Even though today is officially the start of spring it sure doesn’t feel that way. Temperature around 34 degrees, cloudy… We’re impatient to get outside and do something again.
Nevertheless, I had the camera out and was taking some photos of the indoor plants, some of which are flowering right now.
This guy is sitting in the kitchen window at the moment. Those flowers are only about a quarter of an inch across. Here’s another shot of a different cluster of flowers on the same plant with different lighting…
That camera does a great job taking closeups like that.
Another plant in flower at the moment is this one:
I love this plant. The color of the leaves, the texture, and those tiny little pink flowers that are about the size of the head of a pin. It’s a lot of fun.
MrsGF’s violets are in full bloom too right now:
Then there’s this really weird plant…
That’s Kai. I’m very surprised she held still long enough for me to get that photo. She usually runs away when she sees me with a camera.
And now, on to the stupidity…
Nothing makes me look dumber than when something goes wrong with my radio equipment sometimes. This one was a real gem, though.
For some reason the TS-990 decided to stop transmitting AM and I couldn’t figure out why. Everything seemed to be working just fine otherwise. I could still use SSB, the digital modes, FM, all were working fine. But when I keyed the mic using AM, it would go into transmit mode, but no signal.
I spent something like two hours this morning trying to diagnose what the problem was. As a last resort I got out my morse code key and hooked that up. Not sure why. Just was trying to eliminate other things as problems. I tried sending my callsign in CW and…
And nothing. Same symptoms as the AM problem. It went into transmit, but no signal, no power going to the antenna.
Hmph… I went on line and searched around, found out there was an update for the radio’s firmware, so I downloaded that and installed. That went well. In fact, better than well because now the noise blanker works the way it’s supposed to and some other little things were fixed. But same problem as before, no AM and no CW.
I pulled out the manual once more and started to dig through that and…
Oh. Oh, brother… All right, look, the 990 is a very complicated piece of equipment. I mean it has controls and knobs and buttons on it that I’ve never used in the almost four years I’ve owned the thing. So I suppose I can be excused for not noticing this.
Most of the knobs on the radio are “nested”, that is there is a central knob that controls one function, and an outer ring around the central knob that controls an entirely different function.
The Power knob which controls the rig’s output power is the central knob. The outer ring is something labeled “Car” which stands for carrier. The carrier setting is essential to transmitting in CW and AM modes. I normally have it set dead center right in the middle. But since I almost never do CW or AM I almost never touch it. But I do use the Power knob to adjust the wattage going out to the antenna or feeding into the amplifier.
Somewhere along the way, the Car knob got a bit sticky and started to track along with the Power knob when it was turned. But only in one direction: down. When I turned the power down, it was also dragging the carrier knob down towards zero, but not dragging it back up when the power was turned back up. Eventually the carrier was turned down to nothing. So without a carrier, there was no AM or CW.
Sigh… Spent more than two hours trouble shooting a problem that didn’t really exist. All I had to do was turn the Car knob back up to the center position and all was well.
And now I just found out my amplifier relay isn’t working… How did I get into this hobby in the first place?
Egads, it’s been a while since I did anything here. When things get a bit busy I’m afraid the first thing to suffer is this blog. So let’s take a look at what’s been going on. It’s going to be a mixed bag this time, covering a variety of different topics. Let’s look at some agricultural stuff first.
The dicamba saga continues. Monsanto’s lawsuit against the state of Alabama over its very strict regulations concerning the use of dicamba was thrown out of court. Alabama put very stringent restrictions in place on the use of the product after thousands and thousands of acres of crops were damaged by the herbicide drifting.
The case was thrown out on a legal technicality, it seems. Apparently Alabama has a “sovereign immunity” clause in it’s constitution that prevents it from being sued for things like this. So nothing has really been settled.
There are new federal regulations in place now, new training requirements and other things, so I guess we’ll see if those will be sufficient to keep the herbicide under control.
Trade Wars — Of course that’s the big news right at the moment. With NAFTA negotiations already allegedly falling apart and threatening our economic links with Canada and Mexico, the last thing we needed was for the administration to launch a full blown trade war with, well, with just about everyone. So, of course, that’s exactly what the administration has done. The administration claims that the tariffs will have no effect on the NAFTA negotiations, which is a flat out lie. Of course it will. It already is having an effect.
The negotiations were already contentious, adversarial and often completely unrealistic, and both Canada and Mexico have made comments that they were considering pulling out of NAFTA entirely if the tone of the negotiations didn’t change. The threat of tariffs has made the situation even worse. The Canadians have become far more outspoken now, openly talking about “responsive measures”, i.e. political speak for levying such huge tariffs on US made goods that US manufacturers and agribusinesses will be unable to sell products in Canada. Mexico has been a bit less open about it, saying that the country is “considering all of its options”.
If you look past NAFTA and look at what’s happening elsewhere, the response to the administration’s tariff threats has been even more forceful, with some countries threatening reciprocal tariffs that would make US goods unmarketable. And as for China, well, if we lose China as a market, that’s pretty much going to destroy the ag economy, and decimate a lot of other businesses as well.
Weather — The weather here in Wisconsin used to be pretty reliable. We could depend on blistering hot summers and cold, snowy winters that would rival anything seen in the arctic.
Yeah, well, about that whole snow and cold thing… Although we had a period of intense cold over Christmas and New Years, it’s actually been ridiculously warm here. We had a February with temps at or above freezing more often than not, and some days when it was pushing 50 degrees. In February. In Wisconsin??? WTF? Really? After a couple of days of 45+ temps, it cooled down and we got about an inch of snow, not enough to bother shoveling because it almost immediately melted off again, and now, on March 3, we’re looking at temps back up in the high 40s and low 50s again.
I’ve been hearing rumors now that the snowmobile clubs in the area are seriously considering not bothering to lay out trails any more and may even be closing down because we haven’t had any actual snow for years now. The trails never opened this year. If they opened at all last year it was only for a few days and in limited areas.
And while we still complain about the cold (we love complaining up here in Wisconsin, it’s the state hobby, I think), and we do get some intense cold periods, all things considered it hasn’t really been all that cold either. If you look at the ice data that shows how long the lakes here are ice covered, you’ll find that the number of days, on average, that lakes are ice covered has dwindled by several weeks.
And if you look at the growing zone map, where I live about 20 miles south of Green Bay, well, we used to be firmly in Zone 4. We’re now in zone 5 and I keep hearing from people that a lot of years now we’re actually pushing zone 6.
Speaking of gardening — MrsGF and I are getting impatient. We’ve already been talking about expanding the garden area on the south side of the house and trying to figure out an easy way to get rid of sod.
One of the things that’s been pushing us into impatience is that whenever we go down in the basement we walk past the famous “Bag ‘O Seeds” that eldest son gave us for Christmas. It’s hard to tell how many are in there from this photo. That pile of seed packets is about a foot deep. He literally got us one of everything that the retail chain he works for sells in their garden department.
We really need to sit down and do some planning because there is no way that we are going to be able to plant more than a fraction of the different seeds we have.
I can tell MrsGF has gotten impatient because yesterday she got some pots and some potting soil and put in some daffodil bulbs and I suspect those will end up in front of some of the windows in the house and she was wondering if it was really still too early to start some seeds for the garden.
Amateur Radio Stuff — I’m still playing with the FT8 mode and I can see how it can be addicting. I know that some people have complained that it isn’t really “communicating”. The typical FT8 exchange consists of call signs, grid square, signal strength report, and then bye-bye. FT8 is pretty much completely useless for exchanging any kind of genuinely useful communications. So what’s the point of it?
A lot of AROs are interested in things like trying to contact 100 different countries or more, contacting every state in the US, or things like that. It’s making the contact that is important to them. Actually talking to someone? Not so much. They’re chasing awards or certificates of accomplishment or competing in contests, or doing it just for the personal satisfaction of having done it. For those people, FT8 is great. I worked something like 27 different countries in just a few hours while I’ve been experimenting with it. I’ve worked countries I never thought I’d ever successfully contact. I worked a station in Japan the other day and yesterday I got the Cayman Islands.
The fun thing about FT8 is that you can do all that stuff with very modest equipment. You don’t need transceivers that cost $10,000 and huge amplifiers and ten acres of antennas. You can do this running less power than it takes to run the average light bulb and little more than a wire hanging in a tree for an antenna.
But it does have “issues”, as they say. One of the biggest problems is that it is being crippled by its own success. It’s become so wildly popular that the small parts of the radio frequency spectrum that are recommended for its use are ridiculously overcrowded.
And it’s about to get much, much worse because the wonderfully skilled and creative programmers who developed the WSJT software most people use for FT8 is bring out a “Dxpedition” version of the software that will permit as many as 500 contacts per hour and will transmit up to five signals at the same time.
Now, the developers have stated that this new system is “suitable for use only by Dxpedition stations and those attempting to work them”, and that it should not be used on the normal FT8 bands. But you can be sure there are going to be people who are going to completely ignore that. If we get a significant number of operators running the Dxpedition version of the software in the normal FT8 bands, well, the situation is going to go from merely ridiculous to utterly insane.
I saw a statistic the other day that claimed that more than half of all contacts being made now are done by FT8, and considering the amount of activity I’m seeing I suspect that’s probably correct. I wonder if this is just a fad though and if in a fairly short time FT8 will end up abandoned by everyone except the DX hunters.
Where Has PSK gone? — One of the side effects of the widespread adoption of FT8 is that it seems to have almost completely killed off the use of the PSK mode. PSK was a fairly popular mode of communication. When I first started using PSK I would find dozens of contacts and conversations going on on the PSK sub-bands. But now? I generally fire up FLDIGI a couple of times a day when I have the time and check the PSK bands and, well, I’m seeing nothing. I mean nothing. I haven’t seen a single PSK signal out there in days now. It’s almost as if every PSK user out there immediately jumped ship for the FT8 mode and hasn’t gone back. That’s a bit disappointing because PSK is a great low power, weak signal mode, and is, or can be, as automated as FT8 is. When using PSK64 and properly set up macros, making a contact can be as quick and easy as with FT8. And the big plus is that PSK can be used to actually communicate with people.
There, I think I’ve bored you long enough for this time…
Amateur radio has a new toy to play with, a new digital mode called FT8. The name
comes from the first two letters of the last names of its developers, Franke (K9AN) and Taylor (K1JT), plus the number 8 because it uses 8 frequency shift keying. The new mode has only been generally available since late June or July 2017 when it released as a beta. And it almost immediately took over amateur radio down on the HF bands. I’ve seen estimates that claim that more than half of all contacts on HF are now taking place using FT8.
FT8 is a “weak signal” mode, meaning that you can often successfully decode signals that are down around -20 dB. This is not as good as some of the other digital modes out there such as JT65 which can go as low as -28 dB. But it is much, much faster to make a contact with FT8 than with JT65. Like any communications mode, it has advantages and drawbacks. And like most digital communications modes, it requires a computer interfaced to your transceiver.
I’m always up for something new, and with temperatures hovering down around 0(F) fiddling around with FT8 has seemed like a good way to spend my free time over the last few days. I already had the WSJT software installed on my Win10 computer but hadn’t really had much incentive to do much with it until now.
I won’t go into the details of getting the software installed, configured, hooking things up to your transceiver, etc. There are dozens of tutorials out there. How you set it all up is going to depend on your computer, what transceiver you’re using, sound card, etc. In my case I’m using a Kenwood TS-990 with a RigBlaster Advantage, the same equipment I use for my other digital modes.
Much to my surprise, I actually got everything working without a great deal of difficulty and after getting set up and calibrated I took a stab at calling CQ on 15 meters and actually made a contact. WA7MPG in Canada BC.
So, what’s the controversy I mentioned in the title of this? Nothing less than (drum roll please) the end of amateur radio! (Imagine spooky voice saying that)
Yes, according to some out there, FT8 heralds the end of amateur radio. Well, true, they said the same thing about SSB, packet radio, repeaters, PSK, digital voice, SSTV, dropping the morse code requirement and, well, pretty much every innovation to come along in the last 100 years or so. But this time it’s really the end! Really!
The complaints are due to the fact that FT8 is almost entirely automated. Contacts via FT8 consist of brief, 15 second long exchanges of call sign, grid location, signal strength, and then a 73 to end, all done by the software. A click or two of the mouse is all it takes to start the whole process, and then you sit back and watch the computer do the work.
And this is what they’re complaining about. It takes the “human element” out of the whole thing, they claim. It is just making contacts for the sake of racking up another contact in the log. It isn’t “real” amateur radio. It isn’t real communications. It’s just two computers talking to one another.
The arguments are just silly, of course. Yes, it’s real communications. Information is being exchanged. And as for the other arguments, well, the same things could be said about any digital mode of communications; RTTY, PSK, etc. If you monitor the people who use those modes you’ll quickly find that most “conversations” take the form of pre-written and stored messages or macros that are sent automatically. Heck, if you monitor the CW portions of the bands you’ll find a lot of people are doing the same thing even with CW using decoding software and keyers.
Look, amateur radio includes a huge variety of methods of communications, both analog and digital. Everyone has their own favorite thing to do. But there are a lot of amateur radio operators out there who can’t afford to operate a contest quality station with acres of antennas and ten thousand dollar transceivers and amplifiers, but who would still love to log contacts with other amateur radio operators in far off places. FT8 allows people with modest equipment and antennas to use a weak signal mode to make contacts that they normally would probably never be able to make. It doesn’t encroach on the territory of the SSB or CW portions of the bands.
So why all the complaints? I’m not really sure. FT8 has become wildly popular for a lot of very good reasons, and it isn’t going to go away any time soon. Even better, it’s getting a lot of amateur radio operators who weren’t all that active before to start exploring the hobby once more.
Am I going to use FT8 a lot? Heck, I don’t know. I’m one of those very odd amateur radio operators who doesn’t actually like to talk to people. I’m more into it because of the technology. But I still like to get on the air once in a while, if for no other reason than to test equipment and antennas. FT8 could at least make my contact log look a lot less sparse, so maybe. We’ll see.
If you’re looking for me babbling about farming, gardening, photography or one of the usual topics I go wandering off on, you might want to skip this one. I’m going to jump off the deep end into the “miracle of radio” for a moment here, specifically amateur radio.
One of the most curious things I’ve been seeing is the claim that amateur radio is dying. I hear this claim all the time; on the air from people chatting, at swap meets, and on the AR related blogs and forums on the internet. It is really very curious and at first I wasn’t sure why I kept hearing this when it seemed to be completely untrue.
But then I realized what was going on. Amateur radio isn’t dying, of course. What’s happening is that their idea of what amateur radio should be is dying. Amateur radio is changing, evolving, and they don’t like it. No sir, not at all. And they don’t want to accept that fact. So they take advantage of any little quirk, any little upsetting of the apple cart, any disruption, and through a convoluted thought process that makes the mind boggle, turn it into support for their idea that the entire hobby and everyone involved in it (except for them, of course) is going to hell in a hand basket.
Perhaps the biggest change was when the FCC dropped the need to know morse code in order to get a license. While most accepted this, and even were in favor of it, a significant number of AROs rose up in righteous anger over it.
Other things happened. The tests were changed, study guides began appearing on-line that were easy to use, even free. There were changes to the licensing structure. There were claims that the tests were “dumbed down”. I’ve heard people claim that modern licensees don’t actually “know” anything, all they did was memorize the answers to the questions in the question pool.
Uh, excuse me? Really? You didn’t memorize anything when you took your test, eh? You did, what, exactly? Spent years experimenting and doing the math to develop Ohm’s Law all by yourself? Besides, if someone has the ability to memorize all 700 or so of the questions in the pool for the Extra exam, they probably deserve to get the license.
Some of this nonsense has calmed down as none of the dire predictions that the Good Ole Boys made have come true, but they’re still out there, are still claiming that anyone who was licensed after the no-code license came into effects is an idiot, etc. etc. etc. There are some forums out there where if one of us no-coders dares to stick our head up, we will quickly be insulted, trolled and harassed.
The licensing system had to change, though. Morse code, or CW as we call it, is a lot of fun. Tens of thousands of AROs gleefully still use it, and it shows no sign of dying. But the fact of the matter is that being required to know CW to get your amateur radio license is about as useful as being required to know how to ride a horse in order to get a driver’s license for a car. Yes, there are those who argue that when “all else fails” CW is the only way you’ll be able to communicate. But if you look at the forms of communications that are actually used during real emergencies, what is being used is SSB voice, FM voice, and, increasingly, digital voice and data. Not CW.
Then there are other “signs” that amateur radio is dying. Supposedly amateur radio isn’t growing, according to a lot of people I’ve talked to. I find that rather odd because we have more licensed amateur radio operators than ever before, and that number is increasing almost every year. Granted, it isn’t increasing by much, but amateur radio is a very technical hobby and it definitely is not for everyone. It requires a fairly extensive knowledge of electronics, mathematics, propagation, antenna design, FCC regulations, operating practices, etc. It requires a fairly hefty investment in equipment as well. So it appeals to a very limited number of people in the first place. If you are technically inclined, if you enjoy playing with electronics and gadgets and occasionally cranking up the old soldering iron and setting off the smoke detectors in your home with flaming resistors, exploding capacitors, etc. there are a hell of a lot easier and less expensive ways to do it than amateur radio, and which don’t require you to have to pass a test and pay a fee to do what you want to do.
Frankly, it’s amazing that we have the number of licensed operators that we have, not that the number is so small.
Here is an observation: I have amateur radio magazines going back to the early 1900s, and if you read the editorials and letters columns, you’ll quickly find that amateur radio has been “dying” since about, oh, 1920. And for pretty much the same reasons being given today: rogue operators, idiots, dumbing down the tests, changes in technology “destroying” the hobby (you should read some of the arguments about how SSB was going to destroy amateur radio when it first became popular)
There are a lot of people out there who simply do not like change. Oh, they won’t admit it, but it’s true. And this isn’t just in the amateur radio community of course. There are people who will not accept change even if those changes badly need to take place, even if those changes offer significant improvements. They will grasp at anything to try to rationalize their feelings.
Are there things about amateur radio I don’t like, things that I believe should be changed, or things that look like they will be changed but which I feel should remain the same? Of course there are. But I don’t have any influence over what will happen, and in the long run none of those things will have any real effect on my enjoyment of the hobby.
So no, amateur radio isn’t dying. All things considered, it is reasonably healthy and it seems it will remain so. It doesn’t need to be “fixed”. Yes, there are some things that could be tweaked, perhaps should be changed. But overall, amateur seems to be doing rather well.
I think Mr. Spiny the cactus is about to bloom! The cactus has been doing really well out there tucked up against the side of the house but it hasn’t blossomed in two years. It is currently loaded with new pads, but I noticed some of the new buds looked different, and may be flowers, not pads. I really hope so. The flowers on this plant are absolutely spectacular.
Whitefish Dunes State Park has become one of my favorite places. It has about 880 acres of shoreline along Lake Michigan up in Door County, and it’s well worth the price of admission. I’m not sure what the cost is because I get a yearly pass as part of my conservation patron license, but I think it’s about $8 for a day pass.
It’s hard to pick out a single photo from the park that is representative of how beautiful it is, but perhaps this one will do:
People seem to think Wisconsin is a rather dull place, with flat land, corn, cows and football. But we have more than 14,000 lakes, plus Lake Michigan. We have cliffs, rivers, forests, water falls… Well, you get the idea.
Alas, I’m not sure how long the state park system is going to continue to exist, though. The current administration down in Madison has cut off all state funding for the park system. It’s only funding now is what it can generate from entrance and camping fees.
I continue to be fascinated with lichen for some reason. If I’d ever actually gone to the botany class I signed up for in college I might actually know something about it. But I find the colors, the forms, and everything about it fascinating, and if you’d look through my photo library you’d find a lot of images of lichen and mosses. Most people find the photos rather dull, without the splashy colors of my flower photos, but I think lichen has it’s own unique beauty. Like this, for example
The subtle shadings of greens and yellows and browns, the amazing shapes. Like I said, I’m fascinated with it.
We’ve been getting a lot of them of late. We’ve had severe thunderstorms roll through here two or three days in a row now, and we’re getting a bit tired of it. Here at the house we’ve avoided the worst of it, but there have been trees taken down, power outages, minor flooding and building damage all over the area with every one of these. It’s kept the SkyWarn people busy, as well as the utility crews trying to keep up with the damage.
I was really glad we had the backup generator yesterday. Power was out for about 45 minutes and if I hadn’t been able to use the generator we’d have ended up with about a foot of water in the basement because of the heavy rains. We got over an inch and a half of rain in about half an hour here. The sump pump was kicking in every 2-3 minutes all the while.
We actually have 2 generators. One is a little 2KW Yamaha inverter that was originally intended just to run the radio equipment for field day or in emergencies for ARES operations. The other is a big Generac 9KW that was intended to power most of the house. The intention originally was to put a big connector on the outside of the house going to the Generac and using it to run the whole house. As long as we don’t use the ovens, turn on every light in the house, etc., it would have enough capacity to keep everything going. But we never got around to installing the bypass switches and connectors necessary. And when we do have a power failure, the little Yamaha can keep the sump pumps going as well as the radios and a few lights. It’s also much, much easier to move around and get started. It also uses a hell of a lot less gas and is much, much quieter.
Roses! The first roses of the season have popped open at last. I’m not a huge rose fan. I like them, but generally I find them a bit fussy and fiddly to deal with. The one we have in the front of the house takes care of itself pretty much. It just keeps coming back year after year, surviving drought, wet, cold, heat…
That’s my kind of plant – just stick it in the ground and ignore it and it takes care of itself.
Oh, and while I’m on the subject of plants, we found this incredible tree up in Door County as well when we were up there on Monday. Neither of us had ever seen anything quite like it before. Covered with these beautiful red, white and yellow flowers.. Absolutely breathtaking. I don’t know what it is. Have been too busy (i.e. lazy) to actually do research to look it up.
I turned in my resignation at work last week and I am still trying to wrap my head around the fact that I am unemployed. Willingly unemployed. It doesn’t seem right somehow.
Well, it isn’t like I was putting in a lot of hours at the job anyway, to be honest. The position I’ve been in for the last two years or so was part time, and more or less on an “as needed” basis. I worked for events at the theater, filled in when one of the day guys was out sick, or there was a situation that required extra help, that kind of thing. A lot of weeks I didn’t work at all and it was rare for me to put in more than 20 – 30 hours a month.
Still, not having a job? It feels — strange. Feels, oh, not right somehow.
Time to catch up again, so let’s get on with this, shall we?
Lots of stuff has been going on in the farming world, some of it unpleasant.
Canadian Milk Export Headaches
Grassland, a large milk processor, sent notices to 75 dairy farmers here in the state that the company will no longer accept their milk as of May 1, leaving the farmers scrambling to try to find someone, anyone, to buy the milk they’re producing. Over the last couple of
weeks Canada has rejiggered its milk classification/pricing system which has effectively prevented Grassland from exporting up to 1 million pounds of milk a day to Canada, and apparently with only 2 days notice. Grassland had no choice but to notify the farmers that they could no longer buy their milk because the company has no way to sell it now. A lot of people in the US dairy industry are claiming that Canada’s actions are nothing but a way to try to curtail the imports of US dairy products and are actually illegal under international trade law. Where are those farmers going to go with their milk? I have no idea. This is a bad time of year to try to find a milk processing company because we’re about to enter into what’s known as the “spring flush”, when dairy cows normally begin to produce even more milk, so there’s going to be a glut of milk coming on the market as it is and few processors are looking for more.
Corn Finances are Wonky
A recent survey by the Farm Journal indicates that the average cost of raising a bushel of corn for most farmers is about $3.69 per bushel. Corn briefly flirted with the 3.70 range for a while, but mostly it’s been in the 3.50 – 3.65 range for months and months now. It makes one wonder why anyone bothers to raise corn in the first place. Granted, some have lower costs than that and do make a bit of money off the crop, but still.
Sometimes the farming business reminds me of the old joke about the two guys from Milwaukee who decided to go into the fruit business. They bought a truck, ran down to Georgia and bought a load of peaches for $1 a pound, and came back to Milwaukee to sell them at $1 a pound. When they realized they hadn’t made any money on the deal and were trying to figure out why, one of them looks at the other and says “I know! We need to get a bigger truck.”
Some days I feel like the entire agricultural system is being run by those two…
I love chickpeas, or garbanzo beans as they’re sometimes called. I use them in salads, soups, but they’re mostly known for their use in hummus and in middle eastern cooking. A member of the legume family, they’re tasty, very nutritious and high in protein and, well, they’re just yummy and very useful in most types of cooking.
Chickpea planting in the US has more than doubled since 2013. We’re only planting about a half million acres, almost insignificant when compared to corn and soy acres, but interest in the chickpea has been climbing steadily. They’re being grown mostly in the north western states. Farmers are always looking for an alternative to low profit crops like corn and wheat, and right now chickpeas look pretty good, profit wise. They aren’t that easy to grow, though, mostly because they’re susceptible to disease. But the prices have gone up about 23% over the last year, and with consumption and interest increasing, and farmers looking to try to find some way to make a profit, I won’t be surprised if acres planted keeps on growing significantly.
Butter Butter Everywhere
Butter consumption in the US is at 50 year record high, and there seems to be no end in sight. Butter price is one of the few bright spots in the dairy industry right now, with the price creeping up despite a decrease in butter exports and an increasing stockpile sitting in warehouses. Wholesale prices for butter were pushing $2.23 at one point and have only declined a few cents since then, despite increases in milk production.
Butter has become a marketing tool for a lot of food companies. A lot of restaurants, even the fast food ones, are switching out margarine in favor of butter, and a lot of companies that make processed foods are now hyping that they’re using real butter instead of margarine or vegetable oils.
Why this increase in demand for butter? Part of the reason is that dairy products are no longer linked to increases in cholesterol levels. Over the last five or eight years new studies indicated that contrary to previous beliefs, moderate consumption of fats from dairy products seems to have little or no effect on cholesterol levels. And there have even been some studies that indicate moderate consumption of full-fat dairy products may even have some health benefits.
Another thing that’s been driving an increase in butter consumption is that it’s been found that hydrogenated vegetable oils, long the primary ingredient in most margarines, are utterly horrible for you, health wise, causing significant increases in risk of heart disease and other problems.
But despite all of that, we’re still producing way too much milk. In many areas of the country there isn’t even the plant capacity to handle all of the milk being produced. There are reports of milk being dumped or being used for animal feeds in some states. With the ‘spring flush’ now arriving, a lot of milk processing plants are at full capacity already. It’s going to be interesting to see what happens to milk prices over the next month or two.
Amateur Radio Stuff
If you’re interested in agriculture and don’t give a fig about AR, you can stop reading now if you like.
Just got the notice that my subscription to QRZ.com is about to expire. QRZ is known as being the place to go if you’re looking for information about a particular call sign, want to buy or sell radio equipment or if you’re a grouchy old fart who likes to complain a lot, hang out in the forums and, well, complain a lot. Most people just use it as a way to easily look up information about an amateur radio operator. If you have the person’s call sign, you can find names, addresses and other information about them on QRZ’s database. You don’t absolutely need to be a paid subscriber, but it’s helpful. It gets rid of the annoying advertising, gives you access to things the freeloaders don’t see, that kind of thing. You get your own web page, email, log book and other goodies. It’s not an essential service by any means, but it is indeed handy to have.
Just stay out of the forums unless you have a thick skin.
The other day someone I was talking to remarked that I never, ever use the terms “ham” or “elmer”. And they are right, I don’t. While the term “ham” when used to refer to an
amateur radio operator has been in common use for probably a hundred years, that doesn’t mean I have to like it. I have no real desire to be referred to by a term that means “cured pig meat” to 99% of the population of the country. Am I being ridiculous? Pedantic? Of course I am. Don’t care.
I also loathe the term “elmer” when used to describe describe someone who assists a newcomer to amateur radio learn about the technology.
Now, before you go off the deep end and launch into a rant down in the comments section about the tradition behind the term “elmer”, I understand that “elmer” refers to a very nice fellow who once helped newcomers to the hobby learn about it. I’m sure he was a very nice person. He was an utterly delightful and nice fellow I’m sure.
But I don’t care. There is already a perfectly
good term for that: mentoring. And to be perfectly frank, the term “elmer” is not exactly complimentary outside of the amateur radio community. It refers to the character Elmer Fudd from the old Bugs Bunny cartoons. An “elmer” for a large percentage of the population is a person who resembles Elmer Fudd, someone who is a bumbling, idiotic fool. It is not a complimentary term.
Use both terms if you wish. I don’t care. I won’t object or even comment. But as far as I’m concerned, a mentor is a mentor, not an “elmer”. An amateur radio operator is an amateur radio operator, not processed pig meat.
Ha! You thought I was going to get bored with this and there wouldn’t be a part two, didn’t you? Well there is a part two, so let’s get on with this, shall we?
Almost any kind of fiddling around with electronics of any sort is going to require soldering sooner or later. Soldering is the joining of two or more bits of metal together via the application of heat and solder, a metal which has a lower melting point than the two bits of metal being joined. The solder serves two purposes: First it physically joins the two parts together. Second, it provides electrical continuity, a path for electricity to flow. It requires the use of a heat source, i.e. a soldering iron or pencil, and the solder itself.
Solder is usually an alloy of lead and other metals, or one of the newer lead free solders that generally include antimony, copper, silver, zinc and/or other metals to replace the lead. Silver solder, a mixture of silver and copper, is widely used in reflow and wave soldering, and often for hand soldering as well. Because of the health issues related to lead, many manufacturers are moving to the use of lead free solder. Lead based solder is still widely available and is still legal, but I would not be surprised if it is phased out entirely in the fairly near future.(1)
Now I’m not going to launch into a tutorial on how to solder. There are hundreds of the things floating around out there on electronics web sites, YouTube, etc. Some of them actually know what they’re talking about. I’m going to talk about the equipment you need to actually do it. And the first item is a soldering iron.
A soldering iron or soldering gun or soldering pencil is the essential tool. It is the device
that actually generates the heat that is required to melt the solder. Oh, look, there’s a soldering iron over there on the right. The big can thing is, by the way, a blow torch. My, isn’t it a handsome thing, all 19th century looking and steampunky and all that.
Well it is a soldering iron, but not exactly the kind we’re interested in, now is it? I think we’re interested in something a bit more modern and which won’t burn down the house if you actually try using it the way this one could. So let’s look at this one instead, shall we?
This is a cheap Radio Shack soldering pencil from a hobbyist soldering kit that I picked up for… Well, I forget what I paid for it but it was under $30. And with Radio Shack going bankrupt (yes, again) if there are any RS stores in your area you might want to run out and see what kind of deals you can pick up. It came with a clip on heat sink, needle nose pliers, side cutters and a few other goodies. RS has been selling this same basic kit for something like 40 years. The soldering pencil is cheaply made and often doesn’t last very long, but if you’re just looking for a cheap way to solder a few joints this will get the job done.
If you’re going to do any kind of serious electronics work, though, you’re going to need something like this over here on the right. That’s my Weller variable temperature soldering station with a digital readout for the temperature. It is a lot more money than the RS special, going for around $140 or so,
but I’ve had this one for about 5 years now and it’s still going strong and works quite well.
Two things you want to look for – a variety of different tips for different soldering jobs, and variable temperature. You need different tips for different types of soldering, from needle sharp tips for small components to spade type tips for desoldering. And the temperature control is, I feel anyway, essential. Different formulas of solder have different melting points. You want it hot enough to adequately melt the solder while at the same time not too hot to avoid damaging the equipment you’re working on.
A couple of other things before we move on here. You see a couple of other items in that photo, a thing that looks like a rather odd syringe, and a golden ball full of what looks like hair.
The ball thing is actually a tip cleaner. The ball holds steel wool. The hot tip is rammed into the steel wool, cleaning it of accumulated solder, flux, etc. Some kind of tip cleaner is essential. A dirty soldering tip does not conduct heat well, and heat is what it’s all about. The cleaner the tip, the better.
The blue and chrome gadget is what is generally called a solder sucker, a tool for removing rather than applying solder.
I find that I’m often using my soldering equipment for removing solder rather than applying it. You’ll find you have to desolder components from a circuit board before you can make a repair or modification. The only way to do that is by melting the existing solder and removing it somehow.
The sucker works by applying a vacuum which sucks up the solder. There are different types. Some use rubber squeeze balls, some use a piston powered pump like this one, others, much more expensive, have electric vacuum pumps. The other way is to use solder wick or braid. This is a metal braid, usually coated with some kind of flux to attract liquid solder better. The braid is pushed down onto the cold solder with the tip of the soldering iron when then heats everything up and the braid absorbs the liquified solder.
If you do a lot of desoldering, you might want to get an actual desoldering system. But for most of us good old desoldering wick or a solder sucker is good enough.
Let’s move on to one final item in this discussion about soldering, and that’s this puppy, the ubiquitous soldering gun. These things are designed to apply a lot of heat to large objects, quickly, and as such they are virtually useless for most electronic soldering jobs. They’re too big, too awkward, apply too much heat. Using one of these on a circuit board is sort of like using a 12 gauge shotgun to hunt mice. You can do it, sure, but there isn’t going to be anything left of your quarry when you’re done.
But there are times you need something like this. Especially if you’re trying to solder PL-259 connectors. Your average soldering pencil just doesn’t supply enough heat quickly enough. By the time you’ve heated the connector up enough to solder it, you’ll discover you’ve also melted about two inches of the insulation on the coax as well.
Now there are other things I haven’t touched on that are related to soldering, but which I’m not going to get into. Like SMD. SMD stands for Surface Mount Device. Discrete components (even entire IC chips) are now often mounted not via good old fashioned through-hole connections, but on solder pads on the surface of the board. While this is great for robotic assembly systems, it’s not good for people who want to try to repair the blasted things or have to otherwise work with SMD technology. Dealing with resistors, capacitors, diodes and other components that are about the size of a quarter of a grain of rice and mounted on the surface of a board on solder pads, well, it isn’t exactly a great deal of fun. Working with SMD can be done, but it takes practice, a steady hand, and a pretty good magnifying lens, preferably with a built in light.
Then there is the question of fumes. There is no denying the fact that some of the fumes given off by solders and fluxes when heated are not healthy for you to breathe. Even some of the plastics that the components are made from can give off fumes that are toxic. If you’re just soldering a joint or two it isn’t bad, but if you’re doing a lot of it, you’re going to want to look into a good venting system or a fume extraction device of some sort.
Now let’s look at power.
Power. As in electrical power of course. You need it.
Now with most devices you just plug the thing into a wall socket and turn it on. But sometimes things are that simple. Once you get into amateur radio and/or electronics, you will quickly find out that different devices have different power requirements. Odd ball voltages, weird batteries that no one carries, and odd power connector plugs. Sometimes very odd power plugs.
Now a lot of amateur radio equipment runs on 12 volt DC. My Kenwood TS-2000 transceiver requires 12V, my antenna tuner runs on 12V, my big dummy load runs on 12V.
And to complicate things a bit more, 12V doesn’t actually mean 12V. For reasons I won’t get into here (you do have that google thing, right?) most 12V devices actually want around 14V, and if you try to feed them less than that some very strange things can happen.
Now if you do have 12V equipment you want to run, what do you do? Go out and get
yourself a car battery or something? Well, you could if you really wanted to. It would work. For a while. But you’re going to need a 12V power supply similar to this one over on the left. This particular one has a handy Amp meter that tells you how many amps the device(s) connected to it are drawing, and a meter showing the actual voltage the power supply is producing. This particular power supply allows you to adjust the voltage up to about 16V if you need it for some reason.
You can get power supplies with all kinds of bells and whistles on them, but you don’t really need most of them. You can get switching power supplies, transformer power supplies… Generally the switching power supplies are a lot lighter, but they have more electronics in them that can screw up. Transformer based power supplies generally work well, but can use significantly more electricity than switching supplies. Which one you choose depends on what your preferences are, budget, etc. Before you buy one go check out the reviews on eham.net or other sources first.
Once you do get a power supply, the question of how to get that power to the equipment that needs it comes up. Most 12V power supplies only have one or two supply points on them, and generally they aren’t the most convenient things in the world to use. You basically shove a couple of wires into holes and have to tighten down screws to make the actual connection. It’s awkward, and if you have more than one piece of equipment and only one power supply, you’re going to wear those screws out pretty fast switching things around. So I use one of these for 12V power.
This particular unit is a Rig Runner from West Mountain Radio. It’s basically just a power strip, but for 12V rather than 120V. The main line from the 12V power supply is plugged into the outlets on the far left, and the other connectors then distribute that power. Each of the outlets is fused for various amperage requirements. If you’ve never seen that kind of connector before, don’t worry, I’ll come to them in a minute.
Now power strips like this are available from a variety of companies. MFJ makes them, as does West Mountain. Or you can make your own easily enough.
Now let’s talk about those connectors. If you haven’t seen those before, they’re called Anderson Power Pole connectors, and they’ve become something of a standard method of connecting power to devices in the amateur radio community. ARES has declare them to be the universal power connector out in the EmCom world, and I have to admit they make life a hell of a lot easier. No more stripping wires, fiddling with electrical tape and all that nonsense. Just install them on the ends of your power leads and you’re good to go.
The drawback is that while they’re simple to use, they do require a special crimping tool to install them on the ends of your wires. A good one like the one in the photo there can set you back a hefty chunk of money.
But if you’ve ever had to fiddle around in the cold under the dash of a car trying to strip insulation off wires, wrap wires with electrical tape, well, that kind of thing gets old fast.
Let’s talk about 240 volt for a moment. The only reason you might need 240V in your shack is if you’re going to be running a 1,500 watt output amplifier. If you want to fire up a big old tube amp and pump enough energy into your antenna to melt the vinyl siding on the neighbor’s house, hey, who am I to tell you not to? But do you really need it? No.
If you really need to put out more power, a 500 – 600 watt amplifier will generally run pretty well on 120V. A lot of the high output amps can be rewired to run on 120v, although at reduced output. So no, you don’t really need 240 volt in your shack.
I am not going to get involved in the heated argument of lead versus lead-free solder. While many claim that lead-free solder works just as well, is just as reliable, and is just as easy to use as the lead type, there are probably an equal number of people who will claim the lead-free solders are utter garbage. I switched to using lead-free solder for plumbing something like thirty years ago and I’ve never had any problems with it. While I still use lead based solder for electronics, that is due to the fact I have about fifty spools of the stuff laying around the house.