An Engineer's Literary Notebook

Exploring the real and surreal connections between poetry and engineering

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Of Multiple Dimensions and Dingbats

Posted by xbanguyen on July 5, 2010

Do you write to remember or to forget? Do you write to prolong or to negate an experience? Do you think it is better to tie up loose ends or just  go with the flow in this meandering sort of days when this particular summer can not make up its mind whether to dazzle or to play hard to get? I vote for jumping off the pier of  uncollected thoughts, unsolved equations and unfolded laundry to plunge headlong … into a book, lest a sense of being too late overwhelms. Why too late? Is the ever increasing amount of logic that my profession of ASIC/FPGA design has been able to implement in an ever reducing area of silicon not enough to gain purchase on time?  Let’s not go on yet about the importance of timing analysis in my line of work but just consider how a 3D FPGA enables more processing to be done in less time in the same amount of space. There are 3D FPGAs and there are virtual 3D FPGAs.  As you know, a conventional FPGA  is a semiconductor device consisting of  a 2D array of logic blocks  connected via configurable horizontal and vertical routing channels.  And in the extravagant visions that sometimes visit this engineer, their metal junctions glisten like teardrops. The size of the transistors that make up a basic logic block keeps getting smaller, 28 nanometers currently, to enable more logic to occupy the same space. In  a 3D FPGA  there are multiples of such layers – one technique is to put the configuration logic on a separate layer on top of the active logic [1] to provide higher capacity.

In the same universe,  the third dimension of a virtually 3D FPGA is time — the same amount of logic is rapidly reconfigured at GHz rate to implement multiple portions of a function [2] expressed in RTL. Similarly,  multiple layers of meanings exist in this astonishing poem:

Space Bar

Lined up behind the space bartender
is the meaning of it all, the vessels
marked with letters, numbers,
signs. Beyond the flats

the monitor looms, for all the world
like the world. Images and
motions, weeping women,
men in hats. I have killed

many happy hours here,
with my bare hands,
where TV passes for IV, among
the space cadets and dingbats

Heather McHugh

I’ve found anodyne in this poem as I sit facing the monitors at work, too many hours and not enough, knowing full well that the pleasure of arriving at an elegant RTL implementation is not enough.  The repeated appearance of the likenesses of the world in the poem helps me see my surrounding anew while the layered meanings insouciantly conveyed  add texture to the way the keyboard feels under my fingers as I type.   The act of killing time using such surprisingly elemental devices on the heels of the weeping women and hatted men invokes a thrill almost illicit to make writing an untamed art.  And the space cadets bring Dylan Thomas to mind, perhaps because  the sloping forwardness of the font has some resemblance to his lilting Fern Hill. Instead of the typological dingbats,  my wayward mind’s eye sees bats in the swallow-thronged loft by the shadow of his hand. For a brief moment, Thomas’s swallow, Keats’s nightingale and Hardy’s thrush take flight upward together into the air scented with Khayyam’s roses, a mirage conjured up by poetry to counteract the cold of this summer evening.

Thank you for listening, dear muse.

[1] http://www.tierlogic.com/uploads/press-room-files/Tier-Logic-3D-TierFPGA-and-TierASIC-Technology-Brief.pdf
[2]
http://www.tabula.com/technology/technology.php

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Posted in 3D, Fonts, FPGA, Heather McHugh, Multi dimensions, Uncategorized | 4 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 zone.ni.com


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Of Grecian Origin

Posted by xbanguyen on March 21, 2010

Do you care to know that in scientific context, the Grecian letter alpha α denotes many things? It is a particle in quantum physics, the linear thermal expansion coefficient, the ratio of collector current to emitter current in a bipolar transistor.  Strolling down the alphabet, beta β denotes the ratio of velocity to the speed of light. Epsilon ε is the earth’s axial tilt. Eta η describes the absolute vertical vorticity. Kappa represents  dielectric constants. Lambda λ denotes wavelength. Nu is the kinematic viscosity. Tau τ is a protein. And omega ω represents the first infinite ordinal.

Behind these imprints of this ancient culture are the scientists themselves. Democritus of Abdera, he who inferred the existence of atoms and how their movements explain that things change but “not being” can never change into “being” had discerning eyes. Aristarchus of Samos’s calculation revealed the immensity of the universe. Eratosthenes of Cyrene accurately calculated the circumference of the earth by measuring the shadow of the sun. Besides his famous buoyancy principle, Archimedes of Syracuse also proposed the numbering system based on the myriad myriad (100,000,000) to count the number of grains of sand needed to fill the universe. I am bemused by such juxtaposition that brought back the afternoon when I was twelve and became light-headed contemplating the question of what could be when nothing existed, not time, not the sun, not the air around me, and least of all myself. Many years later, Stephen Dedalus’s inscription on the fly-leaf of his geography book brought back that unsettling sensation again.  As you know, Stephen’s namesake is also of Grecian myth, he whose son fell to earth flying too close to the sun.  Re-reading The Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man, I can’t help but feel as if I were intruding  into Joyce’s conversation with himself, all of the literary devices not withstanding.  The fact that he chose to have Stephen compose a villanelle is fitting considering the apparent confinement imposed by the form that provides a challenge to the artist.

Are you not weary of ardent ways,
lure of the fallen seraphim?
Tell no more of enchanted days.

Your eyes have set man’s heart ablaze
And you have had your will of him.
Are you not weary of ardent ways?

Above the flame the smoke of praise
Goes up from ocean rim to rim.
Tell no more of enchanted days.

Our broken cries and mournful lays
Rise in one eucharistic hymn.
Are you not weary of ardent ways?

While sacrificing hands upraise
The chalice flowing to the brim,
Tell no more of enchanted days.

And still you hold our longing gaze
With languorous look and lavish limb!
Are you not weary of ardent ways?
Tell no more of enchanted days.

James Joyce

The lyricism of the poem can be distracting  just as the bipolar pull of sexual ardor and religious enchantment was distracting to Stephen until the turning point in the story when he wrote this poem to embrace art. It is ironic that said lyricism offers such vicarious pleasure to his readers.  But again one must take pleasures as one finds them … Thank you,  dear muse.

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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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The Integrals In Things Past

Posted by xbanguyen on October 24, 2009

The integral sign \intreminds me of the salt water taffy machines in the  sweet shops of the Oregon coastal towns we  visited during the summers of my girlhood. I remember pressing my nose against the glass partition to watch  the machine pulled the strands of candy in a mesmerizing pattern over and over,  stretching them into almost living things – supple and touchable.  As I look back, those summers appear pleasantly long and unfocused like the desultory walks along the beaches, trading taffy flavors and seashells with my sisters.   The fact that a mathematical sign can invoke such nostalgia made me reach out for an old textbook tonight.  Full of equations yellowed out with highlighters by my former self, it patiently repeats to  me that the Volterra series has the ability to capture the effects of memory.  Differing from the Taylor series that approximates the response of a non-linear system such that the output is solely dependent on the inputs at a particular time, the Volterra series calculates the output using the inputs at all other times.  Specifically, it is a series of infinite sums of multidimensional convolutional integrals and can be used to calculate the intermodulation effect of audio signals.

The integral of rational functions can also be used to calculate the drag force effect on the free fall of a sky diver.  But this fact was of no use to John Gillespie Magee whose parachute failed to open one summer day in 1941.  But how he had lived!

High Flight
by John Gillespie Magee, Jr.
Oh, I have slipped the surly bonds of earth,
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds…and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of…wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there,
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air.
Up, up, the long, delirious burning blue
I’ve topped the windswept heights with easy grace
Where never lark, nor even eagle flew.
And while with silent, lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space…
…put out my hand, and touched the face of God.

High Flight

by John Gillespie Magee, Jr.

Oh, I have slipped the surly bonds of earth,

And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;

Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth

Of sun-split clouds…and done a hundred things

You have not dreamed of…wheeled and soared and swung

High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there,

I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung

My eager craft through footless halls of air.

Up, up, the long, delirious burning blue

I’ve topped the windswept heights with easy grace

Where never lark, nor even eagle flew.

And while with silent, lifting mind I’ve trod

The high untrespassed sanctity of space…

…put out my hand, and touched the face of God.

John was nineteen when he died.  It was a farmer who saw him falling from the plane. The same force must have acted upon Icarus of the Grecian myth, another boy who fell out of the sky.  W. H. Auden offers some commentaries on how  these tragedies were perceived and interpreted by arts.

Musee des Beaux Arts

About suffering they were never wrong,

The Old Masters; how well, they understood

Its human position; how it takes place

While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;

How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting

For the miraculous birth, there always must be

Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating

On a pond at the edge of the wood:

They never forgot

That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course

Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot

Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse

Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away

Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may

Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,

But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone

As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green

Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen

Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,

had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

W. H. Auden

It is cold comfort to be offered the permanence in the nature of gravity.  Looking at the poems from another angle,  I see that there are worse things than to be desensitized by arts. After all, having a susceptible heart  I need  all the help I can get to be inoculated against the rampant pain radiating from too many tragedies, both real and mythical.


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An Attraction Unexplained

Posted by xbanguyen on October 4, 2009


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Certain words are easy on the eyes.  Take,  for instance, iridescent, dapple, lilting, peal, sparrow.  Of course one reader's pearls  are another reader's sands.  Subjectivity aside, within one single perception, what makes certain words more appealing than others?  Is it the way their letters interplay? Is it the way they roll off the tongue of the whisperer, you know the one, in your mind's eye?  Do you have to understand a word in order to be attracted to it?  For me, the words that appeal do not necessarily always belong in the conventional domain of poetry and literature.  In fact, the other day when I was reviewing certain areas of signal processing theory,  instead of absorbing the technical aspects of such words as harmonic transformation, abscissa of convergence, abelian and tauberian, convolution, I saw them standing aloft,  austere and beautiful.  That they appear austere has to do with the fact that they carry exact meanings -- mathematically, the convolution of two functions is the integral of the products of these functions after one of them is reversed and shifted.

I read somewhere that inconsolable is the saddest word in the English language.  There is logic in that observation if you dissect the word.  For me bereft is another one.  The tendency to brood lingers as I follow this line of thoughts.  Thankfully, the following poem provides a diversion, albeit not a complete one, by observing nature.  Read it with me slowly, savoring the rhythm and the alliteration as the poet follows a stream back to its fount.

Inversnaid

This darksome burn, horseback brown,
His rollrock highroad roaring down,
In coop and in comb the fleece of his foam
Flutes and low to the lake falls home.

A windpuff-bonnet of fawn-froth
Turns and twindles over the broth
Of a pool so pitchblack, fell-frowning,
It rounds and rounds Despair to drowning.

Degged with dew, dappled with dew
Are the groins of the braes that the brook treads through,
Wiry heathpacks, flitches of fern,
And the beadbonny ash that sits over the burn.

What would the world be, once bereft
Of wet and of wildness? Let them be left,
O let them be left, wildness and wet;
Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.

Gerard Manley Hopkins

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Of Negative Capacitance And Nightingale

Posted by xbanguyen on September 20, 2009


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The trinity of passive circuit elements have descriptive names: resistor,  inductor, and capacitor -- the resistor resists current flow, the inductor stores energy in a magnetic field and uses this energy to induce current, the capacitor is capable of holding electrical charge.  The capability of a capacitor, or its capacitance, is the amount of electric charge it is capable of storing.  As a passive element, a capacitor is charged by the voltage applied.   A less well-known fact is that not all capacitors are passive.  In fact, the capacitor used in an operational amplifier configured as a negative impedance converter in an astable multivibrator has negative capacitance and functions as a source, not a passive load.

Negative capability is also a quality that characterizes John Keats whose Ode to the Nightingale has provided much uneasy pleasure to generations of poetry readers, myself included.

.......

O, for a draught of vintage! that hath been
Cool'd a long age in the deep-delved earth,
Tasting of Flora and the country green,
Dance, and Provençal song, and sunburnt mirth!
O for a beaker full of the warm South,
Full of the true, the blushful Hippocrene,
With beaded bubbles winking at the brim,
And purple-stained mouth;
That I might drink, and leave the world unseen,
And with thee fade away into the forest dim:

.....

Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird!
No hungry generations tread thee down;
The voice I hear this passing night was heard
In ancient days by emperor and clown:
Perhaps the self-same song that found a path
Through the sad heart of Ruth, when, sick for home,
She stood in tears amid the alien corn;
The same that oft-times hath
Charm'd magic casements, opening on the foam
Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn.

Forlorn! the very word is like a bell
To toll me back from thee to my sole self!

Keats wrote these lines one spring morning sitting under a plum tree in a friend's garden in England as he listened to a nightingale singing its deathless song.  The poem confirms the poet's negative capability, the ability to negate one's self to enter the state of being of others to speak of and for them.  He left his "sole self" to travel with the nightingale through time -- the poem invokes summer, not spring - and space - sunny Provence, not drab England -- to articulate its joyful song even though he himself was in pain.  The tension between  pleasure and pain  in the poem is palpable.  The nightingale's immortality accentuates my awareness of the poet's short life.   As you know, Keats died of tuberculosis when he was twenty six.

WAU_classic('rdxvdjo2tjrn')

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Deja Vu Deconstructed

Posted by xbanguyen on September 13, 2009

Bavarian Gentians

Not every man has gentians in his house
in Soft September, at slow, Sad Michaelmas.

Bavarian gentians, big and dark, only dark
darkening the daytime torchlike with the smoking blueness of Pluto’s
      gloom,
ribbed and torchlike, with their blaze of darkness spread blue
down flattening into points, flattened under the sweep of white day
torch-flower of the blue-smoking darkness, Pluto’s dark-blue daze,
black lamps from the halls of Dis, burning dark blue,
giving off darkness, blue darkness, as Demeter’s pale lamps give off
      light,
lead me then, lead me the way …

Memory is amorphous.  I still remember the first times I read that D. H. Lawrence’s poem.  The first time, you will want to correct me.  But I still can’t be sure.  All I remember  is that when I opened that volume of poetry, a graduation present, the morning after the commencement and read that poem,  I know that I had lived that moment before,  had followed those very words while the sunlight cast a peculiar  sheen on my graduation gown hanging on the hook next to the bookcase and the room was heavy with the scent of L’air Du Temps — another gift from my mother that I promptly broke in the excitement of the night before.   But it was not possible.  How could it be?  Nevertheless  the double sensation remains firmly in my memory years later.

But perhaps I had experienced that moment just a moment before.  If human memory is like certain type of  semiconductor memory that needs a clock to register, perhaps  deja vu can be explained as being a glitch on the clock edge.  At the first clock edge, my consciousness registered the entire tableau — the poem, the sunlight,  the scent and all.  The glitch followed immediately and I relived the same experience.  Even though very small, actual time has elapsed between the two edges,  making the two experiences similar and yet separate.  The question remains to be answered is the cause of the glitch and whether it can be induced.  Regardless of how or when I first read the poem,  the word Michaelmas was full of melancholy even before I looked up its meanings.  It is September and I am trying to be reconciled with the changing of seasons.

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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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