Delving into amateur radio

A couple of weekends ago, I drove on down to the Dayton OH Hamvention, or ham radio convention.

So many questions at once.  “What is ham radio,” asked most.  People who knew what it was very loosely instead asked “… why’d you go?”  Both of these are valid concerns… so read on!

VERY lucky to have gotten a room, as Dayton's hotels were all full up for the convention

VERY lucky to have gotten a room, as Dayton’s hotels were all full up for the convention

Thankfully, I was able to get one of the last hotel rooms in town as per the above.  I have for years now gotten more and more interested in being actually self-sufficient, not in a sort of half-assed sort of way.  There are a few concurrent streams guiding my thoughts here.  1) Fixing and repairing things (see posts on this particular blog about cars; and go check out the New Haven posts about the shed I decided to design and build in the back yard of the house I lived in for 3 years) is something I have more and more come to adore and find edifying.  2) I do everything I can to make sure my computers, networking equipment, and cellular phone all stay updated and reliable, and customized to the highest degree possible to ensure continuity of availability and a lengthy service life.  But all of those are dependent on someone else’s network (the phone company or the internet service provider), and that means I am not always able to get help or share news, which bothers me.  Finally, 3) I have discovered my own peculiar flavor of wonder at the world around me.  From a desired entry into astro-photography in the next several years, to camping and hiking, to continuing to voraciously read all manner of things, I try and learn as much as I can.  This loops back into repairing things as to TRULY own a possession, or understand a situation, one must be able to fix it and therefore needs to know the history of it.

Triangulate those points above, and therefore enter amateur radio.

Modern internet protocols have derived from a variety of sources (DARPA, or “Al Gore” as the layman calls it).  One of the more fascinating sources for the way computer networking developed is derived from radio.  The reality of wireless communications is that there will be imperfections and missing data ALL the time.  This is obvious when you’re in an area with spotty cellular coverage and trying to watch an educational YouTube video; but the core of networking is around the use of packets of information.  The content you’re sending is sent in smaller pieces, along with identifying header information so the receiving computer can figure out “did all of this particular piece of data get through correctly, or did it get corrupted en route?”  It will then prompt the sender computer to resend the data packet and then check again.

And this basic premise of all modern networking emerged from amateur radio enthusiasts trying to find better ways to get their messages through.  Which fascinates me BESIDES the whole “being able to call for help or provide it when all other communications go down” survival premise.

SO.

Many local clubs brought their emergency equipment and rigs to show off adjacent to the outdoor flea market

Many local clubs brought their emergency equipment and rigs to show off adjacent to the outdoor flea market

As seems to be my typical pattern, I made a lengthy drive on a late Friday night after a full week of work, to Dayton Ohio.  I checked into the hotel and instead of passing out… I finished teaching myself all the content needed for the amateur Technician license (the first of the 3 levels of license available).  The next morning I drove through a slew of rain and got to the Hara Arena, a tired old sports arena which doubles as the convention center in Dayton.  I was pretty quickly immersed in a SEA of 20,000 event-goers, most of whom were wired with antennas and handheld radios… if not lugging newly purchased larger gear from the gaggle of ware-hawkers in outside flea market and indoor vendor booths alike.

There were multiple side wings in the arena with smaller vendors like this one...

There were multiple side wings in the arena with smaller vendors like this one…

... the main event was the BIG vendors set up on the arena floor itself. There were LOTS of people here.  Something like 20,000 is what I heard.

… the main event was the BIG vendors set up on the arena floor itself.
There were LOTS of people here. Something like 20,000 is what I heard.

While I ended up buying myself a nice and easy starter handheld radio (at 7 watts, I might make 12 miles range on a good day), there were all sorts of tempting options:

Real radios have soul = the main lesson I learned over that weekend at the Hamvention, I would say.

Real radios have soul = the main lesson I learned over that weekend at the Hamvention, I would say.

That said, the majority of my weekend was not spent exploring the convention; rather, I spent Saturday cooped up in a classroom learning the basics required to take and pass the Technician course with an interesting group of folks.  Everyone I met, in class and at the convention, had their hearts in the right place… but many were a bit removed from sending and receiving the signals of normal social cues!  (I don’t know whether to reference the 14 year old boy who would interrupt the teacher with tangentially related miscellanea which made my blood boil… or the 70 year old woman with rat dog/”emotional support animal” who didn’t keep her dog from running around AND made tangentially-related STUPID points as well…. it was a LONG day).

The outdoor flea market seemed to go on and on and on

The outdoor flea market seemed to go on and on and on

Nevertheless, I sat through the class and was able to pass the Technician test, meaning that a few days later, I gained the call sign KE8BHH and the ability to use all manner of bandwidth for communicating with others (delineated by not using codewords; and avoiding attempts to make money from using the radio; and towards the effort of promoting international goodwill; and the other myriad expectations of a ham)!

New FCC Amateur Technician license; camping gear; and a 7 watt handheld radio.  I am ready to go.

New FCC Amateur Technician license; camping gear; and a 7 watt handheld radio. I am ready to go.

The core interest for me with this hobby is to further modify my Subaru camping + bad weather vehicle to include several radio antennas, so I can effectively communicate on several different bands (each suited for different weather conditions)… even to be able to send Morse code messages hundreds of miles away!! Even more cool, there are repeater radio towers which can take my signal and resend it even further away… and then there are towers which are Internet-connected and can send my signal anywhere in the world.  THIS means I can go hiking in the boonies and not worry – I can use my handheld to talk to the much bigger and more powerful radio setup (to be installed) in the Subaru, which can hit another repeater and ALWAYS keep me in touch.

Though this will take time, as I cannot afford to do this all at once, I will be installing 3 antennas – a short and medium on the roof rack at opposite corners, and then a big honking antenna mounted to the front bumper on the passenger side probably, to let me send REALLLLLY long distance Morse code messages in the event of a BAD emergency//just so I can say I can//because I am a sucker for both antennas and offroad lights on cars 🙂

The three arrows show where I will mount the three different length antennas I want to mount to the Subaru.  The front bumper is a lower point and thus more suitable for the longest antenna.  The other two, short and medium length antennas, can really go in either of the other two spaces I call out.

The three arrows show where I will mount the three different length antennas I want to mount to the Subaru. The front bumper is a lower point and thus more suitable for the longest antenna. The other two, short and medium length antennas, can really go in either of the other two spaces I call out.

The beginning of another very Michael Repas’ish hobby – practical, not entirely necessary, and tinkering-friendly 😀

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