Ham Radio Stuff: Its Alive!

It’s Alive! (Cue evil laughter)

Way back in October we had a nasty thunderstorm roll through here that did some damage here. My much patched and cobbled together OCFD (off center fed dipole) antenna had come down again, my Gap Titan vertical had some minor damage to some of the vertical elements. All of my radio equipment was just fine but the storm did take out my primary computer down in the office/shop/radio shack/mad scientist lab. It’s power supply couldn’t deal with the rapidly fluctuating voltage fluctuations that included brown outs, surges and complete blackouts. We had a dozen or more of those in the space of just a few minutes. It didn’t actually start on fire but it sure did smell funny. And I lost two large capacity external hard drives as well. Fortunately all that data was backed up.

That computer was already giving some odd errors that seemed to indicate that the SSD was having problems and that the main memory might be going bad, so I already had a new replacement computer set up on the other workbench ready to go. I set up the new computer, started replacing all of the software that had been installed on the old one, got two new 10 TB external hard drives to replace the ones that had been lost, copied all my data back to those from the RAID array on the iMac up in the main office, recovered all of my photos from “the cloud” where they are backed up (they’re also backed up to two small, portable 1TB hard drives that are only connected to the system for backups. I don’t want to risk losing thousands of photos so I have a triple backup system, the cloud, plus two separate external hard drives. That may be paranoid but I know one person who lost all of her family photos and videos, all of the images of her kids, her late parents, everything. Ever since that happened to her I’ve been paranoid about backing up everything.).

Then I looked at my radio gear and, well, dear lord, what a mess. Everything was hooked up in haphazard fashion, cables were running everywhere, most of them unlabeled, it was almost impossible to reach the physical controls of the transceiver or anything else. I decided all of it needed to be torn down and set up to make it neater and easier to work with. So I took everything apart, cleared off the space on the bench where I was going to set it all back up and…

Well, thanks to procrastination, sheer laziness, and getting involved in other things for a time, it’s only just now, months later, that I have everything back up. A week ago we had some really nice weather with temps up around 60 so I spent the entire day outside fiddling with antennas. I got the vertical straightened out, mostly. I took down what was left of my old OCFD antenna and spent a large part of the afternoon climbing about 20 feet up two different trees to anchor the end points of the new OCFD (A Buckmaster that I picked up somewhere.) Then was up the ladder at the end of the garage to hang the massive balun that’s used to feed the antenna. That’s up at the peak of the garage roof. Good thing MrsGF wasn’t around that day or she’d have freaked seeing me up those trees and that ladder…

To make a long story a bit less long, here’s what the new setup looks like.

The wiring has been straightened out, I can actually reach all of the controls I need to reach. I finally have space to put my iambic paddle, that’s the chrome thing in front of the speaker with the red paddle like things on it. It’s used for sending morse code (CW). I have the Palstar tuner sitting up on an old monitor stand bolted to the bench, the amplifier is perched on a stand above the transceiver where I can reach it easily. Everything is now arranged so I can operate everything easily.

Then there was the software… These days it seems computers are everywhere and amateur radio is no different. A lot of what we do in amateur radio is now intimately linked to computers of one type or another.

The most important bit of software for me is Ham Radio Deluxe. Yes, I know, once upon a time I was not pleased with HRD and I made that fact known in posts here in the past. There was even a nasty scandal involving a one or more persons in customer support that I will not get into. That’s all changed. In the last few years HRD has worked very, very hard to fix the problems with the software and to improve customer support and HRD has become my primary piece of software not only for running the transceiver but also for logging contacts and operating in digital modes like PSK.

Downloading, installing and setting up HRD only took a few minutes. But then there was the question of the log of the contacts I’d made in the past. I lost the contact log I’d been keeping in HRD when the computer blew and, of course, I had neglected to make a backup. QRZ to the rescue. I’d had HRD set up to send all of my contact information to my log on QRZ.com. Downloading my log from QRZ and importing it into HRD only took a few minutes.

Getting some of the other software working was considerably more difficult but eventually I got all that working as well and I was back on the air.

I still have one issue I need to deal with and that’s Logbook of the World, LOTW. That’s the ARRL’s system of confirming contacts with other amateur radio operators. I log all of my contacts to QRZ.COM, eQSL, and LOTW. Those are ways of confirming to other amateur radio operators that a contact has actually been made. Personally I don’t care if I get a confirmation or not. But some people do because they’re trying to get certificates for specific achievements like having made contacts in all 50 states, or for various contests and things like that, and those contacts are confirmed by some service like LOTW or EQSL. One of the neat things HRD does is it will automatically upload contacts I make to all three services without me having to mess around with it. EQSL and QRZ both work just fine, but LOTW is a different story. It just doesn’t work and the error messages I’ve been getting don’t tell me exactly what the problem is. Until I can figure that out logging to LOTW is not going to be used. And since I don’t use it personally and don’t really like it in the first place, getting it working is going to be a low priority item.

Anyway, the system is back up and running and working. I even made a couple of contacts in North Carolina as soon as I had the antennas finished.

Review: LaserPecker Pro. But the most important question is, Can It Engrave A Banana?

Laserpecker Pro set up and ready to go, without the protective shields in place

So it was time to replace my old laser engraver. That’s it over there on the right. And what’s replacing it is the one in the lead photo, the Laserpecker. The one over on the right is a more or less generic style engraver made in China that hit the consumer market a few years ago, often at ridiculously cheap prices. They were complicated machines, usually based on cheap CNC machines with the cutter replaced with a laser. There were rails and stepper motors and drive belts and complicated mechanical systems in addition to the controls needed to run the laser itself. As you can tell from looking at the two photos, the Laserpecker is much, much different. It doesn’t ride on rails, there are no stepper motors or belts. In fact it doesn’t move at all. It is entirely motionless during the entire engraving process. The only thing that moves is the laser. Here’s a quick video review I found on Youtube that will show you exactly how it works.

Now everything he says in that video is true, but needs to be taken with a grain of salt. He’s going through this so fast that he has no time to tell you about some of the issues you have to deal with if you get one of these. And there is some misleading information floating around out there about the LP that needs to be cleared up as well

Let’s look at the hardware first, and start with different models and prices. What the reviewer up there is showing is the standard Laserpecker which is selling for around $250 or so right now. It includes the LP itself, the tripod, a ruler to measure distance, a small power supply, and a pair of safety glasses. There are apparently three other versions. The only difference between them is that they come with more accessories, the most expensive of which is the focusing stand like the one shown in my photo at the start of this review.

The first ‘step up’ so to speak includes that stand, and more than doubles the price from around $250 to about $530. Why so much for a stand? It isn’t just a stand. In addition to getting rid of the awkward tripod that stand has some nifty electronics in it. It connects to the LP and when combined with the laser it eliminates the need to carefully measure the distance between the LP and the object being engraved. Just touch a button and it raises or lowers itself to the proper height to focus the laser.

The next option up adds a set of glass shields, edged in magnets, that clip together to form a folding safety screen to protect your eyes from the laser. Those are the panels over there on the left. You can also get just the safety shield from LP. Should you? Yeah, probably you should. Lasers and eyes don’t get along very well. You need some kind of eye protection when using any laser device. The panels are convenient, easy to set up, fold up flat for storage, and can be configured to work around just about any shaped object. And you can leave one corner open for a fume extractor, something you also absolutely need. I’ll talk about that a bit later.

The next level up only adds a storage case to hold all of the various parts which, of course, you don’t need at all.

The “pro deluxe” model that I got came with these 3 boxes

I got what was labeled the “pro deluxe” model in the ad when I bought it, which includes the same laser head as shown in that video up there, the automatic focusing stand and the shields. Also included were the power supply, which is a tiny power pack with a USB connector in it and a cable with a USB C connector on the other end to go to the stand. The stand then connects to the LP itself with a short cord. There was also a set of safety glasses, simple instructions and some bits a paper that apparently you’re supposed to engrave for some reason.

Let’s talk about specifications. The LP uses a 405nm, 5 watt, blue violet laser with a specified lifetime of 10,000 hours. So the laser is fairly typical of laser engravers in this category. You aren’t going to be using this to burn through metal or anything else for that matter except paper and thin cardboard. It isn’t made for that. It’s an engraver. Period.

The included power supply is tiny, hardly the size of a small phone charger. It puts out 5 volts and is rated for 2 amps which, well, it isn’t a lot, really. I was rather surprised to find a laser engraver that ran at that low of an amperage. In some of the ads I’ve seen them running this thing from one of those little “power bank” battery packages that lets you recharge a cell phone.

The LP does handle fine details better than my old laser did.

The LP can do an engraving of up to 100 x 100 mm in size, or about 4 x 4 inches. Now that is smaller than the area that can be covered by some other engravers, but the size really isn’t an issue here. The LP is aimed at hobbyists, crafters and woodworkers who are probably working on small projects. Basically people like me who need to do the occasional company logo or piece of artwork to embellish a project. That 4×4 size isn’t going to be a problem for people like us. Most of the engravings I do are half that size or less. And you’ll want to keep engraving size small because larger ones take a long, long time. Almost all of the videos I’ve seen promoting the LP (and to be fair other laser engravers as well) drastically speed up the video and make it look like an engraving that really took an hour or more only took a few seconds.

The LP itself is a very simple looking little round box. That’s it in the photo over there on the right. That’s the entire thing, except for the stand. There are no moving parts, no rails, no motors, no drive belts. That’s it. Unlike my old engraver, the LP has no moving parts at all. The only thing that moves is the laser beam itself. It either attaches to the tripod with a screw or it sits in a cutout on the top of the stand if you opt for that. It’s about as simple as it gets, really.

Lasers are, of course, light, and in order to get the sharpest beam possible they need to be focused just like you need to focus the lens of your camera to get the sharpest image. With my old engraver this was done by adjusting a lens. But there is no lens with the LP, it is fixed focus. The LP has to be around 8″ away from the object being engraved or the laser won’t be properly focused. They include a ruler to make it easier to measure. If you’re working with the tripod you need to adjust the feet and use the ruler to get the measurement right. It can be a bit fiddly but working with just the tripod isn’t really a problem.

If the LP seems like something you are interested in, I strongly recommend you get the bare bones version that comes with just the laser head, tripod, power supply and safety glasses. You absolutely do not need the autofocusing stand. Now that I have the thing I wish I hadn’t bought the stand. Yes, it makes it a bit easier to set the height properly and it is pretty slick. But I’ve had some problems with the auto focusing stand that I’ll come to in just a bit. And in any case, it adds $200 to the price of the Laserpecker. I really don’t think it’s worth the money. Fiddling with the tripod is a minor nuisance, but once you do it a few times and have some practice with setting it up and getting the distance right it’s not that hard to do.

The other optional accessory that comes with the Laserpecker Pro Deluxe version that I got is the safety shield. That’s it below.

This shield is really slick. It’s made up of 4 glass panels made of a material designed to protect your eyes from the laser. Those metal strips along the edges are magnets. The whole thing just clips together. You can move the panels around, adjust the shape, leave one corner open for venting, etc. It is very, very handy and I like it a lot. Those 4 panels are available separately and sell for $90 at the moment. Now that may sound like a lot of money but actually it isn’t that bad. Protective glass panels for lasers are expensive if you want to build your own. At least the good ones are. When compared to high quality protective shielding panels available elsewhere, these are actually pretty inexpensive. You could get along without these, but remember that the LP is designed to be easily carried around and used anywhere. Quite possibly with other people present. Do you have protective glasses for everyone in the room when you’re using the thing? If not you need some kind of shielding, and these do the job. IMO the $90 price is worth it.

Now let’s look at the auto focusing stand. At first I liked it a lot, but as I’ve used it more I’ve come to think that going for the “Pro” package that included it was a waste of $200.

That’s it up there, and it is very, very nice. (Or so I thought at first.) Well it had better be nice considering it costs almost as much as the Laserpecker itself. It is undeniably very well made. But the more I worked with it the less I liked it and now I think it isn’t worth the money.

As I said it is very well made. Fit and finish is absolutely flawless. Obviously a lot of very high end engineering went into designing and building this thing.

Instead of plugging the power pack into the Laserpecker, the power pack is plugged into a connector on the stand, and a short cable then goes from the stand to the LP itself. Up on the top are 3 buttons. The two left buttons move it up and down. The right button starts the autofocusing sequence. It activates the LP’s laser to put a spot on an object below and then moves up or down automatically until it is properly focused. And it works pretty well.

No, let me correct that. It works pretty well when it wants to. Here’s the biggest problem I’ve run into with this thing. Sometimes it just – just stops when I engage the autofocus mode. It will begin the process, start to move the stand up or down, and then everything, the stand, the laser, all of it, shuts down completely and won’t restart unless I unplug it, wait about 10 seconds and then plug it in again. Here’s a video showing it doing just that.

It starts doing the focus routine, begins to lower into position, and then just shuts down completely. All the lights turn off, fan turns off, it and the Laserpecker itself shuts down. All of it is completely dead until I unplug it and plug it back in again. I have no idea why. It doesn’t do it all the time. Shortly before this happened in the video I used autofocus on a variety of different sized objects and it worked every time. Then I unplugged the unit, moved it to the other workbench, started making the video and bam, it died again. I suspected the problem might be that the power supply is too wimpy to handle the load of running both the laser and the motors of the focusing mechanism at the same time. One of the advantages of being a packrat like me is that I have all kinds of stuff laying around so I found a 5V 3A power supply and tried that. And it did exactly the same thing. A bit later I tried it again and guess what? Autofocus worked just fine. Then the next day it went through the shutdown thing again. Sigh…

The other problem is that fan up there next to the buttons. It shouldn’t be there at all. It serves no useful purpose except to blow the smoke generated by the laser all over your house. Smoke and fumes are a serious issue with these things. They can produce a lot of it depending on the material being engraved. Lasers work, after all, by burning. Smoke of any kind is not healthy to breathe. And when burning and melting various plastics and other materials some of the fumes given off can be downright toxic. Plus there is the significant risk of setting off the smoke detectors in your house, apartment or workshop. You absolutely, positively must have some kind of smoke/fume extraction system when you’re working with these things. That’s mine below. It’s home made and may look a bit crude but it works quite well.

There is a 4 inch flexible dryer vent pipe going to a piece of scrap plywood cut to fit the window opening just above my workbench. The pipe is caulked to that hole. At the other end is a ducted fan I picked up off Amazon for $27. I’ve been using it for some time and it works very well for things like smoke from lasers, fumes from soldering, etc. But that stupid and utterly useless fan on the top of the LP’s stand makes things more difficult. My extractor is trying to draw smoke across horizontally while that fan up top is trying to blow it up towards the ceiling so unless I get my pipe right up close to the object being engraved it doesn’t work very well. If I keep using the stand I’m going to cut the power going to that fan and possibly build some kind of container for it to make extracting the smoke easier.

They want $135 for this. A box with a 5V fan in it. $135! Seriously.

So why is that fan there at all? Cooling? Nope. The laser doesn’t need cooling. The bare bones LP works just fine without any fan at all. And the fan’s in the wrong place to cool anything in any case. From what I’ve been able to discover, once upon a time LP was going to offer some kind of filter that would sit on top of the stand and the fan was going to pull smoke from the laser up through there. Only there doesn’t seem to actually be any such filtration system for sale on the LP website. At least not one that works with that dopey fan. There is a sort of an attempt at some kind of filtration system, but that’s an entirely different system that is a complete enclosure that won’t work with the stand at all. And while there’s a fan in that little box over there, there don’t seem to be any actual filters in it. It seems to just suck the smoke up and blow it out a vent in the side.

Here it is making one of the discs make with my shop logo that get attached to bowls and other projects that roll out of here.

Let’s get to the important part, though. Is it any good as a laser engraver?

The answer is that it is quite good. It does exactly what it’s supposed to do, engrave stuff, and it does it well. That’s the disc the machine was engraving in the video and it turned out pretty well. It takes about 4 minutes to do one of those with is actual a bit faster than my old engraver was. And the resolution is better.

I’ve done quite a few engravings with it, mostly on wood, and all of them have turned out very well once I got the settings dialed in properly. Most of these lasers have setting to adjust the power the laser uses expressed as a percentage, from 100% being full power, to lower power settings. Also a ‘depth’ setting which actually is how long (I think) the laser remains in one spot before moving on. The ‘deeper’ the setting the slower the laser goes. Sometimes it takes some fiddling with the settings before you get the settings right for the material you’re working with.

People are always asking if you can engrave curved surfaces and the answer to that is sort of? It depends on how severe the curve is because a laser has to be properly focused in order to work well. But as you can see from the logo engraved on the bowl over on the left it handles curved surfaces reasonably well.

It does fine detail well also. I haven’t experimented to see just how small I can shrink down an image before it loses definition, but I suspect the LP will handle that pretty well also.

So that covers the hardware. Now we come to the software that drives the whole system.

The Laserpecker runs on proprietary software available only for Android and iOS devices. In other words it runs only on cell phones and tablets. There is no software for the Laserpecker 1 for PCs of any flavor. There is software for PCs to control the Laserpecker 2 but that is an entirely different machine that doesn’t seem to be available yet. It is not compatible with any other software.

The program can be rather clumsy and awkward to use at times and I don’t like the user interface at all, but that’s personal preference. The software does work well to control the LP but there is certainly room for improvement.

You download it from whichever app store you use (Apple or Google) and then you have to go through a registration process in order to get an unlock code that will let you actually use the LP. This took longer than it should have. I spent half an hour fiddling around with this thing. It took at least six or seven attempts before it finally sent me the the unlock code via email. Why does it need to be “unlocked” in the first place? I bought the thing, the software will only work with the Laserpecker hardware, what the hell do you need to unlock it for?

You then need to enter a pin number (they call it a password) which the software will ask you for repeatedly. Now I can understand needing a pin number because you wouldn’t want your eight year old to start messing around with this so it does need some security.

Then you can get ready to start lasering stuff. First you need to turn the LP on and connect the software to it via Bluetooth. That was painless and fast.

The Examples takes you to a library of a few dozen cutesy little black and white drawings you can engrave.

The Creation option takes you to a very simplistic editor that lets you enter text to engrave or do some doodling on the screen with your fingertip. Photoshop it ain’t. The text option is useful, but the drawing app is, IMO, completely useless for producing anything useful. Even a professional artist would have trouble using that thing to make something that didn’t look like a child’s bad doodle.

And if you look at that screen shot over there you’ll see the software has given it a name, filename8.bmp. This implies that the software is going to be saving that drawing somewhere and you’ll be able to use it again. Don’t worry about someone ever seeing your alleged attempt at artwork and causing your family to disown you in shame or anything like that. It doesn’t. Save it, I mean. As far as I can tell that file goes absolutely nowhere. At least nowhere I could find. It doesn’t save it on my phone, doesn’t save it to my iCould, doesn’t save it to my photo library. It just vanishes after the engraving is done.

That brings me to the two biggest problems with the software.

The ads for the LP imply that you can import .jpg, .bmp, .png and other graphics files into the software. It also implies that you can even import gcode files. Only you can’t. The only thing the software has access to for import options is the photo library on your phone or tablet. You can import an existing photo from your phone’s photo library, and that is it. Nothing else. If you want to use an image you found somewhere, use artwork you’ve created yourself, etc. the only way you can import it into the software is to take a picture of it with your phone and then import that photo from your photo library and use the programs bare bones editor to crop it and adjust some visual parameters before you engrave it.

And once you’ve done the engraving, all the work you did importing that photo, cropping it, etc. just vanishes into thin air because the software has no provision for saving any of it. So when I do something like create a logo for a business or just some artwork I’ve done in Photoshop, the only way I can get it into the LP software is to take a photo of my computer screen and import that from my photo library, fiddle around cropping it and adjusting the few parameters the software lets me change, and then do the engraving. And then the next time I want to do that same engraving, I have to start all over again. Grrrrr….

The rest of the software is pretty basic but it gets the job done. Once you’re ready to engrave something you go to a screen that lets you select power level, depth of burn, the number of repeats necessary, the usual stuff associated with using a laser engraver. And then send it to the Laserpecker to actually do the engraving.

There is an option to select various materials that are being engraved which then sets the power levels, etc. automatically based on the material. Those presets generally aren’t very useful. The single best way to set the various parameters is to take a piece of scrap material and try that first and adjust the parameters manually to get the best look.

So let’s sum this all up.

The Laserpecker itself, that little round box, is a great piece of equipment that works quite well. The relatively small size of the engraving it can do, 100mm x 100mm isn’t going to be much of an issue for most of us. It just does a good job all the way around.

The software isn’t the best and has some serious drawbacks, but it does work and you can work around the drawbacks.

Considering the bare bones version of the Laserpecker sells for $250 or so, the price is pretty darned good for this thing.

The accessories that come with the “Pro” version, well, that’s a different story. The autofocusing stand is neat, but it costs darn near as much as the Laserpecker itself and I don’t think it’s worth the money. And as I noted earlier I had problems with it just shutting down and making me reboot the whole thing when trying to use it.

The clip together shields are neat and genuinely useful, but you don’t need to go for the “pro” version to get them. You can buy them separately for $90 if you want to get them.

The device is completely portable. You can set it up anywhere. The laser head can be adjusted on the tripod so it can engrave vertical surfaces or things at an angle if you get it adjusted properly. It can even run off one of those power banks that are used to recharge phones as long as it can provide 5V at 2 amps.

It isn’t the fastest thing in the world but none of the laser engravers in this price range are. Doing that 2 inch disc with the shop’s logo on it takes about 4 minutes, which is pretty reasonable. But some of the test engravings I’ve done took half an hour or more. It depends on the size of the engraving and the settings of the laser. It’s at least as fast as my old engraver.

Smoke and fumes can be a serious issue, but that’s true for all laser engravers. Using this thing for extended periods of time without proper venting will set off smoke detectors and possibly give off dangerous fumes. But that’s true of all laser engravers.

Remember this thing is not a toy! It is a potentially dangerous device that can cause some serious problems if it is not used properly.

Now, the most important question of all. Can it engrave a banana?

Yes, it can.

If you’re in the market for an inexpensive laser engraver, definitely give the Laserpecker a look. But stick with the $250 bare bones version. You definitely do not need the over priced autofocusing stand. The glass shields at $90 are something you should consider as well.

Now you’ll see promotions for the Laserpecker 2 floating around out there, and it looks really, really nice. But it doesn’t actually seem to exist yet. At least not for the average consumer. If you want to buy one you’re looking at a delivery date of at least December of 2022, almost a year away. But that being said the LP2 looks really interesting. Interesting enough and possibly useful enough that in a year or so I might look into getting one of those. But for the time being I like my little LP1 and I’m quite satisfied with it.

Cake Plate, Air Filters, Schrodinger’s Microwave, Farmers Shafted Again

Egads, it’s been a while since I did one of these, isn’t it? This time of year as the weather gets colder it’s tempting to just hunker down in my warm radio room and play with radios and computers and stuff instead of doing something useful. But stuff has been getting done, things have been going on and, well, let’s start at the beginning.

I should point out that I hate the color rendition on iPhone cameras. The real life colors of that platter up there are much richer, much deeper, and considerably darker. I don’t know what’s going on with that camera, but colors look washed out, pale, harsh, even cartoonish sometimes, especially with indoor photos.

I don’t know if I mentioned the plate before, and I’m too lazy to go back through the archives to check, but I got MrsGF’s cake plate done finally. It’s hard to judge size in these photos so to give you an idea of size the top plate is about 11″ across and it stands about 5″ high. It’s made of ambrosia maple, finished with shellac and carnauba wax so it’s a food safe surface. I think it turned out reasonably well.

The base and spindle are made out of packing material. I ordered a bunch of wood from a company called Green Valley Wood Products and the wood didn’t quite fit into the box so they chucked in some rough cut pieces of wood as packing material that turned out to be some rather nice ambrosia maple once I cleaned it up. The stuff didn’t look like it was very good at first but I trimmed it up on the bandsaw and discovered there was enough there to make the base and spindle.

I should probably have mentioned Green Valley before. I’ve bought several hundred bucks worth of wood from these guys over the past few months and it has all been excellent quality and the prices are reasonable. Anyway, here’s a shameless plug – If you’re looking for wood, check out Green Valley Wood Products, Brazil IN. I don’t get free wood or get paid by them or anything like that, I just like the quality of their wood, shipping times are reasonable and the prices are fair.

The new air filtration system seems to be doing it’s job quite well. As you can see from the dirt on the filter up there it’s pulling stuff out of the air. It’s hard for me to tell exactly how well it’s working because I don’t have any way of testing particulate content in the air around here, but it seems there is a lot less dust through the whole house since I started using it.

Even with the new filter system I still use this thing. I figure running both of them can’t hurt.

Is it any better than something like this Rube Goldberg thing over there on the left? Heck, I don’t know. Taping a furnace filter to a box fan does help pull stuff out of the air, but how effective it really is… Well, judging from the amount of dust I saw in the rest of the basement when I was doing things like this, it doesn’t work all that well. The volume of air being moved through this thing isn’t anywhere near as great as what the Shopfox thing pulls through its system. At a rough guess I’d say the Shopfox moves 5 times as much air through its filters as the box fan does. That’s just a rough guess, of course, based on the air movement I feel. I don’t have any way to actually measure CFM.

Let’s see, what else? Ah, how could I forget about the Schrodinger’s microwave fiasco? I call it Schrodinger’s microwave because it seems to both exist and not exist, at the same time.

Handy hint: Don’t buy a black microwave. It may look cool in the display room or online, but in real life trying to keep it clean is a major pain in the neck.

So, let’s start at the beginning. Last year we had to buy a new microwave oven. We ended up getting a Maytag, the one in the photo over there on the right. And it’s a very nice microwave. A bit pricey, but it’s well made and works very well indeed. We really like the thing. The problem is that this model doesn’t seem to actually exist.

We needed to replace the filters in this thing. MrsGF went out on the internet and started scrounging around looking for replacement filters. And couldn’t find any. In fact, she couldn’t even find this oven.

You’re kidding, said I. You must have typed the model number in wrong or overlooked something. Ah, said she, if you’re so smart, you go try to find it. Okay, said I, I will.

She was right. None of the parts vendors on Amazon list this model. None of the parts vendors outside of Amazon list this model. I went directly to Maytag. Maytag itself didn’t have this model in its database. Apparently we bought a microwave that doesn’t actually exist???

I took a closer look at the tag with the manufacturing data on it, including the date it was made and…

Well, that was interesting. Apparently this oven was manufactured three months after we bought it. Okay… Well, I ruled out the possibility that somehow this thing slipped through some crack in the spacetime continuum from some alternate universe or that the guy who actually installed it was Dr. Who or that it was some kind of quantum oven that both existed and didn’t exist at the same time. So what was going on? Some kind of counterfeit perhaps? It does happen. There are companies out there that gleefully rip off name brand manufacturers all the time. But that didn’t make sense. This thing is extremely good quality. Everything about it is rock solid, made to perfect tolerances, made of high quality materials, the fit and finish is flawless, it works beautifully. If this thing is a counterfeit they’re making products of better quality than most of the name brand stuff out there. So that didn’t make any sense.

Anyway, eventually I did find a filter, but by searching on the filter dimensions instead of models or brands. The one I found was actually for a Whirlpool. Of course it is entirely possible that this is a Whirlpool, or, rather, made by some OEM in China that makes ovens for two or more different companies and the only difference between them is the brand name. That kind of thing happens all the time in most industries. The name you see on the product isn’t the company that actually made it. Heck, the Ford truck I had many years ago was actually made in Canada by Mazda.

Farmers Getting Screwed Again?

Yeah, it seems so. Here’s the deal – Farmers who sold their milk to the now bankrupt Dean Foods are getting letters from lawyers demanding the farmers repay the money they were paid for milk they shipped to Dean during the “preference period” of the bankruptcy. Supposedly these parasites can go back 90 days and demand the farmers repay the money Dean paid them. Will the farmers then get their milk back or something? Of course not. Is it ethical? Good lord no! Ethically speaking this is flat out extortion. Is this legal? Apparently it is. It’s called a Trustee Avoidance Claim. But in actual fact most, if not all of the farmers who dealt with Dean who are receiving demands like this qualify for an exemption and can avoid having to repay anything. But the trustees, of course, hope the farmers don’t know this and will just cough up the money. As Roger McEowen of Washburn University said,  “These are extortion letters, there’s no other way to put it. They’re seeing what they can get.”

But if you get one of these letters, you’re going to have to get your own lawyer to respond properly, so you’re going to have to foot the bill for that. Still, hiring a lawyer is going to cost a lot less than having to potentially repay tens of thousands of dollars to these parasites.

And on that rant, let’s wrap this up.

Solar Power, Lathes, Bats and Snakes

I don’t recommend equipment here unless it is something I bought and use myself and I find genuinely good. That’s the case with this, the Rocksolar battery and folding solar panel. I finally had a chance to give the Rocksolar battery pack and solar panel a good workout the other day and the whole package worked quite well. MrsGF was gone for the day and I was bored so I set up the FT-818 up on the front porch with the mag loop antenna, running off the Rocksolar battery, and tried making contacts on CW for a few hours, with it’s high intensity LED lights turned on just to give it an added load, and plugging a cell phone and my bike’s GPS/odometer into it’s USB charging ports to recharge them at the same time. I should add that just to make things more interesting I’d had the battery pack’s lights turned on for over eight hours the day before. The battery pack hardly even noticed the load. When I got sick of not making contacts (ah, the “joy” of QRP!) I gave up on that, dug out the laptop and switched to FT8 and finally made a few contacts. That got boring after a while (well, it was about 95 degrees out there) so I quit to retreat into the air conditioned house.

The Rocksolar battery pack with the Rocksolar folding solar panel.

I threw the folding solar panel out on the ground and hooked it up to the pack to recharge it and that worked well too. About as easy as it gets. No need to buy charging controllers or extra cables, everything needed is included. Just plug it into the charging port on the battery pack and lay it out in the sun. After charging up a cell phone, running the lights, powering the FT-818, etc. the panel brought the battery up to full charge in about 3 hours according to the meter on the battery.

So overall I’m really rather pleased with the battery and the matching solar panel. It takes, the documentation says, about 9 hours to do a full recharge using the included AC charger, and about the same using the solar panel if you have full sun. Of course recharging with the solar panel depends on conditions. The documentation claims it will run the dual high intensity LED lights for 189 hours. Heat is always an issue with battery packs like this, so this one includes a cooling fan that kicks in automatically if it starts to get too warm. And it has a 200 watt AC inverter to power AC equipment. But it doesn’t provide a clean AC sine wave so it isn’t suitable for some AC equipment. It has 4 USB charging ports and 4 DC ports in addition to the 3 prong AC outlet.

So if you’re looking for a solar charged battery system to run your gear, take a look at the Rocksolar stuff. You can find it on Amazon. It isn’t exactly super cheap, though. This particular battery is going for $178 at the moment, and the folding solar panel is going for $165.

Lathe Going to Junk Yard

I’ve had it with that Harbor Freight lathe. The bearings are starting to go after just a few hours of use, it’s made of cheap stamped sheet metal that flexes and shudders and it’s just – just nasty.

This thing is basically an industrial accident waiting to happen. So it’s going, and is going to be replaced by a Delta mid sized lathe that’s made out of actual real steel and iron, with a motor that won’t stall all the time. Good lathes aren’t cheap. The new Delta is going to set me back about $800. But this Harbor Freight monstrosity has reached the point where it just isn’t safe to use any more.

We Got Bats

Now I like bats. They eat bugs and all that fun stuff. But I only like bats as long as they aren’t actually in my house. Which they have been. We’ve had two of the little buggers in the house in the last three weeks, and, well, enough is enough. We’re getting a bat removal specialist in this week to figure out where they are, how to keep them out, put in bat excluders, etc.

Uh, I have a confession to make. I said I like bats. That’s a lie. I only say that because I’m supposed to say I like bats. I don’t. Bats really, really creep me out. I’m sorry, they just do. When I see a bat in the house I want to run and scream and hide.

Snakes, on the other hand, don’t bother me at all. I think snakes are kind of neat. Which is good because…

We Also Have Snakes

This little guy has a rather indignant look on his face because he was trying to get into the wax beans and MrsGF wasn’t going to put up with that. She grabbed him and put him in the flower bed and he sat there and pouted for about ten minutes before slithering off.

We have three of these guys hanging around. They’re garter snakes and they’re amazingly beautiful creatures. They’re harmless. Well, unless you’re a frog or a mouse or bug or something else they like to eat.

I suppose I should wrap this up with a picture of a flower because holy cow we got flowers this year!

Stuff Is Growing, Frogs, 500 HP Engine, CW, and What’s Coming Up

Let’s start off with this little guy.

These little guys are amazing critters. They’re tiny little things. That cable you see there is less than a half inch thick so you can see just how small he/she is. Frogs are some of the most amazing and, I think beautiful creatures around. I’m still astonished that we have these little tree frogs around here.

Speaking of trees, the pear tree looks like it’s getting a good start.

It is absolutely loaded with baby pears. That ought to make up for last year when we got maybe a dozen pears total off the whole tree.

The ornamental gardens are looking great here. The recent rains and warm weather has everything growing like crazy right now. Most of these plants have tripled in size in the last week or so. You can almost see them getting bigger. Oh, and the bird houses are occupied again this year. Looks like some type of wren?

We restrained ourselves and didn’t crowd things into the two raised beds this year. Just 6 tomato plants and the outer edges with onions. Even six is probably too many because we probably still have six months worth of canned tomatoes of various types on the shelf. But the lure of fresh tomatoes is something we just can’t ignore. And we can always give ’em away if we have too may.

This is garden faces south and west and is the most productive spot we have. Sheltered from the wind, with light concentrated here, it gets warm early and stays warm late into the fall. Have to be careful what’s planted here because the warm, sunny conditions means a lot of stuff like lettuce and radishes will bolt. Also it has to be watered a lot. But we usually get ridiculously amounts of produce out of this corner. The tripods in the back are for pole beans. There are various baby pepper plants protected with #10 cans, and more beans and parsley seeded down in front.

Time for a musical interlude. You may want to turn your volume up. Or maybe not?

When I start getting bored I take this thing out on the road. Great fun 🙂

People sometimes ask me what I’ve been doing since we can’t really travel or do much except putter in the garden. I’ve been playing amateur radio, of course, and trying to get better at CW. That’s morse code for you non radio people out there.

Doing CW is something I never really thought I’d get into. I’ve always been far more interested in the digital modes like PSK and JS8Call. But I also love QRP, using extremely small amounts of power to try to communicate, and what works best for QRP is CW. And unlike the digital modes, CW doesn’t require you to lug a computer along. So I’ve been spending about a half hour or more a day trying to learn and get better at this. I’m up to, oh, maybe two words a minute?

Then there’s this thing.

I’ve been looking at solar power and batteries to power my QRP gear and even my full power radios for some time but never got around to actually getting involved with solar because A) I’m lazy, B) I wasn’t sure I’d ever actually use it, and C) the stuff can get a bit expensive. But then this deal came along…

I have to admit I have very little experience with solar power. I never even heard of this company before this deal came along. But the stuff seems to get decent reviews and the price, well, I picked up the 20 Ah LiPo battery pack, with a built in 120V inverter (sort of), USB and 12V power outlets, built in high intensity LED lights, LCD display and other goodies, and a folding 40W solar panel for less than, well, let’s just say that I’ve dropped more money on a meal at a nice restaurant than I spent on this deal.

Anyway, I’ll be taking a closer look at this in the near future to see if it’s a real deal or not. I’ve only just taken a quick look at it, but right now it looks pretty good. Especially that folding solar panel. That thing looks like it’s very high quality. Well, we’ll see.

That’s it for now.

I Get Questions. Sometimes I Got Answers

Some readers managed to discover Grouchy Farmer’s super secret email address and have been sending in questions. (What, you don’t know what it is? Here’s a hint: old.grouchyfarmer@gmail.com) So I thought I’d better deal with some of the stuff that’s been piling up over there.

I heard almost the entire US meat industry is controlled by just three or four companies. Is that right?

That is true. About two thirds of the beef market is controlled by just three companies, JBS, Cargill and Tyson. Add in National Beef and those four companies control 80% of the beef produced in the US. The same is true with pork and poultry. Three or four companies control almost the entire market for both of those products as well. And all of these companies have a long history of, oh, let’s call it shenanigans, shall we? All of these companies have a history of being accused of price fixing, collusion to manipulate markets, abuse of employees, supply manipulation, and, well, the list goes on and on. And in some cases not just allegations, but outright actual criminal activity. JBS took corruption to a whole new level in its home country of Brazil where it was involved in an enormous bribery scandal that involved hundreds of politicians, meat inspectors, etc. Run a Google search on “JBS bribes meat inspectors” and you’ll probably be astonished at the depth of the corruption, and disgusted by the other less than ethical things JBS is accused of participating in.

How is this happening? Don’t we have antitrust laws to prevent this kind of thing? Yes, we do. Laws that the government ignores whenever it feels like it. Antitrust laws intended to prevent monopolies from developing have been conveniently ignored for decades now, with the government either carving out loopholes for certain businesses/industries, or simply ignoring the laws entirely. Why? Because the big multinational monopolies pump millions of dollars into the campaign coffers of influential politicians in Congress who, in turn, pressure the officials who are supposed to police this into looking the other way. Or in the case of JBS, bypassing the clumsy “lobbying” and just passing actual suitcases full of money to people.

Are dairy farmers really being forced to dump milk?

That is also true. I’ve heard estimates that dairy farmers are dumping something like 1.2 million or more pounds of milk every day because they can’t sell it. About half of the milk produced doesn’t go into products sold directly to consumers, it sells to food service operations, school districts, restaurants, or processors that use the products to produce still other products. So when the virus hit and most of those operations shut down or were severely limited, dairy farmers lost almost half of their market literally overnight. While consumer demand did indeed go up because of an increase in usage of dairy products in the home, the institutional type products are in forms or packaging the consumer can’t use. The production facilities that make consumer dairy products were overwhelmed with high demand and weren’t able to keep up, resulting in temporary shortages in some areas. So we have a bizarre situation where farmers have to dump milk while there are shortages of some products at the same time because production facilities can’t keep up or can’t quickly convert over to making consumer products.

When you made that “doomsday” flashlight, why did you have to put a resistor in-line with the LED? Why not hook it up directly to the battery?

Ah, good question. I should probably have explained when I wrote that up back in April. (Link to flashlight post here.)

It would be nice if we could just hook an LED up to a battery or power supply and switch it on without having to worry about it, but, alas, you can’t. (Note: There are some types of LEDs that do not need a current limiting resistor because they either already have one or because the type of LED can deal with the current, but most do require one) You often need a resistor in-line with the LED to prevent it from drawing too much current and burning itself out. The amount of current flowing in an LED is a function of the voltage across the LED. And in an LED the relationship between current and voltage is not linear. A slight increase in voltage can result in a large increase in current. So if you have an LED that wants, oh, 2.7V for example, and you feed it 3V, that can result in a large increase in the current in the LED, overdriving it, causing it to heat up, burn out, or even, in rare cases, explode if the current gets too high. So that resistor is there to drop the voltage in the circuit down to a level that the LED likes.

How do you figure out exactly what size resistor to use? I could go through all of the explanations about forward voltages and all of that, deal with the math and stuff, but it’s a heck of a lot easier to simply point you at someone who does a heck of a lot better at explaining things than I do. It’s pretty simple really. Don’t let the math spook you. It’s very simple to figure out. You can find a detailed explanation of why resistors are needed with LEDs and how to pick the right size resistor over at https://www.evilmadscientist.com/2012/resistors-for-leds/ There are even calculators (free) on-line where you just have to plug in some numbers and it figures out the size of the resistor that you need.

Your resistor doesn’t need to match the calculations exactly, either. If you don’t have one exactly the right size you can pick one that’s a bit bigger than the one the calculations indicate. I picked a larger one than I needed to reduce current draw so the batteries would last a lot longer while still letting the LEDs give enough light to be useful

What happened to the Great Radio Receiver Fiasco Project?

Ah, that. I was afraid someone would bring that up. It did not go well, mostly because of a parts supply problem. First the ferrite rods I’d ordered arrived almost crushed into powder. Then the toroids I’d ordered for coils, after about four weeks of waiting, abruptly were listed as “unavailable” from all three of the suppliers I’d ordered from. Then the tuning capacitor I’d salvaged from another radio turned out to have serious problems and a new one would have cost me almost $40. Anyway the whole thing is on hold while I look at alternatives or really scale back the design. Or just give up. I wanted to build a multiband receiver that would cover just about the entire HF spectrum from 80 meters to 10 meters, and, well, we’ll see. I built a few very simple two or three transistor receivers that sort of, kinda, almost worked, if I kept my fingers crossed, did a little dance and hooked ’em up to my 140 foot wire antenna to be able to receive anything. One I did was supposed to be an AM band receiver and when it picked up anything at all it turned out to be receiving transmissions from a train switching cars in the small rail yard a half block from here. Still haven’t figured out what the hell that was all about. Either my receiver was ridiculously screwed up, or the transmitter the railroad was using was ridiculously screwed up. Or, perhaps, it was aliens.

Are people really attacking cell phone tower technicians in Europe and trying to destroy radio towers, or is it just more clickbait? WTF is going on?

Unfortunately, those stories are all too true. It seems to be the worst in the United Kingdom, but it’s spreading everywhere. In the last two weeks or so alone, in the UK there were 30 incidents of cellular towers being attacked, usually by arson, and almost 200 cases of technicians being abused and even physically attacked, including one having a brick thrown at his head and another being stabbed. And it seems to be spreading almost as fast as the damned virus, fueled by bizarre and utterly ridiculous conspiracy theories, and spread by so-called “celebrities” who aren’t exactly the brightest bulbs in the pack to begin with, and by the anti-vax crowd. And it’s being spread everywhere by social media services who are more interested in raking in as much money as possible than they are in preventing people from using their services to push out insane conspiracy theories and promote violent behavior.

Anyway, that’s about enough of that. Time to wrap this up.

Getting Silly: The Virus Doomsday Flashlight

What do you do when you have a lot of time on your hands, a whole case of “Altoid” style metal boxes for a project that never came to fruition, and a bags full of surplus electronics parts? If you’re me, you end up with stuff like this:

I used “doomsday” because I can’t spell apocolypse, appocololips, apocalypse by the way. Is this “project” silly? You bet. Don’t care. We all need to be silly once in a while.

So I was sitting around this morning staring at all this stuff on the shelves down here in my version of a mad scientist’s laboratory (I’m not really mad, only slightly eccentric.) wondering what I could do that would A) kill time because dear lord I was getting bored (so, sooo bored) after being in self imposed exile for weeks, B) be really, really cheap, C) be fairly easy to do because even though I was bored, I’m also lazy, and D) use up some of the junk I have laying around like that bag full of weird little switches. So there I was with a bunch of small metal boxes, a bunch of LEDs, a bunch of switches that aren’t good for much of anything, at least not for anything I normally tinker with, and I started thinking – ooo, it’s lunch time, let’s go eat.

But after lunch I thought hey, there is no such thing as having too many flashlights, is there? I mean whenever you need a flashlight either you can’t find one, or the batteries are dead, or someone took out the batteries to stuff in the remote for the TV or to power a robot or weather station or something. Even better, maybe MrsGF might stop wondering if she needs to call someone about my “problem” with accumulating various parts and gadgets and similar stuff if I actually use some of this stuff to crank out something remotely useful.

(Sidenote: LEDs are a lot of fun to play with, and cheap to boot. A few LEDs, some resistors, a 555 timer, a few transistors, maybe a microcontroller, and you too can have a lot of fun building really cool and utterly useless little gadgets)

So first I need a 3V power supply of some kind because the LEDs I got want to be fed about 3 volts. AA batteries work well for this. (So would AAA batteries, BTW) Two AA batteries together will put out 3V so… Oh, I didn’t have a battery holder thingie. Ah, well, no problem there. Just solder the suckers together. Solder the negative pole of one battery to the positive of the other with a hunk of wire, solder jumper wires on, and away we go. Instant battery pack.

Is this safe? Um, maybe? Probably not? Is it easy? Not really. It’s a pain in the neck. Solder doesn’t want to stick to those suckers. (Hint: scuff the surface of the battery with fine sandpaper. Seems to help the solder adhere.) But this is a doomsday flashlight, remember? You don’t need neat and tidy and professional looking, you just need something that works. Jury rigging is encouraged.

Speaking of jury rigging…

Solder splashes are an optional accessory. The leads are just twisted together here, but I did eventually solder everything together before I packed it into the box. You really don’t even need to solder anything. Just securely twisting the leads and wires together and wrapping everything in tape would be good enough.

What about actually making some light? That’s the easy part, really. A couple of resistors for current limiting, a couple of LEDs, and away we go.

Now for mounting the LEDs in that case. How the heck do we do that? I don’t have any of those fancy mounts… Well, we’ll just drill some holes just barely big enough to shove the LED through and add lots and lots of glue.

Now, to sort through this lot to find a switch that might work…

The problem when you buy bulk lots of stuff labeled “100 Misc. Switches, $1.99” is that the chances of you getting anything actually useable out of that lot is pretty slim. Still, we work with what we got. All of those are momentary contact switches that stay turned on only as long as pressure is applied to them, and they aren’t really suited for what I want. Unless… Ooo, I know! Use the lid of the case as the switch. Close the lid it puts pressure on the switch and turns it on. Open the lid and it turns off.

And this is what I ended up with. LEDs glued into holes drilled in the end of the case. Lots of plastic tape to insulate the wires. The batteries wrapped in tape and held in with a self adhesive velcro pad, and the switch glued to the top of the battery conveniently makes it exactly the right height to turn on when the lid is closed. Damn, that was lucky there because otherwise I had no idea how I was going to mount that switch. Ooo, can you say serendipity?

And, damn, it actually works??? Yeah, it does. Closing the lid puts enough pressure on the switch to turn it on. Open the lid and it turns off. And puts out a surprisingly large amount of light, too. Damn, I actually made something useful? Wow!

It also uses very, very little power. I put it on the meter and it draws about 0.005 amps. A set of AA batteries will probably keep this thing going 24/7 for a couple of weeks. Which is good because changing the batteries in this thing would be a royal pain in the neck, them being soldered in like that.

Total cost on this, excluding the batteries, is maybe a buck at the most? Most of this stuff like the LEDs and the switches were bought in large lots as “surplus” in a moment of weakness when I was scrounging around on-line. (“Ooo, that’s a real deal! I’m sure I’ll need 1,000 miscellaneous LEDs in the future”) It took maybe half an hour to put it all together, and it only took that long because I’m easily distracted. And because it took me 10 minutes to find a roll of electrical tape.

Reviewing the MFJ 8100K World Band SW Receiver Kit

Being stuck in the house “social distancing” (OMG I’m so bored) has some advantages, one of which is being able to get caught up on a lot of stuff. One of those things is the MFJ-8100K world band shortwave radio kit. That’s the little beastie you see in the photo below that I (ahem) stole borrowed from somewhere on the internet.

Damn, that’s pretty slick looking. It beats the heck out of what the average electronics kit looks like when it’s done. Most of them don’t even offer any kind of decent case. Whether it actually will look like this when it’s done remains to be seen because I haven’t actually built it yet as I write this. Instead of putting it together and taking some photos and talking about it after it’s all done, I’m going to do this live, so to speak, writing and photographing as I go along so you too can experience the joys and pains associated with putting something like this together.

I should warn you ahead of time that this could get pretty lengthy because I’ve done little more than just open the box and it is already looking like this is going to be a problem.

But let’s look at the basics a little more closely before we get started. It’s a world band shortwave receiver with 5 bands. They cover 3.5 – 4.3 mHz, 5.85 – 7.4 mHz, 9.5 – 12.00 mHz, 13.2 – 16.4 mHz and 17.5 – 22 mHz.

As for the basic design, this is a regenerative receiver, a design that dates back to, oh, the 1920s or so, and was quickly abandoned as soon as superhets were developed. And for good reason, as anyone who has ever fallen off their chair from the blast of noise if you tweak the regen just a tad too far and it goes into oscillation can tell you. About the only good thing regenerative receivers have going for them is a fairly low parts count and easy assembly. Well, that’s not really true. They can be decent receivers once you get used to their quirks, but with really high quality superheterodyne designs out there, why even bother with one of these? How did I even end up having this on the shelf in the first place? I don’t remember buying it. Do I have people breaking into the house and leaving me stuff instead of stealing it now?

The first thing I started wondering was why the heck is this thing so expensive?It’s going for $90, for heaven’s sake. And there is nothing exotic or hard to find in the electronics. While that variable capacitor is kind of pricey (that goes for about $20+ alone and I know that because I had to buy one of the things a few months ago) But other than that I think there’s maybe $10 worth of parts in the thing. I suspect that really fancy faceplate and heavy duty metal case probably costs more than the electronics inside does.

But let’s get on with this.

Opening the box and poking around.

This is what the promotional photos tells you is in the box.

First I should point out that this kit starting with the photos below is shown exactly as it came and while I assembled it. The box was still sealed and I hadn’t opened it until I started this. What it really looks like when you open the box is this:

Um, okay… Are those screws and nuts rolling around loose in the box? Yeah, they are. And not just screws and nuts and washers, we got electronic components floating around loose in there too. Oh, goodie.

Opening the box and finding components strewn about all over inside doesn’t exactly inspire confidence about the quality of a product. Whoever originally packed this thing and chucked in the little plastic bags holding the components hadn’t bothered to actually close up the plastic bags.

And as for the case, well, damn, that’s probably the best case I’ve ever seen for a kit in a long time. Beautifully finished, heavy steel, with an equally beautiful brushed polished steel faceplate.

You can’t get much better than that. See what I mean about the case probably costing more than the electronics? It’s – it’s shiny. Oooo

The rest of what was in the box looks like this:

The inductors on the right edge were not included in the kit. See text for explanation

As noted, most of the little baggies containing parts were open and had shed a considerable number of electronic components, screws, washers, etc. all over the inside of the box..

Half of “The Wall O’ Parts.” If I need something, it’s probably in there. Somewhere. Maybe. There’s even an emergency backup espresso machine in there

On the far right of the photo above you’ll see a strip of components held together with bits of yellow tape. Those are 3.3 uH inductors and those were not in the kit. I had to dig those out from my “Wall O’ Parts” because the kit wants one, and MFJ either thoughtfully failed to provide one because they figured I’d be getting bored by this time and needed to get up and stretch or something, or it got lost because of they left the baggies open. I expect I shall have to resort to the Wall O’ Parts several times as I try putting this sucker together. I’ve only just started to look at this and sort through parts and I’m already finding stuff missing, so I’m a wee bit irritated. There is nothing more upsetting than getting into an electronics kit and finding parts missing. Me, I have hundreds of components sitting on the shelf (well, if I can find ’em, that is) but the average person building this is not going to have that luxury and is going to be royally ticked off.

The circuit board looks reasonably well made and the parts locations are all nicely detailed. You could probably put it together without instructions if it weren’t for a few gotchas, like having to wind your own coil on a toroid.

Where’s the fecking Manual???

Now, the more sharp eyed amongst you might have noticed something missing from those photos up there. Where the heck is the manual/assembly instructions? Well, you don’t see it because there isn’t one. Instead of a manual there is a half sheet of paper telling me I need to download the manual from the MFJ website, giving me a URL to go to. So I go to the webpage as instructed and find a bad PDF of the circuit diagram which was so low resolution I couldn’t even make out the symbols or component labels. It looked like someone had almost deliberated fuzzed out all of the labels and component symbols, and the “manual” was actually a booklet in PDF telling me how to use the radio, not how to put it together. No assembly instructions. No readable schematic. Oh, goodie…

This exactly what the schematic I found looks like. Can you read that? Yeah, neither can I

A search on MFJ’s site using its own search function turned up a reference leading straight back to the useless info I’d already seen. I finally ran a general search on Google and found the real assembly manual tucked away somewhere on MFJ’s site and I printed it out.

(Update 3/27/20: And now I can’t even find that website, for pete’s sake! I was going to put the link to the correct PDF in here as I edit this before posting it, and when I just tried I get a “page not found” error. MFJ is apparently upgrading its website and I can’t find it at all. Good job, there, MFJ. I didn’t keep a copy of the PDF, but at least I printed the thing out so I can at least take a stab at this. But anyone else wanting that booklet, well, it looks like you’re on your own.)

The manual itself (if you can find it) is actually pretty good. Sort of. Clearly written, mostly, with lots of detail, but sadly lacking in illustrations.

So let’s sling some solder and see what happens.

Now that’s interesting. Look at the 4 inductors up there. Notice anything different about one of ’em? Yeah, the third from the left is about half the physical size of the other three. The big three were supplied with the kit while the small one is my replacement and is about half the physical size, but it is the right specification according to the color codes and I put it on my tester just to double check, and it should be the right one. Is this going to be an issue? No idea at this point. All of the inductors I have in stock are the smaller size.

Also, more missing parts. Just found two resistors are missing. Look at this pic:

R3 and R6 were missing so I had to pull those off the shelf. Notice that they’re an entirely different color from the kit supplied one, R17. I use the generally more reliable metal film resistors (the blue ones) while the kit supplies carbon resistors (the tan ones). Now very, very rarely the type of resistor can make a difference, so I’m hoping that isn’t the case here.

Later – Missing parts list now sits at 1 missing inductor, 4 missing resistors, and 2 missing capacitors.

And now there’s an issue with one of the electrolytic capacitors.

C14 there next to the IC socket is, according to the instructions, supposed to be a 10 uF cap, but the kit supplies a 1 uF. Or at least I think that’s the one because the 1 uF is the only one left. Do I follow instructions and put in a 10, or use the 1 uF supplied? I finally pulled a 10 uF off the shelf and used that in the hopes that the instructions are right and the parts picker was wrong. (Later – Apparently the 10uF was the right choice because now that it’s done it works)

Watch out for solder bridges or pins with cold solder joints. Here on the bottom row of pins, the third from the left is a bad joint.

And speaking of IC sockets, and this applies to whenever you’re soldering a socket, use caution soldering the pins because it is very easy to apply a tiny bit too much solder and end up with solder bridges shorting out the pins. And it’s easy to do a bad joint as well. Double check under a magnifier.

Time to install the variable cap which is how you tune this puppy. And…

And the solder lugs on the cap are way too big for the holes in the circuit board. I could either drill the holes out, which I don’t want to do because the solder pads are none too large to begin with, or I could trim off the lugs. I finally trimmed the lugs off.

Above here I’m trying to mount the volume control and the regen control. They don’t make this easy either. We’ve gone from holes being to small to holes being way, way too big. Note how some of those holes at the top edge of the board have been double drilled, which makes them way too large for the solder lugs on the potentiometers that are supposed to fit in there.

And speaking of soldering, look closely at those solder pads on that board. It’s difficult to see in the photos but almost all of them seem to be covered with some kind of oxidation that makes it difficult for the solder to adhere. I’ve been using a bit of a scotch brite pad held in a needle nose pliers to buff them before I solder anything.

Then there’s the band switch. The switch has 8 pins, the board has 7 holes. Hmm… Let’s look at the manual. Ah, here we are… Oh, nothing. Says nothing about what to do about the missing hole. Oh, goodie.

I ended up bending the extra pin out of the way and keeping my fingers crossed that it wouldn’t get mad at me. (Later – Don’t know if I was supposed to do this or not but the thing is working this way.)

That circle thing with the white wire wound around it is a coil made by winding 8 turns of wire around a provided toroid core. Some people get a bit weird about winding their own coils. I’m not sure why. A small one like this is a piece of cake. They don’t get nasty until you start having to make ’em with, oh, 30 or 40 turns.

And there it is, ready for testing. It runs off 9V and supposedly a 9V battery will last for weeks and weeks as long as you remember to turn it off. I don’t have a 9V battery, tho, so I hooked it up to my DC power supply and…

Damn, I wish my upload speed wasn’t about 15K baud so I could put up a video of this, but the damned thing actually works! I won’t go through all of the alignment procedures because they will bore you to tears. This is, believe it or not, an actual, working SW receiver. Not a very good one, granted, but it will pick up something.

But then there’s this

This is it fully assembled, mostly. You will note that I don’t have the knobs on. There is a reason for that. MFJ neglected to include the collar nuts you need to actually attach the front properly, anchor the controls down so I can put the knobs on. Now there were indeed collar nuts in the box. You probably saw that in the photos from the box opening. But they were for control shafts about twice the size of these. Sigh… Thanks again, MFJ. Complete assembly is going to have to wait until I can get the right sized nuts.

Okay, this has gone on long enough. Let’s wrap this up. What’s the overall assessment of this beastie?

Well, on the plus side it looks good. It is, amazingly enough, a working radio receiver, although not what I’d call a good working radio. It wasn’t hard to put together. Just about anyone who knows which end of a soldering iron to grab could put this together. Well, mostly, with the application of a bit of common sense. And that case sure looks cool.

Elenco AM/FM superhet kit under construction

But then we come to the negative side.

First problem is the price. They’re getting $90 for this thing, my friends. While the Elenco AM/FM receiver I put together a couple of weeks ago is far more sophisticated, much more sensitive, has an actual amplifier so it can drive a speaker and not just headphones, and sells for half the cost of the MFJ kit at about $44. Granted, it doesn’t come with the fancy case, but you can always cobble together something to throw the Elenco into. And when you’re done with the Elenco you’ll have a radio you can actually listen to, whereas the MFJ is never going to be more than a curiosity for most people.

Then there are the missing parts. A half dozen or so resistors, two capacitors, an inductor, the collar nuts to hold the controls in place, all missing. I don’t know if this was a problem with the person who packed up the parts in the first place, or if they were lost somehow because the bags weren’t closed, or what. My guess is that they were never in there to begin with, because while parts did spill out, the box was sealed and there were no openings for anything to fall out.

As I said before missing parts isn’t much of a problem for me, but for someone who doesn’t have a “Wall O’ Parts”, like some kid doing this for a STEM project or someone who just enjoys occasionally tinkering with kits, this could be a real problem. Sure, you could probably email MFJ and they’d probably replace the parts. Eventually. Maybe. But come on, they should have all been in there in the first place.

Then there’s the manual. Or, rather, the lack of one. What’s the matter with you people over at MFJ? You could throw an 100 page product catalog into the box but you couldn’t be bothered to run off a 30 page manual on the office printer and throw that in too? And then even worse, direct me to a website to find the manual that doesn’t exist? Or to utterly useless schematics?

I’m really disappointed with this because this could have been a really good kit if MFJ had bothered to just just be a little more careful.

So, because of the high price, the missing parts, the missing manual, etc. I can’t score the 8100 very high. On a scale of A to F, where A is excellent and F is abysmal, I’d give the 8100 kit a D+.

Electric Stuff and, Well, Stuff. And the Virus.

How did it get so cluttered so fast?

When I started moving my stuff from the office upstairs to the new workspace in the basement I knew I was in trouble when I plugged in the laser printer, turned it on, and the lights all went dim. So the electrical contractor got here at 6:50 AM the other morning and some two hours later I had the radio shack/shop rewired with new circuits and outlets. The electrical in this space was a bit scary. I think the whole room was connected to a single 15 amp circuit. I was running my radios and other equipment off heavy duty extension cords running into my woodshop and, well, it was just nasty all the way around. The grand total for all of the work and parts ran about $500 but it’s going to be worth it, for safety alone if not for convenience.

So now I have two, 4 outlet 120V boxes, each on its own circuit, plus a 220V outlet over on the radio bench, and two new 120V circuits for the workbench.

Why call in a contractor instead of doing it myself? Because I know where my areas of competence are. I worked on a farm and in building maintenance for years and I can do just about anything – framing, finish carpentry, drywall, installing doors, plumbing, laying tile… But electrical? I’ve had no training or experience in doing household electrical, and considering how dangerous it can be, well I’m going to let a trained electrician do that.

Tubes & Stuff

So eldest son shot me a text Friday asking me if I wanted a vacuum tube tester, free, and I texted back “r u nuts? yeah i want toob thingie!” or something to that effect and he showed up last weekend with this:

The thing with free equipment is that it’s often going to be something useful only for parts, if that, but in this case it turned out to be a genuine, working vacuum tube tester. Oh, it has a few issues. The tube sockets have some corrosion that needs to be cleaned up and it could use a good cleaning in general. The insulation on the cords is brittle so they need to be replaced, but other than that the thing actually seems to work and inside it actually looks almost new.

on the inside it looks almost brand new.

I haven’t done much with equipment with vacuum tubes of late, but I never know what’s going to show up around here, so this could come in handy.

Tinkering with Stuff

I am building a radio receiver. No, not The Great Radio Fiasco Project. That project is more or less on hold until I can get some parts that seem to have become unobtanium for some reason. I may end up having to change the design. No, this is an Elenco AM/FM receiver kit. Best of all it was free! Well, maybe it was? I found it in a box of junk I was sorting through as I continued the apparently never ending project of cleaning out the basement.

I don’t remember ever buying this thing and have no idea where it came from, but it’s in my basement, in my box, so I’m assuming it’s mine, so I’m going to put the thing together and see what happens. It’s a fairly elaborate little radio and from time to time the instructions seem to go wandering off into fantasy land. I suspect that the instructions that were in the box were written before the circuit board was changed and no one bothered to correct the instructions. So that makes things a bit interesting.

Also in the same box of junk I ran across an unopened multiband shortwave receiver kit distributed by MFJ. I don’t remember ever buying that either, and I would remember since that one costs about $80 and I darn well wouldn’t have spent that much. I suspect both were in a boxes full of “valuable assorted radio parts” (i.e. junk) I picked up for next to nothing at a hamfest, and the box just got shoved on a shelf and forgotten about before I bothered to sort through it.

Weather Stuff

Over the weekend it hit 50 degrees. Almost all the snow melted, motorcycles were out on the streets, a very pleasant weekend all around. Tomorrow it’s supposed to hit 55 degrees!

So, of course, today it snowed. Sigh… I know Wisconsin in known for having some odd weather, but this is ridiculous.

Virus Stuff

I am sure you heard about covid-19. You’d have to have been living in a cave on Mars to not have heard. Wisconsin has only 6 confirmed cases, but the potential of it spreading, and spreading quickly, has everyone concerned. At least one school district has closed, the UW system is extending spring break and advising students not to travel, companies are canceling employee travel. The state basketball tournaments are starting up this week and WIAA just announced that general spectators will not be allowed, only the teams and necessary personnel and a small pool of sports reporters will be permitted.

I want to think a lot of this is hype and paranoia, but, well, I’m right smack dab in the middle of the category of the highest risk for death if I catch this sucker, so yeah, I’m a wee bit paranoid. MrsGF and I are supposed to go to the symphony this weekend, but sitting elbow to elbow in a theater full of hundreds of coughing, sneezing, hacking people for two hours? Uh, no.

What I really find troubling is the huge amount of misinformation being spread, some of it through ignorance, but a lot of it being spread deliberately. Some of it by our own government. I wasn’t going to spend a lot of time talking about this because, well, let’s face it I don’t have that many people who read this so it isn’t going to make a dent in things, but if it helps correct some of the stuff floating around, I suppose I should go into this a bit.

First, there is no cure for covid-19. None. Zip. Zilch. Zero. There is no drug, no “natural remedy”, no combination of herbs, no “silver” concoction. None. If anyone is trying to sell you such a thing, it is an outright scam.

Second, there is no magic herb or substance or “essential oil” or vitamin or magic crystal or “holy oil” that will somehow keep you from catching the virus. Again, if anyone tries to sell you such a thing, it is an outright scam.

Third, there is no vaccine “just around the corner”. Yes, a vaccine is being worked on and there are some promising candidates. But it will be months before one is generally available and even longer before it can be mass produced.

So what can you do?

Wash your hands. A lot. The best preventative is hand washing. Wash your hands using soap and running water. This doesn’t kill the virus, but it does physically remove it from your hands, which is just as good. Do not touch your face except immediately after you’ve washed your hands. A primary method of getting the virus into your system is touching your eyes, nose or mouth.

Do hand sanitizers work? Yes, but only if they’re the right kind. They have to have at least 60% alcohol content. Non alcohol based sanitizers are out there, but no one knows if they actually work or not. The so-called “all natural” hand sanitizers don’t work at all. They’re little more than hand lotion.

Face masks – there is a lot of debate about whether they work or not, and the consensus is that they don’t do much to keep you from getting the virus. They can prevent people who already have it from contaminating others, it seems. The problem, though, is that most of the masks I’ve seen people wearing are dust masks intended to keep dust from getting into your lungs, and were never intended to keep out viruses to begin with. Most people also don’t know how to wear them properly. Heck, I’ve seen a lot of people who have them pulled down to expose the nose. If you do that you might as well not bother at all. Same for guys with beards. If you have a beard, don’t bother. If you can’t seal the mask against bare skin, it isn’t going to work at all.

Social Distancing – what the hell is social distancing? It’s a polite term for keeping the hell away from people. Do not shake hands, do not hug, do not kiss people. Try to keep at least one meter (three feet) away from people if you do have to interact with them.

Avoid crowds. Do not attend sporting events, concerts, meetings or other events where large numbers of people have gathered. I don’t know about where you live, but here most such events have been canceled or postponed anyway. (Although a seriously troubling number have not and are still scheduled). And yes, that goes for church services too. No, being in a church is not going to somehow protect you from getting the virus despite what some utterly irresponsible ministers and priests have been saying. Remember that the primary spreaders of the virus in South Korea when the outbreak first began there were churches. Even the Pope canceled most of his public appearances for heaven’s sake. And if you’ve booked a cruise on a plague ship (ahem, excuse me) cruise ship, well, you’re on your own.

If you’re sick, stay home. About 80% of the people who get it have symptoms that are relatively mild and a lot of people will be tempted to continue with their normal daily routine. And thus risk spreading this to even more people. I realize this is damn near impossible for a lot of people, but the primary way this is spread is by people with relatively mild cases going out in public. Do you really want to be responsible for infecting your friends, your family and your neighbors with this?

Anyway, enough of this. I’ve been babbling long enough.

Equipment Review: Want to Conquer the World? First You Need A Variable DC Power Supply!

So, Mr. (or Ms.) mad scientist, you’ve finished work on your Nuclear Confabulator Disinto Beam 3000 Mark IX at last! You’re all set to begin your conquest of the world, and you go to power up your NCDB3 to bring the world to its knees and…

Oh, $#%@&&@! The damned thing needs 17.3 V DC to run and you don’t have a 17.3 V power supply. Grrrr… Wait, you think. All is not lost yet! You sort of remember you had an old 17V power supply from an old fax machine that you kept because it might come in handy someday. (Us mad scientists never throw anything away. Never know when it might come in handy.)

I really do have a Giant Box ‘O Cables®. Need an MFM hard drive cable? I got ’em. Need a SCSI cable? Got them too. Old parallel printer cable? Yep. Yes. I am ashamed. Also afraid the family will start an “intervention” one of these days. I think there’s a US Robotics 1200 baud modem in there somewhere, too. I wouldn’t know, though, because I wouldn’t touch that thing with a ten foot pole. Afraid I’d lose my hand if I started digging around in there. Might be things living in there.

Now if you can just find the thing… Oh, wait, it must be in your Giant Box ‘O Cables®! You dig it out of the closet and eye it suspiciously. There’s no way you’re going to dig through that mess. And you can’t have one of your minions do it because your last minion left a week ago because you had to eliminate free coffee in the break room because, well, world domination costs money and you needed to cut back somewhere. Wait, did something just move in there? Eeek! Run and hide! It’s alive!

See? This is why you need a variable DC power supply on your workbench.

Long ago I got tired of fiddling around trying to find wallwarts, building battery packs or messing with transformers and rectifiers and all that nonsense to power some of the junk that comes through the doors here or that I tinker with myself. When you’re messing around building something, especially something that might not actually work anyway (i.e. most of my projects), you don’t want to go through all the trouble and expense of building or buying a power supply just for that one gadget. So I’ve had variable DC power supplies for a long time, and since my last one sort of … Well, it didn’t actually start on fire. I mean there weren’t actually any flames or anything. But it sure did smell funny.

So off I went scrounging around for a new one and eventually I ended up with this.

Should I confess that the first thing I did was immediately lose the damned manual for this thing? This is embarrassing, but yeah, I did. I remember that there was one. I remember taking it out of the box and setting it down somewhere. And when I turned around to pick it up and read it, it was gone. I think my house is haunted.

This puppy set me back about $60. It’s made in China… Well, just about everything is made in China these days, isn’t it? There are cheaper ones on the market, but with a lot of those the reviewers were, well, let’s just say the reviews were less than kind and leave it at that, shall we? The reviews for this one were pretty good, although you can’t believe that any more, either, because there are services out there which will, for a fee (of course) provide you with positive reviews for your products on just about any social media or sales site.

To be honest, I wasn’t sure what to expect from this thing. You can spend, heck, over $1,500 on a variable DC power supply depending on the quality, amperage and features you want or need, or as little as $30 or $40. So for a $60 power supply I would have been satisfied it was at least reasonably close to the voltage it indicated, and didn’t produce so much ripple that it looked like a roller coaster when I put it on the ‘scope. And not start on fire when I plugged it in and turned it on. Important, that. Not starting on fire I mean. One of the main questions you should ask is “How often does it start on fire?”

Let’s talk about power in general for a minute. If you already know all this stuff, just skip over this the following paragraph because you’ll find it boring. But there are people who don’t know, so let me give a very simplistic explanation of what’s going on.

We work with two entirely different forms of power. Both are electricity, yes, but the two systems, DC and AC, have entirely different qualities and uses. AC (alternating current) is fine for sending power long distances over power lines, running motors (some of them) and things like that, but for powering electronics, it sucks. Alternating current, well, alternates. DC doesn’t. And most electronics wants DC, not AC. That means almost all electronic devices that plug into your wall socket will have some kind of power supply which converts that 120V AC into a much lower voltage direct current which is fed to your device. Once upon a time this was done with bulky and heavy transformers, diodes and capacitors which took the AC, stepped it down to a lower voltage, and filtered out the sine waves, flattened out the curves, etc. and produced a constant DC voltage. Nowadays it’s mostly done with semiconductors and other lightweight components, but depending on the application you can still sometimes find equipment that uses the old transformer type systems.

So, back to the review of the Kuman.

As you can see from the photo it’s a nice looking little unit. It’s very light. I don’t think it weighs more than a pound or two. Fit and finish is nice. According to the specs it can put out up to 30V DC and handle amperages up to 5A. I plugged it in and hit the power button and…

Well, nothing happened. Uh ??? Oh, great. Was it DOA? I hit the power button a few more times and the display lighted up at last. I’m not sure what was going on there. That was the only time that happened, so I suspect there was some kind of coating or contamination on the contacts in the switch that wore off after I worked the button a few times. It’s worked every time since then.

It’s Alive!

I suppose the first thing I should have done was hook it to the VOM to make sure it was putting out power reasonable close to what the display claimed it was, but me being me, I just set it for 5V and plugged my clock kit into it and it worked just fine and dandy.

Then I thought oh, wait a minute, maybe I should check this thing out before I actually use it to try powering something expensive, so I got out the meter and hooked that up to it.

Voltages were within 0.01V or better across the entire range. Oh, I should point out that the Current knob doesn’t change the current it puts out, it limits it to a specific value. So you can set it to limit itself to only, oh, 1 Amp, let’s say if you want to do that for some reason. The voltage knob does indeed change the voltage. The knobs are a bit on the stiff side, but not enough to be a real issue.

The voltage tests were very good. According to my Fluke the voltage of the PS was generally within 0.01V or better across the entire range that the PS puts out.

Next it was time to hook the oscilloscope to it and see how bad the ripple was.

Ah, what is ripple, you ask? Well, okay, you didn’t ask but I’m going to tell you anyway. To explain that we have to go back to the difference between AC and DC again. If you want a detailed explanation you can scoot over to Wikipedia and read this, or if you can’t be bothered, well, I don’t blame you because it’s boring unless you’re into electronics.

AC current, the stuff that comes out of the plug in your wall, is a sine wave. Which is shown in this little graphic over there on the right that I just stole borrowed from Wikipedia. The red line shows how the AC current alternates over time, going from positive to negative, and doing so at about 60 cycles per second, or 60 Hertz. But as I said before, most electronics doesn’t like AC current and wants to be fed DC. Your electronics don’t want that current cycling from plus to minus like that, it wants a nice, flat line that doesn’t alternate at all.

Ripple.

So, to see how good a DC power supply is, you need to look at the voltages it is producing and how it changes over a period of time, like plotting it on a graph. And that is exactly what an oscilloscope does, measure voltages over time and plotting it on the display (graph). What you want to see on the scope is a flat line, not something like, well, this over there on the left.

So I hooked it up to my scope and this is what I got

And, well, that’s not bad at all, really. In fact, that’s a hell of a lot better than I expected it would be. The PS was set to 4V. You’ll see in the lower left corner than I have the scope set so each division is 2V, the line is two divisions up from center, so that’s spot on 4V. And the line itself is pretty much smooth.

Well, you see a tiny bit of hash. The line isn’t perfectly smooth. But I zoomed in farther and fiddled with the timing and other technical stuff that would bore you to tears (it did me) and found out that while there is a tiny, tiny bit of ripple, that hash you see on that line works out to a deviation of about 0.0014 volts. And while some purists might be irritated by that, out here in the real world where I live that’s pretty darned good, especially for a sixty buck power supply, and isn’t going to be an issue for anything I’d use this PS with.

So, let me wrap this up because I’ve been babbling along here long enough.

For $66 this is a nice little power supply. Well made, attractive, small, light weight, handles 0 – 30V, and up to a little over 5 Amps. Calibration of the display is spot on according to my meter. And as for ripple, that’s down to around 0.001V which is pretty good for a PS in this price range.

And – you can’t get it any more. At least not off Amazon where I got this one. Sigh… It’s listed as unavailable now. I have seen it available from other vendors, though. And I’ve seen units that look exactly the same except for the brand name on Amazon. But watch out because this same PS, although with a different brand name on it, is going for nearly $100 and you can get it for at least $30 cheaper than that if you shop around.