Interview with hardware hacker Star Simpson

Our guest on the Cool Tools show this week is Star Simpson. She is an electronics designer whose greatest joy is designing objects and tools that are useful to others, which inspire and delight. Her previous work includes research on robotics and work in drones, PLIBMTTBHGATY, an event where people convene to try new programming languages, and an electronics reference card PCB designed for Octopart, now carried in the wallets of electrical engineers everywhere. She is also the creator of Circuit Classics — printed circuit boards that bring to life Forrest Mims' vintage designs from Getting Started in Electronics.

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Show notes:


Metcal MX-500S Soldering System ($535)

"[This is] a tool for electrical engineers who want to solder things. Metcal does this really great engineering for their soldering irons, so you choose a particular soldering tool to go with the temperature that you want to solder at, I really love that. … One other thing that's great about it is it also heats up extremely quickly because it uses RF, it uses radio, to heat the tip of the soldering iron instead of normal resistive heating, so it's much faster to heat up. … The metcal is the industrial one, because it heats so quickly that if you're doing industrial line soldering, you don't wait around for it to warm up. Whereas I think the Weller is a really good, solid, reliable desk tool for an engineer during more occasional soldering."


Specialized Globe 08 Bicycle

"I love bicycle engineering and I really love [this] bike. It's got a built in cargo rack, that I find just imminently useful. I think it's the perfect compromise between everything I've seen in bicycle design for a great bike to get around in a city, great gear ratio, great for carrying things from time to time, but still fun and fast and lightweight. … This line was made by Specialized for a very short time, but just like a throw to people who really care about bicycle design."


"How to Read a Book" ($12)

"How to Read a Book, I believe it was written in the 40's. I consider it a tool because it is a book about, as it says, different techniques and strategies, for really extracting the content of books. You'd think it was a lot simpler than that based on the title, but it really teaches you strategies that I think are great. I wish I had read it when I was in my first year of high school, I think it's a great accelerant. … It's also an amazingly, amazingly fun book to read in public. I was on the London tube and I found people will actually look you in your eyes from over 10 feet away to find out what's going on over there, when you're reading a book about how to read a book. If you really want to have fun in that moment, you can just suddenly turn the book upside down. I was having too much fun and I love that book."


Pleco (Free)

"[Pleco] is a great one because it's an English-Chinese dictionary that I ended up using plenty … The most common use [is] like, 'What exactly does this menu say?" And the other is if you're in a conversation with someone and something's not clear, you can ask if they would write the word into Pleco, or you can write the English word in Pleco, and get a pretty good translation to convey your meaning through it. So I would recommend everyone, everyone, everyone, who's not fluent in speaking Chinese, if you're traveling to a country that is primarily Chinese speaking, to have that app.