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I love engineering pads

January 4, 2016

After having spilled coffee on one pad and actually finished the two others that generally live on my desk, I went to the pile of office supply paper and dug out an engineering notepad. I found this:

Making Embedded Systems Info Sheet

This is clearly a sketch for an information sheet from the podcast two years ago. So much has changed about the show (even its title) that this is a pretty funny little view into the beginnings of the show.

Of course, I wasn’t digging for an engineering pad purely for nostalgia. I wanted to sketch something out. And since I kept re-doing it until it almost looks good, I figure I should share it.

I wanted to know how the itty-bitty quadcopter’s motors worked. This is for the Cheerson CX-10, a quadcopter that is just a bit bigger than a quarter.



Brother gifts

December 24, 2015

Another Christmas Eve is upon us so it must be time to get gifts for my brother. As usual, I’ll be getting kindle books and, as usual, I don’t really know what he likes. I know he very much enjoyed The Martian last year and was pleasantly surprised by Ken Jenning’s Maphead (so was I, actually).

This post makes more sense if you understand that I don’t really know my brother. Sure we grew up in the same house but had a very Bart and Lisa Simpson vibe: sibling rivalry at its worst. But I do care about him even though I suck at showing it; I fret about how to show that through books.

There have been some Kindle sales so I bought a few books earlier in the year when they were cheaper and set them to deliver today.

  • Statistics Done Wrong by Alex Reinhart: Statistics are really important in today’s world. It isn’t just about scientific significance, reading the newspaper without being able to see how to lie and hide information through stats is critical. I thought this was a good intro book, quite amusing for a topic that is usually a slog.
  • The Annotated Build-It-Yourself Science Laboratory: This was written in the sixties by Raymond Barrett, a teacher and museum exhibit developer. It is a great book but showed its age (you can’t go to the local pharmacy and pick up mercury anymore). So Windell Oskay updated it to reflect modern safety practices and some different resources for trying out the experiments. I was trilled to see this book on sale since it is a pretty amusing read and because I had Windell on (124: Please Don’t Light Yourself On Fire) so I could mention my podcast to my brother.
  • The Quantum Story: A history in 40 moments by Jim Baggott: I almost always buy books I’ve already read so I can believe I’ve done the due diligence to know he’d like them. But this one was on sale and so I got one for him and one for me. I’m about half way through and put it down… it is a good mashup of physics, characters, and history but the short-story-like nature makes it easy to put down and pick up. I’m glad I got it ($2!) but it isn’t Maphead.
  • Code Name Verity by Elizabeth E. Wein: This was the best book I read this year. Don’t read the summary, don’t read the reviews about it being sad. Just go read the book. I hope he likes this one though it is a bit of an outlier as far as genre goes.
  • 10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works–A True Story by Dan Harris: I picked up this book about meditation earlier in the year, having heard Dan Harris on an NPR show being open about his recreational drug use. It was a good book. I liked many parts of it and was only irritated by a few. It didn’t make me start meditating but it might have made me more mindful, at least for awhile.

Now I have to wade through my ideas to figure out what else to get him.

I think yes to Boneshaker by Cherie Priest. It was my introduction to Cherie Priest and still probably my favorite of her books (though I Am Princess X was fantastic but it is a young adult book targeted at women).

I just started The Moth, written versions of some of the stories told on The Moth Radio Hour. I really like the radio show, whatever they are about they are good stories. The ones I’ve read so far share the same level of goodness so I’ll take a chance that it continues despite the preface, forward, and introduction chapters all being long and less interesting.

In that same vein, I noticed that Terry Gross’ All I Did Was Ask: Conversations with Writers, Actors, Musicians, and Artists is also on special this month. I’ve been wanting to read that so one for him, one for me.

So that covers all the on-sale things. But I can’t buy only on-sale gifts. You can return Kindle Gifts and get the credit. And I’ve told him I don’t mind him doing that but it seems like all <$4 is odd. Despite the amount of time (and, seriously, all sorts of fretting), I should get a couple books that maybe come out of the normal bin.

I quite liked Brandon Sanderson’s Steelheart, a sci-fi/dystopian/superhero book. I got him the Mistborn trilogy last year. The packing is different enough that if he hated that, he still might like Steelheart (though if he liked that he’ll probably also like Steelheart).

I haven’t read The Peripheral by William Gibson but it people have been saying it is the best thing he’s written since Neuromancer. I’ll send this as a little cyberpunk to balance out the steampunk.

Realistically, this is probably enough books for my brother. Though I asked a friend for suggestions and he suggested Microserfs, The Peripheral, and Suarez’s Daemon. That’s the second person to suggest Daemon to me in the last two weeks. You know, I think I’ll just get that one for myself instead of my brother. And given the news that Microserfs was better than Ready Player One, well, that’s going high on my wish list.

Clearly I’ve stopped buying gifts for my brother and devolved into something else.

One more for him because I think it is neat: Thing Explainer: Complicated Stuff in Simple Words by Randall Munroe. The creator of the truly excellent xkcd comic and the hilarious What If blog wrote a book explaining complicated things in the most common thousand words. It is a strange blend of “huh” and “neat!” so I’m hoping he enjoys it.


Hackaday Prize 2015 Judging Plan

September 9, 2015

Hackaday Prize judging is coming. This is both exciting and nervous making.

I learned so much about different technologies and approaches last year. I felt so inadequate to the task of judging the amazing projects. I’m not a hacker. I am an industry engineer. They are different skillset with only a bit of overlap. I worried my scores would highlight my background, missing things the Hackaday community would find most interesting.

In the last year, I’ve participated more in the community (ok, only a little, I still have work to do). More importantly, I’ve thought more about judging and how to do it better. For the most part my new insights come from two TV shows: Chopped and Fool Us.

Chopped is a cooking competition, the competitors and judges are chefs. The judges can be quite harsh in their criticism though sometimes the judges don’t agree.  The contestants have to listen to the comments. The contestants I like always say “thank you” for the comments though some cry and others argue. I don’t want to be a judge that makes people seethe.

Chopped has been on a long time and the judging has developed over time. I like it when the judges take the perspective that their role is to protect the show’s $10,000 prize so it goes to the best contestant. I’m adopting that. My role is not to try to make sure the prizes go to the projects that most deserve them.

The other show, Fool Us, is a new magic show where magicians try to fool the legendary Penn and Teller. They’ve done all the magic tricks so people have to be pretty inventive to fool them. The prize is to be part of their show (no monetary prize); they aren’t protecting it at all. They are looking for wonder. I’m not sure I can make that a judging criterion for myself.

I really like how Penn is complimentary in the judging. He always says something really gracious. He finds the thing they did most right and points it out. He occasionally has growth suggestions but those are not given as “you did this wrong” but “you did great, you could do even better if…” I want to be that kind of judge.

Engineering is difficult. Competing is difficult. Doing all this in public is daunting. I’m sure everyone knows what they should have done, what they meant to do if only they had time. Most engineers are pretty good at picking ourselves and our projects apart. My goal will be to note the parts that surprise, educate, and inspire me.



Throwing Boards Over Walls

August 23, 2015

In response to comments made on episode 114 (Wild While Loops), an electrical engineering listener emailed us:

We all know that ‘throw it over the wall’ sucks as a business pattern. But it’s sometimes really hard not to; I’ve recently been under pressure to order those new boards already. Or I’ve flat-out overlooked something. Or I misunderstood how much testing the last guy had done. Or whatever. It’s hard.

We know we shouldn’t just throw and run, but it’s hard. Do you have any thoughts on how to persuade my boss that stronger reviews, and getting the embedded software people in on them, are a good idea?

I recognize that “throwing over the wall” between hardware and software is somewhat inevitable, especially as HW and SW sometimes have different schedules. The difficulty comes in when there is also animosity: the EE says the problem is software, the SW says it is hardware; no one works on it because it is clearly not their bug (or works on it resentfully). I remember those days and am very glad I grew out of it.

But how to persuade your boss more reviews (and possibly earlier reviews) are worthwhile? If your boss is a promoted engineer, data might help. How many issues were found and by whom? (That person could be part of the reviews.) How many hours do the SW folks say were lost to HW difficulties (that includes schematics they didn’t understand)? How much will a board respin cost if a problem isn’t identified until a quarter of the way through the software schedule? (Even better: how much did the last respin cost in terms of money and time lost?)

You might also pitch better reviews as cross training: should you win the lottery and go on a bender, a cross trained embedded software person might be able to babysit your work for a couple weeks until you sober up or another EE is hired. (We used to say “get hit by a bus” until my EE actually did; now I try for more positive scenarios.)

I am quite thankful that HP believed in cross training. I know the EEs didn’t get a lot from my review of their schematics (“Can you rename this net because I don’t understand your vernacular?”) but I sure did. It made me more effective in my firmware job because I knew what their plan was. It allowed me to debug with an oscilloscope by myself because I understood the schematic before I had to use it (before I was deep into “there is a problem!!!” mindset). Plus, I could ask for the test points I needed instead of cursing the lack of available signals.

And, of course, it is hard. Not only is the work hard, the boards and code are personal expressions of our brains making criticism difficult to accept gracefully. And engineers often neglect to turn on their niceness modules. And schedules are brutal. There is no time for reviews and it is hard to expose ourselves to the angst.

But you do the best you can and try to do work you are proud of, sometimes fighting the right battles, other times tilting at windmills because part of you knows it is important even when others can’t see it.

Hey, look, a rousing speech to close on.


Apology for getting us into ESC

July 27, 2015

I wanted to write you a letter to apologize that the Embedded Systems Conference (Silicon Valley) was a disappointing experience. I feel responsible as I mentioned it several times because I thought it would be interesting and educational, possibly even fun.  I invited many to speak, attend, or even to show up for the free expo at event.

I expected these good things for you and me; I felt that we didn’t get them. I’m disappointed by the actuality for myself and guilty about the people I roped into going. I was a featured speaker and I’m sorry I was affiliated with them.

I’ve been going for years, even speaking for years: I thought I knew what I was getting us into. I knew it would be a little smaller but I didn’t expect such drastic changes to the format and organization. (And it was a lot smaller, not only a little smaller, than previous years.)

I know those of you who only went to the expo didn’t have to pay anything to attend but I’m well aware of the value of time. The expo hall was a waste of time to me. It wasn’t even really an expo with exhibitors but a demo hall with sponsors. It was tiny, lacking the expected big names (TI, Atmel, Microchip were all missing as were a hundred others who had been stalwarts of ESCs past). I can’t blame them, there were no booths, instead they had tiny one sided kiosks the size of bathroom stalls with narrow aisles in between.

There were no vendor classes, no space to chat without being jostled. The room was very loud and somewhat dim. It was a terrible place to have a conversation. I could get far more info from vendor websites than the displays that were smaller than science fair posters. Since I attend the expo for the conversations, the area was pointless for me. The few demos I saw were unintelligible. Walking around was difficult as a crowd of four tended to block traffic through the small aisles.

I tweeted, wrote, and said that one of my sessions would be on the expo floor as it was listed as being in the Fantastical Theater. However, it was over in the paid area (still free to attend but difficult to find, you had to go through the bar to get there). It turned out ok, I think you found us and I was glad to have been in that room. I went to a session on the expo floor (also inexplicably billed as being in the Fantastical Theater). Though the material was fine, the session occurred during the happy hour on the expo floor. The speaker was often unintelligible as people nearby networked, chatted, and clinked bottles. The speaker had more aplomb than I would have, even to continue his session.

If you paid to attend because I suggested it, I’m frustrated you didn’t get the experience I wanted and expected for you, the one you should have. I cannot imagine how they justified turning paying attendees away from sessions because their rooms were too small. There were only a few rooms for speakers so seating was a first-come, first-served, stand-at-the-back and sit-on-the-floor sort. While my speaker pass was all-access, supposedly one of my perks for speaking, I missed sessions rather than take someone else’s spot and still I feel awful that you missed out because of poor planning.

I had nothing to do with that and nothing to do with the strange layout that made it so you had to walk through the bar and restaurant four or five times a day. It was nice they had comfy seats there but inexplicable that talks, expo, restrooms, and lunch always seemed to require a hike through the bar.

Finally, if I had any part in you signing up to be a speaker, I am the most deeply sorry for that. The speaker room was tiny, poorly appointed. To get lunch, we had to hike (through the bar) to get an attendee lunch in the expo hall. There was a nice-ish buffet lunch outside the speaker room but it was for UBM management only. I resented that they provided so well for themselves so well when I felt speakers were so shoddily treated.

At every other ESC I’ve spoken at, speakers have received a good lunch and plenty of snacks in a large speaker room. With at least half a dozen tables, it was a fun place to hang out. This year, with such a small room (one table plus a ledge with chairs), it was not a place to hang out and chat (the centrally located bar was better for that).

Also, and I think this was new, the speaker room and the media room were the same room. As a speaker and as a media representative, I do not appreciate this. As a speaker, I want down time and to meet with other speakers. In my occasional role as media, I want quiet space to interview.  (Note: I did not do any media at this event as I felt promoting it in any further way was a waste.)

One reason to speak at the conference was to get exposure. However, speaker names not in the printed program (though there was space). Even on other posters, it was talk name and company only, not the speaker (there was an exception for Max the Magnificent from I found that annoying: another instance of the conference organizers being unappreciative of the time, energy, and expense that the speakers put into their presentations (and many of us were not there in company-sponsored session so all of this came from our own pocket).

Another reason to speak (see image), is the Speaker Party (‘Invitation to our “Speakers Only” Party, where you’ll get to hobnob and network with some of industry’s top luminaries and your peers’). That was not actually part of the organizers’ plan at all.

Instead, after I asked the organizers twice in the weeks leading up to the event (getting contradictory answers), I complained on the morning of the last day. At 3pm, the organizers sent out a party invite for 3:30pm, while there were still talks going on and after many speakers had left. I opted not to attend this, having reached the end of my patience with the organizers and the conference.

I feel most embarrassed because I feel like I should have known before the conference. There was a lot of disorganization in the emails leading up to the event.  However, I did not know. This doesn’t excuse my promotion and involvement with such a pathetic, disorganized conference. I will try to do better in the future.