Tag Archives: Mark Hirst

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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Guest Post: Mark’s Micro Go-Box for the ICOM IC-7100

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


Micro Go-Box for the ICOM IC-7100

by Mark Hirst

You’ll be familiar I’m sure with the IC-7100 base unit and separate head unit design. It lends itself very nicely for vehicle installation.

Using it in any ‘portable’ situation however has always presented something of a challenge. A FT-857 or FT-891 can be carried as a single physical package with the head unit integrated into the body. The radios can sit and potentially operate on their tail in a backpack, with products like the Escort from Portable Zero making that process even easier.

I’ve had a few attempts at solving this portability conundrum, driven by a concern that there could be long term problems continually connecting and disconnecting the component parts for transport and operation, but knowing that a permanently assembled IC-7100 will always be an awkward dispersed structure.

My first solution was a Stanley 16 inch toolbox, which is fortuitously sized to accommodate the base unit and provides enough space to loop the original connecting cable and head unit. The box is not a bad fit, but certainly bulkier than necessary and leaves enough room for things to rattle around. When tilted vertically, the head unit can start moving.

Fast forward to this week when I discovered that the IC-7100 base unit will also fit inside a 5 litre XL storage box made by Really Useful Boxes:

http://www.reallyusefulproducts.co.uk/usa/
http://www.reallyusefulproducts.co.uk/uk/

The XL version of the 5 litre box has a taller lid, and as you can see from the accompanying photos, accommodates the base unit with the head unit sitting on top of it in a ready to use configuration. The tolerances for height are also exact, the VFO knob very lightly touches the lid, so don’t put something heavy on the box:

Once the lid has been removed, the radio can operate directly from the container:

To make the whole thing fit, I used a 25cm CAT 6 cable in place of the original connection cable and a significantly shortened power lead. As luck would have it, I created the shortened power lead a while ago because I often put the battery right next to the radio.

You can see that I removed a section between the power plug and the fuses, and now use the removed length as an extension should the battery be further away. Although it wasn’t my intention at the time, the main part is about 2 feet long, the secondary about 8 inches.

For transport, the power cable is coiled behind the head unit, ensuring the fuse holders sit in the void immediately behind it, while the microphone cable is coiled on top leaving the microphone resting inside its own coil. You can see the arrangement below:

In the next photo, you can see how the cabling emerges from the back of the base unit:

There’s just enough space for the power cable to leave the base and bend around without undue pressure, and likewise for the CAT 6 cable to curve round into the back of the head unit. Two angle connectors make the antenna ports accessible from above, while a short USB external drive cable provides access to the USB port for data modes and CAT control. A longer USB extension cable is attached to this short cable only when required, and the extension uses much more substantial ferrite chokes to mitigate noise from the computer.

To complete the transport package, I’ve cut out a kaizen style foam insert to make sure the base unit can’t move back into the cabling space, and another to make sure the head unit doesn’t slide towards the front.

The last problem of course is cooling. The fan is located in the front of the base unit, with slots along the sides and top to allow air flow. The box unfortunately is exactly the right size for the base, leaving no gaps for air to circulate. In the absence of a proper workshop or professional tools, I opted to use a hole cutter designed for putting pipes through wood panels. It turns out that plastic has a tendency to deform rather than cut under the blades due to friction heating. A sharp knife was essential in dealing with the effects of that deformation to produce the final smooth edges around the holes:

While I’m happy with the port exposing the front fan, the two holes on each side do not completely expose the side slots. Do I drill out the space between them knowing how tricky and flexible the plastic can be, and would a larger hole compromise the strength of the box? For now, I’m going to keep a careful eye for any temperature issues.

The current arrangement is to carry the box horizontally in a cheap travel bag:

Could the box be tilted vertically with the base unit nose down and carried in a back pack for longer excursions? Yes, but experience has told me that the lid latches on Really Useful Boxes have a tendency to pop open when you do that, so a luggage strap around the box may be required to prevent its very expensive cargo from spilling out. I’m also mindful that the box lid gently touches the VFO knob, so might put load on it in the vertical position.

The final result is something of a Swiss watch, and there isn’t much room for error. Things have to be arranged ‘just so’ to fit, but it does mean I can pack and pick the whole thing up in a handy container. The radio only needs a battery and antenna to be connected on site and then it’s ready to go.

There’s something oddly satisfying when unrelated objects come together like this. Who knew that this box was just the right size to fit the radio?

So, what do you think?


Thank you for sharing this project, Mark!

I love your Micro Go-Box: it’s practical, affordable and makes an otherwise awkward field radio easy to deploy and use. Looking at your photos, I realize that the IC-7100 does have one strong suit for field use. The IC-7100 front panel is tilted at a very comfortable 45 degree angle for use. 

Post Readers: What do you think?  Any other IC-7100 owners out there who take their rig to the field? Please comment!

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