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The Amateur Amateur: It’s a Jungle Down There

02/29/2012

By Gary Hoffman, KB0H
Contributing Editor

It’s Wednesday. The evening meal has been cooked and consumed. The dishes have been washed. My wife Nancy has curled up with a murder mystery and our dog Ariel is busy dismantling a rawhide bone. Checking my watch, I see that it’s time to go down to my shack and participate in the weekly ARES net. Now, where did I put my machete?

For the title music of the TV show Monk, Randy Newman sang “It’s a jungle out there.” In the case of my basement, it’s a jungle down there. The pathways through the forest of unused-but-possibly-useful items are getting narrower and narrower. Trip hazards are becoming more frequent. Off in unseen corners, small avalanches can occasionally be heard. Ariel won’t even go down there. Every time either Mommy or Daddy does, her tail droops and she gets a very worried look on her face.

Oh, we’ve tried to clean up the basement. Many times, in fact. The problem is that the rate of input is greater than the rate of output. We’ll never get ahead.

So I put on my protective gear, try to reassure Ariel that I will return, and descend the stairs. I hack my way through ancient furniture, obsolete appliances and other exotic flora. I skirt tottering stacks of crumbling documents that may be important someday. I watch for insects and reptiles that are normally indigenous to rain forests, but which may have sent scouts to check out our basement as a possible new habitat.

Hearing the screech of APRS packets, I know that I am approaching my goal. There. I can see the blinking lights of a TNC (terminal node controller). I have reached my shack.

Now the real jungle begins.

The Law of the Jungle

Oh yes, my shack is the densest, most impenetrable part of the thicket. There is hardly any floor space on which to walk. My rolling chair has no place to roll. And virtually any motion I make while there is sure to cause piles of something or another to come tumbling down. The Mercury astronauts had far more room and mobility than I have when I’m in my shack.

Once again, the input rate greatly exceeds the output rate. Come to think of it, there is no output rate. Once there, nothing ever seems to leave.

I see the problem as two-fold:

  • The shack has more than radio stuff in it.
  • It’s an experimenter’s shack.

Regarding the first problem, my shack has become a repository of things that are not really necessary for its operation. For example, all of my ARES deployment stuff is there. It’s all radio-related, but not shack-related. And heaven help me if I ever do need to deploy; any emergency would be over long before I ever managed to struggle my gear out of the shack and through the rest of the basement.

There is also a lot of unused computer equipment in my shack. You know how that goes. Even though it may be obsolete, you just can’t quite bring yourself to throw away something in which you’ve invested so much time and money -- not to mention, some very choice curse words. And, moreover, it’s almost impossible to dispose of computer equipment these days.

Moving on to the second problem, my shack is an experimenter’s shack.

What do I mean by that?

Some hams have what are clearly operators’ shacks. You see them in QST. They are beautiful and organized and functional. Certificates and maps and QSL cards adorn the walls. They are perfect for, well, for operating.

An experimenter’s shack on the other hand, tends to have diagrams taped to the walls. The covers are off of much of the equipment, and most of it has been turned around so that the owner can get at the back panels. Wires and cables run all over the place. Open delivery boxes lie all over the floor. The disorder is meant to be temporary, but it rarely is.

Okay, that’s my experimenter’s shack, anyway. It probably stays that way because my works-in-progress frequently make no progress at all. But because I’m stubborn I keep on trying. And the shack stays messy.

Hush, My Darling; Don’t Fear, My Darling

It got a lot messier after the AT&T guy came to install U-Verse in our house. He wanted to go right through my shack and had me shuttle everything out of his way. Nothing fit quite right when I tried to put it all back where it had been.

Another thing that keeps my shack in disarray is that I’m always hearing about the “hottest new thing in digital modes” and that “all of the ARES teams are switching to it.” I have to try it, of course. I download the software, string more wires (it always involves more wires), struggle through the manual (if there is one) and then find that there is no one else out there using that mode. But I leave everything in place, just in case someone using that mode does magically appear.

It’s just temporarily, of course.

The Simple Bare Necessities

One thought is that I could label every wire, box, patch and so forth with an expiration date. If a project doesn’t mature into something meaningful by that date, out it goes.

I know, however, that my discipline would falter. I would keep “extending” the expiration dates until the labels were no longer meaningful.

Another thought would be to move all of my deployment gear out of the shack and up to the family room. It’s convenient to the garage, making loading up my car a much easier task.

The one flaw with that idea is that Nancy has just invested a lot of time and money into rehabilitating the family room. If I started piling up gear in it, I would soon be in need of rehabilitation.

Yet another idea I had was to simply start over. Instead of figuring out how to fix up my existing shack, why not just build a new one? This time I could design it from scratch instead of just letting it mutate on its own. I could lay out the space in a rational manner rather than using a jackhammer to make space in my existing shack. Cabling and wiring would finally be brought under control. It would be perfect.

Oh, wait. That would be an operator’s shack.

Hmmmmm. Maybe I need two shacks.

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 website. Readers are invited to contact the author via e-mail.



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