The Amateur Amateur: Zombie Ideas

By Gary Ross Hoffman, KB0H
October 2020

APRS base station
My APRS base station.. alive at the moment

Ichabod Ether was a somewhat skinny and heavily superstitious ham radio operator from Connecticut. He had traveled to Creepy Hollow to witness the construction of a new, fabulously tall antenna mast that was being erected by the fabulously rich landowner, Balun Van Tenna. As soon as Ichabod saw the structure, not yet completed but already amazingly high, he knew that he wanted it. And the only way he could think of to accomplish that goal was to marry the landowner's daughter, Katrina Van Tenna.

Okay, I'm stuck.

I thought that a humorous radio-related variant of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow would be a perfect Halloween column. But the paragraph above was as far as I got.

Another dead idea.

The problem is that like many of my other failed ideas, they won't stay dead. Rather than departing forever, they shuffle off to some dark place in my subconscious mind, lie dormant for a while...

...and then re-emerge as zombie ideas. Revenants. The undead. They just won't go away.

Take electronics, for example. As an offspring of two generations of radio builders and repairers, I feel that I should know all about electronics. Every time I try to learn, however, my focus fades away and I move on to something else. I used to blame my poor color vision (can't read the color codes on resistors and such), but that was just an excuse. Sadly, electronics just doesn't interest me.

But the idea of being able to pop open a malfunctioning transceiver, connecting an oscilloscope to its guts and yelling, “Aha! That's the problem!” just won't die. I know that's never going to happen, but the zombie graveyard of my mind keeps reviving the idea and giving it a bus ticket to my consciousness.

Which is probably why I can't seem to throw out the dollar bag of assorted (and obviously substandard) capacitors that I bought decades ago.

And also why I keep buying “teach yourself electronics” books and looking up on-line electronics courses.

Somewhat related to that is the notion of building a transceiver from a kit. Or just a simple receiver. Or a doorbell. Anything electronic.

The sad thing is that my wife Nancy actually did get into kit building. The main reason she got into Amateur Radio was that she wanted to learn things that they never taught girls back when she was in school. After she got her license, she said she wanted to build a crystal radio set. (This was something that was in the Boy Scout manual, but apparently not in the Girl Scout manual back when we were young.) I gave her a crystal radio kit one Christmas and she put it together in less than five minutes. I bought her some more advanced kits and she started working on those.

Somehow I kept thinking that I would get involved with the kits as well, but that never happened. Nancy is gone, now, but the yet-to-be-built kits are still down in the shack. And I can't quite bring myself to get rid of them. I may just pull one out some day, look over the instructions, and who knows....

Another zombie idea, refusing to die.

Nancy building a kit
My wife Nancy (N0NJ, SK) working on a radio kit

I don't want you to get the impression that every thought I have that doesn't immediately work out becomes a zombie. Sometimes they come back several times and eventually succeed.

My APRS (Automatic Packet Reporting System) efforts would be a good example of this. I had quite a few false starts before I got a reliable APRS base up and running. It acts as a digipeater and an Internet gateway, but it took a while before it would even send out comprehensible packets.

There are a variety of APRS programs available and I think I've tried most of them. Although APRS worked for me and never became a zombie idea, it does occasionally choke and require the Heimlich maneuver.

My experiments with Winlink are a case of a successful effort spawning an evil twin, which became a zombie.

Setting up Winlink isn't all that difficult, but depending on where you are located, finding a Winlink gateway could be problematic. It certainly was for me. So, I set up my own Winlink gateway. Like my APRS base station, once in a while it requires a little boost from a defibrillator, but by and large it works well.

The evil zombie twin, on the other hand...

I should note here that my APRS and Winlink stations are 2 meter packet.

Earlier this year I heard about a new Winlink mode called VARA FM. It was supposed to send and receive faster than packet, be more reliable, travel farther...

You know, all that good stuff that makes you drool. So, of course, I tried it.

To say that things did not go well is like saying that the Titanic had a little fender-bender during its maiden voyage, My endeavors to get this new mode working were an absolute disaster (see A VARA Difficult Problem). So, how do I know that this is another zombie idea and not a clear dead-and-buried-forever idea?

VARA FM equipment
The VARA FM equipment, waiting to make my life miserable again

Because the equipment I used during my attempts to get VARA FM working are still in my shack waiting to come back to life.

And I think I now understand why zombies wander around muttering “braaaains”. They aren't hungry. They want someone with intelligence to come along and fix them!

Okay, back to the story.

My longest running zombie idea is, without a doubt, to get a useful, reliable HF station up and running.

Oh, I've had many near-misses. Even now my HF station sort-of works. Not all of the time. Not reliably. And not for what I need it to do. If you look through my previous columns you will see that a lot of them have to do with my HF efforts. This is the worst of my zombies. It keeps coming back over and over again, and I always convince myself that if I try just one more tweak, it will work and I'll be humming along on the lower bands. Even as I write this, I know what that next tweak should be.

All I need is a lot more strength and stamina and my physique from 50 years ago.

Say, how about this....

Terrified, Ichabod Ether rushed toward the bridge that would take him out of Creepy Hollow and into the next county. According to legend, the Headless Operator could not cross the bridge (his antenna was too tall). If Ichabod could make it... just a few more yards...

The Headless Operator screeched to a halt just short of the bridge.

But he hadn't given up.

He ripped loose his mobile transceiver, reared back, and threw it as hard as he could at the fleeing man.....

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