The Amateur Amateur: Willing but Unable

By Gary Ross Hoffman, KB0H
March 2021

DMR sundae
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).

APRS map
APRS map

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 Television.

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.

battery farm
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 age, though.)

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 kept 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.

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