Oct 252018
 

I just came across this picture of a newly built bicycle path in Hungary, complete with signs marking its beginning and end, as well as a stop sign instructing bicyclists coming off the path to yield to oncoming traffic:

I don’t think I can add any meaningful comments, other than perhaps that this bicycle path may yet find its way into the Guinness book of world records, albeit not necessarily for the right reasons.

 Posted by at 11:53 pm
Aug 212018
 

I often advise my clients that although automation is great, it must be accompanied by well-tested fallback procedures and training, to ensure that they can continue operations even when systems fail. This is especially important in the case of life-critical applications or, for that matter, in applications related to major centers transportation and infrastructure centers.

Today, there was a perfect example that took place at Gatwick Airport in London. Due to a problem with an underground cable, their flight information system failed. That meant no more functioning displays showing departure times and gate numbers. Yet the airport was able to continue operations with no cancellations or delays, and with very few passengers missing connecting flights.

How? Why, they used whiteboards.

Yes. Whiteboards, maintained by officials carrying walkie-talkies.

Now here is the thing. Although the scenes were described as “chaotic” by some, reality was the exact opposite. To quote a spokesperson: “The airport’s manual contingency plan – which included displaying information manually in the terminals and having extra staff on hand to help direct passengers – worked well and tens of thousands of passengers departed on time and no flights were cancelled.”

This is exactly what “business continuity” means. I hope that the person at Gatwick who insisted that such plans must be in place and ensured that not just whiteboards, walkie-talkies and markers but also adequately trained personnel were available when needed, will get not just a commendation but a nice raise.

 Posted by at 6:57 pm
Apr 142018
 

Yesterday, we said goodbye to our old car, a very nice Honda Accord that served us faithfully for four years.

The lease expired, so we opted to lease a new one. Another Honda Accord. (Incidentally, 2018 marks the 30th year that I’ve been purchasing Hondas, from this very same dealership.)

The old car was nice. The new car… Well, it’s amazing what even four years can mean these days when it comes to vehicle automation.

The level of automation in this vehicle is amazing. It can start itself, it can steer itself. It has full situational awareness, with radar all around. Apparently, it even monitors the driver for alertness (I’ll have to read up on exactly how it accomplishes that.) During the short drive home, it once applied the brakes when its adaptive cruise control was on and someone moved into the lane ahead of us. It was braking a little harder than I’d have preferred, though. And at one point, as the lane markings were a little ambiguous, it gently resisted my attempt to depart from what it thought was the correct lane.

In principle, it appears, this car has all the components for it to be fully autonomous, except that perhaps its array of sensors is not sufficient for it to be fully safe. But really, the only thing missing is the software. And even the way it is, it is beginning to feel more like a partner in driving than a dumb machine; a partner that also has a well-developed instinct for self-preservation.

Welcome to the future, I guess.

 Posted by at 9:54 pm
Oct 252017
 

One of the blessings of working at home is that I rarely drive. For which I am grateful.

Today, I did drive, because I had to meet someone. And I ended up in an unexpected traffic jam due to a lane closure.

It appears that they were doing emergency (?) traffic light repair at the intersection of Vanier Parkway/Riverside Road and the eastbound Queensway off-ramp here in Ottawa. What is incomprehensible is why they had to close a lane of Vanier parkway on the bridge, long before the intersection, and before the on-ramp lane splits, thus causing a close to half-mile long traffic back-up.

[Sorry, no audio. I was swearing too profusely.]

PS: Yes, I know. First world problems.

 Posted by at 4:47 pm
Nov 202016
 

Okay, this is hands down the winner as the absolute “I’ll effing be” moment for me today, if not this week (and that’s saying something, with all the shenanigans going on with Trump and his cabinet picks): An electric steam locomotive that I just came across.

Say what?

Yes, an electric steam locomotive. That would be a steam engine, boiler and all, with a pantograph connecting it to an overhead line.

A lunatic scheme, to be sure, but apparently it made sense in 1940s Switzerland. They had steam locomotives aplenty. What they didn’t have was fuel for these locomotives. But they had plenty of cheap hydroelectricity. So even with the incredibly inefficient conversion of electric power into heat into steam pressure into mechanical motion, it still made sense.

Still… these perverted things just look absolutely demented.

 Posted by at 3:20 pm
Nov 052016
 

I am just back from a brief road trip to the Big Apple, aka. New York City.

I had three reasons to go there. First, I was invited to a Quora Top Writers meeting. Second, I have recently built a new backup server, to replace the one that has served me faithfully for many years, hosted by my good friend David who lives there. And third, I haven’t been to NYC in ages… and I am quite fond of that city.

I drove. The drive was pleasant and uneventful. The weather could not have been nicer. November indeed… it almost felt like summer! I was wearing a shirt the entire time.

Once the new server was installed (which went without a hitch), David and I visited a fantastic little place in Brooklyn: the Subway Museum. An out-of-service subway station has been converted into this museum, which allows them to host renovated subway cars that remain powered, complete with original lighting fixtures. You can walk through them, even sit down in them, and contemplate what it must have been like to ride the subway in Manhattan while the Great War was raging in distant Europe.

We also visited the new World Trade Center.

Although we didn’t have time to go up to the Observatory level, we did visit the 9/11 memorial. That sad day, which David and I both vividly remember (for instance, we were on the phone when I warned him as the second tower began to topple, which was visible on CNN, so he rushed to his office window in time to see with his own eyes as that tower, too, vanished in a billowing cloud of smoke), left an indelible mark on this great city.

I didn’t take any pictures at the Quora meeting. There were several attendees with professional photo gear… I am sure that the pictures they took will surface somewhere eventually. But I did meet some amazing people and had some very interesting conversations. A great evening, even though my voice is still hoarse from all the shouting (the restaurant had very bad acoustics.)

One of my guilty pleasures is watching dash cam videos on YouTube. On my way home, I was given the opportunity to produce a dash cam video of my own, as I witnessed a near miss right in front of me:

I was using my mobile phone as a dash cam throughout the trip. Not because I was hoping to catch an accident, but I thought it might be a good idea just in case, and perhaps it might even help me record some memorable sights.

 Posted by at 12:58 am
Oct 302016
 

It is almost the end of October, and I only added one blog entry so far this month. One reason is that we had a minor health scare: when my wife traveled to Hungary last month, she landed in a hospital on arrival, as she had an unexplained seizure during her flight.

She is doing well, thankfully. She returned home safely, with no lasting effects. There will still be a few more tests to be sure, but the scare is largely over.

This unfortunate incident, however, allowed us to experience first-hand the state of the health care system in Hungary, about which we read so much in recent years. Yes, as it is well known, the system is badly underfunded: salaries are miserably low, and sometimes, even basic supplies are lacking.

But we cannot utter a bad word about the health care professionals that my wife encountered. They were impeccably professional and helpful, going out of their way to assist us, even beyond the call of duty. When my wife’s cell phone was acting up, one nurse volunteered to help fix it with my assistance. When I explained to a doctor that I cannot visit her in person because I happen to be a continent away, he handed the phone to my wife, allowing us to have a conversation (finally!) using a hospital line for a few minutes. They helped with insurance matters, too, and they issued a very thorough discharge report, complete with a CD-ROM containing the results of a CT scan.

All in all, we have nothing but praise for these overworked and underpaid health care workers, some minor mishaps notwithstanding. They were kind, they were helpful, and every one of them that I spoke with was ready to assist, forthcoming, and flawlessly polite. Thank you for your kind care. Köszönjük szépen.

 Posted by at 10:15 am
Sep 142016
 

Tonight, the two most important women in my life are both in the stratosphere.

My wife is en route to Hungary, to visit her Mom. At this moment, she is about halfway across the North Atlantic Ocean.

Meanwhile, my Mom is about to land in Beijing, on a memorable adventure I hope: a one-week trip to China with a friend.

And I am stuck here with three cats, fending for ourselves in the Ottawa wilderness. I would say that life is not fair, but I actually enjoy staying at home for a change. I like my home, and travel is such a chore.

 Posted by at 11:40 pm
Jun 082016
 

Whoops.

Here is what happened in downtown Ottawa, just a 15-minute walk from my home:

rideau-street-ottawa-sinkhole-june-8-2016

That’s one big hole. I hope it doesn’t start swallowing nearby buildings.

And yes, I feel very fortunate today that I do not need to commute to work.

And it has happened before, in 1924:

rideau-1924-sinkhole

 Posted by at 2:56 pm
May 202016
 

CNN reports that ACARS messages received from MS804 in the minutes before its disappearance indicate a fire on board.

I was able to find online a copy of the screenshot discussed by CNN:

CNN’s talking heads are still discussing the terrorism theory, but in light of these data, it looks increasingly unlikely. It is very difficult to imagine a terrorism scenario that begins with one of the cockpit windows.

 Posted by at 8:25 pm
Apr 072016
 

News item from Google news: Ottawa taxi drivers plan to blockade city bus depots.

Oh really? You jackasses really believe that this is the way to gain support at Ottawa city hall?

OK, they now claim that it’s just a rumor. I am not convinced.

I hope your industry dies, like, yesterday.

Not long ago, I was committed to using regular taxis (on the rare occasions I needed one) and not rely on untested, unproven, new services like Uber.

It was the taxi industry and their thuggish reaction to Uber’s disruptive technology that convinced me otherwise.

Thugs have no place on our city’s streets. Not even when they are masquerading as licensed taxi drivers.

Perhaps if, instead of acting like a criminal gang, you had focused on making your cars cleaner, your service more reliable, your drivers better dressed and better behaved, most of us would still remain committed to your service.

 Posted by at 1:57 am
Oct 212015
 

Oops! The DeLorean time machine has been recalled by Transport Canada.

The recall has since been canceled though. Apparently, Doc Brown was good on his word.

Or could it be that upper management at Transport Canada (or whichever department was responsible for this recall notice) decided that a sense of humor is incompatible with the Department’s mission?

 Posted by at 7:18 pm
Sep 082015
 

I used to be sympathetic to the woes of taxi drivers in face of the semi-legal competition represented by Uber, and ambivalent about Uber’s ambitions.

This is no longer the case.

If taxi drivers really think that it is kosher to protest (not even about Uber this time, but about an airport pickup fee) by blocking the road to Ottawa airport…

I guess, it’s your way, dear taxi drivers, of telling us, citizens of Ottawa, to get screwed. Well… screw you, too. The sooner Uber kills your obsolete business model with scarce overpriced licenses, old and smelly taxis, taxi drivers with limited English or French and limited knowledge of the city who nonetheless yak or text on the phone while driving, the better. Good riddance. You just lost all my sympathy, and I guess I am not alone. From now on, it’s Uber for me.

 Posted by at 5:14 pm
Sep 012015
 

CTV Morning had a poll today: will higher fines deter you from texting and driving?

I answered no, without hesitation.

You see, I don’t need higher fines to deter me from texting and driving. I may be stupid at times, but I am not suicidal.

 Posted by at 9:17 am
Aug 082015
 

This iconic photograph was snapped 60 years ago today from the window of a Boeing 707 prototype.

In case it’s unclear, that airplane is flying upside down. And no, it is not about to crash. It was just in the middle of an aerobatic maneuver called a “barrel roll”.

It was, at least for its test pilot, Alvin “Tex” Johnston, a perfectly normal demonstration of what his new airplane is capable of doing. His company’s CEO, Bill Allen, rather disagreed, but the 707 went on to become a great commercial success and the famous Seattle barrel roll became a matter of legend. I first heard about this barrel roll incident more than 30 years ago from my long gone friend Ferenc Szatmári, physicist, private pilot and storyteller extraordinaire.

Reportedly, Allen never really got over this incident; decades later, when he received a framed copy of the photograph above at his retirement banquet, the memento was accidentally left behind. Then again, if someone gave me a minor heart attack like that (after all, for Allen, the future of his entire company was at stake), I, too, may be inclined to hold a grudge.

 Posted by at 10:35 am
May 142015
 

I have been neglecting my blog in the past two weeks, but I had a good reason: I was traveling again.

I was once again in Dubai, where I spent some time on the 14th floor of an office building. From that building, I noticed another, very strange edifice with barely a window on its first few floors, and some absolutely giant fans on its roof. I was wondering what it was: a telephone exchange? A data center? No… a central air conditioning plant for a city block. Wow.

Later that evening, we walked to a restaurant in downtown Dubai, and I had a chance to stare at one of the city’s newest attractions (I don’t know how long it has been around, I only just noticed it now), a red streetcar. Lovely.

I only spent a day in Dubai before heading off to Abu Dhabi in a rental car. Rather than purchasing a new GPS (or an expensive map for my old Garmin) I decided to rely on Google Maps on my phone. Not that I really needed to; once I found my way out of Dubai, I was quite familiar with the route and the location of my Abu Dhabi hotel. Indeed, I found the hotel without difficulty, and early next morning, I found myself staring at a surprisingly faint desert sunrise, the Sun obscured by sand and fog:

I spent four days in Abu Dhabi, working hard. Having my own transportation really made things easier, not just to commute back and forth between my hotel and my client’s office, but also to do mundane things like going to a supermarket for some fresh fruit or a bottle of Coke purchased at a tiny fraction of the hotel price.

Four days fly by like nothing, and all too soon, I found myself on the highway again, heading back to Dubai. This time around, I used my phone not just for navigation but also as a dash cam:

This turned out to be a big mistake. Barely more than ten miles from my hotel, just as I was entering the thickest parts of the freeway spaghetti in Dubai, my phone went dark. I couldn’t for the life of me figure out why a phone’s battery gets depleted when the phone was plugged in just fine. (I solved the mystery today through some experimentation: the use of two applications, but especially the continuous HD video recording overheated the phone, and it stopped charging the battery as a precaution.) Anyhow, I was left to my own devices, so it was with no small amount of pride when, maybe 20 minutes later, I got out of the rental car in front of my hotel, having found the place from memory, driving through downtown Dubai like a native.

The same evening, I took the rental car back to the Dubai Mall, once again navigating flawlessly to the right parking lot, finding the rental agency’s kiosk, and completing the return of the vehicle exactly as planned, nailing the timing spot on for my next meeting.

The next evening, I once again went to the Dubai Mall, but this time on foot. The hotel is about a mile from the Mall. Normally, walking a mile is no big deal, but try doing it in 36°C weather! I felt very brave. Not only did I walk to the Mall, I also walked back from the Mall, after I did some shopping (some gifts and once again, some groceries). On the way back, I paused for a moment, looking at (and listening to) the cacophony of non-stop large scale construction right across the Mall:

I spent two more days in Dubai, again very busy. On Sunday, I checked out of my hotel, heading to that same 14th floor office again… and en route, I got wet. There was rain! Not a lot of rain to be sure but still, any rain is a delightful experience when you are in one of the driest places of the entire planet.

Finally, Sunday evening arrived and once again I was heading back to Dubai airport. Heading home.

Halfway through the flight, I looked out my window and saw a half moon over a deep blue sky. It was beautiful.

And then, after a grueling 14.5 hour nonstop flight, I was at Washington’s Dulles airport again, going through a surprisingly quick, efficient, and painless border and customs inspection (the concept of international transit does not exist at North American airports.) As I was walking towards my Ottawa departure gate, I encountered a delightful little facility:

Yes, a rest room for canines! As the door was open, I was even able to take a peek, although for some reason, my phone camera was badly out of focus:

Even in this blurry picture though, perhaps it is clear that the room contains a piece of a fence, some fake grass, and a plastic fire hydrant replica, offering maximum comfort for canine companions. It really gave me a good laugh!

And then, after a brief delay (our aircraft was late inbound), I was flying again. Less than 90 minutes later, I was at Ottawa airport, and soon in a taxi, heading home.

And I am still playing catch-up. So many little things pile up in two weeks!

 Posted by at 9:57 pm
Mar 282015
 

I was quite doubtful about the theory that Germanwings 9525 was brought down intentionally by its co-pilot. I was more inclined to bet on a health problem. Perhaps I could argue that in a sense, I was right: mental illness can be just as debilitating as any physical condition. And a person suffering from severe mental illness can be quite capable of doing unspeakable, irrational things, whether it is due to “voices”, an exaggerated sense of self, or whatever.

In response, airlines around the world are now instituting the “two person rule”, requiring two members of the crew to be present in the cockpit at all times. Like the reinforced cockpit door, I wonder if this recommendation is based on the best scientific analysis available, or if it is another example of knee-jerk “security theater”.

I am especially concerned because in response to a very low probability event (a pilot going berserk and locking the other pilot out), we introduce another possibility, the probability of which may in fact be higher: that a non-pilot member of the crew gains access to the cockpit with nefarious intent.

Arguably, this is replacing one black swan with another black swan but still… think of the reinforced cockpit door itself. It was supposed to prevent another 9/11-like scenario, however unlikely it is for one to occur again; instead, it introduced its own unique dangers, and now claimed 150 lives. Not only that, but I just found out that the door mechanism itself has been responsible for at least one unscheduled landing, when it began smoldering and the resulting smoke caused pilots to divert.

Wouldn’t it make more sense to listen to the professionals, say, at the American NTSB and ask for their informed analysis and opinion before introducing these regulations?

 Posted by at 11:44 am
Mar 262015
 

It’s all over the news this morning: the young, inexperienced copilot (or maybe not that inexperienced: he was recognized by the FAA in September 2013) was in the cockpit, the pilot was locked out, and the copilot deliberately set up the plane for descent with the intent to commit mass murder-suicide.

However, I have lingering doubts. Specifically, I think it’s too early to discard concerns about the copilot’s health.

We learned that in the first 20 minutes, the conversation between the two pilots was cheerful, but during the last 10 minutes, as they reviewed the landing checklist, the copilot’s responses were “laconic”.

Could it not be that the copilot was experiencing a severe health problem, for instance, a stroke?

Nah, how could that be, he was only 28!

Except that I personally knew a 28-year old young man, an engineer in seemingly perfect health, no destructive habits, nice, intelligent, soft spoken, gentle: only to be found dead in his bedroom one day, after he suffered a fatal brain aneurysm.

Confusion caused by the onset of a stroke or aneurysm may also explain why the copilot may have entered incorrect information into the plane’s autopilot. It may also explain why he never said a word.

One thing it does not explain is why the pilot was unable to enter the cockpit using an emergency code. It is not clear to me what procedures were available to the pilot at this point, but if the copilot had to actively prevent the pilot from entering the cockpit, then obviously the suicide theory must prevail.

Regardless of the outcome, I also consider these 150 (or 149) innocent lives victims of post-9/11 hysteria. In our fear over the possibility that hijackers with the ability to pilot a plane might enter the cockpit, we made sure that it is impossible to enter to cockpit in a legitimate emergency… something that is far more likely to happen than another 9/11-style hijacking. Sadly, I fear that this is not the last time that people get killed as a consequence of our thoughtless, knee-jerk response to terrorism that is based on ignorance, not facts and scientific analysis.

 Posted by at 10:20 am
Mar 242015
 

Why would a perfectly good airplane, flying along its designated route in broad daylight over Europe, suddenly decide to descend in an orderly fashion until it flew into the French Alps?

Maybe we will find out when the black boxes are analyzed. (One reportedly has been found already.) Given the controlled nature of the descent and the fact that the aircraft never deviated from its planned route, I fear that it will turn out to be something blatantly stupid and trivial, such as the autopilot’s altitude hold being accidentally disengaged, or the wrong value entered.

 Posted by at 2:12 pm
Mar 052015
 

I am still digesting the news, which I received while in Hungary, that Leonard Nimoy, aka. Mr. Spock, is no longer with us.

And now there is breaking news that Harrison Ford, aka. Han Solo, aka. Indiana Jones, crashed while flying solo in a vintage WW2 aircraft in California. The good news: according to the LA Fire Department, his injuries were moderate and he was alert as he was transported to hospital.

I wish him a speedy recovery.

 Posted by at 7:18 pm