Again with MMDVM

Apparently there is an incompatibility between “Pi-Star:3.4.16 / Dashboard: 20180806” and the 1.3.7 MMDVM firmware that prevents things from working properly (the Pi-Star just sits there scrolling “IDLE”, nothing shows up in the activity display, and the Trx field under Radio Info is blank instead of at least saying “Listening”.  (Indeed I think my Pi-Star wasn’t receiving any activity at all.)  So I upgraded to the 1.4.6 firmware and it appears to be listening again, but other than my own test with the Parrot earlier this morning, nothing has shown up.

Weird.  Would be nice if there was some coordination where you could actually find out about these things before Pi-Star simply auto-upgrades you into oblivion.

Hmm, OK, seems to be working now, I just heard someone on 3118.

Cautionary MMDVM tale

I’ve been fiddling around with my original JumboSPOT, trying to get it to CW ID, and I did finally figure that out; you have to go into the Expert configurators, choose MMDVMHOST, scroll down to the section called “CW ID”, and change the “Enabled” parameter to 1, save then reboot.  But it did not seem to be working with this particular JumboSPOT (although it was working fine with the other one, which is intended as a mobile hotspot).

So I thought, hmm, the firmware is kinda old (it was “ZUMSpot 1.0.2”) and maybe it just needed an upgrade.

After searching all over hell’s half acre for the instructions to do that, I found somewhere (and I can’t find the link now) a video that explained how to pull down the latest firmware and install it.  Effectively, you log into the SSH terminal, set the session to RW (with “rpi-rw”), and then clone the git repository for MMDVMHost with “git clone https://github.com/juribeparada/MMDVM_HS”.

At that point, you do

cd MMDVM_HS/scripts

and you can “ls” to find out what you’ve got in that directory:

pi-star@pi-star(rw):scripts$ ls
build_fw.sh                install_fw_hsdualhat.sh    install_fw_rpi.sh
install_buildtools.sh      install_fw_hshat-12mhz.sh  install_fw_usb.sh
install_fw_custom.sh       install_fw_hshat.sh        mmdvm_hs_hat_fw.bin
install_fw_duplex_gpio.sh  install_fw_librekit.sh     STM32F10X_Lib
install_fw_duplex.sh       install_fw_nanodv.sh       zumspot_rpi_fw.bin
install_fw_gen_gpio.sh     install_fw_nanohs.sh
pi-star@pi-star(ro):scripts$

Points to make:

  • You MUST ensure that the GPIO20 and GPIO21 pins can connect between the JumboSPOT and the Pi (in this case, a Pi Zero W).  Otherwise you won’t be able to update the firmware no matter what you do.  My first JumboSPOT/Pi Zero W unit did not have this connection, so I had to take the thing apart and add a pin socket to the JumboSPOT and a pin header to the Pi Zero W in this location.  The second JumboSPOT I bought already had this covered, and when I put the second Pi Zero W together I installed a full-length GPIO header, so again, covered.
  • You MUST ensure that you choose the right firmware installer.  Clue:  It’s NOT “install_fw_rpi.sh”.  You can flash it, and it boots, but it never actually initializes the listeners (although Pi-Star it claims it does).  I figured out by checking the working unit — that was running “HS_Hat:1.3.3” — that it had to be the “install_fw_hshat.sh” installer.  Once I reflashed the unit with the correct firmware, it worked fine.

I’ve said it before and I’m going to say it again:  Pi-Star needs formal documentation to explain all of this shit.  I cannot understand how such a complex operating system can be released for use by thousands of hams and the only way to figure out what some of the arcane settings are, and how to get the silly thing running in the first place, aren’t clearly documented in a published manual (which for all of me could be a wiki).  I know that hams don’t read manuals, but I’m in the software business myself, and if you don’t have published manuals, nobody takes you seriously, even if they never read the damn things.

I also understand that Pi-Star is free.  That’s no excuse, or it’s the excuse of a lazy developer who doesn’t document anything except in release notes.  The documentation could be crowd-sourced using a wiki, for crying out loud.

Videos take too long to watch when you read 500 WPM.  Give me text any time.

Why I hate FT8

Operators who jump in on top of a QSO you’ve already started with SOMEONE ELSE should be shot.

That’s happened twice to me today on 20M.  I mean, you CQ, they come back with their grid, you shoot them a report, and BANG some other operator with a more powerful signal jumps in with a grid like they didn’t even know you were talking to the other guy — which is BS or why would I be sending him a signal report?

I’m going back to JT modes and maybe some Olivia.

[Edited for language.  Apologies if you read the original.  I was rather put out.]

Taking the zoom out of ZUMspot

So I see that the ZUMspot folks have hit another speed bump on their road to general availability. Apparently the two-man crew that was the design and build team for ZUMspot have split up. HRO say they are still repping them (but aren’t taking any orders at this time).

(Click to embiggenate.  Link to page is https://www.hamradio.com/detail.cfm?pid=H0-015994.)

I’ve seen this problem time and time again in industry. Just one more tweak…just one more added feature…we promise we’ll release Real Soon Now.

That was an approach that worked (to some extent) back in the old days. With the Chinese ignoring IP rights, and beating legitimate technology owners to the marketplace with their own copycat versions of the legitimate product sold through eBay and other dodgy suppliers, you have to be quick on your feet to make money on a product today before someone steals your idea.

For all the mouth noises being made in recent weeks (thank you, Donald Trump, even though I suspect this will end up being a nothingburger) by the Chinese government about protection of foreigners’ IP rights, it boggles the mind that anyone would entrust production of anything to the Chinese.  It may be cheap and fast, but you always run the risk of someone saying, “Gee whiz, this is a great product, let’s ramp up production and sell some ourselves at half the price.”  And the Chinese government folks, whom you would think would normally be smacking them down for doing that, just sit, twiddling their thumbs, and grinning at the West taking another one on the chin.

Maybe NXDN support could have waited for the next version…

Maybe some American company could find a way to produce this sort of thing without it costing an arm and a leg, too.  Some industrial production is slowly coming back from China as American companies are discovering that the Chinese are discovering that the Chinese people want raises and more compensation for their labor, and the things they make can be made here just as cheaply (and maybe more cheaply) than in China today.  Also because of the threat of tariffs, but I think tariffs work better in the abstract than in the concrete; it’s clear that the mere threat of tariffs has already caused the Chinese to back down in some areas, while still blustering and tossing around tariff threats of their own about others.  And that’s politics, into which I’m not going to delve any deeper on this blog.

For what it’s worth, Connect Systems is in the same position with their CS7000 handheld, although I don’t think anybody is actually cloning it like they are the ZUMspot. I was on the waiting list for a long time and finally cancelled my pre-order and bought the Tytera MD-380, when it became clear that the 7000 was going to remain vaporware for the foreseeable future.  That was at least two years ago, and the 7000 is still vaporware.

I think the ZUMspot is a great little product.  It’s just too bad the Chinese duplicated it, called it the JUMBOspot, and stole their market because (in my opinion) they spent too much time dawdling over that “one more feature”.

A good point from 1949

I have a book here called “Radio and Television Mathematics” by one Bernhard Fischer, written in 1949.  Dr. Fischer was, at the time, the Vice President in Charge of Training, American Television Laboratories of California.  His book was intended as “a handbook to serve as a guide and reference book for the practical man, as a collection of problems for instructors, and as a review for those who want to acquire a rapid practical skill in solving problems in preparation for radio license examinations given by [the US FCC].”  In his preface, he hits on a point that prospective or upgrading amateurs in this day and age of incentive licensing and open question pools might want to keep in mind as they study for their tests:

The intelligent reader knows he will not profit a great deal by merely reading the solutions as presented by the author.  He will try to solve the problems by himself and compare his method with the one presented in the text.  Only after he has endeavored seriously to solve a problem and has encountered difficulties which he feels he cannot overcome should he resort to the given solution as a last expedient.

In other words, don’t just memorize the answers from the question pool.  Actually learn how to solve the problems.

The League is wrong on this one

I’m an ARRL member, have been ever since I got my ticket back in 2013.  And I generally support the League kind of like I support the NRA — I don’t necessarily agree with them 100%, but they’re out there doing the work I don’t have time to do myself.  In the case of the NRA, protecting the 2nd Amendment, and in the case of the ARRL, protecting amateur spectrum from being overrun by commercial interests.  Both organizations educate their constituencies and those who would like to be part of those constituencies.  Typically they do less harm than good, and to repeat myself, they keep a watchful eye on things I don’t have time to keep an eye on.

But the League’s new advocacy of expanded HF privileges for Technician Class hams is going a bit too far.

The League proposes to “expand HF privileges for Technician licensees to include limited phone privileges on 75, 40, and 15 meters, plus RTTY and digital mode privileges on 80, 40, 15, and 10 meters.”  Why?

“This action will enhance the available license operating privileges in what has become the principal entry-level license class in the Amateur Service,” ARRL said in its Petition. “It will attract more newcomers to Amateur Radio, it will result in increased retention of licensees who hold Technician Class licenses, and it will provide an improved incentive for entry-level licensees to increase technical self-training and pursue higher license class achievement and development of communications skills.”

Excuse me?  I thought that’s what incentive-based licensing was all about already.  You get a Technician license, rapidly discover (if you didn’t already know) that you’re limited to 6M and above except for a tiny phone segment on 10M and some CW frequencies on 15M, 40M, and 80M, and you’re supposed to be “incentivized” to study for and pass the General license exam so you can widen your horizons.  And then, if you’re really smart (or can study and retain the material long enough), you can pass the Amateur Extra exam and all of the keys to the amateur radio kingdom are yours.

The fact is, too many hams are stuck at Technician as it is.  Why would the League think it a good idea to expand their privileges rather than incentivize them to upgrade?  I’m living proof (even as an Extra) that you can get stuck in the digital modes for a long time without doing anything else in radio.  I don’t do code, I get tongue-tied on phone, and I’m not a repeater guy.  Plus I don’t have a lot of time to spend on the air, so I get on, make a few quick digital Q’s, and then I’m off to do something else.  That said, I got WAS in about a year mostly doing digital.  But that’s me.

If FT8 is such a big deal, and Technicians want to get in on the FT8 bandwagon, the League ought to be telling them to study up and pass the General — not giving them yet another excuse to put off (likely forever) an upgrade to a level where they have very nearly all privileges available.

Besides, what are they going to do with an HF transceiver once they get bored with FT8 and the other digital modes?  I mean, that microphone is just sitting there…and if you think they’ll confine themselves to 80, 40, and 15 meters, you’re dreaming.  I mean, the serious ones will (I would have), but soon enough, we’ll see the same issues across HF that we see now on the repeaters.  (As if we don’t already, but happily that seems to confine itself to a few watering holes rather than being spread all across the bands.)  To date, HF seems to have been less affected by that than the repeaters, for probably several reasons, such as cost of entry, antennas, etc.  But open up even a small part of HF to Technicians and the repeater abusers will undoubtedly come along — they’ll find a way.

“Now numbering some 378,000, Technician licensees comprise more than one-half of the US Amateur Radio population.”  OK — so tell them to upgrade.  But hmm, that isn’t the real problem, is it?

ARRL said that after 17 years’ experience with the current Technician license as the gateway to Amateur Radio, it’s urgent to make it more attractive to newcomers, in part to improve upon science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education “that inescapably accompanies a healthy, growing Amateur Radio Service,” ARRL asserted.

ARRL said its proposal is critical to developing improved operating skills, increasing emergency communication participation, improving technical self-training, and boosting overall growth in the Amateur Service, which has remained nearly inert at about 1% per year.

Then the ARRL isn’t doing something right.  There are lots of smart kids out there.  Almost all of them have computers (or at least access to them) these days.  There is so much going on in ham radio that uses computers.  It’s just another way to communicate without wires — and unlike your cell phone, you can talk to people on the other side of the world without having to rely on a technical infrastructure run by faceless corporations.  (Yeah, OK, hyperbole, and don’t get involved in DMR if you are looking for an infrastructure-free method of communications.)

Although, it’s possible that the ARRL is doing everything it can, but outside influences are preventing the expansion of amateur radio.  Fifty years ago, you could probably put up a 40-foot tower and hang big antennas off of it without causing anything more than maybe a little grumbling from your next door neighbor, or some bitching about RFI on channel 6 during Jeopardy.  Today, doing the same thing runs you into a maze of zoning laws and HOA rules and neighbors who know their rights and think you’re running down their property values.

Ground-mount verticals, stealth wire antennas, and even the suddenly-popular cobweb antenna might help solve that problem, but for the average new ham living in a HOA neighborhood, trying to get around the rules can be pretty daunting.  The Amateur Radio Parity Act tries to help, with a “reasonable accommodation” rule similar to the existing PRB-1 that mandates “reasonable accommodation” for TV antennas and dishes, but the Act is stuck in Congress and there’s a vocal group of hams who oppose it on the grounds that it constitutes an end run around HOA rules that you should have known about (and agreed to) when you bought your home — even if you weren’t a ham then and suddenly decided, years later, that you wanted to be one.

But these issues can be dealt with; join a club and use their station, operate mobile, use stealth methods and operate at night, whatever.  And they really don’t affect the ability to use the repeaters when you can put a J-pole in the attic or disguise one as a garden decoration or something like that, so there’s no real excuse even in a HOA to grouse that you can’t get on UHF or VHF.

No, I think the main problem is that ham radio has simply become overshadowed by newer and flashier technologies, and most people think of CB when you talk about amateur radio.  The reason for that is poor or (let’s be kind) ineffective public relations and marketing on the part of those who care.  And when I say “ineffective”, I don’t mean that the PR effort is either weak or no good, I mean that it simply tends to get lost in the noise.

For example:  During the recent natural disasters that have occurred over the past year or so, there have been some real gems come out, showing how important the Amateur Radio Service is during emergencies — particularly in Puerto Rico, but also in Florida and Texas, and in California during the big fires there.  But it doesn’t seem to me that this information got any major play.  It tended to get stomped on by the general human tragedy and the fecklessness of government, particularly that of Puerto Rico.  Because after all, ham radio operators restoring communications in the aftermath of a disaster doesn’t sell newspapers like stories about the suffering and deprivation of the region’s inhabitants, or stories about a corrupt commonwealth government that’s holding money and badly-needed supplies back from the professionals who can use them, to the point where FEMA and the Army Corps of Engineers need to step in and be the adults in charge so power can be restored to the island.

The Force of 50?  What’s the Force of 50?  No habla inglés, señor.

If amateur radio can’t get a boost out of stories like the Force of 50, what the hell can it get a boost from?

I can tell you right now, expanding the privileges of the Technician license is not going to cause that many more people to wake up one morning and decide, hey, I think I’ll study up and get a ham radio license.  As far as privileges go, there is already so much that a Technician can do at VHF and above.  In the modern era, the one thing that really gave ham radio a bump came in 2005, and that was the FCC dropping the code test requirement.  People like me — who had thought about getting into ham radio for years — no longer had to learn code, and frankly, that was my big stopping point.  Well, that, and the high price of entry; we didn’t have the money when I was a kid.

There is no comparable “bump” left, short of dropping the testing altogether.  But at that point, we’d all become glorified CB operators.  Luckily, I think the FCC, while it would love to rid itself of oversight of the Amateur Service, would still find itself bound by the IARU agreements that require amateurs to be licensed by their government.  Frankly, I think that’s the only reason we still have testing, but the FCC already handed that part off to the VECs years ago, and don’t involve themselves in that aspect.

So, whither amateur radio, in a world of cell phones, the Internet, and satellite TV?

I mean, even a TV sitcom with a popular actor (who happens to be a ham) about a father and family man (who happened to be a ham) that uses ham radio as a major plot device didn’t manage to turn that many new people into hams, did it?

There are all kinds of celebrities out there who are ham radio operators.  Does that get the interest meter off the zero peg?  Nope.

So what I’m going to tell you now, after all that’s gone above, is that I don’t have the answer.  If I did, I’d use it to double the membership of my Scottish Rite valley.  And I don’t think the ARRL has the answer, either.  But I know at least part of the answer is going to involve a lot more concentrated PR effort than I’ve seen since I became a ham five years ago.  Ham radio just isn’t a piece of the culture like it was in the mid-20th century, when it often appeared as a matter of course in movies and science-fiction novels, and the Radio Merit Badge was a big deal in Scouting.  I don’t even know if it can be taken back to that level, and frankly, I doubt it.

But one thing I do know is this:  There is not a single high-school amateur radio club in any of the nine school districts comprising Marion County, Indiana.  And if you don’t get them young, good luck getting them when they’re older.

DMR anywhere redux

Man, these little Chinese knockoff ZumSPOTs are pretty robust:

pi-star@pi-star(rw):~$ uptime
15:34:35 up 13 days, 5:33, 1 user, load average: 1.23, 1.16, 0.68

It’s been running all that time on the battery box, although the battery box has been on the charger since last weekend.  It ran the batteries down from 12.6 volts to 12.0 volts in five days.  (It very quickly took the batteries from 12.8 volts in that photo to 12.6 volts.  As I noted elsewhere online, these batteries aren’t spring chickens.)

It is a bit annoying that I had to go into expert mode and open the SSH window to issue an ‘uptime’ command, though.  That ought to be on the dashboard, and unless I’ve somehow missed it, I don’t see it there.  (I mean, I see the load averages, but I don’t see the “up 13 days, 5:33” part.)  Ah well.

Much as I hate to buy another Chinese knockoff, I’m seriously considering it, since the “official” ZumSPOT boards are still not available.  I see that they’re trying to add NXDN capability now.  Hopefully at some point they’ll poke it with a sharp object and declare it finished, but meanwhile, everybody and his aged grandmother in Shenzen is selling JumboSpots dated 11/17/2017 for $42 and free shipping, I have a spare RPi Zero W and an OLED screen sitting here, and could put a second one together as soon as I have the JumboSpot in my hands…et voila, I have one to mount permanently in the car.

This is, FWIW, the same reason I gave up on Connect Systems’ vaporware CS7000 handheld (still in R&D!) and bought a Tytera MD-380.  You can beat your product to death and keep adding features and swatting bugs and tweaking it till hell won’t have it, then finally get the product out there and find others have moved on.  The Chinese are selling ZumSPOTs right now for half the price the developers say they’ll be selling them for through HRO, sometime in the sweet by and by.

Stick a fork in it, gentlemen.  It’s done.  And your market is drying up fast.  You didn’t protect your IP well enough and the Chinese are eating your lunch in the marketplace.

DMR anywhere

100% portable JumboSpot.  Possibly a bit over-batteried…

Laurels for DX Engineering

Mud pie in the face for UPS.

Dear Mr. Duffy,

With regard to my recent order #xxxxxxx, I thought you might want to know that UPS claims to have delivered the package to my front door yesterday afternoon, but the package did not actually arrive.

I am pretty sure that they left the package at the wrong address, because I had another scheduled delivery the same day that required a signature, and tracking for that shipment indicates that they made the attempt to deliver at the exact same time they claim to have delivered your shipment. However, there was no notice left on my door regarding the delivery attempt, so I can only surmise that the driver was, in fact, at the wrong address. Moreover, I was home all day – I telecommute to my job daily as I have for the past 22 years, and at the time they claim to have been at my front door, I was sitting at my kitchen table ten feet away having lunch. I think I would have noticed a knock at the door, or the doorbell ringing 🙂 In addition, I was checking outside every 30 minutes or so all day, to make sure they hadn’t “ninjaed” me and left the package without knocking or ringing, which happens a lot, unfortunately (although FedEx is actually the biggest offender in that regard).

UPS Customer Service is, naturally, giving me the run-around, suggesting I file a claim and otherwise seeming to wash their hands of the problem (of course their driver did not make a mistake, it shows delivered to my address in their system), and I thought as the shipper, you might want to know that. (This isn’t the first time they’ve misdelivered a package here, either – usually they leave it on the next door neighbor’s porch, but that wasn’t the case this time.)

Let me say that I have always been perfectly satisfied with DX Engineering and the products I have purchased from you. This problem is totally owned by UPS and doesn’t reflect on you at all.

Thanks, and 73,
Nathan Brindle KC9YTJ

Not an hour later, I had a phone call from Maria at DX Engineering, who said they were going to reship my item and put in a shipper’s claim with UPS, and to just let them know if the original package showed up.

You have no idea how much that means to me — and I wasn’t expecting it.

And partly you have no idea how much that means to me because my G5RV came apart the other night (on the end we DIDN’T drop the branch on, so I don’t know what happened) and I had ordered a new one to replace it, hopefully this weekend.  That wasn’t looking like it was going to happen, given UPS intransigence.

I just got the shipment notification and the new antenna will be on its way tonight.

Thanks, DX Engineering.  All y’all go the extra mile for Joe Average Ham, out here in the radio store wilderness.  I was already a customer for life, this just puts the icing on that cake.

Masonic Nets and other things

It being Christmas Eve, I figured I had some time to tune around, and thought I’d see if the Ohio Masonic Fellowship Net was still meeting on 3865 as advertised on the Hiram’s Hams website.

Just before 0230 UTC, I heard K8DHC identify way down in the noise.  Of course part of the noise was a couple of yahoos yakking on 3863, so they were bleeding over into 3865 for me and pretty much ruining the entire experience, but my punky antenna and the general condx may have had something to do with that, too.

So I don’t know if the Masonic net went off or not, but I didn’t hear much after that one identification other than somebody tuning up and someone saying something along the lines of, “Goodness gracious!” without identifying.  (They were, however, 5 and 9 from Indianapolis.)

It gives me a bit of a thrill, though, to think there might actually still be an HF Masonic net running on Sunday evenings.  I’ve never heard the one that supposedly runs weekdays at 1600 UTC on 14328.

So, are there actually any other Masonic HF nets running?  I’m not talking about on Echolink — that’s not radio.

Earlier in the evening, I heard K6MYC booming in from California on 7134ish, talking about antennas.  I suppose he would know, I went and looked him up on QRZ and he’s quite the interesting fellow.

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