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…

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.

More Pics and Catching Up

Panoramic shot that shows almost the entire backyard. Makes it look a lot smaller than it really is. That central island surrounded by blocks is about 25 feet long and 16 feet wide. Tomatoes in raised beds off to the far right. Garage off to the left showing the “garage garden” where we have raspberries squash and ornamentals.

If this time of year could be described by a single word, it would probably be “color”.

Almost everything is in full flower this time of year except for the autumn flowering plants. Just walking outside is a feast for the eyes.

So, let’s get caught up on what’s been going on. I haven’t talked about it much but one of the things I do is build furniture like, well, like this:

It looks a bit beat up now, especially the upholstery, but considering it’s lived through two teenaged boys, a rambunctious golden retriever and several assorted cats, it’s doing pretty good. Over the years I’ve built chairs, coffee tables, wardrobes, bookcases, decorative chests and I don’t know what all else. A few years ago one of my sons gave me a cheap wood lathe from Harbor Freight and I finally started fiddling around with it. It was super cheap and to be honest the build quality isn’t exactly what I’d call good. But I’ve messed around with it a bit, bought a decent set of tools for it and I’m going to see if I can add woodturning to my skill set. We’ll see how that goes. I’ll let you know if anything comes of it.

We’ve been spending a lot of time out in the gardens, of course. Where else would we be this time of year and with the pandemic still raging? Gardening is probably the safest and most satisfying activity we can do right now. But we’re still dabbling in radio. And I mean “we”. MrsGF is a licensed amateur radio operator as well. She’s more into the emergency services aspect of it while I’m more into the technical stuff.

It looks like the Great Radio Fiasco Project is back on the agenda. I was finally able to get the toroids I needed to wind the coils I need. But considering how busy we are with other things this time of year it’s likely that will be pushed back until the fall.

Let’s see, what else… Oh, I’m working on an upcoming post that answers some questions about amateur radio that people have asked. That will be coming up in the near future.

I’ve been working on getting better at CW (morse code). I’m still struggling, especially with receiving. I’m nowhere near good enough to be able to actually use it out in the field. If someone sends at like, oh, one word per minute or slower, I can generally figure it out. But any faster than that and everything sort of blurs together and I start to fall so far behind I have to give up.

Someone asked me if I was going to do anything for the ARRL Field Day exercise. Nope. Don’t have the time. This is probably the worst time of year for me to try to participate in an event like that.

We’re going to be doing some major renovations to the house this summer, replacing a bunch of windows, the front entrance and some other stuff. That’s going to be a mess, but it needs to get done. And expensive. Sigh… Oh, well. Owning a house is great. Until you start seeing the bills for maintaining it.

Stuff Is Growing, Frogs, 500 HP Engine, CW, and What’s Coming Up

Let’s start off with this little guy.

These little guys are amazing critters. They’re tiny little things. That cable you see there is less than a half inch thick so you can see just how small he/she is. Frogs are some of the most amazing and, I think beautiful creatures around. I’m still astonished that we have these little tree frogs around here.

Speaking of trees, the pear tree looks like it’s getting a good start.

It is absolutely loaded with baby pears. That ought to make up for last year when we got maybe a dozen pears total off the whole tree.

The ornamental gardens are looking great here. The recent rains and warm weather has everything growing like crazy right now. Most of these plants have tripled in size in the last week or so. You can almost see them getting bigger. Oh, and the bird houses are occupied again this year. Looks like some type of wren?

We restrained ourselves and didn’t crowd things into the two raised beds this year. Just 6 tomato plants and the outer edges with onions. Even six is probably too many because we probably still have six months worth of canned tomatoes of various types on the shelf. But the lure of fresh tomatoes is something we just can’t ignore. And we can always give ’em away if we have too may.

This is garden faces south and west and is the most productive spot we have. Sheltered from the wind, with light concentrated here, it gets warm early and stays warm late into the fall. Have to be careful what’s planted here because the warm, sunny conditions means a lot of stuff like lettuce and radishes will bolt. Also it has to be watered a lot. But we usually get ridiculously amounts of produce out of this corner. The tripods in the back are for pole beans. There are various baby pepper plants protected with #10 cans, and more beans and parsley seeded down in front.

Time for a musical interlude. You may want to turn your volume up. Or maybe not?

When I start getting bored I take this thing out on the road. Great fun 🙂

People sometimes ask me what I’ve been doing since we can’t really travel or do much except putter in the garden. I’ve been playing amateur radio, of course, and trying to get better at CW. That’s morse code for you non radio people out there.

Doing CW is something I never really thought I’d get into. I’ve always been far more interested in the digital modes like PSK and JS8Call. But I also love QRP, using extremely small amounts of power to try to communicate, and what works best for QRP is CW. And unlike the digital modes, CW doesn’t require you to lug a computer along. So I’ve been spending about a half hour or more a day trying to learn and get better at this. I’m up to, oh, maybe two words a minute?

Then there’s this thing.

I’ve been looking at solar power and batteries to power my QRP gear and even my full power radios for some time but never got around to actually getting involved with solar because A) I’m lazy, B) I wasn’t sure I’d ever actually use it, and C) the stuff can get a bit expensive. But then this deal came along…

I have to admit I have very little experience with solar power. I never even heard of this company before this deal came along. But the stuff seems to get decent reviews and the price, well, I picked up the 20 Ah LiPo battery pack, with a built in 120V inverter (sort of), USB and 12V power outlets, built in high intensity LED lights, LCD display and other goodies, and a folding 40W solar panel for less than, well, let’s just say that I’ve dropped more money on a meal at a nice restaurant than I spent on this deal.

Anyway, I’ll be taking a closer look at this in the near future to see if it’s a real deal or not. I’ve only just taken a quick look at it, but right now it looks pretty good. Especially that folding solar panel. That thing looks like it’s very high quality. Well, we’ll see.

That’s it for now.

I Get Questions. Sometimes I Got Answers

Some readers managed to discover Grouchy Farmer’s super secret email address and have been sending in questions. (What, you don’t know what it is? Here’s a hint: old.grouchyfarmer@gmail.com) So I thought I’d better deal with some of the stuff that’s been piling up over there.

I heard almost the entire US meat industry is controlled by just three or four companies. Is that right?

That is true. About two thirds of the beef market is controlled by just three companies, JBS, Cargill and Tyson. Add in National Beef and those four companies control 80% of the beef produced in the US. The same is true with pork and poultry. Three or four companies control almost the entire market for both of those products as well. And all of these companies have a long history of, oh, let’s call it shenanigans, shall we? All of these companies have a history of being accused of price fixing, collusion to manipulate markets, abuse of employees, supply manipulation, and, well, the list goes on and on. And in some cases not just allegations, but outright actual criminal activity. JBS took corruption to a whole new level in its home country of Brazil where it was involved in an enormous bribery scandal that involved hundreds of politicians, meat inspectors, etc. Run a Google search on “JBS bribes meat inspectors” and you’ll probably be astonished at the depth of the corruption, and disgusted by the other less than ethical things JBS is accused of participating in.

How is this happening? Don’t we have antitrust laws to prevent this kind of thing? Yes, we do. Laws that the government ignores whenever it feels like it. Antitrust laws intended to prevent monopolies from developing have been conveniently ignored for decades now, with the government either carving out loopholes for certain businesses/industries, or simply ignoring the laws entirely. Why? Because the big multinational monopolies pump millions of dollars into the campaign coffers of influential politicians in Congress who, in turn, pressure the officials who are supposed to police this into looking the other way. Or in the case of JBS, bypassing the clumsy “lobbying” and just passing actual suitcases full of money to people.

Are dairy farmers really being forced to dump milk?

That is also true. I’ve heard estimates that dairy farmers are dumping something like 1.2 million or more pounds of milk every day because they can’t sell it. About half of the milk produced doesn’t go into products sold directly to consumers, it sells to food service operations, school districts, restaurants, or processors that use the products to produce still other products. So when the virus hit and most of those operations shut down or were severely limited, dairy farmers lost almost half of their market literally overnight. While consumer demand did indeed go up because of an increase in usage of dairy products in the home, the institutional type products are in forms or packaging the consumer can’t use. The production facilities that make consumer dairy products were overwhelmed with high demand and weren’t able to keep up, resulting in temporary shortages in some areas. So we have a bizarre situation where farmers have to dump milk while there are shortages of some products at the same time because production facilities can’t keep up or can’t quickly convert over to making consumer products.

When you made that “doomsday” flashlight, why did you have to put a resistor in-line with the LED? Why not hook it up directly to the battery?

Ah, good question. I should probably have explained when I wrote that up back in April. (Link to flashlight post here.)

It would be nice if we could just hook an LED up to a battery or power supply and switch it on without having to worry about it, but, alas, you can’t. (Note: There are some types of LEDs that do not need a current limiting resistor because they either already have one or because the type of LED can deal with the current, but most do require one) You often need a resistor in-line with the LED to prevent it from drawing too much current and burning itself out. The amount of current flowing in an LED is a function of the voltage across the LED. And in an LED the relationship between current and voltage is not linear. A slight increase in voltage can result in a large increase in current. So if you have an LED that wants, oh, 2.7V for example, and you feed it 3V, that can result in a large increase in the current in the LED, overdriving it, causing it to heat up, burn out, or even, in rare cases, explode if the current gets too high. So that resistor is there to drop the voltage in the circuit down to a level that the LED likes.

How do you figure out exactly what size resistor to use? I could go through all of the explanations about forward voltages and all of that, deal with the math and stuff, but it’s a heck of a lot easier to simply point you at someone who does a heck of a lot better at explaining things than I do. It’s pretty simple really. Don’t let the math spook you. It’s very simple to figure out. You can find a detailed explanation of why resistors are needed with LEDs and how to pick the right size resistor over at https://www.evilmadscientist.com/2012/resistors-for-leds/ There are even calculators (free) on-line where you just have to plug in some numbers and it figures out the size of the resistor that you need.

Your resistor doesn’t need to match the calculations exactly, either. If you don’t have one exactly the right size you can pick one that’s a bit bigger than the one the calculations indicate. I picked a larger one than I needed to reduce current draw so the batteries would last a lot longer while still letting the LEDs give enough light to be useful

What happened to the Great Radio Receiver Fiasco Project?

Ah, that. I was afraid someone would bring that up. It did not go well, mostly because of a parts supply problem. First the ferrite rods I’d ordered arrived almost crushed into powder. Then the toroids I’d ordered for coils, after about four weeks of waiting, abruptly were listed as “unavailable” from all three of the suppliers I’d ordered from. Then the tuning capacitor I’d salvaged from another radio turned out to have serious problems and a new one would have cost me almost $40. Anyway the whole thing is on hold while I look at alternatives or really scale back the design. Or just give up. I wanted to build a multiband receiver that would cover just about the entire HF spectrum from 80 meters to 10 meters, and, well, we’ll see. I built a few very simple two or three transistor receivers that sort of, kinda, almost worked, if I kept my fingers crossed, did a little dance and hooked ’em up to my 140 foot wire antenna to be able to receive anything. One I did was supposed to be an AM band receiver and when it picked up anything at all it turned out to be receiving transmissions from a train switching cars in the small rail yard a half block from here. Still haven’t figured out what the hell that was all about. Either my receiver was ridiculously screwed up, or the transmitter the railroad was using was ridiculously screwed up. Or, perhaps, it was aliens.

Are people really attacking cell phone tower technicians in Europe and trying to destroy radio towers, or is it just more clickbait? WTF is going on?

Unfortunately, those stories are all too true. It seems to be the worst in the United Kingdom, but it’s spreading everywhere. In the last two weeks or so alone, in the UK there were 30 incidents of cellular towers being attacked, usually by arson, and almost 200 cases of technicians being abused and even physically attacked, including one having a brick thrown at his head and another being stabbed. And it seems to be spreading almost as fast as the damned virus, fueled by bizarre and utterly ridiculous conspiracy theories, and spread by so-called “celebrities” who aren’t exactly the brightest bulbs in the pack to begin with, and by the anti-vax crowd. And it’s being spread everywhere by social media services who are more interested in raking in as much money as possible than they are in preventing people from using their services to push out insane conspiracy theories and promote violent behavior.

Anyway, that’s about enough of that. Time to wrap this up.

Reviewing the MFJ 8100K World Band SW Receiver Kit

Being stuck in the house “social distancing” (OMG I’m so bored) has some advantages, one of which is being able to get caught up on a lot of stuff. One of those things is the MFJ-8100K world band shortwave radio kit. That’s the little beastie you see in the photo below that I (ahem) stole borrowed from somewhere on the internet.

Damn, that’s pretty slick looking. It beats the heck out of what the average electronics kit looks like when it’s done. Most of them don’t even offer any kind of decent case. Whether it actually will look like this when it’s done remains to be seen because I haven’t actually built it yet as I write this. Instead of putting it together and taking some photos and talking about it after it’s all done, I’m going to do this live, so to speak, writing and photographing as I go along so you too can experience the joys and pains associated with putting something like this together.

I should warn you ahead of time that this could get pretty lengthy because I’ve done little more than just open the box and it is already looking like this is going to be a problem.

But let’s look at the basics a little more closely before we get started. It’s a world band shortwave receiver with 5 bands. They cover 3.5 – 4.3 mHz, 5.85 – 7.4 mHz, 9.5 – 12.00 mHz, 13.2 – 16.4 mHz and 17.5 – 22 mHz.

As for the basic design, this is a regenerative receiver, a design that dates back to, oh, the 1920s or so, and was quickly abandoned as soon as superhets were developed. And for good reason, as anyone who has ever fallen off their chair from the blast of noise if you tweak the regen just a tad too far and it goes into oscillation can tell you. About the only good thing regenerative receivers have going for them is a fairly low parts count and easy assembly. Well, that’s not really true. They can be decent receivers once you get used to their quirks, but with really high quality superheterodyne designs out there, why even bother with one of these? How did I even end up having this on the shelf in the first place? I don’t remember buying it. Do I have people breaking into the house and leaving me stuff instead of stealing it now?

The first thing I started wondering was why the heck is this thing so expensive?It’s going for $90, for heaven’s sake. And there is nothing exotic or hard to find in the electronics. While that variable capacitor is kind of pricey (that goes for about $20+ alone and I know that because I had to buy one of the things a few months ago) But other than that I think there’s maybe $10 worth of parts in the thing. I suspect that really fancy faceplate and heavy duty metal case probably costs more than the electronics inside does.

But let’s get on with this.

Opening the box and poking around.

This is what the promotional photos tells you is in the box.

First I should point out that this kit starting with the photos below is shown exactly as it came and while I assembled it. The box was still sealed and I hadn’t opened it until I started this. What it really looks like when you open the box is this:

Um, okay… Are those screws and nuts rolling around loose in the box? Yeah, they are. And not just screws and nuts and washers, we got electronic components floating around loose in there too. Oh, goodie.

Opening the box and finding components strewn about all over inside doesn’t exactly inspire confidence about the quality of a product. Whoever originally packed this thing and chucked in the little plastic bags holding the components hadn’t bothered to actually close up the plastic bags.

And as for the case, well, damn, that’s probably the best case I’ve ever seen for a kit in a long time. Beautifully finished, heavy steel, with an equally beautiful brushed polished steel faceplate.

You can’t get much better than that. See what I mean about the case probably costing more than the electronics? It’s – it’s shiny. Oooo

The rest of what was in the box looks like this:

The inductors on the right edge were not included in the kit. See text for explanation

As noted, most of the little baggies containing parts were open and had shed a considerable number of electronic components, screws, washers, etc. all over the inside of the box..

Half of “The Wall O’ Parts.” If I need something, it’s probably in there. Somewhere. Maybe. There’s even an emergency backup espresso machine in there

On the far right of the photo above you’ll see a strip of components held together with bits of yellow tape. Those are 3.3 uH inductors and those were not in the kit. I had to dig those out from my “Wall O’ Parts” because the kit wants one, and MFJ either thoughtfully failed to provide one because they figured I’d be getting bored by this time and needed to get up and stretch or something, or it got lost because of they left the baggies open. I expect I shall have to resort to the Wall O’ Parts several times as I try putting this sucker together. I’ve only just started to look at this and sort through parts and I’m already finding stuff missing, so I’m a wee bit irritated. There is nothing more upsetting than getting into an electronics kit and finding parts missing. Me, I have hundreds of components sitting on the shelf (well, if I can find ’em, that is) but the average person building this is not going to have that luxury and is going to be royally ticked off.

The circuit board looks reasonably well made and the parts locations are all nicely detailed. You could probably put it together without instructions if it weren’t for a few gotchas, like having to wind your own coil on a toroid.

Where’s the fecking Manual???

Now, the more sharp eyed amongst you might have noticed something missing from those photos up there. Where the heck is the manual/assembly instructions? Well, you don’t see it because there isn’t one. Instead of a manual there is a half sheet of paper telling me I need to download the manual from the MFJ website, giving me a URL to go to. So I go to the webpage as instructed and find a bad PDF of the circuit diagram which was so low resolution I couldn’t even make out the symbols or component labels. It looked like someone had almost deliberated fuzzed out all of the labels and component symbols, and the “manual” was actually a booklet in PDF telling me how to use the radio, not how to put it together. No assembly instructions. No readable schematic. Oh, goodie…

This exactly what the schematic I found looks like. Can you read that? Yeah, neither can I

A search on MFJ’s site using its own search function turned up a reference leading straight back to the useless info I’d already seen. I finally ran a general search on Google and found the real assembly manual tucked away somewhere on MFJ’s site and I printed it out.

(Update 3/27/20: And now I can’t even find that website, for pete’s sake! I was going to put the link to the correct PDF in here as I edit this before posting it, and when I just tried I get a “page not found” error. MFJ is apparently upgrading its website and I can’t find it at all. Good job, there, MFJ. I didn’t keep a copy of the PDF, but at least I printed the thing out so I can at least take a stab at this. But anyone else wanting that booklet, well, it looks like you’re on your own.)

The manual itself (if you can find it) is actually pretty good. Sort of. Clearly written, mostly, with lots of detail, but sadly lacking in illustrations.

So let’s sling some solder and see what happens.

Now that’s interesting. Look at the 4 inductors up there. Notice anything different about one of ’em? Yeah, the third from the left is about half the physical size of the other three. The big three were supplied with the kit while the small one is my replacement and is about half the physical size, but it is the right specification according to the color codes and I put it on my tester just to double check, and it should be the right one. Is this going to be an issue? No idea at this point. All of the inductors I have in stock are the smaller size.

Also, more missing parts. Just found two resistors are missing. Look at this pic:

R3 and R6 were missing so I had to pull those off the shelf. Notice that they’re an entirely different color from the kit supplied one, R17. I use the generally more reliable metal film resistors (the blue ones) while the kit supplies carbon resistors (the tan ones). Now very, very rarely the type of resistor can make a difference, so I’m hoping that isn’t the case here.

Later – Missing parts list now sits at 1 missing inductor, 4 missing resistors, and 2 missing capacitors.

And now there’s an issue with one of the electrolytic capacitors.

C14 there next to the IC socket is, according to the instructions, supposed to be a 10 uF cap, but the kit supplies a 1 uF. Or at least I think that’s the one because the 1 uF is the only one left. Do I follow instructions and put in a 10, or use the 1 uF supplied? I finally pulled a 10 uF off the shelf and used that in the hopes that the instructions are right and the parts picker was wrong. (Later – Apparently the 10uF was the right choice because now that it’s done it works)

Watch out for solder bridges or pins with cold solder joints. Here on the bottom row of pins, the third from the left is a bad joint.

And speaking of IC sockets, and this applies to whenever you’re soldering a socket, use caution soldering the pins because it is very easy to apply a tiny bit too much solder and end up with solder bridges shorting out the pins. And it’s easy to do a bad joint as well. Double check under a magnifier.

Time to install the variable cap which is how you tune this puppy. And…

And the solder lugs on the cap are way too big for the holes in the circuit board. I could either drill the holes out, which I don’t want to do because the solder pads are none too large to begin with, or I could trim off the lugs. I finally trimmed the lugs off.

Above here I’m trying to mount the volume control and the regen control. They don’t make this easy either. We’ve gone from holes being to small to holes being way, way too big. Note how some of those holes at the top edge of the board have been double drilled, which makes them way too large for the solder lugs on the potentiometers that are supposed to fit in there.

And speaking of soldering, look closely at those solder pads on that board. It’s difficult to see in the photos but almost all of them seem to be covered with some kind of oxidation that makes it difficult for the solder to adhere. I’ve been using a bit of a scotch brite pad held in a needle nose pliers to buff them before I solder anything.

Then there’s the band switch. The switch has 8 pins, the board has 7 holes. Hmm… Let’s look at the manual. Ah, here we are… Oh, nothing. Says nothing about what to do about the missing hole. Oh, goodie.

I ended up bending the extra pin out of the way and keeping my fingers crossed that it wouldn’t get mad at me. (Later – Don’t know if I was supposed to do this or not but the thing is working this way.)

That circle thing with the white wire wound around it is a coil made by winding 8 turns of wire around a provided toroid core. Some people get a bit weird about winding their own coils. I’m not sure why. A small one like this is a piece of cake. They don’t get nasty until you start having to make ’em with, oh, 30 or 40 turns.

And there it is, ready for testing. It runs off 9V and supposedly a 9V battery will last for weeks and weeks as long as you remember to turn it off. I don’t have a 9V battery, tho, so I hooked it up to my DC power supply and…

Damn, I wish my upload speed wasn’t about 15K baud so I could put up a video of this, but the damned thing actually works! I won’t go through all of the alignment procedures because they will bore you to tears. This is, believe it or not, an actual, working SW receiver. Not a very good one, granted, but it will pick up something.

But then there’s this

This is it fully assembled, mostly. You will note that I don’t have the knobs on. There is a reason for that. MFJ neglected to include the collar nuts you need to actually attach the front properly, anchor the controls down so I can put the knobs on. Now there were indeed collar nuts in the box. You probably saw that in the photos from the box opening. But they were for control shafts about twice the size of these. Sigh… Thanks again, MFJ. Complete assembly is going to have to wait until I can get the right sized nuts.

Okay, this has gone on long enough. Let’s wrap this up. What’s the overall assessment of this beastie?

Well, on the plus side it looks good. It is, amazingly enough, a working radio receiver, although not what I’d call a good working radio. It wasn’t hard to put together. Just about anyone who knows which end of a soldering iron to grab could put this together. Well, mostly, with the application of a bit of common sense. And that case sure looks cool.

Elenco AM/FM superhet kit under construction

But then we come to the negative side.

First problem is the price. They’re getting $90 for this thing, my friends. While the Elenco AM/FM receiver I put together a couple of weeks ago is far more sophisticated, much more sensitive, has an actual amplifier so it can drive a speaker and not just headphones, and sells for half the cost of the MFJ kit at about $44. Granted, it doesn’t come with the fancy case, but you can always cobble together something to throw the Elenco into. And when you’re done with the Elenco you’ll have a radio you can actually listen to, whereas the MFJ is never going to be more than a curiosity for most people.

Then there are the missing parts. A half dozen or so resistors, two capacitors, an inductor, the collar nuts to hold the controls in place, all missing. I don’t know if this was a problem with the person who packed up the parts in the first place, or if they were lost somehow because the bags weren’t closed, or what. My guess is that they were never in there to begin with, because while parts did spill out, the box was sealed and there were no openings for anything to fall out.

As I said before missing parts isn’t much of a problem for me, but for someone who doesn’t have a “Wall O’ Parts”, like some kid doing this for a STEM project or someone who just enjoys occasionally tinkering with kits, this could be a real problem. Sure, you could probably email MFJ and they’d probably replace the parts. Eventually. Maybe. But come on, they should have all been in there in the first place.

Then there’s the manual. Or, rather, the lack of one. What’s the matter with you people over at MFJ? You could throw an 100 page product catalog into the box but you couldn’t be bothered to run off a 30 page manual on the office printer and throw that in too? And then even worse, direct me to a website to find the manual that doesn’t exist? Or to utterly useless schematics?

I’m really disappointed with this because this could have been a really good kit if MFJ had bothered to just just be a little more careful.

So, because of the high price, the missing parts, the missing manual, etc. I can’t score the 8100 very high. On a scale of A to F, where A is excellent and F is abysmal, I’d give the 8100 kit a D+.

Electric Stuff and, Well, Stuff. And the Virus.

How did it get so cluttered so fast?

When I started moving my stuff from the office upstairs to the new workspace in the basement I knew I was in trouble when I plugged in the laser printer, turned it on, and the lights all went dim. So the electrical contractor got here at 6:50 AM the other morning and some two hours later I had the radio shack/shop rewired with new circuits and outlets. The electrical in this space was a bit scary. I think the whole room was connected to a single 15 amp circuit. I was running my radios and other equipment off heavy duty extension cords running into my woodshop and, well, it was just nasty all the way around. The grand total for all of the work and parts ran about $500 but it’s going to be worth it, for safety alone if not for convenience.

So now I have two, 4 outlet 120V boxes, each on its own circuit, plus a 220V outlet over on the radio bench, and two new 120V circuits for the workbench.

Why call in a contractor instead of doing it myself? Because I know where my areas of competence are. I worked on a farm and in building maintenance for years and I can do just about anything – framing, finish carpentry, drywall, installing doors, plumbing, laying tile… But electrical? I’ve had no training or experience in doing household electrical, and considering how dangerous it can be, well I’m going to let a trained electrician do that.

Tubes & Stuff

So eldest son shot me a text Friday asking me if I wanted a vacuum tube tester, free, and I texted back “r u nuts? yeah i want toob thingie!” or something to that effect and he showed up last weekend with this:

The thing with free equipment is that it’s often going to be something useful only for parts, if that, but in this case it turned out to be a genuine, working vacuum tube tester. Oh, it has a few issues. The tube sockets have some corrosion that needs to be cleaned up and it could use a good cleaning in general. The insulation on the cords is brittle so they need to be replaced, but other than that the thing actually seems to work and inside it actually looks almost new.

on the inside it looks almost brand new.

I haven’t done much with equipment with vacuum tubes of late, but I never know what’s going to show up around here, so this could come in handy.

Tinkering with Stuff

I am building a radio receiver. No, not The Great Radio Fiasco Project. That project is more or less on hold until I can get some parts that seem to have become unobtanium for some reason. I may end up having to change the design. No, this is an Elenco AM/FM receiver kit. Best of all it was free! Well, maybe it was? I found it in a box of junk I was sorting through as I continued the apparently never ending project of cleaning out the basement.

I don’t remember ever buying this thing and have no idea where it came from, but it’s in my basement, in my box, so I’m assuming it’s mine, so I’m going to put the thing together and see what happens. It’s a fairly elaborate little radio and from time to time the instructions seem to go wandering off into fantasy land. I suspect that the instructions that were in the box were written before the circuit board was changed and no one bothered to correct the instructions. So that makes things a bit interesting.

Also in the same box of junk I ran across an unopened multiband shortwave receiver kit distributed by MFJ. I don’t remember ever buying that either, and I would remember since that one costs about $80 and I darn well wouldn’t have spent that much. I suspect both were in a boxes full of “valuable assorted radio parts” (i.e. junk) I picked up for next to nothing at a hamfest, and the box just got shoved on a shelf and forgotten about before I bothered to sort through it.

Weather Stuff

Over the weekend it hit 50 degrees. Almost all the snow melted, motorcycles were out on the streets, a very pleasant weekend all around. Tomorrow it’s supposed to hit 55 degrees!

So, of course, today it snowed. Sigh… I know Wisconsin in known for having some odd weather, but this is ridiculous.

Virus Stuff

I am sure you heard about covid-19. You’d have to have been living in a cave on Mars to not have heard. Wisconsin has only 6 confirmed cases, but the potential of it spreading, and spreading quickly, has everyone concerned. At least one school district has closed, the UW system is extending spring break and advising students not to travel, companies are canceling employee travel. The state basketball tournaments are starting up this week and WIAA just announced that general spectators will not be allowed, only the teams and necessary personnel and a small pool of sports reporters will be permitted.

I want to think a lot of this is hype and paranoia, but, well, I’m right smack dab in the middle of the category of the highest risk for death if I catch this sucker, so yeah, I’m a wee bit paranoid. MrsGF and I are supposed to go to the symphony this weekend, but sitting elbow to elbow in a theater full of hundreds of coughing, sneezing, hacking people for two hours? Uh, no.

What I really find troubling is the huge amount of misinformation being spread, some of it through ignorance, but a lot of it being spread deliberately. Some of it by our own government. I wasn’t going to spend a lot of time talking about this because, well, let’s face it I don’t have that many people who read this so it isn’t going to make a dent in things, but if it helps correct some of the stuff floating around, I suppose I should go into this a bit.

First, there is no cure for covid-19. None. Zip. Zilch. Zero. There is no drug, no “natural remedy”, no combination of herbs, no “silver” concoction. None. If anyone is trying to sell you such a thing, it is an outright scam.

Second, there is no magic herb or substance or “essential oil” or vitamin or magic crystal or “holy oil” that will somehow keep you from catching the virus. Again, if anyone tries to sell you such a thing, it is an outright scam.

Third, there is no vaccine “just around the corner”. Yes, a vaccine is being worked on and there are some promising candidates. But it will be months before one is generally available and even longer before it can be mass produced.

So what can you do?

Wash your hands. A lot. The best preventative is hand washing. Wash your hands using soap and running water. This doesn’t kill the virus, but it does physically remove it from your hands, which is just as good. Do not touch your face except immediately after you’ve washed your hands. A primary method of getting the virus into your system is touching your eyes, nose or mouth.

Do hand sanitizers work? Yes, but only if they’re the right kind. They have to have at least 60% alcohol content. Non alcohol based sanitizers are out there, but no one knows if they actually work or not. The so-called “all natural” hand sanitizers don’t work at all. They’re little more than hand lotion.

Face masks – there is a lot of debate about whether they work or not, and the consensus is that they don’t do much to keep you from getting the virus. They can prevent people who already have it from contaminating others, it seems. The problem, though, is that most of the masks I’ve seen people wearing are dust masks intended to keep dust from getting into your lungs, and were never intended to keep out viruses to begin with. Most people also don’t know how to wear them properly. Heck, I’ve seen a lot of people who have them pulled down to expose the nose. If you do that you might as well not bother at all. Same for guys with beards. If you have a beard, don’t bother. If you can’t seal the mask against bare skin, it isn’t going to work at all.

Social Distancing – what the hell is social distancing? It’s a polite term for keeping the hell away from people. Do not shake hands, do not hug, do not kiss people. Try to keep at least one meter (three feet) away from people if you do have to interact with them.

Avoid crowds. Do not attend sporting events, concerts, meetings or other events where large numbers of people have gathered. I don’t know about where you live, but here most such events have been canceled or postponed anyway. (Although a seriously troubling number have not and are still scheduled). And yes, that goes for church services too. No, being in a church is not going to somehow protect you from getting the virus despite what some utterly irresponsible ministers and priests have been saying. Remember that the primary spreaders of the virus in South Korea when the outbreak first began there were churches. Even the Pope canceled most of his public appearances for heaven’s sake. And if you’ve booked a cruise on a plague ship (ahem, excuse me) cruise ship, well, you’re on your own.

If you’re sick, stay home. About 80% of the people who get it have symptoms that are relatively mild and a lot of people will be tempted to continue with their normal daily routine. And thus risk spreading this to even more people. I realize this is damn near impossible for a lot of people, but the primary way this is spread is by people with relatively mild cases going out in public. Do you really want to be responsible for infecting your friends, your family and your neighbors with this?

Anyway, enough of this. I’ve been babbling long enough.

Catching Up

It’s been a while since I talked about what has been going on in the ag industry. And I’ve probably been babbling far too much about radio and other non-farming/gardening stuff lately anyway, so let’s take a look at the ag sector. And I’ll slip some radio stuff in at the end that you can ignore if you want.

USMCA (NAFTA 2.0) Passes the House

As I mentioned in a previous post the trade deal to replace NAFTA is finally done and being considered by Congress.. The House has passed one version of it now, with some minor changes, but it has yet to be dealt with by the Senate. It’s not likely it will get passed this year yet (it’s already Dec 21 as I write this) and considering what is going on in D.C., it’s anyone’s guess as to when the Senate will be taking it up. Despite all of the hype coming out of Washington, right now the agreement looks like it is going to be at least as bad as the original NAFTA was. There are some improvements in the protection of workers in Mexico and environmental protections, but other than that, it doesn’t really make many changes. It’s basically NAFTA 1 with a bandaid on it. The claims that it will create jobs for tens of thousands of people and boost the US economy are completely unrealistic. This is another of those deals where the only people who benefit from it are the big corporations and a handful of special interests, but that’s par for the course with agreements like these. The original NAFTA wiped out tens of thousands of jobs, drove a lot of US manufacturing into Mexico, and disrupted the Mexican economy, especially in rural areas. This one probably won’t be as disruptive, but it isn’t going to help much. You can go look up the analysis of the treaty yourself, but right now it looks like it is going to have little or no positive effects on the US economy, and might even be worse for us than the original treaty was.

Trade War Update

It looks like things might finally be calming down a bit with China on the trade front. The administration has been claiming agreements have been made and that China is going to start buying massive amounts of soybeans and other agricultural products from the US. And, well, no, they aren’t. At least not the quantities that they’re claiming in D.C. Some of the numbers I’ve been seeing are simply ridiculous. Things are getting better, yes, but don’t look to China to start importing massive quantities of anything from us. There might be some buys, yes, but I suspect most of those are going to be little more than token purchases with few exceptions.

China lost half of it’s entire pig production because of African Swine Fever. It seems to have finally gotten the outbreak under control, but it’s going to be years before things are close to normal. Most of the soybeans China had been buying from the US was going to pig feed. So it’s unlikely it will be making massive soybean buys to feed a pig herd that doesn’t exist any more.

One thing that has improved hugely for US agriculture is China increasing the amount of pork and chicken. Because of ASF China’s lost half of its pig production, which has caused food prices to increase and there is a shortage of protein. So China has increased its buys of US pork and it recently granted permits and licensing to Tyson to sell US chicken in China. While this will certainly help the pork and chicken producers in the US, this is going to be a temporary bump that will only last until China can rebuild it’s pig herds.

African Swine Fever

ASF continues to be a major problem not only in China, which lost over half of its pigs, but also throughout South East Asia. Serious outbreaks are going on in Vietnam and the Philippines. In Sumatra it’s killed about 33,000 pigs. It’s also been found in North and South Korea, Mongolia, Cambodia, and Myanmar, as well in eastern Europe and parts of Africa. Some people feel it’s only a matter of time before it hits Australia despite it’s extremely strict regulations. For some reason people keep trying to smuggle pork from the ASF contaminated countries into other places. Smuggling is an ongoing problem in the US. We confiscate tons of sausages and other pork products from these countries that airline passengers try to smuggle through in their luggage, and even whole shiploads of pork from them. Australia confiscated 32 tons of pork products just from passengers and mailed packages alone in the last half year, half of which was contaminated with the virus. The virus itself hasn’t been seen in the U.S. yet, but it is in the wild pigs in Europe which is making everyone over there more than a little nervous. The US has a pretty good wild pig population, and while they aren’t a big issue (yet) here in Wisconsin, the DNR has issued an advisory to hunters with just about any kind of hunting license to shoot wild pigs, no “season”, no bag limit, just shoot ’em. They’re a huge problem in a lot of states, causing massive amounts of damage. Plus they carry a lot of diseases. If ASF ever gets into the wild pig herd here we’re going to be in trouble.

It was a Rough Year in the Midwest


That’s not one of my photos over there. MrsGF’s surgeries and other things kept me from getting out with the camera, but that is pretty much how it looked around here this year, especially at harvest time. Water everywhere. We officially had the wettest year ever. According to one report I read the longest dry spell we had without rain was three days. That sounded a bit odd to me so I started digging through some of the weather data and it isn’t far from the truth.

By anyone’s standards, it wasn’t a very good year for midwest farmers. Almost non-stop rain made it difficult to get anything done. There were delays in planting, delays in harvest, reduction in yields, all because of the wet weather. Around here there are still a lot of soybean and corn fields that haven’t been harvested at all because of the rain.

Corn prices never broke $4, although soybean prices weren’t horrible. But on top of relatively low corn prices, we had propane shortages which made getting the corn dried difficult and expensive.

The only bright spot was that milk prices finally came up to a fairly decent level for the first time in years. Class III milk is currently sitting at over $19 on the commodities market, but it doesn’t look like it will stay there much longer. January and February prices are down to $17 on the futures market.

Housing Issues

As if farmers didn’t have enough to worry about, finding employees continues to be a major problem both here in Wisconsin and in the ag business throughout the country. And as if that isn’t bad enough, an increasingly serious problem is where the heck are your employees going to live even if you do find some? This is a problem for almost every employer around here, not just farmers. Chances are good that employees aren’t going to be able to afford to live anywhere reasonably close to where they actually work. There is virtually zero housing in this town that would be affordable for the average low income worker. And it’s not going to be getting better any time soon. The town is putting in a new subdivision, and is quite proud of itself for doing so, but it isn’t going to actually help the average factory or farm worker around here because all of those new houses are going to be in the $180K to $250K range. What we really need are apartments that rent for about, oh, $500 – $600 a month, not houses that will have $1,500 to $2,000 a month mortgage payments.

What’s happening here is that we have a larger and larger population of people who live here, but don’t actually, well, live here, if that makes any sense. Yes, their houses are here, but their entire lives are up in the Fox Valley area about 20 miles away (the cluster of cities and towns up in the corridor that runs from Appleton, Neenah, Menash, and extends up to Green Bay). They can’t afford a house up in the Fox Valley any more, but they can afford one here. So while this may be their residence, their entire lives are centered around the Fox Valley. They buy groceries there, go to restaurants up there, meet their friends up there, do all their shopping up there. So they may live here, but they don’t actually live here. They don’t patronize local businesses, don’t send their kids to school here, don’t participate in local social events, and aren’t really part of the community.

So not only do we not have housing that is affordable by the average person bolting together snowblowers for $14 an hour, we have an increasing percentage of the population of the town who aren’t really engaged with the community at all. Their residences are here, yes, but they live their lives up in the Valley. They almost totally disengaged from the community they live in. And as a result we no longer have a clinic, no longer have a real grocery store, no longer have a pharmacy… Well, you get the idea.

It’s especially difficult for the immigrant community who make up the majority of labor in low paying jobs like farming, manufacturing (they like to talk about how well manufacturing pays – yeah, right. Starting wages at the snowblower place are about $12.95 an hour with no benefits and technically they don’t even work for the company, but for a “temp” agency.) They’re glad to get the jobs and the employers are glad to have them because they can’t find anyone else to do the work. But where are they going to live?

The Move

I’ve been talking for a while about moving all my electronics gear, the radio equipment, etc. down into a new shop/radio shack in the basement so MrsGF can take over our shared office so she’ll have room for her own projects. She enjoys sewing, making things, and would like to do quilting, but her existing workspace is a tiny, virtually unheated room upstairs, and there isn’t the room for it up there. Plus its cold in the winter up there. And even with her new knees I don’t want her to have to go up and down stairs a lot. So she’s going to be taking over the office area and I’m moving into the basement.

Now that she’s pretty much recovered from the 2nd knee replacement, I’ve started moving the “big stuff” down there. I have my primary computer down there now (I actually have space for the drawing tablet now!), the big TS-990, the antenna tuner, etc. Much to my surprise, I actually remembered how all of the cables hooked up and when I fired it all up everything actually worked! First time that’s ever happened.

I still need to do a lot of work down there. I have walls that still need to be painted. I still don’t have the electrical straightened out. I need to add at least two outlet boxes on the wall by the computer and radios, plus I need a 240V outlet there for the amplifier. Not sure why because I haven’t used the amp in years, but would be nice if I could.

I didn’t show it in the photos because it’s a huge mess at the moment, but behind me and to the left of that photo is my work bench which is covered with misc. parts, test equipment, tools, bits and pieces of RaspberryPi computers and accessories and breadboards where I’m testing radio circuits intended for the receiver I’m building. And that leads us to…

Update On The Great Radio Fiasco Project

Nice soldering technique she’s got there… (This image is somewhat infamous. Can you see why?)

I bet you thought I conveniently ‘forgot’ about that project because I am the seventh laziest person in the state (hey, I’ve gotten better, I used to be third). I haven’t, though. I’m still puttering along with this thing, even though I haven’t even fired up a soldering iron yet. Mostly I’ve been doing research. There’s no point in reinventing the wheel. Considering that radio has been around for like a gazillion years, someone, somewhere, must have already published plans for a radio receiver that I could steal (cough cough) borrow, right?

I had some basic criteria in mind when I started this. First it had to be as simple as possible, something that just about anyone who, unlike the young woman in the photo up there, knows how to use a soldering iron without suffering third degree burns can put together. Second, it had to use easily available parts, stuff the average person could get from Amazon or one of the parts suppliers like Mouser. Third, it had to be cheap. I want to encourage people to experiment and build stuff, not blow the family’s entire grocery budget for the month on exotic electronics parts. Fourth, it was going to use “old school”, so to speak, construction techniques and components. No printed circuit boards, no ICs, no SDRs, no surface mount devices, etc.

And fifth and possibly most important, it had to be a genuinely useful radio receiver that people could actually use. There are dozens, even hundreds of plans out there of various types for things like crystal radios and one transistor receivers and other nonsense that… Well, okay, so they might work, under absolutely ideal conditions, with a great deal of fiddling around, and if you live right next door to a 100,000 watt transmitter. But in the real world none of those actually work very well, if at all.

Anyway, I’m looking at various ideas and sketching some things out and doing some experimenting, and hopefully in a short (short? Ha!) time I’ll have something to show for all of this. Hopefully something that actually works. What’s been discouraging is that the schematics and projects I’ve found often contain such basic, fundamental mistakes that it makes me believe that the author never actually built the project himself and just, well, stole it, to be blunt, from someone else who also hadn’t actually built it either. I’ve been seeing things like electrolytic capacitors installed backwards, emitter and collector pins on transistors reversed, wrong pinouts shown on ICs like opamps and similar basic errors that should have been caught if anyone had bothered to actually look at the schematics.

And that’s it for now.

Old Radios And What To Do With Them

Because people know I like fiddling with radios, sometimes people give me old radios they don’t want or that don’t work in the hopes I can do something with them. I thought you might be interested in how your grandparents listened to radio, so take a look at this beast. I’ve had this thing sitting on the shelf for a long time now and finally decided to pull it out and deal with it because I need the space.

There is a technical term for radios like these: Junk

I have a term for radios like these – junk. It’s a shame, really. Once upon a time this was probably a nice little multi-band radio receiver. The rust on the chassis isn’t a big deal, that’s pretty common and can be dealt with, but this thing has some other, much more serious problems. It is unrepairable, but there are some useful parts I can salvage.

I looked all over this thing and I can’t find a manufacturer’s name or brand name. If I did some research I could probably find out what company made it originally, but there’s no real point because it isn’t worth the effort. There might have been a paper label that fell off long ago.

Or it’s entirely possible there never was a maker’s mark stamped on it. It wouldn’t be that uncommon. Like today, the name you see on the case of a piece of equipment isn’t necessarily the name of the company that actually made it. Back when this radio was made, big retailers like Sears and others would contract with manufacturers to produce equipment that the retailer would sell under their own brand name. Sometimes they’d buy the electronics from one company, buy the case from another, assemble it somewhere, slap their name on it and sell it as their own. It’s very common even today.

You’ll also note there is no outer case for this unit, either. That’s how it was when I got it. I find that fairly often today as well. Often the outer cases were made of cheap plywood with a thin veneer of nice wood on the outside to make it look fancy, and the cases would never last long. The plywood would begin to delaminate if it got damp, and they’d get damaged easily. Or if the case was in good shape, it’s fairly common for people to strip the old electronics out of it and throw them away and use the case as a decorative item or even build a modern radio into it.

Now if that radio up there looks complicated with the big transformer, variable capacitor, all the tubes and coils, well, you ain’t seen nothing yet. Wait until you see what’s underneath:

That – that mess up there, my friends, is what all radios looked like under the cover back in the day. When this radio was built, there were no transistors or solid state devices. This radio even predates printed circuit boards. Every single bit of this radio was built by hand. All of those components and wires were soldered in place by some poor schmuck who stood at a work station all day long doing nothing but soldering bits and nubbins and gubbins together.

Radios back then were very, very expensive, partly because they had to be all assembled by hand. It’s hard to tell how much this particular radio cost when it was new. Let’s say it was made in 1950, and it cost about $60 back then, which was a fairly common price for a decent, but not top of the line, multi-band receiver back then. That doesn’t sound like much until you take inflation into account. Accounting for inflation, that radio up there would sell for about $640 today. Ouch!

Another reason they were expensive was the sheer number of parts necessary, and, of course, these things:

Those are vacuum tubes. Now there is a wave of nostalgia going on about tubes, especially among stereo and audio aficionados who claim that sound amplifiers that use vacuum tubes sound “better” somehow, than those that use solid state devices and, well, it’s all BS, really. Vacuum tubes, to put it bluntly, suck. (Vacuum? Suck? Is there a pun in there somewhere? No, don’t go there…)

Sidenote: To give you an idea of how ridiculous this whole tube amplifier thing has gotten in the audio market, let me give you an example. An acquaintance of mine had a friend bring over a tube style stereo amplifier that had some problems. The four prominently displayed vacuum tubes on the top of the unit weren’t lighting up. But interestingly enough, it was still working as a stereo amplifier. Which it shouldn’t have been if the tubes were actually doing anything. Which they weren’t. The only connection to the tubes was a line to feed power to the filaments so they’d light up. None of the other pins were even connected. The tubes were being used for nothing but decorative lighting.

Vacuum tubes look really cool and retro and all that, but as actual electronic components they’re horrible. They suck up huge amounts of power, give off large amounts of heat, are physically large, often require massive transformers to provide high voltages, are expensive to make, and as soon as solid state devices began to be mass produced, radio manufacturers abandoned them as fast as they could redesign their equipment.

As I was looking this thing over, I found it had a rather serious problem. This:

If you look close at that photo up there, you’ll see what I mean, charred parts, melted wires – basically this thing was damn near on fire at one point. Probably some component failed, overheated, and started the insulation on the wiring on fire.

So what am I going to do with this thing? There are some parts I can salvage. The tube sockets are still good, and they’re hard to come by, so I’ll pull those out. The tubes themselves – I’ll keep ’em but I don’t know if they’re any good. They do make nice decorative items, though. Some of the big rotary switches may be salvageable as well. The actual electronic components aren’t worth even bothering with. A lot of them probably would still work within their original specifications, but without tearing them out of the circuits and testing them it’s impossible to tell, and frankly it isn’t worth the effort. Would you use a 50 or 60 year old resistor in a project you’re building today, even if a meter said it was within specification? I wouldn’t. But I am hoping I can salvage this:

These big air variable capacitors were (and still are) used for tuning, and they’re damned expensive if you have to buy them new. So I’m hoping that once I get this one out and cleaned up it might still be useful. It looks in pretty rough shape with some significant rust issues, but that seems to be limited to the nonessential parts. I can’t tell until I can pull it out and test it. I’m hoping it will work because a new one like this sells for about $50.

Is Repairing Old Radios Worth It?

Well, I’m not going to give you a whole lecture on antique electronics, but the answer to that question is … Well, to be perfectly honest, probably not unless it is something you personally enjoy.

My SX-43 isn’t worth much, maybe $100 – $150 if I wanted to sell it, but it is a really cool looking radio. And yes, it works quite well. This one has the advantage of receiving not just the ham bands, but also the AM and FM broadcast bands.

Financially speaking repairing and refurbishing old radios is almost never worth it. You aren’t going to get much money for them unless they are something rare or exotic. Often the people who buy antique radios aren’t so much interested in them working, they want them for decorative items. Considering the amount of time, effort, research, and the difficulty in finding some parts, you’ll be lucky if you break even if you try making money off restoring old radios. Fiddling with old radios is sort of a hobby of mine, but to be honest I don’t do it very often because I generally find it more rewarding to spend the time on other things.

Damn, I need to paint that wall and those shelves. Sheesh that looks like crap. Anyway, this is one of my other old receivers, an SX-96. I didn’t have to do anything to this one. The person who owned it before me completely refurbished it and it works probably better than it did when new. This one also isn’t really worth that much. I’ve seen people asking a lot of money for this model, but even in near perfect condition it isn’t worth more than about $125- $175

There are exceptions, of course. Old amateur radio equipment is one of them. Sometimes. It depends on the condition of the unit (external physical appearance is very important in this market, almost as important as it’s actual functionality), the desirability of the particular brand and model, and, of course, whether or not it works up to its original specifications. I’ve seen some old Collins, Hallicrafters, Hammerlund and the other “legendary” brands of amateur radio equipment being sold for eye-wateringly high prices. But it depends on the model, condition, etc. While at the same time other equipment of the same era, from a lesser known manufacturer, may sell for a fraction of what the popular models sell for, even if electronically speaking the off-brand was superior.

Replacing things like capacitors, resistors and other common components is fairly simple and cheap. You can almost always use easily available modern day equivalents. But things like vacuum tubes can be a serious issue. I don’t think anyone makes vacuum tubes except for a few Chinese and Russian companies, and they only make a very, very small variety of tubes, mostly for amplifiers. There are used ones out there, maybe, and some “new old stock” (NOS) laying around, but they’re getting harder and harder to find, and more expensive. If you can find them at all. Transformers can be a problem too.

Some of these old radios had some serious safety issues as well. I really doubt if some of these old radios would pass modern UL safety standards. So there are liability issues here as well. If a radio you repaired or restored causes a problem later, like someone gets an electric shock from it or a 60 year old component fails and starts a fire, could you be held liable and get sued?

I don’t want to discourage you from dabbling with repairing and restoring old electronics, but I do want you to know that you probably aren’t going to make any money at it, and if you do try to sell the equipment you repair, there could be legal issues as well. It can be a fun hobby but you need to be aware of the potential problems as well.

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?