I have written blogs about CRISPR in the past. In one of thses blogs, in 2016, I talked about the possible ethical ramifications of the use of the technology in the future. My other blog, the next year, was just a link to a description of how the technology works. The scientists who developed this technology have now received the ultimate recognition, the Nobel Prize. But, as happens in many cases, there is some controversy about whether other deserving people have been left out of this honor. This article gives a broader perspective on this subject, including some history.
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.
PS. I got the link for this video from a friend.
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.
This bridge was completed in 2017. It spans the Hudson River north of New York City.The old Tappan Zee bridge that was built in 1955 is in the process of being dismantled, and can be seen to the left of the picture.
At this stage in my life, I am less appreciative of the constructs of human beings than I used to be when I was young. But this massive structure certainly caught my attention, perhaps because it has different kind of symmetry, one that I am not used to seeing.
Some of us feel quite good about ourselves because we recycle our plastics at home. We believe we are doing our little bit to save the environment. But, as it turns out, very little of the plastics that we recycle are being reused in a useful way. As the article below points out, there are many challenges to achieving real meaningful recycling. Perhaps the solution is to use less plastics, or plastics in a more sustainable way. (The author of this article linked to below (click on the image) talks about “bioplastics”, which is something they are working on in their University.) Whichever way you look at it, there are additional costs involved in getting things on the right path. The article below is a good read in the sense that it also gives you a good sense of the bigger picture, and of the damage we are doing to ourselves over the longer run.
(Courtesy – The Conversation)
Here is a video from the article.
The Udvar Hazy Center is the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum (NASM)’s annex at Washington Dulles International Airport in Fairfax County, Virginia. The huge space hosts a whole lot of aircraft and other human built flying objects, in all shapes and sizes, from the beginning of human flight. There are just too many exhibits to remember, or even go through in detail in a single day! Here are a few pictures.
If you are fascinated by aeroplanes just like I am, read more specific details about some of these aircraft, and see pictures of some of their transitions to the museum, at the following links provided by the Smithsonian.
A socially active friend of mine had told me about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch a while back. He is the type of person who is likely to latch on to out-of-the-mainstream causes, some of which require a lot of work to verify. I only followed the story in the background of my mind for several years, not certain if there was any exaggeration in the statement of the problem. The subject seems to have moved into the mainstream in more recent times.
We human beings do not realize the extent of the damage that we are doing to the planet just because we do not see a lot of it with our own eyes. We will also willingly deny the role that we play in the process of its destruction.
What is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch? From Wikipedia:
“The patch is characterized by exceptionally high relative pelagic concentrations of plastic, chemical sludge, and other debris that have been trapped by the currents of the North Pacific Gyre. Its low density (4 particles per cubic meter) prevents detection by satellite imagery, or even by casual boaters or divers in the area. It consists primarily of an increase in suspended, often microscopic, particles in the upper water column.”
How big is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch? From Wikipedia:
“The findings from the two expeditions, show that the patch is 1.6 million square kilometers and has a concentration of 10-100 kg per square kilometers. They estimate there to be 80.000 metric tonnes in the patch, with 1.8 trillion plastic pieces, out of which 92% of the mass is to be found in objects larger than 0.5 centimeters.”
The reason for my posting of this blog was a mainstream news item that I saw on CNN regarding attempts to try to address the issue. The project is called The Ocean Cleanup. They think they are capable of cleaning up 50% of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in five years. Part of the solution is trying to figure how the best way to recycle the garbage that is captured. Hope it all works, and that we can clean up the mess that we have all made!
“Empirical dynamic modeling, Sugihara said, can reveal hidden causal relationships that lurk in the complex systems that abound in nature.”
This approach for prediction throws out the equations, and uses a different kind of approach to find order in chaotic systems. The process includes the gathering of enough historical data to make more reliable predictions. To me, it sounds similar in some ways to some of the processes that feed into the field of AI, or Artificial Intelligence.
Image courtesy of Wired Magazine.
“Developed primarily for the new Boeing 777X, this behemoth is wider than the fuselage of a 737 jet and can generate more than 10,000 pounds of thrust.”