have to do is customize a template and install the desired working modules. If you are seeing this in the summer of 2007, you are looking at the Mambo CMS with a customized JW Tribute template. Look at this site for a peek at what it looks like elsewhere.

I haven’t seen much discussion about this, but that pile of code makes the site seem vulnerable. First, many of the modules they distribute don’t work. That’s probably due to the classic mistake that amateur programmers make in writing for their particular circumstance and not to the greater design framework. Often they just lose interest while chasing all the bugs. We tried to use Mambo for an intranet at work, but customizing it got us into a mire of spaghetti code that we didn’t have the time to devote to–time is money. All that PHP code and that one, big, increasingly vulnerable database make me quite afraid that one day the site will be broken and I won’t be able to reconstruct it. Yes, I back it up, but what happens when the host updates PHP and MySQL and some of the code stops working? Meanwhile, the webpages from before 2005 just sit there as little text files, ready for viewing–simple, like an old car.

So for SBE36 version 3, I’m looking for a simple implementation of PHP and CSS, from which I can make a site from a structure of stored HTML insert text files. Sort of like the original site, but with dynamic style, banners, and menus.

Ideally, there should be one SBE supersite with virtual chapter sites built-in. You contribute articles and checkoff boxes as to where they should be read. But that’s not in the spirit of the ever independent web.

Why do all this work?

I thought about this question and at first came up with noble answers about informed citizens in a democracy and all that, but it’s more primal, really. Writers are simply compelled to tell the stories of their time. You ask Bob Gonsett of Fallbrook, Clay Freinwald of Seattle or Kent Randles of Portland and I suspect they would have to admit the same thing–that telling you about what is going on is something that just has to be done and we’re just going to do it.

Not that my work is as consistent or as high quality as theirs. In fact, it’s simply a product of the time and interest I have to devote to the task–no more, no less.

I try to use a couple of principles to guide me. One is to confirm information. Another is to give others a voice–especially if they disagree. Another is to try to do unto others as you would have them do unto you. It’s a small community. We all make mistakes.

So we do it because we like to inform, because we like to read our own taut script, and because once in a while someone says, “I read that article you wrote and really (liked it) (learned something) (it made me think) (laughed).”

Thank you just for reading.

June 2007 Meeting – Reconsidering the Flywheel UPS

Mike Lasky of Pentadyne Power gave a presentation on the newest generation of flywheel UPS at our June 2007 meeting at TV Magic. We learned that due to the carbon fiber construction and vacuum bearings, the flywheel is especially quiet and maintenance-free. While the initial cost is higher than conventional battery systems, with most systems there should be a payback upon the first battery change.

A quick election was held by attending members. David Poddig of SDSU Media Services now fills the position of Vice Chair, otherwise all officers remain in their positions. Eric Schecter of Lincoln Financial Media continues as Chapter Chair, Stephen Frick of XETV as Secretary-Treasurer, and Gary Stigall of XETV as Program Chair and Webmaster.

Three attendees walked away with door prizes. Steve Sagady of TV Magic won the Sangean HD-T tabletop HD radio, Eric Schecter won a soft cooler from Microwave Radio Corp., and Leon Messenie of KPBS won a Studer T-shirt. More prizes next month.

FCC Issues Forfeiture Order to San Diego 96.9 Pirate

The FCC issued a Forfeiture Order in the case of the Free Radio San Diego FM pirate on 96.9 MHz from the South Park area of San Diego east of Balboa Park. Donald Payne, registered as the owner of the property at 1937 33rd Street near Grape Street, was ordered to pay the FCC $750. His fine was reduced from $10,000 after he filed income documents that demonstrated to the Bureau that he couldn’t afford the higher fine. The latest document indicate that FCC inspectors had been monitoring the illegal station from April to December of 2006. Payne was issued a Notice of Apparent Liability in late December of 2006. He told the FCC that he did not operate the station but the FCC holds him responsible as the property owner.

We interviewed the pirate broadcaster known as “Bob Ugly” two years ago. Free Radio San Diegoclaims they are currently off-the-air, webcasting only.

A Better TV Reception Predictor

Antennaweb.com revolutionized the concept of predicting TV reception for a new generation of enthusiasts installing over-the-air antennas. It graded reception by color and gave recommendations, if flawed, about what kind of antenna to put up. When they went conservative with the results, those who had put real work into their systems found the predictions only listed a fraction of the stations they could get.

For those who want a little more science, there’s a new kid in town. Try out TVFool.com and for the address you enter, you will get a chart of precisely calculated reception parameters. I especially like the listing of antenna heights needed for line-of-sight (LOS) and -100 dBm thresholds. You also get a marker for all those nasty co-channel allocations we have in SoCal now.

It turns out that for my home just east of La Jolla, predictions come pretty close, though I’m guessing that some transmission antennas outperform predicted levels because of what I see on my flat response receive antenna. For example, I consistently receive KCBS-DT (real channel 60) better than some locals and better than even consistent KTLA-DT 31 on my recently rebuilt Create log-periodic. In reality, there are numerous factors that I haven’t bothered to measure scientifically, but the empirical results match closely enough those of TVFool.

Making Waves: RIP Gateway Electronics

Those of us who love to homebrew and tinker have lost a friend when Gateway Electronics in San Diego closed their doors in late April. The store sold a couple of years ago, but Manny and Fong couldn’t keep the cash flow positive, and a new lessee was to take over.

Here’s why I think Gateway closed:

  • People don’t have the time to tinker;
  • The integration of electronics has become so cheap and large-scale that small-scale projects don’t have much value;
  • Specialized small electronics items can now be found online;
  • The internet has made it possible to repurpose surplus gear through auction and direct sale sites without using retail outlets; and
  • Because of all of the above, retailers additional cash streams through either technical services, web sales, or local sales of higher traffic computer gear.

My favorite Gateway find was when, while looking at their selection of LEDs at the front glass counter shelves I saw in my peripheral vision a small container of tiny mechanical clocks. These are the kind of sealed, elapsed time counters they put on very expensive equipment that allowed you to log and time maintenance. This was in the mid-1990s when KFMB-TV had in service four Philips LDK-6 Plumbicon studio cameras that made great pictures. But their camera head timers had a habit of making a terrible noise when they presumably wore out their internal gears or just lost their lubrication. Philips charged $400 each for the neat-looking devices the size of your thumb. As far as I know, the LDK-6 may have been the only product they made that used this special 400Hz clock, and they had to manage their inventory and pay tax, year after year. Having worked in manufacturing, I understand parts costs. But here they were at Gateway, small, matte black, 400Hz, 100,000 hour elapsed time counters, $5 each. I bought four and we installed at least two of them over time.

I also liked their supplies of cheap LEDs, connectors, stainless hardware, and a great line of prototype circuit boards. They also stocked all kinds of transformers, switches, basic kits, and computer cables. Some items, like used switches and some really old test gear, you might not want to take home for fear of creating more of an expediture of time and energy than a savings that good engineering practices would dictate.

Gateway wasn’t the only surplus electronics supply store in the region, but they were the only one in Kearny Mesa within a short drive from most broadcast outlets. Industrial Liquidators doesn’t really count–they’re useful for some tools and pneumatic supplies, but have very little electronics stock. Murphy’s and California Surplus continue to operate from the same neighborhood of Johnson Avenue in El Cajon, and I’ll be the first to say that they do a good job of keeping their shelves tidy enough to make hardware relatively easy to find. If you ever have to replace or install a new one of those mil-spec MS “Amphenol” connectors, Cal. Surplus has a huge barrel of them that has saved me from the misery of waiting 8-10 weeks for a new one. Willy’s Electronics in National City still stocks some hobbyist electronics supplies, but its all new stuff and you pay full retail price. There’s the monthly Santee Swap Meet, but with the internet and declining electronics hobby, it’s become more of a big garage sale. I visit once a year for a load of tools, hi-fi cables, and fresh avocados.

The king, the acme, nay, the apex of surplus electronics is Apex Electronics in Sun Valley in the heart of the San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles. I happened by there once when, during a visit to my mother-in-law’s, I took a side trip. With an acre or so of indoor shelves that must be 20 feet high and an outdoor lot of surely another couple of acres, this place is big. Good luck in an earthquake, pal. Take the virtual tour on their website. Microwave gear for pennies on the dollar, though that was before the price of copper went through the roof. If they don’t have what you want, then you should reconsider your design.

Epilogue

When Manny and Fong closed the Gateway doors, they handed out little pieces of paper with contact information and a promise of opening a new store. I tried to call and write to ask a few questions, but have yet to receive a reply.

What are your experiences with surplus buying? Are there other Southern California stores you know about? Tell us about it.

Society of Broadcast Engineers, San Diego