The Amateur Amateur: But First...

By Gary Ross Hoffman, KB0H
August 2014

Gateway computer and external disks

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 finally, finally, 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.

But first...

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.

Gateway computer screen

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.

But first...

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).

TinyTrak TNC

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.

The TNC?

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.

But first...

What was that chirping sound?

Rack with transceivers

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 looking..

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.

It wasn't 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 and ever.

55 ah batteries

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.

But first...

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.

But first...

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.

E-mail Gary Ross Hoffman

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