A snarling trail of traffic that stops every now and then for a spot of tetris

Air pollution is high in Indian cities.

Air pollution is high in Indian cities. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Out in Chennai this week visiting the troops. The thing that always amazes me about this place is the traffic. It is quite unlike anywhere in the Western world. The first time your car pulls out into moving traffic (and seemingly certain death), somehow it all happens without collision.

At some point, the driver will probably perform a U-turn to face the opposite direction. You look on in abject terror at the oncoming traffic first from one direction and then the other, but somehow, it just nonchalantly happens.

At first the cacophony of car horns, some melodious, some are so loud they sound like ships coming out of harbor and some so tinny that they wouldn’t sound out-of-place on a 1976 Ford Anglia. But there seems to be a system, one beep for coming through and two beeps for thanks.

Occasionally, the huge, monstrous trail of traffic comes to an obstruction such as a set of traffic lights at which point they jockey for position like some bizarre life-size game of tetris. Then they come to a complete halt and fall blissfully silent as they wait for the traffic lights to kickstart the mayhem all over again.

Motorcyclists with absolutely no regard for their own personal safety lunge for perilously narrowing gaps between a dirty great lorry and a bus and they swoop through appearing completely unruffled on the other side. Sometimes the motorcycles will have pillion passengers, sometimes one of them will be carrying a baby.

They nominally drive on the left, but it seems to be optional as tuk-tuks, bicycles, pedestrians, buses, cows and lorries sometimes choose to go against the flow and make their merry way against the traffic.

Every fibre of your being tells you that all this shouldn’t work. In the West, we have rules and 99% of people follow them and yet we still have crashes. Somehow, the chaos seems to work and I’ve yet to see a collision. I saw the aftermath of one a few years ago, but considering the sheer amount of vehicles – it’s amazing that there aren’t more.

I don’t think I could ever drive in this environment. Being driven is stressful enough, but I do hold a sneaky admiration for those that do. One day, all these roads will end up as sanitized as those in the Western world and a big part of what makes India different will be lost.

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I can’t understand a word you’re saying…

Land Rover 109 lwb 1980

Land Rover 109 lwb 1980 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Whenever I see those adverts for the iPhone where they show off the speech recognition software (called Siri), I can’t help a wry smile forming on my face. I was asked to undertake a feasibility study of speech recognition software once. It was roughly 15 years ago in the Pentium era.

My boss thought that the technology would prove useful in our care control system. The elderly and the infirm wear electronic pendants and when they get into trouble, they simply press the button on the pendant. The base station under the phone wakes up and dials the control centre so that the person in trouble can be connected an operator.

Local authorities across the land had signed up for the software and it was a big success. In metropolitan areas such as Birmingham, they had pendant wearers from all kinds of ethnicities and many of them could not speak English. It was impractical to teach all the control centre operators all the different languages so they relied on interpreters which had to be called in on demand. This system was very expensive and there was an inevitable delay in getting relief to where it was needed.

If we had speech recognition built into the software, we could connect the pendant wearer directly to the right interpreter. We could also weed out all the false positives like people who pressed the button by accident. Sounds perfect – all we need is speech recognition.

I installed the Lernout & Huaspe speech recognition engine, wrote a simple little program to test out the software and plugged in my microphone. On the screen was a list of three cars. When I spoke into the Microphone, all the software had to do was work out which of the three cars I called out (what can I say – I like cars).

The first attempt went well; “Land Rover” I said carefully into the Microphone. A message popped up saying “You said Land Rover”. So far so good.

Second attempt; “Mini”. Again, a message popped up saying “You said Land Rover”. Not so good.

I tried saying “Mini” again, speaking more slowly and clearly this time, it still thought I was saying Land Rover.

I tried saying it quickly,

I varied the tone of my voice.

I tried different volume levels.

I even tried a different Microphone; “You said Land Rover”.

I thought it might just be the word “Mini”, so I tried “Jaguar”; “You said Land Rover”.

I swore at it. “You said Land Rover”.

The idea was doomed. If it couldn’t recognise me speaking clearly into a Microphone an inch away from my mouth with no background noise – it was never, ever going to work in our target environment. Most of the pendant wearers were totally deaf, so the TV would be on at maximum volume and they would never have the good grace to fall over right next door to the base station so their voice would be distorted by distance.

I went back to my boss and told him that it would never catch on.

The mobile supercomputer

Automobile crossing rope bridge

Automobile crossing rope bridge (Photo credit: The Field Museum Library)

Maybe it’s my fading memory, but I seem to remember that winters were much colder during my school years. It could be that I spent a lot more time standing around in the snow waiting for buses, but the cold used to seep up through my shoes and into my bones. You didn’t need to look out of the window to see whether it was a cold and frosty morning. The starter motors of the reluctant cars made a characteristic whining noise in a gradually slowing rhythm as the last dying remnants of the battery was eaten away.

In the early 1980s, the ignition systems in cars were mechanical in nature. This meant they had the annoying habit of wearing out at the most inconvenient moments. Not only that, but there wasn’t much adjustment available. It didn’t matter whether it was 30 degrees and sunny or -20 degrees with inches of snow on the ground, the components in the ignition system worked (or rather didn’t) in exactly the same way.

The only tool available to the driver was a little knob called a choke which pulled out of the dashboard and controlled the strength of the fuel mixture. On a cold and frosty morning a richer mixture was required. As the engine heated up, the choke could be pushed gradually back in returning the mixture to normal.

Ford assembly line, 1913.

Ford assembly line, 1913. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Electronics were not the only reason cars were unreliable. The assembly lines on which they were produced had not advanced significantly since Henry Ford came up with the idea. Although many parts were pressed out of steel using a massive die, almost everything was assembled by hand which meant that fit and finish were inconsistent. Some cars were more reliable than others and there was a suspicion that quality of assembly went significantly downhill towards the end of the working week. If you were unlucky enough to have bought an unreliable car, people would refer to it as a “Friday afternoon car”. The metals used in car construction were nowhere near the quality of those used today. In addition, galvanisation had yet to take off and few car manufacturers used sufficient rust protection. Even if your pride and joy was in fine fettle, the dreaded tinworm could have nibbled its way through crucial parts of your car’s anatomy.

Construction techniques have advanced and cars have undoubtedly made massive leaps forward in terms of comfort, reliability, efficiency and safety but the basic form factor has remained the same for about a hundred years. The biggest leap forward has been in terms of the sophistication of the electronic control systems watching over the engine, brakes and suspension. It is not uncommon for a premium car to have 20 – 30 micro controllers and 100 million lines of code buried under the considerable bonnet (or hood if you’re American).

Just to put those numbers in perspective,  according to the Mythical Man Month (required reading for anyone in software) it is estimated that developers on average produce 10 lines of code per working day. I’m assuming that car manufacturers must find more productive programmers otherwise writing the software for a car would take approximately 50,000 man years. Of course not everything is written from scratch and the same code must get reused between different components and different cars. Still, it’s an incredible amount of software and not only that, the quality seems very high which is a comfort when you stamp your feet on the brake pedal in the rain.

I’m just glad I don’t have to listen to that infernal racket on a cold and frosty morning.

Shrinking the world

Long-journey

Long-journey (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I used to think that the world was absolutely enormous. As a child, whenever we went anywhere as a family, it was usually by bus or car. Buses are not the fastest mode of transport on Earth and neither of my parents were speed freaks, so even when travelling by car, every journey took an absolute age. It didn’t help that cars back then were particularly unreliable and that dad used to buy cars from that twilight zone between bangerdom and scrapyard. Inevitably, on any lengthy journey, the chances were that we would break down extending the journey even further.

Like most children, I was given a globe for Christmas one year. As I looked at the tiny pink specks that made up the British Isles, I used to find it incredible that it took us such a long time just to traverse our tiny island. I used to look at other places on the globe and wonder how long it would take to get there.

Easyjet and Ryanair had yet to turn the airline industry upside down, so air travel remained the pursuit of the wealthy or business travellers. Our regular trips to Ireland involved getting to Holyhead, which meant an extremely long train journey or an even longer car journey. Once you got to the ferry terminal, you had another six hour trip across the sea. It didn’t stop there – we had to then get from the port to where we were supposed to be. It felt to me like an epic voyage every time.

Back in those days, if you wanted to get a message to someone, you had two choices – by telephone (a landline naturally) or by post. I was amazed when I visited a friend at Durham University when I saw email for the first time. My friend asked me to hang on for a moment because he was in the middle of a conversation with someone in Japan. Intrigued – I watched him as he typed away on his keyboard and sent a message. Moments later – he got a response – from Japan! I was astonished.

Things have sped up so so much. How far do you think that Amazon would have come if they quoted “please allow 28 days for delivery”. Everything is pretty much instantaneous. With the power of the Internet and Google, the instant after you ask yourself a question – you can find the answer to almost anything. I can’t help thinking that all this near instant gratification comes at a price. We have ever shorter attention spans. Will people actually manage to finish reading books in the future ?

Once upon a time, when you were at a loss for things to do, you would tend to daydream. Nowadays, most people reach for the smartphone and log into Facebook.