Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Reporting useful weather observations on social media

In the mid-south severe weather is a major topic of discussion in the spring.  The seasonal warming causes atmospheric instability leading to high winds, heavy rainfall, hail, and tornadoes.  No one can disagree that in order to be prepared you must be informed.

There are so many ways to stay informed about severe weather. You could watch the local news stations, or get some "insider information" on blogs written by experts (such as the Arkansas Weather Blog by my friend Todd Yakoubian).

If you really want the raw data without any explanation or corroboration, you could listen to Skywarn weather nets on amateur radio.  In central Arkansas we have the AR Links Skywarn net, which can extend to cover the entire state, and the CAREN Skywarn Net which covers several counties in central Arkansas.

Even if you don't have an amateur radio license, you can help save lives and property during severe weather by sharing what you see where you are.  Being a weather spotter does not involve chasing a tornado or sitting in your car streaming hail stones online.  All it takes is sharing reportable criteria from right where you are.  Reportable criteria is the term used for the specific clues used by meteorologists that can tell them if a storm is strong, weak, or changing in strength.

How to share weather actionable information on social media

Where ever you are, you can help keep meteorologists supplied with relevant, timely, actionable information by sharing what you see on social media.  In order to ensure your observation can be useful, there are a few tips you should follow.

  • Use the appropriate hashtag.  Hashtags make it easier to locate posts that are about the same topic.  In Arkansas we use #ARWX, which is short for "Arkansas weather".
  • Include your location.  On most social media web sites and apps you can add your location with just a click.  Be sure to familiarize yourself with that option before you need it.  By including a specific location, your report goes from "interesting" to "actionable".
  • Don't share or retweet old reports.  Remember the boy who cried wolf?  We would never want that to happen during severe weather.  If someone posted a tornado warning 2 hours ago, don't retweet that now.  Some people may not see that it's old news.  The next time they may think it's old news again, and the unthinkable could happen.  Don't share or retweet old reports.
    • Be cautious of photos shared from unknown sources.  A couple of times every year, someone digs up a photo from a weather event that happened months or years earlier and tries to pass it off as their own.  The best advice is to consider the source.  There are ways to verify photos, but that will have to wait for another post.
  • Be sure to include an accurate description (include a photo or video if safe to do so), and post reportable criteria.  
Which leads us to the most important part of reporting weather observations...

When to speak up or When to shut up

There are key pieces of information that can help meteorologists and first responders, we call these reportable criteria.  If everyone were to get on the various Skywarn radio nets and report that "it's not raining here yet", then the one person who is looking at a funnel cloud won't be able to be heard.  Likewise, if everyone on Twitter shares "The sky looks scary in Conway. #arwx", it would be difficult for officials to see any urgent reports.  Here are the reportable criteria for severe weather.

Tornado or funnel cloud

A tornado is a violently rotating column of air, attached to a cloud structure overhead, and touching the ground.  If it is not touching the ground, then it is a funnel cloud.  Sometimes you might not be able to see where it touches the ground, so look for flying debris at the lowest point you can see.  If you can identify debris, it is probably a tornado.

Before reporting a funnel cloud or tornado, review this checklist:

  1. Are you in a favorable location? (Are you in the southwest corner of a super-cell or southeast corner of a High Precipitation (HP) super-cell?)
  2. Are you in an inflow area? (As you look into the feature, is the wind blowing into your back?)
  3. Is the cloud feature attached to the base of the thunderstorm?
  4. Is the cloud feature rotating? (Spinning like a figure skater or a toy top, normally from left to right, not up and down like a rolling pin.)
  5. Is the rotating feature persistent? (continuing for several minutes)
If you aren't sure about one of these, go ahead and report it, but state the item that you aren't sure about.
"I think I am looking at a funnel cloud. It is southwest of the main storm, attached to a thunderstorm above it and descending from it.  It is spinning, but it is not straight up and down.  It is almost at a 45 degree angle from the ground."
This would give the other party enough information to investigate it further.

Wall cloud

A wall cloud is attached to the base of a thunderstorm and hangs down underneath it.  Sometimes a wall cloud can be seen rotating, but not always.

Wind damage

Any wind estimated to be 50 mph or more should be reported.  With using an anemometer, you can estimate wind speed by observing nearby trees.

  • 25-31 mph - Large tree branches moving. Wires whistle.
  • 32-38 mph - Whole trees moving. Inconvenience walking into the wind.
  • 39-46 mph - Small branches or twigs break off. Impedes walking.
  • 47-54 mph - Slight structural damage (shingles blown off). Large branches break off.
  • 55-63 mph - Structural damage (parts of roofs blown off). Trees snapped off. 

Hail

On social media, feel free to report hail of any size.  However, only hail that is the size of a US quarter (1") is reportable criteria.  Ham radio operators should never report anything smaller than a quarter.

Flooding

A flood is water rising rapidly, flowing over roads, or into buildings.  Be sure not to confusing pooling and flooding.  If the rain were to stop right now, and the water would be gone in seconds, it is not a flood.

Protect life and property

By becoming aware of what information is actionable, and the various methods that can be used to report it, you are a step closer to being a small part of a large solution.

The National Weather Service offers free classes that will make you a certified Skywarn Storm Spotter.  To find a class in your area, visit http://www.nws.noaa.gov/skywarn/skywarn.htm.

If you have any questions about severe weather or reporting procedures, feel free to send me a message on Twitter at @Joshua_Carroll.



Monday, November 23, 2015

Several years ago Google​ kicked me out

Several years ago Google​ kicked me out of one of their programs.

Many of you know that I used to design web sites and web applications "on the side".  I did many of them at or below cost with the agreement that I would include advertisements and a Google​ search bar on the site so I could offer a discount to the site owner and I could recoup the discount through the ad revenue over time.  The ads on the site were placed as part of Google's AdSense​ program.

I never made much through the program.  At the end I was making about $100 each month - not bad for not really doing anything.

I would hope that those who know me would consider me to be an honest person.  (In fact, I know several who might say I can be too honest, and that I should keep some of my true thoughts and feelings to myself.)  I like rules.  I always want to know what the polices and boundaries are, so I can operate within them.

So I was shocked when I received an email from Google in August of 2012 that said they had evidence of "invalid click activity" and were barring me from further participation in the AdSense program.  They said they could not share the details "in order to protect [their] proprietary detection systems".  Google's Terms & Conditions are very clear on the point of being banned: if you are banned, it is indefinite.

I never clicked on my our ads, and I never paid or asked anyone else to do so.  They wouldn't even tell me on which site the "invalid click activity" took place, so I couldn't review the logs to find out what really happened.

Of course I appealed the decision through their system, and have now appealed it three or four times (I've lost count).  Most recently, I appealed yesterday.  All of them had the same outcome: "Thank you for your appeal. We appreciate your continued interest in the AdSense program. However, after thoroughly reviewing your account and taking into consideration the information that you have provided, our specialists have confirmed that we are unable to reinstate your AdSense account."

At this point I no longer maintain any of those original sites.  I've significantly reduced the amount of side jobs I do in lieu of announcing.  But it bothers me that (a) I have this stain on my reputation and (b) I couldn't use AdSense for anything in the future.  I'd really like to start a YouTube channel and monetize it, but that's not in the cards for me.

From what I read online there are lots of people out there who find themselves in my situation.  When it comes to alleged invalid click activity, Google is judge, jury, executioner, and the appeals court... all in one.  Don't misunderstand me, I think Google is a great company.  I think they are one of the most innovative employers, and really come up with some great ideas and programs.  But this process just isn't fair.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Web design tip: It's a title, not an afterthought

Many people rely on their browser's "favorites" or "bookmarks" to keep track of web pages they visit often.  Google Chrome even offers a feature that allows you to synchronize favorite sites between all of your  computers and devices.  This works on PC, Mac, iOS, Andriod, and Linux: basically any device on which you can install Chrome or Chromium.

But a bookmark is only helpful if it does it's job: allowing you to quickly access a specific web page.  Part of that is being able to remember or recognize the site by the name of the favorite.  Regardless of the browser, when a page is bookmarked, the browser uses the title of the web page for the title of the favorite.  So it's important that web designers consider this when titling pages.  If it's the home page, then the site title is probably best.  If it's a page inside the site, then it should include the primary headline of the page.

Wikipedia does this elegantly.  Here are some examples:

My descriptionPage titleURL
Wikipedia home page Wikipedia www.wikipedia.org
Page about Suzanne Collins Suzanna Collins - Wikipedia en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Suzanne_Collins

However there are still some sites that, for some reason, use the title for other purposes. I won't go as far as to say it's wrong, but I will admit, I don't understand the strategy.

My descriptionPage titleURL
Goodreads home page Share Book Recommendations With Your Friends, Join Book Clubs, Answer Trivia www.goodreads.com
Page about The Unwanteds Goodreads | The Unwanteds (Unwanteds, #1) by Lisa McMann — Reviews, Discussion, Bookclubs, Lists www.goodreads.com/book/show/9917879-the-unwanteds

With titles this large they can't even be seen on the browser tab, nor on the bookmark button.  So, again, I don't understand the strategy here.  I suppose one could say this helps with search engine optimization (SEO).  However, in HTML, there are meta tags for that very purpose.

Consider this when titling your web pages: the title shouldn't be an afterthought; it deserves some type of strategy.

Friday, March 20, 2015

App Review: IFTTT

A few years ago I discovered probably the most useful web application on the Internet.  Yes, I know that's a pretty bold statement.  However once you've seen what it can do, I think you'll agree.

IFTTT stands for "If This Then That", which is a reference to a conditional statement in programming.  Now don't get all glazey-eyed on me, this isn't an application just for programmers or technogeeks.

The app features the most simple interface; which honestly almost put me off the first time I saw it.  I never would have imagined that something so simple looking could be this powerful.

So what does it do?  Simply put, it allows you to select from many different events that, when triggered, will cause an action.  For example, using the ESPN app and Hue (Internet connected) light bulbs, you can set up IFTTT to make your lights flash if your team scores.  Other examples include:
  • If the date is May 4th, then update your Facebook status to "May the fourth be with you"
  • If your iOS device arrives at home, then text mom that you've arrived home.
  • If you press your Do Button then immediately call your phone to get you out of a conversation with that crazy coworker who doesn't seem to understand when the conversation is over and just won't take social hints or cues that you need him to walk away now... oh, maybe that's just me.
There are hundreds of of channels that you can set up as triggers or as part of the action, and you can set them up in whatever combinations (or "recipes") that you want.  However one that really sounds fun is IFTTT's own "Do Button".  This is a software button that you can add to you iOS or Android device to trigger an event.

IFTTT is a free service that is available at ifttt.com.

Pro tip: If the endless possibilities are so overwhelming that you can't figure out where to start, then (after you log-in) click Browse at the top to see recipes that others have created.

And don't forget to let me know in the comments how you end up using IFTTT!

Saturday, July 13, 2013

The Baofeng UV-5R+

After hearing several people talk about these new, extremely affordable, Chinese ham radios, I had to get one for myself.  Several of the people I know bought one of the Wouxun radios.  These look nice, but I decided to try the latest model from Baofeng (pronounced "bow-fang"... I think).  I purchased the UV-5R+ from Amazon for under $50.  Since we have an Amazon Prime membership, the two-day shipping option was free.

So after reading through the "owner's manuel" (their spelling, not mine), I still have a ton of unanswered questions.  Fortunately, while I was waiting for the radio to arrive I stumbled upon "The (Chinese) Radio Documentation Project"; the project's objective is to create better alternatives to these owners manuals.  Luckily for me, the first manual that the project took on is for the Baofeng UV-5R.

The first thing I learned was to make use of the programming cable (sold separately) along with CHIRP: an open-source (free as in speech) and free (as in beer) utility to program many different radios.  CHIRP really deserves its own review which I will likely write very soon - it is an incredibly useful application.  My favorite feature so far, is its ability to import repeater info based on queries sent online.  For example, I had it import all of the 2 meter and 70 centimeter repeaters in Pulaski County, Arkansas.  Three clicks... done.  Once you query for the repeaters that you want in the memory (or manually enter them through the spreadsheet-like interface), all you have to do is send it to the radio through the programming cable and you're all set.

The UV-5R has several features that I hadn't yet seen in any other model, such as:
  • Audible speech menus comes standard (both English and Chinese)
  • Changing the backlight color (purple, orange or blue) based on certain conditions (receiving, transmitting, default)
  • Alarm
The alarm is an interesting feature.  As you can see in the video below, you can optionally set the alarm to transmit a DTMF tone.


You might have picked up on the fact that the gentleman in the video said that there's no way to change what tones are sent when you use this feature, but here comes CHIRP to the rescue.  In addition to making memory management easy, CHIRP allows you to configure several of the radio's settings that you won't find in it's menu.  I decided to set the alert tones on my radio to the DTMF command that brings up our weather net on our local Skywarn repeater.  I'll see later whether or not that's useful (or a good idea).

So far I'm very impressed with this dual-watch, 128 memory, dual-band radio.  If anyone out there has any questions about it, please email them to me at N5JLC at CAUHF dot org, or simply comment on this post at http://cauhf.blogspot.com/.  I'll update this post with any questions I receive. So if you are interested, check back for updates.

Until next time, 
Joshua Carroll, N5JLC

Thursday, June 6, 2013

App Review: Challonge

Well, I haven't been the best about posting app reviews like I started, but I found an app today that I just have to share: Challonge.

This week I'm leading a chess camp at my son's school.  We've covered basics, opening move strategies, various techniques, and today we started a championship tournament - which led me to this awesome find...

I really needed to create a bracket, but have you ever create a double-elimination tournament bracket for 11 people?  Well, it's not easy.  So I turned to Google, and that's when I found Challonge (www.challonge.com): a free web-based bracket generator with some nice features that are really unexpected and make this more of a full-featured web application.



It took me two minutes (2:00) to create this fantastic looking bracket.  I entered all of their names, then selected a random seeding option.  I was then able to put in up on the projector so the kids could track the standings as we went along using the app's full-screen view.. perfect!  Later I was able to email a URL to the kids' parents so they an see the bracket online.  They loved it!

There are a lot of features that I didn't use this time, but will probably use in the future (Cub Scout pinewood derby) such as displaying seeds, photos of participants, different types of tournaments (single elimination, round robin, Swiss), public sign-up page, maximum number of participants, allow participants to report their own scores and more!

This is obviously an app with a specific niche, but as you can tell I'm a big fan.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Piece, part and scrounge...

This story will likely make several of you Elmers cringe... you've been warned.

My HF radio is an Icom 720a, the old kind that requires a mic with a pre-amp.  For the duration of the time it took me to complete Worked All States, I was using an IC-HM12 microphone - those familiar with that microphone will know that it does not have a pre-amp.  This made for several awkward moments in the house: I would be working a station on the other side of the country and having to talk EXTREMELY LOUDLY INTO THE MICROPHONE JUST SO THE OTHER STATION COULD BARELY HEAR ME.  Things would get awkward when my nine-year-old would wander into my radio shack (my home office) around 9 pm with the ever-present, "Daddy, you're too loud.  I can't sleep." Click.  Off goes the radio for the night.  (Dang, right in the middle of a nice pile-up...)

My dad (N5GC) and I had a great time at the Russellville Hamfest again this year.  We both walked away with some cool new trinkets.  But the one thing that I was very excited to find, was a General Electric desk mic, that someone had installed a homebrew pre-amp in.  Here's the catch: The only plug it has is a quarter inch audio plug.  Here's the other catch: The PTT button was disconnected by the previous owner (why?).

Now, before I go further, I need to explain: I am extremely impatient. Also important to know, I am not the best with a soldering iron.  I just had  to get that mic on the air, but I didn't want to cut the plug off and figure out how to connect it properly.  (I'm sure I don't have the right mic plug for this Icom anyway.)  So, I remembered what the inside of my Rigblaster looked like: well labeled pins with jumpers between the input and output.. BINGO!... and out come the alligator clips.

[There it was.  Did you hear the collective groans and gasps from every old ham everywhere?]

So, let me paint a picture for you: The GE desktop mic has two clips connected to the mic and mic-ground.  Those clips run to the output side of the mic and mic-ground on the Rigblaster.  To run the PTT, I have my original IC-HM12 mic plugged-in to the front of the Rigblaster.  So, yes, all-in-all I'm operating with two microphones.

I know it's crazy: CRAZY AWESOME!  I've been blasting through the recent QRM with my full 200 watts with no problem... and most importantly: no more screaming!

1. Yes, I know this isn't a permanent solution.
2. No, I do not recommend that anyone else try this.

Signed,
The Ham That's Now a Ham
Joshua Carroll, N5JLC
about.me/joshuacarroll
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PS - You may be wondering how I know that my signal improved so well.  Sometime last year I was surfing the web and came across websdr.org.  It is exactly what the name implies: it is several Software Defined Radios that you can control over the web.  They are for receiving only (no transmitting), but that's perfect for those times you're tuning your rig (or have a new pre-amp'd mic jury-rigged through a Rigblaster into a 200 watt HF transceiver) and it would really help if you could just hear yourself!  I like using the W4AX in Atlanta, Georgia because I don't have to wait long for the gray-line to assist with propagation.

73!