The Amateur Amateur: Is It Really Too Easy Now?
By Gary Ross Hoffman, KB0H
No "siren mode" on this veteran
"Ham radio isn't what it used to be. Back then you needed knowledge and
skills. Now, you don't need any knowledge at all. And skills? Ha!
Push to talk!"
I'm sure you've heard that complaint at least once. You may have even made
it yourself. And, at one time, I would have agreed with you.
But not any more.
I was at a radio meeting that featured a speaker explaining DMR. The first
part of the talk was quite informative, but as the evening wore on, I found
it harder and harder to follow the presentation. Somewhere along the way
I decided that DMR wasn't for me. It seemed much too complicated to set up for
what I wanted to get out of it.
And then it hit me. I'd been down this road before with NBEMS. And
WinDRM. And Winlink, APRS, SSTV, PSK31 and a host of other modes and
techniques. Sure, they worked, and some of them were kind of fun.
But most of them took a whole lot of fiddling, finagling, and adjusting,
and things often stopped functioning for no apparent reason. The amount
of time I spent debugging those modes was much greater than the time I
spent actually using them.
I was beginning to believe that Amateur Radio today was not
easier than it was in days gone by.
You're probably shaking your head in disagreement right now.
Okay then, let's take a look at then and now.
We'll start with the equipment. I can sense you grinning right now.
Obviously, today's equipment is much simpler and easier to use.
But, think about it. Yesterday's equipment was big.
You could read the dials. You could tell what each knob and switch
did. Everything was labeled and usually performed just one function.
Today, every button, and even every knob
has multiple functions. They are small, sometimes tiny.
They are labeled with cryptic abbreviations, and the labels can only
be read if the light is reflecting off of the panel at just the right
angle. You have a 50-50 chance of hitting the wrong button or
brushing against one by accident. And if you do, you will have no
idea what you just did, let alone how to correct it.
Moreover, old rigs had big easy-to-read dials, versus today's tiny
gray-on-gray LCD readouts.
Sirens, flashlights, and squeaky voices
I will grant you that working the HF bands is not as difficult now. You do
not need to set up a Frankensteinian electrical laboratory to operate
(although some hams still do). And truthfully, today's ham doesn't need to
know a whole lot about electricity, electronics, or the inner workings of the
equipment. Today's operator can usually skip most of that.
Case closed, you are thinking.
But you haven't considered the new
burdens that face the Amateur Radio operator of today. The biggest
and often most irritating of these can be summed up with one word:
I'll bet that you cringed just now. Hey, I'm a career computer programmer,
going all the way back to the days of card punches and paper tape, and even
Today's radios have countless features, such as tones, offsets, groups,
scanning and so forth. They have memories, and can store many
frequencies. Even the simplest, cheapest transceiver has "feature overkill".
You can, of course, try to enter
all of the necessary information manually. But that will probably
result in a squeaky computerized voice alerting you that you've just
ordered take-out meals for 146,520 people instead of entering the
calling frequency. Either that, or you will put the radio into siren
If you want to avoid the siren and Ms Squeaky, you will have to use a
computer. And that means finding and connecting the right cable.
There are no universal ones. Even cables that have the right connectors on
them won't necessarily be wired correctly for your radio and computer.
Commercially made cable and software
Once you have your computer, cable and radio configured correctly, you now
have to figure out which software to use. There are a few free programs
available, but a quick scan of Google or Facebook will reveal that "free"
doesn't necessarily mean "bug-free".
Having spent little money and a lot of time, or a lot of money and a little
time getting the correct cable and a reliable program, you will now need to
enter all of the information you're going to need into your computer.
But wait, you say. I have a friend who already has the information on
his computer. I just need to transfer it to my computer.
Well, okay. But unless the two of
you have exactly the same make and model transceiver, you can
anticipate spending a whole afternoon "adjusting" the data.
Right! Now you've made it this
far, you're ready to upload the frequencies, settings, modes, tones
and everything else into your radio. Generally speaking, this final
step goes smoothly, but glitches have been known to happen.
Now, if you want to start working with one of the recently introduced digital
modes, that's a whole new ball game.
So, what do you think now? Would an Amateur Radio operator from the past
say we have it too easy? Or would he beat a hasty retreat back to his glowing
tubes and rotary dials?
The answer may not be as obvious as you once thought.
© 2018 Gary Ross Hoffman
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