Bunnie Huang's classic "Essential Guide to Electronics in Shenzhen" is now free online

Bunnie Huang (previously) is a legendary hardware hacker, and one of his claims to fame are his annual trips to Shenzhen — China's electronics manufacturing hub — with groups of MIT students to show them how electronic production actually works in the field, both so they can design projects with that reality in mind, and so that they can get an appreciation of what's happening behind the scenes when they order parts, tool up a line, or otherwise interact with the factories — tiny and massive — of the Pearl River Delta.

Huang's "Essential Guide to Shenzhen" grew out of that project: it's a soup-to-nuts, practical electronics hacker's guide to navigating Shenzhen, with point-to-translate guides to components, tools and tooling, bargaining, and transport. It's got chapters on spotting counterfeits, tipping, dress codes, local sights, haggling, and "technical Chinese" language notes. There's also a section on travel, visas, border-crossings and Chinese customs.

The book is all-but-out-of-print (Huang notes that "the last few physical copies of the book available for purchase are at MJ Maker's stall on the 2nd floor of the SEG Plaza in Huaqiangbei. His stall number is 2A08; I think he has maybe 10 copies left as of this post. If you do stop by MJ's booth, say hi for me"), and as the maps are out of date, he doesn't want to bother reprinting it.

Instead, he's put the whole book online as a free download (it's Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Sharealike), "so that others can swap out the map pages with something more up-to-date and have a swing at making their own derivative works."

As my friend Gavin Zhao once quipped, Chinese is a wonderful language for poetry, but difficult for precise technical communications. Fans of Randall Munroe's XKCD may have seen the "Up-Goer Five" blueprint comic (http://xkcd.com/1133/), where complex technical concepts are explained using only the "ten hundred" most common English words. Considering that 98% of Chinese is covered with only 2,500 characters, and there are only 7,000 "general use" characters, most technical terms in Chinese have to be decomposed into idioms that are reminiscent of the Up-Goer Five scenario.

For example, a resistor is 电阻, which means "electric obstructor", capacitor is 电容, which means "electric container", and a computer is 电脑, which means "electric brain". On the other hand, some concepts have names which are simply phonetic loan words with no meaning, such as the Schottky diode: 效特基二极管. The first three characters are "xiào tè jī" (sounds like "shao tuh gee"), which sound somewhat like "Schottky" but the characters mean "resembles particular basis/foundation"; clearly phonetic but no meaning. The last three characters mean "two-pole tube", which does make some sense. And then there are the pronunciation subtleties, such as 芯片号, "xīn piàn hào" (which means an "IC's part number" (literally "core flat item's number"), which with misplaced accents sounds like 性偏好, "xìng piān hào" which means "sexual preference". No native speaker would ever mispronounce or confuse the two, but a foreigner going up to a local asking "What's your chip's part number?" could be heard as "What's your sexual preference?" if mispronounced and taken out of context.

Even Mandarin speakers find it challenging to communicate certain technical terms. Different idioms are used, for example, between Taiwan and Shenzhen. There are other differences across China depending upon the dialect and context: academics will typically use more formal and technically rigorous terms than a market trader or even an engineer. For example, in the market the descriptive term 三级管 ('three-pole tube') is sometimes used for a transistor, instead of the academically accepted 晶体管 ('crystal tube'). Both of these could refer to a "metal oxide semiconductor field effect transistor" (MOSFET), but there's no uniform system for abbreviating 金属-氧化物-半导体型场效应管(that's Metal-Oxide-Semiconductor Field Effect Transistor spelled out in Chinese characters). In this case, market traders will often fall back to using English acronyms or some local slang to refer to a given part.

The Essential Guide to Electronics in Shenzhen" [Andrew "bunnie" Huang]

Essential Guide to Shenzhen, Web Edition [Andrew "bunnie" Huange/bunnie's Blog]