Amateur Radio Stuff: It’s Alive!

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That spike you see there is the 990 sending a PSK31 signal on 10 meters. It’s working! OMG it’s actually working! Finally! 

The saga of me trying to get operating in digital modes on HF following tearing down my station so I could move in new furniture continues and hopefully it has reached a satisfactory conclusion. But only after a very frustration couple of hours.

I few days ago I commented about the frustrating time I was having trying to get back on the air after putting my radio equipment back together. I primarily use digital modes on HF, usually PSK. And even though everything was set up exactly the same, it wasn’t working. I finally got it working, but only by triggering the transmitter using VOX. This was not ideal, but it did work.

Well, this morning I was going to fire up the equipment and play amateur radio for a while and, well, VOX didn’t work either all of a sudden. And for no apparent reason.

Sigh…

I checked all of the cables. I opened up the RigBlaster and checked for loose wires or bad solder joints and found nothing wrong there. I reloaded drivers, reset all of the settings, tried both Fldigi and Ham Radio Deluxe. Receive worked just fine. The software could control the transceiver just fine. It would even kick the transceiver into transmit mode. But no actual signal was being transmitted. I checked sound levels on the inputs and outputs, checked COM ports and PTT settings… Nothing was working.

After over an hour of this, I was ready to give up. I went through all of the settings one last time, double checked everything, switched the RigBlaster to COM for PTT, clicked the button to do a CQ and…

It worked? It worked??? WTF?

What did I do? How did I fix it? I have absolutely no idea!

Seriously. As far as I can tell all of the settings are exactly the same now as when they were when it wasn’t working. Same drivers, same sound levels, same everything. Only now it works… I must have changed something, but I have no idea what. The infuriating thing is that I must have spent at least four hours over several days trying to figure this out and I still don’t know what was wrong.

Screen Shot 2017-12-24 at 8.56.44 AMOkay, now let’s talk about Ham Radio Deluxe.

Now if you’ve followed this blog for a while, you know I’ve used HRD in the past and did not have a very good opinion of it. It is an extremely ambitious piece of software that tries to do just about everything and anything an amateur radio operator could want in a program. And I had some “issues” as they say. Some of them were pretty serious.

I’m pleased to report that issues I had in the past seem to have been fixed. Customer support seems to be very good. I had a minor issue not long after I bought it, put in a trouble ticket, and got a response back that fixed the problem in just a few hours.

I’m going to keep using it and we’ll see what happens.

Warm Kitties

Screen Shot 2017-12-23 at 5.45.08 AMThe siamese are warm at last!

The little goof balls spend the time from November through March trying to keep warm. It doesn’t matter how warm we keep the house, they’re still cold. They spend all of their free time going from one furnace vent to another trying to keep their little cat toes warm. It’s rather pathetic, really, seeing them huddled up together by the vents trying to keep warm.

So I decided to do something about it this winter. I bought a heated cat bed off Amazon. Wasn’t real expensive,  under $40. It has a heating pad in it. Not a very warm one, just 4 watts, with a pressure sensor that only turns it on when one of the cats is actually in the bed.

MrsGF scoffed. The siamese aren’t exactly all that smart, she reminded me, and they’d never figure out what it was. She did have a point. I’ve bought things for them before that other cats love; scratching posts, cat houses, toys, etc. And they look at the stuff, then look at me with this “what the hell is this?” kind of expression on their faces, and then go huddle in front of the furnace vents.

But not this time. It took Jay, the gray one at the rear, all of 5 minutes to figure out it was A) a bed, B) it was warm, and C) it was his. I’d hardly got the thing out of the box, plugged in and tested, and he was in it, all curled up and purring away.  It took Meg, the seal point, a lot longer. Even after seeing her brother sitting in it she wasn’t sure what it was. But yesterday I went looking for them and there she was, curled up in it with Jay.

It’s been an interesting adventure with these two. They were young adults when we got them, healthy but completely unsocialized, even terrified of people. They didn’t even act like cats. we almost never saw them. Food would disappear, the litter boxes were being used, there were no messes or disasters, and when we did see them they looked healthy, so we just left them alone. Every once in a while they would forget that they were terrified and start to act like normal cats. We’d hear them running around the house late at night playing.

We didn’t push things with them. As long as they were healthy and seemed to be doing well, we just left them alone. We were afraid of traumatizing them more than they already were. It took a long, long time, but they finally became, well, cats. Meg now likes to sit next to MrsGF on the sofa in the morning, head butts her and rubs against her to get back rubs and head scratches. Jay comes out in the kitchen when I’m cooking and talks to me (siamese can be very vocal. You can have actual conversations with some of them) and rubs against my ankles and wants his back scratched. They’re waiting for us when we get up in the morning, dancing around and chattering at us. Jay is downright playful. He chases small balls around the house, loves to play with shoe laces.

I don’t know what it is about me and cats. I’ve had dogs and I’ve loved them all, but cats? I’ve always been fascinated by cats, ever since I was a toddler. Especially siamese. We’ve had siamese since, oh, the early 1980s, most of them either rescued or from households where they weren’t wanted, and they are absolutely amazing creatures that I still find endlessly fascinating.

Radio Frustrations…

Grrr…. It’s been a very frustrating morning. I recently tore down my entire amateur radio setup in order to bring in a new desk. I have all of the equipment hooked back up and all the radio gear is working, but the software… Arrgghhh…

When I get on the air I generally use one of the digital modes like PSK31. Doing this requires a computer and software to code/decode the digital signals. It’s not that hard to do. Or at least it shouldn’t be.

I have the computer, Rigblaster, transceiver and everything else connected properly. I’m using the exact same computer and software I had running before. All the settings in the software and transceiver are exactly the same. Nothing at all was changed. And before I did the tear down, everything worked just fine and dandy.

Now, though? Of course not. Even though I changed nothing, I can’t transmit for some reason, and it’s driving me nuts. The software settings are the same. The cable connections are the same. The radio equipment is the same. Everything is exactly the same as it was before the tear down.

Only it won’t transmit now for some reason. Spent almost two hours this morning trying to trouble shoot the problem, and have come up with a blank. I’ve checked the software settings, the equipment, everything. Nothing seems to work.

Receive is just fine. I have complete control of the transceiver from the computer. It receives, decodes digital signals, everything. But transmit? Nope.

The transceiver goes into transmit mode. The software seems to be working properly. But there’s no signal actually going to the transceiver.

I remember that I had the exact same problem when I first set this all up some three years ago or so, and it drove me crazy then. And, of course, I can’t remember how I fixed it.

Sigh…

Farm Catch Up

Well, I’m bored, I haven’t written much here of late, so let’s take a look at what’s been going on in the ag world recently.

Dicamba Issues Abound — The controversy over Monsanto’s dicamba herbicide blends and those approved under license, XtendiMax, Engenia and FeXapan, continue to have problems and generate considerable controversy, complaints and legal issues. Minnesota and other states have instituted restrictions on when, where and how the herbicides can be uses, new federal restrictions regarding training requirements and new application restrictions, etc. Other states have issued wide ranging restrictions as well.  Even Mother Jones has gotten into the act with an article about the drawbacks of the product.

The companies involved are fighting back, blaming anything and everything for the fact that over 3.5 million acres of crops were allegedly damaged by the herbicide drifting away from the application area this past year. They’ve been claiming farmers are spraying the product with the wrong equipment, failing to follow the proper application techniques, etc. They’ve even tried claiming that famers are illegally spraying non-approved types of the herbicide. In one case one of the companies involved tried to get a member of the board that regulates herbicides in one of the states involved removed from the board.

Words Are Worth MoneyThe University of Arizona did a study of how consumers react to the term “natural” on meat labels and found out pretty much exactly what you might think: that people who know what the term means were unwilling to pay more for meat labeled “natural”. In the study half of the people involved were told the legal definition of the term, and half were unaware of what the legal definition was. They found that those who did not know would pay $1.26 more for steak labeled “natural”, while those who did know wouldn’t pay more.

Under USDA definitions, all fresh meat, even hamburger, can be labeled as “natural” as long as it does not contain artificial flavors, colorings, chemical preservatives or other synthetic ingredients. So basically if you’re paying more for a package of steak or roast labeled “natural” you are being scammed.

What it boils down to is that a lot of these companies will use any  kind of marketing tricks they can to fool you into paying more for a product than you should.

Meat Tax Coming? — Methane and carbon emissions from cattle raising operations makes up almost 15% of the total production of greenhouse gases, and the production of cattle is projected to increase by 70% over the next fifty years or so. So some people are considering taxing the production and sale of meat to try to reduce the reduce greenhouse gas production from cattle. There are serious talks going on in some countries to institute tax policies similar to those used to curb tobacco in order to reduce production and consumption.

Frankly this seems a bit silly to me. The two largest producers of greenhouse gases are electric power plants and motor vehicles. The amount of methane and carbon dioxide produced by cattle hardly makes more than a blip on the charts when compared to that. So I’d think that if they were really serious about greenhouse gas reduction they’d be going after those two sources far more vigorously.

Corn Acreage Shrinking — It looks like farmers are finally beginning to cut back on the amount of corn they’re raising in response to poor prices. USDA is predicting that for the first time in years the number of acres of soybeans will equal or even surpass the number of acres of corn being planted in the US. Corn prices on the Chicago Exchange never went much over $3.75 or so at the peak, and have been sitting at the $3.50 or lower level for some time now. And, of course, the commodities price generally isn’t what the farmer gets for the corn. They often get considerably less than that. When you add in other costs like storage fees, etc. farmers are often getting a lot less than the commodities price.  A awful lot of farmers out there are just barely breaking even on corn this year.

Some people are pinning their hopes on China increasing their imports of corn. China has been drawing down it’s huge stockpiles of corn over the last year or so, and some are taking that as a sign the country will begin to import more corn. But continuing to produce corn in the hopes that China might increase imports sounds like a great way to end up bankrupt.

Screen Shot 2017-12-20 at 7.33.13 AMChicken Suits — No, not that kind of suit. The legal kind. Both California and Massachusetts are being sued over regulations they’ve instituted regarding how chickens (and other farm animals  as well in the case of Massachusetts) are raised. The regulations require chickens (and in the case of Mass. other agricultural animals as well) from which products are derived for sale in the state, must be raised according to certain minimal humane standards. The plaintiffs claim that the regulations dramatically increase the cost of eggs and that it will cost consumers hundreds of millions of dollars, and that the cost of eggs nation wide has increased as much as 5% because of it. A claim I view with considerable skepticism. Locally the retail price of eggs is at almost an all time low. They’re going for about $1.00 to $1.28 per dozen at most retail outlets around here for standard, non-organic “generic” brands, and I’ve seen them as low as $0.79 and even less.

It’s Alive! Sort of

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Spent the better part of the afternoon getting everything set up, all the cables connected and all that, and it’s finally done! Well, mostly. And everything seems to be working.

Mostly because I still don’t have the digital stuff up and running yet. But the TS-990 is up and running, as is the Palstar tuner, the FM-400DR, and even the MFJ amp. So I’m rather pleased with the progress.

Need to permanently mount the grounding buss, that’s the thing way on the left, a big copper bar sitting on top of 2 red insulators. That’s the grounding system for all of the electronics and that needs to have a permanent home rather than perched on top of the amp. Even got the Vibroplex paddle wired up and figured out how to program the TS-990 to deal with it.

Now I just have to get the Rigblaster put in place and connected. That interfaces between the 990 and the computer to assist with computer control of the transceiver and digital communications again.

I didn’t set up the Kenwood 2000, and I’m not sure if I will yet or not. I was using that mostly to monitor signal quality when doing digital work and I don’t really need it.

And I still need to decide what to do with my big boat anchor vacuum tube amp. I got the solid state amp right after I got the AL-82, and never even used the AL-82. I installed the transformer, installed the tubes, hooked it up, turned it on, made sure everything worked, and then got the ALS-1300 amp and used that instead. Probably should just see if I can sell the thing.

 

Canola Oil Linked to Dementia

Now that’s a scary headline, isn’t it? You’ve probably seen similar headlines over the last few days as even some of the major news outlets have been talking about it. What’s especially troubling is that canola oil has been marketed as being a “healthy” oil for many years now, and it is in very wide spread use around the world. So the possibility that it is linked to something as scary as dementia is pretty serious.

What is canola in the first place? Well, in a way “canola” doesn’t really exist. It actually a variety of rapeseed. The term “rape” comes from the Latin word “rapum”, which means turnip. Rapeseed is related to turnip, rutabaga, cabbage and mustard. We’ve been using plants in this family for oil for thousands of years. It seems that rapeseed oil in the first half of the 20th century was used more as a lubricant than as a food product. Production in Canada increased enormously curing WWII.

After the war demand fell drastically and farmers began to look for other uses. Rapeseed oil was brought to the market in the mid 1950s as a food product, but it had some problems. It had a nasty green color and tasted pretty bad. Even worse, it had a high concentration of erucic acid. Animal experiments indicated that consuming large quantities of erucic acid caused heart damage.

In the 1970s Canadian researchers bred a variety of rapeseed that had far fewer objectionable qualities and far less erucic acid. The term “canola” was originally a trademark name for the new variety, made out of “Can” for Canada, and “ola” from other vegetable oils like Mazola.

Modern canola oil is considered, or was considered before this study came along, to actually be fairly healthy. But now…

How concerned should we be about this? This was just one study and more research needs to be done, but it still is something we need to be concerned about. Dementia is very scary and anything that increases the risk of getting it needs to be avoided if at all possible. To be honest, I’m not going to be buying canola oil after this. There are other oils out there with similar smoke points and nutrition profiles that can be used instead.

Stuff: Furniture & Wood

Screen Shot 2017-12-05 at 6.37.29 AMWe finally got the “new” desk in place on Sunday! Youngest son gave me a hand getting the old ones out and bringing the new one in. I am so glad to get rid of the particle board unit that was in there for years. This one is solid wood, looks like fairly decent oak, and it’s huge. 60 inches long and 32 inches deep. It’s probably around 50 years old or so, and actually in good condition considering it’s age. I thought about refinishing it, but decided I rather liked all those years of patina (“Patina” is what antique furniture dealers call scratches, dings, stains and other defects that add “charm” to the furniture.) and left it alone. MrsGF has had one similar to this for years now that we found for around $50 at a thrift store, and we’ve been looking for another one for me. She turned this one up at the local St. Vinnie’s thrift store for about $55, and we were thrilled to find it.

Screen Shot 2017-12-05 at 7.03.46 AMI got curious about what one like this would cost today if bought new and I started digging around on the internet looking for them and finally found one that fit all the criteria; oak with no particle board, dovetailed drawers, same size, same number of drawers and so on. For a whopping $2,200. It’s a bit fancier, but if you  knock off the fancier bits like the quarter-sawn oak, the thru-tennons on the rails at the base, it’s pretty much exactly the same. Judging from the photos, it’s made of higher quality wood and the fit and finish is much, much better. But still, over two grand?

Screen Shot 2017-12-05 at 7.10.37 AMI should have expected that, really. We’re so used to “cheap” flat-pack style, screw it together yourself furniture these days that we experience a bit of sticker shock when we see the prices on well crafted, solid wood furniture.

I started building arts and crafts style furniture many years ago. The Morris chair over there on the right has a matching ottoman and coffee table. The chair and ottoman are made from white oak. The coffee table was made from white ash. Once upon a time I sat down and tried to figure out what I’d have to charge for it if I were going to make any kind of a decent profit, and the numbers were a bit on the large side. I figured I’d have to get around $1,300 for the chair, $400 for the ottoman, and about $700 for the table. And even then I’d barely make minimum wage for my labor. So all things considered, over two grand for that desk probably isn’t all that bad.

Screen Shot 2017-12-06 at 6.43.01 AMThere isn’t really anything wrong with “flat-pack” style furniture you buy in a box and put together yourself. Nothing wrong with particle board, either, as long as you are aware of it’s limitations and problems. And potential health risks.

The particle board in most flat-pack furniture is either made of LDF or MDF. LDF is low density fiberboard, MDF is medium density. Of the two, MDF is better because it’s more dense, has a much smoother surface and is more sturdy. The stuff is very useful. Because MDF is very dense and smooth, it is often used as the base for countertops that have plastic laminate surfaces, even for the frames of cabinets where it can’t be seen. If sealed properly, it can be painted rather easily. It’s often used when the makers of “fine” furniture (Ha! Fine… We really need a sarcasm font.) try to fool you into thinking you’re buying real wood when what you’re getting is a thin veneer of real wood glued to MDF. It is pretty handy though, and can work well if you know how to use it properly.

MDF does have a few issues. Well, okay it has a lot of issues. First of all, it isn’t really wood, it’s basically sawdust and glue forced together under high pressure. It is fragile. It won’t hold screws very well. It breaks rather easily unless it is properly supported. It can’t carry a load unless it is well supported, as the owners of MDF book shelves can tell you as they watch the shelves sag under the weight. If it gets wet it will swell and start to disintegrate. It’s very, very heavy.

And depending on the type of glue used to hold the sawdust together, it can out-gas chemicals for months, even for years. Many of the glues used contain VOCs, Volatile Organic Compounds. These are compounds that will gradually evaporate into the atmosphere over time. Some of them can be nasty. (Some of you may remember the Chinese drywall disaster from a few years ago. Cheap drywall imported from China during a building boom gave off toxic chemicals that literally destroyed copper, I think it was sulphur dioxide but I don’t remember exactly. It wrecked the plumbing and electrical wiring in homes and businesses where it was used, and could have serious health consequences for the people who lived in those buildings.)

And if you work with the stuff, if you’re sawing, drilling or whatever, make darn sure you’re wearing a respirator because heaven only knows what’s in that dust. You do not want to be sucking that into your lungs.

If you get the feeling that I don’t like MDF very much, you’re right. But it is useful for some things, and if you want inexpensive furniture these days, you just can’t get away from it.

Then we come to the whole subject of fake antique furniture, which I’ve been finding with disturbing regularity as I travel around. I’m a sucker for antique shops. I don’t buy much, if anything, but I love browsing through them. One thing that I’ve discovered is that the amount of faked, fraudulent and mistakenly labeled “antique” furniture out there is astonishing. And the problem has become much, much worse over the years. I’d say that on average, about half of the “antique” furniture I see out there has some kind of issue with it. It’s either been badly restored, altered, mislabeled or faked in some way.

How do you know if a piece of antique furniture you’re interested in is the real thing? It can get complicated. You have to know the difference between modern finishes and stains and those that were used at the time the piece was allegedly built. You need to know what kind of screws were used, what kind of glues were used, construction techniques, how to identify different types of wood.

If you’re going to start buying antique furniture, you need to do some homework, or take along someone who knows something about furniture making, because the market right now is full of fakes. Frankly, when I look at a piece of “antique” furniture these days, I assume from the beginning that there is going to be something wrong with it until examination proves otherwise.