An Engineer's Literary Notebook

Exploring the real and surreal connections between poetry and engineering

Archive for the ‘Visual’ Category

Romancing the Light

Posted by xbanguyen on September 24, 2011

Would you rather know that there is less than one ounce of astatine in the earth crust at anytime, and that the speed of light is 299,792,458 meters per second, or would you rather know that the chemist Archie Randolph Ammon wrote poetry, as did James Clerk Maxwell the physicist?[1] In this late summer evening I would rather watch the gradual departure of daylight softens

the demarcation between the mountains and sky beyond. Of course the lingering light does not go from the Olympic Peninsula to my retina instantaneously. Many years ago, Galileo attempted to measure the speed of light using two lanterns on a windy night atop those Florentine hills – I imagine the windy bit as you already guessed. Even though the experiment failed to yield a measurement, some years later it spurred the Danish astronomer Ole Roemer to note the time it took for the moon Io to revolve around Jupiter to come up with a measurement for the speed of light that was not too far off.[2] Preoccupied  with nostalgia, tonight I have succumbed again to the longing for permanence and felt comforted in knowing that there is such a cosmic limit as the speed of light that is constant for all frames of reference.  That equation E= mc2/sqrt(1-v2/c2) describing the energy of a particle with rest mass m moving with speed v can be used to show that nothing can travel faster than the speed of light because  infinite energy would be needed to accelerate v to approach c.[3] This limit makes it impossible for us to travel back into the past nor to see into the future.  Would you want to see the future, or just be content observing the light of September and be reconciled to the changing of seasons?

Paradoxically, the broken shadows illuminate for me the beauty of having four seasons, made possible only because of time. The lyrical uncertainty that light is neither before or after reminds me of  the dual nature of light as particles and waves. Akin to D.H. Lawrence’s torch of blue gentians, the cheerful yellow mullein can also be torch-like.  Phonetically, the mullein brought to mind the mullioned windows of a certain cathedral in Emily Dickinson’s mind when she felt the weight of that slanted light. The weight she felt is not only metaphorical but also physical because its particulate nature enables scientists to hold light captive in chambers containing a specific mixture of gas. The captured light can be released by flashing a second light through the gas.[4] I wonder if the newly freed light, when departing from the holding chamber, left something like regrets in its wake.

Thank you for the book filled with light, dear muse






[5] The Gaileo’s lantern picture is from

[6] Jupiter and its moons picture is from

[8] A swatch of the universe photo is from


Posted in Ammon, Galileo, Merwin, Physics, Time, Visual | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »

In Praise of Sleep

Posted by xbanguyen on July 21, 2011

Falling asleep under the sun is not an overrated experience as you’d think even if you don’t live in Seattle.  Receding, the minutiae in the dreams you had under the sun’s influence  left a peculiar disorientation as you surfaced out of the heat back to everyday life.  Admittedly, it is not the same as being alive twice. For that, you will have to come back from inhabiting certain images, like Van Gogh’s field of poppies, in  a not-quite-still life fanned by the quivering wind, the red flowers indelible once imprinted by the cones of your retina.  Burns’s love, Kayyam’s rose and the dress Kim Addonizio desired are red too.  Would I be able to create the experience of seeing those shades of red if I have the exact size of their wavelengths, knowing that red has the longest, 780-620 nanometers? To be exact is necessary in engineering. In recreating the field of red flowers as they move gently in the wind in high resolution, the clock of the video circuitry that sends the images to the monitor needs to be at a definite range of frequency. Predictability and precision are virtues in engineering whereas the usefulness of poetry is inexact. Far from repelling, this tension can be inordinately attractive when I work to remove the last pico second in a setup path to close timing in an FPGA. It is a relief to be able to let go of certainty to return later. The sleepwalkers are always able to return.

So by sleeping they can literally “walk through the skin of another life” and return with their hearts intact even after that feat of flying, figuratively though it may be. Such adventures they had in the dark!  No poetic license was taken to recreate that well-being feeling upon awaken after such deep sleep.  The price of consuming darkness in exchange for that is paltry, especially as that other life comes with it. The resonance in the last line of the poem makes me feel grateful because of the self-sufficiency it induces. All is within our reach. Surely there are mornings when you start anew, brimming with energy so much that if you walk faster it will spill over. Never mind that this well will be depleted, for some by day’s end, for others sooner because  some people expend tremendous energy merely to be normal (1) . There is always tomorrow.  Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow. Time to stop before the ricochet starts.

Thank you for the seeds, dear muse.


1) Albert Camus

2) The painting of the sun landscape is from

3) The Van Gogh’s Field of Poppies image is from

4) The color spectrum is from

Posted in Colors, Digital, Edward Hirsh, Kim Addonizio, Sleep, Van Gogh, Visual | 2 Comments »

The Malleability of Time

Posted by xbanguyen on May 15, 2011

The word elegiac comes to mind today for no discernible reasons because conventionally elegiac is a wintry word and we are well past that season, aren’t we. The primroses have run their course, the disheveled leaves a fair price to pay for the boisterous beauty of the flowers enjoyed earlier.  Thankfully, the leaves on the rose bush “Jude the Obscure”  are glossy, sturdy foils for the swollen buds from which fat buttery blossoms will surely emerge. June is but a couple of weeks away, but it is easier to be in tune with the passing of time when gardening.  So then why elegiac? Could it be because I lack the ability to stay in the present but race forward already to winter while summer is not yet here even while aware that spring will come again?   A competent engineer specialized in digital design should be more mindful of the cyclical nature of most matters as she must ensure that the clocks governing the digital FPGAs are precise in their cyclic property. On the one hand, it is desirable for a clock to have a narrow spectrum so that the timing budget for setup and hold is maximized as there is no wasteful uncertainty to be subtracted from the clock period. On the other hand, having all energy concentrated at a single frequency carries some perils, most notably causing interference to other signals in wireless communication. The spectral density of signals in a system influences the electro magnetic interference (EMI) emitted.  One method of reducing EMI is spread spectrum clock generating (SSCG) by which the clock signals are distributed across a wider band of frequencies.  Here randomness has its use because a noise-like signal from a pseudo-random number generator is applied to spread a clock in one technique.(1)  And if you happen to be in need of hiding a signal, this technique is also useful.  In the heart of that apparent randomness, a precise signal dwells. Is there an analogy to that of what dwells in the human heart?

The wind blows

through the doors of my heart.

It scatters my sheet music

that climbs like waves from the piano, free of the keys.

Now the notes stripped, black butterflies,

flattened against the screens.

The wind through my heart

blows all my candles out.

In my heart and its rooms is dark and windy.

From the mantle smashes birds’ nests, teacups

full of stars as the wind winds round,

a mist of sorts that rises and bends and blows

or is blown through the rooms of my heart

that shatters the windows,

rakes the bedsheets as though someone

had just made love. And my dresses

they are lifted like brides come to rest

on the bedstead, crucifixes,

dresses tangled in trees in the rooms

of my heart. To save them

I’ve thrown flowers to fields,

so that someone would pick them up

and know where they came from.

Come the bees now clinging to flowered curtains.

Off with the clothesline pinning anything, my mother’s trousseau.

It is not for me to say what is this wind

or how it came to blow through the rooms of my heart.

Wing after wing, through the rooms of the dead

the wind does not blow. Nor the basement, no wheezing,

no wind choking the cobwebs in our hair.

It is cool here, quiet, a quilt spread on soil.

But we will never lie down again.

Deborah Digges

The imagery within the poem resonates. The teacups full of stars bring back a childhood desire to raise a ladder leaning against the sky to paste more stars there. The wind comes alive in the poem. It could be the same wind painted by Edward Rochester’s Jane depicting her interior landscape. Refraining from analyzing the poem, I find it a pleasure just to quietly acknowledge the electrical signals emitted  in those four chambers of mine, gentle like a sign, as I read it one more time.  How much of that is physiologically induced – what the eyes read, the mind comprehends, the heart empathizes, I do not know.  The number of neurotransmitters  involved in the entire process is an esoteric matter.  I’ll continue to be grateful for the power that poetry can induce, unquantifiable though it may be.

Thank you for the subject, dear muse.


2. The rose photo is from
3. The spread spectrum waveform is from
4. The neurotransmitter image is  from 

Posted in Colors, Deborah Digges, Digital, FPGA, Gardening, Time, Visual | 2 Comments »

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 Geometric Diversion

Posted by xbanguyen on June 6, 2010

If one fine morning you were to find yourself alone in the Louvre’s Salle des États facing the Mona Lisa without the bulletproof glass, would you fall under her spell?  But this is Seattle, not Paris, and all I have in front of me is a digitized version. Nevertheless,  those eyes still beckon. Looking at the curves of her face and the subtle way she turns toward me, I have to step back to realize that everything I see was geometry.  Aerial perspectives were used to create the illusion of space and distance on a two-dimensional canvas, and Leonardo DaVinci applied them with such masterful precision that the result is an enduring artwork.

As a part of me works out the strategy of superimposing a series of lines, rectangles and circles upon the painting to reveal the geometric structure beneath, the other part of me delights in the luminescence of her eyes and the seemingly unfathomable depth within.  The visual pleasure offered by things of beauty complements the analytical appreciation. It has been said that geometry is the field of mathematics whose main source of intuition is human visual perception [1], and mathematically speaking, linear algebra is to geometry as boolean algebra is to logic.  If harmony can be found in the link between mathematics and arts, then it is not surprising that the ability to scientifically represent 3D images had been contemplated by one of my favorite poets, Yeats [2].

What of the geometry of intangible things? Does happiness have a shape? Does sorrow? These questions occurred to me as I came across this poem of Young Smith and felt an immediate affinity.

She Considers the Dimensions of Her Soul

(Mrs. Morninghouse, after a Sermon Entitled,
“What the Spirit Teaches Us through Grief”)

The shape of her soul is a square.
She knows this to be the case
because she sometimes feels its corners
pressing sharp against the bone
just under her shoulder blades
and across the wings of her hips.
At one time, when she was younger,
she had hoped that it might be a cube,
but the years have worked to dispel
this illusion of space. So that now
she understands: it is a simple plane:
a shape with surface, but no volume—
a window without a building, an eye
without a mind.
Of course, this square
does not appear on x-rays, and often,
weeks may pass when she forgets
that it exists. When she does think
to consider its purpose in her life,
she can say only that it aches with
a single mystery for whose answer
she has long ago given up the search—
since that question is a name which can
never quite be asked. This yearning,
she has concluded, is the only function
of the square, repeated again and again
in each of its four matching angles,
until, with time, she is persuaded anew
to accept that what it frames has no
interest in ever making her happy.

Young Smith

It’s best to avoid pondering about said affinity.  Let’s just be content with the lyrical stoicism found in the poem and accept the recurrence of the four angles to find solace in the perfection of their equality. At times,  when contentment is elusive, Emily Dickinson’s playfulness is comforting because “To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee,/-One clover, and a bee,/And revelry,/The revelry alone will do/If bees are few.”

Thank you, dear muse.

[3]The Lindenbaum-Tarski image is from this site

Literature Blogs

Poetry in Engineering?
Poetry Blogs - BlogCatalog Blog Directory

Posted in Geometry, Visual, Yeats | Tagged: , , , , | 2 Comments »

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