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The hardware hacker : adventures in making and breaking hardware
Huang A., No Starch Press, San Francisco, CA, 2017. 416 pp.  Type: Book (978-1-593277-58-1)
Date Reviewed: Nov 17 2020

Andrew “bunnie” Huang was Chumby’s lead hardware engineer for its WiFi-equipped embedded computer device, chumby, which premiered in 2006. He was charged with the task of traveling from the US to Shenzhen, and figuring how to build a supply chain for the device. This book catalogs what he learned from his visits to Shenzhen and how the chumby device was built. Other chapters cover his work on the Novena crowdfunded laptop and at Chibitronics.

In the first chapter, the author discusses his visits to the Shenzhen Electronics Group (SEG) Electronics Market. Included are photos of small family-run electronics shops and larger professional parts shops. Massive quantities of components, like 256MB dynamic random-access memory (DRAM) chips, are held at these shops and can be acquired for a little haggling and a bit of cash.

The author toured six factories, ranging in size from 500 people to over 40000 people. He observed the Foxconn facility, where iPhones are made by over 250000 employees. Many Chinese factories house, feed, and care for their employees, and it is said that Foxconn workers consume 3000 pigs a day.

There are some impressive photos from the company that was eventually chosen for the mass production of chumby components. Among these are chip-shooter machines for placing surface-mount components on printed circuit boards, and a mold cutting used in chumby case assemblies.

The importance of quality control in an offshore factory is emphasized. The author made a point of being on-site whenever possible when product changes were made, so as to mitigate any language or cultural misunderstandings.

In the second chapter, the author discusses his visit to an Arduino printed circuit board (PCB) factory that uses high-precision drilling machines and advanced plating procedures. He also visited a universal serial bus (USB) memory stick factory that uses manual procedures for chip testing and die placement. By way of contrast, he visited a highly automated zipper factory with just a few employees. This factory was vertically integrated to an extent that enabled it to turn metal ingots, sawdust, and rice into zippers. The rice? That was used to feed the workers!

Chapter 3, “the factory floor,” discusses the importance of a bill of materials (BOM), along with function optimization, testing mechanisms, and industrial design considerations.

This is followed by chapters 4 and 5, “gonkai innovation” and “fake goods.” The first of these revolves around the concept that if you purchase an item like an iPhone, then that gives you the right to copy and use that item’s design as a seed for your own original work. In consequence, we see items from China that are similar to iPhones and have user-replaceable batteries. And those who make such devices are expected to share their design documents with others. The same concept lies behind the manufacture of counterfeit chips and microSD cards whose authenticity is difficult to ascertain. A number of photographs showing original and counterfeit products side-by-side are included.

Chapter 6 (“the story of chumby”) describes how the chumby device was designed so as to be as open as possible to anybody who wanted to hack it. Its evolution from the chumby-classic to the chumby-One (and beyond) is illustrated with a couple of mainboard photos; an extract from an author interview with Phil Torrone is also included.

The author’s subsequent endeavor was his development, with Sean Cross, of a crowdfunded Novena laptop. Its features and characteristics are discussed in chapter 7, along with photographs of the device, its internals, and its pilot production team. That device was subsequently marketed through Crowd Supply.

In 2012, the author met with Jie Qi at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Media Lab. Jie Qi was combining papercraft with electronics as part of her research. As related in chapter 8, Huang was able to assist her in building circuits on a flexible polyimide substrate with anistropic tape. A subsequent crowdfunding campaign enabled the production of what are now marketed as Chibitronics kits for education and craft usage.

In chapter 9, “hardware hacking,” the author discusses some of his other endeavors. One of these is a NeTV device that enables users to eliminate advertisements in TV content. This is accomplished through a man-in-the-middle (MITM) intervention using a high-bandwidth digital content protection (HDCP) master key.

The author’s thoughts on deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) sequencing and genome patching are presented in chapter 10 (“biology and bioinformatics”). He observes that the BLASTX tool is readily available and can be used for DNA sequence analysis, and other mechanisms are available for CRISPR editing.

The book ends with a short chapter of selected interviews related to his experience with open-source hardware, technology capabilities in China, and device design. Anyone who has played with hardware devices like Raspberry Pi, Arduino, or chumby will enjoy this fascinating book.

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Reviewer:  G. K. Jenkins Review #: CR147109
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