Amateur Radio & Gardening, Hey, Why Not

The weather has been amazingly pleasant for a change these last few days. Everything is growing like crazy as you can see from the photo of the hosta garden in front of the house that I took yesterday. Wonderful plants, hostas; decorative, resilient, with so many different shapes and types it’s hard to keep track.

IMG_0875The corner garden here has been completely redone. In the past it was mostly herbs and decorative plants, but this year we more than doubled it in size, hauled in a tons of compost (well, my aching back claimed it was tons) and it’s being switched to mostly vegetables this year. MrsGF put in something like 20+ pepper plants of varying types (can you tell we like peppers?) plus two blueberry bushes and a couple of rows of beans down along the front. The soil in there is so utterly horrible that I did something I very rarely do, I raked in some commercial fertilizer as well. We’ll see what happens. It will either be wildly successful or everything will die off.

IMG_0873We were not going to make the same mistake we did last year by crowding too many plants into the two raised beds. It’s very tempting when putting in seedlings to crowd them in because it seems like there is so much wasted space, and forgetting just how big those plants get when they’re mature. We only put 6 plants in each of the beds this year and I hope that will help to eliminate some of the issues we had last year. While we avoided the dreaded blossom end rot last year, we did have some fungus problems because the plants were so crowded together.

IMG_0881And then when I was walking around the yard yesterday I nearly stepped on this guy. Yes, we have snakes in Wisconsin. You wouldn’t think they could survive our winters up here, but several species do quite well. Heck, until the 1950s or 60s we still had timber rattlers around here. This little guy… Little? Ha, he was a good two and a half feet long. He scared the heck out of me although I’m sure nearly being stepped on while he was sunning himself in the grass scared him more.

Amateur Radio Stuff

IMG_0863After the fiasco of wrecking the fold down mount for the GAP antenna, I put the crappy old Comet 250 vertical back up, hooked up the coax, went inside, checked to make sure everything looked OK, turned on the transceiver and — and immediately made about 6 different contacts all over North America with the thing on 40, 30 and 20 meters, running about 40 watts of power, less than it takes to run a modern lightbulb.

Sigh… radio propagation is weird sometimes.

I’ve been getting more and more interested in QRP operations. That’s amateur radio slang for very low power. QRP operators put out 5 watts of power or less. Often a lot less. The guys who are really good at it often operated with less than one watt of radiated power. They often use transceivers they built themselves or got as kits that can be ridiculously inexpensive.

There is a ‘gotcha’, though. Trying to make contacts using voice at those low power levels is damn near impossible. If you’re going to run QRP, you really need to go with good old morse code, or CW as it’s called.

Now I’ve thrown myself at CW on numerous occasions over the years, and failed miserably in learning it. The recommended techniques, the tapes, the CDs, none of them have worked. It all sounds like pure noise to my ear.

But then I ran into an IOS app called “Ham Morse”. It does have the more traditional teaching method, which doesn’t work for me. But what does work is that Ham Morse can also tie into the headline news feeds of various news organizations and sends the as CW at whatever speed you’re comfortable with. And guess what? For me, at least, this works. Now that I’m trying to copy actual meaningful text instead of single letters or groups of letters that have no relationship, my weird brain is actually starting to make the connection between those strange noises and the text.

The result is that I can copy CW at up to about 6 – 8 words per minutes. Maybe. Sometimes. Sort of. I’ve been listening to a lot of CW down on 20 meters trying to make sense of it all and despite all of the odd abbreviations and symbols and prosigns they use, I’m starting to pick some of it up.

Anyway, one of the reasons I’m interested in QRP is that the equipment is small, the antennas are small, you can operate with nothing but a relatively small battery. The whole kit can be thrown into a backpack easily, set up and taken down quickly. It’s ideal for someone who spends a lot of time on a bicycle like me. Would be great fun to sit out on the trails making contacts on summer mornings with just a wire hanging in a tree and a couple of watts of power.

http://offgridham.com/

I don’t make a lot of recommendations for websites or products or stuff like that, but if you’re at all interested in QRP operations, battery technology, solar power technologies and amateur radio, click the link up there at offgridham.com. Chris over there has provided a wonderful resource. He delves into alternative power technologies like solar, evaluates and discusses battery charging systems, battery types, etc. While it’s oriented for amateur radio, the material he covers is going to be of interest to anyone who is interested in unplugging from the power grid.

And that’s all for now.

Oh, I keep forgetting. I have email here. If you have questions or stuff you don’t want to put in the comments, you can reach me at old.grouchyfarmer@gmail.com

 

Amateur Radio Stuff: It was one of *those* kinds of days…

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Gap Titan DX vertical antenna only not so vertical

Eldest son came over yesterday to help me get the Gap Titan antenna put up at last and for a while all went well. We got the tilt over mount installed, finished putting the antenna together except for the counter poise, got it bolted to the mount and started to tilt it upright and…

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The mounting system just couldn’t take the strain. The mounting bolts bent and one broke off.

And quickly discovered that the “heavy duty” tilt over mounting system wasn’t really all that “heavy duty” and couldn’t handle the stresses of even the relatively light weight Titan antenna.

It should have been able to handle it easily. The size and weight of the antenna was well under the specified limits of the mounting system. But we ended up with bent bolts, bent parts and everything had to be brought back down again rather quickly.

Enormously disappointing, but that’s the way it goes sometimes. The mounting system was advertised as being able to handle a 40 foot un-guyed vertical and the Titan is considerably smaller and lighter. But I should have known there would be problems as soon as I saw the small size of the bolts.

So it’s back to the drawing board as we brainstorm to try to figure out a way to get this thing in the air in the location it has to be placed in. It’s really frustrating to have a new antenna laying in the back yard and not being able to use it, especially one as expensive as the Titan is.

FT8 mode continues to generate controversy in some circles despite the fact it is now the most popular mode in use on the HF bands, and by a pretty wide margin. I’ve used it quite a bit to make contacts, but that’s really all it’s good for, making a brief contact. You can’t actually use it for exchanging actual information. It’s restricted to sending a maximum of 13 characters at a time (I think) if 15 second data bursts. The typical FT8 contact consists of exchanging call signs, location grid reference, a completely meaningless reception strength report in dB, and that’s it.

For a bunch of people who are so heavily involved in communications technologies, they don’t seem to actually like communicating. Rather curious, that.

That being said, I have been trying to talk to someone, anyone, this morning, and with very poor results. I fiddled with FT8 this morning for a while, made a few contacts, and rather quickly got bored with it all. I tried PSK for a time, and found absolutely no one on any of the PSK parts of the spectrum. Then I switched to CW, something I very rarely dabble with. I ran into a few people zipping along at 25+ words per minute, way, way too fast for normal human beings to copy. I called CQ at a more reasonable 10 wpm and got zilch. You’d think there’d be more people out there on a Sunday morning, but it seems not. Either that or band conditions are too poor.

Rain and More Rain and Stuff

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5.5 inches over night. Total rainfall was a bit over 8 inches in 2 days.

May came in wet and soggy. Very wet. Yesterday morning when I got up we’d had 5 1/2 inches of rain over night to add to the nearly 3 inches we had the day before.

Between a blizzard that dumped 2 – 3 feet of snow on us in April and now the heavy rains just a couple of weeks later, I’d say that our weather could officially be called “weird”. I haven’t been out to look around much, but we went out to eat Friday night and there was some significant flooding in low lying areas, lots of roads closed, lots of areas where water was over the road. The local radio station just announced a list of roads closed due to flooding.

I haven’t had a chance to talk to the farmers around here yet about what the weather has done to their spring planting schedule, but I’m sure they’re worried. My backyard is a swamp and has been since the snow from the blizzard started to melt. Walking through the grass is a mistake because it’s covering up about 2 inches of water and if you stand still for too long you start to sink into the ground. Sigh…

This is an old house for the most part, and the foundation walls leak, so we’ve had water in the basement following the heavy rain. It’s a pain in the neck but we’ve lived in this place for almost 20 years now so we’re used to it and know how to deal with it.

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It’s hard to tell from the photo but there is about an inch of water just under the top of the grass. The water way back behind the trees is the neighbor’s pond which is overflowing. Just behind the spruce tree it’s about 2 feet deep.

And out back along the property line, well, the water back there is a good foot deep or more. We aren’t going to be doing much of anything in the gardens for at least a few days. It’s going to take a while for the water to go down so we can get some work done. I think we’ll be lucky if we can start working by mid week. Oh, well.

I was down at the town’s compost site yesterday to drop off some leaves we raked before the rains hit and noted there is a huge pile of sifted compost ready to go. We’re very fortunate in that regard. The compost site is just down the street from us, an easy run with the garden tractor and trailer, and compost is free for the hauling for town residents.

MrsGF got a backyard composter thingie for Christmas, one of those things that looks like a rotating barrel on a stand. She’s going to be experimenting with that this year and see how that works out. I’m curious to see what kind of results we get from it.

Also gardening related is our rain collection system. We have a rain diverter attached to the downspout at the back of the garage. We’ve had that set up for years now and it’s been working great. We found a food grade 55 gallon plastic barrel, attached the valves and stuff to it, hooked it to the diverter, and that’s all it took. Virtually zero maintenance and it’s worked great. There isn’t enough water to keep the veggies watered, but there has always been more than enough to water all of the potted flowers and plants scattered around. The connector hose cracked over the winter and we ordered a new one from the company, but that’s the only problem we’ve ever had with it.

Radio stuff — Still don’t have the new vertical antenna up. We’ve been waiting for a weekend when eldest son can get down here because it’s a two person job to finish putting it together and getting it on the mount. I was a bit concerned about what the neighbors would think but then MrsGF pointed out that our next door neighbor has a big vertical antenna up that’s even higher than mine will be and no one complains about that, so I stopped worrying about it.

For a long time my radio equipment did little more than gather dust, but not long after Christmas I started getting interested in it again, and the reason why is FT8, the relatively new digital mode. Like a lot of other people I quickly discovered that FT8 lets me make contacts even when propagation conditions stink, as they do now, and even though my antennas are not all that good.

Long distance communications down on the shortwave bands depends on reflections of radio waves in the F layer of the atmosphere. Solar radiation causes the F layer to ionize, which causes it to reflect radio waves back down to the Earth rather than shooting straight out into space as they normally would. We are at solar minimum right now, meaning the sun is very inactive. Very few, if any, sunspots, means the atmosphere is not being ionized, which means radio waves aren’t being reflected or are being reflected very weakly generally speaking.

With my less than ideal antenna system, I normally wouldn’t be able to make many contacts. But since I started playing with the FT8 mode, I’ve made contacts in 36 different countries including ones that are notoriously difficult to reach. I’ve worked Australia, Japan, Tasmania, most of western Europe, Hawaii, Alaska, and doing that with about 70 watts of power and an antenna that is little more than a wire strung up between the garage and a couple of trees.

Despite the success of FT8, it generates a lot of controversy among some AROs who don’t consider it to be “real” amateur radio for a variety of reasons.

They don’t like the fact that is partly automated, with a computer decoding the information and issuing appropriate responses. But the fact of the matter is that AROs have been doing that for a couple of decades with packet radio, RTTY, PSK and other modes, using software that can be programmed with macros to generate automated responses.

They claim it isn’t “real” AR because the amount of information exchanged is little more than call signs, a location and a signal report. But that’s nonsense too because that’s often all you hear in a typical contact via any mode of communication on AR except for the guys down on 75 meters who go on and on and on about their hemorrhoids and hip replacement surgery or rant about politics for hours on end.

Fortunately while the detractors are rather annoying and occasionally abusive, the rest of the AR world just gets on with stuff and the attitude for most people is hey, if it works for you and you enjoy doing it and it’s legal, go have fun.

 

 

Misc. Catch Up: Snow, Gardening, Bike, AR, etc…

I have to admit that things have been a bit slow around here after the blizzard. I’ve been spending most of my time fiddling with radio equipment and antennas, but I haven’t been entirely isolated from the real world.

While we still have some piles of snow remaining, most of the white stuff has melted off thanks to daytime temperatures that have been pushing up into the 50s. The storm did lots of damage around here, mostly from roofs caving in. It’s a miracle no one got killed. Local fire departments were busy helping out farmers by bringing out their ladder trucks and using high pressure hoses to blast snow off of roofs. They saved several barns from collapse in this area.

The Resch Center in Green Bay had it’s entry way caved in when snow falling from the dome hit the entrance. No one is sure what to do about it at the moment because the Resch Center is scheduled for demolition in two years anyway. But they do have events scheduled up until that time so they’re trying to determine if it’s cost effective to repair it, or start canceling events and just bring it down and be done with it.

Any kind of gardening is still on stand-by. It’s probably going to be a week or more before we can get out there and start working on anything except superficial projects. Still, there are signs of life out there. The lilac bushes are starting to bud, the rhubarb is starting to peek up out of the cold, wet ground, and one sure sign of spring is that I got the bike out of storage at last.

Unfortunately I rather quickly remembered that riding a bicycle uses an almost entirely different set of muscles than jogging on a treadmill. That and the fact it was only about 40 degrees out this morning kept the ride rather brief, but it was still nice to be back on the bike again.

Amateur radio stuff —

The ARRL is really pushing the FCC to expand the privileges of the Technician class license. They want to give Techs voice and data privileges down on the HF bands, claiming that this will give Technicians an incentive to eventually upgrade to a General or Extra class license and get them more interested in AR in general.

Don’t get me wrong, the ARRL does a lot to support and improve amateur radio in general, but this is one case where I think they don’t know what the hell they’re talking about. The organization seems to be under the impression that there are tens of thousands of Tech licensees out there who would love to get down on the HF bands, but for whatever reason refuse to upgrade to a General class license, and as a result they aren’t upgrading their licenses, aren’t operating at all, and eventually drop out completely.

The problem with this notion is that the Tech licensees don’t give a damn about HF. I’m sorry, but they just don’t. The Tech licensees who do care about HF quickly upgrade to a General or Extra class license, and the rest just don’t care. I’m sorry, but they don’t. I know a lot of Tech license holders who haven’t upgraded and the reason they haven’t is because either they lost interest in AR completely or the Tech license allows them to do everything they want to do.

The exam to get the General class license is just not that hard in any case. Anyone who’s already passed the Tech exam could easily pass the General with minimal amount of work. It isn’t a lack of privileges on HF that keeps Techs from upgrading, it’s a complete lack of interest in HF in the first place.

Indoor Tulips & Assorted Stuff

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MrsGF has been just as sick of looking outside at the brown wasteland that is March here in Wisconsin as I have, so she shoved some old bulbs into pots and put them in a sunny window a few weeks ago and this is what we have now. Great fun to see tulips starting to pop open again.

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That’s not to say that there aren’t things growing already. She was outside looking things over yesterday and discovered that the chives are already six inches tall over in their protected corner. They’re always the first things to spring up and they’ve been ridiculously prolific. We put those in shortly after we bought the house so they’ve been going strong for almost 20 years now.

The big question now is sod, as in how are we going to get rid of it. There is a pretty big section of lawn we want to rip out to expand one of the gardens here, and getting rid of

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This was the little Massey. Fun, useful little tractor but keeping it in town was a bit ridiculous

the sod is always a pain in the neck. I sold my tractor a couple of years ago. After selling the farm we kept the little Massey for a while, but keeping it was a bit silly. It was mostly in storage over at the farm of a friend about 8 miles from here and there it sat until we needed it perhaps for one afternoon a year. So keeping it and its trailer was ridiculous. So it looks like I’ll resort to the good old fashioned dig it up with a shovel method as soon as the frost is completely out of the ground.

MrsGF and I were sorting through seeds and tentatively making plans earlier this morning. We were thrilled when Eldest Son gave us literally a whole shopping bag of seed packets for Christmas, but we have to be realistic. We can’t grow all of it as much as we’d like to. And there are quite a few that we don’t really like or couldn’t use. Neither of us like melon all that much, and it takes up a lot of space, so those got set aside. Same with eggplant. Don’t get me wrong, eggplant is a perfectly delightful vegetable. But that one summer our eggplant was so ridiculously prolific that we got so sick of eating eggplant that we can’t really stand looking at them any more.

We brought up the little portable greenhouse rack we use to start seed and MrsGF is in the process of starting trays of seeds even as I write this.


Amateur Radio Stuff

I’ve been having a lot of fun with the FT8 mode over the last couple of months. Even with my seriously bad antenna system I’ve had a couple of hundred contacts and have managed to hit something like 35 different countries, including some really long distance contacts with Hawaii, Alaska, Japan and Tasmania.

I’ve even started playing with PSK again and have made a few contacts with that mode as well. Unlike FT8 you can actually chat with people using PSK. Unfortunately it seems most PSK users have jumped ship for FT8 and seeing a PSK signal on the bands has been a rather rare thing. Even more annoying is that the powers that be decided that on 17 meters the frequency recommendation for FT8 mode is the same one as the PSK allocation, so PSK on 17 meters is a lost cause because the frequency is swamped with FT8.

antennaI’m hoping to get this puppy up in the air this spring. It’s already mostly assembled out in the back yard and we have all the hardware for mounting, including the tilt-over base. It’s a GAP Titan multi-band vertical antenna that should help to give me a significant boost over the OCFD I currently have hanging out there now. This one is going to replace the Comet 250 vertical I have and which is… Well, let’s face it, the Comet isn’t that good of an antenna. It can only handle about 240 watts and to be perfectly frank I’m amazed the thing works at all.

I also have a 40 foot antenna tower laying out in the backyard that will hopefully get set up sometime this summer. Of course I said that last summer, too. And the summer before that…

 

New Photos And How Stupid Am I (Very)

Even though today is officially the start of spring it sure doesn’t feel that way. Temperature around 34 degrees, cloudy… We’re impatient to get outside and do something again.

Nevertheless, I had the camera out and was taking some photos of the indoor plants, some of which are flowering right now.

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This guy is sitting in the kitchen window at the moment. Those flowers are only about a quarter of an inch across. Here’s another shot of a different cluster of flowers on the same plant with different lighting…

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That camera does a great job taking closeups like that.

Another plant in flower at the moment is this one:

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I love this plant. The color of the leaves, the texture, and those tiny little pink flowers that are about the size of the head of a pin. It’s a lot of fun.

MrsGF’s violets are in full bloom too right now:

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Then there’s this really weird plant…

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That’s Kai. I’m very surprised she held still long enough for me to get that photo. She usually runs away when she sees me with a camera.


And now, on to the stupidity…

Nothing makes me look dumber than when something goes wrong with my radio equipment sometimes. This one was a real gem, though.

For some reason the TS-990 decided to stop transmitting AM and I couldn’t figure out why. Everything seemed to be working just fine otherwise. I could still use SSB, the digital modes, FM, all were working fine. But when I keyed the mic using AM, it would go into transmit mode, but no signal.

I spent something like two hours this morning trying to diagnose what the problem was. As a last resort I got out my morse code key and hooked that up. Not sure why. Just was trying to eliminate other things as problems. I tried sending my callsign in CW and…

And nothing. Same symptoms as the AM problem. It went into transmit, but no signal, no power going to the antenna.

Hmph… I went on line and searched around, found out there was an update for the radio’s firmware, so I downloaded that and installed. That went well. In fact, better than well because now the noise blanker works the way it’s supposed to and some other little things were fixed. But same problem as before, no AM and no CW.

I pulled out the manual once more and started to dig through that and…

Oh. Oh, brother… All right, look, the 990 is a very complicated piece of equipment. I mean it has controls and knobs and buttons on it that I’ve never used in the almost four years I’ve owned the thing. So I suppose I can be excused for not noticing this.

Most of the knobs on the radio are “nested”, that is there is a central knob that controls one function, and an outer ring around the central knob that controls an entirely different function.

The Power knob which controls the rig’s output power is the central knob. The outer ring is something labeled “Car” which stands for carrier. The carrier setting is essential to transmitting in CW and AM modes. I normally have it set dead center right in the middle. But since I almost never do CW or AM I almost never touch it. But I do use the Power knob to adjust the wattage going out to the antenna or feeding into the amplifier.

Somewhere along the way, the Car knob got a bit sticky and started to track along with the Power knob when it was turned. But only in one direction: down. When I turned the power down, it was also dragging the carrier knob down towards zero, but not dragging it back up when the power was turned back up. Eventually the carrier was turned down to nothing. So without a carrier, there was no AM or CW.

Sigh… Spent more than two hours trouble shooting a problem that didn’t really exist. All I had to do was turn the Car knob back up to the center position and all was well.

And now I just found out my amplifier relay isn’t working… How did I get into this hobby in the first place?

Catching Up

Egads, it’s been a while since I did anything here. When things get a bit busy I’m afraid the first thing to suffer is this blog. So let’s take a look at what’s been going on. It’s going to be a mixed bag this time, covering a variety of different topics. Let’s look at some agricultural stuff first.


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Approximately 3.5 million acres of crops were allegedly damaged by dicamba drift

The dicamba saga continues. Monsanto’s lawsuit against the state of Alabama over its very strict regulations concerning the use of dicamba was thrown out of court. Alabama put very stringent restrictions in place on the use of the product after thousands and thousands of acres of crops were damaged by the herbicide drifting.

The case was thrown out on a legal technicality, it seems. Apparently Alabama has a “sovereign immunity” clause in it’s constitution that prevents it from being sued for things like this. So nothing has really been settled.

There are new federal regulations in place now, new training requirements and other things, so I guess we’ll see if those will be sufficient to keep the herbicide under control.


Trade Wars — Of course that’s the big news right at the moment. With NAFTA negotiations already allegedly falling apart and threatening our economic links with Canada and Mexico, the last thing we needed was for the administration to launch a full blown trade war with, well, with just about everyone. So, of course, that’s exactly what the administration has done. The administration claims that the tariffs will have no effect on the NAFTA negotiations, which is a flat out lie. Of course it will. It already is having an effect.

The negotiations were already contentious, adversarial and often completely unrealistic, and both Canada and Mexico have made comments that they were considering pulling out of NAFTA entirely if the tone of the negotiations didn’t change. The threat of tariffs has made the situation even worse. The Canadians have become far more outspoken now, openly talking about “responsive measures”, i.e. political speak for levying such huge tariffs on US made goods that US manufacturers and agribusinesses will be unable to sell products in Canada. Mexico has been a bit less open about it, saying that the country is “considering all of its options”.

If you look past NAFTA and look at what’s happening elsewhere, the response to the administration’s tariff threats has been even more forceful, with some countries threatening reciprocal tariffs that would make US goods unmarketable. And as for China, well, if we lose China as a market, that’s pretty much going to destroy the ag economy, and decimate a lot of other businesses as well.


Weather — The weather here in Wisconsin used to be pretty reliable. We could depend on blistering hot summers and cold, snowy winters that would rival anything seen in the arctic.

Yeah, well, about that whole snow and cold thing… Although we had a period of intense cold over Christmas and New Years, it’s actually been ridiculously warm here. We had a February with temps at or above freezing more often than not, and some days when it was pushing 50 degrees. In February. In Wisconsin??? WTF? Really? After a couple of days of 45+ temps, it cooled down and we got about an inch of snow, not enough to bother shoveling because it almost immediately melted off again, and now, on March 3, we’re looking at temps back up in the high 40s and low 50s again.

I’ve been hearing rumors now that the snowmobile clubs in the area are seriously considering not bothering to lay out trails any more and may even be closing down because we haven’t had any actual snow for years now. The trails never opened this year. If they opened at all last year it was only for a few days and in limited areas.

And while we still complain about the cold (we love complaining up here in Wisconsin, it’s the state hobby, I think), and we do get some intense cold periods, all things considered it hasn’t really been all that cold either. If you look at the ice data that shows how long the lakes here are ice covered, you’ll find that the number of days, on average, that lakes are ice covered has dwindled by several weeks.

Screen Shot 2018-03-03 at 6.33.57 AMAnd if you look at the growing zone map, where I live about 20 miles south of Green Bay, well, we used to be firmly in Zone 4. We’re now in zone 5 and I keep hearing from people that a lot of years now we’re actually pushing zone 6.


Speaking of gardening — MrsGF and I are getting impatient. We’ve already been talking about expanding the garden area on the south side of the house and trying to figure out an easy way to get rid of sod.

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Bag ‘O Seeds

One of the things that’s been pushing us into impatience is that whenever we go down in the basement we walk past the famous “Bag ‘O Seeds” that eldest son gave us for Christmas. It’s hard to tell how many are in there from this photo. That pile of seed packets is about a foot deep. He literally got us one of everything that the retail chain he works for sells in their garden department.

We really need to sit down and do some planning because there is no way that we are going to be able to plant more than a fraction of the different seeds we have.

I can tell MrsGF has gotten impatient because yesterday she got some pots and some potting soil and put in some daffodil bulbs and I suspect those will end up in front of some of the windows in the house and she was wondering if it was really still too early to start some seeds for the garden.


Amateur Radio Stuff — I’m still playing with the FT8 mode and I can see how it can be addicting. I know that some people have complained that it isn’t really “communicating”. The typical FT8 exchange consists of call signs, grid square, signal strength report, and then bye-bye. FT8 is pretty much completely useless for exchanging any kind of genuinely useful communications. So what’s the point of it?

A lot of AROs are interested in things like trying to contact 100 different countries or more, contacting every state in the US, or things like that. It’s making the contact that is important to them. Actually talking to someone? Not so much. They’re chasing awards or certificates of accomplishment or competing in contests, or doing it just for the personal satisfaction of having done it. For those people, FT8 is great. I worked something like 27 different countries in just a few hours while I’ve been experimenting with it. I’ve worked countries I never thought I’d ever successfully contact. I worked a station in Japan the other day and yesterday I got the Cayman Islands.

The fun thing about FT8 is that you can do all that stuff with very modest equipment. You don’t need transceivers that cost $10,000 and huge amplifiers and ten acres of antennas. You can do this running less power than it takes to run the average light bulb and little more than a wire hanging in a tree for an antenna.

But it does have “issues”, as they say. One of the biggest problems is that it is being crippled by its own success. It’s become so wildly popular that the small parts of the radio frequency spectrum that are recommended for its use are ridiculously overcrowded.

And it’s about to get much, much worse because the wonderfully skilled and creative programmers who developed the WSJT software most people use for FT8 is bring out a “Dxpedition” version of the software that will permit as many as 500 contacts per hour and will transmit up to five signals at the same time.

Now, the developers have stated that this new system is “suitable for use only by Dxpedition stations and those attempting to work them”, and that it should not be used on the normal FT8 bands. But you can be sure there are going to be people who are going to completely ignore that. If we get a significant number of operators running the Dxpedition version of the software in the normal FT8 bands, well, the situation is going to go from merely ridiculous to utterly insane.

I saw a statistic the other day that claimed that more than half of all contacts being made now are done by FT8, and considering the amount of activity I’m seeing I suspect that’s probably correct. I wonder if this is just a fad though and if in a fairly short time FT8 will end up abandoned by everyone except the DX hunters.

Where Has PSK gone? — One of the side effects of the widespread adoption of FT8 is that it seems to have almost completely killed off the use of the PSK mode. PSK was a fairly popular mode of communication. When I first started using PSK I would find dozens of contacts and conversations going on on the PSK sub-bands. But now? I generally fire up FLDIGI a couple of times a day when I have the time and check the PSK bands and, well, I’m seeing nothing. I mean nothing. I haven’t seen a single PSK signal out there in days now. It’s almost as if every PSK user out there immediately jumped ship for the FT8 mode and hasn’t gone back. That’s a bit disappointing because PSK is a great low power, weak signal mode, and is, or can be, as automated as FT8 is. When using PSK64 and properly set up macros, making a contact can be as quick and easy as with FT8. And the big plus is that PSK can be used to actually communicate with people.

There, I think I’ve bored you long enough for this time…