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...

Garden Rakes Revisited: The Hall of Shame

Jason Sachs April 12, 2014

A little while ago, I wrote about what I call the “garden rakes” syndrome in software, where there are little bugs or pitfalls lying around like sloppy garden rakes that no one has put away, and when you use these software programs, instead of zooming around getting things done, you’re either tripping over the garden rakes or carefully trying to avoid them. Either way, you lose focus on what you’re really trying to work on, and that causes a big hit in...

March is Oscilloscope Month — and at Tim Scale!

Jason Sachs March 6, 2014

I got my oscilloscope today.

Maybe that was a bit of an understatement; I'll have to resort to gratuitous typography:


Those of you who are reading this blog may remember I made a post about two years ago about searching for the right oscilloscope for me. Since then, I changed jobs and have been getting situated in the world of applications engineering, working on motor control projects. I've been gradually working to fill in gaps in the infrastructure...

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

Jason Sachs January 28, 20141 comment

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...

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...

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: ...

How to Estimate Encoder Velocity Without Making Stupid Mistakes: Part II (Tracking Loops and PLLs)

Jason Sachs November 17, 201312 comments

Yeeehah! Finally we're ready to tackle some more clever ways to figure out the velocity of a position encoder. In part I, we looked at the basics of velocity estimation. Then in my last article, I talked a little about what's necessary to evaluate different kinds of algorithms. Now it's time to start describing them. We'll cover tracking loops and phase-locked loops in this article, and Luenberger observers in part III.

But first we need a moderately simple, but interesting, example...

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...

Optimizing Optoisolators, and Other Stories of Making Do With Less

Jason Sachs December 14, 20144 comments

It’s been a few months since I’ve rolled up my sleeves here and dug into some good old circuit design issues. I started out with circuit design articles, and I’ve missed it.

Today’s topic will be showing you some tricks for how to get more performance out of an optoisolator. These devices — and I’m tempted to be lazy and call them “optos”, but that sounds more like a cereal with Greek yogurt-covered raisins — are essentially just an LED...

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...

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...

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...

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...

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...

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...

Linear Feedback Shift Registers for the Uninitiated, Part XIII: System Identification

Jason Sachs March 12, 20181 comment

Last time we looked at spread-spectrum techniques using the output bit sequence of an LFSR as a pseudorandom bit sequence (PRBS). The main benefit we explored was increasing signal-to-noise ratio (SNR) relative to other disturbance signals in a communication system.

This time we’re going to use a PRBS from LFSR output to do something completely different: system identification. We’ll show two different methods of active system identification, one using sine waves and the other...

Linear Feedback Shift Registers for the Uninitiated, Part XIV: Gold Codes

Jason Sachs April 18, 2018

Last time we looked at some techniques using LFSR output for system identification, making use of the peculiar autocorrelation properties of pseudorandom bit sequences (PRBS) derived from an LFSR.

This time we’re going to jump back to the field of communications, to look at an invention called Gold codes and why a single maximum-length PRBS isn’t enough to save the world using spread-spectrum technology. We have to cover two little side discussions before we can get into Gold...