Friday, 21 February 2020

700! A DX'er Exults

As regular readers of this column may be aware, I have been DX'ing since 1975; or, for 45 years. I've been doing it in the Ottawa area for the past 34.

As you also may know, DX'ing is the attempt to receive radio stations over long distances. In my case, I chose to focus on AM radio.

As of this morning, I have now logged 700 stations, from this area.

Putting it into perspective: there are approximately 120 AM frequencies available. This means that I've received, on average, seven stations for every frequency.

I consider a 'distinct station' to be one that is identifiable by its frequency, callsign, and location. On the rare occasion that a station changes its callsign or frequency, then when I hear it again, I'll record it as a new station. If a station changes location, I generally ignore it, unless they switch transmitting locations (very rare, indeed).

Over the years, there have been many changes in the hobby. Audibly, in some cases; Canadian AM stations are largely switching to FM, and as a consequence French is disappearing from the band. At the same time, Spanish is increasingly heard from US stations.

The old clear-channel frequencies are slowly filling up. There are stations in Texas, for example, which I haven't heard since the eighties. My average distance per station has been steadily dropping.

In the Nineties, the expanded AM band (1610-1700 KHz) opened up, and there were rash of loggings from low-powered travel information stations. Some of them were just jaw-dropping; an airport in Texas, for example, running at most 10 Watts, with a daytime reach of maybe a kilometre.

Over all of those years, my greatest catch remains Vatican Radio, on 1611 KHz, in the late-nineties.

Means of identification have also evolved. Whereas, in the past, identifying a station took place primarily with the aid of printed references, today we have the Internet. Vast numbers of stations can be heard in near-realtime, thanks to streaming; and numerous Internet-based references exist.

Now I can set my goals higher; 1,000 stations. Bah, that'll take a while.

-Bill

Wednesday, 29 January 2020

Business as Usual

Well, four months in, with our bright, shiny new LRT already falling apart, a few things are becoming clear:


  • The Rideau Transit Group has sold us a lemon;
  • The contractors for the Phase II extension of the north-south line had no idea what they were even proposing; yet they were accepted as the low bidder;
  • The City knew for months that raw sewage was leaking into Parliament Station, yet apparently did nothing;
  • The City and OC Transpo blew the transition. Totally blew it.

First off, the LRT keeps breaking down. Faulty switches; EZ-Jam Doors; overhead wires falling down; computer failures; "wheel flats" (which are what they sound like); and the list goes on. This week, they are running "S1" supplementary bus service parallel to the O Train lines, because they don't have sufficient trains available to handle the load. Word is that Rideau Transit Maintenance, the turkeys hired to maintain the system, have been overwhelmed by these wheel flats, which aren't supposed to happen in a modern rail system.

On top of it all, the system was originally planned for 15 two-car trains. But the most that the Powers that Be have been able to operate (occasionally) is 13. That means longer waits for a train (when it's actually working), and greater crowding in the death-trap stations kindly provided for us. (I'm serious: when there's trouble, it's so crowded that you can't move).

Second, the City's acceptance of the winning bid for the Phase II extension borders on the criminal. The 'winning' proposal (from TransitNext, which is exactly the same set of suspects as constructed the 'Confederation Line'--smart; I'd change my name, too, after pulling a stunt like that) was turned down flat by the evaluation committee. It was clear that it had been cobbled together by people who didn't know what they were doing; it frequently makes reference to a 'catenary power system,' when the Line 2 trains are diesel. All I can say is, we're again going to get exactly what we pay for. And, again and again, we reward shitty performance with follow-on work.

The issue of raw sewage leaking into Parliament Station is an odd one. People were reporting the smell in the area, long before the line opened--and for months thereafter. The City finally 'fessed up about four months in. No explanation for the lag. Shut up and grab a nonexistent strap.

To rehash from previous columns, the City and OC Transpo totally blew the transition to LRT. They began cutting down on bus routes even before the trains rolled; sold off the buses immediately, and gave drivers pink slips. Several weeks later, when they came to the realization that a workable LRT system for Ottawa was at least a year away, they desperately tried to beg, borrow or steal buses from other municipalities, and begged for laid-off drivers to come back. Because of union rules, which meant that you had to re-enter the workforce at the bottom of the totem pole, most of the drivers told them to go hang.

So now we're in a colossal mess, and any fix is still months away. Meanwhile, buses--already cut back drastically--are being lifted to ensure a ready fleet for breakdowns.

So far, the City has been withholding payments to RTM, to cover the additional costs. Clearly, this cannot continue, or RTM will go bankrupt--which will open a whole new can of worms.

Either way, I can see the whole thing collapsing into endless lawsuits which will drain the city coffers.

Sadly, this is the way we do things in Ottawa; in a stab-blindly sort of way, with all the chips stacked in favour of the contractor. And, again and again, we get screwed. And, again and again, we reward this usurious behaviour. From all of this emerges a pattern: that the Mayor and Council are largely in the pockets of developers, "builders," whatever you'd like to call them. Mind, this is nothing new; when I first arrived, 30-some years ago, people were already carping about that.

Finally, a prediction: there's going to be an 'incident' at one of our new LRT stations. People will try to stampede in confining quarters, and there will be a few deaths and numerous injuries. And only then will our City Mothers realize the risk they've been putting us all through. Sadly, they can't shut down the LRT system, to fix it properly, because they've long ago given up the equivalent bus capacity. The resulting lawsuits are going to be hideous; and our grandchildren will still be paying them off.

Here's another prediction: those British experts from JBA, called in to babysit RTM's maintenance efforts, are going to strive mightily for three months and then, in the face of ever-mounting failures, are going to wash their hands of the mess.

So far, my predictions have not been wrong. I've been calling it correctly since the first doomed contract was signed, decades ago.

So, whom do we have to thank for this mess?

Suspect #1: Mayor Jim Watson. He's staked his career on LRT. But as more details leak out about the Top Secret procurement process (which, public money being involved, should never have happened in the first place), it's clear that the whole thing stunk to high heaven. And, I'm sorry, but he's gambled with a huge chunk of our money--and lost. He's the guy trying to justify a price hike for transit--at a time when it's not even working; when it's in its worst state since transit began in Ottawa! He's gotta be losing friends in business, left and right, since his fancy new transit system is costing local employers hundreds of millions of dollars in lost productivity, since their employees cannot get in to work. Nobody's been mentioning that. Yet.

Suspect #2: OC Transpo Boss John Manconi. Here is a guy who never rides the bus--in charge of a transit system that is so bad, you generally have to leave at least an hour early to have any chance of getting where you're going on time. OC Transpo has gone from being held in some esteem, years ago, to a laughingstock--a joke. He made the decision to decimate the bus fleet when it was still badly needed. He's the head of an organization that doesn't know how to run a train, and has forgotten that buses still make up a major part of its fleet.  I don't know how else to say it: Manconi has been a total failure since Day One. Get rid of this guy!

Those are the two to focus on, at the moment. I promise my next column will be about something other than Ottawa's LRT.

In the meantime, here in Ottawa, it's Business as Usual.

Have a good one,

-Bill

Wednesday, 27 November 2019

Ottawa LRT: Everybody Off!

Good grief, enough, already!

Ottawa's Light Rail Transit has been a total disaster from the get-go. The list is monstrous:
- Train doors jam on a daily basis
- Switching hardware and computers fail regularly
- Stations are overcrowded
- Bad smells at some stations
- Slippery steps at others
- The system grinds to a halt at least once a day.

Sadly, this is going to end in tragedy.

What happens during an LRT shutdown?
When the LRT shuts down--an almost-daily occurrence in Ottawa right now, the trains arrive at their next stops and empty out. These spills crowds of hundreds of people, who then collide with crowds incoming. All rapidly flow outside, to the bus compound.

Now, OC Transpo have really mastered the 'R1' bus transition. That's when replacement buses cover the same basic route as the LRT. Within minutes, R1s are rolling.

But in the meantime, as more and more passengers arrive at the station, the bus compound fills to overflowing. People have no choice but to step out into the roadway in order to get somewhere.

The backlog quickly fills the station, as more and more incoming buses arrive and deposit passengers, in the minutes before the R1 buses are called upon.

Eventually, the whole thing becomes so crowded that you can't move. People spill onto random buses in an attempt to flee the crowds. Nearby bus stops become crowded with refugees.

The point that nobody seems to be making is that we're describing a death trap.

That's right. If I were a terrorist, or someone with something to prove, I'd strike Tunney's Pasture station during an LRT outage. People are absolutely trapped. And I'd bet you could get something going with a simple pocket lighter.

Before (hopefully) it comes to that, the City will have the presence of mind to stop the nonsense, now. The LRT is not working as advertised--not even close.  It's dangerous, and you are giving your riders no choice in the matter. Someone is going to be hurt--and the blame will lie solely at our City Mothers' feet.

Where is the RTG, Anyway?
Which brings us to another point. The Rideau Transit Group--the bunch of turkeys who designed and built the initial segment of the LRT--Phase One, as it's called--seem to be puckered up more tightly than a sphincter during a Mexican vacation. Various companies have come forward, claiming large amounts of monies owed. The City is getting nowhere in its complaints.

Need I remind you that these same turkeys, who have delivered a system that does not work; who seem to be out of money and out of answers, already have the nod for Phases Two and Three?

Clearly, something has to change--fast.

The City needs to shut down the LRT--right now. There should be no debate; it's a question of rider safety. As I understand it, RTG was to have delivered a system that worked. Therefore, shut it down, fix the problems with the hardware; have the manufacturer redesign the doors so that they are not so easily jammed; and fix the problems with the stations, most immediately the size of the bus compounds, so that there is no more dangerous overcrowding. Test it thoroughly next time--two weeks  of nonstop operation, with testers doing whatever they can to halt the ting. This must be done before any work can continue on Phases Two and Three. If that puts RTG behind schedule, well, that's their lookout.

But so far, that's not happening. The Mayor continues to attend photo-ops and promises 'relief buses'; only OC Transpo, in its hubris, had already sold off a huge fleet and as a result has to go begging. Well, too bad; buy 'em new, and charge 'em to the RTG.

This whole thing stinks to the core, and by the end of it you know that the Ottawa taxpayer will foot the bill.

It's well past time for for action. You're putting people into grave danger. Mister Mayor, I'm addressing you. Time to grow a pair, Yerhonner.

-Bill

Friday, 15 November 2019

DX'ing Revisited

Once again, I'm trying to get readers interested in DX'ing--trying to receive radio stations over long distances.

Equipment

At its base, DX'ing requires a radio of some sort. I tend to focus on AM radio, as do many others. In the United States, southern Canada, and across Europe, the nighttime dial comes alive with stations near and distant, and DX opportunities abound.

Your receiver should make it fairly easy to determine the frequency to which you are tuned. As such, digital receivers are best; but at night, it's usually possible to keep track from a reference station, as virtually every frequency has a station at night. Good-quality audio, and especially bass and treble  controls, as important.

The radio should be fairly directional, and have good adjacent-channel rejection. I.e.: tune away from a strong local station, and the noise associated with it should quickly disappear.

Other controls, such as sideband, BFO, or VFO tend to be of limited use in the AM band.

It helps to have a logbook or logsheets handy, so you can record your catches. You'll probably want to record the date and time; the frequency and callsign of the station; and any notes about its reception, the type of programming, network affiliation, etc.

When starting a DX session, either go to a strong local station first, to get your bearings, or just tune in to a frequency. If you hear a signal, try rotating your radio for strongest reception. Oftentimes you will hear more than one station, and often you can vary the rotation of the radio to favour one over the other.

Patience is a good watchword, here. Stations tend to fade in and out, and often exhibit fluttering of the signal.

Identifying a station can take some time. You'll find that, frustratingly, signals tend to fade out just when they're identifying. It happens enough that my partner has noticed it, also. Many stations air network programming and identify just once per hour--or even less.

The golden time for DX'ers is at the top of the hour, when stations tend to pause their programming, air some commercials and news bulletins, and often identify.

Every station is assigned a callsign, consisting of from three to five letters. What you'll hear depends upon your location:

Canada: CBxx, CFxx-CKxx
USA (West of the Mississippi): Kxxx
USA (East of the Mississippi): Wxxx
Mexico: XExxx
Cuba: CMxx

It helps to get into the habit of listening for four letters in a jumble of noise. Beware that what you hear may not be what has been uttered; check your station lists carefully.

There are other ways in which you can identify a station. Local advertisements often mention business names that can be Googled; or localities. Phone numbers are a great one.

The type of programming can be a help, too. Most radio resources carry notes about the type of programming. Sports, for example; or News/Talk. If you're hearing a sports event, network talk or religious programming, or music, chances are that you won't get an identification apart from at the top of the hour. Put a pin in that one, and come back to it.

The language can be an important indicator. If it's french, for example, then the station is probably in Quebec. Other languages can often help to narrow it down, with the assistance of your references.

As for resources, they are numerous. I know that the National Radio Club, in the United States, publishes an annual guide to stations in North America. I find myself, these days, turning more and more to MWList, a fantastic worldwide resource. It can be found at https://www.mwlist.org/ul_login.php.

From time to time, you'll want to mine the graveyard frequencies (1230, 1240, 1340, 1400, 1450 and 1490 in North America). They usually are just a jumble of hundreds of stations, churning furiously; but every now and then, one station will pop through just long enough to identify. Often you'll catch new stations in bunches.

If you do get into DX'ing, tracking your finds can become important. I have used a spreadsheet for the past twenty years. I'm now hard at work developing a program to automate it all; it's coming along and should be available for release near the end of this year.

The nice thing about DX'ing is that whether you've got five minutes, or two hours, you can just do it.

Happy DX'ing!

-Bill

Sunday, 3 November 2019

Bill's Rules for Adjusting to the Time Change:

Here it is. It takes me about one day to adapt to a time change. I've had plenty of practice: 110 times in my life. That should be enough for anybody.

Rule 1: Practice

Humans are creatures of habit, very easily trained. We want to go to sleep at the same hour every night; wake up at the same time in the morning. Well, I do it a bit differently.

Quite often, I'll head to bed a half-hour to an hour later than usual. But--and here is the catch--I'm up around the same time every morning (from 4:15 to 5:00). That leaves me a little tired. One of the first things I do upon getting up is to look at a clock. Whatever time the clock says it is, that's the time I accept. I do other things, too--vary my eating times, etc. It keeps the schedule fluid and makes you more adaptable to change. I'm up at about the same time on weekends, too; I love it.

It helps if you have a late-night hobby that can distract you. Me, I do DX'ing--listening for AM radio stations at great distances, at night. It's a low-energy hobby, but quite engaging; and, at least in this household, it's become a spectator sport; Tonia loves listening in as I ply the dial. She's begun making log entries for me (that's exciting). The benefit is that my logs are now human-readable. She's beginning to understand the vagaries of signal propagation and probably sharpening her hearing. It's a win-win.

Rule 2: Preparation

Whenever a time change is upon us, I stay up later. That means I'll be still a bit tired when I wake up. That makes it easier to make the change. Again, just accepting what the clock says is a big deal. Here, it's six o'clock in the morning. Yesterday, it would have been seven o'clock. Doesn't matter--the clock says it's six, and that's what I'm going by.

In my experience, there are two daily events that you should try to avoid in the first couple of days following a time change: sunrise and sunset. They are the major arbiters of your perception of time and can reset your circadian clock (your body's internal clock). Try to avoid looking outside from six to eight in the morning, and from four to six in the evening. Big help; take it from me.

Rule 3: Acceptance

I remember, back in my childhood, constantly translating the time during the day. I'd say, okay, it's ten o'clock now; but yesterday this would have been eleven o'clock. No wonder I'm hungry.

Now I say, hey, look, it's getting dark early, and I'm not hungry yet. Oh well.

Again, the most important thing you can do is to learn just to accept what the clock says. Do that, and you've half the battle won!

-Bill

Friday, 1 November 2019

Coming Unsprung

It's time for the twice-annual whine: "I can't handle this spring-forward/fall-back thing. Why can't they leave the clock alone?"

First of all, I can sympathize that time changes are difficult to master. I remember, as a child, how it took days before my internal systems would adjust. Nowadays? Well, after about thirty-five years of accepting the time on the clock, I'm pretty much immune. I get up when I get up, and whatever is the time on the clock, okay by me. Note: it's always early (before six).

What people don't seem to understand, or perhaps appreciate, are the benefits of daylight savings time. Ask yourself: would you rather have a summer where the rising sun was in your eyes at four in the morning; where the sun set, and the evening was over, at eight o'clock?

Daylight savings time was designed to take advantage of the shift in sunrise over the summer months; and in the summer, people rising at six in the morning often lamented the fact that the sun had been up a couple hours before them; why not shift an hour, and enjoy an extra hour of sun in the evening?

Then there are the economic arguments; by shifting people's hours to something a bit more in line with the sun, less lighting is used in a day; that all adds up.

I suppose, these days, people just don't really notice what's going on outside, anyway; dark or light, rain or shine or snow; it just doesn't matter to them. Getting dark? Just flick on the lights and get back to binge-watching Lucifer; and maybe throw on a sweater for the walk out to the garage.

Well, you may not like making the adjustment, but I'll bet you anything that you'll be less happy that it'll cost you, and considerably.

It'll cost you for an extra hour of lighting, every single evening from March to November; for extending your activities deeper into the 'evening.' Your schedule, if you're an outdoorist, will also grow more cramped, as you frantically try to pack an evening's worth of activities into the couple hours between dinner and sunset.

Time to stop and really think about what you're ready to give up, people!



Saturday, 12 October 2019

Light Rail in Ottawa: an Unmitigated Fail

Yes, you heard me.

Ottawa's light rail finally began rolling mid-September, after two years of delays for which the manufacturer was penalized... a whole million dollars (that's practically scot-free for a $3-billion project.)

One of the many stipulations that the City of Ottawa insisted upon (and upon which it later caved, as municipal elections loomed) was that the operator had to demonstrate twelve days' consecutive flawless operation of the line, before handing the keys over to the City. Of course, we now know that this didn't happen.

The construction project was accompanied by unprecedented congestion, as vastly more vehicles fought over significantly less road space. No problem, promised John Manconi, OC Transpo head; rail will solve everything.

It came out, long before the line opened, that the contractor had failed many of the technical requirements; yet was still allowed to proceed. How very Ottawan a way of doing business!

In its first three weeks of operation, the new light-rail line has been plagued with outages; computer glitches, power failures, trains grinding to a halt because the doors jammed, because people were holding them open to exit the train, because they were not staying open for a reasonable amount of time. Now the proposed solution is to 'isolate' the door and carry on. I know that if I'm ever on a train, and that happens, that I need to get close to a working door--and quickly.

So, about that congestion? Well, in hindsight, it's little surprise, but people immediately noticed the reduced traffic downtown and resumed driving to work. It's already just as congested as before the train. The remaining surface buses downtown face exactly the same kinds of delays as before. So much for that promise.

And what about at other points along the line? Especially in the west end, where the line has been jammed right up against the Ottawa River? Well, that's causing its own kind of congestion, especially around Tunney's Pasture, the current end of the line. When the system ain't working, the nearby streets are flooded with people; and with buses suddenly expected to carry on along their old routes. Lately, that's on a daily basis. Man, I'd love to have the budget to set up a chip truck nearby.

Other problems bubbling up: insufficient service from the existing trains. Long waits for buses at the ends of the line. Construction carrying on well after the line is 'done.' Overcrowding in bus compounds (especially at Tunney's, where hundreds of people can be trapped inside the station building when there's a problem). Despite the City's endless bragging that the new line is 'fast,' the average commute time has been lengthened by 15-20 minutes (more if you live way out). Down in Barrhaven, where the buses are always late and often cancelled; and where it took the better part of an hour to get downtown before the train, they're about to have a revolution!

I find it endlessly frustrating that the people who control the purse-strings of the transit system; and, indeed, the people who manage it, haven't ridden a bus since their teens (except when it has been politically expedient for them to do so--on a hand-picked, private bus). Well, after years of endless excuses, endless promises, and endless bold statements that this and that are being done to address problems--only to have the same problems crop up again, day after day--I can only say this:

John Manconi must go. He is completely out of touch with his customers. He is arrogant and condescending. And, mostly, he makes endless empty promises (to be fair, he did give up for a while and basically say "Suck it up" to his customers--people with no other options for transport). He has got to go; and his replacement _must_ use public transit to get to and from work. She must have a feel for the health of the system she is controlling; for the 'user experience'. Manconi wouldn't step near a bus other than to kick it. Have we learned nothing from decades of out-of-touch managers?

Jim Watson must go. He pinned his entire career on light rail. Hey, it was a gamble--and he lost. I will forever remember the Watson years for their Toronto-style vehicular congestion, and Watson beaming through one staged light-rail event after another. Well, Jim, after two years of empty promises, it's time to pay the piper. If light rail doesn't cost you your job, then I give up on this city.

There's one other part that must go--that must never be considered for another light-rail contract. That would be the Rideau Transit Group, a consortium thrown together for the express purpose of fleecing Ottawa for every last penny building the Ottawa line. Well, I don't think I really need to say anything; but for you out-of-town readers, a trip down memory lane yields the multiple sinkholes that delayed construction for months; the multiple times they promised that everything would be done in a month or two; The near-useless equipment (ie: trains with EZ-Jam doors), untested and built in a warm European climate; the claim that they were 'finished' back in (May? June? Months before it was actually finished--which it still isn't--not really). And, of course, the fact that they couldn't run empty trains on an operational schedule for twelve days, as originally required).  RTG, you're like a worn-out record (vinyl platters; predated tape recording). I (and, I suspect, most other educated Ottawans) don't believe a thing you say anymore. Piss off.

Back some years ago, OC had purchased buses built in California. They were nice; but in the winter they were awful. Salt got in between the windows and into the interior of the bus. They were not made to withstand Canadian winters. I don't think any of those buses is on the road today--maybe ten, twelve years later (buses often last 20).

My final word: winter is coming; and here we go again. If you think the LRT system has had woes so far, then you ain't seen nothin' yet!

-Bill