Catching Up With Stuff

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

JS8Call Ver. 2 Just Released

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

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

Antennas

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

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

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

What the hell ever happened to NAFTA?

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

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

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

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

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

The Foxconn Fiasco

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s see, what else?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tumblr, and the Ever Popular Misc. Stuff

I have to admit that I haven’t been keeping track of what’s been happening on the blogging/social media platform since I abandoned it years ago. I just completely lost interest in it. I wouldn’t have been surprised if the service had simply disappeared because I’d heard little about what was going on over there following Verizon’s decision to eliminate “adult” content on the service. Since probably 60% of the content on Tumblr might be considered “adult” in one way or another, it didn’t bode well for the survival of the service, so I just assumed it was going to go the way of dozens of other social media services and gradually fade away into nothing.

But Tumblr is once again back in the news. Verizon just sold Tumblr to Automattick Inc., the parent company of WordPress. When Yahoo bought Tumblr originally they paid $1.1 billion for the company. Automattick bought it off Version for — wait for it — less than $3 million according to The Verge.

How the hell does a company go from a value of over a billion dollars to less than three million? Well, it wasn’t easy. Yahoo did the best it could to kill the service off, and Verizon tried to nail the coffin shut and bury it.

“Tumblr is a marquee brand that has started movements, allowed for true identities to blossom and become home to many creative communities and fandoms,” Verizon Media CEO Guru Gowrappan said in a statement. “We are proud of what the team has accomplished…”

Well, I’d be proud too. It isn’t everyone who can take a billion dollar company and drag it’s value down to the point where it’s worth less than a fancy house. Takes real talent to do that. (We really need a sarcasm font)

As for what WordPress is going to do with the thing, that’s anybody’s guess. From what I’ve been hearing even they aren’t sure what they’re going to do with it. I think they bought it more because it was cheap. Sort of like when you go to a garage sale and find that $500 piece of electronics you really wanted way back when being sold for $1 and you can’t resist buying it even though its obsolete and you don’t know what you’ll do with it.

Hemp

The whole hemp situation is just getting more and more silly. When it comes to hemp and agriculture I don’t think I’ve ever seen this much hype and nonsense being spouted by people who really should know better. I hear a lot of people proclaiming that hemp is going to “save” agriculture, despite the fact that no one seems to be able to actually make any money at it. At least not here in Wisconsin. Everyone I’ve heard of who has tried raising hemp here in Wisconsin so far has lost money on it. In some cases, they lost a lot of money on it.

And speaking of CBD, what a fiasco that’s turned into. Cannabidiol, or CBD, is being sold everywhere it seems. People are selling edible products laced with CBD (or what they claim is CBD) all over the place. There are supplements and food products and oils and lotions, even CBD products for pets for heaven’s sake. And all of them make various health claims. Depending on who you talk to, the stuff will cure everything from dandruff to cancer. And almost none of those claims are actually true. CBD seems to have some benefits for some types of epilepsy, and may be beneficial to help alleviate symptoms of arthritis, and that’s about it. Every other health claim you hear is unproven and quite probably an outright lie.

The other thing about CBD is that it isn’t legal to sell. At least not as it’s being sold by most places. Seriously. That link up there will take you to the FDA page that explains it. But to give you a summary, it is illegal to sell any food product, supplement or other product intended for human or animal consumption that contains CBD. The only exceptions are FDA approved drugs that contain the substance as part of their makeup, and there are only about three of those at the moment.

Why haven’t the feds gone after the places selling it? Well, they have, at least the more outrageous violators. But the rest, the FDA doesn’t have the money and other resources to go after everyone, especially when it’s being sold at every gas station, every convenience store, tattoo parlors, hardware stores…

The other problem is that you don’t know what the hell is actually in that CBD laced product you’re buying. There are no standards, no testing programs, no inspections, no nothing. So basically you have absolutely no idea what is actually in that stuff.

Ooo, purty flowers…

Antenna Update

If you remember from last time, I finally got the Gap Titan-DX vertical antenna up, but still didn’t have it functional because I didn’t have the right connectors for the coax. A trip down to the local Radio Shack (well, I call it that even though it isn’t really technically a Radio Shack any more) and a rummage around in the parts bins turned up the adaptor I needed, and it is officially on the air.

It still needs some tweaking. The SWR on some bands is higher than I really like, but I expected that. I haven’t yet tried to actually tune it by adjusting the stubs and it’s located right alongside of the garage and it’s aluminum rain gutters, which I’m sure isn’t helping things. Does it work? Oh, yeah! I hooked it to the Kenwood TS-990 with a Palstar auto-tuner, and it most definitely works very, very well. Mostly I’ve been using it with FT8 and holy cow, it gets out. It’s been giving me much better results than my OCFD antenna. I’ll put together a post specifically about the antenna with more details in the future.

ASF China Update

ASF (African Swine Fever) is sweeping through China no matter what they try to do to stop it. According to Rabobank (a huge multinational financial services company that specializes in agriculture) China will probably lose half or more of its pork production by the end of the year because of the disease. Just think about that for a moment – China is the largest producer of pork in the world, and it is facing losing half or even more of it’s pig population because of this disease. That’s going to have huge repercussions through the country’s entire economy.

Why is ASF so hard to stop? Because it is highly contagious (fortunately it doesn’t harm human beings), the virus can survive for a long time outside of the host animals, there is no treatment for it, there is no vaccine for it, and it kills almost all the pigs that come down with it. The only way to try to combat the disease is to try to prevent it from spreading, which is extremely hard to do.

That’s about it for now. Frankly I’m getting bored. It’s nice out and I could be out on the bike or puttering in the garden or playing radio, so I’m out of here 🙂

Horns? Seriously? Washington Post Flushes Truth (And Its Reputation) Down the Toilet

Now, unless you’ve been living under a rock and have cut off all contact with the outside world (something I admit is tempting these days), you’ve probably heard that teenagers are growing horns because of cell phones. An article about an alleged “scientific” study appeared in the Washington Post (warning, may be paywalled) and… Oh dear lord.

Look, I’m not a biologist or a doctor or a nurse or any kind of health care professional, but even I can detect the heady aroma of pure bull shit when I smell it, and this story positively reeks. Didn’t anyone at WaPo do any actual fact checking on this before they published it? If they had they would have realized that this whole story from beginning to end is, well, [sniff, sniff…] Smell that? Yeah, that’s what you smell, all right, BS.

First, what they saw in the x-rays aren’t “horns”. They aren’t even remotely, in any way, related to horns. At the base of your skull is a small bump called the external occipital protuberance. A fancy name for the place where muscles and ligaments attach to the back of your head so you can move it. It’s supposed to be there. And that extra growth of bone the article calls a “horn” is just a common, ordinary bone spur caused by overuse or stress on that attachment point.

Second, and perhaps the most important, they don’t hurt you. Millions, and I mean millions of people have these things and don’t even know they’re there. In the story the author of the study claims that these things were rare until fairly recently. That isn’t true. They are very, very common. Chances are good that you have one right now, especially if you’re getting a bit older. At least 25% of people over the age of 60 or so have them. They have no symptoms, don’t cause any problems, don’t do anything in 99.9% of the people who have ’em. They show up on skull and neck x-rays all the time and doctors ignore them because they almost never cause people problems.

Third, there is no real proof supporting the claim that young people are developing these things at a significantly higher rate. The study’s authors claim this is true, but that is based on examining only 1,200 specially selected x-rays of chiropractic patients. We have no idea how or why these x-rays were chosen. They claim the x-rays were selected from patients who had experienced no pain, but if they had no neck pain, why were there x-rays of their necks in the first place? As far as I’ve been able to tell, the authors have refused to give any real details about how and why these x-rays were selected according to the people who have been trying to find out more information, and when questioned simply refer people back to the inadequate information in the original study.

Fourth, the claim that these bones spurs are related to using cellphones and other hand held devices isn’t supported by any actual data either. Yes, tilting one’s head forward to look down at a cell phone puts added strain on the neck, and one might think that this would stress that area and could cause the development of bone spurs, but that’s not how actual science works. In actual science you have to prove your ideas with actual data, not just make a logical guess. Sometimes “logic” is wrong. For years it was claimed that drinking coffee was a cancer risk because coffee drinkers seemed to have a higher than normal incidence of cancer. Until someone came along and noticed that those studies were done at at time when huge numbers of people also used tobacco products, and a lot of coffee drinkers were smokers. The increased risk of cancer was, of course, caused by tobacco use, not coffee. So while it seems possible that there might be an increase in bone spurs at this location could be caused by the use of hand held devices, you can’t actually prove that by looking at only 1,200 specially selected x-rays that were selected for reasons the authors won’t tell us. These people might have had other physical issues that could have caused the spurs, might have engaged in activities that caused them. A lot of sports cause stress on the neck that could cause the spurs. We cannot associate cell phone use with an increase in spurs unless other possible causes are eliminated.

Fifth, and finally, we come to the author of the study, one Davad Shahar, a chiropractor, a field which has its own share of problems to begin with that I’m not going to get into right now. But what I will point out is that this Shahar bills himself as “Dr. Posture” and sells, guess what, devices he claims improve one’s posture…

So to sum it all up: These things aren’t “horns”, they’re simple bone spurs. Hundreds of millions of people develop these things. Doctors have known about these things for decades and ignored them because they almost never cause people problems. The claim that there is a dramatic increase in these among young people is backed up by data that is highly questionable. The study also was found to make claims that are contradicted by data published in the study itself. And the lead author of the study sells devices he claims can correct the problems his “study” claims to have discovered.

Sigh… I might have expected a story like this to turn up someplace like the Daily Mail or one of the supermarket tabloids, but the Washington Post? Don’t they have any editors who actually edit, or fact checkers that actually check facts? Ten minutes of research should have been enough to kill this story.

Anyway, sorry for the rant. I just get so frustrated some days I have to vent.

World’s First Floating Dairy = Silliest Thing Ever?

Earning their sea legs, 32 cows have made agricultural history after boarding the world’s first floating dairy farm located in the Netherlands. Source: Cows Set Sail at World’s First Floating Dairy | Dairy Herd Management

I had to read this article twice before I realized that it wasn’t a belated April Fool joke and that they were serious about this. Yes, they’ve really built a kind of dairy farm on a barge floating in a harbor. Now I’ve tried to find out more information about this but all I’ve been able to find have been more PR fluff pieces, with little or no actual facts. The Beladon website link in the original story has been “in maintenance mode” for several days now (just what are they maintaining?) but there is a link to a site https://floatingfarm.nl/ about the farm itself. Sort of. If you like more PR speak, that is. (You’ll have to use Google Translate) And again, there are no actual facts, just lots and lots of enviro-babble and grand statements and “oh my, aren’t we wonderful!” silliness, and things like that tend to make me a bit skeptical.

I also noted that there is no mention of exactly what this white elephant cost them to build in any of the stories I found. It took a bit of digging to find that out and again, as with everything else about this, everything was more than a little vague. The only numbers I found were from about three years ago when they first proposed this project. They claimed at that time it would cost about $3 million to build this thing. $3 million… To house just 32 cows. (And they claim that traditional farming is wasteful???) And I’d be willing to bet that when all of the bills are added up, this was considerably more than that.

But then nothing about this project makes sense if you look at it closely. They claim that we need different methods of farming going into the future, that raising cattle is extremely wasteful in terms of land use, has pollution problems, etc. And they certainly are right about all of that. But this project doesn’t solve any of those problems.

They claim that moving the cows offshore onto a barge eliminates the need for large spaces for cattle to be raised. But the biggest use of land when it comes to cattle isn’t housing the cattle, it’s growing food for them. Millions of acres of cropland is used just to raise grain, soybeans and hay to feed cattle. The cows themselves are generally housed in feedlots or housing units that actually take up very little acerage. Simply moving the cows off the ground onto a barge doesn’t do anything to eliminate the need to grow food for them.

Now they claim that they’re going to grow 20% of the cattle feed right there in a sort of greenhouse on the top level using LED grow lights, and, well, good for them, but it ain’t going to happen. Do they even know how much cows eat? The average milking dairy cow eats about 100 pounds of feed per day. That means they need about 3,200 pounds of feed a day for their small herd. So their little green house will have to produce 640 pounds of high quality cattle feed per day. Ain’t gonna happen, as I said. But even if they did, that means they still need to come up with 80% of the cows’ diet from other sources, and they claim that’s going to come from human food waste. And there is a huge problem with that. Human food waste doesn’t make very good cattle feed.

Cows evolved to eat mostly grass with a bit of grass seed (i.e. grain) mixed in. And not much else. Modern cattle rations include soybeans and corn and other grains for added protein, mineral supplements and a lot of other stuff that isn’t part of a cow’s normal diet, but is added to improve milk production.

Now I don’t know about you, but here at the house we don’t eat a hell of a lot of grass, and what grain we do eat is almost all in the form of various baked goods like bread. Human food waste is made up mostly of things like spoiled fruit and vegetables, spoiled or outdated, highly processed baked goods, bits of fat, gristle and meat, and all of it thoroughly laced with salt, fats from a variety of sources, and lots and lots of preservatives, “flavor enhancers”, texture modifiers and other things that, while edible, aren’t really, well, food. Not for people and certainly not for cows.

Granted, there are some human foods cattle can eat, but that material is going to have to be carefully selected (requiring labor and energy), is going to have to be processed (more energy and labor), is going to have to be tested (more energy and labor), other feed products are going to have to be added to make sure the cattle are getting a diet that meets their nutritional needs (still more energy, labor and added feed costs), and… Well, when you add in the labor, the energy, the supplements, etc., then add in the cost of running that LED lighted green house that’s supposed to produce 20% of the cows’ diet, this is going to be the most expensive cow diet of all time.

Then there are other questions I’d like answered, like where is the energy going to come from to operate this thing and what is that going to cost? This is going to be very energy intensive, far more so than a normal cattle housing operation. Robotic milkers, the LED lighted greenhouse, the sophisticated sewage treatment system on the lower level, heating, cooling, ventilation… This operation is going to suck up a lot of energy.

So, how much milk are they going to get out of this system so they can pay their bills? They claim they’ll get about 200 gallons a day out of those 32 cows, and while that sounds like a lot, it really isn’t. Running calculations are a bit tedious because the dairy industry doesn’t generally deal with gallons of milk, at least at the farm level. Farmers are paid by the pound, not the gallon. Milk weighs about 8.6 pounds per gallon, so 200 gallons would be about 1,700 pounds, and they have 32 cows so that would mean production of about 53 pounds of milk per cow per day, while the average dairy cow in Wisconsin produces about 64+ pounds per day on average and our best producing cows put out considerably more than that. So when you look at the cost per pound of milk, this operation is going to be ridiculously expensive to operate and extremely inefficient in terms of milk production.

And then why in the world float the whole thing on a barge in a harbor? How are they going to deal with storms, waves, flooding, connecting pipelines, electric cables, communications cables, etc. back to the mainland? All that is going to require special infrastructure that is going to have to be built from scratch and will be very expensive.

Now I’m all for experimentation and innovation. But there is nothing innovative going on here. Every single technology and technique that they’re touting here has already been tried and is already, if it’s useful, being used. Robotic milking? Already being done and spreading rapidly. Using human food waste? Already being done where financially feasible. Treating cattle waste? Already being done. LED growing lights? Been around for ages. There is literally nothing new here. All of the technologies and techniques being used here are already being used, or have been tried and discarded because they weren’t practical or economical, or, like putting cattle on a barge, are so fraught with problems and impractical on the face of it that no one would bother even trying.

Back in the Victorian era there was a fad where wealthy people would build ornate, ridiculous and rather silly structures on their estates for no other reason than they could. These structures were often technically advanced, attractive, even artistic. But ultimately they were useless for any practical purpose. These structures started to be called a “folly”. That’s what this is. A modern version of the folly. Interesting but ultimately useless and utterly impractical.

Farm Catch Up

I wasn’t going to do one of these for a while yet but some interesting stuff has been going on in the world of agriculture that I wanted to pass along… Oh, all right, I was bored, okay?

ADM and Perfect Day Make Cow Free Milk But Not Really

According to a wildly misleading headline on Fortune’s website, ADM (Archer Daniels Midland) and a San Francisco start up

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Actual real cow. Not a yeast.

company claim they can make real milk (they aren’t, not even close) with yeast. According to the article, they got “some yeast” from USDA, then “They then got a cow’s DNA sequence, had it printed via 3D-printer, and inserted it into a specific location of the yeast” according to the article. And if that statement makes you scratch your head a bit, well, yeah, I understand. That’s about as misleading as the story’s headline is.

No, they aren’t making actual milk. Not even close. All they’re making is a casein and yeast not cowwhey which are chemically similar to that produced in real milk. Casein and whey are not milk, they are merely two components of the complex compound that milk really is. Nor are they really trying to if you read carefully. They’re planning on selling the stuff as an ingredient to the food processing industry, not as some kind of substitute milk.

Trade War Drags On. And On. And On. And On…

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Shooting ourselves in the foot. Get it? Yeah, I know I can’t draw shoes.

While the administration is touting a new trade agreement hammered out with Canada and Mexico, don’t hold your breath waiting for any kind of improvement in that sector. Treaties still have to be approved by all three governments before anything goes into effect. And even if it is approved, the administration still has its steel and aluminum tariffs in place which were what helped to trigger a lot of this trade war nonsense in the first place.

And despite comments from D.C. that there will be an agreement with China real soon now, the information coming from Asian sources doesn’t indicate anything of the kind. At the Asian – Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting in New Guinea attended by VP Pence the mood was anything but pleasant. The Chinese government said the US exhibited a “blaze of anger” during the meeting and Pence was “unhelpful”. Pence openly accused China of intellectual property theft and a whole laundry list of other alleged misconduct and, well, the whole meeting was pretty much a fiasco.

Will The Federal Farm Bill Pass This Year?

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Farmer Bill, not the Farm Bill.

The current farm bill expired in September. A lot of programs which did not have permanent funding are shut down until a new bill is passed by Congress and signed by the president. Some ag marketing programs are closed, food aid to locations outside of the US are shut down, as are a lot of conservation programs, because once the farm bill expired the funding for those programs ended. Crop insurance and the SNAP (food stamps) program are both permanently funded so they continue even though the bill has expired.

While I’m sure the GOP would love to get the farm bill out the door before the Dems take over the House in January, that doesn’t look likely at this point in time. The House leadership is apparently not going to back down on its insistence to include strict work requirements for the SNAP program, and the Senate already voted those down by a 2-1 margin. I’m not going to delve into what’s going on in the fight over the SNAP program because I promised myself long ago I wasn’t going to descend into politics in this blog. Considering the difference in opinion between the two bodies of Congress, I suspect the Senate would be more than content to let the farm bill languish until the Dems take over the House in January.

Complicating things is Congress facing a Dec. 7 deadline to pass a funding bill to avoid the government shutting down. The administration is threatening to veto any funding bill that doesn’t include funding for “the wall”, so you can expect this to start to get nasty pretty quickly.

It’s possible that a farm bill might get passed, of course, but I’d think the chances of that are less than 50/50 right now.

[Edit: as of Nov. 23 it seems the Senate and the House may be getting closer to an agreement on SNAP issues and might actually produce a bill to present for a vote before the end of the year. At the moment I have no idea what’s actually in this compromise, nor do I know the chances of it actually passing.]

Milk Prices

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Gadzooks! He can draw a barn!

It’s no secret that the prices dairy farmers have been getting for milk has been utterly horrible for a long time. Wisconsin alone has lost 584 dairy farms just this year and 1,086 over the last two years. You’d think that with that many farms going out of business there would be a significant reduction in the amount of milk being produced, but that isn’t true. What generally happens is that when a dairy farm goes out of business the cows end up being sold to other dairy farms that expand their operation. So while the number of farms goes down, the number of producing cows doesn’t change very much.

As we get close to the end of the year there is a trend in the ag press to start publishing optimistic articles claiming that the price of milk is going to go up, sometimes significantly. Unfortunately those overly optimistic claims are generally based on data that is looked at in isolation. For example, about 12 states in the US report that milk production has declined significantly. If you look at just that fact, that might indicate milk prices might be moving up. But it also ignores the fact that the rest of the milk producing states have actually increased production by as much as 10%. Overall, milk production in the US has gone up about 1 – 2 % (the number varies according to who’s data you look at) despite the reduction in the number of dairy farms in operation.

News on the international scene is even worse. The last big sale conducted by Global Dairy Trade in New Zealand had prices dropping on almost every type of milk product being sold. And this is despite the fact China has, according to some reports at least, lost a considerable percentage of milk production.

What it boils down to is that there is very little information to support the claim that there will be a significant increase in the price of milk any time soon.

Farm Bailout Payments

farmsinkThe administration promised that the trade war it started with much of Europe, Canada, Mexico and China wouldn’t harm farmers, and came up with a bailout plan to help financially support farmers and reduce the impact of the loss of exports to other countries. So how is that going? According the administration it’s going wonderfully. According to the actual facts, well, not so good according to at least one source.

According to the administration the program is wildly successful. In actual fact less than 8% of the money the administration claimed it was going to give out has actually been paid as of Oct. 31, and a lot of that has been given away to non-farm interests. And while the dairy and corn farmers have been hit hard, the bulk of the money seems to be going to soybean growers, with other farmers being offered so little that it’s actually insulting.

Autumn

Autumn is finally here. With temperatures in the low 80s or even higher and high humidity for large parts of September, we were beginning to wonder what the heck was going on. But we’ve had a couple of hard frosts now and daytime temps are about where they should be for this time of year, around 45 – 50 degrees, and at night down in the mid 30s. It’s something of a relief after the hot, humid summer we had.

And the mosquitoes? OMG — they were horrible this year, especially starting in August and going through September. We’ve never seen anything quite like it. Walking through the grass would cause clouds of the little blood suckers to rise up around you. Getting close to any kind of bush would result in an immediate attack by swarms of the things. The bug repellants did no good at all. Deep Woods Off and the others we tried didn’t seem to deter them in the slightest. My wife’s sister and her husband started to wear their bee keeping suits just to go out in their garden to pick berries or tomatoes. Even the hard core environmentalists I know were so fed up they were resorting to chemical warfare and fogging their bushes and yards to try to get any kind of relief.

Screen Shot 2018-10-18 at 6.24.53 AMAnd while it seems we’re finally getting a dry spell, it was raining almost every day for the first two weeks of October. There is still water standing everywhere. Down by the old stone bridge where the river is usually almost completely dry this time of year the water is 4-6 feet deep and running fast, and it’s well over it’s banks in some places. But at least the farmers have been able to get out and get their soybeans off around here.

We still haven’t gotten all of the gardens cleaned up yet, but there’s no rush on that. We’ll probably get most of that done this weekend unless something comes up or the weather gets nasty.

Screen Shot 2018-10-18 at 6.23.36 AMThe sedum — what amazing plants those are. This time of year the color is absolutely astonishing, running from a brownish red to a deep, rich burgundy. And if you get out right after sunrise in the morning and see the flowers covered with frost crystals, wow, they look absolutely magical.

Speaking of mornings — My body and I have this argument going… I want to sleep until about 6 AM. It wants to get up around 4:30 for some stupid reason. It isn’t a big deal, more annoying than anything else. But, well, why? MrsGF thinks it’s because I spent so many years having to be up around 4:30 or 5 AM to do chores on the farm, but that’s silly. I haven’t actively worked in farming for ages now. In my last job I worked 2nd shift, working until 11 PM and not getting up until about 8 in the morning, and I had absolutely no problem at all with that. I liked it, in fact. But now that I’m retired and could sleep late if I wanted to, my body decides it needs to be up at 4:30 again? Sheesh… My doctor says maybe that’s all I need to sleep. Everyone is different. Not everyone needs 8 hours of sleep. If I’m healthy, which I am (sort of) and I’m not getting tired during the day, and I’m waking up feeling refreshed and comfortable, well, don’t worry about it.

Let’s see, what else — Oh, someone asked me about the new iPhone XS Max and was wondering if it was worth all the hype and what it was like to actually use. After living with this thing for a month or so now, it is a pretty slick piece of equipment.

The camera is quite good. Not up to the standards of a dedicated mid-range or high end camera, but for a phone? Yeah, it’s good. It has a semi-decent real telephoto lens, up to 4X. Color rendition still seems a bit off to me, but that’s a personal opinion.

As a media device it’s excellent. The sound quality out of those tiny little speakers is, frankly, astonishing to me. I have no idea how they get sound like that out of something that tiny. I sprung for the AirPod thingies, Apple’s wireless ear buds. I find those astonishing as well. To me the sound quality is amazing. They were ridiculously easy to set up. Just bring them near the phone and they automatically link up. I didn’t need to do anything. No issues with those as well. But whenever I use ’em I’m always worried one of them will fall out of my ear and I’ll break it or lose it so I’m always nervous when I wear them outside. Are they worth $150? Hell no. The sound quality is good, but not that good. To my ears the sound quality isn’t any better than the $40 wired earbuds I used with my old iPod.

The screen is absolutely fantastic. Crisp, clean, outstanding color rendition, incredibly high resolution. Streaming movies or TV on this thing is a joy. It isn’t as nice as, oh, a 40 inch high-def monitor, but for a device this small it’s wonderful. I find myself reading my Kindle books on it all the time now because I don’t get eye fatigue from trying to read a fuzzy display. And for the first time the auto-brightness functions that are supposed to adjust the brightness of the display to suit viewing conditions actually works on this phone.

So it has a good camera, it’s a fantastic portable media player, how does it work as an actual phone?

Badly. I’m sorry, but as a phone it just isn’t very good. Cell reception is horrible. And I’m not the only one who’s been having this problem. There have been a lot of reports that cellular reception with the XS models is pretty poor. Frankly if the phone didn’t have WiFi calling I probably wouldn’t be able to use it as a phone at all here in the house. But that being said, WiFi calling is amazing. Just flip a switch in the settings and it turns on, and talking to someone on the phone is as clear as if they were in the room with me. But still, it isn’t, well, a cell phone then, is it? It’s using VOIP and damn well should sound that good.

Face ID – everyone knows by now that the new iPhones starting with the 10 series unlock by facial recognition. This seemed to freak some people out for some reason, but I’m not going to go down that road. The question is does it work, and the answer is definitely yes. Even wearing my bike helmet and wrap around sunglasses it recognizes me. Occasionally there will be an issue for some reason, but then it just goes to the standard PIN number unlocking system.

Wireless charging – the model I have, the XS Max, supports wireless charging and charging stations are available for well under $40. The one I have cost all of $24 and seems to work pretty well. Just put it face up on the pad, wiggle it around until you feel the phone buzz, and it starts to charge. The only issue here is that it won’t charge when it’s in a case, and who in their right mind doesn’t put a $1,200 phone in some kind of protective case?

But maybe the whole issue of needing a case is becoming unnecessary. I’ve seen tests where the XS phones have been drop tested and they’re pretty impressive. The ones that I’ve seen show the phone surviving drops of 4 feet or less on a concrete floor with no damage at all. In one test they kept increasing the height of the drop and it wasn’t until they dropped it from over 10 feet that there was any damage at all, which was slight. And the phone wasn’t actually destroyed until they dropped it from 20 feet down a stairwell to a concrete floor.

I’m sure as hell not going to try that, though. Nor am I going to test the water proofing. The XS is supposed to be pretty water resistant, but I’m not about to dunk it in a bucket of water to see if it really is.

The question is, is this thing worth the cost? This is, after all, one hell of an expensive piece of equipment. The model I have goes for around $1,200 retail. The only reason I can afford the thing is because I don’t buy my phones, I lease them and get a new one every 18-24 months under the leasing plan.  So is it worth it? Frankly, no. You can get a phone that does pretty much everything this one does for half the cost or less. It wouldn’t sound as good, wouldn’t have the beautiful display, wouldn’t be as fast, but it would work just fine and do everything you need a phone to do.

But that being said, despite the reception problem, holy cow it’s fun to play with. It’s so fast, the display is so good, the sound quality is so good, that I find myself using it more and more.

Farm Catch Up

It’s been a long time since  I did one of these, so let’s see what’s been going on in the farming world.

Bayer Acquisition of Monsanto Wraps Up — As of Aug. 17, Bayer had finished divesting itself of various businesses to satisfy regulators so it could complete the buy of Monsanto and it will fully acquire the company and Monsanto as an independent company will disappear. Bayer actually bought all of Monsanto back in June, but could not fully integrate the company until it satisfied the conditions set by various governments.

One has to wonder if Bayer is thinking this might not have been such a good idea. Monsanto just lost a $200+ million dollar lawsuit in California which claimed glyphosate caused someone to develop cancer and I’ve heard that there are many, many more lawsuits in the pipeline over the herbicide. And if that isn’t bad enough, Monsanto’s dicamba blend herbicides could actually end up being banned because of continued wide spread damage being caused by the herbicide drifting long distances and harming other crops, gardens, trees, bushes, etc. Despite stringent application requirements the problem has not gone away and there is a lot of pressure to ban the stuff entirely except as a pre-emergent herbicide that can only be used prior to planting. That would pretty much destroy Monsanto’s sales of dicamba resistant seeds.

You have to remember that the lawsuit mentioned above was in California where apparently just about everything causes cancer, even coffee. Which it doesn’t. Coffee, I mean. The slight correlation between drinking coffee and cancer appears to be due not to the coffee but to the temperature of the beverage. There seems to be a link (a very slight one) between drinking drinking hot beverages over 140 degrees and esophageal cancer and some others.

Milk Labeling Controversy Continues — The argument over what products can use the label “milk” continues. Despite the fact that FDA has, for decades, had an official, legal definition of what “milk” is, defining the term as the secretions of the mammary glands of animals, various makers of nut, grain and plant juices have been using the term “milk” in their labeling for years. Protests about the mislabeling and demands for enforcement of the existing regulations have been ignored for decades. But it seems the FDA is finally going to do something about it because of increased pressure, and it looks like the agency might actually start to enforce it’s own regulations in the fairly near future. I’ve talked about this before so I’m not going to repeat that.

The interesting thing is that a couple of senators tried to slip an amendment into an unrelated spending bill that would have kept the FDA from actually enforcing it’s own rules by prohibiting “the use of funds to enforce standards of identity with respect to certain food.” The amendment would not have altered FDA’s definitions, but would have kept the agency from actually enforcing it’s own rules. Exactly why these two tried to slip this through I don’t know. I’m sure they didn’t get, oh, large campaign contributions from people or organizations linked to the nut “milk” lobby. (Here is where I wish we had a sarcasm font)

Anyway, the amendment was shot down in flames by the Senate. The vote was something like 14 for, 84 against.

I’ve long believed that what we really need is a better definition of the term “bribery” and a law enforcement agency willing to enforce it.

Wisconsin Loses 382 Dairy Farms In First Half of Year — That number should give you some idea of how bad the dairy industry is doing right now. Last year Wisconsin lost about 465 dairy farms. If the attrition continue at this rate, we’re on track to lose more than 650 farms this year. It’s easy to look for scapegoats, of course. The dairy industry itself is a primary contributor to the problems thanks to massive over production. This administration’s nasty little trade war isn’t helping, of course. I’ve seen estimates that this trade war has knocked about $1.50 off the price of milk as countries that used to import our dairy products are now looking elsewhere.

Tariff Relief Program — USDA announced at the end of July it would be starting up a tariff relief program to try to make the hit farmers in the US are experiencing a bit less painful. It announced $12 billion would be funneled to farmers in one way or another using existing relief programs. The exact details are a bit muddy, and USDA seems to be in utter confusion about exactly how this is going to work, so if you’re a farmer who’s been hurt by this, don’t expect any kind of relief any time soon. Considering Perdue, the Secretary of Ag, claimed well over a year ago that the administration would renegotiate NAFTA in just a “few weeks” and they’re still fighting over it today with no end in sight, I wouldn’t count on seeing any actual money coming out of this program for some time.

Another big question is exactly where this $12 billion is going to come from because Congress hasn’t authorized any spending for this program.

Almond “milk” Recalled Because It Has Real Milk In It — HP Hood, makers of Almond Breeze nut juice, is recalling more than 145,000 cartons of it’s product because it may have actual real milk in it instead of it’s nut juice stuff.

Still More Tariffs — The administration will begin to levy 25% import duties on still more Chinese imports soon. This time it’s going to be mostly industrial products like chemicals, plastics and machine parts. China has promised it will strike back dollar for dollar by putting it’s own penalties against US products in place. And it could get worse fast, with the US apparently considering tariffs on an additional $200 billion of Chinese products. The administration has uttered threats of putting tariffs on all Chinese imports.

What a lot of people, especially those who blindly back what the administration is doing, don’t seem to realize is that this while this may hurt China a bit, the ones who are really paying for it are us, and not just in lost sales to China. A lot of these products that are being imported from China simply aren’t made anywhere else, or are made in such small quantities that the domestic makers can’t even come close to meeting the demand.

Let me point out one thing that people don’t seem to understand. That 25% tariff isn’t being paid by China.

That tariff is being paid by the people who buy the product here in the United States. We pay it. If a manufacturer makes a product that includes parts and materials that can only be sourced from China, it has to pay that extra 25%, and that’s what’s happening right now. Yes it will cut back on the amount of purchases from China, but in a lot of cases there is no choice. You pay that 25% tax or you can’t make your product.

That extra cost has to be accounted for somewhere. At the moment a lot of manufacturers are absorbing that extra cost in the hopes that this situation won’t last long. But eventually they aren’t going to be able to keep that up and they are going to have to increase the prices of their finished product. So in the long run, the people who are paying that tariff are us, the consumers.

Lost Valley Farm Saga Continues — A mega dairy in Oregon called Lost Valley Farm is in the news yet again. The farm has only been in existence less than two years, and it has already racked up an impressive list of operational violations that is unprecedented in my experience. Illegal manure disposal, illegal pumping of water from aquifers, illegal generation of wastewater, failure to obtain proper permits, violations of permits… The list goes on and on according to the Oregon Dept. of Ag. (ODA). Most recently the farm was ordered to produce no more than 65,000 gallons of waste water per day to meet permit requirements, but allegedly has continuously violated that agreement by producing as much as 375,000 gallons in excess of the limits.

Meanwhile, the farm’s bank has been going after them. They took out a $60 million loan from Rabobank to start this thing up and the bank is not exactly pleased with things. The farm agreed to sell off the cattle to try to pay down debt.

And then declared bankruptcy the day before the sale was supposed to happen to prevent the sale and keep the bank from foreclosing.

The attorney for the owner of the farm claims they are doing everything the ODA is asking, that they’ve made significant progress in meeting the requirements, etc. ODA counters by pointing out the farm has been in almost continuous violation of of the deal. And the judge handling the case is considering contempt charges against the owner.

Drinking Straw Bans — Oh, brother… Just about everyone seems to be jumping on this call to ban plastic drinking straws. Using data allegedly developed by a nine year old kid, everyone seems to now think that plastic drinking straws are killing the planet and have to be banned right now. Almost every time I look at a media outlet I’m seeing yet another article about some restaurant or town or university or some organization banning plastic drinking straws.

Look, has anyone actually thought about this? Hmm? I’m not sure about the exact numbers because they bounce all over the place because no one seems to know the actual facts, but it seems that straws account for something like 0.0002% of the plastic waste being generated by people. I’m all for reducing waste, especially plastic waste, but there are a heck of a lot more serious sources of plastic waste to go after than drinking straws.

Some places are talking about going to reusable straws made of stainless steel or some other substance that can tolerate cleaning. Have you ever tried to actually clean and sanitize a straw? Basically, you can’t. If put in a dishwasher, the water isn’t going to actually get inside of the straw to clean it. Some might trickle through it depending on how it’s oriented inside of the washer, but not enough to do a thorough job. And as for hand washing, you can run water through it, but that isn’t going to actually remove anything clinging to the inside of the straw. Or you can get, oh, a tiny, tiny brush and wash each one individually, but of course no one is going to do that. Then you’re going to have to try to sanitize it, perhaps by soaking it in some kind of bleach solution. But water is a tricky thing. Because of things like the surface tension of water, you can get air gaps in small spaces…

Do you really want to be drinking out of a straw that’s been used by someone with, oh, hepatitis, for  example, or norovirus?

Well, that’s enough for now. You’re probably getting as bored as I am. And the way the garden looks outside MrsGF and I are going to be busy processing tomatoes for a while. They’re starting to come on fast right now.