The Amateur Amateur: The New Old Guys

By Gary Ross Hoffman, KB0H
November 2016

Virgin Mobile Kyocera Slider

My old phone. It actually worked on occasion.

See if this sounds familiar. Someone was mentoring you to get your first Amateur Radio license and said, "Back when I got my first license, I had to walk twenty miles through a blinding snowstorm to get to the FCC testing center, which was in an unheated log cabin. They made us draw diagrams of amplifiers on buffalo hides, and then we had to build an AM receiver out of old bed springs, soup cans, and carbon paper."

Well, maybe the tale wasn't quite that horrific, and perhaps it was someone else who told it, but I'll bet you heard something like that story, nonetheless. "Wow," you probably thought. "No wonder they call each other Old Man."

I certainly did. And while I sympathized with the difficulties elder hams had to endure to obtain their licenses, I was also grateful that it was now much easier. Things sure have changed, I told myself. What I didn't realize at the time was that things would continue to change.

It's a fundamental aspect of the universe, of course. Everything is dynamic. Nothing remains the same. Some people refuse to accept this, and many who do accept it still don't like it. But change is part of the natural order of things, and there is nothing we can do about it.

Most of the changes in the universe (and by extension in Amateur Radio) crept up on me and slipped by largely unnoticed. It didn't even occur to me that I had moved from the "newbie" category and into the "old timers" camp until a few weeks ago.

That's when my new smartphone arrived.

Let me tell you, that was some serious culture shock!

I already owned a mobile phone, but it was a much older model. You could send and receive text on it (if you had tiny fingers and didn't mind working entirely with a numeric keypad). It could also play games (if you enjoyed Tetris). But, that was about it. No pictures, no Internet, no downloadable apps. Still, I was happy with that. What I was unhappy with was the fact that it had terrible coverage.

And that the battery life was extraordinarily short.

And that vital messages sometimes didn't pop up until days later.

Republic Wireless Moto X

My new phone. Lots of apps, but how do you make a phone call?

I started getting hints that the universe had left me behind when I began looking into getting a new phone. I didn't understand any of the terminology and spent a lot of time on Wikipedia trying to decipher it all. In the end, I simply followed the trail already blazed by my friend Steve, KC0QMU, and went with the same carrier, phone, and plan that he had.

When my newphone arrived, I found the instructions to be minimal, at best, and mostly in hand-gesture-and-pointing-arrow language. I spent a long time searching for the microscopic (almost literally) SIM and memory cards, only to discover hours later that they had already been installed. Eventually, though, I was able to activate the phone.

And then I was lost.

There were no further directions. Lots of messages to activate or download mysterious features appeared on the phone's screen, but I didn't know whether they were instructions or advertisements. I tried making "finger-sweeping" gestures, like I'd seen other smartphone users do, but that just caused random things to happen (most of them bad).

Worst of all, I couldn't even figure out how to make a phone call.

There was pretty much nothing useful to be found on the carrier's Web site, just a lot of offers to buy more stuff. It wasn't until I found the instruction manual on the phone manufacturer's Web site that I started figuring out what was what and how to do things. (Thank heaven for search engines.)

Suffice it to say that it took me weeks to become proficient enough to actually use the phone. When things finally settled down, it dawned on me that this technology had fairly raced by me. I'd always thought the newer phones were, well, just phones, except with slick new features. They weren't. These new devices were playgrounds. That, and really in-your-face marketing machines. The fact that you could also make phone calls seemed to be incidental.

Up until that point, I'd thought that I had stayed abreast of modern technology. But, despite keeping up with the latest news on dark energy, and occasionally winning a battle against Windows 10, I'd obviously missed the boat on the really important tech matters.

I had no idea how to find Pokemon.

I shuddered. How could this be? I knew that my reflection in the mirror looked more like a resurrected mummy than the handsome lad I'd once been, but I still couldn't accept that I was now one of them.

Gary and Moto X manual

The Manual: 57 pages of instructions on how to use a phone!?

I was an Old Guy.

No, no, I refused to believe it. I took my Amateur Radio license exams from Volunteer Examiners, not from the FCC. I didn't have to draw any diagrams nor build anything. The only things I ever used soup cans for was to make soup, and I used an electric can opener.

On the other hand...

The three license classes are Technician, General, and Amateur Extra. There were six classes when I started, and I held licenses in two of the now non-existent ones.

I never had to transmit in Morse code to get any license, but I did have to take a receive-and-comprehend exam to get a General class license.

Aha, I have it! Digital modes were around long before I got my first license! Well, RTTY was, at least. Oh, and so was packet.

Sigh... But with the advent of computer-driven modes, sound cards, and a plethora of sophisticated TNCs, digital modes have exploded. I've played with a number of them, but new ones pop up so fast that I eventually stopped trying to keep up with them.

"I remember way back...," I hear myself telling new hams, "...when every radio had a read-out big enough to actually read."

"...and had dozens of knobs and switches, rather than just two buttons..."

"...went 'beep' and 'boop' instead of sounding like a twelve-year-old Chinese girl..."

Good grief, I even remember when Amateur Radio transceivers didn't rely on other radio signals (Bluetooth) to communicate between the headset and the main unit. (I still think that's a mistake. You might accidentally wind up talking to your printer or toaster oven instead.)

I guess I have to admit it. I'm one of the new Old Guys.

Oh, and my wife Nancy, N0NJ told me not to forget the new Old Gals. She remembers when hand held transceivers were far too large to fit into her handbag...........

© 2017 Gary Ross Hoffman
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