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.

Tumblr, and the Ever Popular Misc. Stuff

I have to admit that I haven’t been keeping track of what’s been happening on the blogging/social media platform since I abandoned it years ago. I just completely lost interest in it. I wouldn’t have been surprised if the service had simply disappeared because I’d heard little about what was going on over there following Verizon’s decision to eliminate “adult” content on the service. Since probably 60% of the content on Tumblr might be considered “adult” in one way or another, it didn’t bode well for the survival of the service, so I just assumed it was going to go the way of dozens of other social media services and gradually fade away into nothing.

But Tumblr is once again back in the news. Verizon just sold Tumblr to Automattick Inc., the parent company of WordPress. When Yahoo bought Tumblr originally they paid $1.1 billion for the company. Automattick bought it off Version for — wait for it — less than $3 million according to The Verge.

How the hell does a company go from a value of over a billion dollars to less than three million? Well, it wasn’t easy. Yahoo did the best it could to kill the service off, and Verizon tried to nail the coffin shut and bury it.

“Tumblr is a marquee brand that has started movements, allowed for true identities to blossom and become home to many creative communities and fandoms,” Verizon Media CEO Guru Gowrappan said in a statement. “We are proud of what the team has accomplished…”

Well, I’d be proud too. It isn’t everyone who can take a billion dollar company and drag it’s value down to the point where it’s worth less than a fancy house. Takes real talent to do that. (We really need a sarcasm font)

As for what WordPress is going to do with the thing, that’s anybody’s guess. From what I’ve been hearing even they aren’t sure what they’re going to do with it. I think they bought it more because it was cheap. Sort of like when you go to a garage sale and find that $500 piece of electronics you really wanted way back when being sold for $1 and you can’t resist buying it even though its obsolete and you don’t know what you’ll do with it.

Hemp

The whole hemp situation is just getting more and more silly. When it comes to hemp and agriculture I don’t think I’ve ever seen this much hype and nonsense being spouted by people who really should know better. I hear a lot of people proclaiming that hemp is going to “save” agriculture, despite the fact that no one seems to be able to actually make any money at it. At least not here in Wisconsin. Everyone I’ve heard of who has tried raising hemp here in Wisconsin so far has lost money on it. In some cases, they lost a lot of money on it.

And speaking of CBD, what a fiasco that’s turned into. Cannabidiol, or CBD, is being sold everywhere it seems. People are selling edible products laced with CBD (or what they claim is CBD) all over the place. There are supplements and food products and oils and lotions, even CBD products for pets for heaven’s sake. And all of them make various health claims. Depending on who you talk to, the stuff will cure everything from dandruff to cancer. And almost none of those claims are actually true. CBD seems to have some benefits for some types of epilepsy, and may be beneficial to help alleviate symptoms of arthritis, and that’s about it. Every other health claim you hear is unproven and quite probably an outright lie.

The other thing about CBD is that it isn’t legal to sell. At least not as it’s being sold by most places. Seriously. That link up there will take you to the FDA page that explains it. But to give you a summary, it is illegal to sell any food product, supplement or other product intended for human or animal consumption that contains CBD. The only exceptions are FDA approved drugs that contain the substance as part of their makeup, and there are only about three of those at the moment.

Why haven’t the feds gone after the places selling it? Well, they have, at least the more outrageous violators. But the rest, the FDA doesn’t have the money and other resources to go after everyone, especially when it’s being sold at every gas station, every convenience store, tattoo parlors, hardware stores…

The other problem is that you don’t know what the hell is actually in that CBD laced product you’re buying. There are no standards, no testing programs, no inspections, no nothing. So basically you have absolutely no idea what is actually in that stuff.

Ooo, purty flowers…

Antenna Update

If you remember from last time, I finally got the Gap Titan-DX vertical antenna up, but still didn’t have it functional because I didn’t have the right connectors for the coax. A trip down to the local Radio Shack (well, I call it that even though it isn’t really technically a Radio Shack any more) and a rummage around in the parts bins turned up the adaptor I needed, and it is officially on the air.

It still needs some tweaking. The SWR on some bands is higher than I really like, but I expected that. I haven’t yet tried to actually tune it by adjusting the stubs and it’s located right alongside of the garage and it’s aluminum rain gutters, which I’m sure isn’t helping things. Does it work? Oh, yeah! I hooked it to the Kenwood TS-990 with a Palstar auto-tuner, and it most definitely works very, very well. Mostly I’ve been using it with FT8 and holy cow, it gets out. It’s been giving me much better results than my OCFD antenna. I’ll put together a post specifically about the antenna with more details in the future.

ASF China Update

ASF (African Swine Fever) is sweeping through China no matter what they try to do to stop it. According to Rabobank (a huge multinational financial services company that specializes in agriculture) China will probably lose half or more of its pork production by the end of the year because of the disease. Just think about that for a moment – China is the largest producer of pork in the world, and it is facing losing half or even more of it’s pig population because of this disease. That’s going to have huge repercussions through the country’s entire economy.

Why is ASF so hard to stop? Because it is highly contagious (fortunately it doesn’t harm human beings), the virus can survive for a long time outside of the host animals, there is no treatment for it, there is no vaccine for it, and it kills almost all the pigs that come down with it. The only way to try to combat the disease is to try to prevent it from spreading, which is extremely hard to do.

That’s about it for now. Frankly I’m getting bored. It’s nice out and I could be out on the bike or puttering in the garden or playing radio, so I’m out of here 🙂

Chilton Antique Tractor Show and Well, It’s Been Busy…

… here over the last few weeks. I’m not sure what the heck happened after I retired. I was supposed to have all this free time to play with amateur radio, do gardening, dabble more in photography, go fishing, etc. Instead it seems I have less time than when I was working full time. Oh, well.

We did go up north last weekend to visit some friends, although we did run across this —

We came across the rolled over milk tanker about 10 miles from the house. Fortunately no one got seriously hurt. I think he was empty because there was no leakage when we came across the scene just after it happened. It was on a roundabout, and this happens on a regular basis with these big trucks. They hit the roundabout too fast and flip over trying to make the corner.

The annual Chilton steam engine and antique tractor show was this weekend and that’s something I try to get to every year even though it makes me feel so old sometimes to see equipment that I used to run when I was a kid or teenager now classified as “antique”. Although to be fair a lot of the equipment we had on the farm back then was probably already antique by the time we got our hands on it.

This year the big surprise was this —

Now if you’ve never seen anything like that before, it’s for a good reason. They never made many of these, and there are only three of them left in the world from what I learned talking to the guy who was operating it. When I first saw it, it was largely blocked from sight and all I could see was part of the front with the engines and I thought someone had lugged a Shay type locomotive to the show.

Yes, it’s fully operational. This isn’t just a static display, it actually runs.

What the hell is it? It’s a log hauler that was used up until the 1930s to pull huge sleds carrying logs through the woods during the winter. Only about 175 of them were ever built. It could pull up to 300 tons of logs on as many as 25 sleds at a time. I ran across this when I was looking up more info on it-

I can’t even begin to imagine what it must cost to keep that engine repaired and operational. It must be incredibly expensive. I’m very glad they do, though. If it weren’t for people who support the preservation of equipment like this all we’d have are photos. They show it at Wabeno, where its home is, but they also take it out to at least one of these shows a year.

As I said, sometimes it makes me feel very old when I go to these and run across equipment I used to use, like this Massey 44. I used one of these when I was a kid. For a long time it was our primary tractor that did everything from hauling out manure to chopping feed to plowing. And while it may look pretty and make me feel nostalgic, when it comes down to it it was a nasty, nasty tractor to actually use. The front end was too light. Those front wheels would be entirely off the ground as often as not when it was pulling a heavy load. It was difficult to steer. It had mechanical issues. The engine was decent, but ours tended to overheat and the transmission wasn’t very good. And it sucked gas like you wouldn’t believe.

What I like about these shows too is that it gives us a glimpse into what life was like for our not so distant ancestors. Just the simple job of washing clothing was a major operation not that long ago.

Yes, that’s a washing machine being powered by an ancient gasoline engine. And while that engine might be a bit elderly for this setup, washing machines running off gasoline engines was not uncommon in rural areas. You have to remember that a lot of rural areas didn’t get electric service until the 1930s or even later.

On the amateur radio front, I’ve been fiddling with antennas again. Well, sort of. I’m finally getting around to getting the Gap Titan vertical finished and hooked up.

It successfully survived the winds we had during the recent storms. After 60 – 70 MPH winds hit us during those storms I more than half expected to see it laying on the ground when I got up the next morning, but it made it through unscathed. We almost forgot to put guy lines on the thing. If we’d neglected that I’m sure it would have come down.

I got the counterpoise/ground plane installed finally and, well, it takes up a wee bit bigger area than I thought it would. Going to be fun mowing lawn through there. But that area is going to be part of an extension to the existing flower beds anyway so I only have to worry about it for the rest of this season.

And I still don’t have the dopey thing connected. I got started, got all the tools out and began to work on putting the connectors on the coax and… Sigh…

I had the wrong one. I needed a female and only had the male variety, so I either needed a female or an adaptor. Not a big deal, but mildly annoying nevertheless. In any case, I didn’t really like the style connector they sent with the antenna in the first place. Thankfully, Farm and Home, the big hardware store down in Chilton has a big electronics section (used to be a Radio Shack store) and they’ll probably have what I need.

As for the weather – this has been one of the wettest summers I can remember. The lawns should all be brown and dormant from a lack of rain this time of year. Instead they’re all lush and green, as you can see from the photo there. I’ve only had to water the gardens about three or four times all summer long so far. Most summers watering is something we need to do every two days or so.

The rivers and lakes are all abnormally high around here because of all the rainfall.

This is the river down by the old stone bridge the other day. Normally this time of year the river is so low and stagnant that it’s choked with algae and weeds, and so shallow it would hardly be halfway up your shins if you tried to walk through it. It’s a good four feet deep or more, though, and had more than enough current to keep the algae from accumulating.

That’s about it for now. Hopefully by the next time I get around to writing something I’ll have some amateur radio stuff to talk about. I should have that antenna finally set up. I should have the new Yaesu 818ND up and running with the laptop using FT8, JS8Call and PSK.

And hopefully I’ll have made some progress in moving all my equipment down into the basement. MrsGF found a matching set of old, heavy duty tables at St. Vinnie’s that might make good work benches. They’re about 4′ square with heavy duty 4″ square legs. They’re beat up but look solid, and I can get ’em for $5 each, so I’ll go take a look at those on Tuesday.

Still have to make a decision on where the electrical outlets are going to be placed down there, but I didn’t want to do that until I had an idea on where the work benches were going to be, how tall they were, etc. Probably at least 4, four outlet boxes fed with 20 amp circuits, plus at least one 240V outlet for amplifiers. And need to rewire for better lighting. Want to put in LED lights to replace the existing fluorescent tubes that are in there now.

First Look At The Alpha Mag-Loop Antenna

The antenna with the optional “booster loop” allowing operation on 80 & 60 meters installed, with it’s tripod and mast.

If you’ve come here looking for pictures of flowers and nature and me babbling about gardening and farming, you might want to skip this one because this entry is entirely amateur radio related. I want to talk about mag loop antennas. I’ve been fascinated with mag loop antennas since I first heard about them, and have always wanted to build or buy one to experiment with. I finally broke down and bought one from Alpha Antenna.

I’m not going to explain what a mag-loop antenna is. If you’ve read this far you either already know or you’ve already used Google to look it up. I’ll just say that these compact, efficient antennas have become extremely popular, especially in the QRP (low power) amateur radio community, and for good reason. But mag-loops do have some issues. There are always trade offs in the world of radio. First they have an extremely narrow bandwidth, making it necessary to retune the antenna if you change frequency. And second, they are generally only rated for low power transmissions. They’re usually considered to be QRP (low power) antennas. Mag loop antennas can be built that can handle impressive amounts of wattage, but there are problems that are difficult (and expensive) to deal with.

I should explain why I picked the Alpha rather than one of the other antennas on the market. The Alpha can handle more power than many other mag loops on the market, up to 100 watts on SSB, 50 watts on CW, and 25 on digital, depending on the frequency being used. This is more than what a lot of the other ones can deal with, at least in this price range. It works from 4o meters to 10 meters, and with the Booster Cable, can even work down on 80 meters. A lot of mag loops only work from 20 to 10 meters, and most have no options to extend their range down to the 80 meter band. The Alpha I bought also included the tripod, mast, and other parts necessary to fully assemble and use the antenna. Basically it is a complete antenna system. All you have to do is put it together, hook up your coax and begin using it. It was everything I really wanted in one convenient package.

You can order it directly from the company, but I bought mine off Amazon. Retail price is $500 including the main antenna, the booster cable, tripod and mast and a carrying bag. (Note: I have no connection to either Amazon nor Alpha, do not get paid by them, do not get special deals or anything else. I paid full retail price for the antenna and ordered it through normal retail channels.)

There’s enough room in the bag that it would hold just about everything I’d need, the 818, SignaLink, cables, battery, etc. plus the antenna itself.

The antenna comes in its own gym style carrying bag with the Alpha logo on it. Everything, including the tripod and short mast (basically a selfie stick, and Alpha refers to it as such), fits neatly in the bag with room left over.

Once you unpack everything from the bag, this is what you get:

This is the entire antenna, including both the normal loop, the “booster cable” loop for 80/60 meter operations, the tuning box, the tripod and mast, and the plastic bag containing nylon clips to position the antenna, a sheet of instructions, and an extra “T” coax connector.

Note the extra “T” coax connector in the plastic bag. I had no idea why that was included, but a bit of research turned up why they tucked that in with the rest of the antenna. That’s being included because Alpha had reports of bad T connectors in the recent past. All previous owners of the antenna were sent new T connectors and they’re including spare T’s just in case.

Assembly is a piece of cake. Being a typical amateur radio operator I, of course, never looked at the instructions until after I’d put it together. (I really should stop doing that, shouldn’t I?) Even so, it took me all of about five minutes to get it fully assembled and ready to go. And, amazingly enough, I even got it right the first time. Alpha has a video up on youtube showing how to assemble it, including how to add the Booster Cable for 80 meter operations. Just click the link there to see it. It’s all very straight forward.

Note that the loop does not have to be perfectly circular to work properly. As long as it’s reasonably close, you’re good to go. Note: Yes, that is the world’s ugliest recliner back there behind the antenna. And the less said about that sofa, the better. We can’t have nice furniture because we have cats who think they own the house and its contents and we’re just there to feed them and occasionally provide them with entertainment when they’re bored.

The photo above shows it fully assembled, without the booster cable, in my dining room. The loops are all made of LMR 400 coax, which is extremely stiff and has no trouble holding any shape you want to bend it into. Use some caution when you’re coiling and uncoiling the coax. It can be awkward to work with because of how stiff it is. Note the two plastic clips holding the large loop in the proper position above the small loop. 6 of those clips are included. The other four are required for use with the Booster Cable installed. This is the antenna with the “Booster Cable” installed.

The booster cable is connected in series with the regular large loop, so you now have a double loop instead of just a single loop. All the proper connectors are already installed on the ends of the cable so you don’t need adaptors.

Without the booster cable installed it’s impossible to use the antenna on frequencies below 40 meters. And I should point out that with the booster installed it’s impossible to use the antenna on frequencies higher than 40 meters. So you can either work 80/75 to 60 meters, or you can work 40 to 10 meters, but not both.

Overall quality is quite good. The coax is genuine LMR 400 from Times Microwave. The small tripod is more than sturdy enough to handle the antenna. The mast/selfie stick is sturdy enough to handle supporting the loops. Once it’s set up the mast and tripod are very easy to adjust if necessary. The connectors on the coax and on the tuning unit look to be of good quality and appear to be silver plated. I did not open up the box to look at the variable capacitor, but others have and if you want to see what’s in there, you can find photos and videos on Youtube and other sources. It looks well made from quality materials and should provide years of reliable use.

I should point out that if you’re using it outside and there is more than a gentle breeze you’re going to have to stabilize the tripod somehow. A stiff breeze will blow it over.

The first thing I did after putting it together was hook it to my antenna analyzer to see how good of a match I could get on the frequencies I normally use.

Now most of you reading this probably know this already, but just in case I’ll mention it. You never use your transceiver’s internal antenna tuner or an external tuner, with a mag-loop antenna. You adjust the antenna for a proper match by turning the knob connected to the variable capacitor inside that little gray box. And getting a match can be very touchy sometimes depending on the antenna, the type of capacitor being used and other factors. Now I don’t have any personal experience with mag-loop antennas before getting the Alpha, but from what I’ve heard from others, tuning the Alpha is no worse than tuning any of the others, and actually a lot easier than some reports from other models.

BTW: If you do any kind of fiddling around with antennas, an antenna analyzer quickly becomes your best friend.

I don’t use 80/75 meters much, and have no plans to use it for QRP, but since I already had the booster cable installed for the photo I checked that first. I didn’t have high hopes for a decent match down there, but much to my surprise the Alpha with the booster installed indicated an SWR of a bit over 1.1:1.

I took the booster cable off and set it up the way I would normally use it and looked at the rest of the HF frequency range.

I got excellent, or at least decent, SWR all across the amateur radio bands with one exception, 12 meters. No matter what I did I couldn’t get an SWR of less than 2.5:1 on 12 meters. Considering that I’m getting matches of 1.5:1 or better, usually much better, on the other bands, I’m assuming that there’s something wrong with what I’m doing and I’ll look into it further when I get some time. It’s entirely possible that I simply missed the “sweet spot” when trying to tune the antenna because I was in a hurry to get it hooked up and on the air.

Now, the question is, of course, does the thing actually work as an antenna? The answer to that question is an emphatic yes!

I don’t have my Yaesu 818 yet, so I tested it with my Kenwood TS-990, with the antenna standing on it’s tripod right behind me in the office where I could easily reach the knob to adjust it. Once I got a few glitches straightened out (My fault, not the antenna’s. Turned out the coax I was using had a bad connector. Once I re-soldered that all was well.), I gave it a try on 20 meters using FT8 with the 990’s power turned down to 8 watts and the SWR adjusted down to 1.4:1. And this is what popped up on PSK Reporter a short time later:

Now FT8 is a pretty efficient mode, but still… Damn. I was getting reception reports from all over the country while putting about 8 watts into an antenna sitting on the floor behind me in the office.

I moved up to 10 meters. Now 10 meters has been in the doldrums because we’re at the bottom of the solar cycle, but you never know. After adjusting things tried with the 990’s output set to 6 watts. I honestly didn’t expect to see anything pop up on PSK Reporter, but low and behold, when it cycled through, there I was, with reception reports popping up all over the place.:

Reaching Texas, Kansas and a large part of the east coast with 6 watts output using an antenna sitting in my office? Yeah, that’s not bad at all. Okay, I am officially impressed.

So far I’m very pleased with this antenna. More than pleased. In fact the few times I’ve had a chance to operate this past week or two, I’ve been using the loop exclusively when I use FT8. Getting it tuned is a bit fiddly, but as I’ve gained experience with it I’ve found I can tune it reasonably quickly and easily. (More about that in a minute.) I can’t wait to have a chance to really work with it and see what it can do out in the field. Once the Yaesu 818 gets here I’m hoping to throw together a complete portable digital system compact enough to throw into the back of the car along with my fishing gear and making some contacts out in the wild, so to speak.

Let’s talk about tuning mag-loop antennas for a moment. I mentioned before that you do not use an antenna tuner with these antennas because they have their own built in tuners, that variable capacitor. That’s how you adjust ’em to get a match. And these antennas are very, very touchy when it comes to tuning. They are very narrow bandwidth to begin with, and moving the dial a fraction of a degree can make a huge difference in the SWR.

I used an antenna analyzer at first when testing. It’s pretty easy to dial them in that way, but connecting and disconnecting an analyzer is a pain in the neck, and you don’t want to have to lug one along if you’re going portable. There is a technique to make it easier to set them up. The trick is to hook it up to your transceiver, set your transceiver to the frequency you want to use, and then listen to the receiver as you turn the dial on the antenna. (Hint: Turn that knob slowly. It is very, very easy to slip right past the sweet spot if you turn the knob too quickly.) As you get close to a match there will be a sudden increase in noise coming from your receiver. When you reach that point watch your S meter or listen to the noise level to bring that noise to a peak. Once you do that you’ll be pretty close and you can use a test transmission to dial it in for the best SWR before you being actually trying to make contacts.

Another issue with tuning is how the antenna reacts to being close to y0ur body. The mere presence of your hand near the antenna when turning the knob is enough to alter it’s characteristics in some cases. Since you have to bring your hand close to the antenna to adjust the tuner, this can mean that as soon as you take your hand away from the antenna, your SWR will change, sometimes significantly so. If that kind of thing happens, you can often compensate for it. I quickly learned to stop tuning a bit before or a bit after the ideal SWR in order to get a good match once I took my hand away when that happened. Interestingly, it doesn’t happen all the time. This is due to a phenomenon known as body capacitance or hand capacitance. The human body can act like a capacitor. The actual amount of capacitance varies depending on environmental conditions. So depending on conditions, just bringing your hand close to the antenna can cause it’s characteristics to change. Don’t worry about it. It doesn’t happen all the time, and if it does, you’ll learn to adapt.

So overall the Alpha has been a lot of fun to use. Only time will tell how it holds up, but it looks to be well made and certainly it works as advertised. I’m really very, very pleased with it so far.

Later — Look what the nice UPS driver just delivered today !!!

The 818 is here! I still have some bits and bobs to put together before I’m ready to take it out on the road. I want to do digital modes, and that means I need a laptop, and the elderly Toshiba I was planning on using looks like it is instead headed for the recycling center, so I’m going to have to scrounge up a laptop. I’ll need make or buy connector cables to hook everything up to the laptop and SignaLink. Then I’ll need a power supply of some sort. The 818 does have it’s own battery, but the SignaLink requires a power source and I’d like to have a central power source to run everything. Nothing serious but it’s going to take some time, which is in short supply right now because we’re up to our necks with landscaping and gardening projects and house updating projects and other stuff at the moment. Until I get all the bits together I need for digital operations I may try it with the Alpha on SSB and see what happens.

I’ll keep you posted as “The Great QRP Project” progresses

I thought I’d have time for all this stuff once I retired, but it turns out that between things MrsGF wants me to do, landscaping, gardening and other things going on around here, I actually have less time for playing radio than I did before I retired. How the hell did that happen?

Rabbits, Cans and Antennas

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

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

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

IMG_0894

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

Antennas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amateur Radio & Gardening, Hey, Why Not

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

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

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

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

Amateur Radio Stuff

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

Sigh… radio propagation is weird sometimes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

http://offgridham.com/

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

And that’s all for now.

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

 

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

Screen Shot 2018-05-13 at 9.32.00 AM
Gap Titan DX vertical antenna only not so vertical

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

Screen Shot 2018-05-13 at 9.32.11 AM
The mounting system just couldn’t take the strain. The mounting bolts bent and one broke off.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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