An Engineer's Literary Notebook

Exploring the real and surreal connections between poetry and engineering

Archive for the ‘Memory’ Category

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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Memory of The Future

Posted by xbanguyen on November 8, 2009

If you have a choice between experiencing a perfect moment and having an everlasting memory of such moment but never actually experiencing it, which one would you choose? There was a time when I would choose the former, like Hans Christian Andersen’s little match girl, for a brief moment of warmth before the eternal oblivion. Now it is the latter, perhaps because of a desire to relive certain moments that become real again upon recollection. Moreover, the selective recollection can be done at will.

In my line of work, memory is actually tangible, semiconductor memory, that is.  From the early days of Texas Instruments’s series 51 that offered a few hundred bits of memory to the multi gigabit devices of today, the amount of memory that can be stored in a small space is amazing, if you would just let yourself to be amazed. To put things in perspectives, the size of all six volumes of Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is 200 mega bytes, a mere fraction of what can be stored in a 16 giga bytes NAND flash device whose die size is 20 mm X 13 mm.  Conventional non volatile memory is built with transistors.  In the not too-far-off future, the fourth fundamental element, the memristor, can be used in building persistent memory devices with higher density and consume less power.  Unlike the resistor, the memristor retains its last value when there is no current flow through it.  It too has memory.

Of course it is not always good to be able to retain so much memory.  Not because of nothing that Dali painted the persistence of memory so eloquently and eerily.  Sometimes it is a blessing to forget.  To use the words of Emily Dickinson:

To flee from memory
Had we the Wings
Many would fly
Inured to slower things
Birds with surprise
Would scan the cowering Van
Of men escaping
From the mind of man

Emily Dickinson

It takes a copious amount of self-delusion to filter out the unwanted memory and to add beauty to the wanted. Is it total honesty? No, but the dappled shade added later to block out the falling branch provides a needed contrast to make the leafy lane appear a lot greener, a lot more pleasant to revisit this November evening.  What about “To thine own self be true”?  Such hard choices.

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