Airbus A330, Health Insurance, And A Bird’s Nest

This entry was posted by Wednesday, 3 June, 2009
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by me

Biology: BIRD’S NEST

Sue and I watched a robin build a nest outside our window, lay her eggs, and nurture them. After the nest was abandoned, we carefully removed it.

I expected a bunch of haphazard twigs. But this was designed by smart little flappers. I betcha at least one of them had an engineering degree.

It was almost perfectly round. And the sides were a composite construction that’s firm, light and insulated. The materials were, no doubt, scrounged from the area around the nest. Birds are improvisors. Your pet’s hair is likely to wind up in a nest along with a touch of spider web for its sticky strength.

Nature is spectacular. Even in simple things.


Engineering Design: AIR FRANCE FLIGHT 447

Air France’s Airbus A330 disappeared over the Atlantic Ocean on its way to Paris this week. This is a reminder that we don’t really “conquer nature” but live hopefully around its edges. If an engineer designs for a 10 year storm, a 100 year storm can still show up. No matter how great the design, there’s always SOME possibility of a meteor, a rogue wave, an earthquake, a hurricane, or a tsunami. Flight 447 may have run into winds that were simply outside of its design parameters. One theory has it that lightening disabled the weather radar (which can’t be fully protected) just as the airplane was approaching monumental weather systems. Complicated by known problems with its air speed instrumentation, and without radar, it may have been blind to the thunderheads ahead of it. This may have been a “rogue wave” of the sky.

As of this writing, the black boxes have not been found and the investigation is continuing. But some critical data was received from an “automatic system” which provided important clues as to what may have happened.

An automatic system that can send data back?

According to Wikipedia, a system called ACARS was introduced by the airline industry in 1978 which sends a limited amount of telemetric data back automatically.

The idea of blackboxes seems SO clumsy and old fashioned. Couldn’t this ACARS system be expanded so that all the flight data currently collected in black boxes would be transmitted to a collection point? Why search deep oceans and snow covered mountains for lost black boxes after an air disaster, when a continuously streamed high speed data link could be fed back for later analysis? The Airline Pilots Association may view such a thing as a threat to its membership because some of this data could be used in disputes involving a pilot.

I won’t rant. I won’t rant. I won’t rant. (But maybe you would like to comment?)

Writing about science is writing about people. And caring about people. Science Ain’t So Bad offers its very sincere condolences to those who were affected by this horrible accident. Each case – each family, each close friend – is a tragedy unto itself.


There’s a “breakthough” in cancer every time you breathe. The air is crackling.

There’s so much this month that I won’t even try to summarize here but will save it for a separate post (or two or three). But think about this. What happens if, after all these years of seemingly inching along, we really do the thing – SLAY the terrible beast of cancer?

Could happen.

I don’t blame you if you’re skeptical. But in the next 5 to 10 years, I hope to write a lot of articles. One of them may start with “I told ya!'”

And, while we’re imagining good stuff, let’s say we kill off Alzheimer’s too (which is yet another long article that I will be writing). Will healthcare costs STILL keep going up and up and up? As honest-to-God cures start to arrive for cancer and dementia, the cost escalator could be thrown into reverse. Costs could (is such a thing even possible?) fall.

Many of you – those who feel we’re dealing with “simple greed” – won’t be impressed by my logic. Feel free to comment. I LOVE comments.


Randi Smekr is a zany young friend of ours who dresses like a space alien and dies her hair with – what is that stuff, anyway? food coloring? But she’s very bright and very curious about science. Today she explained to me why it’s much easier to get into a recession than to get out of one.

“Say you owned stock in a company.” Randi said, “which was worth $10,000 before this recession hit. And, say, the value of the stock has now been cut in half to $5,000.”

“So you’ve lost 50% of your investment,” she said. “To regain the value of those shares, it isn’t enough to regain 50%, you have to go up 100%. Therefore,” she explained, flipping her purple and green locks around, “It’s much harder to get back to where you were.”

“Is it?” I asked.“Suppose I had a tub with 100 gallons of water and I pumped half of it out. Fifty percent gone. Right?”

“Now I refill it right back to the same point. Hundred percent increase. Right?”

“Why didn’t it take twice as much energy to pump it back to its original level?”

I explained to her that, in order to compare the percentage change in two quantities you have to use a common base or the comparison is meaningless. It IS true that we tend to say I “made 50%” or “I lost 20%” comparing it to whatever the value was last. But you do have to be careful when you’re doing a comparison between TWO percentages.

Randi said I was just complicating things.

Since this is such a good story, I told it to one of my engineering friends, Arnie.

He agreed with Randi.

I told it to my wise Aunt Mildred.

She agreed with Arnie.

Now I’m explaining it to you. I suppose you will disagree too?

If you wish to leave comments on the blog, just scroll down to the end of this post. You will see where it says “Posted by David at.. “ and it will indicate how many comments are there. Click that and you can leave a comment too. Also, if you’re feeling REALLY generous, maybe you’ll answer a few quick questions (below) that’ll help guide my future postings.



4 Responses to “Airbus A330, Health Insurance, And A Bird’s Nest”

  1. Anonymous

    Perhaps the financial analogy of fiscal equity gains & losses to the pool of water is that it's much easier for me to leak 50% of the volume into the lawn and a lot harder to extract it back into the pool (Losing money is easier than making money so it's a not a linear function…or I'm just a pessimist 😉

  2. Anonymous

    Percentage is a relative term. If you lost 50% from where you were, it only takes 50% gain of that original total to get back to where you were. But you need a 100% gain if you move your starting point to 50% of the original total. It's just math games.

    You're just mixing relative and absolute terms. Say you want to make $100,000 investing. Well, if you start with a dollar, you're going to need a helluva return rate (assuming a fixed time in which to make the target amount). If you start with $100,000,000, you can make that $100,000 with a mere 1% return rate.

    Regarding the real-time telemetry from aircraft, that's a great idea. I suspect that it is not practical to have every airplane sending a rich telemetry stream back all of the time. Imagine the bandwidth, antenna network, and storage required. But at least we now have some real-time telemetry, so perhaps your vision is the direction in which we are already going.

  3. Anonymous

    Modern aircraft provide internet connection services to passengers. I've never spent the outrageous prices for mile-high access so I can't comment on how zippy the internet is within the plane. But, bandwidth good enough for web access (Youtube, hulu) should be MORE than sufficient for streaming multiple channels of telemetry data and cockpit audio. That's actually a pretty modest amount of numbers compared to streaming video.

    There may be times that the internet access is unavailable in which case the block box continues doing what it does. But, most of the time, the plane should be streaming data to a secure website. And, as soon as the plane drops from the sky, they can pore over the data. Maybe that info could processed on the ground and also be used for preventative measures as well?

    Doesn't seem too hard.

    Dave – can you make it happen?

    – ivan

  4. Is it safe to surf the net when you are in an air craft? I think the sites that are being watched or surfed by the passengers should be monitored to avoid “delays” and all.

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