An Engineer's Literary Notebook

Exploring the real and surreal connections between poetry and engineering

A Transformed Isolation

Posted by xbanguyen on January 27, 2014

Nothing is the word that renovates the world.”  The sentence fairly leaped off the page, seizing my shoulder, sitting me down to start this post. Reading a couple of lines further that “No is the wildest word we consign to language” flashed an insight so briefly, leaving in its wake an afterglow barely visible but definitely not a mirage. That’s reading Emily Dickinson in Seatttle this winter evening. EmilyD Much has been said about her poetry, her life and that sense of mystery, but you will see that it got closer to home. As an awkward high school sophomore lurking about the halls of Lincoln High, before empowering became a cliche in the corporate world, I was empowered by her permission to select a society of one, dignified by a virtual stone door. Many years later, I sometimes wonder about her reasons for choosing to live isolated from the outside world. Inspite of her isolation, she transformed the world of many readers, this one especially, across space and time — the effect of her poetry is not unlike that of an isolation transformer. Lest you think that this notion is far-fetched, consider that the ioslation transformer transfers power in the form of AC current from the source via the primary winding to the load at the secondary winding, the primary and secondary not connected by conduction but by induction. In safety application, this isolation protects the users of the device connected to the secondary winding while transfering power to the device. Isolation transformerLikewise, her poetry provides power to assuage my needs for beauty while protecing me from her piercing gaze into human frailties, most– if not all — of which I am a bearer.

The effort to understand her influence even after all these years reduces me to a mass of uncertainty. Is it her wry humor seeing that bird coming down the walk, the reckless abandonment in the wild night that invokes such shudderingly delicious delight, WildNight the condescension proferring to death, or that formal feeling comes after great pain? Is there an alchemy that eludes me?  Or all it takes is to pay close attention to the words, as Fasrnoosh Fathi wisely pointed out?


It was not a book, but a bundle of letters  and rumination in my imagination, with bunches of lavender strewn about. I remember the warmth of the satisfaction reading about the letters edged with gold stripes found by Jen and Margueritte as they cleared up the attic of their great aunt to prepare for Margueritte’s wedding chamber in “As the Earth Turned”, me whose feet barely found balance landing in Portland after the fall of Saigon. This is not meant to be autobiographical so I will stop while I still can, echoes from my mother’s reading of Alphonse Daudet still resonate and for that I am thankful.


Thank you for the many pleasures, dear muse.


1) The protrait of Emily Dickinson is from

2) The fragments of her poems are from

3) The transformer diagram is from

4) The fireside reader painting is from

Posted in Emily Dickinson, Physics | Leave a Comment »

In the Presence of Light

Posted by xbanguyen on April 28, 2013

What part of speech is your most favorite word? Is it something you reveal to amost anybody who cares to ask, or only to a selected few, or would you reveal nothing even to the most intimate, hugging the word all the while? Let’s say that your favorite word is an adverb that brings to mind the sea, as in


What does that reveal about you?

The coming of May brings to mind the fragility of the himalayan poppy. The blue of this flower holds hints of promise from the bluepoppysummer sky to come.  The almost translucent petals have a daintiness that belies the rocky terrain of their native land. They look ethereal, perhaps because their color is not an intrinsic property of theirs.


Rather they give off light that enters the eye,  striking photo receptors, the rods and the cones, on the retina. As you know, light is a form of electromagnetic energy, comprising of photons  characterized by wave-particle duality.  The photo receptors in the retina convert photons into eletro-chemical signals that are then processed by ganglion cells, a type of neurons, then sent to the brain [1] to be perceived as blue, azure, cerulean, but perhaps not indigo, sapphire nor cobalt.  What about the colors we see in dreams? What about remembered colors? How can my memory still recall with minute details the green of the leaves one summer I spent in Minneapolis and the coral of my dress bathed in light one morning as I found that my ASIC worked first time? Perhaps memory delineated with colors lasts longer, but whether it can be done intentionally I do not know. I do know that I am drawn to this poem, almost helplessly, inspite of the bright blue outside my window this morning.


The emphatic  negations pulsing with resigned affirmation pull me inward with a longing to arrive at the source of this turbulence. The different shades of blue appear to blend into a blackness, paradoxically because black is the absence of light. The despair imparted by the poem lies heavily but not unpleasantly on my mind. Then logic prevails. There must be some light to perceive colors.  The short-lived plants of years past notwithstanding, I will again try to coax the meconopsis betonicifolia to grow far from home.

Happy birthday, dear muse.



[2] The poppy photo is from
[3] The retina diagram is from
[4] The electromagnetic spectrum is from


Posted in Biology, Colors, Gardening, Lynn Powell, Physics | Tagged: , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Of Chirality and Mobius Strips

Posted by xbanguyen on September 30, 2012

Of Chirality and Mobius Strips.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a Comment »

Of Chirality and Mobius Strips

Posted by xbanguyen on September 28, 2012

Do you find it restful to enter a story with a beginning, a middle and an end, or do you prefer the thrill of a headlong dive into the turmoil of the author’s verbal consciousness? Always predictable, a typical  ASIC/FPGA specification our group develops leans toward the former,  the scope telling  you what to expect, the theory of operation unfolding in the implementation description culminating in the total power consumption after a proper traversal of the various time domains.  From the architectural description to the testability section,  a well-written device specification can impart a sense of coherency for you in a pinch, if  in spite of the best intention, you feel detached eating lunch while peering at the monitor to figure out the latest memory technology, DDR4, even when there actually are no needs whatsoever to be more rooted. In that situation, would the following lines make you smile, shaking off the self-imposed solitude to jump sideways onto a swiftly moving URL?

To an engineer, the astonishing simile encourages waywardness. The circular nature of the images invoked by this part of the poem makes me wonder if that road’s apparent surface is like a mobius strip. Traveling on its edge I will eventually get back to the same point but will have gone twice the length of the same road itself.  As you know, a mobius strip is a chiral object that can not be mapped into its mirror image by rotation or translation. In other words, the mobius strip is the starting place for creating non-orientable surfaces, those for which the concept of right and left has no meanings [1] . I will refrain from bringing up the current political climate, singing a lullaby to my partisan self.
This mathematically intriguing strip has Euler characteristic chi=0
Mathematical intrigues aside, this topology, having just one surface, was the concept used by the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan to suggest reconsidering the demarcation between the body and the self, conventionally thought of as clearly divided into an inside and an outside [2].  Lingering by the side border in this early autumnal evening when the iris leaves are still green, long and supple enough to be fashioned into mobius strips, I see  that the gradual emergence of one into the other provide a gentle tension to make these lines even more lovely, and be thankful.
Thank you for the excursion, dear muse,
1 The math information is from
4. The music Mobius is from

Posted in Chiracity, James Wright, Jane Hirschfield, Mobius strip, Topology | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »

Sequence Everlasting

Posted by xbanguyen on July 8, 2012

The scent of lilies at night made me feel like a voyeur as I walked along someone’s garden on the way back to the car after the  fireworks ended. I spied the thick petals rising over the ferns to bathe in the night air, the greenness of the ferns a perfect foil. This being July, the unfurling was mostly done, but the knowledge that the unfurling patterns followed the Fibonacci sequence made the world of numbers come alive in spite of a lack of moonlight. As you know. each number in Fibonacci sequences equals to the sum of the two preceding numbers.  Mathematically,  Fn = Fn-1 + Fn-2. The Fibonacci sequence of order 2 (n =2) includes 0, 1, 3,5,8,13,21 … This series abounds in nature: the calla lily has one petal, euphorbia two,  buttercup five, delphinium eight, black-eye susan thirteen, aster twenty one. Is it the number of petals in the flowers that make them pleasing to the eye, or is there something else?  Perhaps, because the sun flowers actually have their seeds packed that way to maximize the number of seeds in that space with the angle between the appearance of each seed exactly the one that is least approximated by a fraction, the golden angle calculated from the golden means which is the ratio of two successive numbers in a Fibonacci sequence [1] .  It is the golden ratio Phi that creates the enduring beauty of the Parthenon, and underpins the face of the beloved.  How does a specific mathematical proportion cause a universal perception of beauty in the mind?  Will this poem shed some light on the bridge that links mathematics and beauty in the mind?

The tension in alternating the mind as both subject and object, enchanting and enchanted leaves me optimistic, especially the last line because by changing, the mind can create changes. By applying the golden ratio observed in nature to man made structures, we create beauty. That there are mathematical sequences behind beauty is encouraging because they add to the understanding of how we come to be and how we endure without depending on the existence of God, even though the comfort of believing in a greater being beckons as I mourn my mother. This series of posts has never been intended to be a journal, but I must mark her passing this past April. It took me several months to write again. This post is for you, mama, you who taught me how to solve for x by working out simple ratios, you who bought me many books of poems, explained to me the two-seven-six-eight meter in ca-dao, made potpourri for me from the roses in your garden, and most of all you who loved me unconditionally. I do not know if there is an afterlife, but I am grateful that your love of languages and things of beauty live on in me.

Thank you for the inspiration, dear muse.


2. The composite graphics of the sun flower is from and
3. The fern photo is from
4. The Fibonacci diagram is from
5. The Parthenon photo is from

Posted in Fibonacci, Golden Ratio, Marianne Moore | Tagged: , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

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 Transformation In Green

Posted by xbanguyen on December 10, 2011

Is it possible to reinvent yourself  from the same past? Is there a certain sheath of light you can put on to  fashion the rearranging of the molecules within to emerge anew, sporting a re-engineered memory filled with assured joy? Would you rather be a sojourner, a guest in many cities or to put down roots in a familiar place? Can you be both? Looking at the other face of the same coin, can desire alone forge the necessary transformation? Most likely not — you may have to make do with knowing that a certain kind of transformation is possible, mathematical transformation, that is. So tonight I will attempt to assuage the ghost of Jay Gatsby by considering the Laplace transform that provides a means to traverse between time domain and frequency domain.

 Ordinary engineering phenomena such as the switching transient in a RLC circuit and the harmonic vibration of a beam can be described using linear ordinary differential equations where inputs and outputs are functions of time. Converting these functions into frequency domain where inputs and outputs are functions of angular frequency using the Laplace transform make them easier to solve. Instead of calculus,they can be solved by algebra.  Such transformation is possible as long as the function satisfies certain Dirichlet conditions. [1] 

The precision found in mathematics possesses a certain beauty. Equally appealing is the certainty conveyed in those equations. If a set of conditions are met, at least one solution for the equations exists. If I planted red tulip bulbs this past November, the borders will be ablaze with colors comes spring. An adverb describing the motion of the pomegranate flower at the entrance to a walkway in a poem read many years ago in Vietnamese never fails to make me fall hard all over again for all the poems ever written in any languages.  One should be thankful for such constancy because it escapes being transformed by time, for not all transformations are to be desired, and we are not in control as this poem ruefully points out.

The opposing force twisting down the upward course of a wayward vine reminds me of Dylan Thomas’s poem of the green fuse that drives the flower.  The extreme adjectives describing the hope coursing within the vine carry an optimism that belies the bleak soundings. That vine some day will transform again back into a root from which a new plant will emerge , the resilient seeds sown in soil once wanted will form another Eden. All you have to do is to sow a seed or two, and to be indulgent of yourself. Would you give up being in control for the pleasure of being enthralled by a resolute Eden?

Thank you for listening, dear muse.
[2] The globe is from Google Earth.
[3] The village picture is from .
[5] The tulip painting is from

Posted in Jay Gatsby, Kay Ryan, Laplace transform, Ordinary differential equation, Transformation | Leave a Comment »

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 »

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