Building your own GMRS Repeater

Some residents in my neighborhood have been talking about both recreational and emergency communications for our area. Of course I recommended amateur radio (a.k.a. “Ham Radio”) as an ideal solution due to the extensive repeater network, availability of radios in all budget levels, etc.

The primary downsides of amateur radio for them was that each individual needed a license, and to get a license it meant studying and passing a test. So the next option I presented to them was the General Mobile Radio Service, or GMRS. While it still requires a license, there is no exam involved, and the license covers all members of an immediate family… which includes the kids, parents, etc. Currently the license fee is $70 but are soon dropping to $35.

For the quick summary, GMRS is extremely similar to the Family Radio Servce, FRS, but has some nice differences. One big difference is that you can use more power, and even use radios with removable or external antennas. Both of those differences will increase the effective range of the radios.

The next biggest difference is that, similar to amateur radio, the use of repeaters is allowed. With a repeater located on a mountain top or higher location, individuals using handheld radios can talk to each other using that repeater as a relay. Where normally the mountain would block communications from a valley on one side to the other, now the repeater allows communications as long as each has line of site to the repeater’s antenna.

I’m no expert on GMRS repeater options, of course there are commercial repeaters that are adjusted to the GMRS frequencies and would definitely be the highest quality and most reliable options, it would also be the most expensive option.

So our neighborhood is going to build up a basic GMRS repeater as a test, we’ll learn a lot about the process, and make adjustments as needed. Most of the equipment we purchase would be used even after necessary repeater upgrades at a later time.

Retevis RT97 GMRS Repeater

To start with, I recommended the Retevis RT97 GMRS Repeater, it claims 10-watts of output, but several comments mention the actual output is reduced due to the duplexer. The duplexer is what allows the repeater’s transmitter and receiver to operate using one single antenna instead of requiring two.

The antenna I recommended was the Comet Original CA-712EFC 460-470Mhz UHF Base Station Antenna since it covers the GMRS range and is a good, high gain, antenna. Knowing our repeater location might not be ideal, I wanted to get as much gain as possible, and this has a gain of 9dBi.

For antenna feed line I suggested they use MPD Digital LMR400-N-Male-PL259-100′ N Male to Silver Teflon PL-259 Connectors since LMR-400 will be lower loss on GMRS frequencies as opposed to some other feed line types. [Update: It has been pointed out to me that LRM-400 is not a good choice for duplex systems, such as repeaters. You can read more about that here and here.] The antenna has an N type connector, but the repeater has an SO-239, which requires the PL-259 on the end of the wire.

Due to thunderstorms in our area, I did add a XRDS-RF UHF Lightning Arrestor PL-259 to the system, so that required another short antenna feed line so I recommended a 10-foot length of MPD Digital RG-8U with UHF PL-259 Male Connectors. And of course that needs a ground rod so I recommended the Skywalker Signature Series Ground Rod, 4ft.

And if we have a functional repeater, we’d need some radios to talk to it with! With GMRS there are a variety of handheld and mobile radios that would work great, but to get started I recommended the Retevis RT1 Walkie Talkies with Earpiece and Mic,Long Range Heavy Duty Two Way Radios (5-pack)

If you have any experience building GMRS repeaters, I’d love to hear your thoughts on the proposed system listed above. If you have recommendations for any alternate products I’d love to hear about them! If we get this up and running I’ll post a follow-up on how it functions.

Apple iMessages not showing up on all of your devices?

I always had my messages synced across all of my devices which was awesome. But recently, on my laptop, I was noticing that I wasn’t seeing some of the messages that I had on my phone. I could still send and receive fine most of the time, but would be missing some images.

So I started some research and checked my iMessages Settings and everything looked fine. I even did a manual “Sync” from there, and it made no change.

Then I found this post that mentioned:

On your iPhone, go to Settings>Messages>Text Message Forwarding and make sure that all of your other devices are connected.

Well that was the trick, when I opened that up my laptop was not enabled.

So, you want to start a vlog on YouTube?

I’m going to keep this really brief, I’m going to start out with the the super cheap basics to get thing started:

Phone Only Option:

So the phone you currently have is technically all you need to start vlogging, that’s good news, right? 

Some quick details on that… the selfie camera (the camera on the same side as the screen) is 1080 resolution, which is still High Definition (HD) and good enough for vlogging, but the camera on the back is 4K and super high quality. The difficult thing about using that camera is if you are filming by yourself, you can’t see how the shot is framed. If you have someone acting as the camera operator, following you around as you talk about things, then they can see the screen and you can use the higher quality camera.

Step 2: Microphone

So a lot of people don’t know this, or don’t think about it, but audio is actually almost more important than the video on a vlog. If you can year the person talking clearly, people will put up with a bit of lower quality video, loss of focus, shaking footage, etc. But if their is poor audio and you can’t hear the person, nobody will stick around and watch.

Your phone’s microphone is fine, as long as you’re really close to it. But if you back away from the camera 10-feet so they can see you walking or showing something, your audio is really low and won’t sound good… so the first step is to add an external microphone.

To get things started with the lowest possible cost, I’d start with a wired microphone such as this:

Professional Grade Lavalier Microphone with Adapter Compatible with iPhone $39.99

This is a lapel microphone, just like I used in my quick sample video. I selected this one for you since it ends in an 1/8″ audio jack, comes with an extra 6.5 foot extension cord, then has the adapter that will plug directly in to your phone. Others go directly to a phone, but then you wouldn’t be able to add extension cables if you needed them.

The only downside of setups like this… is that you’re always connected by a wire, like a dog on a leash :-)

But it keeps the microphone really close, audio will be consistent from scene to scene, day to day. And it does come with a basic wind muff, so that will help cut down on wind noise outside.

Step 3: Tripod

Nobody wants to watch unstabilized  shaky/bouncy video… so adding a tripod with a phone holder will allow you to set up the shot, get in the frame, and film yourself or show you working on things so you can be hands free. And if someone else is helping operate the camera, they can rotate the tripod to follow you around keeping the footage smooth. 

I’ll say it right away… these tripod are VERY cheap, I’m sure it is almost all plastic and may not last multiple years unless it is cared for very carefully… but to keep your startup cost low… I think these would do the trick and come with the phone holder. The second one even comes with a bluetooth remote you could use to start and stop recording remotely.

UBeesize 50” Phone Tripod Stand, Aluminum Lightweight Tripod for Camera and Phone $14.44

Cell Phone Tripod 55″, Lightweight Aluminum Travel/Camera Tripod Stand with Bluetooth Remote, Carry Bag $23.95

Okay, so that is the basics for hardware to get started. To edit your videos you can just download iMovie for free from the App Store. You can import your clips, trim off the beginnings/ends of the clips, assemble them together in to a timeline, even add some titles/text, and then export them to YouTube.

If you’re going to edit on a computer/laptop, you could also download iMovie from the Mac App Store which is also still free. 

What if you wanted to bring everything up to the next level?

DJI Pocket 2 Creator Combo – 3 Axis Gimbal Stabilizer with 4K Camera, 1/1.7” CMOS, 64MP Photo, Pocket-Sized, ActiveTrack 3.0  $499.00

Yeah, the price is … not cheap. But what does it give you? A 4K Camera with a wireless bluetooth microphone, and full video stabilization so you can walk around with it and it will smooth out the bumps and motion. And what is ActiveTrack 3.0? You can set up the camera on a tripod, and the camera will move to follow you around as you move around and look at different things… no need for that second camera operator if you’re working alone a lot.

Other than that, a nicer tripod would be a good thing… something with some more weight to it so it was more stable/sturdy, wind would affect it less, etc. And mine I end up having a true video tripod head on it so I can smoothly move back and forth, but I also needed that because I’m often filming with a full-sized camera. 

I’ve been waiting for Zoom to release a new microphone that I will use with a lot of my video production work. It is still a Bluetooth enabled microphone and comes with the lapel microphone, but it also comes with some new technology to really control the audio level (loud/soft) better than any microphone that has existed in years due to it’s 32-bit float technology… no more setting audio levels manually!

Zoom F2-BT Ultracompact Bluetooth-Enabled Portable Field Recorder Kit with Lavalier Microphone, Windbuster, and Memory Card $228.43

What else might you want to add to your setup? 

Lighting is really important, shadows and such can really make video not look as good. Here is a great really small light that offers adjustable color temperature (warm/cool light to match the natural lighting in the scene)

Lume Cube Panel Mini | Bicolor Continuous LED Video Light $59.95

You’d have to add on some kind of method to mount the light to the phone or tripod, here is just one of many example holders that could do that:

Ulanzi ST-02S Aluminum Phone Tripod Mount w Cold Shoe Mount $14.95

I could go on and on about options, using full-size “real” cameras, using various different kinds of shotgun or lavaliere microphones, studio lighting setups that are still affordable, as well as a lot of options for editing your videos, I use Adobe Premiere most of the time, but tools like FXhome HitFilm Express is free and can do a TON of really cool stuff, most of which isn’t needed for a simple vlog. 

SOLVED: WordPress/Wordfence “non-numeric value encountered” Errors

If suddenly your WordPress site that uses Wordfence starts throwing errors upon logging in that look like:

Warning: A non-numeric value encountered in [path]/wp-content/plugins/wordfence/lib/wfUtils.php on line 1664

or like:

Warning: A non-numeric value encountered in [path]/wp-includes/functions.php on line 74

I have a potential solution for you! There seems to be a problem with the way the Time Zone was stored, when you go to Settings –> General in WordPress, mine was showing UTC+0 but I also saw these non-numeric errors on that page. I re-set my timezone and save the settings… the errors on the page went away and logging in works as expected now.

Original source of this solution was this post on WordPress Support as answered by @wfadam:

non numeric value??

The simple guide to setting up Winlink and VARA on a Mac via Crossover

There are several method of running Windows software on a Mac, one involves Wine directly, but the easier option I would suggest is spend the money to buy CrossOver for $39.95–$59.95. The more expensive version includes 12 Months of Upgrades and support.

After you’ve got CrossoOver set up, you’ll need to grab some files:

Okay, now you’ve got everything downloaded, let’s get it installed!

  • Launch CrossOver (perform any updates/upgrades it asks for)
  • Create a New Bottle and call it Ham Radio or whatever you prefer
  • I’m going to create it as a Windows 7 (32-bit) bottle since that is the default
  • Install Microsoft .NET 3.5 Service Pack 1. To do so, click Install a Windows Application and start typing the name and select it from the list. After clicking Continue be sure to select your new Ham Radio bottle otherwise it will install it in a new empty bottle.
  • In the same way, also install Microsoft Visual Basic 6 Runtime Service Pack 6 in the same bottle
  • Install Microsoft Visual C++ 2015 (14.0) Redistributable
  • Install Microsoft XML Parser (MSXML) 6.0 SP2 (for unknown reasons…optional?)
  • Click Install a Windows Application then Select an Installer and select your Winlink Express zip file.
  • Select your Ham Radio Bottle and under Select Application it is safe to just select Unlisted Application. Hit Continue and Install to start the installation.
  • Using those same steps, install VARA FM and/or VARA HF in to the same bottle.
  • Unzip the VARA Components file and copy the contents of the Put_in_System32 folder to the following location:
  • /Users/[user name]/Library/Application\ Support/CrossOver/Bottles/[bottle name]/drive_c/windows/system32 and when it asks, overwrite any of the existing files with these new ones.

You should now have the Winlink Express icon in the bottle, along with VARA FM and/or VARA. You’ll want to open Winlink Express and set up your preferences (callsign, password, email, grid square, etc.) Also, install any updates/upgrades Winklink Express offers on each launch.

TESTING: Getting WinLink Forms to work:

I went to the Chrome Download page which of course defaulted to my host Operating System (Mac) but I wanted the Windows installer. Scroll to the bottom and open the Chrome Family tab and choose Other Platforms. There you will find the Windows installers. Since my CrossOver Bottle was Windows 7 (32-bit) I chose that installer.

I then installed it to my Winlink bottle in Crossover. Visual C++ gave me lot of errors and I just kept clicking Abort on them.

I ran the installer a second time and it still didn’t work (but no errors this time) so I switched over to trying Firefox. I went to their alternate downloads page and grabbed the 32-bit Windows installer. In the list of pre-built installers Firefox 45 was the highest version, so I selected that hoping it would add any dependencies needed, but I still selected the latest (91.0.2) version of the installer that I had downloaded.

The Crossover installer complained that Firefox 45 hadn’t installed, so I skipped that step, but launching Firefox worked without a problem! I still would have rather used Chrome, but this might work.

Firefox runs, but attempting to use a Winlink Form still doesn’t open in the browser.

Fixing Dropped Bluetooth Audio on Mac OS Catalina

Update:

So it turns out, the actual problem was that my headset was paired to both my iPhone and my computer. After doing all of the below and having it working perfectly, to troubleshoot further I reconnected the headset to my phone and the computer audio started skipping again.

I disconnected the headset from the phone (but didn’t Forget it) and it kept skipping. So then I turned of Bluetooth on the phone and the skipping stopped.

So the moral of the story? On the phone under Bluetooth, Forget the headset from the phone and only have it connect to the computer alone… no more skipping.


At some point after upgrading to Catalina I noticed my bluetooth headset kept dropping audio, several times a minute. I haven’t narrowed down the exact cause of the issue, but I was able to resolve it, so that is good enough for me!

Here are some steps that I took, and some potential causes, let me know if any of it works for you:

Reset the Bluetooth Module

There is a Bluetooth icon typically located near the clock at the upper right of the Mac desktop. Users typically use this to view their connected devices, check battery levels on them, and connect/disconnect devices. Nothing new there.

And a bit more advanced users know that if you hold down option and then click on the Bluetooth icon, you’ll see some additional details and options up there: The Bluetooth version, address, and if you click on the individual connected devices you can see their signal strength and more details about them. Nice, but nothing helpful for this issue.

Here is a trick I don’t think I was aware of, if you hold Shift-Option and then click on the Bluetooth icon, you get even more options, including a Debug menu item.

What you’ll want to do is click on the Debug option then choose Reset the Bluetooth module. After that you’ll want to restart.

That alone didn’t fix it for me, so I went on to…

Delete the com.apple.Bluetooth.plist File

This article gave me the basic instructions for doing this, here are my shorter version of those instructions:

  • From Finder click Shift-Command G which is the same as going to the Go menu and selecting Go to Folder
  • In that box enter /Library/Preferences (note that is different than the individual Users’s preferences which are located at ~/Library/Preferences)
  • Look through that list of files and find com.apple.Bluetooth.plist. You can delete the file, or just because I’m a cautious one, I dragged it to my desktop.

After doing that you’ll want to reboot again. On that reboot, I took the opportunity to do one additional step…

Reset the PRAM

PRAM or Parameter Random Accessory Memory stores some of the settings for your computer, so you’ll lose a few preferences such as if changing volume should play a sound, etc. Typically it is nothing major and I have rarely, if ever, had problems with a PRAM reset.

Go ahead and click to restart your computer, but before the grey screen appears press and hold the CommandOptionP, and R keys all at the same time.

Keep holding them down until you hear the startup chime at least 2-3 times. Then release them and let the computer start normally.

Re-connect your Bluetooth device and see if the problem is resolved!

One other option…

I’ll confess I did one other thing while the computer was restarting that may have had an impact on things, so I’ll mention it here. My headset was also paired to my phone, so I went ahead and had my phone forget the headset and turned off Bluetooth completely on it temporarily.

But either way, my audio hasn’t dropped out even once during the entire time it took me to write this post, so I’m going to consider the problem solved!

Let me know if it works for you, or try just unpairing your headset from your phone if yours was paired to both devices… or just try a PRAM reset without any of the other steps.

KI6ESH/AG … finally.

Upgrade to General ClassI tested for my original Technician class exam on July 15, 2006, and always expected I would upgrade to General or Extra at some point. I used my Technician quite a bit in the Santa Cruz area, checking in to weekly nets, playing around with APRS and some digital modes on 2-meters, doing some emergency communications when needs arose for Santa Cruz County, etc.

Over the years, I have spent less time on the radio, especially since moving to Bend, Oregon, which just seems a lot quieter and slower pace on the radio. But over the past couple of months, I decided it was time to upgrade to General so I could access additional frequencies and began the studying process.

I scheduled my exam to give me a target to aim for, and today I headed down to the library and met up with a group of people all taking their exams, many Technicians, two General upgrades, and one person testing for the Extra as a “practice test.”

Well, the studying paid off and I am finally a General. My goal was to finally be able to start doing some more learning and using of HF bands, allowing longer distance communications without the need for local infrastructure such as repeaters.

The thought is always that when “the big one” comes, be it the Cascadia Subduction Zone earthquake here in the Pacific Northwest, or the San Andreas or Hayward fault down in California, that amateur radio will always be there for communications. One of the topics that comes up is, “Who’s engineering do you trust more? AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile, or a ham radio repeater on a mountain top held together with duct tape and baling wire?”

Either way, now I have the option of a third communications mode: If cell phones AND local repeaters go down, I will have the option of jumping over to HF!

I look forward to working with the various digital modes and especially in testing Near Vertical Incidence Skywave propagation which gives a communications range of 0–400 miles. So we’ll see what I do next!

I wanted to thank Joe Barry, K7SQ, Barbara Pace, K7RVW, and Loren Rasmussen, K7CWQ for taking the time out of their day regularly to be Volunteer Examiners (VE) and offer these exams for those seeking initial licenses or upgrades…thank you!

I also wanted to thank Dan Romanchik, KB6NU, for his excellent No-Nonsense Study Guides which were a huge help to me in my studying, along with the practice tests I took from a variety of sources.

And most of all I want to thank the two people who first really introduced me to amateur radio. Both of them are now silent keys, but their legacy lives on. Dan White, KB6TDW (SK) and Dick Mack, W6PGL (SK) both did a great job of showing me what could be accomplished with amateur radio and made me want to pursue it.

Is Extra in my future? Potentially… I’ll take a few practice exams, likely buy Dan’s Extra Class book, and see what happens :-) The jump to General opens up many frequencies and bands for me, I probably won’t feel too left out if I can’t access the additional Extra class frequencies.

Migrating Apple iBooks Library and Collections to a new computer

If you want to move all of your book as well as the Collections data you had for them from one computer to another you’ll want to copy all of these files from the old computer to the new one:

  • ~/Library/Containers/com.apple.BKAgentService
  • ~/Library/Containers/com.apple.iBooksX

It’s possible you only need to move the specific Books folder here:

Library/Containers/com.apple.BKAgentService/Data/Documents/iBooks/Books

But it seemed to work okay to move the entire contents of the BKAgentService folder, but there are definitely non-iBooks related content in there.

Web Hosting and Server Management Tools

I was asked recently about what some of the tools and services I use for managing web hosting. It’s a great question and things are changing all the time, but I thought I’d pass along a few tools that are currently in my toolbox.

When I first started offering web hosting services for clients I was buying individual web hosting accounts from companies like Cruzio or Hurricane Electric (I’m takling about way back in the 90’s here). Once my number of clients started rising I became a reseller for HostGator and that worked pretty well for me for a number of years. HostGator uses the ubiquitous cPanel server management tools which I and my clients were very familiar with.

Following some problems with HostGator, such as sites running extremely slow, having a few server outages, etc, I decided it was time to start migrating my sites off of HostGator (at least the larger or higher priority clients) to have more control over their management. My initial migration was to Rackspace which is a great company and offered really good virtual servers, load balancing and content delivery networks. I still have some sites hosted with them and use their CDN for storing files especially larger audio and video files.

But with Rackspace, I felt it put maybe just a bit too much responsibility on me as a server administrator. I’ve gotten pretty good at managing Ubuntu servers, securing them, keeping them up-to-date, but I’m not an absolute linux guru, and it does take some work to set up new accounts, configure the sites and domains, and continue monitoring security and whatnot.

While looking for an alternative management tool to cPanel, I did a lot of research and ended up settling on ServerPilot. Basically you set up your hosting server (they support a wide variety such as Amazon Web Services, Rackspace, DigitalOcean, Linode, etc.) and then connect ServerPilot to the new server.

Why I love ServerPilot

What ServerPilot does for me is manages some of the low level system and package updates, it makes it simple to deploy new “apps” or web sites, makes it extremely simple to deploy LetsEncrypt SSL certificates, manage the domain names and databases for those client sites. One of the things it makes SUPER easy is deploying a new WordPress site… check the box saying you want WordPress set up, fill in a few fields (site name, admin user account, etc.) and it’s done, you’re ready to start developing.

ServerPilot also offers the choice of multiple PHP versions (5.4, 5.5, 5.6, 7.0 and 7.1) so I can manage legacy [ancient] sites as well as the needs of the most up-to-date clients. They offer server monitoring and statistics, and one of the things I think ServerPIlot has done amazingly well is their customer support! I love that I can submit a support request and even if it’s not exactly related to their exact platform they’ll usually get me the answer. I mean like, if I’m asking a linux question about how to do something on a ServerPilot managed server, they have still been extremely helpful for me.

My primary choice for servers at this point is DigitalOcean, they have been doing an excellent job for me and at a fair price as well. With Rackspace I was typically choosing servers in Chicago or Texas, not ideal for my West Coast clients. So with DigitalOcean I’ve been able to choose servers in their SFO datacenter and that makes site load times even faster.

One problem I’d experienced before was where my servers were needing to be upgraded in order to get more disk storage space. But maybe I didn’t really need more processor or RAM at that time. In the past I would push large files to the CDN on Rackspace or elsewhere, but with DigitalOcean, at their SFO2 datacenter, I’m able to attach additional Volumes to my server and pay separately for that storage space, without the need of upgrading the entire server and paying those higher monthly fees, very nice!

Let me know if you have any questions about ServerPilot or DigitalOcean, or about other tools I use for web hosting, I’d be glad to point you in the right direction (or at least, point you in a direction even if it’s wrong hehe!)