The Long Tail of DIY Electronics

These are the Golden Years of electronics hacking. The home DIY hacker can get their hands on virtually any part that he or she could desire, and for not much money. Two economic factors underlie this Garden of Electronic Eden that we’re living in. Economies of scale make the parts cheap: when a factory turns out the same MEMS accelerometer chip for hundreds of millions of cell phones, their setup and other fixed costs are spread across all of these chips, and a $40 million factory ends up only costing $0.50 per unit sold.

But the unsung hero of the present DIY paradise is how so many different parts are available, and from so many different suppliers, many of them on the other side of the globe. “The Internet” you say, as if that explains it. Well, that’s not wrong, but it’s deeper than that. The reason that we have so much to choose from is that the marginal cost of variety has fallen, and with that many niche products and firms have become profitable where before they weren’t.

So let’s take a few minutes to sing the praises of the most important, and sometimes overlooked, facet of the DIY economy over the last twenty years: the falling marginal cost of variety.

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The Dubious Claim of a World Helium Shortage

If you’ve been reading the news lately, you doubtless read about the find of a really big new helium gas field in Tanzania. It’s being touted as “life-saving” and “game-changing” in the popular media, but this is all spin. Helium is important for balloon animals, scientists, and MRI machines alike, but while it’s certainly true that helium prices have been rising steadily since 2000, this new field is unlikely to matter all that much in the grand scheme of things.

helium_uses
Source: USGS

The foundation of every news story on helium is that we’re running out of the stuff. As with most doomsday scenarios, the end of the world’s supply of helium is overstated, and we don’t just mean in light of the new Tanzanian field. Helium is the second-most abundant element, making up 24% of the total mass of the universe. And while the earth has a disproportionate amount of heavier elements, helium is in rocks everywhere. It’s just a question of getting it out, and at what price that’s viable.

So while we’re stoked that the era of (relatively) cheap helium can continue onwards for a few more years, we’re still pretty certain that the price is going to continue to rise, and our children’s children won’t be using the stuff for something so frivolous as blowing up party balloons — it’ll be used primarily, as it is now, where it’s more valuable: in science, medicine, and industry.

Let’s take this moment to reflect on the economics of second-lightest element. Here’s to you, Helium!

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Hackaday Links: June 5, 2016

CERN is having a hackathon. It’s in October, yes, but the registration is closing on the 15th of June. They’ve been doing this every year, and the projects that come out of this hackathon are as diverse as infrastructure-less navigation, cosmic ray detectors, and inflatable refrigerators.

Have one of those solder fume extractors? Here’s an obvious improvement. [polyglot] put a strip of LEDs around the frame of his solder fume extractor to put a little more light on the subject.

A few months ago, [Bunnie] started work on a book. It was the Essential Guide to Electronics in Shenzhen. It’s made for hardware hackers to figure out how to buy stuff in Shenzhen, using a neat point-and-understand interface. Those books are now being shipped to people around the globe. I got one, and here’s the mini-review: it’s awesome. Is it a complete travel guide? No, but if you dropped me off at Hong Kong International, I could probably 1) Make it to Shenzhen 2) Buy random LEDs 3) Find a hotel 4) Get a beer 5) Not die. Pics below.

You’re hackers, and that means you’re the people who build stuff for all those ‘makers’ out there. Don’t have an MBA? No problem, [Dave Jones] has your back. He re-did his Economics of Selling Hardware video from several years ago. It’s 25 minutes long, and gives you enough information so you’re not a complete idiot at the business end of design.

Like Raspberry Pis stuffed into things? Here’s a Pi Zero stuffed into a MegaDrive cartridge. Now someone grab a Sonic and Knuckles cart, build a ROM reader, and do a proper cart-reading emulator.

If you’re into R/C, you know about Flite Test. They’re the folks that make crazy, crazy model planes out of Dollar Tree foam board, and have gotten hundreds of people into the hobby. Flite Test is having their own con, Flight Fest, in a little over a month. It’s in Ohio, and from last year’s coverage of the event, it looks like a really cool time.

So, No Man’s Sky is coming out soon. It’s a space game set in a procedurally generated, infinite galaxy. Does anyone have any idea on how to form a Hackaday clan? Somebody should start a Hackaday clan/alliance/thing. I’ll meet you guys at the core.

Retrotechtacular: MONIAC

There is an argument to be made that whichever hue of political buffoons ends up in Number 10 Downing Street, the White House, the Élysée Palace, or wherever the President, Prime Minister or despot lives in your country, eventually they will send the economy down the drain.

Fortunately, there is a machine for that. MONIAC is an analogue computer with water as its medium, designed to simulate a national economy for students. Invented in 1949 by the New Zealand economist [WIlliam Phillips], it is a large wooden board with a series of tanks interconnected by pipes and valves. Different sections of the economy are represented by the water tanks, and the pipes and valves model the flow of money between them. Spending is downhill gravitational water flow, while taxation is represented by a pump which returns money to the treasury at the top. It was designed to represent the British economy in the late 1940s as [Philips] was a student at the London School of Economics when he created it. Using the machine allowed students and economists for the first time to simulate the effects of real economic decisions in government, in real time.

So if you have a MONIAC, you can learn all about spectacularly mismanaging the economy, and then in a real sense flush the economy down the drain afterwards. The video below shows Cambridge University’s restored MONIAC in operation, and should explain the device’s workings in detail.
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