Q&A: Clive “Max” Maxfield – Engineer, Author, Innovator

Clive “Max” Maxfield

Clive “Max” Maxfield is an engineer who has written more than a half-dozen engineering books, contributes to several blogs, and enjoys learning and relating information to others. Max and I recently discussed his journey from hardware design engineer to prolific book author and blogger, some of his ongoing projects, and his outlook on the future of embedded technology.—Nan Price, Associate Editor

NAN: Let’s start with some background information. Where are you located? Where and what did you study?

MAX: I’m originally from the city of Sheffield in the county of Yorkshire in England. (Yorkshire is God’s own county where all the men are handsome, all the women are beautiful, and all the kids are above average—similar to Lake Wobegon, MN, except that Yorkshire is real.) I moved to Huntsville, AL, in 1990 for the nightlife (that’s a little Alabama joke right there).

I studied at Sheffield Hallam University in South Yorkshire, England. My BSc is in Control Engineering, which involves a core of mathematics with “surrounding” subjects in electronics, mechanics, hydraulics, and fluidics.

NAN: When and how did you become interested in electronics?

MAX: I actually started in the playground when I was about 11 years old. One of my friends, Carl Clements, was really “clever beyond his years.” While the other boys (it was a boys’ grammar school) were kicking a soccer ball around or playing conkers or whatever, Carl and I would be crouched down in a corner somewhere, with him using his finger to draw circuit diagrams of things like one-transistor amplifiers and such in the dust.

NAN: Tell us about the first circuit with which you worked. What was the project? What did you learn from it?

MAX: I used to be an avid reader of electronics hobbyist magazines, including Practical Electronics and Practical Wireless. There was a series of articles in Practical Wireless called “Take 20” about projects that were 20 components or fewer costing 20 shillings or less (at that time there were 20 shillings in a UK pound). As I recall, the first circuit I built was a simple oscillator that warbled back and forth between two frequencies and sounded (a bit) like a police car. My mother loved it (not).

Building these projects, I learned to be really good at soldering. I also learned that, no matter how simple the project, something always went wrong. I can’t recall a single time that a project worked the first time I powered it up. So I also learned a lot about troubleshooting and tracking down shorts and opens and components I’d soldered in backwards.

NAN: Tell us about your current occupation.

MAX: Well, I still think of myself as being a hardware design engineer—in my time I’ve designed everything from silicon chips to circuit boards, and from brainwave amplifiers to steampunk “Display-O-Meters.” I’ve also been fortunate enough to be at the forefront of the Electronic Design Automation Consortium (EDA) for more than 20 years.

Having said this, I sort of drifted into writing—starting with magazine articles and presenting technical papers at conferences, and graduating into books. So now I don’t really do any engineering (apart from my hobby projects), I just talk about it a lot!

My current occupation is to act as editor for two EE Times websites: Programmable Logic Designline and Microcontroller Designline (www.eetimes.com/design/programmablelogic and www.eetimes.com/design/microcontroller-mcu, respectively) and as Editor-in-Chief for the All Programmable Planet (APP) community (www.allprogrammableplanet.com).

NAN: Tell us about APP, how you became involved, and what your role as Editor-in-Chief entails.

MAX: APP is, first and foremost, a knowledge-sharing website for programmable devices and technologies such as today’s state-of-the-art, all-programmable field-programmable gate arrays (FPGAs), 3-D integrated circuits (ICs), and system-on-chip (SoC) devices. But it’s more than that. It’s a community of really great guys and gals spanning the range from complete novices to absolute experts. It’s also full of interesting characters, such as The Mighty Hamster (a.k.a. Mike Field) from New Zealand, who is always performing interesting experiments in his lab and reporting them in his blogs on APP. Actually, we have so many interesting bloggers that it’s impossible to cover them here—your best bet is to bounce over to APP and see what’s going on.

I will say that we have some truly interesting projects on the go, such as the world’s (nay, the universe’s) first wireless mesh network to be utilized in propeller beanies (http://bit.ly/XYk6Ku). This little beauty—in the form of 250 networked propeller beanies—was deployed at the DESIGN West 2013 Conference and Exhibition (www.ubmdesign.com).

As to my role as Editor-in-Chief, have you ever heard the expression “herding cats?” That’s sort of what I do. I have a bunch of bloggers all going in different directions, and my role—in addition to penning my own incredibly interesting articles, of course—is to ensure that everything comes together at the right time.

NAN: You contribute to an EE Times blog, Max’s Cool Beans, with posts on topics ranging from personal supercomputers to embedded speech. Tell us about the types of projects you enjoy working on and blogging about.

Electronic Steampunk Suitcase

Electronic Steampunk Suitcase

MAX: As you say, my Max’s Cool Beans blog (http://bit.ly/10rmX1U) does tend to cover a lot of ground. One day I might be writing about life in a 1950s typing pool on the one hand and the latest and greatest technologies on the other. I also blog about my own personal projects, such as the “Electronic Steampunk Suitcase” (http://bit.ly/X4aiBf) I built as a prop to accompany one of the papers I presented at DESIGN West titled “Danger Will Robinson! How Radiation Can Affect Your Embedded Systems.”

Another ongoing project is my “Heath Robinson Rube Goldberg (HRRG) Mixed-Technology Computer.” The idea here is to have a collection of glass-fronted wooden cabinets mounted on the wall. The contents of each cabinet will be realized using a different implementation technology—relays in one, vacuum tubes in another, circuits built out of individual transistors in another, and so forth. Some cabinets will boast more esoteric technologies like pneumatic logic and magnetic logic. Combined, all of these cabinets will form a simple 4-bit computer.

Bebop to the Boolean Boogie

Bebop to the Boolean Boogie

NAN: You’ve written several books, including Bebop to the Boolean Boogie: An Unconventional Guide to Electronics, The Design Warrior’s Guide to FPGAs: Devices, Tools, and Flows, and Electrical Engineering: Know It All. How did you transition from being an engineer to writing about engineering?

MAX: A few years after starting work, I began to use a digital logic simulator that was owned by the company I worked for. I took to it like a duck to water, and it wasn’t long before my company asked me to give training courses to their customers, which meant I had to write the training materials. From there, I started writing articles on simulation for technical magazines, and things just started rolling along, picking up speed.

The great thing about writing for an engineering audience is that they really don’t care (or know) if I split an infinitive or leave a participle dangling in the wind.

NAN: Your book, How Computers Do Math (co-authored with Alvin Brown), includes the DIY Calculator (www.diycalculator.com), which is an Assembly-based calculator program. Tell us why you created this tool.

MAX: When home computers first started to come out in the mid-1970s I really wanted one, but I simply couldn’t afford one. We’re talking about a single-board machine with an 8-bit microprocessor, like a 6502, only with 1 KB of ROM and 1 KB of RAM (if you were lucky), and a hexadecimal keypad. The strange thing is that, if you were into computers at that time, you tended to know an awful lot about how things worked at the “nitty-gritty” level.

By comparison, these days, everyone has an awesome amount of computing power at their fingertips, but very few people have a clue what goes on “under the hood.” Most of the non-academic computer-related books out there are along the lines of Learn to Use XXX Version 6.0 in 21 Days!” (I have a feeling that the reason they say “21 days” is because that’s when version 7.0 is going to hit the streets.)

Remembering how much I’d wanted a simple computer when I was a lad—something I could experiment with to really see what it was doing—I talked to my chum Alvin (we’d co-authored a couple of books by that time) and we decided to write a book that would really explain things in terms that anyone could understand.

As part of this, we created the DIY Calculator, which is a virtual machine that runs on your PC. The core of the DIY Calculator is a simple virtual microprocessor with an 8-bit data bus and a 16-bit address bus. This is then augmented by a virtual RAM, a virtual ROM, and a bunch of virtual I/O ports.

The virtual interface to this system looks like a calculator front panel. When you click this front panel’s On/Off button on your screen absolutely nothing happens. This is because there isn’t a program yet. What we do in the book is present a series of hands-on labs (each about 20 to 30 min.) in which the reader creates small programs in our (homegrown) Assembly language. First we display “Hello world” on the virtual LCD panel. Then we read buttons from the virtual keypad and display their values on the LCD, and we work our way up until the user has a four-function calculator (+, –, ×, /) up and running. And there are lots of extra keys for future development. We have readers as young as 11 and as old as 75 plus. One reader even created his own BASIC interpreter (in our Assembly language). Anyone can download the virtual DIY Calculator for free from the website.

BookshelfNAN: What do you enjoy most about writing? Do you plan to write any future books?

MAX: Generally speaking, I don’t like a lot of technical or science books because they are so dry and boring. I like books that are fun to read and teach me all sorts of new things, such as Reinventing Gravity: A Physicist Goes Beyond Einstein Reinventing Gravity by John Moffat (physics), The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements by Sam Kean (chemistry), and Wetware: A Computer in Every Living Cell by Dennis Bray (biology). I love discovering nuggets of knowledge and tidbits of trivia, so that’s the way I try to write my books.

What I really like is receiving e-mails from readers saying how much they’ve enjoyed reading something I’ve written, and how they didn’t understand it before but they do now. Once, as I was giving a course based on Bebop to the Boolean Boogie, while I was explaining something using a diagram, a loud (and happy) voice from the audience said, “So that’s what that means!”

With regard to the future, I have a lot of ideas for books explaining science and technology for younger readers—say boys and girls around 12 to 16. I always think of myself as writing for myself at that age, if you see what I mean. Like, if I could take my books and use a time machine to send them back to myself when I was 14.

One book I’m working on at the moment is a book on “how to write for engineers” sort of thing. This is not trying to explain everything to do with grammar and spelling and such, just the main things. Like I always say, if someone sends me an e-mail saying “Your an idiot” (using “your” instead of “you’re”), then they are not conveying the message they had hoped for.

NAN: What do you consider to be the “next big thing” in the embedded design industry?

MAX: You are joking! There are so many “next big things” that I wouldn’t know where to start. Two obvious areas are embedded vision and embedded voice. These technologies are poised to start appearing in all sorts of products in the very near future. For example, imagine a cat door that isn’t triggered by a magnet on your cats’ collars, but instead uses embedded vision to actually recognize your cats and grant them entry. Or imagine climbing into bed and saying, “Clock, please wake me up at 6:30 AM tomorrow,” and your clock responding, “You’ve asked to be woken at 6:30 AM for the last three days, do you want me to set that as the default in the week?”

But the thing to watch out for is the technologies and end-user applications that we haven’t even thought of yet. Look at how fast things are changing. As we moved into the new millennium (circa 2000, which is only 13 years ago), we couldn’t imagine smartphones boasting speech recognition, the ability to take photos and videos, and inbuilt GPS. Now we take them from granted. The first iPad was released on April 3, 2010, which is only three years ago, but now it seems like they’ve been around forever. I certainly don’t know what I’d do without my iPad.

All I can say is that I am 100% confident that the future is going to be much more wonderful, stranger, and scarier (in some ways) than most of us can imagine. I can’t wait! I love this stuff!

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