Monday, 11 May 2015

Ah, that's better :)

Well, the replacement hard drive for my notebook arrived this morning from (nice and fast, that was good!), and inside the larger-than-expected box (L 23cm, W 16cm, H 11cm) was a surprisingly small hard drive (roughly 10cm x 7.5cm x 1cm - Good God, these things have got a LOT smaller in thirty years!), sealed in a factory-issue Toshiba-stamped Anti-Static bag.

The new drive was successfully fitted (it was pitifully easy, one screw, prize off a plastic panel, carefully ground myself against the metalwork (static electricity kills modern electronics), and swap them out. Many orders of magnitude easier than when I worked in the IT game - at least someone's learned how to make things simple!)

Then came formatting and installing Ubuntu Linux 14.04 LTS (Long Term Service). For that, I had to go into the BIOS (hitting the F12 key as you turn the machine on to access the settings menu), and tell it to boot off the USB port. Again, dead easy.

The installer, running off a LiveUSB thumb drive, did the job with no problems; the new installation then took itself off to update everything in sight to current release levels, as expected.

All in all, a relatively easy and simple fix to conduct. Nice to know some things come along with no dramas attached!

One or two comments need to be added, however. The installer makes one massive partition; you really need three: One for the operating system, one for your data, and one for the swap file. For this, you really need a decent disk management tool, and there exists in Linux, one such excellent tool, called gparted. However, it's been over two decades since I played with partitions, and a LOT of standards and practices have changed in that time, so I left it to the Ubuntu installer to do its thing.

And got one partition, not three. Live and learn.

I'll know better next time (and there WILL be a next time, as I plan to replace this new hard drive in about a year, with a Solid State Drive, which are much better than conventional hard drives (or HDDs), as there are no moving parts in an SSD, they're on average three times quicker than an HDD, consume less power, don't get as hot, and are quieter as a result of all of this as well.

The downside at the moment is that SSDs are expensive in comparison to HDDs, and tend to have much lower capacity than HDDs. Hopefully, that will have changed a fair bit for the better by this time next year.

And that will give me sufficient time to bone up on current partitioning practices, so I can do a much better job of sorting out a new drive for the machine.

Still, at least it's done for now

Sunday, 10 May 2015

OH, Pooh, part lord knows what...

The PC fell over yesterday, yet again. This time, it was locked into a login loop.

I got out of that by using the Ubuntu thumb drive to get the machine up and running, reformatted the hard drive (AGAIN, already), and got DISKS (a linux GUI-based drive checking package) up to test the hard drive using the S.M.A.R.T. system ("Self-Monitoring, Analysis and Reporting Technology") that modern hard drives tend to come with.

Well, now I know why the PC has been falling over so much. It seems that the hard disk is shagged. The S.M.A.R.T. test (performed overnight), revealed that there are 1142  bad sectors, none of which can be moved or remapped. "Old age" is the listed cause.

There are several words that I used when I read the result, none of them printable - or polite for that matter.

So. I've ordered a replacement drive via, for a shade under 50 quid. A word of advice here: Make sure you know what type of drive your machine uses, if you have t replace it; there are two main types, IDE, and SATA. The two are not interchangeable. Best option? Replace like for like. My machine's a Toshiba C855-29M laptop. Hardware-wise, it's quite a reliable machine (aside from the damned hard drive, of course!) The SMART report noted the type of drive as being a Toshiba MQ01ABD100, so that's what I've ordered.

As to fitting it, well, they're easy enough to swap out, as modern PCs ( both desktop and laptop) tend to be pretty modular inside (for ease of servicing, the so-called disposable society, and all that), so (and not forgetting to ground yourself against the earth bonding so as not to fry the computer with static charge when you touch the insides) a screwdriver here, a bit of careful leverage there, and this machine should be sporting a new hard drive sometime tomorrow (the good thing about Amazon Prime membership is that they can do next-day delivery at no extra cost in most cases).

It's rather interesting, however, that I only found this out under Linux, than under Windoze. And not a little worrying, too, come to think of it. I'd used some excellnt tools under Windoze, including but by no means limited to Performance Monitor, CCleaner, and others, and none of them had reported any problems. It was only when I moved to Linux that I found that (a) the problems were manageable, and (b) discoverable.

So, I think I’ll be sticking with Linux from now on; seems more able to keep on top of things - what I've been able to do over the last 24 hours with relative ease, I would NOT have been able to do under Windows.

I'm still peeved that I have to shell out for a new drive, and that I've lost a weeks-worth of data, but on the positive side, there's now light at the end of the tunnel, and my habit of taking regular back-ups (a habit that EVERYONE who owns a computer should practice) has paid off.

There are a couple of tips I'll hand over to you at this time, one I've touched on already above:

  • Take regular, at LEAST weekly backups of your data;
  • If you like, take a clone image, or ISO, of your hard drive once you've loaded up all your software onto it, and set it up how you like it. It'll make reloading the machine a whole lot easier;
  • Use GMail, or a similar cloud-based email service - you won't loose your emails, calender, contacts, or a whole load of other things, if the machine falls over catastrophically;
  • Back up your browser settings - I use Firefox, and have a cloud-based account with them, and sync with it on a daily basis, so that I don't lose passwords, bookmarks, and so on. It's one hell of a handy safety net, let me tell you;
  • If you use a LOT of passwords online (and this is recommended practice by pretty-much all the respected advisors across the globe), then invest in a password manager; there are many of them out there - some of them are even free, but the brand-name ones are probably a good choice, at least to start with. It's a belt-and-braces approach to data preservation, but with modern life the way it is, better safe than sorry.

So. I'm in a better mood, now that I know what the root (Linux pun, sorry, couldn't help it) cause of the problems I've been experiencing are, and what the solution is.

More once I've swapped out the drive.

Thursday, 7 May 2015

Oh, pooh. On two counts :-(

Right, micro-update.

The FTDI cable arrived in today’s post. And still the radio will not play, which means that it's the ruddy radio, not the cables, or the computer. Time to talk to the radio's retailer... more once I have more...

Also, on the computer...  the darn thing threw a wobbly and refused to boot, thanks to an unrecoverable corrupted sector in the boot track. Even Checkdisk couldn't recover it. I had to wipe the entire drive, repartition it, and reinstall Ubuntu Linux. Thank wossit I take automatic backups of the data!

Tuesday, 5 May 2015

A small update...

Well,  there's a nice surprise - the Baofeng UV-5R, and all its accessories,  turned up in one delivery, rather that three or four, over two days, from Amazon this morning. Only one problem,  the programming cable,  or the radio itself, may have a fault...

I tried to download the radio's firmware and pre-installed memory settings, to find the the radio was not responding. The programming cable,  which came in a Baofeng printed box,  is based on the Prolific chip,  was accepted by the computer,  and mounted apparently successfully via a USB port first time,  no drivers required.

To prove this, I checked on the Console, with the dmesg command. This displays all system messages to the screen from the moment you booted up your Linux machine that session. It's rather handy for error tracking. This is what I got:

[ 5611.658886] usb 3-1.1.2: new full-speed USB device number 6 using xhci_hcd
[ 5611.760088] usb 3-1.1.2: New USB device found, idVendor=067b, idProduct=2303
[ 5611.760098] usb 3-1.1.2: New USB device strings: Mfr=1, Product=2, SerialNumber=0
[ 5611.760104] usb 3-1.1.2: Product: USB-Serial Controller
[ 5611.760108] usb 3-1.1.2: Manufacturer: Prolific Technology Inc.
[ 5611.761287] pl2303 3-1.1.2:1.0: pl2303 converter detected
[ 5611.762771] usb 3-1.1.2: pl2303 converter now attached to ttyUSB0

So, not the chip in the cable, then, or it wouldn't have responded.

The radio,  once fully charged via the drop-in mains charger, turned on as expected. And that's all that seemed to go right thus far.

So, as the chip in the USB end of the cable is being recognised, then it's either a fault in the cable or the plugs at the radio end, or the radio itself.

My immediate gut feeling on this, is to look at the common cause of a lot of problems, and that will be the cable - cables can fail for a wide variety of reasons, not all of them immediately apparent, so I've ordered another cable, this time based on the FTDI chip,  in the hope that it's the cable, not the radio.

If the replacement cable doesn't do the trick,  then it's likely as not to be the radio,  and that'll get a replacement request fired off to the marketplace retailer.

To be updated once I've got the FTDI cable.

Monday, 4 May 2015


So, hot on the heels of getting to grips with CHIRP, I encountered a problem. Not with the software, or computer, or even Linux. But with an old and faithful friend of mine, my twenty-plus-years-old tri-band amateur radio hand-held Yaesu VX-5R.

Turns out that the antenna socket is loose, and try as I might, I cannot lock it down: I spent a LOT of hours earlier trying, including disassembling the thing (don't worry, I put it together again and it still works!) to get at the SMA connector that forms the antenna socket, but to no avail. So, it's going to have to go into honourable retirement, until such time as I can figure out how the heck I'm going to lock up that socket without breaking something else on the radio.

So. Time, then, for a new hand-held. I've been debating this for a while now; a couple of years back, I got hold of an Icom ID-51A, and while it's a very nice radio, it's not something that I want to be carting around all the time - for a start, it cost me well over four hundred quid when I got it, and truth be told, it's a bit irritating to use, being a hybrid Dual-band analogue and digital (Digital Voice & D-Star) FM hand held.

Now, there's a newer version out now with a couple more bells and whistles, but however you look at it, there's a LOT packed into it, hence the complications every so often when using it. Don't get me wrong: I'm hanging onto it, but it's a rig I don't really like to take out of the house, both because of the cost of the damn thing, but also the need to have to consult the damn manual when I want to do something that I either forgot how to do, or haven't done before, with it.

What I really need is a cheap radio that I won't get too upset about if it gets dropped, that's easy to use. So, having been recommended just such a radio a while back by a friend, I've gone ahead and ordered one off - surprisingly enough - Amazon. Yep, they sell Ham gear too. Who knew?!

OJ yeah, the radio? It's a Baofeng UV-5R dual-band FM hand-held transceiver. And it cost me a shade under £23.

That's right.

Twenty-three quid.

I've seen a bucket load of good reviews on this rig, and a couple of not so good ones, so balance of probabilities? It's what I need: A reasonably reliable, cheap hand held.

The reviews also highlighted one major issue with the UV-5R: It's allegedly a complete sod to program the memory channels without the aid of a computer, so, I've also ordered a programming cable, an external fist microphone (saves hauling the radio off the belt when you want to use it), and a couple of other things for it as well (extended capacity batter and a replacement antenna, as the stock one is apparently not that brilliant) as well, which is still, at a total order value of close to fifty quid, which is close to a TENTH of the cost of the cheapest a similar big-name rig with a similar range of accessories as I've ordered for this Baofeng rig. It's quite amazing.

Granted, the after-sales service is likely to be complete pants, but for the price, you really cannot argue one bit. It truly is, in amateur radio terms, a 'disposable radio'.

Oh, remember I said a tenth of the cost above? I wasn't joking. Here's a comparison with one of my favourite makes, Yaesu, versus the Baofeng...

First, the Baofeng UV-5R...

BaoFeng UV-5R 136-174/400-480 MHz Dual-Band DTMF CTCSS DCS FM Ham Two Way Radio £22.57
USB Programming Cable for Baofeng UV-5R/666S/777S/888S Radio £3.04
NAGOYA NA-771 Dual Band 144/430Mhz U/V SMA Female Antenna for Baofeng UV-5R WOUXUN £6.39
Pofung Baofeng BL-5L Extended 3800mAh 7.4V Lithium-Ion Battery for UV-5R Radio Black £10.90
Original Handheld BAOFENG UV-5R Speaker-mic for dual band radio £5.79
BAOFENG 12V DC Travel Car Charger Cable for BaoFeng UV-5R £1.33
Total £50.02

Next, the Yaesu FT1-DE, a broadly comparable currently available radio...

Yaesu FT1-DE 144/430MHz Dual Band £429.95
Programming cable not neeeded – data held on removable PC-readable MicroSD card Nil
Replacement antenna not needed, stock antenna reasonable Nil
Yaesu SBR-14LI (FNB-102LI) high-capacity battery 72.95
Yaesu MH-34B4B speaker-mic 31.96
Yaesu SDD-13 Cigarette Lighter power cable – 12V 29.57
Total £564.43

Thus, when you look at the costs, and what the end result will be (transmitted analogue FM signals at approximately 5 Watts output), there's really no choice at all, is there?

More once I've got the thing in my grubby mitts in a couple of days.

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 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 (, 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 (; 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!