Screaming Circuits: Top-Ten Lists

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

The Top Ten Generic Things

I'm in a bit of a ranting mood right now. That just happens sometimes. Usually it's on a specific subject, but today, I seem to have mini-rants about a whole bunch of  things. Well, maybe ten things. So here they are, ten generic things that bug me:

#4:    Not listening to customers enough. It's nice when a company has a good idea and wants to build it, but if they don't get outside of their own heads for a bit, we consumers end up with UI's that don't make any sense, features that we'll never use or products never tested under real-world conditions (see #4).

#4:    Test cycles that are too short. "Beta test the world" or "Ship it and fix it later" may get something to market sooner, but at what cost. So many companies seem to think that since "they" do that on the web, everyone should go ahead and operate that way. But what happens when the not fully tested design has a hardware problem? Where's your field upgrade then? Or what happens when the product is mission critical? Oops. Too late...

#4:    Listening too much to customers. What??? Yes. That's what I said. Most customers want way more than they need for way less than you can afford to build. You need to listen to customers a lot and very carefully, but you need to translate for them. You can't just take raw comments and try to directly put them in as product features.

#4:   "Half-gallon" containers that aren't a half gallon any more. It really annoys me to buy a Half gallon of Ice cream knowing that it's only 3/8th of a gallon.

#4:    Not considering the whole story. This is where the law of unintended consequences comes in. Okay, we want to reduce our consumption of fossil fuel so we subsidize corn ethanol. Fine except by doing so, we tie a major food staple in developing nations to the volatile price of filling giant SUVs. People go hungry because of it.

#4:    Rushed design cycles. Yes, we, ourselves, contribute to this by reducing the turn-times for electronics assembly, but I'm not really talking about the assembly phase. More about the design, layout and kitting. (and test - see #4) We all need to chill a little and take some extra time to run a few more tests, double check the component footprints and make sure we've done a thorough job of it.

#4:    More science and less hype. No one can really tell if global warming is man-caused or not. I'm sure the real data is floating around somewhere, but everyone talking about it has a personal agenda. There's so much pseudo-science and political ranting thrown about that anything that an interested citizen might use to come to an informed conclusion is obscured by all of the exaggerated and faked material.

#4:   How about some electronics-targeted legislation that actually makes sense from a technical and social perspective. As with things like global warming in #4, there's too much hype, too much cash-based lobbying and not enough actual understanding going into some of these laws that affect all of us in the electronics industry.

#4:    Allocation. It really annoys me. Related into this is the proliferation of specialized chips. There are a seriously larger number of varieties of every form of chip you might imagine. That's great for design, You can pick the microcontroller that pretty meets your exact specifications, or just the right buck/boost controller. That's cool, but I think it also makes forecasting and the allocation of foundry time simply crazy. That can only exacerbate the supply issues that cause parts to go into allocation mode.

#4:   Missed opportunities due to personal-agenda based hype. So many people want to replace fossil fuel so they bend reality and call the electric car the green replacement to gas cars. Then everyone is disappointed that they can't drive 600 miles with just one or two five-minute fill-up stops. They focus on far too far into the future and make everyone dismiss as hype what is otherwise a perfectly viable technology. Market electrics as a second car. It's not the main car for trips and the ultimate in convenience. It's the run to get a gallon of milk car, the back and forth to Jr.College car, the "I'm going to a friend's house" car. Market electric cars like that and they are 100% viable right now.

I'm not sure which of these things bug me more or less than any other, so they all tie at Number 4.

Duane Benson
Have a nice day

Ten Things for an Engineer to consider now that summer is here

Now that summer is here...

I should caveat that a bit. Summer just started last week here in the Pacific Northwest. It's been one of the wettest and coldest springs in quite some time. I should caveat that too. "cold" here in the Pacific Northwest means like 40 degrees. I realize that some places don't really consider it to be cold unless it drops below 255.3722, but we're a little more weather intolerant than that around these parts. Now I have to back out of my recursive caveats. </CAVEAT #2> </CAVEAT #1>. That would have been much shorter in C - 22 characters shorter at just } }.

RCA12ax7_sq_arms Now that summer is here, what can an engineer do to keep productive despite all of the distractions outside? I've got a couple of suggestions. Mostly things that roll through my head when the mercury rolls up.

X - Contemplate global warming and question whether we should try to do something about it. In my mind, there is no dispute that global warming is happening. The problem is that the difference between causality and correlation has been politicized. That means that it's very difficult to find any real information that isn't biased based on someone's personal agenda. So, we have a number of questions to muse on: Is it human caused? If not, is it human exacerbated? If it's primarily human caused, is it too late to stop it? If it's primarily a natural phenomenon, should we try to mitigate it? If we try, will we just make it worse? Can we ever get past the politics and agendas and really examine all the facts using the scientific method?

IX - Decide if hybrid vehicles really help or if they are currently designed in such a way as to really help. Taking an economy box that could reasonably get 40 MPG with an efficient gas or diesel engine and simply giving it more power at the same MPG doesn't really help with the fossil fuel problem. On the other hand, if you take a large vehicle that gets 10 MPG and increase that to 15 MPG by turning the combustion engine off while stopped and using an electric motor to re-start and accelerate through the least efficient first few miles per hour could save 15 billion gallons of fuel per year (based on some quick very rough calculations). That's a lot of french fries.

VIII -Think energy storage and retrieval. Petroleum is just about the most compact energy storage medium and the most that is currently practical to use in small quantities. The problem, of course, is that it's easy to get the energy out, but it's a one way trip. We won't really replace petrol until we can find another storage medium that's at least 70% as efficient in terms of energy extraction and can be refilled just as easily.

Linux-penguin-big_origpreview VII - What about locomotion in general? The bicycle is just about the most calorically efficient method of transportation ever devised. It's use can be practical in many situations, such as cities designed to accommodate large numbers of bikes, but is woefully impractical in other situations - hills, long distances, cargo. Can we take anything from the bicycle and apply it to other forms of transportation?

VI - How can we take our economy back from the money grubbers? Profits built this country, but at various times in our history, the unrestrained pursuit of profit above all else has nearly destroyed it. It's a repeating cycle and I think that at the moment, we're in one of the eve-of-destruction points. Even in recovery, the financial institutions, to the best of my knowledge, seem to be more interesting in finding new quick-flip money making loop holes than in creating a strong foundation for the future. Teddy Roosevelt busted the big monopolies. Ten years of great depression and WWII busted the cycle a few decades after that. How can we break this cycle of ruin without a real depression and war?

V - Can we remain free in an increasingly tight surveillance society? We have technology and resources that would have made Orwell's Big Brother drool and that technology isn't going away. It will only get cheaper, smaller and more pervasive. The technology itself isn't inherently bad, but the misuse of it tends to be incredibly tempting. Being a good steward of things that can be used for good or for ill takes a lot of work and a lot of personal and group-think restraint. Are we mature enough a society to maintain our humanity in the face of such tools?

IV - What do we do about the impending loss of fun and adventurous careers like being a pilot? Knights of the air - the fighter pilot has long been the ultimate in high adrenalin jobs, but even today, outside of training, it's more button pushing than envelope pushing. It won't be long before it's all robot drones. In the civilian world, my bet is we have less than ten years before most cargo flights are unpiloted and passenger flights won't be far behind.

III - Speaking of robots, when will someone build something that's actually practical for consumers to use? I know there's the little robot vacuum, but that's just the tiniest of entry points into the consumer world. We're at 1979 in terms of the evolution of the personal computer. Let's get moving and get some real-world personal robots going.

II - What's left to put embedded computing into? Microcontrollers are into just about everything already. But there have to be a few good killer embedded applications left that we haven't run across. Figure those ones out and build another industry. Start your own company to do it and create some good jobs.

I - And, finally, where's my flying car? Okay, this one is really dream-world until we can figure out the energy storage and retrieval problem (see VIII above). If you think it's inefficient to push a car around on the ground, add fuel for lift generation into the equation. Ugh. Fix that problem Batman and then we'll be somewhere.

Duane Benson
Help us Barry McGuire

My Top Ten Electronics Predictions for 2010

White crystal ball Yeah, yeah. Top ten predictions for the new year really need to be out in either the last week of the prior year or the first week of the new year. But I'm late. It's because my oatmeal is lumpy and I've just been trying to decide if I should have a top predictions for the new year or for the decade. Some people would say that we're still in the old decade, because, you know, 1 - 10. But I say, it's only analog jockeys that say that. Digital drivers go from 0 - 9 (or 0 - 1 or 0 - F or 0 - 7... now I'm confused again. Not many go 0 - 7 these days). For the purposes of this document, I'm claiming to be more digital than analog, so the new millenia started in 2000 and this new decade starts now. Or, does that mean that the new millenia should start in 2048? Or, rather 0x800? Crud. That's not a thousand. Okay, I don't want to wait until 4096. I might be dead by then. Fine. It's the year 3732. I have my handy 74LS90 and I'm going to count out my top ten predictions.7490 block

Starting at count 0, with Qa = L, Qb = L, Qc = L and Qd = L:

0000: By the end of the decade, 50% of all passives will be embedded passives and 20% of all PCBs will have 90% or more of their passives embedded.

0001: By the end of the decade, Quad stack POP (package on package) will be commonplace.

0010: By the end of the decade, Each individual human will have their own IP address. Several of us will have more than one. That way, we can jury rig accelerometers into our hands and feet so we can wirelessly know where each of our extremities are at all times. Cats will have them too.

0011: By the end of the decade, solder paste will be used less often than not when assembling components on to PCBs.

0100: By the end of the decade, nearly all hydraulics and pneumatics in new motor vehicles will have been replaced by electrics.

0101: By the end of the decade,the first semi-autonomous passenger vehicle will be on display on the auto-show circuit. Hobbyist built semi-autonomous cars will already be on the road.

0110: By the end of the decade, "airline pilot" will generally be a really, really, really boring job. That's a bit of a problem.

0111: By the end of the decade, most military "foot action" will consist of two soldiers in command of a squad of robots and those two soldiers will as likely be in Fort Lewis, Washington as in the combat zone.

1000: By the end of the decade, the president of the US will be promising health care reform as the highest priority.

1001: By the end of the decade, routine bioengineering will be, well, routine. Very scary.

1010: By the end of the decade, the 2019 recession will be looming large and all of the people that have forgotten about the 2009 recession and the 2001 recession and the 1985 recession and the 1975 recession... will be freaking out again.

1011: By the end of the decade, lead will be gone from 98% of new electronics. Bummer.

1100: By the end of the decade, four of the substances that replaced the substances removed from electronics due to ROHS and similar regulations will have been found to be significantly more harmful to the environment and the people recycling the materials than are the substances that they replaced.

1101: By the end of the decade, the world of intellectual property will be in even more of a mess than it is today. Virtually everything will be accessibly for easy theft and cheap replication. (this is pretty much a big "duh")

1110: By the end of the decade,building your own mutli-purpose robot will be as easy as building your own PC was in 1988. Hardware components and operating systems will be off the shelf, but standards will be pretty loosely defined, interoperability will be more theory than reality and applications will be sketchy and buggy.

1111: By the end of the decade, still no flying cars and personal jet packs, dadgummit!

Duane Benson
Sorry. I didn't have a 74LS90. I only had a 74LS93

My Screaming Favorites from 2009

Years ago, it seemed like the last two weeks in December were just full of retrospectives on the year. It was all over the media all the time. I don't really hear so much of that any more, which might be a good thing, because it kind of made me a little sick at times. Certainly many lists are around, but it just doesn't seem to be such a big deal. Or maybe, I just don't pay attention anymore.

I'm in just that kind of a mood though, so I thought I'd put out my own little retrospective. It's not really a top-ten list, but close enough.

Trade shows: Still got to be the Embedded Systems Conference. I love engineer shows. Years ago, I used to go the Comdex and CES. Way, way back, I went to the West Coast Computer Faire (I was there when the Mac was first shown). Comdex and CES all so glurgy and more about hype then real stuff. At ESC, most of the companies are there showing things that I like and most of the attendees are there to actually learn. It's just cool.

It was kind of sad to see such a sharp decline in companies participating both in San Jose and Boston this year. I think we saw about the same number of folks wandering the show floor as past years, so that at least was good, but I do hope this show remains strong.Ti_beagle_board_top2 (Small)

Embedded dev boards: This is a three-way tie between the Beagleboard, from Ti, the mbed, from NXP /  Arm and a PIC based board that I made myself. 

The Beagleboard really sets a new standard for power and accessibility in the embedded development world. As far as I can see, it's a game changer in those terms. Really fine work and making it affordable and open source has made it accessibly to a huge community that would likely have not jumped were it positioned as a high-cost closed development system.

Mbed-microcontroller-angledThe mbed does for ease of programming and learning what the Beagleboard does for power and features. mBed is truly amazing in terms of how easy it is to get up and running with a 32 bit processor. Again, I don't think I've seen this big of a leap in ease of development ever.

I could list the Arduino here, and it's a viable contender in the 8-bit class, but I'm876-CTRL_rev2.1 001 g more of a PIC guy and I'm a little biased toward mine because, well, it's mine. The Arduino gets enough attention in other places anyway. Mine is of a similar caste as Arduino, was first designed in 2005 and has gone through a number of iterations since. It has IMHO a better I/O structure and a little bus to easily connect to some small motor controllers I've designed.

New chip packaging: Package on Package (POP) has been around for a while, but I think it's just finally starting to come in to its own this year, and we've just started assembling it this year. It's a pretty cool way to chomp some more size out of a small little embedded design. The Ti OMAP (used in the Beagleboard) isn't the only POP that we've assembled here at Screaming Circuits, but it's probably the most visible example.

Consumerish thing: I'd have to say electronic ink, as used in the Kindle and other electronic book readers. I haven't spent a whole lot of time with any of these, so I'm not totally sure it's ready for prime time yet, but I think it's very cool and very promising.

Movement: This is a pretty easy one. The open source hardware movement (I hope). Open source has been serious business in the software world for a long time, but until recently, the hardware community hasn't jumped on the concept. Now we have Beagleboard, Arduino and a gazillion others. There are even a number of web sites pretty much devoted to open source hardware and related subjects like circuit bending.

My only concern is that the hardware folks may get overwhelmed and go back into hiding. Over on the Beagleboard Google group, though it's supposed to cover both HW and SW, the topics are virtually all software related. A few HW exclusive discussion boards (like have popped up and may get traction, but there's a lot of catching up to do.

My honorable mention in the movement department would be the closely related "after hours hardware" community. This includes hobbyists, circuit benders and hackers (of the good sort). I think the barriers to entry to starter hardware development are lower then any time since the early 1980's. That's a good thing. The more people involved in electronics as a hobby, the more we will have heading down that career path and the more new small businesses we will have start up. All a very good thing. Certainly a lot of creativity going on in this arena.

That's all I've got for now. So I'm calling the list closed. Maybe more later. Maybe

Duane Benson
Merry Christmas, Yo, Ho, Ho Green Giant and A Bottle of Rum

Top Ten Electronic Things To Be Thankful For in 2009

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It's that time of year again when we take stock of what's good in our little worlds. Since I'm writing this on my work blog, I'll keep my top ten items focused on work-related thingys.

Number 10: Allocation!? Well, maybe. Nobody likes parts shortages and allocation, but maybe, just maybe, it means that we're seeing the light at the end of the recession tunnel.

Number 9: The mighty QFN. Yes, I know the package can be a pain to layout properly, but the size reductions we can get with it are pretty cool. It used to take something like a TO-220 or D2Pak to drive an amp of current drain, but some of these new devices can do it in a little QFN (properly laid out, of course) form-factor.

Number 8: 99.47% on-time delivery in the last year. That's less then one job late per month - and remember, if we're one day late, the assembly is half off and if we're two day's late, the assembly is free.

Number 7: The Beagleboard being open source. It's really opened up the world of high-end non-i86 embedded processors to a very large segment of the industry that just couldn't quite get there before. Well done Beagleboard folks!

Number 6: The Internets. Back in the olden days when I was burning my fingers soldering up discrete transistors and plain TTL and such, I had a shelf of data books. I think I may still have an old purple National Semiconductor TTL data book buried in a box somewhere. It was always cool to page through those data books, and, of course, I didn't need to be online in order to find what I needed, but heck, I can find it all now and even more without getting up and walking across the floor to my book shelf. In fact, I pretty much don't have to move at all anymore thanks to the Intertubes.

Number 5: Google translator. Earlier today, I got an email written in German. Before online translators, I wouldn't have been able to do anything with it and I would have missed a very big opportunity. The email was from a barrister in the tiny country of Togo. Apparently, he's been looking for an heir to pass an inheritance to and can't find one. He said that he went to the American embassy and they suggested me. If not for the Google translator, I would have missed out on this wonderful opportunity to get seven million dollars transferred right into my bank account.

Number 4: Level translators. It's still a pain to deal with interfacing signals at different voltage levels; like a 5V I2C device to a 3V I2C bus to a 1.8V GPIO, but it was way more of a pain before easy to use level translator chips became widely available. Especially the bi-directional chips. Much more convenient.

Number 3: Better static protection built into chips. Yes, we still religiously use static ground straps. We have a conductive floor and wear foot straps and anti-static jackets and have anti-static stuff all over the place, but chips are so much more robust then they used to be. I can remember the old 4000 series CMOS chips. It almost seemed like if you breathed wrong, they'd get zapped.

Number 2: The LGA form-factor package. Just kidding. LGAs are annoying. Sure, there are some redeeming qualities: low profile, a RoHS part can go both leaded and unleaded, decent heat transfer. But, they also don't flex as well as a BGA and the pads have the disdvantages of both BGA and QFN packages. Basically, they're just annoying.

Number 1: And the number one electronic thing that I'm thankful for are these little Flash 8-bit microcontrollers like the PICs (that I use) and Atmels (like the Arduino uses). Holy mackerel, they make life a lot easier. All that GPIO, no support chips. And, self programmable flash. Ahhhh... Anybody out there still have a UV EPROM eraser?

Duane Benson
Embedded in my head

Top Ten Reasons Electronics is Like The Flu

Frequently when I go to a tradeshow, I come back with a cold virus. I was bound and determined not to with this last trip to ESC, and I almost did or mostly did. I got back home last Wednesday night and I was fine until this Monday. Now I'm all virused up. I sit in a back corner cube so the chances of me infecting everyone else is probably fairly low. And I don't have a fever assuring that it's not the Bovine Flu, so here I am at the office regardless.

Packed in tight

In my semi-repressed-brain state - there's not a lot of activity going on upstairs at the moment - I keep drifting from actual work to strange thoughts, like chips and viruses (as opposed to chips and salsa). Mmmmm Salsa... Software, is of course susceptible to it's own form of virus, but what about hardware? It's not the same thing. But maybe the hardware is more like the virus rather then being the victim of the virus?

#10. The number ten reason that electronics is like the flu: Just when you think you've got it nailed, it all changes. Think the project is done? Oops, there's a bug or some feature creep and you're suddenly sucked back into it again.

#7. Even the same part can come in a large number of different variants and each of those in a large number of different packages.

#6. One vaccine to cure them all? People ask us about stocking standard parts. Like: "don't we have a standard set of passives that we can just pull from because everyone uses the same basic set?" That's a bit like asking why one vaccine doesn't cure all flu types. Let's just look at a .01uf cap. Pretty standard stuff. Right? Well, Digi-Key lists hundreds of varieties of .01 uf cap. What's the voltage? What's the temperature range? What's the tolerance? What's the ESR? What's the package? It's pretty simple - if WE wanted to tell you which cap is best for your design, then, okay, we'd do that. But, we don't know your design. Only you do, so we can't make that decision. We can get the parts here overnight, but we'll only get the exact parts that YOU want us to get.

#5. You need a microscope to see it. Well, we're not quite at the virus size-scale, but it seems to be Flu_und_legende_color_cgetting closer every year. 20 nm etch processes and all. Even the parts are getting close to being not visible by the naked eye. All these 01005 passives and super-micro chip scale BGAs don't look like much more then dust and dust can certainly irritate the respiratory system.

#4. They both make you sweat. Yeah, the old influenza virus will jack up your body temp and make you sweat and ache. So will a tough design on tight deadline. One week to go and you need that proto built up, tested, verified and put into the marketing geek's hands for the press event - that'll cause cold sweats in just about any design engineer just as quick.

#3. Dim the lights. If you've got the flu, you need your rest, so turn off the lights and stay focused on getting well. Staring at your monitor all day, swimming in schematic or PCB layout, all those lights in the background and the glare can make your headache worse. A lot of engineers that I know like to work with the lights down for just that reason.

#2. Drink lot's of fluids. Dehydration is never a good thing. Whether it's dehydration due to the effects of a virus raging through your body or dehydration due to inattention to physiological needs while deep into some VHDL morass. I've heard urban legend of gamers starving to death because they didn't want to drop their guard. I don't know of any stories of design engineers doing the same, but I know how long hours can pass without leaving the chair when stuck on a particularly challenging design problem. Get something to drink! It will keep your mind fresh.

#1. And the number one reason why electronics is like the flu... Full immersion. When you've got the flu, your whole being is immersed in getting through it and giving the virus the boot. When you're deep into a serious electronic design cycle, you're fully immersed into it. The outside world pretty much ceases to exist until you get past the current tough spot.

Duane Benson
I know. I've done the Octal thing before. It's an old joke, but that's what I've got today