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…

Screen Shot 2018-02-11 at 8.43.39 AM
Gads, what a mess

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

Screen Shot 2018-02-11 at 8.44.04 AM
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.

Screen Shot 2018-02-11 at 12.21.21 PM
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

IMG_0568.jpg

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.

Miscellaneous Stuff & Retired?

IMG_0375Cactus

I think Mr. Spiny the cactus is about to bloom! The cactus has been doing really well out there tucked up against the side of the house but it hasn’t blossomed in two years. It is currently loaded with new pads, but I noticed some of the new buds looked different, and may be flowers, not pads. I really hope so. The flowers on this plant are absolutely spectacular.

Whitefish Dunes State Park has become one of my favorite places. It has about 880 acres of shoreline along Lake Michigan up in Door County, and it’s well worth the price of admission. I’m not sure what the cost is because I get a yearly pass as part of my conservation patron license, but I think it’s about $8 for a day pass.

It’s hard to pick out a single photo from the park that is representative of how beautiful it is, but perhaps this one will do:

IMG_0343.jpg

People seem to think Wisconsin is a rather dull place, with flat land, corn, cows and football. But we have more than 14,000 lakes, plus Lake Michigan. We have cliffs, rivers, forests, water falls… Well, you get the idea.

Alas, I’m not sure how long the state park system is going to continue to exist, though. The current administration down in Madison has cut off all state funding for the park system. It’s only funding now is what it can generate from entrance and camping fees.

Lichen

I continue to be fascinated with lichen for some reason. If I’d ever actually gone to the botany class I signed up for in college I might actually know something about it. But I find the colors, the forms, and everything about it fascinating, and if you’d look through my photo library you’d find a lot of images of lichen and mosses. Most people find the photos rather dull, without the splashy colors of my flower photos, but I think lichen has it’s own unique beauty. Like this, for example

IMG_0362.jpg

The subtle shadings of greens and yellows and browns, the amazing shapes. Like I said, I’m fascinated with it.

Storms

We’ve been getting a lot of them of late. We’ve had severe thunderstorms roll through here two or three days in a row now, and we’re getting a bit tired of it. Here at the house we’ve avoided the worst of it, but there have been trees taken down, power outages, minor flooding and building damage all over the area with every one of these. It’s kept the SkyWarn people busy, as well as the utility crews trying to keep up with the damage.

I was really glad we had the backup generator yesterday. Power was out for about 45 minutes and if I hadn’t been able to use the generator we’d have ended up with about a foot of water in the basement because of the heavy rains. We got over an inch and a half of rain in about half an hour here. The sump pump was kicking in every 2-3 minutes all the while.

We actually have 2 generators. One is a little 2KW Yamaha inverter that was originally intended just to run the radio equipment for field day or in emergencies for ARES operations. The other is a big Generac 9KW that was intended to power most of the house. The intention originally was to put a big connector on the outside of the house going to the Generac and using it to run the whole house. As long as we don’t use the ovens, turn on every light in the house, etc., it would have enough capacity to keep everything going. But we never got around to installing the bypass switches and connectors necessary. And when we do have a power failure, the little Yamaha can keep the sump pumps going as well as the radios and a few lights. It’s also much, much easier to move around and get started. It also uses a hell of a lot less gas and is much, much quieter.

IMG_0377Roses! The first roses of the season have popped open at last. I’m not a huge rose fan. I like them, but generally I find them a bit fussy and fiddly to deal with. The one we have in the front of the house takes care of itself pretty much. It just keeps coming back year after year, surviving drought, wet, cold, heat…

That’s my kind of plant – just stick it in the ground and ignore it and it takes care of itself.

Oh, and while I’m on the subject of plants, we found this incredible tree up in Door County as well when we were up there on Monday. Neither of us had ever seen anything quite like it before. Covered with these beautiful red, white and yellow flowers.. Absolutely breathtaking. I don’t know what it is. Have been too busy (i.e. lazy) to actually do research to look it up.

IMG_0372

Retired

I turned in my resignation at work last week and I am still trying to wrap my head around the fact that I am unemployed. Willingly unemployed. It doesn’t seem right somehow.

Well, it isn’t like I was putting in a lot of hours at the job anyway, to be honest. The position I’ve been in for the last two years or so was part time, and more or less on an “as needed” basis. I worked for events at the theater, filled in when one of the day guys was out sick, or there was a situation that required extra help, that kind of thing. A lot of weeks I didn’t work at all and it was rare for me to put in more than 20 – 30 hours a month.

Still, not having a job? It feels — strange. Feels, oh, not right somehow.

 

Changes… And New Toy… And My Mind Wanders. Again

IMG_0167This is my new toy, a Raspberry Pi 3. If you want to experiment with building evil robotic minions to help you to take over the world, this is a good place to start. It has a 64 bit, quad core ARM A53 processor running at 1.2 GHZ, a gig of RAM, 4 USB ports, an HDMI port, LAN port, WiFi, reasonably good graphics and sound, and runs a version of LINUX. It can connect to the outside world to enable the computer to hook up to sensors, relays and controllers to make evil robots to allow you to take over the world, control devices, record data from sensors and all sorts of fun things.

And it costs a whopping $35. Less than what it would cost me to get a good meal at that fancy restaurant a couple of blocks from here. Hell, less than what just a bottle of wine would cost over there.

Now this, on the other hand… Well, not on the other hand because you couldn’t pick it up with one hand, but you get the idea. This is the first computer I ever owned. It is a Ohio Scientific C2-8P, and if you’ve 2ecd9544af30be5a0d4d8f7926065484never heard of it, I don’t blame you. Ohio Scientific is just one of many, many computer makers that tried to get into the home and small business market back in the late 1970s through the mid 1980s, and failed. It did better than a lot of them did, but eventually it failed, along with Atari, Commodore, Apricot, Coleco, Exidy, Franklin, Panasonic, Radio Shack/Tandy, Sinclair, Texas Instruments… Well, the list goes on and on.

Mine wasn’t even as good as the one in the photo over there. Mine was an early version that didn’t have the fancy paint and logo on the front. And it was nasty. It was about the size of a microwave oven, packed solid with circuit boards the size of a sheet of paper, each of those stuffed with chips of various types, all hooked together with miles of ribbon cables and wiring.

Mine was kind of odd. Kind of? Ha! It was seriously odd. I’d never seen anything like it before or since. I suspect it was an experimental unit that had been heavily modified. According to the photocopied documentation I got with it, it could support three different processors, a 6502, 6800 or 8080. Or maybe a Z80. Don’t remember. It was a long time ago. They were selected via a rotary switch on the back???? Really? Seriously? I never knew for sure. There was only one CPU board in it when I got it. There was a big rotary switch on the back but it wasn’t wired to anything. I think they had some kind of scheme where the switch would select one of 3 CPU boards connected to the backplane, but since there was only one CPU board and the switching system wasn’t connected I have no idea what the hell they were trying to do.

Why 3 different CPUs? I suspect they intended to use it as some kind of development and/or testing system for different types peripherals. The documentation I had was originally typewritten, with hand written notes in the margins, and then had been photocopied. It was interesting, that’s for sure. Large parts of the machine were wire wrapped and hand soldered so someone had been in there fiddling around. A lot.

It came with a whopping 4K of RAM. I spent hours hand soldering chips to the memory board to bring it up to 8K. The company I bought it from found an extra 8K RAM board for it and gave that to me. It was, of course, unpopulated, so I spent many more hours hand soldering RAM chips to the extra board.

Data storage was on a cassette tape. It read/wrote data to a cassette tape at a whopping 300 baud using the Kansas City Standard (if you know what that is, you really, really need to get out more and get a life). That’s 300 bits per second… Oooo, the excitement! To load the editor/assembler program so I could program in assembly language took 20 minutes. Video was black and white, text only, going to an old Panasonic B&W TV set that I had to re-wire to handle the video input from the computer. The company I bought it from offered to give me a “real deal” on the matching 8 inch floppy drive system for it. I passed because I could have bought a pretty good car for what they wanted for the thing.

What did it all cost? By the time I got it up and working (sort of) I probably had well over a grand invested in the thing.

In a way it was completely worthless, that computer. I never actually did anything genuinely useful with it. But on the other hand, if you count the intangibles it was worth every penny because I taught myself programming in BASIC and assembly language on that beastie. I learned how to solder IC chips to circuit boards. I learned how to hunt down failed components (capacitors failed all over the place on that thing for some reason). I learned why storing data on cassette tape is very, very nasty. Trying to get that thing running and keeping it running taught me more about the technology than all the computer science classes I took in college.

And I learned how to make my own Faraday cage because it put out so much RFI it screwed up every TV and AM radio in the area when I turned it on and had build one around it just so I could use it.

Now, where was I? How did I get off on this? Sheesh, I was going to talk about changes in technology, make pithy remarks about how almost no one back then foresaw how computer technology would evolve, morph into what it is today where computers are literally everywhere, in every aspect of our lives.

Instead I end up doing this ramble down memory lane babbling about a relatively minor player in the early computer market… Sigh.

Damn, I hated that computer. Wish I still had it.