The Amateur Amateur

Welcome to the new home of The Amateur Amateur

The American Radio Relay League has indicated that it no longer wishes to publish the column,
so I have set up this site as its new home. My thanks to all of you who have sent me messages of support. They are greatly appreciated.

The Amateur Amateur is a column about my experiences in ham radio. Since I have little technical expertise and not much knowledge of electronics, I make a lot of mistakes. I consider myself to be just an amateur amateur radio operator, but I keep pressing on and trying new things. This column details my triumphs - and foibles - and I try not to take myself too seriously. Whether you are an experienced ham or new to the hobby, I hope you find these chronicles of my efforts to be entertaining.

Gary Ross Hoffman, KB0H

November 2014

The Amateur Amateur: Zzaapp!

By Gary Ross Hoffman, KB0H

Television receiver box

TV receiver box (3rd of 3). Just don't try using the HDMI port.

I actually saw it. I was looking out the window, morosely contemplating the miserable weather, when a a brilliant bolt of lightning seared my eyeballs, and a simultaneous CRACK! made my eardrums vibrate. It was so sudden and so intense that my body didn't even react. I just stood there, transfixed. It took a few moments for my brain to reboot.

Bloody hell, that was close! I thought..., once I was able to think again.

“Did you see that?” I heard my wife Nancy say. “The whole room lit up red!”

She had been in the family room.

I raised my hand and pointed.

“There,” I croaked. And then, after clearing my throat, I added, “It hit right there. The same place it hit last time. You remember? It fried all those electronic components...”

Oh no, I thought. Please, not again.

After a quick check for smoldering craters our worst fears were realized. It had happened again. We'd taken a pretty hefty electrical surge. It might have traveled through wires, or through the ground. It had been so near that it might even have been the electromagnetic pulse through the air itself. It hardly mattered. We'd suffered damage.

The house was intact, though, and our electricity was still on. There were no fires and no smell of smoke, so the major systems seemed okay.

But the cable TV was out. So were the phones. So was the Internet... well...

Multiple Computers

Left-to-Right: Milkway, Sparky, Holly. Trying to get all of the data transferred without a network.

Now that was strange. All of the wired Internet devices were out, but the wireless ones were working.

Still, we had to call out AT&T to get it all going again. They replaced everything. One TV receiver box had to be replaced three times (yes, it took three service calls), along with the television itself (sob!). And still it didn't work, not until we replaced the cables as well. And even then it didn't work consistently, not until we changed the type of cable we were using. The whole cable TV thing was a truly miserable affair.

That took weeks to straighten out, and I needed to get all of that big stuff going again before I even dared to (shudder!) go down to my radio shack to see what had happened there. Oh, I knew it was going to be bad. That's where most of the damage had been after the previous nearby lightning strike.

I'll go ahead and spare you the suspense. I didn't lose any radios. No, the damage was a lot more subtle. (Okay. So there's a little suspense after all.)

The first and most obvious problem was my shack's computer. It was an old Gateway model, one of the first to be sold with Windows XP installed on it. (We had named it “Milkyway” because of the cow-pattern box in which it had come.. get it?) It had been a faithful, useful tool for many years, but had begun showing its age. Performing regular backups on Milkyway had become a chore, because the scheduled backups never seemed to run properly. I had been contemplating replacing the venerable old machine, but couldn't quite bring myself to spend the money.

Milkyway's problems multiplied after the lightning event. Virtually none of its radio-related functions worked any more, and it had lost its capacity to communicate with the router. Now a replacement computer was no longer a vague notion. It had suddenly become a necessity.

Heaven help me, being the tight-fisted person that I am, I scoured the Internet until I found something really cheap to buy.

And so “Sparky” arrived on my doorstep. It came with a power cord, keyboard, mouse and literally nothing else, not even a little piece of paper saying “Inspected by No. 24”. It was a much newer model Gateway tower, with Windows 8 pre-loaded.

I say “pre-loaded”. But not activated. I had to buy Windows 8 to make it work, something the on-line advertisement had neglected to mention.

APRS station components

Dead components of the APRS station.. the stench of overcooked bacon and plastic.

I won't bore you with the details. It tires me out just thinking back over the weeks and months I spent trying to navigate the system, figure out what the new terminology meant, and wondering why I should want my computer screen to look like a mobile phone.

It took a long, long time before I could actually do anything with Sparky. But once I'd done the vital upgrade to Windows 8.1, found out how to evade the persistent “App” mode, and learned that “System Backup” had morphed into “File History”, I was ready to expand the computer's capabilities.

Only.... it wasn't all that expandable. There was no slot inside where I could install a backup disk. And Windows 8 absolutely refused to have anything to do with my external eSATA disk.

Man, my tight-fisted attitude was coming back to punch me right in the face.

Or more precisely, in the wallet.

Eventually, though, I was able to expand Sparky's functionality by installing a card with a zillion USB 3 ports on it.

Alright, having finally, finally gotten the new computer functioning, I was ready to see what other lightning-related casualties I had in the shack. The first thing I checked was my APRS (Automatic Packet Reporting System) station. It had stopped working pretty much the same moment that the lightning had rattled my teeth.

Okay, radio? Working. Computer-to-TNC cable? Ow! Hot to the touch! Something's definitely wrong there, better get a new one.

One week and one new cable later, the APRS station still wasn't working. I tried checking the status of the Byonics TinyTrak4 TNC...

No response.

Another week and a new TinyTrak later and I had my APRS station back on the air. Just for grins I opened up the old TinyTrak...

Oh, definitely an odor of fried things-that-should-not-be-cooked. Kind of a sizzling bacon-and-plastic smell.

Gross.

Right about that time my main computer, Blacky, stopped talking.

Well, it still functioned, but I couldn't get it to communicate with the LAN (Local Area Network... the household net).

My guess was that the wireless card had bitten the dust, a late victim of the lightning strike. I would've reverted to using an Ethernet cable, but none of the Ethernet ports on the new AT&T router seemed to function.

Standby generator

Standby generator, no longer standing by.

There seemed to be a lot of you-can't-use-that-kind-of-cable issues with the new U-Verse equipment. Did AT&T and Microsoft both have a low-key but well-funded "Departments of Incompatibility" somewhere in their headquarters?

Anyway, I wasted a day driving all over St. Louis looking for a new wireless card. Apparently that was not a high-demand consumer product, because I sure couldn't find a store that had one. I finally ordered one on-line and paid big bucks for one-day delivery.

Amazingly, it did come the next day. And it did work.

Ah, what a relief to be able to read my email again!

The last soldier to fall in this sad story was our emergency standby generator. It seems that it had not been standing by after all, its control circuit having been zapped. It was quite a while before I noticed that it was not doing its once-a-week startup and self-test, and that I thought to check it out. Fortunately... and amazingly, I was able to get the generator maintenance folks to come out the same day and get it running again. (I may be cheap, but I will pay for a maintenance contract on something that expensive... and important.)

As far as I know there are no more lightning-related disasters lurking in my shack or elsewhere in the house. There were one or two items I did not mention in my tale, but nothing major. No, the big question for me now is....

How do I get the lightning to strike somewhere else next time?

Glitches in the System
A series of cartoons about what really happens when your radio breaks down

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to see previous columns.

All previous columns are now in Web-page format.

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