An Engineer's Literary Notebook

Exploring the real and surreal connections between poetry and engineering

Archive for the ‘Analog’ Category

Searching For Anodynes

Posted by xbanguyen on January 30, 2011

It’s not quite the cliff-diving sensation of writing a short story, but starting a new post is like setting out for a short walk and ending up in a different city with a collection of souvenirs displayed in ASCII, deceptively tentative. As you probably have observed, we seldom write in long hand as much anymore, not long letters, not sheaves of manuscripts stained with ink and hope. Instead, we use our laptops to register our thoughts that keep on meandering despite our left-brains’ effort to shepherd them toward a destination. These streams of thoughts are continuous, analog-like in nature. However, the incongruity of expressing them using digital technology is no longer jarring. With the advent in display technology and the familiarity of use, we no longer notice the demarcation.

Always wary of time, for me the efficiency of digital technology seems to be indisputable even in the realm of audio, never mind the condescension of some audio aficionados, because the materials used for analog recording will deteriorate with time more so than those ubiquitous CDs, and a sense of permanence is essential to this engineer. Listening to Ravel’s Bolero recorded on an audio CD confirms that those austere ones and zeros could intermingle to reproduce voluptuous sounds to be delivered to the pleasure center in our brains via the membrane that is our eardrum, an organ so delicate that when we listen to the softest of notes, it vibrates less than the diameter of a single molecule.[1] The demarcation between analog and digital blurs because those impulsive ones and zeroes have the same analog root — the sound waves coming from that saxophone are received as analog signals, filtered, sampled, quantized and encoded into digital packets. With the proliferation of wireless technology, there are many such packets zipping purposefully in our world to maintain the analog illusion of continuity. The pixels that are part of the same digital technology enables me to see Keats’s handwriting, as it was, and be drawn into his world all over again. The graceful curves of the words bring to mind Mary Oliver’s endearing habit of leaving pencils in trees so that she can capture her thoughts as they occur during her rambles in the forest surrounding Provincetown. Perhaps this poem came from the notes taken with one of those pencils.

Listen, whatever it is you try
to do with your life, nothing will ever dazzle you
like the dreams of your body,
its spirit
longing to fly while the dead-weight bones

toss their dark mane and hurry
back into the fields of glittering fire

where everything,
even the great whale,
throbs with song.

                                                              Mary Oliver

The poem exudes a sense of possibility, an optimism of what could be found when turning inward, an optimism that may be stoked to overcome the sense of impossibility that is indisputable due to the physical limitation, no matter how elegantly wrought. I’d like to imagine that such epiphany [2] occurred to the poet as she walked in the woods in early autumn when the trees were still richly clothed and the sun cast dappled shadows on her hat. That she noticed the grasshopper’s pale forearms, the soft eyelids of the little owl, the moths sleeping in the dark halls of honey inside the moccasin flowers, and the painted islands that were the summer lilies make the confinement of my cubicle a temporary burden.  And more than once I turn to the gentle understanding, almost a blessing of the following poem for comfort:

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on

                                                                                   Mary Oliver

The last line makes the reassurance more real. Like the school girl I was long ago, I copied this stanza into my notebook just for the pleasure of doing so. But at times, the prospect of keeping desolation at bay seems daunting, in spite of the anodynes found in poetry.

Thank you for the inspiration, dear muse.


3) The waveform graphs and the ear diagram are from
4) Keats’s script is from
5) The grasshopper, the owl and the lilies references are from other poems of Mary Oliver.
6) The blue water lilies image is from a painting by Monet.

Posted in Analog, Digital, Keats, Physics, Visual | Tagged: , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

A Duality in Domains

Posted by xbanguyen on May 2, 2010

Lately I have become hesitant in thinking of  numbers as austere things, well-defined and finite. It used to be that numbers had a different kind of charm, mostly because I knew where I was with them – one mole contains one Avogadro constant, 6.0221415 × 1023, of molecules –  exactly the number of atoms in 12 grams of carbon. There are 1000 meters in one kilometer, 149,597,871 kilometer in one astronomical unit , and one astronomical unit  separate the center of the sun from the center of the earth.  I used to think that comfort could be found in numbers because they carried no apparent ambiguity. Then I ran into this book, “The Solitude of Prime Numbers”, and my perception was shaken. Consider the solitary  3 and 5, 17 and 19, so close together but will never meet. There is a quality of timelessness in this exclusion zone where each prime number exists. That irrefutable distance makes these numbers appear forlorn and makes me yearn for time, time as a medium, intangible but could be used to track other things such as different types of  signals.  It is useful to be able to pick out a particular signal among others, for example, a human voice in the midst of a noisy transmission.  An electrical signal varies over time, and its magnitudes at instances in time differentiate it from other signals.  In time domain analysis, a signal is expressed as a function of time, made visible via an oscilloscope.  Since time and frequency are complementary in nature, the same signal can be converted into frequency domain as Fourier’s theory states that any waveform in time domain can be described as a sum of sine and cosine waves of different frequencies.  The same signal exists both in the domain of time and the domain of frequency, just like the same shade of blue exists on the petals of the himalayan poppies and in my memory of this flower one summer ago.

Now it is spring. This afternoon as I worked in the garden I saw beauty anew in the color of the geranium. Despite its red boldness, it unfurled its petals gently away from the chartreuse buds.  This brings to mind a fragment of an Eleanor Wilner’s poem:

… beauty had no figure, no sacred

symmetry, centripetal, slowly opening

To a half-glimpsed nuclear core –

hot enough to melt the artic,

icebound heart of God,

One flower in Eden

and they would have known

beauty, and knowing that,

would know how beauty fades.

Why is it not incongruous to detect a trace of melancholy here? Perhaps because when happy, it is best to leave a bit of pleasure unenjoyed, lest the gods are jealous, as if we had a choice.  That is how I feel about the anatomy of melancholy tonight. Come to think of it, we always have a choice, and the act of making choices in itself is an adventure.  Thank you, dear muse.

Acknowledgement: The waveform graph is from

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The Many Colors of Noise

Posted by xbanguyen on January 17, 2010

If I could see intangible things in colors, Wednesday would be green, time would be pulsing silver, the letter A a crisp yellow.  In an earlier paper I went so far as declaring that “regret appears purple, yearning taupe, denial blue …”  But that was last year and the writing did serve its purpose.  Tonight I am thinking about violet and how a phrase about a dusky violet unfurling its petals that has lain dormant since high school reappeared in my mind as I read these lines of Neruda

Oh love, oh mad light-beam, threat of violet,

you visit me, and climb, by your cool stairway

the tower that time has crowned with mist,

the ashen walls of an enclosed heart.

Towers and caves appear frequently in Neruda’s poetry, often figuratively for the many chambers of that mysterious and volatile organ. In another poem, XXII, of the Stones of the Sky collection, he wrote

I entered the amethyst grotto:

I left my blood among purple thorns:

I changed skin, wine, outlook”:

ever since. Violets hurt me.

One can come up with several scenarios explaining the last sentence if the desire to analyze persists.  At this moment, I am thankful that the image of violets growing in the amethyst grotto delights my senses especially the hardness of the quartz and the softness of the flowers suffusing with the sweet scent in the gentle  gloaming inside the grotto.   As it is late on a Saturday night, I ask your indulgence on  my wanton use of adjectives. I did warn you that I fall for words easily, a handicap at times especially when writing technical documents.  But there are other compensations.

In engineering, colors are used to describe other intangible and invisible entities such as noise.   Electrically speaking, noise is a random signal.  Its power distribution in the frequency spectrum is classified in colors: white noise has a flat frequency, pink noise is flat in log space, red noise is inversely proportional to frequency and azure noise’s power increases with increasing frequency.  It is a pleasure to come across the word azure in this context.  Noise is perhaps absent in Neruda’s grotto, saved for the soft whisper of violet petals  falling from Persephone’s gathered skirt as she ran in vain away from the Prince of the Underworld.

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