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.



Paddington station, still a mainline station, ...

Paddington station, still a mainline station, was the London terminus of the Great Western Railway. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I have a deep, dark secret. I try to keep it quiet, but occasionally I make an almost involuntary utterance that gives the game away. It is a secret shared with my Dad. When Nan and Grandad were alive, we often used to stay with them.

One evening, Nan gave me a pile of books to read. They used to belong to my Dad. Most of them were unremarkable; the sort of reading material you might expect an adolescent boy to read. In among the smattering of comics and adventure books was the evidence that he shared my secret.

It was about an inch thick and the cover was missing. The binding and the pages showed signs of heavy use. Inside, every page was crammed with listings. I took a sharp intake of breath once I realised what they were. They were listings of locomotives. Many of them had been underlined in blue biro. My dad was a trainspotter. Swindon was a good place to be one because it was pretty much the heart of the Western railways. Many locomotives ended up there for maintenance, so there was a good chance of seeing a wide range of rolling stock.

I’m not a card-carrying, anorak wearing trainspotter, but I do like trains. Occasionally, when we are doing the crossword, I let on that I know that the foldy thing on top of the train that connects to the power lines is a pantograph and that an electric train made up of a small number of motorised carriages is called an EMU (or Electric Multiple Unit). There is a diesel equivalent too, but DMU is not a word.

Sometimes I can’t help myself. Before I know it, I tell people that the train gauge in the UK is 4 feet 8 and a half inches because of Stephenson, but if Isambard Kingdom Brunel had won the gauge wars, our trains would be bigger, faster and more comfortable because the gauge would have been 7 feet and a quarter-inch.

At its peak, the UK’s railway network had 37,000 kilometres of track. It must have been fantastic to have the freedom to travel from almost any town in the country to almost any other and trains used to always be on time. Thanks mainly to the axe of Dr Richard Beeching, today we have about 16,000 kilometres.

For reasons that make sense to someone, we have a separate company responsible for track and train operating companies responsible for trains. Our trains are the most expensive in Europe and they seldom run on time.

I guess that’s progress, but I still like trains. Just don’t tell anyone.

Lean on me

English: An APT at The Railway Age in Crewe. P...

English: An APT at The Railway Age in Crewe. Photo by G-Man * Oct 2006 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As any pinball player knows, a bit of tilt can be a very good thing. Too much, and it’s game over. When it comes to Technology, getting that tilt right is even harder.

My mother suffers from terrible seasickness. When we used to get the ferry over to Ireland, she would start being sick as soon as we left the harbour wall and she wouldn’t stop again until we were firmly docked at the other end.

Sir Henry Bessemer was a man after her own heart. He recognised the problem of seasickness and tried to devise an ingenious solution. He understood that the cause of seasickness was all the rocking and rolling of the cabin. If one could eliminate that, the passengers could enjoy a smooth ride. His solution was to mount the saloon independently of the ship, the SS Bessemer, on gimbals. Whilst the ship sailed along, a man watched a spirit level and pulled a lever to keep the saloon level.

Swinging Saloon Steamer Bessemer, 1875 (1)

Swinging Saloon Steamer Bessemer, 1875 (1) (Photo credit: Marcel Douwe Dekker)

Unfortunately for Sir Henry, it’s not a great idea to have something rolling around in the middle of a ship as it makes it very unstable and difficult to steer. That’s why oil tankers have baffles to stop the oil sloshing around. The maiden voyage was a disaster. The ship crashed into Calais pier not once but twice because of the instability of the ship.

On land, at least you don’t have the vagaries sea level to worry about which ought to make tilting things easier. In the 1970s, British Rail set about devising a tilting train to increase the speed of the rail network. France and Japan had leapfrogged Britain with the TGV and the bullet train.

If the tracks were completely straight, going fast would not be a problem. Unfortunately, they have a habit of bending to avoid things like hills, lakes and the sea. As any motorcyclist knows, if you want to go round a corner fast, the best thing to do is lean over. British Rail’s answer to this was the Advanced Passenger Train (the APT).

The train Used a series of sensors to measure the telemetry of the train and a set of hydraulic rams to lean into the corner. Also debuting on the Advanced Passenger Train was an incredibly sophisticated braking system which allowed the train to brake within the existing signal network. Unfortunately, all this sophistication was the APT’s downfall. They were incredibly unreliable in service and there were complaints from some about motion sickness.

Big Ben

Big Ben (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Sometimes when you are making advances in rail technology, the last thing you want is any tilting. When engineers undertook the Jubilee line extension in 1994, they were painfully aware of some of the challenges that faced them.

One of their biggest headaches was the station opposite Big Ben. Everyone knew that Big Ben had been built on perilously shallow foundations. Indeed, on its completion, it started to lean to the North. If the Jubilee Line engineers came along digging a big hole next door, there was every chance the tower could topple into the Thames, which would not make great PR for the project.

In order to prevent any further tilting, they injected tubes of concrete in a star shape around the base of the tower. They injected concrete through holes in these tubes to stabilise the soft earth. During the project, they measured the exact angle of Big Ben regularly and if there was the slightest hint of a tilt, they injected more concrete. The Jubilee Line extension had its problems during construction, but a leaning Big Ben was not one of them.

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.

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.

The romance of travel

"A fanciful view of future airship trave&...

“A fanciful view of future airship trave” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Whenever I watch an old Indiana Jones film where they sneak their way onto an airship, I always feel a pang of jealousy that they are using a mode of transport that I probably never will. Modern aircraft feel so claustrophobic with their closely packed seats and tiny windows. The only way to stretch your legs is by dodging the trolley dollies and the toilet-goers in the extremely narrow aisles.

Airship gondolas are always depicted in films as luxurious, spacious affairs with uniformed attendants serving dinner at large tables. Because the gondola hangs below the airship, the passengers have an unimpeded view through the large picture windows. Progress is sedate and dependent on the wind direction, but I can’t imagine a more pleasant way to travel.

I really wouldn’t mind if it took me days to get somewhere. Fit wireless internet and you could even work up there, although if the films are anything to go by, you might get interrupted by the odd murder or gun-toting Nazis looking to take over the world.

I’m not sure I’d feel quite so nostalgic for travelling by ship. If I was travelling on business, according to company policy I’d be in steerage. According to Wikipedia, steerage means limited toilet use, no privacy and poor food. Sounds a bit like economy class on most airlines. The only trouble is that ships are slow. Living in cramped conditions with poor sanitation and loads of other people for extended periods of time leads to disease.

Steam trains hold a special place in my heart too. If I could get aftershave that was eau de steam train, I would buy bottles of the stuff. I simply can’t imagine a nicer smell. There is nothing like the drama of a big steam train pulling into a train station amid clouds of sweet-smelling steam and then pulling out again to a gradually increasing clamour of puffing.

I remember when trains had compartments and really comfortable seats. You also had a reasonable chance of sitting on them too. Trains seemed to be much less busy back then.

With the exception of personal transportation, like the motor car and motorbike, it seems that although transport has become much more efficient, it has also become much more cramped and uncomfortable. When are we going to see a new transport development that takes us back to travelling comfortably without breaking the bank?