Fiddling With the Yaesu 818ND

Yes, it’s more amateur radio stuff. Hey, I got new toys so I have to play with ’em, right? Anyway, this is not an equipment review. I don’t do those. Doing a proper equipment review requires proper test equipment, extensive knowledge, patience, and a lot of work, and I don’t have any of that stuff. Well, okay, so I do except for the patience thing. And the work thing… I have mentioned I’m one of the laziest people in the state, right? Besides, the 818 has been on the market for some time now and it’s been reviewed by people a lot better than me. Even by people who actually know what they’re doing. Which I don’t. What I do is play with stuff, mess around with it, use it, fiddle with it. I look at stuff not like a reviewer, but as someone who actually uses the equipment I talk about.

Disclaimer: I suppose I should stick this in here because it seems every other person I know these days is trying to be an “influencer” and get companies to send them free stuff and make gazillions of dollars on the youtubes and myspaces and facefarts. I don’t get paid by anyone to do these. The equipment was all purchased by myself, through regular retail channels (in this case Gigaparts). No one gives me free stuff or discounts or anything like that. I am not an “influencer” because apparently you have to be A) young, B) good looking, and C) morally and ethically compromised to be able to do that crap, and I don’t fit in with A, B or C. Although if Kenwood would want to give me a new 890 or Yaesu has an extra 101 laying around with one of those fancy $1,000 microphones, I might be willing to reconsider the whole ethics thing.

Anyway, let’s get on with this, shall we?

Of course it didn’t take me long after getting the Yaesu 818ND in my hot little hands to be overcome with the desperate need to actually play with it. So, while enduring scathing looks of disapproval from MrsGF, I temporarily took over the dining room table to fiddle with it. First with 8 AA alkaline batteries powering it and then with the included rechargeable power pack, and then the next day with an Astron power supply feeding it a more adequate amount of juice.

The 818 is definitely a fun little transceiver, and it is also definitely annoying at the same time, although I’m sure the annoyances will fade as I become more familiar with it. Well, some of them, anyway.

I did read the manual before I set it up and tried using it. Despite what I said in the last post where I implied I never read manuals, that’s not true when it comes to things as complex as transceivers because there is always the possibility of actually damaging the equipment if you do something wrong. Not that the 818 is difficult to set up and get going. Basically you just hook up an antenna, plug in the mic, use the internal battery or connect to a 12V power supply, and it’s ready to go. But if you want to actually do anything useful with it, well, read the manual first!

Speaking of the manual, it’s about average for the kind of thing that comes with amateur radio equipment these days. Which means, of course, that it isn’t really very good. Oh, all the essential details are in there. Sort of. If you managed to pass your general class license test you should be able to figure it out. Maybe.

Like most modern transceivers, the 818 is almost ridiculously complex, which means there are lots and lots of settings and functions to play with, and in order to get at any of them you have to delve into the menu system which I’m not even going to try to describe. I’ll just put it this way, if you lose the manual, you’re screwed.

I want to talk about the annoyances first. I should point out that I really, really like the little 818. It is a nifty little QRP transceiver that does everything I want it to do and more. But there are always annoyances with any piece of equipment, and this one is no exception. And all of them pertain to the user interface, so to speak, not how the radio actually works as a radio.

The most obvious and visible of the annoyances is that LCD display. Take a look at that closeup up there. If it looks a bit dim and fuzzy, that’s because it is dim and fuzzy. It is, frankly, awful. I’m sorry, but it is just utterly terrible and it shouldn’t be. I don’t know if it’s just mine or if this is true for all 818s. This is not a cheap piece of equipment. This thing sells for $650. But that LCD looks like something they swiped off a disposable $5 handheld game. In normal room lighting or in the shade or evening outside, with the backlight off, it’s almost impossible to read it at all. Even with the backlight turned on it’s difficult to read unless I’m directly in front of it at the proper viewing angle. Out in bright sunlight it isn’t bad, but still, there is simply no excuse for that on a piece of equipment this expensive.

Then there is the Squelch/RF/AF gain knob. Like a lot of knobs on transceivers these days it is a double knob. There is a sort of collar around the base of the knob that turns which is the RF gain adjustment, while the main knob is the AF gain. It’s, well, floppy is the only way I can describe it. If I put my index finger on the tip of it and move it, the end of the knob can wiggle back and about 1/16th to 1/8th of an inch. It feels cheap, like that $5 kid’s toy mentioned earlier, and this is more than a little troubling because it makes me wonder how long it’s going to last.

The collar around the base of the knob controls the RF gain and it’s damned near impossible for me to turn it. It’s positioned awkwardly. I can’t actually grasp it. I have to put the tip of my index finger on the side of it and try to push up and down to move it. More often than not I end up moving both the RF gain and the AF knob at the same time.

Interestingly enough, the SEL knob on the left side of the radio is rock solid and exhibits none of the floppiness of the AF gain knob.

Then there are the buttons. They are very small, which is understandable because this is a very small radio. But the buttons are also either recessed into the bezel or there are plastic extrusions surrounding the buttons, which makes them damned near impossible for me to push with a finger tip. I either have to try to use the edge my fingernail to push the buttons or use the eraser end of a pencil.

The only reason to recess the buttons like that is to protect them from accidentally being pressed. But exactly how would they be accidentally be pressed on this radio? You aren’t going to be operating this thing while it’s in your pocket. In fact, I can’t think of any circumstances when it would actually be in operation when there it would experience conditions that would cause a button to be accidentally pressed. If it’s in a carrying bag, sure, it might jostle around to the point where something in the bag could make contact with a button, but the radio isn’t going to be turned on and operating if you’re carrying it in a bag. So what, exactly, are they protecting the buttons from?

Like most transceivers these days, the little 818 is loaded with bells and whistles, all of which are accessed via a system of menus. The menu system is, well, all I can say is that it’s no worse than any other I’ve worked with. You’re going to want to keep a copy of the manual with the radio itself, or at least a cheat sheet with the more commonly used menu items written down. You can get a PDF file of the Yaesu 818 manual here directly from the company’s web site. Once you get to the 818 page, click on the “Files” tab and it will take you to a download page where you can get it as a .PDF in English and several other languages.

Using the 818

As you can see from the lead photo, I’ve had the 818 set up and running on the dining room table (while enduring some rather irritated looks from MrsGF, but then she’s an amateur radio operator as well so she understands that if I have a new piece of equipment laying around there’s no way I can keep my hands off it).

The 818 operates either from it’s internal batteries (either 8 AA alkaline batteries or the included rechargeable battery pack) or an external 13V power supply that can handle at least a 3 amp load. When operated with the internal batteries the 818’s transmit power automatically drops to 2.5 watts. You can override this in the menus, but don’t bother. If you try to transmit at 6 watts with the radio on it’s internal batteries it will just turn itself off because the batteries just don’t have enough power to handle that kind of output power.

I put in 8 AA batteries and fired it up and played around with it for a while to get familiar with the menu system, with the Alpha mag loop antenna hooked to the rear antenna connector.

Once I had the antenna tuned, I was faced with a noise level running about S8 to S9+. Now that isn’t at all surprising. I don’t exactly live in a radio quiet zone here. I have a huge cattle feed processing facility just down the street from me, a shop that does powder coating and painting for a major manufacturer of lawn equipment, and about 5 blocks away Sargento has a huge processing facility. Then add in all the electronics here in the house which includes a half dozen computers, networking gear, printers, WiFi points, etc., and, well, some days it gets pretty bad around here. Some days are better than others, it all depends on what equipment is running where. But an S8 noise level is pretty typical.

Now with my Kenwood TS-990 I can generally deal with that kind of thing thanks to some pretty sophisticated filtering. With the 818, well, not so much. I was able to pick up a few very strong CW stations and one or two SSB conversations on 20 and 40 meters, but then I had to pack it all up because it was time for dinner. (I really, really need to stop procrastinating and get the shop in the basement set up!)

Next morning I tried again, feeding the 818 with an external power supply instead of batteries, and was determined to sit down and do some serious goofing around with the little transceiver. That’s the jury rigged setup you see in the lead photo up at the top of the page. And yes, that’s a DX Engineering sticker on the Alexa thingie sitting there. Every time I order something from DXE they send a fistful of stickers and, well, I have to do something with ’em, so they’re everywhere. I tried putting one on MrsGF but she was a wee bit irritated. Tried to put one on one of the cats and she got even more irritated. So after several bandaids to cover the scratches (from the cat, not MrsGF. MrsGF just gives me one of those looks and I know it’s time to stop whatever it is I’m doing.) I only put them on inanimate objects now.

I was picking up several decent CW and SSB transmissions, well above the S7 noise level, which was encouraging. I tried replying to several CQs from other operators, and got nothing in reply. Wondering if I was putting out anything at all I put MrsGF on the 990 in the other room and, well, just about blew her ears out. Forgot to turn on the attenuator. Sigh… Still, the 818 was transmitting. I tried calling CQ on SSB for quite a while on 20 and 40 meters and got nothing.

Hard to tell in the photo but the poor thing is covered with dust from disuse. Still, considering how bad I am at CW that’s probably not a bad thing.

I dragged out the CW keys and dusted them off. I mean seriously dusted them off. Oh dear, had it been that long since I used ’em? How the heck had they gotten so filthy? They were in a drawer, for heaven’s sake. And cat fur? Really? How the heck did they get covered with cat fur in a drawer? Do the cats like open up all the drawers and look for things to shed on?

Anyway, I dialed down to the frequencies where the QRP people allegedly hang out and fiddled around with CW for a while. Nothing there, either. Sigh…

Getting discouraged I went in the other room and fired up the TS-990 again on the dipole antenna in the backyard. If there’s anybody on the air who can be heard, that sucker will pick it up. And, well, nothing. Tuning from one end of 20 and 40 to the other and nothing. Well, almost nothing. Just a few signals way down in the weeds. Oh, and FT8. The FT8 portions of the bands were lighting up the waterfall like a Christmas tree. (Has everyone moved to FT8? Seems that way sometimes)

Still, the experiment did give me an excuse to clean up the straight key and iambic paddle.

So I know the 818 receives (although after about 5 minutes I really, really missed the filters and noise reduction systems on the TS-990). I know it transmits. I know the Alpha antenna works because I’ve been using it on the 990 with considerable success. It’s just that the gods of propagation have a grudge against me, I guess.

I’m still waiting for the connectors and other things I need to get the 818 on the air with digital so I can’t try FT8 yet. Oh, and I still haven’t come up with a laptop yet.

I suppose I should to a better test. Dial the 818 down to 1 watt, put MrsGF on the 990 in the next room (with the attenuator on this time) and see what kind of signal the 818 is actually putting out. But that’s going to have to wait until MrsGF lets me use the kitchen table again.

First Look At The Alpha Mag-Loop Antenna

The antenna with the optional “booster loop” allowing operation on 80 & 60 meters installed, with it’s tripod and mast.

If you’ve come here looking for pictures of flowers and nature and me babbling about gardening and farming, you might want to skip this one because this entry is entirely amateur radio related. I want to talk about mag loop antennas. I’ve been fascinated with mag loop antennas since I first heard about them, and have always wanted to build or buy one to experiment with. I finally broke down and bought one from Alpha Antenna.

I’m not going to explain what a mag-loop antenna is. If you’ve read this far you either already know or you’ve already used Google to look it up. I’ll just say that these compact, efficient antennas have become extremely popular, especially in the QRP (low power) amateur radio community, and for good reason. But mag-loops do have some issues. There are always trade offs in the world of radio. First they have an extremely narrow bandwidth, making it necessary to retune the antenna if you change frequency. And second, they are generally only rated for low power transmissions. They’re usually considered to be QRP (low power) antennas. Mag loop antennas can be built that can handle impressive amounts of wattage, but there are problems that are difficult (and expensive) to deal with.

I should explain why I picked the Alpha rather than one of the other antennas on the market. The Alpha can handle more power than many other mag loops on the market, up to 100 watts on SSB, 50 watts on CW, and 25 on digital, depending on the frequency being used. This is more than what a lot of the other ones can deal with, at least in this price range. It works from 4o meters to 10 meters, and with the Booster Cable, can even work down on 80 meters. A lot of mag loops only work from 20 to 10 meters, and most have no options to extend their range down to the 80 meter band. The Alpha I bought also included the tripod, mast, and other parts necessary to fully assemble and use the antenna. Basically it is a complete antenna system. All you have to do is put it together, hook up your coax and begin using it. It was everything I really wanted in one convenient package.

You can order it directly from the company, but I bought mine off Amazon. Retail price is $500 including the main antenna, the booster cable, tripod and mast and a carrying bag. (Note: I have no connection to either Amazon nor Alpha, do not get paid by them, do not get special deals or anything else. I paid full retail price for the antenna and ordered it through normal retail channels.)

There’s enough room in the bag that it would hold just about everything I’d need, the 818, SignaLink, cables, battery, etc. plus the antenna itself.

The antenna comes in its own gym style carrying bag with the Alpha logo on it. Everything, including the tripod and short mast (basically a selfie stick, and Alpha refers to it as such), fits neatly in the bag with room left over.

Once you unpack everything from the bag, this is what you get:

This is the entire antenna, including both the normal loop, the “booster cable” loop for 80/60 meter operations, the tuning box, the tripod and mast, and the plastic bag containing nylon clips to position the antenna, a sheet of instructions, and an extra “T” coax connector.

Note the extra “T” coax connector in the plastic bag. I had no idea why that was included, but a bit of research turned up why they tucked that in with the rest of the antenna. That’s being included because Alpha had reports of bad T connectors in the recent past. All previous owners of the antenna were sent new T connectors and they’re including spare T’s just in case.

Assembly is a piece of cake. Being a typical amateur radio operator I, of course, never looked at the instructions until after I’d put it together. (I really should stop doing that, shouldn’t I?) Even so, it took me all of about five minutes to get it fully assembled and ready to go. And, amazingly enough, I even got it right the first time. Alpha has a video up on youtube showing how to assemble it, including how to add the Booster Cable for 80 meter operations. Just click the link there to see it. It’s all very straight forward.

Note that the loop does not have to be perfectly circular to work properly. As long as it’s reasonably close, you’re good to go. Note: Yes, that is the world’s ugliest recliner back there behind the antenna. And the less said about that sofa, the better. We can’t have nice furniture because we have cats who think they own the house and its contents and we’re just there to feed them and occasionally provide them with entertainment when they’re bored.

The photo above shows it fully assembled, without the booster cable, in my dining room. The loops are all made of LMR 400 coax, which is extremely stiff and has no trouble holding any shape you want to bend it into. Use some caution when you’re coiling and uncoiling the coax. It can be awkward to work with because of how stiff it is. Note the two plastic clips holding the large loop in the proper position above the small loop. 6 of those clips are included. The other four are required for use with the Booster Cable installed. This is the antenna with the “Booster Cable” installed.

The booster cable is connected in series with the regular large loop, so you now have a double loop instead of just a single loop. All the proper connectors are already installed on the ends of the cable so you don’t need adaptors.

Without the booster cable installed it’s impossible to use the antenna on frequencies below 40 meters. And I should point out that with the booster installed it’s impossible to use the antenna on frequencies higher than 40 meters. So you can either work 80/75 to 60 meters, or you can work 40 to 10 meters, but not both.

Overall quality is quite good. The coax is genuine LMR 400 from Times Microwave. The small tripod is more than sturdy enough to handle the antenna. The mast/selfie stick is sturdy enough to handle supporting the loops. Once it’s set up the mast and tripod are very easy to adjust if necessary. The connectors on the coax and on the tuning unit look to be of good quality and appear to be silver plated. I did not open up the box to look at the variable capacitor, but others have and if you want to see what’s in there, you can find photos and videos on Youtube and other sources. It looks well made from quality materials and should provide years of reliable use.

I should point out that if you’re using it outside and there is more than a gentle breeze you’re going to have to stabilize the tripod somehow. A stiff breeze will blow it over.

The first thing I did after putting it together was hook it to my antenna analyzer to see how good of a match I could get on the frequencies I normally use.

Now most of you reading this probably know this already, but just in case I’ll mention it. You never use your transceiver’s internal antenna tuner or an external tuner, with a mag-loop antenna. You adjust the antenna for a proper match by turning the knob connected to the variable capacitor inside that little gray box. And getting a match can be very touchy sometimes depending on the antenna, the type of capacitor being used and other factors. Now I don’t have any personal experience with mag-loop antennas before getting the Alpha, but from what I’ve heard from others, tuning the Alpha is no worse than tuning any of the others, and actually a lot easier than some reports from other models.

BTW: If you do any kind of fiddling around with antennas, an antenna analyzer quickly becomes your best friend.

I don’t use 80/75 meters much, and have no plans to use it for QRP, but since I already had the booster cable installed for the photo I checked that first. I didn’t have high hopes for a decent match down there, but much to my surprise the Alpha with the booster installed indicated an SWR of a bit over 1.1:1.

I took the booster cable off and set it up the way I would normally use it and looked at the rest of the HF frequency range.

I got excellent, or at least decent, SWR all across the amateur radio bands with one exception, 12 meters. No matter what I did I couldn’t get an SWR of less than 2.5:1 on 12 meters. Considering that I’m getting matches of 1.5:1 or better, usually much better, on the other bands, I’m assuming that there’s something wrong with what I’m doing and I’ll look into it further when I get some time. It’s entirely possible that I simply missed the “sweet spot” when trying to tune the antenna because I was in a hurry to get it hooked up and on the air.

Now, the question is, of course, does the thing actually work as an antenna? The answer to that question is an emphatic yes!

I don’t have my Yaesu 818 yet, so I tested it with my Kenwood TS-990, with the antenna standing on it’s tripod right behind me in the office where I could easily reach the knob to adjust it. Once I got a few glitches straightened out (My fault, not the antenna’s. Turned out the coax I was using had a bad connector. Once I re-soldered that all was well.), I gave it a try on 20 meters using FT8 with the 990’s power turned down to 8 watts and the SWR adjusted down to 1.4:1. And this is what popped up on PSK Reporter a short time later:

Now FT8 is a pretty efficient mode, but still… Damn. I was getting reception reports from all over the country while putting about 8 watts into an antenna sitting on the floor behind me in the office.

I moved up to 10 meters. Now 10 meters has been in the doldrums because we’re at the bottom of the solar cycle, but you never know. After adjusting things tried with the 990’s output set to 6 watts. I honestly didn’t expect to see anything pop up on PSK Reporter, but low and behold, when it cycled through, there I was, with reception reports popping up all over the place.:

Reaching Texas, Kansas and a large part of the east coast with 6 watts output using an antenna sitting in my office? Yeah, that’s not bad at all. Okay, I am officially impressed.

So far I’m very pleased with this antenna. More than pleased. In fact the few times I’ve had a chance to operate this past week or two, I’ve been using the loop exclusively when I use FT8. Getting it tuned is a bit fiddly, but as I’ve gained experience with it I’ve found I can tune it reasonably quickly and easily. (More about that in a minute.) I can’t wait to have a chance to really work with it and see what it can do out in the field. Once the Yaesu 818 gets here I’m hoping to throw together a complete portable digital system compact enough to throw into the back of the car along with my fishing gear and making some contacts out in the wild, so to speak.

Let’s talk about tuning mag-loop antennas for a moment. I mentioned before that you do not use an antenna tuner with these antennas because they have their own built in tuners, that variable capacitor. That’s how you adjust ’em to get a match. And these antennas are very, very touchy when it comes to tuning. They are very narrow bandwidth to begin with, and moving the dial a fraction of a degree can make a huge difference in the SWR.

I used an antenna analyzer at first when testing. It’s pretty easy to dial them in that way, but connecting and disconnecting an analyzer is a pain in the neck, and you don’t want to have to lug one along if you’re going portable. There is a technique to make it easier to set them up. The trick is to hook it up to your transceiver, set your transceiver to the frequency you want to use, and then listen to the receiver as you turn the dial on the antenna. (Hint: Turn that knob slowly. It is very, very easy to slip right past the sweet spot if you turn the knob too quickly.) As you get close to a match there will be a sudden increase in noise coming from your receiver. When you reach that point watch your S meter or listen to the noise level to bring that noise to a peak. Once you do that you’ll be pretty close and you can use a test transmission to dial it in for the best SWR before you being actually trying to make contacts.

Another issue with tuning is how the antenna reacts to being close to y0ur body. The mere presence of your hand near the antenna when turning the knob is enough to alter it’s characteristics in some cases. Since you have to bring your hand close to the antenna to adjust the tuner, this can mean that as soon as you take your hand away from the antenna, your SWR will change, sometimes significantly so. If that kind of thing happens, you can often compensate for it. I quickly learned to stop tuning a bit before or a bit after the ideal SWR in order to get a good match once I took my hand away when that happened. Interestingly, it doesn’t happen all the time. This is due to a phenomenon known as body capacitance or hand capacitance. The human body can act like a capacitor. The actual amount of capacitance varies depending on environmental conditions. So depending on conditions, just bringing your hand close to the antenna can cause it’s characteristics to change. Don’t worry about it. It doesn’t happen all the time, and if it does, you’ll learn to adapt.

So overall the Alpha has been a lot of fun to use. Only time will tell how it holds up, but it looks to be well made and certainly it works as advertised. I’m really very, very pleased with it so far.

Later — Look what the nice UPS driver just delivered today !!!

The 818 is here! I still have some bits and bobs to put together before I’m ready to take it out on the road. I want to do digital modes, and that means I need a laptop, and the elderly Toshiba I was planning on using looks like it is instead headed for the recycling center, so I’m going to have to scrounge up a laptop. I’ll need make or buy connector cables to hook everything up to the laptop and SignaLink. Then I’ll need a power supply of some sort. The 818 does have it’s own battery, but the SignaLink requires a power source and I’d like to have a central power source to run everything. Nothing serious but it’s going to take some time, which is in short supply right now because we’re up to our necks with landscaping and gardening projects and house updating projects and other stuff at the moment. Until I get all the bits together I need for digital operations I may try it with the Alpha on SSB and see what happens.

I’ll keep you posted as “The Great QRP Project” progresses

I thought I’d have time for all this stuff once I retired, but it turns out that between things MrsGF wants me to do, landscaping, gardening and other things going on around here, I actually have less time for playing radio than I did before I retired. How the hell did that happen?

Catching Up with Ham Radio Stuff : The Move and A New (sort of) digital mode

The Move, shifting all of my radio and computer gear to the basement, is now officially underway. Well, sort of. Nothing has actually gotten moved yet. I’m still in the process of cleaning out the area I want to use and getting it ready. But the handwriting is on the wall. MrsGF is retiring at the end of Feb and if I don’t move out of our shared office we’re going to drive each other nuts.

For years now my “radio shack” has been shoved into a corner of the office MrsGF and I share, with all my equipment perched on a single desk and a small filing cabinet. It’s worked, but it has been awkward and cramped. There just isn’t enough room. I have a work table in that room as well where, theoretically, at least, I was going to be able to tinker with electronics and repair equipment. But because the room is also our office, what actually happened was the table ended up with about ten inches of papers, books, files and I don’t know what all else on top of my tools and test gear. To make things even more cramped, I also have a big iMac, various graphics tablets, several RAID arrays, three printers, including a massive professional photo printer, well, you get the idea. Then add in MrsGF’s desk, computer and all her stuff, and something has to go, and that’s me.

Even that wouldn’t be so bad if it weren’t for my own psychological quirks. I simply cannot concentrate if there is someone behind me. I’ve always been that way. Her desk and computers are directly behind me and when she’s back there I can’t concentrate on anything. I can’t read, can’t write, can’t work on photos or drawings. I also need a fairly quiet environment to get anything done. Soft music is okay, but the sound of someone behind me moving, coughing, talking on the phone… well, I just can’t deal with it.

So between the crowded environment up here and my own personal issues, well, I need to move this whole operation if MrsGF and I are going to stick together for another 40 years or so…

Unfortunately, the area I want to move into looks like this.

This is what your basement will end up looking like if both you and your son are A) packrats, and B) computer/electronics geeks.

This used to be Eldest Son’s workshop in the basement when he lived with us years ago, and represents years worth of accumulated computers, parts, hard drives, terminals, networking gear and I don’t know what all else that he neglected to take with him when he moved out years ago. We never bothered with it before because I didn’t have any use for this space. And now that I do, the first order of business is getting all this stuff out of there, and that’s what I’ve been working on.

Some progress has been made, though! Really.

That bench there used to be covered three feet deep in stuff, so just getting that cleared out is a major victory. I’m hoping that by the end of the week I’ll have enough stuff shifted so I can start painting the walls. I’ll keep that work bench but put a nice sheet of plywood or something similar over the top of it to make a smooth work surface. The radios and computers will go here eventually. We’ll also have to rewire the whole area, adding a half dozen or so 120V outlets and at least one 220V outlet (maybe two) for the amplifiers.

There is another work bench behind me and to the left, about the same size, that is going to be where I’ll have my actual workbench with my meters and test gear, soldering equipment, tools, etc.

Anyway, that’s what’s been going on here of late. I’m sure MrsGF is eagerly looking forward to getting me out of the office so she can move all her stuff in.

JS8Call

I’ve been playing with a fairly new digital mode in amateur radio called JS8Call. It is based on the wildly popular FT8 mode that was first implemented with the WSJT-X software developed by K1JT and others. (WSJT-X is open source and it is available for Linux, Windows, OSX and Unix like operating systems. You can learn more about FT8 at https://physics.princeton.edu/pulsar/k1jt/index.html)

This is what the WSJT-X software looks like when running FT8.

FT8 works well as a weak signal mode, allowing contacts to be made under poor conditions and with modest or even poor antennas and low power levels. But FT8 isn’t designed to actually communicate with other people. It is intended to make “contacts” only. And in the amateur radio world, “contact” means exchanging only enough information to fulfill the requirements of some contest or award program, and not actually talking to another person. In fact, it would be almost impossible to use FT8 to exchange any kind of useful information with another radio operator. FT8 exchanges call signs, a grid reference (location) and a signal report, and that’s it. And all of that is pre-programmed into the system. Once the contact is started, the WSJT software conducts the entire exchange by itself. There are provisions for a so-called “free message”, but it is extremely awkward to use and very limited.

And, frankly, boring. At least to me. Don’t get me wrong, I use FT8 myself. But after about half an hour of it I’m bored. I can’t actually talk to anyone, can’t ask questions, just sit there and watch WSJT go through it’s automated contact sequence. It gets dull fast.

Screen capture of JS8Call running on my system.

That’s where JS8Call comes in. It uses the same digital encoding techniques used by FT8. It still uses the same 15 second transmission bursts. But it permits actual conversations to be held between two operators. Not very quickly, true. It looks like it’s limited to about 15 words per minute or less, but that’s still a heck of a lot faster than a lot of us can bang along in CW.

And since it uses the exact same encoding protocols used by FT8, it shares that mode’s robust nature and permits people with less than ideal equipment and antennas to make contacts they otherwise would not be able to make.

JS8Call has a lot of fun and potentially useful features as well as the ability to send actual text messages back and forth rather than FT8’s limited contact system. Messages can be directed to a specific call sign or a group of call signs. There are directed commands that you can send which will generated automated replies from anyone who hears them, it can relay messages to others if you have it set up right. There is a lot of neat stuff JS8Call is capable of doing. Read the documentation at their website to find out more.

So if you’ve use FT8 but have found it’s pre-programmed, automated contact system frustrating, give JS8Call a try. You can find out more about it at their website. Click here to take a peek.

A few things, though.

First, JS8Call is still very much in beta testing. New versions with added/changed features and bug fixes are being released every few weeks. While the program seems stable, it can have odd little quirks and problems from time to time. How it works and its various functions can change with each new edition of the software.

Second, because it is still in beta testing, it is not available for general release. You can indeed get it, but you need to join a discussion group to get access to the download. It isn’t a big deal. They aren’t going to spam you or anything like that. The reason for restricting access is, as I said, because it is still in testing and is being changed frequently. Once the feature set is frozen and they’ve worked all of the bugs out, a version will be made available for general release.

Third, because it is based on FT8, it has a lot of the same quirks and drawbacks FT8 has. It only transmits in 12.6 second bursts, based on a 15 second time frame. Your computer clock must be accurately synchronized. You are going to need to run a utility program that will keep your computer’s internal clock accurate. Most computer clocks are not accurate enough by themselves.

Fourth, as noted earlier, it isn’t exactly fast. You’re going to average about 10 – 15 wpm when using it. But as I also said, most CW operators don’t work much faster than that.

If you’re interested in the digital modes, are getting bored of FT8, give JS8Call a try.

Don’t Do the IOS 12.1.2 Upgrade!

If you use an iPhone and have not yet upgraded to IOS 12.1.2, don’t do the upgrade!

There have been widespread reports of a variety of different and serious problems associated with 12.1.2. If you have “Auto update” turned on, turn it off immediately so your phone doesn’t download and install the update by itself.

If you already have done the update and your phone is working fine, good. The majority of phones seem to have no problem with the update. But so many reports of problems have been coming in since Apple began pushing out the update two days ago that I’ve been telling everyone I know with an Iphone to put off installing the update until Apple figures out what is going on and fixes it.

The biggest problem seems to be the loss of access to cellular data, which means the phone can no longer communicate with the internet. Other problems including WiFi connection problems have been reported as well. At the moment no one seems to know exactly what is going on or why some phones have been affected and others haven’t.

Apple is supposedly working on a fix (IOS 12.1.3) but no one knows when that will be available.

My general advice to most people is that while Auto Update is convenient, having it turned on is a bad idea because of issues like this. You should never do an IOS update as soon as the new version is made available. You should always wait at least several days before updating to make sure there isn’t something wrong with the update.

There was nothing extremely important in 12.1.2 in the first place. Reports I’ve seen indicate that this update was primarily an attempt by Apple to get around an injunction in China preventing the sale of iPhones because of a patent lawsuit they lost to Qualcomm.

If you’ve been hit by this problem, I’m afraid I can’t help. You need to scrounge around the internet and see if there are fixes available. Or if you have an Apple store nearby, talk to them. If you got your phone from a specific carrier, talk to them about a possible fix.

Here are some hints to help you keep from having problems in the future:

Have an iCloud (or whatever Apple calls their cloud data storage feature these days) account and use it to automatically backup your phone. Then if something nasty happens you can fairly easily restore the apps and data stored on your phone.

Turn AutoUpdate OFF. Wait at least several days after an IOS update it pushed out to make sure it doesn’t have serious problems. Install it only after you’re sure it’s bug free.

Cleaning Up, Snow, Evaluating the Gardens, And Stuff…

MrsGF and I set aside Saturday to clean up the last of the gardens around here. We’ve had several hard frosts now and almost everything has died back so there was no reason to put it off any longer. So, of course, this happened…IMG_0056

Yep, that’s snow. Saturday was pretty miserable. Temperature around 38 degrees, 30 – 40 mph winds and then it started snowing. Oh, well. Ah, Wisconsin weather…

 

IMG_0055We got out the winter coats, hats and gloves and went at it anyway because, well, it has to get done. It wasn’t exactly a fun job in that kind of weather, but we did get it done. There was no point in putting it off because this time of year the chances of the weather being much better are pretty slim.

We ended up filling the entire back of the old truck. It’s amazing how much debris we ended up with after cleaning everything up. And this is just half of it. We already had taken out the remains of the tomatoes, squash and a lot of other stuff over the last few weeks. Good thing we live just down the street from the town’s compost site. That makes this a heck of a lot easier.

The snow didn’t stick around. It was too warm for that. But the wind did, with gusts of up to 40 mph all day. That kept us from raking up the leaves in the yard, but we got that done on Sunday. So we have just about everything cleaned up outside now.

All things considered, the growing season was pretty successful this past season. The tomatoes and peppers were ridiculously prolific. Our little lettuce bed kept us supplied with greens when we needed them. Some things weren’t very good, and some of that was our own fault.

We keep trying to plant onions and they never seem to make it to maturity for us. They start out good, but as they mature they seem to just stop growing before they get anywhere close to full sized. I don’t really mind that too much because my main interest is in having fresh green onions, not in full size bulbs for storage. So while that crop might look like a failure, it really isn’t because I get what I want out of it.

The squash disappointed. The acorn squash never developed fully at all and were a total loss, and while we did get a few absolutely beautiful butternut squash (wow, they tasted good!) they didn’t produce as well as they should have. We aren’t sure why because they were in the same place they’d been last year where they’d done really well. We’re going to have to reconsider planting squash. The stuff takes up a huge part of the garden and if all we’re going to get for it is three squash, well, there’s not much point in planting them and we need to look for alternatives.

Our rhubarb plant wasn’t looking too good towards the end of the season, but we think that’s the fault of the squash which were planted nearby. It was getting shaded by the huge squash leaves and wasn’t getting enough sun, so we’re hoping it will come back.

I raise that rhubarb more for nostalgic reasons than because I like it. For me, a little bit of rhubarb goes a long, long way. But I have fond memories of playing under the huge rhubarb plants we had when I was a little kid on hot, summer days, and whenever I see that thing in hot, summer weather it brings back memories that make me grin. So yeah, I’m going to grow rhubarb if I can even if I don’t particularly like eating it.

Let’s see, what are we planning on changing — I’d like to put in more raised beds if I can find a good location for them. Those two 4 X 8 raised beds I put in a few years ago are ridiculously productive. If I’d known how good they were going to be I would have built them long ago. Just those two beds provide more vegetables than the rest of our gardens combined some years. The problem is where to put more of them. We just have too many trees so finding a spot where there will be direct sunlight for more than 4-5 hours a day is difficult here. About the only decent location is on the south side of the house and there isn’t much room there any more.

Of course that could change if the pear tree doesn’t survive the damage it suffered. I figure about a full third of the canopy of the tree went down because the limbs were too loaded with fruit to be able to handle a thunderstorm that rolled through here. I’d hate to lose that tree. We planted that, oh, about 17 years ago, a couple of years after we bought this place. It’s not a very good looking tree, it leans at a crazy angle, but wow, it produces some of the most delicious pears I’ve ever had.

But on the other hand, if we do lose it, it would open up a very large area that could be garden with full sun. So if it does have to come down, well, it wouldn’t be the worst thing.

With MrsGF retiring in March she’s trying to figure out just what the heck she’s going to do if she isn’t working full time any longer. Right now it looks like as soon as she pulls the plug on her job she’s going to be dragging me along into the Master Gardener classes. Well not dragging, to be honest. I’m rather looking forward to it. We’d talked about getting into the Master Gardener program for a long time but we never had the time to do it. So now is the ideal time for it. She’s been on-line looking to get us signed up for the classes next year. And being able to tack on “certified master gardener” on the byline up at the top of this website is an added incentive because, well, hey, I’ve got an ego too, you know <grin>.

The other thing that is (probably) going to happen after she retires is all of my electronics gear, test equipment, radio equipment, etc. is going to get moved out of the office/library/workshop and moved into what used to be eldest son’s work area in the basement, and the office space is going to be her’s. She loves sewing and craftsy kinds of things but she’s never had much time to actually do it. Right now her work area for that kind of thing is in a small room upstairs. But it’s hot up there in the summer, cold in the winter, and she has difficulty getting up and down a lot of stairs because of her knees. So the solution to that is turn the office on the main floor over to her and have me move my stuff out.

I am not looking forward to moving. Eldest son’s work area down there is still crammed full of old computers and other equipment that somehow never got moved when he moved out years ago. So all of that has to be moved somewhere. Hopefully out of our house and into his house. Then I have to buy or build suitable work surfaces for all my stuff. Then tear down all of my equipment, move all of it down to the basement. Then I have to re-route all of the antenna cables, ground cables and other stuff to the new location down there. Then install a new electrical system down there including 240V lines to run some of the equipment like the amplifiers. Then try to figure out how to set up all of the equipment again because by that time I’ll have forgotten how everything was set up originally. Move all of my computers… Like I said, I am not looking forward to it.

Well, I’ve bored you long enough with this. Time to go.

 

iPhone XS, Photography, Weather & Stuff

After still more rain on Tuesday we were treated to a brilliant double rainbow and the weather abruptly turned very nice indeed. Cool, sunny and dry. Everyone has been taking advantage of the situation to finally get things done. Plus the cool weather has slowed down the mosquitoes so you can at least outrun the little buggers. They’ve been absolutely horrible this fall. The warm, wet weather we had turned into a plague of mosquitoes that has been driving everyone crazy. Even hard-core environmentalists have been out there spraying to try to get some relief.

The new XS

This is the first time I’ve bought a phone right after Apple introduced it. Usually I don’t upgrade until the next new model is out and I can get a pretty steep discount on the previous generation of phone. That also means that by the time I get my hands on one, the bugs have pretty much been worked out of it. The problem with buying brand new equipment is that often things slip through the cracks that don’t show up in the initial testing and don’t become apparent until it’s out in the hands of the consumers. And that seems to be the case here.

There are reports (which I can confirm from personal experience) that while the device is brilliant in many ways, as an actual phone it pretty much sucks. Cellular reception absolutely sucks!

Now I admit that I live in an area where cellular reception is for the service I’m on (Sprint) is definitely not good. But generally with the old phone I would have 2 out of 5 bars showing, and a decent LTE data connection. With this phone inside of the house I have no LTE connection at all and only 2 bars of standard cell reception. Basically this phone would be almost useless as a phone for me if I didn’t have WiFi calling. (The phone uses my WiFi system to do VOIP instead of using the cellular system. That, fortunately, works brilliantly. Calls are rock solid and sound quality is amazing.)

Various tech media outlets have been reporting on this and it’s apparently a wide spread problem. No one is sure exactly what the issue is. There are rumors that it might be the antenna, but no one seems to know for sure. Whether it is something that can be cured in software or if it’s a hardware problem doesn’t seem to be known yet.

The phone is otherwise brilliant. As a media device the video and sound quality is absolutely brilliant, especially with the AirPod wireless earbuds. And the camera in this thing is absolutely wonderful by anyone’s standards, I’d think.

Take a look… Click on the image below to start the slideshow.

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I always thought that if you wanted to take good images you needed a dedicated camera, but this one is just outstanding. The resolution, color, focusing, light sensors, all of it seems to work beautifully.

And everything else seems to work very well indeed. And fast? Wow, this thing is fast. Apps that would poke along with delays and stuttering video now work smoothly. I have a NOAA app that displays weather radar from all over the country and I was used to lengthy delays to load the weather data, render the graphics, display the radar animation, etc. On here it works more smoothly than it does on my desktop equipment.

On a less pleasant note, we got this crap going on out at the old stone bridge on Irish Road, my usual route when I go out on the bike:

IMG_0030.jpg

The old one lane bridge isn’t very picturesque, but it’s still a bit of history around here and seeing people do crap like this to it makes me angry. You’ll note that most of the capstones are missing. This has been going on for ages. Some jackasses seem to take great delight in levering the capstones off the top of the bridge and dumping them into the river below. And now we have the graffiti, people throwing tires and old furniture off the bridge into the river… This kind of thing is very disappointing. Some of us are talking about setting up trail cams in the trees on the approaches to the bridge to try to catch the jerks who are doing this.

Catching Up

As you can see from that image up there, farmers around here are facing some serious challenges as they try to get their harvest in this fall. Right now they’re harvesting corn for silage and generally they have an extra tractor or two out in the field to help pull out the harvesting equipment or trucks when they get stuck. It isn’t like this everywhere. There are a lot of fields that aren’t this bad. But we have a lot of fairly low land around here and it’s still saturated with water from all the rains.

MrsGF and I were down in Madison last Friday and a lot of buildings in town were still sandbagged and there were work crews all over repairing the roads that had been damaged from the flooding down there. I’ve heard estimates of damage in excess of $200 million. This is nothing compared to those poor people in the Carolinas, of course. What they’re going through down there right now after the hurricane is horrifying.

IMG_0001Speaking of MrsGF, over the weekend she braved the mosquitoes to start cleaning up the gardens. She got a lot accomplished but we still have a lot left to do. All of the tomato plants were yanked out, finally. The squash were disappointing. We got a couple of nice butternut squash, but that’s about all. Hardly worth the effort of planting them, really. Not sure what happened there. We had a great crop of them last year. The acorn squash never really developed at all. All we had were a few very immature squash that ended up in the compost pile.

On the plus side, the tomatoes and peppers were wildly prolific this year. The freezer is full of containers of chopped peppers that will probably last us two years, and we probably have enough tomatoes, tomato sauces and soup canned to last us a couple of years as well. I’m really glad I picked up that big pressure canner. We can double stack jars in it and do about 16 pints in one batch.

The canning is finally done. We could put up more pears. The tree, despite the damage from the storms, was incredibly productive this year. We gave away 5 gallon pails full of the thing, gave boxes of them to friends and family, and there are still hundreds of pounds of pears out there. They’re mostly over ripe now. The problem there is when they hit the ground they are immediately swarmed by bees and wasps so anyone who is allergic to bee or wasp stings really needs to avoid our place until the weather gets cold.

IMG_1031There was some damage down along my favorite riding trail from the storms too. Some pretty good sized trees dropped right across the trail near the wooden bridge. The agency in charge of maintaining the trail works with some local people who harvest the wood from fallen trees, so hopefully this will be taken care of in the next week or so and the trail will be open again.

Other stuff…

The reason we were in Madison was so MrsGF could talk to the pension people about financial planning and insurance for when she retires in March. She’s very much looking forward to it, but she’s also nervous about it too despite all of the pre-planning we’ve done. But we’ve been planning this for a long, long time and we’re pretty sure we have everything set up right.

One of the very few perks left to her job after the state got done gutting the benefits and salaries of state employees is that she can convert her accumulated sick time to pay for Medicare supplemental insurance after retirement. The woman pretty much never takes a day off, so she has quite a bit of unused time on the books. Enough, it looks like, to cover our supplemental insurance for about five years after she retires.

The New Phone Story…

I haven’t actually bought a cell phone in ages. I lease the things for a small monthly fee, and at the end of the lease period turn them in and get new ones. The actual cost for the phone averages out to be about the same whether I buy it outright or lease it. So about every two years or so I get a new one and turn the old one in.

So when the lease on my iPhone 7 got close to ending, I decided to get a iPhone 10. Only they screwed up the shipping address and it ended up being shipped back to the warehouse because UPS couldn’t find me, despite the fact UPS is here about 3 times a week anyway.

Turns out this was not a bad thing, because meanwhile Apple came out with the iPhone XS, and I now have the brand new XS Max in my hot little hands for not much more than what the 10 would have cost me. And holy cow, is it nice!

I bought into the whole Apple ecosystem, as it’s sometimes called, long ago. It isn’t so much Apple’s equipment that’s so good, it’s the software and the thought that goes into the little details that makes the whole Apple system so addictive.

Like setting up the new XS. I took it out of the box. I took off the protective covering. It turned itself on and immediately found my old phone, copied all of my data over to the new phone automatically, copied all of my apps over, everything. All I had to do was respond to a few prompts. In about 15 minutes the new phone had everything copied over; apps, phone lists, email, photos, everything, without me having to do anything. The only thing I had to do manually was get online to activate the cell phone itself to transfer my phone number over to the new phone.

The XS Max is, well, wow… Just wow… That display is amazingly good. I’ve been streaming Netflix and Amazon Prime video to it and that is without a doubt the best small video screen I’ve ever seen. And the sound? How the hell do they get sound like that out of those tiny, tiny little speakers in there?

I also ended up getting those dopey AirPod things, the wireless earphones. Yeah, they’re expensive but, well, also just wow…  The sound quality, especially the bass, is amazing. Again, I don’t know how they get bass response like that out of those tiny little things. Sorcery, I suspect.

The AirPods themselves are an amazing piece of engineering and Apple has made using them ridiculously easy. They paired with the phone by themselves. They turn themselves on when you put them in your ear, turn themselves off when you take them out. The case is also the charger. Just drop them in and they recharge. The case itself has its own battery to recharge the pods. Just remember to plug the case into the phone’s charger once in a while to keep it’s internal battery topped off.

And then there’s the camera. Or, rather, cameras, because there are three of them, one of the front and two on the back. That camera is probably going to completely replace my Fuji except for telephoto use. I’ve always been dismissive of cell phone cameras but even I have to admit that the camera in this thing is better than my dedicated camera.

People are claiming it’s too big, but it actually isn’t any bigger than my iPhone 7. What is bigger is the screen because it now occupies the entire front of the phone. There is almost no bezel at all on this thing.

The face recognition thing — As you may know starting with the iPhone 10 it uses face recognition to unlock the phone. Just pick it up, it instantly takes a look at your face and if it recognizes you it turns itself on. Otherwise you have to enter an unlock code. So far the system seems to work flawlessly. It recognizes me even when I have my biking gear on; helmet, sunglasses, etc.

I’m old enough that I am still a bit in awe of the technology that we have access to today. When I was a kid we didn’t even have a dial phone. You turned a crank that rang a bell at the telephone company office and an operator asked you who you wanted to call. We didn’t get a dial phone until I was in like third grade. Now I have what basically amounts to a supercomputer in my pocket.

Anyway, I want to experiment with the camera over the next few days and see what it can do. Watch for a post in the near future with more info about that.

That’s it for now…

Oh, almost forgot. I have a Q&A article in the works now to cover some of the questions I’ve received here, so if you have anything you want to ask about farming, amateur radio, gardening, etc. you can get hold of me at old.grouchyfarmer@gmail.com