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

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

## The Other Kind of Bypass Capacitor

There’s a type of bypass capacitor I’d like to talk about today.

It’s not the usual power supply bypass capacitor, aka decoupling capacitor, which is used to provide local charge storage to an integrated circuit, so that the high-frequency supply currents to the IC can bypass (hence the name) all the series resistance and inductance from the power supply. This reduces the noise on a DC voltage supply. I’ve...

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

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...

## Round Round Get Around: Why Fixed-Point Right-Shifts Are Just Fine

Today’s topic is rounding in embedded systems, or more specifically, why you don’t need to worry about it in many cases.

One of the issues faced in computer arithmetic is that exact arithmetic requires an ever-increasing bit length to avoid overflow. Adding or subtracting two 16-bit integers produces a 17-bit result; multiplying two 16-bit integers produces a 32-bit result. In fixed-point arithmetic we typically multiply and shift right; for example, if we wanted to multiply some...

## Scorchers, Part 1: Tools and Burn Rate

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...

## Padé Delay is Okay Today

This article is going to be somewhat different in that I’m not really writing it for the typical embedded systems engineer. Rather it’s kind of a specialized topic, so don’t be surprised if you get bored and move on to something else. That’s fine by me.

Anyway, let’s just jump ahead to the punchline. Here’s a numerical simulation of a step response to a \( p=126, q=130 \) Padé approximation of a time delay:

Impressed? Maybe you should be. This...

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

“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

Other articles in this series:

- Part 1: Russian Peasant Multiplication
- Part 2: The Single-Pole Low-Pass Filter
- Part 3: Welford's Method (And Friends)
- Part 4: Topological Sort
- Part 6: Green’s Theorem and Swept-Area Detection

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

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

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...

## Wye Delta Tee Pi: Observations on Three-Terminal Networks

Today I’m going to talk a little bit about three-terminal linear passive networks. These generally come in two flavors, wye and delta.

Why Wye?The town of Why, Arizona has a strange name that comes from the shape of the original road junction of Arizona State Highways 85 and 86, which was shaped like the letter Y. This is no longer the case, because the state highway department reconfigured the intersection

## 10 Circuit Components You Should Know

Chefs have their miscellaneous ingredients, like condensed milk, cream of tartar, and xanthan gum. As engineers, we too have quite our pick of circuits, and a good circuit designer should know what's out there. Not just the bread and butter ingredients like resistors, capacitors, op-amps, and comparators, but the miscellaneous "gadget" components as well.

Here are ten circuit components you may not have heard of, but which are occasionally quite useful.

1. Multifunction gate (

## Donald Knuth Is the Root of All Premature Optimization

This article is about something profound that a brilliant young professor at Stanford wrote nearly 45 years ago, and now we’re all stuck with it.

TL;DRThe idea, basically, is that even though optimization of computer software to execute faster is a noble goal, with tangible benefits, this costs time and effort up front, and therefore the decision to do so should not be made on whims and intuition, but instead should be made after some kind of analysis to show that it has net...

## Bad Hash Functions and Other Stories: Trapped in a Cage of Irresponsibility and Garden Rakes

I was recently using the publish() function in MATLAB to develop some documentation, and I ran into a problem caused by a bad hash function.

In a resource-limited embedded system, you aren't likely to run into hash functions. They have three major applications: cryptography, data integrity, and data structures. In all these cases, hash functions are used to take some type of data, and deterministically boil it down to a fixed-size "fingerprint" or "hash" of the original data, such that...

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

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...

## 10 Software Tools You Should Know

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...

## First-Order Systems: The Happy Family

Все счастли́вые се́мьи похо́жи друг на дру́га, ка́ждая несчастли́вая семья́ несчастли́ва по-сво́ему.— Лев Николаевич Толстой, Анна Каренина

Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.— Lev Nicholaevich Tolstoy, Anna Karenina

I was going to write an article about second-order systems, but then realized that it would be...

## Important Programming Concepts (Even on Embedded Systems) Part IV: Singletons

Other articles in this series:

- Part I: Idempotence
- Part II: Immutability
- Part III: Volatility
- Part V: State Machines
- Part VI: Abstraction

Today’s topic is the singleton. This article is unique (pun intended) in that unlike the others in this series, I tried to figure out a word to use that would be a positive concept to encourage, as an alternative to singletons, but

## Linear Feedback Shift Registers for the Uninitiated, Part XII: Spread-Spectrum Fundamentals

Last time we looked at the use of LFSRs for pseudorandom number generation, or PRNG, and saw two things:

- the use of LFSR state for PRNG has undesirable serial correlation and frequency-domain properties
- the use of single bits of LFSR output has good frequency-domain properties, and its autocorrelation values are so close to zero that they are actually better than a statistically random bit stream

The unusually-good correlation properties...

## Ten Little Algorithms, Part 6: Green’s Theorem and Swept-Area Detection

Other articles in this series:

- Part 1: Russian Peasant Multiplication
- Part 2: The Single-Pole Low-Pass Filter
- Part 3: Welford's Method (And Friends)
- Part 4: Topological Sort
- Part 5: Quadratic Extremum Interpolation and Chandrupatla's Method

This article is mainly an excuse to scribble down some cryptic-looking mathematics — Don’t panic! Close your eyes and scroll down if you feel nauseous — and...

## Padé Delay is Okay Today

This article is going to be somewhat different in that I’m not really writing it for the typical embedded systems engineer. Rather it’s kind of a specialized topic, so don’t be surprised if you get bored and move on to something else. That’s fine by me.

Anyway, let’s just jump ahead to the punchline. Here’s a numerical simulation of a step response to a \( p=126, q=130 \) Padé approximation of a time delay:

Impressed? Maybe you should be. This...

## First-Order Systems: The Happy Family

Все счастли́вые се́мьи похо́жи друг на дру́га, ка́ждая несчастли́вая семья́ несчастли́ва по-сво́ему.— Лев Николаевич Толстой, Анна Каренина

Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.— Lev Nicholaevich Tolstoy, Anna Karenina

I was going to write an article about second-order systems, but then realized that it would be...

## The CRC Wild Goose Chase: PPP Does What?!?!?!

I got a bad feeling yesterday when I had to include reference information about a 16-bit CRC in a serial protocol document I was writing. And I knew it wasn’t going to end well.

The last time I looked into CRC algorithms was about five years ago. And the time before that… sometime back in 2004 or 2005? It seems like it comes up periodically, like the seventeen-year locust or sunspots or El Niño,...

## R1C1R2C2: The Two-Pole Passive RC Filter

I keep running into this circuit every year or two, and need to do the same old calculations, which are kind of tiring. So I figured I’d just write up an article and then I can look it up the next time.

This is a two-pole passive RC filter. Doesn’t work as well as an LC filter or an active filter, but it is cheap. We’re going to find out a couple of things about its transfer function.

First let’s find out the transfer function of this circuit:

Not very...

## Linear Feedback Shift Registers for the Uninitiated, Part XVI: Reed-Solomon Error Correction

Last time, we talked about error correction and detection, covering some basics like Hamming distance, CRCs, and Hamming codes. If you are new to this topic, I would strongly suggest going back to read that article before this one.

This time we are going to cover Reed-Solomon codes. (I had meant to cover this topic in Part XV, but the article was getting to be too long, so I’ve split it roughly in half.) These are one of the workhorses of error-correction, and they are used in...

## Signal Processing Contest in Python (PREVIEW): The Worst Encoder in the World

When I posted an article on estimating velocity from a position encoder, I got a number of responses. A few of them were of the form "Well, it's an interesting article, but at slow speeds why can't you just take the time between the encoder edges, and then...." My point was that there are lots of people out there which take this approach, and don't take into account that the time between encoder edges varies due to manufacturing errors in the encoder. For some reason this is a hard concept...

## Donald Knuth Is the Root of All Premature Optimization

This article is about something profound that a brilliant young professor at Stanford wrote nearly 45 years ago, and now we’re all stuck with it.

TL;DRThe idea, basically, is that even though optimization of computer software to execute faster is a noble goal, with tangible benefits, this costs time and effort up front, and therefore the decision to do so should not be made on whims and intuition, but instead should be made after some kind of analysis to show that it has net...

## Bad Hash Functions and Other Stories: Trapped in a Cage of Irresponsibility and Garden Rakes

I was recently using the publish() function in MATLAB to develop some documentation, and I ran into a problem caused by a bad hash function.

In a resource-limited embedded system, you aren't likely to run into hash functions. They have three major applications: cryptography, data integrity, and data structures. In all these cases, hash functions are used to take some type of data, and deterministically boil it down to a fixed-size "fingerprint" or "hash" of the original data, such that...

## 10 More (Obscure) Circuit Components You Should Know

The interest in my previous article on obscure but useful electronics parts, "10 Circuit Components You Should Know" was encouraging enough that I thought I would write a followup. So here are another 10:

1. "Ideal Diode" controllers

Load-sharing circuits use diodes tied together at their cathode terminal to take the most positive voltage among the sources and connect it to a load. Works great: you have a DC/DC power supply, a battery, and a solar cell, and it will use whichever output is...

## Real-time clocks: Does anybody really know what time it is?

We recently started writing software to make use of a real-time clock IC, and found to our chagrin that the chip was missing a rather useful function, namely elapsed time in seconds since the standard epoch (January 1, 1970, midnight UTC).Let me back up a second.A real-time clock/calendar (RTC) is a micropower chip that has an oscillator on it that keeps counting time, independent of main system power. Usually this is done with a lithium battery that can power the RTC for years, so that even...