The Amateur Amateur: Willing but Unable
By Gary Ross Hoffman, KB0H
Development-Du-Jour: DMR Sundae
I got my first Amateur Radio license 26 years ago, and right from the
beginning I understood that there was way more to the hobby
than I'd ever be able to do. On numerous occasions, in fact, I've
told people, “It's not a hobby. It's a hundred
different hobbies.” Even so, I still feel the attraction of aspects
of ham radio that I've never tried before. Sometimes I succumb to the urge and
dabble a little, other times I just wistfully
tell myself, “maybe someday...”
No Amateur Radio operator can do it all, of course, least of all me. But
there is an even greater problem in that there is always more.
Clever ham boys and girls are always coming up with additional things to
make us salivate. It's like a candy store that displays a whole new
variety of sweets every day. “Oooooohhhh, chocolate caramel
licorice DMR with fractal sprinkles!!” Who can resist?
So I continually find myself drawn to new stuff, even though what I have
already consumes plenty of my time (and certainly lots of my money).
Sometimes my self control breaks down and I jump right into the
latest shiny new thing.
Unfortunately, although I am frequently willing
to give the development-du-jour a try, I'm often unable
to get anywhere with it.
This is sometimes due to technical issues, such as space, power, ancillary
equipment and so forth. But more often than not the problem is me. I
don't have the money or the time I need to devote to the project, or
I simply lack the know-how. I could probably rig up a circuit to ring
a doorbell, but that's the extent of my electronic expertise. And
moreover, anything but the simplest math baffles me.
I don't always fail, though. With perseverance and a lot of help from
friends, I do sometimes succeed. For example, I did learn a lot about
APRS (Automatic Packet Reporting System). I managed to get
home, mobile, and hand held APRS units up and running, then expanded
my home station to act as a digipeater and Internet gateway, and even
connected my home weather station to it.
Being primarily interested in emergency communications, I supplemented my
power supplies with large capacity batteries. And then I went
overboard and had a standby generator installed to power my whole
house. It cost a mint, but my wife was on board with the idea after
we endured numerous power failures in our neighborhood.
I also succeeded in not only figuring out how to use Winlink, but also
setting up my own Remote Mail Server (RMS, also called a gateway).
I just started exploring Echolink, and can at least use the computer
version of it.
Going back a number of years, I did have some fun with PSK31 and Slow Scan
Returning to the matter of
my failures, though, I blame at least some of them on the location of
my house. You'd think it would've had the good sense to be built at
the top of a hill, but no, it decided to be built near the bottom of
hill... the wrong side
of the hill, at that. I recently used the elevation mapping tools of
both Google Earth and Ubiquiti to confirm that my signals get eaten
up fairly quickly. (Maybe Elon Musk's Boring Company can punch a nice
hole in the hill for me.)
The hill made me abandon the idea of putting up my own 1.25 meter (220
MHz) repeater. I also wanted to experiment with AREDN (Amateur Radio
Emergency Digital Net, aka MESH net), but knew my transmissions would
never make it more than a block or two before dying.
And while it hasn't stopped all
traffic, the hill does prevent most signals from reaching my Winlink
packet gateway. I'd like to set up an Echolink simplex input link as
well, but fear that it would suffer the same consequences.
My two greatest failures, however, have been working the HF bands and
Winlink VARA FM.
Part of my battery farm
I did have
some success with HF years ago (see numerous earlier columns), but
right now my HF antenna system is down. I have all the parts I need
to try again, but bad weather, poor health, and just plain old age
are hampering my efforts to get everything installed. Hopefully, two
of those issues will be resolved soon. (Can't do anything about my
I won't say that I haven't had projects that baffled and frustrated me
for a long time, but Winlink VARA FM sure does seem to have defeated
me. VARA FM is an alternative to packet, and everyone who has
tried it seems to be singing its praises. Not wanting to be the last
operator still using packet, I downloaded and installed the software,
hooked up a sound-card interface, and gave it a try. Rather than just
flat-out failing, it almost
worked, at least initially. Just enough to make me think that a
little tweak here and there would fix it.
No such luck. Things only got worse. Even more aggravating, the symptoms
changing. It's been a horrible experience (chronicled in “A
VARA Difficult Problem”),
and it has made
me doubt not only my competency, but also my sanity. It doesn't help
that there are three components: the computer, the sound-card
interface, and the transceiver. I cannot isolate which of
them is responsible for the problems.
So that is my willing-and-unable list.
Assuming that Elon Musk doesn't make it to my neighborhood, perhaps some
brilliant experimenter can come up with a way to send signals through
the ground instead of the air. I'll be the first to sign up.
I'll even try to learn some math, if necessary.
E-mail Gary Ross Hoffman