Boeing’s Recent Problems

The kinds of issues that Boeing is encountering with implementation of new technologies are, in a sense, universal.  Most consumer technology companies have to deal with this kind of stuff when designing new products.  What is different here is that, because of the nature of Boeing’s business, these issues can lead to life-and-death situations, especially when mistakes are made.

Software is playing a bigger role in the implementation of the logic for decision making in the working of products everywhere.  In the case of the Boeing 737 MAX 8 (and most likely the other MAX variants), a particular aspect of the software implementation became a key element in establishing the “stability” of the product, i.e., the aircraft, during a certain mode of operation.  The software implementation turned out to be flawed in its implementation.  Rather than depend on human beings to control the aircraft during a particularly unstable period of flight of the aircraft, the design had the software take over the flying of the plane during that period of time.   The logic of the overall system design was shown to be faulty in one of the planes that crashed (and the authorities will probably conclude that something similar led to the second crash).  In their rush to get the product out, Boeing failed to account adequately for all the possible ways in which things could go wrong, especially when control is wrested away from the human beings flying the plane.

How did Boeing end up with this kind of a design?  The basic design of the 737 is quite old (from the 1960s) and not the best suited for upgrading to the latest technologies, including newer engines that are more efficient.  Boeing was trying to match the performance of their newest products to the latest version of the newer (from the 1980s) Airbus A320 line of aircraft without having to design a new aircraft from the ground up, a process that would have supposedly cost more money and time.   The solution approach that Boeing ended up with turned out to be something that was not ideal – an aircraft that was known to be unstable under certain conditions. The solution that they came up with to handle the instability was to use software to control the system so that it could at least be “meta-stable”. (Some military aircraft are designed this way.) The idea was to implement this “feature” without modifying how pilots who were used to flying the 737s would fly this new plane.  Basically, they wanted to introduce the product in a way that the unstable nature of the design was not obvious to the pilots, so that their experience of flying a new plane would match that of flying an existing design.  Instead of talking about the differences in the design and familiarizing pilots with how they should handle these differences, they deliberately tried to make things appear to be simpler than they actually were by addressing the problem with software control.  What the heck!  Boeing trusted the software more than instincts of the pilots?!

I am not a software engineer, but the small number of people who have been following my blogs know by now that I like to rail against the scourge of bad software.  I feel I have a right to do so based on my experiences with such software. But the problem these days seems to go beyond that of “bad software” – it also seems to lie  in the way the software logic is integrated into the whole system. And at the same time, whole systems are becoming more and more dependent on this kind of software.  Our two hybrid cars, the Honda Civic from 2008 and the Prius from 2015,  are two completely different beasts when it comes to integrating the operations of the electric motor, the gasoline engine, and the battery, into one coherent system to supply torque to the wheels.  This whole process is dependent on decisions made using logic implemented in software.   The logic, and the practical results from the implementations, are completely different for the two cars.  Who knows how they came up with the logic, and how many software bugs there are in the control systems!  When I complained about the Honda when I had problems, they were quite reluctant to give me any technical information.  The good thing is that nothing seems to have been compromised when it comes to safety.

I used to work in an industry where the pressures of succeeding quickly with the introduction of new products was a primary driver in the decision making process.  (This is probably a truism for most industries.)  Thank goodness we were manufacturing products that did not deal with life-and-death issues. Failure in our systems could not, for the most part, kill you.  Safety of the product was ensured by following regulations in this regard.  But when these kinds of market forces impact a multi-billion dollar aircraft industry, a situation where the lives of millions of regular folks who are flying is involved, you have the potential for very significant problems.  If you try to cut corners hoping that there is nothing fatal that lies out of sight, you are asking for trouble.   The regulators are supposed to be the final arbitrator for safety issues, but what can they really understand about complicated systems like the ones we are building today.  Ultimately, the onus lies on the one building the product, and this is true for any kind of product.

Boeing will survive their current problems, but their reputation is tarnished, at least for the short term.  They really came out of this looking small and insincere, trying to hide behind the FAA.   They could have gained more trust from the public by being proactive, and even responding more forcefully after the first crash.

Truth of the matter is that situations like these have happened in the past for both of the big aircraft manufacturers that remain today – Airbus and Boeing.  When Airbus first introduced fly-by-wire technologies, there was even a crash at an airshow.

It is true that fatal flaws in aircraft are not limited to those of the software kind.   Planes have been crashing due to hardware failures since man began to fly.   It is only that  fatal flaws of the software kind are completely predictable.  They should be easier to find and test for from the design and implementation perspective.  The software should be able to respond to all the known hardware issues (which are unfortunately unavoidable) in some way, and the software should not be buggy.  And you cannot have the software introducing new failure modes, especially when safety is involved.  That should be unacceptable.

In general, flying commercial aircraft is probably much safer today than it has ever been.  The problem (as I see it) seems to be that companies are willing to play with people’s lives in their approach for introducing new technology and making money, and this is preventing the system from being as safe as it really can be when new products are introduced.  Some companies seem to be too willing to take a risk of losing human lives in the process of learning more about their new products.  And then they are slow to take responsibility.  There has to be some kind of social liability associated with this approach.

Onward to the Land of the Incas

We are preparing for a visit to Peru next month.  During this trip we will be traveling to the interior and visiting the heartland of the old Inca civilization, including the ancient city of Cusco.  We are looking forward to this visit.

I have been doing some reading in anticipation of this trip.  The first book that I read was ‘Turn Right at Machu Pichu”, by Mark Adams.  This book, first published in 2011, weaves two different story lines.  The first is Mark’s experience of traveling the region, following in the paths of earlier explorers, including trekking the famous Inca Trail to Machu Picchu.  Mark interweaves this narrative with an account of the history of the region, some of it very brutal, mostly centered around the time of the Spanish conquests of the area.  He talks about the “discovery” of Machu Picchu by Hiram Bingham III, a somewhat self-serving American explorer in search of fame, in 1911.  But Machu Picchu was never really “lost”, especially to the people who are from the region!  In any case, the stories are interesting, even if the details of the book are difficult to remember just a few weeks after reading it.  My memory is not what it used to be.

The other book I read more recently was “The Old Patagonian Express”, by Paul Theroux.  This book was first published in 1979.  It is an account of Paul’s travel from Boston, Massachusetts, to Esquel in Patagonia, mostly by train.  The travels took the author through Peru, and specifically Cusco and Machu Picchu.  I have a copy of the book that I had bought in June of 1985, when I was about to graduate with my doctorate degree.  It was time to open the book once again.

The spirit of the somewhat arduous trip taken by Paul Theroux (it took a few months to complete) is something that I can appreciate.  It is an undertaking that seems to have been driven mainly by the author’s sense of curiosity and adventure, and his need to leave his zone of comfort in the process.  It is about the thrill and the romance of travel.  You do it because you want to see, experience, and learn about new things, new places, new people, etc..  You are not looking for the familiar place or face.  You do not have a complete plan in place to handle the situations that you will encounter.  And it is more significant than that – you willingly open yourself to the unexpected and let yourself become more vulnerable. And in all of this, you manage to learn something more about yourself.

One has to remember that Paul Theroux’s book was written in the 1970s.  I now find that his attitude towards the kind of people that he encountered, especially the locals, seems to be somewhat condescending, or maybe it is just a general sense of superiority.  I wonder if it is actually a sign of the times that Paul Theroux lived and traveled in, or if it is a somewhat generic attitude taken by folks who are out on voyages of discovery, including most of the explorers of times past – especially those from Europe and North America.  They always thought that they were better off than the others, and that they knew what was good for others. Perhaps they were really better off from a materialistic point of view, but did they necessarily know what was good for others?

Paul talks a lot about the poverty he encountered in Peru, especially among the natives.  The power structures in place in government in those days did not seem to be geared towards improving the lives of the common man.  Perhaps it is all true.  My problem, reading Paul’s work at this time in my life, is the feeling I have that he does not seem to have gone beyond the superficial in trying to understand the lives of people.  He does not seem to have had the conversations that someone who is undertaking this kind of effort should be having.   Maybe he did not have enough time.  Maybe he did not think his book was meant to be read by somebody of Inca ancestry.  In my mind, he comes off as being quite opinionated in this regard.  He might have thought that he was be brutally honest, but I think the problem is that he did not make the attempt to have a more complete perspective. He really did not complete his homework.  Perhaps, this is a general problem with the attitudes of too many explorers.

Anyway, here we are, more than 40 years after the time of Paul Theroux’s travels to South America, and we are on our way to South America once again (we went to Ecuador two years ago).  I wonder how the country of Peru has changed since the 1970s.  We are not adventurers like Paul Theroux.  We are going in an organized tour group, and everything is going to be taken care of for us.   We will probably be shielded in some way from the locals.  Paul Theroux had also traveled through Ecuador, and he talks about the poverty in that country, but our exposure to those circumstances a couple of years ago in the tour group in Ecuador was minimal.  It could be that the situation has changed since the 1970s, but it could also be that we were just shown what would be tolerated by “tourists” like us – things that were unlikely to cause us distress, or show the country in a poor light.

It seems like the town of Cusco was geared somewhat towards tourism even in the 1970s.  It is in all likelihood even more so today.  You only have to see all the information on the Internet in this regard to sense that this is the case.  You would also be led to believe that people are generally much better off in Cusco today than 40 years ago, but how can one be sure without having the complete experience?

As I said before, since we will be arriving in Peru as tourists in a tour group, almost everything that we do will be according to a plan and a schedule.  But the explorer in me feels that perhaps some of the more remarkable and memorable moments of the trip could happen outside of the script.  One just has to be open to the possibilities.

One final note about the trains that Paul Theroux took many years ago.  Even in those days, there was no way to do the entire trip from Massachusetts to Patagonia solely by train.  Looking at the available train services today, this situation has gotten even worse.  Passenger train services are available in much fewer places today.  Common folk have to depend more on the buses than they used to do in times past.  In a few places, the trains have been saved by running services over short distances just for the tourists.  But this is not the real thing!  The romance of the railroad is not what it used to be.

 

 

 

Secondary Consequences

Disaster struck a couple of days before I was to leave India to return to the USA.  There was an ambush of the military in the state of Kashmir that resulted in the death of a large number of Indian soldiers.  These kinds of events happen every once in a while due ongoing conflict in the state. These incidents are serious enough to create an international crisis, with two nuclear armed forces facing each other, eyeball to eyeball, across a disputed border.  Wars have been fought between India and Pakistan in the past because of this situation, and border incidents happen with frightening regularity.

My flight back from Delhi to Washington DC was happening a couple of days after the incident in Kashmir, and the flight path was about to closely follow the great circle route, the path that had taken me close to the North Pole on the way in to India.  This path took the aircraft, an Air India Boeing 777-300ER jetliner, over Pakistan, the “enemy” in this case.   I was not sure what was going to happen to my flight back home.  Fortunately, things went as planned.  The flight took the expected path in spite of the tension between the countries.

The retaliation for the ambush of the military in Kashmir finally happened just a few days ago.  This time, in response to the retaliation, the government of Pakistan appears to have shut down its airspace to all commercial traffic (not just that from India).  I wondered what would happen to the flights between Washington DC and Delhi.  I checked out Flightaware.  This is what I saw regarding the flight that took off from IAD to DEL on Wednesday (2/27/2019).Screenshot_2019-02-28 Air India (AI) #104 ✈ 27-Feb-2019 ✈ KIAD - DEL VIDP ✈ FlightAwareThe flight actually took a longer route than was normal, adding about a couple of hours to what was already a long flight, and it did not fly the great circle route, the route that would had taken the least time.   As is obvious from the last section of this flight, this route was taken to avoid flying over Pakistan.

On the other hand, the inbound flight from DEL to IAD, one that had been flown by the same aircraft just prior to this, had followed the expected route.Screenshot_2019-02-28 Air India (AI) #103 ✈ 27-Feb-2019 ✈ DEL VIDP - KIAD ✈ FlightAwareThe situation had changed between the flight heading out of Delhi to Washington DC and its return back to Delhi.

Conflicts have all kinds of consequences, and this was one of them.  It could not have been nice for the people on the flight.  Peace, y’all!

Return from Washington Adventist (7/12/2008)

I have have been thinking about posting this e-mail for a long time.   I sent it to family and friends back in 2008.  A few of you have seen it already, and may even remember it.  It is now a part of my life story and history.  More than ten years have passed since then, and I can now reflect on how this has effected the way I live and my outlook towards life.  Perhaps you will find something interesting.
**********************************************************

Dear Folks,

I am very happy to be back home this Saturday evening.  Thank you all for your thoughts and prayers. As many of you already know, the fact that I had to stay overnight at the hospital is an indication of the fact that they indeed found some blockage in the heart and some work had to be done. The news, in short, is that two stents were introduced into the arteries feeding the heart – one in the first obtuse marginal artery (OM1) which was about 95% blocked, and another on the Right Coronary Artery (RCA) which was about 70% blocked. A drug-eluting stent was used in each case to try to prevent the arteries from re-closing. I feel fine right now, but have to take it easy for the next few days so that the femoral artery through which they inserted the catheter can heal completely. My daily Asprin and Lipitor dosages going forward have been increased and I will probably have to continue to take this medication for life. I also have to take Plavix, an anticoagulant, for a year.  These are the consequences of heart disease. But I will be back to my activities as soon as I am given the green light. It would seem that I have been given an extension of sorts, and I should make the best use of the additional time. I feel fine.

You should probably not read past this point if all you wanted were the facts, and you are not interested in the gory details of the trip to the hospital. In fact you should not read past this point if you have a tendency to get distressed in general. An overnight stay in a hospital, as some of you know, makes you a humbler person. You are basically out of your comfort zone and for the most part you are dependent on others. It does not help that you wear a gown that is open at the back. If you happen to be connected to an IV line you also cannot move around easily without help. You depend on the nurses for almost everything. You could feel out of sorts even if you are physically OK.

The catheterization procedure itself went smoothly. It was interesting to be awake during the process and be aware of what was going on, feeling no pain, and hearing what sounded like distant conversations – with an occasional request from the doctor to hold my breath. He informed me of what he was going to do before he inserted the two stents. I was done with the procedure and back in the recovery area before noon. I had been given an anticoagulant drug at the completion of the procedure to prevent clots from forming around the stents. Because of this, in order to avoid issues with healing, they waited for a couple of hours before they pulled the sheath (from which the catheters had been inserted into the femoral artery) from the area of the groin. As soon as the sheath was removed from the groin, I had one of my famous fainting spells. I felt the coldness creep in and I told the nurse who was working on me that I was going to faint. As I got knocked out, I saw the guy reaching for the alarm button. Code blue!

Apparently, I flatlined, and the guy kept pounding on my chest while applying pressure to the wound to prevent bleeding. I am told that I was out for about 15 seconds, and when I came to it felt as if I was coming out of a dream. (No, I did not see a white light.) I think I shouted – Where am I?! I saw a bunch of anxious faces in front of me, and one woman was holding my hand in a very reassuring manner. But I recovered quickly after that. I asked for some food immediately because I knew that part of the problem was that I had not eaten since the previous day. (And according to Teresa I was apparently also not well hydrated during the procedure.) I have experienced fainting spells every once in an infrequent while since childhood, and now there is name for this. It is called vasovagal syncope. Look it up. It has to do with bad signals being sent to the heart due to a process with positive feedback within the body. I used to think of my experiences in childhood as some kind of weakness on my part that could be controlled mentally. It actually is something that has a physical origin.

Anyway, because of the drama I had created, I was placed in the Cardiac ICU for the night. I got personal attention, but I had a hard time sleeping, one of the reasons being that I had to lay my right foot out straight through the night. This morning I watched the daybreak out of the window of my room on the fifth floor – with the blues and the whites and the oranges lighting up the early morning sky. I felt things were going to be OK. I was feeling strong. I felt strong enough to sing to myself, but for some absurd reason, tears would come to my eyes. (I suppose “Bridge over troubled waters” is not the best song in these circumstances.) But I had a good breakfast and lunch before Teresa and Christina were able to rescue me and bring me home. The unfortunate episode and the helpless feeling that goes with staying in a hospital are quickly fading into memory. I am feeling great right now. Lets see what the next challenge is going to look like.

Once again, I am very, very, grateful to all of you for all your good wishes and for thinking about me. I am touched, in fact my brain may be a little fried from a lack of oxygen (only joking, OK!).

Sincerely
kuria

A Return to a Child’s Life

It is snowing outside as I begin this blog.  It is hard to imagine that just a few days ago I was in Chennai in India where the temperature was around 80 degrees Fahrenheit!

I never really completely adjusted to the change in time zones during this trip to India.  I was up well before the morning hours almost every day during my three weeks there.  I did not let this strange affliction bother me.  I found something or the other to do – spending time on the computer, or reading a book, or doing something else that did not require me to get out of bed and disturb everybody else.

This trip was a little different from my past visits. I actually had time to relax at home, even keeping visits with friends to a minimum towards the later part of the stay.  But the trip was also exhausting, and also a little emotional in some sense, since I made the visit to Kerala, the state where I was born, the place where our family is originally from. I have blogged in the past about the nostalgia associated with traveling to Kerala as a child, and also writen more recently about how my love of the mountains may have blossomed with one such trip.

The quick trip I made to Kerala this time was different from the journeys of my youth, when I used to stay there for the long summer holidays, but it was also about being taken back to the days of my youth.  I was going to visit relatives who lived there whom I had not seen for many years.

For starters, because I did not have time to do so, I did not go to Kerala by train.  Instead, I flew into Kochi airport.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMy first stop was to see an aunt and uncle in Aluva whom I had last visited about 12 years ago.  Life has changed for them since then in ways both happy and sad.  The joy of the growing grandchildren in the family has been balanced by the impact of a devastating accident a few years ago that has changed their lives in a dramatic fashion.  After some conversation and lunch, I took the opportunity to go down to the Periyar river that flows next to their property.  They had been forced to evacuate their apartment just a few months earlier because of flooding of the river.P2110042.jpgA long taxi ride in the evening got me to my next stop in Irinjalakuda to see my cousin – whom I had also not seen for a long time. Along the way, it was interesting to see that they still paint the state’s public transport buses the same way they did as when I was a kid.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI have very little recollection of having visited my cousin’s home (which was built in the 1980s) before, even though we have met a few times since then. Most likely, I have never been to this house.

The emotions welled up in me as I talked to my cousin about the days of her youth and her connection with my parents when they were young and had just got married.  (My cousin is significantly older than I am.)  I felt a sense of the passage of time, and a sense of how lives lived in the past lead into the future.  This was one of the nights that I woke up earlier than usual in the morning and lay in bed unable to sleep – this time simply thinking about the connections of the lifetimes.  I was somewhat of a wreck by the time day broke, but I did take the time to go out and take a picture or two after recovering my composure.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe bonus of my stay in Irinjalakuda was the opportunity to meet a high-school classmate whom I had not seen for 43 years!  I got to go to his home and also meet his wife.  It is interesting to to see how how circumstances in life can take you in very different directions, and to many different places, but that you can end up in the end at similar places of peace and happiness.  You can define success or failure in your way without allowing others to define it for you.P2120080.jpgThen it was off to the railway station to catch a train to Palakkad.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe train journey was an interesting experience, but I must move on without talking too much about it, since this blog is already getting longer than I would like it to be. The only thing I will note is that my experience of the train journey left me feeling that I was still in the 1970s!

The train journey was to take me to Dhoni, near the Palakkad railway station, where I was going to visit another aunt of mine.  I had not seen her for decades.  We have a little bit of a language barrier since I do not know the mother tongue well, but I need not have worried.  That did not stop our conversation.  My aunt has gone through the struggles of time since I last met her, having had a somewhat painful physical setback.  She manages.  She now cheerfully oversees the larger family, including her own children’s families, who have already set up, or are in the process of setting up, their own roots all around her.  During this visit she insisted that I needed to eat well (more than I am used to eating), to taste all the foods from my youth.  It was a treat!

Dhoni lies in the shadow of the Western Ghats.  I set out to explore the place at sunrise.  OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe village’s charm has not changed over the years.  While the population of Dhoni might have increased since the old days (there are more houses, and even a management college started by one of my cousins), it is still not crowded, at least in my eyes.  The roads are broad and also empty the time of morning that I was out.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe waking hours reveals the feel of the village, the only distraction being that of the trucks from the local rock quarry that kick up a dust and do not slow down as they speed down the road. The family house in Dhoni begins to catch the light of the rising sun in the morning.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe mountain of my youth (or maybe I should call it a hill) still remains, still looking a little formidable to the young child who has now become an older man.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA I am not sure if the hill is as accessible as before.  New property lines lie between me and the peak that I can barely make out in the early morning light.  There was no marked trail for me to follow, although my cousin might have known a way had he been able to accompany me.

Habitation on the road that used go past my aunt’s place has extended towards the mountains these days.  There is a bus service, and I saw a couple of hotels when I looked on the map.  Kids climb into the back of the auto rickshaw to go to school in the morning, while the dog runs freely on the street,OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAand the roadside tea shop is open for business early.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThere are farms that did not exist a few decades ago.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA couple of peacocks fly away from the field when I point my camera at them.  Somewhere, a cow grazes surrounded by egrets – probably cattle egrets.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI did also visit my cousins’ farms closer to the mountains.  You could see the Western Ghats in the distance as we walked past an open field, just before the entrance to the farms.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI am told that elephants have come to roam this space these days, and there is an electric fence around the fields for protection.  One of my cousins takes care of all the properties and grows fruits and vegetables on them.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAHe tells me the story of having been given seeds for what he was told was cabbage, and finding out that he now has tons of lettuce growing on the property!  That is the way it goes.  Life still seems to have a certain simplicity to it.  I could get used to it.  I wish I had learnt to speak the language better as a youth. There is a certain sense of loss.

I had to leave Dhoni even before noontime to catch a flight from Coimbatore (across the border in the state of Tamilnadu) to Chennai – but not before my aunt plied me with more food.  The short, intense, and tiring, trip was coming to an end.  Back in Chennai I went to bed early, and then slept like a rock, waking up a little later than usual.

And then, less than a week later, I was sitting in my room in Gaithersburg in Maryland watching the snow falling.P2200016.jpgIt is quite the change.  Life can be that way, I suppose!

 

The Vegetable Shop

This vegetable shop is also a new sight on the street in front of our house in Chennai.  They seem to be doing a tremendous amount of business.  I have noticed crowds at all times of the day.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhile their bright lighting serves them well when it comes to advertising their presence and their goods, it can be a nuisance just across the road  in the nighttime because they are open till somewhat late in the evening.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAnd the fact that some of their customers park their vehicles in front of the gate to our house is also a major annoyance.

All of that having been said, this storefront seems to be a step up from the kind of establishments that have tended to come up in front of our house in the past.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThings are constantly changing here in Madipakkam, a suburb on the outskirts of Chennai.