Jun 192011
 

Well, I’ve been meaning to get around to fixing up svxlink in Gentoo for a long time now. For those who don’t know, svxlink is a client and server for the EchoLink amateur radio linking system.

We had to stop releasing the Qtel client, as it relied on Qt3 which we no longer ship in Gentoo.  On top of this, the ebuild installed non-Gentoo init scripts, fails to build with gcc-4.6 and fails due to underlinking.  (My thanks go to Diego for pointing these flaws out.)

At the moment I’m working on the first problem, which is that the builds that were in-tree are crusty and old.  svxlink did release version 11.05 not long back, and ohh yes, they’ve changed their versioning scheme too to match Ubuntu.  However, their trunk branch is still dependent on Qt3 if you want Qtel.  There is an experimental Qt4 branch, which is what I’ve been working with.

One irritation I had was trying to make it possible to install the client component or the server component.  svxlink has its own, very custom, build system based on recursive makefiles.  (Yes, I know, considered harmful and all that.)  The build system first builds the core libraries, then it starts looking at Qtel and svxlink’s server components.  The first thing was to try and split these up.

The new ebuilds will introduce a svxlink-libs package.  This is relatively straightforward, and it just builds & installs the libasync, libechlib and liblocationinfo libraries.  The catch is when building qtel and svxlink, the build system looks for the built binaries inside the source tree.

I have submitted a patch upstream that remedies this.  Eventually I’ll look at how we can fix some of the other flaws in the build system.  So far I’m still battling svxlink itself, but I soon will have svxlink-libs and qtel packages available for testing in the Portage tree.  svxlink itself will also need to wait until I can set up a test node on simplex somewhere… my O2 looks like a likely possibility.

I’ll keep you all informed as this progresses.  Qtel appears to be working (although I’m battling some funnies with the sound device on the Apple MacBook)… just a matter of fixing some issues with the build system for svxlink and I should be able to have svxlink back in the tree once again.

Jun 082011
 

Well… has anyone noticed anything different about the ‘net?

stuartl@atomos ~ $ host www.google.com.au
www.google.com.au is an alias for www.google.com.
www.google.com is an alias for www.l.google.com.
www.l.google.com has address 74.125.237.52
www.l.google.com has address 74.125.237.48
www.l.google.com has address 74.125.237.49
www.l.google.com has address 74.125.237.50
www.l.google.com has address 74.125.237.51
www.l.google.com has IPv6 address 2404:6800:4006:802::1011

I knew World IPv6 day was coming up, but it seems it snuck up on me and I barely noticed. Likely a testament to the fact we run a dual-stack network here, and so everything magically Just Worked™ as it should. Indeed, a lot of websites are now dual-stack, as is much of the gentoo.org infrastructure, Google (as seen above), FaceBook, and numerous other sites.

Sadly, a lot of ISPs here in Australia did the demented ostrich act when it came to IPv6. I wonder how many technical support calls they received, with users complaining about websites being slow to load up or failing to connect.

iTel, formerly “Global Info-Links”, now calling themselves “South East Community Telco“… were one of the masses that drove their RFC791-only heads in the sand and pretended that the entire Internet can be compressed into 32-bits of address space. We’ve been waiting to hear back from them on their plans for addressing since January as we’d like to upgrade the 512/128kbps ADSL link we use here. (Anyone noticed this site tends to load up a bit slow? That 128kbps figure is the reason why.)

We’ve been with this ISP since 1996. That’s quite a long innings… We’ve stayed put because until now we’ve been happy with the service. 512kbps was quite fast when we upgraded from 56kbps PSTN dialup (14.4kbps dialup when we first started… still have that modem too!). These days it plods along, but the 128kbps uplink is a notable thorn in my side with my telecommuting. So we’re looking at ADSL2+.

However, there’s one hitch. iTel is only a fairly small ISP. At the moment they do the noble thing of providing static public addresses on IPv4 for all fixed-broadband customers, but how long will that last? The last thing I want, is to sign up a contract for 12 months, then find out that in 6 months they need to move us behind CGN (Carrier grade NAT) to squeeze in some more customers. That won’t fly for us. I’d ideally like to ditch the 6-in-4 tunnel I have with AARNet and go native, or at the very least, swap it with one terminated at the ISP, but that doesn’t seem to be happening anytime soon.

At the moment there is only one ISP I know of that offers any sort of IPv6 connectivity. Internode. Kudos to them for taking the pioneering step! I’m seriously looking in their direction. I’m also hoping the NBN that we keep hearing about, is IPv6 enabled… and I’m holding out with the hope that our little suburb might soon be getting the long strands of glass laid down our street. If it’s only another year or so, it may be worth just hanging on with ADSL1 until then.

Thankfully, we do have the 6-in-4 tunnel through AARNet (and my greatest gratitude to them for providing it). There is a growing community on this newer protocol… I’m also happy to report absolutely 0 spam via IPv6… any spam or malware thus far has been via IPv4 … although I know this won’t last. The good news there is that with one unique address per computer (instead of per customer, or worse, per 100+ customers), it should be easier to track down the guilty party causing such Internet shenanigans. CGN by comparison is likely to be a spammer’s playground.

What am I doing about IPv6 deployment? Aside from my small-time tinkering with the network here… any socket programming I do today is at the very least dual-stack. One of my hobby projects is a digital mode stack for amateur radio… if I get my way it’ll be IPv6-only when used on a computer network.

One of my work projects involves interfacing some proprietary software to some power meters using RS-232 and RS-485 to Ethernet bridging devices. Even though the devices themselves are IPv4 only (and will be for the foreseeable future), I’m designing the software to handle IPv6. Doing this, future proofs the software. Surprisingly, I’m finding it easier to just design for dual-stack than it is to develop a IPv4-only application. If you’re building an application today, dual-stack IMHO must be part of the strategy if the application is going to work beyond this decade.

Some have asked about IPv6 on packet… sadly AX.25 packet does not go anywhere near fast enough to make IPv6 (or indeed, IPv4) networking a viable option on packet radio using existing TNCs… however I think IPv6 will, and should, play a much bigger part in amateur radio communications than it presently does… we can’t expect to hold on to the 44.0.0.0/8 subnet for much longer.

To the ISPs that are lagging behind, I say get moving! IPv4 is older than I am! This is especially true of the smaller ISPs… if you don’t move, you will get squeezed out of the future Internet connection market as address space gets consumed. To the nay-sayers who keep telling us that something else will replace IPv4, to you I say get moving… you haven’t got long to invent this magical silver bullet, in fact I say you’ve left it too late.

May 312011
 

Without wishing to sound harsh, two words: Don’t bother. 🙂

There are a few reasons why I’m not on FaceBook…

Need

First and foremost, is a matter of need.

The primary reasons why someone would set up something on FaceBook is to enable their friends to be able to locate them on the Internet.  In my case, just about any search engine using either my real name, nickname, or callsign, will lead you in the right direction.  Even then, it isn’t hard for people to trade email addresses by out-of-band means, then pass a URL to a blog site that way.

Next is the keeping track of friends.  Again, plain old email is good for this… so is the telephone.  RSS is a pretty good broadcast mechanism for this purpose too, and guess what, most modern web browsers are able to subscribe to such feeds as Live Bookmarks.  This effectively means your web browser becomes the central switchboard by which you can keep track of what your friends are doing.

As for sharing photos… most blog hosting sites provide a means for uploading photos… a perfect way to share photos.

There’s actually bugger all that I consider worthwhile that can only be done via FaceBook.

Time

These days I’m very busy in my daily life… too busy to sit in front of a computer checking up on online friends.  When I’m at work, I’m at work… I’m not browsing the web for personal pleasure.  Looking up things like FaceBook would be wrong and immoral usage of my employer’s Internet bandwidth.  So I don’t do it.

I can’t very well check FaceBook whilst in transit for two reasons: (1) I ride a bicycle, and need to watch where I am going, and (2) I don’t have any mobile Internet service.  I am usually on the amateur radio bands somewhere whilst mobile, but (ignoring IRLP/EchoLink/Allstar Link/APRS/etc…) you won’t find me via the Internet.  I answer my mobile phone too, but only after pulling over (I need a moment to switch headset cables over).

At home, yes I could be on FaceBook… but I find plenty of other things to occupy my time.  That, and sometimes it’s good to not have anything to do occasionally.

Privacy

FaceBook is controlled by one company, and is a closed system.  Aside from a “we promise not to look”, there is nothing to stop them doing anything they like with the information you provide to the service.  Even if they don’t, who’s to say their system is completely secure?  Lots of people entrusted their credit card details to Sony… Ooopsie!

So what kind of information does one share on FaceBook?  Aside from your name, age… okay, not deeply personal… you set yourself up with that information.  Then what?

You start “friend”-ing people.  You start “like”-ing people and adding them to your list of friends.  You build up a social graph.  Graphs are a mathematical tool for representing relationships between objects.  In this case, the graph’s edges represent some connection (i.e. acquaintance, friend, lover, … etc.) between two people (represented as nodes).  And using all kinds of graph theory, it’s possible to deduce all kinds of personal information about you.

How dangerous is this?  You’re probably thinking… “So what?”  Mark Pesce gave a talk on this at linux.conf.au this year.  If you’ve got a bit of time to spare, you can watch the video of the presentation, or have a read of the full transcript.  In short, a big part of what we do can be explained by what people are doing around us… we have a tendency to mimic those around us.  Knowing the group one participates in, is a pretty good way for someone with ulterior motives to figure out ways in which to manipulate you.

Your social graph is probably one of the most personal things you can reveal.

Keeping in touch

In order to keep in touch, you actually don’t need FaceBook.  Good ol’e email does a pretty good job.  So do blogs.  In my case, I post a lot of what I’ve been up to on this site.  This site broadcasts a stream using a format called RSS.  Guess what, most web browsers today (Firefox 3.5+, Internet Explorer 7+, Chrome, recent Opera…etc) support this in the form of “Live Bookmarks”.  Or you can use an external news agregator… there are plenty to choose from.

Then in your web browser, subscribe to the feed.  In Firefox 4.0, under Bookmarks, choose “Subscribe to this page”.  Earlier releases have a button that appears in the address bar you can click.  Likewise for other web browsers… in fact, often you’re looking for an icon like this:

RSS feed icon

RSS feed icon (Source: Wikipedia)

Look for an icon like that on your web browser, click it, and follow the prompts.  Voila, you can now track that person through your web browser.  No one else needs to know about it, no need to log in to an extra site, it’s quick and easy.  Need something web-based for when you’re not at home?  There are plenty of web-based agregators.

Ohh, and you can track more than just friends this way.  News websites, companies… all sorts of things can be monitored this way.

But I want to be your friend!!!

Are you going to tell me this wasn’t possible before FaceBook?   Friends didn’t exist before Mr Zuckerberg invented this web-based forum?  Have people forgotten the art of face-to-face contact?  You don’t need FaceBook to have friends.  Give the old-school method a try some day. 🙂

May 162011
 

This weekend just gone I was at Imbil helping out with the International Rally of Queensland, reporting scores for the car rally there.  This was my first look at packet radio in action.  Prior to this I had enabled the amateur radio options in the kernels I built, but never tried actually hooking radio to computer.  I shall be posting some notes on how I got this working…

zhouman ~ # uname -a
Linux zhouman 2.6.35.7-lm2f-nb #2 Wed Oct 13 00:42:58 EST 2010 mips64 ICT Loongson-2 V0.3 FPU V0.1 lemote-yeeloong-2f-8.9inches GNU/Linux
zhouman ~ # ifconfig sm0
sm0 Link encap:AMPR AX.25 HWaddr VK4MSL
inet addr:172.31.32.1 Bcast:172.31.32.255 Mask:255.255.255.0
UP BROADCAST RUNNING MULTICAST MTU:256 Metric:1
RX packets:365 errors:0 dropped:0 overruns:0 frame:0
TX packets:36 errors:0 dropped:0 overruns:0 carrier:0
collisions:0 txqueuelen:10
RX bytes:24236 (23.6 KiB) TX bytes:6850 (6.6 KiB)

zhouman ~ # mheard
Callsign Port Packets Last Heard
VK4EA-9 sm0 6 Mon May 16 17:59:12
VK4NRL-9 sm0 1 Mon May 16 17:58:40
VK4VP-1 sm0 8 Mon May 16 17:58:38
VK4RAI-3 sm0 9 Mon May 16 17:57:58
VK4TIM-9 sm0 14 Mon May 16 17:57:56
VK4TDI-1 sm0 2 Mon May 16 17:57:39
VK4DC-1 sm0 15 Mon May 16 17:57:07
VK4TEC-9 sm0 120 Mon May 16 17:56:08
VK4FY-1 sm0 18 Mon May 16 17:54:38
VK4RMO-3 sm0 1 Mon May 16 17:54:33
VK4RGC-3 sm0 3 Mon May 16 17:52:48
VK4RC-1 sm0 8 Mon May 16 17:51:29
VK4FIL-1 sm0 4 Mon May 16 17:46:44
VK4RIL-13 sm0 4 Mon May 16 17:45:43
VK4RBR-3 sm0 5 Mon May 16 17:42:59
VK2RDO-3 sm0 2 Mon May 16 17:41:19
VK4RRC-13 sm0 3 Mon May 16 17:36:39
VK2JUB-1 sm0 2 Mon May 16 17:34:44
VK4BNQ-1 sm0 1 Mon May 16 17:26:58
VK4LDA-9 sm0 2 Mon May 16 17:24:59
VK2POO-9 sm0 9 Mon May 16 17:21:24
VK2XFL-9 sm0 1 Mon May 16 17:21:09
VK4RSR-3 sm0 1 Mon May 16 17:20:04
VK4IE sm0 1 Mon May 16 17:15:04
VK4ALJ-3 sm0 1 Mon May 16 17:15:00
VK4HPW-9 sm0 5 Mon May 16 17:13:23
zhouman ~ #

Set-up consisted of:
Linux kernel on Lemote Yeeloong, latest soundmodem driver, Yaesu FT-897D, homebrew interface cable plugged into Yeeloong’s onboard sound card, USB serial driving BC547 in interface cable for PTT.

zhouman ~ # cat /etc/ax25/soundmodem.conf
<?xml version="1.0"?>
<modem>
<configuration name="FT897-D">
<chaccess txdelay="150" slottime="100" ppersist="40" fulldup="0" txtail="10"/>
<audio type="alsa" device="plughw:0,0" halfdup="0" capturechannelmode="Mono"/>
<ptt file="/dev/ttyUSB0"/>
<channel name="Channel 0">
<mod mode="afsk" bps="1200" f0="1200" f1="2200" diffenc="1"/>
<demod mode="afsk" bps="1200" f0="1200" f1="2200" diffdec="1"/>
<pkt mode="MKISS" ifname="sm0" hwaddr="VK4MSL" ip="172.31.32.1" netmask="255.255.255.0" broadcast="172.31.32.255"/>
</channel>
</configuration>
</modem>
zhouman ~ #

I’ve shut it down for now, but I’ll give it a bit more work on 145.175MHz tomorrow. Once I get something working, I might set something up using the O2 or one of the Fulongs (probably the latter) and see about getting soundmodem back into Gentoo.

Update: After hand-editing the ebuild to enable APRS support, I can successfully report that not only is soundmodem working, but so is Xastir on my Yeeloong, as can be seen on aprs.fi.

Apr 232011
 

Well, been some time now since I announced the start of some µClibc stages.  So far, not much has happened there other than the fact that I’ve successfully hard-locked the Fulong 2E system that I tried compiling on.  This is despite compiling with binutils-2.21 and using -Wa,-mfix-loongson2f-nop… which is usually enough to prevent lockups.  Clearly there’s further erratum that I’m hitting, I might try later on the Qube and see where that gets us, agonisingly slow might be better than the current pace.

Generic N32 MIPS-III little endian continues to remain unavailable due to an issue compiling Python 2.7, and unfortunately my N32 chroot on the Yeeloong broke when I upgraded glibc (the primary reason why I began doing a generic MIPS3 build on the Qube using Matt’s MIPS4 build).  I will get back onto this eventually.

On other news since the purchase of the MacBook I’ve been able to leave my Yeeloong sit at home running continuously to update the entire system.  Qt 4.7.2 gave me some grief — it seems at least on mipsel, qmake segfaults during the initial build of qt-core …

mipsel-unknown-linux-gnu-g++ -o "/tmp/portage/x11-libs/qt-core-4.7.2-r1
/work/qt-everywhere-opensource-src-4.7.2/bin/qmake" project.o property.
o main.o makefile.o unixmake2.o unixmake.o mingw_make.o option.o winmak
efile.o projectgenerator.o meta.o makefiledeps.o metamakefile.o xmloutp
ut.o pbuilder_pbx.o borland_bmake.o msvc_vcproj.o msvc_vcxproj.o msvc_n
make.o msvc_objectmodel.o msbuild_objectmodel.o symmake.o initprojectde
ploy_symbian.o symmake_abld.o symmake_sbsv2.o symbiancommon.o registry.
o epocroot.o qtextcodec.o qutfcodec.o qstring.o qtextstream.o qiodevice
.o qmalloc.o qglobal.o qbytearray.o qbytearraymatcher.o qdatastream.o q
buffer.o qlist.o qfile.o qfsfileengine_unix.o qfsfileengine_iterator_un
ix.o qfsfileengine.o qfsfileengine_iterator.o qregexp.o qvector.o qbita
rray.o qdir.o qdiriterator.o quuid.o qhash.o qfileinfo.o qdatetime.o qs
tringlist.o qabstractfileengine.o qtemporaryfile.o qmap.o qmetatype.o q
settings.o qlibraryinfo.o qvariant.o qvsnprintf.o qlocale.o qlinkedlist
.o qurl.o qnumeric.o qcryptographichash.o qxmlstream.o qxmlutils.o  -Wl
,-O1 -Wl,--as-needed                           
floatmath auto-detection... ()                                         
/tmp/portage/x11-libs/qt-core-4.7.2-r1/work/qt-everywhere-opensource-sr
c-4.7.2/config.tests/unix/compile.test: line 71: 25542 Segmentation fau
lt      "$OUTDIR/bin/qmake" -nocache -spec "$QMKSPEC" "CONFIG+=$QMAKE_C
ONFIG" "CONFIG-=debug_and_release" "LIBS*=$LFLAGS" "LIBS+=$MAC_ARCH_LFL
AGS" "INCLUDEPATH*=$INCLUDEPATH" "QMAKE_CXXFLAGS*=$CXXFLAGS" "QMAKE_CXX
FLAGS+=$MAC_ARCH_CXXFLAGS" "QT_BUILD_TREE=$OUTDIR" "$SRCDIR/$TEST/$EXE.
pro" -o "$OUTDIR/$TEST/Makefile"                                       
gmake: *** No targets.  Stop.                                          
floatmath disabled.                                                    
... etc for numerous other modules.

qt-4.6.3 builds without issues, but this is not sufficient for KDE 4.6.  I’m still investigating.  hyperestraier also fails to build, but only if you have USE=debug set, disable that USE flag and it builds without issues.

Fingers crossed, I can get Qt 4.7 and KDE 4.6 to build, and that there aren’t any issues.  Previously libkjs used to be quite unstable which is one of the main reasons I have not keyworded any release of KDE 4 for MIPS.  Yes, you could dodge around it and have a usable desktop, but I didn’t consider it working well enough for keywording.

Mozilla stuff will need some loving too.  I hope to upgrade to Firefox 4.0 on MIPS, see how that goes.  One of these days I’ll get onto tackling Thunderbird.  Sadly my life away from Gentoo intervenes and thus my plans frequently get put on the backburner as work demands my attention elsewhere.

Apr 102011
 

Well, I’ve done some tinkering with Gentoo/Prefix on MacOS X.  Not bad so far, although there’s a lot of packages not keyworded… (a bit like MIPS) and some packages I miss from regular Gentoo (e.g. crossdev).  However, we can work on sorting this out over time.

For those of you who aren’t particularly fond of going on a copy/paste fest from the documentation, I decided rather than sit there all night and manually do it, I’d code up a script to do it for me.  Behold: Gentoo MacOS X bootstrap script.

Usage:

$ export EPREFIX="${HOME}/.gentoo/amd64"
$ export CHOST="x86_64-apple-darwin10"
$ mkdir -pv "${EPREFIX}"
$ sh do-bootstrap.sh
Mar 152011
 

Well, one thing I’ll need to investigate… I’ve been battling a slightly broken bzip2 which when compressing some files, would cause the whole machine to lock up.  Environment is µClibc-0.9.31 based, using gcc-4.5.2.

Everything compiled with the CFLAGS: “-Os -pipe -mips1 -Wa,-mfix-loongson2f-nop”.  The latter flag is really for Loongson 2F but I find it helpful on 2E as well.  Things seemed to go well, except that I had no end of problems with the machine locking up when running bzip2 on some files.  I found it reproduceable while building autoconf within Catalyst stage 1.

It would appear it’s a compiler issue, as when I rebuilt bzip2 using the CFLAGS: “-O2 -march=loongson2e -Wa,-mfix-loongson2f-nop”, it worked fine.  I will have to investigate this further.  I don’t think it’s a MIPS-I vs Loongson 2E issue, my hypothesis is that -Os generates some instructions that Loongson 2E doesn’t like, as I normally don’t have any problems running MIPS I binaries… the thing that’s significantly different is -Os vs -O2.

Mar 122011
 

Well, it seems I might have µClibc stages going again, at least for little endian initially, then I might fire up one of the SGI boxes and see about a big-endian version.  For a long while, Gentoo/MIPS support for this lightweight C library was all but missing ever since an ABI change broke the µClibc port back around 2006.

I’ve tried on several occasions to build a new environment, and often I was met with technical difficulties which prevented me from producing a working environment.  Recently, I downloaded Rob Landley’s Aboriginal Linux distribution, both big and little endian variants, and took it for a spin.  Having done that, I’m pleased to report that I now have a µClibc chroot that’s merrily compiling various components of the Gentoo system, and will soon be sufficient to make a seed stage for bootstrapping the port once again.

This should mean new netboot images in the medium term for all little-endian ports (and proper ones too, not glibc-based hacks) and new images for SGI Indy (R4000) and O2.  In theory, support for Octane and Indigo2 R10000 is possible, however the systems I have are no longer functional, only my Indy and O2 still work, thus it’s impossible for me to test media for other systems.  Fingers crossed this initial build will go to plan, and we’ll have shiny new stages shortly.

Mar 052011
 

This is a question raised on an earlier post of mine.

It’s an interesting comparison between radios and mobile phones.  And some are of the belief that all you do with a radio, is talk on it, or that mobile phones can completely replace radios.  Rather than respond there, I’ve decided there’s enough content there for a completely separate post.  I have highlighted my main arguments here for those who just want to quickly skim through.

Indeed, mobile phones do exist, and they are very handy things.  They do generally come with some sort of hands-free capability.  This is true of my Nokia 3310 … the connectors are available from JayCar, and the headset schematic is trivial.  This is not true of all mobile phones unfortunately.  Much the same is true of my radios, the FT-897D takes a standard RJ45 connector for the microphone, the FT-290R II takes a more obscure 8-pin “Foster” connector, but even they can be sourced if you look around.

RFI is a worse problem for mobile phones however, GSM seems to have a happy knack of being able to inject itself into almost anything unless you’re careful with your circuit design.

It’s worth considering what the primary point of the exercise is however, and how radio and mobile phones differ.

Mobile phones are great if you want to call someone specific. They are highly optimised for one-to-one conversations.  In fact, it’s highly expensive to do anything else.  Conference calls are a rare thing and you pay through the nose for the privilege.  Mobile phone charges are high enough already — I would not like to be paying for the cost of a one hour conference call twice daily on my way from/to work.

To contrast the fees, it costs me $20/month for a mobile phone service through Telstra (excluding calls).  I rarely see a phone bill above $30, but I’d probably see that climb to triple digits if I used it in the manner I use my radio.  The radio license costs me $65/year, regardless of whether I leave my station packed-up and inoperable, or whether I’m using it all 31557600 seconds of the year.

When I was riding frequently however, I regularly participated in discussions on my commutes.  It does make the ride more enjoyable when you can have a friendly chat on the way in.  The beauty of radio though is that you don’t all have to be in close enough proximity to hear each other baseband.

Radios are well suited to group discussions, since radio is an inherently shared medium. At most a repeater site which can relay the traffic between stations is all that is necessary.  I’ve also had quite successful simplex contacts on the 2m band over 50km, and overseas on the 40m band.  Mobile phones only achieve coverage over a few kilometres line-of-sight, coverage is extended by cellular towers which perform a similar function to repeaters.

If you’re in a discussion on the radio, good operating practice states that you leave a gap between transmissions so that other stations may break in if needed.  The breaking station may be someone wanting to get in touch with one of the other operators on frequency, may be an interested party, or could even be a person in distress.

It’s relatively simple for someone to jump in on a conversation.  Mobile phones however, prohibit this unless, once again, you pay severely for the privilege.  How often have you been in a situation where you’ve been trying to chase a caller off the phone so that the line is free for that important call you’ve been waiting for?  Not such a problem with radio.

Mobile phones give you a certain degree of privacy in communications.  Encryption standards vary between mobile phone standards, but all of them (except AMPS, which is now extinct) provide some means of privacy.  Radios generally don’t unless you pay through the nose for a set and a suitable license.  Encryption is also forbidden on amateur bands.

Both allow a certain amount of experimentation.  If you have a mobile phone that provides an antenna socket, it is theoretically possible to construct your own antennas.  You are not however able to alter the transmission mode or frequency of operation, nor are you able to construct your own mobile phone (homebrewing) without significant expense, as the device you construct must be tested and approved by local authorities before you may connect it to a network.  (In Australia, the body responsible is the ACMA, and the approval you need comes in the form of a “regulatory compliance mark”, formerly “A-tick”.)

You can however readily experiment with software running on top of modern smartphones, if you phone is that new.  (Mine isn’t)  Or, if you have a >= 3G capable phone (again, mine isn’t), you can hook a small computer up and use standard VoIP software.

Radios on the other hand, if your license permits it (mine does), can be completely constructed from scratch.  You choose the frequency and mode, there are boundaries where you cannot go, but there’s still a hell of a lot of freedom that mobile phones do not provide.  All amateur transceivers have socketed antennas, allowing experimentation with other antenna types.  Multi-band sets permit experimentation with different frequency bands, all of which differ in their properties.  Transmission modes include pretty much all analogue modes, and in most license classes, many forms of digital communication.

Mobile phones typically are fairly easy to use (there are people however that never seem to get it however), while radios almost always require a certain level of training.  Amateur radio requires you to sit two or three separate exams (usually two written exams for theory and regulations, and a practical test).

Some might ask why I use such an old mobile phone?  Well, you’ll notice the FT-290R II isn’t a spring chicken either.  I use stuff because they do the job.  The old Nokia 3310 has been solid and reliable.  There’s minimal “fluff” to cause problems.  Someone dials my number, it rings.  I dial a number, it calls that person.  Text messages, easy.  My needs don’t require anything more sophisticated.  Don’t unnecessarily complicate, I say.  When I’m out and about, this means I’m contactable two ways … primarily by radio, but if the phone rings, I can pull over and plug the phone in instead to take the call.

In my situation on a bicycle, it is also paramount that I do not have my hands tied up manipulating radio/phone controls. My solution was to wire up a small keypad which provides push-to-talk and four directional buttons.  On the mobile phone, the PTT becomes my answer button, and I can dial a person by momentarily pressing the button, waiting for the prompt, and announcing the “voice tag” of the person in the phone book.  The phone then rings that person automatically.

On the radio, I mainly use memory channels, so I’m moving up and down the memory channels.  Usually I just switch to a given frequency, and stay there.  When I want to talk, I press the button down — or, more recently I added a switch which is equivalent to “holding the button”.  So I just flick the switch to go to transmit, and flick it back again.  In the meantime, I’m able to use my hands for operating the bicycle.

Contrast this with trying to juggle a netbook computer running a VoIP package such as Skype.  It’d be a nightmare, those user interfaces are not designed for mobile operation. They’re simply not appropriate.  SIP-based VoIP is better in some ways as you can code your own application, but even then, you’re at the mercy of the mobile phone carrier’s network.  VoIP is very sensitive to NAT and dynamic IP addresses, and I think operating mobile in this manner would be a bit much to expect.  Skype also cannot handle a group as large as radio can.  (SIP can handle over 200 participants in a conference, limited by server bandwidth.  On the radio, I’ve regularly participated in nets with more than 10 people on air at a time.  Skype is limited to 5 IIRC, or maybe you pay for more.)

Amateur radio is largely infrastructure independent. On the bicycle I can get around obstacles that would be impassable in a car.  With high capacity batteries, and a reasonable power set on a high mountain top, I can achieve significant simplex range, thus allowing me to relay traffic over great distances, without any requirement for intermediate infrastructure.

“Ohh, I’ll just use the phone for that” you say.  Yeah, right.  Try that in the Lockyer Valley just now.  Many of the mobile phone towers went for a swim, as did the exchanges.  Areas around Grantham are without any forms of mobile or land-line based telephony.  And of course, no Internet.  The same situation was the case for people caught up in the Black Saturday bushfires down in Victoria.  I’d imagine communications are under very heavy strain in Christchurch at the moment.

Mark Pesce made a very valid point in his LCA2011 keynote, communications can also be disrupted for political reasons, such as what has happened in Egypt and Lybia.  What do you do then?  Radio’s not perfect, but it sure beats being left without a means to let people know you’re okay.  With mobile phones, you are dependent on others to bring online infrastructure, before you can make a call from your phone to the other.  (Unless you experiment with something like the Serval Batphone, which has its limitations.)

So one does not completely replace the other.  They are complementary. The theory requirement keeps a lot of people away from amateur radio, however I’m happy to report I’ve never received a telemarketing call on the radio. 🙂  More to the point, there is more to amateur radio than just talking to people, just like there’s more to the police force than just arresting people.

As for me, radio has fascinated me for a long time.  I first became interested in radio from a very young age, but I particularly got into it after studying how it worked at university.  This is what lead me on to amateur radio.  So for me, it’s as much technical as it is social.  I enjoy meeting up and talking with people, but I also enjoy the experimental aspect of it.

At the moment, a large amount of my energy is going into bicycle mobile operation, particularly with regards to HF communications.  This does necessitate big antennas.  Antenna installations are always a trade-off between physical size, efficiency and band-width, and it can be a real challenge to get things working, but it’s rewarding when it pays off.

Some would argue: “Why bother? Just use a mobile phone.”  That’s like asking a car enthusiast, “why muck around under the bonnet when you can take your car to the garage down the road?”  Or to the avid gardener, “Why bother growing your own veges, there’s a greengrocer in the shopping centre?”.  Yes, they do exist.

I also would like to point out that the commercial world has gained lots from home experimenters.  You use a NAT router for your home Internet connection?  What’s the OS it runs?  Many run Linux.  Did we get Linux from a big commercial organisation originally?  No, it came from an avid homebrewer of operating system kernels, and was never intended to be “big and professional like gnu”.  Did we get Single Sideband from the commercial world?  No, it was an Amateur Radio inspired invention.  Likewise with a lot of high frequency design techniques that are in mobile phones today.  Heck, in the future we’ll probably be adding Codec2 to that list.

The world needs amateurs of all persuasions.  For this reason, declaring something “obsolete” just because you can do the subset of things you do with another more contemporary technology, is a short-sighted way of viewing things.  The amateur world benefits from the professional world, and vice versa.  It’s often the case that someone who works in a particular industry for a living, goes home then hacks on various projects related to that industry for fun in his/her spare time.

So, “why not just use a mobile phone”?  Because I find radio fun, I enjoy it, and I hope that some day, what I learn can be shared and applied in a professional setting to improve technology as a whole.  After all, isn’t having fun what the world is all about?

Feb 202011
 

That was one of the comments made following my piece in this week’s WIA national news.

We better start thinking up a better protocol then if that’s the truth. And we’ve only got 5-10 years to do it apparently, and migrate everyone.  The IPng working group started their work in the early 90’s.  It took them 5 years just to come up with the protocol, and it took a further 5 years before consumer operating systems included support for it.

My tip; IPv6 migration will be the easy route.  For starters, operating systems already support it.  Much software already works with it.

Mythbuster:

IPv6 is completely incompatible with IPv4

Addressing-wise, maybe… but TCP and UDP still work the same way.  The only catch is that you now need 16 bytes to store an address, instead of 4.  If your application passes IP addresses around in the upper layers, you just need to find room for the extra 12 bytes.  Not impossible, and not a show-stopper if your protocol was designed right in the first place.

There’s plenty of /8s allocated to companies, we can use those for the next 5-10 years!

Mmm hmm, you think they’ll just graciously give us that space?  And that it’ll last forever?  China alone if it gave one address to each of its citizens could fill up a whole /2 on its own.  How big’s a /2? 230 =~ 1 073 741 800 addresses.  And they’re growing.

Fact is, this may delay the ultimate IPocalypse, but whatever we do, it will probably take 5 years to migrate.  So our best move is to start moving now.  Not wait until the crunch happens.