London Travel Tips Part 1

We recently returned from a nice visit to London. While temperatures were only in the mid 50s F, we’ll take that any day over the deep freeze that New Jersey has recently experienced.

f

I want to share two things that will make a visit to London more enjoyable. In this first of two posts, we’ll take a look at the Visitor Oyster Card. I don’t know why it is called an Oyster — it is a proximity card — but if you plan to use the various services provided by Transport for London (TfL) to get around, you’ll find it to be most convenient. It can pay your fare from Heathrow, in and around London on the Underground, and on buses and more. It features daily and weekly fare caps, so once you spend a certain amount, you don’t incur further charges during that time period. And, pay as you go fares are cheaper on the card than if you purchase individual tickets.

You can order your Visitor Oyster Card online or you can buy it at the Visit London shop at Heathrow. We put £40 on each card and at the end of a busy trip, we still had £10.10 left. And that proved to be fatal. The automated ticket machines will refund any balance up to £10 to your credit card and you can keep the card for future use. That extra 10 pence caused me to have to get personal assistance with the refund.

There is a £5- deposit (or activation fee) on the card which used to be refundable. It is no longer refundable. When I went to the window to cash out the 2 cards, I was given £20.20. But, to my surprise, the cards were cancelled and not returned. I had expected to either get the £5 deposit or the cards returned. Instead, I lost £10 on the deal. There used to be references on the TfL website which stated that the card can be emptied and retained for future use. I showed a PDF document from their website to the representative which clearly stated that the card would be returned.

Based upon my inquiry, it looks like those references were removed from the TfL website. Apparently, the policy was changed last year. The supervisor at the Heathrow Visit London office near Terminal 3 informed me that the change had something to do with GDPR. I am skeptical that TfL’s retention of the card I used for holiday travel somehow protects my privacy.

Lesson learned #1 — If you have a balance on your Oyster Visitor Card, keep it for a future trip. It never expires.

In Part 2, we’ll discuss VAT refunds and how not all refunds are created equal.

Adventures in Callsign Routing

Callsign routing has been around since the earliest days of D-Star. It has also been little used. However, with the proliferation of Pi-Star based hotpots, callsign routing and D-Star have been given new life. Your Pi-Star installation includes a piece of software called ircddbgateway. It truly is a gateway to a whole new way of looking at D-Star.

The first piece of the puzzle is to get comfortable with callsign routing. I invite you to give me a direct call on my D74A HT. To do that, you’ll need to configure your radio with a memory that is setup to use your Pi-Star as a gateway. While that is outside the scope of this article, the general idea of the D-Star configuration (using the ficticious callsign N0TME) is:

 R1: N0TME B ; For a B (70cm) module
R2: N0TME G ; To use as a gateway
MY: N0TME ; My callsign

Now for the fun part. Normally, you’d use CQCQCQ as the destination callsign. This is the standard if using a repeater or a reflector. But, you COULD put a callsign in that destination field. Put “K2DLS P” in the destination and if I’m around, I’ll answer. Note that the P identifies my portable and must be in the 8th character position of the destination (UR) field.

There are also destinations that are not individuals, but are Smart Routing Groups. Try DSTAR1, for example. That is a very active routing group operated by the folks at QuadNet and it offers a lot of multiprotocol connectivity. There is even a net where users check in from D-Star, DMR, and Fusion and everyone can hear everyone else! Be sure to disconnect when you’re done (DSTAR1 T).

You can also configure your own legacy Starnet group on your own Pi-Star for you and your friends to chat on. This can be found on the expert menu for ircddbgateway. We’ll talk more about this in a future post.

In the meantime, I’m waiting for your call.

Turn off HDMI on Pi-Star (Easier)

Here’s an even easier way to turn off HDMI on your Pi-Star image running under Raspbian. If you’re running one of the Pi-Star 4.0 release candidates, the tvservice command may already be installed. You can check by issuing the following command:

which tvservice

If it is installed, just add the HDMI off command to /etc/rc.local.

# Turn off HDMI
/usr/bin/tvservice -o

If you’re running Pi-Star 3.x, I learned that you can install tvservice from a .deb package.

sudo apt-get install libraspberrypi-bin

For some reason this did not turn up during my initial searches but was pointed out over in the Pi-Star Forums by Dennis (W1MT).

It also seems that Andy (MM0MWZ) is considering adding a button in the future which would allow turning off HDMI from the web interface.

Turn off HDMI on Pi-Star Image

It is common practice on headless Raspberry Pi computers to turn off the HDMI to save some power. Even without a monitor attached, the HDMI hardware seems to draw ~ 50 ma of current. However, in the interest of saving space in the image, Pi-Star (as distributed) lacks the necessary tvservice command to turn off the HDMI hardware.

This command is part of the Raspberry PI “userland” package, which for some reason is not packaged as a .deb. So you’ll have to grab the code off github, but it is pretty easy. Before starting, make certain that you have expanded the filesystem of your image to fill the SD card.

sudo pistar-expand
sudo reboot

After the reboot, do the following:

rpi-rw
git clone https://github.com/raspberrypi/userland
sudo apt-get install cmake -y
cd userland
./buildme

Add the libraries to the ld.so search patch by creating a file named “userland.conf” in /etc/ld.so.conf.d. In that file add the following line:

/opt/vc/lib

Next, update the ld.so search path:

sudo ldconfig -v

You can now run the tvservice command:

## Status
sudo /opt/vc/bin/tvservice -s
## Turn off HDMI
sudo /opt/vc/bin/tvservice -o

All that is left to be done is to add the HDMI off command to your /etc/rc.local file so that it will run every time the system boots.

Will Opaqueness Kill Brandmeister?

In response to the ill-advised Brandmeister ban on the DV4mini devices by Corey Dean (N3FE), I approached some of the key personnel behind the Brandmeister DMR system to determine if I could put up a new master server in the USA. The purpose of the server would be to support the stations requiring extended routing who had been disenfranchised by N3FE.

Most of the Brandmeister core team do not publish email addresses, but I was able to get in touch with Yentel (ON3YH). He indicated that he was not active any more in the development process, but said the he would pass on my message to Artem (R3ABM) and Rudy (PD0ZRY). After a couple of weeks with no further response, I tried some social media channels where I put the following questions to Artem and Rudy:

“Does Brandmeister have a policy which supports the action of the USA Administrators who disabled access to TG 4999 (extended routing)?

“Thousands of USA users who require access to extended routing have been abandoned by the current admins. Therefore, I propose to put up a new master server in the USA which will support those abandoned users by explicitly supporting extended routing. Will you permit/support this?”

Finally Artem came back to me. Not with a straight answer mind you, but a roadblock:

“Please discuss this with Corey Dean”

Talk about opaque. Not a yes, not a no, not a statement of policy. Not an answer on behalf of the core development team as to whether they support the actions of the USA team. Rather, appeal your execution to the executioner and don’t bother me. This is not exactly an answer in keeping with the amateur radio objectives of mentoring and experimentation.

The team running Brandmeister has a published list of policies. Policy number 9 for master server operators is:

“Promote a positive image of BrandMeister”

It seems that the leaders of this project could better comply with their own policies. Their image is not looking too shiny to me right now.

What happens next? What if someone decides that MMDVM boards made in China or Kenwood repeaters or you fill-in-the-blanks are not to their liking and decides to ban them? It is ironic that the Brandmeister project sprang up because of the closed nature of the DMR-MARC C-Bridge networks which preceeded them. The Brandmeister devs were the freedom fighters.

Now, they are the bureaucrats.



Brandmeister USA Team Kills DV4mini

It has been apparent for some time that at least one of the members of the Brandmeister USA team has it in for the DV4mini. There have been occasional actions to block users of the DV4mini from connecting to the master servers operated by the USA team. Comments in a Facebook group by a team member have long indicated a desire to eliminate connections from this somewhat flawed, but useful and prolific device.

DV4mini

While investigating why my DV4mini stopped working on the Brandmeister network, I learned that the USA team disabled reflector access. Reflector 4999 is needed on the Brandmeister DMR network to take advantage of extended routing. I note a comment from Corey Dean (N3FE) on the Brandmeister USA Facebook group back in October that states, “DV4MINI and reflectors are disabled on all US masters.” This shows what I believe to be the true intent of disabling reflector access, although the DV4mini is not specifically mentioned in the Brandmeister USA wiki. He later makes comments about this freeing up talkgroups in countries whose codes start with 4. However, there is no code assigned to a country that starts with 499, so extended routing could still be allowed and not interfere with any Asian or Middle Eastern nation that wants to jump on the Brandmeister wagon.

So, DV4mini users in the USA who connect to one of the 4 master servers (3101, 3102, 3103, and 3108) now need to resort to connecting to a server outside of the USA.

Dissatisfaction and requests for reconsideration to allow extended routing should politely be directed to dmr-admins@repeater.net.

Baofeng UV-3R+ Repeater Offset Broken

I was recently in search of a small, low power HT that has dual band (2m/70cm) capability. A bit of interwebs reading pointed me in the direction of the now discontinued Baofeng UV-3R+. For less than $25 each, including slow boat shipping from China, I grabbed a pair from Ali Express during the recent 11.11 sales.

The form factor of the radio is just right for my XYL’s purse, so she will carry it as an emergency radio. She also has a tiny Puxing PX2R purchased years ago via eBay, but it is UHF only and we wanted dual band capability so that she could hit KC2GOW’s new machine near her work QTH.

However, programming via software was quite difficult. It turned out that both the native software and CHIRP fail to adequately handle repeater offsets. A bit of reading came up with a couple of references to using .006 MHz rather than .600 as the VHF offset and then using .05 rather than 5.0 as the UHF offset. As you can see, the value has been shifted two decimal places to the left. Anyway, this is how it works with CHIRP.

Even worse is Baofeng’s own software, which requires entry of separate transmit and receive frequencies, rather than an offset. So, for a repeater which transmits of 146.76 and receives on 146.16, the Baofeng software needs a transmit frequency of (146.76 – .006) or 146.754 MHz.

OK, the radio is cheap. It is worth what I paid. But it is no Yaesu or even Alinco. Caveat amateur!

OBi in Trouble?

OBi, now owned by Polycom, seems to be in the midst of a major technical failure. Users are unable to provision both newly purchased devices as well as re-provision existing devices to correct issues such as the inability to receive Google Voice Calls.

OBi 202 Device

OBi markets devices that provide the capability to have Google Voice ring an actual hardline telephone. In recent weeks, according to posts on their user forums, their provisioning process via the obitalk.com portal has been regularly failing.

Numerous tickets opened by users have not been resolved. If you were thinking of purchasing an OBi device, while I normally recommend them highly, I’d think twice until this is resolved.

In one support thread, SteveInWA — who is a “Hero Member & Beta Tester” states that, “According to Polycom, they are continuing to investigate this problem; it is intermittent, and so meanwhile, their recommendation is to keep trying, and it should eventually work.” This was posted yesterday morning, so there seems to be a distinct lack of progress.

Google’s Fake Weather

Where there is “Fake News”, is “Fake Weather” likely to follow? Google doesn’t seem to know where I am. At least the Google News homepage no longer knows. Allow me to explain.

I use Google News as my web browser homepage. For many years, near the upper right hand side of the page there has been a box that presents my local weather forecast. Some weeks ago, the box started presenting the weather for another part of my state. I provided Google with web feedback and some days later noticed that the caption changed to “Your Local Weather”.

A number of days passed and we were experiencing the umpteenth heatwave of Summer 2018. However, the outside temperature reported by Google appeared to be way too mild for our local reality. I clicked the link below, which took me to weather.com, and learned that Google News thinks I am in Dearing, KS. Interestingly, this is near the geographic center of the continental United States and is often used to represent a geographical location for the USA when no other details are known.

On the other hand, my Google Home devices all seem to know my location and report the correct weather (well, their understanding of the correct weather) for my location. Chromecast, however, is as confused as the Google website.

I’ve reported this issue via the Google web feedback mechanism and hopefully I will again be able to get my real weather instead of Google’s “Fake Weather”.

In the meantime, I am living the dream. Google is doing a bad job of tracking me and I can always claim I was in Dearing, KS should the need arise!

Scam Call Center @ 1-855-332-0777

I recently posted a message in an online technical forum run by Google about an issue I’m having making outbound voice calls with the “Home” devices. Within an hour, I received several messages from different forum “members”, all saying that I should call technical support at 1-855-332-0777 for further assistance.

I “Googled” the number, and it seems to come up as a technical support contact number for every software and hardware product ever created. Too good to be true? Oh yes, especially this reference in a Microsoft forum.

Naturally, I called to see what kind of scam this is. The background sounded like a typical noisy offshore call center with the agent accent to match (yes — I know I am making a broad assumption here). I started to explain my issue and it was clear that the agent did not know a Google Home device from a Palm Pilot. I gave him a simplistic overview of my problem but terminated the call as soon as he started asking for my name and other identifying information.

So, be aware of any scams that refer to the number in question, or any other suspicious responses that you receive to support queries, even in reputable manufacturer sponsored forums. The responders were reported as spammers and their responses removed.