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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Kids! Don’t Try This at Home! Robot Destroys Mankind

From the Forbin Project, to HAL 9000, to War Games, movies are replete with smart computers that decide to put humans in their place. If you study literature, you’ll find that science fiction isn’t usually about the future, it is about the present disguised as the future, and smart computers usually represent something like robots taking your job, or nuclear weapons destroying your town.

Lately, I’ve been seeing something disturbing, though. [Elon Musk], [Bill Gates], [Steve Wozniak], and [Stephen Hawking] have all gone on record warning us that artificial intelligence is dangerous. I’ll grant you, all of those people must be smarter than I am. I’ll even stipulate that my knowledge of AI techniques is a little behind the times. But, what? Unless I’ve been asleep at the keyboard for too long, we are nowhere near having the kind of AI that any reasonable person would worry about being actually dangerous in the ways they are imagining.

Smart Guys Posturing

Keep in mind, I’m interpreting their comments as saying (essentially): “Soon machines will think and then they will out-think us and be impossible to control.” It is easy to imagine something like a complex AI making a bad decision while driving a car or an airplane, sure. But the computer that parallel parks your car isn’t going to suddenly take over your neighborhood and put brain implants in your dogs and cats. Anyone who thinks that is simply not thinking about how these things work. The current state of computer programming makes that as likely as saying, “Perhaps my car will start flying and we can go to Paris.” Ain’t happening.

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Radio Shack Returns

In February 2015, Radio Shack–an icon in American malls and towns–filed for bankruptcy. You could say a lot of critical things about Radio Shack, but in many parts of the country, it was the only place you were going to go find electronic components on short notice. A lot of people of a certain age got their exposure to electronics via Radio Shack kits and parts.

Radio Shack did close a lot of stores. In fact, from 4,000 stores they are down to about 1,700. A New York hedge fund named Standard General bought all the Radio Shack assets and formed a new company (also called, oddly enough, Radio Shack). They just named [Dene Rogers] as CEO. He’s a veteran at retail sales, having been with Target in Australia and Sears in Canada.

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Hacking for Good: Watly

Here at Hackaday, we often encourage people to hack for the greater good through contests. Sure, it is fun to create a wireless barbeque thermometer or an electronic giant foam finger. At the end of the day, though, those projects didn’t really change the world, or maybe they just change a little corner of the world.

I recently saw a commercial device that made me think about how more hacker-types (including myself) ought to be working more on big problems. The device was Watly. The Italian and Spanish start up company claims the car-sized device is a “solar-powered computer.” No offense to them, but that’s the worst description for Watly that you could pick and still be accurate.

So what is Watly? It looks like some sort of temporary shelter or futuristic campsite equipment. However, it contains an array of solar cells and a very large battery. I know you are thinking, “Great. A big solar charger. Big deal.” But there’s more to Watly then just that.

The first Watly rolled out in Ghana, in Sub-Saharan Africa. About 67% of the population there–over 600 million people–do not have electricity. Nearly 40% do not have safe water. Watly uses a graphene-based filter and then uses its electricity to distill safe drinking water by boiling it. The company claims the device can deliver about 5,000 liters of safe drinking water per day.

If you read Hackaday, it is a good bet you have easy access to safe drinking water, electricity, and Internet. Think for a minute what it would be like if you didn’t. Here on the Gulf Coast of the United States, we sometimes have hurricanes or other storms that show us what this is like for a week or two. But even then, people come with water in trucks or cans. Generators show up to let you run your fridge for a few hours. Even more important: you know the situation is only temporary. What if you really thought those services would never be restored?

The portable device can provide power, water, and wireless Internet service and can last for 15 years. Watly intends to create a larger version with even more capacity.  The project received funding from the EU Horizon 2020 program that we’ve mentioned before. Creating clean water is something that can help lots of people. So is using less water. If you want some more inspiration for tackling water problems, we’ve got some links for you.

If You See Anything, Say Something? Math on a Plane

Remember September 2016 2015? That was the month that [Ahmed Mohamed] brought a modified clock to school and was accused of being a terrorist. The event divided people with some feeling like it was ignorance on the part of the school, some felt the school had to be cautious, some felt it was racial profiling, and others thought it was a deliberate provocation from his possibly politically active parents. In the end, [Ahmed] moved to Qatar.

Regardless of the truth behind the affair, this month we’ve seen something that is probably even less ambiguous. The Washington Post reports that a woman told an Air Wisconsin crew that she was too ill to fly. In reality, she was sitting next to a suspicious man and her illness was a ruse to report him to the crew.

Authorities questioned the man. What was his suspicious activity? Was he assembling a bomb? Carrying a weapon? Murmuring plans for destruction into a cell phone? No, he was writing math equations. University of Pennsylvania economics professor [Guido Menzio] was on his way to deliver a speech and was reviewing some differential equations related to his work.

[Menzio] says he was treated well, and the flight was only delayed two hours (which sounds better in a blog post then it does when you are flying). However, this–to me–highlights a very troubling indicator of the general public’s level of education about… well… everything. It is all too easy to imagine any Hackaday reader looking at a schematic or a hex dump or source code could have the same experience.

Some media has tried to tie the event to [Menzio’s] appearance (he’s Italian) but I was frankly surprised that someone would be afraid of an equation. The pen may be mightier than the sword, but a math equation won’t (by itself) down an aircraft. I’ve heard speculation that the woman might have thought the equations were Arabic. First of all, what? And secondly, what if it were? If a person is writing in Arabic on an airplane, that shouldn’t be cause for alarm.

It sounds like the airline (which is owned by American Airlines) and officials acted pretty reasonably if you took the threat as credible. The real problem is that the woman–and apparently, the pilot–either didn’t recognize the writing as equations or somehow feared equations?

Regardless of your personal feelings about the clock incident, you could at least make the argument that the school had a duty to act with caution. If they missed a real bomb, they would be highly criticized for not taking a threat seriously. However, it is hard to imagine how symbols on a piece of paper could be dangerous.

While the mainstream media will continue to focus on what this means for passenger safety and racial profiling, I see it as a barometer of the general public’s perception of science, math, and technology as dark arts.

Continuing The Dialog: “It’s Time Software People and Mechanical People Had a Talk”

A while back I wrote a piece titled, “It’s Time the Software People and Mechanical People Sat Down and Had a Talk“. It was mostly a reaction to what I believe to be a growing problem in the hacker community. Bad mechanical designs get passed on by what is essentially digital word of mouth. A sort of mythology grows around these bad designs, and they start to separate from science. Rather than combat this, people tend to defend them much like one would defend a favorite band or a painting. This comes out of various ignorance, which were covered in more detail in the original article.

There was an excellent discussion in the comments, which reaffirmed why I like writing for Hackaday so much. You guys seriously rock. After reading through the comments and thinking about it, some of my views have changed. Some have stayed the same.

It has nothing to do with software guys.

being-wrong-quoteI definitely made a cognitive error. I think a lot of people who get into hardware hacking from the hobby world have a beginning in software. It makes sense, they’re already reading blogs like this one. Maybe they buy an Arduino and start messing around. It’s not long before they buy a 3D printer, and then naturally want to contribute back.

Since a larger portion of amateur mechanical designers come from software, it would make sense that when I had a bad interaction with someone over a design critique, they would be end up coming at it from a software perspective. So with a sample size too small, that didn’t fully take into account my positive interactions along with the negative ones, I made a false generalization. Sorry. When I sat down to think about it, I could easily have written an article titled, “It’s time the amateur mechanical designers and the professionals had a talk.” with the same point at the end.

Though, the part about hardware costs still applies.

I started out rather aggressively by stating that software people don’t understand the cost of physical things. I would, change that to: “anyone who hasn’t designed a physical product from napkin to market doesn’t understand the cost of things.”

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Apple Aftermath: Senate Entertains A New Encryption Bill

If you recall, there was a recent standoff between Apple and the U. S. Government regarding unlocking an iPhone. Senators Richard Burr and Dianne Feinstein have a “discussion draft” of a bill that appears to require companies to allow the government to court order decryption.

Here at Hackaday, we aren’t lawyers, so maybe we aren’t the best source of legislative commentary. However, on the face of it, this seems a bit overreaching. The first part of the proposed bill is simple enough: any “covered entity” that receives a court order for information must provide it in intelligible form or provide the technical assistance necessary to get the information in intelligible form. The problem, of course, is what if you can’t? A covered entity, by the way, is anyone from a manufacturer, to a software developer, a communications service, or a provider of remote computing or storage.

There are dozens of services (backup comes to mind) where only you have the decryption keys and there is nothing reasonable the provider can do to get your data if you lose your keys. That’s actually a selling point for their service. You might not be anxious to backup your hard drive if you knew the vendor could browse your data when they wanted to do so.

The proposed bill has some other issues, too. One section states that nothing in the document is meant to require or prohibit a specific design or operating system. However, another clause requires that covered entities provide products and services that are capable of complying with the rule.

A broad reading of this is troubling. If this were law, entire systems that don’t allow the provider or vendor to decrypt your data could be illegal in the U. S. Whole classes of cybersecurity techniques could become illegal, too. For example, many cryptography systems use the property of forward secrecy by generating unrecorded session keys. For example, consider an SSH session. If someone learns your SSH key, they can listen in or interfere with your SSH sessions. However, they can’t take recordings of your previous sessions and decode them. The mechanism is a little different between SSHv1 (which you shouldn’t be using) and SSHv2. If you are interested in the gory details for SSHv2, have a look at section 9.3.7 of RFC 4251.

In all fairness, this isn’t a bill yet. It is a draft and given some of the definitions in section 4, perhaps they plan to expand it so that it makes more sense, or – at least – is more practical. If not, then it seems to be an indication that we need legislators that understand our increasingly technical world and have some understanding of how the new economy works. After all, we’ve seen this before, right? Many countries are all too happy to enact and enforce tight banking privacy laws to encourage deposits from people who want to hide their money. What makes you think that if the U. S. weakens the ability of domestic companies to make data private, that the business of concealing data won’t just move offshore, too?

If you were living under a rock and missed the whole Apple and FBI controversy, [Elliot] can catch you up. Or, you can see what [Brian] thought about Apple’s response to the FBI’s demand.