There’s no one quite like Andrew ‘Bunnie’ Huang. His unofficial resume begins with an EE degree from MIT, the author of Hacking the Xbox, creator of the Chumby, developer of the Novena, the first Open Source laptop, and has mentored thousands of people with dozens of essays from his blog.
Above all, Bunnie is a bridge across worlds. He has spent the last decade plying the markets of Shenzhen, working with Chinese manufacturers, and writing about his experiences of taking an idea and turning it into a product with the help of Chinese partners. In short, there is no person better suited to tell the story of how Shenzhen works, what can be done, and how to do it.
Bunnie’s The Hardware Hacker ($29.95, No Starch Press) is the dead tree expression of years of living and working in Shenzhen, taking multiple products to market, and exploring the philosophy that turned a fishing village into a city that produces the world’s electronic baubles.
In what might be one of the coolest applications of laser cutting, joinery, puzzles, writing, and bookbinding, [Brady Whitney] has created the Codex Silenda — a literal puzzle book of magnificent proportions.
[Whitney] had originally conceived the idea of the Codex for his senior thesis research project at Iowa State University, and the result is something for almost everyone. On each of the Codex’s five pages lies a mechanical puzzle that must be solved to progress to the next, while an accompanying text weaves a story as you do so. These intricate pages were designed in SolidWorks and painstakingly assembled from laser cut wood. Breaking the fourth wall of storytelling by engaging the reader directly in uncovering the book’s mysteries is a unique feat, and it looks gorgeous to boot.
This book is scary, and honestly I can’t decide if I should recommend it or not. It’s not a guide, it doesn’t offer solutions, and it’s full of so many cautionary tales and descriptions of tricks and scams that you will wonder how any business gets done in China at all. If you are looking for a reason not to manufacture in China, then this is the book for you.
The author is not involved in the electronics industry. Most of the book describes a single customer in the personal products field (soap, shampoo, lotions, creams, etc.). He does describe other industries, and says that in general most factories in any industry will try the same tricks, and confirms this with experiences from other similar people in his position as local intermediary for foreign importers.
One problem with engineering education today is a lack of experimental teaching. Oh sure you may have a project or two, but it’s not the focus of the program because it’s hard to standardize a test around. Typically sections of the field are taught in a highly focused theoretical course by a professor or graduate student with a specialization in that section. Because classes treat individual subject areas, it’s entirely possible to get a really good understanding of two pieces of the same puzzle, but never realize that they fit together to make a picture. It’s only when a freshly minted engineer gets out into the real world that they start to make the connections between seemingly disparate fields of knowledge.
This is why Carroll Smith’s book “Engineer to Win” is so good. He spent a lifetime as a practicing engineer in a field where a small failure could mean the death of a friend. So when he set out to write a book, he wrote a book that related everything needed to properly conceptualize and solve the mechanical engineering problems in his field.
One warning though; the book is not for the faint of heart. If you want to learn something difficult well, then this is book for you. Carroll skips the comforting analogies and gives the information exactly. It can get a little dense, but he makes the assumption that the reader is there to learn and, most importantly, understand. This takes work.
For example, you can’t really understand why a rolled bolt is stronger than a bolt cut on a screw machine until you understand how metal works on a crystalline level. The same goes for metal fatigue, brittle fractures, ductile failures, and all the maladies that metal can suffer. The difference between an engineer and a technician is this deep understanding. Otherwise the equations learned are just parts in a toolbox and not paint on an artist’s palette.
This is why the first half of the book is dominated by all things metallurgical. The book starts with the simple abstractions of the crystalline structures of metal. Unlike my materials class in university, it maintains a practical bend to the presentation of the information throughout the whole process. For example, it moves on to what all this practically means for metals undergoing stresses and failures before it launches into a (short) digression on how metals are made and their history.
This first half of the book touches on non-ferrous metals and their proper use as well. After that comes some of the best explanations of metal fatigue, fasteners, and metal bonding I’ve ever read. When the failure of a joint causes a mechanism to fail in a toaster that’s one thing, but when it fails in a racecar people get hurt. Carroll is very exacting in what constitutes a forgivable oversight in engineering, and what does not.
Once the book has finished conveying a working understanding of metals and fasteners it seems to fracture into a pot-luck of different racecar-related topics. During my first reading of the book I resisted this strange turn of events. For example, I didn’t really want to read about racecar plumbing in the eighties, or what kind of springs and aerofoils Carroll likes. However, when I reread those sections in a more focused manner, I realized that many of them were teaching the practical application of the knowledge learned in the previous chapters. How does the metal make a good spring? Why is one kind of plumbing better than another?
Importantly, the anecdotes at the end of the book impart an understanding of the importance of professionalism in engineering. What is the true responsibility of an engineer? He teaches not to take the trust others place in your skills for granted. He teaches to trust in the skills of others. The book teaches humility as an engineer. He shows the kind of person one can become after a lifetime of earnest study in their craft.
Thanks to reader, [Dielectric], for recommending the book to me. Also, from the bit of research I’ve done, the older motorworks edition is generally considered to have better quality reproductions of the diagrams than the newer printings of the book.
I learned some basic electronics in high school physics class: resistors, capacitors, Kirchoff’s law and such, and added only what was required for projects as I did them. Then around 15 years ago I decided to read some books to flesh out what I knew and add to my body of knowledge. It turned out to be hard to find good ones.
The electronics section of my bookcase has a number of what I’d consider duds, but also some gems. Here are the gems. They may not be the electronics-Rosetta-Stone for every hacker, but they are the rock on which I built my church and well worth a spot in your own reading list.
Grob’s Basic Electronics
Grob’s Basic Electronics by Mitchel E Schultz and Bernard Grob is a textbook, one that is easy to read yet very thorough. I bought mine from a used books store. The 1st Edition was published in 1959 and it’s currently on the 12th edition, published in 2015. Clearly this one has staying power.
I refer back to it frequently, most often to the chapters on resonance, induction and capacitance when working on LC circuits, like the ones in my crystal radios. There are also things in here that I couldn’t find anywhere else, including thoroughly exhaustive online searches. One such example is the correct definitions and formulas for the various magnetic units: ampere turns, field intensity, flux density…
I’d recommend it to a high school student or any adult who’s serious about knowing electronics well. I’d also recommend it to anyone who wants to reduce frustration when designing or debugging circuits.
You can find the table of contents here but briefly it has all the necessary introductory material on Ohm’s and Kirchoff’s laws, parallel and series circuits, and so on but to give you an idea of how deep it goes it also has chapters on network theorems and complex numbers for AC circuits. Interestingly my 1977 4th edition has a chapter on vacuum tubes that’s gone in the current version and in its place is a plethora of new ones devoted to diodes, BJTs, FETs, thyristors and op-amps.
You can also do the practice problems and self-examination, just to make sure you understood it correctly. (I sometimes do them!) But also, being a textbook, the newest edition is expensive. However, a search for older but still recent editions on Amazon turns up some affordable used copies. Most of basic electronics hasn’t changed and my ancient edition is one of my more frequent go-to books. But it’s not the only gem I’ve found. Below are a few more.
Psst… Wanna make a canning jar diode? A tennis ball triode? How about a semiconductor transistor? Or do you just enjoy sitting back and following along an interesting narrative of something being made, while picking up a wealth of background, tips and sparking all sorts of ideas? In my case I wanted to make a cuprous oxide semiconductor diode and that lead me to H.P. Friedrichs’ wonderful book Instruments of Amplification. It includes such a huge collection of amplifier knowledge and is a delight to read thanks to a narrative style and frequent hands-on experiments.
My well worn copy of Instruments of Amplifications
DIY point-contact semiconductor transistor
Friedrichs first authored another very popular book, The Voice of the Crystal, about making crystal radios, and wanted to write a second one. For those not familiar with crystal radios, they’re fun to make radios that are powered solely by the incoming radio waves; there are no batteries. But that also means the volume is low.
Readers of that book suggested a good follow-up would be one about amplifier circuits, to amplify the crystal radio’s volume. However, there were already an abundance of such books. Friedrichs realized the best follow-up would be one on how to make the amplifying components from scratch, the “instruments of amplification”. It would be unique and in the made-from-scratch spirit of crystal radios. The book, Instruments of Amplification was born.
The book includes just the right amount of a history, giving background on what an amplifier is and how they first came in the electrical world. Telegraph operators wanted to send signals over greater and greater distances and the solution was to use the mix of electronics and mechanics found in the telegraph relay. This is the springboard for his first project and narrative: the microphonic relay.
The microphonic relay example shown on the right places a speaker facing a microphone; the speaker is the input with the microphone amplifying the output. He uses a carbon microphone salvaged from an old telephone headset, housing everything in an enclosure of copper pipe caps, steel bar stock, nuts and bolts mounted on an elegant looking wood base. All the projects are made with simple parts, with care, and they end up looking great.
I just had my car in for an inspection and an oil change. The garage I take my car to is generally okay, they’re more honest than a stealership, but they don’t cross all their t’s and dot all their lowercase j’s. A few days after I picked up my car, low and behold, I noticed the garage didn’t do a complete oil change. The oil life indicator wasn’t reset, which means every time I turn my car on, I’ll have to press a button to clear an ominous glowing warning on my dash.
For my car, resetting the oil life indicator is a simple fix – I just need to push the button on the dash until the oil life indicator starts to blink, release, then hold it again for ten seconds. I’m at least partially competent when it comes to tech and embedded systems, but even for me, resetting the oil life sensor in my car is a bit obtuse. For the majority of the population, I can easily see this being a reason to take a car back to the shop; the mechanic either didn’t know how to do it, or didn’t know how to use Google.
The two most technically complex things I own are my car and my computer, and there is much more information available on how to fix or modify any part of my computer. If I had a desire to modify my car so I could read the value of the tire pressure monitors, instead of only being notified when one of them is too low, there’s nowhere for me to turn.
I was given the opportunity to review The Car Hacker’s Handbook by Craig Smith (259p, No Starch Press). Is it a guide on how to plug a dongle into my car and clear the oil life monitor the hard way? No, but you wouldn’t want that anyway. Instead, it’s a much more informative tome on penetration testing and reverse engineering, using cars as the backdrop, not the focus.