Saturday, December 31, 2011

Bluetooth micro keyboard for Grumpy

I picked up this micro keyboard on sale at Central Computers. It connects via Bluetooth to Grumpy, my MythTV box, and acts as a regular keyboard and mouse pad in both X Windows and the text console. It's functional, yet tiny. I wouldn't use it for programming, or email, but it's perfectlly sufficient for MythTV's keyboard shortcuts and or typing in a search box.

I'm using an Ambicom USB Bluetooth receiver, and the standard Linux Bluetooth stack. Adding the keyboard to Linux was trivially easy with the Gnome Bluetooth applet. The keyboard is found and recognized automatically. Aside from the Bluetooth pairing process no configuration was required.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Asus AT5IonT-I, MythTV, HDMI, Debian squeeze = no sound

Grumpy, my MythTV computer, is getting a hardware upgrade. I wanted a fanless motherboard with onboard graphics, which severely limited the choices. Eventually I settled on the Asus AT5IonT-I which comes with a dual-core Atom processor, NVidia ION2 graphics, Gigabit Ethernet, all digital video (DVI and HDMI), one PCI-E expansion slot.

I later found out that the Deluxe version of this motherboard has a DC 19V input, so could be powered with a common laptop power supply, and run completely fan-less. Oh well ... instead I found that this is the first motherboard in the house that has a 24pin ATX12V power socket. While the socket accepts the traditional 20pin ATX plug, I opted for a new power supply with a temperature controlled fan (Antec Basiq 350W). The setup runs *very* quietly, especially compared to the previous setup.

Since one of the Seagate replacement drives showed up recently, I could build the new system without having to take apart the existing system. The install with Debian Squeeze worked reasonably well, with the only hiccup being my indecision on what I wanted the file system layout to be, and the need for building the RAID array with a missing drive. The AT5IonT-I comes with a RealTek GigE network adapter, which needs non-free firmware. One needs to jump through a few hoops to get the firmware file in place during the network-based install.

Migrating MythTV was surprisingly easy. I mostly followed the instructions from the MythTV site, and eventually moved one drive from the old system to the new system. After a few hours of copying, the files were on the new disk, and I could add the old disk to the RAID on the new system.

So far, so good.

Then the trouble began. The usual dance debian-style to add the non-free NVidia drivers quickly produced a decent desktop picture. I adjusted the resolution to 1360x768 instead of the default 1280x720 reported by my Sharp TV. Oh, did I mention that this motherboard has a HDMI connector? Sounds great. Though, there wasn't any sound. An extended excursion into the depths of ALSA, HDA, and HDMI sounds on Linux followed. What a mess.

aplay -l consistently did not show the NVidia sound card with HDMI. alsamixer always told me that "This card has no controls", so there was no SPDIF output to unmute.  Debian Squeeze comes with alsa 1.0.23, and a NVidia 195.x driver for kernel 2.6.34. Combine this with the setup of the AT5IonT-I  which has both an Intel HDA sound, and NVidia HDA HDMI sound built-in, and I could not get HDMI sound working, no matter what probe settings I chose, manually loading kernel modules, etc.

Eventually, I relented and upgraded the machine to Debian Wheezy (i.e. testing). It comes with alsa 1.0.24, NVidia 290.x and kernel 3.1.0. The usual apt-get dist-upgrade dance took place, which included a fun Perl dependency during the uninstall of libwmf0.2-7 failing on File::Copy (hence aborting the dist-upgrade leaving the packages in an inconsistent state) because we got a partially updated Perl 5.14 module set.

However, once that was all set and done, setting NVidia HDA HDMI as the default sound card in the Gnome Audio Settings, and adjusting the MythTV settings, I got crystal-clear sound. I also set MythTV to use VDPAU for hardware-accelerated video-playback, which substantially improved the video quality of 720p and higher recordings.

All of this would have been A LOT easier had I trusted my gut and installed Wheezy from the start.

A side-note on GNOME3:
What have they done to this previously really usable window manager? It's not quite as annoying as Ubuntu's Unity, but the default GNOME3 is merely pretty and looks good. Once one tries to use it, workflows that used to take one mouse click and a drag, now require at least 3-5 mouse clicks on different parts of the screen.
I can SEARCH for an app by TYPING its name in a search box. How brain-dead is that for a desktop environment?
It appears that the developers took all the ideas of MacOS and Windows (the ones that make you move the mouse a lot), picked the worst of both worlds and combined them into GNOME3.

Regular GNOME3 also interacts badly with the menues in MythTV frontend.

GNOME3 Classic with the regular menu structure is usable, and works fine with MythTV frontend, though if I encounter any more issues, I'm switching to another window manager.

If it weren't for MythVideo, I'd run MythTV frontend without any window manager...


After all this trouble Grumpy really deserves its name now. While this whole exercise took almost 3 days of elapsed time, it was a learning experience, so at least I got something out of it.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Freight Depot

While gathering all the pieces I need to rebuild a computer for the train room, I also made progress on other work items on my list.

The freight shed for Emsingen is almost done.
Gueterschuppen (office side)
Gueterschuppen (street side)
Visually, I like the office side of the freight shed a lot better than the rear side. Since the track serving the freight shed is to the right of the station building, I'll likely arrange the shed so that the office faces the the station. The drawback with that arrangement is that there's only the short covered loading ramp facing the track. And the office is in the way of loading doors, too. Oh well, when there's ground to put the shed on I'll try out what works best and go from there. I need to add the lights for the loading ramps, as well as a little lamp above the office door, and I'm still toying with the idea to add actual office furniture inside, but only if it'll be visible from the Emsingen operating pit, so that will have to wait a while until I make up my mind. The shed is painted and lightly weathered. I especially like the effect of the corrugated roof.

Hochwaldtunnel with bark "rocks"
Years ago I read about a method to make "rock walls" from tree bark. Pascal and I tried that out yesterday, and while the color of the rocks came out a bit too dark, the result is definitely workable. 

Hence the "Hochwald project" was born:
Before going back to work on Jan 3rd, the plan is to finish the rock cuts around the Hochwald tunnel entrance, the tunnel portal, as well as the trees and deco in the Hochwald corner of the layout. 

The semaphore in the photo is the north entrance signal to Talheim, but won't stay here. Instead I'll allow switching moves all the way to the tunnel portal and add a "Halt fuer Rangierfahrten" sign to the tunnel portal. This matches the detection sections I already set up, and makes explaining the Talheim switching limits a lot simpler. Even though, after I added Kopper furniture and related switches in Talheim, most operators don't use this section of track for their switching moves anymore at all.

The Talheim entrance signal will be imagined to be on the "other side" of Hochwaldtunnel and be represented on a signaling board mounted to the back wall, whose LEDs will be controlled by the SIC24D that drives the Emsingen panel. That signaling board will eventually also display track occupancy of the long tunnel track between Emsingen and Talheim.

The semaphore will become the south entrance signal of Emsingen.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Friday, December 23, 2011


I think, I need to buy more Christmas lights...

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Vacation has begun ...

... and I don't need to feel guilty for staying up late to work on models.

This is the well-known Faller "Gueterbahnhof", a model that has been around forever. I decided to try a couple different techniques with this building to get back in the swing of building plastic models. Out of the box the model is way too colorful for my taste. Red brick walls, green wood rafters, gray paneling, brown window frames, ...
The walls don't look like bricks to me at all, but are sized more like cement blocks, so I painted the walls Aged Cement gray. For the rafters I used Leather brown. The window frames are painted in a thin coat of Rust. The outside flooring is painted in Cement, the inside flooring CSX Gray (PollyScale colors).
I don't have a nice green tone for the doors at hand, so I left them alone.  The outside walls were treated with a light wash of black India Ink in Isopropyl alcohol. Once I'm completely done with the building, and weathering, I'll seal everything with Dullcote, which will also remove the plastic sheen from the freight doors.
I'm planning to add some freight boxes on the loading dock, and inside the building, so I touched up the inside walls with dirty White. This building will probably be tricked out with four to five grain of rice miniature filament lamps (one each above the loading docks, one in the office, one above the office door, possibly one in the loading area). The lamps will need to be dimmed a bit, so that they last longer, and the light doesn't shine through the thin plastic walls. I might try to add some office "furniture", too ...

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Switching with a control stand throttle

This is very cool.
Makes very effective use of slow decoder deceleration, and NCE's brake functionality.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Seagate's 2TB SATA drives

A year ago I added two 2TB SATA drives made by Seagate to grumpy, my MythTV machine, and set them up as a RAID1. I got the Barracuda Green 5900rpm drives at a quite decent price.

The trouble started within weeks. The ominous "Seagate click". Study of various articles led to the conclusion that in this drive family this is some harmless recalibration during times when the disk has been idle for a while. Not  the well-known "click of death", when the disk heads can't read the servo information on the platters any more. Aside from a firmware upgrade (which more or less just makes this calibration less audible), one could prevent the click by making sure there's at least one disk access every 30 seconds or so. 

Anyways, that was dealt with. A year later, in late October,  one of the two disks got thrown out of the RAID array due to failure to read a sector. Since this is a giant data volume with lots of movies and videos, I got a replacement drive at a local store (at a higher price than I paid last year, thanks to the flodds in Thailand), installed it and resynced the RAID. Good.

I sent the disk to Seagate for warranty replacement. A refurbished drive arrived promptly a few weeks later. On Monday the replacement drive I bought new in October got thrown out of the array with a bad sector. I ran a SMART self-test, and sure enough, the self-test reports unreadable sectors. 

Not a problem, I still have that replacement drive in the closet, install that, re-sync the mirror over night, go to bed, and ... the sync didn't even complete before the drive got thrown out of the array with read errors. In the morning, I left the drive in the machine, and went to work with a plan to take a closer look in the evening. Just after dinner, there it was, ... the "click of death". The replacement drive didn't last even 24 hours.

So, now I have two bad drives that are going back to Seagate tomorrow, and a replacement Green drive from Western Digital should show up by Friday. 

Sometimes I hate technology.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Found it!

After quite a bit of searching I finally found the short circuit in the Emsingen power district.

It's here:

Can't see it? Here's another view:

Still can't see it? How about in this photo?

I screwed up when I installed the track 9 months ago and didn't pay proper attention to the connecting latches between these two switches. One latch was bent so that it touched the rail when the neighboring switch was pushed down onto the track bed.
This only became a problem a couple weeks ago when I glued down the last track in Emsingen's freight area. I don't glue switches to the roadbed since they have moving parts underneath, so when the loose track seen in the first photo was glued down it pushed down the switch, which pushed down the rail, and made it touch the bent latch.
Ripping out the newly installed track didn't help, because the ends of the switch where tacked down during installation and got some glue, too, so the switch stayed in position. I'm actually glad it stayed put, since a persistent problem is a hell of a lot easier to debug ...

Using the continuity tester in my ampmeter and following the resistance readings, I was able to reduce the problem to the general area of the north switches in Emsingen.

I found the bad latch only after I clamped the leads to the rails and pressed on tracks and switches, as well as lifted them from the roadbed where possible until the beeping stopped.

At that point I could control the beeper by pressing on the joint, and I knew I had a winner.

Fixing it required some gentle force with a screwdriver to bend the latch out of the way.

Total Eclipse of the Moon in San Jose

This morning I got up a bit early, and took Pascal and Tatjana to see the total eclipse of the moon from the eastern foothills. The picture is a tad shaky (even though I used a tripod), and the camera / lens is not taking this well, but as can be seen in the picture ... the moon is indeed red.

A little bit later we drove over to Santa Teresa County Park, to see if I could get a better shot. Unfortunately by the time we got there the moon was so dark and low above the horizon that it no longer was visible.

However, the sunrise was quite nice.

Time to go home and have breakfast...

Friday, December 02, 2011