Farm Catch Up: Corn Goes Nuts, Lumber Goes Insane, Dairy Pride Act Back, Herbicide Shortages, And Stuff

Let’s Start with Corn

Photo by Adonyi Gu00e1bor on Pexels.com

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.

Who wants to sit in a basement workshop when stuff like this is outside?

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.

Corn Hits $6, New Windows, New Wood, New Laptop and the ever popular More Stuff!

Corn futures prices have been flirting with $6 for weeks now and prices finally pushed over that line when I got up this morning and started reading the news. As of right now May corn is sitting at $6.32. Soybeans were up to $14.78 and I wouldn’t be too surprised to see it hitting $15. We haven’t seen corn prices this high in a long time. If I remember right we haven’t had prices this high since we had a serious drought quite a few years ago.

While high corn and bean prices are good for the farmers who grow the stuff, they’re bad for just about everyone else, and if prices stay this high for more than a short time it is going to have effects that will ripple through the whole economy. Dairy farms are starting to cull their herds already because of high feed prices, as are beef ranchers and hog operations. That could potentially result in higher food prices for you and me. It could put more pressure on wheat, forcing that up causing increases in prices for anything that uses cereal grains like bread. It could even cause significant increases in fuel prices.

Weather

Holy cow it’s been cold up over here in Wisconsin for the last few days. As anyone who’s lived in Wisconsin for more than a few years can tell you, we’re all a bit paranoid about weather up here, and for good reason. We all figure Mother Nature is a sadistic b**ch and is out to get us. She lulls us into a false sense of security with a period of abnormally nice weather, and then BAM, she nails us with something nasty.

So after a couple of days with temps up in the high 70s a few weeks ago, she brought the hammer down and nailed us with icily cold weather ever since, with nighttime temps dropping down to the mid-20s and daytime temperatures rarely getting above 45 or so. We’ve had light snow for a few days, including last night. They had a bridge or two in Green Bay closed for a while because of icing.

So it’s a good thing we finally got the new windows in eh?

This project actually started late last summer when the storm window in the office was literally sucked out of its frame during a high wind. Turned out that what we thought was a solid window frame wasn’t so solid. It had been slowly rotting away behind the paint so we didn’t know how bad it was until the damage was done. So we decided to replace all the office windows and the one in the dining room.

Now usually it doesn’t take long to get new windows made, a week or two at the most. But we hadn’t taken into account the fact that 2020 was far from a normal year. Between shortages of construction materials, disruptions at the factory from sick or quarantined employees and everything else, it was mid November before the windows finally came in and by that time the weather was so bad we couldn’t do the installation.

Anyway, they’re finally in, look good and our contractor, Russ, did his usual excellent job dealing with the situation.

We’d been considering remodeling the main bathroom as well, but we’re going to be putting that off until next year because Russ told me he’s not sure he can even get the stuff we want in any kind of reasonable amount of time. He’s had a bathtub/shower unit on order since January for another job and that won’t be coming in until June. So we’re going to wait until things calm down a bit before going forward with that project.

New Wood

Friends and family know that I’m always looking for interesting bits of wood, so MrsGF’s sister and her husband showed up this weekend with this in the back of their van, some neat looking boxelder from a tree they took down a few weeks ago.

Boxelders are considered a weed around here. They’re extremely invasive, tend to grow fast and die young, and the wood isn’t really good for much. Even healthy looking trees will turn out to be rotting away on the inside. But I’ve seen some really spectacular pieces turned from boxelder so I’m looking forward to tackling this stuff. Some of it looks really promising with some spalting and interesting coloration.

One of the fun things about wood turning is you can put just about anything on that lathe. You don’t need expensive, furniture grade wood to end up with a nice bowl or art project. In fact, some of the nastiest looking stuff that you’d think should end up in the fire pit can end up making some of the most spectacular objects you can imagine.

New Laptop

I do most of the writing and photo stuff for this blog on a 10 year old Macbook Pro that lives on the kitchen table. It gets used a lot. And it is starting to show its age. The keys on the keyboard are chipped, worn and cracked, the LCD display is exhibiting, oh, I suppose you’d call it ghosting. If I bring up a white page like the editing screen for this blog, I can still sometimes see shadows of images that the screen had been showing before. Anyway, I figured it’s time to replace this thing before it just up and dies on me.

Once upon a time what to buy would have been simple, I’d just buy another Macbook. I’ve always liked Apple’s laptops and I’ve had two or three of them over the years. But… Well, Apple’s been having some problems, hasn’t it? There was the infamous keyboard problem with some Macbooks. There have been display issues, battery issues, rumors about problems with SSDs… The latest is that some models of the Macbook had bad cables connecting the LCD display to the computer.

And then there is the price problem. Apple equipment has always been expensive. And what you get for that price — well, Apple’s computers have never exactly been “cutting edge” when it comes to the capabilities of their computers. The hardware stuffed into those fancy cases might be good quality (most of the time), but the actual specifications of that hardware are mediocre at best.

What I ended up with, well, okay, what I ended up with is a bit overkill for a computer that’s probably only going to be used for doing email, writing and reading stuff. (A bit? Ha!). It’s a 17″ MSI GE75 with an i7 6 core processor clocked at a bit shy of 3 gHz, 32 gb RAM, a GeForce RTX 2070 and a 1TB SSD. So, well, yeah, it’s a bit overkill. But on the other hand I got a really good deal on it and it was a lot less than even a low end Macbook Pro would have cost me.

I needed something with some horsepower because eventually it’s going to be used to run Adobe CS to edit photos and videos, and while I don’t do actual gaming any more I do play around in SecondLife and need something with a fairly high end graphics.

Anyway, more about that in the future. Maybe.

That’s about it for now. Hopefully we’ll be getting some decent weather soon so we can get out in the gardens and I can get out on the bicycle. Trying to get on the bike when the temperatures are in the 40s isn’t exactly a lot of fun.

Garden Update And Stuff

Weather here has been curious. After a few days of temperatures up near 80, it quickly dropped back down to more or less normal temps with highs in the 40s and 50s. And unusually dry as well. Until just a few days ago when we got a bit of rain the entire state was under a fire warning because of the dry conditions.

The irises and sedum are all leaping out of the ground this time of the year along with other assorted flowers and plants back there, including our one surviving blueberry bush, which actually seems to be doing fairly well at the moment.

The cool temperatures and lack of rain hasn’t prevented stuff from growing, though. The grass has greened up finally and things are sprouting all over the place.

Our parsley survived the winter and were some of the first plants to start to turn green, along with the chives. I was rather surprised by that. I honestly didn’t think the parsley would come back by itself but, well, there it is. I really need to learn how to use it better. Except as a garnish or to add color to otherwise colorless dishes I never really used the stuff. And to be honest I’m still not really sure if I like the flavor all that much. I throw it in scrambled eggs and mac and cheese to add some color. MrsGF tells me it’s good for you, lots of vitamins and all that fun stuff.

Chives, on the other hand, I do know what to do with that. Those end up in a lot of stuff around here, potato dishes, sauces, omelets, etc. They’re generally the first plants to pop up in the very, very early spring because they’re in a warm, sheltered corner with lots of sun.

I wasn’t sure the rhubarb was going to survive, but it came back too. I’ve been a bit concerned about it. It’s been in there at least 20 years now, and up until recently it’s been doing very good. But the last couple of years it starts out strong, but by mid summer it starts to look worse and worse. We don’t use a lot of rhubarb so if we do lose the plant it isn’t going to be any great loss.

I got the new raised beds built that will go where the old pear tree was. These are 8 X 4 feet, about 16 inches tall, about the same size as the other two. The plan is that eventually they’re going to be surrounded by decorative brick that matches that big oval shaped feature in the photo at the top of the page, but that might not get done this year.

We’re also trying to get a professional in to give us a bid on redoing the entire lawn. It isn’t so much that the grass is really bad, which it is, it’s because the surface of the ground is so rough, so full of pits and diviots that developed somehow, that I’m afraid I’m going to break the mower just mowing the lawn or that someone will twist an ankle.

The hostas in the front garden are just starting to peek out. It looks pretty ratty up there right now with all of the mulch exposed, but once the hostas fill out you can’t see any of that.

We put in a mountain ash up there about two years ago and apparently it really, really likes it. We grew that from seed from the tree in the backyard and it’s gone from a seedling to about 10 feet tall in just two years. Amazing things, trees. I think I may have to start to trim back the top to keep it from getting too tall.

And how about some color to finish up the photos? These guys are the first plants to show color in the early spring.

MrsGF started ordering seed a month ago already and we have all of that in. She has some seeds started already. Now if only it would start getting warm!

Let’s see, what else?

Oh, windows! We’re getting new windows in the office and dining room. The contractor should be here today to start that project. We actually started that late last summer but because of supply problems the windows didn’t come in until it was too late to put them in because of the weather.

Lumber prices – holy cow, when I went to get some lumber for the raised beds and some other projects, well, talk about sicker shock! I came home with an embarrassingly small pile of assorted lumber for $650, at least twice what it would have cost me a year or so ago.

Coming up: I want to talk about the DeWalt battery operated chainsaw I just got in the future. That turned out to be way better than I thought it would be for the price. And it uses the same batteries as the rest of my DeWalt battery operated tools.

Things have been slow in the woodworking department because I’ve been dealing with gardening stuff and other chores around the place, but I do have a bit of rosewood mounted on the lathe that will probably turn into something in the near future. That was actually already a bowl that developed some problems that I’m trying to re-shape to eliminate some odd cracks that turned up weeks after it had been cut the first time. That bit of rosewood was ridiculously expensive so I’m not going to give up on that. I’m also getting in what I hope will be some really neat looking boxelder from a tree MrsGF’s sister took down a few weeks ago. They’re going to cut it into easily managed chunks for me and once I get that I’ll probably talk about that.

I just got a new MSI gaming laptop yesterday that I’ll probably talk about in the near future as well. I spent a large part of yesterday afternoon removing bloatware, doing system updates and other housekeeping chores to make it useable so I haven’t had a chance to actually use it yet. We’ll see how that goes and whether it’s interesting enough to spend some time on here.

And one of these days I want to talk about Korean and Chinese television. Seriously. I watch Korean and Chinese television. Well, you already knew I was weird but you didn’t think I was that weird, did you?

That’s about it for now. The contractor’s here getting ready to start so I need to wrap this up!

Autumn is here

Well, okay, not according to the calendar. But as far as I’m concerned the seasons change not by the actual date but according to the weather conditions. We got hit with a hard frost the other day and that pretty much brings the growing season to an end for a lot of our plants. So that means it’s autumn no matter what the calendar may say.

And while it may be chilly outside, we’re still getting a new central air system put in tomorrow morning. Our old air conditioning system is probably pushing 25+ years, if not a bit more than that. It’s actually a bit amazing that it lasted this long. But it has a freon leak now, and while they could probably repair it, we’d still have a 25 year old AC system that could fail at any time just when we need it most. This is as good a time as any to get it done. Probably the ideal time, really. The air conditioning season is over, the heating season hasn’t started yet, so the company has the time to do it. So we might as well get it over with now so we’re ready when the heat comes next summer.

Gads, it’s going to be an expensive fall, though. The AC is going to run us $3,200 (this is a big house). The contractor just called and said our new windows and doors are now ordered so he’s going to be rolling in sometime in a couple of weeks to do that, that’s going to be over $7,000. Ouch. Still, it all needs to get done. Especially the windows. One window on the north side of the house is literally rotting away and won’t survive a winter and the exterior door is nearly as bad. So once that’s done we’ll be ready for cold weather. And we got a taste of that already as you can see from the frost covered grass below.

It got cold. The remote sensor for the thermometer is out on the front porch which is pretty sheltered, and that said it got down to 32 F so that means out in the yard and gardens it got well below 30. The grass out in the yard was white with frost before the sun came up and the roof was covered with frost, so it was pretty cold out there for a fairly extended period of time overnight.

This is the time of year when we’d normally have so many pears we didn’t know what to do with them, so it seems odd not having the tree any more. While I do miss having fresh pears, I don’t miss having the tree, to be honest. It collapsing and having to be removed wasn’t really a bad thing. If it were still there the whole area would be covered with a thick carpet of fallen pears, and those would be covered with bees, wasps and, well, it could get nasty out there. MrsGF and I would no sooner pick up 5 gallon buckets full of the things, and the tree would drop a few hundred more.

We’re already talking about what we’re going to do with that area. Now that it isn’t shaded out by the tree we can grow just about anything out there and we don’t have to worry about finding plants that can handle shade. We’re thinking about putting a raised bed out there or expanding the existing garden that was being shaded out by the tree that we had in flowers.

The frost brought an end to the tomatoes, of course. But that’s not a big loss because they were already well on the way to winding up anyway. The peppers are still doing fine, though. They aren’t as fragile as tomatoes are and are in a sheltered area that didn’t get hit with the frost.

The raised beds did very, very well again this year. Building those was the best thing we’ve done in the garden over the years. We cut back on the number of tomato plants drastically this year and still had more than we really needed. We planted onions around the outside edges of the raised bed and that worked out beautifully as well. The onions did really well. We didn’t have to buy a single onion all season. Just walk out to the garden and grab one. I am really going to miss that. I’m going to miss the flavor even more. Like just about everything else we grow the flavors are much more intense than the produce we get from the store.

We took a break and drove all the way to the lakeshore between Manitowoc and Two Rivers to have a picnic. Cold down there along the lakeshore, but wow, it was a beautiful day. Had a very pleasant afternoon down there. With Wisconsin’s infection rate now totally out of control and the county we live in having one of the highest infection rates in the state, opportunities to do anything are a bit restricted so just getting out and about was nice.

I haven’t talked about the virus and how it is effecting our lives because, well, you get enough of that everywhere else, don’t you? Still it’s very frustrating. This was supposed to be more or less under control by this time. Instead the number of new infections is hitting new records almost every day here in the state. It’s completely out of control here. ICUs around here are at full capacity and they’re trying to find beds in other hospitals in the state and, well, it’s scary. MrsGF and I are both in one or more high risk groups so… Well, you know. To top it off I pretty much have virus like symptoms all the time. I have upper respiratory allergies so I always have congestion, watery eyes, stuffed up sinuses, a slight cough, etc. Basically I have almost all of the early symptoms of the virus all the time except the fever. Sigh…

But enough of that. How about a rose instead?

Yes, we still have flowers despite the frost. Some of the flowers are pretty resistant to cold weather and are still doing fine, and we have a potted rose up on the front deck that’s still in full flower.

Let’s see, what else…

I’m going to take a stab at resin casting, which ought to be interesting. I’ve gotten reasonably good at wood turning and am now looking for a way to expand on that a bit by doing stuff like, well, this-

I doubt I’ll ever get as good as this guy, but what the heck, why not give it a try and see what happens? I’m rather impatient to give this a try. I have just about everything I need except for the resin and that should be here this week. I hope. More about that when it actually happens. A lot of the videos you see make it resin casting look easy. It isn’t. I expect my share of utter disasters as I get started with this.

And once again the importance of proper safety gear was proven to me rather dramatically when this happened:

Ouch, that could have been nasty. I was turning a bit of white oak when the tool got caught, hard, on an imperfection in the wood. Not only did the force snap the tool in half, it hit so hard it actually bent the tool rest on the lathe and I have to get a new tool rest. The metal part of the tool snapped clean out of the handle, splitting the handle in half, and flew up and hit me square in the face. If I hadn’t had the face shield on, well, it would have been nasty as I said.

MrsGF and some family members have once again been suggesting I try selling some of the stuff I’ve been cranking out. And I suppose that some of it is good enough that it might be marketable. But there are so many issues with trying to sell stuff and, well, is it worth the effort? I used to run my own business so I know a bit about all of the permits, red tape and tax issues that go along with operating a business legally. Emphasis on that word, legally. A lot of people try to slip under the radar, thinking that they’re too small and insignificant for the government to bother going after them if they try to ignore all of that. But do you really want to take that risk? Heck, even zoning can be a problem. You may be turning out some really neat stuff down there in your work room in the basement or that spare bedroom, and no one is going to bother you because it’s a hobby. But if you start selling it, well, now you are a business, a manufacturer, and a lot of communities have very strict zoning ordinances concerning manufacturing. Zoning boards are often very unforgiving. They don’t give a fig if all you’re making a few pens and selling ’em on Etsy. You’re making and selling stuff commercially so you are a manufacturer. Period. Things can be even more strict if you’re in a home owners association.

And then there’s pricing your stuff. I did a scrounge around Etsy the other day looking at the various vendors selling bowls and, well, either they’re losing their shirts on every sale or something funny is going on. I found one person selling 6 inch wide, two inch deep “hand crafted solid black walnut” bowls for $20. Seriously? You add up the cost of the wood, sand paper, the finishing materials, add in a bit to cover the cost of the tools, the lathe, etc., and you’re already losing money at that price. And that isn’t even beginning to add in the cost of Etsy’s fees, bookkeeping, filing taxes, or the maker’s time to produce the bowl. So yeah, either the maker is losing his shirt on every sale, or there’s something unethical going on. I did some quick estimates and I’d figure that just to break even I’d have to sell a bowl like that for about $35, and that would be essentially doing all the labor for free. And he’s running them out for $20?

So the thing is, even if I’m only turning out a bowl a week or so, it’s just not worth the hassle to try to go commercial and sell this stuff.

That’s all for now. I’m working on the next part in the tool series. That’s going to be covering the big stuff like table saws, jointers, planers and other big ticket items. I’m having to do some serious research because I’m not really up on what’s going on in the market right now. I’ve owned all of my big power tools for at least 10 – 15 years. One of the good things about big ticket items like this is that while they’re expensive, generally speaking they’ll last you a lifetime, so you only need to buy them once. Hopefully.

Sidenote: I rarely look at the viewer statistics but I did notice an interesting thing the other day. It seems a lot of my readers are from India. On a lot of days the number of visitors from India outnumber even those from the US. India is one of the most amazing places on the planet, so I’m delighted by that. I don’t understand how they found this goofy blog, but I’m thrilled they come and read this.

Frogs, Cactus and GF Makes A Thing

This little guy seems to wait for me to come and water the tomato plants in the evening. He sits there patiently watching me while I putter around with the hose and I swear he seems to grin when I shower him with the plants.

I went to a college that was focused on ecology and environment way, way, way back for a few semesters. I never did finish up with a degree, but that school did have an influence on me. One of the things I learned is that amphibians are sort of an early warning system when it comes to the environment. They are very sensitive to environmental degradation. If you have a thriving amphibian population, the environment you’re in is doing pretty good generally speaking. So the environment in our backyard must be doing pretty darn good because we have an abundance of frogs and toads. They can be a bit of a nuisance because I have to be really careful when I mow the law and watch out for the little guys. Usually they get out of the way but every once in a while one will hunker down in the grass and try to hide and I have to stop the more and move him.

Mr. Spiny is in full flower again!

That goofy cactus of ours has turned into a major attraction in the garden. I can’t believe how many people are amazed that we can actually grow cactus outdoors in Wisconsin and think we’re some kind of magicians or something. We aren’t, though. We just got lucky. This type of cactus thrives in the conditions we put it in. The soil in that corner is rather poor, and doesn’t hold water at all because both of the soil type and because there’s a drainage tile right under it. Almost nothing else would grow there at all and it turned into a dust bath for the local birds every summer. And to be honest, when we found Mr. Spiny on the town’s compost pile I honestly had no idea if he’d grow here or not. It wasn’t until later that I found out it’s a type of cactus that’s actually native to Wisconsin, although not usually found this far north and east.

Anyway, we now have three more of them.

MrsGF cut three pads off it, stuck ’em in the dirt, and guess what? Yeah, they’re growing too tucked away back there against the foundation wall of the house.

People seem to think we’re some kind of master gardeners or something. We aren’t. There’s no secret to growing plants. The right soil, proper amount of sunlight, proper amount of water, and compost, compost and more compost.

When we bought this place years ago, the soil here was utterly horrible. It was your typical backfill kind of stuff with a skim coat of topsoil that couldn’t have been more than a couple of inches deep. We were lucky enough to live two blocks away from the town’s compost site, and we can get as much as we want for free. So we’ve probably hauled literally a couple of tons of the stuff into the gardens around the house over the years.

Selecting the right plants is important as well. You can’t just find something that looks pretty, put it in and hope for the best. You have to carefully select the plants you use to suit the conditions they’re in. All plants have specific environmental conditions in which they thrive. Some, many, in fact, can survive in environments they aren’t really comfortable in, but they’ll never do as well as they should. If you’re careful to select plants for the soil, light and moisture conditions in a specific location, you’ve gone a long way towards having a successful garden.

And water. We just went through an extended dry period, together with extremely hot conditions. MrsGF and I were out there every single night watering everything in sight. We emptied our rain barrel in two days and had to resort to city water (I don’t want to see what our quarterly water bill is going to be) after that.

But you can overdo the watering too. Again it depends on the plants. Some can handle dry weather pretty well. Some thrive on it. Letting some plants get dry can improve the quality and flavor of the fruit. Some types of peppers for example will produce more flavorful fruit if they’re allowed to experience mild environmental stress like mild drought conditions. But it can be a delicate balance. Others can’t handle even slight drought conditions.

Enough of that. How about a flower?

GF Makes A – A Thing

If you’ve been following this blog or whatever it is for a while you know I do wood working. I build furniture and do carpentry and stuff like that. My oldest son got me one of those cheap Harbor Freight wood lathes ages ago and, well, to be honest when it comes to woodworking tools, you get what you pay for. So let’s just say it’s not exactly the best lathe in the world and leave it at that. But I got bored a few weeks ago and decided to see if it was good for anything at all and tried my hand at making a bowl out of some old scraps of white oak that were too small for anything. I glued ’em all up into a block, stuck it in the lathe, and this is what came out after I put a finish on it.

Considering this is the first bowl I’ve turned since, well, 1969 I think, I’m rather pleased with it. Especially since it’s made out of scraps of wood that otherwise would have ended up in the neighbor’s fire pit.

I should point out that MrsGF made the table runner it’s sitting on and the table is one I made out of white ash some years ago.

I’m encouraged enough to try again. I have a few chunks of really nice wood, cherry and black walnut, that would be suitable for turning into bowls, so I think I’ll keep playing around with this and see what happens. If things go well I might end up buying a good lathe and see what happens. But good lathes, even smaller ones, gets pretty expensive. A good quality lathe in the size I’d want runs somewhere around $700 – $1,000. Which is why I never bought one myself.

But enough. Time for me to get on the bike before the weather gets too hot!

Spring At Last!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Electric Stuff and, Well, Stuff. And the Virus.

How did it get so cluttered so fast?

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.

on the inside it looks almost brand 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.

Weather Stuff

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.

Virus Stuff

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 the primary 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.

Catching Up With Stuff

First of all, there’s this…

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.

We may not have ice but we do have snow. Just had another 3-5 inches, much of which will probably melt over the next few days. But still, it sure looks pretty out there.

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 Project Update

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 –

Ferrite rods that were supposed to be part of antenna coils for an AM transistor radio I’ve been trying to build.

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.

So This Is What It Looked Like This Morning…

Sure looks pretty, but this is heavy, wet, nasty stuff that does a lot of damage. Surprised we didn’t lose power.

So much for my off center fed dipole antenna. Grrr… Weight of the snow ripped that sucker right apart. Since this is the antenna that goes to the TS-990, my main transceiver is off the air until I can get this repaired or replaced. Or moved to the basement and hooked to the other antenna.

This was the antenna I was really worried about. I never thought the OCFD would break, but this one, yeah. But the GAP vertical handled the snow just fine while the wire antenna snapped. Hmph…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Last day of October in Wisconsin.

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

Now, finally, the amateur radio stuff!

The Dilemma

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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