Stories that inspire! I recommend reading the entire article.
We are in a seasonal transition in our neck of the woods. It is a truth – as true as anything and everything else that is real and factual. There is no way that somebody can refute my statement, right? Winter is around the corner in Maryland.
Unfortunately, facts seem to be more and more difficult for people to accept in today’s world. It is the belief that counts, and a lot of our actions will be based on these beliefs. I could have edited those pictures I am showing you, or even picked pictures out from my collection from a different year, to state something that is untrue. You believe that I will not do that. There is an element of trust involved. You believe that I will not lie to you.
It is a sad thing that active efforts are being made to destroy the trust that people in the US have in their electoral system. When this happens, the truth, and the facts, do not matter. The lies are considered credible. And the lies can become a matter of faith. Living in a virtual world of computers and social media makes this process even easier. Facebook’s algorithms have no means to separate out truth from lies. AI technology is also not necessarily based on starting from truths. Scientific truths have no basis in a virtual world, facts have no foundations there. These days you can argue that the world is flat, that man did not land on the moon, and that a conman won this election – and the algorithms in the computers will say, fine, we do not care if this is true or not, and we will proceed as if this is fact.
All real facts point to the successful and honest conclusion of the election process in the US, a process that was as fair as it could be. Unfortunately, apparently 70% of Republicans, at this time, believe that the election was really won by the candidate who actually lost it – the two-bit huckster, the conman. Unfortunately, this fantasy is also not explicitly repudiated by the people in power who are in a position to state the facts. They are afraid. They are hypocrites who look out only for themselves. People lie, these lies are amplified, and these lies are believed because of the kind of world we live in. The facts have no place here. There is more chaos, uncertainty, and anxiety, in the transition that is taking place in our country because of all of this. This is nuts!
Inroduction – I have ended up digging deep into my past while creating this blog. It was supposed to be a simple re-post of an email I sent many years ago. Much water has flowed under the bridge since 2008. Life was very different at that time. This blog even takes me back to the early days of my career, before the email you are about to read was written. Here goes.
There are two separate topics in this e-mail, and the second topic is more of a reflection on longer-term happenings in my life. It would be perfectly understandable if you skipped this second part.
So here I was walking through the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) Show in the Convention Center in Las Vegas, when I heard a shout “Hello, Malayalee anoo”? (Hello, are you a Malayalee?) I turned to see this guy walking up to me. He started talking to me in Malayalam with a heavy accent. I was totally taken aback at being accosted in this manner in the middle of a convention center in Las Vegas. The gentleman mentioned that he had seen my badge and recognized that the name must belong to a person from Kerala. Very quickly, before I could even recover, he asked me where I was from, whom I worked for, how long I was going to be in Las Vegas, etc.. I had no clue who this person was, and did not understand why he was talking to me with such familiarity and asking all these questions. He must have noticed a bewildered look on my face because he paused for a moment. “Am I asking too many questions?”, he enquired. I did not know what to say. He then noted that the way he was asking me questions was the manner in which people broke the ice and started conversations in Kerala. He said that he was from Toronto, and in my confused state of mind I heard the word Trivandrum instead. I looked at his badge and it said jimmy john (just the way I have written it!). Anyway, jimmy soon realized that I was not too much of a Malayalee (even though my parents are from Kerala), but that did not deter him from continuing the conversation. We continued to talk in English for a while about our backgrounds and I became more comfortable with the conversation. I suppose he was a simble (inside Malayalee joke!) person, and perhaps we could continue talking because I am also simble (hmm, maybe not that humble). Turns out that he produces a show in Toronto called Malayala Shabtham and his production company is called CKTV, Canadian Kerala TV Productions. He seems to know people and politicians in Canada, and he sounds like an enterprising fellow. For all I know, he is a well-known person in certain circles. Perhaps one or more of you may have heard his name. Anyway, we exchanged cards and then parted ways.
Now, changing topics: Later the same evening I went out for a dinner organized by a gentleman from DIRECTV named Bob Plummer. Bob had been at the David Sarnoff Research Center while I was there and had moved directly to DIRECTV after that. (He is one of the folks who encouraged me to move to DIRECTV.) He is a very senior person, has a lot of friends in the industry, and will be retiring this year. He apparently has been organizing this dinner during the NAB for several years for his friends in the industry. This time he invited me to the dinner so that I could get to know some of the folks, and I also met an old friend from Sarnoff, Joel Zdepski, who has now gone on become a Senior VP in a company called OpenTV. In any case, the food was very good (and very expensive) and there was plenty of wine to drink. At a particular moment during this whole affair, Bob walked into a conversation that I was having with somebody else and turned to the person and said something along the lines of – Kuria is one of those people who can actually get things to work. My goodness, what a complement! It is quite possible that the number of drinks that had been consumed at that point inspired the comment. But it got me thinking after I got back to my hotel room later in the night (and this is where the humble part goes out the window!). In the early years of my career I had worked on some really unique and challenging problems that were cutting edge, without really realizing the magnitude of what I was doing. At Sarnoff, we were trying to design the first digital high-definition broadcast TV system in the world, and were implementing certain concepts for the first time. Without really thinking too much about it, I came up with a unique solution to a particular system problem that we had, and, although I did not have any hardware experience, I got into the thick of things and actually helped in implementing the concept and making the darned thing work. I was working on something that I had minimum expertise in, and something far removed from the topic of my graduate studies. I depended a lot on intuition. I was also quite naive and did not even realize the complex nature of the problem I was taking on and solving. But others did notice and remember! And it is staggering to realize that the things that we worked on at Sarnoff have now become the foundation of a gigantic worldwide digital TV industry. Wow!
I had a few other such “Eureka” moments during the early part of my career, some of them at Hughes Network Systems, but I think none matched the magnitude of the work at Sarnoff. I think I had a real problem-solving mentality that is typical of an Engineer, and this ability compensated for a lot of my other personality issues. But the years have gone by since then and the reality of life has caught up. It is now more about shouldering responsibilities and trying to make sure that one does not screw things up. I do not have to solve difficult technical problems. I am more careful. Everything is more mundane. And I have to find other less risky roads to follow to push myself and experience the excitement of learning new things and challenging myself. And, although one accepts where one is in life without any regrets, one wonders once in a while about what might have been if other routes in life had been followed and if more time had been spent earlier in life on developing other talents. It is probably true that one can waste a lifetime simply asking questions and not doing anything else. But at least on that one magical evening in Las Vegas (under the influence of alcohol, of course) I felt like I had done something unique and special, something that not just anybody could have done. Is it all about feeding the ego?
There used to be an advertising line having to do with the Las Vegas tourism scene that stated – Whatever happens in Las Vegas stays in Las Vegas. You can see that this is certainly not true with what has happened to me in Las Vegas during my last two trips.
Such is life.
Today’s postscript – While looking for pictures of people who I worked with while at Sarnoff, I came upon this website with details about the project I was involved in at that time. You can even find pictures of me from my youth (at least four of them in the section about the “AD-HDTV System Integration at Sarnoff Field Lab”). My signature is on a document that we signed at the end of the project. I directly contributed to the specification document for this project. I was responsible for something called the priority processor.
I do not know how long this website will stay up, but I might as well make use of it while it lasts. This is certainly taking me down a memory lane.
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.
My first encounter with a paper shredder was at my first place of work. It did not take too long for me, a person who had just become a full-time working stiff, to figure out that the device could also fit nicely into my, then still nascent, ideas for managing paperwork at home.
Consumer models for paper shredders have been around for many years. Since it is a mechanical device that suffers constant wear and tear, I have run through and destroyed many of them over the years. And then, recently, I encountered an industrial strength paper shredder at my brother’s place, a shredder that was capable of shredding over 20 pages at a time! And I felt a little “shredder envy!” Further contemplation on the topic of paper shredders continued at home later as I was getting rid of a whole lot of papers using my relatively itsy-bitsy paper shredder. I considered how my structured use of this device over the years had ended up being a reflection on my general approach to the organization of things in life in general.
These days I use a paper shredder mostly to get rid of old paper documentation that I feel is not needed anymore. I have a tendency to keep documents for a certain amount of time and then discard them as more recent versions of those documents make it into my paper filing system. The nature of these documents in itself would say a lot about my personality. I know a lot of people would not even think about saving the kinds of information I do on paper, and even if they did save such information, doing so in a process similar to mine.
You may ask, why not just throw away this stuff. Why shred? In fact, I would have discarded things of this nature directly in the recycling bin in the past, but I prefer to use the shredder first these days to make sure that some of the more sensitive documents do not fall into the wrong hands by mistake. It has become a habit to shred almost everything.
What are the kinds of things I tend to save? Some of them are historical in the context of personal and family life. These could perhaps have some kind of sentimental and nostalgic value going forward. I have stuff in the basement from when I went to graduate school. I have kept both notebooks and textbooks. I don’t know how much longer I will keep them. I have many other books, both works for fiction and non-fiction, that I will probably not read again, but which I hesitate to get rid of at this point. One still saves letters and notes of different kinds from the past if they were special. This kind of material, in general, tends not to be discarded. Then I have the financial stuff which stays with me because of my tendency to try to be organized, sometimes excessively so. I try to do as much as I can to minimize uncertainty. Then there are the other important documents related to the official business of managing life here in the US in general – information about all kinds of accounts, benefits, taxes, insurance, etc…
I do tend to balance this tendency of mine to accumulate stuff that may or may not be useful in the future with the realization at some point or the other along the line that I may never look at this some of this stuff. The first thing that got discarded on a mass scale in my life were the hundreds of journals and technical papers from the early years of my career. In retrospect, I think I had the good sense to realize the uselessness of storing this stuff even early in my career. I had moved on.
As I mentioned before, many official documents end up going through my shredder after being saved for a certain period of time in a filing system that may be difficult for others to figure out. Different kinds of documents also survive in this filing system for different periods of time that I decide, many times somewhat arbitrarily, and then they get shredded.
While the purpose of saving most of my documents in paper form is to make sure I have the information contained in them if and when needed, the reality is that I seldom look at these documents. There is some other mental process going on, perhaps a sense of security that may or may not be justified, that causes me to put things away for possible use in the future. Besides, these days, one can also archive most of this information on the computer, perhaps “forever”, with relatively less concern about use of storage space. But I have reached a certain comfort zone at this point in life with what I am doing. One falls back to the processes that have kept you going. I continue with my system of organization and the use of the paper shredder.
The process of shredding can actually give you a good feeling of completion, and of moving on, when you are done with it. If you can physically complete a task to the satisfying sounds of the shredder, then it is truly over! A physical action has been taken from which there is no retreat. The sound of the machine when it is in action is also a satisfying one. In the end, you feel you are rid of the old (even if it is not really true), and you move on to the next item on your list. There is some sense of satisfaction. It has become a comforting habit.
The kicker in all of this is that I am also pretty good at saving most of the above information on my computer. And there are other places to go to grab some of this information even I do not have it on myself all the time. So, perhaps, the utility of most of what I am doing and achieving is questionable. But this kind of a feeling is also true of a lot of other things we do in life. Que sera sera..
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.