The Amateur Amateur: One Electron at a Time

By Gary Ross Hoffman, KB0H
September 2014

books on electronics

Some of the books I failed to understand, or failed to read

The Great Courses on TV

The new medium, watching DVDs while exercising

exercise bicycle

The new classroom, an exercise bike

electronics course material bicycle

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 the subject.

Why not?

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 myself.

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 over there? 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 meteorology.

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 be watched.

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, Gary?”

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 me.

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.

E-mail Gary Ross Hoffman

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