Scouting @ Home: Family Life Merit Badge

It is hard to imagine a merit badge better suited for “shelter in place” than Family Life. Let’s take a look at some of the requirements.

Family life

As you might guess, all of the requirements are done with your family or are discussions with your merit badge counselor. There are two requirements for projects that benefit your family, one individual project and one whole family project. Some ideas:

  • Plant a vegetable garden so you can make fewer trips to the store. Garden stores are closed, but hardware stores with garden departments are open, like our local Ace Hardware in Mountain View.
  • Plan and cook freeze-ahead meals for a week. You make the meals on Sunday, freeze them, then thaw and finish them each night from Monday through Friday.
  • Plan a week or more of meals that can be made from pantry items. Make the shopping list for these. For example, pasta puttanesca is made with pasta, canned tomato paste and crushed tomatoes, canned anchovies, jarred olives and capers. The Simply Recipes site has some resources for shelter in place shopping and cooking.
  • Organize your pantry to work better for long-term food storage.
  • Clean out and organize a garage, closet, games, whatever.
  • Bicycle maintenance day, adjusting brakes and shifters, oiling chains, whatever is needed.
  • Organizing school supplies for remote learning.
  • Update your family’s first aid kit and emergency supplies. Replace any out of date medications.
  • Clean out your fridge and freezer. Toss any expired food. Plan recipes to use the oldest items that are still good.

I’m sure there are other things you can think of that are important for your family.

In addition to the projects, you’ll make a list of household chores and track when you do them for 90 days.

You’ll also organize a family meeting to talk about several important topics. See the merit badge requirements for details.

You can find the requirements on the BSA site (PDF) or at the US Scouting Service Project (with a worksheet).

The Family Life merit badge pamphlet is available online from the BSA.

For more posts like this, check out the Scouting at Home category on this blog.

Shack Upgrade

For years, my “ham shack” has been equipment crowded on top of a crate surrounded by other crates and boxes. It was neither attractive or effective.

Can you find the radios? The VHF/UHF rig on the floor would be stacked on the dresser for the weekly Monday night ARES/RACES net.

Ham shack before

There isn’t a lot of space in the corner, so I spent quite a while looking for the right table or desk. I settled on a 24 x 36 inch hardwood table that looks like it belongs in a classroom. A deeper table would work better for radio gear, but this one fit the space, was reasonably attractive, and affordable ($172).

On Saturday, my new table arrived and the cleanup and reorganization commenced. The old crate is now a bookshelf next to the desk.

Ham shack after

With California’s “shelter in place” coronavirus order, the shack is doing double duty as a home office. The big monitor and keyboard are from work.

Ham shack desk

The power supply (adjusted to 15 V) and 100 W RF amp are under the monitor stand. Stereo speakers for the receiver (not the computer) are on top of the stand. I wrote about the speakers and audio amp in an earlier blog post. The dummy load (see this post) is behind the monitor. Farther to the right are the Elecraft KX3 and PX3 on an over/under stand from the North Georgia QRP Club. At the far right is a Yaesu FT-8900R VHF/UHF rig mounted in a Tac-Comm case. That can be quickly disconnected from power (PowerPoles) and the antenna (BNC) to be taken mobile or portable.

The monitor stand is a “Thank You” gift from when I worked at HP. I’d helped out some folks in another division, so they sent me one of the monitor stands they made in their sheet metal shop. It is a beauty, thick aluminum, with stiffening ridges along the front and back edges, and nicely painted in official HP instrument dove grey.

Time to quit rearranging stuff and get on the air!

Social Distancing and the Scout Staff

Having a hard time judging the six foot distance needed for coronavirus social distancing? Bring along your Scout staff!

The modern BSA staff is a great deal for $5.99. It is five feet long, so you’ll need a bit of arm extension.

I recommend getting a crutch tip for the bottom end of your staff. It gives you better grip and extends the life of the staff. A 1 1/8 inch crutch tip will fit the current BSA staff.

Some of the classic Scout staves are six feet or even six and a half feed long. This is my dad’s staff with my 6’2″ self as a measuring stick.

Scout staff walter

Just another thing to add to the list of uses of a Scout staff.

To compare the sizes, this is our collection of hiking staves. The mid-sized one is from a large sassafras shrub. A friend collected it in Arkansas and made this for me. The shortest one is the current BSA Scout staff. It seems really short here, but it is a very practical size, especially for youth. The tallest one has marks at one inch intervals for the top foot.

Scout staff collection

For more posts like this, check out the Scouting at Home category on this blog.

BSA Emergency Preparedness Award

No, not the merit badge, the award. It even has a dedicated spot on the uniform, on the left pocket flap. This can be earned by individuals from Tiger Cubs up through council adult volunteers. There are also unit, district, and council awards. Youth awards are approved by the unit leader, so there isn’t much paperwork.

Emergency preparedness award

See the requirements for the different levels for the details. Click through to the application to see the approvals. Your Scout shop or National Supply will have the Emergency Preparedness Pin ($2.49).

The requirements include some unit activities and courses, so they might be hard to do from home. Still, this is a good time to get started and to add it to the annual calendar.

I qualified for my award under the district Scouter requirements. I’ve taken Wilderness First Aid multiple times, which is a superset of a basic first aid course. I’m an ARES/RACES amateur radio volunteer for our city. I’ve taken the FEMA Introduction to Incident Command System course (and others) for my city volunteer work. And so on, the requirements are a good list.

Finally, this is one of those rare awards that is approved for both uniform and civilian wear (“may be worn either on the uniform or on nonuniform wear, centered on left pocket flap” in the Guide to Awards and Insignia). Maybe I need a second pin for my ARES/RACES vest.

For more posts like this, check out the Scouting at Home category on this blog.

USMC Antenna Handbook

If you’ve been looking for a practical, free introduction to antennas, the US Marine Core Antenna Handbook (MCRP 8-10B.11, 2016) is a good place to start. The book is especially good for simple HF antennas that can be put up at home or in the field.

USMC Antenna Handbook

The PDF is 193 pages. The main section of text is 160 pages, with a very good 20 page glossary at the back.

If you enjoy learning about antennas from this handbook, your next step should be the ARRL Antenna Book. If you’re not ready to shell out $65 for the 1024 page 24th edition of that book, check your local library. Older editions are less comprehensive, but they still have lots of great info. My 12th edition from 1970 is still useful. Antenna physics has not changed over time, just our understanding of it.

Let’s go over some of the sections of the USMC Antenna Handbook to see the strong and weak points.

Radio Waves, Propagation, and Noise

These sections are very good, especially about HF propagation. It could cover VHF/UHF multipath a bit better. Repeaters are not mentioned. Those are common in amateur radio, but apparently not in the Marine Corps. Serious VHF/UHF amateurs dig into other kinds of propagation not covered here, like tropospheric ducting, meteor scatter, moonbounce, aircraft scatter, and so on. Those are advanced topics, so it is reasonable to not cover them here.

Transmission Lines

This is not my favorite section, but the mistakes here are very common in popular explanations of transmission lines. Unbalanced vs balanced is not a helpful way to think of transmission lines. All kinds of transmission lines carry a mix of differential (balanced) currents and common-mode (unbalanced) currents. Also, it talks about baluns as balanced-to-unbalanced transformers, but they are most useful as common-mode chokes. Still, this is a fairly standard introduction to the subject.

HF Antenna Selection

Very good section, with lots of ideas for how to actually get wire into the air for horizontal dipole or vertical ground plane antennas. You won’t find coverage of ham favorites like the G5RV, off-center fed dipole, Carolina windom, or even the end-fed half-wave. The antennas covered here are all simple and proven.

This chapter does discuss NVIS (near vertical incidence skywave) propagation, something that is fairly recent in amateur practice. The first QST article on NVIS was in 1995 and it has only become popular in the last 10-15 years.

There is one interesting antenna that is new to me, the vertical half-rhombic. This requires a fair amount of space, up to 1000 feet, but is unidirectional and only needs one support.

VHF and UHF Antenna Selection

This section is a bit less useful because it relies on specific military antennas instead of describing types of antennas. For example, the OE-254 is a bow-tie vertical dipole, a low-Q, high-bandwidth antenna, but they just call it an OE-254.

Military VHF/UHF antennas need to work over a wide range of frequencies, but amateurs can use antennas optimized for the small number of bands that we are allowed to use. The most common single- and dual-band ham antennas are not described here, designs like collinear phased verticals, Yagi-Uda beams, haloes, Moxon beams, J-poles, and so on.

Field Repair and Expedients

Read this before ARRL Field Day! Here are some suggestions of what to do when an antenna insulator breaks.

Improvised insulators crop

Antenna Farms

Some really good advice on choosing antenna sites, useful even if you are just putting up one antenna. I don’t think I’ve seen this covered in detail in any other book. A lot of hams will end up with at least two antennas, one for HF and one for VHF/UHF, so this is a worthwhile read. We won’t normally be considering security measures like barbed wire and automatic weapons, so you can skip to the Technical Considerations section.

And that’s all! Enjoy learning about antennas.

Wheat Berry Surprise

I improvised a dinner with wheat berries and veg. Tina asked what I was making and I said “Wheat Berry Surprise”! This starts with Mark Bittman’s Cooking Grains, The Easy Way then I threw in more tasty stuff.

I used wheat berries (whole wheat kernels), but you can use any grain you prefer. Likewise, the greens could be chard, dandelion greens, turnip greens, etc. Most greens will cook more quickly than the lacinato kale. I tossed in some chickpeas for protein.

Wheat berry surprise

Ingredients

  • 1 cup wheat berries
  • 4 cups broth or water (I used chicken broth)
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil (approx.)
  • 1 medium onion, diced
  • 3 carrots, diced
  • 3 stalks celery, sliced thin
  • celery leaves, chopped
  • 1 bunch lacinato (dinosaur) kale, chard, or other greens, cut into ribbons
  • 1 can chickpeas, drained
  • 1 bay leaf
  • several sprigs fresh thyme
  • 1+ teaspoon salt (omit or reduce if using salted broth)
  • a few grinds of black pepper

Preparation

Put the wheat berries, thyme, bay leaf, and broth (or salted water) in a pot. Bring to a boil and simmer for 30-40 minutes or so. The wheat berries will be softened but chewy when done. See Bittman’s recipe for details.

While the grains are cooking, cut up the onions, carrots, and celery. The carrots should be diced small enough that they will cook while being sauteéd. I always add the leaves from the celery bunch because I like a bit of extra celery flavor.

Wash the greens. I find it easier to wash lacinato kale after it is cut. Strip the leaves from the stems, cut across the leaves, then put the ribbons in a salad spinner. Fill it with water, agitate the leaves, dump, do that again, then spin dry.

In a medium-sized pot (3 qts?), heat the olive oil, then sauteé the mirepoix (onions, carrots, celery ribs and leaves) until soft, about 10 minutes. Grind some pepper into the mix toward the end. Add some salt, if you want. If the wheat berries aren’t done, turn off the heat and cover.

When the wheat berries are done, remove the thyme twigs and bay leaf, then drain.

Turn the heat up on the pot with the mirepoix. Add the chickpeas and stir. Put about 1/4 cup of water in, then layer the kale on the onions and carrots, then dump the wheat berries on top of everything. Cover. The kale will cook with the steam from the water and the heat from the wheat berries on top.

After about 5 minutes, check the kale for doneness. It should still be a little chewy.

When the kale is cooked to your satisfaction, stir everything together and serve.

Technique

Stripping kale and chard off the stems with a knife is slow and fussy. Every time I did it, I thought that professionals must do it some other way, because this was taking way too much effort and time. Then I read about this fast technique in Samin Nosrat’s book Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat (see page 232).

You strip the stem out with your hands. Lay the leaf down on a cutting board, put two fingers astraddle the stem at the base of the leaf, then grab the bottom of the stem and pull up and out. The stem will come out and the leaves will be ripped off. Bits may stick to the stem or the stem might break, so tear off any remaining bits until you are satisfied. Stack the leaves at the back of the cutting board and they’ll be ready to chop.

Notes and Variations

Salt is a personal taste. Like beans, wheat berries can be tasty with a bit more salt. The broth I used has 530 mg of sodium per cup, which is about 1 teaspoon of table salt in 4 cups. To be precise, Pacific Foods Organic Free Range Chicken Broth has 2130 mg of sodium in 4 cups. Table salt has 2325 mg in 1 teaspoon. Diamond Crystal Kosher Salt, what I use, has 1120 mg of sodium in 1 teaspoon. So, take my recommendations with a grain of salt and trust your own taste buds.

Use vegetable stock to make this vegan.

Add pancetta (reduce or omit the salt). Get four ounces cut into small cubes (about 1/4 inch). Instead of olive oil, brown the pancetta slowly to render the fat. When it is done, remove with a slotted spoon and put in with the wheat berries. Continue with the recipe, sauteéing the mirepoix in the rendered fat. If there isn’t enough, add a little olive oil.

BaoFeng HTs and Spurious Emissons

The January edition of QST has some disturbing data about dirty transmitters in BaoFeng HTs.

Amateurs are responsible for their transmitters being clean, but most of us don’t have the test equipment to check that. Also, manufacturers must meet the FCC regulations for every transmitter sold.

The ARRL Lab set up at hamfests and tested the HTs that hams had with them. Over four years, only 5% to 9% of BaoFeng HTs passed the test. Alinco, Icom, Kenwood, and Yaesu had 100% pass rates. Wouxon improved from 83% to 100% over the years.

QST 2020 01 HT Testing

From “Technical Correspondence”, QST, January 2020, pages 60-62. This chart is on page 61. QST is available online to ARRL members. This is a link to the article online.

The FCC rules for spurious emissions are in 47 CFR § 97.307 – Emission standards.

What if you already own a BaoFeng, like me?

Run low power. This will reduce the amount of power in the spurious emissions. Reducing the power from 5 W to 0.5 W should reduce the spurious emissions by 10 dB. The spurs still won’t be 40 dB below the carrier, but they will be lower in terms of absolute power. It can’t hurt. It will make your battery last longer, too.

What if you want an inexpensive HT?

Instead of a $50 BaoFeng, save up a bit more for a $75 Yaesu FT-4XR. From my research, this is the only HT under $100 from a major radioo vendor.

The FT-4XR uses the same chipset as the BaoFeng, so it has roughly the same feature set. But it has a clean transmitter and better interference rejection in the receiver. It also has ham-specific firmware, like automatic repeater offsets. That should make it easier to use.

The FT-4XR also uses the same antenna connector as BaoFeng, so aftermarket Nagoya antennas might fit. I would probably try the Nagoya NA-771 for $17, which might fit. I’ve heard recommendations for the Diamond SRJ77CA ($27).

I linked to DX Engineering’s page above, but the FT-4XR is available at similar prices from Ham Radio Outlet, Gigaparts, and other ham stores. Amazon has it at a higher price ($83), oddly.

BaoFeng UV 5R Yaesu FT 4XE

How did this happen?

It appears that the BaoFeng radios were designed for the much more lenient Part 90 emission regulations and do not meet the amateur radio regulations.

An article by AD5GG compares BaoFeng UV-5R emissions to Part 90 (private land mobile) and Part 97 (amateur) regulations. The BaoFeng meets the weaker Part 90 limits, where spurious emissions are not to exceed -20 dBc (dBc is relative to carrier). Part 97 limits spurious emissions to -40 dBc, 100X lower than the Part 90 limit.

Designing for the Part 97 limits requires additional low-pass filtering on the output. The new parts may only be pennies, but it would require a new board design. Maybe new versions of the BaoFeng HTs will be designed to the stricter standards, but I’ll have to see proof of that. The UV-5R is up to the third generation, at least, and still not compliant.