The Amateur Amateur: *Some Aggravation Required
By Gary Hoffman, KB0H
Amateur Radio has been around for more than 100 years. It has added many new techniques and modes of operating since the early days. And while new methods and equipment are constantly being developed, the hobby never really abandons anything. This means that newly licensed hams find themselves faced with a dazzling array of specialized fields that they can pursue.
One that has drawn my interest is the broad field of digital communications. I’ve played around with several modes, had a lot of fun and done some really cool stuff. But there is a downside: Digital modes have caused me more distress than you can imagine. When they work, they are wonderful. But frequently they don’t work, and I’m left wondering why. What’s happened this time?
You cannot imagine the hours I’ve wasted moving cables around, changing port settings, rebooting, cycling power and doing “hard resets” (don’t ask). I’ve spent much more time analyzing and debugging digital problems than I have actually operating in digital modes. My stress levels are up, my hair is all but gone and I’ve put on more than a few pounds stuffing my face with comfort food -- all because of an unending series of digital disasters.
So, what the blazes is wrong?
Here's my guess. One group of people manufactures very nice computers. Another group of people makes pretty spiffy radios. They aren’t the same people. They never got together and said, “Okay, let’s build these devices so that they can interact.” So the two gizmos simply have no way to talk to each other. It was some very clever Amateur Radio operators who figured out how to get them to do that. They came up with TNCs (Terminal Node Controllers).
I salute those hams and praise them for their innovations. But, let’s face it, that introduced a third group of people to the equation. And though the radio manufacturers, computer manufacturers and builders on the interfaces were very smart people, chaos theory (also known as Murphy’s Law) cannot be denied.
The point is, there are three components, and the communications between them are never quite perfect. They are prone to go wonky. Sometimes the messages will get through, sometimes they won’t.
That’s my theory, anyway.
Since the computers, radios, and TNCs are made by different companies, there is also no ideal instruction manual telling you how to connect them. The cables, connectors and settings will vary from configuration to configuration. But if there were such a manual, somewhere near the beginning it should have an asterisk guiding you to a footnote that says --
*Some Aggravation Required
That’s because once you’ve finally obtained the right cables with the correct plugs, and gotten everything connected, it won’t work.
At least, it didn’t for me.
That’s when the real aggravation started. Not only did I have to install the application software, I almost always had to change some system setting in my computer. And if that wasn't daunting enough, I also had to program the TNC. I understand computers to a degree, but TNC language was something totally alien to me (stop chortling if you use a sound card interface -- I know you had problems, as well).
That’s when the hair-tearing and the teeth-gnashing and the screaming, “What now!!?” began. My system wouldn’t transmit. Or sometimes it wouldn’t receive. Often the digital application program wouldn’t do anything at all. Not having a triple-degree in computers, radios and TNCology, I was doomed to run into trouble right away.
I had to tweak this and adjust that and spend many, many hours on the Internet searching for support groups. I scoured the Web hunting for messages about other people having the same problems. Even when I found people who had almost identical configurations that did work, it usually didn't help. That's because they had a slightly different version of Windows, or Linux, or a different EPROM in their TNCs, or even another brand of USB-to-DB9 connector. Yes, it could be that subtle.
So, what was the final solution? I haven’t found it yet. I despair of ever finding it. It’s probably not a problem so much as its many problems. Every now and then, I’ll figure out some quirk in the system, but it never solves all of the difficulties.
The worst thing is that sometimes it will all work. There are days, even weeks, when absolutely everything is humming along. Winlink will send and receive mail like a charm. APRS (Automatic Packet Reporting System) will cheerfully perform every feature in its menu. Slow Scan TV will give me brilliant pictures.
During these trouble-free times I am so suspicious, so anxious that it’s all going to fail, that I actually go out of my way to break something.
Okay, that does sound a little nuts. But what I’m trying to do is find some setting, some plug, some kink in the system that will give me the symptoms I get when things don’t work. Is it the programming in the TNC? Let’s try changing it. Does it have something to do with the connections? Let's switch USB ports.
That doesn't accomplish anything, naturally. I have to try very hard to get anything not to work. Every component seems terribly robust. The software is very forgiving. Everything works like a charm.
Until the next day, of course, when nothing at all will work.
I know I should expect some difficulties regardless of what new thing I try. Digital modes just seem to have more of them than I’d anticipated. There's probably proportionality constant having to do with the complexity of a system and the amount of aggravation required to make it work. If so, I’m glad I didn't attempt anything more complicated.
But I’ll keep plugging away at digital modes. They can be fun, and they’re certainly useful in emergency communications.
Truthfully, though, I’m just plain stubborn.
And the latest wrinkle? People are coming to me for advice on getting computers and radios talking to each other.
What a weird turn of events.
Editor’s note: ARRL member Gary Hoffman, KB0H, lives in Florissant, Missouri. 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.