Saturday, 2 May 2015

CHIRP, connection cables with FTDI chips, and Ubuntu Linux...!


OK. As many of you know, I'm a licenced Radio Amateur, and have been since 1985. Thirty years. Ye Gods, time flies! Anyhow, one of the core values and purposes of the hobby of Amateur Radio is defined - and this is straight of the OFCOM website - as: "Amateur radio, sometimes known as ham radio, is both a hobby and a service that uses various types of radio equipment allowing communication with other radio amateurs for the purpose of self-training, recreation and public service."

It's a hobby, so recreation and self-training is a major aspect; the service side comes in in times of emergency and similar; think of the various natural disasters that have happened around the world - most recently in Nepal - and there will undoubtedly be Radio Hams passing emergency communications from the disaster area to the unaffected world, to enable supplies, relief personnel, and so on, to be arranged and transported into the area.

Not all communications between Hams is emergency related, of course; indeed, not every radio ham will ever be involved in such traffic; most of us get into the hobby due to an interest in the radios, the operating methods, and the friendships - often life-long - that can be generated through the hobby; it's even been known for people to met their life partners (husbands, wives, etc.) through the hobby!

However, to be able to do even a fraction of the above, we have to have working and effective radios. And that's what this Blant article's about.

The following is a somewhat verbose and specialised set of notes relating to both Amateur Radio, and Ubuntu Linux usage. If you aren't a Radio Amateur, and possibly if you aren't a Linux User as well as a Radio Amateur, it'll probably be as useful and as meaningful as the static noise floor you can hear between stations on your FM car stereo! Consider yourself forewarned ;-)

So. I have, currently, three radios. A pair of Yaesu rigs - a VX-5R VHF/UHF tri-band FM-only hand held, and an FT-817 multi-band all-mode 'portable', and my latest hand held, an Icom ID-51A digital and analogue hand held, that utilises the proprietary D-STAR Digital Voice system.

A few years ago, a car of mine was stolen, and in the boot (because I hadn't unloaded it that evening, being dog-tired after an event) was a laptop, ALL my connecting cables, the software that I used to program the radios I had at the time, and the dual-band mobile rig I used at the time, an FT-7800R, which was a bloody good radio. The car was stolen, and the kit was never recovered, even though the car was (later judged to be an insurance write-off). So. Hard lesson learned.

I hadn't got around to replacing a lot of the kit until recently, and since I'd converted from Windows on my PC to Ubuntu Linux, a lot of the software was now useless.

So, I went looking, and found CHIRP. CHIRP is an open-source Ham radio programming aid. It allows Radio Amateurs to program a wide variety of different males and models of radios from one computer program, with remarkable ease.

Or at least, it should, if your machine is set up correctly.

You guessed it. Mine wasn't.

So. The first problem was connecting cables for the VX-5R. It's an 'obsolete' radio (hell, it's so obsolete that Yaesu have released 3 subsequent models of the darn thing - see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yaesu_VX_series for more info) but, while mine still works nicely (I look after my rigs), the memory was well cluttered, and was in a truly desperate need of a clean-out.

The easy way to do this would be to connect the radio to the computer, upload the memory files, amend and update them, and then download them back to the radio. But, to do this, one needs a connecting cable. And that's where the first problem came along.

Now, like many modern (-ish) computers these days, my notebook doesn't have any serial (RS232) ports: It has two USB2 and one USB3 ports; the USB3 port runs off to my USB3 hub (an Easy-Acc C72 Smart hub, running a number of different things from my printer, to some external hard drives, and so on), one of the USB2 ports houses the wireless dongle for my external keyboard and mouse (much easier to use than the Toshiba-supplied mess on the notebook itself), and the third is free for other uses, so that's what I'd be plugging any cable into.

So, time get a USB to 4-pole VX-5-compatible cable. Evilbay time. Or NOT. Here's where the second problem cropped up. Most of the cables out there are using Prolific chips. Or at least, that's what they say they use. The problem is that there are so many fake chips and cables out there, that do NOT work, that it's hard to figure out which ones are legit or not. Dan Smith, who designed and wrote CHIRP recognised this, and (somewhat clipped from the original) has the following to say:

  • Avoid USB programming cables that appear to be based on the Prolific PL-2303 USB chip.
  • Cables based on the FTDI USB chip are recommended.
  • RT Systems cables are not recommended for use with CHIRP.

I'll add that since version 10.04, Linux has recognised and had the drivers for FTDI chips, so no drivers should be needed to be downloaded for any FTDI-capable cable to work on my machine.

So, an FTDI cable. I decided to look over Ebay again, and found a supplier in the USA (bluemax49ers) with a good reputation. I ordered a cable from him (http://www.ebay.co.uk/itm/FTDI-USB-Programming-Cable-Yaesu-VX-1R-VX-2R-VX-3R-VX-5R-VX-5RS-VX-6R-CT-106z-/161266865471), which cost me a shade over £16, and waited. It arrived within a week, which given that it came via USPS regular postage was nothing short of amazing!

So, time to plug it in and see what happened.

Ah. Yeah. Problem. It told me that the port I was trying to use, "/dev/ttyUSB0" was generating an "Access denied" error. At least it wasn't throwing up a cable error, so that cable was working, just not the port: That WAS something I should be able to rectify, with a leeeeettle help from the various information sources out there on the internet...

Now, this is Linux we're talking about here, and there's a veritable WEALTH of information out there to help fix the problems one tends to encounter.

I found, eventually, a good reference, and solution, for this problem here (https://forum.manjaro.org/index.php?topic=21858.0); Seems that the Ubuntu Linux Operating System limits what the USB ports can do - this is good, it means that the inherent security in the OS works properly, but for my purposes, I needed to drill a small hole in it, to allow my radio to talk with the computer, and vice verse. So, the instruction was to open a terminal window, and enter the following:

sudo groupadd dialout
sudo gpasswd -a username dialout
where username is the name of the user.

This did the trick, and I was in business; I fired up CHIRP, connected the cable to the radio, and cut a long story short, I'd managed to tidy up the memory channels on my old radio.

This took the better part of an evening's work, say about three hours including the time to tidy the memory files, so all told, I'm reasonably satisfied.

The other two radios shouldn't be that much of a problem; the ID-51E uses a MicroSD card for its files, and that's easy to deal with, and while I've yet to try it, for my the FT-817ND, I've laid my hands on the BlueCAT bluetooth adaptor, and a copy of FT-817 Commander which will run under WINE on my notebook, so hopefully, no worries. I'll add another chapter in this topic should I encounter problems with the 817.

I hope the above helps someone in a similar situation!

Monday, 20 April 2015

Enough Already (Part five)...


Right. Update on the previous posting from last night. According to those who know a sod sight more than I do, it's likely that this is a fairly well-documented gear lever "Ball and pin" issue, rather than a stuffed up gearbox. The two gents in question will be down at the weekend to suss this out for certain, and hopefully sort it out, thankfully.

While I'm obviously relieved that it's apparently something relatively minor, it doesn't change the fact that this is about the fourth or fifth time in the last twelve months that the wagon has had a mechanical issue of one form or another, that has pulled it off the road.

As a result, and with reluctance, as I actually DO like the damn thing, I've come to the conclusion that it's more trouble than it's worth to me, as I need a reliable vehicle to get me to and from work, not something as temperamental as this Series 3 Landie. I'm therefore going to be selling it in the near future.

I have not, note, lost the landie "bug". Hopefully within the next couple of years, it will be replaced with a more recent (diesel engined for better fuel economy) ex-Army Defender 90 Land Rover, assuming that I can get one that doesn't fall foul of the London Low Emission Zone rules at the time.

So, end of Landie chapter one.

Chapter two to follow in due course...






PS - Please DO NOT contact me wanting to buy it from me. I'll be contacting people I know in due course in this regard, as I intend it to go to a UK-based enthusiast.

Sunday, 19 April 2015

Enough Already (Part Four)


Well, some good news, and then some bad news.

Good news:

The PCs up and running on Ubuntu, and seems to be behaving itself. I'm back online, I've only lost about six months of data (I did an immediate backup of the new OS and data once set up, with schedules for backups once a week automatically to an external drive dedicated for that purpose now), and am now going about replacing Windows software with Linux equivalents were available. For what's not readily available, there's WINE, which allows some windows software to run in a Linux environment.

So, no real problems thus far.

And now the bad news.

I've had a crap night at work, and now this.

It appears the Land Rover's decided to be the straw that broke the camels back, and broke on me AGAIN.

The damn gears are stuffed. I seem to still have reverse, first and second, although it's a struggle to get them in - the gear  lever requires a LOT of effort to get them in. Third and fourth refuse to allow the lever to engage. There was NO warning. Thank wossit I'd finished work, and was only a mile and a half from home.

I managed to nurse it home in second all the way without even trying to change gear again, but I really have had e-bleeping-nuff.

It drinks fuel.

It's costly on tax.

EVERYTHING, even pedal cycles, can overtake it.

I don't know enough to fix it on my own, and jokes aside, the people who've helped me keep it on the road up to now haven't apparently trusted me with brains enough to learn from them how to maintain it, so I haven't the skills or knowledge to even attempt to fogure out what's wronmg, and I truly HATE having to rely on others to fix what I should be able to do on my own.

You can imagine how I feel about that, but I can't force people to teach me if they don't want to teach me.

So.

Enough already.

I have suffered enough stress, grief, and jokes at my expense about this damn vehicle.

I like landies, don't get me wrong, but this one? It's getting to be a rock around my bloody neck. I NEED a reliable wagon, not something that breaks down for whatever reason.

The above also means that it's more than likely that I will NOT now be able to make it to a pair of events that I REALLY wanted to attend in the next month and a half. And that's got me more than a little pissed off.

I'm going to sleep on it, but it's 85% that I get rid of the damn thing.

I have no bloody idea what I might replace it with, so don't ask.

I am obviously tired, angry, not a little upset, and not thinking too straight right now.

Oh, and just to make things even worse, I learned the other day that a friend of mine, who I went through basic training with in the T.A., has passed away.

Hows that for icing on the cake for the crap sandwich that's this weekend.

I really have had more than enough.

Saturday, 4 April 2015

Enough Already (Part Three)


Well, I couldn't break out of that Repair Loop Of Doom, nor could I access safe mode. Further, even from within the thumb-drive mounted Ubuntu Linux, I couldn't access or break the cycle. So. I bit the bullet, aiming a crapload of rude comments in the general direction of Redmond, VA, and wiped the drive in its entirety. I then reformatted it, retaining the FAT filing system (why not, at least I know how that works - or rather, how it's supposed to work!), and installed Ubuntu Linux 14.04 LTS.

Thus far, it sems to be behaving itself. It's recognised my notebooks wifi & bluetooth hardware, likewise my printer was recognised too, which was a very nice bonus; previously, a few years back when I last looked at Linux, none of the above were recognised.

All I have to do now is figure out how to use this thing, install a warehouse-sized collection of my fonts (ttf format), and find alternatives to all the old windows software that I've hitherto been using.

This is likely to take a while...

Wednesday, 1 April 2015

Enough Already (Part two)


Awrighty, then...

Well, I got bored trying to sleep, so booted up the machine using the thumb drive. Whoopee, it worked (F12, got into the bios, changed it to boot from USB , and BINGO, Ubuntu Linux was on the display).

The bad news is that it looks like the hard drive may well be completely shagged. Here's the error message I got when I tried to mount it in Linux:

Error mounting /dev/sda4 at /media/ubuntu/RogersBlant: Command-line `mount -t "ntfs" -o "uhelper=udisks2,nodev,nosuid,uid=999,gid=999,dmask=0077,fmask=0177" "/dev/sda4" "/media/ubuntu/RogersBlant"' exited with non-zero exit status 14: The disk contains an unclean file system (0, 0).
Metadata kept in Windows cache, refused to mount.
Failed to mount '/dev/sda4': Operation not permitted
The NTFS partition is in an unsafe state. Please resume and shutdown
Windows fully (no hibernation or fast restarting), or mount the volume
read-only with the 'ro' mount option.

This suggests that it's got some form of fault that can only be fixed from within the system, and without being able to get in the system, you can't fix it. Catch-22.

To say that this is beyond irritating is something of an understatement.

Here are the cons: I may well have lost EVERYTHING on the damn drive since the last backup before the move - I can't find the one from afterwards; looks like it got lost in the move, along with the recovery disk.

Good news: My bookmarks are safe. A while ago, I began using Xmarks, a service I heartily recommend to one and all. It saved my bacon more than once, and allowed me to sync bookmarks between the notebook and my android phone. So, no bookmarks lost.

Critical 'PersInfo' files have been backed up regularly to a secure server on the cloud (obviously, I'm not saying where!), and I've been using Gmail for so long, every one of my contacts and emails for the last few years is safely preserved there, which is even better.

So.

Assuming the HDD is shagged beyond repair (and I've one more person to talk to on this), then it'll be time to order a replacement HDD from Toshiba, and install Ubuntu on it. If it's merely Windows 8 that's utterly failed, it'll be a reformat and disk wipe, then an Ubuntu installation.

Either way, I'll be playing with Ubuntu from now on.

I have truly had my fill of Windows.

Bugger off, Bill, Torvalds is playing, now.

Enough already (part one).


Windows 8. I've been told that it's like Marmite: you either love it or hate it.

In my case,  I've come to utterly despise it.

The damn laptop I have,  a Toshiba Satellite C855-25M, has become locked in a "preparing to repair" boot loop of doom,  where there is no way to break out without a bootable CD-ROM or USB drive. You cannot,  of course,  create one unless windows is running properly,  and I cannot find the ones I made when I first got the damn thing,  following my home move six months back. So. Borked.

So, I tried to find a bookable iso I could copy to a ram drive through my Android phone, or another PC. No dice. There aren't any. At least,  not for free. And since this notebook didn't come with supporting disks -  obviously a cost saving measure by someone at Toshiba - I can't use those non-existent disks either. Talk about Catch-22.

So. Time to get Linux. I've used a relative's machine,  and downloaded the latest Ubuntu distribution,  then created a bootable thumb drive.

I haven't the time to see if this will work tonight,  as I have to be up early in the morning,  but later tomorrow, I should have the time.

The intent here is to copy all my data files to a backup drive, then wipe the hard disk,  repartition it,  and install Ubuntu onto the notebook. A bit of research is required before I do that, to see if there are Linux drivers for the WiFi on it. Failing that,  it'll be off to a shop for a complete reinstall action of win8, until such time as I can replace that heap of junk with something sensible.

Oh yeah. This posting was performed using my Samsung Note 3 phone. Which runs on a modified Linux platform called Android, which has NEVER let me down.

My time with Windows is coming to an end. There are a number of choice words and phrases,  none of them complimentary, about Bill Gates,  Microsoft,  and the various Windows operating systems,  but suffice to say that I've had ENOUGH ALREADY (yeah, yeah, uppercase shouty shouty. You try keeping your temper with this load of technocrap).

More shortly.

Sunday, 15 February 2015

On Smartwatches...


A belated happy new year, all :-) Hope your holidays were good, and that you got everything you thought you deserved the week before new year ;-)

So.

Smartwatches.

The next big thig, it seems, is 'wearables'. Now, while I, and probably many, many others, view clothes (especialy in this chilly time of year) as wearables, what the marketing mens is wrist-worn electronic devices, which are designed to impart lots more information to you than just the time. Offerings thus far include makes such as Android Gear, LG, Motorola ("Moto"), Sony, and others; the Apple thing is due soo as well, apparently, but as I'm not being a fan of that brand, you can research that thing.

However.

While the added functionality of these things is nice, the main hiccup with them is the battery life; my current wrist watch, (an analogue-face ex-army watch, as it happens) which is reasonably accurate, tells me the time. It also has an easily changable battery, and that battery has an average life of five years.

Were I to change up to a smartwatch, I'd want that watch to have a week-long (that's seven days) battery life at the very minumum. Now, I may be asking the moon here, but it's not unreasonable to expect a smartwatch to at least equal a mechanical wristwatch in its ability to function between winds of the mechanism - and the last one I had lasted a week between complete winding cycles. I would expect a smartwatch to at least be capable of lasting that long, given that it's supposed to replicate the basic functions of a watch, and only once that is accomplished, have additional fuctionality that is being touted as well.

As to additional functionality. Yes, interface with the phone via bluetooth. Yes, notify us of incoming comms, be they calls, SMS, email, Social Media, or whatever. Tell us the weather? OK, nice. GPS? Gravy. Heartbeat monitor? Cool (if you interface it with an app to call the emergency services if the heartbeat stops while being worn, even better!).

But hey, let's solve the absolutely stupidly short battery life issue first, eh? Frankly, I wouldn't be at all surprised that this is the issue that's preventing wider smartphone takup in the marketplace.

YMMV, of course.

Thoughts and comments appreciated :-)

R.