My first radio contact from a high altitude balloon

I’ve been watching – with awe – the number of high altitude balloon (HAB) launches there are here in the UK, and thinking about building my own and sending it up.  Last month I went up to Cambridge for the annual UKHAS Conference which was really interesting. Not only are people launching balloons to great heights above 30 kilometers, but there are also solar-powered trackers on “floater” balloons which rise to a certain altitude and circumnavigate the earth many times (see UBSEDS18 for an example).

I want to build one, but figured the first step was tracking.  I picked up a cheap SDR module, and set off building a yagi antenna.  I finished it back in August, but after the conference, I was determined to find a launch in the UK that I could try and track.

I finally got my chance on September 24th with a balloon launched in Wiltshire called “Stabilotron-II”.  The launch was a slow ascent of 1 meter / second which is slower than a lot of flights, so I had plenty of time to set up.  It worked!


This is the first clean data sentence I received.  At 50 bits / second.  Over radio waves.  Pretty cool!

Here you can see my homemade yagi mounted on a camera tripod, sticking out the skylight window of my top floor bathroom.  I tracked the balloon with varying success from the midlands over Norwich and across the sea until it was over land in the Netherlands.  The quality of my antenna & receiver setup isn’t that great – during the flight I had to make a lot of adjustments (including moving my laptop away from the antenna – makes a big difference!).  My last recorded contact was at a range of about 300km somewhere over/past Rotterdam – which is pretty amazing!  After that, I could receive some data, but only in patches; not enough to get clean tracking data back.

From the HAB tracking server statistics, I received 221 “sentences” which isn’t much compared to most of the other receivers, but not bad for only £30 in parts.

For software, I used:

  • dl-fldigi v3.1 on OSX
  • HDSDR bundle for OSX which includes rtl_tcp (my USB SDR is a RTL2832 + R820T2)
  • Soundflower for audio routing from HDSDR to dl-fldigi

I’m fussing with a raspberry pi to build a dedicated tracking machine for future flights which I’ll surely get done one of these days.

The experienced trackers are clearly a lot better at this – but hey, I parsed 221 messages, which ain’t bad for a first go :)

Next step: actually assembling my own HAB payload and launching it!

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Iceland – Aurora Borealis

These photos are best viewed while listening to Island Songs (Ólafur Arnalds).

Last night we saw a spectacular show of the aurora borealis.  There aren’t any words to quite describe it.  We saw the first glimpses around 9 PM (Iceland time) while the sky was still lit from dusk, and at first I thought my eyes were playing tricks (pun intended) on me.  The show started slowly and faintly at first but didn’t waste any time.  It was quite brilliant for the first few hours and generally came in ribbons which spanned maybe 20 degrees of the sky.  The show only let up lightly – there was always a faint haze in the sky from it.  Later past midnight the show was less intense but more spread throughout the sky.  I stayed up until everyone had gone to sleep and around 2:30 AM I noticed my lens was fogging up – the temp had dropped to a cool 3°C, the camera was cold all over and I couldn’t keep the water from condensing for more than a minute at a time.  I called it a night around 3 AM.

Normally I try to pick out a favorite shot, but in my roll of 200+ shots, there’s really about 50 truly amazing photos in there.

One of the best aurora photos is this one:

My favorite shot of a rather large bunch of really truly amazing shots is a 10-minute exposure star trail + blurred aurora:

For the photos: Sit down, put on the song Particles, and browse the full image set.

I also took a few series of timed shots which I then animated and put on YouTube:

Many thanks go to the Aurora Service website, to Jake Ruston for his Aurora app, and to the Icelandic Met Office for their satellite imagery as Weather Underground’s syndicated satellite feed doesn’t go this far north.

For the photography nerds
out there…read on.

Photos taken on my Canon T5i (700D) w/ EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 ISM lens between 10 PM on August 31st, 2016.  Most shots are fully zoomed out at 18mm, f/3.5, with exposure lengths from 4″ to 10″ and ISO set to auto varying all the way from 160 for longer 30″ exposures to ISO 3200 for some of the shorter shots.  I can’t decide which shots look better, the 30″ ISO 200 shots or the 6″ ISO 3200 shots that have so much detail but a bit of grain in them.
Photo stitching is done with mencoder and then uploaded to youtube as a 4k video.
Photo series are timed and exposure controlled with a TriggerTrap.
Since I’m traveling and using a small suit case, I only had my GorillaPod tripod with me.  A lot of shots show a small amount of false “star trail” which is artificial – it’s the camera moving slightly and slowly during the longer exposures.

All in all shooting this with my camera wasn’t really that hard.  Just put the camera on shutter priority mode, set it to a few seconds, and set it to a 2-second delay before taking the shot so you can let go of the camera before the shutter opens.  Hardest part was getting the focus right.  The only way I could get it right was to find one of the pesky neighbor houses a few miles away with a bright lamp on their porch, zoom and focus on it, and then zoom back out making sure I leave it on manual focus. Then just never touch it.  I wish the camera/lens had a firm way to zoom to infinity, but the lens lets you zoom beyond infinity which produces reliably blurry images.

To really shoot this…a full frame camera wouldn’t hurt at all.  A fixed wide angle lens would be perfect for this, and a more sturdy tripod.  I’ll probably buy a wide angle lens for just-in-case someday I find myself here again :)

Finally, for Sarah:


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Iceland – Day 1

We’re staying in Iceland for the next week – in a somewhat rural area north of Selfoss, right about here:

We couldn’t appreciate the landscape’s beauty last night having arrived at midnight.  However the stars were incredible.  Fans of Heavens Above would love it – sattelites with a magnitude of positive 2 and 3 were plenty easily visible.  I snapped a few long exposure photos which turned out to be not focused very well but are already pretty incredible.

Then today (Monday) I took this time lapse at 5s/frame for about 1h20m.  That’s the view out our front window.  Pretty amazing:


Finally for all you sunset lovers, get your drinks. The sunset here was just stunning.  Enjoy.  (click through!)

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Four years in Shanghai – without a doubt the coolest thing I’ve ever done. 再见上海!

I still have the one-way ticket from Chicago when I came here: June 2nd, 2011.  The week leading up to my move here was madness, and arriving here was comical.  The airline had lost my biggest suitcase, the one with all my clothes in it.  They don’t sell clothes my size here in Shanghai, at least not on the rack.  I wore the same clothes for three days!

Here I sit, four years on.  It’s been a wild ride living in Shanghai and it’s come time to turn the page again.  My wife and I are moving to London tomorrow where I’ll be continuing my same role with Mintel.

I’ve learned a lot in my time in China.  Not just about China, too – I’ve travelled around Asia so much and visited countries and cities that previously I couldn’t point out on a map.  It’s hard to remember what life was like back before I came here – I think I knew so little about the world then.  Seriously, did you know that the Vietnamese call it “The American War”?  I’d just never thought about it that way, to be honest.

To give you an idea where I’ve been, here’s my travel map for the last four years using showing the 400,000 miles I’ve flown since my first trip to Shanghai in March 2011:

Traveling around is nice, but there’s a lifetime’s worth of things you could explore just here in Shanghai.  Lets start with…


Below are Xiaolongbao pictured at Mintel-favorite Small Dragon restaurant:

My favorite cuisine though is the local Sichuan food.  When I first moved here I couldn’t eat anything spicy, and I’m living proof that spiciness in food is a learned thing.  My favorite dish is called laziji 辣子鸡 which is bits of bony fried chicken buried in a sea of chili peppers.  It’s the dish in baskets on left and right sides of this photo.  The soup in the middle is even spicier and also delicious, which is fish (with tiny bones!) in a steaming cauldron of spicy chili hot soup.

The chilies themselves are sold dry:

There’s also spicy barbeque fish!

Finally you can’t forget Portuguese egg tarts 蛋挞 (“dan ta” – easy to pronounce) available at lots of street corner shops.  The sweetest ones are from Lillian’s Bakery but different shops have a different style and they’re all good.  I hate to say it, but KFC’s are pretty good too.  Egg tarts are best eaten with a cold pearl milk tea 珍珠奶茶 (one of the first phrases I learned).  You can get a couple of egg tarts and a milk tea for an afternoon pick me up for about 10 RMB ($1.60).  Mmm…sugar…

Ok, enough about food (for now).  There’s some stuff here you just won’t see in America.

“Styrofoam Lady”

Every single day there are hundreds of people on three-wheel pedal carts riding around Shanghai picking up and hauling materials around – a lot of which is refuse being recycled somewhere else.  Every single day this same woman pictured below rides down Madang Road on my commute route with a giant load of styrofoam.  Sometimes so much tied and stacked up that you can barely find her beneath it all, like this day:

There are 24 million people in Shanghai, many of which I have seen every day, but will never meet.

My biggest surprise: I can read Chinese

Ok, not really, I know probably know about 20 of the 8,000 characters needed to be able to “read” Chinese.  But when I moved here, I thought Chinese was just madness scribbles on paper that I’d never be able to understand, so I focused on trying to listen and speak.  Strangely enough four years on, my spoken Chinese is terrible, but I recognize actually quite a few of the base characters in Chinese writing – I recognize more written symbols than I can understand when listening to people speak.

Cycling to work

Cycling on the roads here is fun if you like to live dangerously.  For the past four years I’ve been riding to/from work about 4 days out of each week, first from my apartments in Jing’An and later from my apartment in Huangpu district racing up Madang road to the office.  Tallying it up: four years, a few hundred miles a year, and just one accident – with a pedestrian.  I’ve gone through two full sets of front brake pads and snapped brake cables.  And an absolutely – almost daily incrementing – count of near misses with buses, pedestrians, motor bikes, taxis, did I mention buses?, electric bikes, and idiot taxi drivers doing 11 point U-turns.

Chinglish translations

I might have to publish a book of these someday, so here’s a taste of some of the amazing signs I’ve captured photos of:


The hardest part leaving Shanghai is the people I’ve met.  Sure you meet a lot of people when you travel, but some people stick with you, and before you know it you’re up at 2 AM with them, drinking something called “shaquila” and making cookie dough.  Jake & Sha, Mike and Sarah, Mark and Jessie, you’ve made the last few years really special.  Dale, too bad you had to leave so soon.  Co-workers Andrew, Louis, Yanchen, Frank, Daniel, Xiang and Susan, thank you for all the late nights at work and times at lunch.  Sarah Luo, our real estate agent who we later found out had never made a sale until she met us, has been an amazing help.  I hope our paths all cross again.

Who am I kidding, I can’t sum up four years in one document.  I’ll be telling these stories the rest of my life.

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Net Neutrality

I’m an Internet nerd.  I’ve been using the Internet since early days, on a dialup modem TUI to our local BBS, and later on MichNet which was made availably by our K-12 school in Adrian.  I’ve grown up a bit since then, going to university studying computer programming, working on free software projects, and now working at Mintel for the past 8 years, recently moving into our IT Infrastructure team being the chief decision maker on what ISPs we use and how much of it we buy.

In short, I’m an Internet nerd.  I really care about the Internet “tubes” I’m using.  I have spent too many hours in the past few years at work, slaving away, comparing traceroutes and packet loss on Mintel’s mesh of network links to find the most optimal routes.  The net neutrality thing matters to me as a network engineer.

As a computer enthusiast in my time, living in China, let me tell you what: in China, there is no net neutrality.  Google, Facebook, Twitter, are blocked – not even just a few IPs, but all traffic to their ASNs on ports 80 and 443 are 100% blocked, and many of their DNS records rewritten. Once in 2013 I found that was blocked in China – who knows why.  SourceForge was blocked for a while, too.  The BBC was blocked this month.  Users complain that these sites are blocked, and sure that’s annoying.  But the businesses out there who compete for market share of users to sustain their business – which Facebook would sure love to do in China – are boxed out of the market without even being asked.  Sina Weibo, Tencent, RenRen, and the dozen other attempts at big time social media in China would have had stiff competition if we had net neutrality in China.  We do not.

This week I stumbled across The Oatmeal’s explanation of Net Neutrality, and it was simple enough that I liked it.  The video eluded to an Orwellian reason why websites might end up being entirely blocked in a place where the Internet is a frequently used tool in a modern, consumer-driven civilized economy where millions of happy people use the Internet.  You can’t imagine the government ever blocking websites in the USA – it would never happen, right?

A laptop with blocked, with blocked looking quite dreadful, and saying "for monopoly and/or Orwellian reasons."  Copyright The Oatmeal.

I live this crap ever day.
This is what it’s like in China.  This is what it’s like in many countries around the world.

I was happy today to see this highlight from President Obama on the subject, calling for the FCC to make a firm commitment to net neutrality.  I’m not big on partisan politics and I could care less what the latest debate is on the subject.  In short, Net Neutrality is good, the general public agrees, and we should have it.

Being the USA where so many of the building blocks of the Internet were dreamt and built, we have a responsibility to the rest of the world to get this right and lead with example.  Lets get it right, my fellow Americans.

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VyOS Users Meeting Japan

Today I did something cool: I attended the VyOS Users Meeting Japan #2 in Tokyo.

I clearly was not prepared for this meetup – my laptop has no stickers on the back of it.  I think every presenter’s laptop looked like this:

Consensus is: we need some VyOS stickers!

We had presentations from six VyOS users & hackers. I was the only presenter in English and I know about six words of Japanese, so a lot of it was lost on me, but it was fun still. I particularly enjoyed the presentation by Kazuhito Ohkawa (SatchanP) about VyOS at Kauli, Inc. – he’s clearly incredibly smart, and an enthusiastic presenter. I also enjoyed the presentation by Ryo Nakamura (upa) about VXLAN – especially his slide about RIP Vyatta.

Yuya Kusakabe (higebu), the organizer, gave us a good introduction to VyOS 1.1.0.  There were two more presentations which I had to miss – I had to leave the event early to catch my train out of Tokyo.

I gave a short presentation and demonstration of the build-ami scripts I’ve been working on, and a painfully long demonstration.  During my demonstration I mentioned how the Japanese Vyatta / VyOS community is the strongest in the world, to the point where when years ago I read about how to make Vyatta EC2 machines, I found myself referencing a developer named j3tm0t0 who I had never met.  He stood up – he was there in the room!

I showed everyone the Google Trends heat map which shows that Japan is the hot spot for Vyatta & VyOS users:

Special thanks to Yuya Kusakabe and Nifty Corporation for organizing this group.  The Nifty office is very nice.  Everyone, please buy Yuya a beer, and encourage him to host this user meet up regularly.

Update: due to requests, here’s an English list of the presentations given:

  • 15:00 VyOS 1.1.0 and NIFTY Cloud New Features given by @higebu.  No slides available :(
  • 15:30 VyOS VXLAN given by @upaa.  Slides all in English.
  • 16:00 About vyos/build-ami given by me (@trickv).  Slides (in English).
  • 16:30 Case studies of VyOS in Kauli SSP given by @SatchanP.  Slides all in English except for one.
  • 17:00 Debian Jessie build environment, vyos-cfg-zabbix-agent, bug #345 report given by @hiroysato.  Slides almost all in English.
  • 17:30 NAT performance testing given by @twovs.  Slides in Japanese + English.


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Lunar eclipse from Shanghai

Today I watched and photographed the lunar eclipse from Shanghai.  It was a lot of fun – Sarah and I ordered pizza and stood on the terrace at Mintel’s Shanghai office with my camera, snapping photos.’s eclipse calculator was very helpful as it shows the direction to look for the moon and the timing of each phase of the eclipse.

All the photos below are links to hi-res images – please click and enjoy.

The moon became visible after the eclipse was already partially in progress, coming up over the horizon around 17:30 local time, and a few minutes later I found a view of it between some buildings at 17:47:

I was rather lucky where it started to rise – right between two buildings about the same height as mine:

18:06: As the moon rose, the eclipse furthered.  Using different exposures allowed me to show the buildings around it, or to hone in on the detail of the moon itself:

18:19: As we approach the total eclipse, some pesky clouds roll by:

18:29 After a while the moon came out from behind the clouds, but we were near the total eclipse:

18:52: At last, we have a clear view of the total eclipse:

Here’s a cropped version:

The full eclipse lasts about 20 minutes.

19:20: Before you know it, the bright light of the sun starts to strike the moon directly again:

Here it is with a bit less exposure:

The following photos are all in sequence, with shorter exposures on the left to highlight the detail of the bright emerging side of the moon, and longer exposures on the right to show detail of the darker (red) side while making the bright side look like the sun:













20:39: The total eclipse has finished, but the penumbral eclipse lasts for another hour:

Finally, the penumbral eclipse is finished and the moon is back in full:

It wasn’t bad scenery, staring out the Shanghai skyline (the Bund in the bottom-left), watching a lunar eclipse!

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Da Moon

After seeing some beautiful photos of August’s supermoon, I pondered what kind of camera it might take to capture such detailed photos of the moon.  I’ve recently taken delivery of a Canon EOS 700D (T5i), which when pointed at the moon, does what every camera does in “auto” mode: produce a photo of a bright white blob in the sky.

I got to searching, and read How To Take Stunning Pictures Of The (Super) Moon, which lends some advice on settings (ISO speed, exposure and aperture).  Sure enough, coupled with a used 250mm zoom lens procured at the Shanghai Photography Center, I was able to capture some good detail.

Here’s the final cropped product:

Shot on September 10th from my balcony in Shanghai.


  • 1/15 exposure
  • ISO100
  • 250mm zoom
  • F16.0

I actually took the shot in raw + jpeg, but I haven’t yet had enough experience with raw to produce quality better than the automated jpeg.  I also had the camera on a tripod, and to reduce shake, used tethered shooting from the ugly Canon app.

Here’s the original jpeg photo for the curious:

Should be fun next month for the October 8th lunar eclipse – thanks for the tip, Marie!

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Gone for a walk in the rain

Gone for a walk in the rain

We had an amazing rain & thunderstorm last week, and aside the beautiful lightning shots Sarah and I captured, the above photo of this anonymous, soaked individual stands out.

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Things you see on the street in Shanghai

It’s always an adventure out there.

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