An Engineer's Literary Notebook

Exploring the real and surreal connections between poetry and engineering

Archive for August, 2009

The Synchronous Villanelle

Posted by xbanguyen on August 23, 2009

Patterns have many uses in digital design,  one of which is testing semiconductor memories.    Memory tests are different from  logic tests because memory test patterns can be completely  algorithmically generated, each pattern used to target a specific failure mode.  Some of the common patterns are galloping ones/zeroes, checker boards, sliding diagonal, walking zeroes and walking ones in which  a binary one walks across a field of zeroes to catch opened cell, short and address uniqueness.   A field of zeroes brings to mind the Tuscan hills probably because it is verbally related to  a field of daisies.  Daisies are similar to sunflowers — both can probably be used to play the game “he loves me, he loves me not”, and the Tuscan hills were extravagantly  decorated with fields of sunflowers during our trip to Italy some years ago, bringing with it the scent of rosemary, the simmering walls of Sienna seen from a hilltop,  the dappled shade of the olive orchard and the dusky grapes that conjured up Keats’s beaded bubbles all jumbled together like in a reverie. But then and there I actually had to remind myself that I was in Tuscany, sitting on a terrace by a rickety table complete with a plate of bread and olive oil while the afternoon sun turned the city below into a mirage.  Afterward the  interior of the farmhouse appeared cool and dark like the inside of a church made earthy with the fragrance from the pot of pappa al pomodoro bubbling on the stove.

That was then.  What I really planned to write about tonight was how the patterns inherent in the  rhymes and the formal meters found in certain types of poems make them more compelling. I am thinking of the sestina and especially the villanelle.  The villanelle  originates from the Italian word villa (that may also explain my prior preoccupation).   In case you are not yet familiar with this form of poems, a villanelle consists of nineteen lines, five tercets and one quatrain, carrying a specific rhyming pattern with the first and third line of the first tercet repeated in alternating order in the remaining stanzas and appear together in the quatrain at the end. Consider this most beloved villanelle — by now you already  know that I do wear my heart on my fingertips.

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on that sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Dylan Thomas

Do you feel the pull of the repeating patterns?  I wonder if the poet found comfort in using these patterns to keep his grief at bay.  As  for me,  I feel the indelible imprint of time in the cadence of the poem that synchronously lures me into accepting the inevitable … as if I have a choice, the fierce insistence of the refrain notwithstanding.


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The Eyes Of The Transceivers

Posted by xbanguyen on August 16, 2009

At my first job as an engineer,  next to the block diagram of the FPS564 array processor, I adorned the wall of my first cubicle which the following lines:

Each morning a thousand roses brings,  you say.

Yes, but where leave the rose of yesterday?

Even though their proximity was somewhat incongruous, the two displays coexisted more or less peacefully. Because over-analyzing is an occupational hazard, when I looked up from the monitor to refocus my eyes at at different focal distances as they said I should, I often wondered why I was attracted by those two lines from the Rubaiyat.  The words they contained were ordinary. Perhaps it was the rhythm? Or perhaps it was the sense of yearning, of empathy, of regrets because nothing, least of all a flower, lasted?  Sometimes I cringed at how sentimental it all sounded.  Other times I embraced the pleasurable melancholy (why it is pleasurable is the subject of another post, I think) even as I attended design reviews.  Unlikely as it might appear, the duality of those thoughts provided me with such clarity of vision into the technical concepts being presented, perhaps because the vision was enhanced by the pleasure provided by the connection between the limbic system and the prefrontal cortex as the poem took on a life of its own.

This reflection occurred to me tonight when I reviewed the techniques to widen the eyes of high-speed digital transceivers. To do so, transmitted signals are pre-emphasized to counter the attenuation incurred as the signals traverse toward the receivers.   The wider the eyes the better as the error rates would be reduced.   Would that it were possible to widen my own eyes to retrieve the same clarity possessed by that engineer, she of the faded flower taped on a cubicle wall, many years ago.

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“The Psychoanalysis of Fire”

Posted by xbanguyen on August 12, 2009

A  low power design technique known as clock gating is simple, almost  zen-like: if you don’t need a particular function in a circuit then keep it still by turning off its clock.   Static power used to be  insignificant compared to dynamic power. However, as we advance deeper and deeper into sub-micron territory,  sub-threshold leakage causes the amount of static power dissipation to increase exponentially.   While I think it is necessary to find ways to reduce power consumption for obvious reasons, I wonder if it can make an engineer harbor a longing for the other extreme.  I am thinking of thermal attraction in the literal sense, of the pyromantic images evoked by that primal force, fire.  This brings  Gaston Bachelard’s  “The Psychoanalysis Of Fire” to mind.  It takes an astonishing book to psychoanalyze such force:

“If all that changes slowly may be explained by life, all that changes quickly is explained by fire. Fire is the ultra-living element. It is intimate and it is universal. It lives in our heart. It lives in the sky. It rises from the depths of the substance and offers itself with the warmth of love. Or it can go back down into the substance and hide there, latent and pent-up, like hate and vengeance. Among all phenomena, it is really the only one to which there can be so definitely attributed the opposing values of good and evil. It shines in Paradise. It burns in Hell. It is gentleness and torture. It is cookery and it is apocalypse.”

It is also presumptuous of me to feel a kinship for the writer of the above passage, a professor of philosophy, chemistry and physics at the same time, but it does not stop me from doing so.  And I fell head over heels for his other books.  How could I not with titles like  On Imagination And Reverie, The Poetics of Space? It was the last book that led me to this  Rainer Maria Rilke’s poem.

What skies are mirrored

within the inner lake

of these open roses?

They can barely stand by themselves

many swollen to the point of bursting

overflow with inner space

into days which enclose

an ever vaster fullness

until the entire summer becomes

a chamber within a dream.

To me the poem exudes a heady, almost voluptuous, opulence.  And have you noticed how often summer recurs in these few posts of mine?  Perhaps I too have been consumed by the warmth we enjoyed in the recent past.

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Of Contentment and Metastability

Posted by xbanguyen on August 5, 2009

There is probably an interesting lesson in etymology explaining the origin of the words contentment and contention.   Contentment is a state of mind that follows the ebullient feeling one gets after figuring out that signal contention due to the asymmetrical rise and fall times  of an inverter is the cause of a failed data transfer.   Such are the moments  that make engineering an appealing profession.  There is an underlying sense of optimism in our line of work because we believe that for every engineering problem there is at least one solution.  We’ll keep looking until it’s found.  And somewhere along the way, if we shift our perspectives just a little when letting our left brains rest, we’ll also find that certain technical words carry their own kind of charm.

Consider clock domain crossing.   The word domain and demesne share the same Latin root.  I like them both, but that is the subject of another post. The idea that we can create multiple domains of time holds a certain attraction (because it gives us an illusion of being in control, to have dominion, over time?)   Nevertheless we don’t take clock domain crossing lightly because just like any time we transcend a boundary, there are dangers. In this case it is metastability.  Technical cautions aside, there are such opposing forces in a single word, metastability, that give it a certain cachet.  The bipolar nature of digital signals is such that signals that fall within that forbidden window will oscillate, not at all a desirable state of being.  So just like the “watch out for the baobabs”  warning reiterated by the pilot who befriended the Little Prince in the Sahara, I would like to reiterate a similar warning to the young engineering students to watch out for unsynchronized signals when crossing clock domains.  And yes, just like it is easy to pull out the seedling baobabs from the tiny planet, it is easy to add a couple of flip flops to prevent the potential disaster.

Speaking of opposing forces, they can be found in this stanza of a favorite poem by Dylan Thomas, a fitting way to end this post.


The force that through the green fuse drives the flower
Drives my green age; that blasts the roots of trees
Is my destroyer.
And I am dumb to tell the crooked rose
My youth is bent by the same wintry fever.

The force that through the green fuse drives the flower
Drives my green age; that blasts the roots of trees
Is my destroyer.
And I am dumb to tell the crooked rose
My youth is bent by the same wintry fever.


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A Time To Measure

Posted by xbanguyen on August 4, 2009

Somehow the idea that we can measure a very small amount of time, a femtosecond for instance, really appeals to me. It does not matter that it is not I who can do the measuring. Paradoxically I also take pleasure in knowing that the electrons will go their own ways regardless whether or not they are used as the tools for such measurements. The idea that tiny particles are now going about their business in the void that is my body is compelling.  For me, time has often been a scarce commodity.  So it’s fitting to begin my first post this way. Rereading what I wrote pre-blog, my haphazard collection of essays and the overwrought poems  stuck in a directory somewhere on this hard-drive makes me think that I need to deal with time first and it won’t be the last time. So how do I deal with time? Why am I blogging now instead of sleeping? It’s past midnight here in my part of the world.

Let’s throw time into the soup made up of one part beauty and two parts faith (no, not that kind, perhaps later).    I’ve found that sometimes beauty shows up at unexpected places.  Take simulation waveforms, for example.  In my  work as an an engineer for  a company that makes medical devices, I often use waveforms to trouble shoot logic problems.  The waveforms are often green — I want to say chartreuse green because I like the word chartreuse, but it would not be accurate.  So they are green against the default black background.  Pages full of waveforms can weave themselves into striking patterns as I zoom in and out in search for clues.   There are always clues.  One has to believe in logic, with passion at times, that the causes that manifest themselves in a particular bug will be found even if it appears confounding.  At the same time one has to proceed with dispassion, methodically, to find the pesky thing.  And simulation waveforms are displayed in units of time, mostly nanoseconds.   How many nanoseconds has it been since Andrew Marvell wrote these lines?

But at my back I always hear

Time’s winged chariot hurrying near

Most of the time I forget about the amorous intention of the poet and only hear that relentless chariot  gaining on me.  But what would happen if it catches up with me?  What am I really afraid of?  That there will not be another summer as delightful as this one has been?  While I don’t disagree with Henry James that summer afternoon are the two most beautiful words in the English language, I think that summer morning are possibly better.  Just the potentials alone make it so.  The summer morning sky takes on such impossibly vivid blue that colors the coming day with a sheen of possibility.  Even the early summer morning air feels different, fresh with not only a hint of promises but also seductive with the certainty of promises fulfilled.  Get up really early tomorrow morning, stand in front of  the open window and breathe in deeply.  You’ll know what I mean.

Come to think of it, there is something melancholy about a summer afternoon, the charm of having a cream tea completed with cucumber sandwiches and scones notwithstanding because dusk approaches and with it comes darkness.    But what about the stars?  What about the scent of jasmine? What about the fireflies and other things of beauty that accompany twilight?  Perhaps I am missing the point while seeking an illusion of permanence.


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Poetry in Engineering?

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