The Amateur Amateur: Zombie Ideas
By Gary Ross Hoffman, KB0H
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!
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
related to that is the notion of building a transceiver from a kit.
Or just a simple receiver. Or a doorbell. Anything
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
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
Another zombie idea, refusing to die.
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.
(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
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
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
The VARA FM equipment, waiting to make my life miserable again
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
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.....
E-mail Gary Ross Hoffman