Posts Tagged ‘computing’

Remoting K8GU…kinda

We welcomed our second child, a daughter, into the family last week.  Since she is our second, the time in the hospital was more about making sure she was healthy than us learning all the ropes.  So, I had some undisturbed time to read on the Internet with a sleeping baby on my chest…and wish I could remote control my station.

Having been party to the discussion surrounding remoting a local contest station (K4VV), I had seen enough traffic about different VOIP options to start with Mumble for the audio stream.  I set up a Mumble server on my Linux server at the house, and then setup the Mumble client on my hamshack computer.  I ran a 1/8-inch TRS cable from the rear-apron line-out port of the K3 into the line input of one of my sound cards on the computer.  I put a free Mumble client on my iPhone and viola!  It worked out of the box.

I have been using Pignology’s HamLog on my phone for quick logging of one-off QSOs and goofing off with its vast array of tools.  HamLog also has the ability to remote control a rig using Pignology’s hardware.  Since, I’m really not in a good position to drop $300 on a box I’ll use a couple of times per year, I reasoned that there might be an alternative.  Enter the socat utility:

[email protected]:~# socat /dev/ttyUSB1,raw,echo=0 tcp-listen:7373,fork

Freakin magic.  I used HamLog to connect to a “Remote PigTail” and it mostly works.  The frequency display does not seem to work and HamLog loses the connection if the phone falls asleep.  But, it is functional.  Another interesting wrinkle is that when my shack PC screensaver comes on, it mutes the audio stream piped into Mumble.  But, those are all minor irritations at this point considering the trivial amount of effort that went into getting a remote control going…

Getting off Windows XP

With the impending end-of-life of Windows XP a few weeks ago, I found myself with a bit of a predicament:  My shack PC is a dual-core 64-bit system (3.0-GHz Pentium-D) so it’s not really a slouch performer.  But, it had only 1 GB of RAM, which was fine for XP.  I could upgrade my RAM and upgrade Windows, or I could upgrade the RAM and dispense with Windows altogether.

I opted to drop Windows.

My almost-3-year-old son helped me install 4 GB of RAM last weekend.  (Actually, he spent more time asking about the capacitors on the motherboard. Kids these days.)

I’m a long-time GNU/Linux user (just over 15 years, actually) and fan.  However, as I wrote once in the past, I’m also fan of getting things done.  So, I kept using Windows 95 / MS-DOS for many years on my hamshack computer, with a brief several-year foray into using Windows XP when I moved to TR4W logging software.  Linux finally became ready for prime time in my hamshack when Kevin, W9CF, ported TR-Log over a couple of years ago.  After ensuring it wasn’t a fad, I was ready to jump.  Over the past week or so, I’ve been tailoring the setup of everything to bring back the functionality I had previously.

So, what broke?

  • I have an nVidia graphics card for my second monitor. Failure. Not sure how much I care. Maybe I’ll look for an old ATI card or something else with drivers?  Anybody have a plain PCI video card with VGA or HDMI kicking around?
  • Windows-specific software that I’ll probably just quit using:  AVR Studio and SH5. Didn’t really use these much anyway.
  • Now, for the truly bizarre:  My Elecraft K2/100 throws an ERR 080 on power-up if I disrupt communication between it and TR-Linux (does not matter if the K2 goes off first or TRLinux quits first).  I have to disconnect the RS-232 cable at the back of the K2 for a while and then it comes back OK.
  • ARRL’s Trusted QSL software version 2.0.1 didn’t compile immediately without dependency problems. Further study indicated.

And, what works?

  • TRLinux talks to both the K3/100 and the K2/100, as well as the YCCC SO2R+ controller.
  • Made some QSOs and uploaded the signed log to LoTW.
  • Pretty much everything else…

Converted

About two months ago while I was on a business trip, my wife’s computer started to go on the fritz.  Immediately when she told me of the problem I knew what it was as her parents have the same model all-in-one Dell and it experienced the same problem six months ago.  They went through five service calls to get it fixed correctly.  The video display becomes bright and washed out, to the point where most text is unreadable and you can’t adjust the display to make it right.

For a few months I had casually been playing with a Macbook Air at work, mainly for a secondary computer.  I had vowed to family members that my days of supporting Windows for relatives is over due to the release of Windows 8 and my frustration with dealing with many of the same recurring problems of viruses and instability after 20 years of evolution of the product.  I decided to buy my wife an Apple iMac and go into uncharted territory.

We went to the Apple store Saturday morning after I got back from my trip.  We were greeted by a friendly sales guy, Steve.  He introduced himself and started getting to know us, what we do, where we live, and how much experience we had with computers.  The conversation turned to Steve Jobs and we talked about how much of a hand he had in the design of the store, right down to the selection of the floor tile and the front glass.  I usually despise conversations with salespeople at electronics stores, but this was actually quite enjoyable.

After I asked some questions about the models and capabilities, I told him the iMac model we’d like to get.  He made some taps on a little iPhone-like device and about 40 seconds later a girl popped out a hidden door in the back.  The stores are designed much like Mac laptops with hinges hidden so you can’t really tell where the door to the back area is.  She brought a box containing our iMac right where were standing.  I gave the sales guy my credit card and he used the same little device to scan the card.  “Would you like an email receipt, no paper?”  he asks.  “Sure” I reply.   I figure this is probably the end of the transaction and our visit, but he carried the computer box over to a table and stared taking it out.  This area is where customers get aquatinted and assisted with new purchases.  Steve hooked everything up and instructed us on various elements of the user interface and the major applications.  We stayed for awhile getting familiar with the iMac and after we were done, someone boxed up our machine, careful to pack it up just as it came from the factory.  We walked out the door with a box and a bag of accessories and surprisingly, no paperwork.  I’m actually sad to leave as I wanted to stay and play around with the machine more and perhaps buy some more stuff.

A few weeks passed.  My wife is doing fairly well with the iMac.  There are naturally some differences with the user interface when coming from Windows, but for the most part she’s getting through them.  I no longer hear complaints about slowness, locked applications, or how she had to do a periodic reboot again to clean things out.

I switched to a new Lenovo laptop last year after my Dell laptop display went bad.  I reformatted it entirely for Linux.  Linux was working well, and I was running Windows in a virtual machine to handle one contesting application and a few programs for my Kenwood TS-590 that only run on Windows.  The Lenovo was mediocre in my opinion.  The keyboard flexed when typing and the touchpad required way too much force to click, to the point where it fatigued my borderline carpal tunnel syndrome IT professional hands.  I struggled with wireless Linux drivers and USB operation was often an adventure.  I decided to bite the bullet and order a Macbook Pro.

macbookThe Macbook arrived about a week later.  The Retina display is amazing, though now when I look at other lower resolution displays I perceive pixels.  Transferring files over was fairly easy and I even copied the Windows virtual machine over from my old Linux box and ran it with no problems.  In full screen mode it’s funny because it runs quite nicely and acts like a native Windows operating system installation.  I later created another virtual machine and installed Linux Mint 15 on it so I could run CQRLog.  So, I have three operating systems in one.

As much as I wanted to blog about how I’ve been using Linux successfully for a year in my shack, I’m really pleased with the Mac and I think I’ve been permanently converted.  The beauty of the Mac operating system, OSX, is that it’s Unix under the hood.  It looks simple on the surface but you can dive down into the complexity if you like.  You can bring up a shell prompt, install packages, create cron jobs, etc., basically most of the stuff you do in Linux.  A lot of the open source software out there compiles for OSX.  I attempted to recompile CQRLog for OSX but was unsuccessful.  I think completing this will require some additional coding in Lazarus Object Pascal to customize a version for OSX, but it’s doable.  All in all I think you get the best of both worlds with a very user friendly interface and a Unix core.

People often complain about the cost of Apple products, especially when comparing Android devices and iPhones, but I think what one really needs to focus on is value, quality, and user experience.  There’s a level of attention to detail with Apple that you just don’t often find in other products, especially when it comes to brown box computer purchases from your local retail outlet or mail order ecommerce vendor.  Of particular interest to radio artisans, the Macbook Pro has one thing you rarely find in laptops these days — an aluminum body.  I’m curious how well the laptop performs in a high RF environment as I had problems with the USB ports resetting on the Lenovo when running 100 watts on HF.

Considering Microsoft’s insistence on discontinuing support for Windows XP, its stopping shipments of 7, the issues with Windows 8, and the maturity and popularity of alternatives, it’s a good time to convert to Linux or Mac.

A Brief Rant on LoTW

If I had a dollar for every tirade I read or heard from a U.S. amateur regarding the “difficulty of setting up ARRL’s LoTW” software, I’d at least be able to buy another roofing filter for the K3.  These tirades are almost invariably qualified by the assertion that the complainer is “an IT professional.”

Personally, I find LoTW’s security simple and logical: they are simply trying to make it hard for one individual to generate a lot of untraceable certificates (to sign enough falsified logs to get on the “Honor Roll”).  And, since they optimized the database last (?) year, the processing and web interface are pretty good, too.  I kinda just followed the directions and it worked.

I don’t believe in Karma, but every time I read one of these rants by “an IT professional,” I feel a small amount of revenge has been exacted on them for all of the frustrating interactions (mercifully few, all things considered) I’ve endured with incompetent IT drones over the years…

This is the photo I wanted to headline this post, but I refuse to hotlink or copy it.  Positive, regularly-scheduled programming will return to the blog shortly, including a couple of construction projects…$50 HF triplexer, anyone?

Thoughts on Digital

I have opined in the past (although perhaps not on the blog directly) that CW is the reason I am still an active ham after almost 19 years…actually, I think a week from today marks the 19-year anniversary of passing elements 2 and 3A in the basement of the Stark County Sheriff’s office.  CW permitted me to make interesting, intriguing, compelling QSOs that I simply could not complete on SSB with my meager station as a beginner.

Over the years, I have used this as the argument for retaining the Morse code testing requirement:  Morse code proficiency gave newcomers the opportunity to make exciting DX contacts under all solar conditions (except disturbed, of course) and hook them on the hobby.

PSK31 was the first mode that challenged CW in that arena.  I made a couple of PSK contacts almost 10 years ago now and decided it was harder than CW.  So, I did not pursue it.  Aside from making a half-hearted effort to get ARRL’s Triple Play Worked All States using only unassisted (no cluster, no RBN, no skeds) contest contacts, I haven’t really operated digital modes much and didn’t really understand why anyone would want to because CW is so much easier.  I’ve seen dozens of JT65 posts by fellow AmateurRadio.com bloggers.  And, about a year ago, I met Paul, N8HM, who lives in an apartment in DC.  He’s very active on HF digital modes with a shoestring setup…and he’s very passionate about it.  That’s when it clicked.

Digital modes are the new CW:  the DX mode for the average ham.  I must be slow!

I still think CW is way easier than digital QSOs, especially in contests and pileups:  there is a certain amount of critical humanity (varying timing, sending speed, spacing, or calling frequency) that you can’t apply to cracking a digital pileup…or maybe I just haven’t figured it out yet.  I guess I have years of Morse practice and shouldn’t expect digital to be easy just because the computer is doing the sending and decoding.  But, I think I understand digital operators a little better after this revelation.

You guys are alright.

The Spam Report

First of all, Happy New Year, loyal readers.  I have been exhorted by several enthusiasts of the blog to write more.  The months of November and December are busy around the Miller household with the CQ WWs, ARRL Sweepstakes, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and an annual professional conference on the West Coast between Thanksgiving and Christmas.  So, this is a drought time of year for writing.  A number of projects around the station have been started or completed and those will be written up as time allows.  Travel and potential DX operation is on the horizon, etc, etc.  However, today’s topic is WordPress comment spam.

I hadn’t checked the moderation queue on the blog comments for about six weeks until recently.  There were some 1500 comments pending.  Exactly two of them were from real commenters.  (Thanks, by the way!)  I could subscribe to a service (like Akismet) to stem the flow of spam, but I’m a cheapskate and skimming the spam is a bit like reading the police blotter in your local newspaper—a guilty pleasure.

The Internet democratizes the sale of nearly everything, legal or not, by providing a low-cost storefront for a business that can be based anywhere in the world, plus  (semi-)anonymous payment.  This is great for obtaining otherwise unobtanium surplus electronics and parts.  But, it’s also great for anyone selling anything else that is high-risk (for vendor or purchaser) or low-volume in a standard retail setting.  The difficulty for everyone is getting your business noticed.  Enter search-engine optimization (SEO):  techniques that game search engine algorithms to increase your visibility in a search.  Google’s PageRank, for example considers the number of links to a site as a measure of its popularity.  So, blasting every blog’s comment boxes with links to your site is a brute-force way to game that system (except the smart engineers at Google have weighted PageRank with the “quality” of the linking page and a whole host of other trade-secrets).  Some SEO schemes appear also to develop trees of “link farms” to improve “quality.”  But, this is just an arm-chair assessment.

Anyhow, the upshot is that there are a lot of keywords and links embedded in SEO spam.  The keywords generally reflect what’s offered for sale and they seem to reflect typical black and gray market goods—counterfeit designer clothing (Ugg boots are the informal favorite in my spam tin, with sports jerseys a distant second), pornography, and dubious medical products and home remedies (“tattoo removal creams” was a recent example).   Today, the bit bucket found a dozen or so messages such as these:

All point to the same site and contain keywords about amateur radio topics (except the SEO one at top).  So, I can infer that one of several things happened:  1. The site owner’s site got hacked and the SEO scumbags wove their material into it to make the SEO look somehow more “legitimate.”   2. The site owner acted (paid…*shudder*) on one of those spam e-mails every domain owner receives that offer to “increase traffic to your site.”  3.  The site owner is an SEO scumbag himself.

I’m leaning toward explanation #2, since the site itself makes him sound like the Homer Simpson line, “Oh, they have the Internet on computers now?!”  Whatever the case, this is inappropriate behavior and I refuse to mention the site owner by name, callsign, or link, lest the action be successful.  It’s the equivalent of splattering up and down the band on SSB when running high power to a good antenna.  You’re a lid.

Ok, I feel better now.

Eliminating CRTs

Ever since I replaced my primary station computer (a decision that may be reversed soon—details in a later post), I desired to replace the remaining 19-inch Dell Trinitron CRT monitor with something lighter and smaller.  Mom and Dad were in town a few weeks ago on a much-needed vacation and we went to the National Air and Space Museum’s Udvar-Hazy facility near Dulles Airport.  This is only a few miles from one of the best used computer shops in the DC area—CedarPC.

CedarPC is nice because they’ll sell you “damaged” stuff at a discount if you don’t care about the damage.  I inquired about a 24-inch flat panel I had seen on the web site, but they could not find it.  They did find me a nice 20-inch flat panel that was just missing the stand and the price was right.  The missing stand was no big deal because I wanted to mount the monitor on an arm so I could bring it closer to the HF end of the station desk, tuck it in at the VHF end, or even swivel it out over the couch to watch a DVD.  Sold.

Monitor arms are generally expensive…at least 2-3 times what I paid for the monitor itself, often more.  So, I went to trusty eBay and found something designed for mounting televisions for $15 including shipping.  This did require some modification of the monitor housing and liberal application of wide washers to reinforce the plastic in the housing.  But, it was done with all junkbox screws and washers.


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