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.
MrsGF has been just as sick of looking outside at the brown wasteland that is March here in Wisconsin as I have, so she shoved some old bulbs into pots and put them in a sunny window a few weeks ago and this is what we have now. Great fun to see tulips starting to pop open again.
That’s not to say that there aren’t things growing already. She was outside looking things over yesterday and discovered that the chives are already six inches tall over in their protected corner. They’re always the first things to spring up and they’ve been ridiculously prolific. We put those in shortly after we bought the house so they’ve been going strong for almost 20 years now.
The big question now is sod, as in how are we going to get rid of it. There is a pretty big section of lawn we want to rip out to expand one of the gardens here, and getting rid of
the sod is always a pain in the neck. I sold my tractor a couple of years ago. After selling the farm we kept the little Massey for a while, but keeping it was a bit silly. It was mostly in storage over at the farm of a friend about 8 miles from here and there it sat until we needed it perhaps for one afternoon a year. So keeping it and its trailer was ridiculous. So it looks like I’ll resort to the good old fashioned dig it up with a shovel method as soon as the frost is completely out of the ground.
MrsGF and I were sorting through seeds and tentatively making plans earlier this morning. We were thrilled when Eldest Son gave us literally a whole shopping bag of seed packets for Christmas, but we have to be realistic. We can’t grow all of it as much as we’d like to. And there are quite a few that we don’t really like or couldn’t use. Neither of us like melon all that much, and it takes up a lot of space, so those got set aside. Same with eggplant. Don’t get me wrong, eggplant is a perfectly delightful vegetable. But that one summer our eggplant was so ridiculously prolific that we got so sick of eating eggplant that we can’t really stand looking at them any more.
We brought up the little portable greenhouse rack we use to start seed and MrsGF is in the process of starting trays of seeds even as I write this.
Amateur Radio Stuff
I’ve been having a lot of fun with the FT8 mode over the last couple of months. Even with my seriously bad antenna system I’ve had a couple of hundred contacts and have managed to hit something like 35 different countries, including some really long distance contacts with Hawaii, Alaska, Japan and Tasmania.
I’ve even started playing with PSK again and have made a few contacts with that mode as well. Unlike FT8 you can actually chat with people using PSK. Unfortunately it seems most PSK users have jumped ship for FT8 and seeing a PSK signal on the bands has been a rather rare thing. Even more annoying is that the powers that be decided that on 17 meters the frequency recommendation for FT8 mode is the same one as the PSK allocation, so PSK on 17 meters is a lost cause because the frequency is swamped with FT8.
I’m hoping to get this puppy up in the air this spring. It’s already mostly assembled out in the back yard and we have all the hardware for mounting, including the tilt-over base. It’s a GAP Titan multi-band vertical antenna that should help to give me a significant boost over the OCFD I currently have hanging out there now. This one is going to replace the Comet 250 vertical I have and which is… Well, let’s face it, the Comet isn’t that good of an antenna. It can only handle about 240 watts and to be perfectly frank I’m amazed the thing works at all.
I also have a 40 foot antenna tower laying out in the backyard that will hopefully get set up sometime this summer. Of course I said that last summer, too. And the summer before that…
Even though today is officially the start of spring it sure doesn’t feel that way. Temperature around 34 degrees, cloudy… We’re impatient to get outside and do something again.
Nevertheless, I had the camera out and was taking some photos of the indoor plants, some of which are flowering right now.
This guy is sitting in the kitchen window at the moment. Those flowers are only about a quarter of an inch across. Here’s another shot of a different cluster of flowers on the same plant with different lighting…
That camera does a great job taking closeups like that.
Another plant in flower at the moment is this one:
I love this plant. The color of the leaves, the texture, and those tiny little pink flowers that are about the size of the head of a pin. It’s a lot of fun.
MrsGF’s violets are in full bloom too right now:
Then there’s this really weird plant…
That’s Kai. I’m very surprised she held still long enough for me to get that photo. She usually runs away when she sees me with a camera.
And now, on to the stupidity…
Nothing makes me look dumber than when something goes wrong with my radio equipment sometimes. This one was a real gem, though.
For some reason the TS-990 decided to stop transmitting AM and I couldn’t figure out why. Everything seemed to be working just fine otherwise. I could still use SSB, the digital modes, FM, all were working fine. But when I keyed the mic using AM, it would go into transmit mode, but no signal.
I spent something like two hours this morning trying to diagnose what the problem was. As a last resort I got out my morse code key and hooked that up. Not sure why. Just was trying to eliminate other things as problems. I tried sending my callsign in CW and…
And nothing. Same symptoms as the AM problem. It went into transmit, but no signal, no power going to the antenna.
Hmph… I went on line and searched around, found out there was an update for the radio’s firmware, so I downloaded that and installed. That went well. In fact, better than well because now the noise blanker works the way it’s supposed to and some other little things were fixed. But same problem as before, no AM and no CW.
I pulled out the manual once more and started to dig through that and…
Oh. Oh, brother… All right, look, the 990 is a very complicated piece of equipment. I mean it has controls and knobs and buttons on it that I’ve never used in the almost four years I’ve owned the thing. So I suppose I can be excused for not noticing this.
Most of the knobs on the radio are “nested”, that is there is a central knob that controls one function, and an outer ring around the central knob that controls an entirely different function.
The Power knob which controls the rig’s output power is the central knob. The outer ring is something labeled “Car” which stands for carrier. The carrier setting is essential to transmitting in CW and AM modes. I normally have it set dead center right in the middle. But since I almost never do CW or AM I almost never touch it. But I do use the Power knob to adjust the wattage going out to the antenna or feeding into the amplifier.
Somewhere along the way, the Car knob got a bit sticky and started to track along with the Power knob when it was turned. But only in one direction: down. When I turned the power down, it was also dragging the carrier knob down towards zero, but not dragging it back up when the power was turned back up. Eventually the carrier was turned down to nothing. So without a carrier, there was no AM or CW.
Sigh… Spent more than two hours trouble shooting a problem that didn’t really exist. All I had to do was turn the Car knob back up to the center position and all was well.
And now I just found out my amplifier relay isn’t working… How did I get into this hobby in the first place?