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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Last day of October in Wisconsin.

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

Now, finally, the amateur radio stuff!

The Dilemma

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Good grief, it actually works!

The Yaesu 818ND (that tiny black box leaning up on the gray box with the tiny blue lighted display), a Yaesu SCU-117, patched together with the laptop running FT8, feeding the alpha mag-loop antenna standing off to the left out of sight, and the darned thing actually works!

And I made a contact with the thing. Well, sort of. KI4FOG came back when I called CQ but wasn’t able to complete the contact, but still I’m pleased.

Then I looked at PSK Reporter to see if I was getting out and I was even more pleased.

I know that doesn’t look very impressive but you have to remember I’m running a whopping 2.5 watts into a loop antenna that is standing 5 feet underground in a basement. Considering all that, getting out at all is impressive I think.

Once I get a decent battery system set up and get outside with this thing, this is going to be fun!