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The Amateur Amateur: Virtually There

08/30/2011

By Gary Hoffman, KB0H
Contributing Editor

Yesterday upon the stair
I met a man who wasn’t there
He wasn’t there again today
Oh, how I wish he’d go away
-- William Hughes Mearns

My wife Nancy and I were sitting in a Mexican restaurant having lunch. Between bites of my taco, I described the preparations I was taking to be a net controller for our ARES® packet net.

“I have it all figured out except for the automation,” I explained. “When operators check in, they’ll get an automatic greeting telling them what information to leave. I haven’t yet figured out how to capture their responses.”

“Do they really want to do that? Check in and talk to a machine?” Nancy asked in a casually neutral voice.

The Dark Side of the Force

Uh oh. I was very familiar with that tone. It usually meant trouble.

And I knew what the trouble was. Nancy and I had had many conversations about people shying away from interpersonal relationships. These days they sent e-mail, rather than phoning. They went to lunch with their friends, but sat there and texted, rather than chatting among themselves. There were endless situations in which people simply avoided talking directly to other people. It seemed to be a modern affliction driven by technological gizmos.

And there I was, talking about setting up a net in which no one actually communicated with anyone else. No wonder Nancy was giving me the bent eye.

“Well, er, during an actually emergency, the net controller would be there, of course. I, um, just, uh...” I babbled.

The taco formed a lump in my stomach. There were reasons for having automation in the packet net, but normally the net controller should be there. I’d really put my foot in it this time.

I started thinking about the packet net and how I probably shouldn’t use the automation unless there was some compelling reason for it. And has so often happens, my mind wandered off...

...and I found myself thinking about other automatic radio functions. For example, the same computer and transceiver combination that I would use for the packet net normally runs my home APRS station.

Automatically. Unattended.

Oh boy.

I agreed with Nancy that the drift away from interpersonal relationships was not a good thing. It was distressing, therefore, to realize that I, myself, may have already been seduced by the technological dark side.

No, no, it couldn’t be. I wasn’t on any of the popular social networking sites. When I was at a restaurant I only talked to people who were at the table with me.

But I did have a website of my own…

No. I refused to accept that I’d become a Cyberman. My cell phone didn’t handle images and I refused to use the texting function.

On the other hand...

I was working on a packet net that could run without my presence. I had an APRS station in my shack that was at that very minute sending out signals with my call sign. And, heaven forgive me, I preferred to send e-mail rather than call someone on the phone.

Indeed You Are Powerful, as the Emperor Has Foreseen

Digital modes. That’s what had done me in. Packet. PSK31. SSTV. And just lately, NBEMS. They had lured me with their siren song of squeeks and squawks. They had hypnotized me with their magic eyes and waterfalls. They had enraptured me with their multiple modes, and bedazzled me with their bits and bauds.

My mind meandered further afield as I tried to ignore Nancy’s baleful glare. How much of my life had I entrusted to machines? Had my physical presence become unnecessary?

What if I died? Would anyone actually notice? My website would still be there. People might still send me e-mail. Various answering machines would still respond with my voice. The APRS station in my shack would keep on pumping out my call sign.

None of those machines was me, of course. They weren’t alive. They didn't have personalities.

Or could I wrong about that? The machines did act as if they were alive. They may not be living, but they were certainly simulating life. My life, to be precise. They responded according to the programming I’d put into them. Whatever personalities they had came from me. If their responses were humorous or bitter, that was a reflection of me. If they malfunctioned, it was because I’d put them together wrong or programmed them poorly, once again showing some of my own personality. Oh yes, there was definitely some of me lingering in the equipment.

Some part of me. Part of my soul? Was I now like Lord Voldemort, littering the landscape with horcruxes containing bits of my very essence?

“Brrrrrr!” I said, shaking my head.

“What?” Nancy asked.

“Nothing. You’re right. The net controller should be a live person, not an automatic response,” I said.

You Underestimate the Power of the Dark Side

We finished our meal and left the restaurant, Nancy smug and me contrite.

But as we approached Nancy’s car, a small smile crept onto my face.

There, on the trunk of her car, sat a GPS receiver and a 2 meter antenna. Both were connected to an APRS beacon, which at that very moment, was cranking out her call sign.

Automatically.

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.



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