Stuff and Nonsense

Stuff & Nonsense is a catch-all category for random stuff that doesn’t deserve a complete blog entry accumulated into a disorganized mess and put up here because I’m bored and/or feel guilty about not having posted anything recently.

Proposed Amateur Radio Licensing Changes Are Prelude to Apocalypse

The ARRL submitted a petition to the FCC to expand privileges for Technician class license holders on the HF bands and this will quickly usher in the end of the world as we know it. Or at least according to the curmudgeons over at QRZ and some of the other amateur radio forums. It isn’t, of course. It will probably have little or no effect at all on anything. Despite what the ARRL seems to believe, huge numbers of Technician licensees are not desperate to get on the HF frequencies so even if they did have access to them they wouldn’t use them.

The Move

It took days to move all of the junk out of there just so I could find that bench there and I could get at the walls.

Moving my stuff from the office to the basement is coming along far more slowly than I’d like because of various reasons. But mostly because I’m in no great rush to get it done and a lot of prep work has to be done before I can actually start moving things.

Things look a bit better down there, though. I’ve moved a ton of junk out of there and I’ve been working on prepping the walls for painting.

Any nearly 100 year old house is going to have cracks, holes and defects in the concrete and this place is no exception.

This house was built in two parts. The original house was built in the 1930s, and a large living room with a fireplace and full basement under it was added in the 1980s. The place where I’m moving is part of the old house, and, the 75+ year old basement walls aren’t exactly very attractive. So I’ve been patching and scraping and prepping for paint. I’m hoping to finally get some painting done this weekend. Once I get that done I can start re-wiring that area to put in about a dozen 120V electrical outlets and at least one 240V line. There is already electrical wiring there, but the outlets are located in inconvenient places. The wiring in the office will be left alone except for the 240V line. We’ll disconnect that one just so no one ends up trying to hammer a 120V plug into that 240V outlet.

Later: Got that one wall finished finally. I didn’t think I was ever going to get it done. It’s the worst of the bunch and the rest will come along more easily. They just need to be scraped down and painted. Just getting that one done makes a huge difference.

Nice to see some progress down there after all of the delays. I don’t have any set schedule for making the move. Whenever it gets done, it gets done. And there is still a ton of my son’s old equipment to get out of that area. I had to start piling his stuff in my woodshop just so I could get at this wall and it’s really starting to clutter up the rest of the basement as well. He’s moving it as he gets time, but it’s a slow process

And while I’m on the subject of amateur radio, I had to take down my dipole antenna because one leg ran to a neighbor’s tree and that house just sold so I figured I’d better get the antenna down before the new owner shows up and wonders if I’m trying to electrocute his tree or something. Next time I see my other neighbor I need to ask him if I can run it to his tree. He probably won’t have a problem with it. He’s a radio geek too, but with CB and FRS stuff.

I’m not off the air. I still have the Comet antenna up, but it isn’t exactly very good. About the only thing it’s good for is high efficiency digital modes like JS8Call and FT8 and, if propagation conditions are good, PSK. And while it’s rated for 250 watts I’ve been hearing from people that when using digital you really shouldn’t put more than 100 watts into it, so I can forget about using my amplifiers.

Well, not that I ever use the amplifiers anyway. The tube amp hasn’t been fired up since 2013 and the other amp hasn’t been used in over a year. Should probably sell at least the tube amp one of these days.

I also need to get that GAP Titan antenna up finally! That poor thing has been laying outside waiting to be set up for way, way too long now.

Speaking of the neighbor’s house – When it first went up for sale we seriously considered buying it. It is an old house, easily as old as ours, and has never been well maintained or updated. We figured it was worth maybe $50,000 at the most, and if that’s what they’d asked, we probably would have bought it. The plan was to tear down the existing house because it is essentially worthless without about $40K worth of work, wait a few years and then put up 1,500 sq ft single level house for me and MrsGF when we were ready to downsize, and then sell this place.

But they were asking $80,000 for that place which was way, way too much, and they didn’t want to budge on the price. And there were some issues with the title of the house too. The owners had defaulted, gone into bankruptcy, and didn’t even know who actually held the mortgage on the place because that had changed hands. They were making payments to someone, somewhere, but didn’t actually own the place any more and didn’t know exactly who did, and, well, that was a mess I didn’t want to get involved with either.

So it sold now. For $50K. Sigh… To a house flipper. Oh, goodie…

Water Water Everywhere

The backyard is currently under about 2 feet of water back along the property line. This is actually not bad. At one point that antenna tower you see laying on it’s side back there was completely underwater. Later: Almost all of the snow is melted off now and the water level has gone down quite a bit but it’s still flooded back there.

We had near records amounts of snow in February, then rain, then more snow, followed by an abrupt jump in temperature up to 50 degrees, so, well, flooding. The state was under an emergency declaration for quite a while because of flooding. Low lying areas and and people along rivers were hit hard. The biggest problem was ice damming. When the ice started to break up and then we got the rain, the ice jammed up under bridges, culverts, etc. causing widespread flooding.

Chinese Pork Smuggling

The US Customs Service intercepted a shipment of about one million pounds of pork in more than 50 shipping containers that someone was trying to smuggle into a New Jersey port. The stuff was packed into many different types of packaging, including ramen noodle boxes and Tide detergent containers, and sometimes just shoved into spaces in between other products packed into the containers.

The big fear is African Swine Fever, of course, which is sweeping through China. While ASF doesn’t harm human beings, it is virtually 100% fatal for pigs and there is no treatment or vaccine. The only way to control outbreaks is to try to prevent the virus from spreading with quarantines and killing infected swine. Needless to say the US would very much like to keep ASF out of the country, but I suspect it’s only a matter of time before we start having problems with it too.

The question is why would anyone want to smuggle large amounts of Chinese pork into the US in the first place? There is little or no demand for imported pork in the US. We produce more than enough of it ourselves, and it’s almost ridiculously cheap here. How in the world were they expecting to make any money from smuggling a product into the US that we already have a surplus of and is at almost record low prices?

Anyway, that’s it for now. MrsGF and I are working out plans for what we’re going to plant this coming season and considering making some major changes to the landscaping, so we’ll see what comes of that. We’re starting to see things popping up out of the ground already. The chives are up, some of the early spring flowers are starting to pop up as well. The prep work in the basement goes on. Hopefully in a short time I’ll be able to get the bicycle back out on the road.

Catching Up with Ham Radio Stuff : The Move and A New (sort of) digital mode

The Move, shifting all of my radio and computer gear to the basement, is now officially underway. Well, sort of. Nothing has actually gotten moved yet. I’m still in the process of cleaning out the area I want to use and getting it ready. But the handwriting is on the wall. MrsGF is retiring at the end of Feb and if I don’t move out of our shared office we’re going to drive each other nuts.

For years now my “radio shack” has been shoved into a corner of the office MrsGF and I share, with all my equipment perched on a single desk and a small filing cabinet. It’s worked, but it has been awkward and cramped. There just isn’t enough room. I have a work table in that room as well where, theoretically, at least, I was going to be able to tinker with electronics and repair equipment. But because the room is also our office, what actually happened was the table ended up with about ten inches of papers, books, files and I don’t know what all else on top of my tools and test gear. To make things even more cramped, I also have a big iMac, various graphics tablets, several RAID arrays, three printers, including a massive professional photo printer, well, you get the idea. Then add in MrsGF’s desk, computer and all her stuff, and something has to go, and that’s me.

Even that wouldn’t be so bad if it weren’t for my own psychological quirks. I simply cannot concentrate if there is someone behind me. I’ve always been that way. Her desk and computers are directly behind me and when she’s back there I can’t concentrate on anything. I can’t read, can’t write, can’t work on photos or drawings. I also need a fairly quiet environment to get anything done. Soft music is okay, but the sound of someone behind me moving, coughing, talking on the phone… well, I just can’t deal with it.

So between the crowded environment up here and my own personal issues, well, I need to move this whole operation if MrsGF and I are going to stick together for another 40 years or so…

Unfortunately, the area I want to move into looks like this.

This is what your basement will end up looking like if both you and your son are A) packrats, and B) computer/electronics geeks.

This used to be Eldest Son’s workshop in the basement when he lived with us years ago, and represents years worth of accumulated computers, parts, hard drives, terminals, networking gear and I don’t know what all else that he neglected to take with him when he moved out years ago. We never bothered with it before because I didn’t have any use for this space. And now that I do, the first order of business is getting all this stuff out of there, and that’s what I’ve been working on.

Some progress has been made, though! Really.

That bench there used to be covered three feet deep in stuff, so just getting that cleared out is a major victory. I’m hoping that by the end of the week I’ll have enough stuff shifted so I can start painting the walls. I’ll keep that work bench but put a nice sheet of plywood or something similar over the top of it to make a smooth work surface. The radios and computers will go here eventually. We’ll also have to rewire the whole area, adding a half dozen or so 120V outlets and at least one 220V outlet (maybe two) for the amplifiers.

There is another work bench behind me and to the left, about the same size, that is going to be where I’ll have my actual workbench with my meters and test gear, soldering equipment, tools, etc.

Anyway, that’s what’s been going on here of late. I’m sure MrsGF is eagerly looking forward to getting me out of the office so she can move all her stuff in.

JS8Call

I’ve been playing with a fairly new digital mode in amateur radio called JS8Call. It is based on the wildly popular FT8 mode that was first implemented with the WSJT-X software developed by K1JT and others. (WSJT-X is open source and it is available for Linux, Windows, OSX and Unix like operating systems. You can learn more about FT8 at https://physics.princeton.edu/pulsar/k1jt/index.html)

This is what the WSJT-X software looks like when running FT8.

FT8 works well as a weak signal mode, allowing contacts to be made under poor conditions and with modest or even poor antennas and low power levels. But FT8 isn’t designed to actually communicate with other people. It is intended to make “contacts” only. And in the amateur radio world, “contact” means exchanging only enough information to fulfill the requirements of some contest or award program, and not actually talking to another person. In fact, it would be almost impossible to use FT8 to exchange any kind of useful information with another radio operator. FT8 exchanges call signs, a grid reference (location) and a signal report, and that’s it. And all of that is pre-programmed into the system. Once the contact is started, the WSJT software conducts the entire exchange by itself. There are provisions for a so-called “free message”, but it is extremely awkward to use and very limited.

And, frankly, boring. At least to me. Don’t get me wrong, I use FT8 myself. But after about half an hour of it I’m bored. I can’t actually talk to anyone, can’t ask questions, just sit there and watch WSJT go through it’s automated contact sequence. It gets dull fast.

Screen capture of JS8Call running on my system.

That’s where JS8Call comes in. It uses the same digital encoding techniques used by FT8. It still uses the same 15 second transmission bursts. But it permits actual conversations to be held between two operators. Not very quickly, true. It looks like it’s limited to about 15 words per minute or less, but that’s still a heck of a lot faster than a lot of us can bang along in CW.

And since it uses the exact same encoding protocols used by FT8, it shares that mode’s robust nature and permits people with less than ideal equipment and antennas to make contacts they otherwise would not be able to make.

JS8Call has a lot of fun and potentially useful features as well as the ability to send actual text messages back and forth rather than FT8’s limited contact system. Messages can be directed to a specific call sign or a group of call signs. There are directed commands that you can send which will generated automated replies from anyone who hears them, it can relay messages to others if you have it set up right. There is a lot of neat stuff JS8Call is capable of doing. Read the documentation at their website to find out more.

So if you’ve use FT8 but have found it’s pre-programmed, automated contact system frustrating, give JS8Call a try. You can find out more about it at their website. Click here to take a peek.

A few things, though.

First, JS8Call is still very much in beta testing. New versions with added/changed features and bug fixes are being released every few weeks. While the program seems stable, it can have odd little quirks and problems from time to time. How it works and its various functions can change with each new edition of the software.

Second, because it is still in beta testing, it is not available for general release. You can indeed get it, but you need to join a discussion group to get access to the download. It isn’t a big deal. They aren’t going to spam you or anything like that. The reason for restricting access is, as I said, because it is still in testing and is being changed frequently. Once the feature set is frozen and they’ve worked all of the bugs out, a version will be made available for general release.

Third, because it is based on FT8, it has a lot of the same quirks and drawbacks FT8 has. It only transmits in 12.6 second bursts, based on a 15 second time frame. Your computer clock must be accurately synchronized. You are going to need to run a utility program that will keep your computer’s internal clock accurate. Most computer clocks are not accurate enough by themselves.

Fourth, as noted earlier, it isn’t exactly fast. You’re going to average about 10 – 15 wpm when using it. But as I also said, most CW operators don’t work much faster than that.

If you’re interested in the digital modes, are getting bored of FT8, give JS8Call a try.

Cleaning Up, Snow, Evaluating the Gardens, And Stuff…

MrsGF and I set aside Saturday to clean up the last of the gardens around here. We’ve had several hard frosts now and almost everything has died back so there was no reason to put it off any longer. So, of course, this happened…IMG_0056

Yep, that’s snow. Saturday was pretty miserable. Temperature around 38 degrees, 30 – 40 mph winds and then it started snowing. Oh, well. Ah, Wisconsin weather…

 

IMG_0055We got out the winter coats, hats and gloves and went at it anyway because, well, it has to get done. It wasn’t exactly a fun job in that kind of weather, but we did get it done. There was no point in putting it off because this time of year the chances of the weather being much better are pretty slim.

We ended up filling the entire back of the old truck. It’s amazing how much debris we ended up with after cleaning everything up. And this is just half of it. We already had taken out the remains of the tomatoes, squash and a lot of other stuff over the last few weeks. Good thing we live just down the street from the town’s compost site. That makes this a heck of a lot easier.

The snow didn’t stick around. It was too warm for that. But the wind did, with gusts of up to 40 mph all day. That kept us from raking up the leaves in the yard, but we got that done on Sunday. So we have just about everything cleaned up outside now.

All things considered, the growing season was pretty successful this past season. The tomatoes and peppers were ridiculously prolific. Our little lettuce bed kept us supplied with greens when we needed them. Some things weren’t very good, and some of that was our own fault.

We keep trying to plant onions and they never seem to make it to maturity for us. They start out good, but as they mature they seem to just stop growing before they get anywhere close to full sized. I don’t really mind that too much because my main interest is in having fresh green onions, not in full size bulbs for storage. So while that crop might look like a failure, it really isn’t because I get what I want out of it.

The squash disappointed. The acorn squash never developed fully at all and were a total loss, and while we did get a few absolutely beautiful butternut squash (wow, they tasted good!) they didn’t produce as well as they should have. We aren’t sure why because they were in the same place they’d been last year where they’d done really well. We’re going to have to reconsider planting squash. The stuff takes up a huge part of the garden and if all we’re going to get for it is three squash, well, there’s not much point in planting them and we need to look for alternatives.

Our rhubarb plant wasn’t looking too good towards the end of the season, but we think that’s the fault of the squash which were planted nearby. It was getting shaded by the huge squash leaves and wasn’t getting enough sun, so we’re hoping it will come back.

I raise that rhubarb more for nostalgic reasons than because I like it. For me, a little bit of rhubarb goes a long, long way. But I have fond memories of playing under the huge rhubarb plants we had when I was a little kid on hot, summer days, and whenever I see that thing in hot, summer weather it brings back memories that make me grin. So yeah, I’m going to grow rhubarb if I can even if I don’t particularly like eating it.

Let’s see, what are we planning on changing — I’d like to put in more raised beds if I can find a good location for them. Those two 4 X 8 raised beds I put in a few years ago are ridiculously productive. If I’d known how good they were going to be I would have built them long ago. Just those two beds provide more vegetables than the rest of our gardens combined some years. The problem is where to put more of them. We just have too many trees so finding a spot where there will be direct sunlight for more than 4-5 hours a day is difficult here. About the only decent location is on the south side of the house and there isn’t much room there any more.

Of course that could change if the pear tree doesn’t survive the damage it suffered. I figure about a full third of the canopy of the tree went down because the limbs were too loaded with fruit to be able to handle a thunderstorm that rolled through here. I’d hate to lose that tree. We planted that, oh, about 17 years ago, a couple of years after we bought this place. It’s not a very good looking tree, it leans at a crazy angle, but wow, it produces some of the most delicious pears I’ve ever had.

But on the other hand, if we do lose it, it would open up a very large area that could be garden with full sun. So if it does have to come down, well, it wouldn’t be the worst thing.

With MrsGF retiring in March she’s trying to figure out just what the heck she’s going to do if she isn’t working full time any longer. Right now it looks like as soon as she pulls the plug on her job she’s going to be dragging me along into the Master Gardener classes. Well not dragging, to be honest. I’m rather looking forward to it. We’d talked about getting into the Master Gardener program for a long time but we never had the time to do it. So now is the ideal time for it. She’s been on-line looking to get us signed up for the classes next year. And being able to tack on “certified master gardener” on the byline up at the top of this website is an added incentive because, well, hey, I’ve got an ego too, you know <grin>.

The other thing that is (probably) going to happen after she retires is all of my electronics gear, test equipment, radio equipment, etc. is going to get moved out of the office/library/workshop and moved into what used to be eldest son’s work area in the basement, and the office space is going to be her’s. She loves sewing and craftsy kinds of things but she’s never had much time to actually do it. Right now her work area for that kind of thing is in a small room upstairs. But it’s hot up there in the summer, cold in the winter, and she has difficulty getting up and down a lot of stairs because of her knees. So the solution to that is turn the office on the main floor over to her and have me move my stuff out.

I am not looking forward to moving. Eldest son’s work area down there is still crammed full of old computers and other equipment that somehow never got moved when he moved out years ago. So all of that has to be moved somewhere. Hopefully out of our house and into his house. Then I have to buy or build suitable work surfaces for all my stuff. Then tear down all of my equipment, move all of it down to the basement. Then I have to re-route all of the antenna cables, ground cables and other stuff to the new location down there. Then install a new electrical system down there including 240V lines to run some of the equipment like the amplifiers. Then try to figure out how to set up all of the equipment again because by that time I’ll have forgotten how everything was set up originally. Move all of my computers… Like I said, I am not looking forward to it.

Well, I’ve bored you long enough with this. Time to go.

 

Catching Up With Stuff

I’m afraid I’ve been neglecting this blog recently because, well, to be honest, not a heck of a lot is really going on this time of year.

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The tomatoes are going crazy this year. They’re almost chest high and at least 4 feet wide at this point, and loaded with fruit. In about a week or two at the most we’re going to be able to start picking tomatoes. If we manage to avoid blossom end rot and other problems this year, we’re going to have more tomatoes than we know what to do with.

I’m not sure why they became this ridiculously prolific this year. MrsGF pointed out that we added a lot of compost to the beds this year and top dressed with a very mild fertilizer. But even so, this is a bit much. The wire tomato cages are starting to collapse from the weight of the plants and I’ve had to put in additional rods to keep the cages from collapsing.

I don’t know why I bother with the wire tomato cages they sell in the garden centers around here. They just can’t handle the plants we grow here. I think I’m going to have to go get some rebar or something like that, fire up the torch and weld up my own.

We put in 2 varieties, Early Girl and Wisconsin 55, and both seem to be doing equally well.

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We’ve been getting raspberries too this year. MrsGf’s sister gave her about a dozen plants a couple of years ago and they’ve completely taken over the corner of the garden where they were planted.

We aren’t getting a huge number, but enough to give us a nice sized bowl full every few days. I’m not supposed to eat them anyway. I have  diverticulosis which, fortunately, has never flared up on me, but I still need to be careful. I’m supposed to avoid eating things with seeds and chopped nuts, which means raspberries are on the avoidance list. But, well, come on, fresh raspberries right off the plant? I’m afraid probably half of the berries we get never make it into the house.

IMG_0935I picked up one of those goofy little roses in a teacup that you see at discount stores sometimes for MrsGF one day because I thought it would look neat on the window sill in the kitchen for a few days, and then it would probably die and we’d toss it and that would be the end of it. Well, MrsGF transplanted the dopy thing into a larger pot, stuck it outside and it’s been going crazy just like the tomatoes have. It’s quadrupled in size and has been putting out brilliant red flowers ever since.

We’re going to try to keep it through the winter and see what happens. If it makes it, great. If not, no big deal. It only cost me something like $5

Other Stuff:

I just realized the other day that I’ve put more miles on the bicycle than I have on the Corvette this summer. Nothing wrong with that but it does seem a bit odd for someone who enjoys driving as much as I do. MrsGF and I haven’t really managed to get away on a vacation this summer. Since, oh, 2007 or so, we’ve managed to get away for a couple of weeks or so to go somewhere, usually out west. And I used to go to South Dakota, Montana and Wyoming at least once during the summer by myself if I could. One year we took a three week road trip on the motorcycles with Eldest Son out to Maine.

One reason is MrsGF has been crazy busy this summer. The state is trying to bring an electronic health records system on-line before winter and she’s involved in that and you wouldn’t believe how difficult and complex that project has been. Plus she’s going to be on the road now for two days to do audits. She’s managed to get a few days off here and there, but any kind of real vacation for her is going to have to wait until October.

She’s still planning on retiring in March and is really looking forward to that. She’s already been looking into getting into the Master Gardener program. One local charity is pushing to get her on the board, and I’m threatening to run her for town council <grin> just to keep her busy..

Amateur Radio Stuff:

Right now there is considerably controversy about the Technician class license, which has become the entry level license for amateur radio.

AR is in a rather odd situation at the moment. We are seeing record numbers of new licensees. The latest number I’ve seen is that there are over three quarters of a million holders of an amateur radio license, most of them holding the Technician license. This may sound like amateur radio isn’t doing too bad since we have more than 750,000 people in the hobby and that number is growing every year. But there are some concerns.

First, most of those new Tech licensees don’t seem to be actually using that license. We should be hearing them popping up on those parts of the spectrum where they are licensed to operate. Only we aren’t. Tune in the local repeaters around here (and everywhere else, apparently) and you almost never hear any of the new licensees on the air. And we never hear them down on the HF (shortwave) frequencies where they are permitted to operate.

Second, the vast majority of Tech licensees never upgrade their licenses to General or Extra class to get access to all of the HF spectrum. They get the Technician license and stay Technicians.

A lot of people find this troubling. If these people are getting their licenses and never actually using those privileges, or using them only very rarely, why aren’t they? Obviously they were interested in amateur radio in the first place or they wouldn’t have gotten the license. So why aren’t they actually using it? And why aren’t they eventually upgrading to the General or Extra license?

The ARRL thinks it’s because the Techs only have extremely restricted access to the HF bands. Below 50 mHz, Techs can legally only use a very small portion of the 10 meter band for voice and CW. And below the 10 meter band they only have access to an even smaller range of frequencies, and there they can use CW (morse code) only. The ARRL believes that if Techs were granted expanded privileges on HF they would be more interested in AR and actually get on the air, and even become interested enough so they would upgrade their licenses to gain more privileges.

The problem with that is there is no actual evidence to support that belief. The ARRL is basing that on the results of a very flawed survey that almost no tech licensees actually saw or responded to, and on little more than wishful thinking.

The ARRL’s thinking in this is fundamentally flawed, I believe. The Technician licensees they’re so worried about haven’t upgraded because either A) they aren’t interested in HF at all and are only interested in VHF/UHF, or B) they aren’t interested in amateur radio in the first place and got the license for emergency communications, storm spotting, flying drones or are “preppers” of one variety or another.

In any case, any Tech who is interested in the HF frequencies can get access simply by taking the General license test. It isn’t that hard. Seriously. It isn’t. A current Tech license holder could easily pass the General with minimal preparation.

I don’t particularly care if the ARRL gets this past the FCC or not, to be honest. It isn’t going to effect me one way or the other. I rather doubt the FCC is going to grant the ARRL’s petition. I suspect the FCC will point out to the ARRL that if Techs want access to HF they should just take the General test.

 

Catch Up: Monsanto Ceases to Exist, Heat, and Stuff!

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A picture of a rose because, well, why not?

That heading up there is not a typo. Monsanto ceased to exist as of June 7 when the merger with ag giant Bayer was completed. The name “Monsanto” will be retired completely within a few months, the company will no longer exist, and all of its business will be conducted under the Bayer name. The complete acquisition will take a few months longer. Bayer still has to sell off some of its business parts to satisfy the DOJ’s requirements for approval of the acquisition, but it’s pretty much a done deal.

If you don’t find these mergers concerning, well, you should. As the saying goes, “the only thing we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history”. The claim that these “mega-mergers” improve the efficiency of a company, reduce prices to consumers, etc., is pure nonsense. There were valid reasons for the rise of the “trust busters” in the late 19th and early 20th century as the abuses of the monopolies became so great and so obvious that not even their wealth and influence could prevent the outrage that caused the development of the anti-monopoly laws, lawsuits and legal actions that broke many of them up back then.

Trade Wars

Oh brother… I could go on and on about this nonsense. I won’t. I try to stay away from politics here because, well, why bother? You get flooded with enough of that nonsense in other forums. However, I find it more than a little ironic to have you-know-who here in Wisconsin celebrating giving away more than $4 billion in taxpayer money to a Chinese company to lure it to Wisconsin while at the same time engaging in never ending tweet-storms about unfair trade practices by that country.

Oh, I should add that the company quietly announced that, to paraphrase them, “oh, by the way, the factory we’re going to put up is going to be a fraction of the size we said it would, isn’t going to make the product we said it was going to make, and we’re only going to hire a few hundred people not the 13,000 we said, but that the big factory will be put up “real soon”. Maybe.”

What remains to be seen is where FoxCon is going to find any employees. The unemployment rate in the state is under 4%, and in some parts of the state it’s under 3%. Employers have tried hiring bonuses, improving benefits, even upping starting wages. Several companies here have now even dropped the high school diploma requirement.

How Hot Is It?

In a word, very. It hit 97 F here yesterday (Friday), with very high humidity. Heat index was up around 107 the weather people said. It’s supposed to be even worse today with a heat index pushing 110. It was already 83 when I got up at 5:30 this morning. Basically no one goes outside in this weather unless they absolutely have to.

I remember what it was like milking cows in this kind of weather. Dear lord, it was bad. The cows were miserable, we were miserable, the cats were miserable, the dog was miserable…

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I don’t know what in the world made me think taking this photo was a good idea. MrsGF makes me wear the dopey vest. Make it easier for the police to find my body when I get hit by a truck, I guess.

While I looked at the poor bike sitting there in the garage behind the car, and was momentarily tempted, not even I am crazy enough to go out on the back roads and trails on a bicycle in this kind of weather.

I’ve become addicted to biking, though. Whenever the weather is even close to being decent I want to get out and put at least a few miles on. Being addicted to biking isn’t a bad thing, of course. It’s healthy, fun, relaxing.

But definitely not when it’s this hot and humid.

Amateur Radio Stuff

Okay, I have to admit it, I’m a bit bored with the FT8 mode. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not agreeing with the curmudgeons who think FT8 is ruining amateur radio. FT8 is just one of a long line of technologies that was going to “destroy amateur radio” according to the GOBs (good ole boys).  If you get on some of the amateur radio forums like QRZ and listen to some of these people ranting, you’d think FT8 was the harbinger of the apocalypse, for heaven’s sake.

But dam, FT8 does work if you want to make contacts under bad conditions and with less that ideal equipment.

Speaking of the QRZ website, I don’t know what’s wrong with some of the people who stalk the forums. And I do not use the term “stalk” lightly. That’s what they seem to do. They haunt the forums just waiting to pounce on anyone they think they can get away with insulting. Newcomers to the hobby are the natural prey of these jackasses. The most innocuous question will result in them pouncing on them without mercy with snide remarks, sarcasm, insults, accusations of them not knowing what they’re doing.

It’s a shame, really. QRZ has some great resources and there are a lot of people in the forums who are genuinely willing to help when you run into problems or are looking for information. But this handful of jackasses really ruin things. The moderators really need to step up and shut this kind of crap down. Right now QRZ has become so toxic because of some of these people that I have started to tell newcomers to avoid it completely and when my current subscription runs out next year I might not renew it.

Astronomy Stuff

Screen Shot 2018-06-30 at 8.01.13 AM
my 11 inch Celestron set up in the driveway. I must confess I don’t use it very often because the thing is almost impossible for one person to set up. Just the optical tube goes about 70 pounds.

Newcomers to this blog or whatever it is may not know I’m also an amateur astronomer because I haven’t talked about that in a long time here. I have two telescopes, the big 11 inch Celestron shown here, and a 3 inch Meade. I’ve been fascinated with astronomy since I was a kid. But as much as I love astronomy, there are aspects of it that I find more than a little tiresome, the main one being so-called scientists who claim life is everywhere out there.

It seems NASA spokespersons and even a lot of professional astronomers have gone right off the deep end with this. Mars could have life. Or may have had life billions of years ago. Moons of Jupiter and Saturn could have life. Hell, according to some of these people, Pluto could have life because they think there may be liquid water under the crust. Venus, which is as toxic a place as you can imagine with temperatures of 700+ degrees and sulfuric acid rain could have life, they tell us. And…

well, it’s all BS. I’m sorry, it just is.

As the Fermi paradox points out, if life out there is as common as some people claim, where the heck is it? Fermi pointed out that, given the number of stars in the galaxy and the age of the universe, if there was any intelligent life out there, there should be some kind of evidence that it exists that should be obvious to us by now. So where is it?

Despite the PR fluff pieces coming out of NASA and from astronomers who really should know better, there is no evidence of life anywhere outside of the Earth. The SETI project has turned up nothing but a few questionable signals that could be from natural sources or from man made sources. The Mars rovers have turned up some interesting results,  yes, but any sign of actual life either now or in the past? No. A lot has been made of the presence of methane on Mars and they’re attempting to link that to some kind of life. But there are other, far more likely explanations for the presence of methane.

We have no evidence at all that there is life out there. None. All we have is speculation, theory, beliefs, claims, and no actual evidence.

A study by Oxford scientists Sandberg, Drexler and Ord that came out a short time ago, examined the Fermi paradox and the Drake equation and other factors with an unbiased eye and, well, the results aren’t good for the proponents of life being common. They found huge margins for error in the calculations and that the “evidence” presented to support wide spread life in the universe is little more than wishful thinking.

The Drake equation is pretty much worthless. The parameters assigned to the equation are, well, flat out guesses. No one knows for sure. The parameters are often wildly optimistic, failing to take into account known facts.

If you look at the actual facts, the results are less optimistic. As the authors said in their report, “When we take account of realistic uncertainty, replacing point estimates by probability distributions that reflect current scientific understanding, we find no reason to be highly confident that the galaxy (or observable universe) contains other civilizations.”

“When we update this prior in light of the Fermi observation, we find a substantial probability that we are alone in our galaxy, and perhaps even in our observable universe.

“‘Where are they?’ — probably extremely far away, and quite possibly beyond the cosmological horizon and forever unreachable.”

 

 

More Stuff!

Almost as soon as the weather got warmer the bike got pulled out of storage and I was out on it. It took me a few days to get back into it again, but it was easier than I thought it was going to be. Apparently doing the treadmill every day during the winter kept me from completely falling apart and it wasn’t long before it was comfortable to be back in the saddle and putting on more than a few miles.

IMG_0895This is an amazing time of year to be out in the countryside biking around. Everything is lush and green, everything is in flower this time of year. I sometimes struggle between the temptation to keep going to put on some miles in a reasonable amount of time and the temptation to stop every few hundred feet to take photos of some neat plant or flower as I rid around the backroads.

I wish the trail in the lead photo up there was a bit closer, though. The start of the trail is about four miles from town, but once you get on it, it runs for more than 30 miles all the way to Green Bay, with branches leading off into towns like Brillion.IMG_0901.jpg

This year I’m trying an app for my phone called aprs.fi. It uses the phone to tie into the APRS system. Automatic Packet Reporting system. It uses the phone to send and receive little bits of data back and forth to a network. It’s been used by amateur radio operators for many years now to send information, and one of its uses is position tracking. A lot of VHF/UHF transceivers have APRS capabilities built into them, and some transceivers have GPS built into them as well. They can be set up to periodically transmit the position of the radio to permit it to be tracked by others using the system.

MrsGf has a similar program for her iPhone plus the FTM-400DR transceiver in her car has APRS and GPS capabilities. The local ARES group she belongs to is just now looking into using APRS to track members of the group when they’re out in the field. Since APRS/GPS capable transceivers are still pretty pricy they’re looking at the APRS applications available for smart phones. Some work pretty well, others have problems, some serious. The one I use is aprs.fi and it seems well above average in it’s utility and capabilities. When the group was out doing volunteer communications for the Elkhart Lake Triathlon over the weekend a couple of people were using using some of the apps and I was able to track their positions in near real-time on a map.

IMG_0902I had it running when I was out on the bike Saturday and used it to plot my course when I did about 11 miles that morning. You can see the plot in the screen capture.

The question is why would I want to do this? Well, I’m out on the bike, on backroads or trails, and you never know what happens. Accidents, health issues, any number of things could happen that would incapacitate me. Yes, they can use the cell phone to try to find me, but trying to find the exact location of a cell phone is an iffy thing and often very inaccurate. The APRS app uses the phone’s GPS system so it’s much more accurate than trying to use the cell phone system to do the locating.

Certainly it’s a great technology for emergency services and ARES/RACES organizations should almost certainly be looking into it as a way of tracking their operators when they’re out in the field.

Let’s see, what else… The gardens are doing well. We’ve had to do a lot of watering. It’s been pretty dry around here over the last couple of weeks. Temperatures have been fairly cool after the heat wave we went through a few weeks ago.

They drag me into the clinic every 6 months so I spent the whole morning doing that. To make a long story short, everything checked out fine. All the numbers were where they are supposed to be. BP is still higher than it should be, but it’s no where near as bad as it was a year ago so I’m happy about that. And they’re delighted I’ve taken up biking. I think everyone was afraid that once I retired I was going to end up sitting on my butt all day in front of the radio or computer or television and it kind of surprised everyone that I started doing that last year.

The next thing I want to do is put together a low-power (QRP) transceiver that I can throw into a backpack and take out on the trail with me. I think it would be great fun to sit out in the woods or on a trail somewhere with an antenna strung up in a tree and trying to make contacts with just a couple of watts of power.

 

Rabbits, Cans and Antennas

Screen Shot 2018-06-05 at 6.07.48 AMWhile we live in town, we live in an area with large house lots, many trees, lots of bushes and a lot of rather lush vegetation, so we have the curse of the gardener, rabbits. Last year the little buggers ate all of my red runner beans almost as soon as they sprouted. There are mornings when I get up and I’ll see a half dozen of them in our yard or in the neighbors’ yards grazing on whatever the four legged locusts can gobble down. They’re getting more and more brave, too, coming out by mid afternoon in some parts of town. One of my neighbors tried live trapping them but had no success.

IMG_0891So to keep the little four legged vacuum cleaners out of our veggies we resort to fencing and one of the things MrsGF and I did over the weekend was put one up to keep them out of our produce. We got new fencing this year to replace the nasty looking chicken wire we used previously. It’s only 2 feet tall, a dark green color to make it less intrusive looking, and it’s fairly easy to put up. Hopefully it will keep the little stinkers out of our just barely sprouting beans.

Now you probably see all those #10 sized cans in there and you may not know about this trick. This is something MrsGF introduced me to years ago. When you first put seedlings out into the garden it’s something of a shock for them. They’ve just come out of a damp, warm, cozy little greenhouse and now are stuck out in the cold, cruel world and have to fend for themselves. The cans help to give them some shelter from the elements and protect them from the previously mentioned rabbits. Just get some empty #10 cans, cut the bottoms out of them, and push them about an inch into the soil around the newly transplanted seedlings. The only thing you have to remember is that when you finally pull the cans out after the plants are established is to give the can a twist before lifting it up or it can pull up large clods of earth which can disturb the roots.

IMG_0894

There are big changes coming for this area back here shown above. Right now it’s largely just decorative except for the lettuce bed behind the big rock. The problem back here is this area is really low and is almost underwater in the early spring, which makes it hard to grow anything except grass. That’s why we put in the raised beds which are off to the right out of sight. MrsGF and I decided this whole area is going to get raised up, perhaps yet this year if we get the time. We’re going to get decorative retaining blocks like the ones currently surrounding the lettuce bed, pull out all of the plants we want to keep, and then make the whole thing into a single raised bed about a foot above the height of the lawn.

Antennas

Well, we’ll have to move the antenna parts you see off to the right before we can start anything back there. Hopefully that tower you see laying back there that has been going to be put up “real soon now” for about 5 years will get put up this year. Maybe. And the GAP Titan vertical antenna will replace the Comet vertical as soon as I can corner eldest son and guilt him into helping.

The antenna tower… I traded a deep cycle marine battery for that with one of the ARES guys. He needed a battery for the power system in the emcomm trailer, he had this tower laying around that he just took down, so we made a swap. The tower was supposed to go up at the end of the garage and be the support for various antennas, including one for broadcast TV so MrsGF can watch PBS in the evening. (The problem with digital TV versus the old analog is that with the old analog if you were in a fringe reception area, you still could see and hear something. There would be static, yes, but you’d still get a watchable picture. If you’re in a fringe area with digital, you get nothing). Eldest son keeps claiming he’s going to help get it up the next time he gets over here.

Antennas are really my biggest problem when it comes to amateur radio. I play around with them, experiment, etc. but I haven’t come up with anything really any better than the off center fed dipole currently strung up from the garage to a couple of trees. It works reasonably well, but is way too low to the ground. And the biggest problem is that one leg of the dipole runs to a tree in the neighbor’s yard, and the neighbor is moving, so that means the antenna has to be moved too.

Like a lot of amateur radio operators, I’ve accumulated a lot of junk related to the hobby, including several different types of antennas. And despite claims from the manufacturers of many antennas, most of them don’t really work all that well. It’s basic physics, really. In order to be efficient, antennas for radio frequencies down in the shortwave (HF) portions of the amateur radio bands, like down in 80 or 40 meters, need to be pretty long. Your cell phone has a really, really tiny antenna, because it works with very, very high frequencies.

Antennas for the frequencies I work with are huge. We’re talking 80, 90 feet long or longer. My OCFD, if laid out straight, would be 135 feet long.

So if it needs to be that long, how can that GAP Titan antenna laying out there be only 21 feet tall? Well, it cheats, basically. It uses various tricks to make itself work better than it really should at first glance. It looks simple, but it isn’t. It’s actually a very complicated piece of equipment with various radiators and stubs and, well, antenna stuff. It would take more space than I have here to try to explain it all.

What it boils down to is you can’t get something for nothing. You can’t fool physics. You can make smaller, shorter antennas, but you sacrifice efficiency when you do that. I wince when I see some of the ads for some of the antennas on the market because I know the claims being made for the are pretty much bogus.