If you’re like me, you’re ready to scream because of the 24/7 fear, panic and everything else you’re seeing on the news and internet. So here’s some photos to distract you. Well, if my internet connection stays up, that is. It’s been down a half dozen times already today.
That’s enough for now. I’m pushing my luck with my internet connection here, I think. It went down three times while I was uploading photos.
They’re claiming another major storm will roll through here starting to night. We have flood warnings, winter storm warnings, ice warnings, heavy snow… Well, considering they totally blew their last storm warning, we remain skeptical. Last Sunday we were supposed to have 8 or more inches of snow, high winds and blizzard like conditions and we got bright sun and mild winds. So we’ll see. But this time of year I always find myself paging through photos from warmer weather because I’m getting very impatient for spring to get here. So here goes. I’ve probably put some of these up before, but what the heck…
Apparently Mother Nature wasn’t satisfied with deluging us with snow a month early, now she’s trying to freeze us with temperatures we usually don’t see until well into January. It’s about 3 degrees (F) out there, with windchills down in the -10 range. Sheesh…
Meanwhile, MrsGF has this growing in the living room. Just took these photos the other day-
Yeah, roses. I’ve put up photos of this before, but I figured this plant would go dormant or something by now. But it just keeps right on blooming.
This thing started out as one of those goofy little teacup roses, a tiny plant in a cheap cup that they sell for a few bucks on Mother’s Day or Valentine’s Day. Think I paid all of $7 for it, oh, must be at least two or three years ago. And after we got sick of it sitting around the house MrsGF said what the heck, let’s put it in a big pot and see what happens and the dopey thing just kept growing and flowering. We were putting it in the basement, letting it go dormant over winter, but this year she thought she’d put it in the living room where it could get some light and keep watering it, and well, it apparently likes it there, and it’s been flowering on a regular basis all winter so far.
I asked her how she’s keeping it flowering and she swears she’s just watering it and isn’t doing anything else. Personally I figure witchcraft is involved.
The MagLoop Antenna
I talked about this antenna before, and I continue to be more than pleased with it. Since my dipole came down in the last snowstorm it’s been the main antenna for my TS-990, sitting on the floor behind me in the office. And it is doing ridiculously good.
The Great Radio Fiasco Project
I mentioned this before, but let me summarize what I’m trying to do here. For reasons I won’t get into right now, I challenged myself to build, from scratch, a decent radio receiver, preferably shortwave. Emphasis on the word “decent” because I could throw together a few parts and end up with – well, with something that would receive, well, something that might be a radio signal, and pump it into a speaker and you’d hear some sound that might be interpreted as a radio transmission by someone with bad hearing. It could technically be called a radio receiver, but, well, let’s face it, it wouldn’t exactly be useful.
When I first conceived of this project I was like how hard can this be? In those WWII movies the Resistance throws together a radio out of bits of string, a piece of wire, an old cigar box and bits off a horse (don’t ask me what bits, I don’t know, ask them, they built the thing) and call up Churchill at Bomber Command and call in an air strike on Hitler’s outhouse. And the Good Ole Boys in amateur radio weep bitter tears of disappointment over the fact that modern day hams don’t build stuff any more like they did, when they’d throw together a 1,500 watt amplifier, transmitter and superhet receiver in an afternoon, out of parts they salvaged from old washing machines. And bits off a horse for all I know.
Here’s the thing, though – 95% of that (maybe even 98%) is pure BS. I’m sorry, but it just is.
The days of being able to salvage anything useful from discarded electronics are long gone. Modern SMD (surface mount devices) and robotic assembly methods make it virtually impossible to salvage anything useful from relatively modern equipment. And while you can buy discrete components like resistors, capacitors, etc. in the more common values, increasingly it is difficult to find a lot of stuff in anything but SMD form, and in quantities of 1,000 or more. I was trying to find what had once been a very common opamp the other day. It is still available. But if I want to get it from a US supplier I can only buy it in quantities of 1,000 or more, and in SMD format. If I want it in the traditional 6 pin IC form, and only want a few of them, it looks like I’m going to have to order it from China and it won’t get here until mid-March.
Nor are parts cheap. Oh, some are, true, but not the kind of stuff I’m looking for. A single variable capacitor I need for a project sells for $25. And I need two of them. So I’m going to have $50 stuck in that project before I even get started on it.
And then there’s the design of the equipment you want to build. If you were going to set out to build your own radio receiver, probably the first thing you’d do is fire up Google and look for something like “build your own radio” and find, well, hundreds and hundreds of hits that are utterly worthless, along with a few sites that might have actual plans to build something. Only most of those plans are for useless crystal radios and other nonsense. And the designs that do look useful are probably going to be wrong and no one is going to tell you how to fix it when you build it and it doesn’t work. In fact, most of the designs I saw out there were copies of stuff pulled out of old radio or electronics magazines from the 1960s or 70s that didn’t work in the first place.
(Sidenote: I’m convinced that the building plans in all those electronics magazines published in the 50s, 60s, 70s, etc. were never actually built by anyone because about six or eight months after the plans were published there’d be a “corrections” item pointing out that they forgot this part, or the wiring was wrong and if you’d actually build the thing it would have exploded, electrocuted your cat or something.)
So the question is, can I build a decent radio receiver from scratch? Probably. Will it work? Maybe. Can I do it for less than what it would cost to just go buy one? No way in hell. Will it work as good as even a cheap piece of junk commercial radio? Almost certainly not.
So why am I doing this? Uh, because I’m a stubborn old goat?
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.