Margin Call: Fermi Problems, Highway Horrors, Black Swans, and Why You Should Worry About When You Should Worry

Jason Sachs December 6, 20151 comment

“Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns; that is to say, there are things that we now know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns — there are things we do not know we don’t know.” — Donald Rumsfeld, February 2002

Today’s topic is engineering margin.

XKCD had a what-if column involving Fermi...


Ten Little Algorithms, Part 5: Quadratic Extremum Interpolation and Chandrupatla's Method

Jason Sachs November 11, 20153 comments

Other articles in this series:

Today we will be drifting back into the topic of numerical methods, and look at an algorithm that takes in a series of discretely-sampled data points, and estimates the maximum value of...


The Dilemma of Unwritten Requirements

Jason Sachs October 25, 20151 comment

You will probably hear the word “requirements” at least 793 times in your engineering career, mostly in the context of how important it is, in any project, to agree upon clear requirements before committing to (and hastily proceeding towards) a deadline. Some of those times you may actually follow that advice. Other times it’s just talk, like how you should “wear sunscreen when spending time outdoors” and “eat a diet low in saturated fats and...


Trust, but Verify: Examining the Output of an Embedded Compiler

Jason Sachs September 27, 2015

I work with motor control firmware on the Microchip dsPIC33 series of microcontrollers. The vast majority of that firmware is written in C, with only a few percent in assembly. And I got to thinking recently: I programmed in C and C++ on an Intel PC from roughly 1991 to 2009. But I don’t remember ever working with x86 assembly code. Not once. Not even reading it. Which seems odd. I do that all the time with embedded firmware. And I think you should too. Before I say why, here are...


How to Read a Power MOSFET Datasheet

Jason Sachs September 15, 20158 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...


Lessons Learned from Embedded Code Reviews (Including Some Surprises)

Jason Sachs August 16, 20151 comment

My software team recently finished a round of code reviews for some of our motor controller code. I learned a lot from the experience, most notably why you would want to have code reviews in the first place.

My background is originally from the medical device industry. In the United States, software in medical devices gets a lot of scrutiny from the Food and Drug Administration, and for good reason; it’s a place for complexity to hide latent bugs. (Can you say “


Ten Little Algorithms, Part 4: Topological Sort

Jason Sachs July 5, 20151 comment

Other articles in this series:

Today we’re going to take a break from my usual focus on signal processing or numerical algorithms, and focus on...


Oh Robot My Robot

Jason Sachs June 26, 2015

Oh Robot! My Robot! You’ve broken off your nose! Your head is spinning round and round, your eye no longer glows, Each program after program tapped your golden memory, You used to have 12K, now there is none that I can see,  Under smoldering antennae,   Over long forgotten feet,    My sister used your last part:      The chip she tried to eat.

Oh Robot, My Robot, the remote controls—they call, The call—for...


Important Programming Concepts (Even on Embedded Systems) Part VI : Abstraction

Jason Sachs June 16, 20153 comments

Earlier articles:

We have come to the last part of the Important Programming Concepts series, on abstraction. I thought I might also talk about why there isn’t a Part VII, but decided it would distract from this article — so if you want to know the reason, along with what’s next,


Ten Little Algorithms, Part 1: Russian Peasant Multiplication

Jason Sachs March 22, 20155 comments

This blog needs some short posts to balance out the long ones, so I thought I’d cover some of the algorithms I’ve used over the years. Like the Euclidean algorithm and Extended Euclidean algorithm and Newton’s method — except those you should know already, and if not, you should be locked in a room until you do. Someday one of them may save your life. Well, you never know.

Other articles in this series:

  • Part 1:

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


Analog-to-Digital Confusion: Pitfalls of Driving an ADC

Jason Sachs November 19, 20115 comments

Imagine the following scenario:You're a successful engineer (sounds nice, doesn't it!) working on a project with three or four circuit boards. More than even you can handle, so you give one of them over to your coworker Wayne to design. Wayne graduated two years ago from college. He's smart, he's a quick learner, and he's really fast at designing schematics and laying out circuit boards. It's just that sometimes he takes some shortcuts... but in this case the circuit board is just something...


Important Programming Concepts (Even on Embedded Systems) Part V: State Machines

Jason Sachs January 5, 20158 comments

Other articles in this series:

Oh, hell, this article just had to be about state machines, didn’t it? State machines! Those damned little circles and arrows and q’s.

Yeah, I know you don’t like them. They bring back bad memories from University, those Mealy and Moore machines with their state transition tables, the ones you had to write up...


Two Capacitors Are Better Than One

Jason Sachs February 15, 20155 comments

I was looking for a good reference for some ADC-driving circuits, and ran across this diagram in Walt Jung’s Op-Amp Applications Handbook:

And I smiled to myself, because I immediately remembered a circuit I hadn’t used for years. Years! But it’s something you should file away in your bag of tricks.

Take a look at the RC-RC circuit formed by R1, R2, C1, and C2. It’s basically a stacked RC low-pass filter. The question is, why are there two capacitors?

I...


Help, My Serial Data Has Been Framed: How To Handle Packets When All You Have Are Streams

Jason Sachs December 11, 201110 comments

Today we're going to talk about data framing and something called COBS, which will make your life easier the next time you use serial communications on an embedded system -- but first, here's a quiz:

Quick Diversion, Part I: Which of the following is the toughest area of electrical engineering? analog circuit design digital circuit design power electronics communications radiofrequency (RF) circuit design electromagnetic...

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

Jason Sachs February 26, 20127 comments

This two-part article explains five tips to make a fixed-point PI controller work well. I am not going to talk about loop tuning -- there are hundreds of articles and books about that; any control-systems course will go over loop tuning enough to help you understand the fundamentals. There will always be some differences for each system you have to control, but the goals are the same: drive the average error to zero, keep the system stable, and maximize performance (keep overshoot and delay...


Which MOSFET topology?

Jason Sachs September 2, 20119 comments

A recent electronics.StackExchange question brings up a good topic for discussion. Let's say you have a power supply and a 2-wire load you want to be able to switch on and off from the power supply using a MOSFET. How do you choose which circuit topology to choose? You basically have four options, shown below:

From left to right, these are:

High-side switch, N-channel MOSFET High-side switch, P-channel MOSFET Low-side switch, N-channel...

Another 10 Circuit Components You Should Know

Jason Sachs October 30, 20131 comment

It's that time again to review all the oddball goodies available in electronic components. These are things you should have in your bag of tricks when you need to design a circuit board. If you read my previous posts and were looking forward to more, this article's for you!

1. Bus switches

I can't believe I haven't mentioned bus switches before. What is a bus switch?

There are lots of different options for switches:

  • mechanical switch / relay: All purpose, two...