The Amateur Amateur: Will Work for Sanity

By Gary Ross Hoffman, KB0H
June 2020

Will Work for Sanity
Will Work for Sanity

Being a bit of a hermit, the stay-at-home and social distancing measures didn't bother me much at first. After a couple of months, however, they were starting to get to me. No meetings, no lunch with friends, no buddies to get on the roof with me to tweak my antennas.

I'd gone through all of the books I'd been meaning to read. I'd watched all of the DVDs I hadn't yet looked at, and several I'd already seen before. I'd viewed everything Netflix and Amazon Prime Video had to offer that was even mildly interesting. Basically, I'd run out of entertainment.

There was no shortage of Amateur Radio stay-at-home nets to listen to, but quite honestly I find chat nets a tad boring. You can call me an intellectual snob if you wish, but I'd rather hear about an interesting lecture you watched on PBS or TED rather than hear about what you ate for dinner.

So, it was with a great deal of reluctance that I dusted off my to-do list and started looking at the many tasks that I'd been putting off doing. It was a long list, some items going back for years. If there were contests for procrastination, I'd be a gold medalist.

One of the first overdue tasks that I took on was to change the call sign in APRS device mounted in my wife's car (she now being a silent key). You can read all about the trials and tribulations of that particular job in And Then the Battery Died.

The to-do list was still pretty long, and I was still bored out of my mind, so I looked to see which task I had put off the longest.

Ah, it was the “event archiver” program.

I maintain the St. Louis Metro ARES website. I started it many years ago, long before Wordpress, WiX, or other “blog builders” came onto the scene. As a professional computer programmer I knew something about creating a website, so building and maintaining one in raw HTML format wasn't all that difficult for me. I expanded my web skills as I added to the ARES site over the years, but during those early days it was fairly easy to keep the web pages up to date.

Eventually, however, as more and more pages and features were added to the website, I started getting behind. One of the most neglected pages was a list of, and pointers to documents from our ARES group's various exercises and events. This was unfortunate, as our event planners like to go back and see how previous exercises and such were designed. The solution was to write a program to allow me (or, hopefully, someone else) to easily upload documents and have them automatically listed and linked on the website.

Well, I did start to write such a program. And it quickly became overwhelming. I put it aside for a while, occasionally poking it and then quickly shying away from it. It just seemed too daunting. So the project languished for years.

Until I had nothing better to do.

screenshot of archive program
Easier to upload and archive exercise documents now.

Long story short, it was a lot of work, but I actually did finish the job. Now anyone on our ARES planning committee can upload documents. No one has actually volunteered to do so, but at least I no longer have to manually rewrite the web page whenever a new document is added..

The only fly in that particular jar of ointment is that there is still a “photo archiver” project on the to-do list. (Maybe I can pirate some of my own code.)

Finishing up a years-old project gave me a rush, to be sure, but I was still stuck at home, and still looking for something to do. Next on the list? Take a class.

Since becoming a member of ARES I've taken innumerable courses, and there always seem to be new ones on the horizon. When I first joined, I took the ARRL's Amateur Radio Emergency Communication Course series, EC-001, EC-002, and EC-003. They've since dropped EC-002 and EC-003 and renamed EC-001 to Introduction to Emergency Communication. They later developed EC-016, Public Service and Emergency Communications Management for Radio Amateurs. I'd been meaning to take that course for a while, but had never gotten around to it. But since (1) the League had made it available on-line, and (2) I had plenty of time on my hands, I signed up. As an Assistant Emergency Coordinator for my team, I needed to take it anyway.

I took my time going through the course. A lot of it seemed very familiar, some of it from various FEMA Independent Study courses I'd taken, and some of it harking back to the old EC-002 and EC-003 courses. Of course, a lot of it was new material, but nothing too onerous. I finished in a reasonable amount of time and got a passing grade. The last steps were to send the ARRL a copy of my FEMA transcript to prove that I had taken the prerequisite courses, and have the Missouri Section Manager send in a letter of referral, which were easy enough to accomplish.

After another brief round of self-congratulation, I was back perusing the list again, seeing what else needed to be done.

Since I was on a roll with ARES matters, and there is a never-ending influx of such things that need to be addressed, I told Steve, the Emergency Coordinator, that I wanted to take on our unresolved HF issues.

Okay, I confess that I haven't wrapped this one up yet. There is still a lot to do. But here are the issues.

First, although we have worked hard on our local emergency communications procedures, we haven't done much with regional communications. We need to develop our longer range capabilities.

Winlink station
Winlink station (packet, not VARA)

Second, as St .Louis City and St. Louis County have hills and valleys and a fair number of tall buildings, we've had to break up our coverage area into four zones. We can more or less handle simplex operations in each of these zone. But the question remains, assuming that the repeaters are down and we are limited to simplex operations, how do we accomplish zone-to-zone communications?

The answer to both issues seemed to be develop our HF capabilities. So, I set up an informal HF research group to discuss the matter.

I did some HF work years ago, and even made a few overseas contacts. But, after a storm cleared everything off of my roof, and took away part of the roof itself, I was never able to get a decent HF antenna system back up and running. So, initially, I was dependent on asking other operators in the research group who did have working HF stations what they were doing. Sorting through their responses, I came up with some thoughts on what we could try.

But that's as far as I managed to get. Until I can figure out how to get back on the low bands myself, there is virtually nothing I can do operationally. I have some ideas, but I will need a roof buddy, and that's not going to happen any time soon. So, the HF project is on hold for a while, at least for me.

Next on the list was Winlink. If you don't know what that is, it's a packet system for sending email via Amateur Radio. Our ARES team is rapidly building out its capabilities in this area, and learning about some of Winlink's more interesting features.

Although I am participating, I'm not personally managing the Winllink effort. Just recently, however, I discovered that in addition to packet, Winlink now includes something called VARA. This new OFDM mode (whatever that means) requires a sound card rather than a Terminal Node Controller. As we have only one Winlink VARA FM gateway in the area, and it is located over in Illinois, I thought it would be nice if I set one up over on this side of the river. I already had all of the components I needed, plus plenty of spare time, so why not?

Yikes! While it looked like I might lose my mind due to boredom, trying to get a VARA FM gateway up and running really came close to driving me insane.

But, that's a story for another day.

In the meantime, there are still a lot of tasks on the to-do list. I guess I'll get back to it.

E-mail Gary Ross Hoffman

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