The Amateur Amateur: Little Shack of Horrors

By Gary Ross Hoffman, KB0H
March 2019

Styrofoam peanuts
Styrofoam peanuts.. they're everywhere

I was sitting in my radio shack waiting for the local ARES net to start. Looking around, I was struck, as always, by the incredible clutter. It was a relatively small space, and I'd made innumerable attempts to clean it up, but somehow it always remained a mess.

"Do I really need all of this stuff?" I wondered.

That started me thinking. I couldn't decide what I truly needed and what was pitch-worthy if I didn't know what I actually had. I needed to take inventory.

That idea lasted about five minutes. There were just too many things lying around. Even if I managed to make a comprehensive list, it would be too long to tell me anything of value. I'd need some way to analyze it.

That gave me another idea. How about if I inventoried the items in the shack by category? Okay, that sounded like a more practical approach. Only, what categories? I had no idea. In the end, I decided to just get started and see where it all led.

Several hours later, I had my broad categories. They were:

This seemed to be the most common feature of the shack. Everything was dusty. Some of it was just plain dirty. And the floor was unspeakable. I knew from previous experience that it was almost impossible to clean it all up, even for a short period of time (see Cleaning the Shack (and lessons learned thereof) for the gritty, grimy details). At best, I would be able to move the filth around, mostly onto myself. The most mysterious thing, though, was that every nook and cranny seemed to have one or two Styrofoam peanuts wedged in it. The same was true of the rest of the basement as well. I have no idea where they all came from.

Clearly, everything in the "Filth" category could be thrown out. The problem, of course, would be separating the filth from whatever it was coating.

File cabinets
File cabinets.. a good idea while it lasted

I included pamphlets, instructions, lists, and virtually every other paper product in this category. Documents were everywhere. They were on the shack's desk, the table, the shelves, sitting on other things that were on the shelves, and most definitely all over the floor. I must say that I had tried several times to get the documents under control. I had installed a two-drawer metal filing cabinet in the shack. And when that filled up, I'd installed a second one. And when the pair of them filled up, I just gave up. In retrospect, I think that the problem was that almost every document was unique in some way, and would've required its own file. So, instead of thousands of individual documents, I would have had thousands of file folders, each with a single document in it. The number of file cabinets required would've been staggering. Even shoving everything into 26 file folders labeled A through Z would've presented problems. Should the operating manual for a Yaesu FT-847 transceiver go under R for Radio, T for Transceiver, O for Operating or M for Manual, or even H for HF? Whichever scheme I chose, I would never have remembered it, meaning the manual would've disappeared, a la Raiders of the Lost Ark... filed away, never to be found again.

I actually do occasionally pick up some document and think, "I will never use this". But rather than throwing it away, I figure I'll save it for someone else who might want it, and it goes back into the pile.

This category included things like fuses for equipment that I don't actually have, such the targeting computer on a M1 Abrahms tank. Or, adapters for devices that haven't been used since Thomas Edison died. I believe that I was just trying to be thorough when I originally bought a lot of this stuff, not realizing that nobody would ever need some of it.

In any case, most of the "Overkill" items are stashed away in multi-drawer cabinets alongside their more useful cousins. They don't take up any additional space. I could carefully go through the cabinets and toss anything that was truly useless, but the effort wouldn't really help to clean up my shack. (Please, no comments about hoarding or Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.)

Computers in radio shack
SPARKY on the left, keeping the packets packeting; HOLLY on the right, looking inscrutable

Cables are the most insidious items in my shack. They are ugly, they trip me up or bop me on the head, they are always in the way, and I suspect that a large percentage of them don't actually connect to anything. I once found a coaxial cable that connected one transceiver's antenna port to another transceiver's antenna port. They do this own their own, it has nothing to do with me. I would try to remove some of them, but they sneak over and under things and go places that I can't. I don't trust them at all. (Read The Cable Family to find out how nasty they really are.)

Items that I don't use anymore
I deliberately made this category broad. It included police scanners that can only pick up analog FM channels, sound card interfaces for modes that I no longer use, and many other items that I keep just in case..., well, just in case.

Items that I never used
This category disturbs me. It contains things that I thought I would use, but never got into, such as D-STAR. It also contains things that I would like to get into, but never find the time. But what makes me feel most guilty are the items that I think that I should get into, but for which I just can't develop any enthusiasm. They would include things like electronic kits. I feel that as an Amateur Radio operator, I should have a deep understanding of electronics. I do have some cursory knowledge, but nothing of real practical value. Changing a fuse is about the extent of my electronic abilities. I want to learn and understand electronics, but the field just doesn't hold any appeal for me.

Just classify me as "electronically impaired".

Mobile antennas
Mobile antennas hanging like bats

"Halfway there" projects
This would definitely include my two HF transceivers. All that is lacking is a reasonably functional HF antenna. I covered this in several previous columns. There is also my 220 MHz equipment, again, just waiting for me to get an antenna up (already purchased). There are several more projects that got started, but were never completed, including reprogramming all of my VHF/UHF transceivers with the same frequencies used by the ARES and Hospital Amateur Radio Net transceivers. I have the cables and the software, I just haven't gotten around to finishing the job.

Items that don't really need me
Yes, there are a couple of things in my shack that happily chug along on their own with no help from me. They are packet stations, one acting as an APRS home/weather/gateway/digipeater station, and the other a Winlink Remote Mail Server. They packety-pack by themselves, and don't seem to care whether or not I'm there.

Mobile antennas
I honestly don't know how I managed to accumulate so many mobile antennas. Most are dual-band, one is quad-band, one is CB, a few are for scanners, and one is a genuine VHF antenna from a police detective's car (no, it wasn't stolen). They are scattered around the shack, most hanging upside down with their magnetic bases stuck to a foundation beam. There are more here and there, with another collection of them sitting in my garage.

This is one category where I can easily see myself making a serious effort to get rid of stuff.

Things that need constant attention
This one should be easy to guess. There are two personal computers in my shack, one tower and one laptop. Both run Windows, so I clearly need to check on them every day. SPARKY, the tower, keeps the packet stations packeting. It also has numerous connections to various transceivers and conversion boxes, but I've moved on from most of those projects, so they are unused. I guess I could unplug them, but I'm afraid to go near the cables. HOLLY, the laptop (named after the artificial intelligence in Red Dwarf) is primarily used to program transceiver memories. It's easier to take HOLLY up to my garage than it is to bring my car down to the basement.

Equipment for a field deployment
Don't get me started. That's a whole column in itself.

Well, that's the inventory-by-category of my Little Shack of Horrors. So, what should I do with it? Maybe I can file it somewhere.

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