Harpers Ferry (2/13/2005)

This note was written in 2005.  As you can see, I considered what I had accomplished that day very significant at that time, when it fact it could be considered just another minor milestone in the story of my life.  But perhaps it did also affect my psyche in a way that led me to the place I am today. Who is to say!

As a point of reference in time, I got my first digital camera only a month after this outing on the C&O canal towpath.

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I reached my Destination today, February 13, 2005. Alleluia and Glory be!!!

Some of you may know about the historical town of Harpers Ferry, located at the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac rivers in West Virginia, at the meeting point of the three states of Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia. It is a beautiful town located on a hill. It saw a lot of action during the civil war. It was the site of an armory in those days, and John Brown also staged his unsuccessful insurrection there to try to free the slaves. Lewis and Clark went through Harpers Ferry on their way west, picking up weapons and other supplies. They even had a boat made out of iron in Harpers Ferry for their trip. That particular project was not successful…

The B&O railroad crosses the Potomac at Harpers Ferry. The railroad lines emerge from a tunnel on the Maryland side and split in two directions, over two bridges, as they cross the river, with the bridges passing on opposite sides of the town of Harpers Ferry. These bridges over the waters are an impressive sight. There are also remains of older bridges across the rivers to be seen around the town. The rivers are wide and the waters very rough. This is white water territory! Over the centuries, the waters have cut a notch through the mountains, and there are cliffs and hills all around. It is both pretty and powerful at the same time.

We have visited Harpers Ferry a few times in the past. I have noticed the C&O canal towpath during those trips and made note of the fact that the trail runs all the way up from Washington, DC. I remember thinking to myself at that time that it would be extremely cool to come up the towpath from Montgomery County by bike. Well, I have done it, not by bike, but on foot, and not all in one day, but over a period of months. It is my destination!

When we were growing up in Madras, there were a couple of books that I loved to thumb through. Both were travel books and had lots of pictures in them. One of the books was of travels in the USA and the other was of travels in other parts of the world. There is a picture from one of the books that has been stuck in my head – it shows a train crossing a bridge over a river and the railroad track splitting off in two directions on the opposite side of the river. In my imagination, this is the town of Harpers Ferry.  I remember that when we first visited this town, this was the image that came to mind. The thought, most likely a figment of my imagination, was that this was something that I had seen in books as a child, but now was fortunate enough to experience first-hand. Yes, this is my destination!

Harpers Ferry is at mile 61 on the towpath, and quite far away from home. This is probably the limit of where I can get to comfortably without stretching myself too much. In fact, I had to get on the highway at 6:40 am to make sure that I got there at a reasonable time to start the run. This is yet another reason for me to consider this as a destination. I will pause at Harpers Ferry for a while, take a measure of what I have done on the towpath thus far, and consider setting other goals for the future. Meanwhile, there are miles to be covered over and over again, and trips that will surely give me new experiences with the River.

The run between Brunswick (mile 55) and Harpers Ferry took me from a familiar set of surroundings into new and different territory. So far the canal has mainly run through heavily wooded areas, and the river has tended to be a quiet beast for the most part, showing itself occasionally through the branches of the trees. As one gets closer to Harpers Ferry, the towpath is right up against the river. The area is completely open and there are very few trees around. You are running on an embankment completely exposed, about 20 to 30 feet above the river on one side, with the dry canal bed just a few feet below you on the other side. You realize the magic of the system of locks, that allows them to maintain the waters of the river and the canal at different levels. (This area has quite a few locks because of the significant drop in the level of the river.) As an added bonus, you have the B&O railroad on the other side of the canal, and I saw quite a few freight trains rumbling by. This place tends to be noisy – there is also road traffic from route 340. You also pass by the little town of Sandy Beach which is essentially a row of houses parallel to the canal, railroad tracks, and road, with its back up against a hillside.

On the way back from Harpers Ferry, as I pulled out of the parking spot under the shadows of the cliffs of Maryland Heights, I decided to take the road less traveled. I turned off the highway onto a local road, led by a sign that simply said “Brunswick” and “Route 478” on it. I did not have a map in the car, and did not have a clue about route 478, but I decided to be adventurous anyway. I ended up on a fairly empty road running past the railroad tracks. I went though the little town of Knoxville, with its traditional main street and its multicolored row-houses, and eventually ended up in Brunswick, MD, at its sprawling railroad yard. I drove over the tracks and into the parking lot for the towpath by the river. Although I had run past it in the past, this was the first time I had actually driven to the lot. It looked safe. Next time I will know where to park in Brunswick.

So, faithful readers who have stuck with me through my travels and through this long essay, this is the end of a stage in my travels. Who knows where the next voyage (if there is one) is going to take me. I have seen many faces of the River, and hopefully the next time you visit us, I can take to the spot on the river or canal that best fits what you wish to experience – whether it is quiet and solitude, whether it is unimaginable beauty, whether it is awesome power and fury, or whether it is just a simple picture of the timeless flows of a wild and untamed river that has always been, and will continue to be.

Until whenever – Adios Amigos!
kuria
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As you can see from the pictures I took with my analog 35mm camera during my run, I did not actually enter the town of Harpers Ferry that day.  I only saw it across the river as I ran on the trail.Scan-29Scan-30

Regular readers of my blog will also know that I have traveled further along the towpath in the years that have passed since that day, including a trip that covered the entire distance from Pittsburgh to the Washington, DC, area – the Great Allegheny Passage from  Pittsburgh to Cumberland, and the C&O canal towpath from Cumberland to DC.  I do not consider Harpers Ferry that far away from home these days.  Times and perspectives have changed.

The Wedding Reception

We were very thankful for all the people who came even if the weather did not cooperate.  They survived a very warm and muggy evening.

The food was fresh and tasty, and those who participated in the dancing had a great time.  There were conversations going on all over the room.  The trivia session grabbed the attention of at least a small number of people in the crowd.  The bride and the groom made sure to meet as many of the guests as they could.  It was wonderful to see everybody even if one did not get to spend time with folks, lost as I was in the chaos of my mind.

 

We are Very Hungry

I was doing at task at Manna that I usually do not.  I had been avoiding it for a while.  Because none of the other “regulars” had shown up, I was the only volunteer left to do it.  Basically, the task involved greeting the customers when they came in to pick up their food, checking their identification, ticking their names off a list, and getting signatures.  It sounds simple, but it was the small variations in the type of folks who come to pick up food that I was not used to.  People can pick up food for others if they have their IDs, case workers can pick up food for their clients with their own IDs, organizations can pick up food for a larger number of clients, etc..  I was simply being lazy and trying to avoid having to remember what needed to be done in each case.

In any case, it was time for me to bite the bullet and learn the process a little better since there was nobody else there to step in. Things went nicely, and it was actually nice to talk to some of the clients, beyond the conversations that one might have with them when actually delivering food to their vehicles.

I was taking care of stuff when I heard voices emanating from the window where clients go to talk to the Manna staff when needed.  In the background I could hear somebody talking about not having food, and about her child not having gone to school that day because she was being bullied, and about travails related a job situation.  The staff member (a person who must have a good heart, and who will remain anonymous for this blog) was asking questions.  Usually, the people who receive food on a particular day are on a printed list that is prepared from information collected ahead of time.   But an exception was made based on information provided.  The staff member went through the required process as an urgent matter.

The lady who had been talking to the staff member was now a client and was being allowed to pick up food the same day.  She walked up to me with her daughter and presented me with a tiny piece of paper.  On it was the information that I would normally have found on the printed sheets for the clients.  I improvised and wrote the name at the bottom of the printed list, checked ID, and got the required signature.  While this was happening, the lady mentioned that they had no food at home and that they were very hungry.  I was struck by a sense of urgency by the statement even though the lady was speaking in a calm manner.

We were giving out one piece of pastry to the customers that day, but I said that they could take two if they wanted.  The daughter addressed me politely – “Sir, can I take this one”.  I said “sure’, but then noticed that mom had already taken two pastries.  I pointed this out and the mother and daughter decided on which pastry that was already in their hands they were going to put back.  It was an “Oliver Twist” moment.  Meanwhile, I began to feel like a jerk.  Why should I be limiting food to hungry people?  Anyway, the clients were being allowed unlimited amounts of bread that day (because we had a lot of bread, and bread goes bad quickly) and I made sure to emphasize that fact while they were picking through the bread available on the rack.  The mother and daughter left with their food (which also included a closed box of dry food, some meat, and an open box of perishables, including fruits, vegetables and prepared foods). I was left thinking about how they would feel once they got some food in their stomachs.

While volunteering, there are occasional incidents that challenge me mentally and take me outside my comfort zone.  Some of them are good for me, and that is perhaps one of the points of the exercise.

I watched an entire Flat Earth Convention for my research – here’s what I learnt: The Conversation

The democratization of “science” and “information” by the Internet has enabled many strange things today, including acceptance of lines of thinking that one would have expected reasonable people to scoff at in the past, and events that some people would consider quite surprising during our times, such as the results of the US presidential elections in 2016.

Despite early claims, from as far back as HG Well’s “world brain” essays in 1936, that a worldwide shared resource of knowledge such as the internet would create peace, harmony and a common interpretation of reality, it appears that quite the opposite has happened. With the increased voice afforded by social media, knowledge has been increasingly decentralised, and competing narratives have emerged.

via I watched an entire Flat Earth Convention for my research – here’s what I learnt

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 Brave New World of Artificial Intelligence

Experience has taught me to be skeptical about new technology.  Many years ago I anticipated that the tools of the Internet could create a virtual world of grief similar to what we see in the real world today.  I feel that my fears have been justified.

Some of these new technologies are presented to us in a somewhat idealistic manner when they first arrive on the scene.  We were told that the Internet was going to open the world to the masses by providing universal connectivity and tools for communication, and thus even up the playing field for the everybody.  Technologies like this were going to transform the world for the better.  We just needed to let the technology loose to see all its life-changing benefits.   We are so full of ourselves that we do not even pause sufficiently to think about possible problems we may create.  This is silly.  We seem to be ignoring natural human behavior.  Human tendency is to eventually find a way to destroy every good thing.

And now there is this thing called Artificial Intelligence.

The subject of Artificial Intelligence has been a topic of research for many years.  The name seems to imply that machines can be made to think like human beings (is that even a good thing?), and eventually they should be able to behave like humans.  I have been a skeptic, although I will admit to not having spent enough time to really understand what it all means.  I think the name itself is a turnoff for me, making it sound like it is more than it really is.

Artificial Intelligence, or AI, is becoming more mainstream these days, and the definition has undergone a little bit more of a refinement in my mind.  Specifically, AI is not to be considered in too broad a sense today, but in a more focused manner.  These days one primarily thinks about AI for particular functions.  For example, AI might help to design an autonomous vehicle where the vehicle reacts as if a human were in control, but that does not mean that the same machine can climb a tree or make a good cup of coffee, or plan a vacation.  Implementations of “AI” are compartmentalized, be it  for speech recognition, image classification, autonomous vehicles,  question-answering systems, etc..

And what is basically happening is that we now have enough processing power in computing systems, and the ability to collect, store, and process (in some statistical manner), large amounts of historical data related to particular functions and features, to allow us to design systems in which decisions can be made by computers in a similar way to the human decision making process that created the data that was collected in the first place, and to do so with a fair degree of confidence.   I hear terms related to the general topic of AI – machine learning, neural networks, deep learning, data mining, pattern recognition, etc.., subjects that I know very little about, but in my mind they all seem to be about finding ways to process data to come to up with algorithms to make decisions.  (I understand that neural networks in particular are about algorithms that try to mimic the neural networks in the brain.)

So things are moving along in this field, and I think it is because of the advancement of basic technologies related to data collection and processing.  New algorithms and approaches are being invented to use all this capability.  AI is becoming more fashionable as a  technology concept.  It is so enticing a concept, and the technology is moving ahead at such a fast pace, that not many people seem to be dwelling on the possible dangers. But this may also be changing, and people like Stephen Hawkings and Elon Musk, and other experts, have spoken up on this topic in recent times.  (You can see the letter that is referred to in the previous link here.)  I myself am not sure that we can create a machine that is greater than the input that went into its design in the sense of decision making, a superintelligence if you will.  But we could sure mess up when multiple decision making processes are involved and they are not brought together properly, or if the learning processes themselves are not done properly.  The results could be unexpected.  Here are some simpler examples of unexpected results with AI in real life.

https://www.infoworld.com/article/3184205/technology-business/danger-danger-10-alarming-examples-of-ai-gone-wild.html#slide1

My concern with AI would be something similar to what has happened in the world of universal networking and the Internet.  It is about the innate human tendency to try to exploit systems for their own benefit at the expense of others.  Who would have imagined the kind of hacking that exists today on the Internet, with bad players easily being able to access, slow down, steal from, and control, systems that they do not own, for their own nefarious purposes.  We were very naive in the initial design of the Internet.  Security was not tackled as one of the fundamental requirements in the design of protocols for the Internet.   The system is deliberately quite open.  Security is only added on at the higher protocol levels when it is thought to be needed.

When it comes to AI, the one subject I have not read much about yet is the likelihood of AI design being motivated by the wrong reasons, for fundamentally bad purposes.  An extreme example would be the development of technology based on AI that could be the foundation of robot battlefields.  We seem to be part of the way there conceptually with the extensive use of remote drone technologies these days.

Since AI depends on a process where algorithms are developed based on data collection, what if some organization, or some person, decides to skew this learning process deliberately to reflect a thinking process that is geared towards destructive outcomes.  And what if this kind of technology infiltrates the mainstream in a way that is difficult to contain (just like it happens with hacking on the Internet these days).   Will human beings be then fated to try to build systems to try to contain this infestation when it would have been easier and wiser to not even let it start in the first place.   Is it possible that there are bad players who are already in the process of taking advantage of the new forces we are about to unleash with the easier availability of tools to enable AI.

I have a bad feeling about what is going to happen with the new level of technology that is being created.  And I have the sense that we will try to muddle through the new problems that we create, problems that are of our own doing. We will band-aid specific issues as they arise, when it would have been wiser to consider all the possible ramifications of what we are doing up front.

In the world of medicine and health, we always seem to be on the verge of having an epidemic of some kind that existing systems are incapable of handling, but we have been fortunate to survive through such episodes even in more recent times as a human race  for various reasons.  Sometimes, like in the case of the recent Ebola epidemic, it takes desperate measures and some luck.  Will we always be so fortunate?

I wonder if it is possible to have similar scenarios for damage and destruction to humanity and its systems with technologies like AI.

Having written all this, I am hoping that somebody who reads this will tell me that my fears are unfounded, that my ignorance of AI extends even beyond what I have noted here, and that the foundations of the technology will not allow what I have speculated about to happen.  I would love to be pleasantly surprised.  Please, please, please….