The Amateur Amateur: All I Want for Christmas . . .

By Gary Hoffman, KB0H
Contributing Editor
December 19, 2004

It's time again to consider the holiday ham radio wish list.

When my wife Nancy asked me to make up my Christmas wish list, my thoughts turned naturally to Amateur Radio. I started perusing catalogs and looking over Web sites. There was a lot of neat stuff out there, but nothing I actually wanted--nothing affordable, anyway. It was right about then that I realized that the stuff I really wanted wasn't in any catalog. What I wanted didn't actually exist.

The equipment I'd really like to have just isn't manufactured. In most cases it can't be manufactured, but I want it just the same. For entertainment purposes only, I'm sharing my wish list--a compilation of non-existent products that I will not find in my stocking or under the tree on Christmas morning.

Fabled control panel

The mobile transceiver's auxiliary control panel, partially deployed.

The "Perfect" Mobile Radio

My current mobile radio has all the features I could possibly want. But what I wish it had are really big buttons. I'm tired of reaching for and pressing not only the button I want, but two or three of its neighbors as well. I want buttons substantial enough so that if I press one, the radio will do what I intend it to do, not careen off into some esoteric function such as computing postal rates in Nepal.

Furthermore, I wish that every button, every switch and every knob had just one function. It drives me crazy to have to press and hold two or three buttons in a certain sequence, count to eleven, then hum a Gregorian chant to put the radio into the right mode. It seems like the buttons on my current radio are always in the wrong mode and always cause the radio to do something totally unexpected when I press them.

Of course, I realize that a one-button-per-function control head would be so large that I wouldn't be able to see through the windshield. But I have a solution. Mobile radios have dozens, perhaps hundreds of features, but I only use a half dozen or fewer while I'm driving. My ideal mobile rig's control head would need only six knobs or buttons. The rest of the myriad features could be consigned to the auxiliary control panel. This would be a special panel that I could fold out when I'm not driving. Indeed, since it would be about the size of the windshield, it would be best if it had a special detector to prevent it from being deployed while the car was in motion.

Base Station with an Attitude

My ideal base station would be similar to my mobile radio, except that there would be no auxiliary control panel. Everything would be on the main panel. And yes, it would be huge. That's the point. After all, we Amateur Radio operators have a reputation to maintain. People expect us to have monstrous radios in our shacks. In fact, the more intimidating the better. That way your visiting nephew will think twice before messing with it.

I would add one feature to my base station: an artificial intelligence (AI) chip. The AI chip would contain a program called Common Sense. For example, before it allowed me to turn on the power to my rig, it would display the following messages: Did you turn on the power supply? Did you set the antenna switch? Will your transmissions disrupt your wife's favorite TV show?

Beginners Books Actually Aimed at Beginners

My wife Nancy suggested this one, but I know precisely what she means. I have encountered countless books, courses, and columns that purport to be basic or for beginners but assume a vast amount of a priori knowledge on the reader's part. I find that many authors of basic-type books start out simply enough. But by the time they reach Chapter 2, they lapse into technical jargon without explaining what any of it means.

Take Ohm's Law: E = IR. It seems simple enough, but readers who have not taken high school physics (or at least metal shop) typically won't understand why voltage, measured in volts is represented by the letter E (which stands for "electromotive force" or "EMF"), and current, measured in amps is represented by the letter I (we had to go to a real expert, Zack Lau, W1VT, of the ARRL Lab to learn that the formula's "I" is taken from the French word intensité--as in "intensity).

Anyway, it's not that readers can't do simple math. It's that they feel the instructor has skipped over something. Usually they're right.

I think every beginner's book--indeed, every book that has the word "basic" in its title--should be reviewed by a panel consisting of one person for whom English is a second language, one grammar school pupil and the author's mother-in-law. If the panel doesn't understand the book, it doesn't get published before undergoing basification (and another review by the abovementioned panel).

Sef-preserving antenna

I want my mobile antennas to have a sense of self preservation.

Mobile Antennas with a Sense of Self-Preservation

Now that I'm installing HF equipment in my car, I need taller antennas than I did for VHF and UHF. I'd like to have mobile antennas that have a sense of self preservation and will duck when I pull into my garage. Or at least retract.

Radios that You Can Fix

I've only been licensed since 1995, so--unlike many ham radio veterans--I've never owned a radio that I could actually repair, much less actually see the components. Okay, I've fixed a few of them, but the repairs usually consisted of:

  1. Opening the radio.

  2. Replacing the defective circuit board.

Such "repairs" were tantamount to buying a new radio, only more expensive as a rule.

What I would like to see is a radio with individual components that can be replaced--components that I can buy locally and cheaply (and, of course, see). That way if my radio fails during an emergency, I might actually be able to fix it.

Oh, and it would be nice if the components were designed to flash red when they fail, so that I don't have to actually use any test instruments or even understand electronic theory or anything like that. (Just kidding!)

Self-threading cable

Wouldn't it be great if the power cable were able to route itself? [Illustrations by the author]

Self-Routing Power Cable

I've now done five mobile transceiver installations. The hardest part of every installation has been running power cable from the engine compartment back to the trunk of the car. It was the job I feared the most, the one that had the greatest potential for causing damage.

There is always a route for the cable, but I may have to remove something that shouldn't be removed, stuff myself upside down in the foot well, or risk losing several inches of skin to get at it. What I would like to see is power cable that can figure out all by itself how to get from the engine compartment to the trunk or other desired location.

Morphing Connectors

BNC? PL-259? N-type? Male or female? I have countless connectors and adapters in my shack and still never have on hand the type that I need when I start some new project. I want a connector that will figure out on its own what it needs to be, then morph to fit the job. Mighty Morphin' Power Connectors! Has a nice ring.

So there you have it--my fanciful Christmas wish list. Since I won't get any of the items on the list, what would I really like? Just about anything. As long as it has really big buttons.

Editor's note: ARRL member Gary Hoffman, KB0H, lives in Florissant, Missouri. He's been a ham since 1995. Hoffman says his column's name -- "The Amateur Amateur" -- suggests the explorations of a rank amateur, not those of an experienced or knowledgeable ham. His wife, Nancy, is N0NJ. Hoffman has a ham-related Web page. Readers are invited to contact the author via e-mail, [email protected].

© 2004 American Radio Relay League

E-mail Gary Ross Hoffman

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