The Amateur Amateur: But First...
By Gary Ross Hoffman, KB0H
The computer is an oldie but a goodie.. at least when it condescends to
backup its disks.
You're thumbing through a magazine or surfing Amateur Radio sites on the Web.
Suddenly you see a photo that makes you drool with envy. It's a picture of
someone's radio shack. Gleaming equipment sits on rows of wooden shelves. A 24
hour clock, maps, and QSL cards from exotic locations adorned the
walls. A computer and a vintage microphone share the desk. It's like
a ham radio candy store and you can't help but salivate.
Oooooohhhhh, I gotta have a setup like that, you say to yourself.
Hold on. Before you start tossing
out your kid's bikes or your grandmother's antiques so that you can
build a shack in your garage, you should know that all is not as it
appears in that alluring photograph. Let me tell you a story...
It had been more than a year since I'd lost my only HF antenna. But
I'd managed to get some wire up on the roof, put
an antenna coupler in the attic, and run new coaxial cable. I'd dusted off my
HF transceiver, tested everything, and it all seemed to be functioning
properly. Now I was ready, nay, eager
to spend some quality time on the lower bands.
The computer in my shack started
acting up. I'd set it to perform automatic disk backups every Sunday
morning, but every now and then it failed to do so. Recently the
problem had gotten worse and no backups had taken place for several
weeks. I needed to figure out what was wrong and correct the
situation. It was an old computer running Windows XP, and if anything
more serious happened, I was really going to need an up-to-date
backup of the disks.
The APRS program was still ticking away.
So, playing around on the HF bands would have to wait.
The backup problem was a
sidetrack, that led to another sidetrack, and yet another. Just
finding the error message took a whole day. The message was in
totally meaningless jargon and codes, of course, but at least I was
able to look it up on the Internet. Not surprisingly, there were
several dozen different solutions, all of them complicated and
requiring further research.
In the end I opted for the
simplest approach. (Hey, I 'm lazy. I admit it.) I changed an entry
in some mysterious register in Window 7, then defragmented the disks.
It worked. Once. Since then I've had to defragment the disks every
week. I considered just getting a new computer, but I was having
trouble finding one with the features...
Wait. Wait. This was getting further and further from what I started out to do.
I put the whole computer issue
aside and turned my attention once again to my primary goal: Getting
on the HF bands.
My last look at the computer's
screen showed that my APRS station (Automatic Packet Reporting
System) wasn't working quite right. It was running, but didn't seem
to be digipeating (retransmitting incoming signals).
The Terminal Node Controller had gotten disconnected.
This was something that I could
not ignore. I had set up a “fill-in”station meant to take
care of dead areas not covered by larger, more powerful digipeaters.
My station also acted as an I-gate, meaning that it fed incoming APRS
packets into the Internet. My station handled a lot of APRS I-gate
traffic, so I figured I really needed to find out what was the matter
and correct the situation.
My first thought was that the
problem had something to do with the computer. It had, after all,
shown great reluctance to perform its backups. That sure seemed like
the prelude to an even bigger meltdown to come.
But where, exactly, was the
problem? Was it the APRS software? Nope, that seemed to be ticking
along just fine. Was it the data port? No, apparently not. A loose
USB connection? A bad serial-port-to-USB adapter? None of the above?
The transceiver? No.
Ah. Some time during my previous
explorations under the desk inj my shack, I had knocked loose the
power connector on the Terminal Node Controller. I plugged it back in
and everything started working again. I caught a lucky break there,
as I have to really jump through hoops to reprogram of the TNCs in my
shack. Fortunately, this time it wasn't necessary.
So where was I? What had I gone down to the shack to do?
Oh, right. I wanted to turn on my HF transceiver and see if my new antenna
system could pick up anything.
What was that chirping sound?
Where in this mess of equipment was the bleeping coming from?
Every now and then something in
my shack went bleep-bleep! It only happened intermittently, so the
source of the sound wasn't immediately apparent. I gazed in the
general direction of the bleeping in hopes of catching a glimpse of a
warning light or something, but nothing caught my eye. I kept
But of course the chirping only happened when I looked away.
The sound was coming from one particular rack of shelves, but it had quite
a few electronic gizmos on it. I went over and stood in front of the rack...
Aha! It was my APRS transceiver!
Gee whiz, it seemed like every component of my APRS system was giving me fits
lately. First the computer, then the TNC, and now the transceiver. Did APRS
now stand for Absolutely Positively Royally Screwed? I hoped not.
So, what was wrong with the transceiver? Why was it bleep-bleeping?
Oh. Every time that it tried to transmit it briefly lost power. The bleeping
was the unit powering back up.
I switched transceivers.
Bleep-bleep! Same problem.
the transceiver after all. It was the battery!
Now, all of the transceivers in
my shack, except for the HF radio, are powered by batteries. These
are big honking 55 ampere/hour telecommunications batteries and they
are connected to charging units. They should last forever and ever
These monster batteries were supposed to last forever.
But apparently they don't. And worse than that, I found that two
of my big batteries had gone flat. Neither one would hold a charge.
Serves me right for buying them on eBay.
I pulled out the defunct
batteries and replaced them with a pair of new ones. I charged them
up, connected them to the transceivers and made sure that they could
transmit. Everything was copacetic.
I was ready to get back to my long-delayed HF adventure.
Well, you get the picture.
The point is that having a radio
shack, whether the idyllic version you see in magazines or a heap of
semi-functional equipment such as mine can hinder your ham activities
as much as help them. A shack demands constant attention.
At the very least it needs a maintenance man. Something will eventually
break, or wear out, or simply get unplugged. If you have kids, pets,
or just regular visitors, your shack will probably need a security
guard as well. And, on occasion, perhaps even an exterminator. Unless
you are blessed with a large household staff you're going to have to
fulfill all of those functions yourself, and that is time that you won't
be spending on the air.
Speaking of which, my shack desperately needs the services of a janitor. As
soon as I finish writing this, I will go downstairs and take care of that task.
And I'm not joking, my wife Nancy just walked in and said that there is
something wrong with the garden hose. She wants me to go outside and take a
look at it.