The Amateur Amateur: Summing It Up
By Gary Ross Hoffman, KB0H
SGC-237 antenna coupler mounted in the attic
With the end of the year rapidly
approaching, are you thinking about the upcoming holiday festivities?
Or are you struggling to come up with gift ideas and worrying about
As for me, being the compulsive
person that I am, I'm pondering what I managed to accomplish this
year. (I have all these to-do lists and I need to start checking off
boxes.) With that in mind, and sticking to Amateur Radio related
matters, I took a look back to see what happened during 2014.
And there was a lot.
Regular readers of this column
will know that I frequently end with “... to be continued”.
My stories about trying to get onto the HF bands, for example, never
seemed to have a Disneyesque happy ending. No Mickey and Donald
chatting amicably on 20 meters.
Sorry folks, I didn't plan to
leave you hanging. It's just that many of my projects wind up on
roads that don't seem to lead anywhere. Some of them zig and zag and
show a glimmer of progress, but then suddenly swerve into a swampy
morass. Others tend to be more like a time loop, endlessly circling
back to the same problems.
I did, however, make some
progress with HF. I successfully installed a SGC-237 antenna coupler
in my attic and put up eighty feet of wire in a box configuration.
The idea was to make a NVIS (Near Vertical Incident Skywave) antenna.
As a member of ARES (Amateur Radio Emergency Service) I wanted to use
it to talk to Missouri and Illinois stations during disasters.
didn't work very well. I could hear
some signals but generally no one could hear mine. I suspect that
most of the stations in the region have vertically polarized
There's a second part to the
whole failure-to-get-on-HF affair, which was made clear to me by Bob,
WA4GDX. The 40 meter and 75 meter bands that I was trying to use
simply don't work well during daylight hours.
duh! I knew that. At least I used
to know that. Somehow I'd forgotten that important fact. After Bob
reminded me I tried listening after dark, and, oh wow. What a difference.
where am I with HF? Rethinking my antenna scheme and trying to figure
out how to put up a vertical that won't blow over during the next storm.
Icom ID-5100A, finally mounted
My D-STAR project was another one where I left you hanging. This time I will
say that it's not my fault.
D-STAR has caused me more exasperation than anything else I've ever tried.
It's just one thing after another.
It started with me purchasing an Icom ID-5100A, a sweet transceiver, by
the way, other than a rather noisy fan. It didn't, however, come with
what I would consider some vital elements. It did
come with sufficient hardware to get on the air, but no way to mount
the unit, no way to mount the non-attachable control head, and no
clue as to which of the “options” were actually needed
and which were, well.., optional.
I took a guess and ordered what I thought I might need. It was a pretty
good guess, but it took five months
for everything to arrive. Really, Icom. You should have been honest and
labeled these things with, “We don't actually make this item,
but we will sometime soon”.
Okay. The radio works. I now have
it mounted. I successfully set it up. I've accessed the local D-STAR
repeaters and made contacts.
My biggest gripe, however, is
that one of the touted features of D-STAR is that you're supposed to
be able to connect it to a computer and do marvelous digital stuff.
problem was that Icom's list of optional equipment included more than
one transceiver-to-computer cable, and no clear indication of which
did what. More specifically, they didn't warn which didn't
do what. I went with the OPC-2218LU, mainly because the more costly
item is always the one you need.
That was the right choice. But....
I don't know why, but the
OPC-2218LU is a two-piece cable. I got it put together, got the
driver loaded into my computer, got it all connected, and got the
memory channel program installed. And it worked. I typed in the
frequencies I wanted, set memory banks, and downloaded it all to the
transceiver without a hitch.
It was only later that I
discovered that the Icom cable was conflicting with the cable
connected to my APRS station (Automatic Packet Reporting System).
Oh, I spent ages loading drivers, searching for newer drivers, trying
different configurations, and endlessly
rebooting my computer, all to no avail. There was always a conflict.
My suspicion is that both the
Icom cable and the APRS cable are internally Prolific USB-to-serial
devices using different drivers, and that my computer can only figure
out how to provide one of them at a time.
Coaxial cables desperately in need of management
During one of my many Internet
searches for a solution I stumbled across the RT Systems USB RTS-05
cable, which had a note, “Alternative to ICOM OPC-2218LU”.
What the heck, I wasn't getting anywhere, so I ordered one.
It didn't work. And by that I
mean that it flat-out didn't do anything. None of my computers would
even acknowledge that I'd plugged it in. It wasn't a driver problem,
the sucker was just plain dead.
Do I run into a lot of adversities or don't I?
I've written a lot regarding my
troubles with learning about electronics. The last episode of this
particular saga had me watching a DVD course while riding my exercise
That didn't quite work (why are
you not surprised?). It was a good course, and I certainly picked up
more than I ever knew before. But the professor's pace was a bit too
Speedy Gonzales for me and I frequently had to stop the presentation
to replay portions. I decided that I needed to study the course in a
different setting (that is, somewhere that I could concentrate and
takes notes... not while trying to ride the bicycle). The course also
listed certain simple experiments that the student should try, either
manually or via computer simulation. I've set up an account on one of
the simulation sites that the professor suggested, and all I need to
do now is budget some time to watch the course properly.
In other words, learning all
about electronics has gone back onto the to-do list.
Cable raceway, a work in progress
Cleaning up the shack's coaxial cables
This is a project I don't believe
I written about, other than alluding to it in The
Since my shack is in the basement
and my antennas are on the roof, I tend to use rather heavy (and
expensive) feed line. I almost always purchase 100 feet of coax
already fitted with connectors. (I hate installing connectors. But
buying coax with the connectors already in place did come back to
bite me once, when the manufacturer did a worse job of installing
them than even I could have.)
Anyway, once the coax has been
run and the antenna has been connected, I wind up whatever coax is
left over and tie-wrap it together, then plug the end into the radio.
I don't cut off the surplus coax. I don't want to lose that
cherished connector (Precious.. my Precious..).
All of that surplus coax has just
accumulated and accumulated. If anything makes my shack look junky
(other than the masses of stuff on the floor, that is), it is all of
these twisty bundles of cabling oozing from behind the shelves and
One day I decided I just had to
do something about it. Despite my aversion to messing with
connectors, I came up with a plan and drew a design which would bring
everything under control. All of the coaxial cable coming into the
shack would get cut as short as possible and would go into some sort
of switch. There would be a central location for the switches. The
switches may have only one cable leading to a radio, but at least
there would be an option for more. Cables to the radios would also be
as short as possible. All cables in the shack would go through
So what happened?
This is a project in which (are
you ready for this?) nothing has gone wrong. I got switch-central set
up. I got my biggest knot/bundle untangled, cut, re-connectorized,
and routed through a switch. It worked. I put up a new overhead
raceway for the coax and have bought a raceway to run it down the wall.
That's about where I stopped. I
need to drill some holes in the basement wall so that I can mount the
vertical raceway, and from prior experience I know that punching into
that concrete wall is going to be really, really hard. I have the
proper drill bits, I just need the fortitude to do it. The wall has a
lot more staying power than I do.
Switch Central.. eventually
I'm not going to say much about this. I've already written about losing my
shack computer to a nearby lightning strike (see Zzaapp!).
You've all been through the irritations and vexations of a getting
started with a new computer, or much worse, a new Microsoft operating
system. (The combined worldwide stress all this has caused would
probably be enough to fling the moon out of orbit.)
All I will say is that I spent hours and hours and hours..........
Fixing stuff that suddenly doesn't work
It probably doesn't matter what
field of endeavor you mention, things just do not remain secure and
reliable. But I tend to believe this is more true with Amateur Radio
than with anything else. And when you add something, anything
digital to the mix... even the San Andreas fault seems stable by
I cannot count the number of
times that I've gone down to my shack just to relax, listen to a
little chatter, perhaps tune across a few bands to see what's
happening, only to find that some disaster is waiting for me.
Something has gone wrong. It worked yesterday, but right now it's
flashing a red light or sounding an alarm or displaying a cryptic but
ominous message. Whatever plans I had for a relaxing evening just
flew out the window.
It almost always takes days to
figure out what, exactly, is wrong, find a solution, and get it
fixed. More often than not it's an improper setting or quirky
software or something like that. Which invariably leads me to the
same question: Why did it work yesterday?
Did I wake up in the wrong universe today?
what do I anticipate for next year? No idea. I will, however, tell
you what I've asked Santa to bring me...