In Memoriam: Frederick P. Brooks, Jr. and The Mythical Man-Month

Jason Sachs November 20, 2022

It is with some sadness that I have read that Fred Brooks has passed away. Brooks (1931 - 2022) worked at IBM and managed a large team developing the IBM System/360 computers in the early 1960s. Brooks was thirty years old at the start of this project. He founded the Computer Science Department at UNC Chapel Hill in 1964, at the age of thirty-three, acting as its department chair for twenty years. He remained at IBM until 1965, however. During this one-year...


Development of the MOS Technology 6502: A Historical Perspective

Jason Sachs June 18, 20222 comments

One ubiquitous microprocessor of the late 1970s and 1980s was the MOS Technology MCS 6502. I included a section on the development of the 6502 in Part 2 of Supply Chain Games, and have posted it as an excerpt here, as I believe it is deserving in its own right.

(Note: MOS Technology is pronounced with the individual letters M-O-S “em oh ess”,[1] not “moss”, and should not be confused with another semiconductor company,


Supply Chain Games: What Have We Learned From the Great Semiconductor Shortage of 2021? (Part 2)

Jason Sachs June 18, 20222 comments

Welcome back! Today we’re going to zoom around again in some odd directions, and give a roundabout introduction to the semiconductor industry, touching on some of the following questions:

  • How do semiconductors get designed and manufactured?
  • What is the business of semiconductor manufacturing like?
  • What are the different types of semiconductors, and how does that affect the business model of these manufacturers?
  • How has the semiconductor industry evolved over time?
  • How do...

Reading and Understanding Profitability Metrics from Financial Statements

Jason Sachs March 29, 2022

Whoa! That has got to be the most serious-minded title I’ve ever written. Profitability Metrics from Financial Statements, indeed. I’m still writing Part 2 of my Supply Chain Games article, and I was about to mention something about whether a company is profitable, when I realized something that didn’t quite fit into the flow of things, so I thought I’d handle it separately: how are you supposed to know what I mean, when I say a company is profitable? And how am I...


A Second Look at Slew Rate Limiters

Jason Sachs January 14, 2022

I recently had to pick a slew rate for a current waveform, and I got this feeling of déjà vu… hadn’t I gone through this effort already? So I looked, and lo and behold, way back in 2014 I wrote an article titled Slew Rate Limiters: Nonlinear and Proud of It! where I explored the effects of two types of slew rate limiters, one feedforward and one feedback, given a particular slew rate \( R \).

Here was one figure I published at the time:

This...


Supply Chain Games: What Have We Learned From the Great Semiconductor Shortage of 2021? (Part 1)

Jason Sachs December 31, 20215 comments

So by now I’m sure you’ve heard about the semiconductor shortage of 2021. For a few complicated reasons, demand is greater than supply, and not everybody who wants to buy integrated circuits can do so. Today we’re going to try to answer some hard questions:

  • Why are we in the middle of a semiconductor shortage?
  • Why is it taking so long to get my [insert part number here]?
  • Did this shortage suddenly sneak up on everybody? If not, what were the signs, and why...

Definite Article: Notes on Traceability

Jason Sachs September 6, 2021

Electronic component distibutor Digi-Key recently announced part tracing for surface-mount components purchased in cut-tape form. This is a big deal, and it’s a feature that is a good example of traceability. Some thing or process that has traceability basically just means that it’s possible to determine an object’s history or provenance: where it came from and what has happened to it since its creation. There are a...


Painting with Light to Measure Time

Jason Sachs December 26, 2020

Recently I was faced with a dilemma while working from home. I needed to verify an implementation of first-order sigma-delta modulation used to adjust LED brightness. (I have described this in more detail in Modulation Alternatives for the Software Engineer.) I did not, however, have an oscilloscope.

And then I remembered something, about a technique called “light painting”: basically a long-exposure photograph where a...


Scorchers, Part 3: Bare-Metal Concurrency With Double-Buffering and the Revolving Fireplace

Jason Sachs July 25, 2020

This is a short article about one technique for communicating between asynchronous processes on bare-metal embedded systems.

Q: Why did the multithreaded chicken cross the road?

A: to To other side. get the

— Jason Whittington

There are many reasons why concurrency is


Tolerance Analysis

Jason Sachs May 31, 2020

Today we’re going to talk about tolerance analysis. This is a topic that I have danced around in several previous articles, but never really touched upon in its own right. The closest I’ve come is Margin Call, where I discussed several different techniques of determining design margin, and ran through some calculations to justify that it was safe to allow a certain amount of current through an IRFP260N MOSFET.

Tolerance analysis...


Understanding and Preventing Overflow (I Had Too Much to Add Last Night)

Jason Sachs December 4, 2013

Happy Thanksgiving! Maybe the memory of eating too much turkey is fresh in your mind. If so, this would be a good time to talk about overflow.

In the world of floating-point arithmetic, overflow is possible but not particularly common. You can get it when numbers become too large; IEEE double-precision floating-point numbers support a range of just under 21024, and if you go beyond that you have problems:

for k in [10, 100, 1000, 1020, 1023, 1023.9, 1023.9999, 1024]: try: ...

Adventures in Signal Processing with Python

Jason Sachs June 23, 201311 comments

Author’s note: This article was originally called Adventures in Signal Processing with Python (MATLAB? We don’t need no stinkin' MATLAB!) — the allusion to The Treasure of the Sierra Madre has been removed, in deference to being a good neighbor to The MathWorks. While I don’t make it a secret of my dislike of many aspects of MATLAB — which I mention later in this article — I do hope they can improve their software and reduce the price. Please note this...


My Love-Hate Relationship with Stack Overflow: Arthur S., Arthur T., and the Soup Nazi

Jason Sachs February 15, 201552 comments

Warning: In the interest of maintaining a coherent stream of consciousness, I’m lowering the setting on my profanity filter for this post. Just wanted to let you know ahead of time.

I’ve been a user of Stack Overflow since December of 2008. And I say “user” both in the software sense, and in the drug-addict sense. I’m Jason S, user #44330, and I’m a programming addict. (Hi, Jason S.) The Gravatar, in case you were wondering, is a screen...


How to Read a Power MOSFET Datasheet

Jason Sachs September 15, 201514 comments

One of my pet peeves is when my fellow engineers misinterpret component datasheets. This happened a few times recently in separate instances, all involving power MOSFETs. So it’s time for me to get on my soapbox. Listen up!

I was going to post an article on how to read component datasheets in general. But MOSFETs are a good place to start, and are a little more specific. I’m not the first person to write something about how to read datasheets; here are some other good...


How to Estimate Encoder Velocity Without Making Stupid Mistakes: Part I

Jason Sachs December 27, 201230 comments

Here's a common problem: you have a quadrature encoder to measure the angular position of a motor, and you want to know both the position and the velocity. How do you do it? Some people do it poorly -- this article is how not to be one of them.

Well, first we need to get position. Quadrature encoders are incremental encoders, meaning they can only measure relative changes in position. They produce a pair of pulse trains, commonly called A and B, that look like...


Ten Little Algorithms, Part 2: The Single-Pole Low-Pass Filter

Jason Sachs April 27, 201516 comments

Other articles in this series:

I’m writing this article in a room with a bunch of other people talking, and while sometimes I wish they would just SHUT UP, it would be...


Chebyshev Approximation and How It Can Help You Save Money, Win Friends, and Influence People

Jason Sachs September 30, 201220 comments

Well... maybe that's a stretch. I don't think I can recommend anything to help you win friends. Not my forte.

But I am going to try to convince you why you should know about Chebyshev approximation, which is a technique for figuring out how you can come as close as possible to computing the result of a mathematical function, with a minimal amount of design effort and CPU power. Let's explore two use cases:

  • Amy has a low-power 8-bit microcontroller and needs to compute \( \sqrt{x} \)...

Thermistor signal conditioning: Dos and Don'ts, Tips and Tricks

Jason Sachs June 15, 201117 comments

In an earlier blog entry,  I mentioned this circuit for thermistor signal conditioning:

It is worth a little more explanation on thermistor signal conditioning; it's something that's often done poorly, whereas it's among the easiest applications for signal conditioning.

The basic premise here is that there are two resistors in a voltage divider: Rth is the thermistor, and Rref is a reference resistor. Here Rref is either R3 alone, or R3 || R4, depending on the gain...


Zebras Hate You For No Reason: Why Amdahl's Law is Misleading in a World of Cats (And Maybe in Ours Too)

Jason Sachs February 27, 20171 comment

I’ve been wasting far too much of my free time lately on this stupid addicting game called the Kittens Game. It starts so innocently. You are a kitten in a catnip forest. Gather catnip.

And you click on Gather catnip and off you go. Soon you’re hunting unicorns and building Huts and studying Mathematics and Theology and so on. AND IT’S JUST A TEXT GAME! HTML and Javascript, that’s it, no pictures. It’s an example of an


Important Programming Concepts (Even on Embedded Systems) Part I: Idempotence

Jason Sachs August 26, 20146 comments

There are literally hundreds, if not thousands, of subtle concepts that contribute to high quality software design. Many of them are well-known, and can be found in books or the Internet. I’m going to highlight a few of the ones I think are important and often overlooked.

But first let’s start with a short diversion. I’m going to make a bold statement: unless you’re a novice, there’s at least one thing in computer programming about which you’ve picked up...