An Engineer's Literary Notebook

Exploring the real and surreal connections between poetry and engineering

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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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