I’d just got back from an early morning bike ride, about, oh, 6:30 or 7 AM, and the sun was just hitting the gardens in the backyard when I snapped this one with the iPhone. The colors were so intense it looked like it was glowing. I absolutely love those ‘dinner plate’ dahlias. It’s always worth taking a look for things on sale after the spring planting rush is over. I picked these up for half the price they were at the start of the spring season.
When I was farming, thistles were a noxious weed that needed to be controlled. Now I think they’re one of the prettiest looking plants we have. Just look at those flowers. The structure, the color, everything about them is just stunning.
Then there are these goofy things – MrsGF cleaned out the flower beds along the south side of the garage the other week, taking almost everything out, and a few days later we noticed what looked like small asparagus stalks poking up through the soil. The weirdest looking things, just slender stalks with a bulbous end and the nastiest color you could think of. Sort of looked like zombie asparagus. Then we remembered these things had popped up a few years ago and surprised the heck out of us then. We didn’t plant these and we have no idea where they came from, but holy cow the flowers are stunning!
People sometimes ask us why we have huge sunflowers growing along the side of the house. Here’s why –
Goldfinches absolutely love these things and they swarm them as the flowers begin to fade and the seeds begin to develop. They are an absolute riot to watch, squabbling and leaping around, flitting around, hanging from the plants upside down like little acrobats. They don’t seem to notice that we’re standing on the other side of the window watching them. We’ll have a dozen or more of the little goofs working over the flowers at one time this time of year.
This is the time of year when all the work we put in on the gardens really begins to pay off. The bell peppers are beautiful this year. We have ’em tucked into a corner facing the south and west where the garage is built onto the house and they love it there. It’s warm and sunny and as long as we remember to keep them well watered they (and the wax beans planted near them) have been thriving. We go through a lot of sweet bell peppers around here. Everyone loves them. Most will end up diced and frozen, but we eat a lot of them fresh in salads, ingredients in sauces, stir fry, etc.
Youngest Son and I had nothing else to do Saturday so we went to the Manitowoc county fair. Both of us don’t care about rides or that stuff, we’re more interested in A) weird food, and B) the exhibits. I get ridiculous sense of satisfaction to see how much better my produce and flowers look than the prize winners do. Petty of me, true, but it’s still satisfying.
Anyway, goats have become a big thing around here in the last ten or fifteen years. You almost never would see goats around here before then. Now there are more goat exhibitors than than sheep and pigs. I have to admit they’re fun. They’re charming and curious and don’t seem afraid of anything, and they all seem to have this ridiculous, goofy attitude about them.
For a while llamas and then alpacas were “the next big thing” that were going to make people tons of money. They didn’t, of course. None of these fads ever pan out. We’ve gone through bison, emu, llamas, alpacas and elk as “the next big thing” since, oh, the 1980s. (Emus are nasty. Think of a giant chicken, taller than you are, with a bad attitude. An emu would gleefully kill you and dance on your corpse if it thought it could get away with it.) There are still people in some parts of the state who think emus are going to be financially successful if only they could get a foot in the door with their emu products. You’ll still find gas stations and farmers markets where people are trying to sell emu jerky (shudder), emu oil which is useful for – well, hell, I don’t know what the hell emu oil is good for. Lubricating emus? Emu meat (tastes like chicken?) and I don’t know what all else.
Eldest son and his girlfriend took a short vacation way up along Lake Superior where the air is clear and there are no lights, and asked if they could take the big 11″ Celestron telescope along. I was glad to let them have it. The poor thing has been sitting under its cover in the closet for an embarrassingly long time. I love the scope but the thing is huge and heavy (the tube assembly weighs around 60 lbs). It’s almost impossible for me to lug it up and down the stairs and maneuver it through the doors to get it outside. And when I do get it outside the air quality here has gotten so bad and we now have so much light pollution from streetlights, houses and businesses that it hardly pays to even bother taking it out at all.
Anyway he sent me a text message telling me the scope has been working very well and he sent along the photo above. Very glad they like it. I hated seeing it sit unused. I was thinking of donating it to the school district I used to work at for their new STEM center. That’s what I did with my big camera drone when I got tired of playing with it. If ES is having fun with it, he’s more than welcome to keep it. Otherwise I may donate it to the science program at the high school.
… those rare days that seem too beautiful to be real. I got out on the bike early, right after sunrise, in order to avoid the heat, and I’m glad I did because wow, it was amazing out there. The air was thick and heavy which helped to mute and soften the sunlight and make everything seem to glow.
Even more surprising was how quiet it was. Because it was so early Sunday morning there was almost no traffic at all on the nearby highway. The only sounds I could hear were the calls of hundreds of birds – cardinals, mourning doves, finches, jays, sparrows, killdeer, blackbirds, the raucous call of the cranes… It was one of those days that I wished I could freeze in my memory forever so I could keep revisiting it.
We live in an environment where we are constantly deluged with artificial sounds twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Every minute of our lives we’re bombarded with noise from traffic, aircraft over head, construction equipment, trains, heavy trucks, motorcycles, the drone of air conditioners. Even here, where I live in a small town in a fairly rural area, it’s impossible to get away from the noise.
I talked with a psychology professor once – oh, must be at least 10 or more years ago, when I was out in Sundance WY one summer. We’d both come stumbling down to the motel lobby early in the morning looking for coffee and started chatting and I learned she was trying to get funding for research on how the sounds that surround us can cause elevated stress levels that are detrimental to our physical and mental health. She was out there looking for what she called ‘quiet zones’, areas where there was as little man made noise as possible. She told me that even though our brains might filter out the noises around us to the point where we hardly even notice them consciously, they still have an adverse effect on us. We evolved to become alarmed by loud noise. It’s a survival trait. When you hear a loud noise, you become startled and your body responds by flooding you with hormones like adrenaline to prime you to run or fight. And even though the noises around us don’t alarm us consciously, our bodies are still reacting by trickling low levels of those hormones into our blood stream. That, in turn, keeps us over stimulated, so to speak, so we are under a constant level of stress.
But all good things must come to an end, as the old saying goes, and eventually I ran across this:
That is a corn field and, unfortunately, a lot of the corn around here looks like that – lots of bare spots, not even knee high. Hell, some of it is just barely ankle high. This stuff should be as tall as I am this time of year. The hay crop isn’t much better around here. It isn’t all this bad, thank goodness, but the amount of corn I see that looks like this is scary. The way some of these fields look it isn’t going to pay to even try to make silage out of it.
But then when I got home, I found these in the backyard…
These are called “dinner plate” dahlias. Back in early June I found these at Walmart as bare root stock being sold at half price, so I bought a couple of bags of them for the heck of it, and wow, I’m glad I did. They call ’em “dinner plate” because the flowers are so big. They’re huge. It’s impossible to tell from that photo but that flower up there is easily as big as my hand. I got two different colors, the yellow/orange ones here, and purple ones that are just starting to flower.
I don’t normally shop at Walmart unless I have to. I’ve had mixed results with plants from their garden department. But the thing with the store is that have to move that stuff out fast. They can’t keep it sitting around because they have to make room for other seasonal merchandise. That means that they start discounting the stuff pretty quickly. By early June a lot of their plants and root stock was already heavily discounted, and by mid-June most of their plants, seeds and roots were half price or even less.
So if you’re patient and don’t need to be the first one in the neighborhood to get plants in the ground, you can get some pretty good deals after the peak planting season passes.
Northeast Wisconsin got absolutely hammered by severe storms, some of the strongest we’ve ever seen around here. The training I’ve had for SkyWarn taught me how to estimate wind speed fairly accurately, and I guessed we had wind gusts of up to 75 MPH here, and the NWS reports later confirmed that. It was scary here for a while. We were lucky, though. The worst of it seems to have skipped around this area. Other areas, especially just to the north and west of us got hit hard. There were three tornadoes. NWS reported winds of up to 120 MPH in Wrightstown, about 10 miles north of here. Outagame, Brown and Winnebago counties all are reporting very serious damage. Thousands of people are still without power around us, and the utilities are saying conditions in those areas are so bad from downed trees, broken power poles, etc. that it could be days before everyone has their power restored.
The only good thing about it is that the cold front that triggered the storms has finally brought relief from the extended streak of heat and humidity we were going through. My thermometer here recorded high temps well up into the 90s, with humidity of 95% or higher. The highest temp we hit was 97 according to the recorder. The heat index was well up in the 100s. I’m going to hate to see what our electric bill looks like. Our air conditioner was running full blast for days struggling to keep the temperatures in the house down to a reasonable level. I’m very surprised it’s managed to keep going at all.
While the extreme temperatures haven’t been good for people, the plants around here seem to have been loving it. Everything is lush and green and growing like crazy. Unfortunately we also seem to have a bumper crop of mosquitoes this year as well because of all the rain we’ve gotten. So here are some pictures of what’s growing around here.
If you live in the midwest in the US you don’t need me to tell you that the weather hasn’t been very good. Unusually cold temperatures and seemingly non-stop rain has been hitting large parts of the midwest. Corn and soybeans were, for the most part, planted late or even not at all. Ohio seems to have been hit the worst. Looks like almost 25% of the Ohio corn crop isn’t going to be planted at all. The situation with soybeans isn’t quite as bad, but the numbers there aren’t looking very good either.
The exact numbers are uncertain because a lot of farmers and people in the ag industry are being openly, even brutally skeptical of the data coming out of USDA. There are claims USDA is including acreage that has been planted but is under water and will never grow, acreage that has been planted with cover crops instead of corn because it’s already too late to plant, etc.
I can’t confirm or deny any of those suspicions. All I know is that when I ride around the countryside I’m seeing a hell of a lot of fields that look like the picture there on the left; lots of mud, lots of standing water, and lots and lots of weeds. It is too late to do anything with fields like that except to try to plant a cover crop to keep down the weeds and prevent erosion. You aren’t going to get any kind of economically viable crop planted in this area, this late in the season.
What about hemp, you ask?
Well, okay, you didn’t ask, but I’ve had a couple of people ask me about what the situation is with hemp. It is now legal to plant, harvest and process hemp here in Wisconsin, and despite the fact that a lot of people have been hyping the hell out of it and claiming that it is going to be the savior of agriculture, well, hemp, so far at least, has been pretty much a total bust for those few farmers who’ve tried it. Raising hemp for grain was a total loss last year from what I heard. Because of wet fall it was almost impossible to harvest the stuff. And what they did get harvested was hit by mold because of the damp weather so they couldn’t sell it at all.
Raising it to produce CBD oil didn’t work out too well either for a lot of farmers. One farmer I heard about did successfully get his crop in, but trying to actually sell it was a different story. It seems no one actually wants large amounts of the stuff. Or none that he could find, anyway. None of the CBD oil producers he’s dealing with seem to want more than a few pounds of it at a time, and you can’t make money that way. His problem is marketing, of course. It sounds like he jumped into production before he was even sure if he could sell the stuff.
Hemp isn’t going to be “the savior” of agriculture. It is, at best, going to be just another crop that some will have success with. And all of the hype about CBD oil seems to be mostly that, hype, with few actual facts to back up any of the claims. There seems to be some indications it can help with epilepsy and discomfort from arthritis, but that’s about it.
Strange things are growing in my backyard behind the garage. No, that’s not some kind of weird sunflower, that’s a GAP Titan DX vertical antenna which has been laying around for years now. Eldest son and I finally got the dopey thing put up over the weekend. That thing has been laying around for, oh, lord, has it really been three or four years? Sheesh… Talk about procrastination…
It replaces the Comet 250 vertical that was back there since 2013. The Comet – people like to complain about it but to be perfectly fair it wasn’t a horrible antenna. It is exactly what they claim it is, a multi-band vertical that doesn’t need radials or a counterpoise, that works from 80 to 10 meters without an antenna tuner, and can handle up to 250 watts. It is unobtrusive, the neighbors probably won’t complain about it, and under the right conditions it will even work as an antenna. Sort of. Not a very good antenna, true, but it will work.
The Titan has a pretty good reputation. It too is an all-band vertical, but you can see that it isn’t exactly simple, with all kinds of stubs and wires and stuff coming off it. But it is much, much more efficient than the Comet. And I can feed this one up to 1,500 watts if I want to without damaging it, where the Comet, well, I heard reports that if you tried to put more than 100 watts into the Comet you’d melt down the coils. Anyway, I still have work to do on this one. I need to get the counterpoise installed, need to get some connectors on it, need to tune the stubs. Hopefully it won’t take me another four years to get it hooked up!
It’s up high enough so it won’t interfere with the flowerbeds behind the garage. The counterpoise will take up a bit of space so I imagine MrsGF will not like that, but I’m hoping to get her to upgrade to a general class license now that she’s retired and if she does she’ll get as much use out of that antenna as I will.
Speaking of flowers, (well, okay, I wasn’t speaking of flowers but what the heck) the lupins have just gone nuts this year. They’re everywhere. It looks like someone bombed the entire backyard with seed. We didn’t plant any of these, they just came up by themselves. Not that I’m complaining. Those flowers are spectacular.
Let’s see, what else? Oh, yeah…
Stuff On The Air
Amateur radio operators can be a bit, well, odd, shall we say? (Personally I suspect it’s solder fumes.) Some of them seem to be obsessed with lugging their equipment out of the safe environment of their basements where spouses have exiled them and into the great outdoors with the intent of doing “Things On The Air”. They do SOTA (summits on the air), IOTA (islands on the air), POTA (parks on the air) WPOTA (Walmart parking lots on the air), and, well, the list goes on and on.
I’ve decided to join the ranks of these intrepid and brave explorers going to exotic places and sticking still more letters in front of “OTA”, risking life and limb outside of the safety of my normal operating location. Yes, I’ve started FPOTA! Front Porches On The Air! Ooo, the excitement! Ah, the thrills!
Well, okay, I’m being silly here. (But to be honest I’m getting really tired of these “OTA” things and people running around “activating” parking lots and hills and parks and bridges and I don’t know what all else.) Still, we had a very rare nice day so I set up the mag loop and the 818 out on the front porch with a cup of coffee, a copy of “The Bathroom Reader” and and contacted, well, no one, to be honest. Chris over at Off Grid Ham tells me he’s been having similar results and not to feel too bad about it. Propagation on the HF bands pretty much sucks because we’re at the bottom of the solar cycle.
By the way, if you’re at all interested in solar power, batteries, solar controllers, and alternative ways of keeping your radios running, battery charging systems, etc, Off Grid Ham is the place to start.
The Great QRP Saga Continues
If you’ve been reading this nonsense for the last couple of weeks you know about my efforts to put together a portable QRP (low power) radio setup that’s small enough I can throw it into the back of the car and take with me when I go fishing and stuff so I can do PTOCCOTA (Picnic Tables Of Calumet County On The Air). Okay, I’m being silly, but I have long wanted to have a nice QRP set up that I could take along with me to play amateur radio while out enjoying the glorious environment of Wisconsin’s great outdoors and it’s swarms of blood sucking, disease carrying mosquitoes and ticks.
I’m mostly interested in digital modes of communications like PSK, FT8 and JS8 because despite the fact my hobby is communications technology, I don’t like to actually, well, talk to people. Yeah, I know. Weird, isn’t it?
So as you may recall, the ancient Toshiba laptop I was going to use decided it was time to go to that great recycling center in the sky. So I’ve been scrounging around for a cheap (emphasis on cheap because I already got way too much money invested in this project already) replacement and came up with this:
It’s a refurbed Lenovo that I picked up for $300 and, frankly, it’s ridiculously nice. I mean this thing looks and feels literally like brand new. There isn’t a single scratch or smudge or physical defect anywhere on it. Has a core i5 processor, 8 gig RAM, 500 gig SSD drive, DVD drive, 4 USB ports and seems entirely too nice to lug around out in the field. I have FLDIGI, JS8Call and FT8 software installed on it already. And I think I have the right cables to hook everything up to the SignaLink and the 818. So this weekend I’ll be taking over the dining room table for a few hours and see if I can actually get all this to work together.
I am not looking forward to that because, well, it’s embarrassing. I’ve been working with computers since 1979, both hardware and software. I’ve been fiddling with radio for even longer even though I didn’t get my amateur radio license until 2013. I was an electronics technician. I repaired laser scanners, set up computer networks, worked with ridiculously complex point of sale systems. So I ought to know this stuff, right? But whenever it comes to trying to hook a computer to a transceiver it quickly turns into an extremely frustrating experience. It never, ever works the first time. Or the second. Or the third. Or the fourth… Well, you get the idea.
I spent days trying to get Ham Radio Deluxe to work with first my Kenwood TS-2000 and then later with the Kenwood TS-990 and a RigBlaster Advantage interface. It was so frustrating that at times I was ready to just give up and then, for no apparent reason, the damned thing would just start working, with the same settings and cabling that didn’t work the day before… Arrgghhhh! The last time I had to rejigger stuff was when I got the new gaming PC and was trying to hook that up. Same settings, same cables, same everything, and, of course, it wouldn’t work right. Ham Radio Deluxe worked just fine and dandy until I wanted to transmit. Then it would key the transmitter but nothing actually transmitted… I struggled with that problem for way, way to long. And then it just started working for no apparent reason… I still don’t know what the hell happened there.
Anyway, enough of that. I’ve been boring you long enough with this stuff. Hopefully come Monday or Tuesday I’ll be able to report that I’ve got the 818 working flawlessly with the ThinkPad and I’m making contacts all over the place.
Almost as soon as the weather got warmer the bike got pulled out of storage and I was out on it. It took me a few days to get back into it again, but it was easier than I thought it was going to be. Apparently doing the treadmill every day during the winter kept me from completely falling apart and it wasn’t long before it was comfortable to be back in the saddle and putting on more than a few miles.
This is an amazing time of year to be out in the countryside biking around. Everything is lush and green, everything is in flower this time of year. I sometimes struggle between the temptation to keep going to put on some miles in a reasonable amount of time and the temptation to stop every few hundred feet to take photos of some neat plant or flower as I rid around the backroads.
I wish the trail in the lead photo up there was a bit closer, though. The start of the trail is about four miles from town, but once you get on it, it runs for more than 30 miles all the way to Green Bay, with branches leading off into towns like Brillion.
This year I’m trying an app for my phone called aprs.fi. It uses the phone to tie into the APRS system. Automatic Packet Reporting system. It uses the phone to send and receive little bits of data back and forth to a network. It’s been used by amateur radio operators for many years now to send information, and one of its uses is position tracking. A lot of VHF/UHF transceivers have APRS capabilities built into them, and some transceivers have GPS built into them as well. They can be set up to periodically transmit the position of the radio to permit it to be tracked by others using the system.
MrsGf has a similar program for her iPhone plus the FTM-400DR transceiver in her car has APRS and GPS capabilities. The local ARES group she belongs to is just now looking into using APRS to track members of the group when they’re out in the field. Since APRS/GPS capable transceivers are still pretty pricy they’re looking at the APRS applications available for smart phones. Some work pretty well, others have problems, some serious. The one I use is aprs.fi and it seems well above average in it’s utility and capabilities. When the group was out doing volunteer communications for the Elkhart Lake Triathlon over the weekend a couple of people were using using some of the apps and I was able to track their positions in near real-time on a map.
I had it running when I was out on the bike Saturday and used it to plot my course when I did about 11 miles that morning. You can see the plot in the screen capture.
The question is why would I want to do this? Well, I’m out on the bike, on backroads or trails, and you never know what happens. Accidents, health issues, any number of things could happen that would incapacitate me. Yes, they can use the cell phone to try to find me, but trying to find the exact location of a cell phone is an iffy thing and often very inaccurate. The APRS app uses the phone’s GPS system so it’s much more accurate than trying to use the cell phone system to do the locating.
Certainly it’s a great technology for emergency services and ARES/RACES organizations should almost certainly be looking into it as a way of tracking their operators when they’re out in the field.
Let’s see, what else… The gardens are doing well. We’ve had to do a lot of watering. It’s been pretty dry around here over the last couple of weeks. Temperatures have been fairly cool after the heat wave we went through a few weeks ago.
They drag me into the clinic every 6 months so I spent the whole morning doing that. To make a long story short, everything checked out fine. All the numbers were where they are supposed to be. BP is still higher than it should be, but it’s no where near as bad as it was a year ago so I’m happy about that. And they’re delighted I’ve taken up biking. I think everyone was afraid that once I retired I was going to end up sitting on my butt all day in front of the radio or computer or television and it kind of surprised everyone that I started doing that last year.
The next thing I want to do is put together a low-power (QRP) transceiver that I can throw into a backpack and take out on the trail with me. I think it would be great fun to sit out in the woods or on a trail somewhere with an antenna strung up in a tree and trying to make contacts with just a couple of watts of power.
I suppose I could talk about how Mike Pence not only killed NAFTA but drove a stake into it’s still quivering heart last week, or how the latest round of that popular game in D.C, Trade Wars, is going to decimate the agriculture economy, but that’s just too damned depressing. Besides, if you want to read about that kind of thing there are only about five hundred million websites out there where “experts” are pontificating and bloviating.
No, it’s spring. Everything is in bloom, as you can see from the closeup of the lilac there up at the top of this. I’m rather pleased with how that image turned out. MrsGF keeps telling me I should start printing some of these and trying to sell ’em, but well, that would mean I’d actually have to do some work.
Almost everything we planted is doing well. Tomatoes are doing great. One variety we planted called Wisconsin 55 (I think) is already starting to blossom. The peppers are doing pretty good. Even the two blueberry bushes MrsGF picked up seem to be doing pretty good. Even the spindly and sickly looking cucumber plants that looked like they were dead are starting to take off.
And the weather has been — well, I was going to say good, but that’s not really true. The weather has been odd. In late May we had temperatures well up into the mid-90s that broke records all over the state. And caused dozens of incidents of highways buckling from the heat. And in just the space of a few days we went from conditions being too wet to conditions way too dry. We haven’t had any significant rainfall in weeks now. Other parts of the state did get some rain, but it always seemed to evaporate before it got to us. We have to water everything almost every day. It’s rather discouraging. If it’s this bad this early in the season, what is it going to be like come August? We did finally get some rain over the weekend, about half an inch.
Still, it’s hard to complain when I see stuff like this when I walk out the door:
And I’ve finally been able to get the bike out and put some miles on on a fairly regular basis. I’d almost forgotten how delightful it is to get out in the country on the bike this time of year. A lot of people don’t understand why I enjoy it so much. It isn’t the exercise, it’s getting out in nature and being able to hear the birds and frogs, and seeing the little treasures along the roadside like these tiny little flowers:
Amateur Radio Stuff
Field Day is rapidly approaching. I think it’s June 23-24. It’s an annual event that has been going on for ages in the amateur radio community. The idea is to get us troglodytes out of our basements and the dark corners where we usually huddle over smoking soldering irons, and play with all kinds of technologies that range from 100+ year old telegraph keys to ultra-modern mesh networks, satellite communications and bouncing radio signals off the moon, and set up our gear in parking lots, parks, and even fields in the middle of nowhere, and hope we don’t burst into flames like vampires from the exposure to the sun.
Alas, I’ve never participated because MrsGF and I are usually gone of vacation at that time of year because of how our schedules work out. It’s great fun, though. So if you see a bunch of very pale looking people stringing up wires in trees, standing around tables laden with strange looking equipment, don’t worry. It’s just us making a rare excursion into the daylight.
I was finally able to get the bicycle out on the road the other day. It felt great to be out on the road on a warm, sunny day again. Unfortunately I also quickly found out that bicycling takes an entirely different set of muscles than jogging on a treadmill does. It’s going to take a while before I’m comfortable doing 10 or 15 miles, but it was worth it. The frogs were singing, the sun was bright, and the wild flowers alongside the road had me stopping every once in a while to take photos.
So, here’s some photos… Oh, click one of the photos to start a slide show of the full size images.