Unconscious probability manipulation

English: London Midland Desiro EMU 350125 call...

English: London Midland Desiro EMU 350125 calls at Watford Junction with a service to London Euston. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Anyone who has received any kind of instruction in writing will tell you that the most heinous crime you can commit is to open your piece with something as clichéd as “It was a dark and stormy night“.

So I won’t.

But it was.

I was on the way home from work. One day a week, I trek down to our London office. Partly because some of my team work there, but also because it’s good to catch up with the other people who work there. The office in which I’m based is solely a development shop. The London office houses sales, marketing, HR among other things. It’s a trek because it involves planes, trains and automobiles.

A slight exaggeration – it doesn’t involve planes, but it does involve a walk, a taxi, a train, a walk, a tube and a final walk. It’s exhausting, and it adds roughly half a day to my normal work regime.

I was on the tube home. I normally get off close to the London terminus where I can catch a train to my home town. It occurred to me that the final destination of this tube was half way home and I wondered whether going all the way might be an option for when the trains home are stuffed. Every once in a while, signals fail, drivers strike or someone chooses the day I go into London to end it all by inconveniently jumping in front of a train.

The notion was fresh in my mind even as I alighted the train. At street level, the aforementioned dark and stormy night rendered everything wet. Me, my clothes, the pavement, everything. I hurried towards the terminus to catch my train. As I approached the station, I noticed the newly painted thick white lines in a perimeter around the station. Painted in the centre of each line was a no smoking sign. A notion crossed my mind that with all the rain, they might be slippery.

In the split second that the thought crossed my mind, I felt my feet slip out from under me. I saw the sky and the tall buildings around me spin as I went through a dramatic unintended backflip. Through some miracle, I landed unharmed. My pirouette through the sky softened through the willing compliance of my thick coat and my backpack. Several people rushed to my aid, proving the milk of human kindness has not yet gone off.

I’m not a superstitious man, but I thought about the trains being stuffed and verily, they were so. I thought that the new white lines, slick with rain, might be slippery and verily I was upon my posterior. I’m getting paranoid. I think I may have unconscious probability manipulation.

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How does London work?

London, London Transport Museum, Covent Garden

London, London Transport Museum, Covent Garden (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For those of us who travel around London, it’s easy to take the transport system for granted. Although the city above is a labyrinth of winding streets that seems to make no sense whatsoever, the London Underground is an easy to understand schematic which gets you to exactly where you want to go without fuss.

We managed to get down to London for the day during the Christmas holidays. Carefully avoiding the shopping areas which were jam-packed with consumer induced zombieism, we made our way to Covent Garden for a drink. We needed something to do next and the London Transport Museum had the virtue of sharing the same location, so in we went.

Unlike the cities of the United States, London wasn’t laid out in a nice grid network and unlike cities like Paris, there was no grand plan for London. There was no central body in charge of planning for much of the development of the capital. The City grew like a living creature to accommodate the needs of the rapidly growing population. Predictably, this led to absolute traffic chaos.

There were many suggestions for solving the traffic problems including double-decked streets and charging people for using the streets. These ideas were dismissed as preposterous at the time and yet we have flyovers and congestion charging today. Eventually, the city looked underground for the solution and the tube network was born.

Initially, tunnels were constructed using the “cut and cover” method. Basically, digging a massive trench and then plastering over it to make good. If this sounds disruptive, it was absolutely devastating in the reality of densely packed London. There is a very good model in the museum to give you an idea of exactly how much devastation was involved. Because of the way that London had evolved, there were no plans of what lay below and accidents were common.

Diagram of Brunel's tunnelling shield and Tham...

Diagram of Brunel’s tunnelling shield and Thames Tunnel construction (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There simply had to be a better way, and there was, thanks to a British invention, the tunnelling shield. Effectively a giant cookie cutter that gets pushed forward on rams as the men inside dig out the clay. It doesn’t sound that clever today, but this was in the days of Queen Victoria and it had never been done before. Pretty much every tunnel since has been dug in exactly the same way.

The real genius in London’s transit network came not from their construction, groundbreaking (sorry) though it was, but from a map. Traditional cartographer’s struggled to capture the simplicity of the network, wedded as they were to geographical accuracy.

A man by the name of MacDonald Gill came up with the idea of spacing all the stations out evenly and using straight lines to link stations. Unshackled from the bounds of geography, the new map could show the entire network in a simple and easy to understand form. Another invention that was so successful, every transit map produced since owes something to the original simple design.