The Holy Grail of the portable hardware-hacking lab: A cordless soldering iron that actually works.

This is a mess. This isn’t even everything I brought for Make for the Planet.

All electronics kits are not created equal. Between the OpenROV, Oceanography for Everyone, and hack-a-thons around the world, my work has taken me out of the lab and into the field, fantail, and classroom to build instruments, hack oceanographic equipment, and train next generation of open-science oceanographers. This has placed a huge new demand on my standard kit, a collection of electronics and hardware tools and components that allow a creative maker to build anything, anywhere. Portability is key, but portability comes with it’s own challenges, especially for that most vital of electronics tools, the humble, powerful soldering iron.

A good soldering iron is absolutely critical to the kinds of projects and workshops I run. Without it, we can to the delicate electronics work necessary for getting a piece of equipment working in the field. But traveling with soldering irons is a nightmare. These high-wattage devices don’t always play nice with local electrical infrastructure. Even using the *right* power converters we’ve blown fuses and burned out power supplies. In the best case scenarios, the irons just don’t produce enough heat to get the job done. In remote regions, local options are often non-existent. When we go, we bring everything with us.

There are portable soldering irons, but they have their own problems. Gas-powered irons require a fuel source that may not be easily obtained and are not always welcome on flights. They also lack the fine control we need. Electric options tend to be of the “cold heat” variety, which is a poor tool for circuit board work and can generate a current that burns out components and shorts your project. Heat-based electric soldering irons are weak, short-lived, and often utterly ineffective. I resigned myself to lugging large soldering stations around the world, hoping for the best when it comes to finding an adequate power supply.

And then I discovered the Hakko FX-901Read More

Fishing on Your Phone: Apps for the Ocean-Savvy

In recent months, I’ve been hearing snippets of conversation about the use of smartphones for lots of things involving fish: guiding seafood choices, fishing identification, even reporting to the state. Most are free, some cost money, and there’s a bunch that haven’t reached the Android market yet (so no review from me). Feel free to add your own reviews, and iPhone users out there – add to the sketch of a review here. Here’s the results of my app playing:

Fish eating:

The Green Seafood Guide

by Lificious Software, cost: free

Start by browsing a list of “highly recommended”, “good choices”, or “to avoid” for either seafood or sushi – or search for a particular species in the search bar. Either the lists or your search results will link you to the appropriate information sheet on the Monterey Bay Aquarium website. The Aquarium facts sheets aren’t exactly smart-phone friendly, so the text comes up small, but it’s manageable. The search left something to be desired, as a search for “clams” offered me just the farmed variety and routed me directly to these fact sheets rather than telling me the basics firts. The app itself is fairly streamlined and straightforward, with just one basic home screen that also boasts a button “What should I eat today”, that from what I can tell provides a random suggestion from the “highly recommended” seafood list. I’m guessing this is an alternative interface to the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s more clunky app. Overall, it’s no more helpful than the card the Aquarium puts out, but less easy to lose and offers links to more information should you feel so compelled.

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SFS Gear Review: Ex Officio Buzz Off Gear

Amongst my field gear is a buzz off shirt, hat, and bandana that were purchased in Alaska to ward off the state bird – the mosquito. Upon arriving to Fairbanks, I realized within the space of a few days that I would need some better bug gear for my tenure there and found a local store stocked with an entire floor of their store featuring buzz off gear.

Ex Officio definitely has a style that carries over into their bug gear, making it a cross between travel gear and classic field clothes. I kind of wish they had included their travel pockets in the shirt, for instance. But they’ve included the buzz off chemical, whatever that may be, into their quick-dry cloth, meaning that you can wash and wear while traveling. Read More

SFS Gear Review: The Vehicle

A field vehicle can be just a means of shuttling gear or a home away from home. Most people think of a rough and tumble truck tackling aged logging roads, but depending on your needs and your discipline, something different might play the role. For instance, I work relatively close to home as all of my field sites are less than three hours away by highway and any sample collecting occurs on the water, generally in a borrowed boat (something this series will come to later). Read More

SFS Gear Review: Keen Hybrid Life

Everyone’s seen the Keen sandals – the ones that characterize the feet of kayakers all over and arguably create their own style. Keen, however, also offers shoes more in line with their motto of “hybrid life” – that is, they are supposed to be good for a life on-the-go for someone who only wants to carry one pair of shoes.

I received such a pair as a birthday gift from my mother – the source of most shoes in my life. She bought them because they were “cute” and because they came in green, a color that pervades my wardrobe. So they’ve passed the mom test on style. How’d they do on function? Read More

SFS Gear Reviews: ScottEVest Travel Pants

I have a confession to make. Targeted advertising works. There I was, planning out a long trip to India, thinking, I need some new pants. I get progressively wider with each passing year, and I was not looking forward to flying for 36 hours in a pair of 32-inch pants on a 34-inch waist. And then, like a primal scream from the ether, on the sidebar of The Thoughtful Animal, was an ad for Scott E Vest travel clothes. And, in my shame, I clicked it.

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SFS Gear Reviews: When the current changes, you have to adapt – Digipower Universal Travel Adapter


For a prolonged tour in the field, the little things matter just as much as the big things. And nothing is smaller or more easily forgettable than the lowly travel adapter. I picked mine up in an airport somewhere in Japan as an afterthought, like many travelers, once I got to my destination and realized I had no way to charge up my netbook.

The travel adapter seems inconsequential, but choosing the wrong one can be fatal. I got lucky, because the only one in stock turned out to be a workhorse, but horror stories abound of the unsuspecting graduate student plugging their vital equipment into a suspect outlet and frying a computer, blowing a critical sensor, or setting their shack on fire. Electricity is not to be taken lightly.

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SFS Gear Reviews: Protecting your eyes without breaking the bank

Sunglasses are a critical piece of gear if you plan on spending prolonged periods of time in the sun. Not only do they protect your eyes, but the right pair can help you spot marine-life swimming below the surface or boost your bird-watching prowess. An enormous, multi-billion dollar industry has formed to produce and market the right sunglasses to the right people.

It’s all bullshit.

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SFS Gear Reviews: Cannon PowerShot SX130 IS

Any good field scientist needs a good camera. At the very least you have to document your sampling sites, record samples, and get good photographs of your methods for the inevitable presentations. A field camera needs to be compact, flexible, easy to use, light on batteries, and durable. Of course, the more advanced photographer may scale up to a robust Digital SLR, but at that point, you already know what you need. For the rest of us, a smaller point-and-shoot will suffice.

I shoot with both a heavy duty DSLR and a light-weight point-and-shoot, depending on the conditions, how much space I have available, and how much gear I have to lug around. When it came time to replace my 6-year-old point-and-shoot with something a little more modern, I wanted something that had more flexibility than the run-of-the-mill pointers while still being small enough to carry around in a pocket. I also put a priority on optical zoom (which is definately not the same as digital zoom). I chose the Cannon Power Shot SX130 IS.

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