Catching Up With Stuff

First of all, there’s this…

MrsGF and I were coming back from her sister’s place and we saw this. The photos don’t do it justice. That sunset almost looked like an atomic bomb going off, lighting up the whole horizon with that single shaft of light extending up. We had to pull off and just stare at it for a while because we’d never seen anything like it before.

Sunsets and sunrises (when we can see them, usually the cloud cover is too thick) have been spectacular of late. I imagine that’s due at least in part to so much particulate matter being in the atmosphere at the moment because of all of the forest fires we’ve been having worldwide.

As far as the weather goes, well, it’s winter, and we have some snow, as you can see from the photos, but it has been, well, weird. Just like 2019 was. Temperatures have been well above normal this winter. So much so that the ice fishermen have been getting nervous because they can’t get out on the lakes. This late in the season the lakes and rivers should have enough ice that you can at least walk out on the ice, and in some cases even drive a vehicle out. But you couldn’t pay me enough money to make me risk walking out on the ice this year. Most of the rivers and streams are still mostly open with almost no ice at all.

Ice fishing is a Big Deal around here. Generally as soon as we get a couple of inches of ice on a lake you’ll see little huts springing up or guys in cold weather gear huddling over holes drilled in the ice hunting for elusive panfish like bluegills and crappies. They endure it because one, they think it’s fun, and two, well, if you’ve ever eaten a freshly caught pan fried bluegill or perch, you know why they do it.

But The big event around here in mid winter is sturgeon season on Lake Winnebago. During sturgeon season there are thousands of people out on that lake, with hundreds of cars, 4 wheelers and snowmobiles, hundreds of ice shanties full of people huddling over holes in the ice hoping to get themselves one of the biggest fish you can get in Wisconsin. These things get to be five, six feet long or even bigger, and can be well over a hundred years old.

But we need ice for that, and we don’t have any. Or at least not enough ice that you can trust it. Unless we get a cold snap that really freezes things up, I’m not sure if there is going to be much of a sturgeon season this year.

We may not have ice but we do have snow. Just had another 3-5 inches, much of which will probably melt over the next few days. But still, it sure looks pretty out there.

While it may be winter outside, MrsGF’s rose in the living room is blossoming again.

I have no idea how she does it, but I’m not complaining. Having roses growing here in the middle of January is huge fun.

The Great Radio Fiasco Project Update

Considering I’m lazy and about the most unambitious person around, I bet you figured I’d sort of conveniently “forgot” about that whole thing, didn’t you? Ha! I wish! Sometimes I’m more stubborn than lazy, though, and when I get a bug about something I get a bit obsessed, and that’s what happened here.

Anyway, that hasn’t been going very well because of stuff like this –

Ferrite rods that were supposed to be part of antenna coils for an AM transistor radio I’ve been trying to build.

One of the first things I discovered when I started doing some research was that I pretty much had none of the parts I was going to need. I may have had hundreds of diodes, capacitors, resistors, potentiometers, transistors and other goodies sitting on the shelf from other projects, but it seemed that none of them were what I needed for building any kind of radio receiver except for the most basic of items. So once I decided more or less on what kind of radio I was going to build, I had to order some parts. And as you can see above, sometimes it doesn’t go so well.

The main project is going to be a multi-band shortwave receiver, but I was also going to build an old fashion 1960s style AM transistor radio which uses a ferrite rod wound with wire as an antenna. What you see in that photo above is what was in the package when I opened it. Sigh… Don’t get me wrong, though. I order a lot of parts, and the vast majority of the stuff gets here in perfect condition. But every once in a while something like this happens, and all you can do is just sigh and go on. It doesn’t pay to try to do anything about this in this case. I only paid about $10 for them, the company is in China, and any chance of getting a refund or replacement is so slim it’s not worth the effort. On the plus side one of the rods is relatively undamaged with just a chip on the end, so it will work well enough for the AM radio.

But it does help to illustrate one of the problems I’ve been having, which is tracking down various parts. The days of being able to go to a local electronics or radio repair shop, or even Radio Shack, and picking up a couple of capacitors or an opamp or whatever are long gone. While I still do have a local Radio Shack (how I don’t know, but I do), it only carries the most common types of components, and I already got those by the dozens.

I need a germanium diode for one radio circuit I’ve been tinkering with. Do I have one in those boxes on the shelf with hundreds and hundreds of diodes? Of course not! The one I need is the one I don’t have, of course. And, well, you generally can’t order just one. So I ended up spending something like $15 to buy 50 of the dopey things. It’s like the robot vacuum cleaner I repaired a few years ago. I needed one tiny, tiny screw that held on the side sweeper brush. That was all that was left to fix it, just attach that stupid brush. Do you think I could find that damned screw? No. No one locally had it. I checked hardware stores, Radio Shack, auto parts stores, no one had one even close. I started looking online and found I wasn’t the only one having trouble find it. I finally did get one, but in the end the only sources I found for it sold them only in lots of 500. So I ended up paying something like $25 to get a single screw, and I now have a whole bag full of 499 tiny, tiny screws sitting in a closet somewhere that I’ll never use for anything else.

The same thing is often true of electronic components. You can’t get just one or two, you have to buy in bulk sometimes, and you end up paying $25 or $40 for a whole box of parts just to get one $0.75 component. The end result is that while the cost of the individual parts for this project is pretty cheap, I’ve ended up spending a significant chunk of money on this already because I often can’t get just one or two, but have to order in bulk.

But enough with boring you with that. Once I get further along with the radio thing I’m going to split it off to its own web page so it doesn’t clutter up the blog.

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.

Old Radios And What To Do With Them

Because people know I like fiddling with radios, sometimes people give me old radios they don’t want or that don’t work in the hopes I can do something with them. I thought you might be interested in how your grandparents listened to radio, so take a look at this beast. I’ve had this thing sitting on the shelf for a long time now and finally decided to pull it out and deal with it because I need the space.

There is a technical term for radios like these: Junk

I have a term for radios like these – junk. It’s a shame, really. Once upon a time this was probably a nice little multi-band radio receiver. The rust on the chassis isn’t a big deal, that’s pretty common and can be dealt with, but this thing has some other, much more serious problems. It is unrepairable, but there are some useful parts I can salvage.

I looked all over this thing and I can’t find a manufacturer’s name or brand name. If I did some research I could probably find out what company made it originally, but there’s no real point because it isn’t worth the effort. There might have been a paper label that fell off long ago.

Or it’s entirely possible there never was a maker’s mark stamped on it. It wouldn’t be that uncommon. Like today, the name you see on the case of a piece of equipment isn’t necessarily the name of the company that actually made it. Back when this radio was made, big retailers like Sears and others would contract with manufacturers to produce equipment that the retailer would sell under their own brand name. Sometimes they’d buy the electronics from one company, buy the case from another, assemble it somewhere, slap their name on it and sell it as their own. It’s very common even today.

You’ll also note there is no outer case for this unit, either. That’s how it was when I got it. I find that fairly often today as well. Often the outer cases were made of cheap plywood with a thin veneer of nice wood on the outside to make it look fancy, and the cases would never last long. The plywood would begin to delaminate if it got damp, and they’d get damaged easily. Or if the case was in good shape, it’s fairly common for people to strip the old electronics out of it and throw them away and use the case as a decorative item or even build a modern radio into it.

Now if that radio up there looks complicated with the big transformer, variable capacitor, all the tubes and coils, well, you ain’t seen nothing yet. Wait until you see what’s underneath:

That – that mess up there, my friends, is what all radios looked like under the cover back in the day. When this radio was built, there were no transistors or solid state devices. This radio even predates printed circuit boards. Every single bit of this radio was built by hand. All of those components and wires were soldered in place by some poor schmuck who stood at a work station all day long doing nothing but soldering bits and nubbins and gubbins together.

Radios back then were very, very expensive, partly because they had to be all assembled by hand. It’s hard to tell how much this particular radio cost when it was new. Let’s say it was made in 1950, and it cost about $60 back then, which was a fairly common price for a decent, but not top of the line, multi-band receiver back then. That doesn’t sound like much until you take inflation into account. Accounting for inflation, that radio up there would sell for about $640 today. Ouch!

Another reason they were expensive was the sheer number of parts necessary, and, of course, these things:

Those are vacuum tubes. Now there is a wave of nostalgia going on about tubes, especially among stereo and audio aficionados who claim that sound amplifiers that use vacuum tubes sound “better” somehow, than those that use solid state devices and, well, it’s all BS, really. Vacuum tubes, to put it bluntly, suck. (Vacuum? Suck? Is there a pun in there somewhere? No, don’t go there…)

Sidenote: To give you an idea of how ridiculous this whole tube amplifier thing has gotten in the audio market, let me give you an example. An acquaintance of mine had a friend bring over a tube style stereo amplifier that had some problems. The four prominently displayed vacuum tubes on the top of the unit weren’t lighting up. But interestingly enough, it was still working as a stereo amplifier. Which it shouldn’t have been if the tubes were actually doing anything. Which they weren’t. The only connection to the tubes was a line to feed power to the filaments so they’d light up. None of the other pins were even connected. The tubes were being used for nothing but decorative lighting.

Vacuum tubes look really cool and retro and all that, but as actual electronic components they’re horrible. They suck up huge amounts of power, give off large amounts of heat, are physically large, often require massive transformers to provide high voltages, are expensive to make, and as soon as solid state devices began to be mass produced, radio manufacturers abandoned them as fast as they could redesign their equipment.

As I was looking this thing over, I found it had a rather serious problem. This:

If you look close at that photo up there, you’ll see what I mean, charred parts, melted wires – basically this thing was damn near on fire at one point. Probably some component failed, overheated, and started the insulation on the wiring on fire.

So what am I going to do with this thing? There are some parts I can salvage. The tube sockets are still good, and they’re hard to come by, so I’ll pull those out. The tubes themselves – I’ll keep ’em but I don’t know if they’re any good. They do make nice decorative items, though. Some of the big rotary switches may be salvageable as well. The actual electronic components aren’t worth even bothering with. A lot of them probably would still work within their original specifications, but without tearing them out of the circuits and testing them it’s impossible to tell, and frankly it isn’t worth the effort. Would you use a 50 or 60 year old resistor in a project you’re building today, even if a meter said it was within specification? I wouldn’t. But I am hoping I can salvage this:

These big air variable capacitors were (and still are) used for tuning, and they’re damned expensive if you have to buy them new. So I’m hoping that once I get this one out and cleaned up it might still be useful. It looks in pretty rough shape with some significant rust issues, but that seems to be limited to the nonessential parts. I can’t tell until I can pull it out and test it. I’m hoping it will work because a new one like this sells for about $50.

Is Repairing Old Radios Worth It?

Well, I’m not going to give you a whole lecture on antique electronics, but the answer to that question is … Well, to be perfectly honest, probably not unless it is something you personally enjoy.

My SX-43 isn’t worth much, maybe $100 – $150 if I wanted to sell it, but it is a really cool looking radio. And yes, it works quite well. This one has the advantage of receiving not just the ham bands, but also the AM and FM broadcast bands.

Financially speaking repairing and refurbishing old radios is almost never worth it. You aren’t going to get much money for them unless they are something rare or exotic. Often the people who buy antique radios aren’t so much interested in them working, they want them for decorative items. Considering the amount of time, effort, research, and the difficulty in finding some parts, you’ll be lucky if you break even if you try making money off restoring old radios. Fiddling with old radios is sort of a hobby of mine, but to be honest I don’t do it very often because I generally find it more rewarding to spend the time on other things.

Damn, I need to paint that wall and those shelves. Sheesh that looks like crap. Anyway, this is one of my other old receivers, an SX-96. I didn’t have to do anything to this one. The person who owned it before me completely refurbished it and it works probably better than it did when new. This one also isn’t really worth that much. I’ve seen people asking a lot of money for this model, but even in near perfect condition it isn’t worth more than about $125- $175

There are exceptions, of course. Old amateur radio equipment is one of them. Sometimes. It depends on the condition of the unit (external physical appearance is very important in this market, almost as important as it’s actual functionality), the desirability of the particular brand and model, and, of course, whether or not it works up to its original specifications. I’ve seen some old Collins, Hallicrafters, Hammerlund and the other “legendary” brands of amateur radio equipment being sold for eye-wateringly high prices. But it depends on the model, condition, etc. While at the same time other equipment of the same era, from a lesser known manufacturer, may sell for a fraction of what the popular models sell for, even if electronically speaking the off-brand was superior.

Replacing things like capacitors, resistors and other common components is fairly simple and cheap. You can almost always use easily available modern day equivalents. But things like vacuum tubes can be a serious issue. I don’t think anyone makes vacuum tubes except for a few Chinese and Russian companies, and they only make a very, very small variety of tubes, mostly for amplifiers. There are used ones out there, maybe, and some “new old stock” (NOS) laying around, but they’re getting harder and harder to find, and more expensive. If you can find them at all. Transformers can be a problem too.

Some of these old radios had some serious safety issues as well. I really doubt if some of these old radios would pass modern UL safety standards. So there are liability issues here as well. If a radio you repaired or restored causes a problem later, like someone gets an electric shock from it or a 60 year old component fails and starts a fire, could you be held liable and get sued?

I don’t want to discourage you from dabbling with repairing and restoring old electronics, but I do want you to know that you probably aren’t going to make any money at it, and if you do try to sell the equipment you repair, there could be legal issues as well. It can be a fun hobby but you need to be aware of the potential problems as well.

Amateur Radio Stuff: What’s Going On

It’s been quite a while since I mentioned mentioned amateur radio, but that’s been because of a lack of time, not a lack of interest. Things back in the radio room are about to get — interesting, as they say. I’m facing a situation that every amateur radio operator does sooner or later, having to tear down everything.

IMG_0356
It’s even worse than this looks here. There are two more desks crammed into that room, an old drafting table, three book cases, a work table… It’s bad.

The radio room is, to put it bluntly, a mess. There is equipment piled everywhere, test gear shoved onto book cases or in drawers, amplifiers and radios laying on the floor, piles of printouts of manuals, booklets, stacks of mystery electronics in those anti-static bags, drawers full of connectors and parts, coax jumpers, meters, microphones, tools three full sized computers, three printers, all my Raspberry Pi stuff. There are cables and wires snaking along behind the desks, running into holes in the floor. The operating position is too cramped and awkward. The old drafting table my solid state amp is parked on it is too tall and too small, the desk the radios are on is in poor condition. The list goes on and on.

So everything is going to get torn down, moved out of the room. The room is going to get a good cleaning, etc. Then I start trying to put everything back together.

What sparked this is that MrsGF found a huge old teacher’s desk, made out of solid oak, for $50 at St. Vinnie’s. MrsGF already has one of these and I’d been looking for one for a while. The finish isn’t very good and it has it’s share of scratches and scars, but it is rock solid, lots of big drawers, and is long, wide and deep. That is going to get moved in, some of the old, particle board crap I’ve been using is going to go away before it collapses under the weight of the equipment, and then I can start trying to put everything back together again.

If I can remember how to do it… Meters, jumpers, wires, coax. You’d think I’d know enough to label all that stuff, right? I mean I have a label maker laying right there. But no, of course I didn’t. Sigh…

Anyway, Monday is the day when I start all of this. It’s taken me three years to accumulate this mess and put together that rat’s nest of wiring behind the desks, so this could take a while…

 

Changes… And New Toy… And My Mind Wanders. Again

IMG_0167This is my new toy, a Raspberry Pi 3. If you want to experiment with building evil robotic minions to help you to take over the world, this is a good place to start. It has a 64 bit, quad core ARM A53 processor running at 1.2 GHZ, a gig of RAM, 4 USB ports, an HDMI port, LAN port, WiFi, reasonably good graphics and sound, and runs a version of LINUX. It can connect to the outside world to enable the computer to hook up to sensors, relays and controllers to make evil robots to allow you to take over the world, control devices, record data from sensors and all sorts of fun things.

And it costs a whopping $35. Less than what it would cost me to get a good meal at that fancy restaurant a couple of blocks from here. Hell, less than what just a bottle of wine would cost over there.

Now this, on the other hand… Well, not on the other hand because you couldn’t pick it up with one hand, but you get the idea. This is the first computer I ever owned. It is a Ohio Scientific C2-8P, and if you’ve 2ecd9544af30be5a0d4d8f7926065484never heard of it, I don’t blame you. Ohio Scientific is just one of many, many computer makers that tried to get into the home and small business market back in the late 1970s through the mid 1980s, and failed. It did better than a lot of them did, but eventually it failed, along with Atari, Commodore, Apricot, Coleco, Exidy, Franklin, Panasonic, Radio Shack/Tandy, Sinclair, Texas Instruments… Well, the list goes on and on.

Mine wasn’t even as good as the one in the photo over there. Mine was an early version that didn’t have the fancy paint and logo on the front. And it was nasty. It was about the size of a microwave oven, packed solid with circuit boards the size of a sheet of paper, each of those stuffed with chips of various types, all hooked together with miles of ribbon cables and wiring.

Mine was kind of odd. Kind of? Ha! It was seriously odd. I’d never seen anything like it before or since. I suspect it was an experimental unit that had been heavily modified. According to the photocopied documentation I got with it, it could support three different processors, a 6502, 6800 or 8080. Or maybe a Z80. Don’t remember. It was a long time ago. They were selected via a rotary switch on the back???? Really? Seriously? I never knew for sure. There was only one CPU board in it when I got it. There was a big rotary switch on the back but it wasn’t wired to anything. I think they had some kind of scheme where the switch would select one of 3 CPU boards connected to the backplane, but since there was only one CPU board and the switching system wasn’t connected I have no idea what the hell they were trying to do.

Why 3 different CPUs? I suspect they intended to use it as some kind of development and/or testing system for different types peripherals. The documentation I had was originally typewritten, with hand written notes in the margins, and then had been photocopied. It was interesting, that’s for sure. Large parts of the machine were wire wrapped and hand soldered so someone had been in there fiddling around. A lot.

It came with a whopping 4K of RAM. I spent hours hand soldering chips to the memory board to bring it up to 8K. The company I bought it from found an extra 8K RAM board for it and gave that to me. It was, of course, unpopulated, so I spent many more hours hand soldering RAM chips to the extra board.

Data storage was on a cassette tape. It read/wrote data to a cassette tape at a whopping 300 baud using the Kansas City Standard (if you know what that is, you really, really need to get out more and get a life). That’s 300 bits per second… Oooo, the excitement! To load the editor/assembler program so I could program in assembly language took 20 minutes. Video was black and white, text only, going to an old Panasonic B&W TV set that I had to re-wire to handle the video input from the computer. The company I bought it from offered to give me a “real deal” on the matching 8 inch floppy drive system for it. I passed because I could have bought a pretty good car for what they wanted for the thing.

What did it all cost? By the time I got it up and working (sort of) I probably had well over a grand invested in the thing.

In a way it was completely worthless, that computer. I never actually did anything genuinely useful with it. But on the other hand, if you count the intangibles it was worth every penny because I taught myself programming in BASIC and assembly language on that beastie. I learned how to solder IC chips to circuit boards. I learned how to hunt down failed components (capacitors failed all over the place on that thing for some reason). I learned why storing data on cassette tape is very, very nasty. Trying to get that thing running and keeping it running taught me more about the technology than all the computer science classes I took in college.

And I learned how to make my own Faraday cage because it put out so much RFI it screwed up every TV and AM radio in the area when I turned it on and had build one around it just so I could use it.

Now, where was I? How did I get off on this? Sheesh, I was going to talk about changes in technology, make pithy remarks about how almost no one back then foresaw how computer technology would evolve, morph into what it is today where computers are literally everywhere, in every aspect of our lives.

Instead I end up doing this ramble down memory lane babbling about a relatively minor player in the early computer market… Sigh.

Damn, I hated that computer. Wish I still had it.

 

 

Amateur Radio Tools and Test Equipment Part Three: Test Equipment

(Note: This rather quickly turned into an article about stuff you don’t need and why you don’t need it, rather than about stuff you do need. So it goes…)

Now there is a whole slew of test equipment some people claim you need. And you go out and spend your hard earned money on it and find that well, no, you didn’t actually need it. The fact of the matter is that unless you’re really into electronics development work, need to diagnose and repair some rather expensive and complicated equipment, you don’t really need much more than a volt/ohm meter and a couple of other items. And this is coming from someone who admits he has a — a problem, shall we say, when it comes to tools and test equipment. Basically I see a new tool or piece of test equipment my eyes glaze over, I start to shiver uncontrollably, instinctively reach for my credit card…

What do you really need? Well, at the top of the list is a decent volt/ohm meter of some sort. Usually abbreviated as VOM or DVM for the digital versions, or multi-meters. It’s pretty much an essential tool. But which one do you get? They come in all kinds of shapes and sizes, all kinds of different options, and prices that range from little more than pocket change to “OMG who the hell can afford that”.

You don’t need to spend a fortune on a VOM, but you don’t want to get one of the bargain basement varieties out of the $2 bin at the lumber yard either. For the average electronics hobbyist you can get a perfectly good VOM for around $30 – $40. I wouldn’t spend more than $150 or so on one for one unless I was, oh, repairing equipment on a professional basis or something like that.

Which one do you get? Well, if you’re me — all of them… Okay, that’s an exaggeration butScreen Shot 2017-03-18 at 7.43.09 AM
the fact is that I have about a dozen of the dopey things laying around, from small pocket models smaller than a deck of cards to bench top models and even rack mounted units. Including one of these over there on the right. I don’t think I have it any more and it never worked in the first place and I have no idea where the thing even came from because I don’t remember buying it. (I think people break into my house not to take things, but to leave me things so they don’t have to pay recycling fees…) And it wasn’t even a VOM come to think of it but some kind of frequency counter or something…

Never mind, let’s get on with this.

The kind you do need is your basic VOM, something like one of these over there on the left. IMG_0020The Fluke is the one that lives on my workbench and that I use the most often these days. The Radio Shack model… Well, heck, I probably have a dozen RS meters because when I was a technician out in the field things happened… Oh, brother, did things happen. And RS stores were just about everywhere and the stuff was cheap and reasonably good.

Anyway, something like that Fluke will set you back about $150. The RS model is a lot less. Think I paid about $40 for that one something like 15 years ago. It seems about as accurate and useful as the Fluke, so why did I buy the Fluke? Well, it’s — it’s so shiny

They both do pretty much the same things for the most part. Both have replaceable probes/leads. And yes, you need that. You do not want a meter that has the leads wired directly into the meter. Accidents happen – melted probes, broken, frayed wires, melted wires… Stuff happens. (You did remember to unplug the equipment and discharge those high voltage caps, right? Hmm?)

Another piece of test gear that is pretty much essential for the amateur radio operator is something called a dummy load. No, this is not a truckload of ventriloquists dummies. Nor is it a load of politicians. It’s a sort of, oh, let’s call it a radio black hole.

When you’re testing and/or working on a transmitter, you have to actually transmit with it. And you need to hook the output of your transmitter up to something that can suck up the power or it can either damage your transmitter or send potentially illegal radio transmissions out into the air and enormously irritating the FCC. Or your neighbor who suddenly finds all of the electronics in his/her house going wonky.

A dummy load is really just a big, heavy duty resistor or resistors that absorb the power being dumped out by your transmitter and converting it to heat. Nothing magic, just basic physics. You can probably build your own if you like. There are tons of examples out there. Or you can buy one. Ones that can handle under 100 watts of power are out there for well under $100, some down in the $30 range.

If you fiddle around with amplifiers like I do, you’re going to need something that can handle a lot more power because those big HF amplifiers can potentially put out well over 1,500 watts. One of the cheapest methods of dealing with it was the so-called “cantenna” which was basically a paint can with a big honking (that’s a technical term, honking, you know, like ginormous, or widget, or doodad) resistor sitting in a gallon of transformer oil used to cool it. They’re still on the market and they do work pretty well. You can pick them up for under $100.

If you don’t like messing around with all that oil and stuff, you can get fan cooled dummy IMG_0027loads that can handle higher power, but you’ll pay for it. Something like the Palstar over on the right will set you back around $375 or so. A bit less if you can find one used. I think MFJ makes one as well.

Which one do you need? Well, as much as I like the DL2K I’m the first to admit that you don’t need one unless you do a lot of fiddling around with high power amplifiers. At the time I picked this one up I was doing just that and it was very, very useful. But most people don’t mess around with amplifiers that often and you can get away with something a hell of a lot cheaper. Even if you do use amplifiers, one of the “cantenna” type dummy loads will probably work just fine for you at a quarter of the cost.

That’s the thing with some of this equipment. It’s very handy to have around, and IMG_0017sometimes you absolutely have to have it. But you’re going to use it so rarely that you wonder if it’s worth the cost. It’s like this thing, my antenna analyzer over there on the left. It is a genuinely useful gadget for analyzing the performance of antennas, feed lines, helping determine antenna lengths for specific frequencies, etc. but how often do you really need one?

They aren’t exactly cheap. A good one will set you back about $300 or more. And while they are very useful indeed, I hesitate to recommend you buy one because chances are good you don’t really need one. I picked it up because I love messing around with antennas. I have three antennas in actual use at the moment and have about five more I want to put together and set up or am planning on building and experimenting with once the weather gets a bit better. So for someone like me having one of these makes sense. But even I don’t use it all that often. In fact, as often as not I lend the thing to other amateur radio operators who are setting up antennas so they don’t have to go to the expense of buying something they’re only going to use once or twice.

That brings me to this thing, another piece of test equipment you probably don’t need but really, really want, the oscilloscope. Look, I know you want one. You really, really do. It has all those fun IMG_0019buttons and knobs and that fancy display and it’s just so cool. But do you need one? Probably not. I’ve had this thing for like three years now. How often have I actually used it for anything serious? Twice. Twice in three years. Sheesh…

This isn’t the first ‘scope I’ve owned, either. I’ve had various “old school” CRT based models of various vintages over the years, and to be perfectly honest, I’ve almost never used any of them. They look really, really cool sitting there on the workbench. Sometimes I’ll turn it on and smile at it, pet it, scratch it behind the ears, tell it that it’s a good ‘scope and give it a treat, then turn it off and go back to whatever I was doing. But actually use it? But owning an oscilloscope seems to be, oh, like some sort of right of passage for a lot of amateur radio people. Having one of these sitting on the workbench means you’re “serious” about it, not just fiddling around.

That’s the problem with a lot of the test gear out there. It’s often something you’ll only use once or twice, and that’s it. So is it worth investing hundreds of dollars in something you’re going to use once in ten years?

Unless you’re really into circuit design, equipment repair, experimentation, development work, etc. most of the fancy test gear you see out there isn’t going to be very useful.

How often are you going to need a spectrum analyzer? Probably never unless you’re repairing a lot of equipment. Or a function generator? I’ve got one of those as well. I’ve never used it. At least that one didn’t cost me a fortune because I built it myself.

Now I’m not saying you shouldn’t buy the stuff, but make sure you really need it and can afford it before you pull out the credit card. You might also be able to find a super cheap version of the test equipment that isn’t very sophisticated or even isn’t very good, like some of the cheap oscilloscope kits out there, but which will work well enough for what you need it for.

You can often borrow the stuff from a local amateur radio or electronics hobbyist if you can find one. We’re typically friendly people and once we know you aren’t going to go running off into the night and selling off our stuff on eBay or something, we’re generally more than willing to lend you stuff.

 

The Echo from Amazon

screen-shot-2016-10-20-at-8-39-44-amI’ve been curious about the Echo from Amazon for a while now, and I finally broke down and bought one, suspecting that like most of the high tech gadgets I end up with, it would be an enormous disappointment. I’ve heard all the ridiculous hype, and in the vast majority of cases, ridiculous hype is exactly what the claims for these products turns out to be. But in the case of the Echo, well, it seems to pretty much live up to all of the hype. I’m having a lot of fun with this thing.

I didn’t really expect much from the Echo at first. About the only reason I bought it was because it’s supposed to be able to link to Amazon music and I have Amazon’s unlimited music service.

So this thing showed up on my doorstep two days ago and I get to work setting it up. Amazon doesn’t exactly make this easy. You apparently can’t just plug it in and turn it on. You have to download an app for an IOS or Android device, and use that to set it up. So right off the bat I’m irritated because I didn’t remember anything in the product descriptions that said you had to have a cell phone or tablet just to use the thing. It turns out that apparently you can activate it from a computer by going to a website. But Amazon never said that anywhere that I could see in the product description either. I didn’t find out about that until I was searching for answers to problems I was having.

I installed the app on my iPad, but not without some misgivings because the app has one of the worst reviewer ratings I’ve ever seen and the first five reviews on the app store claimed that the app either didn’t work at all or had major problems. This did not bode well, as they say.

Still, it did work, and setting it up wasn’t that difficult. The instructions in the app were fairly simple to follow, and after typing in passwords, linking it to my home WiFi network and all that fun stuff, it was up and running.

Now I’ve never had much luck with speech recognition systems in the past. Siri, for example, can’t seem to understand a word I say. I thought it was just me, but apparently she can’t figure out with my wife or sons say either.

The Echo, though, was an entirely different story. The default code word to get the Echo’s attention is Alexa. You say Alexa first, followed by what you want it to do. So I said “Alexa what’s the weather for tomorrow”. And a pleasant feminine voice told me what the weather was going to be.

Damn, this thing actually works?

I tried other requests, using my normal voice, normal pronunciation, at various levels of loudness, and… Well, damn, it just — just worked. The voice recognition on this thing is, for me anyway, amazingly good. And it worked even when the ambient noise levels were fairly high. I run air filters, fans, various equipment back here in the office, and it never seemed to have a problem understanding what I said, even when I was talking quietly.

What I bought it for, though, was easy access to music. I have Amazon’s unlimited music service (extra cost option for Prime members which claims to be able to stream “tens of millions of songs” for just eight bucks a month) and I’d never really used it for very much. So I started messing with the Echo and seeing what I could dig up.

So for giggles I said “Alexa play The Laughing Policeman”. And it did. Okay… Play songs by Al Jolson… And it did. Play the latest Katy Perry album. And it did. Play Court of the Crimson King, and it did. Apparently there really are tens of millions of songs in there.

But back to the Echo, because that’s what this is supposed to be about.

It can answer some questions, not all, but there is a significant amount of information linked into the system.

It’s linked into TuneIn, so it can live stream a large number of radio stations. It has the current weather and weather predictions for every place I’ve asked about. Can read me the news. It’s even linked to my Kindle library and can read my Kindle books that have the audio enabled.

It has other capabilities as well. It can set alarms, links to Google Calendar, and has other “skills” (i.e. capabilities you can add to the Echo via the Alexa app that are usually associated with spending more money, like buying stuff by voice)

This thing is impressive.

Problems? Well, sure, there are always problems.

The Alexa app gave me some problems. After I used it to initialize and set up the Echo, the app refused to re-connect to my Echo. Every time I started the App it would try to go through the entire setup procedure again.

After spending a significant amount of time trying to find answers to that problem, I resorted to the old standby, unplugging the Echo and plugging it back in. Bang, now the app worked fine.  once I got that sorted, the Alexa app has caused me no problems at all. If you bring it up it shows a list of voice commands the Echo received, what music you’ve used it to listen to, you can control the volume of the Echo with it, pause the Echo’s playback, other goodies like that.

The only other real issue I have is audio output. The built in speaker isn’t bad, but it certainly doesn’t compare to the speakers in a good stereo system. My big 1980s era Pioneer speakers are much, much better. Even my Bose system’s speakers are better. The Echo has 2 inch speakers, for pete’s sake. I don’t care how good the technology is, trying to get high fidelity sound out of a 2 inch tweeter and a 2.5 inch woofer… well, sorry.

But the Echo has no external audio output unless you resort to buying extra cost options from Amazon. None. Can’t even link bluetooth speakers to it. You’re stuck with the Echo’s built in speakers. If you want to hook up external speakers, the only option is to get something like the Tap or a Dot from Amazon.

The Tap is a battery operated speaker/microphone to listen to/control the Echo. But that will set you back $130, for crying out loud. You might as well spend the extra money and get another Echo for $180.

The other option is to get a Dot, a hockey puck sized gadget which will set you back $50. It seems to be a downsized version of the Tap. It is also battery operated and requires an external charger. The Dot will connect to an external bluetooth speaker or via a standard audio cable. And at $50 it’s a lot less than the Tap, but come on, really?

According to the Echo’s specifications, it has bluetooth capabilities built into it. It can link via bluetooth to receive audio from your phone or tablet, but it can’t send audio to an external speaker without you having to spend at least $50 for the Dot? Really? I’m sorry, I don’t believe that for a minute.

I should point out that the Echo’s speakers aren’t bad, even at high volume levels. Considering how small they are, they are pretty good. But even a mediocre external speaker system would do better.

Overall I’m surprisingly pleased with the Echo. The voice recognition system is amazingly good. The sound quality, while not outstanding, is acceptable for casual listening. It’s great for doing metric conversions like how many feet are in a meter and things like that. It can answer some questions. It does pretty good at math, too. It can give you the news, weather and sports. Ask it sports scores.

Mostly I use it for music and radio. It’s been able to play just about any radio station I want to hear.

Note: Some of the music services require you to have the Amazon unlimited music service. Other music is restricted to Amazon Prime accounts. So what you have access to via the Echo is going to vary depending on whether or not you’re in the Prime program, etc.