Friday 22 November 2013


The first thing that hit me when I landed in Mumbai was the heat. Tired and somewhat red-eyed, once off the airbridge from the plane door, the corridor is occupied by vast air conditioning machines from a bygone era. It isn't clear to me if they are working, because I can feel the humidity. They are building a new airport next door, because the existing one is old and too small. Once out of the airport, the taxi ride was bumpier than the worst turbulence: potholes everywhere, half-built roads, diversions, and a maze that is literally a construction site. twenty minutes later, the roads were still in a terrible state, and I started feeling queasy.
Mumbai traffic (tuktuks and small cars)

After checking in, and giving my stomach some time to rest, I took a rickshaw to a nearby shopping area. There are a quarter of a million of these little things buzzing around Mumbai like bees - three-wheeler boxes with a lawnmower engine and a cracked windscreen, weaving in  and out of traffic, squeezing between a bus and an enormous truck with "Horn Please" painted on the back. Beep beep - a motorcycle zoom by, a passenger hanging on behind with no helmet on. Pedestrians jaywalk across the road as if the traffic wasn't there. Rickshaws hoot, swerve, brake, dodge, hoot again. Maybe it was pure luck that I didn't see any collisions.

What a contrast to the orderliness of the Netherlands where I was two weeks ago. I didn't see any white lines on the road here: every inch is used, and lane control is unheard of. The pavement looks like soil that was left behind after building the road. Shacks and corrugated iron buildings are everywhere ... apparently these are not the real slums, but quite respectable abodes. Once I saw the rusting frame of a "rickshaw pickup" just abandoned and quietly dying at the side of the road. Their trucks are well decorated with hand-painted signage on the front and sides, and occasionally the windscreen is outlined in tinsel.

As dusk fell, I watched the traffic from the safety of my hotel. The mad beeping traffic continued. Tuk-tuks shot round the queue and pushed in at the last moment. None of the rickshaws seem to have lights, though I saw one with indicators once.

Mumbai and the surrounding area of Maharashtra is a very beautiful place. Unfortunately, most of what I saw was the industrial area. Such are the delights of business travel. I did see some nice bits of the creek from the Airoli bridge from the taxi. One day, I might bravely venture to take a holiday here and see what India is really like ... but I might have to get used to the heat.
Thane Creek from Airoli Bridge

Friday 12 April 2013

This is REALLY Random

(using the 2013 edition of the word “Random” to mean weird, amazing and far out).

In my work, I use a clever piece of software that uses a statistical approach to model the reliability of equipment. The user defines stuff like “this pump has an average failure rate of once every 5 years” and “annual maintenance starts on this date”. By using a statistical approach, the software provides an idea of the expected overall performance and “uptime” of the whole plant in which the equipment is installed. Getting this right can save millions of dollars.

The statistical maths behind this program is called the Monte Carlo Method. It gets its name from a casino where the uncle of the guy who invented the maths used to gamble. Roulette for inspiration? You couldn’t make this stuff up if you tried!  Is that random, or is it just weird?

In reading the history and development of this, and related, maths I came across a book titled “A Million Random Digits” (on Amazon here) first published in 1955. In those days, random numbers were hard to generate in a computer (because nobody had a computer). This book, which literally contains page after page of numbers, was actually very useful. Amazingly it has been reprinted, so maybe it still has some application today. What a weird, random world we live in!

Now at this point I could choose to bore you with a discussion of why random numbers are really important, and why a computer can’t really generate really random numbers (it generates a sequence of numbers that look like they are random, but because they are a sequence, they aren’t really random – Sorry, I did bore you a little bit. Oops).

But I’m not going to bore you any longer. Instead, scroll down the Amazon page of “A Million Random Digits” and go to the comments. Even if you only have a vague idea of the mathematical beauty of randomness, I hope you will appreciate comments like :
“The book is a promising reference concept, but the execution is somewhat sloppy. Whatever generator they used was not fully tested. The bulk of each page seems random enough. However at the lower left and lower right of alternate pages, the number is found to increment directly.”
Or this:
“Even though I didn't really see it coming, the ending was kind of anti-climatic. But overall the book held my attention and I really liked the "10034 56429 234088" part. It's nice to know I'm not the only one who feels that way.”
Or this, my favourite:
“This book is ok as far as lists of digits go, but seriously limited. Its only a million digits. Its nothing in comparison to Graham's Digit's Bound (available from Cirius Cybernetics as the ratio of lengths of two pieces of bogonium, or as an RSS feed until the end of this and every universe.)
To be fair this set of digits is supposed to be random, but my guess is that you could find this exact set of digits or an encoding of this set as a set of digits in Graham's Digit's Bound. I could easily prove this if I could get a couple of minutes of time on the Aleph One.”
If you thought the references were random (i.e. you didn’t understand them), then you need to spend less time reading maths and more time reading literature, particularly Douglas Adams (link deliberately omitted so you have to do some of your own research).

Despite it’s awesome title, you won’t find “Graham’s Digit’s Bound” on Amazon though. It’s a reference to Graham’s Number. You will find the definition on Wikipedia here but this page should come with a warning like. “Warning! Explicit maths-p0rn – may upset some audiences – NSFW!!!”. For my non-maths-geek readers, Graham’s number is so big that mathematicians have difficulty finding symbols that can express how big its bigness is. Others have explained it far better than I will (still horror-movie brainmelt stuff) and here is a slightly more humane version, with a twist at the end).

This got me thinking. First about the fact that books of random numbers were actually published (and now hide wasted on people’s bookshelves). And second about the literary creativity in the comments on stuff that is available on Amazon. You can get some pretty random (meaning obscure) things on Amazon - like live ladybirds and wolf urine. That's worse than random! Truth is stranger than fiction. The comments are just brilliant (though you might need a dark sense of humour). Here are some more for you:

Barrenttine Methylated Spirits (Actual warning: Meths is nasty stuff).

The humble biro gets the comments treatment too, including this priceless gem: “the spellcheck for this device seems to be broken”.

Others have already written about these comments of literary genius in newspapers and blogs but to save you wasting your lunchbreak scraping the depths of Amazon’s database, some random reviewer has helpfully compiled a Listmania of them already: UK version here  and US version here.

That’s so random!

Wednesday 10 April 2013

Reversing the Beeching Axe

In my student days, my dad asked me to prune a Buddleia in the garden. "Cut it right back" was the advice I'd been given, as that was apparently the right way to keep this plant in shape. I think I was more eager then as a gardener now, for I did indeed prune it right back - leaving barely half a metre of trunk left sticking out of the ground. The poor plant did not survive. But the memory of my gardening errors are perpetuated from time to time by my family.

In the 1960s, the "Beeching Axe" dramatically pruned Britain's railways. With hindsight, we see that this had a devastatting effect on our nation. Communities that relied upon the train for contact with the outside world were cut off, and some have dwindled to nothing. The loss-making branch lines suffered the clippers much more than the profitable main lines. It wasn't until a few years afterwards that people realised that the branch lines fed the main lines in the same way that leaves feed a tree. The promised increase in profitability of the main lines never happened, and passengers took to the roads instead.

Fifty years later, our roads creak under the weight of a traffic density they were never expected to carry, and more people travel by train than ever before. A few of those branch lines remained open. Some of them are now used by preserved railways (e.g. the Bluebell Railway). But the vast majority are unlikely ever to see trains along their routes again, because crucial parts of the track-bed were sold to property developers or were cut off by other infrastructure. Sadly, in most cases, the prospect of re-opening these branch lines to improve capacity on our railways is bleak.

Two branch lines exist near my home. There is a line from Watford Junction to St Albans Abbey, known as the Abbey Flyer. This line survived the pruning, and is relatively busy during the rush hour. At the Watford end, there are connections to Euston, Birmingham and to the London Overground. The route is single line all the way, which dictates a 45-minute gap between trains. I believe that this timetable is the main reason that it is poorly used: if a more frequent service were made available, I am certain that the success of this line would rise dramatically, challenging the main Thameslink service on the other side of town. To offer a more frequent service would require some practical changes, such as a passing-loop somewhere along the line, and these ideas are already under consideration.

The other branch line near my home is (or rather was) the onward line from St Albans to Hatfield. It was lost to the Beeching Axe. It is now a footpath and cycle path, known as the Alban Way. Since the line was removed in the 1960s, several short areas of this line have been developed which would make reinstatement of the line financially challenging. At least two housing estates now exist along the route. A road under-bridge has been modified so that cars go down less of a dip, and a short section near Hatfield has been lost to the development of the Galleria shopping centre and the A1M. Probably 95% of the line could be reinstated, but those last bits make it difficult to complete.

If it were possible to reinstate the Alban Way, then the East Coast Main Line (via Watford) would be re-connected to the West Coast Main Line (via Hatfield or Welwyn), via the Great Central line at St Albans along the way. All three routes are heavily used by commuters, and connecting them seems a beneficial thing to do. Routing the line past the Galleria might be seen as a challenge, or it might be a golden opportunity to shift shoppers from car to train. The issues of routing around housing estates and roads are more complex, but can also be surmounted. A fairly anonymous website describes some solutions to the problem, notably joining at the busier station at Welwyn instead.

This is just one branch line. There are of course thousands of others, and most will never see trains again. But there is hope. The tide appears to have turned, and Network Rail is actively re-opening some of those branch lines again. It's a small reversal of railway decline in this country, and changes such as these take time to implement, but it does appear that the tide has finally turned. It is like seeing fresh buds of a plant growing when you thought you'd killed it.

Wednesday 20 March 2013

Milton Keynes

Have you ever tried to get out of Milton Keynes? It's bad enough trying to find anything in the vast sprawling Metropolis. I start to get lost after the 4th identical roundabout. A paper map is useless, and I praise God in heaven for the people  who invented the Sat-Nav. I can now find my destination in Milton Keynes, thanks to the American voice on my dashboard. Then I make the mistake of switching off the gadgets for the way home. "It's easy enough", I tell myself foolishly: just follow the signs for the M1. This is usually late at night, when I am tired and I want to get home.

There is a roundabout off the A5 where the M1 motorway is clearly signposted from the dual carriageway. But when you get up onto the roundabout, there is no indication which exit you need to take off the roundabout. No blue square on any sign. Just village names that you've never heard of. I know because I went all the way around twice last night trying to find it. In the end I got back onto the A5 and went a different way.

If you go "through" Milton Keynes, there are plenty of signs at every roundabout for the M1, and it helpfully suggests different routes for southbound and northbound traffic. But there is one crucial roundabout, probably close enough that you can see the motorway, where the signs to the M1 are missing. You are destined to remain in Milton Keynes forever.

There are only two places where I need a Sat-Nav. I can navigate just about anywhere else by looking at the map beforehand (usually online nowadays) and spending 15 minutes planning my route. My wife boasts that I can drive all the way across Germany and remember how to get to her sister's place without looking at a map. But even with a map I cannot find my way around Milton Keynes. A friend of mine who grew up in nearby Bedford explained that it is because new roundabouts are being born and old roundabouts die all the time, and the road layout is different every time you go there. The confusion is exacerbated by hundreds of identical roads, identical housing estates, identical roundabouts, and even similar place names. The day that the sat-nav was invented should be celebrated by anyone who needs to drive into, or more importantly out of, Milton Keynes. The only other place I need a Sat-Nav is inside Ikea.

I would love to know if people who live in Milton Keynes also get lost in their home town. How did you find your way in the days before satellite-guidance? Is it any easier by bike or on foot, or do you just take the bus?  I did eventually work my way out of your town, but I never found the motorway.

20 March 2013

Monday 4 March 2013


Magdeburg is a wonderful place to visit. It is easy to get to (90 minutes' drive West from Berlin, and it's on the main railway line) but do not go in February. There are plenty of things to see and do in Magdeburg, but mid-February is the wrong time of year to do it. We had a family birthday celebration there, but we really should go again at a better time of year. At this time of year, an icy wind blows straight off the Baltic, or Siberia or somewhere else not listed in holiday catalogues, bringing with it a temperature of -8 C. (or 18 F).

We stayed in the small town of Wolmirstedt, just outside Magdeburg. It has a railway station, a car-free shopping street, and a few hotels and restaurants. It's the kind of place where most people know each other. The hotels knew about our party, because they were all fully booked. The taxi company knew about our party because they had something to do.

There are some pretty amazing things to do and see in this area. One of them is the Water Bridge, the world's longest navigable aqueduct, which crosses the river Elbe. They completed this in 2003. During the separation of Germany, canal boats from West Germany to Berlin had a 12km detour from the Mittelland canal, down through some locks and a ship hoist (also pretty amazing), along the river Elbe, then back up the locks to the Elbe-Havel-Kanal. Most of Berlin's coal came in that way. We parked near the aqueduct and walk up to the canal level, which is 16m higher than the water level of the river Elbe. At the top we were greeted by the aforementioned Baltic wind, which cut right through us. We braved it for only a few minutes before descending into the shelter of the banks again. It's quite bizarre seeing boats on a canal so high up above the surrounding dead-flat land.

Apart from our party (we do some fairly awesome family parties) we also ventured into the centre of Magdeburg. Again, this would probably be really interesting during the summer. The tall buildings and straight streets shelter you from the wind one moment, then when you go round the corner, the wind funnels right at you. We lasted 2 hours in the cold before seeking shelter in a shopping centre. But in that time we did see the "Green Citadel" building, the last building designed by Friedensreich Hundertwasser. It's supposed to be green because of the grass on the roof, which of course was white with snow. Nevertheless it is a stunning building, curiously positioned between traditional and other "modern" buildings, and manages to avoid straight lines in a Dr Seuss way, whilst still remaining practical.

Like all good short breaks, the long weekend was over too quickly. We drove back to Berlin (despite snow on the Autobahn, we made good progress), and struggled through the chaos that is the woefully inadequate Schönefeld airport: There is one restaurant (burger King) and one pub, serving several dozen gates, and water costs twice as much as it does on the plane! But we had a fab weekend that the kids will remember for a long time. We must go back in the summer.

Friday 15 February 2013

Trainz Rediscovered

After a few years of absence, I rediscovered the computer game Trainz last week. It helps that I have a new(er) computer on which to run it. This is an old version of the software ("Trainz Railway Simulator 2004") but just as playable as the latest version.

My first challenge was to get it running on Windows Vista. There is plenty of chat in the forums on getting Trainz 2004 to run on Vista, some of it less helpful than others. The main problem is Vista's heightened security awareness, which prevents nornal users from modifying anything in the Program Files folder. There are ways around this, but after a bit of tinkering this is what I did to get it working:

  • Run the installation program as Administrator. To do this, you have to right-click on setup.exe and choose "Run as Administrator". Don't just double-click on it.
  • Do not install into C:\Program Files - instead install it into a different folder like c:\Trainz.
  • Once it has finished installing, go into the Trainz/TRS2004/Bin folder and right-click on the main application. Then go to Compatibility and tick the box "Run as Administrator". 
I have also been reading the reviews on the newer versions of Trainz, to determine whether I should upgrade. Reviews are mixed. The hardware specs for the newer versions are beyond what I have at the moment, However, the Trainz Download Station is no longer free, and I am either faced with upgrading, or buying a subscription to be able to download additional stuff.

One of the interesting things about Trainz (and possibly other railway simulators) is that it allows users to create their own content. If you can use a 3D graphics program you can design your own rolling-stock and buildings. If you don't mind doing some programming, you can write your own code to enhance the way that the simulator works. This means you can create whole new industries, with wagons and loads and loading points to go with them. Very flexible.

There is plenty of user-generated stuff out there. One group called TrainzProRoutes has created some highly detailed railroad routes from around the world, including some that take 4 to 5 hours of real time to drive from end to end ! 

Now I don't need to build a model railway in the spare room ... I can build it all in the computer...  and it looks very realistic. Hours - maybe months - of fun are guaranteed.