Cheap Amateur Radio. The FT-450D and holy s**t it’s cold! And some flowers and stuff

Okay, can we stop with this nonsense already? It’s only Nov 8, for pete’s sake! Normally we don’t get really cold weather and snow until mid to late December. Usually it’s in the mid 30s to low 40s this time of year and you can still go outside without freezing your bits off. Last night it was 10 degrees. Night before that it was 11 degrees. And snow? Really? A lot of years we’re lucky if we have snow by Christmas. In the last two weeks we’ve had a total of about 12 inches here. Most of that melted off, thank goodness, but now that the temperatures have plummeted it’s sticking around.

There’s so much we didn’t get done outside this fall. Between MrsGF’s knee surgery and everything else that’s been going on, I just didn’t have time to get everything done. I didn’t get some of the dahlias dug up, so those are probably going to be a total loss. Didn’t get any of the leaves raked because I was waiting for both the pear tree and the maple in the backyard to shed their leaves. Only they didn’t this year for some reason. It’s been a strange, strange autumn.

On the plus side, MrsGF’s Christmas cactus is in full bloom and it’s gorgeous. I know a lot of people who just can’t get these things to blossom no matter what they do, but MrsGF has a real knack with plants. I’m not sure what it is. I suspect she could take an old, half rotted twig, shove it in the ground, and in a few weeks it would turn into a healthy tree. This thing just keeps going and going. Some years it blooms twice.

And she has a rose bush in the living room this year, also in full blossom, in November. I don’t know how she does that, either. But it does make me grin like an idiot to have a rose in full bloom while it’s 10 degrees and snowy outside.

But I was really going to talk about amateur radio stuff when I started all of this so let’s get on with this…

Yaesu FT-450D hooked to the SCU-17 interface. It’s been in production for a while but it’s still one heck of a nice little radio for the money

Oh, before that, though, I thought I’d just throw this in even though it has nothing to do with the headline starting this off. This is what it looked like here on Oct 31 a little after 6 AM.

Last day of October in Wisconsin.

Now I know this is Wisconsin and the weather here is a bit, well, odd, but still, really? Ick.

Now, finally, the amateur radio stuff!

The Dilemma

Whenever I start talking to someone about amateur radio, whether they’re other amateur radio operators or people who know nothing at all about it, invariably the topic turns to cost, and it becomes clear immediately that a lot of people, including a lot of hams, think that amateur radio is way too expensive. A lot of people I know who would otherwise be interested in getting into the hobby think it’s so expensive they could never be able to afford it. And that simply isn’t true.

I can’t really blame them for thinking that because some of this equipment is indeed expensive. The top of the line transceivers that the manufacturers and owners love to show off can quickly push up into the $5,000+ range or more. The Kenwood TS-990 sells new for just under $8,000 and iCom makes one that sells for more than $12K, for heaven’s sake. Once you add in other things that you may think you need, if you believe the ads, like amplifiers, computers, morse code keys, etc. you can quickly end up sinking $15,000 or more in a top of the line set up.

But here’s something the manufacturers don’t want you to know:

You don’t need any of that high priced junk.

Seriously. You don’t. If you want to get on the air on the HF bands (shortwave) you don’t have to spend a fortune. That little Yaesu in that photo up there costs literally less than one tenth of what my TS-990 costs new, and to be perfectly honest, does everything you need. Granted, it doesn’t have all the bells and whistles the 990 has, doesn’t have the fancy displays and all that, but when it comes down to actually communicating, those bells and whistles aren’t really necessary and the 450 will do everything you need.

I was looking for a fairly full featured, small, full power (100 watts output), 12V powered transceiver to lug out to field day and special events or whenever I feel like it, in situations where the little low powered 818 wouldn’t do the job. I love that little 818, but let’s face it, with a maximum of 6 watts output (3 watts or less running digital), any kind of communications using it is going to depend more on luck than anything else. I ran across someone talking about the 450 and it sounded like a nice little transceiver so I looked into it more and decided it was just what I needed. It sells new for about $750 – $800 which is, as I said before, one tenth of the cost of my TS-990. You can find them used for about $500 or even less if you look around.

And for that price what you get is not some stripped down little radio, either. This thing has a lot of features, including a built in antenna tuner, decent filtering, good noise reduction features, etc. In fact, just about everything you might need in an HF transceiver is packed into this little unit. True, it doesn’t have many of the goodies my 990 has, but I have to admit that in real life I don’t use a lot of those goodies anyway. If this were the only transceiver I had, I would be more than satisfied with its capabilities.

But for me the main question was how well was it going to work using digital modes like PSK, FT8 and JS8Call because those are pretty much the only modes I use. And it turned out it deals with digital very, very well indeed. It took me all of 10 minutes to get it up and running with the SCU-17 you see sitting on top of it in that photo. It was just a matter of plugging in the cables, setting the baud rate in the menu, firing up the computer and setting things up in the software there, and I was on the air. Now granted I had only just fairly recently set up the Yaesu 818 with the same interface, computer and software, so I already had experience working with Yaesu equipment which certainly made it easier. But still, for me, getting a rig up and running on digital modes in under 10 minutes is a bit of a miracle, really. It took me days to get my TS-2000 working properly with digital modes when I first started this years ago.

It’s currently set up in the basement, hooked to the Titan Gap vertical antenna, and it’s been doing a very, very nice job. I’ve made contacts all over the place with it using JS8 and FT8, putting out about 40 watts.

Sidenote: The 450 may be capable of putting out 100 watts, but you never run full power in the digital modes on any transceiver because the power ratings of all transceivers are seriously misleading. Those maximum power ratings they give you are for single side band, which does not stress the transmitter in the radio. With SSB you’re actually averaging far less power output than advertised. Your signal may peak at 100 watts, but you’re actually averaging 50 – 60 watts or so because of how SSB works. Unlike SSB, most digital modes are considered to be 100% duty cycle. A general rule of thumb is when using digital, always dial your power levels back to less than 50% of the radio’s maximum. Sometimes the recommendations are as low as 25%. Otherwise you risk overheating the radio and damaging it.

Anyway, I’m very pleased with this little radio. I didn’t really expect much from it when I got it, and it has certainly exceeded all of my expectations. I’ve been having a lot of fun with it, and I’ve been using it more than my TS-990 of late.

Lets see, what else? Oh, yeah. This showed up courtsey of our friendly UPS delivery person the other day.

I picked up a Raspberry Pi 4 to play with to join the RPi 3s I’ve already been playing with. I have a specific goal for this one. There are Linux versions of FT8 and JS8Call that, I’m told, run just fine and dandy on the RPi. I’ll find out this winter as I experiment. My eventual goal is to put together a compact QRP digital system that is backpackable that I can take along when I’m out on the trails with the bicycle. I’d thought about configuring the Rpi as a tablet computer with just a touch screen and no keyboard. I’ve done that before with the Rpi3s I’ve had, but I think that might be a bit awkward, so I’m looking at compact keyboards and maybe a small trackball or touchpad for mouse control. We’ll see. This is still very much a work in progress.

I know, I know… The used Lenovo laptop I picked up was supposed to serve that role, and it does, but while it works just fine it is also big, heavy and clumsy to lug around. I can squeeze a RPi into a package not much bigger than a small tablet computer and a fraction of the weight. We’ll see how it goes.

And that’s about it for now. I’ve been boring you long enough with this.

Cleaning Up, Snow, Evaluating the Gardens, And Stuff…

MrsGF and I set aside Saturday to clean up the last of the gardens around here. We’ve had several hard frosts now and almost everything has died back so there was no reason to put it off any longer. So, of course, this happened…IMG_0056

Yep, that’s snow. Saturday was pretty miserable. Temperature around 38 degrees, 30 – 40 mph winds and then it started snowing. Oh, well. Ah, Wisconsin weather…

 

IMG_0055We got out the winter coats, hats and gloves and went at it anyway because, well, it has to get done. It wasn’t exactly a fun job in that kind of weather, but we did get it done. There was no point in putting it off because this time of year the chances of the weather being much better are pretty slim.

We ended up filling the entire back of the old truck. It’s amazing how much debris we ended up with after cleaning everything up. And this is just half of it. We already had taken out the remains of the tomatoes, squash and a lot of other stuff over the last few weeks. Good thing we live just down the street from the town’s compost site. That makes this a heck of a lot easier.

The snow didn’t stick around. It was too warm for that. But the wind did, with gusts of up to 40 mph all day. That kept us from raking up the leaves in the yard, but we got that done on Sunday. So we have just about everything cleaned up outside now.

All things considered, the growing season was pretty successful this past season. The tomatoes and peppers were ridiculously prolific. Our little lettuce bed kept us supplied with greens when we needed them. Some things weren’t very good, and some of that was our own fault.

We keep trying to plant onions and they never seem to make it to maturity for us. They start out good, but as they mature they seem to just stop growing before they get anywhere close to full sized. I don’t really mind that too much because my main interest is in having fresh green onions, not in full size bulbs for storage. So while that crop might look like a failure, it really isn’t because I get what I want out of it.

The squash disappointed. The acorn squash never developed fully at all and were a total loss, and while we did get a few absolutely beautiful butternut squash (wow, they tasted good!) they didn’t produce as well as they should have. We aren’t sure why because they were in the same place they’d been last year where they’d done really well. We’re going to have to reconsider planting squash. The stuff takes up a huge part of the garden and if all we’re going to get for it is three squash, well, there’s not much point in planting them and we need to look for alternatives.

Our rhubarb plant wasn’t looking too good towards the end of the season, but we think that’s the fault of the squash which were planted nearby. It was getting shaded by the huge squash leaves and wasn’t getting enough sun, so we’re hoping it will come back.

I raise that rhubarb more for nostalgic reasons than because I like it. For me, a little bit of rhubarb goes a long, long way. But I have fond memories of playing under the huge rhubarb plants we had when I was a little kid on hot, summer days, and whenever I see that thing in hot, summer weather it brings back memories that make me grin. So yeah, I’m going to grow rhubarb if I can even if I don’t particularly like eating it.

Let’s see, what are we planning on changing — I’d like to put in more raised beds if I can find a good location for them. Those two 4 X 8 raised beds I put in a few years ago are ridiculously productive. If I’d known how good they were going to be I would have built them long ago. Just those two beds provide more vegetables than the rest of our gardens combined some years. The problem is where to put more of them. We just have too many trees so finding a spot where there will be direct sunlight for more than 4-5 hours a day is difficult here. About the only decent location is on the south side of the house and there isn’t much room there any more.

Of course that could change if the pear tree doesn’t survive the damage it suffered. I figure about a full third of the canopy of the tree went down because the limbs were too loaded with fruit to be able to handle a thunderstorm that rolled through here. I’d hate to lose that tree. We planted that, oh, about 17 years ago, a couple of years after we bought this place. It’s not a very good looking tree, it leans at a crazy angle, but wow, it produces some of the most delicious pears I’ve ever had.

But on the other hand, if we do lose it, it would open up a very large area that could be garden with full sun. So if it does have to come down, well, it wouldn’t be the worst thing.

With MrsGF retiring in March she’s trying to figure out just what the heck she’s going to do if she isn’t working full time any longer. Right now it looks like as soon as she pulls the plug on her job she’s going to be dragging me along into the Master Gardener classes. Well not dragging, to be honest. I’m rather looking forward to it. We’d talked about getting into the Master Gardener program for a long time but we never had the time to do it. So now is the ideal time for it. She’s been on-line looking to get us signed up for the classes next year. And being able to tack on “certified master gardener” on the byline up at the top of this website is an added incentive because, well, hey, I’ve got an ego too, you know <grin>.

The other thing that is (probably) going to happen after she retires is all of my electronics gear, test equipment, radio equipment, etc. is going to get moved out of the office/library/workshop and moved into what used to be eldest son’s work area in the basement, and the office space is going to be her’s. She loves sewing and craftsy kinds of things but she’s never had much time to actually do it. Right now her work area for that kind of thing is in a small room upstairs. But it’s hot up there in the summer, cold in the winter, and she has difficulty getting up and down a lot of stairs because of her knees. So the solution to that is turn the office on the main floor over to her and have me move my stuff out.

I am not looking forward to moving. Eldest son’s work area down there is still crammed full of old computers and other equipment that somehow never got moved when he moved out years ago. So all of that has to be moved somewhere. Hopefully out of our house and into his house. Then I have to buy or build suitable work surfaces for all my stuff. Then tear down all of my equipment, move all of it down to the basement. Then I have to re-route all of the antenna cables, ground cables and other stuff to the new location down there. Then install a new electrical system down there including 240V lines to run some of the equipment like the amplifiers. Then try to figure out how to set up all of the equipment again because by that time I’ll have forgotten how everything was set up originally. Move all of my computers… Like I said, I am not looking forward to it.

Well, I’ve bored you long enough with this. Time to go.

 

Misc. Catch Up: Snow, Gardening, Bike, AR, etc…

I have to admit that things have been a bit slow around here after the blizzard. I’ve been spending most of my time fiddling with radio equipment and antennas, but I haven’t been entirely isolated from the real world.

While we still have some piles of snow remaining, most of the white stuff has melted off thanks to daytime temperatures that have been pushing up into the 50s. The storm did lots of damage around here, mostly from roofs caving in. It’s a miracle no one got killed. Local fire departments were busy helping out farmers by bringing out their ladder trucks and using high pressure hoses to blast snow off of roofs. They saved several barns from collapse in this area.

The Resch Center in Green Bay had it’s entry way caved in when snow falling from the dome hit the entrance. No one is sure what to do about it at the moment because the Resch Center is scheduled for demolition in two years anyway. But they do have events scheduled up until that time so they’re trying to determine if it’s cost effective to repair it, or start canceling events and just bring it down and be done with it.

Any kind of gardening is still on stand-by. It’s probably going to be a week or more before we can get out there and start working on anything except superficial projects. Still, there are signs of life out there. The lilac bushes are starting to bud, the rhubarb is starting to peek up out of the cold, wet ground, and one sure sign of spring is that I got the bike out of storage at last.

Unfortunately I rather quickly remembered that riding a bicycle uses an almost entirely different set of muscles than jogging on a treadmill. That and the fact it was only about 40 degrees out this morning kept the ride rather brief, but it was still nice to be back on the bike again.

Amateur radio stuff —

The ARRL is really pushing the FCC to expand the privileges of the Technician class license. They want to give Techs voice and data privileges down on the HF bands, claiming that this will give Technicians an incentive to eventually upgrade to a General or Extra class license and get them more interested in AR in general.

Don’t get me wrong, the ARRL does a lot to support and improve amateur radio in general, but this is one case where I think they don’t know what the hell they’re talking about. The organization seems to be under the impression that there are tens of thousands of Tech licensees out there who would love to get down on the HF bands, but for whatever reason refuse to upgrade to a General class license, and as a result they aren’t upgrading their licenses, aren’t operating at all, and eventually drop out completely.

The problem with this notion is that the Tech licensees don’t give a damn about HF. I’m sorry, but they just don’t. The Tech licensees who do care about HF quickly upgrade to a General or Extra class license, and the rest just don’t care. I’m sorry, but they don’t. I know a lot of Tech license holders who haven’t upgraded and the reason they haven’t is because either they lost interest in AR completely or the Tech license allows them to do everything they want to do.

The exam to get the General class license is just not that hard in any case. Anyone who’s already passed the Tech exam could easily pass the General with minimal amount of work. It isn’t a lack of privileges on HF that keeps Techs from upgrading, it’s a complete lack of interest in HF in the first place.

A Strange Spring

While we have tulips coming up here in the house and we’ve started flats of seeds in preparation for warm weather, outside it has been decidedly odd. We’ve had more snow now in the first week of April than we did in in most of the winter and outside it currently looks like this:

Screen Shot 2018-04-07 at 6.47.08 AM
Ah, spring in Wisconsin! The warm weather, the April showers, the… the snow…

Not exactly what you expect to see when you look out the window on April 7. Tuesday and Wednesday we had winter storm warnings all day long and ended up with about 6 inches of snow here, with some areas getting up to 10. Most of that melted but then we got another couple of inches a couple of days later and there is more snow in the forecast. We’re looking at near record low temperatures in some parts of the state today.

Indoors, though, we’re proceeding on schedule in the hopes that maybe we might get some warm weather. Someday.

Screen Shot 2018-04-07 at 6.44.56 AMThe tulips MrsGF potted up a few weeks ago are still going strong with new blooms popping up and it certainly improves my mood when I walk in the room and see those brilliant yellows and reds. I’m really glad she came up with the idea of potting up some old bulbs. It really brightens the place up.

We sat down the other day to sort through the “Bag ‘o Seeds’ we got for Christmas and figure out what we wanted to plant this year, what had to be started indoors and what could be direct seeded, etc. Then we brought up the little portable greenhouse thingie from the basement and set that up.

Screen Shot 2018-04-07 at 6.46.08 AMThat’s this thing over here. It’s a folding metal frame with three racks in it with a vinyl cover over the top. It provides an ideal environment for starting seeds. It stays warm and moist inside and lets in enough light to keep things grown and nice and warm in there. Also prevents temperature fluctuations inside the house from harming the plants.

We found a floor pan for a shower that was the ideal size to fit under it to protect the floor. MrsGF already has it filled with flats with seeds, and we already have some tiny little seedlings peeking up through the starter mix.

It works great and was pretty cheap, too, under $40 if I remember right. It’s easy to set up.

It has the added benefit of keeping the cats out as well or you can be sure they’d be in there digging around, nibbling on plants, tipping things over, etc.

Wet. And Jazz

Wet is what describes the weather here. Wet and cold. We had almost 24 hours of rain IMG_0187IMG_0188and everything is completely saturated around here. The gauge indicated we had about 2 inches. And the temperatures plunged as well. High temp yesterday was around 45 degrees, a good 20 degrees colder than the day before. If anyone thought winter was over, this will disprove that. Up in the Bayfield area they actually had to cancel schools the other day because of ice and snow.

Jazz – Last Sunday I worked for the high school jazz band’s spring concert. The students did a great job but the turnout was disappointing.Screen Shot 2017-04-28 at 6.55.47 AM.png I don’t think we had more than 50 – 60 people showed up for it, even though it’s a free concert. Most of the parents showed up, but that was about it. I suppose the scheduling was part of the problem. Because of scheduling conflicts they could only do it at 4 in the afternoon which is a fairly awkward time for a lot of people.

My job at these events is basically to keep things running smoothly and deal with emergencies if they turn up. But they aren’t making it easy. I found out last weekend that they pulled the control computer that operates the HVAC systems at the high school. Now if I have to make changes to the heating/cooling settings, I have to make a 20 minute trip to the downtown building to get on the computer there, then drive back to the high school…

I imagine it saves them money. They probably have to pay a license fee for that software at the high school, plus the cost of the equipment itself, but come on, really? If something goes wrong, I have to drive 20 minutes one way to read the diagnostics, drive 20 minutes back to the HS to fix the hardware problem, then drive 20 minutes back to downtown to check the diagnostics again and reset the systems, then drive 20 minutes back to the high school…

Oh brother… This is not going to work out well for them, I can see that. If we have a HVAC problem at the high school during a special event and I can’t get it fixed quickly because I have to run downtown just to get at the control systems, there are going to be a lot of very angry people at the event. Last year I got a panic phone call on graduation day that the temperature in the gym was 97 degrees and climbing. If I hadn’t had the control computer at the high school itself at the time and would have had to run back and forth between the two buildings just to do diagnostics, I wouldn’t have gotten the problem fixed until after graduation had been over. Hmph….