Al Williams returns to the podcast for the fourth time! This time to discuss the importance of circuit simulation and what it can teach engineers.
Al Williams returns to the podcast to discuss FPGA documentation and meat balloons.
Stephen brings up alternative uses for assembly layers in PCB design and Parker uses OctoPrint!
Parker is an Electrical Engineer with backgrounds in Embedded System Design and Digital Signal Processing. He got his start in 2005 by hacking Nintendo consoles into portable gaming units. The following year he designed and produced an Atari 2600 video mod to allow the Atari to display a crisp, RF fuzz free picture on newer TVs. Over a thousand Atari video mods where produced by Parker from 2006 to 2011 and the mod is still made by other enthusiasts in the Atari community.
In 2006, Parker enrolled at The University of Texas at Austin as a Petroleum Engineer. After realizing electronics was his passion he switched majors in 2007 to Electrical and Computer Engineering. Following his previous background in making the Atari 2600 video mod, Parker decided to take more board layout classes and circuit design classes. Other areas of study include robotics, microcontroller theory and design, FPGA development with VHDL and Verilog, and image and signal processing with DSPs. In 2010, Parker won a Ti sponsored Launchpad programming and design contest that was held by the IEEE CS chapter at the University. Parker graduated with a BS in Electrical and Computer Engineering in the Spring of 2012.
In the Summer of 2012, Parker was hired on as an Electrical Engineer at Dynamic Perception to design and prototype new electronic products. Here, Parker learned about full product development cycles and honed his board layout skills. Seeing the difficulties in managing operations and FCC/CE compliance testing, Parker thought there had to be a better way for small electronic companies to get their product out in customer's hands.
Parker also runs the blog, longhornengineer.com, where he posts his personal projects, technical guides, and appnotes about board layout design and components.
Stephen Kraig began his electronics career by building musical oriented circuits in 2003. Stephen is an avid guitar player and, in his down time, manufactures audio electronics including guitar amplifiers, pedals, and pro audio gear. Stephen graduated with a BS in Electrical Engineering from Texas A&M University.
Special thanks to whixr over at Tymkrs for the intro and outro!
Welcome to the macro fab engineering podcast. I'm your guest al Williams.
And we're your hosts, Parker Dohmen
and Steven Craig,
this will be episode 57 of the macro fab engineering podcast. We're feeling pretty good, right guys? Yeah,
The Heinz episode perhaps?
Our guest this week is Al Williams, embedded system designer, blogger for Hackaday. Author of many, many books, many books, and a Ham. Ham radio. Was that one?
Yes. Was that was that an apt description?
I think so. Yeah. Oh, hey, um, definitely.
So, um, yeah. Do you have anything else to, you know, add to that description.
You know, it's just you'll see as we go around, it's just I do all sorts of things. And especially at my age, I've done a lot of everything over time. So I've done everything from software development to dissecting microprocessors under a microscope to find out why they fail. And so it's really hard to fit me in a particular category, but you did a pretty good job.
So I copied it almost exactly. From your Twitter description. Oh, there. Yeah,
we were doing our research earlier. And, and Parker just just grabbed it and dumps it on the page. Like, here we go. Good description.
We all know if it's on Twitter, it's got to be true. So Right.
Yes. So we kind of caught wind of you a few weeks ago, and tried to schedule a podcast and able to get that now. So yeah, just in talking before starting the recording of the podcast, as a very interesting, is that as radical? Oh, sure. Very, very interesting. Individual, very well versed in a lot of different areas. So let's let's jump in and see what's going on.
So Hackaday, I guess, kind of would be interesting. It's, How do you get started writing for Hackaday?
Well, so I don't want to go all the way back. Because that goes way, way, way back.
But are you one of the original writers? No. No, not at all. So I know the pictures were black and white.
No, no, no, I was actually doing other things back in those days. But I was a reader of Hackaday. But I wasn't a writer. You know, I was as funny when I was younger. I hated English class. I hated writing. I was not I came to writing very late in life. But like you said, I've written a lot of books. But in particular, I had written for Dr. Dobbs, and eventually Dr. Dobbs, as you may or may not know, kind of wound down. The internet's just kind of sucked the life out of magazines. And so for a while I was you know, I was doing my own blog, but that's, you know, irregularly because it's just you and you just do what you feel like when you do it. And I happen to be visiting the Hackaday site. And actually, it was kind of funny. I had bought one of these cheap Chinese frequency generators, you know, the 43. Yeah. And I had Windows software, I mostly run Linux. And I thought, well, that sucks. So I went and got a USB sniffer. And I figured out the protocol. And of course, being who I am, I wrote it up and put it on Google Docs and posted it around. Well, Hackaday had picked up that story. And so I read Hackaday from time to time, but it wasn't something I went and visited every day, you know, religiously wasn't a fanboy. But since of course, if you're on it, you go look, right, obviously, you want to see
it, you want to see that traffic spike. Yeah. And,
and of course, you got to look at the commenters, of course, half of them are always nasty to whatever you post. So you know, you got to look and say, well, that guy's an idiot, right? So all this has been done before. Exactly. Well, that's not a hack. That's our favorite one right in the Hackaday. That's not a hack. Funny story about that later, but, you know, so I went and looked at that, and it just by coincidence, Mike, and I'm not even gonna attempt Mike's last name. It's like physic the, yeah,
I actually pictured his name, how it spelt on the blog. And I was just like, I'll let I'll do that.
It's, it's, it's Mike. And in fact, Mike and I even had lunch the other day in Southern California. And I was like, Yeah, I've heard him say his own name, and I'm still not gonna attempt it. But he had posted the, you know, what we're hiring. And he does that every once in a while, right? They said, Well, you know, send us a sample of what you would do and tell us why you're the guy. And so of course, they kind of knew my work from elsewhere. And so we wound up talking and come into some deal for that. You know, it's funny, we've got a very diverse crew there all over the world. And it's interesting because different people have different aspects. So you'll see like, if you look at if you're interested in biohacking, right. Well, Dan Malone is the kind of the guy that does that. Now I'm not saying he's the only one but he's clearly that's his thing, right? Or Brian with the 3d printing, not that none of us do 3d printing stuff, but he's clearly that guy right? There.
They're all their own US law circles, so to speak, that circle they overlap we
get we get some overlap, but But you know, so Some people contribute a little bit, you know, Bill heard we were talking about him earlier, he'll do some really super videos and they taking forever to produce. So he doesn't do 30 of them a month, right? He does a couple of them. And then some people produce quite a bit of other stuff. So it's a great crew to work with. And I've been really happy, it's really been good to get back into that writing and having some kind of dialogue with an audience. So.
So that's like, the best thing about that gig is you get to work with all these people around the world, right?
I think it's twofold. Yeah, I think that's part of it. I think working with all these people. I mean, you get a lot of a lot of interesting, different viewpoints. We have private communication channels, where we talk about things and will secret Hackaday channel. That's right, the secret and there's something to hack into right. But writing an article
about Hakodate about it completely meta. And we have
the tip line where people will come in and say, Oh, look, you know, I made a Arduino, blink and led, you should write about that. And then we kind of look through those. So that's kind of and we discussed some of that. So that's kind of interesting. But I think the other thing is just getting that interaction with the readers. The Hackaday audience is very vocal, sometimes that's good. Sometimes that's bad, right? You can get some very nasty comments from time to
time. So how do you when you write an article, how do you deal with those kinds of comments?
You just wear your asbestos underwear and you just carry on? Right? You get pretty thick skinned? And you know, I've been writing a long time. So that's not unique to Hackaday. Sure. I think it's just with the, with the currency of the you know, I can post anonymously, essentially, exactly, then you get a lot more of it. But there's always somebody willing to tell you, you suck, right? If you're not, if nobody will tell you, you suck, you're probably not getting rid. So yeah. You guys are probably too young to remember Wayne Greene who had the ham radio magazine seven, three. I mean, I think he used to deliberately do that in his editorials just say, Well, you know, I think we should sterilize poor people or something. And everybody go, ah, you know, but that was your thinking. I know, he doesn't really think that right. So I think there's a lot of that that goes on where where people like to get stirred up and, and, and there's no commitment to it, right? There's no downside. You just, I'm Joe and I and you suck, right? Yeah, but but if you look, a lot of times in the comments, you'll write something. And some commenters will say, Oh, that reminds me of this YouTube video. And you'll say, Oh, that's cool. And you'll go build something or you might go write something else about it,
or, or change your hack up and make it better.
Exactly, or, you know, something like that. In fact, I rarely build stuff that I write about in Hackaday. But the other day, I saw one it was it was so cool. The guy had built a z at processor board all on a breadboard. And he had it just a handful of parts. And I was like, Oh, that's really cool. And at the time, I had just moved into an apartment. And a lot of my stuff was, I'm just going to say not with me with this long story. And I didn't have a lot going on. I thought, wow, that would be a great project. And so I've got that about three quarters built. And now I've got all my stuff moving. So I haven't gotten back to it. But you know, that's one of the few projects I've seen that I wrote about. And I was like, Oh, I got to do that one. That's fun.
That sounds like an engineer right there. While moving into a new place he you kick up a project for building a computer. First thing you
unpack is your soldering iron and oscilloscope.
You know, I made sure my scope had moved prior to because I knew I was gonna have trouble getting some of my stuff out of the other house. So the scope was one of the first legs that came over.
Yeah, it was like in your passenger seat as you drove over to your new place. Right?
More or less? Yeah.
So I'm curious about the content generation, and kind of the freedom and creativity behind that. Do you kind of just get to pick things that you find are cool, and go right about that?
You know, Mike has said that before that most of what they pay us for is our, our, our filter of what's what's relevant, what's not relevant. So there's a huge amount of stuff on the internet, right? And you can go find all of it yourself, right? It's not like we do original content. But it's not that that most of what you see on Hackaday, something you couldn't go Google search where the problem is, when you go look at that. There's 10,000 of those things. Yeah. So which one's interesting, that's our job that were kind of the good housekeeping seal of approval on saying this is our Reader's Digest, maybe it's a better analogy. Yeah. Now, we do a lot of original content too. So I don't want to negate that. I mean, you come and there's some original things, but a lot of these daily posts that are real short and say, Oh, look, somebody built a Ziad computer, somebody built a robot that uses some unusual way of sensing things. That saves you a lot of time from having to go figure that out. Mostly, we do that on our own recognizance. Like I said, we'll draw from the tip line, but we're expected to just find some of our own stuff, too. You can't just sit and suck everything out of the tip line. You know, I think the the key to that is is our experience tells us what's boring and what's not boring. And we kind of try to bring stuff in like I haven't seen that before. Oh, that's interesting. Sometimes we'll kick things around, you know, somebody will say, Well, that doesn't sound right to me. You know, does that seem plausible, or is this a hoax and we'll discuss that a little bit. The editors do go through the articles. You know, every once in a while they'll say, I don't know if that's really the right approach for that or something. But they they're pretty light on editing compared to what I'm used to back from the old days and magazines where it was a much more slow process. So yeah, mostly it's us picking what we think people will like to read.
Oh, that's really cool.
So you can't you know, as you said, you can't keep pulling out of the tip jar. So, you know, what's your process for finding new content?
Oh, well, that's a trade secret. Okay, at least that one, what's your secret for getting customers for prototyping knobs?
Having a podcast and podcast
Dilbert. Right, do they have their own computer column? No. Anyway. That one up if you don't know it, but you know, I think the the key is I've got a lot of resources that I just look at anyway. Right. So you know, who's the Dave down there in Australia? His forums are always easy blog boy. Yeah, yeah, Evie blog, and they'll go, oh, you know, I was just tinkering around the other day, and I created nuclear fusion in a mason jar, you go, Wow, that's pretty interesting. I'm gonna go find that. That's next week on Hackaday. By the way, nuclear fusion in a mason jar. The other thing is, you know, you'll go look at YouTube and sort by, by relative date rights. Okay. There's new things like I do a lot on FPGAs. Right? We've talked about how everybody's kind of got their little spot. My fetish is is I like to design obscure CPU architectures. And so I do that in FPGA. And so I'll go search for FPGA sort and say, Well, you know, first you got to get rid of all the ones about download this FPGA book for free. No, don't care about that, you know, and the university lecture that's in some language, you can understand, Nope, don't care about that. And then, but you'll run through 50 Of those, and you'll go, oh, wait, this guy's got a computer vision stuff done in a very small one Xilinx FPGA or something that's really interesting, because he explains how he got that result. We'll write that up.
That's awesome. Yeah. So so so you're kind of, you know, we're talking about the specialties that everyone has, even though it's kind of I guess, unspoken, that each person has a specialty yours is kind of the FPGA and the CHIP computer world kind of thing.
You know, I'm kind of weird, because I do spread a lot of different things. But yeah, if there's something FPGA related on the tip line, for example, go grab it, if nobody else has anything to do with a custom CPU, or Verilog, VHDL. You know, that kind of stuff. I've kind of that's kind of my beat. But I do a few other things, too. Of course, the ham radio, there's a couple others that are hands, but you'll notice will tend to pick up the ham radio stuff more so than the guys who aren't, I like to, I've done a few over time about bringing kids into technology, because that's a real passion of mine as well. And you, you know, there's a lot of work being done on that at the school level things like Project Lead the Way and you know, all of these STEM or are they calling it now they don't like stem anymore, it's steam or whatever, we are still in the middle of it. I haven't bought into that one yet. But there's a lot of initiatives for that. And I like to cover things like that. One of the things that I used to do back when I was down south of town was go out and do things like for the engineering classes, either give them a talk, or it's really cool. One of the schools down there, they have a deal where the kids will come up with a product or a product, you guys ought to get involved in that. And like one year, it was like a wheelchair that moved your legs automatically, you know, so to keep your legs circulating, so as you move the wheelchair, your legs would move up and down. That's cool. And of course, the podcast listeners can't see all my wonderful hand motions. Or, you know, the other was like the glow in the dark things to help fire in a fire help you get out of your house and things like that. And it's amazing when you go as an engineer at a class like that. And you go, I'm not a mechanical engineer, you know, I'm not a, you know, I don't know anything about glow in the dark panels for fire. And I don't know anything about wheelchairs. But just your background as an engineer means you can go ask them questions that will make them go, Oh, I didn't think about that, right? Or they need to measure something and they don't know how. And you'll say, Oh, well, that's easy. I know, I can figure out how to do that and help you out. And I love that because I feel like all of us had so much help at some point in our careers. Right? And you can't ever pay those people back. So you pay it forward. Sure. And I love to do that. So a lot of times I'll write in about Hackaday. Something to do with the kids or some way to get kids in. Well, that's cool. Yeah.
How about do you do you kind of have a running backlog of articles at any time? Or are you the kind of guy where you write one and then you're clear and then you start a new one?
Well, it's really funny because it used to be when I did monthly columns I always had a couple of extras laying around for that month that you just said Nope, just don't feel got to do it. Right. We do such volume had Hackaday that I don't really get that luxury now. They back them up you know so you're you're constantly contributing there's sometimes depends on how desperate they are for content. You might have a one or two days lag, you might have a weak lag. It just depends. And they the editors do all that scheduling. Of course, obviously, if there's some hot topic, right? What was the thing the other day was ice the other day a year ago where the Nest thermostats all shut down for some obscure reason? When did they shut down the servers for something? No, it was, it was a bug in a firmware update that caused the batteries to drain immediately. It was really bad as you think, okay, bad enough to wake up and my thermostats dead. But apparently one of the big use cases for nest is I own a rental house out on the coast of Maine, nobody's there. Well, I can log in and check the temperature. Well, when your battery dies, and everything freezes that was like in January to was like last January. So something like that's pretty topical. You know, they'll push that in. And sometimes we'll even say that, hey, this one's hot. You know, it needs to go up to the front of the line. Or if they agree, they'll run it quicker. But yeah, so I don't really have a big backlog. Although that's contrary to my my usual nature is just for the volume. You just can't hardly do
it. Yeah, yeah. That's similar to was it s3 from Amazon went down earlier this week. Oh, yeah. And, like, we use macros online. And so fortunately, none of our customer facing stuff went down. But our back back in like, chat program, we use a HipChat runs on s3 for the attachments. So that was working at all. And it was just like, it was just like, pulling your hair out.
Oh, yeah. Just completely crapped the bed.
Oh, that's a pretty picture. But it was
like we had to kind of like do it the old school way, when email stuff?
Ah, you have to think about it. Like, how do I do this?
So this is where I say, Well, when I was a kid, we don't have to have email attachments. Right? That's
the thing. I'll pass them drives around.
Exactly. Yeah. As we Scott Nike net, right, where you fit down the hole? That's right. But you know, I probably offend my friends at Amazon. But I did think it was interesting that while all these websites went down, because their storage went down, the Amazon retail site did not go down. So you have to wonder, do they not use s3? Or do they just have a diverse enough? Back end? That is fault tolerant? I don't know. I haven't I haven't looked into there's a priority
level priority levels or they have like separate, like division or separation between for s3, like a different production s3 or something like that. Just guessing. I was hoping I was hoping someone else would had something there.
went off down that rabbit hole.
So one more thing about Hackaday. Is there something that you've written or an article on Hackaday? That's like your favorite?
You know, I don't know if I could pick one particular favorite. I mean, clearly, I think anybody can imagine the original stuff you do is probably closer to your heart than saying, Hey, Bob did a robot.
Exactly. Sorry, to all the Bobs out there that built a robot. Exactly. Yeah,
no offense, Bob. But I mean, you know, it's my I want to talk about my stuff. I think what my favorites that come to mind, though, is when you get a really cool comment, like I did a series on Verilog on YouTube. And I think it's like a three or four part. And we were talking about this earlier, my YouTube videos are not like bills. They're more like Khan Academy where it's like, okay, look at my screen, and I'll talk about what I'm doing. But it's not the, you know, Hi, I'm Al and look at my scar on my chin or whatever. But the comments on some of those videos, one of them was, let me think like, remember it right? It's like, Man, I wish you'd been my VA, my Verilog professor in college. And I think those are the ones that kind of make you smile. Oh, there was a project I did years back on doing 3d Six protected mode. And that ran and Dr. Dobbs, that was some of the first stuff I did for them. And when Dr. Dobbs shut down there was a lot of Twitter activity people going oh, no, you know how sad and the two tweets that I really remember from that just thinking of memorable things was Mark Cuban had actually tweeted something to the effect of I learned everything from Dr. Dobbs. I'm so sad or something like that. Another one said on that articles that I'd written the early ones. It said one of my best childhood memories was hand typing in all this code for this 3d Six das extender. It was in Dr. Dobbs, and you're like, that's awesome. Right. You know, you somebody read that? And it became part of their life, right? Oh, yeah. Unfortunately, there was an insurance agent guys named Al Williams back in the I don't know 90s. And he did kind of a multi level marketing. So Al Williams al Williams. For a long time, Amazon couldn't tell us apart and he writes all these motivational books. So I used to get mail every once in a while, says Mr. Williams. Your book changed my life and I'm thinking, Oh, God, your life must be awful. Oh, no, you know, I'm so sorry. And then you'd read a little more you think? Oh yeah, other guy right? Not the, the other Adam Goldberg?
Well, real quick, can you can you just give us a handful of titles of books that you've been involved in and written?
Oh, Lord? Well, you know, on the hardware side, I did the last major book I did for a big publisher that when the self published was the printed circuit board book, and I hate to tell you, I can't remember the titles, but it basically talked about eagle and doing printed circuit board books. It's interesting because the software books you do them, and in a year, every one of them that's sold that's ever going to sell is gone, right. And the hardware books just sell and sell and sell. They don't sell big volumes right away, but they just keep selling. So that books probably 10 or 12 years old, and I still get a little cash out of that every once in a while. But it's pretty good. You know, it was a good book at the time, it still got a lot of value, but it's also an old book, right? So the printed circuit board, I did a basic stamp book that was real popular at one time. Again, the titles are really tough to come by. The ones I really like title wise was one was called steal this code, which is an Abbie Hoffman joke, which you probably don't get if you're over under the age of 50. The MFC BlackBook was probably one of my favorites. MFC was the Microsoft foundation classes. I taught a lot of classes all over the country based on that book with Addison Wesley. And so that was one of those books where I just really thought, Man, this book, you know, it came out the way I wanted it to come out. Everybody liked it. It was a good book. You know, books are like kids, you love all of them, but But you do know that some of them are a little more special than the others.
Wow, that's That's awesome. So Ham radio. Are you still active? Well, that's a tricky, what's your handle?
Well, there you know, you don't do that. That's CB radio, ham radio, My callsign is WD five GNR? Maybe that's the better better answer for that. The unkind. I got licensed in 1977. I think 14 Right long time 14. So I think that's right, anyway, have to do the math. But yeah, I was 14. And I think that was 77. I've been active off and on a lot. And I've done all ham radio is a great hobby, because you can do lots of different things, right? There's not just one activity. And so over that time, I've kind of done lots of different kinds of activity. But I always said, I've always gone through more solder than logbooks, right? I've never been one to really, you know, when I was in college to work in the satellites was kind of hard to ham radio satellites. And so a bunch of us got together, we got a station going for it. We made a couple of contacts. And I saw somebody a couple of weeks later, they said, Oh, you're still making a lot of contacts in the satellite. I'm like, Well, no, we did that right. Talk to anybody. I just wanted to make it work, right? Once you talk to some guys and say, Well, that's it. We're done. Right now, because I just moved, I have no antennas. But you can actually do a surprising amount of ham radio now on the internet. And of course, there's always the group that goes well, that's not really ham radio? Well, it is sort of because it does get rebroadcast out, you know, so you are on the air, you're just not on your radio on the air, right. So you can sit with a little handheld radio now and talk to people all over the world, even in a community group talk. Yeah, and it's half of it, if not more as being carried over the internet, not over the airwaves, right. And so I do a little bit of that I'm still a little active there. Most of my ham radio activity, I have a group of folks down in south, south part of town down in Clearlake. And it's basically a bunch of hands, we claim that we're all people who build things, you know, we build something we build antennas or computers or robots or radios or something. We claim that we go and help kids with school projects and stuff. And we do do that. But really, it's just a bunch of old guys that have breakfast once a month and and talk about like we're talking now. Pretty interest. You guys should come out to that someday and do a live podcast from one of our breakfast. Yeah, that
sounds great. Yeah,
you'd find that entertaining, I promise. As a good group. We've done that for in three lll, Tom probation, I started that. I we think about 22 years ago. Wow. And it's just going on since then. Every month without fail. There's been a breakfast for for that group. So
this might be a silly question, given what you just said. But would you recommend ham radio as a hobby to a youngster? And how would said person get into the hobby?
Well, you know, it's a lot different than it used to be. And and I don't know, I mean, that's, that's a provocative question. I think that if you're the right kind of person, ham radio, there's something for everybody in it. So some people do, where they prepare for emergencies. And some people build stuff. And some people talk on satellites, and some people bounce signals off the moon. And some people just talk, right, they just get on there. And you know, any day, any time of the day or night you can get on there and hear somebody talking about whether they like or don't like Donald Trump or you know, whatever. We're not gonna get into that. Original blogging, there's gotta be there's gotta be some form of media that's not discussing that so let's avoid that topic. But you know, there's always some thing to do there. I think it's a great hobby as a parent, you go, boy, that's a cool hobby for a kid because it's got, you know, you get marketable skills is pretty safe. You know, you don't get all this weird stuff going on. I think a lot of the kids, you really have to struggle to make that relevant to them. Yeah. Okay, if I want to talk to somebody in Europe all just get on the chat line and talk to somebody in Europe, right? If I want to go,
I'll say amen. But that was like, Oh, wait.
Yeah, I'm the old guy here. Maybe I CQ. You want to? You know, I don't know, man.
So, you know, again, I think it's a great thing. And I would encourage people, but I do think it's tough to get them interested. We had a hay on, he's what we call a silent key now, which means he's passed away. But down there who worked for NASA. at the Johnson Space Center, Nick lands in three Oh, I'm sorry, not in three, Casey, five KBO. And he was worked with the schools. And he also was the guy who got all the the astronauts their ham license, or I say, I say all of them, most of them, maybe not all of them. But he would go out to the schools and run these ham radio classes. And he was just a ham radio producing machine. I mean, they he turned out, I would say hundreds of school kids that got their ham licenses. And you asked about how they get started. I mean, that's the best way clubs and schools will have classes. And you can self study, there's plenty of stuff on the internet, it's not that hard. You may or may not know, you don't have to know Morse code anymore. So that was an impediment for a lot of people, right is learning the Morse code is very difficult. The tests are multiple choice, you know, so it's not like, Oh, I've got to become some math wizard to do that, right. And kids regularly pass them. I think the youngest is five, I think there's a five year old ham somewhere, as you know. And if you find somebody like that in ham radio, we have a tradition of having a mentor. And that's called an Elmer. And so you'll find somebody that will Elmer young person or an older person, whoever wants to get into it, and they will help you. It used to be when I got my license as a kid, you had to go travel to an FCC office at a certain time and take the test. Now, volunteers do that under the authority of the FCC. But you know, it's all done by these clubs. And so that was one of the things I used to do for Nick is me and several other people would go out and give his classes the exams because he couldn't because he was their teacher, right? It's gone with interest. So there's plenty of opportunity there. And depending on where you are, there's almost always some local ham radio club that would help you.
Hmm, interesting. Yeah, I
brought it up because I own a jeep and a lot of people a lot Jeepers, run ham radio off road, because CB has limited range.
Well, you know, surprisingly, a big influx in the community is the preppers. You know, if you go to the local ham meetings down crowd of preppers they're gone. You know? Well, when the big one hits, I'm gonna have my radio, and I'm gonna know how to use it. I mean, that's fine. If that's what you want to do. It's like I say, there's a million activities you can do. But where's your power source coming from? Well, it's I don't know, batteries. hamster wheel. I don't know.
I used to work with a guy who was a big ham. And he he had like 50 antennas on his car and like a weather station, all kinds of stuff. And he was just just a very interesting fellow. But he used to partake in
the competitions. No, yes contest thing where
I didn't know this, but they would weigh your gear, they would actually weigh how much your radio was, and whoever you got extra points for having a lighter radio that could broadcast further at least in some of the content he was doing, which is,
well, there's also you know, in Europe, it's very common to go find radio transmitters. And they it's almost like a outdoors, but it is an outdoor sport.
I mean, I'm just imagining like people taking the radios and drilling holes into the enclosure and taking screws out to make it lighter balsa wood.
So I made a mistake with that guy, one time, he had actually brought his radio to work we that we had asked him to, because Oh, just a small radio, because we were actually trying to cause some some of our products to fail based off of radio interference. And we had one of his small radios in the in the engineering lab, and we had been testing with it for a while he walks in and I grabbed the transmitter. And I said calling all aliens calling all aliens. And the look on his face. I've never seen so much disgust on his face with how much disregard I had for for the ham
laws. Oh, that's because the FCC if they catch you doing something, you're responsible. He's going to the big house for you. Right? The reality is they probably are gonna catch you but
no, right right. He was he was very upset with me. Probably should not have done that.
So in like a billion years when that signal travels across the galaxy and goes into the alien transmitter receivers.
And it's gonna start the interstellar war.
It's all my fault.
I can see that bad movie where the alien says something in the subtitle the earth jerk, right?
That's right. They come and destroy Earth. It's
like a laser beam shoots down. That's
So we were talking about this earlier in the podcast, but like current projects. So what is currently on your bench right now? I know you just moved but
yeah, it's a lot of my bench stuff is in the garage still in wrapping plastic and everything. But I do have I've got the the z 80. On the breadboard running, or almost running. Most of the projects I'm doing right now are not pure hardware. They're FPGA related. And so I've got a few things going on. I told you I've got the fetish for kind of weird custom CPUs. I actually have a patent on a on a feature for something called a transfer triggered architectures CPU. So if you look, I've written about these a few times where it's a single instruction. So how do you make a computer with one instruction? And I'll leave that as a reader reader exercise. But that's a transfer triggered architecture. That's one way to do that. There's other ways as well. So right now, I like to do that I like to sit and think well, okay, this is what computers look like today. What could they look like? You know, what would be the and so right now I'm working on a, a very reduced real estate space CPU, something that could fit very small FPGA or we have a lot of room in the FPGA for something else, maybe like a CPLD? Or well, yeah, maybe not that small. But I don't know, we'll find out because right now I've kind of got the architecture laid out. And I've been writing some software simulation for it. I haven't moved into actually moving it into the FPGA yet. Because that's one thing I found, if you just like anything else, if you just go start slinging the Verilog into the FPGA, it kind of gets ugly at some point. So if you start working out the architecture details in software, where it's very easy to just go, Oh, I think I should make that, you know, zero after it does that or something? Oh, that's one line of code. And it's done. And I can try that almost immediately. The FPGA tools I'm big evangelist for FPGA is because that when I when I was in school, there weren't any such things, right. So I didn't learn anything about that. And when I started coming out, the tool sets were very expensive. You had to go to you know, you had to get a sun workstation, big money, big money for the software, tough stuff. And now it's just nothing right? You know, we did an article that was another one of my favorites off the Hackaday was the lattice has that ice stick, and it's like, I think it's $19. Or maybe it's $29 thing
is absolutely terrible.
It's awful, but for the price, but for the price, right? For Free Free Software. If you want to learn about FPGAs and you've got the price of a dinner at the Landry's.
I started the tool set just made me lose my hair. Oh, well,
that's the thing I don't you got to go read the article. I don't use the toolset. There's an open source tool chain for Hey, and it's actually really capable. And that's what so go read the articles, I do a lot of Altera development. And in fact, if you read that article, you'll see that I said, Well, I started out trying to use the Windows software. And then after it what are other Linux software and and after, wouldn't validate because my Ethernet adapter isn't eth zero and hasn't been for 10 years, right? And then when I solve that problem, then there was this other part that was just as cheap. And I finally I just said, Okay, three strikes, you're out, I don't care about your software, I'm going to go get the open source tool chain, and it's actually quite capable. So you know, I agree, it's not the best thing in the world. I'm a big Xilinx guy, although I did learn on altaira, oddly enough, but here's what gets me. And if you do Altera stuff, I think it's interesting. If you're, if you're listening, and you think, Well, I'd like to learn about FPGAs and you go start looking around the internet, you'll see all these projects, you know, the light flasher, you know, or this is a Pong game or something. Well, I don't really need an FPGA to necessarily do that. Right. And I think that's what I try to bring out in the Hackaday columns is, why do you want to use an FPGA? Other than just I haven't done it? I want to do Yeah, that's not a sufficient reason. And as you probably know, I mean, you can do things in parallel. And you and that's the key is I can build circuits in hardware, and they effectively execute all the time. There's not an execution thread. The example I always use when I'm in class would be something like, I want to monitor, you know, 100 sensors all at one time. What a software loop. I can only look at so many of them at a time. Yeah, I don't look at one at a time. Well, it depends on how you build it, right? I mean, maybe if I've got a low or I've got a eight bit port, and I read eight of them at a time or something, right? But I can't read 100 at a time. So the time for me reading numbers zero to number 99 is some finite amount of time and it's pretty big, and then I'm not looking at anything. Whereas with the FPGA if I'm looking at 100 if some one of them trigger triggers, I know would immediately you
basically take one module, and then you kind of multiply that over 100. And then you get to look at it all at the same time.
And that was, and that was my next point is then if I need 200, tomorrow, as long as I got the space to do it, the FPGA is I just make another 100 copies,
right, because it's all reconfigurable. And if you if you, if you can potentially take four expensive chips that have specific functions and push them into one FPGA that's cheaper than all four of them, you're done. Also, the blinding speed that you can get out of FPGA that you can't get off of a
microcontroller. Well, that's where the speed comes from, though, right is I mean, if I had an infinitely fast CPU, I could scan all those 100 sensors and run, you know, eight nanoseconds or whatever I can do in the FPGA, but I don't have an infinitely fast process, right?
It's not really about the speed, like a, like a baseline Altera is about 50 megahertz, whereas you can get like a modern pic, 32 to go at like 250 megahertz. But the thing is at 50 megahertz, that Altera can slam all 100 of those inputs at the same time. And that's where you get your speed boost from.
Well, and plus, I mean, another you know, this, but if you don't know FPGA is comparing the speed of the CPU to the speed of the FPGA is not really quite the same thing. It's more like comparing the speed of a memory chip, you know, than the than the CPU, but that's part of the charm of it. So I do think that's, uh, you were asking me what was on my bench, I think the the new CPU, which is kind of got a, you know, to make it small, the data path on it is serial, which is actually funny, because that goes back to like the old old computers like the EDSAC and the, you know, all those had serial data paths to mainly because they were like mercury delay lines carrying bits on the mercury, right. So it's kind of funny, it's almost full circle back to that kind of old style computer. But the goal is, is to not take up a lot of real estate and still have a pretty capable process.
Are you going to have like a GCC compliant compiler for this thing?
No. So So okay, interviews over.
A little too far down.
You know, every time I've tried to port GCC, I have stuck my head in the oven for several hours. Yeah. Well, no, but I have tried it. You know, the the big processor that I did a while back that I was talking about with the one instruction, it could easily host GCC. And I've looked at a couple other options, but you really want GCC and I, I the documentation for that is just heinous. And the the, the and who knows, maybe it's trivially simple and I'm an idiot and somebody is out there listening going God What an idiot, right? But, but
now people can tell you, there you
go. So we'll send you an idiot. But I think the the key there is, there's other languages for that do okay for what I want to do. And there's even other C compilers, right? I mean, yeah, I think even retargeting LCC looks like it would be easier. And I just haven't done that. What I wound up with there is I wound up doing a fourth cross compiler for it. Okay. And, you know, one of the things I talked about interesting articles, I did this one for Hackaday, too. One of the things if you design your own CPU architectures, you get tired of building your tools over and over again. So you kind of have a choice. You can say, well, I'll clone the, you know, XYZ a pic. 32. I'll clone that. And then I can use their tools. Well, yeah, but what fun is that I can go buy a pic. 32, right, or you can go build your own all your own tools. And I have a universal cross assembler that makes horrible, horrible molestation of the GCC preprocessor. But I can retarget that assembler about three minutes by filling out a form basically, instead of actually writing any code. And that's actually I did that for Dr. Dobbs. And I redid it later in a different way for Hackaday. So it's out there on the on the internet. But it was funny, there was a Hackaday article the other day, what was the name of that company? Oh, the eight A to Z, the letter A the number two, the letter Z, where this guy had said, I wanted to learn all about computers. So I designed my own CPU. And I made it run an operating system. And it's got video and it's got sound and it's got keyboard, you know, and I can play I don't remember it was Zork or something, you know. And, you know, it was all I watched that that guy was crazy. Yeah. And I mean, I was thinking, Oh my Lord. I don't know how long that took him. But I mean, he did the entire thing soup to nuts. I was very impressed. Oh, yeah. Yeah. You know, so it's like I said about the kids, you know, some of them you're more impressed with than others, but it was like, wow, the range of things that he had to do to get all of that working. Yeah. And and also very knowledgeable, right? Because that's a lot of different skills, right in the graphics program is a lot different skill than than designing a CPU and that's a lot different than writing you know,
if it had interface controller, yeah, the keyboard outside world talking.
Sure the PS two protocol and you know, all that stuff is is tricky, so I was very impressed. That was a big, big job for somebody.
So out. So Do y'all have anything else to say? You know, this is the awkward end of the podcast.
This is the part You say it's not me it's not me. It's you is
it's not me for you. It's just the time so um, do you want to sign us out? Oh,
well, that was a brick wall ending well
so that was the macro fab engineering podcast. I was your guest al Williams
and we are your hosts Parker Domon and Steven Craig later everyone,
take it easy. Thanks, guys.
Al Williams returns to the podcast to discuss FPGA documentation and meat balloons.
Al Williams returns to the podcast for the fourth time! This time to discuss the importance of circuit simulation and what it can teach engineers.
Stephen brings up alternative uses for assembly layers in PCB design and Parker uses OctoPrint!