SDR fun

It’s been an interesting time recently, properly nerding out with the dabbling back into Software Defined Radio. Using a USB device, getting radio signals from around the world into the laptop, and doing interesting things from there. It’s pretty cool to be able, with the same device and hardware and antenna, to tune in the time signal on 60kHz, through getting shortwave radio stations from Botswana tuned in, to deciphering digital radio stations, to decoding the RTTY weather forecasts from the German weather service, to picking up faint FM radio stations from around the south of Ireland, to hearing Marine band transmissions, to seeing my car keyfob transmissions, to decoding and plotting airplane ADSB transmissions. All for under a hundred Euro for the hardware, and a few hours of learning.

It’s quite the rabbithole, is amateur radio stuff. Thinking about the HAM license and possible the VHF license as well, as those may come in useful for future outdoor adventures..

Scope problems..

My lovely new 20″ scope appears to need glasses. Seems as though Skywatcher didn’t make the mirror as well as they should have, and there is somewhere around one to two waves of spherical aberration present on the mirror. This is ruining the fine contrast on planets and making the scope a little frustrating to use. Currently working with the vendor to get a replacement mirror.

There is also another issue with the scope, where the primary mirror support structure has enough movement present under the change in altitude, to ensure that the scope cannot maintain collimation. My investigations so far suggest that the movement is present only in the interface between the glass and the central aluminium column that mounts the mirror to the rest of the telescope superstructure, so that’s another reason to require the replacement of the mirror as I cannot easily perform a repair on that interface, and given it’s under warranty I’m not going to touch that one.

The third problem I was having was with the quality of the GoTo computerised drive system. It turns out that one of the core components that supports the telescope “tube” had been bent out of place during a shipping accident, and was interfering with the correct operation of hte altitude portion of the drive. One removal and re-addition later, that component is now in the correct position and I’m now getting the desired target object somewhere in the eyepiece field of view after a slew.

My impressions of the scope are still good, though tempered by the (hopefully) temporary optical and mechanical issues present. There are some things I really like such as the ease of setup and takedown and the subsequent ease of storage that results from that. The drive accuracy once pointed on target means I can do lucky imaging of deepsky objects with some interesting results. The requirement for a small stepladder is not an issue for me on a lawn, but may be an issue on an apartment terrace. Now that I have the best of eyepieces and a Paracorr, I have some pretty low-power views when it is dark, but the high power views definitely have suffered with the aberrations present.

There does exists the capability for this scope to be a fantastic performer, just not yet.

Facebook stupidity continued..

Just checking my phone today, I saw that there were three Facebook applications running on my phone. A Facebook app manager, a Facebook app installer, and “Facebook services”.

I’ve never explicitly logged into Facebook on this phone, and I’ve had the app completely disabled (couldn’t uninstall due to Three having baked this piece of crap into the ROM) since taking delivery of the device two years ago.

The Facebook service app had transferred some 8gb of data since Feb 20th. At least now those apps are denied running.

Pretty piss-poor of Facebook not to take the hint on my device and install on the background. Must try and see what apps carried that malware payload onto the device.

It looks like a good time to root the device and completely remove Facebook, as well as add all Facebook domains and IPs to the null device. I’ll do that when the warranty runs out.


Update: – It’s the update to Android Pie that carried these pieces of crap onto the phone. Now the updates to those apps are uninstalled and the apps are disabled. Not good from Three Ireland tbh to have these baked into the ROM.

Scope review

My largest scope up to buying this one was a 12″ manual Dob, with some lovely views and memories from it. I had been hankering after an upgrade for some years though with the intent of getting a scope that would satisfy my aperture fever.. I wanted the largest aperture I could handle by myself, without needing to have it stored assembled. I’ve not got the room to keep a really large scope fully assembled so I needed to make sure I could assemble and disassemble whatever scope I got in a fairly short space of time given Irish weather, and without too much bother and faff, otherwise I’d just get tired of having to build each observing time.

I did my research on the scopes available, and this particular model started to filter up to the top of my shortlists. 20″ aperture, truss construction with no single piece heavier than about 30kg, generally reasonable to good optics based on other owner experiences, and a goto system utilising the well known Synscan handset, and the support of a large brand and a known-good dealer network.
I also knew that I would probably have some engineering to do myself with the scope, but I’m happy with that as I’m a bit of an old-school hardware hacker and tinkerer at heart. Fettling something does not phase me at all.

This particular scope arrived, and I spent a good while with the first assembly, figuring out what needed to go where, and what snafus were presenting, The manual is abysmal really, but the scope is not difficult to figure out to someone any way mechanically minded. I did need to add more counterweight but that was to be expected with a Paracorr and 100-degree eyepieces in the focuser. The focuser could do with an upgrade to a compression ring fitting at minimum but it does suffice for the purpose. The focuser movement is smooth and clean which is really useful!
The truss construction with the ball and sockets construction method is well thought out, and means that collimation is fairly repeatable upon each assembly.
The shroud is a lovely addition, though it did take me a little bit of time to realise that the velcro seam runs under the “tube” with the hole in the shroud near one edge actually goes over the focuser and finderscope. There are improvements that could be made to the shroud but it’s pretty good when tightened at the top and bottom over the truss attachment bolts. When tightened properly it does not come into the light cone and also provides a lot of stray light protection if one is observing in a not-dark location. The shroud also prevents body heat and exhaled breath from reaching through the light cone and affecting the views and optics.
The goto system is reasonable, once aligned and synced on something in the neighbourhood the gotos are then fairly good. It’s a good idea to sync on a bright star near where the desired observing object lies, to get the best chance of getting that object in the eyepiece.
There is an altitude stop that prevents the tube from getting to within 11 degrees or so of horizontal. I moved that stop to allow my scope to get to the horizon. There’s no apparent issue with that once I had the correct counterweights for my setup.
I’m 5’10” tall, and I need a step or two once my target reaches above 37 degrees altitude, but I was expecting this for a scope of this size. I could not afford a scope with f/ratio of under 3 at this point. Two steps up a stepladder is all I need to get observing at the zenith, so it’s not too bad at all. I may invest in a good Catsperch chair at some point in the future. I’ll have to see how I go with a full night of being on a ladder.
If there’s a breeze blowing and the shroud is on the scope, then there will be a bit of movement seen at the eyepiece. In general though the views are steady, and there’s no loss of target when swapping eyepieces out which is a real boon for me after using the 12″ where I’d have to re-find the target again.

As for the optical quality, I’ve not seen any issue yet that I’m worried about. My seeing is generally in the 2-4 arcsec range on average nights, under an Atlantic jetstream. I’ve had a few evenings out under mediocre skies so far, but I’ve been able to get E and F in the Trapezium pretty much with ease for most of time. Stars are scintillating balls of mush, but a ball of mush that is seeing-caused. No astigmatism showing up so far, no real roughness apparent based on my testing at this stage. When the mirror is cooling down it does show an undercorrection but this appears to lessen as thermal equilibrium is reached. I haven’t had a long enough session yet with the scope to be able to determine the finer optical quality, but that will be done in time. So far, I’m happy enough with the performance – it’s certainly the case that I’m being atmosphere-limited, and that’s a nice place to be.

One thing that is really of interest with this scope, is that it appears to be exceptionally suitable for Electronically Assisted Astronomy, and for Lucky Imaging of DSOs. The f/ratio of under 4 and the aperture of a half-metre means that deep exposures can be obtained in a very short space of time.. I got to about mag 19 with about 4 min worth of 1.7 second subs with an ASI294MC-Pro, and seeing that result had my jaw hit the floor. The tracking is probably not good enough for multiple tens of seconds of sub lengths, but a low noise camera and a lot of disk space will work wonders..

The known issue of mirror flop causing collimation skew when changing altitude is fairly easily resolved, and I have also added a Kendricks secondary dew heater as I’ve had the secondary mirror dew up when not using the shroud. I may yet add a boundary layer set of fans and fans blowing at the rear of the primary to aid in thermal equilibrium

If you are in the market for a transportable half-metre telescope that one reasonably fit person can assemble and disassemble with relative ease, that provides lovely eyepiece images, and that does not cost the earth, then the Skywatcher Stargate 500p is a scope that should be high on your list.

PC update – new hardware in the main desktop

I got my hands on a Xeon E5-1680V2 processor last week. This is about the best CPU that I could get for my motherboard, and it’s an overclocking monster. Comfortable at 4.7Ghz at <80 degrees, currently at 4.6 and staying under 75 after extended benchmarks.

Adding to this the fact that I finally jumped 4 generation of graphics cards by updating to a Zotac 2080 Amp MAXX card, gaming and GPU computations are now impressive. All games at max details at 1980×1200 (none of that tiny HD resolution) now are pretty much stable at 60 FPS, and oh *so* pretty.

After having to update the PSU to a decent Corsair HX850i it now runs without clocking down or bluescreening in games, and makes me quite a happy camper. The PC name as “Behemoth” is still very much relevant. Pretty much the only update left for the PC is to go to 4x4Tb drives for the RAID array. No real cost benefit to going any newer or bigger or better with any of the components.

Not too bad for a system originally built some eight years ago, and still on the same motherboard, memory, and spinny disks. Updates to CPU/GPU/system SSD did happen over time.

Userbenchmark here:

Now off to go kill demons in Doom 2016, nazis in Wolfenstein II TNC, and to go raiding for tombs in the various new-series Tomb Raiders!

More retro PC updates

So, the Optiplex 960 bios does not boot with a Xeon e5450 chip, and had I done my homework on that, I would have been able to find that out. However, I sourced an Asus P5KE motherboard with 8Gb of DDR2-1066 and a Q9550 chip in it for a decently low price, to further my retro PC ideas.

The Core2-Quad q9550 dropped straight into that Optiplex, making that a quad core 2.83 instead of the dual 3.0 it had been. Now I can install XP-32bit on that and get the mid-Naughties retrobox up and running properly.

The Xeon e5450 works perfectly in that new Asus board, overclocks like a demon, and I think that I’ll build that up to being an early Win7 retro box, though it won’t be retro for a few years.. When I get the upgrade card for my behemoth of a desktop, the GTX660 will go into this box to update from the QuadroFX380 currently there, and I may keep the Quadro card in the system as it’s not a low-profile card that could fit in the Optiplex. That system setup will do the 2010-era games very well indeed.

So here’s the current list of retro PCs and the years of games they are aimed at:

  • 1995 – Dos, P3-600, 256Mb, 80Gb, Dos7.1/Win3.11, Matrox G400MAx, Audician32+D2
  • 2000 – P3-1.13, 512Mb, 16Gb CF, Win98SE, GF4-Ti4200, SB-Audigy
  • 2005 – C2Q Q9550, 4Gb, 250Gb, WinXP-sp3, Quadro K600, SB X-Fi
  • 2010 – e5450, 8Gb, 250Gb, Win7, Quadro FX380, onboard Azalia 7.1 (for the moment)

The Behemoth of a desktop is currently:

  • e5-1620 V2, 32Gb, 500Gb/4x1Tb, Win7, GTX660, Asus Xonar.

With the expected upcoming windfall of cash soon, I’ll be updating the Behemoth to:

  • e6-1680 V2, 64Gb ECC, 500Gb/4x3Tb, Win7, RTX2080ti, SB Z.

(that will definitely keep what is a seven year old system faster than most current new builds. Might get a decent 144khz 4k monitor as well)

I still also have the PS2 and the PS3 – I must investigate the modding of both of those for fun and curiosity. My homebrewed Wii is also present and accounted for, as is my Amiga1200HD with the Blizzard 1230/IV accelerator.

Maybe it’s time to reposition one of the RPIs to be a retro arcade machine / console emulator. That could be an interesting project for the Springtime.

A little retro PC work and upgrades

Last summer, I used my big box of PC bits’n’bobs to build myself a few retro gaming PCs, each genre with hot hardware for its time. I wasn’t restricting myself to being time-specific with the hardware available during the time at all, I just wanted to build myself some machines that ran the software of a particular type very well.

The DOS/Win3.11 machine is a Dell desktop with a P3-600 and 64Mb of ram, a tiny ancient 2.1Gb harddisk, a Matrox G400MAx graphics card, and an Audician32 soundcard with a great wavetable board on it from (). There’s a lovely floppy emulator that uses a  USB drive with floppy disk images on it, selectable on the fly. This pc plays the old Dos games brilliantly, with great sound output and nice sharp visuals. This is for games like DukeNukem3d, Descent, Tombraider, and others from the 1990-1996 era. I haven’t done much work into the slowing down of the cpu for the likes of Wing Commander, that’s for future work. I should also do an SD-card HDD replacement, makes it a bit easier to transfer files over, and I can have multiple profiles of software as well

The Win98 machine is a self-build Tualatin 1.13 on TUSL-2 motherboard, 512Mb ram, 16gb sd card harddisk, Nvidia GeForce4 Ti4200 graphics, and a SoundBlaster Audigy sound card. This system absolutely rocks early Windows games from 1995 through e.g. 2000. The Ti4200 really does outclass the Voodoo cards at Glide gaming with the nGlide wrappers, and I can enable things like AA in most games without penalty to framerates.

The Windows XP gamer is a little Dell SFF GX620, P4 640 (3.2Ghz, 1C/2T), 2 gb ram, Nvidia Quadro 600 graphics and a Sounblaster X-fi Extreme soundcard, and a 160gb harddisk.

I also have on hand another Dell SFF box saved from scrapping, an Optiplex 960 with an E8400 core2duo and some 4gb ram, using the onboard graphics and sound.

For the XP machine, I’ve sourced a very cheap P4-D 3.4 that should just drop in, giving me a bump in speed and bringing the system to 2C/4T which should make a bit of a difference in things. Unfortunately, it has appeared that the motherboard in this little box has suffered from the bad capacitors that has plagued the hardware industry.. It fails to boot with a lot of coloured snow on the VGA output during the POST process. So, I have a handful of caps en route from eBay to fix this one.

I have also sourced a nice LGA771 Xeon X5450 to put into the LGA775 Dell motherboard. This will require a little sticker that swaps two pins, and a shaving of the physical cocket. Unfortunately the Dell bios makes a check for the Xeon dual-cpu capability and fails to post with this CPU. Looks like I will have to just build myself another box to utilise the cpu :) In the interim, I’m putting the 960 into play as the XP gaming machine.

“Of” is not a verb.

Note to internet people that speak English – the word “of” is not a verb. Phrases such as “should of”, “could of”, and “must of” are all simply incorrect..

Those errors are understandable from kids or those with English as a second or third language, but it’s inexcusable from mainstream websites or media outlets.

Please proofread your writings more thoroughly.