The Amateur Amateur: Win-Blink, part II

By Gary Ross Hoffman, KB0H
July 2017

Last month I described my efforts and frustrations in trying to use Winlink, which culminated in setting up my own Remote Mail Server (see Win-Blink, part I). I eventually succeeded, and having done so, moved on to some new endeavor. I tend to do that sort of thing in the blink of an eye. It's not ADD, it's SFG (Stay Focused, Gary!).

open eye Blink

And then I received a message from Steve Wooten, KC0QMU. My efforts to set up a RMS had revitalized his interest, and he decided to re-activate his own RMS, which had been defunct for a while. The problem was that he had no way to test it (sound familiar?).

I mentioned in my previous column that Steve and I don't live close enough to communicate house-to-house (mostly due to radio-unfriendly terrain), but I really wanted to help him. There must be something that I could do. After all, my basement was so full of parts and junk that it would be easier to declare it a landfill than try to empty it. Surely somewhere in this mass of stuff there was equipment I could use to piece together some sort of...

And then I had it. Actually, I'd had it all along. My wife Nancy (N0NJ) had given me a cable to interface my Yaesu FT-530 hand held transceiver with a Byonics TinyTrak4 TNC (of which I just happen to have a few). And, I already had a cable to interface a TT4 with a computer. And yes, I had a laptop that had not yet been tied up in some other project.

I could build a portable Winlink station!

cartoon of man at three computers
Winlink programs everywhere...

I installed Winlink client software (Winlink Express) on my laptop, making it the third such installation since all this began. I reprogrammed one of my spare TinyTrak4 TNCs, which took some effort. Like many other modern marvels, there's a trick to getting it to do what it's supposed to do. I'd done it several times in the past, but just couldn't remember how it was done so many blinks ago. All that came to mind was that there was definitely some sneaky sequence that had to be followed. My notes on the subject, voluminous as they were, didn't include that magic incantation.

For the record, here's how it goes.

Using the special TinyTrak program provided by Byonics, set up the configuration you want. Click "Write Config". Now you have to cycle power on the TinyTrak itself. The configuration may or may not upload to the TNC. Keep trying until it does. Once the data has uploaded into the TT4, cycle power again, or it won't save the data.

Now, do it all over again for the second memory bank. (You're going to be cycling power a lot.)

(I confess that I included those instructions in this column just so that they'll be recorded somewhere. I'll never remember them otherwise.)

Having programmed the computer and the TNC, I connected all the hardware together. I entered the frequency of my own RMS into the hand held radio (I was still at home this point, not at Steve's). I started up Winlink Express on my laptop. I generated a message. I told Winlink the name of the RMS I wanted (KB0H-10, try it if you live somewhere near me). I sent the message...

..and it didn't go anywhere.

Disappointing, but not too surprising.

I put my brain into diagnostic mode. This is the sort of thing I'd done countless times during my career working with computers. Look at each component, both hardware and software, and keep going until you find the failure point. It didn't take long before I found it.

The hand held radio wasn't transmitting.

A quick check proved that it could transmit, it just wasn't reacting to the PTT signal sent in through its microphone jack.

Time to break out the manual. (Of course I still had the manual. The only real question was, where was it? Amazingly, it was pretty close to where the hand held had been charging.)

The FT-530 was the very first Amateur Radio transceiver I ever owned, bought in 1995. So, I was quite surprised that it actually had a page in the manual titled "Packet Setup". And there was the culprit: VOX sensitivity.

A quick adjustment, and the radio started transmitting.

Message sent...

...picked up by my RMS...

...and shortly thereafter appeared in my email inbox.

Good heavens, I was ready to go portable!

portable Winlink station
A working portable Winlink station! (As long as you are very close to a Remote Mail Server)

Bear in mind, though, that a hand held transceiver isn't going to reach very far, not with all the dents in the local landscape. (It's because of all the hail storms, you know.) So, I would have to get pretty close to Steve's house in order to try to send a signal through his Remote Mail Server.

Like, parked right in front of his house.

Steve works all sorts of odd hours, so I sent him an email letting him know that I planned to do. I wanted him to alert his wife and/or neighbors, so that no one panicked when I showed up outside his house and started setting up weird stuff inside my car. It has taken me two columns to explain all this to you. I figured it would take me much longer to explain it to the police.

So, I made a list (and checked it twice) and loaded the improvised portable Winlink gear into my SUV. I also printed out directions to Steve's house, since I almost invariably get lost (the proverbial "maze of twisty passages, all alike" for you old-time programmers).

About twenty minutes later I pulled up in front of Steve's house. Even before I had turned off the engine, Steve stepped out and headed my way.

"I have the day off," he said, "and I saw your SUV on the APRS map."

"Climb in," I replied, relieved that no one was likely to call the police now.

Here's the thing. Yes, I do drive a SUV. But, it is not one of those monsters that you need a portable staircase to get into. Mine is more of a baby SUV, just long enough to get 5' mast poles into the back when the seats are folded down. So, when Steve got into the passenger seat, there was a sudden dearth of space for all the equipment I had planned to set up. It was a comical scene, with Steve and I fumbling with cables, wires, a TNC, laptop and radio, trying to figure out what plugged into what. Somehow, though, we got it all put together.

I'm grateful that no one was recording us, though, because the video would've gone viral.

On with the story.

With everything connected, powered up, set to the proper frequency, loaded and started, we tried sending a Winlink message through Steve's RMS station. I was only using a hand held radio, but at a distance of mere feet, power shouldn't be a problem. Nevertheless, my portable station couldn't connect.

"Do you want to take a look at my station?", Steve asked.

"Sure," I said.

Leaving the portable station in the car, we went into Steve's house and down to his shack (which, like mine, was in the basement). He, also, had an impressive array of clutter, so I didn't feel too bad about my own. Where our setups diverged, however, was that while I am blessed with multiple radios and antennas, Steve was limited to one radio, TNC, and antenna for digital functions. He could run either his Winlink Express client software, or the Remote Mail Server, but not both at the same time.

Playing around with each program in turn, it became apparent that when Steve ran Winlink Express, his TNC and radio reacted. When he ran RMS, they didn't. That, at least told us that the problem was somewhere in the RMS program, most likely something in the configuration. We fooled around with the settings for while, with me running out to my car every now and then to see if we had solved the problem, but we didn't seem to be getting anywhere. I couldn't see anything in the RMS configuration file that didn't look right.

cartoon of SUV with antennas
Testing Steve's RMS from just outside his house...

Eventually, we started comparing the Winlink Express and RMS configurations, at least, those items that they had in common. Finally, after many iterations, something caught my eye.

"The TNC settings aren't the same," I said.

"The two programs don't list the same TNCs," Steve replied.

Hmmm. He was right. And the two selections he had made should both work. But, one did and the other...

"Try changing the TNC on the RMS program," I suggested.

Steve made the adjustment.

I suddenly saw lights blinking on both the TNC and transceiver.

"I think that did it!" I exclaimed. "Let me try sending another message!"

I ran out to my car, climbed in, and composed a new email. I sent it to Steve's RMS station, and this time it connected and the message went through.

Before jumping out and doing hand stands on Steve's lawn, though, I wanted to make sure that I hadn't imagined the whole thing. I figured that I should write a new memo and confirm each setting before sending it.

I needn't have bothered. Steve was already climbing into the passenger seat, a huge grin on his face. Had there been room in the car, we probably would've done high-fives.

I always feel good about solving a problem, but I was especially happy that I was able to help Steve fix this one. I felt warm and fuzzy all the way home.

open eye Blink

Time to look for another project.

E-mail Gary Ross Hoffman

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