Category Archives: General

The New Cool Review

The first book review of the blog, oh man, things are getting crazy…

I picked up my copy of The New Cool by Neal Bascomb at Borders the other day.  While the cover and subject matter caught my eye initially, I was on the fence about buying it until Borders’ going out of business clearance prices convinced me to splurge.  The first thing you should know about the book is that it’s a very quick read.  I went cover to cover in just over 24 hours, often reading for long stretches at a time because I couldn’t pull myself away from the story.  In a nutshell, The New Cool follows a FIRST Robotics team from California over the course of their season as they strive to achieve dominance at the 2009 FIRST Championship.

Team 1717, The D’Penguineers, from Dos Pueblos High School in Goleta, CA and their lead mentor Amir make up the primary focus of the book.  Amir has started up a popular Engineering Academy within the high school and is in the midst of trying to secure funding to greatly expand the size and scope of his academy.  The 2009 FIRST competition is make or break for Amir’s dreams and the future of the academy will be decided on the success of Team 1717.  Should they make it far enough along in the competition Amir will most likely be able to secure enough funding to expand the Engineering Academy. If not then the academy’s future will rest on uneven ground.  The New Cool documents the team’s entire journey from brainstorming the initial robot design to the Championships in Atlanta, Georgia.  In my opinion, the author does a fantastic job of drawing the reader into the world of Team 1717 and causes them to become invested in each of the characters from mentor Amir, to lead programmer Gabe, lead driver Chase, or any of the other students involved in the project.

While discussing the construction of the D’Penguineers’ robot the book never delves too far into the technical details of the bot’s various systems and instead focuses on broad overviews of each system and the human issues within the group.  Even still, the complexity of the Team 1717’s design shines through whether Bascomb is describing the omni-directional drive train or the auto-targeting turret mounted atop the robot (probably my favorite part about the robot).  Quite a few times during the book I found myself impressed at what this group of high school students was able to do and I definitely wished that my high school was involved in FIRST some 9 years ago when I was just a lowly freshman.

Occasionally the book will take a break from Team 1717’s progress to mention one of their competitors including a team from Detroit who took first place the previous year and an inner city school from the South Bronx.  These brief excursions didn’t take anything away from the story. In fact, they added to it as it was interesting to see how various teams approached their designs.  There is also a brief section of the book which provides background information on the formation of FIRST and its creator Dean Kamen.

The main message of the book is to demonstrate how FIRST is striving to make STEM related activities the “new cool” in high schools across the US and how important it is to change public perception of science and technology.  In that regard, I feel that the book delivers its message wonderfully.  When the message of how our future lies in the hands of students becoming excited about science and engineering gets restated in the text it is done so in a way that is never preachy and so I never became annoyed with the tone or flow of the book.  Overall I would highly recommend The New Cool to someone who is interested in learning more about FIRST Robotics and is looking for a good read.

The Amp Hour Bingo

As a frequent listener to The Amp Hour may know, there are certain aspects that seem to repeat themselves. These things could be anything from the infamous “Will we ever make ICs in our basement?” argument to phrases Dave says like “Bugger Off.”  Therefore, I propose the creation of a Bingo game based upon the show.  Listeners can play along discreetly if they’re at work or at red lights if driving.  Otherwise just keep the sheet out on your desk and play along as you listen.

I’ve posted an example board below.  It’s nothing special, I just did it in Excel pretty quickly but perhaps if enough people got on board there could be a web app that generated game sheets or something.  The squares are filled with what I think are the most frequent elements of the show  (though a whole show without mentioning the 555 or Arduino may be a challenge) and are all meant to be in good fun.

If you’d like to play along just download one of the Excel files below containing a Bingo board.  I’ve tried to make them as different as possible so you could play multiple sheets at once but if there’s any issue with their layout let me know. If you have any suggestions for new squares I’ll start another sheet or if anyone makes their own board sound off in the comments and I’ll link to it for others to use.  Good luck!

Amp Hour Bingo 1

Amp Hour Bingo 2

Amp Hour Bingo 3

Update: With many thanks to Roel Adams we now have an online version of The Amp Hour Bingo! The site will generate a random board for you to play when you visit the page and is infinitely better than filling in Excel tiles. Keep listening to The Amp Hour and be sure to play along!

A Call to Arms

I’m sure it’s not news anymore to most of the readers here but recently there has been not one, but two devastating blows to the analog electronics industry.  Legendary Linear Tech Applications Engineer Jim Williams passed away on June 10, 2011 and National Semiconductor’s Analog Wizard Bob Pease (the self crowned Czar of Bandgaps) also passed away on June 18, 2011.   EDN author and fellow analog engineer Paul Rako fondly remembers both analog giants in two heartfelt posts on EDN’s website here and here. You can also find a tribute to Williams on Linear Tech’s website (found here) which also links to a collection of his app note guaranteed to provide you with enough reading material for the foreseeable future. [Update] National Semi has also added a tribute to Bob Pease on their website found here.  There’s an excellent video to go along with it that’s well worth the time to watch it (if anyone from Maxim is reading I apologize but your product catalog as Pease’s floor mat was pretty funny).

No one can deny that their unexpected passing is a blow to EE’s everywhere and both men will be greatly missed.  It is unlikely that either Williams or Pease will ever be replaced. In his article on Pease, Rako mentions that there are still many great analog designers in the industry today and while I agree with him, I do claim that we as an industry are currently left with a void to fill in terms of engineers who are as vocal as both Pease and Williams were.  There is now a need for engineers and makers who possess the same passion as these two great men to step up and inspire and teach others with their writing.

My challenge to not only analog fans but all engineers, coders, makers, hackers, etc. is to carry on where Jim Williams and Bob Pease left off.  Be passionate about your work, take pride in it.  Look to teach. Look to inspire. Let your enthusiasm show through in every project. Let people know what we do as engineers may not be easy but the challenge it provides is both exhilarating and at times, fun.  These are the ideals that should be present each and every day you sit down at your bench. You don’t have to be a circuit junky to see  these principles shine through in Williams’ and Pease’s work, they’re pretty self-evident.

So grab your ‘scopes, grab your dev boards, your MakerBots, and your soldering irons (not by the hot end). Take them and make something.  If you’re not a maker, write an article on a bit of theory you’re knowledgeable on or just any topic that interests you.  Throw the results online for others to see be it in your own blog, an Instructable, up on Hack a Day, YouTube, whatever.  Carry on the legacies of passion, knowledge, and dedication left behind by Jim Williams and Bob Pease.  While they can’t be replaced, their memories can be honored through the work of those they inspired.

Sadly, I never had the opportunity to meet nor work with either Pease or Williams. However, the two have inspired me immensely through their countless publications.  Ever since I first stumbled across The Best of Bob Pease on National’s website and Analog Circuit Design: Art, Science and Personalities  a few years ago I’ve been hooked on reading everything these two have put into print.  Both of them have taught me a great deal on not only analog circuits, but also the passion required for really loving the work that you do.  As I prepare to go off into the real world after summer ends and start my own career as an apps engineer, I hope that perhaps one day a few of my own app notes can be as well regarded as those written by Williams and Pease and can inspire budding EE’s the way they have inspired me.

To Jim Williams and Bob Pease, may they rest in peace…

Useful App Notes: Part 1

Over the years I’ve accumulated a rather astounding number of app notes on my hard drive from various companies.  What few ones I’ve read so far are, in my opinion, very useful and should be shared.  The rest I’ve downloaded thinking “This looks like something I should keep around in case it ever comes in handy,” only to never open them and let them collect virtual dust.  Sharing the interesting ones on my blog seemed like a win-win-win situation, I learn things reading app notes, you learn things from reading app notes, and I de-clutter my hard drive/Dropbox account,everybody wins. So without further ado here’s a few of the most useful app notes I’ve come across.

AN1613: From SPICE Netlist to Allegro Design Sub-circuit, Intersil

If you’re like me whenever you come across a part that isn’t in any of the main component libraries when using P-Spice you think to yourself “Is this part really necessary? How well does my design work with this op amp instead of the one I want?”  I did this because up until I found this app note, even if I could find a SPICE model online for a part I wanted, I didn’t know what to do with it.  Enter AN1613.  It goes through an easy step by step process of how to take a SPICE model you’ve found online and actually make it work in a Cadence Allegro Design  simulator.   I’ve used this app note to help simulate parts from a few IC companies with great results.

Op Amps for Everyone, Texas Instruments

While not exactly a single app note, Op Amps for Everyone is still a great design guide to have handy when you need to quickly refresh yourself on a topic or get a basic overview of a concept before researching it in more detail.  It covers everything from basic circuit analysis and feedback theory to filter design, converter interface, and everything in between.  There’s plenty of examples to go along with the theory as well as a whole chapter on layout considerations.

AN95-1: S-Parameter Techniques for Faster, More Accurate Network Design, Hewlett Packard

Here’s a blast from the past, AN95-1 was first released in 1967 by HP. While slightly on the old side, I still found this app note pretty useful when trying to wrap my head around S-Parameters last summer.

Got any favorite app notes you can’t live without? Share them in the comments, I’m always looking to collect more of them.

A Bench of My Own…

There’s been a few posts recently about the workbenches and labs people have the privilege to build and/or use and I myself have been suffering from bench envy these last months because I don’t have a bench of my own.  Some good examples include Chris Gammell’s new bench, Miss Outlier’s Place to Tinker, and  even one of my old tweets about a home lab I found on the internet.

While working on my thesis I’m always running between four different labs depending on if I’m soldering my PCB or testing it and also on what specifically I’m soldering or testing.  Due to expansions and add-ons at my school these labs are actually spaced somewhat far apart.  While I’m not hiking for days, it does lead to frustration and a decrease in productivity when even a simple rework, like changing a blown IC can take upwards of twenty minutes with most of that being travel time. (I’m not yet smart enough to design my circuits un-blowup-able on the first try, and yes, un-blowup-able is an industry term, probably.)

At any given time I may need some combination of a network analyzer (filter testing), RF signal generators (mixer testing),  a function generator (ADC testing), oscilloscopes, soldering irons, etc., and sadly there isn’t just one lab which contains everything I need.  Since I’m always walking between labs for long periods of time I can’t leave my test setups in place for when I return.  Other projects going on may need to jump on the equipment and hogging space in multiple labs while I’m not there isn’t exactly proper lab etiquette.

So because of all these hijinks, one of the biggest things I’m looking forward to once I leave school and go off into the real world is having my own bench to work at, or at least having a single lab with most of the equipment I’ll need in it.  I’ve been spoiled by some pretty well equipped labs while out doing co-ops over the years and now that I don’t have my own bench I really miss it.  One summer I even had a whole lab to myself; that was fantastic. I had more cables, scopes, and power supplies than I knew what to do with.

Does anyone else jump from lab to lab like I do, or am I unique in this aspect?