Implementation Complexity, Part I: The Tower of Babel, Gremlins, and The Mythical Man-Month

Jason Sachs June 9, 2013

I thought I'd post a follow-up, in a sense, to an older post about complexity in consumer electronics I wrote a year and a half ago. That was kind of a rant against overly complex user interfaces. I am a huge opponent of unnecessary complexity in almost any kind of interface, whether a user interface or a programming interface or an electrical interface. Interfaces should be clean and simple.

Now, instead of interface complexity, I'll be talking about implementation complexity, with a...

Isolated Sigma-Delta Modulators, Rah Rah Rah!

Jason Sachs April 25, 2013

I recently faced a little "asterisk" problem, which looks like it can be solved with some interesting ICs. 

I needed to plan out some test instrumentation to capture voltage and current information over a short period of time. Nothing too fancy, 10 or 20kHz sampling rate, about a half-dozen channels sampled simultaneously or near simultaneously, for maybe 5 or 10 seconds.

Here's the "asterisk": Oh, by the way, because the system in question was tied to the AC mains, I needed some...

Oscilloscope review: Hameg HMO2024

Jason Sachs March 28, 20133 comments

Last year I wrote about some of the key characteristics of oscilloscopes that are important to me for working with embedded microcontrollers. In that blog entry I rated the Agilent MSOX3024A 4-channel 16-digital-input oscilloscope highly.

Since then I have moved to a different career, and I am again on the lookout for an oscilloscope. I still consider the Agilent MSOX3024A the best choice for a...

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...

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 \( \sqrt{x} \)...

Thoughts on Starting a New Career

Jason Sachs July 22, 20127 comments

I recently completed a 16-year stint at an engineering company. I started there fresh out of college in June 1996. This June I just started a new career as an applications engineer in the area of motor drives at Microchip Technology in Chandler, Arizona. The experience I had in switching jobs was a very enlightening one for me, and has given me an opportunity to reflect on my career. I want to share some of that reflection with you.

Disclaimer: the opinions expressed in this and other blogs...

10 Software Tools You Should Know

Jason Sachs May 20, 201215 comments

Unless you're designing small analog electronic circuits, it's pretty hard these days to get things done in embedded systems design without the help of computers. I thought I'd share a list of software tools that help me get my job done. Most of these are free or inexpensive. Most of them are also for working with software. If you never have to design, read, or edit any software, then you're one of a few people that won't benefit from reading this. 

Disclaimer: the "best" software...

Have You Ever Seen an Ideal Op-Amp?

Jason Sachs April 30, 2012

Somewhere, along with unicorns and the Loch Ness Monster, lies a small colony of ideal op-amps. Op-amp is short for operational amplifier, and we start our education on them by learning about these mythical beasts, which have the following properties:

  • Infinite gain
  • Infinite input impedance
  • Zero output impedance

And on top of it all, they will do whatever it takes to change their output in order to make their two inputs equal.

But they don't exist. Real op-amps have...

Hot Fun in the Silicon: Thermal Testing with Power Semiconductors

Jason Sachs April 20, 2012

Here's a trick that is useful the next time you do thermal testing with your MOSFETs or IGBTs.

Thermal testing?!

Yes, that's right. It's important to make sure your power transistors don't overheat. In the datasheet, you will find some information that you can use to estimate how hot the junction inside the IC will get.

Let's look at an example. Here's a page from the IRF7739 DirectFET datasheet. I like this datasheet because it has almost all the thermal stuff on one page,...

How to Build a Fixed-Point PI Controller That Just Works: Part II

Jason Sachs March 24, 20122 comments

In Part I we talked about some of the issues around discrete-time proportional-integral (PI) controllers:

  • various forms and whether to use the canonical form for z-transforms (don't do it!)
  • order of operation in the integral term: whether to scale and then integrate (my recommendation), or integrate and then scale.
  • saturation and anti-windup

In this part we'll talk about the issues surrounding fixed-point implementations of PI controllers. First let's recap the conceptual structure...

Linear Feedback Shift Registers for the Uninitiated, Part IV: Easy Discrete Logarithms and the Silver-Pohlig-Hellman Algorithm

Jason Sachs September 16, 20174 comments

Last time we talked about the multiplicative inverse in finite fields, which is rather boring and mundane, and has an easy solution with Blankinship’s algorithm.

Discrete logarithms, on the other hand, are much more interesting, and this article covers only the tip of the iceberg.

What is a Discrete Logarithm, Anyway?

Regular logarithms are something that you’re probably familiar with: let’s say you have some number \( y = b^x \) and you know \( y \) and \( b \) but...

Efficiency Through the Looking-Glass

Jason Sachs December 8, 20134 comments

If you've ever designed or purchased a power supply, chances are you have had to work with efficiency calculations. I can remember in my beginning electronic circuits course in college, in the last lecture when the professor was talking about switching power converters, and saying how all of a sudden you could take a linear regulator that was 40% efficient and turn it into a switching regulator that was 80% efficient. I think that was the nail in the coffin for any plans I had to pursue a...

Linear Feedback Shift Registers for the Uninitiated, Part X: Counters and Encoders

Jason Sachs December 9, 2017

Last time we looked at LFSR output decimation and the computation of trace parity.

Today we are starting to look in detail at some applications of LFSRs, namely counters and encoders.


I mentioned counters briefly in the article on easy discrete logarithms. The idea here is that the propagation delay in an LFSR is smaller than in a counter, since the logic to compute the next LFSR state is simpler than in an ordinary counter. All you need to construct an LFSR is

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...

Scorchers, Part 1: Tools and Burn Rate

Jason Sachs April 12, 20167 comments

This is a short article about one aspect of purchasing, for engineers.

I had an engineering manager once — I’ll leave his real name out of it, but let’s call him Barney — who had a catchy response to the question “Can I buy XYZ?”, where XYZ was some piece of test equipment, like an oscilloscope or multimeter. Barney said, “Get what you need, need what you get.” We used purchase orders, which when I started in 1996 were these quaint forms on...

How to Succeed in Motor Control: Olaus Magnus, Donald Rumsfeld, and YouTube

Jason Sachs December 11, 2016

Almost four years ago, I had this insight — we were doing it wrong! Most of the application notes on motor control were about the core algorithms: various six-step or field-oriented control methods, with Park and Clarke transforms, sensorless estimators, and whatnot. It was kind of like a driving school would be, if they taught you how the accelerator and brake pedal worked, and how the four-stroke Otto cycle works in internal combustion engines, and handed you a written...

Python Code from My Articles Now Online in IPython Notebooks

Jason Sachs May 1, 20152 comments

Ever since I started using IPython Notebooks to write these articles, I’ve been wanting to publish them in a form such that you can freely use my Python code. One of you (maredsous10) wanted this access as well.

Well, I finally bit the bullet and automated a script that will extract the Python code and create standalone notebooks, that are available publicly under the Apache license on my bitbucket account: https://bitbucket.org/jason_s/embedded-blog-public

This also means they...

A Wish for Things That Work

Jason Sachs January 1, 20182 comments

As the end of the year approaches, I become introspective. This year I am frustrated by bad user interfaces in software.

Actually, every year, throughout the year, I am frustrated by bad user interfaces in software. And yet here it is, the end of 2017, and things aren’t getting much better! Argh!

I wrote about this sort of thing a bit back in 2011 (“Complexity in Consumer Electronics Considered Harmful”) but I think it’s time to revisit the topic. So I’m...

Supply Chain Games: What Have We Learned From the Great Semiconductor Shortage of 2021? (Part 4)

Jason Sachs December 31, 2022

Today we’re going to look at what’s been going on this past year in the chip shortage, particularly in the automotive markets. I’m going to share some recent events and statements that may shed some light on what’s been happening.

In Part Three we went through a deep dive on some aspects of Moore’s Law, the semiconductor foundries, and semiconductor economics, and we looked at the game Supply Chain Idle. We touched on a couple of important points about the...

April is Oscilloscope Month: In Which We Discover Agilent Offers Us a Happy Deal and a Sad Name

Jason Sachs April 19, 2014

Last month I wrote that March is Oscilloscope Month, because Agilent had a deal on the MSOX2000 and MSOX3000 series scopes offering higher bandwidth at lower prices. I got an MSOX3034 oscilloscope and saved my company $3500! (Or rather, I didn't save them anything, but I got a 350MHz scope at a 200MHz price.)

The scope included a free 30-day trial for each of the application software modules. I used my 30-day trial for the serial decode + triggering module, to help debug some UART...