Stuff Is Growing, Frogs, 500 HP Engine, CW, and What’s Coming Up

Let’s start off with this little guy.

These little guys are amazing critters. They’re tiny little things. That cable you see there is less than a half inch thick so you can see just how small he/she is. Frogs are some of the most amazing and, I think beautiful creatures around. I’m still astonished that we have these little tree frogs around here.

Speaking of trees, the pear tree looks like it’s getting a good start.

It is absolutely loaded with baby pears. That ought to make up for last year when we got maybe a dozen pears total off the whole tree.

The ornamental gardens are looking great here. The recent rains and warm weather has everything growing like crazy right now. Most of these plants have tripled in size in the last week or so. You can almost see them getting bigger. Oh, and the bird houses are occupied again this year. Looks like some type of wren?

We restrained ourselves and didn’t crowd things into the two raised beds this year. Just 6 tomato plants and the outer edges with onions. Even six is probably too many because we probably still have six months worth of canned tomatoes of various types on the shelf. But the lure of fresh tomatoes is something we just can’t ignore. And we can always give ’em away if we have too may.

This is garden faces south and west and is the most productive spot we have. Sheltered from the wind, with light concentrated here, it gets warm early and stays warm late into the fall. Have to be careful what’s planted here because the warm, sunny conditions means a lot of stuff like lettuce and radishes will bolt. Also it has to be watered a lot. But we usually get ridiculously amounts of produce out of this corner. The tripods in the back are for pole beans. There are various baby pepper plants protected with #10 cans, and more beans and parsley seeded down in front.

Time for a musical interlude. You may want to turn your volume up. Or maybe not?

When I start getting bored I take this thing out on the road. Great fun 🙂

People sometimes ask me what I’ve been doing since we can’t really travel or do much except putter in the garden. I’ve been playing amateur radio, of course, and trying to get better at CW. That’s morse code for you non radio people out there.

Doing CW is something I never really thought I’d get into. I’ve always been far more interested in the digital modes like PSK and JS8Call. But I also love QRP, using extremely small amounts of power to try to communicate, and what works best for QRP is CW. And unlike the digital modes, CW doesn’t require you to lug a computer along. So I’ve been spending about a half hour or more a day trying to learn and get better at this. I’m up to, oh, maybe two words a minute?

Then there’s this thing.

I’ve been looking at solar power and batteries to power my QRP gear and even my full power radios for some time but never got around to actually getting involved with solar because A) I’m lazy, B) I wasn’t sure I’d ever actually use it, and C) the stuff can get a bit expensive. But then this deal came along…

I have to admit I have very little experience with solar power. I never even heard of this company before this deal came along. But the stuff seems to get decent reviews and the price, well, I picked up the 20 Ah LiPo battery pack, with a built in 120V inverter (sort of), USB and 12V power outlets, built in high intensity LED lights, LCD display and other goodies, and a folding 40W solar panel for less than, well, let’s just say that I’ve dropped more money on a meal at a nice restaurant than I spent on this deal.

Anyway, I’ll be taking a closer look at this in the near future to see if it’s a real deal or not. I’ve only just taken a quick look at it, but right now it looks pretty good. Especially that folding solar panel. That thing looks like it’s very high quality. Well, we’ll see.

That’s it for now.

Reviewing the MFJ 8100K World Band SW Receiver Kit

Being stuck in the house “social distancing” (OMG I’m so bored) has some advantages, one of which is being able to get caught up on a lot of stuff. One of those things is the MFJ-8100K world band shortwave radio kit. That’s the little beastie you see in the photo below that I (ahem) stole borrowed from somewhere on the internet.

Damn, that’s pretty slick looking. It beats the heck out of what the average electronics kit looks like when it’s done. Most of them don’t even offer any kind of decent case. Whether it actually will look like this when it’s done remains to be seen because I haven’t actually built it yet as I write this. Instead of putting it together and taking some photos and talking about it after it’s all done, I’m going to do this live, so to speak, writing and photographing as I go along so you too can experience the joys and pains associated with putting something like this together.

I should warn you ahead of time that this could get pretty lengthy because I’ve done little more than just open the box and it is already looking like this is going to be a problem.

But let’s look at the basics a little more closely before we get started. It’s a world band shortwave receiver with 5 bands. They cover 3.5 – 4.3 mHz, 5.85 – 7.4 mHz, 9.5 – 12.00 mHz, 13.2 – 16.4 mHz and 17.5 – 22 mHz.

As for the basic design, this is a regenerative receiver, a design that dates back to, oh, the 1920s or so, and was quickly abandoned as soon as superhets were developed. And for good reason, as anyone who has ever fallen off their chair from the blast of noise if you tweak the regen just a tad too far and it goes into oscillation can tell you. About the only good thing regenerative receivers have going for them is a fairly low parts count and easy assembly. Well, that’s not really true. They can be decent receivers once you get used to their quirks, but with really high quality superheterodyne designs out there, why even bother with one of these? How did I even end up having this on the shelf in the first place? I don’t remember buying it. Do I have people breaking into the house and leaving me stuff instead of stealing it now?

The first thing I started wondering was why the heck is this thing so expensive?It’s going for $90, for heaven’s sake. And there is nothing exotic or hard to find in the electronics. While that variable capacitor is kind of pricey (that goes for about $20+ alone and I know that because I had to buy one of the things a few months ago) But other than that I think there’s maybe $10 worth of parts in the thing. I suspect that really fancy faceplate and heavy duty metal case probably costs more than the electronics inside does.

But let’s get on with this.

Opening the box and poking around.

This is what the promotional photos tells you is in the box.

First I should point out that this kit starting with the photos below is shown exactly as it came and while I assembled it. The box was still sealed and I hadn’t opened it until I started this. What it really looks like when you open the box is this:

Um, okay… Are those screws and nuts rolling around loose in the box? Yeah, they are. And not just screws and nuts and washers, we got electronic components floating around loose in there too. Oh, goodie.

Opening the box and finding components strewn about all over inside doesn’t exactly inspire confidence about the quality of a product. Whoever originally packed this thing and chucked in the little plastic bags holding the components hadn’t bothered to actually close up the plastic bags.

And as for the case, well, damn, that’s probably the best case I’ve ever seen for a kit in a long time. Beautifully finished, heavy steel, with an equally beautiful brushed polished steel faceplate.

You can’t get much better than that. See what I mean about the case probably costing more than the electronics? It’s – it’s shiny. Oooo

The rest of what was in the box looks like this:

The inductors on the right edge were not included in the kit. See text for explanation

As noted, most of the little baggies containing parts were open and had shed a considerable number of electronic components, screws, washers, etc. all over the inside of the box..

Half of “The Wall O’ Parts.” If I need something, it’s probably in there. Somewhere. Maybe. There’s even an emergency backup espresso machine in there

On the far right of the photo above you’ll see a strip of components held together with bits of yellow tape. Those are 3.3 uH inductors and those were not in the kit. I had to dig those out from my “Wall O’ Parts” because the kit wants one, and MFJ either thoughtfully failed to provide one because they figured I’d be getting bored by this time and needed to get up and stretch or something, or it got lost because of they left the baggies open. I expect I shall have to resort to the Wall O’ Parts several times as I try putting this sucker together. I’ve only just started to look at this and sort through parts and I’m already finding stuff missing, so I’m a wee bit irritated. There is nothing more upsetting than getting into an electronics kit and finding parts missing. Me, I have hundreds of components sitting on the shelf (well, if I can find ’em, that is) but the average person building this is not going to have that luxury and is going to be royally ticked off.

The circuit board looks reasonably well made and the parts locations are all nicely detailed. You could probably put it together without instructions if it weren’t for a few gotchas, like having to wind your own coil on a toroid.

Where’s the fecking Manual???

Now, the more sharp eyed amongst you might have noticed something missing from those photos up there. Where the heck is the manual/assembly instructions? Well, you don’t see it because there isn’t one. Instead of a manual there is a half sheet of paper telling me I need to download the manual from the MFJ website, giving me a URL to go to. So I go to the webpage as instructed and find a bad PDF of the circuit diagram which was so low resolution I couldn’t even make out the symbols or component labels. It looked like someone had almost deliberated fuzzed out all of the labels and component symbols, and the “manual” was actually a booklet in PDF telling me how to use the radio, not how to put it together. No assembly instructions. No readable schematic. Oh, goodie…

This exactly what the schematic I found looks like. Can you read that? Yeah, neither can I

A search on MFJ’s site using its own search function turned up a reference leading straight back to the useless info I’d already seen. I finally ran a general search on Google and found the real assembly manual tucked away somewhere on MFJ’s site and I printed it out.

(Update 3/27/20: And now I can’t even find that website, for pete’s sake! I was going to put the link to the correct PDF in here as I edit this before posting it, and when I just tried I get a “page not found” error. MFJ is apparently upgrading its website and I can’t find it at all. Good job, there, MFJ. I didn’t keep a copy of the PDF, but at least I printed the thing out so I can at least take a stab at this. But anyone else wanting that booklet, well, it looks like you’re on your own.)

The manual itself (if you can find it) is actually pretty good. Sort of. Clearly written, mostly, with lots of detail, but sadly lacking in illustrations.

So let’s sling some solder and see what happens.

Now that’s interesting. Look at the 4 inductors up there. Notice anything different about one of ’em? Yeah, the third from the left is about half the physical size of the other three. The big three were supplied with the kit while the small one is my replacement and is about half the physical size, but it is the right specification according to the color codes and I put it on my tester just to double check, and it should be the right one. Is this going to be an issue? No idea at this point. All of the inductors I have in stock are the smaller size.

Also, more missing parts. Just found two resistors are missing. Look at this pic:

R3 and R6 were missing so I had to pull those off the shelf. Notice that they’re an entirely different color from the kit supplied one, R17. I use the generally more reliable metal film resistors (the blue ones) while the kit supplies carbon resistors (the tan ones). Now very, very rarely the type of resistor can make a difference, so I’m hoping that isn’t the case here.

Later – Missing parts list now sits at 1 missing inductor, 4 missing resistors, and 2 missing capacitors.

And now there’s an issue with one of the electrolytic capacitors.

C14 there next to the IC socket is, according to the instructions, supposed to be a 10 uF cap, but the kit supplies a 1 uF. Or at least I think that’s the one because the 1 uF is the only one left. Do I follow instructions and put in a 10, or use the 1 uF supplied? I finally pulled a 10 uF off the shelf and used that in the hopes that the instructions are right and the parts picker was wrong. (Later – Apparently the 10uF was the right choice because now that it’s done it works)

Watch out for solder bridges or pins with cold solder joints. Here on the bottom row of pins, the third from the left is a bad joint.

And speaking of IC sockets, and this applies to whenever you’re soldering a socket, use caution soldering the pins because it is very easy to apply a tiny bit too much solder and end up with solder bridges shorting out the pins. And it’s easy to do a bad joint as well. Double check under a magnifier.

Time to install the variable cap which is how you tune this puppy. And…

And the solder lugs on the cap are way too big for the holes in the circuit board. I could either drill the holes out, which I don’t want to do because the solder pads are none too large to begin with, or I could trim off the lugs. I finally trimmed the lugs off.

Above here I’m trying to mount the volume control and the regen control. They don’t make this easy either. We’ve gone from holes being to small to holes being way, way too big. Note how some of those holes at the top edge of the board have been double drilled, which makes them way too large for the solder lugs on the potentiometers that are supposed to fit in there.

And speaking of soldering, look closely at those solder pads on that board. It’s difficult to see in the photos but almost all of them seem to be covered with some kind of oxidation that makes it difficult for the solder to adhere. I’ve been using a bit of a scotch brite pad held in a needle nose pliers to buff them before I solder anything.

Then there’s the band switch. The switch has 8 pins, the board has 7 holes. Hmm… Let’s look at the manual. Ah, here we are… Oh, nothing. Says nothing about what to do about the missing hole. Oh, goodie.

I ended up bending the extra pin out of the way and keeping my fingers crossed that it wouldn’t get mad at me. (Later – Don’t know if I was supposed to do this or not but the thing is working this way.)

That circle thing with the white wire wound around it is a coil made by winding 8 turns of wire around a provided toroid core. Some people get a bit weird about winding their own coils. I’m not sure why. A small one like this is a piece of cake. They don’t get nasty until you start having to make ’em with, oh, 30 or 40 turns.

And there it is, ready for testing. It runs off 9V and supposedly a 9V battery will last for weeks and weeks as long as you remember to turn it off. I don’t have a 9V battery, tho, so I hooked it up to my DC power supply and…

Damn, I wish my upload speed wasn’t about 15K baud so I could put up a video of this, but the damned thing actually works! I won’t go through all of the alignment procedures because they will bore you to tears. This is, believe it or not, an actual, working SW receiver. Not a very good one, granted, but it will pick up something.

But then there’s this

This is it fully assembled, mostly. You will note that I don’t have the knobs on. There is a reason for that. MFJ neglected to include the collar nuts you need to actually attach the front properly, anchor the controls down so I can put the knobs on. Now there were indeed collar nuts in the box. You probably saw that in the photos from the box opening. But they were for control shafts about twice the size of these. Sigh… Thanks again, MFJ. Complete assembly is going to have to wait until I can get the right sized nuts.

Okay, this has gone on long enough. Let’s wrap this up. What’s the overall assessment of this beastie?

Well, on the plus side it looks good. It is, amazingly enough, a working radio receiver, although not what I’d call a good working radio. It wasn’t hard to put together. Just about anyone who knows which end of a soldering iron to grab could put this together. Well, mostly, with the application of a bit of common sense. And that case sure looks cool.

Elenco AM/FM superhet kit under construction

But then we come to the negative side.

First problem is the price. They’re getting $90 for this thing, my friends. While the Elenco AM/FM receiver I put together a couple of weeks ago is far more sophisticated, much more sensitive, has an actual amplifier so it can drive a speaker and not just headphones, and sells for half the cost of the MFJ kit at about $44. Granted, it doesn’t come with the fancy case, but you can always cobble together something to throw the Elenco into. And when you’re done with the Elenco you’ll have a radio you can actually listen to, whereas the MFJ is never going to be more than a curiosity for most people.

Then there are the missing parts. A half dozen or so resistors, two capacitors, an inductor, the collar nuts to hold the controls in place, all missing. I don’t know if this was a problem with the person who packed up the parts in the first place, or if they were lost somehow because the bags weren’t closed, or what. My guess is that they were never in there to begin with, because while parts did spill out, the box was sealed and there were no openings for anything to fall out.

As I said before missing parts isn’t much of a problem for me, but for someone who doesn’t have a “Wall O’ Parts”, like some kid doing this for a STEM project or someone who just enjoys occasionally tinkering with kits, this could be a real problem. Sure, you could probably email MFJ and they’d probably replace the parts. Eventually. Maybe. But come on, they should have all been in there in the first place.

Then there’s the manual. Or, rather, the lack of one. What’s the matter with you people over at MFJ? You could throw an 100 page product catalog into the box but you couldn’t be bothered to run off a 30 page manual on the office printer and throw that in too? And then even worse, direct me to a website to find the manual that doesn’t exist? Or to utterly useless schematics?

I’m really disappointed with this because this could have been a really good kit if MFJ had bothered to just just be a little more careful.

So, because of the high price, the missing parts, the missing manual, etc. I can’t score the 8100 very high. On a scale of A to F, where A is excellent and F is abysmal, I’d give the 8100 kit a D+.

Catching Up

It’s been a while since I talked about what has been going on in the ag industry. And I’ve probably been babbling far too much about radio and other non-farming/gardening stuff lately anyway, so let’s take a look at the ag sector. And I’ll slip some radio stuff in at the end that you can ignore if you want.

USMCA (NAFTA 2.0) Passes the House

As I mentioned in a previous post the trade deal to replace NAFTA is finally done and being considered by Congress.. The House has passed one version of it now, with some minor changes, but it has yet to be dealt with by the Senate. It’s not likely it will get passed this year yet (it’s already Dec 21 as I write this) and considering what is going on in D.C., it’s anyone’s guess as to when the Senate will be taking it up. Despite all of the hype coming out of Washington, right now the agreement looks like it is going to be at least as bad as the original NAFTA was. There are some improvements in the protection of workers in Mexico and environmental protections, but other than that, it doesn’t really make many changes. It’s basically NAFTA 1 with a bandaid on it. The claims that it will create jobs for tens of thousands of people and boost the US economy are completely unrealistic. This is another of those deals where the only people who benefit from it are the big corporations and a handful of special interests, but that’s par for the course with agreements like these. The original NAFTA wiped out tens of thousands of jobs, drove a lot of US manufacturing into Mexico, and disrupted the Mexican economy, especially in rural areas. This one probably won’t be as disruptive, but it isn’t going to help much. You can go look up the analysis of the treaty yourself, but right now it looks like it is going to have little or no positive effects on the US economy, and might even be worse for us than the original treaty was.

Trade War Update

It looks like things might finally be calming down a bit with China on the trade front. The administration has been claiming agreements have been made and that China is going to start buying massive amounts of soybeans and other agricultural products from the US. And, well, no, they aren’t. At least not the quantities that they’re claiming in D.C. Some of the numbers I’ve been seeing are simply ridiculous. Things are getting better, yes, but don’t look to China to start importing massive quantities of anything from us. There might be some buys, yes, but I suspect most of those are going to be little more than token purchases with few exceptions.

China lost half of it’s entire pig production because of African Swine Fever. It seems to have finally gotten the outbreak under control, but it’s going to be years before things are close to normal. Most of the soybeans China had been buying from the US was going to pig feed. So it’s unlikely it will be making massive soybean buys to feed a pig herd that doesn’t exist any more.

One thing that has improved hugely for US agriculture is China increasing the amount of pork and chicken. Because of ASF China’s lost half of its pig production, which has caused food prices to increase and there is a shortage of protein. So China has increased its buys of US pork and it recently granted permits and licensing to Tyson to sell US chicken in China. While this will certainly help the pork and chicken producers in the US, this is going to be a temporary bump that will only last until China can rebuild it’s pig herds.

African Swine Fever

ASF continues to be a major problem not only in China, which lost over half of its pigs, but also throughout South East Asia. Serious outbreaks are going on in Vietnam and the Philippines. In Sumatra it’s killed about 33,000 pigs. It’s also been found in North and South Korea, Mongolia, Cambodia, and Myanmar, as well in eastern Europe and parts of Africa. Some people feel it’s only a matter of time before it hits Australia despite it’s extremely strict regulations. For some reason people keep trying to smuggle pork from the ASF contaminated countries into other places. Smuggling is an ongoing problem in the US. We confiscate tons of sausages and other pork products from these countries that airline passengers try to smuggle through in their luggage, and even whole shiploads of pork from them. Australia confiscated 32 tons of pork products just from passengers and mailed packages alone in the last half year, half of which was contaminated with the virus. The virus itself hasn’t been seen in the U.S. yet, but it is in the wild pigs in Europe which is making everyone over there more than a little nervous. The US has a pretty good wild pig population, and while they aren’t a big issue (yet) here in Wisconsin, the DNR has issued an advisory to hunters with just about any kind of hunting license to shoot wild pigs, no “season”, no bag limit, just shoot ’em. They’re a huge problem in a lot of states, causing massive amounts of damage. Plus they carry a lot of diseases. If ASF ever gets into the wild pig herd here we’re going to be in trouble.

It was a Rough Year in the Midwest


That’s not one of my photos over there. MrsGF’s surgeries and other things kept me from getting out with the camera, but that is pretty much how it looked around here this year, especially at harvest time. Water everywhere. We officially had the wettest year ever. According to one report I read the longest dry spell we had without rain was three days. That sounded a bit odd to me so I started digging through some of the weather data and it isn’t far from the truth.

By anyone’s standards, it wasn’t a very good year for midwest farmers. Almost non-stop rain made it difficult to get anything done. There were delays in planting, delays in harvest, reduction in yields, all because of the wet weather. Around here there are still a lot of soybean and corn fields that haven’t been harvested at all because of the rain.

Corn prices never broke $4, although soybean prices weren’t horrible. But on top of relatively low corn prices, we had propane shortages which made getting the corn dried difficult and expensive.

The only bright spot was that milk prices finally came up to a fairly decent level for the first time in years. Class III milk is currently sitting at over $19 on the commodities market, but it doesn’t look like it will stay there much longer. January and February prices are down to $17 on the futures market.

Housing Issues

As if farmers didn’t have enough to worry about, finding employees continues to be a major problem both here in Wisconsin and in the ag business throughout the country. And as if that isn’t bad enough, an increasingly serious problem is where the heck are your employees going to live even if you do find some? This is a problem for almost every employer around here, not just farmers. Chances are good that employees aren’t going to be able to afford to live anywhere reasonably close to where they actually work. There is virtually zero housing in this town that would be affordable for the average low income worker. And it’s not going to be getting better any time soon. The town is putting in a new subdivision, and is quite proud of itself for doing so, but it isn’t going to actually help the average factory or farm worker around here because all of those new houses are going to be in the $180K to $250K range. What we really need are apartments that rent for about, oh, $500 – $600 a month, not houses that will have $1,500 to $2,000 a month mortgage payments.

What’s happening here is that we have a larger and larger population of people who live here, but don’t actually, well, live here, if that makes any sense. Yes, their houses are here, but their entire lives are up in the Fox Valley area about 20 miles away (the cluster of cities and towns up in the corridor that runs from Appleton, Neenah, Menash, and extends up to Green Bay). They can’t afford a house up in the Fox Valley any more, but they can afford one here. So while this may be their residence, their entire lives are centered around the Fox Valley. They buy groceries there, go to restaurants up there, meet their friends up there, do all their shopping up there. So they may live here, but they don’t actually live here. They don’t patronize local businesses, don’t send their kids to school here, don’t participate in local social events, and aren’t really part of the community.

So not only do we not have housing that is affordable by the average person bolting together snowblowers for $14 an hour, we have an increasing percentage of the population of the town who aren’t really engaged with the community at all. Their residences are here, yes, but they live their lives up in the Valley. They almost totally disengaged from the community they live in. And as a result we no longer have a clinic, no longer have a real grocery store, no longer have a pharmacy… Well, you get the idea.

It’s especially difficult for the immigrant community who make up the majority of labor in low paying jobs like farming, manufacturing (they like to talk about how well manufacturing pays – yeah, right. Starting wages at the snowblower place are about $12.95 an hour with no benefits and technically they don’t even work for the company, but for a “temp” agency.) They’re glad to get the jobs and the employers are glad to have them because they can’t find anyone else to do the work. But where are they going to live?

The Move

I’ve been talking for a while about moving all my electronics gear, the radio equipment, etc. down into a new shop/radio shack in the basement so MrsGF can take over our shared office so she’ll have room for her own projects. She enjoys sewing, making things, and would like to do quilting, but her existing workspace is a tiny, virtually unheated room upstairs, and there isn’t the room for it up there. Plus its cold in the winter up there. And even with her new knees I don’t want her to have to go up and down stairs a lot. So she’s going to be taking over the office area and I’m moving into the basement.

Now that she’s pretty much recovered from the 2nd knee replacement, I’ve started moving the “big stuff” down there. I have my primary computer down there now (I actually have space for the drawing tablet now!), the big TS-990, the antenna tuner, etc. Much to my surprise, I actually remembered how all of the cables hooked up and when I fired it all up everything actually worked! First time that’s ever happened.

I still need to do a lot of work down there. I have walls that still need to be painted. I still don’t have the electrical straightened out. I need to add at least two outlet boxes on the wall by the computer and radios, plus I need a 240V outlet there for the amplifier. Not sure why because I haven’t used the amp in years, but would be nice if I could.

I didn’t show it in the photos because it’s a huge mess at the moment, but behind me and to the left of that photo is my work bench which is covered with misc. parts, test equipment, tools, bits and pieces of RaspberryPi computers and accessories and breadboards where I’m testing radio circuits intended for the receiver I’m building. And that leads us to…

Update On The Great Radio Fiasco Project

Nice soldering technique she’s got there… (This image is somewhat infamous. Can you see why?)

I bet you thought I conveniently ‘forgot’ about that project because I am the seventh laziest person in the state (hey, I’ve gotten better, I used to be third). I haven’t, though. I’m still puttering along with this thing, even though I haven’t even fired up a soldering iron yet. Mostly I’ve been doing research. There’s no point in reinventing the wheel. Considering that radio has been around for like a gazillion years, someone, somewhere, must have already published plans for a radio receiver that I could steal (cough cough) borrow, right?

I had some basic criteria in mind when I started this. First it had to be as simple as possible, something that just about anyone who, unlike the young woman in the photo up there, knows how to use a soldering iron without suffering third degree burns can put together. Second, it had to use easily available parts, stuff the average person could get from Amazon or one of the parts suppliers like Mouser. Third, it had to be cheap. I want to encourage people to experiment and build stuff, not blow the family’s entire grocery budget for the month on exotic electronics parts. Fourth, it was going to use “old school”, so to speak, construction techniques and components. No printed circuit boards, no ICs, no SDRs, no surface mount devices, etc.

And fifth and possibly most important, it had to be a genuinely useful radio receiver that people could actually use. There are dozens, even hundreds of plans out there of various types for things like crystal radios and one transistor receivers and other nonsense that… Well, okay, so they might work, under absolutely ideal conditions, with a great deal of fiddling around, and if you live right next door to a 100,000 watt transmitter. But in the real world none of those actually work very well, if at all.

Anyway, I’m looking at various ideas and sketching some things out and doing some experimenting, and hopefully in a short (short? Ha!) time I’ll have something to show for all of this. Hopefully something that actually works. What’s been discouraging is that the schematics and projects I’ve found often contain such basic, fundamental mistakes that it makes me believe that the author never actually built the project himself and just, well, stole it, to be blunt, from someone else who also hadn’t actually built it either. I’ve been seeing things like electrolytic capacitors installed backwards, emitter and collector pins on transistors reversed, wrong pinouts shown on ICs like opamps and similar basic errors that should have been caught if anyone had bothered to actually look at the schematics.

And that’s it for now.

Roses of Winter and Holy Cow it is Bloody Cold Plus Some Radio Stuff

Apparently Mother Nature wasn’t satisfied with deluging us with snow a month early, now she’s trying to freeze us with temperatures we usually don’t see until well into January. It’s about 3 degrees (F) out there, with windchills down in the -10 range. Sheesh…

Meanwhile, MrsGF has this growing in the living room. Just took these photos the other day-

Yeah, roses. I’ve put up photos of this before, but I figured this plant would go dormant or something by now. But it just keeps right on blooming.

This thing started out as one of those goofy little teacup roses, a tiny plant in a cheap cup that they sell for a few bucks on Mother’s Day or Valentine’s Day. Think I paid all of $7 for it, oh, must be at least two or three years ago. And after we got sick of it sitting around the house MrsGF said what the heck, let’s put it in a big pot and see what happens and the dopey thing just kept growing and flowering. We were putting it in the basement, letting it go dormant over winter, but this year she thought she’d put it in the living room where it could get some light and keep watering it, and well, it apparently likes it there, and it’s been flowering on a regular basis all winter so far.

I asked her how she’s keeping it flowering and she swears she’s just watering it and isn’t doing anything else. Personally I figure witchcraft is involved.

The MagLoop Antenna

I talked about this antenna before, and I continue to be more than pleased with it. Since my dipole came down in the last snowstorm it’s been the main antenna for my TS-990, sitting on the floor behind me in the office. And it is doing ridiculously good.

This is putting 15 watts into an antenna sitting just behind me in my office this morning.

The Great Radio Fiasco Project

I mentioned this before, but let me summarize what I’m trying to do here. For reasons I won’t get into right now, I challenged myself to build, from scratch, a decent radio receiver, preferably shortwave. Emphasis on the word “decent” because I could throw together a few parts and end up with – well, with something that would receive, well, something that might be a radio signal, and pump it into a speaker and you’d hear some sound that might be interpreted as a radio transmission by someone with bad hearing. It could technically be called a radio receiver, but, well, let’s face it, it wouldn’t exactly be useful.

When I first conceived of this project I was like how hard can this be? In those WWII movies the Resistance throws together a radio out of bits of string, a piece of wire, an old cigar box and bits off a horse (don’t ask me what bits, I don’t know, ask them, they built the thing) and call up Churchill at Bomber Command and call in an air strike on Hitler’s outhouse. And the Good Ole Boys in amateur radio weep bitter tears of disappointment over the fact that modern day hams don’t build stuff any more like they did, when they’d throw together a 1,500 watt amplifier, transmitter and superhet receiver in an afternoon, out of parts they salvaged from old washing machines. And bits off a horse for all I know.

Here’s the thing, though – 95% of that (maybe even 98%) is pure BS. I’m sorry, but it just is.

The days of being able to salvage anything useful from discarded electronics are long gone. Modern SMD (surface mount devices) and robotic assembly methods make it virtually impossible to salvage anything useful from relatively modern equipment. And while you can buy discrete components like resistors, capacitors, etc. in the more common values, increasingly it is difficult to find a lot of stuff in anything but SMD form, and in quantities of 1,000 or more. I was trying to find what had once been a very common opamp the other day. It is still available. But if I want to get it from a US supplier I can only buy it in quantities of 1,000 or more, and in SMD format. If I want it in the traditional 6 pin IC form, and only want a few of them, it looks like I’m going to have to order it from China and it won’t get here until mid-March.

Nor are parts cheap. Oh, some are, true, but not the kind of stuff I’m looking for. A single variable capacitor I need for a project sells for $25. And I need two of them. So I’m going to have $50 stuck in that project before I even get started on it.

And then there’s the design of the equipment you want to build. If you were going to set out to build your own radio receiver, probably the first thing you’d do is fire up Google and look for something like “build your own radio” and find, well, hundreds and hundreds of hits that are utterly worthless, along with a few sites that might have actual plans to build something. Only most of those plans are for useless crystal radios and other nonsense. And the designs that do look useful are probably going to be wrong and no one is going to tell you how to fix it when you build it and it doesn’t work. In fact, most of the designs I saw out there were copies of stuff pulled out of old radio or electronics magazines from the 1960s or 70s that didn’t work in the first place.

(Sidenote: I’m convinced that the building plans in all those electronics magazines published in the 50s, 60s, 70s, etc. were never actually built by anyone because about six or eight months after the plans were published there’d be a “corrections” item pointing out that they forgot this part, or the wiring was wrong and if you’d actually build the thing it would have exploded, electrocuted your cat or something.)

So the question is, can I build a decent radio receiver from scratch? Probably. Will it work? Maybe. Can I do it for less than what it would cost to just go buy one? No way in hell. Will it work as good as even a cheap piece of junk commercial radio? Almost certainly not.

So why am I doing this? Uh, because I’m a stubborn old goat?

Catching Up With Stuff

Well, there’s no doubt that winter is here. With a vengeance. Still, it could be worse. Up in Washburn (really nice little town along Lake Superior) they got 31 inches of snow from the storm. I rather like winter, but in small doses. Winter is best experienced by gazing out at the snow from the inside of a nice warm house. My favorite winter activity is hunkering down in my warm corner of the basement where I can play with radios, electronics, and computers. So you might see more items about ham radio and electronics until the spring thaw finally comes.

JS8Call Ver. 2 Just Released

Revision 2 of JS8Call by KN4CRD was just released a few days ago after coming out of beta testing. I’ve been running the beta versions for weeks now and can tell you that the new version is stable, works very well, and is a huge improvement over version 1. Ver. 2 now includes a turbo mode that more than doubles the speed of communications from about 15 WPM to about 40 WPM. There’s no such thing as a free lunch, of course, so that increase in speed comes at a cost. Bandwith in turbo mode is significantly wider and it isn’t as sensitive to weak signals. But you can always drop back to the original slow mode if you have trouble making a contact.

What’s great about JS8Call and it’s cousin, FT8, is that when using these modes of communications you don’t need to invest thousands of dollars in equipment and antennas in order to talk to people, even when radio propagation conditions are as poor as they are right now. Because these modes work so well with very low signal levels they can permit communications under even very poor conditions that shut down voice and even other digital modes.

Antennas

You probably remember that photo over there on the left from the other day if you follow this blog. That’s the remains of my off center fed dipole antenna. A dipole antenna is a wire antenna configured in a sort of “T”. The vertical base of the “T” is the feed line or coax going to the transmitter. The horizontal lines to the left and right at the top of the “T” are the legs of the antenna that extend out a considerable distance. In this case, if I remember right, and I probably don’t, one leg of that “T” was about 40+ feet long and the other was about 90 feet long. It was strung up between some trees here, about 10 – 15 feet off the ground. It really should have been much higher up, but that was as high as I could get it, and sometimes you have to work with what you have and adapt.

I was very surprised that it came down, even in the snowstorm. While it was encrusted with snow, there wasn’t that much snow on it. And if it would break, I expected it to break at the lines at the end that held it up. I never expected the wire itself to break like that. I expected the GAP Titan vertical to collapse before that wire would break, but the vertical survived just fine. The counterpoise rods were bent almost to the ground from the weight of the snow, but once they were cleaned off they snapped back into the right position.

Since my main transceiver, the TS-990, was hooked to the OCFD while the vertical is hooked up in the basement to the 450, that means I had no antenna for the 990 because I’m too lazy to try to thread 30 feet of coax through the basement and up into the office to the 990, especially since all the radio equipment is going to get moved down there in the near future. So I’m running the 990 off the Alpha mag-loop antenna at the moment so I can still fiddle with radios up in the office. And the results are embarrassing, really. I was playing with FT8, running about 15 watts into the mag-loop, and according to PSK Reporter I was getting results almost as good as I’d been getting using the OCFD at 75 watts.

What the hell ever happened to NAFTA?

The current administration turned NAFTA into a campaign issue, claiming that it was bad for the US and needed to be scrapped and that they would negotiate a much, much better deal called USMCA. And do it in just a few weeks…

Yeah, sure they would. The “few weeks” has turned into almost two years, and while a treaty has been negotiated, it still hasn’t been passed by either the US or Canada, although Mexico has approved it. And it looks like it won’t be approved until well into 2020. If ever.

And as for it being so much better than NAFTA – yeah, well, no. About 95% of it is almost exactly the same as what the administration trumpeted as being “the worst deal in US history”. And what has changed doesn’t really amount to much. In fact, according to an analysis by the IMF the only real beneficiaries of the deal are Canada and Mexico. The US ends up on the short end. At best, best, the US might see a positive outcome of 0.1% of GDP. That’s one tenth of one percent. And an increase of about 175,000 jobs, not the “millions” that the administration claimed. And at worst the US might actually lose about $800 million a year on the deal.

So much for the “beautiful” deal the administration promised it would negotiate.

Well, if it ever actually passes, that is. The Congress is not exactly happy with some of the things in this treaty, and with all of the crap that’s going on in DC at the moment, plus ramping up for the election, well, the chances of USMCA actually getting through Congress are pretty slim at the moment.

The Foxconn Fiasco

I’ve talked before about the whole Foxconn fiasco, but let me recap briefly. Foxconn is one of the largest manufacturers of electronics in the world. It’s claim to fame is that it once treated its employees so badly that it had to install anti-suicide nets around the roofs of its buildings because employees were jumping off the buildings to kill themselves rather than work for the company.

Anyway, here it is, a little more than a year since I wrote that, and we still don’t have a factory. Or much of anything. And we still don’t know exactly what the hell FC is going to do. They’re building something down there at the site, but no one seems to be sure what the hell it really is. Supposedly it’s what they call a “Gen 6” LCD flat panel display factory, but that makes no sense at all because there is a glut of flat panels that size on the market and there’s no way Foxconn could ever make those panels here in the US at a competitive price.

One thing we can be sure of, is that Wisconsin, if you’ll excuse the expression, got screwed.

A new study by George Mason University concerning Wisconsin’s deal with Foxconn (and of government subsidies in general) has discovered what a lot of us have been claiming all along, that the state will never get back all of the money being given to the company in the form of concessions, cash payments, tax breaks, and billions of dollars in roads, sewers, electrical infrastructure and other things being paid for by the taxpayers of the state. That money will never be recovered, and we would have been much, much better off investing that money in things like education which would have made the people of the state smarter, better trained and better at adapting to a changing job market.

The FC situation is the most visible because so much money is involved, but if you look at other “deals” the state has made with other companies, almost none of them have worked out as well as the state has claimed they would. The state’s own figures show that when looked at as a whole, these “job creation” deals the state has made have produced only about 34% of the jobs the state and the companies involved have claimed they would produce. The WEDC, the agency in charge of this, has proven to be exceptionally good at funneling money to lobbyists, big campaign donors and outright criminals, while being rather bad at actually stimulating job growth in the state.

Let’s see, what else?

Down in the workshop I’ve pushed the computers off to one side and it’s littered with transistors, diodes, capacitors, coils and other bits of stuff as I try to go “old school” and build my own shortwave receiver from scratch. I got into a discussion with Chris over at Off Grid Ham in response to an item he’d posted about the importance of short wave broadcasting, and I started wondering just how hard it would be to build a shortwave receiver from scratch. And doing it the old school way, with no SMD components, no ICs, not even printed circuit boards. I should be able to do this, I told myself. I know the theory and I used to be an electronics technician, for pete’s sake. It shouldn’t be all that hard to do, right?

Yeah, well, it depends. Yes, I can breadboard a simple receiver that will pick up very strong signals. Sometimes. If the phases of the moon are correct and I keep my fingers crossed and hold my breath. But if I want something that qualifies as a decent radio receiver, well, that’s not so easy. Just trying to find the parts I need for this project is proving to be an issue. So we’ll see where this goes. If something ever comes of it I’ll let you know.

There are a group of older amateur radio operators who hang out on the forums over at QRZ and other places who constantly complain that modern AROs are, well, idiots, to be honest. They complain that us ‘modern’ hams don’t build our own equipment like they did, don’t know which end of a soldering iron to hold, and that we could save tons of money if we’d build our own transmitters, receivers, etc like they did back in the ‘good old days’.

The problem with that whole attitude is that it doesn’t reflect reality. Most hams back in the 50s and 60s didn’t build their own equipment, they bought it off the shelf. If they didn’t, manufacturers like Collins, Hallicrafters, National, etc. never would have existed. Some did build their own, yes, but the fact is that most AROs bought their equipment and didn’t build their own.

Another problem, as I’ve been discovering, is that anything I can build isn’t going to come even close to the performance specifications of modern equipment.

The other issue is cost. Yes, I could build, for example, a VHF transmitter and receiver. Probably. But it would take me months to do it, and hundreds of dollars in parts, plus a few thousand bucks in additional test equipment I’d need.

Or I could go to Amazon and pick up a generic Baofeng hand held VHF/UHF transceiver for $30.

Anyway, I’ll keep you posted on The Great Receiver Project. If it ever goes anywhere, that is. I’m going to start out simple and try to put together a classic 1960s style transistor radio first and if I can get that working, I’ll go from there.

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…

JS8Call Ver. 2 Released

JS8Call Ver. 2 is now out of beta and is available for general release. I’ve been using the beta version for some time now and I can tell you that it is a significant improvement over Ver. 1. It’s available for Linux, Win10, RaspberryPi and OSX, which should cover just about anyone reading this.

Most of you probably won’t care and are going “WTF is this JS8 thing?”, but if you’re into amateur radio, you probably already know what it is or have at least heard of it.

JS8 is built on the same communications technique used with the wildly popular FT8 digital mode, which means it is extremely robust at working with very weak signals as FT8 is. But FT8 is only good for very brief, pre-programmed exchanges that contain only enough information to qualify as a “contact” for contesting and awards purposes. You can’t really talk to anyone using it. JS8Call changes that because it allows people to actually chat with one another while retaining FT8’s ability to work with very weak signals.

JS8Call’s biggest problem has been that it is very slow when compared to other modes of communications. Because of bandwidth restrictions and other issues, it maxed out at around 15 words per minute and often was considerably slower than that. It worked well, but you needed some patience.

This new version offers a “turbo” mode that boosts that up to about 40 WPM, which pushes it up to speeds approaching that of other digital modes. There is a cost for this, though. The turbo mode uses a slighter wider bandwidth, and sensitivity drops a bit.

JS8 also offers a lot of other goodies, like call groups, message forwarding, relays and some other very useful features.

So if you’re into amateur radio and digital communications, click the link up there and go take a look.