Misc. Stuff

How stupid are we? Pretty damned stupid, if some of the stuff I saw recently is any indication. Let me explain. I wanted to get one of my sons a stereo system as a combination Christmas and housewarming gift because he was moving into a new apartment over the holiday. I haven’t bought any audio equipment in decades so I did some research and finally decided on a fairly nice and relatively inexpensive receiver, turntable and speakers. But along the way I stumbled across something that can only be described as a world where rationality doesn’t exist. In the world of audiophiles, things like logic, physics and rationality quickly get tossed out the window, it seems.

The lowly power cord is one example. It’s a simple thing, a power cord. You take some copper wire, wrap it in insulation so it doesn’t electrocute you, put a plug on one end to plug into your wall outlet, put another plug on the other end that goes into your equipment, and there you go. The only things you need to be concerned about are the insulation being good enough to protect you, the gauge of the wire being heavy enough to carry the current, and the plugs being well made and attached well so they aren’t a safety hazard.

Unicorn pubic hair harvesting. Artist’s (Artist? Ha!) rendering. No unicorns were harmed in the production of this blog.

But apparently all these years I’ve been wrong. Apparently every single thing I’ve ever learned about physics, electricity, electronics, atoms, electrons, everything, is just wrong. Apparently if I want the best “listening experience” the worst thing I can do is use an inexpensive power cord. I need to spend hundreds of dollars (or more, some of the cables I saw were selling for up to $5,000 for a six foot long electrical cord) for “special” power cords, with “special” connectors, made with, oh, hell, I don’t know – Made with hand harvested, free range, organic, artisanal copper atoms, lovingly caressed with special quantum crystals, and then sheathed in insulation woven from the pubic hair of virgin unicorns. (Hmm, unicorn pubic hair harvesting – there’s a phrase I never thought I’d see in a blog. Or anywhere else for that matter.)

I learned other things as well. Did you know that wire is directional? Apparently electrons only want to flow in one direction along a wire. Wow. I had no idea. I also learned that I need to “burn in” cables. All of your cables need to be burned in, or broken in, a process similar to breaking in the engine of a new car. You need to use those cables for hundreds of hours before you’ll get the best listening experience. And if you don’t want to take the time to do that yourself, you can send them off to companies who will burn them in for you. For a fee. Or you can drop $1,000 – $2,500 to buy a fancy box with many connectors on it that will do it in just a few hours.

I learned that you can’t just run your $1000 per foot speaker cables along the floor. Oh, no. That would be too – too common or something. You need to buy $350 each cable clamps to hold your oh so special cables up off your oh so common and dirty floor.

I need to buy “quantum stickers” at $100 a pop. A lot of them. And stick them on every component in my amplifier and on my cables because they will – well, I’m not sure what they really do, to be honest, but they do something, as confirmed by several dozen glowing reviews from Bob and Stacy and George and others. And, well, come on, Stacy wouldn’t lie to me, now would she? Of course not.

One company sells, for about $150, what for all the world looks like a small block of wood with a logo laser etched on it, and claims that if I glue that sucker inside of my amplifier, many special “nanocrystals” embedded in the wood will do something that will align some kind of quantum field and do mysterious quantum things to the components in my stereo and make it sound better. And all just from being glued to the case! I know it’s hard to believe, but Peter down in the comments section says it made an astonishing difference to the sound.

Wow. Amazing. I need to get me one of them right away.

I could go on and on about things like $1,500 power strips, $250 outlet covers to put over the outlets in your wall that somehow “align the magnetic fields” or some nonsense. “Power conditioning” gadgets selling for thousands of dollars that are supposed to somehow filter out – something that will degrade your “listening experience”. Several places will sell you gadgets for several hundred dollars that will “demagnetize” your CDs.

And all of it is surrounded in sciencey sounding technobabble about quantum this and nano that and aligning quantum fields and… Oh dear lord I can’t stand it any more. Let’s talk about…

Picard

The internet immediately exploded into a tsunami of hype the moment CBS announced it was making a sequel to Star Trek Next Generation starring Patrick Stewart. But when, after all of the Star Trek fanboys came back from changing their trousers, it was learned that CBS would only be showing it on their new streaming service, there was much wailing and gnashing of teeth, but never mind about that, I want to talk about the whole Star Trek thing and Picard because CBS recently made the first episode in Picard freely available on YouTube.

Now the first question that came to mind when CBS did that was, well, why release the premiere episode for free on YouTube? The series has been streaming for a while now and the whole Picard thing was, if we are to be honest, a blatant ploy by CBS to try to force people to subscribe to its streaming service. They apparently believed that there were so many ST fans out there that they would subscribe to the service in great hordes. So the only thing that I could think of is that they were doing it because Picard hasn’t been doing anywhere near as well as they thought it would and they’re trying to pump up the viewership numbers.

Despite the fact I used to be a Star Trek fan, I wasn’t all that interested in Picard. I expected it would be a cheap ST ripoff being produced solely to draw subscribers to a streaming service. I was a fan of STNG when it first came out, and since it’s available on Netflix and Amazon video, I decided to take another look at it a few months ago, hopefully with a more impartial frame of mind than I had when it originally came out and, frankly, it was – unpleasant.

Now I knew there were going to be awkward moments in STNG when I watched it again. The show is now 33 years old, for heaven’s sake. The first episode aired back in 1987. I expected it to look dated, and it did. Often badly so. But what I hadn’t expected was that it would be actually painful. Plots were full of holes big enough to fly a galaxy class starship through. The show was self contradictory, often ridiculously so. It was preachy and holier than thou, especially during the first season. The aliens were, frankly, ridiculous for the most part. And every time Wesley Crusher appeared I kept hoping Picard would strangle the little weasel with his own intestines. And how many times did someone pull a deux ex machina out of their asses to save the day by ‘rerouting the plasma stream into the auxiliary conduit’ or some similar sciencey sounding gobbledygook? I found myself hoping the Borg would win and bring it to an early end.

I started to feel that STNG was the onset of dementia for the ST universe, Voyageur took it into the nursing home, the movies shifted it into hospice care, and finally the abomination that is J.J. Abrams drove a stake through it and turned it into just another SF shoot-em-up.

Now don’t get me wrong. I like SF shoot-em-ups. The new ST movies are fun. As long as you forget about the whole Star Trek universe that existed before Abrams came along and take them at face value.

Wait, I was supposed to be talking about Picard, wasn’t I? Sorry, I get easily distracted. Let’s get on with this.

There Will Be Spoilers. You Have Been Warned

Do I really need to say that? I suppose I do lest some poor lost soul who hasn’t seen Picard or hasn’t seen the hype and nonsense on the internet comes along.

First, this is a Big Budget production. Capital “B”. The cinematography, set design, CGI, everything about it is pretty much top of the line. It is beautifully filmed and edited by some of the best craftspeople, editors and videographers out there.

Unfortunately, the sound absolutely sucks. At least on the YouTube video. Seriously sucks. Volume levels go from hardly audible when normal conversations take place, to ear splittingly loud when something important happens. I had to keep one hand on the volume control through the whole thing.

But on with the story…

Picard is an elderly, angry, depressed, disenchanted man, living on the family vineyard, suffering from dreams/hallucinations and, after the first scene at least, I started to wonder if he was suffering from dementia. He lives on the vineyard with a dog and two Romulans who seem to be his employees/friends.

Switch now to Boston for no apparent reason, where we find a young woman with her boyfriend, who apparently hasn’t heard of The Hair Club for Men and has hair made of bad plastic and the usual “he’s an alien so he has to have a weird face” syndrome. And that hair… I’m sorry, but I just can’t get that hair out of my mind because, I swear to God it looks like they glued coffee beans to the poor guy’s head.

See what I mean about the hair? Look closely. Those are coffee beans. Seriously. They glued coffee beans to the poor man’s head.

They’re sharing a romantic moment when three masked assassins teleport into her apartment, immediately kill the boyfriend, start beating her up, put a bag over her head and…

And then she turns into super-ninja, taking out three trained assassins in less than a minute.

And as she cradles the head of her murdered boyfriend, coffee beans and all, she is thinking of – of Picard?

Roll credits…

And it’s just so contrived, so overly dramatic… Stewart’s performance seems forced, uncomfortable, awkward. Now I know the fellow is like a gazillion years old, but come on, the man is still a good actor, but this performance certainly doesn’t demonstrate that ability. The only time he shows anything that looks like real emotion during the entire 47 minutes is during the brief interview with a reporter that they had to shoehorn in in an attempt to try to explain WTF happened that screwed things up so badly during the last 20 years.

And then we go through a lot of maudlin stuff where Picard visits some kind of museum where all his stuff is being kept for no apparent reason except, of course, to be all poignant and try to remind people that this is the real Star Trek, not the abomination created by Abrams I suppose.

Meanwhile the girl is sitting huddled on a street somewhere, calls her mother, who tells her to “find Picard”, and she does in a sort of computer hacking scene to make sure we know that she is “special”. And she meets him again and he tells her she’s Data’s daughter and then in a dramatic action scene straight out of a bad kung fu movie, her and Picard get attacked by more masked assassins, she kicks ass, and then one of the assassins kills her by- by spitting on her????

But she’s Data’s daughter. And Data’s offspring can only be twins because, well, because of “reasons”, so there’s another one of her, somewhere… And before we roll credits and shut the episode down, we find her twin is living quite happily with the Romulans, who apparently have moved into an old Borg cube…

What? Seriously??? Where did I put that face palm graphic…

Clutter Your Life

Well, hopefully the insomnia isn’t back, but it’s about 4:30 AM, I’ve been up since about 3:45, and while I’ll probably crash and burn by 10, I’m wide awake now. So while the snowstorm blows and blusters outside I’m down in my snug little corner in the basement with my Alexa thingie sitting there on the shelf offering to show me how to make Chia Pudding (shudder) and telling me it’s going to snow all day and I want to talk about uncluttering of all things.

That’s what we’re supposed to be doing, aren’t we? Uncluttering. Especially us old farts. Instead of sitting around doing whatever it is us old people are supposed to be doing – maybe sewing our own shrouds and waiting to die or something I guess – we should be uncluttering.

Run that term through Google and you’ll come up with about a gazillion hits. “Ten Principles to Help Anyone Clear Clutter”. “10 Ways to Unclutter your Life”. “The Joy of Less”, “Unclutter and Unburden”. The basic premise is the same – we should be getting rid of all of the stuff we accumulate because it will be, somehow, “good for us”. The premise of all of them is that we don’t need all that – that stuff. We don’t need the books and the clothes and the magazines and the knicknacks and the dishes and the souvenir mug from Wall Drug and the pictures and everything else we own, and pare it down to just what we need to merely survive…

I suppose this trend has been driven, in part at least, by the occasional news story about hoarders and television shows about the nightmares discovered in the homes of hoarders. And the usual suspects have climbed on the band wagon to screech at you that if you have a single souvenir mug or refrigerator magnet or have a book you haven’t read in years, well, OMG you’re a hoarder and you’re sick and you need an “intervention” or something.

And if that doesn’t scare you into decluttering, they try to guilt you into it. “Just think of your family!” they whine. “They shouldn’t have to go through the pain of having to clear out all the stuff in your home after you’re dead! Think of the pain that will cause them!”

I normally don’t use language like this, but, well, fuck that. It’s BS. All of it. It’s like “mindfulness” or any of the other trends that seem like a good idea on the surface and have been quickly taken over by loonies and scammers and others out to make a quick buck. (Did you know there are books and classes out there to teach your dog “mindfulness”?)

Take a look at some of the “clutter” in my house.

There’s a battered, stained, beaten up looking Tom Swift Jr. book, part of a series of SF books written for kids back in the 1950s. It looks like it should have been tossed or recycled long ago. But that book is part of my life, my history, my memories. My mother would occasionally talk my father into abandoning the never ending chores associated with the farm long enough to go up to Green Bay, a major excursion for us back then. We’d stop at a department store that had a large book section, including a lot of kids’ books like Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys and the Tom Swift books. I remember the trips, the store, stopping at Krolls afterwards for a hamburger… Interestingly, Krolls is still around and it’s right next door to the clinic MrsGF goes to for her knees and, amazingly enough, the hamburgers taste just as good now as they did 50 years ago or more

Hanging on a nail out in the garage is an old, battered cane made from white oak. It was my father’s, and his father’s before him. It was never used as a cane, it was used for sorting cattle. Every time I pick it up I remember walking into that barn, hearing the cows gently mooing at me in the hopes it was time to be fed, remember the smells, the warmth of the barn on a -30 degree winter day…

Back on my dresser is a statue of a dog, a collie. It isn’t anything special, probably didn’t cost very much. I should toss that too, according to the unclutter people. But my favorite uncle gave me that for Christmas when I was, oh, ten, eleven years old. He was a nice fellow. Gentle, kind, smart, successful. Every time I see it sitting there I think of him and my aunt, remember his voice, remember the times we visited.

No, I’m not going to “declutter”.

And I’m glad my mother and father didn’t before they passed on. Going through their things was a journey back in time, back through my childhood and even before I was born. My father apparently kept every receipt, every bill, every bit of paperwork concerning the farm that he ever got. Sorting through his papers after he died was an excursion into time, a trip into the past, a reminder of what life had been like going back almost to the time he bought the farm from his father.

We sorted through the toys of our childhood, even old homework that our mother had kept, old Christmas cards, ancient photos going back more than a hundred years. Going through all of that brought back a flood of memories that were full of joy and pain and sadness and surprise… It was difficult sometimes, yes, but it was an experience I also will always cherish as well.

We are human beings. Our brains work in funny ways sometimes. A smell, a sight, an object, can trigger memories so vivid that it is almost like we’re experiencing those events all over again. Objects, even silly, otherwise worthless things, become important to us, are even cherished by us, because they trigger those memories within us.

So if you tell me I need to “declutter”, I’m going to tell you to do something anatomically impossible to yourself because you’re telling me to erase my life, erase my memories, erase my past.

Borden Dairy Files Bankruptcy

Borden Dairy Company filed for bankruptcy. Borden said it had debts of $500 million and assets of only $100 million. It employs over 3,000 people. This doesn’t mean the company will completely go out of business, and the statement said the company will continue operations as it works out a way to get its finances straightened out.

Interestingly, Borden was listed as one of Forbes 2019 “Most Reputable Companies” back in May, where it was listed as number 16. Obviously Forbes didn’t look at the company’s actual finances when making up that list.

When companies like Borden and Dean Foods goes under, the pundits and the companies themselves are quick to point the finger of blame at anything and everything. The articles I’ve read about the Borden’s bankruptcy and the earlier Dean Food bankruptcy blame the decline in the consumption of milk, the increasing popularity of plant based “milk”, changes in diet, dietary fads, major retailers like Walmart building their own milk processing facilities, etc. They blame it on everything except the real reason, the company itself. Or, rather the management of the company. The company itself was unable to adapt to changing market conditions, and that is what drove them into financial failure.

Yes, consumption of liquid (drinking) milk has been declining. But this is a trend that has been going on for decades. They can’t claim that they were blindsided by this. Walmart made no secret of the fact that it wanted to build its own milk processing facilities. That was known for years before they actually did it. The growing interest in vegetarian and vegan diets that reduce or even eliminate the consumption of dairy products isn’t new either. This is a trend that has also been going on for years now. The same is true for the increased interest in grain and nut based “milk” products.

That Bordens and Dean couldn’t make it is due entirely to the failure of their own management teams being unable to adapt to changing markets.

I’m sitting here in eastern Wisconsin, just 20 miles or so south of Green Bay, and I’m surrounded by dairy companies that are doing pretty darn good. Over the last few years I’ve seen at least a half dozen major expansions by large processing companies, mostly cheese makers, including some multinational corporations. And they’re all doing pretty well. Why? Because they’ve been able to adapt to a changing market.

Dean and Borden failed because they didn’t adapt to an ever changing marketplace.

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.

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.