15 June 2017

My take on CloudAtCost surprise maintenance fee

Note: this post goes beyond the interest of the main audience of this blog. But it is the only way I have to share my thoughts. If you have no business with CloudAtCost you can skip this post. But please don't do business with them.

Few years ago I bought a virtual server from a company called CloudAtCost. It was sold with a one-time risible fee that left me wonder what kind of business model was behind it. Now, on June 15th 2017, chickens are coming home to roost. I received an email from them titled "24 Hour Server Suspension Warning" stating that there is an unpaid invoice. So I logged into their user panel to discover that they changed their Terms of Service, and now they include a recurring annual maintenance fee (9 USD). The invoice was issued one month ago, and no email warning had been sent. Also, as I recall, no email warning was issued when ToS were modified.

Over these years their service has been quite lousy, and got worse month after month: I could live without my overseas basic server.

But but but.

I have an invoice of 9 USD expiring in a couple of days. I looked everywhere on their user portal for an "account termination" button, but I couldn't find any. I took the time to read their current ToS and found these worringly interesting points:

9.9 All bills and receipts will be sent to Customer electronically at the current email address provided by Customer in the Customer Account. Customer is responsible to keep such email address up to date with CloudatCost. [NOTE: I got no bill for the maintenance fee, but first pay then complain - in 30 days - ]

9.11 Interest will accrue on any amount not paid for thirty (30) days following the billing date, as and from the billing date at a rate of 2% per month (26.82% per annum) or the maximum legal rate, if less.

9.18 Customers with a onetime payment service is subject to an annual maintenance fee of $9 which will be invoiced 12 months after using our service. This does not apply to users that have a monthly paid service. This Maintenance fee will ensure proper hardware upgrades and maintenance to reduce degradation of onetime payment services. [this generated the current mess]

And, last but not least:

20.1 The terms of this Agreement, including fees, charges, features, content or any other aspects of a Service, may change at any time and without prior notice. The Customer is responsible for frequently reviewing this Agreement posted on CloudatCost' web site to obtain timely notice of any such changes.

Paragraph 20.1 struck me: they don't care to notify their Customers of ToS changes! And they can change the fee of §9.18 anytime, without giving any notice. I am speechless.

Given their Customer-unfriendly manners, I have a strong feeling that all those unpaid maintenance fee invoices generated by "forgotten" accounts will end up at a debt collection firm(s), together with the 26.82% interest rate: what a great way to financially support their "business". A note to European users: their debt would be transferred to a EU-based firm and then subject to EU laws. Improbable? Maybe. But in 5 years such a debt could turn into a request of 100€/$.

My strategy is to pay the invoice and begin the account termination procedure in due time. UNLESS, they REALLY improve their service.

12 June 2017

5870 vs 5750

Nixies 5870/ZM1332 (and alike) and B-5750 share the same pinout, the same digit dimensions and shape, but not the height. Here is a side-by-side comparison of the two tubes during a test in my clock-to-be.

Left are ZM1332/5870's and the rightmost is a 5750:

Left to right: ZM1332, ZM1332, ZM1332, B-5750.

26 May 2017

Staging the Nixie line-up on PCB

First things first: do ZM1332/5870S fit and align on my fresh PCB's? Do they look right? In order to get a first impression I picked four of those Nixies and inserted them into one PCB.

Probably the holes in the footprint I made in KiCad could have been a tad larger. Nixie pins need to be 100% straight to enter, but the black plastic base can be pulled down to keep them aligned. On the other hand, the little beauties stand up perfecly: good when I will solder them to the PCB.

Front view.

Top view.

Back view.

23 May 2017

My firstpcb.com's first PCB's have arrived!

Finally! After a slooooow journey across the world, my first PCB's have arrived! Ten pieces of a board holding 4x ZM1332/5870S Nixies, the driver IC and transistors. The tubes are supposed to be multiplexed offboard.

There is a lot of free board space, I know. I could have packed many more components, but I really wanted something as general purpose as possible that would simply hold the tubes in place at a proper distance. And, a PCB that would work right away (test still pending).

These PCBs were designed in KiCad and fabbed by www.firstpcb.com. I haven't found a problem but, as I said, these are simple two-layer boards.

In case you want to give a try at the whole PCB production process, you may want to register through my referral link https://www.firstPCB.com/mi_odrCr8 which gives both of us a 10 USD bonus (new customers get it nevertheless).

The boards packed in vacuum. Cool.

19 May 2017

My review of "57° Mercatino di Marzaglia" - May 2017

Top quality from the past!
For the first time I attended the famous Mercatino di Marzaglia near Modena (57th edition, May 2017). I believe it is the largest Italian radio-electronics flea market event, only for private sellers and used items. No cheapo Chinese modern stuff, no drones (not even in the air!), not much computers either. It takes place in a large camping site twice a year (mid May and mid September, on Saturday): bring sun lotion, baseball hat, water, ... Free entrance and parking for visitors, small contribution for exhibitors.

What was there? A lot of vintage valve radios in excellent conditions. A lot of 80's and 90's audio equipment. The usual assortment of valves ("NIB" conditions) and maybe overall 15% tables with pure HAM radio stuff (RTX, antennas, accessories), components. Few instruments, very little retrocomputing, some militaria.

I bought (memo to my future self): a 200Vdc Wester Electric voltmeter (without resistor!), 3x IV-21 VFD tiny displays, some HV electrolytic caps for Nixie PSU's. I haven't found other display technologies as spares (Nixies, VFD, early LEDs). The list of things I have not brought home is too long, but I do have good memories.
Parking lot - 7 A.M.!

I arrived at 7:00 am and most stands were already displaying their stuff. I think you shouldn't arrive later. Overall I walked 3h30' and I think I haven't missed a stand, but I have skipped over those sellers that were not calling for my attention. With reference to Friedrichshafen 2015 (1,75 halls) and 2016 (1.5 halls) flea markets, it seems to me that Marzaglia has the same size if not larger. Exhibitors in Marzaglia are mostly Italian. I spotted two Hungarians, two Germans and a French, not counting those that were selling stuff I was not interested in and I didn't even get close.

It has been a positive experience, combined with enogastronomic and cultural tourism in the area (Modena, Reggio Emilia, Parma). I encourage interested visitors to get there early, so sleep over in the area. You better get there by car or stay at the campsite if you're that kind of traveler (you need to bring your own tent/caravan/camper). I have no comments about eating on site because I left early, but it probably gets really crowded at lunch time, so bring your own food. Also, the bar/restaurant building is at the campsite entrance. Plan a stay of at least 5 hours if you want to do some serious business and see everything. Add chat time!

Personally I will attempt a second visit to Marzaglia and perhaps skip FN2017: I fear too few exhibitors will go there in mid-July!
Need some valves?
They were playing "Stayin' Alive" and dancing :)
Six Dekatrons in a row. Rare instrument I dare to say.

Keep on walking. I took this picture and I
missed interesing stuff on the grass!
More, more, more sellers!

18 May 2017

HB-100 300 metres "DX" and opaque windows

When the first "long distance" 10 GHz reception test failed (about 300 m as the crow flies), I knew something was utterly wrong. Based on the indoor NLOS SNR I recalculated the link budget and determined I had enough signal to cover a much longer distance.

The setup was as follows. TX in a plastic box outside at the far away site. RX indoor at home, with RTLSDR and laptop. Just bare HB100 radar modules. Full optical visibility.

No reception at all. I suspected broken wires and cold joints, so I re-checked everything and successfully re-tested at home.

For the second attempt the RX station was on the balcony and I replaced the RTLSDR with the spectrum analyzer: ta-da! My transmitter' signal was there, at 74.8 MHz I.F. as expected. It was fun to notice how millimeter waves bounce everywhere if you're surrounded by concrete buildings and combined with the broad radiation pattern of HB100 antennas I could not get a null.

Then a doubt arose: could the RTLSDR dongle be too insensitive at that frequency? So I powered up the laptop on the kitchen table, the dongle and the receiving module. This time the door to the balcony was open, and I was standing between it and the nearby closed window. Since I was holding the RX in my hand, I moved it around looking for a peak on the spectrogram and noticed it would appear and disappear, loosing 20 dB down into the noise. What was going on? Just five minutes before I couldn't get a null and now the signal was gone still pointing the antenna at the right direction?!

Slow down Paolo. Repeating my movements I could see that the signal was lost when the receiver was behind the window, and present when looking out of the open door. What?! Wow!

The window is made of double-glazing and I know it contains some form of Sun shield: my home windows are also a very effective 10 GHz filter!!

Now I can look for a longer LOS path!

14 May 2017

10 GHz TX ready for the first mission

Now that I have completed, debugged and tested the WFM modulator for HB100 radar modules, it is time to try an outdoor transmission. Since I will place the transmitter at my parent's place I needed an enclosure.

Peter PA1SDB (probably him) measured the attenuation of various materials, and plastic was found to introduce negligible attenuation at 10 GHz. So I bought a plastic box for food at the Chinese shop around the corner (1.19€) and this is the first result:

I love working with plastic because most of the time it can be drilled by hand. So far I have secured the HB100 module (TX only), while the breadboard is a tight fit in there.

The modulator is based on DJ7OO circuit and was built with parts that were in the junk/parts box. Main difference is that the tone generator is built around a NE555 and potentiometer P2 on the voice chain has been connected properly. The NE555 might be replaced with a microcontroller so that more functions can be executed, like bitonal beacon and MCW ID.

What's missing before the test in the outside world is a DC socket and a power switch. Then a beacon/voice toggle and a microphone input too.
The test transmission is scheduled for Tuesday.