We’ve been on a sort of weather rollercoaster here. We went from high temperatures in the low fifties to 91 degrees and humid on Tuesday, then back down to a high of about 60 on Wednesday, and today we’re supposed to be back up in the steam bath again today with temperatures up in the 90s. Sheesh. It’s been an odd spring.
It’s dry out there, folks. According to the statistics we’re reasonably close to normal rainfall, but actual ground conditions are not good. The entire state is under a burning ban and we’ve had wild fires popping up all over the state. Some parts of the state got some decent rainfall but it skipped around us. We’re going to have to start watering the vegetable beds here today or tomorrow if we don’t get some rain.
Now that I’m back on the bike again I’ve been down to the river at the old stone bridge about 4 miles from here and things look unusually dry down there as well. Water levels in the river are unusually low for this time of year. This branch of the Manitowoc River usually isn’t this low until mid to late summer.
The old stone bridge is a great spot to stop and get a drink and just watch nature. There’s almost no traffic on that road. I’ll stop there for ten or fifteen minutes, get out my water and stand on the bridge and just watch nature. There are at least two families of geese out there, a few muskrats swimming around, turtles and birds everywhere.
Here at the house the early spring flowers are popping up everywhere. The tulips are coming up now that the daffodils are coming to an end.
Out in the raised beds everything is coming up; onions, lettuce, carrots and beets and even the garlic is emerging now. The garlic we planted last fall didn’t make it through the winter, so we planted a different variety and hopefully we’ll get some by fall. We’ll see how that works out.
We talked to the tree service and let them know that it’s dry enough out here now that they can get in with their equipment so they’re going to be coming over next week to take out the two trees you see in the photo up there. The one on the right is a big old ash tree that’s starting to rot from the top down. Every time we get a good wind it sheds branches all over, some of them big enough to cause damage or injury if someone happened to be standing in the wrong place. The one on the left is an old maple that belongs to our neighbor. Almost the entire right side of the tree up in the canopy is dead so that one has to come down too. I hate to see trees coming down but these two are at the end of their lives and they need to come down before they do some serious damage or even hurt someone.
Removing the big ash gives us a lot more options for gardening as well. It shades out a huge amount of space in the yard making it difficult for growing anything except grass and weeds back there. Once that’s gone we’ll have a large area back there with full sun that give us a lot more opportunities for growing stuff. We have some general ideas about what to do with the space back there but nothing firm as yet. I’ll keep you posted.
With those trees coming down I also had to take down my OCFD antenna (off center fed dipole) and it’s a good thing I did because I found this:
Well, that’s not good, now is it? The antenna was just hanging on by a thread. Fixing something like this isn’t hard to do but it’s annoying. The problem area is only a few feet from the end so I could have just fudged it by cutting it off at the frayed bit and attaching that to the insulator. Cutting a couple of feet off of a 130+ foot long wire antenna isn’t going to screw it up too badly, especially since I use an antenna tuner anyway.
What caused the damage? The antenna was running to the cedar tree behind that small shed in that photo of the trees up there. It looks like my line sagged letting the wire down far enough so it was rubbing on the roof of the shed.
I really need to look into a different antenna configuration. That OCFD is just too long to fit completely in my yard. Fortunately both of my neighbors don’t mind if I run a line into trees on their property, but I need to try to figure out a different way of setting it up to try to keep it entirely on my property. I do have a vertical antenna which works fine, but that OCFD gives me more options. And it’s also my NVIS antenna for semi-local communications down on 75 meters and I don’t want to give that up.
Other stuff going on:
Now that the weather has turned nice I can finally finish up bringing down the dropped ceiling in the woodshop. I’ve been procrastinating on that because there is a lot of dust up there above those ceiling tiles and I wanted to put a couple of exhaust fans in the windows to suck it out of the house instead of having it plug up my air filters in the shop. That ceiling is getting bad. It’s been up for more than 20 years, and incorporates old fashioned fluorescent tube lights which are terribly energy inefficient. I already have new shop lights waiting to go in, LED versions which will use about a quarter of the energy and give better light.
I reviewed the LaserPecker 1 laser engraver a while back, and I now have its big brother, the LP2 sitting on the shelf and in use and I want to do a review of that. The hardware is very, very nice. It’s much, much faster, more powerful and has a lot more options, including a roller system that should be very useful. Unfortunately it shares the same major problem the LP1 had: the software is horrible. This is a professional quality engraver that is badly hampered by amateurish cell phone based operating software. There is PC based software for the LP2 which is what I’ve been using which makes it easier to use, but the program riddled with bugs and odd quirks. It’s sad, really, because the LP2 is a fantastic gadget. I’ve been doing custom artwork and engravings for a craft brewer and pub owner in Milwaukee and it does a great job.
On the wood lathe side of things I’ve had a really nifty bowl hollowing system sitting around for months now that I’ve never had an opportunity to really talk about here, so I need to put that in the que one of these days.
And one of these days I want to talk about the “metaverse”. What’s his name over at “Meta” as they now call FaceScam, uh, excuse me, Facebook, has stumbled across an idea that is at least 25 years old and has been done before with varying degrees of success (and more often failure), they’ve stolen that, claimed it as their own, and is now are hyping up a storm. Meta’s “vision” of this metaverse is, frankly, silly, childish, badly implemented, laughably cartoonish and doesn’t even take into account basic human nature. It’s really kind of sad, to be honest. I’ve seen Meta’s “virtual world”, which they call Horizons, and to be honest it looks like a badly rendered version of The Jetson’s cartoon show from the 1960s. To call it cartoonish is insulting to cartoons
I want to talk about cameras too somewhere along the line. I want to talk about “cryogenic” tools… Egads, look at that list… Sigh… I’d better get to work.
Well, maybe I’ll get to work later. Right now it’s sunny out, warm, there’s a bicycle sitting in the garage waiting for me…
This is sort of a catchup post because I haven’t really had enough material to justify doing an update to the blog until now, so let’s get started.
It’s spring cleanup time. Or at least that’s what the calendar tell me. Outside, though, well, it’s been bloody cold and nasty. We had about only three days here where the temperature got above fifty. Mostly it’s been in the 40s, even dipping as low as the mid twenties at night. Not exactly my idea of April weather.
It’s a mess back there in the yard, alas. MrsGF and I have been working on cleaning up the debris left from the winter and it’s starting to shape up now finally. The old ash tree in my yard and the dying maple in my neighbor’s both have been shedding branches and bark all over. The smoke you see in the photo up there is because we lit the fireplace back there both to warm up and to deal with the twigs and sticks and bark that had come off the trees during the winter.
We’re probably going to do a major expansion of the corner garden in the photo up there. That’s prime growing area there in that corner. It faces the south west so it gets full sun almost all day long, with light being reflected off the white siding, and in that sheltered area it’s the first ground to thaw in the spring and the last to freeze in the fall, and it’s very well drained. We’re going to expand that area in a semicircle out past that post with the birdfeeder, and it’s going to extend along the right side of the house past the downspouts. That will more than double the amount of square footage we have there.
Back here hopefully within a couple of weeks that big tree will be gone. It looks relatively healthy but it really isn’t. It sheds branches like rain drops whenever there is a stiff breeze and up near the top of the tree it’s starting to rot where to large branches come together off the main trunk. It’s also an ash tree so I’m surprised the emerald ash borer hasn’t attacked it yet. If we don’t take it down soon a good wind storm will take it down for us. We already had a tree service come in to look at it, and as soon as it dries out enough for them to get their equipment in there without sinking into the ground it’s coming down, along with the neighbor’s dying maple.
Getting that tree out of there will also open up a large part of the yard to full sun so we can grow a lot more stuff. We aren’t quite sure what we’ll do with the area but we’ve been sketching out some preliminary plans for a large decorative feature. Maybe. Depends on how ambitious we get.
Antenna stuff: I finally got the new off center fed dipole up when we had a rare warm, sunny day. So I was up on the roof of the garage, then about 20 feet up a couple of different trees and, well, let’s just say it was an interesting experience.
Those of you who are amateur radio operators will undoubtedly note that it is not exactly the ideal configuration for an OCFD. It’s way too low to the ground, the two legs are running in a rather tight ‘V’ configuration instead of running out straight, etc. It’s only about 12 feet off the ground and it really should be something like 30 – 40 feet up. But you work with what you have. I don’t have a tower, don’t have tall trees, and I don’t have the space to string up a 140 foot long antenna in what is supposed to be the “ideal” configuration.
And guess what? Despite all of that, the antenna works just fine and dandy, thank you very much. According to the good ole boys I sometimes listen to down on 75 meters pontificating about antennas and other things, this antenna shouldn’t work very well in this configuration. Only it does. Since I put it up I’ve had contacts in California, the Carolinas, well, all over the continental United States and Canada, and according to PSK Reporter I’ve been heard in Europe and Australia as well.
Would it work better if it were in the “ideal” configuration, up above 30 feet with the legs extended properly? Probably. Don’t care. You work with you got.
Looks like I got this one up in time because my vertical antenna is now doing weird things. The thing got whacked by a fairly good sized branch from one of the trees and I think it knocked something loose so I’m going to have to pull that thing down one of these days and check that out.
Laser engraver: The nice delivery driver who brings me goodies from time to time just dropped off the Laserpecker 2 the other day. I’ve been looking forward to getting my hands on this one after playing with the Laserpecker 1 for a few months. I have the LP2 up and running and it is very, very, very nice. It is much more powerful than the original, much, much faster, offers much higher resolution. The version I have here comes with the roller system in the box on the right. That allows it to engrave cylindrical objects like water bottles and the like. And most interestingly of all, the roller mechanism can be reversed and turned into a drive mechanism for the LP2 allowing it to travel along a board or tabletop or other smooth surface to make continuous long engravings. I haven’t set up the roller system yet and I’m looking forward to trying it.
And best of all, for me anyway, it is no longer tied to a stupid phone app to run it. You can still use a phone app, but there is actual real PC software that will control this thing. It looks like the PC software gives much better control over the engraver than the phone app did. Best of all I don’t have to fiddle around trying to get artwork I make in Photoshop imported into the stupid phone app. I can do everything right on the computer now.
Unfortunately the PC software has some serious problems with it. It’s riddled with bugs, odd quirks, difficulties in connecting the PC to the LP2 and other issues. Most of those can be worked around but frankly the PC software looks like it was never properly tested before being released.
The LP2 is most definitely not cheap. I can see a hobbyist spending $250 on the Laserpecker 1 to do the occasional engraving on an art project. It’s a fun little gadget that works pretty well and at that price you don’t need to use it a lot to justify the expense. The Laserpecker 2 package that you see here with the roller system will set you back $1,200. IMO this pushes it well outside of the hobbyist level product. In order to justify that kind of expense you need to have a serious application for something like this.
Anyway, look for a full review of the LP2 in the near future.
And that’s about it for this time. Now if only the weather would start to warm up…
Way back in October we had a nasty thunderstorm roll through here that did some damage here. My much patched and cobbled together OCFD (off center fed dipole) antenna had come down again, my Gap Titan vertical had some minor damage to some of the vertical elements. All of my radio equipment was just fine but the storm did take out my primary computer down in the office/shop/radio shack/mad scientist lab. It’s power supply couldn’t deal with the rapidly fluctuating voltage fluctuations that included brown outs, surges and complete blackouts. We had a dozen or more of those in the space of just a few minutes. It didn’t actually start on fire but it sure did smell funny. And I lost two large capacity external hard drives as well. Fortunately all that data was backed up.
That computer was already giving some odd errors that seemed to indicate that the SSD was having problems and that the main memory might be going bad, so I already had a new replacement computer set up on the other workbench ready to go. I set up the new computer, started replacing all of the software that had been installed on the old one, got two new 10 TB external hard drives to replace the ones that had been lost, copied all my data back to those from the RAID array on the iMac up in the main office, recovered all of my photos from “the cloud” where they are backed up (they’re also backed up to two small, portable 1TB hard drives that are only connected to the system for backups. I don’t want to risk losing thousands of photos so I have a triple backup system, the cloud, plus two separate external hard drives. That may be paranoid but I know one person who lost all of her family photos and videos, all of the images of her kids, her late parents, everything. Ever since that happened to her I’ve been paranoid about backing up everything.).
Then I looked at my radio gear and, well, dear lord, what a mess. Everything was hooked up in haphazard fashion, cables were running everywhere, most of them unlabeled, it was almost impossible to reach the physical controls of the transceiver or anything else. I decided all of it needed to be torn down and set up to make it neater and easier to work with. So I took everything apart, cleared off the space on the bench where I was going to set it all back up and…
Well, thanks to procrastination, sheer laziness, and getting involved in other things for a time, it’s only just now, months later, that I have everything back up. A week ago we had some really nice weather with temps up around 60 so I spent the entire day outside fiddling with antennas. I got the vertical straightened out, mostly. I took down what was left of my old OCFD antenna and spent a large part of the afternoon climbing about 20 feet up two different trees to anchor the end points of the new OCFD (A Buckmaster that I picked up somewhere.) Then was up the ladder at the end of the garage to hang the massive balun that’s used to feed the antenna. That’s up at the peak of the garage roof. Good thing MrsGF wasn’t around that day or she’d have freaked seeing me up those trees and that ladder…
To make a long story a bit less long, here’s what the new setup looks like.
The wiring has been straightened out, I can actually reach all of the controls I need to reach. I finally have space to put my iambic paddle, that’s the chrome thing in front of the speaker with the red paddle like things on it. It’s used for sending morse code (CW). I have the Palstar tuner sitting up on an old monitor stand bolted to the bench, the amplifier is perched on a stand above the transceiver where I can reach it easily. Everything is now arranged so I can operate everything easily.
Then there was the software… These days it seems computers are everywhere and amateur radio is no different. A lot of what we do in amateur radio is now intimately linked to computers of one type or another.
The most important bit of software for me is Ham Radio Deluxe. Yes, I know, once upon a time I was not pleased with HRD and I made that fact known in posts here in the past. There was even a nasty scandal involving a one or more persons in customer support that I will not get into. That’s all changed. In the last few years HRD has worked very, very hard to fix the problems with the software and to improve customer support and HRD has become my primary piece of software not only for running the transceiver but also for logging contacts and operating in digital modes like PSK.
Downloading, installing and setting up HRD only took a few minutes. But then there was the question of the log of the contacts I’d made in the past. I lost the contact log I’d been keeping in HRD when the computer blew and, of course, I had neglected to make a backup. QRZ to the rescue. I’d had HRD set up to send all of my contact information to my log on QRZ.com. Downloading my log from QRZ and importing it into HRD only took a few minutes.
Getting some of the other software working was considerably more difficult but eventually I got all that working as well and I was back on the air.
I still have one issue I need to deal with and that’s Logbook of the World, LOTW. That’s the ARRL’s system of confirming contacts with other amateur radio operators. I log all of my contacts to QRZ.COM, eQSL, and LOTW. Those are ways of confirming to other amateur radio operators that a contact has actually been made. Personally I don’t care if I get a confirmation or not. But some people do because they’re trying to get certificates for specific achievements like having made contacts in all 50 states, or for various contests and things like that, and those contacts are confirmed by some service like LOTW or EQSL. One of the neat things HRD does is it will automatically upload contacts I make to all three services without me having to mess around with it. EQSL and QRZ both work just fine, but LOTW is a different story. It just doesn’t work and the error messages I’ve been getting don’t tell me exactly what the problem is. Until I can figure that out logging to LOTW is not going to be used. And since I don’t use it personally and don’t really like it in the first place, getting it working is going to be a low priority item.
Anyway, the system is back up and running and working. I even made a couple of contacts in North Carolina as soon as I had the antennas finished.
Well it was a wild ride on the commodities market this past week as corn hit $7.40 and soybeans hit $15.71. We haven’t seen prices like this in something like ten years or more, and a lot of people are puzzled by why the commodities prices have spiked up this high, this fast. There are no natural disasters or reports of extreme shortages that would cause this, so what’s going on?
It’s a combination of things that have made the markets a wee bit nervous. China is trying to rebuild its pig herds after they were decimated because of culling from African Swine Fever, so there is increased demand there. There are weather problems in parts of South America that are interfering with some corn production down there. USDA announced that US farmers are going to plant less corn this growing season. The reduction isn’t much, but enough to make people think it might make supplies tight. They think people are going to be driving a lot more this summer which is going to mean increased demand for gasoline which, in turn, means more demand for ethanol to meet the blending requirements.
So here we are with corn at 7.49 at the moment. Extended out into the future commodities prices get more reasonable, but not by much. July corn is sitting at 6.73 which is still high but not utterly horrible, and September corn is at 5.92
So, why should you be interested in corn prices? Because volatility in corn prices ripples through the whole economy. High corn prices mean it costs a lot more for the dairy, beef, chicken and pork producers to feed their cattle. That’s going to put pressure on consumer food prices across the board, not just dairy products and meat. High corn prices can force producers to look at other grains like wheat to substitute. That can push wheat prices up, increasing costs for flour, which increases the cost of baked goods. Well, you get the idea.
It also puts pressure on fuel prices. The government mandates that refiners blend a certain amount of ethanol into their fuels, and in the US the majority of that ethanol is made from corn.
Now the markets can absorb some of these increased costs, but not a lot and not for long, and sooner rather than later it’s going to result in increased prices on consumer products. So if corn prices stay this high for much longer, you’re going to see that rippling out into increased prices on food, fuel and other products that you buy yourself. Some companies like General Mills and a few others have already already announced that they’re going to have no choice but to start raising consumer prices. Wholesale beef prices have gone up about 33% already this past month.
And it isn’t just food. Just look at the craziness going on with lumber. And speaking of lumber…
What The Hell Is Going On With Lumber?
That’s a question a lot of people are asking because lumber prices have gone nuts. Prices on lumber have spiked up around 360% in just the past year. That is not a typo. 360% in one year. I was paying under $2 for 2×4 studs last year, now that’s up to around $7 each. MrsGF and I have pushed back plans to do a few remodeling projects here at the house because not only have prices skyrocketed, it’s hard to get materials even at those prices. I talked to one contractor who builds houses. he bid on building one house late last year at $350K and now the same house would be closer to $450K.
Why this abrupt spike in prices? It isn’t because there’s a shortage of trees or something like that. Nor are the people growing trees getting the money. They’ve seen only a 2% increase in the price they’re getting for the logs. It’s all the haulers, sawmills and processors in between that are the cause.
The claim is that it’s being caused by a labor shortage. They can’t find truck drivers, workers at sawmills, tree cutters, etc.
Herbicide and Plastic Shortages
As if corn and lumber prices weren’t enough to worry about, we’re also seeing shortages of herbicides, insecticides, fungicides and, believe it or not, plastics. Farmers are having trouble finding things like field drainage tile and the plastic wrap used to protect bales. There are reported shortages of glyphosate and some other herbicides, some fungicides and insecticides that are used to prevent weeds and protect crops.
What this all adds up to is considerable pressure to increase prices. Someone has to pay for all of these increased costs and in the long run that’s going to be us, the consumers. How bad those increases will be, well, I have no idea. It is going to depend on how long commodities prices remain high and how much of the cost increases the industry is willing to absorb before they have to raise prices. As I said earlier in this, a lot of companies have already announced price increases.
Dairy Pride Act
So, let’s talk about plant based “milk”. I didn’t really want to talk about things like almond milk and all that, but it’s in the news again thanks to the Dairy Pride Act being pushed by Sen. Baldwin from Wisconsin and a few other politicians.
The whole problem revolves around that one word, milk, and how it is defined. There are two real definitions of the word, one biological, and one legal. Biologically speaking milk is the scrections of the mammary glands from mammalian animals and which are used to feed their young. The legal definition is, well, here’s a direct quote from federal government regulations:
“Milk means the lacteal secretion, practically free from colostrum, obtained by the complete milking of one or more healthy cows, which may be clarified and may be adjusted by separating part of the fat therefrom; concentrated milk, reconstituted milk, and dry whole milk. Water, in a sufficient quantity to reconstitute concentrated and dry forms, may be added.”
You will undoubtedly note a lot of problems with the above. The most glaring problem is that it claims milk only comes from cows, ignoring the fact that goats, sheep, horses, oxen, even beavers, give milk. (Mmmm, beaver milk. Yum. Wasn’t there an old Monty Python joke about Peruvian beaver cheese?) (Sorry, my mind just flashed up an image of a farmer trying to milk a beaver. That’s just the way my brain works. It scares me sometimes. My brain, not beavers.)
So, here’s the problem. For years now certain companies have been selling nut, grain or bean based liquids as substitutes for dairy milk and calling the stuff milk. This is, technically, illegal. The US has very strict labeling requirements when it comes to food, and the government has gleefully gone after a host of companies and individuals who mislabel their products. But not when it comes to this stuff. For whatever reason the agencies responsible for food labeling accuracy have blithely ignored the mislabeling of these products, despite a considerable amount of pressure from the dairy industry to do something about it.
Now you might think this whole thing is silly, and you do have a point. But on the other hand the anger of the dairy industry is understandable as well. The dairy industry has spent many, many decades and hundreds of millions of dollars in advertising, propaganda, health claims, puffed up PR campaigns and other efforts to try to make its products appear to be healthy, good for you, pure and wholesome, and even essential. And then along come these upstarts trying to cash in on all of the work the dairy industry put into making milk look good, and claiming that their products are “milk” as well, and, well, they’re pissed.
Legally speaking, the dairy industry has a valid point. This stuff does not meet the legal definition of “milk”. US food labeling laws, if strictly interpreted, should make the labeling of this stuff as “milk” to be illegal. But the court system doesn’t seem to see it that way and has let this continue, so, well, here we are then.
Politicians from large dairy states like Wisconsin are upset about this as well because, well, let’s be blunt here. The only reason they’re upset is because the dairy industry is paying them to be upset. The dairy industry pumps huge amounts of money into the coffers of these politicians and their PACs. The result is this Dairy Pride thingie which basically says that you can only label actual milk as milk.
Will this actually go anywhere? I have no idea. If it passes, will it help the dairy industry? No. Won’t do a thing to help the dairy industry. Will it hurt the fake milk industry? Probably not. They’ll just come up with something else to call their stuff, pump a few more bucks into their advertising budgets, and that will be it.
Now, let’s see, what else did I want to babble about? There was some more stuff… Oh, amateur radio! Gads, almost forgot about that.
My OCFD (that’s an “off center fed dipole” for you non-radio people out there, a kind of antenna) came down again. That is a long wire antenna, about 130 feet long in total. It had snapped before and I’d repaired it and put it back up, but it snapped again now, so I figure that years of hanging in the air and flapping about in the wind has caused metal fatigue or something in the wires, so I didn’t bother fixing it again. It’s going to come down and I already have another one on order. Why not build my own? I could, but I did mention about the lazy thing, right? Why build one when I can buy one that’s probably going to be better than I could make myself.
Meanwhile I’m using a GAP Titan DX vertical antenna which has turned out to be way, way better than I’d hoped. I’ve had that one up for some time now and it works amazingly well. I had contacts with 3 Japanese stations in the space of about 10 minutes yesterday afternoon using less than 100 watts output, plus one or two in Europe and in other exotic places like Texas, New York, etc.
My woodworking and wood turning has come to a screeching halt recently because I’ve been spending a lot of time out in the gardens hauling compost, tilling up stuff, etc. We got the onions and garlic in but it’s still too early to put anything else out. The weather hasn’t exactly been warm here except for two days when it was in the mid 80s. Generally it hasn’t gotten much above 50 here, with night time temps pushing down into the mid 30s or even a bit lower. That hasn’t kept the tulips from blooming though as you can see from that photo up there.
But back to wood working to wrap this up. I really enjoyed making decorative lamps with resin and wood and want to do some more of those, so I’ve got more resin on order and that should be coming this week yet. The few “jumble” pieces I did as experiments with odd bits of wood cast into resin, well much to my surprise people really seem to like those for some reason so I’ll probably do a few more of those. But what I really want to make are more decorative lamps. Anyway, more about that when I get into that.
I don’t recommend equipment here unless it is something I bought and use myself and I find genuinely good. That’s the case with this, the Rocksolar battery and folding solar panel. I finally had a chance to give the Rocksolar battery pack and solar panel a good workout the other day and the whole package worked quite well. MrsGF was gone for the day and I was bored so I set up the FT-818 up on the front porch with the mag loop antenna, running off the Rocksolar battery, and tried making contacts on CW for a few hours, with it’s high intensity LED lights turned on just to give it an added load, and plugging a cell phone and my bike’s GPS/odometer into it’s USB charging ports to recharge them at the same time. I should add that just to make things more interesting I’d had the battery pack’s lights turned on for over eight hours the day before. The battery pack hardly even noticed the load. When I got sick of not making contacts (ah, the “joy” of QRP!) I gave up on that, dug out the laptop and switched to FT8 and finally made a few contacts. That got boring after a while (well, it was about 95 degrees out there) so I quit to retreat into the air conditioned house.
I threw the folding solar panel out on the ground and hooked it up to the pack to recharge it and that worked well too. About as easy as it gets. No need to buy charging controllers or extra cables, everything needed is included. Just plug it into the charging port on the battery pack and lay it out in the sun. After charging up a cell phone, running the lights, powering the FT-818, etc. the panel brought the battery up to full charge in about 3 hours according to the meter on the battery.
So overall I’m really rather pleased with the battery and the matching solar panel. It takes, the documentation says, about 9 hours to do a full recharge using the included AC charger, and about the same using the solar panel if you have full sun. Of course recharging with the solar panel depends on conditions. The documentation claims it will run the dual high intensity LED lights for 189 hours. Heat is always an issue with battery packs like this, so this one includes a cooling fan that kicks in automatically if it starts to get too warm. And it has a 200 watt AC inverter to power AC equipment. But it doesn’t provide a clean AC sine wave so it isn’t suitable for some AC equipment. It has 4 USB charging ports and 4 DC ports in addition to the 3 prong AC outlet.
So if you’re looking for a solar charged battery system to run your gear, take a look at the Rocksolar stuff. You can find it on Amazon. It isn’t exactly super cheap, though. This particular battery is going for $178 at the moment, and the folding solar panel is going for $165.
Lathe Going to Junk Yard
I’ve had it with that Harbor Freight lathe. The bearings are starting to go after just a few hours of use, it’s made of cheap stamped sheet metal that flexes and shudders and it’s just – just nasty.
This thing is basically an industrial accident waiting to happen. So it’s going, and is going to be replaced by a Delta mid sized lathe that’s made out of actual real steel and iron, with a motor that won’t stall all the time. Good lathes aren’t cheap. The new Delta is going to set me back about $800. But this Harbor Freight monstrosity has reached the point where it just isn’t safe to use any more.
We Got Bats
Now I like bats. They eat bugs and all that fun stuff. But I only like bats as long as they aren’t actually inmy house. Which they have been. We’ve had two of the little buggers in the house in the last three weeks, and, well, enough is enough. We’re getting a bat removal specialist in this week to figure out where they are, how to keep them out, put in bat excluders, etc.
Uh, I have a confession to make. I said I like bats. That’s a lie. I only say that because I’m supposed to say I like bats. I don’t. Bats really, really creep me out. I’m sorry, they just do. When I see a bat in the house I want to run and scream and hide.
Snakes, on the other hand, don’t bother me at all. I think snakes are kind of neat. Which is good because…
We Also Have Snakes
This little guy has a rather indignant look on his face because he was trying to get into the wax beans and MrsGF wasn’t going to put up with that. She grabbed him and put him in the flower bed and he sat there and pouted for about ten minutes before slithering off.
We have three of these guys hanging around. They’re garter snakes and they’re amazingly beautiful creatures. They’re harmless. Well, unless you’re a frog or a mouse or bug or something else they like to eat.
I suppose I should wrap this up with a picture of a flower because holy cow we got flowers this year!
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?
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.
Being stuck in the house “social distancing” (OMG I’m so bored) has some advantages, one of which is being able to get caught up on a lot of stuff. One of those things is the MFJ-8100K world band shortwave radio kit. That’s the little beastie you see in the photo below that I (ahem) stole borrowed from somewhere on the internet.
Damn, that’s pretty slick looking. It beats the heck out of what the average electronics kit looks like when it’s done. Most of them don’t even offer any kind of decent case. Whether it actually will look like this when it’s done remains to be seen because I haven’t actually built it yet as I write this. Instead of putting it together and taking some photos and talking about it after it’s all done, I’m going to do this live, so to speak, writing and photographing as I go along so you too can experience the joys and pains associated with putting something like this together.
I should warn you ahead of time that this could get pretty lengthy because I’ve done little more than just open the box and it is already looking like this is going to be a problem.
But let’s look at the basics a little more closely before we get started. It’s a world band shortwave receiver with 5 bands. They cover 3.5 – 4.3 mHz, 5.85 – 7.4 mHz, 9.5 – 12.00 mHz, 13.2 – 16.4 mHz and 17.5 – 22 mHz.
As for the basic design, this is a regenerative receiver, a design that dates back to, oh, the 1920s or so, and was quickly abandoned as soon as superhets were developed. And for good reason, as anyone who has ever fallen off their chair from the blast of noise if you tweak the regen just a tad too far and it goes into oscillation can tell you. About the only good thing regenerative receivers have going for them is a fairly low parts count and easy assembly. Well, that’s not really true. They can be decent receivers once you get used to their quirks, but with really high quality superheterodyne designs out there, why even bother with one of these? How did I even end up having this on the shelf in the first place? I don’t remember buying it. Do I have people breaking into the house and leaving me stuff instead of stealing it now?
The first thing I started wondering was why the heck is this thing so expensive?It’s going for $90, for heaven’s sake. And there is nothing exotic or hard to find in the electronics. While that variable capacitor is kind of pricey (that goes for about $20+ alone and I know that because I had to buy one of the things a few months ago) But other than that I think there’s maybe $10 worth of parts in the thing. I suspect that really fancy faceplate and heavy duty metal case probably costs more than the electronics inside does.
But let’s get on with this.
Opening the box and poking around.
This is what the promotional photos tells you is in the box.
First I should point out that this kit starting with the photos below is shown exactly as it came and while I assembled it. The box was still sealed and I hadn’t opened it until I started this. What it really looks like when you open the box is this:
Um, okay… Are those screws and nuts rolling around loose in the box? Yeah, they are. And not just screws and nuts and washers, we got electronic components floating around loose in there too. Oh, goodie.
Opening the box and finding components strewn about all over inside doesn’t exactly inspire confidence about the quality of a product. Whoever originally packed this thing and chucked in the little plastic bags holding the components hadn’t bothered to actually close up the plastic bags.
And as for the case, well, damn, that’s probably the best case I’ve ever seen for a kit in a long time. Beautifully finished, heavy steel, with an equally beautiful brushed polished steel faceplate.
You can’t get much better than that. See what I mean about the case probably costing more than the electronics? It’s – it’s shiny. Oooo
The rest of what was in the box looks like this:
As noted, most of the little baggies containing parts were open and had shed a considerable number of electronic components, screws, washers, etc. all over the inside of the box..
On the far right of the photo above you’ll see a strip of components held together with bits of yellow tape. Those are 3.3 uH inductors and those were not in the kit. I had to dig those out from my “Wall O’ Parts” because the kit wants one, and MFJ either thoughtfully failed to provide one because they figured I’d be getting bored by this time and needed to get up and stretch or something, or it got lost because of they left the baggies open. I expect I shall have to resort to the Wall O’ Parts several times as I try putting this sucker together. I’ve only just started to look at this and sort through parts and I’m already finding stuff missing, so I’m a wee bit irritated. There is nothing more upsetting than getting into an electronics kit and finding parts missing. Me, I have hundreds of components sitting on the shelf (well, if I can find ’em, that is) but the average person building this is not going to have that luxury and is going to be royally ticked off.
The circuit board looks reasonably well made and the parts locations are all nicely detailed. You could probably put it together without instructions if it weren’t for a few gotchas, like having to wind your own coil on a toroid.
Where’s the fecking Manual???
Now, the more sharp eyed amongst you might have noticed something missing from those photos up there. Where the heck is the manual/assembly instructions? Well, you don’t see it because there isn’t one. Instead of a manual there is a half sheet of paper telling me I need to download the manual from the MFJ website, giving me a URL to go to. So I go to the webpage as instructed and find a bad PDF of the circuit diagram which was so low resolution I couldn’t even make out the symbols or component labels. It looked like someone had almost deliberated fuzzed out all of the labels and component symbols, and the “manual” was actually a booklet in PDF telling me how to use the radio, not how to put it together. No assembly instructions. No readable schematic. Oh, goodie…
A search on MFJ’s site using its own search function turned up a reference leading straight back to the useless info I’d already seen. I finally ran a general search on Google and found the real assembly manual tucked away somewhere on MFJ’s site and I printed it out.
(Update 3/27/20: And now I can’t even find that website, for pete’s sake! I was going to put the link to the correct PDF in here as I edit this before posting it, and when I just tried I get a “page not found” error. MFJ is apparently upgrading its website and I can’t find it at all. Good job, there, MFJ. I didn’t keep a copy of the PDF, but at least I printed the thing out so I can at least take a stab at this. But anyone else wanting that booklet, well, it looks like you’re on your own.)
The manual itself (if you can find it) is actually pretty good. Sort of. Clearly written, mostly, with lots of detail, but sadly lacking in illustrations.
So let’s sling some solder and see what happens.
Now that’s interesting. Look at the 4 inductors up there. Notice anything different about one of ’em? Yeah, the third from the left is about half the physical size of the other three. The big three were supplied with the kit while the small one is my replacement and is about half the physical size, but it is the right specification according to the color codes and I put it on my tester just to double check, and it should be the right one. Is this going to be an issue? No idea at this point. All of the inductors I have in stock are the smaller size.
Also, more missing parts. Just found two resistors are missing. Look at this pic:
R3 and R6 were missing so I had to pull those off the shelf. Notice that they’re an entirely different color from the kit supplied one, R17. I use the generally more reliable metal film resistors (the blue ones) while the kit supplies carbon resistors (the tan ones). Now very, very rarely the type of resistor can make a difference, so I’m hoping that isn’t the case here.
Later – Missing parts list now sits at 1 missing inductor, 4 missing resistors, and 2 missing capacitors.
And now there’s an issue with one of the electrolytic capacitors.
C14 there next to the IC socket is, according to the instructions, supposed to be a 10 uF cap, but the kit supplies a 1 uF. Or at least I think that’s the one because the 1 uF is the only one left. Do I follow instructions and put in a 10, or use the 1 uF supplied? I finally pulled a 10 uF off the shelf and used that in the hopes that the instructions are right and the parts picker was wrong. (Later – Apparently the 10uF was the right choice because now that it’s done it works)
And speaking of IC sockets, and this applies to whenever you’re soldering a socket, use caution soldering the pins because it is very easy to apply a tiny bit too much solder and end up with solder bridges shorting out the pins. And it’s easy to do a bad joint as well. Double check under a magnifier.
Time to install the variable cap which is how you tune this puppy. And…
And the solder lugs on the cap are way too big for the holes in the circuit board. I could either drill the holes out, which I don’t want to do because the solder pads are none too large to begin with, or I could trim off the lugs. I finally trimmed the lugs off.
Above here I’m trying to mount the volume control and the regen control. They don’t make this easy either. We’ve gone from holes being to small to holes being way, way too big. Note how some of those holes at the top edge of the board have been double drilled, which makes them way too large for the solder lugs on the potentiometers that are supposed to fit in there.
And speaking of soldering, look closely at those solder pads on that board. It’s difficult to see in the photos but almost all of them seem to be covered with some kind of oxidation that makes it difficult for the solder to adhere. I’ve been using a bit of a scotch brite pad held in a needle nose pliers to buff them before I solder anything.
Then there’s the band switch. The switch has 8 pins, the board has 7 holes. Hmm… Let’s look at the manual. Ah, here we are… Oh, nothing. Says nothing about what to do about the missing hole. Oh, goodie.
I ended up bending the extra pin out of the way and keeping my fingers crossed that it wouldn’t get mad at me. (Later – Don’t know if I was supposed to do this or not but the thing is working this way.)
That circle thing with the white wire wound around it is a coil made by winding 8 turns of wire around a provided toroid core. Some people get a bit weird about winding their own coils. I’m not sure why. A small one like this is a piece of cake. They don’t get nasty until you start having to make ’em with, oh, 30 or 40 turns.
And there it is, ready for testing. It runs off 9V and supposedly a 9V battery will last for weeks and weeks as long as you remember to turn it off. I don’t have a 9V battery, tho, so I hooked it up to my DC power supply and…
Damn, I wish my upload speed wasn’t about 15K baud so I could put up a video of this, but the damned thing actually works! I won’t go through all of the alignment procedures because they will bore you to tears. This is, believe it or not, an actual, working SW receiver. Not a very good one, granted, but it will pick up something.
But then there’s this
This is it fully assembled, mostly. You will note that I don’t have the knobs on. There is a reason for that. MFJ neglected to include the collar nuts you need to actually attach the front properly, anchor the controls down so I can put the knobs on. Now there were indeed collar nuts in the box. You probably saw that in the photos from the box opening. But they were for control shafts about twice the size of these. Sigh… Thanks again, MFJ. Complete assembly is going to have to wait until I can get the right sized nuts.
Okay, this has gone on long enough. Let’s wrap this up. What’s the overall assessment of this beastie?
Well, on the plus side it looks good. It is, amazingly enough, a working radio receiver, although not what I’d call a good working radio. It wasn’t hard to put together. Just about anyone who knows which end of a soldering iron to grab could put this together. Well, mostly, with the application of a bit of common sense. And that case sure looks cool.
But then we come to the negative side.
First problem is the price. They’re getting $90 for this thing, my friends. While the Elenco AM/FM receiver I put together a couple of weeks ago is far more sophisticated, much more sensitive, has an actual amplifier so it can drive a speaker and not just headphones, and sells for half the cost of the MFJ kit at about $44. Granted, it doesn’t come with the fancy case, but you can always cobble together something to throw the Elenco into. And when you’re done with the Elenco you’ll have a radio you can actually listen to, whereas the MFJ is never going to be more than a curiosity for most people.
Then there are the missing parts. A half dozen or so resistors, two capacitors, an inductor, the collar nuts to hold the controls in place, all missing. I don’t know if this was a problem with the person who packed up the parts in the first place, or if they were lost somehow because the bags weren’t closed, or what. My guess is that they were never in there to begin with, because while parts did spill out, the box was sealed and there were no openings for anything to fall out.
As I said before missing parts isn’t much of a problem for me, but for someone who doesn’t have a “Wall O’ Parts”, like some kid doing this for a STEM project or someone who just enjoys occasionally tinkering with kits, this could be a real problem. Sure, you could probably email MFJ and they’d probably replace the parts. Eventually. Maybe. But come on, they should have all been in there in the first place.
Then there’s the manual. Or, rather, the lack of one. What’s the matter with you people over at MFJ? You could throw an 100 page product catalog into the box but you couldn’t be bothered to run off a 30 page manual on the office printer and throw that in too? And then even worse, direct me to a website to find the manual that doesn’t exist? Or to utterly useless schematics?
I’m really disappointed with this because this could have been a really good kit if MFJ had bothered to just just be a little more careful.
So, because of the high price, the missing parts, the missing manual, etc. I can’t score the 8100 very high. On a scale of A to F, where A is excellent and F is abysmal, I’d give the 8100 kit a D+.
When I started moving my stuff from the office upstairs to the new workspace in the basement I knew I was in trouble when I plugged in the laser printer, turned it on, and the lights all went dim. So the electrical contractor got here at 6:50 AM the other morning and some two hours later I had the radio shack/shop rewired with new circuits and outlets. The electrical in this space was a bit scary. I think the whole room was connected to a single 15 amp circuit. I was running my radios and other equipment off heavy duty extension cords running into my woodshop and, well, it was just nasty all the way around. The grand total for all of the work and parts ran about $500 but it’s going to be worth it, for safety alone if not for convenience.
So now I have two, 4 outlet 120V boxes, each on its own circuit, plus a 220V outlet over on the radio bench, and two new 120V circuits for the workbench.
Why call in a contractor instead of doing it myself? Because I know where my areas of competence are. I worked on a farm and in building maintenance for years and I can do just about anything – framing, finish carpentry, drywall, installing doors, plumbing, laying tile… But electrical? I’ve had no training or experience in doing household electrical, and considering how dangerous it can be, well I’m going to let a trained electrician do that.
Tubes & Stuff
So eldest son shot me a text Friday asking me if I wanted a vacuum tube tester, free, and I texted back “r u nuts? yeah i want toob thingie!” or something to that effect and he showed up last weekend with this:
The thing with free equipment is that it’s often going to be something useful only for parts, if that, but in this case it turned out to be a genuine, working vacuum tube tester. Oh, it has a few issues. The tube sockets have some corrosion that needs to be cleaned up and it could use a good cleaning in general. The insulation on the cords is brittle so they need to be replaced, but other than that the thing actually seems to work and inside it actually looks almost new.
I haven’t done much with equipment with vacuum tubes of late, but I never know what’s going to show up around here, so this could come in handy.
Tinkering with Stuff
I am building a radio receiver. No, not The Great Radio Fiasco Project. That project is more or less on hold until I can get some parts that seem to have become unobtanium for some reason. I may end up having to change the design. No, this is an Elenco AM/FM receiver kit. Best of all it was free! Well, maybe it was? I found it in a box of junk I was sorting through as I continued the apparently never ending project of cleaning out the basement.
I don’t remember ever buying this thing and have no idea where it came from, but it’s in my basement, in my box, so I’m assuming it’s mine, so I’m going to put the thing together and see what happens. It’s a fairly elaborate little radio and from time to time the instructions seem to go wandering off into fantasy land. I suspect that the instructions that were in the box were written before the circuit board was changed and no one bothered to correct the instructions. So that makes things a bit interesting.
Also in the same box of junk I ran across an unopened multiband shortwave receiver kit distributed by MFJ. I don’t remember ever buying that either, and I would remember since that one costs about $80 and I darn well wouldn’t have spent that much. I suspect both were in a boxes full of “valuable assorted radio parts” (i.e. junk) I picked up for next to nothing at a hamfest, and the box just got shoved on a shelf and forgotten about before I bothered to sort through it.
Over the weekend it hit 50 degrees. Almost all the snow melted, motorcycles were out on the streets, a very pleasant weekend all around. Tomorrow it’s supposed to hit 55 degrees!
So, of course, today it snowed. Sigh… I know Wisconsin in known for having some odd weather, but this is ridiculous.
I am sure you heard about covid-19. You’d have to have been living in a cave on Mars to not have heard. Wisconsin has only 6 confirmed cases, but the potential of it spreading, and spreading quickly, has everyone concerned. At least one school district has closed, the UW system is extending spring break and advising students not to travel, companies are canceling employee travel. The state basketball tournaments are starting up this week and WIAA just announced that general spectators will not be allowed, only the teams and necessary personnel and a small pool of sports reporters will be permitted.
I want to think a lot of this is hype and paranoia, but, well, I’m right smack dab in the middle of the category of the highest risk for death if I catch this sucker, so yeah, I’m a wee bit paranoid. MrsGF and I are supposed to go to the symphony this weekend, but sitting elbow to elbow in a theater full of hundreds of coughing, sneezing, hacking people for two hours? Uh, no.
What I really find troubling is the huge amount of misinformation being spread, some of it through ignorance, but a lot of it being spread deliberately. Some of it by our own government. I wasn’t going to spend a lot of time talking about this because, well, let’s face it I don’t have that many people who read this so it isn’t going to make a dent in things, but if it helps correct some of the stuff floating around, I suppose I should go into this a bit.
First, there is no cure for covid-19. None. Zip. Zilch. Zero. There is no drug, no “natural remedy”, no combination of herbs, no “silver” concoction. None. If anyone is trying to sell you such a thing, it is an outright scam.
Second, there is no magic herb or substance or “essential oil” or vitamin or magic crystal or “holy oil” that will somehow keep you from catching the virus. Again, if anyone tries to sell you such a thing, it is an outright scam.
Third, there is no vaccine “just around the corner”. Yes, a vaccine is being worked on and there are some promising candidates. But it will be months before one is generally available and even longer before it can be mass produced.
So what can you do?
Wash your hands. A lot. The best preventative is hand washing. Wash your hands using soap and running water. This doesn’t kill the virus, but it does physically remove it from your hands, which is just as good. Do not touch your face except immediately after you’ve washed your hands. A primary method of getting the virus into your system is touching your eyes, nose or mouth.
Do hand sanitizers work? Yes, but only if they’re the right kind. They have to have at least 60% alcohol content. Non alcohol based sanitizers are out there, but no one knows if they actually work or not. The so-called “all natural” hand sanitizers don’t work at all. They’re little more than hand lotion.
Face masks – there is a lot of debate about whether they work or not, and the consensus is that they don’t do much to keep you from getting the virus. They can prevent people who already have it from contaminating others, it seems. The problem, though, is that most of the masks I’ve seen people wearing are dust masks intended to keep dust from getting into your lungs, and were never intended to keep out viruses to begin with. Most people also don’t know how to wear them properly. Heck, I’ve seen a lot of people who have them pulled down to expose the nose. If you do that you might as well not bother at all. Same for guys with beards. If you have a beard, don’t bother. If you can’t seal the mask against bare skin, it isn’t going to work at all.
Social Distancing – what the hell is social distancing? It’s a polite term for keeping the hell away from people. Do not shake hands, do not hug, do not kiss people. Try to keep at least one meter (three feet) away from people if you do have to interact with them.
Avoid crowds. Do not attend sporting events, concerts, meetings or other events where large numbers of people have gathered. I don’t know about where you live, but here most such events have been canceled or postponed anyway. (Although a seriously troubling number have not and are still scheduled). And yes, that goes for church services too. No, being in a church is not going to somehow protect you from getting the virus despite what some utterly irresponsible ministers and priests have been saying. Remember that theprimary spreaders of the virus in South Korea when the outbreak first began there were churches. Even the Pope canceled most of his public appearances for heaven’s sake. And if you’ve booked a cruise on a plague ship (ahem, excuse me) cruise ship, well, you’re on your own.
If you’re sick, stay home. About 80% of the people who get it have symptoms that are relatively mild and a lot of people will be tempted to continue with their normal daily routine. And thus risk spreading this to even more people. I realize this is damn near impossible for a lot of people, but the primary way this is spread is by people with relatively mild cases going out in public. Do you really want to be responsible for infecting your friends, your family and your neighbors with this?
Anyway, enough of this. I’ve been babbling long enough.
MrsGF and I were coming back from her sister’s place and we saw this. The photos don’t do it justice. That sunset almost looked like an atomic bomb going off, lighting up the whole horizon with that single shaft of light extending up. We had to pull off and just stare at it for a while because we’d never seen anything like it before.
Sunsets and sunrises (when we can see them, usually the cloud cover is too thick) have been spectacular of late. I imagine that’s due at least in part to so much particulate matter being in the atmosphere at the moment because of all of the forest fires we’ve been having worldwide.
As far as the weather goes, well, it’s winter, and we have some snow, as you can see from the photos, but it has been, well, weird. Just like 2019 was. Temperatures have been well above normal this winter. So much so that the ice fishermen have been getting nervous because they can’t get out on the lakes. This late in the season the lakes and rivers should have enough ice that you can at least walk out on the ice, and in some cases even drive a vehicle out. But you couldn’t pay me enough money to make me risk walking out on the ice this year. Most of the rivers and streams are still mostly open with almost no ice at all.
Ice fishing is a Big Deal around here. Generally as soon as we get a couple of inches of ice on a lake you’ll see little huts springing up or guys in cold weather gear huddling over holes drilled in the ice hunting for elusive panfish like bluegills and crappies. They endure it because one, they think it’s fun, and two, well, if you’ve ever eaten a freshly caught pan fried bluegill or perch, you know why they do it.
But The big event around here in mid winter is sturgeon season on Lake Winnebago. During sturgeon season there are thousands of people out on that lake, with hundreds of cars, 4 wheelers and snowmobiles, hundreds of ice shanties full of people huddling over holes in the ice hoping to get themselves one of the biggest fish you can get in Wisconsin. These things get to be five, six feet long or even bigger, and can be well over a hundred years old.
But we need ice for that, and we don’t have any. Or at least not enough ice that you can trust it. Unless we get a cold snap that really freezes things up, I’m not sure if there is going to be much of a sturgeon season this year.
While it may be winter outside, MrsGF’s rose in the living room is blossoming again.
I have no idea how she does it, but I’m not complaining. Having roses growing here in the middle of January is huge fun.
The Great Radio Fiasco ProjectUpdate
Considering I’m lazy and about the most unambitious person around, I bet you figured I’d sort of conveniently “forgot” about that whole thing, didn’t you? Ha! I wish! Sometimes I’m more stubborn than lazy, though, and when I get a bug about something I get a bit obsessed, and that’s what happened here.
Anyway, that hasn’t been going very well because of stuff like this –
One of the first things I discovered when I started doing some research was that I pretty much had none of the parts I was going to need. I may have had hundreds of diodes, capacitors, resistors, potentiometers, transistors and other goodies sitting on the shelf from other projects, but it seemed that none of them were what I needed for building any kind of radio receiver except for the most basic of items. So once I decided more or less on what kind of radio I was going to build, I had to order some parts. And as you can see above, sometimes it doesn’t go so well.
The main project is going to be a multi-band shortwave receiver, but I was also going to build an old fashion 1960s style AM transistor radio which uses a ferrite rod wound with wire as an antenna. What you see in that photo above is what was in the package when I opened it. Sigh… Don’t get me wrong, though. I order a lot of parts, and the vast majority of the stuff gets here in perfect condition. But every once in a while something like this happens, and all you can do is just sigh and go on. It doesn’t pay to try to do anything about this in this case. I only paid about $10 for them, the company is in China, and any chance of getting a refund or replacement is so slim it’s not worth the effort. On the plus side one of the rods is relatively undamaged with just a chip on the end, so it will work well enough for the AM radio.
But it does help to illustrate one of the problems I’ve been having, which is tracking down various parts. The days of being able to go to a local electronics or radio repair shop, or even Radio Shack, and picking up a couple of capacitors or an opamp or whatever are long gone. While I still do have a local Radio Shack (how I don’t know, but I do), it only carries the most common types of components, and I already got those by the dozens.
I need a germanium diode for one radio circuit I’ve been tinkering with. Do I have one in those boxes on the shelf with hundreds and hundreds of diodes? Of course not! The one I need is the one I don’t have, of course. And, well, you generally can’t order just one. So I ended up spending something like $15 to buy 50 of the dopey things. It’s like the robot vacuum cleaner I repaired a few years ago. I needed one tiny, tiny screw that held on the side sweeper brush. That was all that was left to fix it, just attach that stupid brush. Do you think I could find that damned screw? No. No one locally had it. I checked hardware stores, Radio Shack, auto parts stores, no one had one even close. I started looking online and found I wasn’t the only one having trouble find it. I finally did get one, but in the end the only sources I found for it sold them only in lots of 500. So I ended up paying something like $25 to get a single screw, and I now have a whole bag full of 499 tiny, tiny screws sitting in a closet somewhere that I’ll never use for anything else.
The same thing is often true of electronic components. You can’t get just one or two, you have to buy in bulk sometimes, and you end up paying $25 or $40 for a whole box of parts just to get one $0.75 component. The end result is that while the cost of the individual parts for this project is pretty cheap, I’ve ended up spending a significant chunk of money on this already because I often can’t get just one or two, but have to order in bulk.
But enough with boring you with that. Once I get further along with the radio thing I’m going to split it off to its own web page so it doesn’t clutter up the blog.
It’s been a while since I talked about what has been going on in the ag industry. And I’ve probably been babbling far too much about radio and other non-farming/gardening stuff lately anyway, so let’s take a look at the ag sector. And I’ll slip some radio stuff in at the end that you can ignore if you want.
USMCA (NAFTA 2.0) Passes the House
As I mentioned in a previous post the trade deal to replace NAFTA is finally done and being considered by Congress.. The House has passed one version of it now, with some minor changes, but it has yet to be dealt with by the Senate. It’s not likely it will get passed this year yet (it’s already Dec 21 as I write this) and considering what is going on in D.C., it’s anyone’s guess as to when the Senate will be taking it up. Despite all of the hype coming out of Washington, right now the agreement looks like it is going to be at least as bad as the original NAFTA was. There are some improvements in the protection of workers in Mexico and environmental protections, but other than that, it doesn’t really make many changes. It’s basically NAFTA 1 with a bandaid on it. The claims that it will create jobs for tens of thousands of people and boost the US economy are completely unrealistic. This is another of those deals where the only people who benefit from it are the big corporations and a handful of special interests, but that’s par for the course with agreements like these. The original NAFTA wiped out tens of thousands of jobs, drove a lot of US manufacturing into Mexico, and disrupted the Mexican economy, especially in rural areas. This one probably won’t be as disruptive, but it isn’t going to help much. You can go look up the analysis of the treaty yourself, but right now it looks like it is going to have little or no positive effects on the US economy, and might even be worse for us than the original treaty was.
Trade War Update
It looks like things might finally be calming down a bit with China on the trade front. The administration has been claiming agreements have been made and that China is going to start buying massive amounts of soybeans and other agricultural products from the US. And, well, no, they aren’t. At least not the quantities that they’re claiming in D.C. Some of the numbers I’ve been seeing are simply ridiculous. Things are getting better, yes, but don’t look to China to start importing massive quantities of anything from us. There might be some buys, yes, but I suspect most of those are going to be little more than token purchases with few exceptions.
China lost half of it’s entire pig production because of African Swine Fever. It seems to have finally gotten the outbreak under control, but it’s going to be years before things are close to normal. Most of the soybeans China had been buying from the US was going to pig feed. So it’s unlikely it will be making massive soybean buys to feed a pig herd that doesn’t exist any more.
One thing that has improved hugely for US agriculture is China increasing the amount of pork and chicken. Because of ASF China’s lost half of its pig production, which has caused food prices to increase and there is a shortage of protein. So China has increased its buys of US pork and it recently granted permits and licensing to Tyson to sell US chicken in China. While this will certainly help the pork and chicken producers in the US, this is going to be a temporary bump that will only last until China can rebuild it’s pig herds.
African Swine Fever
ASF continues to be a major problem not only in China, which lost over half of its pigs, but also throughout South East Asia. Serious outbreaks are going on in Vietnam and the Philippines. In Sumatra it’s killed about 33,000 pigs. It’s also been found in North and South Korea, Mongolia, Cambodia, and Myanmar, as well in eastern Europe and parts of Africa. Some people feel it’s only a matter of time before it hits Australia despite it’s extremely strict regulations. For some reason people keep trying to smuggle pork from the ASF contaminated countries into other places. Smuggling is an ongoing problem in the US. We confiscate tons of sausages and other pork products from these countries that airline passengers try to smuggle through in their luggage, and even whole shiploads of pork from them. Australia confiscated 32 tons of pork products just from passengers and mailed packages alone in the last half year, half of which was contaminated with the virus. The virus itself hasn’t been seen in the U.S. yet, but it is in the wild pigs in Europe which is making everyone over there more than a little nervous. The US has a pretty good wild pig population, and while they aren’t a big issue (yet) here in Wisconsin, the DNR has issued an advisory to hunters with just about any kind of hunting license to shoot wild pigs, no “season”, no bag limit, just shoot ’em. They’re a huge problem in a lot of states, causing massive amounts of damage. Plus they carry a lot of diseases. If ASF ever gets into the wild pig herd here we’re going to be in trouble.
It was a Rough Year in the Midwest
That’s not one of my photos over there. MrsGF’s surgeries and other things kept me from getting out with the camera, but that is pretty much how it looked around here this year, especially at harvest time. Water everywhere. We officially had the wettest year ever. According to one report I read the longest dry spell we had without rain was three days. That sounded a bit odd to me so I started digging through some of the weather data and it isn’t far from the truth.
By anyone’s standards, it wasn’t a very good year for midwest farmers. Almost non-stop rain made it difficult to get anything done. There were delays in planting, delays in harvest, reduction in yields, all because of the wet weather. Around here there are still a lot of soybean and corn fields that haven’t been harvested at all because of the rain.
Corn prices never broke $4, although soybean prices weren’t horrible. But on top of relatively low corn prices, we had propane shortages which made getting the corn dried difficult and expensive.
The only bright spot was that milk prices finally came up to a fairly decent level for the first time in years. Class III milk is currently sitting at over $19 on the commodities market, but it doesn’t look like it will stay there much longer. January and February prices are down to $17 on the futures market.
As if farmers didn’t have enough to worry about, finding employees continues to be a major problem both here in Wisconsin and in the ag business throughout the country. And as if that isn’t bad enough, an increasingly serious problem is where the heck are your employees going to live even if you do find some? This is a problem for almost every employer around here, not just farmers. Chances are good that employees aren’t going to be able to afford to live anywhere reasonably close to where they actually work. There is virtually zero housing in this town that would be affordable for the average low income worker. And it’s not going to be getting better any time soon. The town is putting in a new subdivision, and is quite proud of itself for doing so, but it isn’t going to actually help the average factory or farm worker around here because all of those new houses are going to be in the $180K to $250K range. What we really need are apartments that rent for about, oh, $500 – $600 a month, not houses that will have $1,500 to $2,000 a month mortgage payments.
What’s happening here is that we have a larger and larger population of people who live here, but don’t actually, well, live here, if that makes any sense. Yes, their houses are here, but their entire lives are up in the Fox Valley area about 20 miles away (the cluster of cities and towns up in the corridor that runs from Appleton, Neenah, Menash, and extends up to Green Bay). They can’t afford a house up in the Fox Valley any more, but they can afford one here. So while this may be their residence, their entire lives are centered around the Fox Valley. They buy groceries there, go to restaurants up there, meet their friends up there, do all their shopping up there. So they may live here, but they don’t actually live here. They don’t patronize local businesses, don’t send their kids to school here, don’t participate in local social events, and aren’t really part of the community.
So not only do we not have housing that is affordable by the average person bolting together snowblowers for $14 an hour, we have an increasing percentage of the population of the town who aren’t really engaged with the community at all. Their residences are here, yes, but they live their lives up in the Valley. They almost totally disengaged from the community they live in. And as a result we no longer have a clinic, no longer have a real grocery store, no longer have a pharmacy… Well, you get the idea.
It’s especially difficult for the immigrant community who make up the majority of labor in low paying jobs like farming, manufacturing (they like to talk about how well manufacturing pays – yeah, right. Starting wages at the snowblower place are about $12.95 an hour with no benefits and technically they don’t even work for the company, but for a “temp” agency.) They’re glad to get the jobs and the employers are glad to have them because they can’t find anyone else to do the work. But where are they going to live?
I’ve been talking for a while about moving all my electronics gear, the radio equipment, etc. down into a new shop/radio shack in the basement so MrsGF can take over our shared office so she’ll have room for her own projects. She enjoys sewing, making things, and would like to do quilting, but her existing workspace is a tiny, virtually unheated room upstairs, and there isn’t the room for it up there. Plus its cold in the winter up there. And even with her new knees I don’t want her to have to go up and down stairs a lot. So she’s going to be taking over the office area and I’m moving into the basement.
Now that she’s pretty much recovered from the 2nd knee replacement, I’ve started moving the “big stuff” down there. I have my primary computer down there now (I actually have space for the drawing tablet now!), the big TS-990, the antenna tuner, etc. Much to my surprise, I actually remembered how all of the cables hooked up and when I fired it all up everything actually worked! First time that’s ever happened.
I still need to do a lot of work down there. I have walls that still need to be painted. I still don’t have the electrical straightened out. I need to add at least two outlet boxes on the wall by the computer and radios, plus I need a 240V outlet there for the amplifier. Not sure why because I haven’t used the amp in years, but would be nice if I could.
I didn’t show it in the photos because it’s a huge mess at the moment, but behind me and to the left of that photo is my work bench which is covered with misc. parts, test equipment, tools, bits and pieces of RaspberryPi computers and accessories and breadboards where I’m testing radio circuits intended for the receiver I’m building. And that leads us to…
Update OnThe Great Radio Fiasco Project
I bet you thought I conveniently ‘forgot’ about that project because I am the seventh laziest person in the state (hey, I’ve gotten better, I used to be third). I haven’t, though. I’m still puttering along with this thing, even though I haven’t even fired up a soldering iron yet. Mostly I’ve been doing research. There’s no point in reinventing the wheel. Considering that radio has been around for like a gazillion years, someone, somewhere, must have already published plans for a radio receiver that I could steal (cough cough) borrow, right?
I had some basic criteria in mind when I started this. First it had to be as simple as possible, something that just about anyone who, unlike the young woman in the photo up there, knows how to use a soldering iron without suffering third degree burns can put together. Second, it had to use easily available parts, stuff the average person could get from Amazon or one of the parts suppliers like Mouser. Third, it had to be cheap. I want to encourage people to experiment and build stuff, not blow the family’s entire grocery budget for the month on exotic electronics parts. Fourth, it was going to use “old school”, so to speak, construction techniques and components. No printed circuit boards, no ICs, no SDRs, no surface mount devices, etc.
And fifth and possibly most important, it had to be a genuinely useful radio receiver that people could actually use. There are dozens, even hundreds of plans out there of various types for things like crystal radios and one transistor receivers and other nonsense that… Well, okay, so they might work, under absolutely ideal conditions, with a great deal of fiddling around, and if you live right next door to a 100,000 watt transmitter. But in the real world none of those actually work very well, if at all.
Anyway, I’m looking at various ideas and sketching some things out and doing some experimenting, and hopefully in a short (short? Ha!) time I’ll have something to show for all of this. Hopefully something that actually works. What’s been discouraging is that the schematics and projects I’ve found often contain such basic, fundamental mistakes that it makes me believe that the author never actually built the project himself and just, well, stole it, to be blunt, from someone else who also hadn’t actually built it either. I’ve been seeing things like electrolytic capacitors installed backwards, emitter and collector pins on transistors reversed, wrong pinouts shown on ICs like opamps and similar basic errors that should have been caught if anyone had bothered to actually look at the schematics.