14 January 2016

a thought on portable radio ergonomics

I use exclusively portable radios. Recently, I wanted to revisit my Degen DE321 to see how it tuned strong local signals and what kind of tuning refinements were possible. So I put a couple alkaline batteries in it and tuned to my usual local news radio station, KCBS AM 740.

At some point, I was ready to switch it off and do something else. I picked up the radio and thoughtlessly moved my thumb along the right side. I heard a click sound and thought "okay, it's off." But then I took another look at it, and saw the Tune light was still lit. Then I remembered that there was a power switch on the left, and what I did was probably lower the volume.

If the volume dial didn't end with a hard stop, I would've noticed my error right away. There's something that portable radios could adapt from smart phone user interfaces: an indication that the end has been reached. When scrolling to the edge of a page, there's a sort of rubber banding effect that lets the user continue to move the content but smartly indicates that the edge was reached. What if volume knobs and tuning knobs continued to travel a bit at the edges, and produced a quick vibrate?

01 January 2016

finding stations in a new city

My family had recently moved due to my father changing jobs. My parents found a well-maintained brick house with a spacious backyard for their growing children. The kitchen had a nice layout, the living room had an incredible view of the backyard, and the spacious family room would be great for parties and gatherings. All of the schools were within walking distance, and our grandparents were just a few miles away. The only problem was that we only had three bedrooms for five people. The parents got a room, our older sister got her own room, and my brother and I shared one. Thankfully, my older brother Mark and I got along well and we were young, so sharing a room wouldn't be a problem.

"Hey Eric," my brother told me, "there's a lot more stations now."

He was tuning the General Electric clock radio in our room. The larger city we previously lived in had numerous AM and FM stations, but my brother was discouraged by what little he found on the radio in our new city during the day. I was just reaching the age where I paid attention to the radio and I even had some favorite songs. We mostly listened to pop and classic rock stations; a highlight for me each week was Casey Kasem's American Top 40.

"All the new ones are on AM." I acknowledged what my brother said, but wasn't actively participating. It was around bedtime, and I was flipping through a comic book while sitting on my bed.

In my adult years, I would delve deep into the wonders and mysteries of radio, learning about shortwave, amateur radio, and ionospheric propagation. But as a grade-schooler, I only understood a few concepts: on/off, volume, and tuning. I had a vague awareness of AM and FM. My grandfather had a car radio that picked up only AM, but all of it seemed to be talk, not music. As the youngest one in the family, I was rarely ever controlling the tuning dial.

"I think she said Cincinnati!" my brother exclaimed, referring to a station he had been listening to for a couple minutes. I finally put my comic book aside and we discussed what that meant. Was it news? Was that female announcer actually in Cincinnati? Cincinnati was hundreds of miles away from us, so how was this possible? Then we heard a call sign. WLW. We didn't recognize it, and found it strange as we thought all radio call signs had four letters.

He moved the tuning dial around some more and we heard music, strange voices, commercials, and some stations that sounded very faint. Mark demonstrated his fine-tuning method to me, using his pointer finger instead of his thumb so he could move the tuning dial very slowly.

"This station is pretty cool. I'll leave the radio on this one and I'll turn it off when the song ends." It was a station playing one of his favorite songs. Our parents had also signaled that it was time for lights out.

"Cool," I replied. I was impressed but also relieved that the radio and the lights would soon be off so I could sleep.

The next morning, my brother grabbed the radio excitedly and switched it on, but he heard nothing but faint static. The stations that we were listening to the night before had vanished.

That's how I was introduced to the phenomenon known as medium wave DXing.

(Images from Wikipedia and Apple Maps. Thanks to Jerry and Stephen for their input into this post.)