Invasion of the body snatchers

When there’s a lot on your plate to do, time just seems to wiz right by and this month both David and I can say that the last couple months have flown by with the speed of lightning. We were both busy during the summer and then in September, Schooner Chandlery exhibited at the Port Townsend Wooden Boat Festival. It was a fun event and we enjoyed having John Fruehwirth do demos of wood carving at the booth during the event.

John Fruehwirth wood carving Schooner Chandlery booth at Port Townsend Wooden Boat Festival

Following the Festival, David had a software project in Colorado to attend to for a bit. He brought back a doozie of a Colorado cold and after nursing it for a week, passed it on to me to let it linger in the boat longer. We both finally felt un-sick and capable on Saturday the 14th of October, a full month after the Festival.

Earlier in the week, I was feeling guilty for letting Mahdee get so dirty without a good washdown so I scrubbed a month’s grime off Mahdee’s topsides. I’m happy to say her varnish is still glossy and bright from last fall’s varnish-fest. The covering boards and bulwarks look so perfect so that only I would know that it’s been a year. Running out of time, this may be the first year that since 2009 that I do not complete a full varnish round-robin on Mahdee. I have to do the butterfly hatches as they won’t make it through the winter without another few coats — and the canvas covering their piano hinges needs to be replaced or we’ll have drips of water in the main saloon during the winter rains. I put on the canvas hinge covering–at the suggestion of Chris Frost of Downwind Marine–in 2009 so I’m pretty happy that it’s made it through 8 years without real leaks. However, the edge of one bit of canvas hinge cover is getting frayed and we noticed during spring 2017 saturating rains it would eventually leak below onto the main saloon table.

Mahdee’s charthouse exterior has not been re-painted or weatherproofed since 2010 and it’s showing cracks in the paint along all the structures like the corner posts and whatnot. A few bungs have cracks in the paint showing and one has a nasty red rust stain as a reminder that, while we did replace all the iron fasteners in the hull and deck, we didn’t replace all the iron fasteners in the charthouse. I put together a little pile of scrapers and sanding papers for my assault on the butterfly hatches and charthouse this week. Tomorrow I’ll be out and about most of the day but mid-week begins my “mini” paint and varnish-fest to include aforementioned hatches and charthouse as well as the cockpit bench seats and combing interior that have flaky paint. Midwinter flaking paint is never a good thing and usually, I sand and re-do the cockpit seats every year. Last year I didn’t do it and it’s very easy to see that.

The charthouse roof canvas and the canvas in the cockpit surround are also looking worn and in need of repair or replacement. Since the real water proofing is done with the metacrylic membrane under the canvas I know I can put off the repair/replace until next spring. I may just remove the canvas this week and go with the naked metacrylic through the winter. It’s gray color isn’t as nice as the straw color of the painted canvas but I’d probably be happier to be rid of canvas with little rips and flaking paint. Another project for the list.

Sherwood Raw Water Pump Impeller Housing with broken bolt

The Mahdee tasks that have been delayed by life intervening are now slowly getting put onto a list and much more slowly ticked off the list. This weekend’s Mahdee “togetherness” highlight for David and I was changing the oil bypass filter and replacing the raw water impeller on the Cummins while also flushing out the raw water and coolant systems. Finding the pencil zinc largely intact in the heat exchanger was sort of a bonus. Usually, it’s a pile of mush that has to be cleaned out of the exchanger. The low-lite of the experience for me was breaking one of the three corroded stainless bolts that hold the Sherwood impeller housing onto the engine while I was removing it. Usually, David does the honors of breaking bolts and I can make fun of him for it. This time, I was the culprit. The low-lite for David was tearing up his hands while contorted into the required spot and turning the wrench to get the impeller housing back together. What should have taken us two hours turned into a whole weekend. Break a bolt, 5 minutes. Replace it only after driving to a store and finding a replacement, 2 hours.

Somehow we were both pretty exhausted at the end of our mini-maintenance weekend and wondered what had come of our energetic and nimble bodies we’ve spent a lifetime abusing. Had bodysnatchers invaded and given us these low performing versions in return for our old selves? Happy with the Cummins basics completed, we chose to just enjoy a Sunday evening petting Beryl and watching a movie on the computer, stuffing the spectre of the body snatchers into the recesses of our minds.

Beryl the body snatcher?

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.

The Power of Raspberry Pi–the new resurrection

beryl and RPI On Lap Monitor
For background and to start this story at the beginning, go to this post. To go to the previous post in this series, go here. The Raspberry Pi (RPI) on Schooner Mahdee has continued to work well in its primary task–weather and boat data logging to hard drive and serving and displaying that data plus tides and currents as well as performing alarms for anchor position and wind speeds.

The RPI was clearly not good at interactive GUI applications except simple email and very basic web surfing. It was also not working satisfactorily as an Internet gateway and a Wifi access point. The harder we pushed the RPI, the more often it crashed and shutdown. Then the RPI-2 was released with 4-CPU cores and 1G RAM–four times the cores and twice the memory of the RPI–and I thought maybe now I can get everything I want.

The new RPI-2 is designed to use a more advanced ARM architecture which meant that a standard Linux distribution could be used rather than the Raspbian distribution required for the RPI. I like Debian, so I installed Jessie on our new RPI-2. The RPI-2 has a different setup of IO-ports so our woody Ti-Bow case was not usable. That gave me an excuse to keep the RPI in its case and temporarily mount the RPI-2 next to it without a case.

During the extended transition of applications and functionality from the RPI to the RPI-2, I connected the two together with a simple Ethernet cable–no hub needed. The 50W regulated 5V DC power supply we have on Mahdee has more than enough capacity to run both Pi’s, the HDMI monitor, Passport hard drive, along with various other USB accessories and device charging requirements. I describe installing Debian Jessie and setting up the RPI-2 to run the chart plotter OpenCPN here. That article also includes a link to download an installable copy of OpenCPN that I created.

Because we are sometimes without any Internet access, I try to anticipate and install applications before they are needed and while we have good Internet access. Whereas the RPI is well equipped with a 16G SD card, the Sandisk Extreme SD card we purchased for the RPI-2 has a capacity of 64G. More than 6000 packages are now installed on the RPI-2 using over 80 percent of those 64G. SD storage is primarily programs and their documentation because most data is saved on the external Passport USB hard drive. So we have lots and lots of programs. More programs than may ever be used.

There is some stuff (actually a lot) on the SD card that really isn’t needed there. Given our experience driving an SD card to its premature death by writing gigs and gigs of weather data to it, we are sensitive to this. Further, an SD Card with more free space will distribute writes so as to extend its life; a nearly full SD Card can not do this and is more likely to fail prematurely. Since the Passport USB hard drive is always connected (using an entry in /etc/fstab), we can move a few things there. My criteria is to only move things that are not needed to boot the RPI-2 and preferably things that have lots of writes; mostly static files that are primarily read can be left on the SD Card.

I create a directory on the Passport drive such as rpi2_rootdir and in that directory, I create the subdirectory rpi2_rootdir/var/cache. Then I move /var/cache/apt into that subdirectory and create a link to the new location in its place. The only time I really need the apt cache is when updating and upgrading and that subdirectory ends up with lots of data and writes that I would rather have on the Passport. Another file with lots of activity is /var/swap which is used by the package dphys-swap. That file is a swap file for when memory is scarce and therefore (unfortunately) can be heavily used in my setup. One can also move the /var/log directory to the Passport once everything is stable. Further, I create a subdirectory in my user home directory which links to a directory on the Passport drive and I use that directory (on the Passport) for most of my user data–e.g. my email folder, downloads folder, music folder, application data, etc.. With those changes, my usage of the SD card is now less than 50 percent–including a complete copy of NOAA charts on the SD Card as a backup.

After email (using Mutt) and general writing using VI/VIM, my most used interactive application is a web browser. In the original RPI, I often tried to use Midori, but it’s development fell behind and it failed to render a lot of sites. Net Surf and some other light browsers don’t work well for me. The new official light browser for the Pi is the Epiphany Browser. I have not been impressed by that browser either. Google Chrome is not available from the Debian ARM repository and I have not found an easy way to get it. My favorite browser, therefore, is Iceweasel (the Debian fork of Firefox). I install the Vimperator add-on which makes the browser usable without a mouse–you just need the keyboard–and then my web browser works much like my VI editor which provides a user interface consistency that is very nice. But, Iceweasel/Firefox is a resource hog! Fortunately, there are several configuration changes that can greatly improve the usability of Iceweasel/Firefox on a resource-limited device like the RPI or RPI-2. I use the modifications described here. Also, I add the following line to my .profile:


Before these changes, Iceweasel would slow down the RPI-2 the more it was used until the RPI-2 was virtually unresponsive. With the changes the RPI-2 works great with Iceweasel. I do try to limit the number of open tabs in Iceweasel, but I currently have 25 tabs, along with about a dozen terminal windows, my QT Weather program, XTide and can even use LibreOffice and have the interface feel responsive! All in all, a very nice computer experience.

The Debian Jessie install went great and the only real hitch for me is not limited to the Raspberry Pi. Jessie uses the new SystemD and that breaks a lot of UDev scripts I wrote to automatically start services such as the Weather data logger when the Airmar USB cord is plugged in, and the GPS position and time servers when the USB puck is plugged in, and the Internet gateway when the Palm is tethered. Jessie has packaged some automatic scripts which work with common new devices, but not our GPS, Palm, or Airmar. For the Airmar, it turns out that my automatic testing and recovery scripts will get the data logging started. The problems with my other old devices may not affect those with newer devices, but my solution for them will be covered in the next post along with some new stuff.

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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