Screaming Circuits: Top-Ten Lists

The Past and Future of Electronics

Our parent company, Milwaukee Electronics was founded 60 years ago, in 1954. That's quite a long time in terms of electronics.

  • 60 years back

1954 was a big year for transistor electronics. The first commercially produced transistor radio, the Regency TR-1, was put on sale in November 1954, for a price of $49.95. The Bell Labs TRADIC, the first transistorized computer in the U.S. showed up in 1954.

TiconIt was also a big year for nuclear energy. The first civilian nuclear power plant went on line in Russia (whether it was a military research facility or a power generation facility is under debate). The European CERN nuclear research organization was formed.

The first atomic powered submarine, The Nautilus, was commissioned by the U.S. Navy. 1954 also saw the U.S. explode the first hydrogen bomb. The Atomic Energy Act of 1954 paved the way for the civilian use of atomic power in the U.S.

The magazine Popular Electronics debuted in October 1954. That issue covered, amongst other things, a solar "battery" with 6% efficiency, radio control of models, and capacitors.

That was a bit of the past. What will the future of electronics hold? What will technology look like in 2074? Will the world even be recognisable at all?

  • 60 years forward

Well, hopefully, there won't be any new developments in the area of bigger and more powerful bombs, like in 1954. Hopefully, we won't have been enslaved by our new robot overlords. Regardless, electronics will be vastly different in 2074.

The concept of a printed circuits board will have long passed by that year. Electronics will be more of a construction material supplement.

Processing power and sensors will come in a bag, in the form of tiny particles. They'll self-power with energy harvesting. They'll have integrated wireless communications. Each one, won't do much, but when added together, they will essentially form a big piece of programmable logic.

Take aircraft paint as an example. The paint manufacturers will mix in intelligent "dust." The aircraft paint will get a ratio or 40% computational dust, 10% strain gauge dust, 20% rf/temperature/light/moisture sensor dust, 20% actuator dust, and 10% other miscellaneous functionality dust.

Once applied to the aircraft, the paint will manifest itself as a giant programmable logic and sensor array. The paint will cover communications, location and all forms of sensing and maneuvering.

The smart dust will be mixed up in different proportions, based on the application requirements, and added to everything. Even food.

Duane Benson
I think that pill will be ready long before the year 3535

Geek Week on Youtube

In case you haven't heard, it's Geek Week on Youtube. In honor of that, here are the top ten most incredible pieces of trivia from ancient Geek Mythology. You can scroll down and read them here, or have the questions read to you, by me, over on our Youtube channel. 


First question:

F: Everyone has heard the trite phrase: “There are 10 types of people; those who understand binary and those who don’t.” Who’s missing?

E: All your _____ are belong to us. Fill in the blank.

D: Who, in the late ‘70s correctly predicted that by the turn of the century, it would be possible to use our computers to find the answer to any question?

C: And, what name did he give his computer?

 B: Bell is reputed to have said: “Watson, come here. I need you.” What was Charlie Klien’s equivalent statement in 1969?

A: Who caused the “Y2K” problem? And, no, that’s not it. You’re already wrong.

9: Who did business under the name “Traf-O-Data”, starting in 1971?

8: One particular semi-nautically named person wrote the first word processor for the Apple II while in prison. Who was that?

7: And, what was that word processor? Bonus points if you’ve actually used it.

6: Who, in 1995, while on his deathbed, claimed to be DB Cooper? Bonus points if you know why I might know this.

5: How many tubes did a standard superhetrodyne radio have?

4: Name them.

3: When did the first man go into space? Be advised that you’re probably wrong.

2: When someone refers to “scout water”, what are they referring to?

1:  How many instructions did the first CPU have?

Now, drum roll please… ,

0: What is the least known, yet probably the most significant law that enabled the personal computer revolution to happen?

And... This is a contest. The first five people, in North America, to get the correct answers will receive a T-Shirt from us - or the five closest to complete and correct. You have until next Monday (8-12-13), when we post the answers. If you choose to submit answers, send them to dbenson @ screamingcircuits . com with the subject line "Trivia answers"

Duane Benson
According the The Buggles, video killed the radio star
If so, then why do we still have radio telescopes? 

10th Anniversary Top 10 Traps

A few folks requested my presentation from out 10th anniversary open house.So, without much adieu, here it is.

Download Top 10 traps 7-2013 (PowerPoint format)

Download Top 10 traps 7-2013 (PDF format)

Duane Benson
10 times 10 isn't necessarily equal to 10 times 10.
Especially if you mix bases.

Top Ten Things To Do In 2012

Mayan_glyphUnless you've managed to live off the grid for the last five years, you know that the Mayan calendar has predicted the end of the world on December 21, 2012. Ignoring all conventional wisdom, centuries of scientific knowledge and the fact that the Mayan community doesn't even believe it, I feel compelled to list key electronics things that everyone should see or do in this last year before the end of the world. Because, you know, just in case...

Here are the top ten things to look into or do in 2012 before the end of the world on December 21, 2012:

0b0000.0000: Build something open source. It's amazing what is available. Back in the heyday of hobby electronics, it was easy to find projects in magazines such as "Popular Electronics." You could get kits from Heathkit or RadioShack. But, for the most part, all of those things went away. With Open Source, you can build an almost unlimited variety of gadgets. What's more, you can taylor your build to your experience level. If you want to do it all, just get the files, fab your boards, buy your parts and solder it up. If you're less ambitious, buy a complete kit. If you're even more ambitious, mod the design and post it up for the community.

0b0000.0001: While you're out fiddling with Open Source, get ahold of a Beaglebone. It's Ti's second take on open source hardware. The original Beaglebard was and is a great way to get to know their OMAP processors, both in therms of programming it and in terms of designing a PCB for it. The Beaglebone is an easier to use, easier to expand, but not quite as powerful adjunct to the Beagleboard.

0b0000.0010: Try out some new CAD software. Sunstone released PCB123 version 4 in 2011 and Element14 released EagleCAD version 6. Check them out and see if they do what you need. Both are good economical ways to get into circuit design and layout. PCB123 doesn't cost anything initially. It sends your boards through Sunstone and they earn their rent that way. Eagle has a tiered pricing model, starting at a small non-commercial version for free and stepping up to a full-feature professional system.

0b0000.0011: Try out some newer technology. I'f you've always been intimidated by QFN or micro BGA packages, go ahead and give it a try. They're more difficult at first, but once you've got the tricks down, you get access to a slew of new components that only come out in those form factors. Check out some guidelines on QFN use.

0b0000.0100: Look at space pictures. There are a number of probes up running around our solar system these days, and one on the verge of leaving it. Hop on over the or and see what's going on. There's a probe orbiting an asteroid, new ones off to Jupiter and Mars, one orbiting Mercury, some new space telescopes and more. There's just a lot going on out there right now. You can even leave your computer, go outside and look up at the sky for real.

0b0000.0101: Try and make something really, really small. For my part, I'm taking a little two-motor robot brain I've built and an trying to see just how small I can make it. You have to think differently when size is a prime consideration. Factors that didn't matter much suddenly become design critical. It might be an opportunity to freshen your brain up a bit (although, if the world is ending on 12-21-12, having a fresh brain may not be all that important).

0b0000.0110: Go back in time. Get a 2N2222 or 2N3907, or both. See if you remember how to build basic common base, common emitter and common collector amplifiers. No. Don't go to Wikipedia. Try to do it from memory. I'm sure you built all of them waaaay back in your school days. Next try to build some basic logic gates with transistors. After you've done that, see if you can build up a RSIC processor and a 512 Mbyte RAM block using only discrete transistors and passives. As your final assignment, use the computer system you built to calculate the first 100,000 prime numbers.

0b0000.0111: Take your most recent resume and replace all of the letters, spaces, tabs and line ends with their hex values. Submit it in that form for your dream job. Then sit back and wait for the hiring manager to bow down to your superior skills. Since the world is ending, it really won't matter that the first person to see the resume thought it was gibberish and round-filed it.

0b0000.1000: Introduce your kids (if you have them) to robots. Get them started down the technical path early; both boys and girls. And, if you have daughters, make sure they don't get discouraged by peer pressure or whatever pressure. If they are interested in a technical career, don't let the world around them pressure them out of it. If you don't have kids, build some robots yourself and introduce your pets to them. See who ends up chasing whom around the house.

0b0000.1001: Finally, ignore all of this. Come on. Really? The Mayans knew when the world would end? Even I don't know that. Although, there was that John Cusack movie. And I've read about it on the Internet and everyone knows that if you read it on the Internet, it must be true...

Duane Benson
See you all on the other side

Top-Ten Ways to Use The Summer to Your Advantage

Now, we're talking in an engineering context here. There certainly are plenty of ways to use the summer to your advantage if you like to water ski or go backpacking, but this is a specific list. Here are my top-ten suggested ways to use the summer to your advantage as an electronics designer:

Eurpoa car#Europa - Work longer. You can spend an extra few hours with you friend the Oscilloscope fighting the demons of clock jitter. With the longer days in the summer, you can do so and still get home just before sunset, as everyone else in the family is ending their relaxing evening and getting ready for bed.

#Luna - Be Green. All of those extra photons bouncing around during the summer will help to keep your solar panels producing at high-output. If only you had thirty years of continuous summer, you could pay for them before they wear out. If you live in Oregon, you'd probably need sixty years because even our summers can be pretty cloudy and rainy.

#Io - Debug thermal problems. Especially if you don't have working air conditioning. Late afternoon, the ambient in your lab will have raised up to at least 90. With the stifling lack of air movement, now is the time to turn on the high powered design that seemed to work just fine when you first prototyped it over the winter, but burps at seeming random intervals when used in the field, down in West Texas.

#Callisto - Increase your workspace. It's hot. It's clear. And, the open road beckons you. Get out your bicycle and pedal the 20 miles from home into the office. You'll be adding to #Luna, and if you don't take a shower when you arrive at the office, you'll be given plenty of extra lab workbench area.

#Mercury - Help marketing out with some product specs. Say you've developed a short-range wireless device. You know how well it works in a real world application. You've been testing it in the lab for several months now. You know how much things like walls and microwave ovens will reduce the practical range. But, it rained all winter and spring so you couldn't go outside and get the absolutely-will-never-happen-in-the-real-world range specs that will go on the brochure and be used to entice and mislead potential customers.

#Titan - Blow some stuff up. Not in the Mythbusters sense, but taking a cue from #Io, you can forget to plug in the cooling fan on your deck of MOSFETs in that new H-bridge you've been working on. Crank the PWM up to about 95% and they seem to be handling things okay - at least from the outside view. Then, with the confidence built from that exercise, put a heavy load on the motor and set the PWM at 20%. It's not gun shots. It's not popcorn. It's exploding MOSFETs!

#Ganymede - Waste some time. This works best if you have a window view. You've got a lot to do. You're overworked, underpaid and not given the help you need to get your job done on time. Rather than stressing out of all of that, arrange your cube so that no one walking by can see you monitor, but you have a clear view out the window. Then sit back in your chair, stare past your monitor, out the window and daydream about golf and barbecuing. People will think you're pondering solutions to design problems.

#Mars - Get more glory. All of your co-workers have been ahead of you throughout the winter. They've finished their projects and get to take vacation while you slave away back at the office. While they're out, fake problems in their designs and then fake the solutions. They'll all get reprimanded when they return and you'll be the star of the department. At least you will until the next design review when your boss wants to know why your design is only half finished despite how busy you've been all summer.

#Venus - Slip out an actual working product. This is the complement to #Mars for people who are actually good at their jobs. Normally, you'd be under artificially created pressure to release the project before it's quite ready. There's some press tour or show or something else that everyone wants it done before. You mess with the company vacation calendar so that the people who want to show it off are never in the office at the same time. That way you'll be able to ge that extra couple of weeks you need and should have been given to make sure the thing works right the first time and every time.

#Earth - And, drum roll please, the anti-climactic #Earth way you can use summer to your advantage: Clear your head. It's been a long, rough year, with downsizing, parts on allocation, competitive pressures and a host of other factors that have put you on the fast track to breakdown. Schedule yourself some vacation time. Leave all that junk behind and take your mountain bike to Moab or something. Just don't take a sharp left when you're on the "Killer B" trail.

Duane Benson
Don't look! Heisenberg may have been right.

Top-Five Ways April Fools Is Good For You

PBGA 1April first isn't quite here yet, unless you're reading this a month from now. Then it's long come and gone. The concept of "April Fools" goes back many years. In some circles, the first April Fools Joke is said to have been played on November 13th in the year 1959 by Duchess Gloriana XII of Grand Fenwick. Others pin the first joke several centuries earlier.

Conventional thinking is that the jokes played on that day can be humorous, annoying, disruptive or downright dangerous. It's the disruptive and dangerous jokes that have caused the formation of a movement to ban all jokes on April first. Despite that, history has shown that the levity of the day can have positive effects as well. That being the case, here are my top-five reasons that April Fool's Day can be good for you:

  1. It can be good for your peace of mind. If your co-worker plays a joke on you by secretly changing the calibration on your scope so the ranges will be off, you can have a day of feeling good about your OP Amp circuit, thinking the noise level is down to just where you want it.
  2. April Fools jokes can lower your blood pressure. For example, say a co-worker replaces your pepper with a bunch of 1mm x 1.3mm 6 bump chip scale BGAs. You then put generous helpings of salt and "pepper" on your chicken sandwich. While probably not at all healthy, the little chips probably aren't fatally bad to consume but would taste bad so you'd spit the first bite out and not eat the rest of your sandwich, thus not consuming all of that blood-pressure-raising salt.
  3. It can make solder selection easier. As it is, your lead-free vs. leaded decision (for stuff not going to Europe) has to be made based on the BGA. Mixing leaded solder with lead-free BGAs and vice verse is not a good thing. If someone in materials plays an April Fool's joke on you by scraping all of the solder balls off of your BGA, you may at first feel despair. But then you realize that without the pesky solder balls, you can use it like an LGA and pick whatever kind of solder you want.
  4. It can help with recreation. When you arrive to your cubicle loaded with 20,000 ping pong balls, you may be dismayed at first. But, take heart in the fact that you now have a lifetime supply of ping pong balls. You can now learn the sport without fear of losing your supply of ping pong balls due to explosion or crushing. And, be glad that they didn't used golf balls.
  5. You can get a promotion and a big raise. This is your opportunity to shine. Play a humiliating and very public prank on your boss, or perhaps your boss's boss. By bringing humor into his or her life, you'll not only be noticed, but will also be greatly appreciated for raising moral though public humiliation of management. They always appreciate that.

Duane Benson
Ever get that sinking feeling - you had a very tiny part out so you could use the part number in a humor blog post referring to consuming that part and when you're about halfway through the snack you've been eating while writing the post, you discover that the tiny little part is gone? At least it's a lead-free part.

Open Source Mea Culpa or back pedaling? You decide

Last week I wrote about "Ten electronics things to be thankful for in 2010." If you're reading this now, you probably don't need the link because you probably read that article then too. But that's not really relevant. What is relevant is that in my #6, about open source hardware. I wrote, in part, that in some ways open source seems a bit exploitative of the designers. pt wrote in the comments for the blog article asking if I could give an example of how open source is exploitative.

I got to thinking about my choice of words and came to the conclusion that "exploitive" doesn't quite cover what I was trying to say. Although, in some cases, I think it does. It's possible that there are some aspects of the open source movement that I just don't get. Or it's possible that I have the capacity to pick a black cloud out of anything. If that's the case, I like to think that I can also pick a silver lining out of anything as well. That combination becomes a problem with recursion.

I'm a capitalist so I believe that (a) it's important to have profit as an ultimate goal of any commercial endeavor. I still have a bit of idealism left so I also believe that (b) when making that profit, we should be like the Boy Scouts and leave the planet a little better off than we found it. I get sick to my stomach when I read about executives making massive millions of dollars when their employees struggle to adequately feed and clothe their kids. (Is this post turning into one of those "I believe..." manifestos?) Following up that last point, I believe that (c) if someone does good work, they should get something in return for it. It's a trade. You give me something valuable and I'll give you something valuable in return. Not always money, but something of value.

That's where the mushiness comes in for me. Here's the good side. Ti is a big company that, with the Beagleboard, is giving something of great value to the electronics design community. As far as I know, the people at Ti working on the project are paid. My guess is that the ultimate motivation of Ti is it to help sell chips, but the project has given a whole lot of people access to a level of performance whom would not have had access it otherwise. That endeavor meets my abc conditions. Companies like Adafruit, Sparkfun and DIYdrones have built successful small (and growing) businesses with the help of open source hardware and software. People are making a living (I assume) from those organizations. Both companies give a lot back to the community and both companies make it very clear that they benefit from and really appreciate the efforts of open source designers. They give the folks recognition and support. They and companies like them meet my abc.

The other side of open source, and where I smell the exploitation, is when big companies use open source, make large profits and don't return anything. I mean, sure, the licence allows them to and I suppose that by reducing their costs, they can be more competitive and stay in business, keeping their employees employed. But when a software company buys the remains of another company or two that allegedly "own" some opensource code and then tries to make a business of suing people that use that open source software; I consider that to pretty exploitive of all of the people that voluntarily gave their time to the project.

When a large muti-national company that sells server farms uses an open source OS and doesn't return anything to the designers, I find that also to be exploitive. I don't know what the answer is. I mean it's cool that Linux, for example, is used in so many places. The fact that big corporations put so much weight on it certainly validates the legitimacy of it. But I can't help but envision open source developers out there, that could really use a bit more money in the bank, looking at those big corporations that are profiting off of their backs, feeling a little used.

So, am I missing something? Do I not get it?

By the way, this piece has a lot of personal opinion in it, but I do believe that my company works hard to meets my abc so I don't have a problem posting this on my work blog. The two times in my career that I did work for companies not meeting my abc, both ended badly for me. Fortunately, I believe in this one.

So, help me out here. If I'm not getting a part of this, feel free to chime in.

Duane "Does idealism hold up in the face of reality?" Benson

Ten Electronics Things to be Thankful for in 2010

"Do they have 4th of July in Canada?" The Thanksgiving holiday is upon those of us here in the United States. It's been a bummer of a couple of years for a lot of the electronics world, but there's still plenty to be thankful for - and I think it's getting better. Well, "better" is a relative term, I guess. We at Screaming Circuits have gone from feeling the effects of the recession to being overwhelmed with work as people get back to designing stuff.

Here's my recommendations on what to be thankful of this holiday season. Feel free to come up with your own list. I won't look down on you if you don't use my exact list.

#10: SIlicon*.  Because, while Germanium is a semiconductor, Silicon works much better. Germanium can't stand the heat and had to get out of the fire. *[I had originally used the term "Silicone", but as MightyOhm pointed out, the trailing "e" was there in error. No polymers here]

#9: Flip chips. They're so tiny and cute. And they have better thermal transfer properties than wire bonded chips. Not to mention improvements in inductance. And you can jam a whole lot more into the same space with little flip chips than you can with SOIC chips. Plus, if you run out of pepper, you can season your mashed potatoes with a bunch of spare flipchips. Just make sure they're lead-free.

#8: HASL. Yes. It's still around. And while it's not the best solution for the aforementioned flipchips, it is one of the most robust, easiest to store, handle and use when you're dealing with larger geometries. It's the way to go when hand soldering.

#7: ENIG and Immersion Silver. HASL may be my preference for hand-soldering, but when using big BGAs or lot's of small components, the bumpy surface of HASL can cause problems. That's when a nice planar surface such as ENIG or Immersion Silver makes life a lot easier.

#6: Open source hardware. Open source has been helping out the software industry for quite a while. It's about time hardware folks benefited from the concept. In some ways it seems a bit exploitive* of the designers, but as long as they are doing it voluntarily, I guess it's okay. Open source hardware gave us the Arduino which seems to have made micro controllers a lot more accessible. It gave us DIY Drones which seems to be proving that autonomy isn't just for big-iron. *[pt questioned me on the use of the concept of "exploitive". That word doesn't really capture what I was trying to say. I like open source a lot. I just feel bad for the community related to a couple of annoying open source software examples. Read my full opinion here.]

#5: mBed. This nice little ARM development board has taken a new approach to dramatically reducing the barriers to entry. With a complete online IDE and extremely easy start up and use, it will help a lot of people learn about advanced microcontrollers and will help a lot of people move from 8-bit up to the 32-bit ARM world. I don't think you could make it any easier than this.

#4: FTDI. They made USB easy to implement on just about any design. Cool.

Beagle part#3: The Beagleboard-xM. Speaking of open source hardware, the Beagleboard came about a few years ago as the first (as far as I could tell) seriously powerful open source hardware platform. It brought open source out of the hobby garage and into corporate America. The New xM has made the design even more powerful and indicates Ti's commitment to the project.

#2: Quick-turn PCB fab and assembly houses. Like Screaming Circuits for assembly and our buddies at Sunstone for the PCB fab, so you can get your prototypes built up a lot faster. Okay. Yes, I know this one is self-serving. But, you know, these guys pay my salary and I really believe in what we do here.

#1: Drum roll please...

#1: Caffeine. It helps us keep designing into the wee hours of the night. Then it helps us get back to designing early in the morning when we should be sleeping because we stayed up to late the night before. Caffeine is the fuel that powers our economic engine, so that's my #1 thing to be thankful for this Thanksgiving. There is a part of me, however, that suspects that due to caffeine, we might just be doing this all wrong. Maybe we should, instead, try actually sleeping the proper number of hours per night. Just a thought.

Duane Benson
Wikipedia says caffeine is a natural pesticide. Hmmm...
Well, at least it's natural.

The Sky Is Falling

Or - The top ten things to do if you're depressed about the economy.

10: Tell every young person you know not to get into engineering because it's a dead-end job. Wait. No. Don't do that. Scold yourself if you do.

9: Put yourself into a drunken stupor until the Mayans destroy the Earth in 2012.

8: Meditate. Go to the top of a mountain. Sit cross legged for three days straight. Get hypothermia because it's cold up there.

7: Invent a time machine and go back in time to those halcyon days of the mid-70's to early 80's when engineering was at it's prime. Wait. Didn't we go from double-digit inflation to double digit mortgage interest rates back then? Weren't we having our economic clock cleaned by Japan back then? Didn't gas double in price overnight twice in that span?

6: Invent a time machine and go 20 years into the future when engineering will be at its prime again. Just make sure you time your arrival well or you'll run into another one of these points when the world is coming to an end. Plus your skills will be obsolete, if they aren't already.

5: Obsolete? Who's obsolete? If you're feeling obsolete, go take some college classes or find a way study up on something new.

4: Just about every blasted job coming up these days wants both analog and digital experience, as well as software. Ugh. If you only know one, go learn something about the others.

3: Exercise. Eat well. Sleep well. You'll feel better and if you have a job, you'll be more productive and less likely to be cut. If you don't have a job, you'll look happier and more employable in your interviews.

2: Call your self "Open Source." It's the buzz word of the decade and everyone will think you're cool. Plus anyone can take all of your ideas without guilt and without compensating you in any way.

1: And the number one thing to do if you're depressed about the economy, out of a job, out of luck and out of answers - go find a few other people in the same boat with you and start something. Build robots or aerial drones or solar power stuff. You're an engineer and engineers solve problems. So take this problem and solve it.

Duane Benson
Tired of being depressed...
Or is that tired of being recessed? I can't remember.

Easy Reading for a Long Weekend

The holiday is upon us and most folks here in the US will have a three day weekend. Of course, when you're an engineer on deadline, all too often holidays don't really mean that much. Here's a little food for thought for those that will be working over the weekend.

  • If you're trying to finish off that layout and need some advice on a pesky QFN or DFN, read these few bits about laying out for a quality reflow: here, here and here.
  • If you're trying to decide what finish to order on your PCB, read this, this and this.
  • If you just want to confuse yourself a bit, try this, this and this.

Now you can get back to some real problems - like finding that last little bit of clock jitter or figuring out how to keep the back-EMF from mucking with your MOSFETs.

Duane Benson
No shorts allowed under that BGA, 'cause shorts cause tan lines