Important Programming Concepts (Even on Embedded Systems) Part II: Immutability

Jason Sachs September 14, 2014

Other articles in this series:

This article will discuss immutability, and some of its variations in the topic of functional programming.

There are a whole series of benefits to using program variables that… well, that aren’t actually variable, but instead are immutable. The impact of...


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

Jason Sachs August 26, 20145 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...


Someday We’ll Find It, The Kelvin Connection

Jason Sachs July 28, 20142 comments

You’d think it wouldn’t be too hard to measure electrical resistance accurately. And it’s really not, at least according to wikiHow.com: you just follow these easy steps:

  • Choose the item whose resistance you wish to measure.
  • Plug the probes into the correct test sockets.
  • Turn on the multimeter.
  • Select the best testing range.
  • Touch the multimeter probes to the item you wish to measure.
  • Set the multimeter to a high voltage range after finishing the...

10 Items of Test Equipment You Should Know

Jason Sachs June 22, 20143 comments

When life gets rough and a circuit board is letting you down, it’s time to turn to test equipment. The obvious ones are multimeters and oscilloscopes and power supplies. But you know about those already, right?

Here are some you may not have heard of:

Non-contact current sensors. Oscilloscope probes measure voltage. When you need to measure current, you need a different approach. Especially at high voltages, where maintaining galvanic isolation is important for safety. The usual...

Musings on Publication — and Zero Sequence Modulation

Jason Sachs May 30, 20141 comment

Perhaps you don’t think about it, but in order for you to read these articles, someone has to do something.

And I don’t just mean writing them. Stephane Boucher has set up this website so that it’s automatic, for the most part — at least from my end of things, as an author. When I get an idea for an article, I open up a new IPython Notebook, write my article, save it in a Mercurial repository, run a Python script to convert from IPython Notebook format to HTML, open...


How to Include MathJax Equations in SVG With Less Than 100 Lines of JavaScript!

Jason Sachs May 23, 20149 comments

Today’s short and tangential note is an account of how I dug myself out of Documentation Despair. I’ve been working on some block diagrams. You know, this sort of thing, to describe feedback control systems:

And I had a problem. How do I draw diagrams like this?

I don’t have Visio and I don’t like Visio. I used to like Visio. But then it got Microsofted.

I can use MATLAB and Simulink, which are great for drawing block diagrams. Normally you use them to create a...


First-Order Systems: The Happy Family

Jason Sachs May 3, 20141 comment
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...


Lost Secrets of the H-Bridge, Part IV: DC Link Decoupling and Why Electrolytic Capacitors Are Not Enough

Jason Sachs April 29, 20147 comments

Those of you who read my earlier articles about H-bridges, and followed them closely, have noticed there's some unfinished business. Well, here it is. Just so you know, I've been nervous about writing the fourth (and hopefully final) part of this series for a while. Fourth installments after a hiatus can bring bad vibes. I mean, look what it did to George Lucas: now we have Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace and


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...


How to Analyze a Differential Amplifier

Jason Sachs April 13, 2014

There are a handful of things that you just have to know if you do any decent amount of electronic circuit design work. One of them is a voltage divider. Another is the behavior of an RC filter. I'm not going to explain these two things or even link to a good reference on them — either you already know how they work, or you're smart enough to look it up yourself.

The handful of things also includes some others that are a little more interesting to discuss. One of them is this...


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...


Voltage Drops Are Falling on My Head: Operating Points, Linearization, Temperature Coefficients, and Thermal Runaway

Jason Sachs January 19, 2015

Today’s topic was originally going to be called “Small Changes Caused by Various Things”, because I couldn’t think of a better title. Then I changed the title. This one’s not much better, though. Sorry.

What I had in mind was the Shockley diode equation and some other vaguely related subjects.

My Teachers Lied to Me

My introductory circuits class in college included a section about diodes and transistors.

The ideal diode equation is...


Linear Feedback Shift Registers for the Uninitiated, Part II: libgf2 and Primitive Polynomials

Jason Sachs July 17, 2017

Last time, we looked at the basics of LFSRs and finite fields formed by the quotient ring \( GF(2)[x]/p(x) \).

LFSRs can be described by a list of binary coefficients, sometimes referred as the polynomial, since they correspond directly to the characteristic polynomial of the quotient ring.

Today we’re going to look at how to perform certain practical calculations in these finite fields. I maintain a Python library on bitbucket called...


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

Jason Sachs December 6, 20152 comments

“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...


Wye Delta Tee Pi: Observations on Three-Terminal Networks

Jason Sachs December 23, 2018

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


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...


Linear Feedback Shift Registers for the Uninitiated, Part VI: Sing Along with the Berlekamp-Massey Algorithm

Jason Sachs October 18, 2017

The last two articles were on discrete logarithms in finite fields — in practical terms, how to take the state \( S \) of an LFSR and its characteristic polynomial \( p(x) \) and figure out how many shift steps are required to go from the state 000...001 to \( S \). If we consider \( S \) as a polynomial bit vector such that \( S = x^k \bmod p(x) \), then this is equivalent to the task of figuring out \( k \) from \( S \) and \( p(x) \).

This time we’re tackling something...


Short Takes (EE Shanty): What shall we do with a zero-ohm resistor?

Jason Sachs October 19, 20132 comments

In circuit board design you often need flexibility. It can cost hundreds or thousands of dollars to respin a circuit board, so I need flexibility for two main reasons:

  • sometimes it's important to be able to use one circuit board design to serve more than one purpose
  • risk reduction: I want to give myself the option to add in or leave out certain things when I'm not 100% sure I'll need them.

And so we have jumpers and DIP switches and zero-ohm resistors:

Jumpers and...


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...