Spring At Last!

Wisconsin is known as a place of snow and cold and rain and giant blood sucking insects big enough to carry away small pets. Oh, and heat and humidity that occasionally rivals Florida at its worst. And tornadoes. Pretty much we get all the bad weather concentrated in this state. Well, at least we don’t have rattlesnakes. Yet. Anyway, the weather has finally gotten better and stuff is growing and we’ve been out in the gardens here for days already. So I was out taking some pictures as I puttered around in the garden.

Not the best picture in the world but I was using my phone because I was too lazy to go in the house and get the camera. This is the “Zombie Rose”. This thing has been there since before we bought the house. We thought it was dead more than once and only laziness on my part kept me from digging it out. And then a few years ago something happened, we don’t know what, and it turned into this ridiculously healthy bush that’s covered with flowers by mid summer and blooms the entire season.

The hostas are looking amazing this spring. All of them in the front hosta garden survived the winter and they’re growing so fast you can almost see them getting bigger. Best thing we did was rip out the ratty grass and old bushes and junk up in front of the house and put this garden in.

winter didn’t hurt the mountain ash tree we put up in the corner of the hosta garden either. We forgot to put screening around it to keep the rabbits out but fortunately the little buggers left it alone. It’s actually a member of the rose family.

Wish I could remember what in the world these little blue flowers are. MrsGF told me once and I immediately forgot, of course. They’re pretty little things. Those flowers are only about 1/8th of an inch across so you have to get down there to really see them.

The pear tree is in full flower and looking very good. Last year it didn’t get pollinated because the weather was so bad we didn’t have any bees around. This year things are looking much better. I haven’t seen any honey bees around but I have been seeing a lot of native bees buzzing around it so hopefully we’ll get some pears this year.

no he doesn’t have a green spike on his head. That’s a bit of grass he picked up by leaping through the freshly mowed lawn.

They say you can tell how healthy your environment is by the number of amphibians living in the area. If that’s true, our gardens must be pretty damned healthy because these little guys are everywhere. I have to be careful mowing the lawn and stop a couple of dozen times to move the little critters out of the way. I’ve spotted about four different types of frog and at least one type of toad in the backyard this year. Go outside on a warmish evening and the number of frogs calling and singing is amazing.

And the lilacs are just starting to flower. In a couple of days these buds will start to open and it will smell amazing. A lot of people have lilacs around here and in early spring when they’re all in blossom you can smell them all over town.

Let’s see, what else… We’ll be putting out the tomatoes and pepper plants over the next few days. But we scaled back the amount of vegetables we’re putting in because we generally go way, way overboard with this stuff and end up with a lot of produce we can’t use. We still have almost enough canned tomato stuff on the shelf from last year to last us the rest of this year. We know we over plant but, well, MrsGF and I are both the kind of people who see a bit of bare ground and go “Hm, now what could be plant in there…”

The storm window on the office blew out during a storm. The main window is okay so it wasn’t an emergency, but we found that the outer frame of the window holding the storm window in place was almost completely rotted away. The only thing holding it in had been the paint apparently. So we’re getting some new windows for the office and a new front entry door while we’re at it. Contractor was over on Monday to take measurements and get an estimate put together.

Haven’t had much time to tinker with amateur radio stuff. I almost always have the rig on 40 meters with the computer running JS8Call doing ACKs and stuff like that when I’m down in the shop/radio shack, but I’m generally just monitoring things unless someone specifically calls me. I did try doing some morse code last night but didn’t get very far. I was showing up on the reverse beacon network but didn’t get any replies to a CQ. Well, maybe because I only did one CQ and then got distracted because I found a new soap opera on Youtube… Anyway that was probably not a bad thing because I’ve been told that a drunken chicken pecking at the key sends CW better than I do. Which is probably true, I fear.

Speaking of soap operas – I am embarrassed to admit it but I am addicted to Chinese romcoms, or dramadies or whatever you want to call ’em. I thought Korean romcoms were often ridiculously silly, but the Chinese versions are just over the top. They’re formulaic, generally all following similar plots, with cliche actions taking place that seem to be required for some reason. Some of the better ones embrace the cliches whole heartedly and basically satirize themselves and gently poke fun of the whole genre. And at the same time the whole thing is surrounded in extreme sexism and actions that would be considered outright abuse and criminal outside of the television environment. They’re silly, charming, innocent, dark, infuriating, irritating, funny, horrifying and hilarious. Often all at the same time.

One of these days I should write something about Chinese television. It is – different.

Electric Stuff and, Well, Stuff. And the Virus.

How did it get so cluttered so fast?

When I started moving my stuff from the office upstairs to the new workspace in the basement I knew I was in trouble when I plugged in the laser printer, turned it on, and the lights all went dim. So the electrical contractor got here at 6:50 AM the other morning and some two hours later I had the radio shack/shop rewired with new circuits and outlets. The electrical in this space was a bit scary. I think the whole room was connected to a single 15 amp circuit. I was running my radios and other equipment off heavy duty extension cords running into my woodshop and, well, it was just nasty all the way around. The grand total for all of the work and parts ran about $500 but it’s going to be worth it, for safety alone if not for convenience.

So now I have two, 4 outlet 120V boxes, each on its own circuit, plus a 220V outlet over on the radio bench, and two new 120V circuits for the workbench.

Why call in a contractor instead of doing it myself? Because I know where my areas of competence are. I worked on a farm and in building maintenance for years and I can do just about anything – framing, finish carpentry, drywall, installing doors, plumbing, laying tile… But electrical? I’ve had no training or experience in doing household electrical, and considering how dangerous it can be, well I’m going to let a trained electrician do that.

Tubes & Stuff

So eldest son shot me a text Friday asking me if I wanted a vacuum tube tester, free, and I texted back “r u nuts? yeah i want toob thingie!” or something to that effect and he showed up last weekend with this:

The thing with free equipment is that it’s often going to be something useful only for parts, if that, but in this case it turned out to be a genuine, working vacuum tube tester. Oh, it has a few issues. The tube sockets have some corrosion that needs to be cleaned up and it could use a good cleaning in general. The insulation on the cords is brittle so they need to be replaced, but other than that the thing actually seems to work and inside it actually looks almost new.

on the inside it looks almost brand new.

I haven’t done much with equipment with vacuum tubes of late, but I never know what’s going to show up around here, so this could come in handy.

Tinkering with Stuff

I am building a radio receiver. No, not The Great Radio Fiasco Project. That project is more or less on hold until I can get some parts that seem to have become unobtanium for some reason. I may end up having to change the design. No, this is an Elenco AM/FM receiver kit. Best of all it was free! Well, maybe it was? I found it in a box of junk I was sorting through as I continued the apparently never ending project of cleaning out the basement.

I don’t remember ever buying this thing and have no idea where it came from, but it’s in my basement, in my box, so I’m assuming it’s mine, so I’m going to put the thing together and see what happens. It’s a fairly elaborate little radio and from time to time the instructions seem to go wandering off into fantasy land. I suspect that the instructions that were in the box were written before the circuit board was changed and no one bothered to correct the instructions. So that makes things a bit interesting.

Also in the same box of junk I ran across an unopened multiband shortwave receiver kit distributed by MFJ. I don’t remember ever buying that either, and I would remember since that one costs about $80 and I darn well wouldn’t have spent that much. I suspect both were in a boxes full of “valuable assorted radio parts” (i.e. junk) I picked up for next to nothing at a hamfest, and the box just got shoved on a shelf and forgotten about before I bothered to sort through it.

Weather Stuff

Over the weekend it hit 50 degrees. Almost all the snow melted, motorcycles were out on the streets, a very pleasant weekend all around. Tomorrow it’s supposed to hit 55 degrees!

So, of course, today it snowed. Sigh… I know Wisconsin in known for having some odd weather, but this is ridiculous.

Virus Stuff

I am sure you heard about covid-19. You’d have to have been living in a cave on Mars to not have heard. Wisconsin has only 6 confirmed cases, but the potential of it spreading, and spreading quickly, has everyone concerned. At least one school district has closed, the UW system is extending spring break and advising students not to travel, companies are canceling employee travel. The state basketball tournaments are starting up this week and WIAA just announced that general spectators will not be allowed, only the teams and necessary personnel and a small pool of sports reporters will be permitted.

I want to think a lot of this is hype and paranoia, but, well, I’m right smack dab in the middle of the category of the highest risk for death if I catch this sucker, so yeah, I’m a wee bit paranoid. MrsGF and I are supposed to go to the symphony this weekend, but sitting elbow to elbow in a theater full of hundreds of coughing, sneezing, hacking people for two hours? Uh, no.

What I really find troubling is the huge amount of misinformation being spread, some of it through ignorance, but a lot of it being spread deliberately. Some of it by our own government. I wasn’t going to spend a lot of time talking about this because, well, let’s face it I don’t have that many people who read this so it isn’t going to make a dent in things, but if it helps correct some of the stuff floating around, I suppose I should go into this a bit.

First, there is no cure for covid-19. None. Zip. Zilch. Zero. There is no drug, no “natural remedy”, no combination of herbs, no “silver” concoction. None. If anyone is trying to sell you such a thing, it is an outright scam.

Second, there is no magic herb or substance or “essential oil” or vitamin or magic crystal or “holy oil” that will somehow keep you from catching the virus. Again, if anyone tries to sell you such a thing, it is an outright scam.

Third, there is no vaccine “just around the corner”. Yes, a vaccine is being worked on and there are some promising candidates. But it will be months before one is generally available and even longer before it can be mass produced.

So what can you do?

Wash your hands. A lot. The best preventative is hand washing. Wash your hands using soap and running water. This doesn’t kill the virus, but it does physically remove it from your hands, which is just as good. Do not touch your face except immediately after you’ve washed your hands. A primary method of getting the virus into your system is touching your eyes, nose or mouth.

Do hand sanitizers work? Yes, but only if they’re the right kind. They have to have at least 60% alcohol content. Non alcohol based sanitizers are out there, but no one knows if they actually work or not. The so-called “all natural” hand sanitizers don’t work at all. They’re little more than hand lotion.

Face masks – there is a lot of debate about whether they work or not, and the consensus is that they don’t do much to keep you from getting the virus. They can prevent people who already have it from contaminating others, it seems. The problem, though, is that most of the masks I’ve seen people wearing are dust masks intended to keep dust from getting into your lungs, and were never intended to keep out viruses to begin with. Most people also don’t know how to wear them properly. Heck, I’ve seen a lot of people who have them pulled down to expose the nose. If you do that you might as well not bother at all. Same for guys with beards. If you have a beard, don’t bother. If you can’t seal the mask against bare skin, it isn’t going to work at all.

Social Distancing – what the hell is social distancing? It’s a polite term for keeping the hell away from people. Do not shake hands, do not hug, do not kiss people. Try to keep at least one meter (three feet) away from people if you do have to interact with them.

Avoid crowds. Do not attend sporting events, concerts, meetings or other events where large numbers of people have gathered. I don’t know about where you live, but here most such events have been canceled or postponed anyway. (Although a seriously troubling number have not and are still scheduled). And yes, that goes for church services too. No, being in a church is not going to somehow protect you from getting the virus despite what some utterly irresponsible ministers and priests have been saying. Remember that the primary spreaders of the virus in South Korea when the outbreak first began there were churches. Even the Pope canceled most of his public appearances for heaven’s sake. And if you’ve booked a cruise on a plague ship (ahem, excuse me) cruise ship, well, you’re on your own.

If you’re sick, stay home. About 80% of the people who get it have symptoms that are relatively mild and a lot of people will be tempted to continue with their normal daily routine. And thus risk spreading this to even more people. I realize this is damn near impossible for a lot of people, but the primary way this is spread is by people with relatively mild cases going out in public. Do you really want to be responsible for infecting your friends, your family and your neighbors with this?

Anyway, enough of this. I’ve been babbling long enough.

Catching Up With Stuff

First of all, there’s this…

MrsGF and I were coming back from her sister’s place and we saw this. The photos don’t do it justice. That sunset almost looked like an atomic bomb going off, lighting up the whole horizon with that single shaft of light extending up. We had to pull off and just stare at it for a while because we’d never seen anything like it before.

Sunsets and sunrises (when we can see them, usually the cloud cover is too thick) have been spectacular of late. I imagine that’s due at least in part to so much particulate matter being in the atmosphere at the moment because of all of the forest fires we’ve been having worldwide.

As far as the weather goes, well, it’s winter, and we have some snow, as you can see from the photos, but it has been, well, weird. Just like 2019 was. Temperatures have been well above normal this winter. So much so that the ice fishermen have been getting nervous because they can’t get out on the lakes. This late in the season the lakes and rivers should have enough ice that you can at least walk out on the ice, and in some cases even drive a vehicle out. But you couldn’t pay me enough money to make me risk walking out on the ice this year. Most of the rivers and streams are still mostly open with almost no ice at all.

Ice fishing is a Big Deal around here. Generally as soon as we get a couple of inches of ice on a lake you’ll see little huts springing up or guys in cold weather gear huddling over holes drilled in the ice hunting for elusive panfish like bluegills and crappies. They endure it because one, they think it’s fun, and two, well, if you’ve ever eaten a freshly caught pan fried bluegill or perch, you know why they do it.

But The big event around here in mid winter is sturgeon season on Lake Winnebago. During sturgeon season there are thousands of people out on that lake, with hundreds of cars, 4 wheelers and snowmobiles, hundreds of ice shanties full of people huddling over holes in the ice hoping to get themselves one of the biggest fish you can get in Wisconsin. These things get to be five, six feet long or even bigger, and can be well over a hundred years old.

But we need ice for that, and we don’t have any. Or at least not enough ice that you can trust it. Unless we get a cold snap that really freezes things up, I’m not sure if there is going to be much of a sturgeon season this year.

We may not have ice but we do have snow. Just had another 3-5 inches, much of which will probably melt over the next few days. But still, it sure looks pretty out there.

While it may be winter outside, MrsGF’s rose in the living room is blossoming again.

I have no idea how she does it, but I’m not complaining. Having roses growing here in the middle of January is huge fun.

The Great Radio Fiasco Project Update

Considering I’m lazy and about the most unambitious person around, I bet you figured I’d sort of conveniently “forgot” about that whole thing, didn’t you? Ha! I wish! Sometimes I’m more stubborn than lazy, though, and when I get a bug about something I get a bit obsessed, and that’s what happened here.

Anyway, that hasn’t been going very well because of stuff like this –

Ferrite rods that were supposed to be part of antenna coils for an AM transistor radio I’ve been trying to build.

One of the first things I discovered when I started doing some research was that I pretty much had none of the parts I was going to need. I may have had hundreds of diodes, capacitors, resistors, potentiometers, transistors and other goodies sitting on the shelf from other projects, but it seemed that none of them were what I needed for building any kind of radio receiver except for the most basic of items. So once I decided more or less on what kind of radio I was going to build, I had to order some parts. And as you can see above, sometimes it doesn’t go so well.

The main project is going to be a multi-band shortwave receiver, but I was also going to build an old fashion 1960s style AM transistor radio which uses a ferrite rod wound with wire as an antenna. What you see in that photo above is what was in the package when I opened it. Sigh… Don’t get me wrong, though. I order a lot of parts, and the vast majority of the stuff gets here in perfect condition. But every once in a while something like this happens, and all you can do is just sigh and go on. It doesn’t pay to try to do anything about this in this case. I only paid about $10 for them, the company is in China, and any chance of getting a refund or replacement is so slim it’s not worth the effort. On the plus side one of the rods is relatively undamaged with just a chip on the end, so it will work well enough for the AM radio.

But it does help to illustrate one of the problems I’ve been having, which is tracking down various parts. The days of being able to go to a local electronics or radio repair shop, or even Radio Shack, and picking up a couple of capacitors or an opamp or whatever are long gone. While I still do have a local Radio Shack (how I don’t know, but I do), it only carries the most common types of components, and I already got those by the dozens.

I need a germanium diode for one radio circuit I’ve been tinkering with. Do I have one in those boxes on the shelf with hundreds and hundreds of diodes? Of course not! The one I need is the one I don’t have, of course. And, well, you generally can’t order just one. So I ended up spending something like $15 to buy 50 of the dopey things. It’s like the robot vacuum cleaner I repaired a few years ago. I needed one tiny, tiny screw that held on the side sweeper brush. That was all that was left to fix it, just attach that stupid brush. Do you think I could find that damned screw? No. No one locally had it. I checked hardware stores, Radio Shack, auto parts stores, no one had one even close. I started looking online and found I wasn’t the only one having trouble find it. I finally did get one, but in the end the only sources I found for it sold them only in lots of 500. So I ended up paying something like $25 to get a single screw, and I now have a whole bag full of 499 tiny, tiny screws sitting in a closet somewhere that I’ll never use for anything else.

The same thing is often true of electronic components. You can’t get just one or two, you have to buy in bulk sometimes, and you end up paying $25 or $40 for a whole box of parts just to get one $0.75 component. The end result is that while the cost of the individual parts for this project is pretty cheap, I’ve ended up spending a significant chunk of money on this already because I often can’t get just one or two, but have to order in bulk.

But enough with boring you with that. Once I get further along with the radio thing I’m going to split it off to its own web page so it doesn’t clutter up the blog.

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.

Chilton Antique Tractor Show and Well, It’s Been Busy…

… here over the last few weeks. I’m not sure what the heck happened after I retired. I was supposed to have all this free time to play with amateur radio, do gardening, dabble more in photography, go fishing, etc. Instead it seems I have less time than when I was working full time. Oh, well.

We did go up north last weekend to visit some friends, although we did run across this —

We came across the rolled over milk tanker about 10 miles from the house. Fortunately no one got seriously hurt. I think he was empty because there was no leakage when we came across the scene just after it happened. It was on a roundabout, and this happens on a regular basis with these big trucks. They hit the roundabout too fast and flip over trying to make the corner.

The annual Chilton steam engine and antique tractor show was this weekend and that’s something I try to get to every year even though it makes me feel so old sometimes to see equipment that I used to run when I was a kid or teenager now classified as “antique”. Although to be fair a lot of the equipment we had on the farm back then was probably already antique by the time we got our hands on it.

This year the big surprise was this —

Now if you’ve never seen anything like that before, it’s for a good reason. They never made many of these, and there are only three of them left in the world from what I learned talking to the guy who was operating it. When I first saw it, it was largely blocked from sight and all I could see was part of the front with the engines and I thought someone had lugged a Shay type locomotive to the show.

Yes, it’s fully operational. This isn’t just a static display, it actually runs.

What the hell is it? It’s a log hauler that was used up until the 1930s to pull huge sleds carrying logs through the woods during the winter. Only about 175 of them were ever built. It could pull up to 300 tons of logs on as many as 25 sleds at a time. I ran across this when I was looking up more info on it-

I can’t even begin to imagine what it must cost to keep that engine repaired and operational. It must be incredibly expensive. I’m very glad they do, though. If it weren’t for people who support the preservation of equipment like this all we’d have are photos. They show it at Wabeno, where its home is, but they also take it out to at least one of these shows a year.

As I said, sometimes it makes me feel very old when I go to these and run across equipment I used to use, like this Massey 44. I used one of these when I was a kid. For a long time it was our primary tractor that did everything from hauling out manure to chopping feed to plowing. And while it may look pretty and make me feel nostalgic, when it comes down to it it was a nasty, nasty tractor to actually use. The front end was too light. Those front wheels would be entirely off the ground as often as not when it was pulling a heavy load. It was difficult to steer. It had mechanical issues. The engine was decent, but ours tended to overheat and the transmission wasn’t very good. And it sucked gas like you wouldn’t believe.

What I like about these shows too is that it gives us a glimpse into what life was like for our not so distant ancestors. Just the simple job of washing clothing was a major operation not that long ago.

Yes, that’s a washing machine being powered by an ancient gasoline engine. And while that engine might be a bit elderly for this setup, washing machines running off gasoline engines was not uncommon in rural areas. You have to remember that a lot of rural areas didn’t get electric service until the 1930s or even later.

On the amateur radio front, I’ve been fiddling with antennas again. Well, sort of. I’m finally getting around to getting the Gap Titan vertical finished and hooked up.

It successfully survived the winds we had during the recent storms. After 60 – 70 MPH winds hit us during those storms I more than half expected to see it laying on the ground when I got up the next morning, but it made it through unscathed. We almost forgot to put guy lines on the thing. If we’d neglected that I’m sure it would have come down.

I got the counterpoise/ground plane installed finally and, well, it takes up a wee bit bigger area than I thought it would. Going to be fun mowing lawn through there. But that area is going to be part of an extension to the existing flower beds anyway so I only have to worry about it for the rest of this season.

And I still don’t have the dopey thing connected. I got started, got all the tools out and began to work on putting the connectors on the coax and… Sigh…

I had the wrong one. I needed a female and only had the male variety, so I either needed a female or an adaptor. Not a big deal, but mildly annoying nevertheless. In any case, I didn’t really like the style connector they sent with the antenna in the first place. Thankfully, Farm and Home, the big hardware store down in Chilton has a big electronics section (used to be a Radio Shack store) and they’ll probably have what I need.

As for the weather – this has been one of the wettest summers I can remember. The lawns should all be brown and dormant from a lack of rain this time of year. Instead they’re all lush and green, as you can see from the photo there. I’ve only had to water the gardens about three or four times all summer long so far. Most summers watering is something we need to do every two days or so.

The rivers and lakes are all abnormally high around here because of all the rainfall.

This is the river down by the old stone bridge the other day. Normally this time of year the river is so low and stagnant that it’s choked with algae and weeds, and so shallow it would hardly be halfway up your shins if you tried to walk through it. It’s a good four feet deep or more, though, and had more than enough current to keep the algae from accumulating.

That’s about it for now. Hopefully by the next time I get around to writing something I’ll have some amateur radio stuff to talk about. I should have that antenna finally set up. I should have the new Yaesu 818ND up and running with the laptop using FT8, JS8Call and PSK.

And hopefully I’ll have made some progress in moving all my equipment down into the basement. MrsGF found a matching set of old, heavy duty tables at St. Vinnie’s that might make good work benches. They’re about 4′ square with heavy duty 4″ square legs. They’re beat up but look solid, and I can get ’em for $5 each, so I’ll go take a look at those on Tuesday.

Still have to make a decision on where the electrical outlets are going to be placed down there, but I didn’t want to do that until I had an idea on where the work benches were going to be, how tall they were, etc. Probably at least 4, four outlet boxes fed with 20 amp circuits, plus at least one 240V outlet for amplifiers. And need to rewire for better lighting. Want to put in LED lights to replace the existing fluorescent tubes that are in there now.

Garden Stuff

The hostas loved the cool, wet spring. They’re wonderfully lush this year.

Despite all the water we’ve been getting the gardens have been doing pretty good. We’re still a bit behind schedule because of the cool weather we had up until now, but the gardens at the house are definitely doing better than what the farmers around here have been experiencing.

When we bought this place some twenty or so years ago the front of the house was a mess. The space between the front of the house and the sidewalk was a nasty little border type flower bed mulched with small stones, sort of curved and indented, with some of the worst grass I’d ever seen between that and the sidewalk. It was a maintenance nightmare. The plants up there were some of the worst you could possibly select for a border, and because of the stones it was impossible to properly weed or do anything to improve the horrible soil.

We finally got fed up, went in with the tractor and ripped everything out, scooped up the stones with the front end loader and hauled them to a friend’s farm where he used them for fill, and we put in the cedar rail fence and the hostas. No bushes to trim any more, the fence has weathered to look like it’s been there for generations, and the only maintenance is to go in with a hoe and knock the few weeds growing in the mulch down once in a while. There are a couple of spots where I want a bit better coverage so I might throw in a few more hostas.

The tomatoes are looking pretty good. We put in a lot less of them than last year because we were nearly overwhelmed by them last year. We still have enough canned tomatoes to last us probably through 2019, although all of the soup and pasta sauce got used up.

With fewer tomatoes we had some extra room in the raised beds so we put onions in along the edge and they’re doing beautifully. We tried raising them in a different spot but they never got enough light and didn’t do well. They’re looking fantastic in this new location. They’re big enough now that I can run outside and pull a couple whenever I need onions for anything. I love green onions so they may never reach maturity, but that’s okay.

Every year I have to put in something different, this year it’s this, something that the label says is a “hot salsa pepper”. And that is literally all it says. I don’t know what variety or anything else about it. It is starting to produce pretty little yellow peppers, so that’s something. I picked one yesterday and tried it and it is most definitely not hot. Not by any standards. I’m not one of those people who loves peppers that make your face turn red and your eyes bug out and necessitate a trip to the ER because they’re so bad, but I do like a pepper that bites back at least a little. Jalapenos are about the limit of what I can handle for heat. But these, well, there’s just nothing there at all. Hopefully they’ll get better as they mature.

Speaking of jalapenos, I got another experiment going in pots on the front steps, a “mild” jalapenos. The two plants are doing quite well, both are in flower now and one is starting to develop fruits. The blurb on the tag was “all of the flavor without the heat”. I’ve tried variations of peppers like this before that claimed they still had flavor without heat, and they were disappointing. Usually when they breed out the heat, they also breed out the flavor, alas. But we’ll see what happens with these. They certainly are looking healthy.

And then, of course, there’s the water. Oh brother… The ground is still so saturated that you can audibly hear it squishing when you walk through the grass. And the whole area back by the raised vegetable beds still had standing water under the grass as you can see in that photo. If we didn’t have the raised beds nothing would be growing back there this year. I don’t think we’ve gone more than three days in a row without significant rainfall since April.

Let’s wrap this up with this one:

I end up with dozens of photos of that lily every year because I love the color, the shape of the flowers, and just about everything about that plant. It certainly didn’t disappoint this year.

Stuff

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.

Instead of depressing stuff, how about some pretty flowers instead? This is alyssum growing in my backyard. Wonderful stuff. Beautiful tiny, tiny flowers that produce some of the most amazing scent imaginable. I love this little plant. Those flowers are very small, about the size of a match head.

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.

Antenna Stuff

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!

The plant there is important. It adds about 0.001 dB to the gain of the antenna.

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.

I doubt it, though.