Gas station without pumps

2017 February 25

More writing advice from the electronics course

Filed under: Circuits course — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 20:13
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I spent the entire long Presidents’ Day weekend grading and still did not clear my backlog (the cold I’ve had for the past two weeks has really reduced my ability to work long hours).  I did get a homework set graded and a design report set graded during the 3-day weekend, but I was left with a set of 18 redone lab reports that I still hadn’t gotten to.  Wednesday produced another set of redone reports (so I now have about 35), and Friday produced another homework set (which I just finished grading after spending all Saturday—I haven’t even gotten dressed yet and it is almost 8pm). Tomorrow I’ll tackle the first set of redone reports, assuming my cold lets me do anything tomorrow.

In Disappointment with chain stores, I commented on no longer wanting to grade in the Peet’s coffee shop I used to grade in, and commenter “Mike” wanted to know what solution I came up with. This winter, I’ve mainly been grading in my breakfast room at home, using a tiny laptop (an 11″ MacBook Air, which we bought for travel and for lecturing) when needed to look things up (data sheets, my solution sets, the exact wording in the book, …).  This has worked out ok this year, though I do tend to wander into the kitchen for snacks a bit too often.  Still, the snacks at home are healthier than in a coffee shop!

Here are some general comments that I shared with the whole class, based on the most recent design reports:


Many students reported using a 3.3V power supply without measuring it, resulting in inconsistent information, such as VOH > 3.3V.  PteroDAQ reports the power-supply voltage on the GUI and in the metadata for the data file, so the data was available, even if the students hadn’t thought to measure it while in lab.


  • Equations are parts of sentences, not figures and not objects dropped randomly on the page. Treat them grammatically as noun phrases.
  • Explicit figure credit is needed any time a figure is copied or adapted. The caption must say something like “figure adapted from …” or “figure copied from …”. Failure to do so is plagiarism, and I’ll have to start academic integrity proceedings if students fail to do proper figure credits in future.
  • Don’t bury the lede. Start with the design goal, not with generic background. A lot of students still wanted to give me a bunch of B.S. about what hysteresis was, before telling me that they were designing a capacitive touch sensor using a relaxation oscillator built around a Schmitt trigger.


  • The subjunctive mood marked by the auxiliary verb “would” is used for many things in English, but technical writing primarily uses just one: contrary-to-fact statement. “The inverter that we would be using” says that you didn’t use that inverter and are about to say why. A lot of students seem to think that “would be” is some formal form of past tense—they’ve seen it in writing, but never understood what it means.  I fault their middle-school English teachers for not stressing the importance of more advanced grammar than the bare minimum, but the fault could have been corrected in high school or in college composition classes, but still persists.
  • Students are still using way too much passive: “It was decided …” should be replaced with “We decided …”.  Part of the problem here is that much of the writing they are exposed to overuses passive also—excessive passive is a common writing error for scientists and engineers, not just students.


  • “Firstly”, “secondly”, “lastly” ⇒ “first”, “second”, “last”. These are already adverbs and don’t need an “-ly” ending.  Strangely, I never see the corresponding problem with “next”, though it is in the same class of words that are simultaneously adjectives and adverbs.
  • There are a lot of words that are compound words as nouns, but separable verb+particle pairs as verbs. For example, “setup” is a noun, but “set up” is a verb. Other examples include layout, turnaround, pickup, putdown, stowaway, flyover, and setback.
  • Avoid the unit abbreviation mm2, as it is too hard to tell whether you mean m(m2) or (mm)2. Most often, the (mm)2 interpretation will be made, but a lot of students used it for m(m2).  (Same for cm2.)
  • Many students are using “proportional” wrong, for any increasing function. The phrase “f proportional to d” means f=kd for some k, not just that f increases with d. Similarly, “T inversely proportional to d” means T=k/d for some k, not just that C decreases with d.


  • Capitalize at beginning of sentence and proper names only: “Schmitt trigger” not “Schmitt Trigger”, “Figure 3” but “many figures”. Figure names, table names, and equation names are proper nouns, so should be capitalized: “There are three figures on the last page: Figures 4, 5, and 7”.
  • Unit names are not capitalized (hertz, volts, amps, …), but symbols for units from people’s names are (Hz, V, A)
  • Hyphenate a noun phrase used as a modifier for another noun: “Schmitt-trigger inverter” but “Schmitt trigger”.

2017 February 5

Units matter

Filed under: Circuits course — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 11:37
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I was a little surprised by how many students had trouble with the following homework question, which was intended to be an easy point for them:

Estimate C2(touching) − C2(not touching), the capacitance of a finger touch on the packing-tape and foil sensor, by estimating the area of your finger that comes in contact with the tape, and assume that the tape is 2mil tape (0.002” thick) made of polypropylene (look up the dielectric constant of polypropylene on line). Warning: an inch is not a meter, and the area of your finger tip touching a plate is not a square meter—watch your units in your calculations!

Remember that capacitance can be computed with the formula C = \frac{\epsilon_r\epsilon_0 A}{d}~,
where \epsilon_r is the dielectric constant,  \epsilon_0=8.854187817E-12 F/m is the permittivity of free space, A is the area, and d is the distance between the plates.

The problem is part of their preparation for making a capacitance touch sensor in lab—estimating about how much capacitance they are trying to sense.

There is a fairly wide range of different correct answers to this question, depending on how large an area is estimated for a finger touch. I considered any area from 0.5 (cm)2 to 4 (cm)2 reasonable, and might have accepted numbers outside that range with written justification from the students.  Some students have no notion of area, apparently, trying to use something like the length of their finger times the thickness of the tape for A.

People did not have trouble looking up the relative dielectric constant of polypropylene (about 2.2)—it might have helped that I mentioned that plastics were generally around 2.2 when we discussed capacitors a week or so ago.

What people had trouble with was the arithmetic with units, a subject that is supposed to have been covered repeatedly since pre-algebra in 7th grade. Students wanted to give me area in meters or cm (not square meters), or thought that inches, cm, and m could all be mixed in the same formula without any conversions.  Many students didn’t bother writing down the units in their formula, and just used raw numbers—this was a good way to forget to do the conversions into consistent units.  This despite the warning in the question to watch out for units!

A lot of students thought that 1 (cm)2 was 0.01 m2, rather than 1E-4 m2. Others made conversion errors from inches to meters (getting the thickness of the tape wrong by factors of 10 to 1000).

A number of students either left units entirely off their answer (no credit) or had the units way off (some students reported capacitances in the farad range, rather than a few tens of picofarads).

A couple of students forgot what the floating-point notation 8.854187817E-12 meant, even though we had covered that earlier in the quarter, and they could easily have looked up the constant on the web to figure out the meaning if they forgot.  I wish high-school teachers would cover this standard way of writing numbers, as most engineering and science faculty assume students already know how to read floating-point notation.

Many students left their answers in “scientific” notation (numbers like 3.3 10-11 F) instead of using more readable engineering notation (33pF). I didn’t take off anything for that, if the answer was correct, but I think that many students need a lot more practice with metric prefixes, so that they get in the habit of using them.

On the plus side, it seems that about a third of the class did get this question right, so there is some hope that students helping each other will spread the understanding to more students.  (Unfortunately, the collaborations that are naturally forming seem to be good students together and clueless students together, which doesn’t help the bottom half of the class much.)

2016 October 5

Broken bike seat

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 17:25
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Yesterday was not a good day for me.

First, I spent most of the day struggling with the homework for the control-theory class I’m sitting in on. The course is dual listed as an undergrad and grad course, with shared lectures but different homework and projects. The undergrad part of the homework was straight-forward, and I finished it Monday night, but the two additional problems for the grad students were tough.  One of them had a simple “engineering” solution that I got quickly by formal manipulation of the formulæ, but I could not justify some of the steps, since they involved a integral that was not finite.  The other problem was not difficult, but involved a rather tedious amount of algebra to linearize the system—the professor had done the linearization in lecture notes,  and we were just supposed to check it for the homework, but he’d made an error in algebra, so I had to redo the whole thing.

Late in the afternoon, I decided to take a break and replace the sump pump that had failed sometime in the past couple of weeks.  Originally I was going to disassemble the pump and see if the problem was repairable (I think that the switch for the float is not turning on reliably, possibly from corroded contacts), but I decided that I could do that later to have a spare pump, meanwhile getting a working sump pump.  (My house is built over a seep where an aquifer comes to the surface, and the water table is about 3 inches below the surface—during wet years, the water table is sometimes right at the surface.)

I put the old pump in my panniers and headed down to hardware store, when my bike seat suddenly failed.  I tried riding for a block with the failed seat and gave up and returned home.  The failure was right at edge of the block that holds the horizontal crossbar at the front of the seat:

Here is a view from the front showing the tubing displaced vertically from where it belongs.

Here is a view from the front showing the tubing displaced vertically from where it belongs.

A closer view shows a very clean break right at the surface of the block that clamps around the tube.

A closer view shows a very clean break right at the surface of the block that clamps around the tube.

I probably should have had some warning about the imminent failure, as the bike has been creaking a bit more than usual when I pedal for the past several months, but I was never able to track down the creaking. I’m not sure I could have seen the crack that was probably propagating, since it was flush with clamp block.

The seat on my Longbikes Vanguard is not a standard, off-the-shelf component, so I’m probably going to have to custom order a new seat from the manufacturer (who no longer make the Vanguard model, so probably has no spare seats built) and wait weeks or months for one to be built.

I got my old upright bike down from the garage wall, inflated the tires, adjusted one of my panniers to fit the different rack, and headed off to the hardware store, carrying the old pump in the pannier. At the hardware store, I could not find a sump pump with the same outlet size as the old one (they all had bigger outlets). I needed to match, in order to hook the sump pump up to the existing plumbing. Luckily, they did have a reducer that would adjust for the difference.

After buying the pump, I went out to my bike and realized that I couldn’t fit both pumps into one pannier—in fact the new boxed sump pump wouldn’t fit into the pannier even by itself. Normally I carry a bungee cord or two for strapping stuff onto my rear rack, but those were left on the other bike. So I had to go back into the hardware store to buy some new bungee cords—not a big deal, but an irritation.

The bike was a bit wobbly on the way home—I’d forgotten how much difference a high center of gravity makes on an upright bike—and the bike has much twitchier steering than my recumbent anyway—but I got home without incident.

On getting home, I immediately attached the pluming to the new sump pump and lowered it into the sump. Let me correct that—I tried to lower it into the sump, but it wouldn’t fit. The pump was a couple of inches wider than the old pump and though the hole at the top was more than wide enough, it narrowed significantly where the bottom of the foundation for the house spread out, and the remaining hole was simply too small for the new pump. This was particularly frustrating for me, as I was meeting my wife downtown for dinner in less than an hour, and I was going to have to walk rather than bike, so I only had about 10 minutes to come up with a fix.

I then remembered something that should have occurred to me much earlier—I had another one of the small sump pumps in a different sump in the back garden. Quickly pulling it out and attaching the plumbing got the main sump working again (though I still need to recheck the plumbing for leaks). And it turned out that the garden sump was wide enough to accept the new pump—problem solved!

I cleaned up, grabbed a backpack so I could do some shopping after dinner, and walked down to the library to meet my wife. After the stresses of the day, I felt the need for comfort food, so we went to Betty’s Noodles, a hole-in-the-wall Chinese restaurant in the bus station. This restaurant has taken over the niche that Little Shanghai used to fill of providing cheap, tasty Chinese fast food (noodles and rice bowls).  I had ma-po tofu over Chow Fun noodles, which went a long way to de-stress me.  Going to Mission Hill Creamery for a plum sorbet cone afterwards helped also.

On the walk home, a couple blocks before we got home, I realized that I had not done my shopping! I decided not to go back downtown, but to do without my chocolate soymilk for a couple of days, until I can go shopping again.

This morning I finished the homework and submitted it. I’m still a bit bothered about the inverse Laplace transform problem that  can be formally solved but that ends up with a function that doesn’t have a Laplace transform, but I’m pretty sure I did what was expected. After turning in the homework, I realized that there was a possible different interpretation of part of the linearization question than what I did, so I queried the professor about what he really meant.  (The homework isn’t due for a week, so if there is a clarification needed, he can get it to the grad students before the homework is due.)

The TA does not grade my homework, since I’m just auditing, but I’m doing the homework using Python instead of Matlab, so I’m sharing it with the TA and professor anyway, so they can see whether it would be worth switching to free tools.

Currently, the scipy.signal package and matplotlib seem as easy to use at Matlab, but there is no equivalent of SIMULINK, which the professor is relying on for students doing simulations.  I can do the simulations in Python, but setting them up is all text-based, and requires thinking explicitly about the state vector, rather than having a GUI that does all the setup for you.

I bicycled up to campus today on my old upright, after adjusting my other pannier to fit the rack.  I had forgotten how uncomfortable an upright bike is.  This evening my neck and shoulders are sore, and I have chafing on the inside of my thigh.  I really hope I can get the recumbent seat replaced quickly, so that I can go back to riding comfortably!  It might even be worth taking the seat to a local frame-builder and finding out whether they could replace the tube, even if only for a temporary fix. (Although most of the bike is chrome-moly steel, the seat appears to be all aluminum tubing.)

2015 April 13

Too much prelab homework for microphone lab

Filed under: Circuits course — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 22:54
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In putting together the book for this quarter, I added exercises to some of the chapters, and I assigned a chunk of them due today as the pre-lab exercise for the microphone lab.  I just spent over 3 hours grading the set, just marking questions right or wrong. There were too many questions, and even the best in the class got only 8/11, with the bottom of the class getting 3/11. I think that the class is doing better this year than previous years’ classes, but some of them got discouraged by how much and how difficult the homework was.  The amount was certainly more than I had intended, but next week’s homework should be substantially less.  I’ll have to figure out how to distribute the load more evenly next year.

I spent most of today’s lecture going over two of the questions (in response to student request), and I’ll have to do some of the other ones on Wednesday, in addition to showing them how to model DC behavior of the FET in the electret microphone. I may also ask the group tutor for the class to have an extra help session this week.  The two questions that got asked about were the modeling of the oscilloscope probe and computing the sensitivity of the electret microphone circuit with a different load resistor.

Some of the problems students had were ones that can be easily fixed (like that 1/10000 is 0 in gnuplot, because it looks like integer arithmetic—1/10E3 does the right computation, as does 1./10000).  Other problems were fundamental misunderstandings of complex numbers or complex impedance, which may be harder to address.

2014 April 22

Electrodes and load lines

Filed under: Circuits course — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 07:17
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As planned I talked on Monday a little bit about polarizing and non-polarizing electrodes, giving them the the idea that the point of electrodes was to convert between ionic currents in solution and electron currents in wires, and that there was always a redox reaction to do the conversion.  (I did not use the term “redox” though, and I probably should have—I’ll try to work it in casually during lab today.)  I talked about three electrodes:

  • the Ag/AgCl that is used for a lot of bio research, because it is non-polarizing, works well in salt water, is generally non-toxic, and is fairly cheap.
  • stainless steel (particularly 316L), because it is commonly used in implants for its non-corroding, non-toxic properties, though it makes a polarizing electrode, which is not suitable for low-frequency measurement.
  • platinum electrode used for the hydrogen reaction that is the standard non-polarizing reference electrode (and is used in a lot of gel-electrophoresis boxes).

Although I gave the chemical reactions for Ag/AgCl (pointing out that the ion current was chloride ions) and the hydrogen reaction, I did not attempt to do so for stainless steel, because I’m still not sure which of the many oxidation reactions are relevant. I did point out that the steel is kept from rusting mainly by a chromium oxide layer on the surface, and that the same mechanism that prevents rusting also makes stainless steel a poor transducer of electron currents to ion currents.  I’m not sure I got that message across though.

I think that it may be worthwhile, either in lab today or in our data analysis on Wednesday, to mention “redox” reactions by name, and to point out more clearly that the what makes stainless steel good for implants also makes it poor for electrodes—the notion that “metal conducts” may be too strong a prior, as students are not used to thinking about the surface properties of things, but just bulk properties.

For the second half of the lecture, I introduced the notion of load lines, with open-circuit voltage VOC and short-circuit current ISC to figure out the voltage and resistance of the Thévenin equivalent of power source. I then had them work out, as a class, the Thévenin equivalent of a simple voltage divider. They got it, eventually, but I had to work through some stubborn holes in their understanding of simple circuits from physics. I think part of the problem was terminology—they apparently did not know what “short circuit” and “open circuit” meant, which I did not realize was a difficulty until near the end of the time.

I did not get the students any RC impedance or voltage divider questions to work on—I hope we have a little time for that on Wed, before Friday’s quiz. I could assign homework with voltage dividers and RC circuits, but I’m reluctant to assign homework in this class, given the amount of work expected for their lab write-ups. Several students already aren’t doing the homework I do assign—many are not even reading the lab handouts with the pre-lab assignments until just before class, when it is too late to do the work. A lot of lab time has been wasted by students trying to do the prelab work during lab.

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