Roses of Winter and Holy Cow it is Bloody Cold Plus Some Radio Stuff

Apparently Mother Nature wasn’t satisfied with deluging us with snow a month early, now she’s trying to freeze us with temperatures we usually don’t see until well into January. It’s about 3 degrees (F) out there, with windchills down in the -10 range. Sheesh…

Meanwhile, MrsGF has this growing in the living room. Just took these photos the other day-

Yeah, roses. I’ve put up photos of this before, but I figured this plant would go dormant or something by now. But it just keeps right on blooming.

This thing started out as one of those goofy little teacup roses, a tiny plant in a cheap cup that they sell for a few bucks on Mother’s Day or Valentine’s Day. Think I paid all of $7 for it, oh, must be at least two or three years ago. And after we got sick of it sitting around the house MrsGF said what the heck, let’s put it in a big pot and see what happens and the dopey thing just kept growing and flowering. We were putting it in the basement, letting it go dormant over winter, but this year she thought she’d put it in the living room where it could get some light and keep watering it, and well, it apparently likes it there, and it’s been flowering on a regular basis all winter so far.

I asked her how she’s keeping it flowering and she swears she’s just watering it and isn’t doing anything else. Personally I figure witchcraft is involved.

The MagLoop Antenna

I talked about this antenna before, and I continue to be more than pleased with it. Since my dipole came down in the last snowstorm it’s been the main antenna for my TS-990, sitting on the floor behind me in the office. And it is doing ridiculously good.

This is putting 15 watts into an antenna sitting just behind me in my office this morning.

The Great Radio Fiasco Project

I mentioned this before, but let me summarize what I’m trying to do here. For reasons I won’t get into right now, I challenged myself to build, from scratch, a decent radio receiver, preferably shortwave. Emphasis on the word “decent” because I could throw together a few parts and end up with – well, with something that would receive, well, something that might be a radio signal, and pump it into a speaker and you’d hear some sound that might be interpreted as a radio transmission by someone with bad hearing. It could technically be called a radio receiver, but, well, let’s face it, it wouldn’t exactly be useful.

When I first conceived of this project I was like how hard can this be? In those WWII movies the Resistance throws together a radio out of bits of string, a piece of wire, an old cigar box and bits off a horse (don’t ask me what bits, I don’t know, ask them, they built the thing) and call up Churchill at Bomber Command and call in an air strike on Hitler’s outhouse. And the Good Ole Boys in amateur radio weep bitter tears of disappointment over the fact that modern day hams don’t build stuff any more like they did, when they’d throw together a 1,500 watt amplifier, transmitter and superhet receiver in an afternoon, out of parts they salvaged from old washing machines. And bits off a horse for all I know.

Here’s the thing, though – 95% of that (maybe even 98%) is pure BS. I’m sorry, but it just is.

The days of being able to salvage anything useful from discarded electronics are long gone. Modern SMD (surface mount devices) and robotic assembly methods make it virtually impossible to salvage anything useful from relatively modern equipment. And while you can buy discrete components like resistors, capacitors, etc. in the more common values, increasingly it is difficult to find a lot of stuff in anything but SMD form, and in quantities of 1,000 or more. I was trying to find what had once been a very common opamp the other day. It is still available. But if I want to get it from a US supplier I can only buy it in quantities of 1,000 or more, and in SMD format. If I want it in the traditional 6 pin IC form, and only want a few of them, it looks like I’m going to have to order it from China and it won’t get here until mid-March.

Nor are parts cheap. Oh, some are, true, but not the kind of stuff I’m looking for. A single variable capacitor I need for a project sells for $25. And I need two of them. So I’m going to have $50 stuck in that project before I even get started on it.

And then there’s the design of the equipment you want to build. If you were going to set out to build your own radio receiver, probably the first thing you’d do is fire up Google and look for something like “build your own radio” and find, well, hundreds and hundreds of hits that are utterly worthless, along with a few sites that might have actual plans to build something. Only most of those plans are for useless crystal radios and other nonsense. And the designs that do look useful are probably going to be wrong and no one is going to tell you how to fix it when you build it and it doesn’t work. In fact, most of the designs I saw out there were copies of stuff pulled out of old radio or electronics magazines from the 1960s or 70s that didn’t work in the first place.

(Sidenote: I’m convinced that the building plans in all those electronics magazines published in the 50s, 60s, 70s, etc. were never actually built by anyone because about six or eight months after the plans were published there’d be a “corrections” item pointing out that they forgot this part, or the wiring was wrong and if you’d actually build the thing it would have exploded, electrocuted your cat or something.)

So the question is, can I build a decent radio receiver from scratch? Probably. Will it work? Maybe. Can I do it for less than what it would cost to just go buy one? No way in hell. Will it work as good as even a cheap piece of junk commercial radio? Almost certainly not.

So why am I doing this? Uh, because I’m a stubborn old goat?

Catching Up With Stuff

Well, there’s no doubt that winter is here. With a vengeance. Still, it could be worse. Up in Washburn (really nice little town along Lake Superior) they got 31 inches of snow from the storm. I rather like winter, but in small doses. Winter is best experienced by gazing out at the snow from the inside of a nice warm house. My favorite winter activity is hunkering down in my warm corner of the basement where I can play with radios, electronics, and computers. So you might see more items about ham radio and electronics until the spring thaw finally comes.

JS8Call Ver. 2 Just Released

Revision 2 of JS8Call by KN4CRD was just released a few days ago after coming out of beta testing. I’ve been running the beta versions for weeks now and can tell you that the new version is stable, works very well, and is a huge improvement over version 1. Ver. 2 now includes a turbo mode that more than doubles the speed of communications from about 15 WPM to about 40 WPM. There’s no such thing as a free lunch, of course, so that increase in speed comes at a cost. Bandwith in turbo mode is significantly wider and it isn’t as sensitive to weak signals. But you can always drop back to the original slow mode if you have trouble making a contact.

What’s great about JS8Call and it’s cousin, FT8, is that when using these modes of communications you don’t need to invest thousands of dollars in equipment and antennas in order to talk to people, even when radio propagation conditions are as poor as they are right now. Because these modes work so well with very low signal levels they can permit communications under even very poor conditions that shut down voice and even other digital modes.

Antennas

You probably remember that photo over there on the left from the other day if you follow this blog. That’s the remains of my off center fed dipole antenna. A dipole antenna is a wire antenna configured in a sort of “T”. The vertical base of the “T” is the feed line or coax going to the transmitter. The horizontal lines to the left and right at the top of the “T” are the legs of the antenna that extend out a considerable distance. In this case, if I remember right, and I probably don’t, one leg of that “T” was about 40+ feet long and the other was about 90 feet long. It was strung up between some trees here, about 10 – 15 feet off the ground. It really should have been much higher up, but that was as high as I could get it, and sometimes you have to work with what you have and adapt.

I was very surprised that it came down, even in the snowstorm. While it was encrusted with snow, there wasn’t that much snow on it. And if it would break, I expected it to break at the lines at the end that held it up. I never expected the wire itself to break like that. I expected the GAP Titan vertical to collapse before that wire would break, but the vertical survived just fine. The counterpoise rods were bent almost to the ground from the weight of the snow, but once they were cleaned off they snapped back into the right position.

Since my main transceiver, the TS-990, was hooked to the OCFD while the vertical is hooked up in the basement to the 450, that means I had no antenna for the 990 because I’m too lazy to try to thread 30 feet of coax through the basement and up into the office to the 990, especially since all the radio equipment is going to get moved down there in the near future. So I’m running the 990 off the Alpha mag-loop antenna at the moment so I can still fiddle with radios up in the office. And the results are embarrassing, really. I was playing with FT8, running about 15 watts into the mag-loop, and according to PSK Reporter I was getting results almost as good as I’d been getting using the OCFD at 75 watts.

What the hell ever happened to NAFTA?

The current administration turned NAFTA into a campaign issue, claiming that it was bad for the US and needed to be scrapped and that they would negotiate a much, much better deal called USMCA. And do it in just a few weeks…

Yeah, sure they would. The “few weeks” has turned into almost two years, and while a treaty has been negotiated, it still hasn’t been passed by either the US or Canada, although Mexico has approved it. And it looks like it won’t be approved until well into 2020. If ever.

And as for it being so much better than NAFTA – yeah, well, no. About 95% of it is almost exactly the same as what the administration trumpeted as being “the worst deal in US history”. And what has changed doesn’t really amount to much. In fact, according to an analysis by the IMF the only real beneficiaries of the deal are Canada and Mexico. The US ends up on the short end. At best, best, the US might see a positive outcome of 0.1% of GDP. That’s one tenth of one percent. And an increase of about 175,000 jobs, not the “millions” that the administration claimed. And at worst the US might actually lose about $800 million a year on the deal.

So much for the “beautiful” deal the administration promised it would negotiate.

Well, if it ever actually passes, that is. The Congress is not exactly happy with some of the things in this treaty, and with all of the crap that’s going on in DC at the moment, plus ramping up for the election, well, the chances of USMCA actually getting through Congress are pretty slim at the moment.

The Foxconn Fiasco

I’ve talked before about the whole Foxconn fiasco, but let me recap briefly. Foxconn is one of the largest manufacturers of electronics in the world. It’s claim to fame is that it once treated its employees so badly that it had to install anti-suicide nets around the roofs of its buildings because employees were jumping off the buildings to kill themselves rather than work for the company.

Anyway, here it is, a little more than a year since I wrote that, and we still don’t have a factory. Or much of anything. And we still don’t know exactly what the hell FC is going to do. They’re building something down there at the site, but no one seems to be sure what the hell it really is. Supposedly it’s what they call a “Gen 6” LCD flat panel display factory, but that makes no sense at all because there is a glut of flat panels that size on the market and there’s no way Foxconn could ever make those panels here in the US at a competitive price.

One thing we can be sure of, is that Wisconsin, if you’ll excuse the expression, got screwed.

A new study by George Mason University concerning Wisconsin’s deal with Foxconn (and of government subsidies in general) has discovered what a lot of us have been claiming all along, that the state will never get back all of the money being given to the company in the form of concessions, cash payments, tax breaks, and billions of dollars in roads, sewers, electrical infrastructure and other things being paid for by the taxpayers of the state. That money will never be recovered, and we would have been much, much better off investing that money in things like education which would have made the people of the state smarter, better trained and better at adapting to a changing job market.

The FC situation is the most visible because so much money is involved, but if you look at other “deals” the state has made with other companies, almost none of them have worked out as well as the state has claimed they would. The state’s own figures show that when looked at as a whole, these “job creation” deals the state has made have produced only about 34% of the jobs the state and the companies involved have claimed they would produce. The WEDC, the agency in charge of this, has proven to be exceptionally good at funneling money to lobbyists, big campaign donors and outright criminals, while being rather bad at actually stimulating job growth in the state.

Let’s see, what else?

Down in the workshop I’ve pushed the computers off to one side and it’s littered with transistors, diodes, capacitors, coils and other bits of stuff as I try to go “old school” and build my own shortwave receiver from scratch. I got into a discussion with Chris over at Off Grid Ham in response to an item he’d posted about the importance of short wave broadcasting, and I started wondering just how hard it would be to build a shortwave receiver from scratch. And doing it the old school way, with no SMD components, no ICs, not even printed circuit boards. I should be able to do this, I told myself. I know the theory and I used to be an electronics technician, for pete’s sake. It shouldn’t be all that hard to do, right?

Yeah, well, it depends. Yes, I can breadboard a simple receiver that will pick up very strong signals. Sometimes. If the phases of the moon are correct and I keep my fingers crossed and hold my breath. But if I want something that qualifies as a decent radio receiver, well, that’s not so easy. Just trying to find the parts I need for this project is proving to be an issue. So we’ll see where this goes. If something ever comes of it I’ll let you know.

There are a group of older amateur radio operators who hang out on the forums over at QRZ and other places who constantly complain that modern AROs are, well, idiots, to be honest. They complain that us ‘modern’ hams don’t build our own equipment like they did, don’t know which end of a soldering iron to hold, and that we could save tons of money if we’d build our own transmitters, receivers, etc like they did back in the ‘good old days’.

The problem with that whole attitude is that it doesn’t reflect reality. Most hams back in the 50s and 60s didn’t build their own equipment, they bought it off the shelf. If they didn’t, manufacturers like Collins, Hallicrafters, National, etc. never would have existed. Some did build their own, yes, but the fact is that most AROs bought their equipment and didn’t build their own.

Another problem, as I’ve been discovering, is that anything I can build isn’t going to come even close to the performance specifications of modern equipment.

The other issue is cost. Yes, I could build, for example, a VHF transmitter and receiver. Probably. But it would take me months to do it, and hundreds of dollars in parts, plus a few thousand bucks in additional test equipment I’d need.

Or I could go to Amazon and pick up a generic Baofeng hand held VHF/UHF transceiver for $30.

Anyway, I’ll keep you posted on The Great Receiver Project. If it ever goes anywhere, that is. I’m going to start out simple and try to put together a classic 1960s style transistor radio first and if I can get that working, I’ll go from there.

So This Is What It Looked Like This Morning…

Sure looks pretty, but this is heavy, wet, nasty stuff that does a lot of damage. Surprised we didn’t lose power.

So much for my off center fed dipole antenna. Grrr… Weight of the snow ripped that sucker right apart. Since this is the antenna that goes to the TS-990, my main transceiver is off the air until I can get this repaired or replaced. Or moved to the basement and hooked to the other antenna.

This was the antenna I was really worried about. I never thought the OCFD would break, but this one, yeah. But the GAP vertical handled the snow just fine while the wire antenna snapped. Hmph…

JS8Call Ver. 2 Released

JS8Call Ver. 2 is now out of beta and is available for general release. I’ve been using the beta version for some time now and I can tell you that it is a significant improvement over Ver. 1. It’s available for Linux, Win10, RaspberryPi and OSX, which should cover just about anyone reading this.

Most of you probably won’t care and are going “WTF is this JS8 thing?”, but if you’re into amateur radio, you probably already know what it is or have at least heard of it.

JS8 is built on the same communications technique used with the wildly popular FT8 digital mode, which means it is extremely robust at working with very weak signals as FT8 is. But FT8 is only good for very brief, pre-programmed exchanges that contain only enough information to qualify as a “contact” for contesting and awards purposes. You can’t really talk to anyone using it. JS8Call changes that because it allows people to actually chat with one another while retaining FT8’s ability to work with very weak signals.

JS8Call’s biggest problem has been that it is very slow when compared to other modes of communications. Because of bandwidth restrictions and other issues, it maxed out at around 15 words per minute and often was considerably slower than that. It worked well, but you needed some patience.

This new version offers a “turbo” mode that boosts that up to about 40 WPM, which pushes it up to speeds approaching that of other digital modes. There is a cost for this, though. The turbo mode uses a slighter wider bandwidth, and sensitivity drops a bit.

JS8 also offers a lot of other goodies, like call groups, message forwarding, relays and some other very useful features.

So if you’re into amateur radio and digital communications, click the link up there and go take a look.

Dean Foods Files for Bankruptcy

Dean Foods said it has nearly $850 million secured in debtor-in-possession financing to continue regular operations until the deal is finished.

Source: Dean Foods Files for Bankruptcy, Hopes To Sell to DFA | Farm Journal’s MILK Business

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Dean Foods, one of the largest milk processors in the country, filed for bankruptcy on Tuesday and is in purchasing talks with Dairy Farmers of America, a huge co-op.

This is one of those situations that surprised me but didn’t surprise me, if that makes any sense. I knew Dean has been in financial trouble for some time, and there were rumors going back months already that it was looking around to try to sell itself. But I didn’t think the company’s financial situation was quite this bad.

Dean has been struggling for a long time. It lost a major contract with Walmart not too long ago. Dean had been supplying the retailer with milk under the Walmart house brand, and lost a major part of that market when Walmart opened its own milk processing facility. Dean’s major problem is that it has always been a supplier of liquid (drinking) milk and that market has been shrinking for decades. Dean has never been able to adapt to that. It’s tried various things, tried rebranding, different products, even tried investing in plant based alternatives to milk, but nothing ever really worked very well for the company. It hasn’t made a profit in over two years, and that just couldn’t go on any longer.

I find myself wondering how much longer milk as a beverage is going to hang around as a major factor in our diet. For at least twenty or thirty years now the consumption of beverage milk has been declining, and all the hype and propaganda being pumped out by the various milk marketing boards and the dairy industry hasn’t managed to reverse that trend.

Oh no, he’s off on a rant…

Politics and how to fix it. Sort of. Maybe.

I don’t talk about politics in this blog for a lot of reasons. Primarily because we’re already drowning in it every day, it seems. But I think there is one thing we can agree on, and that is that our current system is badly broken. Can it be fixed? I think it could be and a major part of fixing it would be fairly easy to do, and that’s regulating how politics is funded.

We are not a democracy. The US is a representational government. The people themselves do not decide how the country, its states and local governments operate. Instead we elect representatives who are supposed to govern the country according to the wishes of the people who elected them. Unfortunately this system is broken because more often than not what influences how our elected representatives govern us are not the voters who elected them, but special interest groups, corporations and the wealthy who funnel obscene amounts of money into the politicians’ campaigns, and as such wield an enormous amount of influence over what those politicians do.. We don’t have a government that represents the voters any longer, we have a government that represents whoever has enough money to buy it.

So what would be a fairly simple fix? It’s easy, really.

First – Only individual persons can contribute financially to politicians’ campaigns, not corporations, companies, PACs, unions, etc. Many will claim that this somehow violates people’s rights. This is a lie. Corporations, etc. have no rights. They are not people. They are a legal fiction. A corporation is nothing but a collection of rules and regulations that are intended to make operating as a business easier. Period. It has no rights except those specifically granted by the law to operate as a business. The individual people who work for that organization have rights, yes. But the corporation or other entity does not. This is in no way would eliminate the rights of anyone. But it would go a long, long way to avoid concentrating large amounts of money in the hands of PACs, businesses, etc. that could then use that money to unfairly influence elections.

Politicians will respond that they need that money to run their election campaigns. I will put this bluntly – bullshit. If they would spend the time they now spend schmoozing with lobbyists, attending $5,000 a plate “dinners” where the wealthy bribe their way in to get up close to candidates, and begging money from corporations and the wealthy, etc., and instead spent that time in their home districts actually talking to the people who elect them, they wouldn’t need a fraction of the money they need now.

Second – only individuals actually living in a politician’s home district can contribute financially to a politician’s election campaign. People, PACs, corporations, unions, etc. who are outside of the home district of the politician have no damn business trying to influence an election. Period. The politician in question is supposed to represent the wishes of the voters who elected him or her, not some political action committee in D.C. or multi-national corporation or wealthy individual who doesn’t even live in the state or district of the politician they’re contributing to.

For decades now almost every election of any importance in this state gets flooded with money by PACs, special interest groups, and wealthy individuals trying to influence how a state they don’t even live in is governed. And the amount of money we’re talking about is almost scary. We’re not talking thousands or hundreds of thousands of dollars, we’re talking tens of millions. A certain mining company, for example. made a single contribution of almost three quarters of a million dollars to a dark money pac that supported politicians in Madison that were trying to gut the state’s mining regulations. The only reason the public found out about it was a clerical error. That almost certainly wasn’t the only “contribution” they made to that PAC or other similar organizations specialize in what basically amounts to money laundering, i.e. covering up who is giving how much to who. Cutting off funding from these outside sources would go a long way to making politicians more responsible to the people who they are supposed to be representing.

There. Rant mode off. I’m going to go back to posting pictures, talking about amateur radio and farming and gardening again.