The Amateur Amateur: The Return of Unpreparedness

By Gary Hoffman, KB0H
Contributing Editor
May 1, 2007

At one time I'd been really on top of things in our ARES group. Then a series of events forced me to ease back some. But, the step after easing back is getting lax, and I was just about to cross that line.

Hamfest pile

My original notes on running packet radio were buried somewhere in this pile . . . or beneath it.

Alinco wired two ways

My Alinco DR-135TPMkIII wired for soundcard operations (left) and for packet radio operation (right).

Extra USB ports on laptop

My laptop computer has a few extra USB ports.

Then there was the day that I went down to my shack and discovered that my emergency preparations had all unprepared themselves. My “Go Kit” had unzipped and unpacked itself. My field radio was sitting on a bench being used as part of some forgotten project. My field tool bag had a pile of stuff that I’d bought at the dollar store sitting on top of it. My field antenna? Nowhere in sight. It was a sorry state of affairs for an Assistant Emergency Coordinator.

At one time I’d been really on top of things, one of the driving forces of emergency preparations in our ARES group. Then, a series of job and family-related events forced me to ease back some. That’s understandable. It happens to all of us in the group. But the step after easing back for a while is getting lax — and I was just about to cross that line.


Constant vigilance. That’s what they say. I’d forgotten that. Our ARES group holds a weekly voice net on Wednesdays and a digital net on Thursdays. I had gone down to my shack to get ready for the digital net. Normally I use my home station and a regular personal computer. But I figured that since this was an ARES net, I should probably use my field equipment. That’s when I found out that all my deployment stuff was in an undeployable state.

It took me a while to locate everything, but I finally got my field transceiver connected to my laptop computer. That’s when I learned that I was really unprepared. I couldn’t even figure out how to perform digital operations with this computer and radio.

Now wait a minute, I thought. I’ve done this before. I had used this very same set of equipment before and everything worked. Why am I having such trouble now?

The answer quickly came to me. Although I had managed to make this equipment perform digital operations before, I never documented the steps I’d taken, figuring instead that I’d simply remember.

Imagine those old TV game shows where a nasty buzzer would sound when a contestant gave a wrong answer. That’s what went off in my head. (For you younger folks, imagine that irritating “Plunk!” noise that Windows makes when you do something wrong.)

Curses, Foiled Again!

Oh man! I was going to have to figure it out all over again. Silently I cursed  my earlier self for being so inconsiderate.

Okay, step one: Get a pad and a pencil. This time I would write down each and every stage of the process. I didn’t think it would be too difficult. I was sure that the software was still on the laptop, and I knew that I had all of the necessary connectors. Sooner or later a more positive “Ding!” would sound in my head, and I’d say, “Oh yeah! I remember now!”

That didn’t happen. I had forgotten that there were two ways to connect the laptop to the field radio — one for packet operation and one for soundcard operation. I could remember bits and pieces of each procedure, but I kept mixing them up in my mind.

Okay, step two: Get another pad. I had to rediscover and write down two procedures, not just one.

My field transceiver is an Alinco DR-135TPMkIII. It has a built-in TNC (Terminal Node Controller). That makes it very easy to connect it to a computer and run packet. But I also had a number of digital applications designed to work through the computer’s soundcard rather than a TNC. They required a different computer setup and completely different connections to the transceiver.

I started with the packet radio setup. As expected, I soon started discovering a trail of software on the laptop. Unfortunately, there were several versions of everything, and they all looked the same. They didn’t, however, all work the same.

It was that ubiquitous USB (Universal Serial Bus) plug. My laptop had four of them (I went a little overboard). Unlike many other software applications, my packet radio program wanted to know precisely which USB port I was using to connect to the transceiver. So I had made four copies of the software, one for each port. And I hadn’t labeled them.

Okay, step three: Rename the four packet radio programs from Alinco Packet to Alinco Packet, front-most USB port, and so forth.

I scribbled down everything I had done so far, then tried to make a connection to the Missouri Emergency Packet Network.

Nothing. Nada. Nichts!


My Notes. My Kingdom for my Notes!

I looked around my shack. Somewhere, buried beneath a heap of gear I’d dragged home from some hamfest, was a three-ring binder containing a log of everything I had done to get packet radio to work. I found it, blew off the dust, and  . . . returned a half-hour later, after having showered and taken some allergy pills to stop the uncontrollable sneezing. (Personal note: Never blow the dust off anything again!)

All right, I eventually got packet to work on my laptop and field transceiver. I had a page full of notes, and I had carefully labeled and packed the cables in the transceiver’s container.

Figuring out the rest (PSK31, SSTV, and so forth) wasn’t as difficult. I had already eliminated all of the packet radio stuff. I still had to be careful about which USB port I used, but I made sure to write down everything I did. I confirmed that everything worked and doubled-checked my notes.

Then, feeling very proud of myself, I put away the laptop and the field transceiver, tossed the pencil onto the desk and headed upstairs to make some popcorn and relax with my wife and our dog.

Now, several weeks later, I’m ready to complete the job. I plan to edit and carefully type the notes I made. I’ll put the typed sheets in waterproof sleeves and place them in my field notebook. That way I’ll know exactly how to run packet or any other digital mode while in the field. No sir, you won’t catch me unprepared again.

Ummm, now, just where did I leave those notes?

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].

© 2007 American Radio Relay League

E-mail Gary Ross Hoffman

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