The Amateur Amateur: One Electron at a Time
By Gary Ross Hoffman, KB0H
Some of the books I failed to understand, or failed to read
The new medium, watching DVDs while exercising
The new classroom, an exercise bike
The electronics course, DVDs and a manual
There are those Amateur Radio operators who are blessed with an innate
ability to understand electronics. And there are those of us who are
not. Being in the latter category does prevent me of getting full
enjoyment from the hobby, however, so I do aspire to gain a better
understanding of radios and circuits and all those tiny sparky things
orbiting around atoms.
It's on my bucket list.
My father understood electronics. My grandfather understood electronics.
My brother Chris, K1KC, understands electronics. I'd like
to understand electronics, but don't have a truly practical grasp of
Well, for one thing, it was never put before me as something I had
to do. It wasn't part of the mandatory curriculum of any school I
attended. Second, learning about it was never my highest priority.
There was always something more fun to do, like read comic books. But
my best excuse is that I'm color-blind. As feeble as that may sound,
it does put me at something of a disadvantage.
So why do I want
to understand electronics?
The word that comes to mind is
“eclectic”. A great number of things interest me, so many
that I cannot possibly pursue even a fraction of them. I'd love to
get into photography. I'd like to become proficient with some musical
instrument. I'd like to learn about geology, anthropology, history,
cosmology, chemistry, well.. you name it and I probably have at least
a passing interest in it.
It's a very long bucket list indeed.
Yes, learning how to wrangle
electrons has been on my list for a very long time. I was never
encouraged to pursue the field, however, probably because of my color
vision problem. Seeing what hobbyists could do with a couple of bits
of wire and a few components always seemed pretty cool, though, so I
always had at least some desire to fiddle around with that stuff
That desire really started to
intensify after I got my ham radio ticket. So what is stopping me
from learning electronics now?
See all of the above. Mainly, though, I'm a slow learner with the
attention span of a kid in a toy store. Gee! What's that
It's hard for me to stay as focused on complex concepts when
there is something so interesting
happening on the Comedy Channel.
Don't get me wrong. I tried countless times and never got anywhere. I do
have electronic kits. They are gathering dust in my basement. I do
have books on electronics. The bookmarks are all still sitting a few
pages into Chapter One. I even have very old
books, which are sometimes easier for me to understand. Sadly, much
of the information in them is obsolete or no longer useful. Each time
I failed the task seemed even more futile.
Recently, though, I came across a new learning medium.
While I'm not keen on plugging products, I must say that I have been very
happy with DVDs sold by
The Great Courses
It's also know as The Teaching Company, with Internet address
(same place, same courses). I started out by taking their course on
calculus and found that, miraculously, I could understand
it. I moved on to quantum mechanics, chaos theory, and numerous other
subjects that had tweaked my interest over the years. Every topic was
taught by a professor knowledgeable in the field and presented in a
way that could be understood by average guys like myself. Right now
my wife Nancy (N0NJ) and I are making our way through a course on
Once I started devouring The Great Courses, my bucket list actually
started shrinking. What they did not
offer, however, was anything on electronics.
Until this summer.
The Great Courses sends me
endless catalogs. I get a new one almost every week. There is always
a sale, a special for repeat customers (that's me, for sure), and a
list of new offerings. I usually do a quick scan of these catalogs
and then pitch them. I already have a huge stack of DVDs waiting to
But one of the recent catalogs caused my eyes to open wide. They were
offering a new course on electronics!
I ordered it right away. I realized that if I was ever
going to learn about electronics, this was my best shot.
The question that's probably
popped into your mind is, “But can you stay focused
So far, with all of the previous
courses, the answer has been Yes. They are presented in half-hour
sessions, which fits my attention span pretty well. I also like the
fact that if I miss or don't understand something, I can mutter, “Say
what??”, hit rewind, and play it again. And if that doesn't
help, the DVDs also come with a course book. With that combination of
resources, I can usually grasp just about anything that's thrown at
Perhaps the best feature of learning this way is that it's good for both my
mind and my body. You see, I take the DVDs downstairs, stick them
into a DVD player, then watch them while riding my exercise bicycle.
I get so wrapped up in the courses that I don't even notice that I'm
burning calories. (Actually, my brain is probably burning more
calories than my muscles, but at least I'm getting some
exercise.) A half hour on the bike works just fine for me. I finish
up a little sweaty and a lot more informed.
“So, have you learned all about electronics?” you may ask.
I'm still working on it. As I
said, I'm a bit slow. Things take a while to penetrate my skull. The
electronics course instructor's pace is a tad brisk for me, but
that's the advantage of being able to hit the PAUSE button. (I wish
I'd been able to do that in college.)
I'm particularly interested in
this instructor's approach. He has not been presenting the material as it
is laid out in the books that I had read. He jumped into circuit
diagrams very early in the course, and that is where I always got
stuck with everything I'd tried before. This time, however, I've
managed to hang on and haven't gotten lost yet.
There is still hope for me.
Stay tuned. If I don't fail so miserably that I'm embarrassed to write
about it, I will let you know what happens.
I'm definitely learning more this time around... if only one electron
at a time.