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.

The Paper Shredder

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..OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 

 

Bioplastics

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.

Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center

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.

Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird.

Space Shuttle Discovery.

The Enola Gay.

The Mustang.

The Concorde.

Dassault Falcon 20.

Global Flyer.

Super Constellation.

Cleaning up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch

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!

 

A Twisted Path to Equation-Free Prediction: Quanta Magazine – About Empirical Dynamic Modeling

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.

https://www.quantamagazine.org/chaos-theory-in-ecology-predicts-future-populations-20151013/

 

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