Books You Should Read: The Idea Factory

You’ve heard of Bell Labs, but likely you can’t go far beyond naming the most well-known of discoveries from the Lab: the invention of the transistor. It’s a remarkable accomplishment of technological research, the electronic switch on which all of our modern digital society has been built. But the Bell Labs story goes so far beyond that singular discovery. In fact, the development of the transistor is a microcosm of the Labs themselves.

The pursuit of pure science laid the foundation for great discovery. Yes, the transistor was conceived, prototyped, proven, and then reliably manufactured at the Labs. But the framework that made this possible was the material researchers and prototyping ninjas who bridged the gap between the theory and the physical. The technology was built on what is now a common material; semiconducting substances which would not have been possible without the Labs refinement of the process for developing perfectly pure substances reliably doped to produce the n-type and p-type substances that made diode and transistor possible.

Continue reading “Books You Should Read: The Idea Factory”

Books you should read: The Bridge

A few weeks ago, Amazon’s crack marketing AI decided to recommend a few books for me. That AI must be getting better because instead of the latest special-edition Twilight books, I was greeted with this:

“The asteroid was called the Hand of God when it hit.”

That’s the first sentence of The Bridge, a new Sci-Fi book by Leonard Petracci. If you think that line sucks you in, wait until you read the whole first chapter.

The Bridge is solidly in the generation ship trope. A voyage hundreds or even thousands of years long, with no sleep or stasis pods. The original crew knows they have no hope of seeing their destination, nor will their children and grandchildren. Heinlein delved into it with Orphans of the Sky. Even Robert Goddard himself discussed generation ships in The Last Migration.

I wouldn’t call The Bridge hard Sci-Fi — and that’s perfectly fine. Leonard isn’t going for scientific accuracy. It’s a great character driven story. If you enjoyed a book like Ready Player One, you’ll probably enjoy this.

The Bridge Is the story of Dandelion 14, a ship carrying people of Earth to a new planet. At some point during the journey, Dandelion 14 was struck by an asteroid, which split the ship in two. Only a few wires and cables keep the halves of the ship together. The crew on both sides of the ship survived, but they had no way to communicate. They do catch glimpses of each other in the windows though.

Much of the story is told in the first person by Horatius, a young man born hundreds of years after the asteroid strike. Horatius’ side of the ship has a population of one thousand, carefully measured at each census. They’ve lost knowledge of how to operate the ship’s systems, but they are surviving. Most of the population are gardeners, but there are doctors, cooks, porters, and a few historians. At four years old, Horatius is selected to become a gardener, like his father was before him. But Horatius has higher aspirations. He longs to become a historian to learn the secrets of the generations that came before him and to write his own story down for those who will come after.

Horatius sees the faces of the people on the other side of the ship as well. Gaunt, hungry, often fighting with knives or other weapons. A stark contrast to the well-fed people on his side of the vessel. The exception is one red-haired girl about his age. He often finds her staring back at him, watching him.

Horatius might have been chosen as a gardener, but he’s clever — a fact that sometimes gets him in trouble. His life takes an abrupt turn when the sleeping ship awakens with an announcement blaring “Systems Rebooting, Ship damage assessed. Reuniting the two halves of the ship and restoring airlock, approximately twenty-four hours until complete.”

The hardest part of writing a book review is not giving too much away. While I won’t tell you much more about the plot for The Bridge, I can tell a bit about how the book came about.
You might call this book a hack of the publishing system. Leonard Petracci is also known as leoduhvinci on Reddit. The Bridge started life as Leonard’s response to a post on /r/writingprompts. The prompt went like this:

After almost 1,000 years the population of a generation ship has lost the ability to understand most technology and now lives at a pre-industrial level. Today the ship reaches its destination and the automated systems come back online.

Leonard ’s response to the prompt shot straight to the top, and became the first chapter of The Bridge. Chapter 2 followed soon after. In only a few months, the book was complete. Available on Reddit, and on Leonard’s website. The Bridge is also available on Amazon for Kindle, and on paper from Amazon’s CreateSpace.

The only real criticism I have about The Bridge is the ending. The book’s resolution felt a bit rushed. It would have been nice to have a few more pages telling us what happened to the characters after the major events of the book. Leonard is planning a sequel though, and he teases this in the final pages.

You can start reading The Bridge right now on Leonard’s website. He has the entire book online for free for a few more weeks. If you’ve missed the free period, the Kindle edition is currently $2.99.

Books You Should Read: The Hardware Hacker

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.

Continue reading “Books You Should Read: The Hardware Hacker”

Specifications You Should Read: The NASA Workmanship Standards

"This is reflective of the typically idiosyncratic way engineer's of this era explored the human condition. The purple and shitty gradient show's the artists deep struggle with deadlines and his personal philosophy on the tyranny of the bourgeois. " - A segment from a confused student's art history paper
“Reflective of the typically idiosyncratic way engineers of this era explored the human condition. The shitty gradient show’s the deep struggle with deadlines and their personal philosophy on the tyranny of the bourgeois. ” – An excerpt from a confused student’s art history paper after the standard is installed in the Louvre.

The NASA workmanship standards are absolutely beautiful. I mean that in the fullest extent of the word. If I had any say in the art that goes up in the Louvre, I’d put them up right beside Mona. They’re a model of what a standard should be. A clear instruction for construction, design, and inspection all at once. They’re written in clear language and contain all the vernacular one needs to interpret them. They’re unassuming. The illustrations are perfectly communicative.  It’s a monument to the engineer’s art.

Around five years ago I had a problem to solve. Every time a device went into the field happily transmitting magic through its myriad connectors, it would inevitably come back red tagged, dusty, and sad. It needed to stop. I dutifully traced the problem to a connector, and I found the problem. A previous engineer had informed everyone that it was perfectly okay to solder a connector after crimping. This instruction was added because, previously, the crimps were performed with a regular pair of needle nose pliers and they came undone… a lot. Needless to say, the solder also interfered with their reliable operation, though less obviously. Stress failures and intermittent contact was common.

Continue reading “Specifications You Should Read: The NASA Workmanship Standards”

Books You Should Read: Poorly Made In China

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.

Continue reading “Books You Should Read: Poorly Made In China”

Books You Should Read: Basic Electronics

I learned some basic electronics in high school physics class: resistors, capacitors, Kirchhoff’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 12th Edition
Grob’s Basic Electronics 12th Edition

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 Kirchhoff’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.

Continue reading “Books You Should Read: Basic Electronics”

Books You Should Read: The Annotated Build-It-Yourself Science Laboratory

Like a lot of engineers, I spent a lot of time in libraries when I was a kid. There were certain books you’d check out over and over again. One of those was [Raymond Barrett’s] Build-It-Yourself Science Laboratory. That book really captured my imagination with plans for things as simple as a funnel to as complex as an arc furnace (I actually built that one; see diagram above), a cloud chamber, and an analog computer (see below). That book was from 1963 and that did present a few unique challenges when I read it in the 1970’s. It presents even more difficulty if you try to reproduce some of the projects in it today.


The world of 1963 was not as safe as our world today. Kids rode bicycles with no protective gear. Dentists gave kids mercury to play with. You could eat a little paint or have asbestos in your ceiling, and no one really worried about it.

That means some of the gear and experiments Barrett covers are difficult to recreate today or are just plain dangerous. For example, he suggests getting sulphuric acid at the drugstore. I don’t suggest you call your local Walgreens and ask them for it. The arc furnace — which could melt a nail, as I found out first hand — used a salt water rheostat which was basically an AC power cord with one conductor cut and passed through and open glass jar containing salt water! Fishing sinkers kept the wire from moving about (you hoped) and I suppose the chlorine gas probably emitted didn’t do me any permanent harm.

I was delighted to see that [Windell Oskay] has revised and rebuilt this great old book into a new edition. As much of the original as possible is still present, but with notes about how to work around material you can’t get any more or notes about safety.

Continue reading “Books You Should Read: The Annotated Build-It-Yourself Science Laboratory”