Cheap Amateur Radio. The FT-450D and holy s**t it’s cold! And some flowers and stuff

Okay, can we stop with this nonsense already? It’s only Nov 8, for pete’s sake! Normally we don’t get really cold weather and snow until mid to late December. Usually it’s in the mid 30s to low 40s this time of year and you can still go outside without freezing your bits off. Last night it was 10 degrees. Night before that it was 11 degrees. And snow? Really? A lot of years we’re lucky if we have snow by Christmas. In the last two weeks we’ve had a total of about 12 inches here. Most of that melted off, thank goodness, but now that the temperatures have plummeted it’s sticking around.

There’s so much we didn’t get done outside this fall. Between MrsGF’s knee surgery and everything else that’s been going on, I just didn’t have time to get everything done. I didn’t get some of the dahlias dug up, so those are probably going to be a total loss. Didn’t get any of the leaves raked because I was waiting for both the pear tree and the maple in the backyard to shed their leaves. Only they didn’t this year for some reason. It’s been a strange, strange autumn.

On the plus side, MrsGF’s Christmas cactus is in full bloom and it’s gorgeous. I know a lot of people who just can’t get these things to blossom no matter what they do, but MrsGF has a real knack with plants. I’m not sure what it is. I suspect she could take an old, half rotted twig, shove it in the ground, and in a few weeks it would turn into a healthy tree. This thing just keeps going and going. Some years it blooms twice.

And she has a rose bush in the living room this year, also in full blossom, in November. I don’t know how she does that, either. But it does make me grin like an idiot to have a rose in full bloom while it’s 10 degrees and snowy outside.

But I was really going to talk about amateur radio stuff when I started all of this so let’s get on with this…

Yaesu FT-450D hooked to the SCU-17 interface. It’s been in production for a while but it’s still one heck of a nice little radio for the money

Oh, before that, though, I thought I’d just throw this in even though it has nothing to do with the headline starting this off. This is what it looked like here on Oct 31 a little after 6 AM.

Last day of October in Wisconsin.

Now I know this is Wisconsin and the weather here is a bit, well, odd, but still, really? Ick.

Now, finally, the amateur radio stuff!

The Dilemma

Whenever I start talking to someone about amateur radio, whether they’re other amateur radio operators or people who know nothing at all about it, invariably the topic turns to cost, and it becomes clear immediately that a lot of people, including a lot of hams, think that amateur radio is way too expensive. A lot of people I know who would otherwise be interested in getting into the hobby think it’s so expensive they could never be able to afford it. And that simply isn’t true.

I can’t really blame them for thinking that because some of this equipment is indeed expensive. The top of the line transceivers that the manufacturers and owners love to show off can quickly push up into the $5,000+ range or more. The Kenwood TS-990 sells new for just under $8,000 and iCom makes one that sells for more than $12K, for heaven’s sake. Once you add in other things that you may think you need, if you believe the ads, like amplifiers, computers, morse code keys, etc. you can quickly end up sinking $15,000 or more in a top of the line set up.

But here’s something the manufacturers don’t want you to know:

You don’t need any of that high priced junk.

Seriously. You don’t. If you want to get on the air on the HF bands (shortwave) you don’t have to spend a fortune. That little Yaesu in that photo up there costs literally less than one tenth of what my TS-990 costs new, and to be perfectly honest, does everything you need. Granted, it doesn’t have all the bells and whistles the 990 has, doesn’t have the fancy displays and all that, but when it comes down to actually communicating, those bells and whistles aren’t really necessary and the 450 will do everything you need.

I was looking for a fairly full featured, small, full power (100 watts output), 12V powered transceiver to lug out to field day and special events or whenever I feel like it, in situations where the little low powered 818 wouldn’t do the job. I love that little 818, but let’s face it, with a maximum of 6 watts output (3 watts or less running digital), any kind of communications using it is going to depend more on luck than anything else. I ran across someone talking about the 450 and it sounded like a nice little transceiver so I looked into it more and decided it was just what I needed. It sells new for about $750 – $800 which is, as I said before, one tenth of the cost of my TS-990. You can find them used for about $500 or even less if you look around.

And for that price what you get is not some stripped down little radio, either. This thing has a lot of features, including a built in antenna tuner, decent filtering, good noise reduction features, etc. In fact, just about everything you might need in an HF transceiver is packed into this little unit. True, it doesn’t have many of the goodies my 990 has, but I have to admit that in real life I don’t use a lot of those goodies anyway. If this were the only transceiver I had, I would be more than satisfied with its capabilities.

But for me the main question was how well was it going to work using digital modes like PSK, FT8 and JS8Call because those are pretty much the only modes I use. And it turned out it deals with digital very, very well indeed. It took me all of 10 minutes to get it up and running with the SCU-17 you see sitting on top of it in that photo. It was just a matter of plugging in the cables, setting the baud rate in the menu, firing up the computer and setting things up in the software there, and I was on the air. Now granted I had only just fairly recently set up the Yaesu 818 with the same interface, computer and software, so I already had experience working with Yaesu equipment which certainly made it easier. But still, for me, getting a rig up and running on digital modes in under 10 minutes is a bit of a miracle, really. It took me days to get my TS-2000 working properly with digital modes when I first started this years ago.

It’s currently set up in the basement, hooked to the Titan Gap vertical antenna, and it’s been doing a very, very nice job. I’ve made contacts all over the place with it using JS8 and FT8, putting out about 40 watts.

Sidenote: The 450 may be capable of putting out 100 watts, but you never run full power in the digital modes on any transceiver because the power ratings of all transceivers are seriously misleading. Those maximum power ratings they give you are for single side band, which does not stress the transmitter in the radio. With SSB you’re actually averaging far less power output than advertised. Your signal may peak at 100 watts, but you’re actually averaging 50 – 60 watts or so because of how SSB works. Unlike SSB, most digital modes are considered to be 100% duty cycle. A general rule of thumb is when using digital, always dial your power levels back to less than 50% of the radio’s maximum. Sometimes the recommendations are as low as 25%. Otherwise you risk overheating the radio and damaging it.

Anyway, I’m very pleased with this little radio. I didn’t really expect much from it when I got it, and it has certainly exceeded all of my expectations. I’ve been having a lot of fun with it, and I’ve been using it more than my TS-990 of late.

Lets see, what else? Oh, yeah. This showed up courtsey of our friendly UPS delivery person the other day.

I picked up a Raspberry Pi 4 to play with to join the RPi 3s I’ve already been playing with. I have a specific goal for this one. There are Linux versions of FT8 and JS8Call that, I’m told, run just fine and dandy on the RPi. I’ll find out this winter as I experiment. My eventual goal is to put together a compact QRP digital system that is backpackable that I can take along when I’m out on the trails with the bicycle. I’d thought about configuring the Rpi as a tablet computer with just a touch screen and no keyboard. I’ve done that before with the Rpi3s I’ve had, but I think that might be a bit awkward, so I’m looking at compact keyboards and maybe a small trackball or touchpad for mouse control. We’ll see. This is still very much a work in progress.

I know, I know… The used Lenovo laptop I picked up was supposed to serve that role, and it does, but while it works just fine it is also big, heavy and clumsy to lug around. I can squeeze a RPi into a package not much bigger than a small tablet computer and a fraction of the weight. We’ll see how it goes.

And that’s about it for now. I’ve been boring you long enough with this.

TRS-80, a Bit of Computer Nostalgia

TRS-80 Mod IV with dual floppy drives and a whopping 64K RAM. Note the front edge of the keyboard. Radio Shack was notorious for this battleship gray paint they used on their computer cases that started to rub off almost immediately exposing the even uglier plastic underneath. We went through this for something like 4 generations of computers before RS finally just started using colored plastic like everyone else.

I have a lot of elderly computers laying around that probably should have gone to recycling long ago, and probably will. I hang on to some of the because of nostalgia, like the one up above. That’s one of two TRS-80 Model IVs that have been kicking around here for ages now. I worked on a lot of these dopey things in the early 1980s, along with its predecessor the Mod III. All things considered, it was a pretty darn nice computer for its day, if a bit on the expensive side. And they did have some “issues”, as they say, thanks largely to some quirky design decisions made by Radio Shack that were probably done to save money.

Not exactly what you’d call a ‘high tech’ video system, even for that era. Basically it’s a cheap, generic black and white television without the tuner or audio.

They were made as cheaply as they could possibly be made (The TRS-80 Mod I came with a video display that was literally an old RCA black and white television with the channel tuner and audio circuits stripped out of it, for example.).

Yummy yummy RAM chips! Guacamole dip costs extra. Despite the Tandy Corporation brand, they were made by Motorola.

I had a couple of Mod III computers, and basically the Mod IV was little more than an enhanced III. And they were expensive. The III sold for, I think, about $800 with a whopping 16K RAM, and RS wanted an arm and a leg to upgrade it to a full 48K. (That’s all you could add to the Mod III) I don’t remember exactly what RS charged to upgrade to 48K, but it was a ridiculously high price. $180 sticks in my mind for some reason. Anyway, you could easily do the upgrade yourself for about a quarter of what RS charged. RS was selling the exact same RAM chips in blister packs at their stores. Total cost for that was about $30-$40. All you had to do was open the case, pop the chips in, and that was it.

The interesting thing is that you actually couldn’t use all of that memory even if you had it, so the memory claims were very misleading. The system ROMS (the computer’s basic operating system) were mapped into the system’s memory map, replacing the first 16 of RAM with the ROMS, so you actually only had access to 48K. If you used a disk drive, then TRS-DOS, the disk operating system, sucked up even more memory. Unless you used a non Radio Shack OS, you couldn’t use more than about 32K – 48K (which was the maximum you could have on the Mod III). So why load the computer up with memory you couldn’t use? Because RS was trying hard to push the computer at the business market, and a lot of businesses were running CP/M. RS didn’t actually sell CP/M for the Mod IV (at least I don’t think they did) but you could get it from other companies. But this was also the time when CP/M became obsolete thanks to the introduction of the IBM-PC and MS-DOS. Radio Shack/Tandy started out as a leader in the personal computer business, but because of an unwillingness to spend money on serious R&D they quickly fell behind and were desperately trying to keep up until they finally washed their hands of computers all together.

RS/Tandy sold the Xenix OS (a UNIX clone) for their business models like the Mod-6. They were bigger, better, faster, had 8 inch floppy drives and you could get hard drives for them. But they were expensive, clunky, and non-standard in just about every way. I have a Mod 6 and a Mod II laying around somewhere too and one of these days when I get bored enough I’ll open one of those up.

Speaking of floppy drives – my, aren’t those dirty… Actually the whole thing looks like it’s been sitting in a barn for the last 30 years. For all I know it was. Or is this the one that got soaked when my 50 gallon aquarium broke one night and the water poured through the floor into the storage area in the basement?

See? Didn’t believe me about the cassette tape, did you?

Those are some real pieces of junk, gems, those drives up there. Genuine single sided, double density, 5 1/4 inch floppies, those are. And holy fright they were expensive when they were being sold! I don’t know what the ones for the Mod-IV went for, but the drives for the Mod-III were ridiculously expensive. But then floppy drives were expensive across the board back then. The Mod-III was mostly sold bare bones when it first came out. You could get it ‘fully loaded’ with dual floppies and 48K of RAM but not many people bought the drives at first because they were so expensive. The ‘standard’ configuration was 16K RAM and a cassette tape player was used to store programs and data. Seriously. Cassette tape. You can imagine how well that worked.

The first drive, which contained the required floppy drive controller adaptor, sold for about $1,200. Adjusted for inflation that’s almost $3,000 today. The second drive sold for about $800.

These floppies are single sided, double density, so they could store a whopping 180K on a single floppy disk. That’s 180 thousand bytes. Not even enough to store a single average sized JPEG photo.

Oh, and did I mention that floppies back then cost up to $5 to $10 each? The company I worked for back then sold genuine IBM brand floppy disks. They sold for “just” $10 each. We’d give you a deal, $95 for a box of ten. I just paid about that much for a 4 terabyte drive for pete’s sake. But at the time I was selling 5 megabyte hard drives to businesses for a cool $5,000 each. Considering what prices were like back then I’m surprised anyone ever bought one of these things. Adjusted for inflation that hard drive would sell today for over $12K.

This is what ran the whole show, the Z80 CPU. Most of the really popular computers of the day like the Apple ][, Commodore 64, Atari 400/800, etc. used the 6502 processor in their equipment. They used it not because it was good (it wasn’t), they used it because it was cheap. The Z80 was more expensive, but it was also more powerful. It had a better register system (it had some 16 bit registers which the 6502 lacked), more registers, better indexing, better instruction set, etc. It was more expensive, yes, but it more than made up for that with its capabilities. I’m not sure why RS decided to go with the Z80, but they did, and they kept using it for a rather long time. It served as the primary processing power for the Mod I, Mod II, Mod III, Mod IV, and the Mod-100. RS did use other processors as well. It used the 6809 in its “toy” computer, the Color Computer (ironically, the 6809 in their toy color computer was a much, much more powerful processor than the Z-80 used in their ‘professional’ computers)

The picture above shows the main board of the Mod IV. This was the first time I’ve had a Mod IV open (back in the day Mod I, Mod III and Atari were the ones I mostly worked on. By the time the Mod IV came out I’d switched to the Color Computer and OS9) and I was a bit disappointed when I saw this, well, mess is the only way you can describe that board. If you look closely at that photo you’ll find jumper wires hand soldered to various points all over the board. The backside of the board is just as bad. More wires running everywhere. And most of those don’t look like repairs or modifications, they look like they were done at the factory. When I see a main board with jumpers running all over like that it makes me nervous. It means either the circuit board was badly designed in the first place, or they found serious bugs in the hardware after it went into production and they had to pull them off the line and do some pretty serious rewiring to get them working, or they were trying to make modifications without bothering to redesign the circuit board. I don’t know what’s going on here, but if I’d opened up my brand new Mod IV and saw this it wouldn’t exactly inspire confidence.

Radio Shack/Tandy sold a lot of computers back then, but it also made a lot of mistakes, some of them serious. Once the IBM-PC was introduced, RS tried to compete in the business market with the Model 6, which was, for the time, a very sophisticated, multi-user system that sported a 5 meg hard drive, and the Xenix operating system. But it was also very, very expensive and if you wanted to do anything that couldn’t be done with the very limited selection of software available for it, required you to hire a professional programmer to write it for you. They brought out a line of PC clones which had a whole host of problems and were generally more expensive than other equipment with the same specifications. Basically they did just about everything wrong that they could do, and ended up abandoning the computer business entirely. Now the company is gone completely, for the most part.

That’s all for now. One of these days I might talk about the Tandy Color Computer. That was the Radio Shack computer I was the most involved with back in the day. Despite the fact most people looked at it as little more than a toy, it was an amazingly sophisticated computer once you got past the ridiculous operating system Radio Shack crippled it with. Most of us back then chucked Radio Shack’s OS in the trash and ran a multitasking, multiuser operating system called OS9

Still More Stuff!!

Taking a look at a very curious cell phone health scare, FDA’s approval of dicamba for two years, the farm bill, fish oil, vitamin D, farmland prices, and other, well, stuff…

 

Yet Another Cell Phone Scare

A significant number of people have been claiming cell phones cause cancer ever since cell phones started to come into common use. And every once in a while another “scientific study” is trotted out to support that claim. Invariably it turns out that either the study was badly flawed or the story was the result of some news reporter who didn’t know how to read a scientific paper, didn’t understand statistics, or was even just making stuff up.

images.jpgThe latest scare is the media claiming there is a study that “proves” cell phone use causes brain cancer. Even NBC apparently bit on this one. And all of these news reports ignore the fact that this study is, well, weird and it’s results highly questionable.

The study is real. You can read it yourself  here . And if you actually read it, which most of the news media didn’t bother to do, you’ll notice some very curious things which don’t make a whole heck of a lot of sense.

There were actually two studies, one of rats, one of mice, looking at the effects of exposing both groups to radio waves in the frequency ranges used by cell phones. The exposure began in utero, by exposing the mothers of the animals to RF (radio frequencies) before they were born, and continued during the entire study. They were exposed in a set cycle, 10 minutes on, 10 minutes off.

Now, of the animals who were exposed like this, the male mice, female mice and female2d418532a97bbb869201f29d4a1cad50.jpg rats showed no increase in cancer. None. But male rats, on the other hand, did, with a small percentage of them developing brain and/or heart cancer of a specific type.

Let me repeat that, the only animals that showed any adverse effects were male rats. Not female rats. Not male mice. Not female mice. Just male rats. Why did only the male rats develop an elevated risk for cancer? Why didn’t the mice develop cancer as well? Why not female rats? Don’t know. And the numbers of male rats that were affected were really quite low as well, down in the single digits. This is a very odd result and it makes one think there might have been something else going on here other than exposure to cell phone radio frequencies.

And here is another odd fact: The animals that were exposed to cell phone radio frequencies actually lived longer than those in the control group which were not exposed to RF. So on the one hand male rats had a slightly elevated risk of cancer, but at the same time all of the animals exposed to cell phone radiation lived longer? 

There are some very odd things going on with this study that need to be explained before one can draw any kind of conclusions from it. If you want to read a review of the study by a real doctor, go over to Neurological by Steven Novella. He takes a better and more in-depth look at the study and its problems.

And here’s another point. Despite all of the people claiming cell phones cause brain cancer, actual epidemiological data indicates that it doesn’t. We’ve been tracking brain cancers for decades, going back to many years before cell phone use became common. If there was a relationship between brain cancer and cell phone use, the number of cases should have started to increase within a few years of cell phone use becoming widespread. But it hasn’t. The incidence of brain cancer has been essentially flat for decades.

So why do these stories keep popping up? Money, of course. Scare headlines generate eyeballs on TVs and clicks on websites, and that means increased revenue for the hosting entity. And since things like editorial integrity, accuracy and common sense have long ago flown out the window in favor of profit at any cost, we get garbage like this.

Dicamba Approved by EPA

Despite all of the very serious problems associated with the use of the herbicide dicamba, it’s been approved for use by the EPA for the 2019 and 2020 growing seasons. While the agency and the makers of the stuff are touting new rules that will, they claim, reduce or eliminate the problems with drifting, the new rules aren’t much different from those in place during 2018 when more than 1 million acres of crops were damaged by the drifting herbicide. A lot of farmers who normally wouldn’t plant the GMO soybeans that are resistant to the herbicide it feel they are being pressured into paying for the more expensive seed just to keep their crops from being damaged by drifting herbicide from their neighbors.

Election Fallout: The Farm Bill

As usual, the Farm Bill has been languishing in the Congress for months now. The problem has been that the House wants to make dramatic changes to the SNAP program that, among other things, would require almost everyone except children and the elderly to work at least 20 hours a week in order to get benefits. The Senate doesn’t want anything to do with some of those changes, and there has been no real attempt at compromise between the two bodies. But now that the House will be controlled by Democrats come January, I think you’ll see some people trying to desperately get anything passed before the change over to prevent the Dems from having any influence on the bill.

Vitamin D Study & Fish Oil

For years now supplement makers have been pushing vitamin D and pushing it hard, making claims that range from the silly to the dubious to the downright dangerous about the stuff. And while D is important, do you really need to take a supplement at all?

Well, a 5 year long study says no. Vitamin D supplements did absolutely nothing to reduce the risk of cancer or heart problems or stroke. Zip. Nada.

Another study also looked at fish oil supplements and the results were disappointing there as well. Fish oil didn’t lower the risk of heart disease or cancer either. But here was a statistically significant lowering of the risk of heart attack. The lowering of risk of heart attack was especially noticeable among African Americans. They aren’t sure why but there is some suspicion that it might be because African Americans could be eating less fish than the rest of the population.

One good thing about the study was that it while it showed that D supplements did no good at all and fish oil supplements didn’t do very much, there seemed to be no adverse side effects from taking either of them at the levels used in the study. The same can’t be said for a lot of the other snake oil the supplement industry pushes.

The supplement industry is a pet peeve of mine. It scams people out of billions of dollars a year by selling products with vague promises that they will do something to help them, when, in actual fact, they do nothing to help people and can even be down right dangerous. Thanks to the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994  supplements are almost totally unregulated. Supplements are not approved by the FDA, are not tested by anyone except the manufacturer, and they don’t even have to prove they’re safe before they sell them. The FDA is specifically denied authority to regulate or test these products. The only time the FDA can step in is if there is evidence that a product has actually harmed someone. This means that ineffective and even dangerous products can be sold freely until it becomes obvious that people are being hurt by them.

Even more troubling is the fact that independent analysis of a lot of products discovered that what you see on that label may not actually be in the product itself, and that there could be a lot of things in there that aren’t listed on the label. When tested for content, it’s been found that a significant percentage of these products have inaccurate labels. Some had little or none of the “active” ingredient in them. A lot of them had fillers that were not listed on the label. Some were contaminated by things that were downright dangerous. Some had actual prescription drugs in them. Basically you don’t know what the hell is really in that capsule.

What it boils down to is this: If you eat a reasonably well balanced diet that is fairly heavy on vegetables and fruits, and eat fish once or twice a week, you don’t need supplements of any kind. You’re getting more than enough of the right nutrients to keep you healthy. The health claims made by these supplements, whether herbal or vitamins or oils or whatever, are completely bogus.

Farmland Prices Relatively Stable

I found this one a bit surprising. Prices for corn, soybeans and milk are horrible and don’t show any sign of improving any time soon. A lot of farmers are in serious financial trouble. Wisconsin alone has lost almost 500 dairy farms just this year. So you’d think that farmland sale prices and rental prices would be going down. But that doesn’t seem to be the case. Prices have been stable and even creeping up a bit in some parts of the country. In this area farmland prices have been up about 4% overall. But as the article in that link over at AgWeb says, this isn’t going to continue. Farmers have been operating right on the edge, financially speaking for 3-4 years now. With corn sitting at around 3.70 on the commodities exchange (and cash price being quite a bit less than that), well, if you’re paying $200/acre rent or more to grow corn, you might as well not even bother.

In this neck of the woods land prices have been stable, even creeping up a bit, but that’s due to the big mega-dairy operations needing land for manure disposal. If they don’t have enough acreage to dispose of their manure, they can’t get operating permits, bank loans, etc.

Some of the rental prices I’ve been hearing of in this area are a bit ridiculous. One fellow told me his neighbor was renting a 20 acre parcel to one of the mega-farms for $600/acre. They crop it, yes, but they wanted it mainly for manure disposal. Now I’m not going to question the fellow’s statement, but, well, $600/acre is just crazy and I suspect he misheard that figure.

I am really glad my sister and I sold the farm when we did. We got out almost at the peak of the market in that area. If we’d waited another year or two to sell we’d have gotten $1,000 – $2,000 per acre less than what we did.

Amateur Radio’s New Digital Mode, FT8. Let the controversy begin…

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Gads, what a mess

Amateur radio has a new toy to play with, a new digital mode called FT8. The name

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WSJT software in action

comes from the first two letters of the last names of its developers, Franke (K9AN) and Taylor (K1JT), plus the number 8 because it uses 8 frequency shift keying. The new mode has only been generally available since late June or July 2017 when it released as a beta. And it almost immediately took over amateur radio down on the HF bands. I’ve seen estimates that claim that more than half of all contacts on HF are now taking place using FT8.

FT8 is a “weak signal” mode, meaning that you can often successfully decode signals that are down around -20 dB. This is not as good as some of the other digital modes out there such as JT65 which can go as low as -28 dB. But it is much, much faster to make a contact with FT8 than with JT65. Like any communications mode, it has advantages and drawbacks. And like most digital communications modes, it requires a computer interfaced to your transceiver.

I’m always up for something new, and with temperatures hovering down around 0(F) fiddling around with FT8 has seemed like a good way to spend my free time over the last few days. I already had the WSJT software installed on my Win10 computer but hadn’t really had much incentive to do much with it until now.

I won’t go into the details of getting the software installed, configured, hooking things up to your transceiver, etc. There are dozens of tutorials out there. How you set it all up is going to depend on your computer, what transceiver you’re using, sound card, etc. In my case I’m using a Kenwood TS-990 with a RigBlaster Advantage, the same equipment I use for my other digital modes.

Initial setup wasn’t too difficult. The FT8 Operating Guide by Gary Hinson was a big help in getting everything working properly and is highly recommended.

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First FT8 contact

Much to my surprise, I actually got everything working without a great deal of difficulty and after getting set up and calibrated I took a stab at calling CQ on 15 meters and actually made a contact. WA7MPG in Canada BC.

So, what’s the controversy I mentioned in the title of this? Nothing less than (drum roll please) the end of amateur radio! (Imagine spooky voice saying that)

Yes, according to some out there, FT8 heralds the end of amateur radio. Well, true, they said the same thing about SSB, packet radio, repeaters, PSK, digital voice, SSTV, dropping the morse code requirement and, well, pretty much every innovation to come along in the last 100 years or so. But this time it’s really the end! Really!

Oh, brother…

The complaints are due to the fact that FT8 is almost entirely automated. Contacts via FT8 consist of brief, 15 second long exchanges of call sign, grid location, signal strength, and then a 73 to end, all done by the software. A click or two of the mouse is all it takes to start the whole process, and then you sit back and watch the computer do the work.

And this is what they’re complaining about. It takes the “human element” out of the whole thing, they claim. It is just making contacts for the sake of racking up another contact in the log. It isn’t “real” amateur radio. It isn’t real communications. It’s just two computers talking to one another.

The arguments are just silly, of course. Yes, it’s real communications. Information is being exchanged. And as for the other arguments, well, the same things could be said about any digital mode of communications; RTTY, PSK, etc. If you monitor the people who use those modes you’ll quickly find that most “conversations” take the form of pre-written and stored messages or macros that are sent automatically. Heck, if you monitor the CW portions of the bands you’ll find a lot of people are doing the same thing even with CW using decoding software and keyers.

Look, amateur radio includes a huge variety of methods of communications, both analog and digital. Everyone has their own favorite thing to do. But there are a lot of amateur radio operators out there who can’t afford to operate a contest quality station with acres of antennas and ten thousand dollar transceivers and amplifiers, but who would still love to log contacts with other amateur radio operators in far off places. FT8 allows people with modest equipment and antennas to use a weak signal mode to make contacts that they normally would probably never be able to make. It doesn’t encroach on the territory of the SSB or CW portions of the bands.

So why all the complaints? I’m not really sure. FT8 has become wildly popular for a lot of very good reasons, and it isn’t going to go away any time soon. Even better, it’s getting a lot of amateur radio operators who weren’t all that active before to start exploring the hobby once more.

Am I going to use FT8 a lot? Heck, I don’t know. I’m one of those very odd amateur radio operators who doesn’t actually like to talk to people. I’m more into it because of the technology. But I still like to get on the air once in a while, if for no other reason than to test equipment and antennas. FT8 could at least make my contact log look a lot less sparse, so maybe. We’ll see.

 

Getting Caught Up With Stuff

Water Tower Stuff

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They’re working on the water tower here in town. As someone who gets nervous standing on a step ladder, I can’t imagine how those guys up there do this job. I know they have safety equipment and all that, but still, hanging from a rope a hundred feet up like that? No way I could ever do something like that.

New Computer Stuff

IMG_0566The new computer is up and running beautifully. Very fast, slick computer, but the Nvidia 1050 TI card was damaged in shipment so I’ve been using the motherboard’s onboard Intel graphics. That works, until I do anything that demands any kind of high resolution, high frame rate video, and then everything falls apart real fast. I’ve tried playing Skyrim on it and while it works, the graphics are terrible and the only way to get the frame rate up to acceptable level is to turn the draw distance down so far I can’t even see enemies attacking me from just a couple of hundred feet away. Sigh. Second Life is even worse. Complex scenes with a large variety of different textures don’t render at all, probably because the graphics card doesn’t have enough memory to deal with all of it. The replacement video card is in, but it’s at my eldest son’s house, and he’s gone up north for the weekend, so it’s going to be Monday evening before I can really see what this thing can do.

ES was telling me he had trouble getting the 1050 card, and a quick scrounge around Amazon reinforced that. Every vendor I found on Amazon had disclaimers that the item was out of stock and wouldn’t be in stock for 3, 4 or more days. And that date kept shifting even farther into the future during the past week.

Gardening Stuff

The gardens have been doing pretty good this year, with the occasional glitch. I mentioned we have a fungus attacking the tomatoes because of the very damp summer we’ve had. We aren’t the only one. Almost everyone I’ve talked to has the same problem with their tomatoes this year. One group of pepper plants got pushed over when we had high winds roll through a few weeks ago, and they never recovered very well, alas. Some are doing okay, but others just barely survived. Not a bad thing because we planted way too many pepper plants this year, but still disappointing. Heard the other day that this summer is one of the wettest on record, which doesn’t surprise me at all.

Tomatoes: We messed up, and Building Computers

IMG_0551We messed up with the tomatoes this year. It’s partly our own fault, partly the fault of the weather this year. They’ve developed a kind of fungus that’s slowly working it’s way up the plant from the bottom, taking out the leaves. Not exactly pretty. We’re getting fruit, but we won’t get anywhere near as much as we should because of it.

Tomatoes can be a bit fragile. Depending on which variety you plant, there are all sorts of diseases the plants can get. In this case a combination of factors, the overly wet weather we’ve had this summer along with our planting the tomatoes way too close together, created an environment that permitted fungus to develop and thrive in the damp, warm conditions.

This is at least partly our own fault. We badly overcrowded the plants. There are twice as many in there as there really should be. Spreading the plants out more would certainly have helped. And there are commercial fungicides that can help with this.

We’ve been talking about putting in two more raised beds this size and perhaps this will finally get me to stop procrastinating and actually do it. We definitely need more space if we’re going to keep growing this many tomatoes.

IMG_0556Computer stuff: My gaming computer, a really really nice Razor Blade laptop, decided it didn’t like me any more, got so hot the case burned my hands, and then died. I suspect the graphics card went bad, but we’re not really sure. In any case, it’s well outside of the warranty period and would probably cost more than the computer is worth to try to get it fixed. And it was pointed out to me that I could build a computer with much better specs than any gaming laptop had, for half the cost, if I went with a desktop system. So Saturday we were sitting here looking at the box full of stuff you see there on the left.

Now the last computer I built with my own hands was a 486, so that ought to give you some idea how long it’s been. I could probably have put one together myself, but Eldest Son builds this kind of stuff all the time so I let him spec out the system, select the parts and actually put the thing together. ES figures that if anything is worth doing, it’s worth doing not only to excess, but ridiculously over the top. So what IMG_0566I ended up with is this over on the right.

What we ended up with was a transparent case to show off all the fancy bits inside, and enough strobing, glowing, swirling interior lighting to put a 1970s disco to shame. All it needs is a spinning disco mirror ball hanging inside to complete the look. Sheesh…

Of course absolutely none of that has anything to do with how it actually works as a computer. So, how does it work as an actual computer? Holy s**t it’s fast! The latest Core i7 processor clocked at 4.7 Ghz, high speed Samsung SSD, threaded this and hyper that. The thing has a liquid cooling system and 8 (???) fans, 8 USB3 ports, 3 Thunderbolt ports.

And I have absolutely no idea how well it works for gaming because the video card was DOA.

Sigh… We suspect it was damaged in transit because it looks like one of the shields on the card was pushed into one of the circuit boards, so ES took it off to get a replacement. It runs, but only using the motherboard’s built in Intel video.

The interesting thing is that it seems no one has Nvidia graphics cards. It took ES almost two weeks to get this one in, and a quick browse around Amazon indicates that pretty much no one has them in stock right now. Every single listing for the Nvidia 1050 or 1080 card shows “Not available until August 10”. What’s going on? I have no idea.

So until we can get the Nvidia card replace, I won’t really know how well it will work as an actual gaming machine.

Oh, I also switched off almost all of the interior lights on the thing. It looks really neat. For about 30 seconds, then the strobing and swirling and lighting effects become seriously annoying.

Stuff: New Photo Printer and the Bad Old Days

I’m a serious photographer and have been for something like 40 years. I’m not a professional, but I try to turn out photographs that are as good as I can make them. One of the problems photographers have always had is making good prints of the images they make, especially making prints that are larger than the usual snapshot sized print.

There are a lot of inkjet printers on the market that claim they are “photo printers”, a lot of them are really cheap, well under $100. But let’s face it, most of them aren’t very good, especially when you’re trying to make larger sized prints. The biggest size they can handle is the standard 8X10 or 8X11 sized papers, and the images they crank out aren’t that good when scaled up to that size, and all too often the inks and pigments used fade quickly when exposed to light.

Screen Shot 2017-07-18 at 6.05.49 AMSo I finally broke down and got a professional grade photo printer, the Cannon Pixma 100. It’s at the low end of the professional level printer. It retails for around $500, and can handle paper up to 13 X 19 in size, which is big enough for my purposes. It uses dyes rather than pigments. There is a big argument going on between the dye proponents and the pigment proponents about quality of the images, their long term stability, color, etc. and I’m just not going to get into that nonsense. As far as I can tell, the two different techniques are about equal when it comes to overall quality and the lifespan of the images.

Now there are a lot of printing services out there that will take your images and make larger format prints for you, and they do a decent job. But if you want to print a lot of images, it doesn’t take long before you realize that it’s a heck of a lot cheaper to do it yourself.

There was a bit of a learning curve as I figured out how to get the most out of the printer, but now that I’ve discovered the right papers to use (stick with the Cannon Luster line of paper, that seems to work best), the right settings, and how to properly tweak an image for printing, I’m more than satisfied with the results. Some of the ads I’ve seen for the Pixma line of printers claim “gallery ready prints” and they aren’t far off the mark on that claim.

All of this got me thinking about how photography has evolved in the last 40 years or so, and the advances in technology have been mind boggling when I stop and think about it.

Screen Shot 2017-07-26 at 6.43.14 AMWhen I first got interested in photography on a serious basis, a good 35mm camera would set you back about $350 for just the camera body. The lens was usually sold separately, and a good one could set you back more than what the camera itself cost. The first good 35mm camera we had was a Minolta XGM, an almost but not quite professional 35mm SLR camera. That cost me $345 back in 1981. By the time I got a decent lens, filters and everything else I needed, I think the grand total was about $800 for the whole package. And that’s in 1980 dollars. Adjusted for inflation I suspect that would come to around $2,000 today.

Screen Shot 2017-07-26 at 6.56.24 AMIt was, for it’s day, a very good camera, especially when compared to the crappy pocket cameras like the Kodak Instamatic with it’s even worse film loaded into those dopy cartridges which was the most popular mass market photography system at the time. They were horrible. The photos and negatives they turned out were even worse, thanks in part to poor manufacturing, poor materials, bad lenses, and the cheapest, nastiest film you could imagine. While it was good enough for a small, wallet sized image, if you wanted to blow it up to a larger size, forget about it. The film was so grainy the images were totally unacceptable if you tried to blow them up to anything larger than a 4X5 print.

While I’m on the subject of film, let’s continue along that line.

Ah, film — The good old days of 35mm film. Well, no, they weren’t all that good, the film days. In fact, they were bloody horrible, the film days. The photographers who wax poetic about the “good old days” of film and how wonderful they were probably never had to actually work with the stuff.

Screen Shot 2017-07-26 at 7.16.03 AMMost people bought film in small canisters like the one shown here. The body was generally made of metal and the end caps were plastic. Film was wound on a spool inside of the canister. You can see where the film comes out of the can on the right side of the cartridge, it’s that little brown flap. That’s the leader. A couple of inches of film stuck out.

You’d open the camera, drop the canister into a space in the camera, pull a few inches of film out of the cartridge, across the shutter opening, onto a take-up spool on the other side, thread the film onto that spool. Then close the camera up and wind several inches of film through to make sure the take-up spool had latched onto it. Oh, and there were slots in the edges of the film that had to fit onto small gears in the camera to pull the film through when you turned the film advance knob or lever. And hope like hell the those holes lined up right and didn’t strip out, because if they did, you’re film wouldn’t advance and you’d lose the entire roll of film.

Film was not cheap. It wasn’t wildly expensive, all things considered, but it wasn’t exactly cheap, either, and most photographers gave careful thought to what they were shooting because you couldn’t afford to waste film or processing. And you only had a very limited number of images per roll, usually 24-36 images.

Screen Shot 2017-07-26 at 7.17.12 AMPeople who did a lot of photography often bought film in bulk and loaded the canisters themselves using gadgets like the one here. This is a bulk film loader. Your roll of bulk film would go in the big end, and then you’d use the crank to wind it into your film canisters. It was a pain in the neck, but it did work, and it did help cut costs a bit. I used to do this and it worked fairly good most of the time. Well, sometimes. Maybe.

Oh, and I should point out that whenever you were working with film before it had been processed into negatives you had to do it in total darkness. And I mean total darkness. Any stray light at all would fog the film and ruin it.

Then there was the question of what kind of film to get. There were dozens of different kinds, some intended for general use, some intended for special purposes. There was slide film. There was print film. There was B&W and color. Films came in different grains, different speeds… The list goes on and on.

The most important was probably film speed. That’s what that big “400” is on the canister above, the ISO rating of the film. To keep things simple, ISO was a rating of how sensitive the film was to light, basically how quickly the film could capture enough light, so to speak, to make a usable image. Generally speaking, the bigger that number, the “faster” the film was, i.e. the more sensitive it was to light. The faster the film, the less time the shutter had to be open to allow the film to capture enough light to make a usable image. ISO 100 was the most common in use for hobby photographers, but it was considered a “daylight” film, in that it needed bright lighting conditions or use of a flash or strobe. Otherwise the shutter had to be open so long that you needed a tripod to keep the camera stable so the image wouldn’t be blurred.

ISO 400 was a much faster film that permitted faster shutter speeds, reducing blur, and reducing the need to use a flash or strobe in lower light conditions. But there are always trade offs. ISO 400 films were not as fine grained, didn’t give as good detail in the final image as the slower speed films did. It was also a bit more expensive. In the 1980s the technology and chemistry improved to the point where some ISO 400 films were almost as good as the ISO 100 films when it came to grain size and image quality and for general use most people had switched to the 400 speed films.

ISO ratings ran from about 30, a very, very slow film, up to about 1,600, if I remember right. And then there were tricks you could do to “push” film to a faster ISO rating through processing back in the darkroom. Some films could be push processed with some success, some couldn’t. And again there were tradeoffs. Image quality degraded rapidly when you push-processed film in most cases. I experimented with push processing, pushing 400 film up as high as 1600 or more for night photography, but the results were not very good.

Now, you’ve got the camera, you’ve got the lens, you’ve got the film. You’ve taken some photos, now, let’s take a look at them, shall we? Uh, well, no. Not yet. If you open up that camera at that point, all you’ll do is ruin the film and all of the photos you took.

Remember that canister, and the takeup spool and the gears and all that stuff inside the camera? Once you reach the end of the spool of film, now you have to wind all of it back into the canister before you can even open up the camera. You’d turn a little crank or knob on the camera to wind it back into the can. Once you did that you could take out the canister safely.

You now have to get the film processed into negatives and made into prints. Most people took them to a store where you’d stick it into an envelope with your name and address on it and it would be shipped off to a lab somewhere, and in a week or so you’d get your film back in the form of negatives, and a set of snapshots, small prints of the images you’d made. And the results were, well, terms like “generic” come to mind because all of that film was fed through massive developing and printing machines that used standard processing and exposure times for everything that was shoved through them. If al you were taking were snapshots of the family vacation, they were fine. But if you were a serious photographer and were making images that were in any way outside of the norm, well, forget it. That kind of thing meant shipping it off to a custom processing lab, which was expensive, or you did it yourself as I did.

First you had to get the film out of the canister. You’d pop the end off, pull the film out, and then…

Oh, did I mention that you have to do this in complete darkness? Yeah, you do…

Screen Shot 2017-07-26 at 7.19.13 AMYou then put the film on a special spool that fits inside of a developing tank. Once you get the spool in the tank and get it closed, you can turn the lights back on because the tanks were light proof.

Now comes developing. You mix up a witch’s brew of developing chemicals. Exactly what you used depended on the kind of film you were using. Pour it in the tank, then gently agitate the tank for the specified amount of time. Then you rinse it with clean water, take out the spool, and bingo, you have negatives. They have to hang up and dry, then you generally cute the long strip into shorter lengths with about four to six images per strip.

And you aren’t done yet. Now you have to take those negatives and make actual prints of them on special photographic paper.

And just as there were many different types of film, there were many, many different types of papers, and which one you used depended on the kind of film you were using, what kind of prints you wanted, what kind of surface you wanted the finished print to have… There were dozens of different kinds of papers for color and black and white.

Oh, and the paper has to be kept in totally light proof boxes, and can only be used in total darkness. Those “safety lights” you’d sometimes see in darkrooms that allegedly let you see what you were doing without damaging the paper? Uh, about those… They only worked with a very limited number of paper types, and even then, they had to be kept so dim they were virtually useless or the paper would be ruined. So most of us worked in complete darkness.

Now, to make a print, you need still more special equipment. You need an enlarger, a timer, and a laboratory that looks like it came straight out of the Mad Scientist’s Handbook.

Let’s look at enlargers first. Why do you need one in the first place? The reason is that 35mm film yields 35mm negatives. Which is why they call it 35mm film in the first place. Duh… Now you could make a print by just laying the negative on the paper and shining a light on it. But that will give you a 35mm print, and that’s just, well, silly, okay? You want something larger, like an 8X10.

Screen Shot 2017-07-18 at 6.24.54 AMSo, here’s an enlarger. I had a Durst enlarger back in the day. Mine was considerably more elaborate (and expensive) than the one in this ad.

How they work is the negative is placed in a frame that is inserted in the head. There is a lamp in the head which shines the light down through the negative, through a special lens, down onto the paper placed on the bed below. Enlargers could get as complicated and expensive as you cared to make them. Probably the most important part of the enlarger was the lens, because that determines the quality of the image that is projected onto the photo paper.

Now you also needed a timer, because that image had to be projected onto the paper for a specific period of time. Too short and the image would be pale and ghostly. Too long and you’d end up with a print that looked like it was taken at midnight or even completely black. Exactly how long you exposed the paper depended on a variety of factors; the film, the film density, how bright or dark you wanted the print, the kind of paper you were using. Proper exposure could take just a few seconds, or it could take many minutes depending on what you were doing and the materials you were using.

Screen Shot 2017-07-29 at 6.26.53 AMOnce you have the photo paper exposed with the enlarger you’re still not done. Now you have to develop the paper using a variety of different chemicals. You need several trays big enough to hold the paper, a dark room, timers, a sink, a water supply, and lots and lots of yummy chemicals.

The paper has to be soaked in various chemical solutions – developer, fixer, etc. for varying lengths of time until the image appears on the paper. Then it has to be washed in clean water and hung up to dry. Oh, and most of that has to be done in complete darkness as well. That photo up there is red because they’re using safety lights. But about 99% of the time you were working with film and papers that could only be handled in total darkness, and even the dim safety lights would ruin them.

Screen Shot 2017-07-19 at 7.07.58 AMNow the lab up there looks pretty good, it’s probably a professional or semi-pro lab. Most home darkrooms looked more like this because they were squeezed into basements, large closets, even special built rooms in spare bedrooms or wherever they could be crammed in. They were messy, smelly, nasty, and you were working with some pretty hairy chemicals sometimes, many of which were poisonous.

And this was just for B&W photography, by the way. If you wanted to do color, it required a whole different setup, with much more complex and expensive enlargers, processing tanks, timers, heaters…

Now I admit that every once in a while I feel a bit of nostalgia for the “good old days” of film photography. But then I take and aspirin, have a little lay down and I feel better and remember that the “good old days” were bloody awful. And I have gladly, even gleefully traded all of that for digital cameras and computers and modern photo printers.