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+.

Misc. Stuff

How stupid are we? Pretty damned stupid, if some of the stuff I saw recently is any indication. Let me explain. I wanted to get one of my sons a stereo system as a combination Christmas and housewarming gift because he was moving into a new apartment over the holiday. I haven’t bought any audio equipment in decades so I did some research and finally decided on a fairly nice and relatively inexpensive receiver, turntable and speakers. But along the way I stumbled across something that can only be described as a world where rationality doesn’t exist. In the world of audiophiles, things like logic, physics and rationality quickly get tossed out the window, it seems.

The lowly power cord is one example. It’s a simple thing, a power cord. You take some copper wire, wrap it in insulation so it doesn’t electrocute you, put a plug on one end to plug into your wall outlet, put another plug on the other end that goes into your equipment, and there you go. The only things you need to be concerned about are the insulation being good enough to protect you, the gauge of the wire being heavy enough to carry the current, and the plugs being well made and attached well so they aren’t a safety hazard.

Unicorn pubic hair harvesting. Artist’s (Artist? Ha!) rendering. No unicorns were harmed in the production of this blog.

But apparently all these years I’ve been wrong. Apparently every single thing I’ve ever learned about physics, electricity, electronics, atoms, electrons, everything, is just wrong. Apparently if I want the best “listening experience” the worst thing I can do is use an inexpensive power cord. I need to spend hundreds of dollars (or more, some of the cables I saw were selling for up to $5,000 for a six foot long electrical cord) for “special” power cords, with “special” connectors, made with, oh, hell, I don’t know – Made with hand harvested, free range, organic, artisanal copper atoms, lovingly caressed with special quantum crystals, and then sheathed in insulation woven from the pubic hair of virgin unicorns. (Hmm, unicorn pubic hair harvesting – there’s a phrase I never thought I’d see in a blog. Or anywhere else for that matter.)

I learned other things as well. Did you know that wire is directional? Apparently electrons only want to flow in one direction along a wire. Wow. I had no idea. I also learned that I need to “burn in” cables. All of your cables need to be burned in, or broken in, a process similar to breaking in the engine of a new car. You need to use those cables for hundreds of hours before you’ll get the best listening experience. And if you don’t want to take the time to do that yourself, you can send them off to companies who will burn them in for you. For a fee. Or you can drop $1,000 – $2,500 to buy a fancy box with many connectors on it that will do it in just a few hours.

I learned that you can’t just run your $1000 per foot speaker cables along the floor. Oh, no. That would be too – too common or something. You need to buy $350 each cable clamps to hold your oh so special cables up off your oh so common and dirty floor.

I need to buy “quantum stickers” at $100 a pop. A lot of them. And stick them on every component in my amplifier and on my cables because they will – well, I’m not sure what they really do, to be honest, but they do something, as confirmed by several dozen glowing reviews from Bob and Stacy and George and others. And, well, come on, Stacy wouldn’t lie to me, now would she? Of course not.

One company sells, for about $150, what for all the world looks like a small block of wood with a logo laser etched on it, and claims that if I glue that sucker inside of my amplifier, many special “nanocrystals” embedded in the wood will do something that will align some kind of quantum field and do mysterious quantum things to the components in my stereo and make it sound better. And all just from being glued to the case! I know it’s hard to believe, but Peter down in the comments section says it made an astonishing difference to the sound.

Wow. Amazing. I need to get me one of them right away.

I could go on and on about things like $1,500 power strips, $250 outlet covers to put over the outlets in your wall that somehow “align the magnetic fields” or some nonsense. “Power conditioning” gadgets selling for thousands of dollars that are supposed to somehow filter out – something that will degrade your “listening experience”. Several places will sell you gadgets for several hundred dollars that will “demagnetize” your CDs.

And all of it is surrounded in sciencey sounding technobabble about quantum this and nano that and aligning quantum fields and… Oh dear lord I can’t stand it any more. Let’s talk about…


The internet immediately exploded into a tsunami of hype the moment CBS announced it was making a sequel to Star Trek Next Generation starring Patrick Stewart. But when, after all of the Star Trek fanboys came back from changing their trousers, it was learned that CBS would only be showing it on their new streaming service, there was much wailing and gnashing of teeth, but never mind about that, I want to talk about the whole Star Trek thing and Picard because CBS recently made the first episode in Picard freely available on YouTube.

Now the first question that came to mind when CBS did that was, well, why release the premiere episode for free on YouTube? The series has been streaming for a while now and the whole Picard thing was, if we are to be honest, a blatant ploy by CBS to try to force people to subscribe to its streaming service. They apparently believed that there were so many ST fans out there that they would subscribe to the service in great hordes. So the only thing that I could think of is that they were doing it because Picard hasn’t been doing anywhere near as well as they thought it would and they’re trying to pump up the viewership numbers.

Despite the fact I used to be a Star Trek fan, I wasn’t all that interested in Picard. I expected it would be a cheap ST ripoff being produced solely to draw subscribers to a streaming service. I was a fan of STNG when it first came out, and since it’s available on Netflix and Amazon video, I decided to take another look at it a few months ago, hopefully with a more impartial frame of mind than I had when it originally came out and, frankly, it was – unpleasant.

Now I knew there were going to be awkward moments in STNG when I watched it again. The show is now 33 years old, for heaven’s sake. The first episode aired back in 1987. I expected it to look dated, and it did. Often badly so. But what I hadn’t expected was that it would be actually painful. Plots were full of holes big enough to fly a galaxy class starship through. The show was self contradictory, often ridiculously so. It was preachy and holier than thou, especially during the first season. The aliens were, frankly, ridiculous for the most part. And every time Wesley Crusher appeared I kept hoping Picard would strangle the little weasel with his own intestines. And how many times did someone pull a deux ex machina out of their asses to save the day by ‘rerouting the plasma stream into the auxiliary conduit’ or some similar sciencey sounding gobbledygook? I found myself hoping the Borg would win and bring it to an early end.

I started to feel that STNG was the onset of dementia for the ST universe, Voyageur took it into the nursing home, the movies shifted it into hospice care, and finally the abomination that is J.J. Abrams drove a stake through it and turned it into just another SF shoot-em-up.

Now don’t get me wrong. I like SF shoot-em-ups. The new ST movies are fun. As long as you forget about the whole Star Trek universe that existed before Abrams came along and take them at face value.

Wait, I was supposed to be talking about Picard, wasn’t I? Sorry, I get easily distracted. Let’s get on with this.

There Will Be Spoilers. You Have Been Warned

Do I really need to say that? I suppose I do lest some poor lost soul who hasn’t seen Picard or hasn’t seen the hype and nonsense on the internet comes along.

First, this is a Big Budget production. Capital “B”. The cinematography, set design, CGI, everything about it is pretty much top of the line. It is beautifully filmed and edited by some of the best craftspeople, editors and videographers out there.

Unfortunately, the sound absolutely sucks. At least on the YouTube video. Seriously sucks. Volume levels go from hardly audible when normal conversations take place, to ear splittingly loud when something important happens. I had to keep one hand on the volume control through the whole thing.

But on with the story…

Picard is an elderly, angry, depressed, disenchanted man, living on the family vineyard, suffering from dreams/hallucinations and, after the first scene at least, I started to wonder if he was suffering from dementia. He lives on the vineyard with a dog and two Romulans who seem to be his employees/friends.

Switch now to Boston for no apparent reason, where we find a young woman with her boyfriend, who apparently hasn’t heard of The Hair Club for Men and has hair made of bad plastic and the usual “he’s an alien so he has to have a weird face” syndrome. And that hair… I’m sorry, but I just can’t get that hair out of my mind because, I swear to God it looks like they glued coffee beans to the poor guy’s head.

See what I mean about the hair? Look closely. Those are coffee beans. Seriously. They glued coffee beans to the poor man’s head.

They’re sharing a romantic moment when three masked assassins teleport into her apartment, immediately kill the boyfriend, start beating her up, put a bag over her head and…

And then she turns into super-ninja, taking out three trained assassins in less than a minute.

And as she cradles the head of her murdered boyfriend, coffee beans and all, she is thinking of – of Picard?

Roll credits…

And it’s just so contrived, so overly dramatic… Stewart’s performance seems forced, uncomfortable, awkward. Now I know the fellow is like a gazillion years old, but come on, the man is still a good actor, but this performance certainly doesn’t demonstrate that ability. The only time he shows anything that looks like real emotion during the entire 47 minutes is during the brief interview with a reporter that they had to shoehorn in in an attempt to try to explain WTF happened that screwed things up so badly during the last 20 years.

And then we go through a lot of maudlin stuff where Picard visits some kind of museum where all his stuff is being kept for no apparent reason except, of course, to be all poignant and try to remind people that this is the real Star Trek, not the abomination created by Abrams I suppose.

Meanwhile the girl is sitting huddled on a street somewhere, calls her mother, who tells her to “find Picard”, and she does in a sort of computer hacking scene to make sure we know that she is “special”. And she meets him again and he tells her she’s Data’s daughter and then in a dramatic action scene straight out of a bad kung fu movie, her and Picard get attacked by more masked assassins, she kicks ass, and then one of the assassins kills her by- by spitting on her????

But she’s Data’s daughter. And Data’s offspring can only be twins because, well, because of “reasons”, so there’s another one of her, somewhere… And before we roll credits and shut the episode down, we find her twin is living quite happily with the Romulans, who apparently have moved into an old Borg cube…

What? Seriously??? Where did I put that face palm graphic…

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.

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.


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 | 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 after all and I need to put some kind of farming reference in here, don’t I?

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.

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.


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: 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

Screen Shot 2016 08 05 at 12 06 49 PM

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.