Yak Shaving: Hacker Mode vs Maker Mode

When I start up a new project, one that’s going to be worth writing up later on, I find it’s useful to get myself into the right mindset. I’m not a big planner like some people are — sometimes I like to let the project find its own way. But there’s also the real risk of getting lost in the details unless I rein myself in a little bit. I’m not alone in this tendency, of course. In the geek world, this is known as “yak shaving“.

The phrase comes obliquely from a Ren and Stimpy episode, and refers to common phenomenon where to get one thing done you have to first solve another problem. The second problem, of course, involves solving a third, and so on. So through this (potentially long) chain of dependencies, what looks like shaving a yak is obliquely working on cracking some actually relevant problem.
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Hot Wire Strippers are Probably The Best Tool You Aren’t Using

I wanted to point out a tool that I often use, but rarely see on other people’s workbenches: thermal strippers. They aren’t cheap, but once you’ve used them, it is hard to go back to stripping wires with an ordinary tool.

I know, I know. When I first heard of such a thing, I thought what you are probably thinking now: maybe for some exotic coated wire, but for regular wire, I just use a pair of diagonal cutters or a mechanical stripper or a razor blade. You can do that, of course, and for large solid wires, you can even get good results. But for handling any kind of wire, regardless of size, you just can’t beat a thermal stripper.

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In Paris Buying a 3D Printer is Cheaper than Renting Machine Time

As many of the members of the Brian Benchoff hate/fan club know, the life of a Hackaday writer is nomadic and filled with exciting adventures. Jenny List is actually crime fighting cyborg (think Bond); it’s why she knows so much about electronics. James Hobson is Iron Man. The list goes on. There are lots of unnecessary details, but to summarize: Last month I was living in Washington State, this month I am in Paris, France. It’s really nice here, the buildings are beautiful, the cathedrals stunning, and the food significantly tastier. 

However, as a contracting engineer with a project involving a deadline; I found myself in dire need of a significant amount of quick turn-around 3D printing during my working vacation to France. Through a lot of trial and tribulation, I eventually discovered that the most cost-effective way to get the prints done… was to just buy a cheap 3D printer and run it into the ground.

Appropriately, LVL1 is also home to the world's largest 3D printed trashcan (full of failed 3D prints).
Appropriately, LVL1 is also home to the world’s largest 3D printed trashcan (full of failed 3D prints).

I was spoiled by my hackerspace in Louisville, KY. They had enough 3D printers to go around and the pricing was fixed at 10 cents a gram. For the amount of printing I needed, this would be a perfectly economical arrangement. So, I set out to find a hackerspace in Paris. Whereupon I reached my first and obvious problem; I speak very little French.

Most of the hackerspaces listed in Paris are, as far as I can tell, illegally squatting in a scary part of town, exclusive to a university, exclusive to a business, or closed down.

So, I googled a bit harder. Wow! Apparently a Techshop opened up in Paris. It’s about an hour away from where I live, but having toured a Techshop before, I knew they would have the nice version of the tool I need. So, one morning bright and early I got on the metro and headed over to get a tour of the place.

What I’ve discovered is this: If you need things like a water jet cutter, welding station, or a 50 grand CNC machine, Techshop is a really economical way to get access to and play with tools like that. However, if all you want is access to a laser cutter and a 3D printer, it will set you back five-hundred dollars and you’ll have to jump through some incredibly annoying hoops just to get access to them.

Only a small fee of 400 euros to used these badboys.
Only a small fee of 400 euros to used these bad boys.

See, most pieces of equipment at a Techshop need to be reserved. Only the 150 euro and 300 euro a month membership tiers can reserve equipment. The 150 tier can reserve something for two hours, the 300, four. If you’ve ever 3D printed you can immediately spot the problem with that. For small prints this could be workable, but if you have a lot of large prints four hours is just not enough. However, there is a work around. If you’re willing to take a metro ride late at night, arriving at the Techshop at 10:00pm, you can, of course, run a print overnight.

There were two more glitches in the Techshop plan. To be able to touch the printers required a two-hour course with a 100 euros fee. The filament also ran 65 euro per 500 g. My printing needs would easily cost me tens of hours in travel and had a starting fee of 400 euros to be workable.

The entrance to Usine.io is terrifying. It's this massive pitch black hallway. I had no idea if I was in the right place until I got to the desk.
The entrance to Usine.io is terrifying. It’s this massive pitch black hallway. I had no idea if I was in the right place until I got to the desk.

Now, I’m not saying Techshop isn’t absolutely wonderful when it comes to more advanced tools. It’s probably the only Hackerspace in the world where you’re entitled to expect that the CNC machine is in working order, properly trammed, and there are actually cutting bits for it. However, if all you need is a 3D printer, don’t bother.

Now, I asked around some more and found that there was a competing space in Paris called Usine.io. It had a flat fee of 180 euros a month and the training was free. I actually did end up getting a membership here for access to a CNC and basic tools, but for 3D printing it was a bust. They only had three printers serving a sizable membership base. This left the printers with a 48 hour line to get your print started and a maximum of 40 hours of printing a month. A die-hard user of 3D printing can easily use 40 hours in 3 days. Because I had to test many iterations for my project, my need the next month was easily triple that number.

However, the shop itself is really nicely outfitted.
However, the shop itself is really nicely outfitted.

The last avenue available to me aside from 3D printer ownership was contracting someone with a 3D printer to run my prints for me. However, after asking around I found the service to be quite expensive. Rent isn’t cheap in Paris after all. If I just needed a single small print it would be worth it, but if I needed lots of printing it would quickly add up to be more money than I had.

That left me with one option. Which, honestly, sounded absolutely insane for someone visiting a country for a few months. Buy a printer. It’s an indication of the state of 3D printing that the price has come down so far that buying a printer is more economical than having someone do it for you. Even a few years ago this was not possible. However, European Amazon Prime had a workable enough import printer to my doorstep faster than any commercially available service could even process my order. We’ve come a long way since the Darwin. That’s for sure.

Featured Photo From Famous Paris buildings by LeFabShop

Root Mean Square

The first time I was in school for electrical engineering (long story), I had a professor who had never worked in the industry. I was in her class and the topic of the day was measuring AC waveforms. We got to see some sine waves centered on zero volts and were taught that the peak voltage was the magnitude of the voltage above zero. The peak to peak was the voltage from–surprise–the top peak to the bottom peak, which was double the peak voltage. Then there was root-mean-square (RMS) voltage. For those nice sine waves, you took the peak voltage and divided by the square root of two, 1.414 or so.

You know that kid in the front of the class? They were in your class, too. Always raising their hand with some question. That kid raised his hand and asked the simple question: why do we care about RMS voltage? I was stunned when I heard the professor answer, “I think it is because it is so easy to divide by the square root of two.”

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Taking Killer Robots Seriously

Killer robots are a mainstay of science fiction. But unlike teleportation and flying cars, they are something that we are likely to see within our lifetime. The only thing that’s stopping countries like the USA, South Korea, the UK, or France from deploying autonomous killing machine in the very near term is that they’re likely to be illegal under current international humanitarian law (IHL) — the rules of war.

But if you just sighed in relief that the fate of humanity is safe, think again. The reason that autonomous killing machines are illegal is essentially a technicality, and worse, it’s a technicality that’s based on the current state of technology. The short version of the story, as it stands right now, is that the only thing making autonomous robotic killing weapons illegal is that it’s difficult for a robot to tell a friend from an enemy. When technology catches up with human judgement, all bets are off.

Think I’m insane? The United Nations Office at Geneva (UNOG), the folks who bring you the rules of warfare, started up a working group on killer robots three years ago, and the report from their 2016 meeting just came out. Now’s as good a time as any to start taking killer robots seriously.

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“IoT Security” is an Empty Buzzword

As buzzwords go, the “Internet of Things” is pretty clever, and at the same time pretty loathsome, and both for the same reason. “IoT” can mean basically anything, so it’s a big-tent, inclusive trend. Every company, from Mattel to Fiat Chrysler, needs an IoT business strategy these days. But at the same time, “IoT” is vacuous — a name that applies to everything fails to clarify anything.

That’s a problem because “IoT Security” is everywhere in the news these days. Above and beyond the buzz, there are some truly good-hearted security professionals who are making valiant attempts to prevent what they see as a repeat of 1990s PC security fiascos. And I applaud them.

But I’m going to claim that a one-size-fits-all “IoT Security” policy is doomed to failure. OK, that’s a straw-man argument; any one-size-fits-all security policy is bound for the scrap heap. More seriously, I think that the term “IoT” is doing more harm than good by lumping entirely different devices and different connection modes together, and creating an implicit suggestion that they can all be treated similarly. “Internet of Things Security” is a thing, but the problem is that it’s everything, and that means that it’s useful for nothing.

What’s wrong with the phrase “Internet of Things” from a security perspective? Only two words: “Internet” and “Things”.

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Long-Term Review: Weller Magnastat Soldering Iron

One of the things you find yourself doing as a young engineer is equipping yourself with the tools of your trade. These will be the foundations upon which your career is built in a way that a diploma or degree certificate will never be, for the best degree in the world is less useful if the quality of your tools renders you unable to capitalise upon it. You may be lucky enough to make some of them yourself, but others you’ll lust after as unaffordable, then eventually put the boat out a little to buy at the limit of your meager income.

Your bench may have a few of these lifetime tools. They could be something as simple as screwdrivers or you may have one of those indestructible multimeters, but in my case my lifetime tool is my soldering iron. At some time in 1992 I spent about £60($173 back then), a lot of money for a student, on a mains-powered Weller Magnastat. The World Wide Web was still fairly fresh from Tim Berners-Lee’s NeXT in those days, so this meant a trip to my university’s RS trade counter and a moment poring over a telephone-book-sized catalogue before filling in an order slip.

The Magnastat is a simple but very effective fixed-temperature-controlled iron. The tip has a magnet on its rear end which holds closed a power switch for the heating element. When the tip has heated to the Curie temperature of the magnet, it loses its magnetism and the switch opens. The temperature falls to below the Curie temperature and the magnetism returns, the switch closes, the tip warms up again, and the cycle repeats itself. The temperature of the tip is thus dictated by the magnet’s Curie temperature, and Weller provides a range of tips fitted with magnets for different temperatures.

The result is an iron with enough power to solder heat-sucking jobs that would leave lesser irons gasping for juice, while also having the delicacy to solder tiny surface-mount components without destroying them or lifting tracks. It’s not a particularly small or lightweight iron if you are used to the featherlight pencil irons from today’s soldering stations, but neither is it too large or heavy to be unwieldy. In the nearly quarter century I have owned my Magnastat it has had a hand in almost everything I have made, from hi-fi and tube amplifiers through radio transmitters, stripline filters, kits, and too many repairs to mention. It has even been pressed into service plastic-welding a damaged motorcycle fairing. It has truly been a lifetime tool.

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