An Engineer's Literary Notebook

Exploring the real and surreal connections between poetry and engineering

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A Poetic Application of Artificial Intelligence

Posted by xbanguyen on March 18, 2018

So spring comes again.  The unfurling daffodils are a welcoming sight after the long winter. And if you happen to wander lonely as a cloud, would the memory of daffodils past make you smile, or would you weep for the fading of the daffodils yet to come as Robert Herrick did a few centuries ago?  It could also happen that neither Wordworth’s nor Robert Herrick’s poem satisfies  and you want to train an artificial neural network to select a poem for you, a poem that matches what you long for at this very moment, by feeding it with copious quantity of  poems you ever plainly love.  Suppose that you train it with poems by Edna Saint Vincent Milay, Gerard Manley Hopkins, he of the dappled things,  Heather McHugh, Emily Dickson of the slant light, Huy Can, A. E. Stallings, Dylan Thomas along with the feeling that each poem invokes, creating the necessary  weight for  each feeling to quantify the bias for the neurons in the hidden layer(s) of the network. Of course this is an oversimplication of why we read poetry, but one must start somewhere.

Using feeling as an input parameter is fraught with subjectivity, but we are not traversing new territory. Pain has been graded on a scale of 1 to 10 so why couldn’t pleasure be measured? Pleasure is one of the reasons for poetry to endure.  Even if subjectivity is expected — the neural network we design here is selecting a poem especially for you — to quantify the pleasure a poem provides to create bias to the hidden layer of  our neural network is still difficult.  Which of these poems should have a larger bias?

Rhyme may be a parameter for some readers but not for others.  For this reader, it is.  I remember the first time being drawn to the poem that starts with these lines, and the  welcome attraction has stayed with me ever since. The pleasure it provides surprises me anew every time I read it.

Of course words matter.   Our artificial neural network learns the words in the poems we love to introduce to us poems that we will love.  Given the infinite number of nuances in the permutation of words, does this neural network need to be a deep neural network that has at least two hidden layers to be able to provide meaningful output of a higher quality than the “you may also like” recommendation of certain on-line merchant? 

The answer is uncertain because training deep neural networks is still largely done by trial and error. In fact, there have been talks of  machine learning as alchemy.

That machine learning is equated to alchemy is poetry in itself.  And it is fitting that we use a poetic device to select poetry for our enjoyment.  If we were to be successful in devising such a network, I hope that it will point me to this poem.

Thank you for the inspiration, dear muse.


  1. The daffodils photo is from
  2. The neural network diagram is from
  3. The trial and error nature of neural network is from
  4. The machine learning as alchemy talk is at
  5. Many thanks to A.E Stallings and Matthea Harvey for writing my favorite poems.


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Of Beauty and Truth, Denied

Posted by xbanguyen on July 9, 2017

Source: Of Beauty and Truth, Denied

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Of Beauty and Truth, Denied

Posted by xbanguyen on December 4, 2016

Should an engineer attempt to prove the assertion that beauty is truth, truth beauty? I say yes even after realizing that the term negative capability also comes from the same source, the poet John…

Source: Of Beauty and Truth, Denied

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Of Beauty and Truth, Denied

Posted by xbanguyen on November 27, 2016

Should an engineer attempt to prove the assertion that beauty is truth, truth beauty? I say yes even after realizing that the term negative capability also comes from the same source, the poet John…

Source: Of Beauty and Truth, Denied

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Surprising The Senses

Posted by xbanguyen on July 10, 2016

If you were able to touch the wings of a dragonfly in flight one summer afternoon, would you be able to replicate the sensation of flying? Icarus not withstanding, intentionally directional weightl…

Source: Surprising The Senses

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Surprising The Senses

Posted by xbanguyen on July 10, 2016

dragonfly1If you were able to touch the wings of a dragonfly in flight one summer afternoon, would you be able to replicate the sensation of flying? Icarus not withstanding, intentionally directional weightlessness would be a welcome addition to our other senses.  Am I terribly greedy? Is it not enough already to be able to hear the seagulls, to see, feel, smell and taste the first berries of summer? Is having each of the five senses heightened sufficient, or is it a blessing to have them metamorphosed when the senses invoked by one stimulus is unexpected, such as experiencing a sharp crunchiness when seeing the letter A or, perhaps more commonly, seeing a particular color where hearing a musical scale. Rhapsody in blue could literally be blue, in the realm of synesthesia.

Removing religion from the word blessing, it is more satisfying to argue that a synesthete is blessed because biologically, synesthesia is conjectured to be the results from an excess of neural connections between associated sensory modalities, and having an abundance of neural connections increases the complexity in the permutation of sensory perception Grapheme_color_synesthetesupon receiving a particular stimulus, enriching the experience of living.  I like to think that a grapheme-color synesthete sees rainbows when others see strings of numbers. So by not such a long leap, an engineer can also see poetry in logic equations. After all, Omar Khayyam, he who wrote these immortal lines Rubaiyat



also wrote Treatise on Demonstration of Problems of Algebra in which he provided a geometric method for solving cubic equations by intersecting a hyperbola with a circle. The Rubáiyát, gilded and bound in leather, was among the high school graduation presents I received many years ago. The melancholy pleasure afforded when I read those lines for the first time still resonates; the neurons that make up this experience feel immortal and ephemeral at the same time.


It was still early summer in Seattle. A walk with the sea on one side and lush gardens full of delphiniums on the other side heightened all senses just like this poem does.


Tangles of seaweed enhanced the fecund smell of the sea. The receding tide was to reach -2.5 soon.   Following her mama, a  baby eagle took wings, screeching excitedly. For a moment, the gratitude of being was almost overwhelming, making superfluous the knowledge that  synesthesia can be selectively augmented with cathodal stimulation of the primary visual cortex.

Thank you for the topic, dear Muse.



  1. Many thanks to the poet Jay Wright for writing Light’s Interrupted Amplitude.
  2. All scientific information on synesthesia is from
  3. The dragonfly photo is from
  4. A brief biography of Omar Kayyam is from
  5. The image of Omar Kayyam is from
  6. The mathematical manuscript image is from



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The Poetry Of Memory

Posted by xbanguyen on November 29, 2015

DreamCarLast night I saw my father smiling broadly behind the wheel of a shiny Vetta. The chrome trims, the cream leather,  accents the color of ocean made my admiration for the automobile felt normal, Vetta a normally coveted make of cars believable the way memory recalled in dreams reinvented itself effortlessly, imposing itself nonchalantly. Where those fragments of memory go when the dreams recede I do not know. I only know that bits of that dream hung on as I woke. The familiar sense of loss returned, but this time a little less pronounced because I was busy reaching toward the source of those fragments, the hippocampus of dreams where my father still writes poetry.

Is it the hippocampus of dreams that I should seek? To answer the question I would need to know whether my quest is for a long term explicitlimbic or implicit memory.  The biology students among us already know that explicit memory involves conscious awareness, recording facts, events,  objects, people and places via the hippocampus and adjacent cortex, whereas implicit memory is acquired unconsciously to store perceptual and motor skills, requiring not the hippocampus but the cerebellum, the striatum, and the amygdala.   Do you find it difficult to reconcile the association of those tangible biological parts to such gossamer things like memory?  It has been shown experimentally that the human brain contains about 86 billions neurons.  A single neuron can have up to a thousand synapses, the units of information storage for short-term memory. The engineer in me dispassionately appraised the experiment’s method of counting neurons whereas that other part of me recited from memory the poems I read to my father, over and over again because his short term memory was not what it had been.

neuronAs far back as I could remember, my father wrote poetry.  He wrote each of us a poem to celebrate our births. He wrote about ordinary happenings such as the time when he showed his little sister the newly hatched chicks, about his empathy for the Quynh flowers that bloomed at midnight with no one watching, about running out of tea when a friend visited.  Later,  I think he found poetry cathartic as he tried to work out the helplessness he felt after finding refuge in another country, as evident in this poem.


moonThe moon was a recurrent image in his poetry. Even toward the end when his memory had all but gone, he smiled when I read one of his favorite stanzas of “Chinh Phu Ngam” to him, the one where the drumbeats on the long rampart shook the moon.  By then he had stopped writing, and suddenly his numerous poems were no longer enough, sad poems, happy poems, and the poems he wrote for my mother, the love of his life for sixty years. She went first and I could not bear it when he asked after her, her for whom he wrote this poem:


I got up early and went to work in the garden this morning. The blue sky, clear and crisp, made it impossible to brood. The autumn joy sedium, confined to a container, had withered. But at its base I spied some new green. I lifted it up gently and placed it securely under a piece of earth across from the heritage rose. It will bloom again next year.  I thought about the many roses in my father’s garden. I still don’t know if there is an afterlife, but I am thankful that my father’s love of gardening and, especially, his love of poetry live on in me.


Thank you for helping me heal, dear Muse.



  1. The limpic drawing is from
  2. The moon drawing is from
  3. The sedium photograph is from
  4. Most of the brain and memory information is from
  5. The number of neurons is from
  6. The turquoise car photo is from,

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Of Chirality and Mobius Strips

Posted by xbanguyen on September 30, 2012

Of Chirality and Mobius Strips.

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A Moon For All Seasons

Posted by xbanguyen on February 20, 2012

The night wasn’t so dark nor the horizon so stark when I returned and almost ran into a large moon hovering low behind the oak tree guarding the driveway down the street. I forgot how large the moon could appear. Tired after a long day, I yielded to all the crescents in my past, letting them break from their mooring to be suffused with this silvery light. Hackneyed though it may sound, it has got to be called silvery, you would agree too if you saw it. It did appear to be very close, close enough not to be jarred by the thought that for a brief time we were one. For it is theorized that a Mars-size planet collided with our earth when it was young with both planets’ mantles comprised of silica and their cores iron. The force of the collision was so great that the errant planet almost destroyed the earth, piercing through earth’s core, leaving almost all of its iron [1] . The earth endured and the moon emerged, sans iron, from the collision not unlike the phoenix rising from its ashes. Did you know that the moon is younger than its previously estimated age of 4,56 billion years? Just last August, an international team of US, French and Danish scientists announced a new technique of measuring the isotopes of lead and neodymium in a piece of rock brought back from the Apollo 16 mission to show that our moon is only 4.36 billion years old, the same age as the zircon found in Australia[2] . The mind’s comprehension of such large number adds a kind of permanence to the silvery light and I am glad.
Gladness is not the prevalent emotion I’ve found in moon-inspired poems. For beside exerting gravitational force on our waters to cause tides, the moon is also a force that leaves her marks in many poems. I could not choose just one so I’ll settle with couplets and stanzas of several much-admired poems that came my way and stayed – the one from Dylan Thomas has been with me for quite some time, Alicia Stallings’s makes formal meters appear illicitly daring. I can’t resist the juxtaposition of the stalking and therapeutic presence of the moon in the other excerpts, the rhythm of Emily Dickinson’s, nor let this post be unadorned by the prettiness of Joseph Eichendorff’s simile describing the shimmering light. And I wonder how it feels to unfold moonbeams.
The poetic pleasure indulged thus far is complemented by the fact that the moon has no atmosphere, but only a thin exosphere – a cubic centimeter of Earth’s atmosphere at sea level contains about 100 billion billion molecules whereas that same volume of the Moon’s exosphere contains only about 100 molecules[3] . Not only that, during the lunar night, this exosphere falls to the ground, sleeping perhaps. Because of this lack of atmosphere, footsteps left on the moon will last millions of years. Forever can’t be measured but relative permanence is possible, as long as the heliosphere endures to save us from the unrelenting intergalactic radiation.
Thank you for helping me choose, dear muse.
[7] The full moon photo is from
[8] With apologies to the poet A.E. Stalling for the fragmented quote of her poem.

Posted in A.E. Stallings, Andre Breton, Anne Stevenson, Heliosphere, Jane Cooper, Joseph Freiherr von Eichendorff, Moon, Tides, Uncategorized | Tagged: , , , | 3 Comments »

A Derivative of Sunlight

Posted by xbanguyen on August 15, 2010

There was a tremulous quality in the heat of summer this afternoon. Oh it was warm all right, especially for our city of rain, the wavy air above the hood of my car attesting to that.  With that intensity, why did the sense of fragility persist? As dusk approached, the piece of sky over the mountains beyond my window transitioned from blue to red with no visible demarcation, the glowing red reminding me of a childhood tale of the light illuminating the kitchen of heaven. Now it is dark. The seagulls are still awake,  judging from the raucous noise they are making  — If you hear them now, you’ll agree that raucous is an apt adjective, jaded though it may sound.  But I know little about the nocturnal habits of seagulls. All I can profess to know is that things change. Change is constant.  That sounds like a bumper sticker and I read somewhere that one should not live life as decreed by bumper stickers. Regardless, changes are mathematically expressed as derivatives. Specifically, the derivative of a function is defined as an infinitesimal change in the function with respect to one of its variables. The rate of change in the intensity of light as the summer night deepens can be expressed as a mathematical equation.  The thought that the light from the distant stars I see tonight has been in transit for thousands of years brings me a sense of peace —  I am not sure why, just as I am not sure why the following poem resonates. It does, and I am thankful for its existence.

De Vegetabilibus

For there are splendors of flowers called DAY’S EYES in every field.For one cannot walk but to walk upon sun.

For the sun has also a stem, on which it turns.
For the tree forms sun into leaves, & its branches & saps

are solid & liquid states of sun.

For the sun has many seasons, & all of them summer.
For the carrot & bee both bless with sun,

the carrot beneath the earth & the bee with its dusts & honies.

For the sun has stippled the pear & polished the apple.

Ronald Johnson

Such luxury it is to have many seasons, all of them summers. But many does not mean infinite. I remember writing, once upon a time in grade school, of the stoic acceptance after being told that the sun was but an immense mass of gas and would decay. The need to affirm infinity is irrational so I will think of the ripe berries found in the summer market this morning and of all the berries in the summers to come, of the earth lying fallow under the autumn leaves, of the fat tulip bulbs that will bloom next year, and be content.

Thank you for your inquiry, dear muse.

1. The derivative illustration is from

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