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Thursday, June 21, 2007

The Ghost of Walter Cronkite

A few months ago, I revealed to my faithful readers my tried and true methods for not picking up girls. If you haven’t already, I recommend reading that column before finishing this one. One failsafe technique that I should add is amateur radio. I didn’t actually get into that hobby until after I had been married for some time, therefore its relevance to the topic of not picking up girls did not immediately occur to me. But as a public service to those of you for whom the ability to not pick up girls is a more pressing concern, I would offer this: anything having to do with amateur radio - talking about it, encouraging her to try it out, even uttering the two words in sequence in the presence of any red-blooded American girl - will send her to the door faster than you can say tropospheric ducting.

But let’s put on the wide-angle lens for a moment now, shall we? Notwithstanding the fact that participation in any hobby imbues a certain level of geekdom borne of an imbalance of attention paid to one particular pursuit, are there any hobbies less chill than amateur radio? Let’s find out:

Trainspotting

A train is a beautiful thing to watch and can be a pleasant, relaxing form of transportation. But leave it to the social stiffs of the world to turn it into a tedious, unhip occupation. Trainspotters wait at stations, railroad yards, bridges, anywhere trains pass, to catch a glimpse of different kinds of locomotives, cars, and cabooses. They keep precise records of trains they’ve spotted, and compare notes and schedule information with fellow train voyeurs. Photography and sound recording are also a part of this hobby, which adds an artistic dimension, but not a completely redemptive one.

Stamp Collecting

Stamps are intriguing documents: in addition to concisely expressing the terms of a government contract, they chronicle the history of a country, even a civilization - its wars, its leaders, its acheivements - through their diverse artwork and denomination. They can have aesthetic as well as antique value, and a good collection of them can even be a decent investment.

But collecting anything is pretty uncool as a pursuit in and of itself, and stamps are certainly no exception. “I’ve got the complete set of [fill in the blank]. Would you like to come up and see it?” Unless it’s Picassos or deeds for Manhattan real estate, believe me, if she says she wants to see your collection, she’s hoping it’s in the same room as the fire escape.

Metal Detecting

What are they looking for, what are they finding, those lonely, disheveled men scanning the ground for buried treasure? Like me, you’re probably picturing them as brave young men in the 1940s sweeping the French countryside for landmines, clearing the way for the advancing allied troops, and now pathetically reduced to scanning the beaches of Bradenton and St. Petersburg and parks and campgrounds everywhere for dropped coins and discarded foil wrappers. If you go to metal-detecting websites, you’ll learn that they’re finding rare coins, jewelry, historical artifacts, and relics of ancient civilizations. If you ask to see what they’ve found on any given day, you’re more likely to see a small handful of dirty coins, maybe an old key or two, and a rusty pair of pliers.

They do find some cool stuff on occasion, but you have to ask yourself, when’s the last time you saw a bikini-clad doll or buff surferboy with a metal detector, besides in the Radio Shack ad?

Civil War Reenactment

Every summer, crowds of history enthusiasts and aging thespians converge on historic American battlefields. Faux unionists and rebels don period uniforms, arm themselves with reproduction muskets, and shoot blanks at each other in an attempt to relive the battles of the American Civil War. Oops, I live south of the Mason-Dixon line now; I mean the War Between the States. If I lived a couple states further south, it would be the “War of Northern Aggression.” But I digress.

Not looking like they’ve spent too much time freezing and starving in the Shenandoahs, they act out the shooting and charging, the volleying and flanking, the advancing and the retreating, but not too realistically, taking care to keep their uniforms in good shape. When the smoke clears, the dead all rise and walk away, have a nice cookout, climb back into their Winnebagos, and come back next year for the same treatment.

Back to Amateur Radio

Meanwhile, in amateur radio, you can communicate with people all over the world using your own equipment, in modulations such as AM, FM, single-sideband AM, morse code, and even slow-scan TV, over propagation paths including line of sight, atmospheric skip, satellite transversion, and even moonbounce. That’s right, with enough power over a high-gain yagi antenna, you can communicate with other hams via signals reflected from the moon!

And what do they talk about, you ask? Scan around 75 meters lower sideband and total strangers will apprise you of operations past and pending, wives’ operations, recuperation, insurance coverage of operations, dietary restrictions, side effects, and prognoses. You might even be lucky enough to get the details of their adult children’s marital strife, custody issues, and child support, or at least, a weather report for someone’s backyard in Beaumont, TX.

I know what you’re thinking - if ham radio is as cool as you make it sound, do any of my celebrity idols participate? Is Paris Hilton a ham? Is Matthew Broderick on AM and FM? Does George Clooney have fire in the wire? And Lindsey Lohan, does she pound the brass?

No.

But here’s a short list of prominent hams, past and present: Priscilla Presley, Patty Loveless, (the late) Barry Goldwater, Joe Walsh, (the late) King Hassan of Morocco, King Juan Carlos of Spain, (the late) King Hussein of Jordan, plus his wife Queen Noor and several of his other relatives (my guess is that they were just humoring him), (the late) Walter Cronkite, (the late) Chet Atkins, Art Bell, Garry Shandling, and David Letterman, while not a ham, is purportedly a shortwave listener. And of course no list of celebrated amateur radio operators would be complete without mentioning Lisa Nowak, KC5ZTB, the deranged astronautess featured in this previous vobns column.

So… is amateur radio the uncoolest hobby in the world or not? Before you answer, ask yourself, what would the ghost of Walter Cronkite have to say? “…and that’s the way it is.”

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