An Engineer's Literary Notebook

Exploring the real and surreal connections between poetry and engineering

Posts Tagged ‘Time’

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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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
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
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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