Friday, December 30, 2011

2011: Annus Horribilus

Well, what a year 2011 turned out to be! As I write this it will be six months since I learned that I have incurable brain cancer.

Let me tell you, nothing prepares you for the shock of being told you have a terminal illness. One day I was a reasonably fit 58-year-old who had never been seriously ill in my life, enjoyed long walks in the outdoors, didn't eat junk food, never smoked and drank only in moderation. I fully expected to live until my 80s - the average expectancy of people in Britain.

A week later and our world had been turned upside down. Within hours of being referred to hospital after complaining of a persistent slight headache and fuzzy vision I had been give a CT scan and told that there was something in my brain that shouldn't be there, something that might be a tumour.

Then I was told that whatever it was, I would need brain surgery, and asked to sign a form to show it had been explained to me that I might never recover from the operation, I might be left in a coma, or unable to speak or recognize my wife. The thought of brain surgery was scary but with no time to even think about alternatives I signed. A couple of hours after that and I was being whisked by ambulance across the breadth of the country in the middle of the night to the Royal Victoria Infirmary in Newcastle. There, they made an MRI scan and then performed the brain surgery to remove as much as they could of the tumour without harming normal brain function.

A few days later I was recovering in hospital from the operation, feeling better by the day and fully expecting that I would be home soon and in a few weeks life would get back to normal. Then a grave-faced hospital registrar accompanied by a nurse drew the curtains round my bed, sat down and informed us that the material taken from my brain had been analyzed. It was a brain tumour, and not just any old brain tumour but the worst sort possible (glioblastoma multiforme grade 4) that only one in 40,000 people are unlucky enough to get. I'd hit the brain tumour jackpot. The prognosis was from a few months to  a year, but I would receive treatment to "prolong quality of life as far as possible."

The news was like being punched in the stomach. Nothing in our life would ever be the same from that moment on. And Olga and I, stunned and numb, were left to find our way home to Cockermouth from Newcastle.

Since then, we have been through a whole gamut of emotions. At first, I felt that nothing I did before I knew I had a tumour mattered as much as making the best of whatever time was left to myself and Olga. In that frame of mind I felt that ham radio was a fairly pointless activity and posted in this blog what I thought would be The Final Over.

But I soon came to realize that life wasn't over yet. Because of the need for rest and treatment, Olga and I couldn't just take ourselves off on a world cruise anyway. I needed to be available to see the doctors and go to the hospital. So I regained my interest in my hobby and was soon very thankful for it as gave me something to do during the weeks spent at home, something that took my mind off the darker thoughts I often had.

Learning that I had a brain tumour and that my life was likely to be shorter than I had hitherto expected has made me a different person. I now live from day to day and try to be grateful for whatever each day brings me. I used to be the archetypal "grumpy old man" ranting about the government or other people. I haven't altered my opinions about bankers, politicians and the EU but now I don't waste precious time grumbling about things I can't change.

After I began writing my brain tumour diary one or two people pointed out that it wasn't just me, we are all mortal and we all die eventually. Some people go off to work and die in car accidents or suddenly drop dead of a heart attack giving their loved ones no opportunity even to say goodbye to them.  Others die after long and painful illnesses with months in hospital. We don't know for how long the treatment will keep my tumour at bay. At the moment I'm feeling no pain, just frustration sometimes at not being able to do things I could when I was fit. But I'm at home with my wife and expecting that I will eventually get back to something more akin to normal.

The realization that time is precious means that Olga and I will do things that we otherwise would probably never have got around to. I am lucky that I have been able to give up work and devote my energy exclusively to recovery and recreation. We are both savers not borrowers so we are fortunate not to have money worries - well, not apart from the possibility of a world economic collapse making all of our savings worthless! Being diagnosed with a terminal illness has even allowed me to fulfil a goal I thought I never would - that of retiring before I was 60. Every cloud has a silver lining.

Most of all, I am so fortunate to be married to my wife and soulmate Olga. She has never once complained about the stresses and strains of suddenly finding her husband has brain cancer. She is always there for me, making sure I take all the right pills at the right time and helping me keep my strength up with lots of tasty home-cooked food, fruit and vegetables.

My situation has been harder for Olga to bear than for me. I have always had a bit of a fatalistic view of life - that what will be will be - and a tendency to look for dark humour in a situation. But I only have to imagine how I would feel if the situation was reversed to know how Olga must be feeling. I would be heartbroken to lose her and it won't be easy for her if she loses me.

For Olga, even more than for myself, I need to beat this tumour. I need to prove the doctors wrong and show that you can survive a glioblastoma. I'm optimistic about it. So my one and only resolution for 2012 is to beat the bugger and still be here in a year's time to write about all the things we have done despite my having a brain tumour.

Thank you for reading my blog and for all the messages and cards of support sent by many of you. They have all made a difference and helped us both to feel better about the situation. I hope that 2012 will be a great year for you and not spring any nasty surprises like 2011 did for us.

Simple keyer trouble

It should have been simple. I needed a basic CW keyer that would allow me to use a paddle with my homebrew QRP / QRPP rigs because my shaky hands make sending Morse with a straight key too difficult at the moment. I also needed to be able to record a message and play it once or repeatedly until I heard someone reply or was spotted on the reverse beacon network.

A couple of years ago I built a DC20B QRP transceiver. I didn't like it very much and eventually sold it on eBay but I did like the keyer built into it which used an ATTiny13 microcontroller. One day, I thought, I would build a keyer using this chip. I got two of the Atmel chips and Steve Weber KD1JV sent me the hex file so I could program them but I never got around to doing anything more until a couple of days ago.

The simple keyer circuit uses only a handful of components but due to my condition it took a lot longer than it would have done pre-tumour to work out a perf board layout and build it. So you can imagine that I was a bit upset when after all that effort the keyer didn't work. It responded to the dash key and the function button, but not the dot key. Also the sidetone was very high pitched and the Morse speed was about 100wpm!

Thinking I had made a mistake programming the clock setting in the chip I tried programming the other one. This ended up just the same. Unfortunately with the simple keyer program you have to disable the reset pin that is used by the programmer so you only get one chance to write the code to the EPROM. But as I don't have the source code and so can't try modifying it that shouldn't have been a problem. If I hadn't sold the DC20B I could have tried the keyer chip from that, but now I am now stuck with no idea what to try next.

I have the code for another keyer that uses a PIC12F509A - the K9 from K1EL's freeware page. But I'd have to start over with the circuit board as the pinouts of the Atmel and Microchip microcontrollers are not compatible. The functionality of the K1EL keyer program is not what I was after either, so I don't feel much like trying it at the moment.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Season's Greetings

Olga and I send our best wishes for the festive season and New Year 2012
to all of our readers and well-wishers.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Latest QSLs

A batch of QSLs just arrived from the RSGB Bureau. Here are a few of the more attractive ones. Enjoy!

Sunday, December 18, 2011

More EU madness

I'm not the first blogger to mention this item of news but it is certainly one topic that I could not allow to pass by without comment. According to the IARU Region 1 website, the EU Commission will be revising the EMC Directive and removing the exemption of amateur radio kits and modified equipment from its provisions. Products that are currently exempted would be subject to inspection and certification, a process which would make the production of kits hopelessly uneconomic. It would also potentially spell the end of home building and modification and prevent the importation of kits from the USA and other havens of relative sanity. No, this isn't one of my April 1st spoof stories released from the Drafts folder by mistake!

I would hope that the IARU, the RSGB and other European amateur radio societies will make urgent representations to the EC to stop this proposal. But this is just one scary example of why I and many other like-minded people feel that we in the UK would be better off out of the European Union.

In fact, most of Europe would be better off without it in my opinion. Could somebody explain why, at a time when European governments are supposed to be cutting back on public expenditure, they continue contributing billions every year (only recently having voted an increase - the UK alone contributes £51 million per day) in order to fund this unelected and unaccountable Commission to employ people who live in cloud cuckoo land to produce unwanted, unnecessary and unasked-for legislation?

Are you ready for Doomsday?

One of the blogs I read this morning contained a link to this article in the Mail Online "Stocking up for Doomsday." The scenario it describes might seem to many of you a bit far-fetched but there are quite a few Americans who wouldn't think so. You don't have to look far to find web forums where people discuss survival plans. These people have guns to defend their families and their food and fuel store. They will use ham radios to communicate when the phones and internet are down.

This Doomsday picture doesn't seem so far-fetched to my wife Olga. Few people in the West even know about this as it received hardly any coverage in the media at the time but in 1992 after the collapse of the Soviet Union Ukraine went bankrupt. Ukrainians who had money in the bank lost it all (and most have still never been compensated for it.) Food disappeared from the shops - not that there was much to start with. People stood on station platforms and begged for food from trains travelling through to Moscow. For years Olga suffered from stomach problems as a legacy from that period when she almost starved. Yes, this happened in a developed country that is right next door to Europe.

The Ukraine government allocated plots of land so people could create kitchen gardens and grow their own food but these were usually a long way from where people lived and anything you did manage to grow got stolen. Olga and her mother avoided complete starvation only because her mother had food coupons as a war veteran which entitled her to obtain military rations.

It's easy to think "it couldn't happen here" but the number of economists who are starting to predict a complete economic collapse is enough to make you start wondering if that is just being complacent. Most of us older people who have savings for our retirement have already experienced anxiety about the security of those savings. We naively trust that the British government will honour its promises to guarantee the first £50,000 of individual savings held in British banks but how do we know it could afford to? And how long would it be before we received that compensation? We'd have starved long before, I'm sure of it.

And what about businesses, whose deposits are not guaranteed: businesses that we imagine would provide the food and services that we would need but which wouldn't have the money to keep trading? Panic buying will have long since emptied the shops of food. What would we do then? Make soup out of five pound notes?

Happy New Year? I wonder.

Friday, December 16, 2011


This was the scene that greeted me when I looked outside this morning! Nothing to what folks in the USA get, of course. But considering that it used to be unusual to have any snow at all during the winter here in West Cumbria it's still noteworthy.

I hope we don't get any more, though. Apart from the hassle factor of slushy slippery pavements, a thick layer of snow on the roof won't help my attic antennas to get out.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

VOAProp and WWV

A couple of days ago I received an email from Mirek, OK1DUB, to let me know that, due to a small change in the format of the Geophysical Alert from WWV ( VOAProp is no longer able to process it, reporting that the format is invalid.

Mirek has written a PHP script to run on his server ( which reads the original WWV file every 5 minutes and creates a new version using the old format. This file can be accessed at . When I first tried it, the server was very slow to respond and I was afraid that it might not be able to handle the hundreds of daily requests made by the tens of thousands of copies of VOAProp that are out there. But this was apparently only a temporary problem. I have tried the file again today and it loads quickly. Mirek says he is happy to allow public usage.

A page explaining what Mirek has done (and disclaiming responsibility for any error) is here.

What you need to do is:
  • In VOAProp, click the Solar Data button to open the window that displays the WWV file.
  • In the Data URL field, enter the address of the replacement file which is .
I am grateful to Mirek for providing this solution and hope that other VOAProp users will be too. To those who emailed and did not receive a reply (or received a rather tetchy one) instead of checking the Troubleshooting help page that I updated to point to this post, sorry, but this issue has put me on the receiving end of an unwanted email pile-up.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

SDR Radio

An early Christmas present to myself is this SDR-4 HF receiver from Cross Country Wireless. Actually, it wasn't intended to be a Christmas present. I decided to get one a couple of months ago when I first found out about it.

I think the SDR-4 is the lowest cost ready built HF bands software defined radio on the market (£150 or about $250 US). Unless you know different, of course. However it seems that a lot of other people thought so too, as there is a waiting list - people are ordering them faster than the designer Chris G4HYG can make them!

The SDR-4 works with the usual free SDR applications. But it also works with the free version of Simon Brown HB9DRV's application. This is the best SDR software by a mile, though due to all the treatment and medication I am receiving for my brain tumour my mind is a bit slow at the moment and I find figuring out how to do what I want with it a bit challenging.

As you might expect from the author of Ham Radio Deluxe, has built-in support for decoding digital modes. Unfortunately I haven't managed to work out yet how to get the digital decoder waterfall to be a reasonable size: At the moment it's a small window on the left hand side which is trying to display 15kHz worth of spectrum and although I'm hearing PSK31 I can't find a trace to click on! I'm also still trying to discover if there is a PSK Browser in the program that sends reports to the PSK Reporter reverse beacon site. Hopefully someone will enlighten me.

I'm sure I'll be writing more about the SDR-4 receiver and in due course, but in the meantime if you want more information or to ask questions about the receiver there is a Cross Country Wireless Yahoo! group. You can even try an SDR-4 out over the Internet if you follow the instructions posted by Chris. I did and it worked perfectly - and it was so nice to hear the amateur bands without the awful frying noise I have to endure here.

Yahoo! is also the place to go for information and support of (the software.) I look forward to seeing some comments and experiences of any of my readers who are tempted into trying this software defined radio.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Link between radio use and brain tumours?

A news item in the December 2011 CQ magazine caught my attention yesterday. It reported that a Danish study of more than 350,000 people found no evidence of a link between cellphone use and cancer. Cancer rates have not increased during the time that cellphone use has become widespread. "That's good news" I thought.

However, some websites that reported the story carried the additional information that the Danish researchers found a hint of a link between heavy phone use and the rare but usually fatal glioma brain tumours - exactly the bugger I have. Not such good news after all, then.

Another study by Swedish researchers found an increase in cancer in areas of the brain exposed to microwave energy during a mobile phone call. Most of this data was from users of older analogue phones which run higher power and cause three times the exposure of newer digital systems. However that would still apply to use of VHF and UHF FM hand-helds which are typically operated at a power of 5 watts.

I think you would have to be an extremely active ham radio operator to expose yourself to as much RF as a heavy mobile phone user. But most hams are using much lower frequencies - though potentially higher power levels. Are the frequencies commonly used by hams more or less likely to cause cancer? I don't think anyone definitively knows the answer to that.

But it is certainly food for thought. I'd be more inclined now to use my HTs on low power or with a speaker mic so as to get the antenna further from the head. And if you must use indoor or stealth antennas that can only be sited a few feet from the operating position, life's too short for QRO!

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Still alive and kicking (just!)

It has been a while since my last posting to this blog, which has caused a couple of readers to express concern about my current state of health. I'm glad to say that reports of my demise are exaggerated, but less happy that the intensive chemotherapy regime has left me feeling pretty lousy and afflicted with a severe lethargy that nothing less than the arrival of Santa Claus bearing a shiny new Elecraft KX3 could kick me out of. Even reports that 10 metres is wide open have not given me the energy to haul my ass into the shack and see for myself. Hence the lack of posts.

I don't see things getting much better for the next 4 months when the chemotherapy will be over as although I do detect an improvement in how I feel as I get towards the end of a cycle I am quickly back to square one after starting the next one. There is not enough change in how I feel from day to day to warrant more frequent postings to One Foot in the Grave. My days seem to merge together so that most of the time I couldn't even tell you what day of the week it is!

Despite what I have just written I will not actually be one of the people feverishly refreshing the Elecraft order page in order to secure a place near the top of the list for KX3 orders. Though I don't doubt that the KX3 is a seriously cool piece of radio equipment that will be a big success for Elecraft, I have come to the decision that my FT-817ND meets all my current needs of a portable ham radio. I also can still remember my frustration at the length of time I had to wait to receive my K3 (and the even longer wait until the firmware actually worked and it all performed as expected.) I don't wish to cause myself the stress of wondering whether I will live long enough to receive my KX3!

That's not to say I don't see an Elecraft KX3 in my life (and my shack) at any point. I can envisage a situation where a new toy to play with could make life seem a lot more cheerful. One day it will be possible to order a KX3 and get instant gratification. But until then I'll content myself with reading the experiences of the early adopters and watching their YouTube videos.