New Photos And How Stupid Am I (Very)

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.

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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…

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That camera does a great job taking closeups like that.

Another plant in flower at the moment is this one:

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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:

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Then there’s this really weird plant…

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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?

Catching Up

Egads, it’s been a while since I did anything here. When things get a bit busy I’m afraid the first thing to suffer is this blog. So let’s take a look at what’s been going on. It’s going to be a mixed bag this time, covering a variety of different topics. Let’s look at some agricultural stuff first.

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Approximately 3.5 million acres of crops were allegedly damaged by dicamba drift

The dicamba saga continues. Monsanto’s lawsuit against the state of Alabama over its very strict regulations concerning the use of dicamba was thrown out of court. Alabama put very stringent restrictions in place on the use of the product after thousands and thousands of acres of crops were damaged by the herbicide drifting.

The case was thrown out on a legal technicality, it seems. Apparently Alabama has a “sovereign immunity” clause in it’s constitution that prevents it from being sued for things like this. So nothing has really been settled.

There are new federal regulations in place now, new training requirements and other things, so I guess we’ll see if those will be sufficient to keep the herbicide under control.

Trade Wars — Of course that’s the big news right at the moment. With NAFTA negotiations already allegedly falling apart and threatening our economic links with Canada and Mexico, the last thing we needed was for the administration to launch a full blown trade war with, well, with just about everyone. So, of course, that’s exactly what the administration has done. The administration claims that the tariffs will have no effect on the NAFTA negotiations, which is a flat out lie. Of course it will. It already is having an effect.

The negotiations were already contentious, adversarial and often completely unrealistic, and both Canada and Mexico have made comments that they were considering pulling out of NAFTA entirely if the tone of the negotiations didn’t change. The threat of tariffs has made the situation even worse. The Canadians have become far more outspoken now, openly talking about “responsive measures”, i.e. political speak for levying such huge tariffs on US made goods that US manufacturers and agribusinesses will be unable to sell products in Canada. Mexico has been a bit less open about it, saying that the country is “considering all of its options”.

If you look past NAFTA and look at what’s happening elsewhere, the response to the administration’s tariff threats has been even more forceful, with some countries threatening reciprocal tariffs that would make US goods unmarketable. And as for China, well, if we lose China as a market, that’s pretty much going to destroy the ag economy, and decimate a lot of other businesses as well.

Weather — The weather here in Wisconsin used to be pretty reliable. We could depend on blistering hot summers and cold, snowy winters that would rival anything seen in the arctic.

Yeah, well, about that whole snow and cold thing… Although we had a period of intense cold over Christmas and New Years, it’s actually been ridiculously warm here. We had a February with temps at or above freezing more often than not, and some days when it was pushing 50 degrees. In February. In Wisconsin??? WTF? Really? After a couple of days of 45+ temps, it cooled down and we got about an inch of snow, not enough to bother shoveling because it almost immediately melted off again, and now, on March 3, we’re looking at temps back up in the high 40s and low 50s again.

I’ve been hearing rumors now that the snowmobile clubs in the area are seriously considering not bothering to lay out trails any more and may even be closing down because we haven’t had any actual snow for years now. The trails never opened this year. If they opened at all last year it was only for a few days and in limited areas.

And while we still complain about the cold (we love complaining up here in Wisconsin, it’s the state hobby, I think), and we do get some intense cold periods, all things considered it hasn’t really been all that cold either. If you look at the ice data that shows how long the lakes here are ice covered, you’ll find that the number of days, on average, that lakes are ice covered has dwindled by several weeks.

Screen Shot 2018-03-03 at 6.33.57 AMAnd if you look at the growing zone map, where I live about 20 miles south of Green Bay, well, we used to be firmly in Zone 4. We’re now in zone 5 and I keep hearing from people that a lot of years now we’re actually pushing zone 6.

Speaking of gardening — MrsGF and I are getting impatient. We’ve already been talking about expanding the garden area on the south side of the house and trying to figure out an easy way to get rid of sod.

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Bag ‘O Seeds

One of the things that’s been pushing us into impatience is that whenever we go down in the basement we walk past the famous “Bag ‘O Seeds” that eldest son gave us for Christmas. It’s hard to tell how many are in there from this photo. That pile of seed packets is about a foot deep. He literally got us one of everything that the retail chain he works for sells in their garden department.

We really need to sit down and do some planning because there is no way that we are going to be able to plant more than a fraction of the different seeds we have.

I can tell MrsGF has gotten impatient because yesterday she got some pots and some potting soil and put in some daffodil bulbs and I suspect those will end up in front of some of the windows in the house and she was wondering if it was really still too early to start some seeds for the garden.

Amateur Radio Stuff — I’m still playing with the FT8 mode and I can see how it can be addicting. I know that some people have complained that it isn’t really “communicating”. The typical FT8 exchange consists of call signs, grid square, signal strength report, and then bye-bye. FT8 is pretty much completely useless for exchanging any kind of genuinely useful communications. So what’s the point of it?

A lot of AROs are interested in things like trying to contact 100 different countries or more, contacting every state in the US, or things like that. It’s making the contact that is important to them. Actually talking to someone? Not so much. They’re chasing awards or certificates of accomplishment or competing in contests, or doing it just for the personal satisfaction of having done it. For those people, FT8 is great. I worked something like 27 different countries in just a few hours while I’ve been experimenting with it. I’ve worked countries I never thought I’d ever successfully contact. I worked a station in Japan the other day and yesterday I got the Cayman Islands.

The fun thing about FT8 is that you can do all that stuff with very modest equipment. You don’t need transceivers that cost $10,000 and huge amplifiers and ten acres of antennas. You can do this running less power than it takes to run the average light bulb and little more than a wire hanging in a tree for an antenna.

But it does have “issues”, as they say. One of the biggest problems is that it is being crippled by its own success. It’s become so wildly popular that the small parts of the radio frequency spectrum that are recommended for its use are ridiculously overcrowded.

And it’s about to get much, much worse because the wonderfully skilled and creative programmers who developed the WSJT software most people use for FT8 is bring out a “Dxpedition” version of the software that will permit as many as 500 contacts per hour and will transmit up to five signals at the same time.

Now, the developers have stated that this new system is “suitable for use only by Dxpedition stations and those attempting to work them”, and that it should not be used on the normal FT8 bands. But you can be sure there are going to be people who are going to completely ignore that. If we get a significant number of operators running the Dxpedition version of the software in the normal FT8 bands, well, the situation is going to go from merely ridiculous to utterly insane.

I saw a statistic the other day that claimed that more than half of all contacts being made now are done by FT8, and considering the amount of activity I’m seeing I suspect that’s probably correct. I wonder if this is just a fad though and if in a fairly short time FT8 will end up abandoned by everyone except the DX hunters.

Where Has PSK gone? — One of the side effects of the widespread adoption of FT8 is that it seems to have almost completely killed off the use of the PSK mode. PSK was a fairly popular mode of communication. When I first started using PSK I would find dozens of contacts and conversations going on on the PSK sub-bands. But now? I generally fire up FLDIGI a couple of times a day when I have the time and check the PSK bands and, well, I’m seeing nothing. I mean nothing. I haven’t seen a single PSK signal out there in days now. It’s almost as if every PSK user out there immediately jumped ship for the FT8 mode and hasn’t gone back. That’s a bit disappointing because PSK is a great low power, weak signal mode, and is, or can be, as automated as FT8 is. When using PSK64 and properly set up macros, making a contact can be as quick and easy as with FT8. And the big plus is that PSK can be used to actually communicate with people.

There, I think I’ve bored you long enough for this time…


Amateur Radio: More on FT8

On Feb 12 I decided to take a serious look at what operating with the FT8 mode was all about. I had the software configured, the equipment all ready to go, fired everything up, tuned up on 18.100, and started trying to make contacts and, well…

In a short time I’d logged contacts with Southern California, Oregon, Brazil, England, Finland, Spain, France… Wow.

The next day I got curious about just how well I was getting out and went to the PSK Reporter website to check. If you’ve never heard of PSK Reporter, it is a great service that links monitoring stations all over the world to a mapping system that will show you what monitors received your signals (or anyone else’s for that matter) and when. You can see what overall band conditions are like, or you can plug in your call sign and a date and time, along with a specific band if you like, and see if anyone heard your transmissions.

I pulled up the map and, well, look:

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Every one of those blobs with an “hrs” label is a report of my transmissions being heard that day. I was hitting large parts of the US, almost all of Europe, the west coast of North Africa, South Africa for pete’s sake, and, amazingly, New Zealand.

I played around for a while yesterday and had similar results. I made contacts in England and the west coast of the US, and the map showed results similar to the one above.

Oh, and I had one contact on 17 meters with Elkhart Lake, WI, about 20 miles from here. I’m still trying to figure out what kind of weird system of propagation allowed that to happen.

I already knew FT8 was wildly popular, and now I had first hand experience of why. Once you get the hardware and software set up, operating is a snap. Pick a clear spot on the water fall for transmission, click a mouse button to start a CQ and sit back and wait. The CQ is automatically transmitted every 15 seconds until you either stop it or someone responds. When someone does respond, the software picks up their call sign, plugs it in the right spot in the pre-programmed responses, and begins the automatic exchange of grid square, reception data, and then ends the contact and pops up a box to log the contact.

If you see someone calling CQ that you want to try contacting, just double click on the call sign and the system begins trying to make contact with them, and if it does, goes through the automated exchange.

Because of the digital coding system used by the software, this is a very efficient way of making a contact. It is a very narrow bandwidth, can handle signals down to -20 dB or so, and lets people make contacts they normally would never have been able to log.

So what’s the controversy all about? Why do some people seem so upset about FT8? I’m not really sure. Yes, there is very little actual “communication” going on, but the same is true for a lot of other contacts going on as well. Most PSK communications, even RTTY, is little more than an exchange of pre-recorded macros. Same with a lot of other digital modes. And may of those modes are just as automated as FT8 is.

Everyone in amateur radio is excited by different aspects of the hobby. Some like to talk, some like to experiment with electronics, some like to try to design better antennas, some are fascinated with how radio signals are propagated through the atmosphere. Some like EME (Earth-Moon-Earth) or moon-bounce. Some are into satellite communications. Some like contesting. Some enjoy DX chasing, trying to make contact with far away places that are hard to reach. And for DXers, FT8 is just another tool they can use to try to reach a goal of contacting a hard to reach country or region.

Are there problems with FT8? No doubt about it. The main one seems to be overcrowding. Last night down on 20 meters, and even on 80 and 160 meters the FT8 portions of the band were almost solid red all the way across the waterfall display. It looked and sounded like no one was even bothering to try to find a clear frequency. They were just hitting “transmit” anywhere on the band, whether they were sending over the top of someone else or not, and hoping the software could sort out the mess.

I have to admit that when I started looking at FT8 I was prepared to dislike it. But the thing is very addictive as you start to watch contacts from far away places go into the log, and I’ll probably keep playing with it as time permits.

Amateur Radio’s New Digital Mode, FT8. Let the controversy begin…

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Gads, what a mess

Amateur radio has a new toy to play with, a new digital mode called FT8. The name

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WSJT software in action

comes from the first two letters of the last names of its developers, Franke (K9AN) and Taylor (K1JT), plus the number 8 because it uses 8 frequency shift keying. The new mode has only been generally available since late June or July 2017 when it released as a beta. And it almost immediately took over amateur radio down on the HF bands. I’ve seen estimates that claim that more than half of all contacts on HF are now taking place using FT8.

FT8 is a “weak signal” mode, meaning that you can often successfully decode signals that are down around -20 dB. This is not as good as some of the other digital modes out there such as JT65 which can go as low as -28 dB. But it is much, much faster to make a contact with FT8 than with JT65. Like any communications mode, it has advantages and drawbacks. And like most digital communications modes, it requires a computer interfaced to your transceiver.

I’m always up for something new, and with temperatures hovering down around 0(F) fiddling around with FT8 has seemed like a good way to spend my free time over the last few days. I already had the WSJT software installed on my Win10 computer but hadn’t really had much incentive to do much with it until now.

I won’t go into the details of getting the software installed, configured, hooking things up to your transceiver, etc. There are dozens of tutorials out there. How you set it all up is going to depend on your computer, what transceiver you’re using, sound card, etc. In my case I’m using a Kenwood TS-990 with a RigBlaster Advantage, the same equipment I use for my other digital modes.

Initial setup wasn’t too difficult. The FT8 Operating Guide by Gary Hinson was a big help in getting everything working properly and is highly recommended.

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First FT8 contact

Much to my surprise, I actually got everything working without a great deal of difficulty and after getting set up and calibrated I took a stab at calling CQ on 15 meters and actually made a contact. WA7MPG in Canada BC.

So, what’s the controversy I mentioned in the title of this? Nothing less than (drum roll please) the end of amateur radio! (Imagine spooky voice saying that)

Yes, according to some out there, FT8 heralds the end of amateur radio. Well, true, they said the same thing about SSB, packet radio, repeaters, PSK, digital voice, SSTV, dropping the morse code requirement and, well, pretty much every innovation to come along in the last 100 years or so. But this time it’s really the end! Really!

Oh, brother…

The complaints are due to the fact that FT8 is almost entirely automated. Contacts via FT8 consist of brief, 15 second long exchanges of call sign, grid location, signal strength, and then a 73 to end, all done by the software. A click or two of the mouse is all it takes to start the whole process, and then you sit back and watch the computer do the work.

And this is what they’re complaining about. It takes the “human element” out of the whole thing, they claim. It is just making contacts for the sake of racking up another contact in the log. It isn’t “real” amateur radio. It isn’t real communications. It’s just two computers talking to one another.

The arguments are just silly, of course. Yes, it’s real communications. Information is being exchanged. And as for the other arguments, well, the same things could be said about any digital mode of communications; RTTY, PSK, etc. If you monitor the people who use those modes you’ll quickly find that most “conversations” take the form of pre-written and stored messages or macros that are sent automatically. Heck, if you monitor the CW portions of the bands you’ll find a lot of people are doing the same thing even with CW using decoding software and keyers.

Look, amateur radio includes a huge variety of methods of communications, both analog and digital. Everyone has their own favorite thing to do. But there are a lot of amateur radio operators out there who can’t afford to operate a contest quality station with acres of antennas and ten thousand dollar transceivers and amplifiers, but who would still love to log contacts with other amateur radio operators in far off places. FT8 allows people with modest equipment and antennas to use a weak signal mode to make contacts that they normally would probably never be able to make. It doesn’t encroach on the territory of the SSB or CW portions of the bands.

So why all the complaints? I’m not really sure. FT8 has become wildly popular for a lot of very good reasons, and it isn’t going to go away any time soon. Even better, it’s getting a lot of amateur radio operators who weren’t all that active before to start exploring the hobby once more.

Am I going to use FT8 a lot? Heck, I don’t know. I’m one of those very odd amateur radio operators who doesn’t actually like to talk to people. I’m more into it because of the technology. But I still like to get on the air once in a while, if for no other reason than to test equipment and antennas. FT8 could at least make my contact log look a lot less sparse, so maybe. We’ll see.


Amateur Radio Stuff: It’s Alive!

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That spike you see there is the 990 sending a PSK31 signal on 10 meters. It’s working! OMG it’s actually working! Finally! 

The saga of me trying to get operating in digital modes on HF following tearing down my station so I could move in new furniture continues and hopefully it has reached a satisfactory conclusion. But only after a very frustration couple of hours.

I few days ago I commented about the frustrating time I was having trying to get back on the air after putting my radio equipment back together. I primarily use digital modes on HF, usually PSK. And even though everything was set up exactly the same, it wasn’t working. I finally got it working, but only by triggering the transmitter using VOX. This was not ideal, but it did work.

Well, this morning I was going to fire up the equipment and play amateur radio for a while and, well, VOX didn’t work either all of a sudden. And for no apparent reason.


I checked all of the cables. I opened up the RigBlaster and checked for loose wires or bad solder joints and found nothing wrong there. I reloaded drivers, reset all of the settings, tried both Fldigi and Ham Radio Deluxe. Receive worked just fine. The software could control the transceiver just fine. It would even kick the transceiver into transmit mode. But no actual signal was being transmitted. I checked sound levels on the inputs and outputs, checked COM ports and PTT settings… Nothing was working.

After over an hour of this, I was ready to give up. I went through all of the settings one last time, double checked everything, switched the RigBlaster to COM for PTT, clicked the button to do a CQ and…

It worked? It worked??? WTF?

What did I do? How did I fix it? I have absolutely no idea!

Seriously. As far as I can tell all of the settings are exactly the same now as when they were when it wasn’t working. Same drivers, same sound levels, same everything. Only now it works… I must have changed something, but I have no idea what. The infuriating thing is that I must have spent at least four hours over several days trying to figure this out and I still don’t know what was wrong.

Screen Shot 2017-12-24 at 8.56.44 AMOkay, now let’s talk about Ham Radio Deluxe.

Now if you’ve followed this blog for a while, you know I’ve used HRD in the past and did not have a very good opinion of it. It is an extremely ambitious piece of software that tries to do just about everything and anything an amateur radio operator could want in a program. And I had some “issues” as they say. Some of them were pretty serious.

I’m pleased to report that issues I had in the past seem to have been fixed. Customer support seems to be very good. I had a minor issue not long after I bought it, put in a trouble ticket, and got a response back that fixed the problem in just a few hours.

I’m going to keep using it and we’ll see what happens.

Radio Frustrations…

Grrr…. It’s been a very frustrating morning. I recently tore down my entire amateur radio setup in order to bring in a new desk. I have all of the equipment hooked back up and all the radio gear is working, but the software… Arrgghhh…

When I get on the air I generally use one of the digital modes like PSK31. Doing this requires a computer and software to code/decode the digital signals. It’s not that hard to do. Or at least it shouldn’t be.

I have the computer, Rigblaster, transceiver and everything else connected properly. I’m using the exact same computer and software I had running before. All the settings in the software and transceiver are exactly the same. Nothing at all was changed. And before I did the tear down, everything worked just fine and dandy.

Now, though? Of course not. Even though I changed nothing, I can’t transmit for some reason, and it’s driving me nuts. The software settings are the same. The cable connections are the same. The radio equipment is the same. Everything is exactly the same as it was before the tear down.

Only it won’t transmit now for some reason. Spent almost two hours this morning trying to trouble shoot the problem, and have come up with a blank. I’ve checked the software settings, the equipment, everything. Nothing seems to work.

Receive is just fine. I have complete control of the transceiver from the computer. It receives, decodes digital signals, everything. But transmit? Nope.

The transceiver goes into transmit mode. The software seems to be working properly. But there’s no signal actually going to the transceiver.

I remember that I had the exact same problem when I first set this all up some three years ago or so, and it drove me crazy then. And, of course, I can’t remember how I fixed it.


It’s Alive! Sort of

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Spent the better part of the afternoon getting everything set up, all the cables connected and all that, and it’s finally done! Well, mostly. And everything seems to be working.

Mostly because I still don’t have the digital stuff up and running yet. But the TS-990 is up and running, as is the Palstar tuner, the FM-400DR, and even the MFJ amp. So I’m rather pleased with the progress.

Need to permanently mount the grounding buss, that’s the thing way on the left, a big copper bar sitting on top of 2 red insulators. That’s the grounding system for all of the electronics and that needs to have a permanent home rather than perched on top of the amp. Even got the Vibroplex paddle wired up and figured out how to program the TS-990 to deal with it.

Now I just have to get the Rigblaster put in place and connected. That interfaces between the 990 and the computer to assist with computer control of the transceiver and digital communications again.

I didn’t set up the Kenwood 2000, and I’m not sure if I will yet or not. I was using that mostly to monitor signal quality when doing digital work and I don’t really need it.

And I still need to decide what to do with my big boat anchor vacuum tube amp. I got the solid state amp right after I got the AL-82, and never even used the AL-82. I installed the transformer, installed the tubes, hooked it up, turned it on, made sure everything worked, and then got the ALS-1300 amp and used that instead. Probably should just see if I can sell the thing.