June 2008

R.I.P. Lady Emma Longland

Emma was our family pet, of almost 18 years. She arrived in the family, as a barely 6-week old kitten in late 1990, and has been part of this family ever since.

We’re not exactly sure when she was born… possibly around August/September. She had a comfortable life, at times playful, much of the time peaceful.

Towards the latter part of her life, she suffered from some inflamation, but apart from this, no other medical issues — she was in good health. In the last few months however, a thiroid problem developed. It turned out this was masking a kidney issue, which only showed up after the thiroid issue had been treated.

Emma passed away in her sleep around 8:45PM. I have collected some photos of her, as a memorial… they may be found here.

Antennas and Baluns

Well, I spent much of my weekend fooling around with antennas in one form or another.

I had taken down my HF rig to bring to the Brisbane Amateur Radio Club social — to sort out why it wouldn’t tune up on 10m… the problem turned out to be my power supply. I was using an old 250W AT computer PSU capable of supplying 9A at 12V. My radio, a Kenwood TS-120S is a 100W radio, and draws 20A when running full power. Now I had assumed since the mic gain was turned down to comply with my 10W limit, so the limited power wouldn’t be a problem… not so… it turns out that although I turned the mic gain down, the radio still wants its 20A for voice peaks. This causes the voltage to drop, and of course, instability.

Well, BuyEquip had some 600W ATX power supplies, that advertised a 52A 12V output rail, brand new for $60, so I snapped one up. A few more bits and pieces, and now my radio is much happier on 10m. Interestingly, the box says 52A, the unit itself says 20A… either way, I’ve met my requirements. 😉

Earlier when I had my HF rig set up, I had taken the balun out since I noticed it seemed to be shorting out the feedline (measured with an Ohmmeter), and I couldn’t even pick up commercial SW stations (I used to hear Radio New Zealand quite strong around 7.145MHz).

I later discovered that it’s quite normal for a 1:1 balun to appear as a DC short… my balun uses ~10 turns of not-very-thin copper enamel wire and I guess I’m used to transformers for other applications where one sees a much higher resistance. Transformer Baluns are typically almost purely reactive — remember the reactance of an inductor is Xl=2(pi)fL — at DC, f=0, thus my ohmmeter sees Xl=0.

However, I knew I had done something wrong when wiring it up as when I disconnected the shield — I received Radio NZ S9+10dB, connecting the shield back dropped that to S2.

In the meantime, I used a 5cm piece of RG58, soldered straight to some 300ohm ladder line (surplus from my sim jim antenna).

I wasn’t sure that I had wired the balun correctly — and had lost the plans, so I set about locating some on the ‘net. A quick search revealed this page from the Antrim & District Amateur Radio Society. Well… what a difference it made… my noise floor on 80m went from S7 down to S3!

I spent the evening chatting on the Australia Wide Night Owl Insomnia Net (Friday evenings after 10:00PM at 3.6MHz LSB) — talking with stations as far away as Coffs Harbour, and even heard a feint amateur contact from New Zealand (ZL1?? callsign).

The other issue, was with my handheld. I’ve got two portable antennas for it, neither of them are particularly efficient on 2m, both are brilliant 70cm band antennas. One is the antenna that Kenwood supplied with the radio, the other was a Comet SMA3 antenna that I had bought at BARCfest. Not bad for portable use — but I wondered if I could do better.

People might remember my old project, the Hat-lamp, where I set out to homebrew a headlamp using a hard hat. Two radio amateurs suggested that I add an antenna mount to that — one suggested I could have a SMA-SMA socket adapter there and use my handheld’s existing antenna, the other suggested a SO239 socket on the top with a mobile antenna.

Well I gave the idea some thought… The big issue with this is two-fold: clearance (the antenna would have to incorporate a spring to absorb being whacked against low objects) and the social aspect (what would people think after seeing it). Neither of the handheld antennas were particularly good on the former part — I managed to bend the newer antenna once just sitting down — it’s mostly bent back into shape now, but I didn’t want to risk it. Both would be rather conspicuous though. A mobile antenna would be a rather heavy thing to have sitting on one’s head, so I gave that idea a miss.

I found some stainless steel fencing wire that was quite stiff, and cut off about 60cm of it. The idea was I’d wind the bottom of it into a spring, and a SMA plug would be soldered to the end (using some copper enamel wire to make the connection). Well, I built that Saturday Night, and using it directly on the handheld, noticed an immediate improvement in performance — I was hitting repeaters I normally don’t hit unless I’m plugged into the roof antenna. It is shown below… click on the photo for a larger view.

Homebrew portable whip

Last night, I set out to attach the antenna mount to the hat. One hole and a bit of elbow grease later, I had screwed the SMA-SMA adapter into the hole. The antenna neatly screws onto the fitting around the back of the hat, and a length of coax screws in underneath running to the radio. I haven’t tried walking around outside with it, but indoor performance is good.  The photos below show the socket views on top and underneath the hat’s brim…

Antenna mount/socket topAntenna mount/socket underside

The plan, the whip is still rather conspicuous — and there’s the risk of doing someone an injury if I’m not careful where I point the whip. I’m now looking around for a souvenir peacock feather that I can stick the antenna up the centre of… the idea being the assembly becomes decorative as well as functional (below is what it looks like now, sans feather). Well kinda… it’ll still look weird, but hopefully people will notice the feather rather than the antenna. 😉

Antenna mounted on hat

Gentoo 2008.0 final stages uploaded

I’m pleased to annouce the final 2008.0 stages have been published.  I haven’t yet gotten around to giving them a run, I’ll set up a couple of chroots and do some test builds shortly, but in the meantime, I have put them up on my devspace for public review.

As previously announced, this release sees the addition of generic MIPS-1 stages for both big and little endian, as well as new stages for little-endian MIPS-3.  We still only support the hardware listed in the handbook however — the generic stages are provided merely as a convenience to those who may wish to experiment with other hardware, and know what they’re doing.

Approximately 1.2GB got uploaded over the 30 or so hours… this is apparent from my NTP server’s performance this weekend:

… Yeah… I think I’ll wait until I’m back at uni before I upload any more big files. 😉

Anyway… as I say, the new stages are up, and I’d be greatful if some brave users could take them for a spin and report back.  In the meantime, I’ve got some chroots to set up and testing to do.

Lecture Slides… and how to NOT present them

Well, presently I’m reading through the semester’s lecture slides to familiarise myself with the content I’m going to be examined on shortly.

And I’m noticing there are some bad habits that lecturers seem to be keen on repeating… again, and again.  Here’s some of my pet hates, as a student.  These relate to the presentation of the material we’re given, the actual format they’re provided in is another matter.

Many of these were provided in PDF, which is good.  My first niggle however, is when they do their “print to PDF”… in black-and-white… but don’t adapt their slides to suit this monochrome medium.Pick a shade, any shade!

The above image is from a real presentation.  Those studying “Professional Studies II” (EEB781) at QUT might recognise it.  It was shown to us in colour during the lecture… but now when we review our notes, we only have it in shades of grey.  Thankfully we’re not being examined on that chart!  Then there’s this little gem…

This is a small section of a slide… Must I say, that black looks great on dark grey.  Mind you, the same criticism could be levelled at consumer electronics designers, who think it’s great to microprint 2mm high light-grey text on a dark grey panel!  But I digress…  Colour doesn’t necessarily improve things either… as shown by this example:

If it isn’t masking much needed information by discarding the colour information… the other trap they fall into, is scaling bitmap images up in size, and/or deforming their aspect ratios.  I’ve got loads of examples of this, dating back over 5 years of studies… Here’s a brilliant example of the former.

Uh huh… you honestly are going to tell me you can read every word of that?  Well yes, if you look closely, you can make things out… but why should we?  That slide is so blurred and pixellated, it’s hard to see what is being said.

Here’s the lesson… Vector graphics are your friend.  You can scale a vector to any size you like, and it won’t pixellate.  SVG is great for this… EPS isn’t too bad too.  Or WMF.  They all allow for graphics that can be scaled to any size.

Some things of course, are inherently bitmaps, such as photographs and scanned images.  If you must use a bitmap… make sure it’s a decent resolution to begin with. Making a bitmap smaller (by resampling) is fine… but don’t try to make it bigger… it’ll look like utter shite.

And of course, if you do try to resize a bitmap (or any graphic really, vector or bitmap)… at least preserve the aspect ratio.  Nothing looks worse than a stretched and distorted photo…

If you look closely, you can see the top-left photo has been stretched (made bigger!) horizontally slightly (not too bad, but still).  The worst is the bottom-right photo, which has been compressed vertically.  It’d be okay had the image been compressed horizontally in proportion… but instead, it looks squashed.

Just about every presentation package I have used, provides the means to scale images while preserving their aspect ratio.  Some do it by default… some require you to hold down Shift or Control whilst dragging it out.  In either case… it’s trivial to do.  If something doesn’t fit the hole in your slide… consider cropping the bits that aren’t needed so that it matches the aspect ratio of the hole.  But don’t squash it!

Anyway… that’s enough ranting from me… about time I got back to my studies.

Tugboat vs Bridge

Another one that arrived via the Department of Defence… this time, a rather striking series of images. I have no idea where these photos were taken, or who was involved… but anyway. Enjoy. 🙂

To avoid my ADSL link getting saturated, I’ve moved the article here.

Great Comeback Line (or how to offend an ABC interviewer)

The following is an email I just received via the Department of Defence.
Enjoy. 🙂  (Update: It has been revealed by a commenter to this post, that the transcript below is a hoax.  Cheers for the info.)

For those that don’t know him, Major General Peter Cosgrove is an ‘Australian treasure!’

General Cosgrove was interviewed on the radio recently. You’ll love his reply to the lady who interviewed him concerning guns and children… Regardless of how you feel about gun laws you gotta love this! This is one of the best comeback lines of all time. It is a portion of an ABC interview between a female broadcaster and General Cosgrove who was about to sponsor a Boy Scout Troop visiting his military headquarters.

FEMALE INTERVIEWER: So, General Cosgrove, what things are you going to teach these young boys when they visit your base?

GENERAL COSGROVE: We’re going to teach t hem climbing, canoeing, archery and shooting.

FEMALE INTERVIEWER: Shooting! That’s a bit irresponsible, isn’t it?

GENERAL COSGROVE: I don’t see why, they’ll be properly supervised on the rifle range.

FEMALE INTERVIEWER: Don’t you admit that this is a terribly dangerous activity to be teaching children?

GENERAL COSGROVE: I don’t see how. We will be teaching them proper rifle discipline before they even touch a firearm.

FEMALE INTERVIEWER: But you’re equipping them to become violent killers.

GENERAL COSGROVE: Well, Ma’am, you’re equipped to be a prostitute, but you’re not one, are you?

The radio went silent and the interview ended.

Clearly a certain General didn’t read the part of the ACMA rules that state you should not use language that would offend a reasonable person. 😉 But very succinct nonetheless.


Hi all…

This is more a note to myself… but may also be useful with others who may be wondering WTF is wrong with their mod_auth_mysql setup.

To configure it, do it as per the instructions mentioned in the CONFIGURE file, or even following the /etc/apache2/modules.d/12_mod_auth_mysql.conf that the ebuild installs… HOWEVER… you will need to change the length of the password field in the MySQL code snippets to suit your encryption method.

I decided to use SHA1 hashes, which are 40 characters long (encoded as hex).  Thus, you use a column type of CHAR(40), and set your authentication configuration to use AuthMySQLPwEncryption sha1. To use the “scrambled” encryption scheme (uses MySQL’s PASSWORD() function), this column needs to be 41 characters long, not the 20 advertised in the examples.

Once you do this, everything should be fine… and things will work as expected.

Join the FaceBorg

Seems I’ve coined a new term tonight… “faceborg”.  Okay… seems others have come up with the same idea before me, as pointed out by others.  Not sure what to call the MySpace users… I’m sure someone will come up with a succinct term for them. 😉

Ever since social networking sites such as MySpace and FaceBook have come on the scene, the internet veterans have been under increasing pressure to join up with these sites.  Me?  I don’t see the point.  They don’t appear to offer anything new.  From what I can tell, they are centred around allowing someone to create their own identity.

The misconception out there among the non-technical people, is that you need to be part of one of these sites to have an online identity.  This is simply not true.  You can achieve much the same thing, through the use of traditional media such as email, IRC, and modern media such as blogs.

The one big “advantage” I keep hearing, is that it makes it easy to find others.  Again… you don’t need these social networking sites for that.  There are two ways you can achieve what these sites give you:

Keep your identity consistent.  If you like being known by a certain nickname, then use that nickname.  You can also put your real name up there too if you wish, and anything else that identifies you.

In my case, there are three identifying keywords that will locate me in many search engines: my full real name, my nickname, and my radio callsign.

The major thing that social networking sites offer however, is friendship lists.  Guess what… good ol’e HTML provides that already.  And blogs these days offer XFN.  You simply link to your friends’ blogs/webpages… and voila… your friendship is instantly publicised.  Many search engines also track links between sites — so they will also pick up on these links.

What are the advantages in having your own blog/site?  Well, you can have all the bells and whistles you like.  Want to post videos?  No worries, there are tools for doing exactly that, and embedding them in your blog posts.  The other big advantage, is you’re totally in control — you own the content, and you’re responsible for it.

How about messaging?  Well… you can add that to your blog… there are facilities that can accept such addons.  Or there’s a plethora of tools already out there… such as IRC, XMPP, MSN Messenger (dare I mention it), and of course, plain old email.

To those who are already on these social networking sites.  Great… you’re happy where you are… this is fine.  However, don’t be disappointed if the rest of us, who may likewise be happy with where we are on the web, don’t come rushing to join you.

Life at the present moment

… is not a pretty tale at this point.

At the moment, I’m a bit pissed off. Some inconsiderate bastards in my neighbourhood are playing crap music at top volume (Yes… I’m talking about YOU, at the Settlement Road/Kaloma Road intersection!) — so loud in fact, that wearing earmuffs with a 80dB attenuation rating, does not stop the noise. However, this isn’t what I’m really annoyed about.

I’ve switched all the radios off, and the mobile phone… in this state of mind it’s better I don’t go talking on air, as I’m likely to say something I’ll probably regret. Likewise the phone. I’ve just tweaked my blog’s config, so now this won’t appear on planet.gentoo.org or anywhere else stupid enough to syndicate the entire blog.

Worth noting, that save a few isolated examples, my presence doesn’t seem to be wanted at all. A couple of the senior devs (and former devs) in the Gentoo/MIPS team for instance — regard me as an incompetent idiot (I have IRC logs and email archives of this), I’m only tollerated because they need the numbers.

My big beef at this present time, is where my future is headded. I’m almost through my education. I’ve been at it now, non-stop, since 1991… 7 years of primary school, 5 years of high school, a year of straight IT at Griffith, and now, 5 years of IT/EE at QUT. Well almost… it will be 5 years at the end of the year.

I’ve managed to organise some work experience with a mob out at Laidley. This is great news — it means I might have some chance of graduating this year. However, it’s a long commute from Brisbane to Laidley… and I’ve just been given a direct order by my father that I’m to be home by 7:00PM! Wonderful… it was going to be a struggle accumulating the hours up as it is.

The work experience issue is a big problem on my mind. Where as most students I’d imagine, at this stage of education, would be filling in job applications for graduate positions… this isn’t an option for me. Without the industrial experience, I don’t graduate!

This is a point I can’t seem to get through to people. If I were to apply to a graduate position, they’ll expect someone who has done the 60 days experience as required by the Institution of Engineers. Someone who already has this experience will instantly get preference over someone like myself who hasn’t been successful obtaining this experience.

Now… 60 days in this case, is 60 8-hour days. So with the above kerfew in place, that pushes that well past 80 days. And I’ll be studying during this period too, so I won’t be able to travel out to Laidley every working day to get the experience.

Why did I go to an outfit that’s so far from home? Well, I had little choice. Outside of Campbell Scientific, and Powerlink, nobody else has been willing to talk to me. I’ve sent off numerous job applications, if they contact me at all, it’s an impersonal letter saying your offer was declined. No explaination why. And the job sites are pretty much barren with respect to job ads.

I realise the vast majority of job vacancies aren’t advertised… but what’s 70% of nothing? By my maths… nothing. It seems you have to know people… and in there lies a problem.

I feel like someone’s smashed both my legs, then told me to go take a hike. Yeah, very funny! If I was suicidal 6 months ago… you can imagine what my mental state is at the present time. Here’s hoping this is temporary turbulance, and things will settle. There is the possibility of getting paid work with this company in the future (presently it’s unpaid)… in which case, it’s “See ya later Brisbane… I’m moving out!”… yeah, I’m sick of this rat race and I want some peace and quiet!

I’ll be glad when this year’s over… then I can see where I’m at. Hopefully I’ll be done with uni… and it’ll be off to find work. Exactly where I do not know — my ideas of what to do have shifted quite a bit since I started. The engineering studies have been a valuable — I’ll see how it is after I’ve done some industrial experience. At the very least, I can say, I have tried.

All else fails… I might talk to the TAFE or something, see if I can fast track an electrical tradesmanship… as that’s most closely aligned to what I know, and there seems to be a lot of demand in that field at this time.

Time will tell… but for now, I just had to get the above behemoth off my chest.

Installing Gentoo/MIPS without a netboot image

Hi all…

In the absence of recent netboot images, you might find these notes useful.  These describe how to install Gentoo without the use of a netboot image, but rather, making your own, and using root-over-NFS.  This same guide can also be used to port Gentoo to other presently unsupported MIPS hardware.

What you need…

You’ll need about 200MB or so (the more the better) on the netboot server to house a root filesystem.  In addition to the tools mentioned in the handbook, you’ll also want nfs-utils installed to export the client’s root FS.

You’ll also want a cross-compiler.  You only need to be able to build a kernel — libc is not necessary.  To generate such a compiler, install the sys-devel/crossdev package, and run crossdev -t mips64-unknown-linux-gnu -S1 (or  mips64el for Cobalt/little endian targets).  If the build fails, try various versions of binutils and gcc, it may be a little tinkering to get a combo that works.

IP28 users will want to enable the ip28 USE-flag on in /etc/portage/package.keywords for the cross-mips64-unknown-linux-gnu/gcc package.

Unpacking and setting up the root fs…

Download the stage 3 tarball, and unpack that into a directory on your server.  Then, export it by editing /etc/exports, and adding a line like the following:

/unpacked/stage3/path    *(ro,sync)

Remember to reload your NFS server config by typing /etc/init.d/nfs reload.

Building the kernel…

Start by unpacking the kernel with appropriate USE flags set (USE=ip28 for IP28 users, USE=ip30 for Octane users, USE=cobalt for Cobalt users).  This is done with the following command (adjust if your PORTDIR is in a different place):

# USE=ip28 \
  ebuild /usr/portage/sys-kernel/mips-sources/mips-sources-VERSION.ebuild \

If all goes well, you’ll have a copy of the patched kernel tree in /var/tmp/sys-kernel/mips-sources-VERSION/work/linux-VERSION.  Change to that directory, and configure the kernel as per the guide in the Gentoo/MIPS handbook, passing ARCH=mips CROSS_COMPILE=mips64-unknown-linux-gnu- (or mips64el…) to all make calls.  If you want to use the .config that comes with one of the old netboot images, you can use scripts/extract-ikconfig to extract it.

Remember to say Y to your network card driver, and these options:

  • Root-over-NFS support
  • NFS Client support
  • IP Level Autoconfiguration (DHCP)

Once you’ve compiled your kernel and have your vmlinux (or vmlinux.32) file, copy this file to your server’s /nfsroot (Cobalt hardware) or /tftproot (almost anything else) directory in place of the usual Gentoo netboot image.  For kernel modules, install them by typing make CROSS_COMPILE=”…” INSTALL_MOD_PATH=/unpacked/stage3/path modules_install.

You may also find it helpful to place a copy of the stage 3 tarball and kernel inside the NFS root area for convenient access on the final host.

Booting the system…

SGI Boxes:

Break into the command monitor prompt as per the handbook, and at the prompt, type the following (all on one line):

>> bootp(): root=/dev/nfs ip=dhcp 

Cobalt boxes:

This assumes you have one of my netboot images already unpacked in /nfsroot and that you’ve placed your freshly compiled kernel in /nfsroot as well.

Compress the kernel image using gzip -9, and rename it to kernel.gz (overwriting the existing file).  Then edit the default.colo file … the execute line should read (place this on one line):

execute root=/dev/nfs ip=dhcp init=/bin/bash

Netboot the Cobalt system in the usual way.

Lemote hardware:

Hit ESC a few times to break into the PMON2000 prompt… then type the following (each on one line):

PMON> ifaddr rtl0 lemote_box_ip_addr # (e.g.
PMON> load tftp://tftp_server_ip_addr/kernel_name
PMON> g console=tty0 root=/dev/nfs ip=dhcp

In all cases, you should be at a prompt.  Proceed with the Gentoo/MIPS handbook instructions as per normal at this point. 🙂