Before – After. And even more Stuff!

Hey, I’m bored, so how about a few before/after pics?

Before
Now
Before
Now

I don’t have a ‘before’ photo of the squash for some reason. They’re looking great right now. They’ve just about tripled in size in the last week. The squash didn’t do well last year. They got powdery mildew which pretty much decimated them. But so far so good this year.

I had to throw in a photo of Mr. Spiny, our cactus because it just flowered yesterday and, well, look at that thing! Mr. Spiny is our “rescue cactus”. We found it laying on the town compost pile a few years ago. It had been a potted plant probably in someone’s house. We stuck him in the ground in a south west corner of the house, and he apparently loves it here.

I finally got the motorcycle out the other day. It had been sitting parked in front of the car for ages. Had to get a new battery for it and it started right up so I ran it around town for a while. MrsGF and I used to really be into motorcycling, especially long distance touring. We used to have a BMW that we spent weeks on every summer. Then we traded that off on a Goldwing. But around that time she started having problems with her knees and it was really hard for her to get on and off the bike, and well, we put a whopping 5,000 miles on the Goldwing in three years so it didn’t make sense to keep it. So I worked out a trade with my son and he’s got the Goldwing now and I have this VTX to run around on when the urge strikes me.

That’s the BMW we traveled on. We put about 50,000 miles on that thing traveling from Maine to Montana. Loved that bike. I suspect that if BMW hadn’t discontinued that model we’d still have one.

That’s it for now!

More Pics and Catching Up

Panoramic shot that shows almost the entire backyard. Makes it look a lot smaller than it really is. That central island surrounded by blocks is about 25 feet long and 16 feet wide. Tomatoes in raised beds off to the far right. Garage off to the left showing the “garage garden” where we have raspberries squash and ornamentals.

If this time of year could be described by a single word, it would probably be “color”.

Almost everything is in full flower this time of year except for the autumn flowering plants. Just walking outside is a feast for the eyes.

So, let’s get caught up on what’s been going on. I haven’t talked about it much but one of the things I do is build furniture like, well, like this:

It looks a bit beat up now, especially the upholstery, but considering it’s lived through two teenaged boys, a rambunctious golden retriever and several assorted cats, it’s doing pretty good. Over the years I’ve built chairs, coffee tables, wardrobes, bookcases, decorative chests and I don’t know what all else. A few years ago one of my sons gave me a cheap wood lathe from Harbor Freight and I finally started fiddling around with it. It was super cheap and to be honest the build quality isn’t exactly what I’d call good. But I’ve messed around with it a bit, bought a decent set of tools for it and I’m going to see if I can add woodturning to my skill set. We’ll see how that goes. I’ll let you know if anything comes of it.

We’ve been spending a lot of time out in the gardens, of course. Where else would we be this time of year and with the pandemic still raging? Gardening is probably the safest and most satisfying activity we can do right now. But we’re still dabbling in radio. And I mean “we”. MrsGF is a licensed amateur radio operator as well. She’s more into the emergency services aspect of it while I’m more into the technical stuff.

It looks like the Great Radio Fiasco Project is back on the agenda. I was finally able to get the toroids I needed to wind the coils I need. But considering how busy we are with other things this time of year it’s likely that will be pushed back until the fall.

Let’s see, what else… Oh, I’m working on an upcoming post that answers some questions about amateur radio that people have asked. That will be coming up in the near future.

I’ve been working on getting better at CW (morse code). I’m still struggling, especially with receiving. I’m nowhere near good enough to be able to actually use it out in the field. If someone sends at like, oh, one word per minute or slower, I can generally figure it out. But any faster than that and everything sort of blurs together and I start to fall so far behind I have to give up.

Someone asked me if I was going to do anything for the ARRL Field Day exercise. Nope. Don’t have the time. This is probably the worst time of year for me to try to participate in an event like that.

We’re going to be doing some major renovations to the house this summer, replacing a bunch of windows, the front entrance and some other stuff. That’s going to be a mess, but it needs to get done. And expensive. Sigh… Oh, well. Owning a house is great. Until you start seeing the bills for maintaining it.

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.

Spring At Last!

Wisconsin is known as a place of snow and cold and rain and giant blood sucking insects big enough to carry away small pets. Oh, and heat and humidity that occasionally rivals Florida at its worst. And tornadoes. Pretty much we get all the bad weather concentrated in this state. Well, at least we don’t have rattlesnakes. Yet. Anyway, the weather has finally gotten better and stuff is growing and we’ve been out in the gardens here for days already. So I was out taking some pictures as I puttered around in the garden.

Not the best picture in the world but I was using my phone because I was too lazy to go in the house and get the camera. This is the “Zombie Rose”. This thing has been there since before we bought the house. We thought it was dead more than once and only laziness on my part kept me from digging it out. And then a few years ago something happened, we don’t know what, and it turned into this ridiculously healthy bush that’s covered with flowers by mid summer and blooms the entire season.

The hostas are looking amazing this spring. All of them in the front hosta garden survived the winter and they’re growing so fast you can almost see them getting bigger. Best thing we did was rip out the ratty grass and old bushes and junk up in front of the house and put this garden in.

winter didn’t hurt the mountain ash tree we put up in the corner of the hosta garden either. We forgot to put screening around it to keep the rabbits out but fortunately the little buggers left it alone. It’s actually a member of the rose family.

Wish I could remember what in the world these little blue flowers are. MrsGF told me once and I immediately forgot, of course. They’re pretty little things. Those flowers are only about 1/8th of an inch across so you have to get down there to really see them.

The pear tree is in full flower and looking very good. Last year it didn’t get pollinated because the weather was so bad we didn’t have any bees around. This year things are looking much better. I haven’t seen any honey bees around but I have been seeing a lot of native bees buzzing around it so hopefully we’ll get some pears this year.

no he doesn’t have a green spike on his head. That’s a bit of grass he picked up by leaping through the freshly mowed lawn.

They say you can tell how healthy your environment is by the number of amphibians living in the area. If that’s true, our gardens must be pretty damned healthy because these little guys are everywhere. I have to be careful mowing the lawn and stop a couple of dozen times to move the little critters out of the way. I’ve spotted about four different types of frog and at least one type of toad in the backyard this year. Go outside on a warmish evening and the number of frogs calling and singing is amazing.

And the lilacs are just starting to flower. In a couple of days these buds will start to open and it will smell amazing. A lot of people have lilacs around here and in early spring when they’re all in blossom you can smell them all over town.

Let’s see, what else… We’ll be putting out the tomatoes and pepper plants over the next few days. But we scaled back the amount of vegetables we’re putting in because we generally go way, way overboard with this stuff and end up with a lot of produce we can’t use. We still have almost enough canned tomato stuff on the shelf from last year to last us the rest of this year. We know we over plant but, well, MrsGF and I are both the kind of people who see a bit of bare ground and go “Hm, now what could be plant in there…”

The storm window on the office blew out during a storm. The main window is okay so it wasn’t an emergency, but we found that the outer frame of the window holding the storm window in place was almost completely rotted away. The only thing holding it in had been the paint apparently. So we’re getting some new windows for the office and a new front entry door while we’re at it. Contractor was over on Monday to take measurements and get an estimate put together.

Haven’t had much time to tinker with amateur radio stuff. I almost always have the rig on 40 meters with the computer running JS8Call doing ACKs and stuff like that when I’m down in the shop/radio shack, but I’m generally just monitoring things unless someone specifically calls me. I did try doing some morse code last night but didn’t get very far. I was showing up on the reverse beacon network but didn’t get any replies to a CQ. Well, maybe because I only did one CQ and then got distracted because I found a new soap opera on Youtube… Anyway that was probably not a bad thing because I’ve been told that a drunken chicken pecking at the key sends CW better than I do. Which is probably true, I fear.

Speaking of soap operas – I am embarrassed to admit it but I am addicted to Chinese romcoms, or dramadies or whatever you want to call ’em. I thought Korean romcoms were often ridiculously silly, but the Chinese versions are just over the top. They’re formulaic, generally all following similar plots, with cliche actions taking place that seem to be required for some reason. Some of the better ones embrace the cliches whole heartedly and basically satirize themselves and gently poke fun of the whole genre. And at the same time the whole thing is surrounded in extreme sexism and actions that would be considered outright abuse and criminal outside of the television environment. They’re silly, charming, innocent, dark, infuriating, irritating, funny, horrifying and hilarious. Often all at the same time.

One of these days I should write something about Chinese television. It is – different.

It’s Spring (Sort Of)! Just Photos! No Virus! No Politics!

We all need a break from the non-stop news coverage so I’m declaring this a virus (and politics) free zone. It’s spring, or at least the calendar says it is, so it’s time for some photos of what’s going on out in the gardens.

Over the winter someone or something stole all of our bark mulch and wood chips. Okay, I know that’s silly, but it looks like it. We’re probably going to have to haul in a few trailer loads of mulch to cover the hosta garden in the front and the other gardens. Despite the cold weather the hostas are starting to peek out.
We worked over the raised beds and they’re looking good with no winter damage. MrsGF wants to put in a third this spring and I agree. They’ve worked out amazingly well and have been incredibly productive.
The sedum are starting to peek out at well. They’ve been incredibly tough plants. They’ve been broken apart, transplanted several times, and have handled everything Wisconsin weather could throw at them and they still keep coming back. They don’t look like much now but by the end of summer they’ll be the size of large bushes, three feet tall, and covered with flowers, bees and butterflies.
This is a mountain ash tree that was a volunteer we found in the backyard and transplanted into the front hosta garden for the heck of it. It looks like it survived the winter well also. We were afraid the rabbits in the neighborhood would go after it but they left it alone. It is not actually an ash tree despite the name. It’s a member of the rose family. It really liked its new location. It grew about three or four feet last summer.
This is the rose that wouldn’t die, my name for it. It’s just a pink rose bush but this thing has somehow managed to thrive despite poor soil, rot, salt from the sidewalk, getting hit with the snowblower, etc. I was ready to dig it out a couple of times because I thought it was dead but it just keeps coming back. Looks like it survived the winter too.
I think the hen and chicks would survive a nuclear war! We just threw a few babies on the ground around a fence post and now a few years later they’re everywhere up along the sidewalk. They’re amazing plants and seem to thrive under conditions that would kill just about any other plant.
The chives, tucked away in their protected corner, are the first plants to peek out in the winter. There’s still snow on the ground when they start emerging. They’re looking good. We don’t use a lot of chives, but they’re nice to have around. I have to admit that I keep them around not because I like eating them but because they’re always the first new growth in the spring.
We have a little circular flower bed where there used to be a firepit. We dug out the old truck rim that was used as a fire ring, filled it with compost and stuck these lilies in there and they’ve been doing good too. It will be a while before they come to flower, but they’re worth the wait.
The irises survived the winter too and are already 4-6 inches tall. I love irises and we have a ot of them scattered around. We’ve had really good luck with growing them.
Finally a bit of color! These guys have been in flower for over a week now and look absolutely brilliant in the early morning sun.

That’s it for now.

Farm Catch Up: Why Are We Seeing Shortages?

Oh, oh, GF is trying to do artsy stuff again.

I haven’t done one of these in a long time so I thought it’s high time I took a look at what’s happening in the agricultural world. Especially now because the situation is difficult, to put it mildly. Well, not exactly agriculture directly in this article. I want to try to explain why we’re seeing empty shelves in the grocery stores when we actually don’t have any real shortages of product.

Empty Shelves

We all know that when this started almost immediately stores were stripped bare of sanitizer, sanitizing cleaners, hand soap, protective equipment like masks and gloves, etc. This was followed by store shelves being stripped of toilet paper, paper towels, and then food products, especially staples like rice, beans, flour, canned foods, butter, etc. And, oddly, even things with short shelf life like milk and cream. (Why in the world would people who almost never drink milk in the first place suddenly need to buy gallons at a time? I have no idea.)

But despite the bare shelves there are no real shortages, at least not of consumer food products. There are several factors behind the empty shelves you’re seeing in the stores. Hoarders (how much hoard could a hoarder hoard if a hoarder could hoard hoard?) and profiteers are behind some of this, of course, but the biggest disruptions are due to the way our manufacturing and distribution systems work.

We have what amounts to two almost entirely separate production and supply systems. The first is the consumer system that makes and sells product to you and me. It provides products that individual consumers want, in relatively small quantities that are suitable for individuals or families. The second is the commercial system that sells in bulk quantities to institutions like restaurants, schools, hospitals, prison systems, etc. and industrial processors that use those products to make still other products, like the processed food industry.

The result of this system is that we are in a rather bizarre situation where we have surpluses and shortages, of exactly the same products, at exactly the same time. Dairy is an example of this. Even while a lot of people are reporting shortages of milk and grocery stores putting strict limits on how much milk people can buy, we have such a surplus of milk on the supply side that a lot of farmers are dumping the stuff down the drain because they can’t find a processor to buy it.

So how the hell can you have a shortage and a surplus at the same time?

Well, we have a situation where most schools are closed, most restaurants are closed, a lot of businesses are closed, and a lot of people who would normally be at work or at school are now stuck at home. This means that meals that normally would have been eaten at school, work cafeterias, food trucks, restaurants, etc. are now being eaten at home. (About 50% of the money we spend on food here in the US is spent on meals eaten away from home.) Which means people are buying a lot more groceries, and more milk and dairy products in general for consumption at home. Add in the hoarders who, for some reason, think they need to buy six gallons of milk at a time (seriously, I’ve seen people doing this) despite the fact it will go bad long before they’ll ever use it, and it puts pressure on the whole distribution system delivering milk to grocery stores.

At the same time, schools are a major buyer of milk for the school lunch program, and they are largely shut down. As are restaurants.

So at the consumer level, the grocery store part of the market, we’re seeing increased purchases of products, while at the same time on the commercial side of things we’re seeing a dramatic loss of sales of similar products. So we’re having both shortages and surpluses, at the same time, of the same product.

Why not switch the commercial production facilities to produce for the consumer market? Well, you can’t. Production facilities used to make the half pint cartons for the school lunch program can’t be switched over to making gallon jugs for grocery stores. They use entirely different manufacturing and bottling equipment. The same is true for other sectors of the market. Attempting to switch from production of products for institutional and commercial markets to production for consumer markets is extremely difficult and very expensive. By the time a switchover could be done, the pandemic situation will have subsided and manufacturers will find themselves with manufacturing facilities that are now set up to make the wrong product.

Instead of dumping milk make cheese out of it? Can’t do that either. Cheese makers were already running at nearly 100% capacity even before this started. And even if there was the capacity to produce cheese, there isn’t any market for it because the cheese market is saturated to begin with.

The same is much the same with other products. The products are there, but those products aren’t in a form consumers would accept because they’re intended for the institutional or commercial market and are available only in bulk or in a form consumers don’t want. Toilet paper is a good example of this. While there are shortages on the consumer side, there is a glut on the institutional side of the market. With schools and a lot of businesses shut down, sales of TP for those markets has dried up. But the TP intended for that market would be entirely unacceptable for consumer use. The rolls are too big, or in sizes that wouldn’t fit a home TP holder, or the quality… Well, if you’ve used a restroom in a school you know what a miserable excuse for toilet paper that stuff is.

I have to mention the distribution system, too. Most companies, including grocery stores, switched to what is generically called a “just in time inventory” system long ago. That means that stores don’t stockpile product. You won’t find back rooms chock full of TP or canned goods or whatever at your average store. The store orders only enough product for a very limited amount of time. If they get deliveries every, oh, three days let’s say, they will order only enough product to deal with three days worth of normal sales. Why? Because storage costs money. Adding square footage to a store not only increases its build cost, it also increases its property tax bills, heating and cooling costs, electric costs, etc. So space devoted exclusively to storage of product is kept to an absolute minimum.

Normally this system works fairly well. But these aren’t normal times, so when a store gets hit by abnormally high sales of specific products, well, the whole system falls apart fast. When the panic buying started, grocery stores would see an entire day’s worth of a product sold out in an hour. Seeing the empty shelves spooked other consumers, who immediately panicked and started cleaning out the shelves of other products. Stores would restock as fast as they could, only to burn through several days worth of product in just a few hours thanks to panic buying.

If the distributors had an adequate inventory on hand it wouldn’t have been such a big problem. But they didn’t either. They were using the “just in time” system too, and were only stocking enough product to support their stores for a limited amount of time. Those stocks were depleted within days, and they were scrambling to get product from the flour mills, dried bean distributors, rice distributors, etc. to try to restock. The mills and packaging companies had more than enough bulk product on hand, but their packaging facilities couldn’t increase production beyond a certain point. Basically the entire distribution system began to fail under the strain of the panic buying and the increase in consumer sales.

The system is, finally, starting to adapt, at least around here. But as for what’s going to happen in the future, well, that’s anyone’s guess.

Roses of Winter and Holy Cow it is Bloody Cold Plus Some Radio Stuff

Apparently Mother Nature wasn’t satisfied with deluging us with snow a month early, now she’s trying to freeze us with temperatures we usually don’t see until well into January. It’s about 3 degrees (F) out there, with windchills down in the -10 range. Sheesh…

Meanwhile, MrsGF has this growing in the living room. Just took these photos the other day-

Yeah, roses. I’ve put up photos of this before, but I figured this plant would go dormant or something by now. But it just keeps right on blooming.

This thing started out as one of those goofy little teacup roses, a tiny plant in a cheap cup that they sell for a few bucks on Mother’s Day or Valentine’s Day. Think I paid all of $7 for it, oh, must be at least two or three years ago. And after we got sick of it sitting around the house MrsGF said what the heck, let’s put it in a big pot and see what happens and the dopey thing just kept growing and flowering. We were putting it in the basement, letting it go dormant over winter, but this year she thought she’d put it in the living room where it could get some light and keep watering it, and well, it apparently likes it there, and it’s been flowering on a regular basis all winter so far.

I asked her how she’s keeping it flowering and she swears she’s just watering it and isn’t doing anything else. Personally I figure witchcraft is involved.

The MagLoop Antenna

I talked about this antenna before, and I continue to be more than pleased with it. Since my dipole came down in the last snowstorm it’s been the main antenna for my TS-990, sitting on the floor behind me in the office. And it is doing ridiculously good.

This is putting 15 watts into an antenna sitting just behind me in my office this morning.

The Great Radio Fiasco Project

I mentioned this before, but let me summarize what I’m trying to do here. For reasons I won’t get into right now, I challenged myself to build, from scratch, a decent radio receiver, preferably shortwave. Emphasis on the word “decent” because I could throw together a few parts and end up with – well, with something that would receive, well, something that might be a radio signal, and pump it into a speaker and you’d hear some sound that might be interpreted as a radio transmission by someone with bad hearing. It could technically be called a radio receiver, but, well, let’s face it, it wouldn’t exactly be useful.

When I first conceived of this project I was like how hard can this be? In those WWII movies the Resistance throws together a radio out of bits of string, a piece of wire, an old cigar box and bits off a horse (don’t ask me what bits, I don’t know, ask them, they built the thing) and call up Churchill at Bomber Command and call in an air strike on Hitler’s outhouse. And the Good Ole Boys in amateur radio weep bitter tears of disappointment over the fact that modern day hams don’t build stuff any more like they did, when they’d throw together a 1,500 watt amplifier, transmitter and superhet receiver in an afternoon, out of parts they salvaged from old washing machines. And bits off a horse for all I know.

Here’s the thing, though – 95% of that (maybe even 98%) is pure BS. I’m sorry, but it just is.

The days of being able to salvage anything useful from discarded electronics are long gone. Modern SMD (surface mount devices) and robotic assembly methods make it virtually impossible to salvage anything useful from relatively modern equipment. And while you can buy discrete components like resistors, capacitors, etc. in the more common values, increasingly it is difficult to find a lot of stuff in anything but SMD form, and in quantities of 1,000 or more. I was trying to find what had once been a very common opamp the other day. It is still available. But if I want to get it from a US supplier I can only buy it in quantities of 1,000 or more, and in SMD format. If I want it in the traditional 6 pin IC form, and only want a few of them, it looks like I’m going to have to order it from China and it won’t get here until mid-March.

Nor are parts cheap. Oh, some are, true, but not the kind of stuff I’m looking for. A single variable capacitor I need for a project sells for $25. And I need two of them. So I’m going to have $50 stuck in that project before I even get started on it.

And then there’s the design of the equipment you want to build. If you were going to set out to build your own radio receiver, probably the first thing you’d do is fire up Google and look for something like “build your own radio” and find, well, hundreds and hundreds of hits that are utterly worthless, along with a few sites that might have actual plans to build something. Only most of those plans are for useless crystal radios and other nonsense. And the designs that do look useful are probably going to be wrong and no one is going to tell you how to fix it when you build it and it doesn’t work. In fact, most of the designs I saw out there were copies of stuff pulled out of old radio or electronics magazines from the 1960s or 70s that didn’t work in the first place.

(Sidenote: I’m convinced that the building plans in all those electronics magazines published in the 50s, 60s, 70s, etc. were never actually built by anyone because about six or eight months after the plans were published there’d be a “corrections” item pointing out that they forgot this part, or the wiring was wrong and if you’d actually build the thing it would have exploded, electrocuted your cat or something.)

So the question is, can I build a decent radio receiver from scratch? Probably. Will it work? Maybe. Can I do it for less than what it would cost to just go buy one? No way in hell. Will it work as good as even a cheap piece of junk commercial radio? Almost certainly not.

So why am I doing this? Uh, because I’m a stubborn old goat?

Cheap Amateur Radio. The FT-450D and holy s**t it’s cold! And some flowers and stuff

Okay, can we stop with this nonsense already? It’s only Nov 8, for pete’s sake! Normally we don’t get really cold weather and snow until mid to late December. Usually it’s in the mid 30s to low 40s this time of year and you can still go outside without freezing your bits off. Last night it was 10 degrees. Night before that it was 11 degrees. And snow? Really? A lot of years we’re lucky if we have snow by Christmas. In the last two weeks we’ve had a total of about 12 inches here. Most of that melted off, thank goodness, but now that the temperatures have plummeted it’s sticking around.

There’s so much we didn’t get done outside this fall. Between MrsGF’s knee surgery and everything else that’s been going on, I just didn’t have time to get everything done. I didn’t get some of the dahlias dug up, so those are probably going to be a total loss. Didn’t get any of the leaves raked because I was waiting for both the pear tree and the maple in the backyard to shed their leaves. Only they didn’t this year for some reason. It’s been a strange, strange autumn.

On the plus side, MrsGF’s Christmas cactus is in full bloom and it’s gorgeous. I know a lot of people who just can’t get these things to blossom no matter what they do, but MrsGF has a real knack with plants. I’m not sure what it is. I suspect she could take an old, half rotted twig, shove it in the ground, and in a few weeks it would turn into a healthy tree. This thing just keeps going and going. Some years it blooms twice.

And she has a rose bush in the living room this year, also in full blossom, in November. I don’t know how she does that, either. But it does make me grin like an idiot to have a rose in full bloom while it’s 10 degrees and snowy outside.

But I was really going to talk about amateur radio stuff when I started all of this so let’s get on with this…

Yaesu FT-450D hooked to the SCU-17 interface. It’s been in production for a while but it’s still one heck of a nice little radio for the money

Oh, before that, though, I thought I’d just throw this in even though it has nothing to do with the headline starting this off. This is what it looked like here on Oct 31 a little after 6 AM.

Last day of October in Wisconsin.

Now I know this is Wisconsin and the weather here is a bit, well, odd, but still, really? Ick.

Now, finally, the amateur radio stuff!

The Dilemma

Whenever I start talking to someone about amateur radio, whether they’re other amateur radio operators or people who know nothing at all about it, invariably the topic turns to cost, and it becomes clear immediately that a lot of people, including a lot of hams, think that amateur radio is way too expensive. A lot of people I know who would otherwise be interested in getting into the hobby think it’s so expensive they could never be able to afford it. And that simply isn’t true.

I can’t really blame them for thinking that because some of this equipment is indeed expensive. The top of the line transceivers that the manufacturers and owners love to show off can quickly push up into the $5,000+ range or more. The Kenwood TS-990 sells new for just under $8,000 and iCom makes one that sells for more than $12K, for heaven’s sake. Once you add in other things that you may think you need, if you believe the ads, like amplifiers, computers, morse code keys, etc. you can quickly end up sinking $15,000 or more in a top of the line set up.

But here’s something the manufacturers don’t want you to know:

You don’t need any of that high priced junk.

Seriously. You don’t. If you want to get on the air on the HF bands (shortwave) you don’t have to spend a fortune. That little Yaesu in that photo up there costs literally less than one tenth of what my TS-990 costs new, and to be perfectly honest, does everything you need. Granted, it doesn’t have all the bells and whistles the 990 has, doesn’t have the fancy displays and all that, but when it comes down to actually communicating, those bells and whistles aren’t really necessary and the 450 will do everything you need.

I was looking for a fairly full featured, small, full power (100 watts output), 12V powered transceiver to lug out to field day and special events or whenever I feel like it, in situations where the little low powered 818 wouldn’t do the job. I love that little 818, but let’s face it, with a maximum of 6 watts output (3 watts or less running digital), any kind of communications using it is going to depend more on luck than anything else. I ran across someone talking about the 450 and it sounded like a nice little transceiver so I looked into it more and decided it was just what I needed. It sells new for about $750 – $800 which is, as I said before, one tenth of the cost of my TS-990. You can find them used for about $500 or even less if you look around.

And for that price what you get is not some stripped down little radio, either. This thing has a lot of features, including a built in antenna tuner, decent filtering, good noise reduction features, etc. In fact, just about everything you might need in an HF transceiver is packed into this little unit. True, it doesn’t have many of the goodies my 990 has, but I have to admit that in real life I don’t use a lot of those goodies anyway. If this were the only transceiver I had, I would be more than satisfied with its capabilities.

But for me the main question was how well was it going to work using digital modes like PSK, FT8 and JS8Call because those are pretty much the only modes I use. And it turned out it deals with digital very, very well indeed. It took me all of 10 minutes to get it up and running with the SCU-17 you see sitting on top of it in that photo. It was just a matter of plugging in the cables, setting the baud rate in the menu, firing up the computer and setting things up in the software there, and I was on the air. Now granted I had only just fairly recently set up the Yaesu 818 with the same interface, computer and software, so I already had experience working with Yaesu equipment which certainly made it easier. But still, for me, getting a rig up and running on digital modes in under 10 minutes is a bit of a miracle, really. It took me days to get my TS-2000 working properly with digital modes when I first started this years ago.

It’s currently set up in the basement, hooked to the Titan Gap vertical antenna, and it’s been doing a very, very nice job. I’ve made contacts all over the place with it using JS8 and FT8, putting out about 40 watts.

Sidenote: The 450 may be capable of putting out 100 watts, but you never run full power in the digital modes on any transceiver because the power ratings of all transceivers are seriously misleading. Those maximum power ratings they give you are for single side band, which does not stress the transmitter in the radio. With SSB you’re actually averaging far less power output than advertised. Your signal may peak at 100 watts, but you’re actually averaging 50 – 60 watts or so because of how SSB works. Unlike SSB, most digital modes are considered to be 100% duty cycle. A general rule of thumb is when using digital, always dial your power levels back to less than 50% of the radio’s maximum. Sometimes the recommendations are as low as 25%. Otherwise you risk overheating the radio and damaging it.

Anyway, I’m very pleased with this little radio. I didn’t really expect much from it when I got it, and it has certainly exceeded all of my expectations. I’ve been having a lot of fun with it, and I’ve been using it more than my TS-990 of late.

Lets see, what else? Oh, yeah. This showed up courtsey of our friendly UPS delivery person the other day.

I picked up a Raspberry Pi 4 to play with to join the RPi 3s I’ve already been playing with. I have a specific goal for this one. There are Linux versions of FT8 and JS8Call that, I’m told, run just fine and dandy on the RPi. I’ll find out this winter as I experiment. My eventual goal is to put together a compact QRP digital system that is backpackable that I can take along when I’m out on the trails with the bicycle. I’d thought about configuring the Rpi as a tablet computer with just a touch screen and no keyboard. I’ve done that before with the Rpi3s I’ve had, but I think that might be a bit awkward, so I’m looking at compact keyboards and maybe a small trackball or touchpad for mouse control. We’ll see. This is still very much a work in progress.

I know, I know… The used Lenovo laptop I picked up was supposed to serve that role, and it does, but while it works just fine it is also big, heavy and clumsy to lug around. I can squeeze a RPi into a package not much bigger than a small tablet computer and a fraction of the weight. We’ll see how it goes.

And that’s about it for now. I’ve been boring you long enough with this.

Fall Wrap Up

Although the temperatures are still ridiculously warm for this time of year, there’s no doubt that autumn is here and the gardening season is winding down and it’s time to look back at what worked, what didn’t, and start making plans for next year.

The tomatoes are pretty much done for the season. We’ll probably still get about 15 lbs or so off the last remaining plants and then we can clean out the raised beds. The tomatoes weren’t as good as I’d really have liked to see, but we still got more than enough to stock our shelves. There was a bit of blossom end rot at the start of the season, but we’d been doing calcium supplementation and that kept it from being a real problem.

One of two shelving units covered with canned stuff. A few of these are from last year but most were done in the last couple of weeks, plus almost as many on the other shelf. Gee, you might get the impression we like tomatoes around here…

The tomatoes all were canned in one way or another this year. We didn’t freeze any because the freezer is packed solid. We did pasta sauce, tomato soup and just plain canned tomatoes for use in things like chili. I didn’t keep track of how many pints and quarts we put up, but it was a hell of a lot. I think we used just about every jar we have. Our big canner can hold 16 pints in a batch, so it really doesn’t take long to do it. I’m writing this as I’m waiting for another batch of 14 pints to finish up.

Those dahlias I picked up for half price in June turned out way, way better than I could have hoped. Amazingly beautiful, long lasting flowers, and they’ve been in perpetual bloom since early July.

That stuff up there inside of those yellow buckets (the bottoms are cut out) is celery. The buckets protect them from critters and makes weed control easy. Works very well indeed and we’ve been growing celery like this for some time. We’ve been cutting celery off those plants since, oh, early August, I think. Cut a few stalks off and it just keeps regrowing. Incredible flavor, too. The thing with commercial celery is that it has little or no flavor. That’s not the case with the home grown stuff. The celery flavor is intense. Very intense. It kind of surprises people who’ve only ever had the commercially grown variety.

I talked before about the mild jalapeno pepper plants I planted in pots on the front porch as an experiment. That worked out beautifully as well. The two plants produced more than enough peppers to keep me satisisfied (I’m the only one who really likes jalapenos so just two plants were enough). And the flavor was very good indeed. They had the right flavor, but very little heat, just what I was looking for. The plants are pretty much done for the season, so I’ll pick the remaining peppers and the plants will go to the compost pile this weekend probably.

Two more successes were the wax beans and the bell peppers. The wax beans are in the front, the peppers behind them. We’d put in a row of green beans, but something ate all of the plants almost as soon as they sprouted, but whatever it was left the wax beans alone. The wax beans more than made up for it though. Great flavor, good texture, and ridiculously prolific. We’ve been picking beans every four or five days since early August and there’s no end in sight, they’re still in full blossom and producing beans.

The bell peppers seem to always do good in this location. We’ve been getting absolutely beautiful peppers off the plants this year. They’ve been well formed, growing to almost ridiculously large sizes, thick walls, firm texture, good flavor. A lot get eaten fresh but we’ve been dicing up and freezing some as well.

No pears this year.

Not everything was successful, though. We aren’t going to get any pears off our tree this year. The tree looks nice and healthy, but almost no fruit. The problem was the weather. When the tree was in full blossom the weather was still ridiculously cold and wet, so it didn’t get pollinated. In fact, I didn’t even start to see bees until two or three weeks after the three blossomed. Earlier in the year I counted about 20 or so pears on the entire tree. There are maybe fifteen up there now, and I saw today that something is eating them while they’re still on the tree. Birds, probably.

The other disappointment is the squash. It started out well but went nowhere fast. Only one plants looks reasonably healthy, but it’s much smaller than it should be and only has a couple of gourds on it. The other plants are much worse, with a few very undersized gourds that will probably end up in the compost. We get lots of blossoms, but very little fruit. I think this is the last year we’re going to try growing squash. It just doesn’t work out for us.

We need to start doing garden clean up much earlier than we normally wood. MrsGF is going in for knee replacement surgery in early October so we want to have everything done that we possibly can before then because after that, well, trying to get anything done outside is going to be awkward because I’m not going to want to leave her alone in the house with a bum leg while I’m out puttering in the gardens.

We’re already talking about putting in a third and maybe even a fourth raised bed for vegetables next spring. They just work amazingly well and are so much easier to take care of than a regular garden plot would be. We’ll probably keep putting veggies in the corner where the beans and peppers are, but the rest of our yard? The soil is so poor and gets so water logged in rainy conditions that it’s difficult, even impossible to grow much of anything except ornamentals.

That’s it for now. Time to pull the jars out of the canner and start cleaning things up.

Let’s see, what else? I’m putting together an evaluation of a new transceiver I just picked up a couple of weeks ago, a Yaesu FT-450D. I hear so many people complaining about how expensive amateur radio is that I wanted to do an article proving that it really isn’t anywhere near as expensive as people think it is, and the 450 is at the core of that piece.

Moving all my equipment to the new location in the basement is about half done, but is now on hold because of MrsGF’s upcoming surgery. I can’t be hiding down in the basement while she’s recovering from knee replacement, so I’m going to be leaving the big equipment up here so I have something to play with while keeping an eye on her and making sure she isn’t trying to do something she shouldn’t. I know her, and I know damn well that she’s going to try pushing things too far, too fast.

And here’s a picture of a cat. Just because.