Chances Are

It was Wednesday morning and I was driving along one of the back roads in order to avoid the rush hour traffic on the highway.  All of a sudden I sighted some movement out of the corner of my right eye.  There, ahead of me, was a deer that was rushing towards the road.  I stepped on the brakes, but quickly realized that chances of avoiding the animal were small.  As the car slowed down, and as I braced myself for impact, the deer jumped across the road and crashed into the windshield.  Amazingly the glass did not break.  The deer was thrown forward on to the road in front of me.  As I stopped the car, and cars began to line up behind me, it thrashed around on the road in a panic, as if its limbs were broken.  I feared the worst, but much to my amazement the deer eventually got up and ran back up the hill from which it had come to stop and stare at me.  I paused for another moment and then drove on.  Nothing happened to the car.

Our area is full of deer and crashes between vehicles and these animals happen often, but this was a first for me.  I always thought that this kind of an  experience would be unavoidable if I lived in the area long enough, and now it has happened.  If one believed in the fates, it is possible that you would conclude that now that you have had this one crash, the chances of having another one is reduced.  But the laws of probability in this case would lead you to conclude otherwise.  Each crash event is independent.  So nothing has changed as far as the chances of my hitting a deer in the future – not unless I do something radical to change the circumstances, like for example, moving to a place where there are less deer.  We all live with the probabilities of different kinds of disastrous events happening to us in whatever environment we happen to live in.  Such is life.  One does probably try to avoid thinking about the fact that the probability of dying is unity!

A few weeks earlier, while driving on the high speed lane of the beltway and slowing down for stopped traffic in front of me, my car was hit from behind by a Jeep Wrangler driven by a 19 year old with a provisional license.  The girl had been tailgating us and we had been observing her driving apprehensively through the rear view mirror.  Luckily I was able to anticipate what was about to happen and adjust my braking accordingly, while at the same time the young girl reacted as needed and managed to slow down before it was too late, so that the effect of the impact was minimized. Nothing disastrous happened and the girl got off with a talking-to. Events like this happen not infrequently where we live and we live with the probabilities.

A few days ago, while running down one of the trails in the local park, I happened to plant my foot awkwardly and twist it.  Most of the time, when something like this happens, I just get back in step, and I feel no ill-effect in my ankle because the muscles are quite strong from all the running I do.  This time was different.  My momentum took me downhill and off the trail and I crashed into some plants and underbrush beside the trail while trying to keep my balance. I managed to stop without falling. I was shaken up for a few seconds but my ankle was fine.  I got back on to the trail and went my merry way, in a little bit of a shock.  This could have been a disastrous episode.  Now, this was not simply a case of the laws of probability catching up.  I need to be more careful!

Is it all about luck, or is it the human element  that plays the most significant role in what happens to you?  I do not think I am superstitious, but think I will stay on my toes and try to be more careful about things.  And, NO, I do not have a death wish!

Up to Milepost 145

It has been a long haul, and the pace has slowed down quite a bit in recent years.  It has been my goal to cover the 184.5 miles of the C&O canal on foot at little bit at a time.  Living in an area that is closer to the Mile 0 marker in Washington, DC, it has been easy for me to cover the areas closer to home. The sections of the trail closer to Cumberland have been difficult to reach.  In addition to being far away from home, these sections of the trail also happen to pass through the boondocks.  Very few people live in these parts and the access points to the trail are more and more difficult to get to because you have to drive long distances on the narrow winding rural roads after getting off the highway to reach your destination.  It takes me a lot time just to get to the start of my walk. In May of 2014 I extended my coverage to mile marker 139.

Last Thursday I decided to extend my coverage of the trail by another six miles.  I drove up to Little Orleans on a dreary wet day to do the hike.  Little Orleans must have been a bigger town when the Western Maryland Railroad ran through it.  Lumber used to be the main product in these parts those days. Very few buildings remain in this area.  Bill’s Place is well known as a stop for food and drink for long-distance bikers riding the trails between Washington DC and Pittsburgh.  It is perhaps the only place of note left in town.  Bill was a well known character and ran the place from the 1970s (when the railroad was still running) until his death in 2013.  It still operates under different ownership.  I hesitated to enter the establishment by myself since I had heard that the local crowd in there could be quite rough. I will come back when I am with a bigger group.


The parking lot for the trail at Little Orleans is close to the location of the Fifteen Mile Creek aqueduct.  The Potomac river looked quite peaceful from the boat ramp area.


The aqueduct looked like it is in decent shape.


The flowers of spring were mostly gone, but there was still a lot of honeysuckle beside the trail.


The place was so remote that the animals did not seem to mind your presence.  The deer just stood on the trail as I ran towards it, and the rabbit continued to chew on the wet grass even as I got close to it.


I went past a couple of locks, including lock 57 which still had the remains of its lock house next to it.


I also ran past an abandoned railroad bridge where the Western Maryland Railroad used to cross into West Virginia.  When laying the tracks in this section, the railroad company had decided to avoid the bends of the river and take a straighter route using multiple river crossings.


The feeling of the wet woods was awesome, with the drip of water from the light drizzle creating a soothing background sound. The canal did seem to have a different feel to it in this section than I am used to.  Don’t know yet when I will get a chance to extend my coverage by another six miles.  Hopefully it will not take another year.


A Farewell To The King (7/18/2014)

I just heard that BB King passed away last night.  I happened to go for his concert in Washington, DC, in July, 2014.  This is what I wrote at that time…


It was March 2014 when I first heard that the king was coming into town.  Having been a fervent admirer of his works for a very long time, but not having seen him in person, I thought that I should make the effort to meet him at least this one time.  Here was a man who had given so many years of his life to the cause, and it was time to pay homage.

On July 17th, 2014, on an unusually cool summer evening, my friend and I boarded a Metro train at Shady Grove station to head out to the capital city of Washington DC to see the king.  I was looking forward to this, and in a moment of irrational optimism, I even picked up a pen from the kitchen counter before I left home – in the hope that I could get an autograph on the ticket that I had printed at home.  But, at the same time, I also had this nagging concern at the back of my mind about the well-being of the king.  After all he was 88 years old, and he was suffering from diabetes.  He had looked his age in recent times, and when he addressed his subjects recently, it was always from from a lonely chair on which he sat with his friend Lucille.  But, in spite of his age, the king had always brought a smile to my face.

That evening in Washington DC was a somewhat sad one.  I was probably witnessing history in some way.  It was not the B. B. King, the King of the Blues, the guitar god, that I had known, who was on stage.  It was not the performance that I had been expecting.  It was as if I was witnessing a passing, and it might  have been the opportunity for B. B. King admirers in the DC area to pay their respects to the great man for the last time before he set sail into the sunset.

One might have suspected that all was not right when the program started with a long set by the warm-up band, and an extended intermission that lasted more than half an hour.  Then the B. B. King Band came on and played a piece all by itself for about 10 minutes.  B.B. King only appeared on the stage after all that was over.  When the King shuffled on to the stage (with some difficulty and with the help of some other folks) the audience rose from their seats and applauded wildly in honor of the Man.  There was a sense of anticipation in the air.  But one began to suspect that things were not right during the first song that was played after he sat down.  It was essentially an introduction to the members of the band. BB talked most of the time.  Lucille, his guitar, sat on his lap with the strings untouched for the most part.  In fact there was another lead guitarist featured in the band who was picking up the slack for BB.  BB rambled along, talking to the audience in the front row most of the time.  He appeared to be very distracted.  The one or two occasions on which he actually played his guitar, it did not sound quite right, and perhaps BB also realized this and even stopped trying.  The rest of the band played on respectfully, as well as they could.  They were superb.

I think there were only four songs that BB “performed” during his set.  One of the songs was a simple sing-along that he did with the audience.  The song was “You are my Sunshine“.  His mind seemed to wander during the song and I had some difficulty making out what he was saying.  He did acknowledge that at his age he was just happy to be where he was at.  He said he was enjoying his time with the audience.  But too often he would wander off, again and again, and even try to start more conversations with people in the audience.  He was slowly losing the rest of his audience as the performance went on.

But there were also those occasional spots of brilliance during the show. BB would summon all his focus and energies to deliver the chorus lines for The Thrill is Gone or Rock me Baby.  As his voice rose with confidence, the superb horn section and the piano would also rise to meet the challenge, and there was this wonderful crescendo of beautiful sound that arose from the stage.  He could certainly still hit the notes with power like the B.B. King of old.  There were moments in time during the concert during which all my senses were heightened in anticipation of what could come next.  But such instances where infrequent. And what could have been never happened that evening.  BB could not sustain his energy.

As the evening went on the audience must have slowly realized what was happening on stage.  Most people were content to let BB ramble along in his own way because of the respect they had for the Man.  But there were also some who were impatient.  BB must have realized what was going on, and I suspect that it was on a couple of these occasions that he actually made the effort to deliver a performance.  But people also started leaving before the end of the concert.

As the band went into its encore at the end of the set,  B. B. King was in his own world.  He would not cooperate as the handlers came on stage to try to get him off.  The encore went on and on as people crowded to the front to get a closer view of the Man and to take pictures.  My friend and I departed as this scene continued to play out on the stage.  It was getting late and it was time for us to take the Metro back to our quiet suburban lives.

During the evening I also heard the news that a commercial jet had just been shot out of the sky, and that Israel had started its ground offensive into the Gaza strip.   It was a very sad evening indeed.  The thrill is gone.

The Unending Battle to Protect Audio/Video Content in the Entertainment World

It is quite interesting, and even amusing, to see how the battle for content protection in the entertainment world continues even to this day. It was not too long ago that the entertainment industry, including the content providers, the content distributors (cable, satellite, etc..), and the manufacturers of content viewing devices, i.e., TVs, came up with the strategy of making analog video interfaces in the High Definition TV sets obsolete so that high quality video recordings could not be made on devices like VCRs.  Digital interfaces with content protection became the industry standard. The content owners managed to force the issue so that you could not be a player in the business without following particular rules for protecting their content. Content distributors had to toe the line with the content providers to be able to receive content, and the manufacturers of entertainment viewing devices depended in turn on the rules created by the content distributors in order to connect to their networks.

But eliminating analog interfaces in itself does not prevent the ability for the customer to make recordings. The digital format is perfect for recording!  The key difference from the world of the analog video interfaces was that the Industry recognized that this time they were still in a position to create rules for making digital recordings, something that they were not successful in forcing on consumers during the time of the VCRs.  Strategies were being devised to try to limit and eventually try to disallow consumer video recordings via digital interfaces.   The initial strategy taken was to try to manage the process for making digital copies of content in the home, either managing the nature of the copying process allowed, or limiting the number of copies allowed, or disallowing it completely.  This was enabled through rules that a manufacturer would have to agree to to be licensed to receive certain types of content.     It has now gotten to the point where a consumer finds it difficult to even make a decent quality copy of the content for his or her use, or for archiving, when receiving content on a television set.

You would think that the gradual tightening of the screws by the content providers would make piracy more difficult, but the truth is that it is only changing the nature of the process.   While the industry comes up with technical approaches to try to make pirating more difficult, the only way that they can really try to stop the piracy is through non-technical means – by licensing agreements, by monitoring, by regulations, and by legal action.  But can they even keep up with the technology and continue to be successful trying to manage it?

One of the fundamental issues with preventing piracy of audio/video content is due the very nature of the product itself. Video is meant to be viewed on a device and all you have to do is point a recording device at the viewing device, and voila!, you have the ability to record what you are receiving. Once you have this content, the world of the Internet allows you to share this content to others, and applications such as Youtube further enable the process by making this functionality easy to implement. It used to be that the analog copies that were made by pointing a camera at a screen were not very good, but that technology is also improving. Furthermore, the definition of the viewing device is also changing. Entertainment can now be consumed in devices other than TV sets, devices such as PCs, and smartphones, and the quality of the viewing experience on these devices is constantly improving. Since these other devices are primarily meant for non-entertainment purposes, the ability of the entertainment industry to force the issue of implementing content protection measures in these devices becomes more challenging.

I heard recently that there now are some Internet vendors who have implemented applications that are actually enabling the live streaming of video from one consumer location to others. As a practical matter this enables piracy to take place very easily, for example, high value Pay Per View (PPV) content being received by one paying subscriber can be streamed to a bunch of non-paying consumers. This kind of capability parallels what Youtube did for recorded video content. The content providers have a hard time shutting down these types of operations because it could be argued that the primary functionality that these companies are offering is not related to commercial content and piracy. They are primarily enabling sharing of content in general. Shutting this kind of service would be equivalent to creating an industry ban, or regulations, on camcorders on which families make recordings of family events because these devices can also be used for piracy. What the content owners are limited to doing is trying to influence the operations of companies that provide the services in question or the devices used to generate the content. As an example, in the case of Youtube, mechanisms have been instituted to try to identify pirated content within the network itself.   The content owners could even try to force the camcorder or camera manufacturers to include features their products that would automatically prevent recording of protected content. (It is actually technically possible using a technology called watermarking.)

But, it could be argued that all of these efforts are for a losing cause. With the development of cloud technology, including network storage and sharing capability via applications such as Dropbox and Google Drive, content sharing becomes more decentralized and difficult to track.   It is not just Youtube that the content providers need to focus on and deal with. Until network snooping and monitoring protocols are implemented and made legal for commercial purposes, it will become close to impossible to monitor piracy in such a scenario. It can also be an expensive proposition to implement this kind of functionality.  And with an abundance of bandwidth available to for the consumer, and device capabilities improving in the home, such functionality will also become more and more practical to implement.   To the extent that attempts at piracy are achieved through technologies that are becoming more and more common, that are legitimately meant for general purposes other than piracy, the content providers will be at a loss to prevent it from happening from a technical perspective. The only thing they can do is monitor content on the Internet, try to identify sources of pirated content, and shut down each of these sources (or put the fear of God into the common man, like the RIAA tried to do a few years back) by resorting to legal arguments and processes. While it might be technically possible for the content owners to do all of this, the democratization of the piracy capability can make this a very daunting challenge for the industry going forward. At some point they may actually have to depend on the goodwill of the average person, and it will be a fine line for them to walk between offering a product for a cost that the consumer is willing to pay vs. making a “pirate” out of the consumer, and the need to spend tons of money on enforcement. At the end of the day, it is a cost-benefit tradeoff, and analysis is based on the perceived value of the product that the industry is providing to the common man. Hard to imagine all this fuss is over entertainment, something that does not seem essential for our survival.



For some reason, as I get older, the logic of the human condition appears to me to be more and more absurd. It seems to me that we exist in a system of our own making that makes less and less sense. As might be expected, we tend to fall into the rhythm of an existence which is primarily defined by the environment around us. Such an existence is most often being followed by people around us, and so we are comfortable with it. In existing in this state some of what we do is based on habit, some of it is just following what others do, and some is based on what other people impress on us as being an essential element in our way of life and the way we are supposed to behave as humans. But, while all of this could give us some sense of direction and comfort, and also create an environment where each one can experience his or her own state of being, and a way of living, most of this framework is created completely by the hands of humans, by history, by the vision of a few folks, by technology, and in many cases, just by circumstances. It tends to create a situation where one can go with the flow and you do not have to make an effort to think.

Most people think they know “the truth” and apply that “truth” universally. It takes too much effort to get out of such a mindset. In most cases it is because we are completely immersed in their situation of today, accepting the culture and the social wisdom of the day in our experiences of the world without even thinking. But this has to be a false sense of being. While we might believe in some basic truths while living here in the US, the basic truths could actually look very different for a person living in another culture and in another country. Put another way, we live in the circumstances that we are placed in today and accept it as a “fundamental” truth, not even stopping to think that our fundamental truth is actually different from some other person’s fundamental truth, and not even stopping to consider whether a fundamental truth is really that fundamental.   We get trapped in the ego of our own experiences and think that we know everything, and we strongly believe that we are in the right. Propaganda works very well under such circumstances because we are unable to recognize a different kind of reality.

Then there is the concept of the society, an attempt for people to live together as little pieces of a larger social organism. As it becomes bigger, the organism becomes more complex. This complexity is partly possible because of technology, one of the products of “human intelligence”. But, as was mentioned to me recently by somebody wise, technology perhaps has the ability to be helpful, but does not provide the solutions to the problems of the world unless used properly. It is true that more and more humans are able to live together and become more “efficient” and “capable” because of the tools that technology provides, but at what cost.   We always find more ways to compete and be destructive using any new technology. We almost always find ways to exploit the systems in place for ourselves. Inequalities always seem to increase, and people are still hungry and lack in basic needs.  This effect is multiplied many times as you expand your vision from the limits of your own small community to the expanse of the whole world. In spite of belonging to a social organism, with many connections, people seem to be primarily on the lookout for themselves, while at the same time our ability to contemplate the bigger picture of the world we live in seems to fade further and further away and even become non-existent. We are on a course of positive feedback that seems to create more real problems even as it tries to address issues and advance humanity. This process will eventually result in destruction, even if the uncontrollable forces of the universe do not get us to that point first. We are stuck on a road to some unknown place.

I am not convinced that what we humans are about on this earth is actually a good thing. We are managing to increase our footprint on the planet in many ways, but there is no real objective for the whole exercise.  Should the extension of knowledge and the use of technology always have an objective of trying to extend what we are able to do, and also trying to control more and more of our surroundings? We can tend to be blatantly destructive in many of our actions even when we think we are doing what is right for the big picture, and we can also blind ourselves to certain aspects of this big picture. What is our ultimate goal? Are we trying to leave the world a better place than when we arrived? Are we trying to better the lives of people of the world? Are we trying to better the lives of people just around us? Or are we only thinking about ourselves?

Under the circumstances it seems that the best most of us can do is to just try to make the best of the situation we find ourselves in and follow the crowd for the most part. That is understandable. But it would be a shame if we do not also think for ourselves and act accordingly. And it would be a mistake to think that we have all the answers for things other than our own, immediate, condition. And I think it would also be a mistake for us to think that we are not ourselves contributing to the problems of the world in our own way by following the crowd.

The Young Einstein

Sometimes it is not a good thing if you are referred to by the above name.

The year was 1985. I was a young lad who had just completed his graduate studies. I had survived for five years living as a graduate student assistant on a pittance, and was now being let loose with a PhD into the real world. I had no clue what I was in for, but I went with the flow.   I owned almost nothing at that point in my life.

Arriving at my new digs in in a new state I pondered the empty apartment and my new existence. I needed to buy stuff! I was also in need of an automobile to drive to work. Looking at the car pages in the newspapers I got it into my head that I needed to get myself a certain type of car. The research I did in this regard was minimal. These were the days before the Internet. It was all based on instinct. The car had to have a manual gear shifting capability because that was the “real” way to drive cars. Those were the days.

I needed to wait a few months before I had enough money to put down for a down payment for a car. While looking around, I ended up at a dealership in the upper part of the state. The black Cordia in the dealership’s showroom seemed to be a good deal, a good balance between sportiness and price. Then it was time to talk to one of the salesman about buying the car. Boy, was I clueless!

Salesmen at car dealerships make their money on commissions. The objective is to sell as many cars as possible for as high a price as possible. The first guy I talked to was somewhat new to the job. When I started talking prices with him, it got to the point where he decided to go to his superior. I don’t know if this was because the numbers I was using were ridiculous, or whether he thought I was a tough customer. The guy who he handed me off to was a veteran.

I started bargaining with the guy without any idea about what I was getting myself into. I got completely confused by the fact that car dealerships actually advertised monthly cost for leasing a vehicle in the newspapers, whereas I was looking for a monthly cost for repayment of loans for purchasing the vehicle.  I had started off on the wrong foot. At some point we started talking about interest rates for loans. This gentleman (using the term loosely) showed me some numbers for the expected monthly payment based on different down payments and terms for the loan. Because of my deep sense of suspicion I convinced myself that these guys were pulling wool over my eyes and coming up with numbers to bamboozle me. After all, this conversation had digressed from the cost of the car, into one that involved many other parameters.

As I mentioned before, these were the days before the Internet. There was no website at which I could plug in the different numbers and come up with a monthly payment for a loan. I went back to my apartment and proceeded to write down the equations that one would use to calculate the monthly payment for a loan. I plugged in the inputs, used my calculator, and came up with the outputs.

I went back to the car dealership to show them that they were actually selling me the car for a higher price by focusing on the monthly payments and playing with numbers related to the loan itself. I showed them how the calculations worked. The guys looked flabbergasted! I am pretty sure none of them had the intellectual capacity to understand the math involved. The response I remember clearly was being called an “Einstein”.  I guess it is to their credit that they knew about Einstein, but they clearly did not mean this in a complementary way. They shuffled off to a back room to talk it over.

I did end up buying the car without feeling too bad about the price I was paying for it, and I enjoyed driving my black Cordia (with a stick shift!) for many years. But the circumstances of that transaction have not vanished from memory. I might have had a PhD at that time but I was totally clueless about the ways of the world. Anyone with any sense should have known that showing how I had arrived at my conclusions did not matter one whit. What really mattered was that you had the numbers to work with, and, more importantly, the ability to make a convincing argument. I had little ability to negotiate, and perhaps I could have made my point without being a young Einstein.

Many years have passed and my hair has now turned to grey.   This memory reminds me of how green I was those days.