The Amateur Amateur: Zzaapp!
By Gary Ross Hoffman, KB0H
TV receiver box (3rd of 3). Just don't try using the HDMI port.
I actually saw it. I was looking out the window, morosely contemplating
the miserable weather, when a a brilliant bolt of lightning seared my
eyeballs, and a simultaneous CRACK! made my eardrums vibrate. It was so
sudden and so intense that my body didn't even react. I just stood there,
transfixed. It took a few moments for my brain to reboot.
Bloody hell, that was close! I thought..., once I was able
to think again.
“Did you see that?” I heard my wife Nancy say. “The whole
room lit up red!”
She had been in the family room.
I raised my hand and pointed.
“There,” I croaked. And then, after clearing my throat, I added,
“It hit right there. The same place it hit last time. You remember? It
fried all those electronic components...”
Oh no, I thought. Please, not again.
After a quick check for smoldering craters our worst fears were realized. It
had happened again. We'd taken a pretty hefty electrical surge. It might
have traveled through wires, or through the ground. It had been so near that
it might even have been the electromagnetic pulse through the air itself. It
hardly mattered. We'd suffered damage.
The house was intact, though, and our electricity was still on. There were
no fires and no smell of smoke, so the major systems seemed okay.
But the cable TV was out. So were the phones. So was the Internet... well...
Left-to-Right: Milkway, Sparky, Holly. Trying to get all of the data
transferred without a network.
Now that was strange. All of the wired Internet devices were
out, but the wireless ones were working.
Still, we had to call out AT&T to get it all going again. They replaced
everything. One TV receiver box had to be replaced three times (yes, it took
three service calls), along with the television itself (sob!). And
still it didn't work, not until we replaced the cables as well. And
even then it didn't work consistently, not until we changed the
type of cable we were using. The whole cable TV thing was a truly
That took weeks to straighten out, and I needed to get all of that big stuff
going again before I even dared to (shudder!) go down to my radio shack to
see what had happened there. Oh, I knew it was going to be bad. That's where
most of the damage had been after the previous nearby lightning strike.
I'll go ahead and spare you the suspense. I didn't lose any radios. No, the
damage was a lot more subtle. (Okay. So there's a little suspense after all.)
The first and most obvious problem was my shack's computer. It was an old
Gateway model, one of the first to be sold with Windows XP installed on it.
(We had named it “Milkyway” because of the cow-pattern box in
which it had come.. get it?) It had been a faithful, useful tool for many
years, but had begun showing its age. Performing regular backups on Milkyway
had become a chore, because the scheduled backups never seemed to run
properly. I had been contemplating replacing the venerable old machine, but
couldn't quite bring myself to spend the money.
Milkyway's problems multiplied after the lightning event. Virtually none of
its radio-related functions worked any more, and it had lost its capacity to
communicate with the router. Now a replacement computer was no longer a vague
notion. It had suddenly become a necessity.
Heaven help me, being the tight-fisted person that I am, I scoured the
Internet until I found something really cheap to buy.
And so “Sparky” arrived on my doorstep. It came with a power
cord, keyboard, mouse and literally nothing else, not even a little piece of
paper saying “Inspected by No. 24”. It was a much newer model
Gateway tower, with Windows 8 pre-loaded.
I say “pre-loaded”. But not activated. I had to buy
Windows 8 to make it work, something the on-line advertisement had neglected
Dead components of the APRS station.. the stench of overcooked bacon and plastic.
I won't bore you with the details. It tires me out just thinking back over
the weeks and months I spent trying to navigate the system, figure out what
the new terminology meant, and wondering why I should want my computer
screen to look like a mobile phone.
It took a long, long time before I could actually do anything with
Sparky. But once I'd done the vital upgrade to Windows 8.1, found out how to
evade the persistent “App” mode, and learned that “System
Backup” had morphed into “File History”, I was ready to
expand the computer's capabilities.
Only.... it wasn't all that expandable. There was no slot inside where I
could install a backup disk. And Windows 8 absolutely refused to have
anything to do with my external eSATA disk.
Man, my tight-fisted attitude was coming back to punch me right in the face.
Or more precisely, in the wallet.
Eventually, though, I was able to expand Sparky's functionality by installing
a card with a zillion USB 3 ports on it.
Alright, having finally, finally gotten the new computer functioning,
I was ready to see what other lightning-related casualties I had in
the shack. The first thing I checked was my APRS (Automatic Packet Reporting
System) station. It had stopped working pretty much the same moment that the
lightning had rattled my teeth.
Okay, radio? Working. Computer-to-TNC cable? Ow! Hot to the touch! Something's
definitely wrong there, better get a new one.
One week and one new cable later, the APRS station still wasn't working. I
tried checking the status of the Byonics TinyTrak4 TNC...
Another week and a new TinyTrak later and I had my APRS station back on the
air. Just for grins I opened up the old TinyTrak...
Oh, definitely an odor of fried things-that-should-not-be-cooked. Kind of a
sizzling bacon-and-plastic smell.
Right about that time my main computer, Blacky, stopped talking.
Well, it still functioned, but I couldn't get it to communicate with the
LAN (Local Area Network... the household net).
My guess was that the wireless card had bitten the dust, a late victim of the
lightning strike. I would've reverted to using an Ethernet cable, but none of
the Ethernet ports on the new AT&T router seemed to function.
Standby generator, no longer standing by.
There seemed to be a lot of you-can't-use-that-kind-of-cable issues with the
new U-Verse equipment. Did AT&T and Microsoft both have a low-key but
well-funded "Departments of Incompatibility" somewhere in their headquarters?
Anyway, I wasted a day driving all over St. Louis looking for a new wireless
card. Apparently that was not a high-demand consumer product, because I sure
couldn't find a store that had one. I finally ordered one on-line and paid
big bucks for one-day delivery.
Amazingly, it did come the next day. And it did work.
Ah, what a relief to be able to read my email again!
The last soldier to fall in this sad story was our emergency standby
generator. It seems that it had not been standing by after all, its control
circuit having been zapped. It was quite a while before I noticed that it
was not doing its once-a-week startup and self-test, and that I thought to
check it out. Fortunately... and amazingly, I was able to get the generator
maintenance folks to come out the same day and get it running again. (I may
be cheap, but I will pay for a maintenance contract on something
that expensive... and important.)
As far as I know there are no more lightning-related disasters lurking in
my shack or elsewhere in the house. There were one or two items I did not
mention in my tale, but nothing major. No, the big question for me now is....
How do I get the lightning to strike somewhere else next time?