Catching Up: Eclipse clouds, islands and lavender

The eclipse was a bust for us. We were up on Washington Island on Monday and not only was it very cloudy, it didn’t get all that dark, either. MrsGF caught a glimpse of the very end of it but that was it.

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The image is dark because it was eclipsing out when I took it.

We were on the island to visit a lavender farm up there, Fragrant Isle. If you want to know more about them here’s a link to their website. Interesting place and it is indeed, well fragrant.

My experiences with growing lavender myself have been disappointing. I’ve tried a couple of times with poor results. Wrong type of soil here, I’m told. Of course I didn’t try very hard because I don’t really like it all that much. I don’t think it’s a very good looking plant, and to be perfectly honest, I hate the smell of the stuff. But everyone is like “Ooooo – Lavender!!” so I just stand in IMG_0599the background and try not to inhale and let them enjoy themselves.

Anyway, I like Washington Island. I don’t get up there as often as I’d like because it’s about a two and a half hour drive from here, plus a ferry ride, so about the only time I can get up there is if I have at least an entire day and can get on the road by 6 AM, or can spend the night up there. It’s an interesting place. It has a permanent year around population of about 750 people or so, it’s own K-12 school system, own power plant. Once upon a time there was a lot of farming and commercial fishing going on up there and it was a fairly thriving little community, but commercial fishing has fallen off to almost nothing, and except for a few speciality things, farming has dwindled to nothing up there as well. They mostly survive on tourism now. While it hasn’t turned into the tourism insanity that’s struck (and pretty much ruined) Door County, that kind of thing has been sneaking in over the years.

IMG_0609One of my favorite spots up there is this little lake. It’s well off the beaten track, hard to find, and as a result no one goes there and it’s still unspoiled. And quite! It’s astonishingly quiet. Absolutely no noise at all. No cars, no ATVs, no jet skis, and because it’s well off the flight paths, not even any planes overhead. It’s probably one of the last really quiet spots left in the state, where you can sit for an hour and hear nothing except the frogs, crickets and birds.

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Been playing around with taking panoramic photos once in a while. This is an over view of a marina north of Sturgeon Bay taken from the top of an abandoned quarry across the road.

Anyway, that’s how I spent “Eclipse Day”. No eclipse sighted, but we did have a very pleasant mini vacation.

 

Wisconsin Public Radio

Wisconsin Public Radio’s pledge drive is coming up May 2 – 5. I’m a big fan of WPR and it’s news, entertainment and music programming, and if you listen to WPR I am going to encourage you to kick in a few bucks to help keep the service going. Contrary to what you may have heard, the majority of WPR funding comes not from the taxpayers, but from sponsors, foundations, and people like you and me who are willing to throw them some money to help them keep going.

In an effort to help convince people contribute, certain individuals, foundations and companies do something called a challenge grant during the drive. For every dollar a contributor pledges during a specific time slot, the challenge grant will contribute a dollar. So anyone who pledges during that time essentially doubles their contribution. I’m doing a challenge grant again this year, this time during the Kathleen Dunn Show. So if you listen to WPR and want to support the service, this is a good time to do it. Not only will you be supporting an excellent radio service, I’ll double your money up to a certain limit.

When, exactly? Not sure yet. They’re still doing scheduling and planning but they’re going to let me know when the challenge will take place and if there’s any interest here I’ll pass the info along when I get it.

Drones: Do You Need One on the Farm

So I ran across this little item over at AgWeb, the website of the Farm Journal:  How Much Should You Pay for a Drone? – News | Agweb.com and it was a huge disappointment because it’s one of those so-called articles that just doesn’t really tell you anything about drones, what they can be used for, how they work, and gives you pretty much no information at all. So let’s take a look at drones, what you can do with them, how they work, look at the photographic and video capabilities of the different models, etc.

Oh, and there may even be video! Oooo! Well, there will be if I can figure out how to upload video to this thing. But let’s get on with this, shall we?

What are you going to do with the thing? – Well, that’s not my problem, now is it? I’m sure you’ve come up with some kind of excuse to give to your spouse to explain why you dropped $1,500 on a drone, and for all I know maybe you really are going to use it to scout crops or track down missing cows or inspect roofs or something like that and you aren’t at all going to use it to annoy the cats or race other drone owners or build 3D obstacle courses in the back 40. Let me give you a bit of advice, though. When it comes to just having fun, the smaller, less expensive drones are generally more fun to play with than the big ones. They’re faster, more maneuverable, and don’t do as much damage when you hit something with one. Also a lot cheaper to fix. You fly a $50 Walmart special into a tree it’s going to be a lot less financially painful than flying your $2,000 DJI camera drone into a silo or something. So if you’re just looking to play, start small and cheap.

(Oh, and if you are tempted to try to play with cats with one of these things, here’s a word of advice: DON’T. Just don’t. Seriously. Those props spin at hundreds and hundreds of RPM on even small drones. And while they don’t have a lot of mass, those props can slice, dice and otherwise do very nasty things to living tissue.)

That being said, they can be useful in agriculture and other serious applications. Agriculture because this is grouchyfarmer.com after all and I need to put some kind of farming reference in here, don’t I?

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In case you were wondering, this is what the top of an old silo looks like

They are genuinely useful for inspecting roofs and a lot of roofing contractors are using them for that. They’re useful for scouting crops, finding trouble spots out in big fields. And they’re using them to try to find lost cows, and if you’ve ever had to try to find a heifer running around in a 40 acre corn field, you can understand why. They’re very useful for looking at the roofs of old silos as well. Exactly why you might want to look at the roof of an old silo is something you might wish to discuss with your therapist. But just in case you do, here’s one to get it out of your system. Ooo, exciting, isn’t it? And here you thought drones were just silly. I mean, just look at that! A silo! From above! Ooo!

Okay, now I’m just getting silly, aren’t I?

Money: So, how much is one of these puppies going to set you back? Well, it depends on what you want to do with it and how well you want to do it.

Now, if this editor put this photo in the right place, over there on the right is a Hubsan drone, one of the first video capable ones I bought, along with its controller on the left. It’s a nifty little gadget which streams video directly from the drone’s built in camera to a live video display built into the controller. It records video to a SD card that is inserted into the controller. Something like this goes in the $150 – $200 range, and it is about the bottom end of the scale for something that will give you some useful photo/video.  Well, almost useful. Okay, be perfectly honest, it’s completely useless for anything serious.

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TIny battery means tiny flight time for a drone. Hubsan gets about 4-8 minutes.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s great fun to play with it, but it’s basically a toy that shouldn’t really be used except indoors. You can fly it outside, but if you do all bets are off. The range of the controller and video transmission is limited, just a couple of hundred feet at best, the video quality is, well, pretty miserable, to be honest, and flight time with the tiny batteries is about 4-6 minutes maximum. It’s also extremely unstable in even a light breeze.

Now if you’re flying around in the living room or kitchen taking photos of the dust on top of the cabinets, a 5 minute flight time is no big deal. But if you’re trying to fly around a 40 acre corn field, well, forget it.

If you’re going to do something serious with it like crop scouting, building inspection, etc. you’re going to be up in the $1,000+ range almost immediately. And even then you have to be careful, because what you see isn’t necessarily what you get. In order to keep costs down, a lot of these drones are “bare bones”, no camera, no camera mount, not even a controller. You’ll need to purchase a camera like the GoPro, and use an IOS or Android tablet or smartphone to actually operate the thing. So be careful. Before you buy one make sure you know what is actually in the box so you don’t find out the hard way that you need to drop another $500 or more just to get the thing in the air.

Video/Image Quality: Then there is the video quality on these itty bitty drones. It’s not exactly good, to be honest. Especially if you get them near the limit of their range. Let me give you an example.screen-shot-2017-03-05-at-7-22-36-amscreen-shot-2017-03-05-at-7-23-21-am

The top image is a still from the video feed from the Hubsan drone. The bottom image is the same scene from approximately the same altitude and location but taken with my Yuneec drone. You may notice just a wee bit of difference between the two images if you examine them very closely.

Let’s see if I can figure out how to put video into this to give you a better example of the difference between the toys and the more professional versions.

The above is video from the Hubsan from about 150 – 200 feet in the air above my house. Oh, dear. This should have been well within the stated range of the controller, but obviously it was already at the limits of its communication range. If you can see through all of the static, you can also see the drone is bouncing around a lot, even though there was only a light breeze. It was almost impossible to keep under control and I barely avoided crashing the thing.

The video above is from about the same altitude and same location taken with the Yuneec, and under wind conditions that were actually worse than they were when the Hubsan was in the air. Again, as was the case with the still images, you may notice a bit of difference in the quality of the two videos if you examine them closely. Just a bit.

There is also a bit of a difference in size between the cheap drones and the Yuneec Typhoon I own, as you can see here.

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That’s my Yuneec with a microdrone sitting on top of it to give you an example of the sizes of these things. The Hubsan that was used to take the still images and video is a bit bigger than the red microdrone shown here, but not by much.

Let me guess, you just came up with an idea to turn a big drone into a flying aircraft carrier for micro drones, didn’t you? Hey, go for it. Who am I to tell you not to do it?

Flying: Okay, so, how do you fly one of these things? Well, it turns out they are ridiculously easy to fly. They basically fly themselves. Especially the big ones. Built in gyros, motor controllers and onboard computers and GPS do all of the work for you. In fact, if it weren’t for all of that technology built into them, they’d be completely unflyable. The basic controls are generally a joystick for up, down, left, right, spin, that kind of thing.

The Yuneec, for example, will just hover wherever you put it. Park it over a specific spot 50 feet in the air, take your hands off the controls, and it will just stay there until the battery runs out, automatically maintaining it’s position and altitude. Even if a significant gust of wind comes along it will stabilize itself and return to its set position. There’s a panic switch. If you lose control of it, lose sight of it or something, press the button. It will go up to a height of 60 feet, return to it’s launch point, and land itself.

Well, if there’s nothing in the way, that is. This unit doesn’t have collision avoidance systems like some do so it can’t avoid obstacles.

The point is that just about anyone can fly one because they essentially fly themselves. The more sophisticated models allow you to plot out a flight plan on a map, and the drone will fly the route all by itself.

Still, you can get into trouble with the things. If the drone goes out of range of the controller, all bets are off. Some models will return to their launch point if they lose communications with their controllers, but a lot won’t.

Wind can be a real problem. The bigger ones are amazingly stable even in a good breeze, but I would not want to fly one if winds of more than 20 mph or so, especially anywhere near a structure or tree.

Regulations: Well, there are a lot of them. And there is still considerable confusion despite the FAA recently updating and clarifying things. If you’re just a hobbyist flying them for fun, you don’t need any special licensing or permits except for registering the drone with the FAA if it exceeds a certain size/weight category. The Hubsan shown above does not need to be registered. The Yuneec does because of it’s size and weight. If you’re flying for a business, you need a Remote Pilot Airman Certificate and have to pass a TSA background check. I won’t go into all of the rules and regulations. You can find them at the FAA’s website: https://www.faa.gov/uas/getting_started/ That will give you all of the information you need about how to stay legal.

So let’s wrap this up: Prices on these things are fluctuating all the time. You can get some real deals on even the better quality drones if you keep an eye out. I dropped about $1,500 on the Yuneec drone I’ve shown you here, but I’ve recently seen it going for under $700 because Yuneec is coming out with new and improved models. I don’t know what the used market is like, but I’m sure there is one. I’d be very cautious about buying a used one, however.

Recommendations: Ah, well, that gets a bit difficult. I’d like to recommend that if you’re interested in a camera drone you start with one of the cheap, small models before you drop a thousand bucks or more on one of the big ones. But it’s difficult to do that because they are entirely different beasts. The small, cheap drones are suitable only for flying indoors, are often twitchy to control. The slightest breeze can send them tumbling out of control. The cameras, if they have them at all, are virtually useless for any kind of decent photography or video. They are basically cheap, unstable toys. Don’t get me wrong, they are a lot of fun to play with, but that’s all they’re good for, play.

Drones like my Yuneec are much more stable, easier to fly outdoors, can handle wind better, feature gimbal mounted high def cameras that provide good video and still photos, but they are much, much more expensive than the $59.99 specials at Radio Shack or Amazon, or even the $180 Hubsan I have. So if you buy one and now decide it’s not something you want to do, well, now you’ve spent over a grand that you could have used to pay off your student loans or something, and you’re going to be mad at me because I recommended it.

Let’s say you’re thinking of doing actual serious work with it, like scouting hundreds of acres of corn or soybean fields. If you’re thinking of that kind of thing, well, even something like my Yuneec isn’t going to work all that well for you. Yes, it’s a damned good flying camera platform with a good, stable camera. But you only get about 20 minutes out of a battery so you’re going to need a lot of pre-charged batteries to scout any kind of significant acreage. You can’t pre-program a flight plan into it…

If you want to seriously do that kind of thing for a large far, you’re moving up into an entirely different and more sophisticated level of technology and, of course, an entirely different price range. For that kind of capability you’re getting out of the $1,000 – $1,500 range and getting into the $3,0000+ range and you might be better off getting one of the professional crop scouting services to come in and do it for you.

Addendum: I really need to point out that the claimed flight times for drones are often wildly optimistic. If the manufacturer claims you can get 30 minutes flight time from a fully charged battery, you can generally assume it’s going to be closer to 20 or even 15 minutes out in the real world.

The same is true for the claimed range of the controllers. As with battery life, the range of the controllers are estimates at best, and done under ideal conditions, not under the kinds of conditions you will find out in the real world.

The Echo from Amazon

screen-shot-2016-10-20-at-8-39-44-amI’ve been curious about the Echo from Amazon for a while now, and I finally broke down and bought one, suspecting that like most of the high tech gadgets I end up with, it would be an enormous disappointment. I’ve heard all the ridiculous hype, and in the vast majority of cases, ridiculous hype is exactly what the claims for these products turns out to be. But in the case of the Echo, well, it seems to pretty much live up to all of the hype. I’m having a lot of fun with this thing.

I didn’t really expect much from the Echo at first. About the only reason I bought it was because it’s supposed to be able to link to Amazon music and I have Amazon’s unlimited music service.

So this thing showed up on my doorstep two days ago and I get to work setting it up. Amazon doesn’t exactly make this easy. You apparently can’t just plug it in and turn it on. You have to download an app for an IOS or Android device, and use that to set it up. So right off the bat I’m irritated because I didn’t remember anything in the product descriptions that said you had to have a cell phone or tablet just to use the thing. It turns out that apparently you can activate it from a computer by going to a website. But Amazon never said that anywhere that I could see in the product description either. I didn’t find out about that until I was searching for answers to problems I was having.

I installed the app on my iPad, but not without some misgivings because the app has one of the worst reviewer ratings I’ve ever seen and the first five reviews on the app store claimed that the app either didn’t work at all or had major problems. This did not bode well, as they say.

Still, it did work, and setting it up wasn’t that difficult. The instructions in the app were fairly simple to follow, and after typing in passwords, linking it to my home WiFi network and all that fun stuff, it was up and running.

Now I’ve never had much luck with speech recognition systems in the past. Siri, for example, can’t seem to understand a word I say. I thought it was just me, but apparently she can’t figure out with my wife or sons say either.

The Echo, though, was an entirely different story. The default code word to get the Echo’s attention is Alexa. You say Alexa first, followed by what you want it to do. So I said “Alexa what’s the weather for tomorrow”. And a pleasant feminine voice told me what the weather was going to be.

Damn, this thing actually works?

I tried other requests, using my normal voice, normal pronunciation, at various levels of loudness, and… Well, damn, it just — just worked. The voice recognition on this thing is, for me anyway, amazingly good. And it worked even when the ambient noise levels were fairly high. I run air filters, fans, various equipment back here in the office, and it never seemed to have a problem understanding what I said, even when I was talking quietly.

What I bought it for, though, was easy access to music. I have Amazon’s unlimited music service (extra cost option for Prime members which claims to be able to stream “tens of millions of songs” for just eight bucks a month) and I’d never really used it for very much. So I started messing with the Echo and seeing what I could dig up.

So for giggles I said “Alexa play The Laughing Policeman”. And it did. Okay… Play songs by Al Jolson… And it did. Play the latest Katy Perry album. And it did. Play Court of the Crimson King, and it did. Apparently there really are tens of millions of songs in there.

But back to the Echo, because that’s what this is supposed to be about.

It can answer some questions, not all, but there is a significant amount of information linked into the system.

It’s linked into TuneIn, so it can live stream a large number of radio stations. It has the current weather and weather predictions for every place I’ve asked about. Can read me the news. It’s even linked to my Kindle library and can read my Kindle books that have the audio enabled.

It has other capabilities as well. It can set alarms, links to Google Calendar, and has other “skills” (i.e. capabilities you can add to the Echo via the Alexa app that are usually associated with spending more money, like buying stuff by voice)

This thing is impressive.

Problems? Well, sure, there are always problems.

The Alexa app gave me some problems. After I used it to initialize and set up the Echo, the app refused to re-connect to my Echo. Every time I started the App it would try to go through the entire setup procedure again.

After spending a significant amount of time trying to find answers to that problem, I resorted to the old standby, unplugging the Echo and plugging it back in. Bang, now the app worked fine.  once I got that sorted, the Alexa app has caused me no problems at all. If you bring it up it shows a list of voice commands the Echo received, what music you’ve used it to listen to, you can control the volume of the Echo with it, pause the Echo’s playback, other goodies like that.

The only other real issue I have is audio output. The built in speaker isn’t bad, but it certainly doesn’t compare to the speakers in a good stereo system. My big 1980s era Pioneer speakers are much, much better. Even my Bose system’s speakers are better. The Echo has 2 inch speakers, for pete’s sake. I don’t care how good the technology is, trying to get high fidelity sound out of a 2 inch tweeter and a 2.5 inch woofer… well, sorry.

But the Echo has no external audio output unless you resort to buying extra cost options from Amazon. None. Can’t even link bluetooth speakers to it. You’re stuck with the Echo’s built in speakers. If you want to hook up external speakers, the only option is to get something like the Tap or a Dot from Amazon.

The Tap is a battery operated speaker/microphone to listen to/control the Echo. But that will set you back $130, for crying out loud. You might as well spend the extra money and get another Echo for $180.

The other option is to get a Dot, a hockey puck sized gadget which will set you back $50. It seems to be a downsized version of the Tap. It is also battery operated and requires an external charger. The Dot will connect to an external bluetooth speaker or via a standard audio cable. And at $50 it’s a lot less than the Tap, but come on, really?

According to the Echo’s specifications, it has bluetooth capabilities built into it. It can link via bluetooth to receive audio from your phone or tablet, but it can’t send audio to an external speaker without you having to spend at least $50 for the Dot? Really? I’m sorry, I don’t believe that for a minute.

I should point out that the Echo’s speakers aren’t bad, even at high volume levels. Considering how small they are, they are pretty good. But even a mediocre external speaker system would do better.

Overall I’m surprisingly pleased with the Echo. The voice recognition system is amazingly good. The sound quality, while not outstanding, is acceptable for casual listening. It’s great for doing metric conversions like how many feet are in a meter and things like that. It can answer some questions. It does pretty good at math, too. It can give you the news, weather and sports. Ask it sports scores.

Mostly I use it for music and radio. It’s been able to play just about any radio station I want to hear.

Note: Some of the music services require you to have the Amazon unlimited music service. Other music is restricted to Amazon Prime accounts. So what you have access to via the Echo is going to vary depending on whether or not you’re in the Prime program, etc.

Reboots and Remakes

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Oh dear lord I’m so tired of the remakes and reboots…

But I suppose we should start with some definitions, shouldn’t we?

A remake is where they look at what was originally a perfectly fine, probably good, maybe even outstanding movie, and they just make the whole damned thing all over again for no good reason.

This is, of course, theft, but they call it homage so they get away with it.

But, well, why? I mean, really, why? The original was a fine movie, perhaps even excellent. Maybe even a true work of art. So why the hell remake it? Just watch the original, for heaven’s sake.

A reboot is something else again. A reboot takes a film idea and fundamentally alters it, transforms it totally. Basically it is the reboot maker saying the original was crap, the director was crap, the writers were crap, so I’m going to do it better. It is arrogant beyond belief. It’s the director and film makers claiming they can do it better. But everyone knows they can’t because if they had any creative talent at all, they’d be doing something original and not be digging through the archives looking for something to steal.

I call it theft because that’s what it is. Remakes and reboots are both essentially theft. Oh, sure, they legally own the rights, but it is still the taking of ideas that were not theirs to begin with.

It’s sort of like house robbery.

The remaker breaks into your house, steals your TV, but does the dishes for you, waters your plants and feeds the dog on the way you.

The rebooter breaks into your house, steals your TV, smashes your dishes, urinates in the potted plants and shoots your dog on the way out.