Chromecast and Google Home — A Great Combination

Two new toys showed up at the front door today. I took my time deciding between Amazon Echo and Google Home. I decided that Google Home was the my best choice. When I went to order, I saw that the Google Store is offering a discount on a Chromecast dongle purchased along with Home. The discount of $15 is available through midnight Pacific time on January 28.

Google Home is about what I expected, although it currently has some limitations. If your content is on Pandora, YouTube, or Netflix you will love the device. It cannot currently access content on Hulu or the various broadcast network apps. However, you can still access the content via your mobile device and then press the “Cast” button to view the content on your big screen.

The sound quality of Home is good for the size of the device. Setup of home is fairly easy using the Android app. Chromecast connects via an HDMI port but just hangs there. It ought to have some way of attaching it to the rear of the monitor. I may try some 3M double faced tape.

Home integrates with my Google calendar, so in the morning I can say, “Hey Google, what is my day like?” I’ll hear appointments, the weather, and the NPR news. It is supposed to be able to support multiple identities but I haven’t tried this yet. Tina will want to be able to hear her calendar too.

I tried listening to a number of different audio sources via Pandora and TuneIn. It all worked, except for CKTB, a news talk station in the Niagara area that I enjoy. Google thinks I am asking for CK TV and cannot locate it. I was able to cast content from the CBS app installed on my phone with little effort.

I’m sure I’ll learn more about the capabilities of Google Home and Chromecast as the days go on. Home is said to rely completely on the cloud so lacking features such as Hulu ought to be remedied in short order.

If you’re concerned about privacy, you should know that all your searches are logged, but can be deleted via the Google Home Android app. The device also sports a mute button should you wish to prevent Home to hearing private conversations.

If you enjoy varied media content and like to experiment, Chromecast and Home make a great combination and will provide hours of enjoyment.

Running Brandmeister XTG Dialer

[Update January 17, 2017:

The Brandmeister XTG Dialer (bmxtg.py) is now easier to configure. The program itself no longer needs to be edited to get it up and running. All configuration items have been moved to separate files. Download version 1.1 and be sure to read and understand the README file before you begin.]

I’ve received some inquiries on how to get the Brandmeister XTG Dialer script running. Assumptions here are that you can navigate your way around Linux, you know how to use a text editor, and you can look at the python program and figure out how to make a simple change.

1 — Copy the bmxtg.py program file along with the three configuration files (talkgroups.com, buttons.conf and masters.conf) to your home directory. It doesn’t even need to be on the same computer that your dv4mini is connected to, as long as you are behind the same NAT router.

2 — Figure out the URL for the BM Master that you are currently connected to. To do this look at the Brandmeister Masters page. Looks through the list, locate your master, click the status button and note the URL host portion before the first slash. It could be a name or it could be an IP address.

3 — Edit the bmxtg.py program and look for the bm_master assignment statement. There are currently two, with one of them commented out. You’ll need the bm_master variable to point to the master that your dv4mini is currently connected to.

For example, master 3021 is in Canada. Clicking the status button returns http://158.69.203.89/status/status.htm. The line would read:

bm_master = '158.69.204.89'

Be sure that only one bm_master assginment statement is active. You can leave the others there but comment them out by starting the line with a #.

2 — Carefully read and follow the instructions in the README file.

Brandmeister XTG Dialer

I’ve long hoped for a way to make it easier to change DMR talkgroups. I use a DV4mini and software installed on a Raspberry Pi 3 with a touch screen display. Wouldn’t it be nice if I could key in a Brandmeister extended talkgroup (XTG) number directly on the RPi, rather than use an Android app or a web browser? The now defunct DV4MF2 dashboard was a step in the right direction with XTG support, but its talkgroup list is now hopelessly out of date. Wireless Holding’s version of the dashboard allows connection to Brandmeister reflectors and to TG 4999, but doesn’t directly provide access to the XTGs.

So in the true Amateur Radio spirit, I built my own solution. Long ago, I made my living as a software developer. It was so long ago that we were called computer programmers. Nonetheless, I did some research and found that GTK provides support that I could use from within a Python program to create windows, buttons and so on in a Linux GUI environment.

DV4mini control panel in the background with the Brandmeister XTG Dialer in the foreground.

To further date myself, most Linux based programming that I’ve done in the past 20 years has been in Perl or Bash. I have recently gotten involved in implementing the Open Source Fail2ban host IPS system, which uses Python regular expressions. I have become slightly proficient with regexes, but knowing how to use them to match text in logs wasn’t going to help me.

Thankfully, a fellow named Kris Occhipinti put together a treasure trove of programming instruction videos, some of them covering Python, GTK, and specifically how to create a keypad. His intent in some of the videos was to create an app for spoofing caller id, but I could borrow what I needed.

What I came up with is a Python/GTK app that opens two windows. One window is a dialer keypad and the other window is a memory present keypad. A Brandmeister TGID can be keyed in from a keyboard, pressed on a touchscreen, clicked with a mouse…or you can just use a preset with a label like “USA” or “Tri State” instead of a number. The app makes use of the published Brandmeister API, which is very simple, uses HTTP and returns data in JSON format. Python very nimbly handles it all.

If you’re a licensed amateur radio operator, have a DV4mini, and are Linux proficient, please give it a try and leave your feedback below.

Passing of Allstar Network’s Jim Dixon

Jim Dixon of Alhambra, CA was one of the developers who worked on hardware drivers for the Asterisk Voice over IP software. He took his knowledge and created app_rpt which then allowed Asterisk to function as a radio repeater controller usable by radio amateurs and commercial users. On the amateur radio side, this grew into a VOIP linking system for repeaters that is known as Allstar.

Steve Rodgers announced on the app-rpt-users mailing list that Jim passed away on December 16, 2016.

Jim’s contributions to IP telephony and to the amateur radio hobby were significant and he shall be well remembered.

Windows 10 Update – Unhappy Anniversary

The Windows 10 anniversary update came recently to my radio room computer. The folks in Redmond have some quality assurance problems to resolve. Here’s what I’ve noticed so far.

All my firewall rules were deleted. This means that as I run applications which require external access, I have to reauthorize them. While it is not a bad practice to occasionally review these settings, I would have preferred to do so at a time of my own choosing.

The WINUSB driver used by my Perseus SDR was deleted. I had to reinstall the driver and to do so, I had to go through the multiple reboots to allow installation of the unsigned 64 bit driver. Not fun.

My sound device settings were changed. The friendly name for the SignaLink USB sound card device that is connected to my Kenwood TS-2000 reverted to “USB Audio CODEC” and Windows decided to make that device my default sound and communications devices.

This update was hardly the best anniversary present that Microsoft could have given me.

September RF Bits in CQ – Erratum

cq-contents-sept-2016As luck would have it, a key URL for the software mentioned in my September CQ Magazine RF Bits column no longer works. That is because the author, Mike Guenther, DL2MF, decided to withdraw support for the DV4MF2 console for the DV4mini. Whatever his reasons, we have luckily archived a copy for your convenience. So if you arrive at a German language page with a “no more available” caption in English at the top, fret not and get your copy of DV4MF2.exe right here.

While the author has withdrawn support, the software nonetheless functions as it did when my article was prepared for your enjoyment. Other software for the DV4mini is also available and supported by Wireless Holdings, although lacking the nice Brandmaster XTG support that DV4MF2 offered.

It would be great if more radio amateurs released their software under some open source license so that work by and for the community could be continued as needed. We have far too much orphaned software in regular use in the amateur community. A perfect example of this is UI-View32. The author’s last wishes upon his death included the destruction of the source code. Yet, the program is still used by many amateur stations around the world. Imagine how much more useful the orphaned software could be if the source code were available for further development?

Perspective of a former Gilfer Associates Employee

Anyone who listened regularly to the shortwaves back in the 1970s knew about Gilfer Associates of Park Ridge, New Jersey. They were a source of books, gadgets, and radios supporting the SWL habit. The company was run by Oliver P. (Perry) Ferrell and his wife, Jeanne. Perry was at one time the Editor of Popular Electronics Magazine.

I came across this recent blog post by Susan Ito, a former employee. It paints a nice picture of what is was like to work for the Ferrells as an after school employee.

How I Came to Love Shipping (and the Hot UPS Guy)

VOA Radiogram

Remember the Voice of America? It presented an American point of view to the world and helped the West to win the cold war in Europe. Well, VOA is still transmitting and is embracing modern technology to stay relevant.

Kim Andrew Elliot produces a weekly “VOA Radiogram”, which uses audio tones to send digital information that can penetrate jamming and get through adverse reception conditions. You don’t need anything too sophisticated to start playing with this technology, just a radio that can receive shortwave, a computer with a sound card input, a patch cord, and a free program called FLDIGI.

Much of the content is transmitted in MFSK32, which provides good results. Some transmissions include pictures as well as text. Some folks have even reported decoding content by holding their smartphone up to the radio speaker, although I have not tried this approach myself.

Give “VOA Radiogram” a listen this weekend. Here’s the schedule information:

Here is the lineup for VOA Radiogram, program 177, 20-21 August 2016, all in MFSK32 centered on 1500 Hz:

1:31 Program preview (now)
2:42 China launches hack-proof satellite*
8:32 Twitter closes terror-linked accounts*
13:59 Why is Washington’s subway system falling apart?*
26:40 Closing announcements
29:09 Flmsg surprise (with audio)

* with image

Please send reception reports to radiogram@voanews.com .

VOA Radiogram transmission schedule
(all days and times UTC):
Sat 0930-1000 5745 kHz
Sat 1600-1630 17580 kHz
Sun 0230-0300 5745 kHz
Sun 1930-2000 15670 kHz
All via the Edward R. Murrow transmitting station in North Carolina.

Transparency and International Funds Transfer

In June I attended the Ham Radio 2016 show in Friedricshafen, Germany.  I had the opportunity to purchase a nice, compact digital transceiver.  The Hytera PD365 cost surprisingly less than it would in the USA.  And, as a bonus, I could get the 19% Value Added Tax (VAT) refunded once I brought it home.

Sort of…

There are shops around the world that are setup to make the tax refund easy and will rebate it directly to your credit card.  Not so with Difona Communications GmbH, but they were able to provide a tax refund form at the show.  I had to get it stamped by customs upon leaving the European Union and then mail it back to the vendor in Germany.  They paid the refund via international wire transfer.

Here is where the fun began.  I received about $14 less than expected and set about trying to find out where the difference went.  It was not easy.  There is no transparency in such transactions.  I had to call my bank more than a handful of times before I could get to someone knowledgeable enough to assist.

Early calls revealed that the funds came in as US dollars via the Automated Clearing House (ACH).  The ACH received the funds from Fed Global.  What is Fed Global?  The Federal Reserve Bank.  The Fed suffers from a complete lack of transparency and will not speak to the consumer at all.  Kudos to those in Congress who want to audit the Fed.  I’m with you.

Anyway, after several weeks, numerous calls, and a case filed with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, I received an answer.

Fees were deducted from the amount that the vendor paid to me.  The vendor — Difona — indicated that this is what should be done at the time of the transfer.  Difona did not disclose this to me when I sent them an inquiry asking for documentation on the transaction.  Had this been disclosed, it would have saved me and others a lot of time spent on calls and emails to research the discrepancy.

Caveat emptor!

Hytera PD365 compact DMR radio
Hytera PD365 compact DMR radio
Still, I purchased a good piece of merchandise at less than 2/3 of the USA cost.  I learned that in the case of a VAT refund, it is better to deal with Global Blue particpating merchants.  Otherwise, expect to pay an undocumented and substantial fee for a wire transfer and expect no documentation or transparency.