Episode 33: Andrew “bunnie” Huang: Buy a Soldering Iron at Midnight


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Andrew Huang, known as “bunnie” (lowercase) to his friends, first came to the public eye when, while a graduate computer-science student at MIT, he cracked the proprietary wrapper around Microsoft’s Xbox operating system in 2002, which allowed it then to run any software of his choosing. Microsoft didn’t like this and MIT told him it wouldn’t provide any support if a legal defense were needed. Fortunately, Microsoft quickly realized how embarrassing the situation could be, never pursued legal action, and bunnie published a book on the topic. He went on to design the Chumby, a squeezable interactive personal app device, and now works on a variety of projects for the public good, including an open laptop design and an open design for a radiation detector in the wake of the nuclear plant disasters in Japan.

Show notes

Because of his own poor treatment in 2002 by the MIT administration, bunnie sympathized with Aaron Swartz’s plight, and he and No Starch Press made his Xbox book available as a free download in tribute.

The Chumby was a small computer with a touchscreen that could run apps provided by the makers as well as those developed by users and third parties. It was cute as heck. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) bars the reverse-engineering of technology designed to protect copyrighted content. In effect, it means that devices you own are locked up behind criminal penalties for making modifications regardless of whether any piracy or other illegal acts may occur. It eliminates non-infringing and infringing uses equally.

Sony’s original compact disc specification included no encryption, which is why CDs can be freely read and ripped. The Jorge Luis Borges story I reference is a favorite: Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius.

Kyle Durrie talked about her Type Truck in our previous episode, #32, “Put the Pedal to the Metal.” The Foo Camp is an invitation-only gathering run by O’Reilly Media to bring together people to germinate ideas while camping in their offices or an adjacent field. It’s considered influential, an honor to be invited, and something like a geek sleepover camp all at once. The Chris Hawker podcast, about making and licensing products was Episode 30, “License to Krill.”

Lots of pictures of regular and modified Chumbys have been posted at Flickr. Fabless design firms include some of the largest electronics companies, and refers to outsourcing the making of the chips to a contract integrated-circuit fabrication (“fab”) plant. Bunnie is very interested in self-blinking LEDs: LEDs that have a tiny power source embedded.

Bunnie found a mass-manufactured $12 cell phone for sale in Shenzhen. You can buy anything electronic and any component at nearly any hour of the day or night in Shenzhen’s markets. This reminded me of Akihabara in Japan, which has an absurd range of consumer electronics. But Akihabara is a tiny district; Shenzhen’s markets are vast.