New Toys

When I was young, I used to spend my spare money on music. It started out with albums recorded on vinyl, then there was the expansion to cassette tapes to record albums borrowed from friends, and then, in my final move, by the time I graduated with my doctorate degree, I also graduated to digital audio on CDs. It was a long time ago. I still have a massive collection of albums in all of these formats. Music was perhaps my most significant monetary indulgence. Through my growing process, I went through three iterations of good amplifier systems and speakers – each acquired after some serious research into the technology.

But there also existed another side of my genetic makeup and upbringing that would tend to pull me back from this hobby. Money was not to be wasted. It has been many years since I upgraded anything in the home entertainment system to the extent I used to be tempted to do when I was younger. Technology has left me behind completely! Everything is dated. I have no capability for using the newer digital audio/video interfaces that are available on devices to their best advantage. I never bought into Blu-Ray or HD-DVD even though the kind of work that I used to do was foundational to the development of these technologies. We still have a DVD player in the house that is decades old, but that is it! HDTV did come to the house early only because I worked on the technology. Surround sound technologies have advanced significantly since my time.

And music is also delivered to me through newer means these days.

Having said all that, I have to happily acknowledge that the music of the old days is still in me – even though I have mostly tended to neglect its presence. It was just recently that I found myself in the kitchen with my smartphone and tiny Bose bluetooth wireless speaker, listening to classic rock being streamed to me from a Spotify account. The conditions for listening to the music were not that great. I was listening to monoaural sound whose fidelity was less than ideal due to lossy digital compression techniques being used, and it was being played through a tiny listening device – not exactly the conditions under which one listens to rock music amplified for its full impact.

But the circumstances did not seem to matter. I was taken back to the old times. I was cooking up a storm to the beat of Deep Purple and Machine Head.

I could still feel it in my bones – never mind the new technology.

The familiar lead-ins…

The beat, almost hypnotic, slowly building up – the rhythm taking over, the body moving to the music on the kitchen dance floor – occasionally with spatula or knife in hand. Can spices and the cutting board be tackled when in a groove with some degree of serious headbanging going on?

Awesome base lines, guitar riffs that seem to go on forever, out-of-the-world chords from the electronic keyboard wailing away, the urgent and high-pitched voices of the singers, a perfect percussion keeping up the beat and preventing it from careening out of control – a potent mix – familiar patterns emerging…. WOW!

The hand gradually moves to the volume control buttons on the playback device – higher and higher it goes – damn it, how can one listen to this stuff without blasting it through the speakers!

The familiar verses emerging from my inner space – Come on, come on, lets go space trucking!

For that instant in time, I was transported to a different mental space. It is more than just a happy moment.

And I wondered, how could anybody not be moved by this sound – and especially in the kitchen while cooking…

And then I am back to my sane place, to the understanding that every generation probably thinks the same way about their own familiar music. I am indeed listening to grandfather rock!

The irony is that one is in much better shape to indulge in the fantasy of high-end A/V equipment during these later years of life, but the mind has moved on to a different state of equilibrium directed by practical matters of daily life. And frugality continues to be part of my DNA. You might be tempted to think that this is an indication of maturity. That is arguable. One can occasionally break out of ones state of equilibrium – one can be taken back to the carefree space quite easily without the encouragement of drugs and alcohol. It is OK I think – as long as variances can be managed.

I still have my vinyl, cassette tapes, and CDs – some of this stuff not touched for decades. I am tempted to once again listen to what I have been missing. What long dead neural pathways in my brain will be brought back to life one wonders.

And then there are the other new toys and indulgences that one has been drawn to in the later years of ones life. I smell another blog!

After Alaska Airlines planes bump runway, a scramble to ‘pull the plug’ | Miami Herald

As we learned from the Boeing 737MAX disasters, the use of software in commercial flying is still a very tricky business.

After Alaska Airlines planes bump runway, a scramble to ‘pull the plug’ | Miami Herald

After Alaska Airlines planes bump runway, a scramble to ‘pull the plug’ | Miami Herald

How Claude Shannon’s Concept of Entropy Quantifies Information | Quanta Magazine

This concept forms the basis of Information Theory. In digital communications, it places an absolute limit on the maximum possible rate at which data can be transmitted on a channel reliably. This limit is theoretical, and the challenge is to implement coding schemes that can get us closer and closer to such limits in real systems.

How Claude Shannon’s Concept of Entropy Quantifies Information | Quanta Magazine

How Claude Shannon’s Concept of Entropy Quantifies Information | Quanta Magazine

NASA’s Webb Reaches Alignment Milestone, Optics Working Successfully

For those who might be more technically inclined, you should watch the video. This is fascinating stuff. I have been following this project for a while now.

Show Me The Way

The mid-nineties! We were in the process of building a revolutionary product. It was a Set-Top Box (STB) that would be capable of processing multiple input signals – two differently formatted digital TV signals broadcast via satellites; digital TV signals from local broadcasters at a time when the standards for such broadcasts (called ATSC) were being created, and as these broadcasts were going on to the air for the first time; and also traditional analog TV signals (called NTSC) from the local broadcasters. Yes, the product had to be able to tune to and process any one of the four different kinds of input signals based on what channel was being tuned to. The components of the hardware that was going to be used were brand new, and some of these components were still in the process of being developed. There were many unknowns, including a full understanding of how a system would operate with all of the components integrated on to a single platform. We also had to come up with a concept for a single integrated Program Guide for display to the customer that would encompass data from all the different kinds of inputs. And all the differently formatted video inputs from all the different input signals that we had to process had to be converted into every one of all the different output formats that the customers could possibly be using in their homes to view the content on their television set. It was a novel and complex exercise in overall system design for the times, and I had overall responsibility.

An army of workers went into action. There was a laboratory where we tested the system as it came together, feeding input signals for testing into our hardware, and outputting audio/video signals to the display devices of that time. These were the days before flat screen TVs. I still remember the original Sony 16:9 aspect ratio CRT Trinitron HDTVs that we used for testing. They were really heavy and bulky. I have a feeling I tore something and perhaps even got a hernia (which must have healed itself over time) lifting one of these behemoths on to the top shelf of a table in the lab.

Anyway, these were the days during which HDTV transmissions were still a novelty. DIRECTV’s HDTV broadcast included audio/video content that they were using primarily for testing purposes and for keeping the channel going continuously. And included in these test signals was the video of a live performance by Peter Frampton of a song I was familiar with. My memory is fading but I do believe it was the following video. (If you are a aging rocker like me, you know that you have to crank up the volume for this!)

This video became a part of the background soundtrack of my work life in those days. I think I might have even watched the video at home when I brought a STB home for testing. The family will surely remember if I did!

We did put a product out into the market at the end of the project. The product was far from perfect, including a critical aspect having to do with the heat being generated by the hardware components. In spite of its faults, the product did serve its purpose during the lifetime of its existence.

Sometimes I have to get into a particular state of mind to properly remember the pioneering aspects of some of the work that I was involved in in the industry in those days. It was thrilling, physically and mentally stressful, and exhausting! Of course, all of this technology is now a part of the mainstream and, dare I say, easier to deal with. Hardware and software for many of the functions that we implemented early on in bits and pieces are more integrated, and I suspect that people do not even have to understand the basics of how these packages work. And other things have changed. Operations of products and devices have been better rationalized and simplified, and also standardized, through many years of experience.

And there have been many more other changes in the industry, including perhaps as an ultimate step, the emergence of audio/video streaming via the Internet as a generic approach for mainstream content distribution. DIRECTV itself is now an endeavor that is in a state of decline.

I have to say that in my life I have been fortunate to be in the right place at the right time to learn many new things, and to also participate in building a few new things.

The Uselessness of Useful Knowledge: Quanta Magazine

The title is a little misleading. This is an interesting take on where the technology of Artificial Intelligence appears to be at these days. The comparison to alchemy is interesting. It is also an interesting commentary on how progress happens in science. Read on…..the article is not too long.

Sweating The Computer Stuff

I have not been in the state of mind to write a blog for a little while now. You can blame technology for this. I finally got a new computer. I ended up spending a lot of time getting the new machine up and running. I found myself in a frame of mind not conducive to writing anything.

My old laptop computer has had a few issues with it for a long time, but I tried to manage without a replacement for as long as I could. One of the buttons on the touchpad has been sticky for a while, which sometimes led to unexpected responses when it was pressed. The plastic casing of the computer had cracked and separated an even longer while back – at the location on the side where the power cord got plugged in, to the extent that the connector for the power cord inside the computer was not firmly connected to anything within the computer itself. When the lid of the computer was lifted to the certain level, the broken plastic on the bottom of the computer would separate, and the connector would become free to move. The only way to ensure that the connector was stable was to push the top and the bottom elements of the casing together and to try to keep them together using some force. The engineer in me had to try to come up with a solution to the problem. Super-strong adhesives would not work since the force pulling the broken pieces apart was too much. I was using a sticky tape instead as a temporary solution, and had been trying to limit the actions of opening and closing of the lid of the computer. That careful approach had its limits, and mitigated the issue for only so long. It was time for a new computer!

I got a new laptop computer with much more memory than I had before, with the hope that it would make it easier for me to support multitasking, and also speed up running of my photo editing app, a piece of software that is a complete memory hog. I also upgraded to a Solid State Drive (SSD) instead of the traditional Hard Disk Drive (HDD) in order to eliminate a moving part in the computer.

Laptop technology has advanced significantly since my last upgrade about 6 to 7 years ago. The newer units are far more compact (smaller in overall size for the same screen size), significantly thinner, and much lighter. This is in spite of the fact that the new machines are much more capable than the older ones. The core chipset technology has advanced significantly.

The effort involved in bringing up the new machine to a configuration of familiarity to me, so that I could do all the stuff that I used to do on the old machine, was what disrupted my past week completely. This process should not have taken a lot of time. But one of the key apps on the old machine that I use for image processing would not install on the new one. I spent a few days trying to get past this issue, even spending a significant amount of time with representatives of the company that made the app – on the phone and on my computer – trying to figure out what was going on. I even gave the company reps temporary access to my computer for hours on end. (I was very nervous for the duration of the remote sessions when they were running.) In the end, they were unsuccessful in figuring out what was going on. And, in the end, they also dropped the ball on solving the problem. They had promised a call back from their experts within 24 hours. A few days have passed since then…. But, fortunately, I had also been trying to troubleshoot the problem on my own, and finally found out the source of the issues I was having. It was due to the existence of a use case that they were not likely to see too often – one that they were not familiar with. But shame of them for not following up! If they had stayed on the case, the information that I have found could have been helpful to them in the future. Too bad that they gave up!

Changing gear……
Changing topics…..

We went out to pick fruits at a farm last weekend. It was my first such experience. It was a fun couple of hours. The fruits available on this farm for picking at this time of year were nectarines, peaches, and blackberries. It turned out to be a very pleasant day to be outside. It was good exercise to walk across the fields to the locations of the best pickings. I was quite surprised by how engaging the process of trying to find good fruit to pick actually turned out to be. One becomes adept at making out the level of ripeness of the hanging fruit. And, of course, you are sampling some of the fruit you have just picked as you go along. There we a lot of families out there having fun. In the end we ended up picking more fruit than we really needed.

The farm had other activities to keep the families engaged, including places to pet the animals, and a flower garden where people could cut flowers for themselves.

It was a good day!

We were also able to go to the canal for our Sunday walk last weekend. It was good to be out again after a short break. We went to a familiar section of the trail – between Sycamore Landing and Rileys Lock. The parking lot was unusually full because of the people who had come to see the garden of sunflowers next to the lot.There are very few flowers along the trail itself at this point in the season in this section of the towpath. There were the dying Wild Sweet William that I had seen in full bloom while biking a couple of weeks back. The underbrush is also very thick at this time, with the various tall grasses and shrubs pushing up against you from the sides in the sections of the trail that have not been cleared out yet. It is green everywhere.I did see some leftover Bee Balm, Coneflower and Touch-Me-Nots. There seemed to be fewer than usual birds around. We noticed the occasional cardinal. The woodpeckers were scarce.

There was the one Zebra Swallowtail that we saw feeding. It did not seem to notice us.

Fortunately, there were very few gnats, probably because it was a unusually cool and cloudy morning.

It is possible that the reader will get the impression that the experience of the towpath must have been diminished because of what I have written above. Banish the thought! That certainly was not the case. There is nothing like being out in the quiet of the woods to rebuild one’s spirits – in order to carry you through the rest of the week. Thus it was last weekend!

Quantum Computers, Explained With Quantum Physics : Quanta Magazine

I am not sure I will ever understand the concepts of Quantum Computing completely, but I still a kick when I get a feeling that I have gotten a somewhat intuitive sense for what is going on. For me to get beyond this state of understanding, I have to put in a far greater level of effort than I am capable of doing at this time. For now, this will suffice.

Roku vs. YouTube TV: Untangling the latest cord-cutting carriage dispute: TechHive

Those of you who stream video content to your television sets using Roku units might have recently received e-mails from Roku with regards to the above topic. From reading the e-mails, you would get the impression that Google (which owns YouTube TV) has somehow turned the screws on Roku, using its massive size and resources as an organization as leverage to advance their goals. The truth appears to be more subtle than this. This whole affair is about doing whatever it takes to try to gain the upper hand in making the business deal. It is a high-stakes game of chicken, and you do not necessarily hear the complete truth. This is one look into what seems to be happening here.