Monday, December 31, 2018

Hugo Winner Book Review: The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick

Winner of the Hugo Award for best novel in 1963, this is an alternate history story in which Germany and Japan won the second world war.

An unusual novel, the plot concerns a number of characters whose lives intersect. Taking place in the 1960s, it paints a believable picture of a possible future. An interesting twist is the existence in the story of a fictional novel that depicts a world where Germany and Japan lost the war.

It has an number of unusual and unexpected plot twists, but no satisfying ending.

Readers may be more familiar with the author's novel do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? which was made into the film Blade Runner.

Saturday, December 29, 2018

Hugo Winner Book Review: Dune by Frank Herbert

This novel won the Hugo award for best novel in 1966 and has been called the world's best-selling science fiction novel.

A sweeping novel, Herbert invented an entire universe with depth and detail like few other novels. It is alien, yet strangely familiar and could have taken place in another universe, or maybe in ours some time in the past or the distant future.

It spawned a series of novels. I first first read it in the 1970s, and remember seeing the spectacular failure of the 1984 film version by David Lynch.

I recall trying to read at least one of the sequels and was not able to finish it. Maybe I will give make another attempt.

The novel held up well on re-reading and, while long, is definitely a must-read for science fiction fans.

Saturday, December 8, 2018

Hugo Winner Book Review: Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein

This is another Hugo award winner by Heinlein (who won the award for best novel six times, more than any other author). Written in 1961, it won the award for 1962.

The inspiration for the book was said to come from an offhand comment Heinlein made in a speech (and later in one of his books) about the fact that no one ever wrote a book about a Martian named Smith.

Other than the premise of a human raised on Mars, the book is not heavy science fiction. The book was incredibly popular, becoming the first science fiction novel to make the New York Times best-seller list and had sold 5 million copies by 1997 and is still in print.

It's depiction of free love and commune living made the book controversial. The beliefs and politics in the book were substantially different from those in his previous novels. Friends of Heinlein have remarked that it reflected turning point in his personal beliefs from conservative to liberal values, which apparently also coincided with his marriage to his third wife. Heinlein claimed that he had planned and worked out the novel for years, but had to wait until society was ready to accept it. It was certainly in line with many of the societal changes that happened in the 1960s.

The book was even responsible for adding a new word, "grok", to the English language (and is recognized in the Oxford English Dictionary).

I've read the novel several times in the past, and enjoyed reading it again. I don't personally agree with many of the ideas in the story, but the goal of the author was to make the reader think and questions their values, and I fee that he succeeded.

I would rate this as the peak of Heinlein's career. Some of his later novels seemed to try to a similar approach but in my opinion came across as just trying to shock the reader. Overall this is an ideal novel for the non-science fiction reader.

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Hugo Winner Book Review: A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter Miller

The winner of the Hugo award for best novel of 1961 (the year I was born), I found this an interesting novel that is hard to categorize. Is it post apocalyptic science fiction? Black comedy? Does it make a statement about where the world may have been headed during the cold war (and maybe in the future)? Is it for or against religion?

Written in three parts, each separated by several hundred years but taking place in the same location, it is a long and sweeping novel. I'll need some time to absorb it.

Recommended, even for non-fans of science fiction. But be prepared to look up some Latin words and phrases.

Sunday, November 25, 2018

Hugo Winner Book Review: A Case of Conscience by James Blish

This was the Hugo award winner for best novel of 1959.

I was familiar with Blish through his novelisations of Star Trek episodes, but hadn't read any of his own original writing.

This is an interesting novel where the main character is a Jesuit priest who is one of a group to visit a planet with intelligent alien life. The aliens and their society raise religious, moral, and philosophical questions that the character struggles with. It also depicts an interesting vision of a post cold war 21st century Earth.

I found the latter half of the novel less interesting than the first, and the ending not particularly satisfying, but enjoyed it overall.

Hugo Winner Book Review: Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein

Another Hugo award winner by Robert A. Heinlein, this was best novel for 1960. I had read it before, but read it again for this Hugo award reading spree.

This is Heinlein's best known novel, and was made into a Hollywood film in 1997.

Less so than some of his early novels, like Beyond This Horizon but more so than his juveniles like Double Star, the book promotes Heinlein's political views and beliefs about the military. The Wikipedia article has good coverage of the novel and some of its more controversial elements.

While I strongly disagree with many of his political beliefs, it is a well-written gripping story. Good science fiction is often controversial and encourages the reader to think, and Heinlein certainly was one to encourage people to think.

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Hugo Winner Book Review: The Big Time by Fritz Leiber

This book marks the tenth novel in my quest to read all of the Hugo Award winners.

The Big Time was the winner of best novel for 1958. I found this book a little difficult to read and hard to follow. All the action takes place in one small location over a continuous period of time. Without giving away any spoilers, I thought the concept of the novel was interesting -- and it had a lot of similarities to Asimov's The End of Eternity, which was published three years earlier.

Incidentally, this novel won for 1958 and the last one I reviewed here was for 1956. There was no Hugo winner for best novel in 1957.

I'll get an opportunity to read another novel by the same author when I get to the winner for 1965 and will give him another chance.

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Hugo Winner Book Review: Double Star by Robert H. Heinlein

Winner of the 1956 Hugo award for best novel, this is classic Heinlein in his prime, during a period when he won six Hugo awards over a period of 15 years.

I'm was astonished to find that I had never read this one before. I finished it over a period of a couple of days, reminding me that good fiction can be a joy to read.

It is not a deep novel or one that makes you think, but it has a gripping plot, fine characterisation, and all the hallmarks of his best works including some references to things that would appear in later novels.

Highly recommended.

Saturday, November 17, 2018

Hugo Winner Book Review: They'd Rather Be Right by Mark Clifton and Frank Riley

This book won the Hugo award for best novel in 1955. It has been described by some as the worst book to win the Hugo award.

It has an interesting plot concept, some moments of good prose, and presents some unique ideas, but I found it very uneven and hard to get through in places, and left me feeling unsatisfied when I finished it.

By the standards of the science dime fiction pulp magazines of the 1950s it would have made an interesting story, but it pales in comparison to later novels by the top of the field like Asimov, Clarke, and Heinlein.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Hugo Winner Book Review: Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

Continuing with my review of Hugo award winning novels, this was the winner in 1954.

What can I say about Fahrenheit 451 - hasn't everyone read it? I've probably read it a dozen times over the years and reading it again was a pleasure. The novel is a classic and an example of some of Bradbury's best writing. It is also the only novel he considered science fiction (he considered The Martian Chronicles to be more fantasy that science fiction as it features a romanticised version of Mars that could support human life). Without giving away any spoilers, I'll just say that the novel is more relevant today that ever before, and presents a future that bears many frightening resemblances to where the world is headed today. I would consider it required reading for any fan of science fiction or just good fiction writing in general.

Saturday, November 10, 2018

Hugo Winner Book Review: The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester

This book won the first Hugo award for best novel in 1953. I found the novel difficult to get through, although about half way through I found it easier going. It uses a writing style that features long passages of dialog as well as some unusual ways to present characters who are communicating by telepathy.

All told, I was undecided whether this was an uneven novel that was hard to read, or if it was a groundbreaking book with a unique and innovative writing style - maybe both. I can see how it influenced later science fiction novels in the detective and cyberpunk genres.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Hugo Winner Book Review: Farmer in the Sky by Robert A. Heinlein

This novel was awarded the retro Hugo for best novel of 1951, awarded in 2001.

This is considered one of Heinlein's juveniles, meaning it was felt suitable for teens and young adults (and adults), at least in 1950.

Many of Heinlein's novels fit this category and most of them, like this one, are extremely good stories for adolescents and adults alike. He never talks down to the reader, but unlike some of his adult novels, they tend to avoid overt preaching of his personal beliefs about government, military, and economics.

To avoid any spoilers, I'll just say that this, like many of his juveniles, could be called a coming of age story, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Monday, October 22, 2018

Hugo Winner Book Review: The Mule by Isaac Asimov

The 1946 Retro Hugo Award for best novel was awarded to The Mule by Issac Asimov. Awarded in 1996, 50 years after its original publication, the name may not be familiar to Asimov fans as a novel. It is better known for being published as part of the Foundation Series, specifically the second half of the novel Foundation and Empire, the second novel of the Foundation trilogy. Originally it was published as a standalone novella.

The Foundation trilogy (which Asimov later extended into more novels) is perhaps his most famous series of novels, telling an ambitious story of the decline and fall of the galactic empire.

Despite its popularity, some readers find the series heavy in dialog and lacking in action. If you are new to Asimov, I would refer you to first read his short stories and some of his standalone novels before tackling his Foundation series. Then, you will want to start by reading the first novel in the series.

I have read the series several time over the course of many decades of being a science fiction fan. I re-read The Mule as part of my goal of reading all the Hugo award winners. At first I wasn't sure I would re-read it, but before long I was hooked and had to finish it. If found it and easy and enjoyable read.

In 1983, Asimov again won a Hugo when he continued the series with Foundation's Edge, and it was not the last in the series to be written. We'll get to that novel eventually, but not until I read about 30 more Hugo winners first.

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Hugo Winner Book Review: Beyond This Horizon by Robert A. Heinlein

(The cover image seems to bear no resemblance to anything in the novel)

Beyond This Horizon, by Robert A. Heinlein, was originally published in Astounding Science Fiction in 1942 and as a novel in 1948. It was awarded a Retro Hugo award for best novel for 1943 in 2018 (on its 75th anniversary).

It is an interesting novel, describing a world about three hundred years in the future.

He predicts a number of things which have come true today, including the water bed, telephones with speech recognition and alarms, use of the metric system, test tube babies, and the technology to analyze DNA.

The novel also promotes many of Heinlein's personal beliefs about society (such as carrying of weapons), marriage, and his then-current interests the Social Credit system of economics, and the General Semantics of Alfred Korzybski.

It even explores the ideas of telepathy and whether there could be some form of existence before and after death.

While I generally consider Heinlein's short stories to be among my favourite science fiction, many of his novels tend to be preachy and transparent vehicles for his personal beliefs. He makes use of some poor plot devices in order to lecture about his ideas.

This was most apparent in his first (unpublished during his lifetime) novel, For Us, The Living: A Comedy of Customs. In Beyond This Horizon is only slightly more subtle.

While the story has many interesting ideas (especially for 1942), I didn't really buy into the plot, or even feel there was one. Later novels, like Stranger in a Strange Land (another Hugo winner, from 1962) showed a lot more maturity. Unfortunately, I found some of his last works, like To Sail Beyond the Sunset, almost unreadable.

Essentially his first novel (though published in book form after Rocket Ship Galileo), I would consider it a good start by a new writer who improved over time, and superior to most novels of the era.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Hugo Award Winner Book Review: Slan, A. E. van Vogt, 1941

Slan, by A. E. van Vogt, was first published in 1940 and won the retro Hugo award for best novel of 1941 (awarded in 2016).

It is a science fiction story, pretty typical of the genre of the time, but with a very original plot. I think it holds up quite well today, other than some scientific explanations of atomic power.

The language used and lack of historical references means that the novel is not too dated and feels quite modern.

The abilities of the protagonist (which could be described as a type of superman) were perhaps a little over the top, reminding me in some ways of the Lensmen in E. E. Smith's Skylark series.

Generally considered to be A. E. van Vogt's best novel, I would highly recommend it as an easy and enjoyable read for science fiction fans.

As a final piece of trivia, A. E. van Vogt was born in Winnipeg, Canada, and was living and working in Ottawa when he wrote this novel. He subsequently moved to Los Angeles when his writing career took off, and remained there for the rest of his life.

Thursday, October 4, 2018

Hugo Award Winner Book Review: The Sword in the Stone, T.H White, 1939

[Note: In this and subsequent reviews I will attempt to avoid any major spoilers, but read it at your own risk if you are planning to read any of these books.]

This is the book that was awarded the oldest retro Hugo award to date, and was my starting point for my goal of reading all the Hugo award-winning novels.

Must Hugos are science fiction, but this one is pure fantasy. I'm not a huge fan of the genre (I have enjoyed some though, like the Tolkien books), but I expect as part of my journey I may read some novels that are not to my liking. In fact it was a very enjoyable book and was quite an easy read.

The book tells the story of "Wart", the foster son of Sir Ector, a nobleman who rules a part of England in the middle ages. After their tutor leaves, Wart and Sir Ector's son Kay acquire a new tutor by the name of Merlin (spelled "Merlyn" in the novel). They have many adventures, eventually culminating in the major event that is referenced in the title of the book.

Published in 1939, it combines drama, history, events from the Arthurian legend, and comedy. There are some references to contemporary life (at least of the 1930s). The book eventually became the first of a four part series of novels.

If the name sounds familiar to you, its may be because if formed the basis of a 1963 Walt Disney animated film of the same name. The film follows roughly the same plot as the novel, with some notable differences. Reading the book, it is easy to see how it lent itself to an animated film, due to the use of magic and other elements that would be hard to portray in a live action film (before the days of CGI).

The book contains some very poetic passages, and what to me appear to be quite accurate descriptions of castles and other aspects of life at that time.

I initially wasn't sure it the book was aimed adults or young adults. I would say it appeals equally to both. Many of the terms and words are obscure, but not necessary to follow the plot, and are easy enough to look up today.

I would rate this book as a forgotten classic which is not generally well-known today but should appeal to any reader of, say, the Harry Potter books or the writings of Tolkien who is looking for something new to read.

Very few fantasy novels won the Hugo award, possibly no others until 2001 Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.

Monday, September 3, 2018

Science Fiction Bucket List

The Hugo Awards are a set of literary awards given annually for the best science fiction and fantasy writing. The awards are named after Hugo Gernsback, the founder of the science fiction magazine Amazing Stories. They been awarded annually since 1953.

Prizes are awarded in a number of categories, including best novel.

The Retrospective Hugo Awards, or Retro Hugos, were added in the mid-1990s and are awarded for works published prior to the start of the annual awards.

To date, 70 Hugos have been awarded for best novel, including six retro Hugos.

I have read a number of the Hugo award winning novels over the years, and all of my favourite science fiction authors have won at least one award. A check of my science fiction collection identified nine Hugo award winning novels in my bookcase.

I have been wanting to expand my reading of science fiction to include more authors, particularly some more modern novels. The idea occurred to me to set as a goal to read all of the Hugo award winning novels, starting with the first Retro Hugo in 1939, up to the current (2018) winner. I'm going to make an attempt at this, starting with the earliest novels and moving to more recent ones. Ideally, I will reread some novels that I have already read, if it has been some years since I did so.

This may take some time - possibly years - and the list of winning novels will continue to grow as a new one is awarded each year (there will likely be some more retro Hugos awarded as well).

I plan to write a short review of each novel here on this blog.

I now have on order several of the early novels, and a few of them I already own, so I hope to start the first reviews within the next few weeks. I hope some of you will follow my progress, and maybe add your comments if you have read the same novels.

Friday, August 24, 2018

Effective YouTube Videos

I don't consider myself an expert by any means, but after making over 100 YouTube videos I can think of a few tips that will help improve the quality and effectiveness of videos that you might want to make and help you avoid some "newbie mistakes".

You don't need a professional camera, but try to use something better than a smart phone. A digital camera that supports video is one good relatively low-cost option.

Use a tripod! A handheld camera will not cut it. You can buy an inexpensive camera tripod or even improvise something. If you need to shoot while moving, explore low cost camera gimbals.

Use an external microphone. This will greatly improve the sound quality. Also try to record the video in a quiet place (as much as possible) to avoid extraneous sounds like telephones, clocks, pets, people talking, etc.

Edit the video! Make use of some (free) video editing software to edit out mistakes, remove silent portions of the video, and add some basic titles and effects. There can be a bit of a learning curve here, but it can greatly improve how watchable the videos are, and it can be fun.

Use as much light as you can. If you don't have professional lighting, see what you can improvise by adding additional lights over what would normally be in the room.

You may prefer to read from a script, or to make the video impromptu. Either is fine - whatever best fits your personal style. But at least have an overall plan and structure to the video, what you want to say, and what you want to do or show.

Change camera angles often. Try to make use of motion, i.e. don't just show something, but move or operate it.

When uploading to YouTube, give your video a descriptive title, a good description, and add keywords. Fill out other information like language, recording date, etc.

Keep the video short and to the point. You will lose viewers if it goes much beyond 10 or 15 minutes. Edit out silence and don't pad it out with an overly long introduction or background information. Consider splitting a video up into multiple parts if there is a logical way to do so.

Thursday, August 23, 2018

The Octopus Curve Tracer

I recently put together an interesting little piece of test equipment. It is a simple curve tracer, sometimes called a V/I curve tracer or an Octopus curve tracer (because it has eight wires coming out of it).

It is used for testing electronic components and circuitry, and works in conjunction with an oscilloscope in X-Y mode (where the X and Y axes indicate the voltages on each channel and no time base is involved).

The basic idea is to apply a small (typically 1 volt) AC voltage across the unit under test (UUT). The voltage across the UUT is connected to the oscilloscope's X or horizontal axis. The current through the UUT is sampled across a resistor and applied to the scope's Y or vertical axis. The pattern on the oscilloscope indicates the current/voltage characteristics of the UUT on the display. The pattern, sometimes called a signature, gives information about the UUT.

For example, An open circuit, with voltage but no current, will appear as a horizontal line (the pictures here were taken using an oscilloscope and the unit I built):

A short circuit, with current but no voltage, appears as a vertical line:

A resistor will show a diagonal line, with the angle varying depending on the resistance:

Capacitors and inductors are more interesting. They will cause a phase shift between the current and voltage, resulting in a circle or ellipse whose width depends on the value of capacitance or inductance. Here is a capacitor:

A combination of resistance, capacitance, or inductance will show both a line and a ellipse.

A diode (or the semiconductor junction between two leads of a transistor) will show the characteristic "knee curve" of a diode where it conducts in only one direction once the forward voltage is reached (recall that we are applying an AC voltage so we can see both forward and reverse behavior):

The tester is most often used to test components. It can be used in-circuit, provided that the unit under test is powered off.

In the simplest version of the tester the AC voltage is fixed and derived from the AC line using a transformer. I built a version based on the QEX article listed later under References which provides three selectable voltage ranges of 1 volt, 5 volts, and 10 volts RMS. This allows devices like Zener diodes to be tested that require higher voltages in order to see them conduct in the forward direction. In all cases the current is limited to about 1 mA to prevent damage to the device or tester.

The tester is generally safe for testing all components, with a couple of exceptions. One is electrolytic capacitors, which shouldn't have a reverse voltage applied to them (although I doubt that a few seconds applied to the tester would do any permanent damage). Also LEDs have a relatively low peak inverse voltage rating (typically 4 to 5 volts) that could be exceeded on the higher ranges.

I build my unit based on the design described in the 2017 QEX article. As mentioned, this design incorporates three voltage ranges. It uses trimmer pots to allow the output voltages and short circuit currents to be adjusted. I modified the circuit slightly, adding a fuse and using the range switch to control power as well. I adjusted the resistor values to work with my power transformer, aiming for for 1, 5, and 10 volt RMS ranges and 1 mA maximum current.

Parts came from my junk box as well as some low cost new parts ordered from eBay sellers in China. The transformer was an approximately 12 volt secondary unit found in my junk box. The case, rotary switch, and most of the connectors were new parts, including some low cost test leads with banana jacks and alligator clips.

I built the circuitry "ugly style" on a piece of copper clad PCB using MeSquares from It was then wired to the switches and connectors in the case using point to point wiring.

The unit is calibrated by connecting an AC voltmeter to the red and black leads and adjusting the appropriate pots for the desired open circuit voltage on each range. Then an AC current meter is connected across the leads and the current limiting pots are adjusted for a current of 1 mA on each range,

The summary of how to use the unit is the following:

  1. Set to desired range: 1V for semiconductors, 5V or 10V for Zeners.
  2. Attach leads to oscilloscope scope and put it in X-Y mode.
  3. With open circuit, adjust the scope for a horizontal line the full width of the display.
  4. Short the test leads and adjust the scope for a vertical line the full height of display.
  5. Connect the component or circuit under test across the red and black leads (with power off) and observe the display.
  6. If changing ranges, repeat steps 3 and 4.

Overall it looks quite nice and I plan to keep it handy on the bench. If you have an oscilloscope that supports X-Y mode, I would encourage you to try you hand at building a unit.


  1. "The Octopus: An Overall Component Tester for In-Circuit Troubleshooting", David L. Ludlow W7QHX, QST magazine, July 1975.
  2. "Improve Performance of Your Octopus V/I Curve Tracer Using a Single Voltage Transformer", Paulo Renato F. Perreira PY3PR, QEX magazine, May/June 2017.

Commercial products based on this technique exist. The "Huntron Tracker" is one such unit. Semiconductor curve tracers are also similar but more sophisticated. Some oscilloscopes also offer a curve tracer function built in with a "component test" mode.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Rebuilding The Heathit AT-1 Transmitter - Testing and Wrapup

I did further testing of the restored unit, measuring voltages against the manual, and they all looked okay.

The unit was speced at operating from 105 to 125 VAC. At the time it was released line voltages in North America tended to be lower than today (typical 120 VAC or more now). For testing purposes I found that an input voltage of 117 VAC gave heater (6.3 VAC) and B+ voltages that were close to what was listed in the manual, so I did my testing with a Variac set to that level.

I measured the RF output on each band both with a rather inaccurate SWR/power meter and by measuring the peak to peak output voltage on an oscilloscope across a 50 Ohm dummy load.

    80M: 13 Watts
    40M: 12 Watts
    20M:6.3 Watts
    10M: 1 Watt

Power on 10 meter is quite low, but is apparently normal as the output tube has very low gain at the higher frequency. I captured the output on different bands on my oscilloscope:

Since the power supply is not regulated, there is quite a drop in the B+ on key down, from 512 to 430 volts. Note that there is also 139 VDC at the code key contacts, so you want to avoid touching them!

Here is the oscilloscope output of keying:

And using the spectrum analyzer mode of my Rigol scope:

It is interesting compare some of circuitry before:

and after restoration:

This project was a lot of fun - I got to recreate the experience of building from a kit. I was also fascinating think that someone built this in the late 50s or early 60s and obviously used it quite heavily over the years.

I will have to try it on the air once I get an new antenna up. The power level qualifies it as a QRP rig.

I'm still looking to find the VF-1 matching VFO if I can get one at a reasonable price.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Rebuilding The Heathit AT-1 Transmitter - It's Alive!

Initial powerup tests are good and indicate that it is producing output on all four bands. I powered is up slowly with a Variac and then did some testing with an input voltage of about 110 VAC. I'm seeing output on all four bands, close to 10 Watts of output power depending on the band.

I find it is easier to adjust the driver and output controls by looking for maximum power output rather than the built in meter (the usual procedure is to adjust the driver control for a dip in the grid current and then adjust the output control for a peak in plate current - except for 80 meters where the drive
input is not tuned). The meter is an old iron vane type that is not damped and bounces all over the place until it stabilizes - which is not very good as you need to quickly adjust the controls to minimize the chances of damaging the output tube.

I still need to make some more voltage and power output measurements and look at the output waveform while keying.

I'm still also waiting for some octal plugs - one is used for an optional modulator (and needs to short two pins when not present) and one is for an optional VFO.

Heathkit sold the VF-1 VFO or Variable Frequency Oscillator that allowed it to transmitt at frequencies set by the VFO rather than fixed with crystals. I hope to acquire one of these some day - they show up on eBay quite often.

The unit could also transmit using AM voice, with an external modulator. Heathkit never offered a modulator kit, but various circuits were published at the time and in fact Heathkit published a suggested circuit in their 1955 sales flyer. It would make for an interesting project to build one - it used 5 tubes (one dual), making it a little more complex than the AT-1 transmitter.