Thursday, March 18, 2010

Electronics books

I initially started with Electrical Engineering 101, which had been pitched to me as a useful way to get a handle on the fundamentals of electronics. I'd considered Art of Electronics, but was scared away by its density. I barely made it through a chapter or two of Electrical Engineering 101 before I put it down, never to pick it up again. I'm ok with informality, but this book went well beyond that. That's a nit, though, compared to what I found to be its biggest sin. It claimed to presume nothing, but then introduced concepts out of the blue, with no definition, assuming that you were already familiar with them. Maybe I could forgive him pulling RC circuits out of thin air, but LC circuits? Really? In the chapter between Chapter 0 "What is Electricity Really" and Chapter 2 "Basic Theory"? Chapter 2 introduces Ohm's Law, so maybe I can be forgiven for not knowing the ins and outs of inductors and capacitors just yet? So away went Electrical Engineering 101.

Based on the advice of a friend, I bit the bullet and picked up Art of Electronics. It's every bit as dense as I expected it to be. Which turns out not to be a bad thing. The pace of my progress is a little disappointing (there's a lot in Chapter 1), I'm learning quite a bit. For example, I now understand that complex numbers have a purpose in life other than to fill time in High School math classes. :-)

I also picked up the companion volume -- Student Manual for the Art of Electronics. I can't imagine trying to get through AoE without the student manual -- especially as I'm doing it, on my own, without a class or professor to guide me. Perhaps the subsequent chapters are different, but the first chapter of AoE is pretty theoretical. Here's how it works, and here's how to derive the formulae which say how it works. The Student Manual, on the other hand, concentrates on how you'd do things in real life -- the rules of thumb and other tricks to make life easier. I also really really like the labs, which give me a chance to put what I'm learning into practice. Of course, going through a section in AoE, the student manual version of the same section, and the labs for the section, doing every problem along the way, is not particularly quick. I find myself wondering to what extent students do this in college. The first few weeks of any class which uses AoE as a primary text have to be just brutal, given the sheer amount of stuff in chapter 1.

But even that wasn't entirely enough. I wanted more problems to work to ensure that I understood what I was reading. For the most part, the problems in AoE don't have solutions (some are worked in the Student Manual, but they're in the distinct minority), so it's not always easy to verify that you're solving them the right way. Furthermore, many of the problems are of the form "prove this" or "derive that" -- more theoretical than practical. Which is great for learning the theory, but less good for learning the practical. I wanted another book which I could use as a fallback. If I didn't get something from the explanation in AoE (and SMAoE), I wanted a book which explained whatever it was in a (hopefully) completely different, more nuts and bolts way.

So I purchased a third book -- Circuit Design: Know it All from Newnes Press. I'm going through the 200-page fundamentals chapter. Every other page has a worked practical example. I'm doing the examples, comparing my result to the solutions in the text. It's working out pretty well. The only problem is that the first chapter of Circuit Design is littered with errors, the vast majority of which seem to be in the examples. I don't know if the rest of the book is like this -- each chapter is by a different author (or authors) -- but chapter 1 seems to have an error every few pages. Sometimes it's something simple, like a mislabeled figure. Other times, they'll say something like "figure out the voltage across R, assuming x, y, and z, with R=90ohms", and will then work the example with R=110ohms. And so on. Happily, none of the errors have been so fundamental that I couldn't catch them and compensate for them. So in a way they're a good thing, since they're helping to ensure that I actually understand what I'm doing -- that I'm not just a monkey plugging in numbers. But still, I paid $60 for this thing. They could've at least proofread it.

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