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.

Boeing and Airbus, the new ‘super duopoly’ – WP

The business of manufacturing and selling commercial aircraft is a good illustration of how cutthroat the world of commerce can be, where winners and losers are sometimes determined not necessarily by how innovative you are, or how good a product you have produced, but by how you are able to manipulate the system.  The big guys do have an advantage in this regard.  I follow this business somewhat closely because of my love for aeroplanes in general  (I have destroyed many a balsa wood glider in my childhood), something that has stayed with me for a very long time.

https://wapo.st/2qWj8Dc

The Zuckerberg Strategy for Technology Development

I think I actually understand the Mark Zuckerberg strategy for developing technology and making a business of it.   It is an approach based on placing a product or a feature out there for the public with a limited understanding of its broad impact.  You learn from the responses to the features.  If changes or fixes are to be made they will be made based on feedback, and as the problems arise.  You experiment with new features.  If indeed problems arise for customers, you can respond by apologizing, and it would be an apology that could be sincere since you did not take the trouble to dig more deeply into possible problem scenarios itself.

I think this is a valid approach in some business scenarios and applications, especially if the problems that can arise are most likely to have limited impact on the customer and can be contained, and mostly if the service is free.  But Facebook has become too big for this kind of a strategy to continue to work.  If too many people are impacted, the government gets involved.

If I were to fault Facebook with regards to the problems they have been having recently, it would be for not recognizing the serious nature of the misuse of the system promptly and responding to it.  They seem to have a policy strategy of trying to buy time while not promptly addressing issues that are becoming obvious.   They allowed their system to be co-opted by others to spread misinformation as if it was the truth.  However, in this context, I am not sure what the authorities can hold them liable for.  I am not sure there is any legal basis in current law to prosecute with.

The above problem should be separated from a second one that should not have happened.  There seems to have been a breakdown in Facebook’s security process that led to private data being exposed, a breakdown that should have legal repercussions.

Meanwhile, I am highly amused at all the outrage that is being directed Facebook’s way – as if people did not understand the risks they were taking by participating on this platform.  Any sensible person should realize that when you place your life story on the Internet, and when you do so with a free service, you are taking a big risk.  It is a free service only because your information is being sold to advertisers.   You signed away your privacy.  And Facebook in particular has pushed the boundaries on how to take advantage of the information you provide.  And the platform also seems to be designed to draw out more information about you from you than you might first have been inclined to provide.  Also realize that even when you are given options for privacy from a vendor, you are still at the mercy of the vendor.  You don’t know what goes on behind the button that you have just pressed, or the data you have entered, on the screen.  You could logically believe that they will not take the risk of breaking the law, but anything beyond that is a matter of “trust”.

Would you not be naturally suspicious of a non-philanthropic private organization that provides a free service, and ask yourself how they intend to make money?  Would you not read and understand more carefully the User’s Agreement that you have with a company that is offering you the free service?

In this context, we are our own worst enemies.  We should be protecting ourselves better even without new regulations from government.  People are being manipulated very easily.

 

The Andes Bike Shop

It used to be a small carpet store, and I remembered it having a certain mideast flavor. It sat at the corner of a neighborhood strip mall, well set back from a main road, behind the Wendy’s and the McDonalds, so much so that you could barely make out the names on the store fronts when you drove by on Darnestown Road.  I remember having gone to the carpet store once to ask if they would like to put an advertisement in the program book for the annual show of the chorus.  The proprietor said that he would look into it but he never got back to me.  That was then.

But then we noticed that something had changed. It was when we were driving to the park for one our Sunday morning walks along the towpath.  There was now a new sign over  the storefront that simply said “Bike Shop”.  A bike shop in our neighborhood was something new, and it was a surprising, if not puzzling, thing to me.  This was a curiosity.  Running a local bike store had to be a tough gig, especially when you were competing with big nationwide companies and their large and well stocked stores.   Local bike stores have come and gone in other neighborhoods.  Why had folks opened a small bike shop in this location?  I resolved to pay these guys a visit some time.

The opportunity arose after my first training ride of the year last week.  While I had been wanting to go the bike store for a while, it was only after that ride that I found the focus to remember in a timely manner my intent to visit the store.  So I stopped by after the ride.

I stepped into a small space that was filled with used bikes of all kinds, for all ages, and for all the different kinds of biking experiences that were possible.  There was also some other biking gear and equipment sitting around on stands and on shelves on the walls.  The place had a crowded feel to it.  Behind a counter was a young man working on a bike. Music was playing on a computer in the background.

I started the conversation by noting that I had stopped by because of curiosity, and asked the guy how long the shop had been open. “Ten months,” he said.  He spoke with a very distinct but light accent.  He seemed very friendly and open.  I told him about the bike ride I had done last year.  That seemed to break the ice.   He turned down the music and started chatting.  And gradually the story emerged.

The store was owned and operated by his father and him.  Their primary business was not selling new equipment, but in taking care of and maintaining bicycles for people.  He loved touring on his bicycle. He said he was the kind of person who would pack his bike with all the equipment that he would need for a ride, including what was needed for outdoor stays and cooking, and just go.  He said that if I were interested in a bike, he could put one together from parts obtained from used bikes that he could get from his contacts, and that he could fit the bike with exactly the right kind of equipment I would need for the type of ride I was interested in doing.  And he could do this for a reasonable price.  He was very conversational, but I also noticed a certain ease and sense of confidence that he had with what he was doing.

I got the sense that he was enjoying being in business with his dad. He gave me a business card as I was preparing to leave.  The card said “Andes Bike Shop”, and the name on the card was Oscar Ramirez.  I asked him if that was his name, and he noted that both he and his dad had the same name.  When I asked him why the name of the shop did not appear on the sign up front, he said that this was something his dad had decided.  And even in that comment I could sense the connection he had with his dad.  It was a connection of love and respect.  There seemed to be a sense of togetherness and trust in their activity of running the store.

I was curious about the Ramirezes and the Andes Bike Shop, and about what it was that had brought them and their store to our little corner of Gaithersburg.   I had asked the young Oscar where they resided, and he had mentioned that they  lived nearby.   I still wondered what triggered their decision to set up the store in its current location.  I did manage to find this video about them.

This happens to be an immigrant story, and I find stories like this somewhat inspiring.  I will perhaps go out of my way to give them some business even if there are other less expensive options.  We need more of these kinds of small family businesses to survive and thrive.  You have to believe that it is not always about the money.

 

The FCC and Set-top Boxes

The dramatic headline “The FCC is going to war over set-top boxes” brought back memories of the time I was dealing with regulatory issues in the world of entertainment.   I think some things will never change as long as there is big money involved and there exists the institution of lobbying.  The battle to change the existing paradigm regarding processing and delivery of entertainment content to consumer eyes from signals that are delivered to the home by the cable companies, and to a certain extent satellite TV companies, has been ongoing for years.  It is the traditional television content delivery guys trying to protect their turf against the home entertainment guys who want to expand the reach of their systems and control how the consumers interface with the cable TV guy’s signals.   If you think that the opposition to the current cable TV signal handling paradigm in the home comes from organizations that are trying to protect the consumer and have their goodwill at heart, think again.  It is companies like Google and Sony who are on the other side, with their own business interests at heart.

It is all about business and money at the end of the day.  And I have to throw up my hands and laugh at the absurdity of all of it, because all of this fuss, and the use of significant monetary resources, is about entertainment and the distraction of the population, something far removed from the more basic needs of the people at large.  While reading the article above I came upon this video from John Oliver from a long while back on the topic of Net Neutrality.  It is dated at this point but still hilarious!

There is another battle well underway in parallel in the entertainment world where the forces of business are trying to change the way entertainment actually gets into your home.  Companies like Netflix and Amazon actually deliver entertainment content via the Internet, which is of course a very non-traditional approach to doing things.  Considering that the Internet Service Providers (ISPs) are almost always the cable companies themselves, this leads to the development of interesting business strategies by the cable companies to try to optimize return to their shareholders, all of which is supported by suitable lobbying of the government that is hoped to result in regulatory regimes that benefit one company or the other.

For heaven’s sake, it is only entertainment!