Winston Lawrence

KD2WLL - Amateur Radio Notes

Adventures in radio - March 2021


2021-03-22: Last Man Standing Net event

I tried connecting to the Last Man Standing special event talkgroup a couple of days ago since this was billed as a seven-week all-day all-bands and digital event. Instead, all technician license roads anyway led to W8JTK holding down the fort across a number of the digital bands.

W8JTK, patiently told me and at least three other folks that attempted to connect while we were talking, that our time was not yet, the DMR group would open up on Saturday it was NOT an all day deal over several days, for technician license holders like the website was stating.

The technician class license got the all-digital mode 6-8 hour event on Saturday (3/23). Actually, if you held a technician license and could do CW then you probably had a couple more options on bands other than the nominal 2M and 70cm ones.[EDIT] Added later - this was not quite true, I was forgetting about SSB, AM, TV Digital (ala FT8) and the the 6M band. None of my radios do any of this (well possibly TV) but they are available for the tech license holder. I think FT8 and 6M connections would have also been able to make Last Man Standing contacts]

I joined at about 19:20 EST on 3/23, listened, and heard a couple of callsigns thrown out, so I added mine into the mix (I did think that maybe they were going by region but WTH I didn't hear anybody say this). It turned out they were going by region so I ended up hanging out on the band until they cycled back to region 2 a little after 22:00EST.

Hot mike in hand I let loose with my callsign (see the video clip). By that time I had found the streaming session and so was watching Amanda and Jeff, from the Ham Nation crowd, in real-time.

Okay, that was it, kind of a lot of hype, for in the end not much to do, but it was fun. I do feel sorry for folks who did not get in because the timeslot was some ungodly hour for them, or who probably fell asleep at the mic and missed their chance to get on the air. I think it would have gone better if they pulled in a few more volunteers to split up the digital modes instead of combining them all in one and some large multi-hub conference net-events which have been running for years that they could have tapped into for the digital modes. There would have been more contacts on more modes, more frequently. As it was I think a lot of folks coming in were on Echolink and using a computer. Not that it matters how they got in they had to be amateur radio licensed but it seemed like other modes (DSTAR, WIRESX, FUSION) were not, or barely represented as I don't remember hearing anyone saying those modes (to be truthful I dropped out at about 5 hours in - so maybe they were all on West coast time and started talking after I dropped).

2021-03-22: Clearnode Backup

The Clearnode comes pre-installed on what turned out to be a 16GB micro SD Card. I've been running Raspberry PI's long enough to know that eventually that card will have errors that will eventually bring the system down, so backups are mandatory. The initial problem was that I had no idea what flavor of Linux was being run on the card. I didn't need to know that in order to backup and clone the card. I used WinImage to do this, dumping the 16GB backup image onto my PC so, first part - succesful!

It also turned out that I had no spare 16GB cards just a couple of 32GB, 8GB, and 128GB cards so I figured that the 32GB would do and if needed I would expand the filesystem if the OS didn't do so automatically, to make more space available. I again, used win32diskimage to write the just generated backup image to a new 32GB SD card.

Clone the SD card
Backup card using win32diskimage (you could also use dd in Linux or OS/X if you are on a Mac.
  • Start win32diskimage and enter the name for the image backup file and the source (your inserted ClearNode SD card)
  • Eject the card when done and save this original SD Card in a safe place.
  • Place the card that you want to contain your new boot image into the card reader.
  • Start win32diskimage and enter the name of the just-created image backup file as the source and your inserted SD card as the destination.
  • Backup, then eject the SD card
  • I then put the 32GB card into the Clearnode and rebooted. Everything came back up just fine, so, second part - successful!

    I connected via SSH and determined that the Clearnode was running Arch Linux, not Raspbian. A quick look at the filesystem allocation showed that half the card was not being used (as expected) and of the allocated space only a little over half was being used. I decided not to expand the filesystem at this time but at least, I now had one known good backup that could be restored if there was a problem


    2021-03-19: Retevis RT-73 DTMF Failure

    I had moved the Retevis RT73 into my car because I thought that I had finished with programming, worked around the CPS issues and had it working. So this radio was the first outdoor test of the Clearnode and failed spectacularly. At first, I wasn't certain if the problem was the RT73, or the Clearnode. I could not get the keypad to generate or send DTMF tones. Eventually, I moved onto testing the other radios and they all clearly worked well. Turns out the RT73, out-of-the-box does not support DTMF. The radio was advertised as supporting DTMF but it does not work.

    The Retevis RT73 ads now show no mention of DTMF, except curiously the ones on Amazon. It doesnt matter though, it is a defect as the only way to control analog repeaters over the air is through DTMF tones. A Retevis representative has accepted the problem but there is no timeframe stated for a fix.


    2021-03-16: Clearnode Initial testing

    With the Clearnode running, it was time to run some tests. The first step from a few feet away was just to see if I could connect to the Clearnode transceiver from one of the HT's. No problem connection was okay and pressing the PTT key along with the keypad code to play back the current time and weather all worked as expected. The DTMF codes are not published but the node-ventures website says that they are documented in rpt.conf, which was true.

    If you have NO experience with Linux then you may want to email node-ventures to get the commands otherwise if you know how to make an SSH connection and login to the Clearnode the file is in '/etc/asterisk/report.conf'.

    You probably don't want to make any manual changes to (any of) these files because they will be overwritten when updates are made.

    Going back to the testing, I loaded up the car with my radios and drove off to test. All of the radios, except for the Retevis RT73 were able to make a connection up to nearly half a mile away and this with the Clearnode sitting in an upstairs hallway with just its little stub antenna. Using the handhelds (Baofeng BF-F8HP or Radioddity GD-77 was about the same as using the mobile radios with a magnet mounted roof antenna. I think that I may be able to receive at a further distance than the little Clearnode antenna can transmit without replacing the stub antenna with something larger.

    The tests were successful - the Clearnode was working just fine.


    2021-03-06: Digital Radio deep dive (part 1)
    “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less"
    - Alice in Wonderland.

      I bought the Baofeng BF-F8HP radio while waiting for my technician license approval. Dual-band 2M and 70CM, small, portable, and cheap. The Baofeng checked all the boxes and was even smaller than expected when it arrived. I tested the radio, but locally the VHF and UHF bands appeared to have no activity.  I had ordered the programming cable with the radio and after trying and quickly discarding the Baofeng programming software, I downloaded and ran CHIRP instead. CHIRP had a cool feature that let me download all of the repeaters from I think I said repeaters within 20 miles or maybe it was just county but next thing you know I had a lot of repeaters configured in the radio and was beginning to hear traffic.

      Fast forward to continuing my "adventures in radio" theme I did some reading about how repeaters worked,  which led me into discussions about nets, then talkgroups, and then Digital radio. Given my computer background, Digital Radio sealed the deal as to the direction that I at least initially wanted to go with the hobby. The Baofeng gave way to the Radioddity GD77 and soon included a couple of other Digital Mobile Radios. I even bought two hotspots so that I could connect into the Brandmeister or TGIF networks when mobile, or at home without needing to connect to a local repeater first. There were only two DMR repeaters close enough to me to access and there was not a lot of documentation on what you were allowed (or not allowed) to do in terms of connecting to talkgroups, or even what timeslot to use. Just getting the Parrot test service to work was a challenge. Of course, no such restrictions existed with the hotspots so I mostly used those for DMR.

      I joined in on a couple of local VHF nets and will continue to do so but these are local rag chew not quite the same as a DMR talkgroup or net event. I did notice some of the local repeaters supported Echolink and since I was having trouble getting a clear signal to one of the local nets I tried accessing via Echolink and it just worked although it required a longer delay, 2 to 3 seconds pause when keying up before I could speak. I also noticed that a couple of the other repeaters, in addition to supporting Echolink, also supported Allstar, autopatch, and e-power.

    Alphabet soup time but hey that's what Google is for right? Gratuitous information and answers mixed into their advertising ecosystem. It appeared the "e-power" simply meant that the repeater could operate for some period, however briefly, on emergency "e" backup "power". Autopatch lets a (presumably pre-authorized and holding the magic key) radio connect to the repeater and then make a phone call. Making a phone call via the radio was probably high-tech-cool back in the day before cell-phones but kind of begs the question as to why in this day and age. Hey,  you never know when you're going to be stuck somewhere, still within the repeater range of your VHF/UHF radio but with no cellphone or maybe no cellphone service.

    Up until now I was still thinking that Echolink and Allstar were digital radio connections just like DMR, DSTAR, and Fusion and required a digital radio to participate, but one line in the description stood out, that these modes were Analog connections. Echolink and what could be considered its logically later version, Allstar, use standard analog FM radio but accept and use DTMF tones over the air to control repeater features like linking, or unlinking to other repeaters. The repeater connections take place over the internet and the digital, voice encoding part, uses standard internet VOIP (voice over IP) encoding to send the voice traffic between repeaters which is kind of a cool use of internet PBX technology. The main takeaway from this though is that you can use a standard analog radio like my Baofeng to connect to Allstar and Echolink with similar features to the DMR repeaters but with just using a standard, much lower-cost,  analog transceiver. There is even a way to cross-connect your analog Baofeng into a DMR talkgroup!

    The sound quality on Echolink, other than the 3-second delay after pressing PTT, was decent. I had been using Echolink via the network radio and even directly from the Windows PC a couple of times. The kicker, again after reading more about how these modes worked was that Allstar appeared to be a later version of Echolink that ran full-duplex. Echolink up until now was similar to DMR you kind of waited your turn to speak only one person could be talking at a time on the Net events but my first listen to a recorded AllstarLink session showed that it was more like a real phone call - of course, more than one person could talk at a time - you could interject in a conversation without waiting for a break before keying up to talk. Okay had to take a much deeper dive into the world of Echolink and Allstar then.


    2021-03-12: QSO TOoday Virtual Ham Fest: Radio adventures - observations Day 1
    Day 1 (3/12): I did not see the Ham Radio 2.0 Livestream and eventually saw only a small part of the Ham Radio Workbench podcast stream. The QSO Today Virtual Ham Expo platform did not allow access until exactly 9 pm EST. At 9 pm I spent the next 45 minutes trying to gain access. The first tab on the system 'welcome portal' showed a blank screen (I think that was the exhibition area). The second tab (I think that was auditorium and lounge) would flash by very quickly, with some kind of login screen, then a blank screen, and then an icon picture of a microphone and camera helpfully stating that microphone and camera access was blocked and to click on the camera icon, to the right of the address bar, to allow access. There was NO camera icon to click on (other than the non-clickable picture), while there should have been some kind of popup to allow access, that never appeared. Clicking on support was less than helpful as it directed, via a presumed automated chatbot, to pre-written web pages about changing chrome settings. I changed the chrome settings to allow camera and mic access always but that made no difference.

    QSO Today 2021 logo
    Eventually, I tried joining with NO microphone and No camera access, which let me in to see that the Ham Radio workbench was in progress as well as the techno dance event (that session made NO sense except maybe as a test to show something on the platform was working). Support didn't get back to my email requests for help and there was no indication that my mic or camera was working and there was still no visible option anywhere to enable microphone or video so around 10 pm EST I dropped out. 

    I've used all of the main online meeting platforms from this same Windows setup with no problems. I even went into a zoom test after dropping the QSO today session and had no problems, so QSO Today it's you, not me. I've never used the platform that QSO today was using (Airmeet) and by the time I shut down I had turned off ALL of my site-specific security settings, enabled all of their trackers and cookies (looked like about 37), and allowed default access to mic and camera. Nothing worked. Tomorrow I will go back in with my security settings fully enabled as I do not trust this platform, at all, to be running for even a few minutes, essentially wide open to their access. 

    2021-03-13: QSO TOoday Virtual Ham Fest: Radio adventures - observations Day 2
    Day 2 (3/13):
    QSO Today 2021 logo
    There was an email response when I woke up this morning.  In part:
      "We apologize for the inconvenience of being under a DDoS Attack minutes after we launched, which rendered our DB unreachable, and caused the issues some of you might have experienced. We've made sure that won't happen again, and everything is back to normal. And we allow you now to take control of your ticket's issuance the same instant you make a purchase using your Order ID, and your email."

    Okay, I will see how well this works when I go back in later but I am leaving my security settings up. DDOS attacks are often used to mask dropping malware into systems. So DDOS attack, DB unavailability and the use of a non-mainstream meeting platform to begin with are tripping all my cybersecurity experience warning flags.

    11 am EST: Things have improved a little at least I was visibly logged into "something" which may be a hold-over from yesterday as I reset my security settings for the site but did not reboot the PC. I Still could not tell initially if my mic and camera were working. A new annoyance was the scroll bars. Sometimes to scroll down there was a slider that appeared at the edge of the screen that you could use to scroll up or down. Other times, inexplicably the scroll bar was at the edge of the displayed content - most of the time I had to try both ways in the hope that the elusive slider bar would appear. UI Consistency guys?

    Want a quote from one of the presenters (audio only because they couldn't see a damn thing either). The presenter was talking to one of the QSO today support folks I guess - the 100 or so people in the session could hear them but couldn't see anything either.
    Presenter: This Airmeet system is quite chaotic. I do not know what to do?
    Support: We're working on it do you have your video on?
    Presenter: I do not like it. I hate it.
    Support: (didnt catch response)
    Presenter: Can I watch my own presentation and if so how?
    Support: It was recorded you should be able to see it.
    sound of ME dropping the session

    13:00 EST: Getting better - Lobbies and exhibition tab still showing up as BLANK. ready for some fun I joined the Ham humor session...
    Speaker/Presenter: I don't have access to the video - I assume you have to turn it on Mike?
    Speaker/Presenter: I have no idea whats going on - the joys of technology.
    Some of the chat comments are hilarious. So maybe Ham Humor is real.
      :-- this platform was bought at a garage sale..
    Things did get better and the presenter did get into his ham humor slideshow.
    I also got to talk to the CEO of QuirkyQRPHamRadio, nice guy - my mic and camera started working right as we connected so that was good. I'm going to order the Ziptenna unless I happen to win one :-)

    2021-03-14: QSO TOoday Virtual Ham Fest: Radio adventures - observations Day 3
    QSO Today 2021 logo
    Day 3: There is a "Lobbies and Exhibition" tab that just generates a blank screen when I click on it. I think that is where you "register" for the door prizes so I guess the odds of winning something are good for the two or three folks that manage to enter "Lobbies and Exhibition" and yes, before I am asked, I did try to regenerate my ticket to correct broken links as the portal suggested. The broken links tab did not, at least, give me a blank screen, instead it just sat there doing nothing at all - kind of like the "press this button to walk" at traffic lights which let you feel like you are doing something even if the button itself does nothing.

    Anway focus today will hopefully be about the content. My main observation is that the execution, platform issues aside, could have been better. It looks like all of the presentations I've been to so far were pre-recorded with the presenters reading their slides out loud. Just providing a wrapper around Youtube videos would have been just as effective, within many cases far better production values. Even the ARRL keynote showed up as a very low-quality video. Somebody in the chat posted a Youtube simulcast of the ARRL keynote, but running in really nice HD. The exception to the pre-recorded slides were the Livestream podcasts (which again for the most part you could have just watched on youtube). I bounced in and out of a couple of workshops which seemed to be running okay and the bounce was probably a good approach on my part as this morning there was a plaintive cry in the chat feed to please kill the "Learn to Solder Workshop" as there were some 70 folks still trapped that could not exit the session for some unknown reason. I'm just reporting the feed here, have no idea if true but the idea of a bunch of folks being held virtual hostage for hours does sound like an SNL skit.

    Content Fails today:
    High-speed CW in your head.
    Presenter: I've started the video 3 times.
    Presenter: I don't know what to do here
    Support: I don't know what to tell ya
    Support: Try doing it live
    6 minutes after start the Presenter/Support - maybe Airmeet? Dropped the session (looks like 400+ folks were listening in at that point) they were probably trying to restart the session, but me - I'm gone.
    .....and on to:
    ​SYSTEMS Integration for amateur radio
    Joining late and Ria was already talking, so this looked like a nice session. There was a problem with slides in the beginning so slides kicked in just after I joined. 20 minutes in though Ria's screen just froze. 26 minutes and she's back - the session was good so I stayed. The video was not able to be run as the wrong video kept being selected. Ria is going to redo this session on her youtube channel so will watch that.
    Machine Learning for Amateur Radio Apps
    Too bad this was at the apparent end of the day. Interesting presentation, slides were good and the presenter was not just reading from the slides.

    The QSO Today Virtual Ham expo appears to be over with the last session at 4:30 pm EDT. Hope to be able to catch up on some of the presentations and videos that I missed in the archive for the next 30 days.'73

    2021-03-16: Retevis RT-73 DTMF Failure

    The Clearnode from node-ventures came in yesterday. I'll post an overview of it, but so far I am happy with it.

    I tested communications with the Clearnode, starting with my Baofeng BF-F8HP which I hadn't used in awhile. The Baofeng worked right out of the gate, as did the Radioddity GD-77. Nice! I had to play around with the DTMF settings to get the MD-9600 working but it too worked.

    The only radio that did not work with was the Retevis RT-73. I could not get a DTMF squeak out of the thing no matter what i tried. Either I have a broken keypad or the RT73 doen't do DTMF, whic is definately weird since that's pretty much a requirement for sending control requests to FM analog repeaters.

    So much for thinking I was done programming the RT73 for awhile


    '73 from KD2WLL - the adventure continues