Nothing to see here

We have huge numbers of photos and videos.  Typically we just store them and do not do a thing with them.  Today, I was replying to a question in a sailing group and I wanted to find a photo of a particular thing: our round fender in use as a stern anchor rode marker or crab pot marker.  This photo would be useful to my reply.  While in search, I found the funniest non-action video:  David and I standing on deck watching a tree float by the boat while anchored bow and stern and tied to the side of Georgiana Slough.

At the time, we were concerned that the large log–actually it was a tree–would puncture the inflatable Tinker Traveler dingy.  It missed.  Then we became sure that it would foul on the anchor marker fender.  It did, temporarily, but then continued floating on down stream.  While caught, David conjectured that it might come back and ram us — always looking for the potential excitement. The beginning of a slow October day in the Delta captured on video.  I wonder what else we have in the terabytes of image and video files?

The Big Log Floating By from Schooner People on Vimeo.

A day in the life…time lapse videos

Sometimes we do time lapse videos using the GoPro camera.  We set it up on the boom gallows where it gets to take a shot every few minutes … until the battery dies or we remember to turn it off for the day.  I decided to post these videos from time to time.  Here’s a a look at one.  This is one of our day as we are going from Sandy Beach to Wachusett in Glacier Bay National Park. Six hours in 28 seconds.

 

glacier_bay_north_sandy_beach_to_wachusett

The Power of Raspberry Pi–rethinking and restructuring to do even more with less

To start this story at the very beginning, go to this post. To go to the previous post in this series, go here. As it may be clear from the discussion so far, I have a tendency to increasingly add more requirements and functionality to my Raspberry Pi (and/or the newer version 2 RPI-2) computer until it cries “uncle”–or more often than not, just quietly dies under the extreme load. This post is about adding more functionality, but by being smarter, avoiding the dying part–at least for now.

myth tv running on raspberry pi
Every traditional boatwright needs to watch the Woodwright’s Shop for inspiration.

One of our luxurious activities when paying to be at a marina with shore power is to run my Shuttle small-form-factor (SFF) computer with its Intel i7 CPU and lots of RAM and lots of storage space. When it is running, it records over-the-air–using an antenna–HDTV movies and shows according to various rules we have programmed. Those shows are re-encoded by the Shuttle computer in a very efficient format to make the files smaller–1/3 to 1/5 original size–and then saved to a hard drive for later viewing–like when storm-bound in a remote bay somewhere in Alaska.

Our time in marinas is limited and the Shuttle requires too much power to run just for recording shows (producing non-shore power electricity is very expensive) and the movie recording program is way too demanding for a regular RPI. But now I thought maybe, just maybe, the new RPI-2 could record TV programs–of course I really mean do that in addition to all the other stuff the RPI-2 already does.

The program we use to record over-the-air shows is called MythTV. I have a love-hate relationship with MythTV, but we have been using it for about 10 years and it keeps track of every show ever recorded by us so that it doesn’t re-record something we already have on a hard disk or DVD or CD-ROM somewhere on Mahdee or in storage. The challenge for us is that the database for MythTV has a huge number of recordings (way over 10 thousand) to keep track of and the scheduler needs to sort through all of our rules (which are numerous and have evolved from our refinements over those same 10 years) and compare rule-matching scheduled showings to already recorded shows and determine which shows to actually record when so as to optimize the recordings. I had my doubts that even the RPI-2 would be capable–let alone doing that task while also doing the really important stuff like keeping track of the weather and how well the anchor is holding–after all, we do have to keep our priorities straight.

To make the RPI-2 able to record TV movies we had to make some changes.

1. We bought a network HDTV tuner (HD HomeRun Extend HDTC-2US) that has a built-in transcoder that re-encodes the movies in a more space-efficient format (H-264) on-the-fly. This removes the requirement for the RPI-2 to re-encode the recordings–which it couldn’t do anyway–and keeps the file sizes reasonable. In addition, H-264 is an open standard whereas the original inefficient proprietary format used in over-the-air transmissions requires one to buy a MPEG license before the RPI-2 can perform hardware decoding for viewing. So not only is the output of the HD HomeRun more space efficient, it also uses an open standard that doesn’t require the purchase of a license. The HD HomeRun even runs on 12V DC which is nice. So we installed a 60W regulated 12V DC power supply on Mahdee to use the HD HomeRun off a 12V DC battery.

2. The other change was to continually power up the Linksys Wifi router. The Linksys is also powered by 12V DC–so it can use the same newly installed regulated power supply as the HD HomeRun. Earlier, we tried to make the RPI be Mahdee’s Wifi access point in order to save the power required to run the Linksys. Running the Linksys offloads the Wifi access point functions but more importantly, also provides a needed Ethernet hub. The hub makes is possible for the HD HomeRun tuner to be available to the RPI-2, as well as to my Shuttle computer, all over fast Ethernet rather than Wifi. Further, we decided that we could also keep running the old RPI and use it via Ethernet to offload some functions from the new RPI-2–such as internet gateway, firewall, GPS server, network time server using GPS, secondary/backup anchor position alarm, Scrabble game server (oh–didn’t I mention that requirement), as well as that coveted contact and calendar schedule web server.

The net result is that, even though we now have two Raspberry Pi’s running (an RPI and an RPI-2) along with a network TV tuner and a Linksys router (the latter two alone adding 24 amp-hours a day to our afloat battery usage), our electric power usage is less than half of what it was at the dock with the Shuttle computer running. We are now getting recordings and a practical, fun to use computer that is available 24-7 even while at anchor. All that while logging weather and boat data and monitoring that important data with alarms to keep us safe. The RPI-2 has been exceptionally reliable with our previous and current up-time exceeding three weeks since the last intentional reboot.

When passage making, we can turn off the network TV tuner, Linksys router and the RPI to reduce power usage without loosing any important functionality–e.g. don’t really need our contact server in the middle of the ocean. And with no TV tuner, we can turn off MythTV and have plenty of CPU capability on the RPI-2 to run the OpenCPN chart plotter which can use either the weather/boat data pseudo serial port on the RPI-2 for GPS data or the GPS data on the RPI if it hasn’t been secured to save power. With this nice flexible and stable setup, I have to keep telling myself not to add anything new. Unfortunately, I know that it is only a matter of time before I come up with new ideas of things/tasks/programs to add to the RPI-2. With any luck, a new more capable RPI-3 will come out before I completely overload the RPI-2. Right now, however, I am really happy with both my RPI and RPI-2.  Next I will cover some tips for running MythTV on the RPI-2 without impacting all the other stuff the RPI-2 needs to do.

Fires and Fire Ants

We recently arrived at one of our favorite, idyllic anchor spots. It’s a spot that is sheltered from wind and has reliable stretches of warm dry weather–perfect for varnishing. Our arrival this year was about a week too soon because the temperatures have been way too hot (upper 90’s F with a couple days over 100F) for either sanding or varnishing. As a result, we have spent time on the computers interspersed with two or three leaps overboard into the very pleasant 78F water to cool off. Night time temperatures cool off nicely, but Beryl has been a real complainer–her thick Norwegian Forrest cat fur being just too much for the local conditions and she has never been one for swimming.

The first sign of real trouble was a huge dragon fly that I had earlier admired on the fore-deck was later covered in and being consumed by ants. I threw the carcass overboard and hosed down the deck and regretted not taking a picture of the big dragon fly before its demise. Then Brenda noticed some ants down below one evening, and more the next evening. Brenda remarked that a visiting friend, Milly, had mentioned ant problems on their boat last year. The pieces were beginning to click together. We wondered where the ants could be coming from. In the light of day, there were no ants on any shore lines. Ants can’t swim, so we wondered if a few were dropping from the over hanging tree limbs or being carried by the wind.  We didn’t yet realize that the ants on Milly’s and our boat were no ordinary ants.

The two mile stretch of water on either side of where we anchor is a posted 5 mile-per-hour (mph) no wake zone to protect the embankments. It is one of just a few areas in the California Sacramento Delta that still has large trees lining the banks and excessive wakes erode the soil around tree roots and leads to fallen trees. During our varnish-fest stay here, we feel we are doing a great public service by giving speed boats another reason to slow down to something near the posted 5 mph limit; the drivers may not be literate because before and after passing us, many are going closer to 50 mph and throwing out huge wakes.  But, where the speed limit signs don’t work, a sense of courteous behavior sometimes does.

The waterway is a little wider where we anchor, but it is important to keep Mahdee near the embankment so that she is out of the way of passing boats. Further, to ensure that wind or wakes of law breaking boaters (without even a sense of what’s courteous) don’t throw Mahdee onto the rocky embankment, we usually have four lines holding us in position; the bow anchor, a stern anchor, a bow shore line and a stern shore line. It takes a little effort to get everything right, but with two of us on board we can get secured pretty fast and we sleep well at night.

Our friend Milly sails solo and so I volunteer to run the shore lines for her boat when she visits and anchors nearby. This year, when we were tying up Mahdee, I recognized the tree trunk from a previous visit, but initially thought it was a tree that I had once tied Mahdee to. The appearance of ants was a clue that perhaps this was the tree trunk that I had tied Milly to last year.

Then Brenda developed a nasty painful blistery welt and I remarked that I hadn’t seen such a welt since we lived in Texas and had fire ants in the yard and eventually the house too–a nightmare. We thought that fire ants couldn’t be this far north in California. I remembered seeing that they had been seen and reported in the LA/San Diego areas, but they couldn’t be this far north near San Francisco and Sacramento–could they?

Some online searching revealed that fire ants love a drought and that the current California drought has enabled the northward spread of these awful creatures.  California has classified fire ants as an invasive species and they are so destructive that some jurisdictions will quarantine an area, but fighting the spread of aggressive fire ants is a losing proposition. It was clear that not only were we once again in fire ant country, we had tied up right next to a big nest of them and they were in our virtual back yard–there goes the neighborhood.

In the video–a hint of things to come: I’m securing the shore line in entirely the wrong spot. The high crotch in a big tree seen towards the end of the video ultimately ended up being our safe-from-all shore anchor spot.

Shore anchor from Schooner People on Vimeo.

It was after dark and Beryl’s water bowl was swarming with ants and Beryl was clearly very distressed. I went outside with a flashlight and discovered that the bow shore-line was now twice its normal one inch diameter, thick and brown with an awe-inspiring invading army–now I was distressed too. We went to general quarters and locked down the boat. Our goal was to make it until morning when the ants would go into hiding from the heat and we could see well enough to reposition the shore line away from any fire ant nests.

Brenda prepared a bowl of boric acid and I sprayed and washed the deck and lines to knock off as many ants as possible. We left a dry segment of line where it came aboard the boat and coated that with powdered boric acid. We surrounded Beryl’s water bowl with more powdered boric acid and put her food bowl in a moat using a baking pan of water. Poor Beryl spent a miserable night in the heat and confused about how to flip her dry food out of the moated bowl and onto the floor which she does before eating each morsel. She whined and complained all night so that Brenda could hardly sleep and in the morning the moat around the food bowl was full of soggy uneatable cat food.  I was worried that while sleeping, I would roll over onto a string of these biting ants and be covered in painful welts. No one aboard Mahdee was happy.

First order of business the next morning was to relocate the bow shore line. Fortunately, the wind was blowing from Mahdee’s stern.  I untied Mahdee from the tree trunk and was very careful not to disturb the sleeping ants in the now obvious nest.  This stretch of slough has lots of trees to choose from so I picked the biggest tree and put the line way above ground level.

We are still left with a huge, but diminishing number of ants on the boat which are now cut off from their home nest. As we find them, we are killing and washing them overboard using the deck/anchor wash-down. With relaxed security measures, Beryl is returning to her happy normal self and so are the humans.

In keeping with current events, I am now doing periodic “border patrols” to ensure our shore lines are not breached again and Brenda knows why Milly hasn’t been back to visit this year–she is reluctant to accept my misguided helpful actions of tying her boat up to a fire ant nest. The following morning, during a patrol I found the deck covered in black and white grit–another mysterious first. It turns out that a middle of the night wind-shift carried ash and soot from the devastating wildfires and coated our decks. We realized that the same drought that has enabled the fire ants to move here is also enabling horrific fires–a real double whammy for the area.

The Power of Raspberry Pi: over reaching and hitting the wall

For background, see the previous post here. At this point, the Raspberry Pi (RPI) has proven itself aboard Schooner Mahdee by reliably logging data from our Airmar weather station plus other boat data and displaying that data on an HDMI monitor, as well as monitoring that data and sounding alarms as required. We built in the capability for more than one computer to read the Airmar weather/boat data from the RPI network port at the same time. To realize that potential, we needed a Wifi access point. A USB Wifi dongle, supporting the access point protocol, with the right software (in our case HostAPD) turned the RPI into an access point for all Mahdee users. A good access point provides some basic network services that were set up on the RPI–such as IP address assignment DHCP server–and is a domain name server (we used Bind9 server) for all the Wifi-connected computers aboard the boat.

Raspberry Pi and Cat

Further adding to the roles for the RPI, I wanted to be able to read email without turning on any other computer, so we needed to set up internet access on the RPI. We set up the RPI to use either a Sprint phone with a data tethering plan using PPP or our Verizon Wifi hotspot using a second USB Wifi dongle. Since Brenda’s Windows 8 machine can’t tether directly to the Sprint phone, we decided to make the RPI Mahdee’s internet gateway that can be switched between either Sprint or Verizon. That also meant a better firewall setup for the RPI.

The RPI doesn’t have a hardware clock (by design it would rely on an internet connection to set the time on boot), so when we rebooted the RPI, sans-internet, in the middle of nowhere in Alaska, the data logger had the wrong time stamps. To fix that, we setup a USB puck GPS as a time source for the RPI. This meant also running a GPS position server on the RPI which is then available on a network port of the RPI for other computers aboard Mahdee. The fast high resolution GPS data was also setup to be used by a Python anchor watch and position alarm which I’d previously written for the Nokia N810. The sound system on the RPI is not very good nor very loud even with our USB powered amplified speakers.  For the alarms we setup a piezo-electric buzzer which is energized by a RPI GPIO port so that we can hear alarms anywhere aboard the boat. The RPI also uses GPS time stamps to provide a network time basis for other computers aboard.

With the 2TB Passport hard drive attached to the RPI, it only made sense to put a copy of our public file archive on it and thereby make it available to us 24-7. The public file archive includes repair manuals in PDF form for most boat systems (nice to have in an emergency), all of our photos as well as digital books and magazines (nice for passage entertainment). This nicety meant putting PDF and e-book readers on the RPI. Then, to enable access to those files from Windows computers, we setup a Samba server which also requires a network time server. Fortunately we already had the GPS-based network time server on the RPI.

To enable us to read our email when there is no internet connection available, we setup the RPI with OfflineIMAP to sync mail from our main email server (an off-boat/shore-based virtual private server) whenever we have internet access. I read email using Mutt which can run in a terminal on the RPI. Brenda likes to access email using SquirrelMail webmail via her computer’s web browser, so we added an Apache2 web server to the RPI along with Squirrel Mail and an IMAP server.

In among the public archive data is our music collection, so we setup RPI as a network music player. On those long passages, we thought it would be nice to listen to music, but this is where things start to break down. The poor, now very overloaded, RPI just couldn’t make the music sound even decent. I also setup my Bluetooth stereo headset on RPI, but that was even worse than listening to broken up music through the speakers.

Many boaters want their RPI to run a navigation program like OpenCPN. I had managed to compile a version of OpenCPN on our first RPI, but running OpenCPN required all the resources of the RPI and I was not willing to forego all the other important roles our RPI was needed for–simply to use OpenCPN as a backup chart plotter.  Our real chart plotter is used to display radar and chart data including charts for other countries without free official charts (like Canada). Not needing to run OpenCPN helped a little with our overloaded RPI situation.

From the RPI GUI interface, I found web browsing to be very slow and unproductive. I could get email and read it using Mutt just fine, but there was other trouble lurking. Brenda informed me that basic web access from her computer through the RPI Wifi access point was way too slow. I tried it using my main computer and had trouble too. I had had hopes–fantasies perhaps–that RPI would also run a contact and calendar web service. Most people would just use Google for this, but we are often not near internet access and besides, who really wants to trust the big guys with all of your sensitive contacts and scheduling. But, it was not to be–at least not yet.  Stay tuned for the next installment in this series of posts about the RPI and how we turned the corner towards success.

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