Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Relearning and retraining

I walked away from a high-paying contract into the middle of an economic downturn/recession/depression/meltdown/end_of_the_world_as_we_know_it. I keep asking myself is it really better to starve for one's beliefs? I just couldn't take the client's money anymore when I knew I wasn't doing anything useful for the client, I hated what I was doing and I realised that I was even losing skills in areas I wanted to work in (e.g. Perl and web development).

So here we are three months later and not a nibble for any of the jobs I've applied for and most of those jobs don't look all that interesting.

So in the meantime I've started self-educating in a completely different area of IT from how I've earned my living for the past 20 years: embedded microcontrollers.

I've been quite overwhelmed by the amount of learning I will have to undertake to program the SEAForth chip I bought. Obviously there's Forth and Intellasys's version of it,VentureForth. Then there's the SEAForth chip itself which is a Forth machine (in fact there's 40 cores, i.e. 40 Forth machines.) Three of the cores have an ADC and DAC each and so I'll need to know more about digital filtering.

The S40C18 doesn't come with much of a library (so far) and there is no USB, HTTP, Bluetooth or WiFi stack in the current version. So presumably I will have to implement my own if I want to use the chip for any sort of comms app.

My initial idea of implementing a wireless microphone adapter has gone through a lot of ups and downs as various chips and articles in magazines look almost to have done what I want but (so far) there is always one or more of my requirements missing.

My initial optimism that the S40C18 would be able to handle the whole task in a single chip has been dashed when I learned that although the individual cores run at approx. 900MHz, the DAC isn't fast enough to run at these speeds. So my design needs some sort of additional chip if I want to use Bluetooth or WiFi. But USB-WiFi adapters are less than $10 so that's not a big issue.

It occurred to me that all the ideas I've had so far for the S40C18 are all variations on the same set of functions. In addition to a wireless microphone, I've thought of implementing a software-defined radio, a guitar-effects stompbox and a digital oscilloscope/logic analyser. All of these use basically the same parts: a signal digitiser (ADC), some filters and a USB or HTTP or WiFI output.

Another area of study was prompted by holding the S40C18 eval board in my hand. I could barely see most of the components let alone work out what they are. Surface-mount devices are obviously where it's at these days. So this prompted me to embark on a hasty update to my hardware assembly skills. I emailed a friend who I know has done some SMT work asking for help for what equipment I need to build SMT circuits and he replied with a multi-page article which he ought to publish, it is so useful.

So I bought a DMM/Oscilloscope, a new soldering station with really fine bits for SMT work, a magnifying lamp, some breadboards, solder, hookup wire and some other bits I've forgotten already.

And so the great hardware adventure begins...

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