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Migrating Amateur Radio to Linux – Day One

This is the second in a short series on my experiences moving my Amateur Radio station from Windows to Linux, and later to Mac OS/X. The first part can be found at Migrating Amateur Radio to Linux, Part One – Requirements

Day One – Installing Linux, CQRLog and FLDigi

I opted for Ubuntu as the distribution. I’ve used many of the others, including the recent Mint, but I know Debian based distributions and I quite like the new UI used by Ubuntu as it’s similar to OS/X.

Hardware

My target PC is an old Lenovo Thinkpad T60 that has Windows 7 installed on it. As the Thinkpad has no built in serial ports, I use a Belkin USB Serial Adapter, type F5U103. This is obsolete but Ubuntu has drivers built in for this device.

The serial port is connected to the RIGblaster Pro that interfaces the PC to the radios.

Audio is handled using a Plantronics headset USB adapter that I had laying about the shack. Again, Ubuntu has drivers for this.

Installing Ubuntu

I used GParted to shrink the Windows 7 partition to make space for Ubuntu. I created a 32GB root partition and a 2.5GB Swap partition and then installed the 32-bit version of Ubuntu 13.10 ‘Saucy Salamander’ as the T60 doesn’t have 64-bit support.

One advantage of installing this way is that I get full access to all the files on the Windows 7 partition as well.

Basic setup

After updating the operating system I installed my basic necessities:

The only program for which there isn’t a decent Linux client is Evernote. I use Evernote all the time and the absence of a decent Evernote client would be a big problem for me in my business life. It means I could never migrate 100% to Linux. That said, I can use the web client, and for my Ham activities, that’s fine.

Chromium and Dropbox were both installed from the Ubuntu Software Centre.

Installing FLDigi

FLDigi is one of the better known programs for the many digital modes that exist on the radio waves. It is actively developed and there is a well established support community. Installation was a breeze as it’s in the Ubuntu Software Centre.

Installing FLDigi also causes HamLib to be installed. HamLib is a community project to develop an API that can be used to control radios over a variety of physical media and communications protocols. Both my radios support Yaesu’s CAT communications protocol via the Rigblaster Pro and HamLib has an ‘alpha’ driver for the IC-756ProII.

Configuring FLDigi was a bit of a test as I needed to make sure I was using the correct tty device for the Belkin adapter and the correct audio devices for the Plantronics headset adapter. In my case, I opted to use the specific ‘/dev/serial/by-id’ device for the Belkin adapter to avoid a Linux ‘feature’ that can cause a USB device to be mapped to a different tty device if it is re-plugged for any reason. I then told FLDigi to use Hamlib to control the radio using this device.

I set FLDigi to use the PulseAudio system and used the appropriate Settings applet to select the correct audio.

The one area where I did need to play about was getting the Rigblaster to send audio to the radio. Initially, I told FLDigi to put the radio in TX mode using CAT commands, via Hamlib. The radio went into Tx mode OK, but no audio was received by the radio. This was because the Rigblaster needed to be told to switch the audio path from the microphone to the audio in feed from the PC. This needed RTS to be asserted by the PC.

I needed to tell FLDigi not to send ‘PTT via Hamlib’ but to use ‘Hardware PTT’ and a ‘separate serial port PTT’ and use ‘RTS’

Once this was done, FLDigi could control the radio and I could send and receive data modes. Tick!

Installing CQRLog

I did some research into Logging programs for Linux and CQRLog seemed to be the best for my needs. It’s a fairly basic logging program in concept, but it can use HAMLib to control a radio and integrates with FLDigi.

CQRLog is also marked as being “in progress” on the HRDLog site, which implies that it will integrate there as well at some point in the future. Once again, CQRLog was in the Ubuntu Software Centre so installation was a breeze.

Configuration was also pretty easy once I told it where the rigctld was installed (/usr/bin)

The only slightly tricky bit was getting my existing Log imported into CQRLog. This involved logging on to my account at HRDLog and then ‘restoring’ my log. This caused an ADIF file to be created, containing all my log entries. I then imported this into CQRLog.

Unfortunately, not all entries imported first time as CQRLog didn’t recognise some of the modes I have entries for (Domino, Thor and QPSK). I had to add these modes manually to CQRLog’s configuration preferences and then re-import the offending entries.

Once this was all done, I could simply tell CQRLog that it was operating the rig ‘remotely’ and it connected to FLDigi. Now, when I log a call in FLDigi, it gets stored in CQRLog.

After making a couple of Olivia contacts on 5MHz and 10MHz, I called it a day as we were going off to a New Year’s Eve party.

Automatic software updates can seriously damage your health

Yellow nosed cotton rat

In this post, I’ll tell you the tale of how a software update nearly caused me serious damage, and why. I’ll also show you why you probably shouldn’t be one of Pavlov’s creatures and accept updates to mobile apps automatically.

Evernote is a great product

Since I first found it some years ago (I first registered back in 2008), Evernote has been an integral part of my daily workflow. I use it for just about everything related to the capture, generation and distribution of text.

I use Evernote to capture multi-media notes on multiple devices and and keep them in sync. I maintain a complex hierarchy of notebooks for all sorts of purposes. I have separate notebooks for each client and each project I’m working on.

I also have more notebooks for specific workflows such as writing blog posts. This one started as a collection of notes, before morphing into a Markdown document that can be uploaded to my WordPress blog.

I also maintain a complex hierarchy of Tags and make extensive use of smart searches. All in all, Evernote is one of my core productivity tools. All told, I’ve got thousands of notes in dozens of notebooks.

Evernote’s update policy

Being one of the new generation of Internet software companies, Evernote updates its products on a frequent but irregular basis. This never used to worry me. It does now.

The Problem

Evernote recently made a major change to the Mac client

As far as I was aware, there was no warning that this was going to happen. There was a “A new version of Evernote is available” alert, and yes it did give details of the changes, but I get loads of them, and anyway, who has time to read that stuff?

Again, as far as I am aware, there was no opportunity to evaluate the new release before installing it. No beta. So, my Pavlovian reflexes kicked in and I installed the update. I instantly regretted it.

The new UI was radically different in a number of areas and my carefully constructed workflows were totally disrupted. It pulverised my productivity.

Unfortunately, this happened at a moment when I was particularly busy and just didn’t have the time, or the inclination, to learn a new UI.

Luckily, I was able to revert to the earlier version. The Mac is very easy in that respect. Rename the newly installed Application and drag the old one out of the Trash Can. Peasy.

Changes also made to iPad version

Now came another shock. At some point, the iPad version had been updated as well. I hadn’t used this for a while, so I’m not sure when it happened.
Unfortunately, there is (effectively) no potential to revert to a previous version on the iPad. You could do a device restore, but that’s OTT.

Luckily, the changes were not quite so dramatic and I was able to live with them.

Then the Penny dropped

The mobile “Apps” world is different

All this opened my eyes to a previously hidden consequence of using mobile apps: the user has lost control of the software upgrade process. Yes, I know you have to explicitly update apps from iTunes, but there are so many updates each week that it’s impossible to vet them all before applying them. You just have to trust the developer.

Software update and release processes have changed fundamentally. I’ll cover this in more detail in another blog but essentially, the old mantra of alpha releases, beta releases, community evaluation and then explicit upgrade; has changed.

Be more circumspect

I’ve been taught a lesson, and in this case it was not too painful. The learning points are:

  • Don’t upgrade Apps automatically
  • Watch for user community feedback before committing
    • i.e. don’t be an early adopter if your business depends on it

It’s a restatement of a previous mantra “never install release the .0 of a newly updated software product: wait for .0.1 or a service pack” The problem is that you are now no longer always able to predict when the next .0 is coming out.

Summary

  • Treat updates to mobile apps with caution
  • If the app is critical, don’t upgrade automatically

Next Step

Like I said, this change to software release processes could expose a business to additional risk.

So, take a close look at your mobile app inventory and consider whether you should be blindly hitting the “Update” button.

Oh, and why not let me know if you’ve had a bad experience in this area. I promise I’ll be sympathetic.

Update September 2013

Since writing this post last December, I’ve now successfully migrated to the latest version of Evernote. I had a couple of days downtime and took the plunge. Now that I’ve got used to the changed UI, I like it. However, that doesn’t diminish the need to evaluate changes before committing to them.

Picture by By Roger W. Barbour [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

At last – the missing Chrome addon appears

As everybody knows, I use a Macbook Air for most of my work and leisure. I love it. and I did love the built-in Safari browser until Chrome came along. The one feature I missed when moving from Sfari to Chrome was the “Reader” feature.

The Reader feature allowed you to re-display a web page with just the main content displayed: i.e. sans all the trimmings that surround blog articles and the like.

Now, Evernote has produced an extension for Chrome that appears to deliver the same experience. Called Evernote Clearly the extension delivers the same functionality as Reader did in Safari, plus you can clip the page straight into Evernote if you wish. As a long time Evernote user, I can see this getting great use.

Try it out for yourself.