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A blog for electronics professionals, amateurs, hackers, and anyone interested in the world of electronics.

27 October 2010

Geeks, Element-14 and ... What the Heck?

I am going to risk making myself very unpopular here. So be it. I am most definitely a Yorkshireman, and tend not to mince my words when it comes to saying when there really is an elephant in the room.

Farnell, aka Premier Farnell, aka Newark Electronics, aka Element-14 (seriously guys get this sorted please) is sponsoring Ben Heck (His profile says: The amazing Benjamin J Heckendorn; a graphic artist turned internet celebrity famed in the world of electronics “modding") to do some pop engineering videos. I'm not going to knock this. They are, on the whole, interesting and entertaining videos, aimed at the wider populus. Quite why Farnell would do this though, I don't know - they do not generally sell to private individuals, so wider public awareness achieves little. Its fine though. No, really, go watch his videos. Good aren't they?

Here is where I become unpopular.

Electronics has struggled for decades to shake off the boffin-in-white-coat image. The image of professional engineers is one of the main factors in keeping our status in the UK and the US as low as a snakes belly, and thus pay and social respect that can never even hope to hit those of lawyers, doctors, architects, teachers, and all the other professions that had to study equally long at university. If you are a kid into electronics, and you admit it, then chances are you will be jeered, laughed at, and possibly bullied. If you want to be a footballer, porn model, "celebrity", or even a banker then that's fine. Just don't show any technical interest or ability. I was lucky, at school I was tall, dark haired, well built, and cynical. 

You might think then that in order to make engineering more attractive and accepted by the wider public, especially teenagers, then Farnell might have picked someone who broke the stereotypes. Someone like Jeri Ellsworth (who is not only one of those female things with a, erm, chest and stuff, but is really rather - you know - hellloooo) or Dave Jones (ranty, health loving Aussie with a love for canyoning and general having-a-life sports) or maybe even someone a bit rock-n-roll like the Mythbusters guys. So, did they choose an auburn haired temptress who makes her own transistors, or a bloke who thinks nothing of jumping into a mountain river? No, of course not. They chose a balding, ginger haired, spectacle wearing skinny bloke who has an overweight mate who helps him out. Pretty much the stereotype of the nerdy kid at school into electronics. Thanks for that.

An engineering stereotype pictured earlier.

See, I have alienated redheads, balding men, short sighted and overweight people (and skinny people) and Americans. Except that I have absolutely nothing against any combination of these, and I especially have nothing against Ben. What I DO have a problem with is the use of stereotypes. If you want to attract kids into electronics then you really shouldn't be pushing a walking cliché. Especially ones who are, by their own admission, not engineers but artists.

14 October 2010

JTAG is JTAG right?

Well no, of course not, or I wouldn't be writing this...

A little background: JTAG (Joint Test Action Group) was a standard set up to perform something called Boundary Scan on circuit boards. Briefly, this tests the wiring between ICs to ensure continuity and a lack of short circuits. Effectively it disconnects the real contents of the chip and connects I/O registers to the chip pins. The test system can then program these appropriately and read out the levels on each pin. However, it rapidly advanced to much more than that, and has become a standard way to program and interrogate embedded micros whilst they are in-system. It really allows you to get "inside" the workings. Most 32-bit micros support JTAG although, typically, each micro family has slightly different connections and connector pinouts.

Like many developers - both amateur and professional - I have used a classic JTAG "wiggler" clone which sits on a PC parallel port and bit-bangs the data s-l-o-w-l-y into your target micro / board. I even keep an old Compaq SFF PC for the job, because my super whizzy dev machine doesn't have a conventional parallel port. In any case - if it ain't broke why fix it?

Well, in my case it is, kinda. It has certainly seen better days, and is becoming unreliable. I also needed to hack together a new lead for the Cortex M3 micro I am using in Prospero, so I had a look around to see what was what in the wiggler market place, and not much seemed to have happened. The thing was, though, I was using far too narrow search terms, and it was inherently pulling back links to old technology. On a whim, I decided to see how much USB wigglers were going for and - hey presto - back came a load of new links. It seems that in the few years since I got my wiggler, things have moved on somewhat. Yeah I really should have read the magazine articles about the latest whizzbang JTAG programmers from whoever, but life's too short to read everything!

The USB Wiggler!

There are various technologies out there, most of them closed and tied up in legal restrictions. Not very 2010, and very expensive. However, quite a few seem to be based on the excellent FTDI FT2232 dual USB-to-serial port chip. The 'A' port can be configured to be driven in a custom mode which is ideal for JTAG control. Not only that, but it leaves available the 'B' port, which I could use as an In-System Programming (ISP) port. Ideal!

The standard FT2232D is a standard USB chip, but in the past year or so, FTDI have announced the 'H' variant which works at USB 2 speeds. Even better, but a bit of an unproven quantity in this context.
Nevertheless, that is what I am going with. In the first instance I am going to use one of FTDI's development modules, this stops me having to mess around with lots of support components, leaving just some voltage translator / buffers and drivers for the compulsory flashing lights. They can actually be good for diagnostics, but most of us engineers are just big kids at heart and we love flashing lights.

More on this to follow soon(ish)!

10 October 2010

The Art of Electronics or the Electronics of Art?

As mentioned in my previous blogs, I have given quite a bit of time to thinking about the Arduino, and specifically as to why it has become so popular. It clearly isn't because it is open source, there are many simple development boards out there which are just as cheap and just as capable. In fact, pretty much every micro has a manufacturers reference design which is available for free use. The Arduino isn't even a particularly good design, with a notable bug in the 'shield' I/O connectors.

A couple of weeks ago, the BBC broadcast two separate programmes which gave me a different insight to why the Arduino (or rather Arduinos) have become so successful. The first programme was one in the "Something Understood" series on a Sunday morning. It is usually a rather - how can I put this politely - "thoughtful" programme about spiritual and ethical issues. The programme I heard, however, was about engineers and the public's attitude to them, why they are undervalued, underpaid, and undesirable. Unfortunately, the usually excellent and thoughtful Mark Tully revealed that he didn't actually understant what an engineer was either. Everything was approached from an "arts" perspective. All soft touchyfeely and "yes but what does it all meeeeeaaan".

The second programme was the strangely named "Outriders" segment on the Sept 28th 2010 edition of BBC Radio 5's excellent "Up All Night" programme. It used to be called "Pods and Blogs" but I guess they found that too restricting. One of the items concerned an art exhibition in a London gallery, where some innovative (and presumably Arts Council funded) artist has connected a load of solenoids up to an old typewriter, and is getting an Arduino to type out pre-programmed text.

Now, this is the sort of thing I played around with when I was 12, and I was certainly no precocious artistic savant, just an average lad into electronics and mechanical things, but the amount of time they gave to this item, and this fawning and gushing over what is a very basic idea, made me think. If this had been presented by an engineer, it would have been "yes thats nice dear" and nobody would have been interested. But because it was an "artist" who called his creation a "Haunted Typewriter" who was making a big song and dance about it, even the BBC took notice.

It struck me that this was exactly the market that Arduino is selling to. Make magazine gave it a huge sales boost when they decided to feature it, and their whole ethos is the "soft" approach of making things rather than the "hard" technical approach. The US (which is Make's home market) is still much more hands-on than Britain today. From what I can tell, "crafting" in the UK now consists of cutting out printed paper, and peeling off stickers whereas, in the USA, the rural nature of the vast majority of the population means that people still know how to sew, saw wood, make candles, bolt metal together and hit things with a hammer (inherently though, their disposable income is low). True crafting is something that is not just going out of favour here, but in danger of totally dying out. However! If you sell something as relating to Art (with a capital A) then that is fine. Art is perceived as not something you do with your hands (and thus dirty, degrading and not befitting an office worker in a polyester suit) but something you do with your mind and thus "okay". This somehow makes a nerdy, geeky, boring dev board into an exciting Art powerhouse of possibilities. Hey presto - you suddenly got back a huge section of potential market.

So, all you engineers, designers, techies, marketers and enthusiasts out there, when you are designing your next product, consider how you may make it attractive to the Art people. These seem to be the people with the money now. Don't worry if your product doesn't actually do anything, that just seems to make it more attractive to Art collectors!

7 October 2010

The Amp Hour Podcast #11

The mighty Dave Jones is ill this week (oi noi!) so Jeff Keyzer of Mighty Ohm is standing in for him. Chris Gammell does a rather good job of hosting, even if his impression of an Aussie sounds more like Dick van Dyke in Maary Parpins. Cor blimey luvvaduck applesandpears etc.

Congratulations guys on hitting the 1000 listener mark, I'm sure it'll be hitting the 10k mark before long! Some of the stuff they are talking about includes:

Analogue design geekyness -  remember that no matter how big digital gets, the real world will always be analogue.

A look at the new Arduino Uno board which may or may not look like a packet of something-for-the-weekend-sir. I'm going to post an article on the cult of the Arduino sometime soon. It won't be a tech level posting, because I think the Arduino's importance is at a higher level than that. Right now it seems that Arduino are having one or two growing pains.

Along with Chris, I had never heard of Silicon Chip magazine. I think the publishers are really missing a trick not publishing in the UK. Since the 1980s, the number of electronics magazines hitting W.H.Smith and other news stands has gone from 8 or so a month to 1. The trade mags have turned from being technical information into pages of adverts with less and less effort going into the articles, something I am always mentioning to people. They are turning the 'treeware' magazine industry into something dusty, stale and irrelevant. 

Oh, by the way guys, it is pronounced rooter not rowter ;)

The Amp Hour

Hmm. Not a packaging design I would have used.

Is it just me or do these Arduino packages look like condom packets?