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Book Review: Snip, Burn, Solder, Shred

By Ben Okopnik

SBSS.RVW 20110228
%A   David Erik Nelson
%C   San Francisco CA USA
%D   2011
%G   978-1-59327-259-3
%I   No Starch Press, Inc
%O   http://nostarch.com/snipburn.htm
%P   337 pages
%T   "Snip, burn, solder, shred: seriously geeky stuff to make with your kids"

First things first: this book is not about Linux. What it is about, however, is the thing that for me is indistinguishable from Linux: a spirit of exploration, of curiosity, of getting your hands into an interesting, fascinatingly-complicated Thing and making it work - even if you have to assemble it piece by piece. This book is a terrific catalyst for igniting the imagination - and not only in kids, but in any adult with even a bit of curiosity.

The thing that I found instantly appealing about it is the absence of what I call "assumed stupidity" on the part of the reader. The Do-It-Yourself (DIY) air throughout the book, the underlying assumption of intelligence, caution, and ability in the reader is refreshing. Sure, there are plenty of warnings about the various dangerous bits you're going to deal with - and it says quite a lot for the author that even these are interesting to read! - but... one of the projects is a "Ticklebox", a way to zap yourself and your friends with a little jolt of electricity, while another is a Marshmallow Gun, which drives its soft, fluffy projectile with (I kid you not) breath spray exploded by the flash circuitry from a disposable camera.

(If you're anything like me, the last sentence will have you running out the door and to your nearest book store to grab this book RIGHT NOW. Go ahead; I'll wait.)

The project list veers wildly, from an squid sock puppet to an electric guitar that you can build for $10; in fact, most of these projects can be built very cheaply, and the pages are packed with suggestions on using scraps of this, bits of that, and cheap but strong goop to secure it all inside an empty cigar box or maybe an empty can with its ends cut out. The required factor here is a will to tinker and explore, not a pocket full of cash.

And since you're off and building that guitar, you might as well build an amp and a stomp box, too - oh, did I mention that this book gives you a mini-education in practical electronics just so you can complete these projects? Perfect example of the author's DIY mindset - and as a life-long teacher as well as an electronics engineer, I admit to being quite impressed by it. Very well done, and bursting at the seams with even more "curiosity bait"; anyone who gets hooked on playing with soldering irons and electronic components is left with lots of info resources which they can use to expand their new-found skill.

All in all, I'm very pleasantly impressed by this book - and I am usually not the kindest of reviewers. If I have any complaint to make, it is that the author sometimes forgets that the readers don't have access to all the info in his head: the section on musical instruments, for example, has very little info on actually using them - you're more or less expected to know all that stuff. To be fair, this is a very common and completely natural failing: we're not always aware of everything we know as a learned skill, because after a while it becomes "just the way the world is". But then, if you're interested in music, this becomes just another avenue of learning and exploration...



Project 1: Lock-n-Latch Treasure Chest
Project 2: Switchbox
Project 3: The Sock Squid
Project 4: The PVC Teepee
Project 5: Cheap Mesh Screen Printing
Project 6: Shut-the-Box
Project 7: The Ticklebox
Project 8: Small-board Go/Tafl

Project 9: X-Ray Talking Drums
Project 10: Thunderdrums
Project 11: Didgeridoo
Project 12: Amplifier
Project 13: The $10 Electric Guitar
Project 14: Tremolo
Project 15: Reverb
Project 16: Fuzztone
Project 17: Cigar-Box Synthesizer

Project 18: Boomerang
Project 19: Pop Can Flier
Project 20: Water Rockets
Project 21: Steamboat
Project 22: Jitterbug
Project 23: FedEx Kites
Project 24: Marshmallow Muzzloader
Appendix: Electronics and Soldering


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Ben is the Editor-in-Chief for Linux Gazette and a member of The Answer Gang.

Ben was born in Moscow, Russia in 1962. He became interested in electricity at the tender age of six, promptly demonstrated it by sticking a fork into a socket and starting a fire, and has been falling down technological mineshafts ever since. He has been working with computers since the Elder Days, when they had to be built by soldering parts onto printed circuit boards and programs had to fit into 4k of memory (the recurring nightmares have almost faded, actually.)

His subsequent experiences include creating software in more than two dozen languages, network and database maintenance during the approach of a hurricane, writing articles for publications ranging from sailing magazines to technological journals, and teaching on a variety of topics ranging from Soviet weaponry and IBM hardware repair to Solaris and Linux administration, engineering, and programming. He also has the distinction of setting up the first Linux-based public access network in St. Georges, Bermuda as well as one of the first large-scale Linux-based mail servers in St. Thomas, USVI.

After a seven-year Atlantic/Caribbean cruise under sail and passages up and down the East coast of the US, he is currently anchored in northern Florida. His consulting business presents him with a variety of challenges, and his second brain Palm Pilot is crammed full of alarms, many of which contain exclamation points.

He has been working with Linux since 1997, and credits it with his complete loss of interest in waging nuclear warfare on parts of the Pacific Northwest.

Copyright © 2011, Ben Okopnik. Released under the Open Publication License unless otherwise noted in the body of the article.

Published in Issue 184 of Linux Gazette, March 2011