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Monitoring Times Review - August 1997

So much is changing these days. It seems that every time we pick up a frequency list the stations and the frequencies have changed. A check of Larry Van Horn's column proves that even the military is doing it! So how do we stay current instead of just searching signal less noise?

Common sense tips

First, find current, reliable sources of frequency data. Start with publications. Since the lag between writing and publication can be two or more months, check for the "freshness" of the data. Many publications have Internet web sites which are updated almost daily; some hourly. Again Larry's Utility page ( html) World Utility News (WUN), WWW SWL Guide (www. SW/index.html) are good web sites for starters.
Second, subdivide your sources into categories; for example, those which have military or aeronautical frequencies. Prioritize them according to yourpersonal favorite monitoring habits. Third, cross check information between sources in order to determine which have the "freshest" data.

Now What ?

OK. We now have various sources of frequency lists: printed page, word of mouth, and files from the Internet. How do we get these into a form we can use in our favorite receiver control and data base computer program? For the frequencies that we have heard from a friend, or hastily written on a scrap of paper, it's keyboard finger exercises! We could say this for all the sources, but then we would never get time to actually do some monitoring. Fortunately, there are time-saving alternatives for the others.

A year or so ago we looked at the results obtained using handheld page scanners to input printed frequency lists. I bought my handheld page scanner primarily to transform magazine frequency lists into computer files. I thought it would free me from all the time consuming keyboard and reading effort. From your letters and e-mails, many of you had the same plan.
Unfortunately, we were all disappointed with the results. I had successfully used a flatbed page scanner at a major electronics company, my employer at the time, but $1500+ for a flatbed scanner was not an option for most of us. By 1997, however, the electronics industry has followed its usual path and flatbed scanners are now less than $400. The demon- strations I have seen produce very reliable optical character to computer character (ASCII) results. Again, care must be taken to load the page squarely in the scanner. But it is a whole lot easier than the handheld, I am planning to make one of these my very next purchase (Yes, dear: after I purchase a garden chipper/mulcher), so stay tuned for results on the new inexpensive flatbed page scanners.

How about Internet files?

Computer files come in all different formats. The most basic is called ASCII. This goes back to the very roots of computing when an industry common method for representing alphanumeric characters was developed. But lots has happened since then and over twenty different formats are in use, not to mention database formats. Using the Internet you'll find the most common are HTML and ASCII. When you add to all of this the fact that different receiver control and database programs arrange data very differently, things become real messy.
It can be done and many receiver control programs such as ScanStar, Scan Manager, and ScanCat have a "convert" option. These convert programs are generally far from automatic. Usually, the user needs to section off the data in the source file and indicate which is frequency data and which is station data. Also the user must indicate how the data is separated. For example, the data can be separated by commas, spaces, or other characters. In my opinion, none of the convert procedures included with the programs are second nature. Unless I use them on a regular basis, each use requires rereading the manual, a couple of test tries, and ten minutes of effort before I have success.
It would be very nice if a program could be developed which would do all the file conversion with a few mouse clicks. It would take a magician to convert a file, even of just the two most common file types, to a specific database format with no user judgement calls. Well, "Magic" is just what a brand new program by Computer Aided Technologies, makers of Scancat, claims to do for ScanCat program users. Let's give it a try and see if it's real or illusion.

Works Like "Magic"

These are the words that appear on the opening screen once you have installed Magic version 1.1 in either Windows 3.1 or Windows 95. The computer requirements are modest: Windows 3.1 on a PC compatible with at least 4 Mb of RAM and hard drive space. Of course, you will need a version of ScanCat so you can use the resulting files in FRQ or SCN formats. The installation is quick and easy from the single Magic disk, The 18+ page Magic instruction manual warns that an error message (that should be ignored) may show up when installing in Windows 95. I found that it was also displayed when installed in my Windows 3.1. Just pressing the screen "button" when the error was displayed, allowed the installation program to proceed without a problem. Once installed and running, a detailed instruction manual is available along with thirty sample ASCII (TXT) files that you can convert.

Becoming a magician

All the control buttons required to use Magic are positioned along the bottom and top of the text screen, Figure 1. Here we have clicked on the first button on the bottom left "Source File," and FIGURE chosen Grove100.txt as our source file, which is visible in Figure 1. You can see that the data is arranged in two columns separated by a number of spaces. But this is a TXT file format, not FRQ which ScanCat understands. What file type do we want to convert GrovelOO.txt into? Selecting the "Target Type" command on the top left brings down a number of choices: Scancat FRQ, Scancat SCN, Text TXT, Comma separated ASCII ASC, DBASE DBF or CE-232 APF. For our example we want to make the converted file readable by Scancat, and therefore an FRQ. This is done by highlighting and clicking FRQ. Clicking the bottom "Target File" button we are asked for the name we want to give the converted target file. We have entered the name G100. The .FRQ will be added automatically. Clicking "Begin" makes it all happen in seconds. The resulting G100.FRQ, file shown in Figure 2, works perfectly in Scancat! It took just six clicks and no user "judgment calls." Not bad. That first try was with a file providedby the makers as a demo.

Now let's go live to the Internet and download a file at random. This will be a real roadtest.
Going to the World Utility News (WUN) Logs Column on the Internet we will put Magic through its paces with a 304K sized file. Magic took about two minutes to read the HTML source file, LOGS.HTM shown in Figure 3. Because a Scancat FRQ file can only hold 400 records we'll convert this massive file into a Scancat SCN file. Let's try just hitting "Begin" and see what results without file preparation or user editing.

Out jumps a rabbit ... almost

Well, 4636 file entries and 8.5 minutes later, a perfectly readable SCN Scancat file resulted, Figure 4. But is the data correct? Well, almost. Some frequencies, not many, look strange and may not have been converted correctly. For example, I don't think we'll hear Tallin Air, a commercial airliner, on 1441 MHz as the converted file indicates. Magic assumes certain facts about the numbers it reads. It converts all numbers with spaces on either side, to frequencies in megahertz. This is performed by assuming that numbers without decimals have a value greater than 2000. If the number does not have a decimal point and is above 2000, then Magic puts a decimal after the last three digits on the right. For example 123456 would be converted to 123.456 MHz. But if the number is really a time, as in our Tallin Air example (1441 or 2:41 pm), Magic still makes it a frequency. So 1441 (2:41 pm) becomes 1441 MHz -- oops! I found that the best way to edit these bogus conversions was to delete them once they are in Scancat.

There are a few other minor bugs in Magic version 1.1. When we maximize the Viewer, the left side of the screen goes blank, chopping off text. Then if we minimize the Viewer an "Invalid Property" error results closing the whole program. I guess the "Finished" button must always be used to exit from the maximized Viewer. On the other hand, these may be problems related to my specific video card: Let me know if you have similar problems. Magic version 1.1 is not perfect. But it's a very good start and indispensable for anyone who uses Scancat and downloads frequency lists. Using Magic was still far, far easier and faster than keyboard entering each frequency or any convert program I have used.

Magic, version 1.1 is available from Computer Aided Technologies for $34,95 (+$5 S/H in the USA). Their order telephone number is 1-888-SCANCAT.

P.O. BOX 18285 SHREVEPORT, LA 71138
TOLL FREE 888SCANCAT (8887226228)
FAX 3186860449