The Turning of the Seasons and The Return of Spring

When you think about it, the existence of the seasons on our planet is a pretty amazing phenomenon.  I say this even though we know why it happens.  As most of us are aware, there is a solid scientific explanation for the seasons.

But, even with your knowledge of how things work, you can also look at things from a somewhat different perspective.  Our planet is very, very, far away from its source of energy, the sun, averaging a distance of about 93 million miles in its elliptical orbit. In spite of the distance, just because of the nature of the earth’s axis of rotation with respect to its plane of revolution around the sun, we experience the phenomenon of the seasons.  The variations in the amount of energy from the sunlight falling on the earth at different latitudes at different times of the year leads to localized changes in climate on a tiny speck of dust in the Universe, the earth, even though it is million of miles from the source of the energy, and furthermore the impacts are still quite predictable.  One should stop and think about that. Also consider that in the grand scheme of things, this energy could be considered minuscule, indeed it is an almost insignificant fraction of the total energy being spewed out from the sun.  And this energy is continuously changing because the sun is not static. But even the second-order differences in this small amount of energy at different times of the year at different latitudes are so well defined as to give us the seasons.  All because of the tilt of the earth’s axis!

And this little bit of the energy that the earth receives from the sun is just the right amount to create our lifeforms, and also impact them in different ways in different parts of the world in a manner that we can understand.  Too much or too little of this little tiny bit of the continuously changing energy of the sun and things would be very different.  It is crazy amazing!

As Spring arrives in our parts, the energy from the sun has warmed the ground and revived the latent life that has remained hidden in our vegetation through the winter.  Brown is turning to green.   It may seem to be happening suddenly, but there is actually a process that carries on through the year.  Things happen at a certain pace in keeping with the change in the energy received from the sun.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe energy of the sun brings flowers to life at this time of  year.  Redbuds and dandelions, and a multitude of other flowers of many different kinds, bloom along the towpath.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAt this time of year the Spring Beauty can even take over some areas of the woods.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Other lifeforms also seem to be celebrating the return of Spring.  For some reason the turtles in the picture below have shells of different colors even though they are all of the same kind. It looks as if one is wet, one is dry, and the third one is in some state in-between!OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe snapping turtle below raises its head from the water, and proceeds to spit out a stream of the water.  I wonder what it was doing under water. I also saw a second snapping turtle with its head underwater for a long time.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAnd the woods echo with the endless songs of the birds.   The colorful cardinal stands out in the foliage.  Its music follows a repetitive pattern that is not that simple.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA The restless tapping of the woodpecker on the dry branch of the tree resounds loudly through the woods.  It is a drummer in a marching band tapping out a rhythm of nature on its instrument, its beak.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAnd as I walk through the woods, I also receive the gift of the energy in a different way.  I can also feel the change that seems to be being celebrated all around me.  The feeling is palpable.  If I choose to, I can also become one with the remarkable transformation that is taking place around me. And I can immerse myself in the feeling.  I can try to feel our oneness with the other life.  I can try to understand how we are all a part of this Nature.  And I can act accordingly, in a harmonious manner. In a sense, this could be a sacred place of unity.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe are all a part of the same experience of life on earth, an earth that is but a speck of dust in the vastness of the Universe.  Our behaviors on this earth ought to reflect this truth.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Meanwhile, 55 Million Light Years Away

A black hole spins!

Watch the video!  Young people like Katie Bouman are helping us see things that have never been seen in the past.  They have now managed to obtain the first picture of a black hole!  This video is from a couple of years back.

via Katie Bouman: How to take a picture of a black hole | TED Talk

PS.  I got the link for this video from a friend.

Physicists Discover Exotic Patterns of Synchronization | Quanta Magazine

This is fascinating stuff!  There is synchronization happening naturally everywhere, and a lot of it is unexpected and non-intuitive, at least for me.  And there seem to be mathematical ways to characterize these synchronization processes.  There could be ways to harness the power of synchronization.

Caution that the article is a long read.

via Physicists Discover Exotic Patterns of Synchronization | Quanta Magazine

The Incessant Cacophony

Imagine for a minute that you are an alien being, an intelligent species from somewhere out there in the universe, somewhere far, far, away, from a very distant galaxy.

Imagine that you are the alien being searching for signs of life in the universe, listening to patterns in the radio waves that whiz past all around you. You are capable of recognizing not just emissions from point sources, but also all the kinds of signaling that exist in the universe, both simple and sophisticated. You can certainly recognize all the simple forms of signaling invented on Planet Earth.

Imagine that one day you hear something from a very, very, distant source that seems to make sense to you. Somebody is trying to send some “information” to you about itself. And you are curious….

You focus more of your resources on tracking this new source of “information”, and you are able to pick the fainter signals emitted from this source. You begin to separate the many signals and the patterns in them. And you recognize that there are many, many, different kinds of signals, at widely varying signal strengths, being emitted. And embedded in these various signals are many different kinds of information coded in many different ways.  This information seems to be more sophisticated than what you first detected from this source.  Since you have zoomed in, you realize that information sources are clustered around a central location which seems to be generating most of what is being sent out into space. But there are also emissions from the space surrounding this central location, and the intensity of the emissions is  reducing gradually with distance from the central source.  Indeed, there seems to be some form of “communications” going on between the central source and the surrounding space.

And, you, the alien being, get even more curious. You find a way to focus even more of your resources on this source to find out what is going on. All of sudden, you are hearing a cacophony of signals that are getting more and more difficult to make sense of. The signals are in all kinds of frequencies and at varying signal levels, and the ones you can extract from this cacophony are of many different kinds. A lot of it is difficult to make sense of even when decoded.  There could be a lot of communications going on within the source, but it all seems so random.  It seems like chaos.  It seems like a mess. And, the intelligent creature that you are, you wonder what is going on. This source is generating a whole lot of what seems to be noise. Is it some form of pollution?  How is this being generated?  Is there a purpose? How much of the energy of the source is being used generating all of this noise?

And, perhaps, intelligent being that you are, you are concerned. This seems to be pointless, and maybe even self-destructive. Is the planet radioactive? Where is all the energy coming from, all to be expended into nothingness?  All of this cannot be sustained for too long a long time. What is going on?  What is the point?  Is there a purpose?

The Chair

Walking along the Potomac river, between Taylor’s Landing and Dam 4 on the C&O Canal towpath, we came across this somewhat strange sight on the West Virginia side of the river.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWas this chair placed there so that somebody could spend the day fishing, or simply watching the flow of the river?

Was this chair placed there by a kind soul for the benefit of other people – so that they too could enjoy their day and time sitting by the riverside?

Considering that the chair was in a location that seemed to be hard to get to, at a place that you had to drive down a steep dirt road to reach,  at a spot beside the river where the surface seems to be unsuitable for a comfortable walk, is it even possible that the chair was simply swept down the river to land upright in this location and position?P3310030.jpg

You can let your imagination wander, see whatever you wish to see, and make up your own stories, as you walk down the towpath on a Sunday morning.

The Universe in Verse: Astrophysicist Natalie Batalha reads “Renascence” by Edna St. Vincent Millay

via The Universe in Verse: Astrophysicist Natalie Batalha reads “Renascence” by Edna St. Vincent Millay on Vimeo

Context and poem text: brainpickings.org/2018/08/03/the-universe-in-verse-natalie-batalha-edna-st-vincent-millay/

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.