The Hardware Hacker

Author: Andrew Huang
Publisher: No Starch Press
Pages: 416
ISBN: 978-1593277581
Print: 159327758X
Kindle: B06XDHKV94
Audience: Hardware enthusiasts
Rating: 5 
Reviewer: Harry Fairhead 

This is a book like few others. You will either love it or wonder what it is all about.

I would have loved to have written this book myself. I couldn't possibly because I don't have the same experience and expertise as its author, Andrew "bunnie" Huang. But perhaps now he has established the genre, I might try something the same but different.

What is this book about? 

It is actually easier to say what it isn't and so avoid you buying it and then being disappointed. It certainly isn't a book about hacking hardware, despite its sub-title - Adventures in Making and Breaking Hardware.It won't teach you anything much about electronics, software or anything technical. This is a book you read for pure pleasure and it will only be pleasurable if you have the necessary background. You have to be a bit like the author and either not gone down the same path or perhaps not even noticed that the path existed.

This really is an adventure in electronics, but not my end of the game - designing clever (I hope) circuits and not so clever software and letting someone else realize them. This book is the story of an engineer tasked with the realization of low cost, but sophisticated, hardware at reasonable scale. More precisely, it is about how the workshops of China are something quite new and how they are changing the way we work and the products we buy.  




The book start off with a description of manufacturing in China. This is an eye opener. If you are only familiar with making a few PCBs and maybe hand assembling surface mount components, this will make you envious - perhaps even make you book your ticket to Shenzhen. The scene painted is of high tech meets craft. In China it is cheaper to get a human to stick chips on a board, wire and then epoxy encapsulate it. It all sounds like a cross between cottage industry meets the highest possible tech and the home spun often wins. This is not to say that we don't encounter amazing machines doing tasks, but only when it makes really good economic sense.

This first part consisting of just three chapters was, for me, the best part of the book - even though I am unlikely to get involved in Shenzhen-scale production. It was an eye-opening glimpse of how the other half live.



Part 2 is just two chapters and is about the Chinese interpretation of how open source works. They basically share designs as a way of selling components. As the author points out, it isn't so long since we did things like that too. Although his repeated example of the Apple II schematic being supplied with each machine doesn't fit this pattern. You got the schematic after you had bought the product and it was unlikely that this would encourage you to buy another. Even so, times have changed - can you imagine getting a schematic of an iPhone? I'm also not sure that this philosophy explains the existence of Chinese fakes. It really does sound like the Wild West when it comes to intellectual property rights - and there is a large part of me that thinks that this is a good state to be in. 

Part 3 is all about the adventures of creating Chumby, Novena and Chibitronics, the three projects that the author is best known for. The first two died, but Chibitronics - active circuit stickers - is still going strong and worth looking up. Lots of small anecdotes, amazing discoveries and strange facts are included along the way and I'm not going to indulge in any spoilers. 

The final part of the book was, for me, the least interesting. An essay on hardware hacking was a little to specific to form any general impressions from. The essay on biology and informatics was slightly interesting, but I'm into solder and circuits not wet stuff. It might not strike you as being so far out. 

As I said, this is a great read, but only if you are one of us - a hardware hacker or a wannabe hardware hacker. I'm not even sure that every hardware enthusiast will be able to read it to the end because you also have to be interested in the mass-manufacturing side of it and perhaps just a little, the business side.

It also breaks new ground in the sense that I can't think of a book like it. Most non-technical accounts of technology tend to focus on the people and the drama. This book really is about the technology and the way a technical culture has adapted to it. It is as if the small iron-working shops have evolved into chip foundries and approach it all with the same basic craft skills. 


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Python Programming and Visualization for Scientists 2nd Ed

Author: Alex DeCaria and Grant Petty
Publisher: Sundog Publishing
Pages: 372
ISBN: 978-0972903356
Print: 0972903356
Audience: Scientists wanting to use Python
Rating: 2
Reviewer: Mike James
Visualization - a difficult topic and difficult to see how to explain the ideas in a book.

The Art of Computer Programming, Volume 4, Fascicle 5

Author: Donald Knuth
Publisher: Addison-Wesley
Pages: 320
ISBN: 978-0134671796
Print: 0134671791
Audience: Knuth fans
Rating: 4
Reviewer: Mike James
Another portion of TAoCP. Do you need to read it?

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Last Updated ( Wednesday, 04 October 2017 )