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Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Switch out the capacitor

This semester, my teaching assistantship is in electrical engineering. (And for as long as I'm a TA instead of a research assistant, I suspect it's going to stay in electrical engineering or similar, since electrical, biomedical, and computer engineering is the department my advisor's in.)

So now I'm one of three responsible people in the room for a digital circuits lab. (All three of us speak Mandarin, which is cool, but not the point of what I'm writing today.) They've both been doing circuits for much longer than I have, which is to be expected since I'm brand new to electrical engineering. Still, I'm a pretty quick study and I have very good pattern recognition, which comes in handy when my job mostly means troubleshooting other people's circuits to figure out what's wrong.

This isn't about my ability to troubleshoot circuits, really.
Unless it is, because I can't troubleshoot a circuit while looking at a light that's blinking at 5-20 Hz. The light is small enough that I'm (mostly) OK with the light near the edges of my vision, but the blinking light is the signal on the circuit I'm troubleshooting, which means it's on the circuit I'm trying to fix. That's not going to work.

"Alright, I'm turning off the power. I can't work with the flashing in my face and you should turn the power off when moving wires anyways."

That's method the first. You've got two reasons to turn off the power (plus "the teacher says so") and one of them is a safety thing they've been taught but tend to ignore. I'm still telling you what my need is (no flashing lights in my face) but it's not the only reason for what I'm asking you to do. I tend to go to this first if the problem seems to be with the circuit.

"Can you switch out the capacitor for one size up or one size down? I know this is the one on the lab sheet, but I can't work with that blink rate."

That's method the second. It eliminates the bad flash rate permanently, which is good, and it lets me leave the light on while trying to figure out what's going on with the oscilloscope. The only problem is, of course, that it's not the capacitor size used on the lab sheet, so I am telling students to not follow part of the directions. Still, why are the directions setting up a circuit that blinks in the most common frequency rate for problems? Seriously, why. Why are they so sure no one who'd have a problem is in the class? (Or, you know, teaching the class. Disabled teachers exist and all.)

Now, here's the bit where being a teacher and being around good folks is helpful: the students listen. I'm not sure how so many people don't realize that flashing lights can be an issue (and I don't blame the students at all for, well, following directions) but no one is arguing with me when I point out that the flashing lights can be a problem for people, including for me. They turn the power off, or they switch off the capacitor. They ask, "Is that a common issue?" and I say "More common than you'd think with how many things flash in that range..." Who knows? They might even remember that flashing lights can cause problems.

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