LJ Archive


When All Else Fails—Amateur Radio, the Original Open-Source Project

David A. Lane

Issue #189, January 2010

“When all else fails”—in 2003, the Amateur Radio Relay League used this as the motto for Field Day, the annual demonstration of its capabilities to the public. It rapidly became the touch phrase for the Amateur Radio Emergency Service—probably the most public of all aspects of Amateur Radio and the operators that are usually first to respond in an emergency. To me, it also is the quintessential definition of open source. When something is missing in a commercial system, we look to open source for the solution. A better operating system? A better management platform? How about a better ERP system? Open source has become the answer. But, what about a better communications system? When we think open source, our minds naturally turn to software, usually *NIX-based, running on Linux. What most people tend not to think about is the open-source nature of Amateur Radio. While operators most often are seen working in emergency situations, many of the modern conveniences we have today—cell phones, satellites, wireless devices—were developed and tested by radio amateurs.

What's Amateur Radio? Have you heard of ham radio? It's the same thing. Although some revel in the term, get a group of operators together, and you will find more stories for the origins of the term ham radio than operators. But, because the Federal Communications Commission calls us Amateurs Radio operators, we should call ourselves that too. Of course, this is not amateur in the rookie sense of the term, but in the non-pecuniary sense. Many consider us communication professionals.

Amateur Radio has been around almost since Marconi invented the thing—hmm, was Marconi a ham? Feel free to discuss that among yourselves. Early on, Marconi's invention was put to the test, and ever since, when disaster strikes, Amateur Radio operators have been some of the first to respond, providing communications support when there is little or no communications infrastructure. Before we can talk about it, however, we need some basic language, and like most technologies, Amateur Radio has a language all its own. This month, Dan Smith gets us started by explaining some of the shorthand we use.

Suppose I want to send data from one point to another without a wire between them? Shawn just passed me an 802.11a/b/g/n device, and we are off to the races, right? But, what if there is no network to plug it in to? Gary Robinson shows us how to pass data without an 802.11a/b/g/n device using your PC, Fldigi and an Amateur Radio transceiver. This is one of the ways that FEMA and other aid agencies send supply lists, like how many cell towers need to be brought into an area during the early stages of an emergency when the only ones passing messages are the Amateurs.

Got a GPS? How about 30,000 runners, more than half of whom will not make it to the end of the marathon, whether it is the Seattle, Boston, New York or Marine Corps Marathons? Using Xastir, an open-source version of APRS, a GPS and a rig, you can tell where the straggler bus is to pick up the runners who do not finish. You will find Amateur Radio operators at each of these marathons providing communications support. Curt Mills, Steve Stroh and Laura Mills take us through setting up and configuring Xastir so you can use it at your next event.

This month, however, we are not all about Amateur Radio. Dave Taylor tells us how to automate Twitter feed responses with a command-line bot (which begs the question, how many of Dave's responses are not automated?). Over at the forge, Reuven puts down his mallet and introduces us to Cucumber, an integration testing framework for Ruby, complete with vegetable jokes.

It looks like Kyle Rankin needs to buy a vowel as Dr hjkl dives into the Vimperator. (Sounds like what I did with my Christmas turkey, actually.) But seriously, I think Kyle has it in for the humble mouse as he shows you how to browse in Firefox using your keyboard.

We also have a security roundup, starting with Mick Bauer's discussion of the potential threats for the new year. Dirk Elmendorf tackles security from the amateur position (think Amateur Radio, not rookie). And, just to make sure you have all the security tools we can give you, Vadim Kurland describes what is new in Firewall Builder 3.0. Finally, Federico Kereki helps us implement some port-knocking security with knockd, and Doc Searls has the last word, opining on the control of one's personal data.

2010 is going to be another big year for virtualization, and Matthew Hoskins dives into virtual appliances with Xen on Linux. I can think of several projects for this technology already!

Whew, it's a jam-packed issue! Whether or not you are an Amateur, there is something in here for everyone. If you are interested in becoming an Amateur Radio operator, here in the US, visit www.hello-radio.org; in Canada, www.rac.ca; and in the UK, www.rsgb.org. For other countries, check with your local communications ministry or department, because When all else fails....

David A. Lane, KG4GIY, has been licensed as an Amateur Radio operator since 2000 and has been working with Linux since 1995. During the day, he is an Infrastructure Architect. During an emergency, he is an Emergency Coordinator for Prince William County ARES. And on weekends, he makes pasta!

LJ Archive