Buster 1.1 for D-STAR on macOS Sierra

BusterBuster is a macOS application for ham radio written by Jeremy McDermond, NH6Z, that allows Mac users to connect to the D-STAR network without a radio. It works with the ThumbDV™ USB dongle on the local machine or a network connected PiDV™ device (formerly DV3000).

Last fall, I noticed that Buster started to work erratically and wouldn’t connect to many reflectors. The good folks on the D-STAR Roundtable net indicated they were experiencing the same thing, and for many months the application was basically unusable. Finally at the end of May, the Buster 1.1 update was released through the app store.

The good news is that, functionally, Buster 1.1 appears to be working well on Sierra. I don’t remember all the specific problems with it, but I successfully tested connecting, transmitting, and receiving on REF, XRF/XLX, and DCS reflectors. I’m unable to test using a networked PiDV, so this just applies to a ThumbDV connected locally.

The bad news is that the host file still has problems. It’s more up to date than it was, but at least some of the addresses are (very) stale, and there are a lot of IP addresses being used instead of hostnames, which begs for bad links. This is the old “which hosts file is authoritative?” issue, but with a twist…

A look at the issue tracker for Buster on github reveals that the host file data is coming from ar-dns.net, a service intended to be a centralized host file and DNS lookup provider for all things D-STAR that, in turn, gets its data from various unmentioned sources. It’s a project by K7VE, the designer of STARnet. It looks like a nice system and cool project, but the source of the XRF and XLX addresses is problematic.

This means there will be some problems connecting from Buster. There already are.

Case in point: I host XRF010 and XRF011, both of which are XLX reflectors. Both have been up and listed in the Kings of Digital host file, on xrefl.net, and the automatic XLX Reflectorlist since late last year. They were submitted with hostnames and never bare IP addresses.

Buster’s hosts file, now derived from ar-dns.net, has both of these x reflectors listed twice – once as XLX and once as XRF – which is great. However, all four entries use IP addresses instead of hostnames. The IP address for XLX010 has never needed to change, so the XRF010 and XLX010 entries both work in Buster for now. But, XLX011 moved to a different server over a month ago and had to change its IP address, so it’s already broken in Buster. Additionally, the entry for XRF011 is a long-outdated IP that resolves to a host in Germany. So XLX011 won’t connect using either XRF011 or XLX011, and for two entirely different host file related reasons.

Old Problems

What’s not new is that Buster uses an XML-formatted host file. This is probably the right thing to do in Objective C, but it means there’s no easy way to do a quick copy/paste of the entire reflector list from a more current data source. So reflectors that won’t connect require investigation by the user on a case-by-case basis, and the individual addresses then need to be updated directly in the xml file. Somebody could easily script a little utility that pulls down the KD host file and converts it to xml for Buster, but the fix really should be with ar-dns.net’s data — ar-dns.net could be the solution to this and many other related D-STAR problems (provided it is a robust system with redundancy), but the data needs to be sourced better, as mentioned above.

Even if the ar-dns.net data gets straightened out, Buster doesn’t have the ability to download host file updates on demand, a la DStar Commander, so host file updates will continue to be dependent on Buster’s author pushing app updates through the app store.

Hopefully this doesn’t sound like I’m complaining. I’m very happy that somebody took their own time to create a solid macOS D-STAR client, and I don’t personally have a problem changing host addresses when needed – it works well for me. I’m just pointing out some issues that could easily trip some users up, and they have more to do with the ongoing host file issue than with Buster itself.

The Road Back to Radio – Digital Voice

Hotspot for DMR, D-STAR, Fusion, and P25

Hotspot for DMR, D-STAR, Fusion, and P25

There are more than 700,000 FCC-licensed ham radio operators in the United States, but only a small fraction are actively engaged in the hobby at any given time. I’m often one of those inactive people, but every few years I get interested in some new area of the hobby.

Five years ago it was D-STAR, a digital voice mode. This time it’s DMR (Digital Mobile Radio), another digital voice mode mostly used for commercial and public safety applications that’s being somewhat awkwardly retrofitted to the amateur radio paradigm. While the learning curve with DMR is a bit higher, the low cost of entry makes it an easy gamble. It’s not that digital voice is necessarily difficult, but a good portion of the documentation and know-how for both modes is hidden away in haphazardly organized “Files” areas spread across unconnected Yahoo Groups, most of which require membership. Anybody approaching DMR or D-STAR with simple and reliable methods like scouring Google for technical information is in for a frustrating experience.

Roadblocks aside, my venture into DMR circled back through D-STAR and all the development I’d missed over the past several years. There’s a lot of symbiosis between DMR and D-STAR activity, mostly in the form of the little low-cost Raspberry Pi computers. My first goal was to marry these two modes in a single Raspberry Pi box with as many options as possible. The result is the hotspot pictured above.

The hardware consists of a Raspberry Pi 3 B board, a DVMEGA board seated on the GPIO pins, a DV4mini attached directly to USB, and the red DVAP attached to USB by cable.

Also pictured are the ultra-cheap Tytera TYT MD-380 radio for DMR, the Icom ID-51A Plus for D-STAR, and the Yaesu FT2DR for System Fusion.

The software starts with the latest Western D-Star image using Raspbian Jessie Linux, including ircDDBgateway and D-StarRepeater for use with the DVAP and DVMEGA, and the DV4mini application. Then I added MMDVMHost for use with the DVMEGA on DMR, D-STAR, and System Fusion. The SD Card image also functions fine on the Raspberry Pi 2 B board.

The DVMEGA board along with the MMDVMHost software is at the heart of this hotspot and can be used for all three modes. Using radio control alone, it connects to the BrandMeister DMR network, the YSF Fusion reflectors, and any D-STAR reflector. The DV4mini will handle D-STAR and DMR, but I’m mostly using it to connect to the DV4mini FCS System Fusion reflectors. It also technically makes this an APCO25 and DPMR hotspot.

Since most DMR and D-STAR networks are closed-source systems, there’s really not much else to do at the moment other than hope for new developments and enjoy some interesting QSOs with other hams in the meantime. One possible exception is the D-STAR X Reflector network. It uses open source software and operates without any real central authority. I’ve set up two XLX reflectors, one for WARN and one for W8IRC – but without an automatic DNS distribution scheme, I doubt the X Reflectors can ever gain full traction as a mainstream competitor to the original DPlus network. I’m on board to try though.

(Originally published on June 21, 2016.)

Edit 2016-08-02: I bought a Yaesu FT2DR System Fusion rig, so the DV4mini is now getting lots of use again in the hotspot.

Edit 2017-02-25: I purchased an Icom ID-51A Plus to replace the old Icom IC-92AD boat anchor for D-STAR. Much better!

Thanks to Andrew K4AWC for nudging me in the direction of DMR.

Lamy 2000 Rollerball Pen – Review

Lamy 2000 Rollerball Pen

The Lamy 2000 Rollerball Pen

I’ve never been a big fan of Lamy fountain pens. They’re always nice smooth writers, but most of the body designs are too lightweight and too oddly shaped for my taste. The one exception is the Lamy 2000. It has a nice understated design and always gets rave reviews. Since I’m going through a rollerball phase at the moment, and since the rollerball version is about half the price of the fountain pen version, this seemed like a good time to give it a try.

I like this pen a lot but think it’s a bit expensive for something so understated. Body-wise, the total weight is about where I like it (25 grams) and it has a solid and nicely balanced feel. When you look at a distance, the matte black Makrolon material (a combination of fiberglass and brushed stainless steel) and the simple clip give it a slightly cheap look, a bit like a Paper Mate Flair felt tip pen. But up close, the subtle grain texture, wide diameter (15 mm), and spring clip give it a higher quality look. When you squeeze the opening of the cap, it has some give to it.

Aesthetics aside, my only real complaint is that it has two small metal posts just above the grip that stick out ever-so-slightly – just enough to irritate my fingers a little where I grip the pen. Not a show-stopper, but worth mentioning.

Some people say that the cap falls off the back of the pen when it’s posted, but I haven’t experienced any problems. It doesn’t post with a click but has more of a mushy feel that creates a small vacuum keeping it firmly in place.

The M63 rollerball cartridge that shipped with it was not usable due to constant skipping. When it did write, it was nice and smooth on Rhodia 90gsm paper, comparable to Pilot G2 and Uni-Ball Signo equivalents. But it never improved, even after several pages of writing. Fortunately you can use the Pilot G2 and other cartridges along with a small homemade spacer. I wouldn’t have bought the pen otherwise. So I’m currently using a Montblanc medium rollerball refill cartridge and will probably use a G2 after that.

The total weight is approximately 4.2 oz (119 grams) when it’s new in the box. Here are the specs of the pen itself:

Cap weight: 9 grams
Body weight: 16 grams
Total weight: 25 grams

Body length: 120 mm
Cap length: 65 mm
Closed length: 140 mm
Posted length: 150 mm

Widest diameter w/o clip: 15 mm
Widest diameter with clip: 17 mm

Overall, I do love the feel of the Lamy 2000 and might consider buying the fountain pen version of it when I get over this rollerball distraction. I’ll probably use this as my main daily writer for a good while.