Weather, gardens, and Stuff

We’ve been on a sort of weather rollercoaster here. We went from high temperatures in the low fifties to 91 degrees and humid on Tuesday, then back down to a high of about 60 on Wednesday, and today we’re supposed to be back up in the steam bath again today with temperatures up in the 90s. Sheesh. It’s been an odd spring.

I’m back out on the bike on a regular basis at least thanks to the warmer weather. It looks like farmers are a bit behind in planting this year from all of the unplanted fields I’m seeing out there.

It’s dry out there, folks. According to the statistics we’re reasonably close to normal rainfall, but actual ground conditions are not good. The entire state is under a burning ban and we’ve had wild fires popping up all over the state. Some parts of the state got some decent rainfall but it skipped around us. We’re going to have to start watering the vegetable beds here today or tomorrow if we don’t get some rain.

Now that I’m back on the bike again I’ve been down to the river at the old stone bridge about 4 miles from here and things look unusually dry down there as well. Water levels in the river are unusually low for this time of year. This branch of the Manitowoc River usually isn’t this low until mid to late summer.

The old stone bridge is a great spot to stop and get a drink and just watch nature. There’s almost no traffic on that road. I’ll stop there for ten or fifteen minutes, get out my water and stand on the bridge and just watch nature. There are at least two families of geese out there, a few muskrats swimming around, turtles and birds everywhere.

Here at the house the early spring flowers are popping up everywhere. The tulips are coming up now that the daffodils are coming to an end.

Out in the raised beds everything is coming up; onions, lettuce, carrots and beets and even the garlic is emerging now. The garlic we planted last fall didn’t make it through the winter, so we planted a different variety and hopefully we’ll get some by fall. We’ll see how that works out.

We talked to the tree service and let them know that it’s dry enough out here now that they can get in with their equipment so they’re going to be coming over next week to take out the two trees you see in the photo up there. The one on the right is a big old ash tree that’s starting to rot from the top down. Every time we get a good wind it sheds branches all over, some of them big enough to cause damage or injury if someone happened to be standing in the wrong place. The one on the left is an old maple that belongs to our neighbor. Almost the entire right side of the tree up in the canopy is dead so that one has to come down too. I hate to see trees coming down but these two are at the end of their lives and they need to come down before they do some serious damage or even hurt someone.

Removing the big ash gives us a lot more options for gardening as well. It shades out a huge amount of space in the yard making it difficult for growing anything except grass and weeds back there. Once that’s gone we’ll have a large area back there with full sun that give us a lot more opportunities for growing stuff. We have some general ideas about what to do with the space back there but nothing firm as yet. I’ll keep you posted.

With those trees coming down I also had to take down my OCFD antenna (off center fed dipole) and it’s a good thing I did because I found this:

Well, that’s not good, now is it? The antenna was just hanging on by a thread. Fixing something like this isn’t hard to do but it’s annoying. The problem area is only a few feet from the end so I could have just fudged it by cutting it off at the frayed bit and attaching that to the insulator. Cutting a couple of feet off of a 130+ foot long wire antenna isn’t going to screw it up too badly, especially since I use an antenna tuner anyway.

What caused the damage? The antenna was running to the cedar tree behind that small shed in that photo of the trees up there. It looks like my line sagged letting the wire down far enough so it was rubbing on the roof of the shed.

I really need to look into a different antenna configuration. That OCFD is just too long to fit completely in my yard. Fortunately both of my neighbors don’t mind if I run a line into trees on their property, but I need to try to figure out a different way of setting it up to try to keep it entirely on my property. I do have a vertical antenna which works fine, but that OCFD gives me more options. And it’s also my NVIS antenna for semi-local communications down on 75 meters and I don’t want to give that up.

Other stuff going on:

Now that the weather has turned nice I can finally finish up bringing down the dropped ceiling in the woodshop. I’ve been procrastinating on that because there is a lot of dust up there above those ceiling tiles and I wanted to put a couple of exhaust fans in the windows to suck it out of the house instead of having it plug up my air filters in the shop. That ceiling is getting bad. It’s been up for more than 20 years, and incorporates old fashioned fluorescent tube lights which are terribly energy inefficient. I already have new shop lights waiting to go in, LED versions which will use about a quarter of the energy and give better light.

I reviewed the LaserPecker 1 laser engraver a while back, and I now have its big brother, the LP2 sitting on the shelf and in use and I want to do a review of that. The hardware is very, very nice. It’s much, much faster, more powerful and has a lot more options, including a roller system that should be very useful. Unfortunately it shares the same major problem the LP1 had: the software is horrible. This is a professional quality engraver that is badly hampered by amateurish cell phone based operating software. There is PC based software for the LP2 which is what I’ve been using which makes it easier to use, but the program riddled with bugs and odd quirks. It’s sad, really, because the LP2 is a fantastic gadget. I’ve been doing custom artwork and engravings for a craft brewer and pub owner in Milwaukee and it does a great job.

On the wood lathe side of things I’ve had a really nifty bowl hollowing system sitting around for months now that I’ve never had an opportunity to really talk about here, so I need to put that in the que one of these days.

And one of these days I want to talk about the “metaverse”. What’s his name over at “Meta” as they now call FaceScam, uh, excuse me, Facebook, has stumbled across an idea that is at least 25 years old and has been done before with varying degrees of success (and more often failure), they’ve stolen that, claimed it as their own, and is now are hyping up a storm. Meta’s “vision” of this metaverse is, frankly, silly, childish, badly implemented, laughably cartoonish and doesn’t even take into account basic human nature. It’s really kind of sad, to be honest. I’ve seen Meta’s “virtual world”, which they call Horizons, and to be honest it looks like a badly rendered version of The Jetson’s cartoon show from the 1960s. To call it cartoonish is insulting to cartoons

I want to talk about cameras too somewhere along the line. I want to talk about “cryogenic” tools… Egads, look at that list… Sigh… I’d better get to work.

Well, maybe I’ll get to work later. Right now it’s sunny out, warm, there’s a bicycle sitting in the garage waiting for me…

Spring At Last!

The weather has finally started to turn! After one of the nastiest Aprils I can remember with almost perpetual clouds, cold, rain, mist and snow, it looks like we’ve turned the corner.

Daytime temps have been up in the mid to high 50s, even pushing a bit over 60. And we’ve had bright, sunny days. MrsGF and I have been spending a lot of time outside cleaning up after winter and things are starting to shape up nicely. The daffodils are all up and it’s delightful to see those bright yellow flowers out there.

We’ve even planted some stuff already, although that’s a bit chancey this time of year. We have a lot of onions out this year. One whole raised bed is all onions and some garlic this year.

And this…

That’s lettuce. Yes, lettuce. MrsGF said what the heck and put in a bit of lettuce just to see what would happen. I thought the ground was still too cold for the seeds to sprout but damn, look at that up there. Lettuce growing. In Wisconsin. In the first week of May. Outside. Sheesh…

Rhubarb is well on its way as well. It’s always the first thing to pop up out of the ground.

The irises are all up as well and looking beautiful. They’re early risers as well, so to speak. They’re about 8 inches or more tall already and looking very good.

Thanks to the old ash and maple trees back there we’ve had to clean up a lot of branches and twigs. Most of them went down to the town compost site where they’re chipped and turned into mulch but some of them went to feed the stainless steel fire thingie we picked up early last year. That thing was one of the best investments we made. It wasn’t cheap but it’s well made out of thick stainless steel. Beats the heck out of something like a firepit or one of those cheap sheet metal ones you get at the big box stores that rusts through within a year or two. Because of the clever venting system it has there is little or no smoke, and fires are fully contained so the chance of starting the grass on fire is virtually zero even in dry conditions.

Hopefully our big ash tree and the neighbor’s maple will be coming down soon. The two of them are definitely at the end of their lives. Large amounts of bark are coming off the maple along with branches and there is significant rot up in the ash tree where some of the main branches come together.

With the trees coming down soon I had to take down my OCFD wire antenna, and discovered significant damage on it where it must have been rubbing against something. Sigh… Always something. Fortunatley I found that before it got bad enough for the wire to break completely. I’ll have to fix that before it can go back up again. Grr…

So I only have the vertical antenna in operation right now and that has some issues as well, it seems. I’ve noticed that the SWR is fluctuating a bit. The meter indicates it’s fluctuating from about 1.12 to 1.16 during transmissions. I’m not sure if that is being caused by the antenna itself or feed line, or if it’s something in the meter on my Palstar antenna tuner. If I look at the SWR meter built into my transceiver I don’t see any fluctuations at all, but then that is a tiny, tiny flutter in the first place and that meter might not “see” it. I might be worrying over nothing but it still makes me a bit concerned.

The improvement in the weather means I can get out on the bicycle again. I love biking but not when the temperatures are down in the 40s. For the last few days I’ve been getting out every day for a half hour or 45 minutes to try to build up my endurance after a long winter of basically not doing much of anything as far as exercise goes.

That’s it for now. Time to get back out into the gardens!

Addendum – just got stung by a wasp. Damn that hurts! Wonder what I did to make him mad at me?

Spring Cleanup, Antennas, Tree, Gardens, Laser Engraver and Stuff

It’s spring. Sort of?

This is sort of a catchup post because I haven’t really had enough material to justify doing an update to the blog until now, so let’s get started.

It’s spring cleanup time. Or at least that’s what the calendar tell me. Outside, though, well, it’s been bloody cold and nasty. We had about only three days here where the temperature got above fifty. Mostly it’s been in the 40s, even dipping as low as the mid twenties at night. Not exactly my idea of April weather.

It’s still a mess back here but it’s starting to look a lot better. Spent almost an entire day cleaning up the yard.

It’s a mess back there in the yard, alas. MrsGF and I have been working on cleaning up the debris left from the winter and it’s starting to shape up now finally. The old ash tree in my yard and the dying maple in my neighbor’s both have been shedding branches and bark all over. The smoke you see in the photo up there is because we lit the fireplace back there both to warm up and to deal with the twigs and sticks and bark that had come off the trees during the winter.

We’re probably going to do a major expansion of the corner garden in the photo up there. That’s prime growing area there in that corner. It faces the south west so it gets full sun almost all day long, with light being reflected off the white siding, and in that sheltered area it’s the first ground to thaw in the spring and the last to freeze in the fall, and it’s very well drained. We’re going to expand that area in a semicircle out past that post with the birdfeeder, and it’s going to extend along the right side of the house past the downspouts. That will more than double the amount of square footage we have there.

Back here hopefully within a couple of weeks that big tree will be gone. It looks relatively healthy but it really isn’t. It sheds branches like rain drops whenever there is a stiff breeze and up near the top of the tree it’s starting to rot where to large branches come together off the main trunk. It’s also an ash tree so I’m surprised the emerald ash borer hasn’t attacked it yet. If we don’t take it down soon a good wind storm will take it down for us. We already had a tree service come in to look at it, and as soon as it dries out enough for them to get their equipment in there without sinking into the ground it’s coming down, along with the neighbor’s dying maple.

Getting that tree out of there will also open up a large part of the yard to full sun so we can grow a lot more stuff. We aren’t quite sure what we’ll do with the area but we’ve been sketching out some preliminary plans for a large decorative feature. Maybe. Depends on how ambitious we get.

Antenna stuff: I finally got the new off center fed dipole up when we had a rare warm, sunny day. So I was up on the roof of the garage, then about 20 feet up a couple of different trees and, well, let’s just say it was an interesting experience.

Those of you who are amateur radio operators will undoubtedly note that it is not exactly the ideal configuration for an OCFD. It’s way too low to the ground, the two legs are running in a rather tight ‘V’ configuration instead of running out straight, etc. It’s only about 12 feet off the ground and it really should be something like 30 – 40 feet up. But you work with what you have. I don’t have a tower, don’t have tall trees, and I don’t have the space to string up a 140 foot long antenna in what is supposed to be the “ideal” configuration.

And guess what? Despite all of that, the antenna works just fine and dandy, thank you very much. According to the good ole boys I sometimes listen to down on 75 meters pontificating about antennas and other things, this antenna shouldn’t work very well in this configuration. Only it does. Since I put it up I’ve had contacts in California, the Carolinas, well, all over the continental United States and Canada, and according to PSK Reporter I’ve been heard in Europe and Australia as well.

Would it work better if it were in the “ideal” configuration, up above 30 feet with the legs extended properly? Probably. Don’t care. You work with you got.

Looks like I got this one up in time because my vertical antenna is now doing weird things. The thing got whacked by a fairly good sized branch from one of the trees and I think it knocked something loose so I’m going to have to pull that thing down one of these days and check that out.

Laser engraver: The nice delivery driver who brings me goodies from time to time just dropped off the Laserpecker 2 the other day. I’ve been looking forward to getting my hands on this one after playing with the Laserpecker 1 for a few months. I have the LP2 up and running and it is very, very, very nice. It is much more powerful than the original, much, much faster, offers much higher resolution. The version I have here comes with the roller system in the box on the right. That allows it to engrave cylindrical objects like water bottles and the like. And most interestingly of all, the roller mechanism can be reversed and turned into a drive mechanism for the LP2 allowing it to travel along a board or tabletop or other smooth surface to make continuous long engravings. I haven’t set up the roller system yet and I’m looking forward to trying it.

And best of all, for me anyway, it is no longer tied to a stupid phone app to run it. You can still use a phone app, but there is actual real PC software that will control this thing. It looks like the PC software gives much better control over the engraver than the phone app did. Best of all I don’t have to fiddle around trying to get artwork I make in Photoshop imported into the stupid phone app. I can do everything right on the computer now.

Unfortunately the PC software has some serious problems with it. It’s riddled with bugs, odd quirks, difficulties in connecting the PC to the LP2 and other issues. Most of those can be worked around but frankly the PC software looks like it was never properly tested before being released.

The LP2 is most definitely not cheap. I can see a hobbyist spending $250 on the Laserpecker 1 to do the occasional engraving on an art project. It’s a fun little gadget that works pretty well and at that price you don’t need to use it a lot to justify the expense. The Laserpecker 2 package that you see here with the roller system will set you back $1,200. IMO this pushes it well outside of the hobbyist level product. In order to justify that kind of expense you need to have a serious application for something like this.

Anyway, look for a full review of the LP2 in the near future.

And that’s about it for this time. Now if only the weather would start to warm up…

Farm Catch Up: It Isn’t Looking Good for Farmers or Consumers. But then there are cats…

I’m generally a fairly optimistic person but when it comes to the agricultural sector and, more importantly for you and me, us consumers, things aren’t looking too good on the agricultural front. I got up this morning to find soybean futures over 16.50, wheat back up to over 10, and corn flirting with 7.75 on the commodities market. Then I read an article from a JP Morgan analyst indicating that commodities prices could push up as much as 40% higher than they are already. Then there is everything else going on, and it isn’t looking good.

First there is, of course, Ukraine and what’s going on over there. Ukraine is a major producer of wheat and sunflower seed for cooking oil. That supply is now pretty much shut down. Russia exported a large amount of wheat as well and that supply is mostly shut down as well because of sanctions. That’s caused huge disruptions in the markets for wheat and vegetable oils.

Of course things were chaotic even before that. We’re still experiencing shipping issues thanks to ports, shipping companies, railroads and the trucking industry failing to engage in modernizing, improving their facilities, failing to deal with employees fairly and a host of other issues. Problems that have been going on literally for decades but which haven’t become critical until the pandemic stressed the system and it basically broke.

Natural disasters and production problems curtailed the manufacture of herbicides like glyphosate. There have been trade wars going on over the import and export of fertilizers. There is the infamous computer chip shortages which hasn’t just disrupted the auto makers, it’s also messed with ag equipment manufacturers as well. If you’re a farmer in the market for a new tractor, well, good luck trying to find one.

Then there is the drought.

The entire western half of the US is under drought conditions except for northwestern Washington.

Then the avian flu has been sweeping through the country. Here in Wisconsin poultry growers have had to euthanize millions of birds already. In the last two weeks the price of eggs has gone from $1.24 a dozen to over $4.00 a dozen.

But then again I have a cat sleeping on my chest so things aren’t all bad…

Oh Brother, Here We Go Again…

I generally stay away from things like this for a variety of reasons, but sometimes things get so utterly ridiculous I just can’t help myself… But let me get on with this.

It is never a good thing when your home state turns up on Snopes. This time it’s about furries. And… Hear that thumping sound in the background? That’s me banging my head on the table because, well, never mind, let’s get on with this.

Someone is now claiming that the Waunakee school district here in Wisconsin has something called a “Furry Protocol”. The claim is that the school now has a policy in place to protect furries from discrimination, including an image of a Powerpoint slide being projected on a screen displaying the supposed protocol and…

I’m trying to imagine what it would have been like if a legitimate news reporter like, oh, Walter Cronkite, was reporting on this back in the 1960s. He would have started talking and when he got to the point about schools putting litter boxes in classrooms he would totally lose it, start giggling, then collapse in laughter and they’d have to cut to a cigarette commercial or something while he recovered.

Now we have a news media that gleefully runs stories where a politician claims, with an absolute straight face, who absolutely believes, that kids are running around schools dressed like cats and dogs, meowing and barking and using litter boxes…

A Blast From The Past: The French Baby Story from 2013

For reasons I don’t fully understand myself, I’ve decided to tell the French Baby story. I’m also going to do something no author is supposed to do, which is tell you that you probably shouldn’t read this. It’s way, way too long. It rambles all over the place. It isn’t really all that amusing. It features two girls named Gretchen. The only pay off you’ll get if you manage to get through the whole, painful thing is a really, really bad joke.

Oh, and it also insults the French. But that’s okay because they started it.

I was going to put this up on my blog on Tumblr at first, but decided those poor people over there had suffered enough. It also doesn’t really suit that venue. So I decided to put it over here on grouchyfarmer where no one will ever read it.

Oh, and whether any of this is true or not is up to you to decide. I’m a firm believer in not letting the truth get in the way of a good story.

So here goes nothing.

It was nineteen seventy-mumble. It was spring. I was sitting in an outdoor cafe about twenty miles from Nice, France. Sitting across from me were two quite beautiful but very intimidating young women, the Gretchens.

The Gretchens were Valkyries. No. Seriously. Valkyries. Or at least as close to Valkyries as I’d ever see. They were identical twins, almost six feet tall, impossibly fit, long, straight blonde hair, icy blue eyes, and if you’d put them in breastplates and winged helmets they would have fit right into a Wagnerian opera.

Now the Gretchens and I had been together since the Channel crossing, where the three of us had shared a railing as we deposited pretty much everything we’d eaten during the last three days over the side of the ferry. British cuisine being what it is, it wasn’t much of a loss, really.

In between retches, we managed to introduce ourselves. The first one was Gretchen. The second one’s name was apparently “urrppaarrghh”. Not that it really mattered because if you said “Gretchen?” both of them would turn, look at you, and say “Ja? Vas ist los?” Which basically means something like ‘what’s up, dude?’ So I just called both of them Gretchen.

As you might guess from their Teutonic appearance and language, the Gretchens were German. They spoke almost no English at all, which was okay because I spoke almost no German at all except for an extensive collection of obscene words and phrases taught to me as a child by a very odd uncle. Oh, and I’d been taught how to count to 89 by a nazi wanna-be back in the seventh grade. And no, I don’t know how a seventh grader becomes a nazi. I didn’t want to know.

For reasons known only to themselves, the Gretchens decided they were going to travel with me. Perhaps they felt sorry for me. Or perhaps they felt it was their duty to keep an eye on me until the people at the asylum I’d escaped from came to get me. But for whatever reason, when we got off the boat in France, I found myself flanked by two Valkyries, each of whom could probably have bench pressed a Volkswagen without breaking a sweat.

I must admit that the Gretchens intimidated me. It wasn’t the language barrier. I was used to not understanding what people said because my grandparents and a lot of my aunts and uncles spoke German whenever they didn’t want us kids to know what they were talking about.

Still, I was grateful for their presence when we hit the shore and had our first encounter with the French authorities at customs.

Now the French Tourist Board tells everyone about how friendly the French people are. They wax poetic about the beautiful countryside, the incredible food, the amazing wine, the astonishing art treasures. Most of the people speak English they say. And they all absolutely adore tourists.

It’s a lie. All of it.

The French universally hate everyone who isn’t French, and from what I saw, they don’t like each other much, either. No one in France speaks English. Or at least they won’t speak it to you. You can overhear a Frenchman speaking fluent English to someone, go up to him to ask directions, and he will shrug, launch into a lengthy rant, in French, insulting you, your mother, your dog, and make disparaging remarks about the size of your genitals before sending you in the wrong direction.

Now I’d been told that French customs was no big deal, more of a formality than anything else. The people who told me that were liars as well.

A very tiny man in a very small uniform, wearing a peculiar hat and sporting a slightly obscene mustache glared at my passport. He called over another fellow who was even smaller, and had an even more disturbing mustache. He called over a third. One of them brought out a magnifying glass.

Meanwhile, my bags were being strip searched. Literally. Everything was removed from them. One guard slit the linings of the bags open. Another rifled through the pockets of my clothes. All my tooth paste was squeezed out onto a tray and fingers were poked through it.

I had to turn out the contents of my pockets. Everything was removed from my wallet and examined with the magnifying glass. My parents were insulted, as were, I suspect, my genitals and my haircut.

The Gretchens, meanwhile, had breezed through customs. They hadn’t even looked at their bags. They were getting impatient and came over to see what was going on. They stood on either side of me, arms folded, glaring at the head customs official.

Being on the wrong end of that glare was something no one would enjoy. Those cold, ice blue eyes probed the official’s black soul and found it wanting. The official started to get nervous. Gretchen 2 started tapping her foot impatiently. He started to sweat.

He barked something at his comrades. Everything was shoved hastily back into the bags. My passport was stamped, scribbled in and handed back to me. My ancestry was insulted, as were my shoes, and I was finally allowed in.

Now you’re probably wondering why simply having the Gretchens glaring at him made the fellow so nervous. To understand that you have to understand the French’s attitude towards Germany.

Once upon a time, France had a wee bit of a disagreement with Germany. You might have heard about it. It was called World War II. And the French are fully aware of the fact that if the Brits and Americans hadn’t saved their skinny Gallic asses they’d be singing “Deutschland Uber Alles” at football games instead of “La Marseillaise”. So while they hate the Germans just as much as they hate Americans, British, Australians, Russians and pretty much everyone who isn’t French, they’re scared of the Germans and don’t want to piss them off.

Oh, they’re not afraid Germany will attack again. Germany doesn’t do that kind of thing any more. No, what they’re afraid of is Germany coming down there and just buying the whole bloody country out of petty cash, and then charging them rent.

So we finally get to the train we’re to take to Paris. It lurches out of the station a half hour late. It runs about two miles, shudders to a stop. It backs up a few feet. There is a rather disturbing sound similar to a distant explosion. The train shudders.

An unintelligible announcement comes over the speakers which not even the French can understand, it seems. An Italian man traveling with his daughter shakes his head.

“I think they said they’re looking for volunteers to get out and push,” he said in English when he saw the puzzled look on my face.

The train shuddered again, and then backed all the way back to the station at about 2 miles an hour. We were herded off that train. It was dragged away and a different train was dragged over. We got on that one. The engine caught on fire.

Another engine was brought in and we embarked again. All of a sudden about a dozen police officers swarmed past the window towards the front of the train, dragging two members of the train crew with them. Hopefully to the guillotine.

A replacement crew was brought and away we went again.

Finally we reached Paris. City of lights! City of Beauty! City of Culture! City of Art!

Uh, well, no.

I’d planned on staying in a cheap boarding house for the few days I’d planned to be there. The Gretchens had other plans. I was hustled into a taxi. Curses and insults were exchanged between the Gretchens and the driver, and we finally arrived at, well, let’s just say it was beyond posh.

The crowd in the lobby parted like the sea before a pair of magnificent battle ships as the Gretchens stalked into the place as if they owned it. I suspect now that they did.

By that time I was starting to pick up a bit of German as I began to remember my high school German classes. Gretchen 1 told the fellow behind the desk that we required a two bedroom suite and if he pretended he didn’t have one he would be working at the local frog canning factory the next morning.

He never even blinked. We were escorted up to the very top floor of the hotel and into a suite of rooms that looked like something out of a fantasy movie. One of the bedrooms was given to me, the Gretchens took the other.

The Gretchens were hungry, and I was made to understand they would take me to a restaurant that was ‘less filthy’ than most. It was only a short distance from the hotel so we walked. It was a rather small place and smelled, well, odd. I’m not sure what it smelled like, but it wasn’t anything I would associate with food.

We were taken to a table and we waited. Half an hour later Gretchen 2 got a waiter’s attention by tripping him as he scurried by. I let them order for me because I hadn’t a clue. I just hoped it wouldn’t be snails.

Another half an hour went by. A waiter unceremoniously deposited an already open bottle of wine on our table and three glasses. Gretchen 1 eyed the bottle suspiciously. She sniffed it warily. She then picked it up by the neck as if it were some kind of dread disease and dropped it on the floor.

The waiter shrugged as if saying “Well, it was worth a try”, scurried off and brought up a still corked bottle and opened it at the table and poured a little into a glass. Gretchen 1 tasted it and seemed surprised that it was drinkable. Glasses were filled. Waiter went away.

Gretchen 2 was curious about the bottle. She examined it, and poked at a corner of the label with a fingernail. The label came off and under it was another label. Gretchen 2 began giggling. The restaurant had slapped a French label over a bottle of German wine.

The meal was edible. Barely. One dish looked like a used bath sponge covered in catsup. It pretty much tasted like a used bath sponge as well. Gretchen 1 amused herself by throwing snails at the waiters between courses.

The next few days were occupied by sightseeing. The amazing art was all out to be cleaned. My genitals were insulted on several different occasions. Taxi drivers scammed us, we’d all developed a hacking cough because of the smog, and terminal indigestion from the amazingly bad food. The only good meal we had all the while we were in Paris was at a Chinese restaurant.

The taxi drivers were in a class by themselves. A 15 minute trip would end up being a 15 mile excursion through the most unsavory parts of the city, during which time our ancestors would be insulted, our morals called into question, and snide remarks were made about our shoes.

Once we got out of Paris things did start to get a bit better. The insults became less personal, the food got a bit better. The wine was always horrible, though. And some parts of France are genuinely beautiful.

So there we were, outside of Nice. In a few days we would be parting company and we were reluctant to do so. In spite of (or perhaps because of) the bad food, horrible wine, insults and all the other stuff we’d gone through, we’d had a great time. The Gretchens had a wicked sense of humor, and had exactly the right kind of personality to deal with what we’d endured for the trip through France.

So we were at the cafe and feeling a bit melancholy. We’d be parting at Nice, the girls to return to Germany, me to go on to Italy. We would not, however, be disappointed about getting out of France.

Two young women were at a table near us, their babies screaming and screaming. It was really annoying, but the two women didn’t do anything about it.

I turned to Gretchen 2 whom I had been helping to learn English.

“Why are they crying like that? Why don’t they do something?”

“Ah,” she said, nodding wisely. “There is nothing they can do. They are screaming in terror because they have just been told they are French.”

And that is the French Baby story.

I did warn you, remember?

Ham Radio Stuff: Its Alive!

It’s Alive! (Cue evil laughter)

Way back in October we had a nasty thunderstorm roll through here that did some damage here. My much patched and cobbled together OCFD (off center fed dipole) antenna had come down again, my Gap Titan vertical had some minor damage to some of the vertical elements. All of my radio equipment was just fine but the storm did take out my primary computer down in the office/shop/radio shack/mad scientist lab. It’s power supply couldn’t deal with the rapidly fluctuating voltage fluctuations that included brown outs, surges and complete blackouts. We had a dozen or more of those in the space of just a few minutes. It didn’t actually start on fire but it sure did smell funny. And I lost two large capacity external hard drives as well. Fortunately all that data was backed up.

That computer was already giving some odd errors that seemed to indicate that the SSD was having problems and that the main memory might be going bad, so I already had a new replacement computer set up on the other workbench ready to go. I set up the new computer, started replacing all of the software that had been installed on the old one, got two new 10 TB external hard drives to replace the ones that had been lost, copied all my data back to those from the RAID array on the iMac up in the main office, recovered all of my photos from “the cloud” where they are backed up (they’re also backed up to two small, portable 1TB hard drives that are only connected to the system for backups. I don’t want to risk losing thousands of photos so I have a triple backup system, the cloud, plus two separate external hard drives. That may be paranoid but I know one person who lost all of her family photos and videos, all of the images of her kids, her late parents, everything. Ever since that happened to her I’ve been paranoid about backing up everything.).

Then I looked at my radio gear and, well, dear lord, what a mess. Everything was hooked up in haphazard fashion, cables were running everywhere, most of them unlabeled, it was almost impossible to reach the physical controls of the transceiver or anything else. I decided all of it needed to be torn down and set up to make it neater and easier to work with. So I took everything apart, cleared off the space on the bench where I was going to set it all back up and…

Well, thanks to procrastination, sheer laziness, and getting involved in other things for a time, it’s only just now, months later, that I have everything back up. A week ago we had some really nice weather with temps up around 60 so I spent the entire day outside fiddling with antennas. I got the vertical straightened out, mostly. I took down what was left of my old OCFD antenna and spent a large part of the afternoon climbing about 20 feet up two different trees to anchor the end points of the new OCFD (A Buckmaster that I picked up somewhere.) Then was up the ladder at the end of the garage to hang the massive balun that’s used to feed the antenna. That’s up at the peak of the garage roof. Good thing MrsGF wasn’t around that day or she’d have freaked seeing me up those trees and that ladder…

To make a long story a bit less long, here’s what the new setup looks like.

The wiring has been straightened out, I can actually reach all of the controls I need to reach. I finally have space to put my iambic paddle, that’s the chrome thing in front of the speaker with the red paddle like things on it. It’s used for sending morse code (CW). I have the Palstar tuner sitting up on an old monitor stand bolted to the bench, the amplifier is perched on a stand above the transceiver where I can reach it easily. Everything is now arranged so I can operate everything easily.

Then there was the software… These days it seems computers are everywhere and amateur radio is no different. A lot of what we do in amateur radio is now intimately linked to computers of one type or another.

The most important bit of software for me is Ham Radio Deluxe. Yes, I know, once upon a time I was not pleased with HRD and I made that fact known in posts here in the past. There was even a nasty scandal involving a one or more persons in customer support that I will not get into. That’s all changed. In the last few years HRD has worked very, very hard to fix the problems with the software and to improve customer support and HRD has become my primary piece of software not only for running the transceiver but also for logging contacts and operating in digital modes like PSK.

Downloading, installing and setting up HRD only took a few minutes. But then there was the question of the log of the contacts I’d made in the past. I lost the contact log I’d been keeping in HRD when the computer blew and, of course, I had neglected to make a backup. QRZ to the rescue. I’d had HRD set up to send all of my contact information to my log on QRZ.com. Downloading my log from QRZ and importing it into HRD only took a few minutes.

Getting some of the other software working was considerably more difficult but eventually I got all that working as well and I was back on the air.

I still have one issue I need to deal with and that’s Logbook of the World, LOTW. That’s the ARRL’s system of confirming contacts with other amateur radio operators. I log all of my contacts to QRZ.COM, eQSL, and LOTW. Those are ways of confirming to other amateur radio operators that a contact has actually been made. Personally I don’t care if I get a confirmation or not. But some people do because they’re trying to get certificates for specific achievements like having made contacts in all 50 states, or for various contests and things like that, and those contacts are confirmed by some service like LOTW or EQSL. One of the neat things HRD does is it will automatically upload contacts I make to all three services without me having to mess around with it. EQSL and QRZ both work just fine, but LOTW is a different story. It just doesn’t work and the error messages I’ve been getting don’t tell me exactly what the problem is. Until I can figure that out logging to LOTW is not going to be used. And since I don’t use it personally and don’t really like it in the first place, getting it working is going to be a low priority item.

Anyway, the system is back up and running and working. I even made a couple of contacts in North Carolina as soon as I had the antennas finished.

Farm News: Drought

If you’re waiting for food prices to start to come down, I have some bad news for you. The way conditions look right now food prices are probably going to keep going up for a while, and it isn’t just the Ukraine crisis that’s driving it. It’s the drought.

Unless you’re directly affected by water shortages out west you may not even know it, but the US is in the middle of one of the worst droughts in memory, with about 65% of the country experiencing drought conditions. Look at that map up there, just about the entire western half of the country is under drought conditions.

In the last few weeks the commodities market price for wheat has almost doubled, jumping from a bit over $7 up to $13.40 a bushel as of this morning.

Part of this is due to the situation in Ukraine of course, but much of it is because of weather issues. Corn and soybeans haven’t been hit quite as hard but they are up as well.

The drought situation is going to hit the cattle markets as well. With everything as dry as it is out west that means that grass for grazing cattle is in short supply and feed costs are going to be going up.

Farm Catch Up: Still More on Ethanol, Glyphosate Shortage and more

Ethanol

If you’ve followed this blog over the years you already know that I’m not a big fan of biofuels in general, and ethanol specifically. Since the ethanol blending mandates were first instituted, big agriculture, the government and the proponents of ethanol haven’t exactly been honest with us. Diverting a source of food for both people and animals, corn, into the production of fuel was never a good idea for anyone except, of course, the ag industry, its lobbyists, and the politicians they’ve bribed (cough cough, excuse me, slip of the fingers there) influenced to push ethanol fuel mandates. Ars Technica, of all places, has an interesting summary of the findings of a study just published last Tuesday in Proceedings of the National Academy of the Sciences.

The corn industry and ethanol industry, of course, immediately struck back by simply claiming that the whole study is, basically, a lie. And Monte Shaw, the head of the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association said he is “not interested in spending time on silly stuff like this“. So basically he is condemning the entire report without having even read the thing.

What the study discovered was that the biofuels industry is nowhere near as “green” as they’ve been claiming it is for decades. What the study showed is what a lot of people have been claiming for years now, that when all of the factors involved in the production of the corn used to make ethanol are added into the equation, ethanol is, at best, no better than using gasoline, it’s actually worse in some areas.

What’s ironic about the whole thing is that the whole ethanol fuel industry is doomed in the first place as we transition to EVs. Whether we like it or not the internal combustion engine is on it’s way out and is being replaced by electric vehicles. The ethanol industry can rant and rave all it wants, push for higher and higher percentages to be added to gasoline, and it all isn’t going to matter in the slightest because the market for the stuff is simply going to vanish along with the internal combustion engine.

Glyphosate Shortages

Glyphosate, the generic name for the active ingredient in the herbicide RoundUp, is suffering from severe shortages, to the point where a lot of farmers aren’t sure if they’re going to be able to get any or not for the upcoming growing season. The manufacturer of a key ingredient has had a mechanical failure that’s shut down production. The product was already in short supply for several other reasons, most of them not related to the virus, I should add. The biggest problem was Hurricane Ida shutting down Bayer’s primary glyphosate production facility for an extended period of time.

Perfect Storm

There has been a sort of ‘perfect storm’ of garbage being dumped on farmers in the past few months and it looks like that isn’t going to ease up any time soon. It isn’t just glyphosate. There are shortages of fertilizers like potash and anhydrous ammonia causing prices to sky rocket. The craziness between Russia and Ukraine is causing fuel prices to increase, and putting pressure on the commodities markets because Ukraine is a major producer of wheat, sunflower seed, and rapeseed for canola oil. Prices on corn and soybeans are going up and up, which is great for the people who grow the stuff. But for dairy and beef farmers, it is causing serious problems.

What it all amounts to for us consumers is don’t look for food prices in the grocery stores to come down any time soon.

Meat Monopoly Rakes In Record Profits

If you wanted to have a nice ribeye or T-bone steak for your Superbowl party, you probably looked at the prices and once you got your heart restarted you settled for grilled cheese. Prices of meat, especially beef and chicken, have skyrocketed over the last two years, and it’s all being blamed on, of course, the virus. Or is the virus only being used as a scapegoat by the meat industry as an excuse to bring in record breaking profits?

Tyson, JBS and Nation Beef more than tripled their profits during the pandemic, despite claims that price increases were due to increased expenses caused by worker shortages and supply chain disruptions. They had a 120% increase in gross profits, and a 500% increase in net profits. And profit margins, the amount of money companies make over and above their expenses, have skyrocketed as well, with margins climbing to up to over 300% in some cases. If the price increases were indeed due to an increase in expenses, profit margins would remain flat because increases in profit would be offset by increases in expenses.

The entire beef processing system in the US is a monopoly, controlled almost entirely by four companies, Cargill, Tyson, JBS and National Beef. Chicken is controlled by Tyson, Pilgrim’s Pride, Perdue, Sanderson and Koch Foods. The situation is pretty much the same with Pork, with the biggest player there, Smithfield Foods (owned by, drum roll please, China) being the major player there, along with a couple of others. For all intents and purposes, the entire US meat production system is controlled by just a handful of multinational companies.

A Convenient Scapegoat

While I’m on the subject of the pandemic, let’s look at some other areas where it is being used as a convenient scapegoat to try to explain away problems and/or massive price increases.

Trucking – You’ve probably heard that there is a massive shortage of truck drivers due to the pandemic. That claim is only partly true. There is a driver shortage, yes, but it isn’t because of the pandemic. In fact, right now we have more registered CDL holders than at any time since trucking started. The fact is that trucking companies have never been able to hire enough truck drivers, and driver turnover rates are sky high. The problem is that driving truck is hard, frustrating work, laden with sometimes utterly ridiculous regulations in some areas and not enough regulations in others, and drivers are often abused, short changed and treated like garbage by their employers, and they don’t get paid very well either. I know one company out of Green Bay that keeps teams of drivers on standby to do nothing but fly out to pick up trucks abandoned by drivers who got so fed up that they couldn’t take it anymore and just left the trucks and walked away. I would imagine that most of the bigger companies have to do the same.

Ports – The ports in the US are really the main choke point here. The US has some of the worst ports in the industrialized world thanks to years of neglect and a failure to upgrade port facilities because that would cut into their profits. Like the trucking business, this issue with US ports actually goes back decades. While ports in Europe and Asia have been upgrading their facilities and making major investments in them, in the US little or nothing has been done to upgrade materials handling capabilities or to streamline operations. Even before the pandemic the US ports were just barely functional and were already causing disruptions in shipping. The pandemic just made an already existing problem worse and showed just how bad the situation was.

Drought

If you look at the drought map up there from https://droughtmonitor.unl.edu/ you can see that things look a bit, well, scary, really. Right now more than half of the country is under drought conditions that range from mild to extreme. For a while there it seemed the West might see some relief from what is, according to some climate researchers, the worst drought they’ve had out there in 1,500 years. But that situation seems to be changing and things are starting to get worse again. Water use restrictions are already in place in many places out there and more are almost certainly going to be instituted unless they get significant precipitation. Even here in Wisconsin we’re well behind normal for precipitation. Last I heard our snowfall amounts here were running 16 – 25 inches behind normal. I’ve only had to use the snowblower once so far this winter. Most of the snowfalls we’ve had, and we haven’t had many, have been a light dusting that we’ve dealt with using electric leaf blowers.

Of course weather is, well, weather, and things can change rather quickly, but I haven’t seen conditions this bad in a long time. The drought is one reason why commodities prices have been pushing up over the last few months.

Farmland Prices Climbing

Here in Wisconsin farmland prices have always been less volatile than in other parts of the country. Prices here haven’t gone up much since I sold the farm. But that’s changing. Here prices haven’t shifted a lot, but they’ve been moving up gradually. In other parts of the country, though, prices have gone a bit, well, bonkers, really. I’ve seen some sales where prime farmland was going for as much as $20,000 per acre, an amount that seems completely crazy to me.

One trend that I find extremely troubling is the entry of investment companies into the farmland market. This has been going on for a while now but they have been becoming much more active now and there seem to be new ones starting up every year. They buy up farmland, often outbidding actual real farmers for the land, then turn around and rent it back to the farmers. Not only is this pushing the sale price of farmland up and up, making buying land unaffordable for a lot of farmers, it is pushing land rental prices up as well as these companies will gleefully gouge farmers for every penny they can get, even if it means putting real farmers in financial jeopardy.

That’s it for this time.

Stuff Coming Up

I have all kinds of things that might end up in the pipeline that feeds this blog, whether any of it actually gets in here is something else again. One thing that will be coming up is a look at a bowl hollowing system for wood turners that I’ve been using of late. It’s been on the market for some time now but it’s new to me and I like it rather a lot.

It’s February and snowing outside as I write this so this seems like an odd time to be planning gardens and buying seed but that’s exactly what we’ve been doing here. We’re thinking of expanding the garden areas yet again, perhaps adding another raised bed or two, and making one of the in-ground gardens considerably larger. We’ll see how ambitious we get once spring gets here.

A note about seeds – if you haven’t already laid in your stock of seed for spring planting, you might be out of luck. I’ve been hearing of serious seed shortages, not just for home gardeners but also for nurseries which produce seedlings and bedding plants for the home gardening market.

I’ve been seeing a lot of ads popping up over the last few months for what are being called household emergency power systems that use batteries instead of the traditional gasoline, natural gas or diesel engine powered generators. Some of them are being called “solar generators”, even though they aren’t. A lot of the ads are wildly misleading, even outright lies. There are problems with all of these systems, whether you go with batteries or the more common gasoline or other fuel powered systems. So if I can work up enough ambition you might see a piece about that in the future.

Laserpecker 1 Update: Stand Is Fixed!

Well the problem with the LP’s autofocusing stand has been solved and it is now working properly. It turned out that the problem was the power cable going from the power pack to the stand. I’d tried several different power supplies thinking that the one that came with the LP couldn’t handle the increased load from trying to run both the LP and the stand at the same time. And as a last resort I put in a different cable and, well, bang, away it went.

So the autofocusing stand is now working just fine and has actually become rather handy. But to be perfectly honest I still don’t recommend you get it. I just don’t think it’s worth the $200 they’re asking for it. The standard version with the tripod will do the same job as the “pro” version that comes with the autofocus stand. All you need to do is adjust the tripod so the LP is about 200mm away from the object being engraved. Easy and takes almost no time at all.

my Gangou laser from a pic off amazon because I can’t be bothered trying to go through my whole media library trying to find one of my own pics

I’ve been working the LP hard for the last couple of weeks, and I mean seriously hard, probably far harder than most users would. It’s been going almost nonstop (alongside my Gangou) doing a production run of customized artwork for a brewpub down near Milwaukee. All told the Laserpecker has had well over 100 hours of use now and it’s still going strong. It’s performed flawlessly.

The LP was supposed to replace the Gangou which had some problems, but I got the Gangou fixed, which was a good thing because laser engravers in this price range are slow. I had both of them up on the bench working side by side for this project.

Comparing the two of them side by side was interesting. The LP is just so much more sophisticated and easy to use, and does such a good job that the Gangou is probably going to get sold or given away.

The biggest drawback to the LP remains the software. I won’t get into that because nothing has changed since I did the review.

So, if you’re a craftsperson working with wood, paper, fabric, leather and the like, and you think a laser engraver would be useful, should you consider the Laserpecker 1? Yeah, I think you should. You’re restricted to engravings about 100mm by 100mm (about 4 inches square) but it’s rare that you’ll ever need to make engravings larger than that. It’s well made, it’s fairly simple to use, despite the wonky software, and it has been a real workhorse for me so far. It’s been doing back to back engravings for me for a couple of weeks now. And even at $300 the price isn’t too bad. Yes, there are cheaper ones out there. The Gangou in the picture up there is about $250, but it is clunky, awkward, noisy, takes up a large amount of workspace, and is at least 30% or more slower than the LP1. Oh, and the Gangou’s software utterly and totally sucks. If you can get it to work at all.