Thursday, 27 January 2011

The Dyslexic Engineer

I found out I was Dyslexic when I started secondary school at the age of 12. By the time I left I had poor grades and was told I would not amount to much. However Dyslexia is not a disability or have something missing in our brains, its just the way we are wired up. So how does someone with dyslexia get by in a world or words and what magic powers have some of us harnessed that has given us an advantage over others, like me in becoming an electronics design engineer.

At the beginning I can remember looking at black boards or pages of text having no idea what other kids around me were seeing. For me the pages may have well as been blank for all I could gleam from them. However I was lucky as when I started my secondary school my teacher spotted what I was having problems. I was tested for Dyslexia and found to have a mild form. The approach for me in my English lesions from my teacher was not to learn to read although that was a part of it, but more to focus on the things that dyslexics and autistic people have, the ability to see things differently. For me I was able to rotate images in my head and look at drawings and describe what could not be seen or how it would look form a different angle. I also found i could memorize chucks of maps, drawings etc in a almost photographic type way. My teacher encouraged these skills and gave me and others more confidence which lead us to start learning to read more and more. By the time I left school at 16 I had reading age of around 10.

Over the years I have slowly got better at reading and writing but its still painfully slow compared to the speed my brain wants to run at. Computers and PCs were just entering homes and when I started my ONC in electronics at collage I know I would have never finished it or my HNC without Word and a spell checker!

Since then I've relied heavily on computers to get by in my working day. Lists are important to me and where I work we have an internal wiki which I use to assemble ideas. Just more recently I have found which is a really nice little online tool for generating lists. I have also used a package called Bugzilla which is fab at tracking faults, bug or issues on software projects. Bugzilla however is quite flexible and can be used on hardware projects or even just you day to day life. Being dyslexic meant I had to be better at project managing my day at work - unfortunately I've never quite got it to work at home.!

Another really good tool I use is to block out my calender in Outlook using bright colours. each colour means a different type of task and allows me to look and see quickly what I've got planed. I also block out my whole day, not just for appointments or meeting, but anything I want to get done. This way I don't forget what I have planed and have already set aside time to do it.

Many of these things may look and sound like project management tools. In away I have stolen them from this area of business but you will find that these techniques are being taught to people today with dyslexia. these are methods of giving back Dyslexics some control.

There was recently a program on the BBC called "Don't Call Me Stupid" which follows the UK actress Kara Tointon who explain just what it like to be dyslexic and for anyone who watches it you will also see the emotional impact that it can have on a individual too. For me I forgot just how hard I found it to get though school and now having tools and work arounds I don't get those feelings of depression and frustration anymore.

For me I now find Dyslexia a gift. I do not think I could come up with design ideas and play around with stuff in my head if I was not like this. I now talk around with large chunks of circuits and software in my head that I can think over, try ideas and work stuff out. It’s like having a 3D whiteboard in my head. I still need pen and paper but in a funny way I like being dyslexic. I can get by with the reading and writing and getting my words mixed up, however I think I've come out better off in my career because of the way my head is wired up.

I would say to anyone who is dyslexia not to give up. The program link above has links to good sites that can help. Many are told that they will never come to much and give up too easy. I have always aspired to be more, maybe because I'm dyslexic,and so should others.

UPDATE March 2014 - Since writing this post I have become a Chartered Engineer. It was a big deal for me, to be seen by other engineers (The IET) as having what it takes to be a quality engineer. I feel that this shows that someone with dyslexia can achieve their dreams!

Saturday, 22 January 2011

555 Timer Hype-?

So if you have not noticed then engineering community is going nuts about the little 555 Timer IC. This is all because Jeri Ellsworth posted on twitter that she felt she should start a campaign to bring it back into popular use. In the space of a few days she has with the help of Chris Gammell placed a 555 contest website up with big companies asking to sponsor it. So what’s all the hype and why get so excited about such a little chip?

The 555 was originally designed by Hans R. Camenzind in 1970. The NE555 quickly became a massive seller and in 2003 it was estimated that more than one billion units are sold each year. The device its self contains very little, two comparators and a SR flip-flop and a bit of support circuit allow this device to perform a number of functions from generating square wave to detecting missing pluses or debouncing a switch input. The 555 has many uses but is now sadly over looked as old and impractical as a first choice.

The original NE555 which is still available was criticised as being current hungry and causing noise on supply rails due to its use of bipolar transistors. However a competitor using CMOS technology, the 7555, offers very low power usage and removed the horrid glitches seen on the 555. However despite the basic operation of the two devices being identical engineers have found a few minor differences in operation and its well worth investigating these when designing a circuit or wondering why your circuit is not working the same as one you have copied from the internet.

In its basic principles the 555 can work as a monostable or astable and achieves this by use of the designers selecting resistors and capacitors to connect to the outside of the device. Using simple RC calculation and an offset factor for the 555 it’s quick and easy to use.

Because the 555 has been around so long there are now vast amount of information and tutorials on the internet showing you how to use it. This is a list of the sites I have found that have good information and examples that you can work from.

This link will take you to DesignSpark and a little excel sheet the I put together at the request of Robotgrrl that helps you find a selection of R’s and C’s to fit your application: R-C Guide

Modern 21st century electronics is pushing back the use of the 555 chip. We are now able to purchase micros for under a dollar that are temperature stable and able to do so much more than a 555. However these micros hiding in tiny 8 pin packages have a disadvantage of needing programming and testing.

So why the hype for a 555 contest – well this little device has been around for a long time and as engineers we have a certain love for our hobby electronics roots and the days of building small projects from Radio Shack or Maplins. In the 80’s when I was building circuits you found 555 timers in tons of products, either that or a 741 op-amp! So Jeri like so many of us remembers the good old days and having a contest allows us to bring the little 555 timer back to the front of our minds and remind us that simple is sometimes better.

Thursday, 13 January 2011

The Rise of Social Video

According to the social media network 2011 is going to be the rise of video blogs, webinars etc. But what effect will this really have of us design engineers? Are we now going to have to look good on camera to make it, or should we all start finding stunt doubles? The other question are, is this really new and what makes a good video post!

Personally I not certain that video blogs and webinars are totally new. Video has been a powerfully tool used by lots of people for some time now and they have made a big impact. From a totally geeky point of view I watched and learned a massive amount about computer science and programming techniques by watching the thirty plus videos posted by UNSW on iTunes U entitled COMP1917. What made these video really good it that the host, Richard Buckland is excited and enthusiastic about his subject. This makes watching them really fun because he would sometimes go off topic to explain things. The videos centered around him giving lectures at UNSW however they are far from technically well constructed videos, lighting is poor in places and it even drops sound at one point. Having said this they are compelling to watch.

Possible the biggest name in electronics that is using video to its max is eevblog. Here we see the same passion for electronics that we know we all have inside us – well us geeks anyway! His approach may never make him a Hollywood actor and nor would his videos get a golden globe. But it’s all about that little something that again makes Dave compelling to watch. I also have three other videos that I think are a must to watch. These use an new approach that you may not have seen before or expect as a method for posting a video. Passing information with massive visual effect is what they do best. Again these are not from a video point of view well lit or have good sound but they do what’s important and that’s get a message across.

Hopefully by now you will see that making videos is not about generating a well polished HD video that could appear as a prime time BBC documentary. As engineers we know the world is far from perfect and we are all familiar will a little bit of shaky video skills for filming our kids at Disneyland or filming your mates at the pub on a mobile phone. So making videos for other geeks do not have to be that good!

The other importnat think in making a video is the equipment. Keep it simple. You could go and get yourself a expencive camcorder but you can get away with a Flip which is really very low cost and comes with basic editing software. There are a lot or big names posting with nothing more. But I would not suggest you video with your mobile! You can't keep it still, but a small cheap camera can be stood on a table or fitted to a tripod that will make your videos look really good. Lighting is also important and a good suggestion is to place you camera in a window looking in at you. You will use natural light and from the right direction. Run some test runs and see what you look like, A clear image or are you all in shadow. Just some basic lighting is all you need.

Editing can be hard, there are free tools and some to pay for by you will not be breaking the balance as some tools are less than the cost of filling yout car up with petrol. As I have already said, the Flip camera and editing tools are very good so would recommend starting here. When filming always allow a few seconds for the camera to run before talking and the same at the end - makes it easier to edit after. And lastly please dont use fancy wipes and fades and spinning images. Your views will switch off very quick - just clean cuts is all you need.

So how do you move forward and get more information or know how to get people to see my video? Well there are a number of social media people that are promoting Video at this time. I would recommend getting a twitter account if you do not already have one and following these people: @imsweetie @jododds and especially @barefoot_exec. Now I know there are a number of engineers that are a bit shy and can feel a little over powered by social media types but these guys know what they are talking about and can help point you in the right direction.

So the key things are when making your video. Keep it interesting, don’t try anything too flash! Use a good camera like a FLIP. Stick to the information you need to get across and remember to post it were everyone can see it – YouTube.!

Tuesday, 4 January 2011

How I Became an Engineer

I became interested in geeky stuff when I was less than ten years old. I remember being given a toy wind up clock that you could open the back of and pull all the gears out and then put it back together to make it work. A sort or geek jigsaw. I was always interested in how and why stuff worked and in the 70’s there was no kids TV on early, only Open University programs. I would be playing on the floor while Dad watched men in odd jackets talking about calculating the curve or a cord. This all sinks into a six year old and was not long before I started repeating what I’d heard.

At the time my Dad was a TV salesman / repairman so when our TV stopped working or a neighbors then the set would end up on the kitchen table with the back off. The view when your only 4 feet tall of glowing valves and the warm sell a old TV set gives off is a kind of mystical magic. Dad would keep me well back as he poked about inside and adjusted the colour or fixed rolling pictures. Was a sort of magic and I just looked on in wonder.

In 1981 as the first NASA shuttle took of we got our first computer – A ZX81 by Sinclair. This was fantastic for me as now I had something that would respond to being given commands, draw pictures and play games and a year later with a ZX Spectrum I was soon writing my own stuff and finding out how the hardware and logic of a Kempston Joystick worked. By then Dad was working from home doing TV and HiFi repairs and I got to fix computers and help people with them and all at the age of 12.

It was then I had a dream job of being a service engineer that could fly into space and repair spaceships. Year’s later people repaired the Hubble telescope while still in space! That was the sort of stuff I'd dreamed of. Ok I may have never got off the ground but I went to college and got my HNC in electronics. By this point I had believed I was an engineer, however years later I still aspire to be better and greater at my job. I may never have a PhD or get a cEng but I know that being an engineer is not just about passing an exam, nor is it a way or life but it is a way of thinking.