Tag Archives: Mark Hirst

A protective case for the Tecsun PL-680, PL-660, and similar portables

Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, Mark Hirst, who writes:

It seems the world is full of containers that are serendipitously sized for radios and other treasured possessions.

Unfortunately, this tip is probably only helpful to UK based readers of the SWLing Post.

WH Smiths, high street stationer and purveyors of newspapers and magazines, infamous for their high prices and poor service, were doing a clearance sale in my neighbourhood.

I spotted a £3 semi-rigid pencil case that looked like it might fit my new PL-680, and when I got it home, found that it was a great fit.

I cut out the internal flap that holds the pens with scissors, and the result speaks for itself.

Wow! That’s a brilliant case for for the PL-680, Mark! That exterior color will also ensure you never lose it in the wild. Thanks for sharing this tip. What a fabulous bargain at £3!  Post readers in the UK, take note!

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Mark spots a self-powered radio in “The Division”

Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, Mark Hirst, who shares the following:

I’ve recently got back into computer games after a gap of several years, and have recently discovered one called “The Division”.

The level of detail in the game is amazing, and the representation of parts of Manhattan compare very favourably with Google Street View.

Radios popup fairly regularly as props in houses and military bases, including this windup model shown in the image above.

Thanks for sharing, Mark! That’s impressive design detail for a game. Looks like a radio I’d consider purchasing. I’m very curious if it’s based on a real life design–if so, I’ve never seen it. Please comment if you can ID this radio.

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Guest Post: How to use the Shortwave Signals Alexa skill

Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, Mark Hirst–developer of the Shortwave Signals Alexa skill--who shares the following tutorial:


How to use the Shortwave Signals Alexa skill

Introduction

Alexa skills come in all shapes and sizes, from the trivial random fact skill, to a fully fledged news reader.

Some have little or no input, while others try to carry out a conversation with you.

Recognising that Alexa might be new to some people, and that the Shortwave Signals skill tries to capture everything from you in a single phrase, I wanted to give readers a guide on how to get the best from the skill, as well a little background on how Alexa ‘understands’ or ‘misunderstands’ what you said.

The Basics

You have two ways of starting an Alexa Skill:

  • Open the skill using its name
  • Ask the skill using its name

Opening the skill is a great place to start when you’ve first installed a skill. It should provide you with an introduction, then offer to answer a question or suggest how you can get further help.

Once you are familiar with a skill, you can save time by ‘Asking’. This cuts through the opening pleasantries and gets on with the job.

A skill doesn’t get approved by Amazon unless it supports these approaches in an appropriate way.

With that out of the way, the essential thing is to make sure that your words are clear and don’t blur together. I remember eating lunch at my desk while developing the skill, and then wondering why Alexa was making such a mess of my questions.

How Do Alexa Skills Recognise What You Say?

The short version is that skill developers have to provide training phrases to Alexa with two objectives in mind; to figure out what you want to do, and to recognise the parts of those phrases that contain important information.

If you were writing a weather skill, those phrases might look like this:

  • What is the weather like in [placename]
  • Will it rain in [placename] on [date]
  • What will the weather be like on [date] in [placename]

The challenge is to figure out the different ways that people might ask a question, and then help Alexa know what parts of the question are important to the skill. This data can can include numbers, dates, times, real world locations, famous places, famous people, countries, languages, and much more.

So let’s see how that works in the Shortwave Signals skill.

The Simplest Possible Question

The simplest question you can ask is to identify a signal by frequency – you’ve stumbled across something of interest and you’re not sure what it is.

A question directed to your Alexa device would sound like this:

  • Alexa
  • Ask Shortwave Signals
  • Who broadcasts on one five five eight zero kiloHertz

I usually leave a slight pause after each line, and make sure that words don’t run into each other. Always say the frequency as digits, as this is much more reliable than trying to express it in thousands, hundreds, tens and so forth.

It’s good practice to put kiloHertz on the end as this aids Alexa in interpreting the frequency part of your question.

A common gotcha is not leaving enough of a gap between the frequency and the word kiloHertz. If the words blur together, Alexa sees a mixture of words and numbers where the frequency ought to be and doesn’t pass it through to the skill.

Adding a Broadcast Time to your question

Depending on the frequency you pick, you might get quite a few results.

This is particularly common when the frequency belongs to one of the main international broadcasters, or a commercial shortwave station like WRMI.

At present, I’ve set a limit of 15 results so you’re not stuck listening to a long list of broadcast information, although if all else fails, you can say:

  • Alexa
  • Stop!

To make it clear you want to specify a broadcast at a particular time, add this to your question:

  • at 3PM

Note that times are always in UTC, and using AM and PM is a reliable way of qualifying your time.

Now your question sounds like this:

  • Alexa
  • Ask Shortwave Signals
  • Who broadcasts on one five five eight zero kiloHertz
  • at 3PM

Make sure you put the word ‘at’ in front of the time, as it makes it clear that this is the time ‘at’ which the broadcast is active. It also neatly separates the frequency part of the question from the time part.

Searching across a time range

If you are sitting on a frequency and wondering what might be coming up next, you can add a time range to your question.

A time range is instead of using a broadcast time.

You would add this to your question:

  • from 3PM to 4PM

Notice how the range is described FROM 3PM TO 4PM

Now your question sounds like this:

  • Alexa
  • Ask Shortwave Signals
  • Who broadcasts on one five five eight zero kiloHertz
  • from 3PM to 4PM

Using FROM and TO makes it easier for Alexa to detect the time range in your question.

Adding a Language to your question

Adding a commonly recognised language to your question is easy.

To specify a language in your question you would add:

  • in English

Putting the word ‘in’ makes it clear that the word that follows is a language, and it also makes sure that the word kilohertz is separated from the language word. If you let the words run together, Alexa might think the language is ‘kiloHertz English’.

Now your question looks like this:

  • Alexa
  • Ask Shortwave Signals
  • Who broadcasts on one five five eight zero kiloHertz
  • In English

The Most Complex Questions

The most complex questions you can ask combine a frequency with a language and broadcast times. For example:

  • Alexa
  • Ask Shortwave Signals
  • Who broadcasts on one five five eight zero kiloHertz
  • In English
  • From 3PM to 8PM

Or:

  • Alexa
  • Ask Shortwave Signals
  • Who broadcasts on one five five eight zero kiloHertz
  • In English
  • At 4PM

Some Languages are tough to search

Commonly recognised languages are easy for Alexa to detect. These include English, French, German, Russian and many more.

Things get tricky when using more obscure languages.

A good example that I’ve struggled with is Oromo. No matter how carefully and comically I try and pronounce the word Oromo, Alexa always hears something similar to but not quite the same as Oromo, the most frequent misspelling being Orono. This phonetic re-interpretation of less common languages is a tough problem, even though my training data tells Alexa that this part of the question is a language.

Perhaps this will improve over time as Amazon tweak their service.

In Summary

It’s all about clarity and how you phrase your question. I’ve mumbled my way through Alexa’s built-in skills as well as third party ones, and it’s amazing how well it copes.If you’ve tried a skill and it’s stumbled, double check the sample phrases that come with the skill and give it another try.

Amazon use those phrases to test the skill before it is approved, so you know that they are a good place to start forming your own questions.


Thank you, Mark! Almost every Alexa skill is subject to the same issues you mention above.  I find that I need to “think like Alexa” in order to ask skill questions properly.  I’ve actually found your skill to be one of the easiest I’ve used. The tutorial above really helps form questions properly.

Post readers: Keep in mind that Amazon has lowered the prices of all of their devices for the holidays. The Echo Dot 2nd generation is currently $24.99 shipped and the 3rd generation Dot is $29.99 shipped (note both links are affiliate links that support the SWLing Post).  

I created an easy-to-print PDF of Mark’s tutorial above–click here to download.

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Alexa can now look up broadcast schedules with the Shortwave Signals skill!

Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, Mark Hirst, who writes:

I’m pleased to announce that my Alexa skill has been approved by Amazon and is now available in the following countries:

Australia, Canada, the United States, and the United Kingdom.

Because single word skills are reserved for organisations and brand names, the skill name had to change and is now called ‘Shortwave Signals‘.

I’ve uploaded a video this morning with the finished skill in action:

Click here to view on YouTube.

Amazing, Mark! Thank you for developing this Alexa skill!

I’ve been beta testing Mark’s Alexa skill and have been very happy with the results. It makes for a nice hands-free way of checking broadcast schedules while in the shack. And it seems like only yesterday when Mark was tinkering around with the idea to create this skill.

Bravo for making Shortwave Signals a reality, Mark!

If you own an Echo or Alexa-enabled device, simply open the Alexa App and search for the Shortwave Signals skill to activate it.

We only have one Amazon Echo device in our house–the one I evaluated for my WiFi radio primer a couple years ago. As Black Friday approaches, I’m going to keep my eye on the Amazon Echo Dot for my radio room–the 2nd generation units are quite inexpensive (as low as $29.99 for a certified refurbished unit).

Click here to search Amazon for an Echo device (affiliate link).

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Mark is developing an Alexa skill to search shortwave broadcast schedules

I’ve been an owner of the Amazon Echo smart speaker since it was first released and even reviewed it here on the SWLing Post a couple years ago. Although it’s not a perfect device–and many feel IOT products like this invade their privacy (rightfully so)–it is a nice hands-free way to call up a radio station, set a timer, get the weather, set reminders and even do a little light research.

SWLing Post contributor, Mark Hirst, decided he wanted to develop an Alexa skill to help him with shortwave radio listening. Mark writes:

I’m excited to share my ‘work-in-progress’ Alexa skill for searching shortwave broadcast schedules!

I’ve often stumbled over a station tuning the dial and have had to step away from the radio, grab a computer, go to a web site, type in a frequency… what a fuss – what if I could just ask my Echo dot….?

Since my day job involves chat bots, machine learning, and AI, I was recently asked to look into Alexa and suddenly I had a new home project!

Like they say, “the last 10% takes 90% of the time,” but it’s already functional enough to demo:

Click here to watch demo video.

That’s brilliant, Mark! I’m sure I’m not the only SWL who would love to add this Alexa skill to their Echo device.

Mark did add that this is very much in prototype development and he hasn’t sorted out a way to host it affordably, or better yet, for free if he publishes it publicly. If you have any suggestions about a host server, please comment.

I’m sure Mark would love any early constructive feedback readers might have. Please comment if this is an Alexa skill you would value.

Mark, please keep us apprised of your progress!

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