Prepping: Last weekend was SKN – Straight Key Night – in ham radio circles. I had gotten everything ready for the event – moved equipment around, rewired the antenna switching, moved power, control lines and more. Everything seemed set…
But, as soon as I fired up the old Gonset GSB-100, the room began to get a hot smoky smell. Frustrated, I rolled back to plan B – a good quality Kenwood TS-590S. Sure it worked, and since it has more DSP than existed on the whole Earth when we went to be Moon back in 1969, it was no problem making a couple of contacts.
Wondering over to the house, a plopped down on the sofa and Elaine – sensing my ‘out of balance condition’ asked what was it about ham radio that made it such an addictive hobby? “There are five answers to that…and each one deserves a bit of discussion….”
“The first reason is to keep in touch with people and hear what they have to say…”
I don’t get down to the local ham radio club very often, but there are a much of ‘on-air’ meet-ups that happen on the two-meter ham band. The license is within anyone’s reach, there’s not Morse Code requirement for anyone – even the Extra Class “super license” and the equipment is dirt cheap.
Why, for $25-bucks you can get a BaoFeng UV-5R Dual Band Two Way Radio (Black) and that will get you on the air on-the-cheap.
Ham radio (for me) is completely different that the abysmally mis-named “social media.” On the social sites, people are constantly posting “Me, me, me” remarks. If there is anything directed at ‘others’ it’s usually a slam. The term drive-by media fits social to a tee.
On the amateur radio bands, the importance of Others is paramount since the hobby requires two of more stations in order to exchange messages. Just like AOL/Instant Messenger was nice for quick quips back and forth, ham radio is that in the spoken word. From a network analysis view, Social is a one-to-many ego trip while ham radio is a one-to-one or one-to-several pursuit.
By this time, Elaine was nodding in agreement. She is, after all, a ham herself. But not a very active one. Occasionally in the car when she’s 50 miles out and there’s no cell phone coverage. Maybe then I will head KG4YHV pop up on the regional repeater. Not often, though.
“The second angle to the hobby is the Electronics knowledge,” I continued.
I just read a book recently, “How to Diagnose and Fix Everything Electronic.” You have to remember that when I learned electronics it was all tube-type gear. This is a dandy book for “reclaiming past competences.”
Just like I put a releaning program in place to bring back my competency in airplane flying after a 30-some year stretch in the hangar, so too in electronics a lot of things have changed. My electronics bench had spouted some prized equipment (like my Rhode & Schwartz RF Signal Generator), but there has been so much more. ESR meters (equivalent series resistance) meters, for one. It has opened a whole new world of in-circuit testing – which means faster repairs.
The normal way to learn about be get books. But less than 18-months out from 70, you get particular about how your time is spent. Is it an expenditure on which there will be a return, or is it just a time-sink that’s in the way of creating new memories?
The troubleshooting book brought me up to speed on a lot of the board fab and surface mount techniques. But the same problems of my youth are still lurking inside circuits of today. It just takes better eyes for smaller parts. And I’ve nailed that problem with a trick I learned from my endodontics people up in Tyler. Use a USB device and toss it up on an LCD screed. A bit over $40 bucks is the Digital USB Microscope, Teslong Portable Multi-function Magnifier Otoscope Intraoral Camera with 10-200 Magnification IP67 Waterproof for Android PC and Mac which isx one of the finest tools in the inventory, now.
Without the time as a broadcast engineer, time as a recording college director, or all that ham radio background, my latest book would never have happened. (If you read Dimensions Next Door: Hacking Space-time, don’t forget to post an online review please!)
“Then there is the detective part of the hobby…” That got a look which h quickly turned to agreement as I explained the process.
“Take tonight,” I began. “I knew there was something fluky going on with the transmitter because the SWR/Watt meter was not showing anything going to the antenna. But, the final amplifier section of the transmitter was showing good power output. And that leaves me with only a handful of suspects: There’s the antenna plug on the transmitter, the cable to the transmit/receive switch, and I just discovered that some of the MFJ 1708 antenna switches may have been mislabeled…. so the Detective angle is pretty intense….”
“The Fourth Part of the Hobby is Morse Code.”
Sure, it’s not required anymore, but it is faster than texting and there is a growing body of evidence that if you want to live with a sharp mind, the best thing you can do with your brain is USE IT.
Once you have the Morse characters in your head, then it’s a matter of seeing how fast you can go. You start off at 5 to 15 words per minute and work up from there. Next thing you know, there are contest operators who can ‘catch a call sign’ blasting by at 70 words per minute. I have to work at keeping in the 30-35 zone, but it helps with mental acuity, I’m sure of it.
This doesn’t even go into the value of having yet-another-way to communicate as you age, should you fall victim to stroke or lose your sight…which shortens your reading career. Best to that borderland in the past couple of years and Morse is a back-up bet.
“Let’s not forget #5: The joy of being able to invent things…”
I bet you would be surprised to learn how many people can do a friction calculation, figure how long a lever (and how strong) to lift things, and what-not.
But a solid knowledge of ham radio means you’ve at least gotten down some of the basics of Ohm’s Law and maybe you have even tried your hand at antenna modeling. Roy Lewallen, W7EL has a program called EZNEC and it makes the arcane (and super-math intensive) work of antenna modeling something approaching a point and click affair. Thing is, even without a deep knowledge of Smith Charts, you can build a super antenna optimized to your situation.
The main difference between ham radio and other hobbies is that it’s warmer in the winter than deer hunting. It can be cooler in the summer than fishing. There’s a valuable community service aspect of it in all seasons, but especially around floods, fires, and hurricanes…oh and earthquakes, too, come to think of it.
My friend, the late Don Stoner (W6TNS, sk) referred to ham radio as the King of Hobbies. Back when we were experimenting with transmitting digital computer data over radio in 1982, who knew where wireless data would lead?
Like flying, the personalities that are drawn to the hobby tend to be more exceptional than average. As the popular ham radio site eham.net noted “Marlon Brando, Arthur Godfry, King Hussein of Jordan, King Juan Carlos of Spain, Walter Cronkite, Joe Walsh of the rock band “The Eagles” just to name a few.” And yeah, I got to talk to Barry Goldwater before he turned into a silent key. K9EID is another interesting fellow: Bob Heil’s the engineer behind the Grateful Dead’s Wall of Sound…and he still makes microphones (for a lot of hams) today.
With two transmit/receive switches dead, I spent some of my “spare” time on the meters and then chasing down parts. A 6BL7 vacuum tube (with a shorted filament) was one of the problems. All things in time, though. Tubes hark back to days gone by; when real radios glowed in the dark and kept the room warm on cold winter nights.
SDR – software defined radio – is in the process of “re-revolutionizing” the world. There’s a reason every space shuttle mission required a at least one ham radio operator, too.
Now, if I’d just had some of those big brains around when the antenna switching problem cropped up at the opening of SKN…Goes to show we don’t live in a perfect world….and self-reliance always matters.
Write when you get rich,