Miscellaneous Stuff & Retired?

IMG_0375Cactus

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:

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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.

Lichen

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

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The subtle shadings of greens and yellows and browns, the amazing shapes. Like I said, I’m fascinated with it.

Storms

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.

IMG_0377Roses! 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.

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Retired

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.

 

Catching Up

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

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Ooo, butter… Yummy yummy butter

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…

Chickpeas

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.

QRZ

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.

Terminology

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

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A ham. Not an amateur radio operator

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

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An Elmer. Not a mentor.

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.

Amateur Radio Tools & Test Equipment Part Two: Soldering and Power

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?

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Can you say “horrible mess” boys and girls?

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

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I’d love to see someone try to solder SMD chips with this puppy.

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?

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The very first soldering kit I bought was essentially this exact same set from Radio Shack back around 1970

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,

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The Weller has been going strong for 5 years now

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.

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Desoldering wick or braid

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, IMG_0030the 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.

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Very soon your house wiring will look like this

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

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Typical 12V power supply on a very dirty work bench

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.IMG_0028

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 IMG_0029Anderson 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.

 


  1. 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.

Fun Stuff

I’m a tinkerer. I love fiddling with stuff, playing with gadgets, and building my own stuff. I’m always scrounging around for interesting little gadgets, widgets and components to messscreen-shot-2017-02-25-at-9-46-26-am with. A while back I picked up a bunch of these LED lighting panels and I’ve been fiddling around with them and I like ’em so much I thought I’d tell you about them.

My office/radio shack is a bit of a black hole when it comes to lighting. The room doesn’t have ceiling lights so we make do with a floor lamp and some desk lamps, but I wanted some under-counter style lighting to make it easier to see the controls on my radios because it was impossible to put a desk lamp near them.

These are 12V LED lighting panels designed to replace dome lights in vehicles. They come in a wide variety of styles and sizes. This particular model comes with a fuse and adaptors to replace the incandescent lights in a car or truck dome light, but it was the LED I was interested in. They’re fairly cheap. I just looked ’em up and they’re going for $8 for a pack of two on Amazon and you might find them cheaper if you look. There are a lot of these out there from various manufacturers and distributors, with prices all over the place. Mine came from a company called Cutequeen Trading (yes, that’s the real name).

For the size they put out an amazing amount of bright, white light. One of them in the recess my TS-990 lives in was more than enough to light up the whole front of the rig plus most of the desk around it. They have a peel and stick adhesive back. Just peel off the protective paper, stick it up, hook up the wires to a 12V source and you’re good to go.

Where do you get 12V from? Well if you’re an amateur radio operator you probably already have a 12V power supply because a lot of amateur radio equipment runs on 12V. In my case I have a big 12V supply that feeds a distribution box with Anderson Power Pole connectors already in place to feed other equipment. I just wired up a plug to fit, added a toggle switch from my junk box to turn it on and off and was ready to go. They only draw about 0.4 amp so the power consumption is fairly modest for the amount of light they produce.

One gotcha was I found if I fed it directly, the thing got real hot real fast. Not to the point of burning my hand if I touched it, but painful. I ended up putting a small resistor in line to drop the voltage a bit (think it was a 480 ohm but not sure now and I’m too lazy to go dig into the wiring behind the desk to look). That kept it from getting hot without reducing the amount of light.

Another issue is that the point where the wired connect to the panel are a bit fragile and won’t tolerate a lot of movement. Avoid putting any stress at all at the point where they connect and they should be okay. I’ve heard from other people fiddling around with LED panels like this that this is a fairly common problem.

I could see these easily being used for interior lighting in an RV or enclosed trailer. It would be very easy to turn several of these into an under-counter lighting system in a house if you have a place to tuck a 12V power supply out of sight. Find a cheap, rechargable battery, some kind of box, mount a few of these on the box and you’d have a fairly inexpensive and pretty bright portable work light or flashlight.

So get out there and fiddle with stuff.

The Rise and Fall and Rise again of HeathKit and Radio Shack

The story of the rise and fall of companies like HeathKit and Radio Shack is a fascinating and complex subject. I’m going to restrict this to the comeback of both companies. One is almost certainly doomed to failure. The other might manage to hang on and perhaps even succeed.

Let’s look at HeathKit first.

I began getting emails from the company that were a bit, well, odd and, frankly, stupid. Vague announcements that said nothing, press releases that seemed to promise a lot but if you actually read the words, said, well, nothing… They had a web site! Hooray! But there was, well, nothing on it. They kept issuing press releases that promised new kits, upgrades to old kits… Sort of? If you ignored the fact that the tiny, tiny type at the end hinted that, well, maybe not…

Finally, at last, HeathKit is back! Hooray! Yippee!

Yeah, well, don’t get out the champagne just yet, because after all the years of the hype, all of the build up, all of the promises, what we got is this…

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Yeah, that’s it. An AM radio kit. Oh the joy, oh the rapture… Break out my blood pressure pills someone before I faint…

An AM radio kit. For $150.

Note the ultra clean, modern hipster design that eliminates all those unnecessary bells and whistles. Like labels. Or a dial indicator to tell you what frequency it’s tuned to. Or a volume control. Or some kind of indication that the thing is even turned on.

Well to be fair, you don’t need a volume control, I suppose, because it doesn’t have a speaker.

Oh, there’s a speaker for it, or there will be one “real soon now”. A powered amplified speaker. At extra cost, of course. Oh, goodie…

Meanwhile, just plug your headphones into one of the two (Yes, Two! Count them! Two!) headphone jacks.

And all of this can be yours for just $150! Damn, where did I put my blood pressure pills…

Oh, brother… Look, I am going to be brutally honest here. This is just ridiculous. Look, I could literally build this radio out of parts from the junk box in the basement for nothing. Even if I had to buy all of the parts brand new it would cost me less than $30. And for that I’d throw in a speaker and some labels.

But, you say, they must be selling something besides just this, right? Their entire inventory can’t consist of a single radio?

Well, no. Not really. You can get some parts for an old nixie tube clock, a ‘stealth’ VHF antenna that you could build yourself for half the cost, and copies of old HeathKit manuals, and that’s about it. Oh, and little plastic cups for a wind speed indicator.

Now let’s look at the remains of Radio Shack. Yes, it’s still around. While large parts of it were sold off during the bankruptcy, it entered into some kind of partnership with Sprint, and it looks promising.

One of the biggest problems Radio Shack had was it’s entry into the cell phone market. Now the problem when you’re a brick and mortar store that sells cell phones is that people know where you live. In other words, if something goes wrong, they come pounding at your door and demand you fix it. Right now!

This takes up a hell of a lot of time on the part of the sales staff. Which means they can’t take care of people who actually want to buy stuff. Almost every time I’ve been in a Radio Shack store, anywhere, in the past few years, I’ve never been able to actually get someone to take my money.

Seriously. I’d be standing there with whatever little gadget or part I wanted, money in hand, right there at the cash register, and I’d end up giving up in disgust and putting it back and leaving after standing there for ten, twenty, thirty minutes, and all because   the staff were trying to activate phones, or trying to explain why your dropping your phone in a toilet is not their problem or whatever.

Needless to say, this business model was not very successful. It’s hard to make money in retail if your staff is too busy with non-paying customers to even ring up a sale.

But Sprint is now taking over the cell phone part of the business, and will have their own staff in the stores. Radio Shack will, I’ve been told, be Radio Shack once more, selling dopey little gadgets, toys, and even actual real electronics parts and tools.

And it may actually be happening because I ran into this…

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Yes, it’s a kit. A Radio Shack branded kit. In this case a Theremin, but there were a half dozen more on the rack along with this one. And there were parts. And soldering kits. And multimeters. And breadboards. And power supplies. And, of course, the usual selection of goofy, stupid and sometimes fun little gadgets.

I picked it up for $20 because, well, come on… A theremin? Admit it. You’ve always wanted one.

Now, you can imagine which one of these companies I think has a better chance of successfully resurrecting itself.

Old vs. New: The Descent of Publications Into Mediocrity

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I’ve had the good fortune of obtaining, over the years, a few choice issues of old magazines and other publications, and it is irresistible to compare the modern version of those publications with their descendants. Some of these more technically oriented publications like QST and CQ have been around for a long time indeed, with QST going back around 100 years, and CQ having been around for fifty or more.

One thing that becomes glaringly obvious as soon as you open one of these old magazines is just how incredibly bad their descendants have become, at least from a technicians point of view.

Open a QST or CQ magazine from the 1960s, and you’ll find yourself quickly overwhelmed with circuit diagrams, schematics, mathematics, construction articles… If you had a basic knowledge of electronics, could read a schematic and follow instructions, you could build yourself one hell of a nice set of communications equipment just from the articles in the magazines. Not just transmitters and receivers, but linear amplifiers, antenna tuners, a wide variety of essential testing equipment… Just from reading the magazines you could build all of it if you had the ambition to do so.

There were articles about improving commercially made equipment, fixing quirks in existing equipment, modifying it to get better performance. Articles about converting military surplus equipment for ham use.

When’s the last time you saw an article in CQ or QST showing you how to build a complete receiver, a complete transmitter? A full blown linear amplifier? 

The list goes on, and on, and on… Articles explaining everything from basic radio theory for novices to material that would challenge the experts. It was all there…

Now… 

QST is, frankly, hardly worth the effort to open. It seems to be devoted almost entirely to “radio sports” (now there’s one of the most ridiculous uses of the term ‘sport’ I’ve ever heard), DX expeditions begging for money to fund a half million dollar trip to an island so small it only exists at low tide, and the ARRL’s attempt to turn amateur radio into a division of FEMA. About the only thing I read is The Doctor Is In column and the advertising.

CQ is a bit better, but not by much. At least it isn’t under the delusion that ARES is the only thing keeping the country from descending into chaos.

It’s sad to say, but I’ve learned more about electronics and radio from publications dating back to pre-World War II than I ever have from their descendants. 

It’s Fix It Day!

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Putting the MC-60 back together. Finally got around to tinkering with it. It started having intermittent issues a couple of months ago so I was using the Heil headset, which I prefer anyway so I was in no big rush to get this fixed. How the heck does something that’s been working fine for two and a half years suddenly develop a bad solder connection? You’d think it would have started acting up long before this.

Never know, though. Had to take apart the relay box on the remote control system we use to turn the outside Christmas lights on and off. We had that for two years and had no problems, now a capacitor on the circuit board had somehow worked itself loose enough to just fall off the board entirely… I suppose the solder joints were bad to begin with but just good enough to hang on and thermal stress finally forced them to let go.