Happy Brexit (The EU is over.)

To paraphrase John Lennon’s Christmas song, “So this is Brexit, what have you done?”

Well, the electorate of the UK, look what you have done… Happy now?

Still, there’s no point in crying over the spilt milk, we have to look forward. The bridges have been burnt. Signing an on-line petition for another referendum isn’t going to get anywhere.

The future, at least for the next decade looks quite bleak, especially politically and economically as the country and world adjusts. So, what would my best-case scenario be?

(1) Politics

Well, this is a mess. Who would be the least bad option to fill the Prime Minister’s seat?

At the moment I think it would be Boris Johnson, and here’s why…

  • Although he’s a lying, self-serving, populist and calculated politician he’s not a xenophobic Nazi. He also managed to be Mayor of London and not destroy the place. He’s also got enough chart, wit and bluster to counter Nigel Farage. Remember that facts and logic play no part in politics at the moment, only bluster, innuendo and “gut feeling”, however depressing that is.
  • The other potential candidates for the leader of the Conservative party are either terrifying or anonymous. If Theresa May because PM then I can see the UK becoming a restrictive police state before you can say, “due process”. Michael Gove?! Enough said. The rest don’t have enough personality to counter the real evil, Farage.
  • If there were a General Election, even if Labour did manage to get in, Mr. Corbyn would try to counter Farage’s xenophobic rants and rabble rousing using facts, logic and reasoned argument. Farage’s personality cult seems immune to such attacks as facts and logic aren’t things that he relies upon. Admittedly a Labour government could help, but given the commitment to continue the fake austerity and not raise taxes to actually pay for things and the internal in-fighting I’m not sure it would be strong enough to turn around the angry and disenfranchised “working class” part of the electorate who voted to leave.

It’s sad that I’ve come to this conclusion but as far as I can see it’s the only way to avoid a fascist state in the short to medium term.

Of course, a Boris government would risk destroying a great many things, including the NHS. I’m not sure that it can survive now given the forces ranged against it. The current government has already undermined it so greatly.

(2) The divorce.

Again, this is a mess. It’s already been stated by a number of those in the EU Commission and Council of Ministers that they really want to make the terms of the UK’s exit punitive so as to show to any other countries thinking about leaving that it would be suicide. Also remember that there are some states in the EU who would love to punish the UK.

To be honest, I can’t see what the potential outcome of this will be or if saner heads will prevail. I’m not very optimistic. At the very least I foresee the financial centre of The City vacating Britain so as to continue operating in the EU. We’d better refocus on industry and forget the financial sector as a money maker. I don’t see the nuclear power station at Hinkley Point going ahead as that requires French government help.

At best, I envisage a free trade agreement, where there are no tarifs but little more.

And so, it’s quite a depressing outlook. However, we have to work with what we have. *sigh*

(3) The aftermath

Well, it’s not only the UK that’s in trouble. The Pandora’s Box has been opened and however punitive the terms of the UK’s exit are I can envisage other parts of the EU having a tough time not being forced to consider breaking away, especially given the arrogant attitude displayed by some of the EU Commissioners and members of the Council of Ministers in the last day or so. It has seemed to be a case of, “How dare the people disagree with us! We’ll teach them the error of their ways!”

This is going to be tough for everyone.

This is the Age of the Train… again?

Inter-City 125 at YorkHaving been interested in the railways since the mid-1970s it was with some interest I saw an article on the BBC News web site today about the replacement of the old “Inter-City 125”, or “High Speed Train”, trains with new Hitachi units.

Now, most of the article was fine but there was one sentence in particular which was down right wrong in the caption for a photo, and that was, “With its familiar sloping nose, the 125 symbolised a new era of clean lines and high technology on a network that had been underfunded and getting tatty for decades.” This is not how things were at the time and here’s why:

The HST, or “Inter-City 125” as it was marketed, came into service in 1977 on the Great Western Mainline between Paddington and Penzance. This was less than ten years after the last of the modernisation era diesels came into service and only a little after ten years after the West Coast Mainline had been completely upgraded and electrified. Indeed, no locomotive on the system was more than 17 years old, all freight rolling stock had been replaced, as had much of the coaches and all the local trains, except for the ones on the Southern Region’s three rail electric system.

But there’s to the mistake than even these facts and to illustrate this we need to go back to the origins of the HST itself… And it’s also a good story.

In the late 1960s, even after the upgrade of the West Coast Mainline to full electrification the speeds of the trains and hence the journey times hadn’t changed a great deal. Abroad in Japan you had the bullet trains and in France SNCF had been breaking records using their powerful electric locomotives (but only on specially built high-speed lines). It was seen by the British Rail Board that something needed to be done.

British rail stock, even the fastest, was limited to 100mph running even on the best tracks. This was due to a combination of the network being a general purpose system running both passenger and freight traffic with a meandering track layout imposed by the Victorian builders’ whims and the wheel and suspension technology of the trains. So, it was decided to start a project for a train which could overcome all of these problems and run at 155mph. And so the Advance Passenger Train (APT) project was born.

ATP-E (Experimental)

BR decided that the best way of building a new, high technology train was from the ground up. They didn’t want any legacy rail rolling stock builders trying to refine the old designs, they wanted new thinking. So, instead they brought in people from the aero industry to look at the problem from a new perspective.

By 1972, after a great deal of research into wheel design, suspension systems, aerodynamics and coach tilting the first test bed train set arrived on the tracks, the APT-E (experimental). This was a combination of two power cars being powered by gas turbine engines which generated electricity to power the traction motors which turned the wheels plus a couple of “passenger” cars containing all the test equipment. Initially this ran only on the Old Dalby test track near Derby but later visited most of the rail network.

The APT-E was the first actively tilting train in the world. Previous attempts at tilting trains in places such as Italy used a pendulum system but these didn’t work very well. (This is where the name “pendulino” comes from, later used for the current tilting trains on the West Coast Mainline, but more of that later…) The APT-E used hydraulic actuators to rotate the coaches so that the centre of gravity moved inwards on bends, meaning that they could be taken faster without the risk of the train toppling over. It also had the effect of minimising the sideways load on the passengers but this was not it’s primary purpose.

However, even by the time the APT-E made its way onto the rails some within British Rail could see that the APT project was going to take a lot longer than first envisaged and the system needed a stop-gap. This wasn’t a universal view within the British Rail Board and it took a rogue element to start a “skunk works” project using a design team from the traditional rail rolling stock manufacturers. This was the “High Speed Train” (HST) project.

HST PrototypeInitially, the HST project was hidden. The group took a great deal of the fruits of the early research work from the APT project and adapted them to a more traditional railway design. The most important section of the APT design they used was the bogie/suspension/axle set innovation. Previous designs had major problems with oscillating instability above 100mph causing the flanges on the wheels to start bouncing off the rails as the train went along. Not only was this dangerous but also caused massive rail and wheel wear and the forces damaged the bogie frames. The APT researchers had managed to solve these problems. The other innovations included were the use of monocoque structural design and the early aerodynamic work.

By the time the British Rail Board cottoned on that they needed a stop-gap before the APT came into service there was already a prototype HST almost complete, which took to the rails in 1974/75.

The main difference you will notice between this prototype, other than the natty “inverse Inter-City” colour scheme, is the cab design. This Class 252 unit has lights directly under the window and buffers. (Some of the later units had buffers retro-fitted in the 2000’s for some reason.) Other than that and a lower power output, the prototype was almost identical to the first production units.

The go-ahead for production happened pretty quickly after that and the first sets of power cars and Mark III coaches started replacing the expresses on the Great Western Mainline in 1977, these were the Class 253. Two years later the second production run, which had slightly uprated engines and the guards van added, started taking over on the East Coast Mainline, these were the Class 254. The rest is history.

APT Prototype at CarlisleAs for the APT, the project continued with the first few prototype sets of power cars and coaches being rolled out in 1979. Unfortunately, due to political pressure they were forced into passenger service almost immediately and before they’d been used for the purpose they were designed, testing and refining the systems, especially the tilting mechanism which had been redesigned from the ground up to be failsafe, unlike the APT-E’s. This combined with a disastrous P.R. folly of a launch involving plying journalists with as much booze as they could drink and pandering to a minor celebrity (Isla St.Clair) made for a media storm and a political backlash the project never recovered from. (At the time the £1m “wasted” on the APT project was declared a scandal. The French would spend this much on 1km of TGV track in the late 1970s!) Soon after all the bugs in the APT trains and tilting systems had been sorted out in 1985, the trains were withdrawn from service and the patents sold to foreign companies, such as the one which went on to build the Pendolino trains for the West Coast Mainline.


Elite: Dangerous, possibly the ultimate Elite-type game?

In a musing on my old blog site situated at LiveJournal eight years ago I outlined my idea for the best multi-player virtual Universe.

In November David Braben announced a new Kickstarter project to attempt to fund the very long awaited fourth Elite game in the series, “Elite: Dangerous” and this time it’s networked!

Elite: Dangerous

From the description so far it looks as though the procedural Universe creation is very similar to that I thought of in my original LiveJournal posting all those years ago, at least down to the star system level. At least in the first iteration there’s not going to be any chance to exit your ship and wander around the planets etc. But that’s fine.

The only problem I see is with rather large amount of money the Kickstarter project is asking for, £1.25 million! The fund raising is more than half the way through and still the pledges are only just above the half way mark and the rate of increase is slow. Somehow I don’t see it reaching the funding target by the 5th January.

I’ve put my money where my mouth is and pledged as much as I can reasonably afford. If you too would like to see Elite IV come into being then go over to Kickstarter and help with the fund raising.

Update: New video of gameplay:

New gameplay video.

Weather based computing definitions.

Cloud Computing

A computing resource located “out there” somewhere, connected to the Internet and operated by a third party.

When the heat is on, just like real clouds, they can either evaporate or become a storm (see Monsoon Computing). In either case it’s not good news.

Fog Computing

Like Cloud Computing but down to earth. i.e. based in reality and generally under the organisation’s direct control. Often called a Corporate Cloud Computing resource.

This generally hangs around longer than is required but never lets the temperature get too high.

Mist Computing

You’re sure that you purchased the equipment for your corporate cloud computing resource, but you can’t see very much of it and it’s not a lot of use.

Very Light Drizzle Computing

You’re pretty sure that there must be a computing resource somewhere, you can feel it, but you can’t find it.

Drizzle Computing

You seem to have a large number of light-weight and low powered computing systems for your processing. However, all they seem to do is annoy you and never actually do anything useful.

Rain Computing

You have a large number of independent computers all working to solve your problem, or at least dissolve it.

Stair-Rods or Monsoon Computing

Somehow you seem to have huge numbers of high power processors on your hands, all working on your problem uncontrollably. Unfortunately, the upshot of this is that your problem isn’t solved, it’s washed away by the massive deluge of cost and possibly information overload.

So, do you have any more/better amusing definitions for weather analogous computing names? If so post them as comments below.

Surviving the stigma: The under cover geek.

A recent experience has made me aware at how much pressure I feel about hiding my geekiness and how I’ve gained over the years mental defence mechanisms and automatic self-censoring of my expression so as to seem “normal” around others in social situations.

I have become aware that I have a semi-concious editor metaphorically sitting on my shoulder observing me and suggesting ways to avoid mentioning anything to do with SciFi stories, quotes from films or technology unless someone else mentions it first. There’s a constant feeling that I should hide this side of me.

I think a great deal of this comes from my experiences at school. I was never in the in-crowd. In fact, I was often shunned and left out of all groups and bullied. This meant that I gathered quite a few coping strategies over the years, one of which is an automatic dulling, if not total suppressing, of all emotion if I find myself in a stressful situation. It’s very probably a very unhealthy thing to have but it was the only defence I had so as to cope in many of those years.

During the recent experience I mentioned earlier I found myself suppressing the geek side of myself more and more, fearful that the person I was trying to impress would not accept that side of me. This became highly stressful.

I’d like to be able to release my inner geek and have “geek pride” but the defence systems are now so firmly ingrained that I fear I can never be rid of them, unless in the company of know geeks.

So, why does society have this reaction to geeks? Well, I imagine that it’s because they are different. The normal will always look on the slightly eccentric with suspicion. Of course, the most extreme end of geekiness can be rather anti-social, but so can the extreme end of the normal womaniser or the normal alcoholic.

Anyway, it’s sad, but that’s the way society is. I’ll just have to try to deal with it and interface with it on its own terms.


Musings on Internet dating.

Having tried Internet dating for some time and getting absolutely nowhere it was interesting to read about some research done in the USA into how this technology is being used and seen by those using it. The results definitely resonated with my experience and those I’ve talked to who have also tried it.

From my own experience and that of those of the opposite sex I’ve talked to (except for a couple of notable exceptions) it seems that the great majority of both men and women who frequent the sites treat it more or less like an on-line shopping experience, with all the consumer ideas of the perfect product which this entails.

There does seem, however, to be a marked difference between what the two genders seem to be looking for in this retail experience.

As for the women, there seem to be two types on the sites, those looking in the most part for a perfect, boxed, shrink-wrapped “bFriend 2” with money-back guarantee and those with children who seem to be looking for an emotional crutch and child minder. Those who are the most picky seem to be the ones who have been through a divorce. This is understandable in a way as they don’t want to submit themselves to the same hurt and pain as they’ve experienced in the past.

The majority of the men are looking for something very different. They seem to see dating sites as seedy singles bars with needy women ready to do anything for “love” and this, from the shocking stories I’ve heard, mostly seem to involve kinky sex.

So, what about these sites which purport to offer a “scientific” matching system. Well, as the report mentioned above put it, they’re not exactly scientific. I’ve filled out the whole slew of personality profile questionnaires and very often the “matches” it gives (from the very small selection available) are very often laughable.

In my experience, the sites which have put the most emphasis upon complex matching have been the least able to supply any meaningful connections. Indeed, in my experience, the site which makes the most of its matching ability and advertises so on the TV never once gave me any matches who would respond to a simple “Hello”, let alone actually meet someone.

In addition, the advertising intimates that there are thousands of members of the opposite sex just waiting to get in touch with you when you join. Well, there are thousands of members, possibly thousands which match your criteria globally. However, if you trim it down to those who are actually within a realistic distance to make the logistics work and then filter out the vast majority of the members who are inactive (or merely spam-bots) you get down to a very, very small number, in the low hundreds, more likely in the tens. New member seem to appear in quite small numbers too, probably no more than five a week, on a good week, and most of those become disillusioned so quickly that they can be thought of as inactive members.

What’s even more problematic is that all these sites charge an exorbitant amount of money per month for this “service”. I have no gripe with paying for a service but some of these sites charge nearly £20. There is no way that a simple web interface to a database and some simple data extraction logic should cost this much to run. It’s close to being a scam.

So, in these days of isolated, static social circles what is the possible alternative for those who wish to find a partner? Actually, I’m not sure these is one. Internet dating seems to be the only game in town, even if it it is close to useless.


Why, if time travel were invented today, it would be pointless and deadly.

I know it’s a random subject but bear with me. This is a little thought experiment on the subject of time travel and, if it were miraculously invented today, would be totally pointless and deadly, at least for humans.

First of all, let’s look at what I mean by “time travel”. Basically, my definition is that it is travel forwards of backwards in the fourth dimension of time by popping out of space-time in one temporal location and popping back in another. i.e. there is no spacial movement. This assumes that there is actually a fundamental space reference frame within the Universe which would probably change size and shape caused inflation and local gravitational field effects.

So, why do I postulate that it would be pointless today?

Well, let’s think about this. We are not stationary. We have velocity relative to everything except the few things around us which happen to be enjoying the same small area as we are. Even objects you can see a few feet away from you have a very slightly different trajectory to you because of the curvature of the Earth and its spin and the orbit of the planet around the Sun and also the orbit of the Solar System around the galaxy. So, if you were to just pop out of space-time just for a few minutes you’d find yourself either high in the sky, possibly even in space, travelling in an awkward direction or, even worse, suddenly underground squished by the planet you’ve hit at a couple of thousand miles per hour. Ooops! Paraphrasing Douglas Adams, not a naturally tenable position for a human.

This means, of course, that before you can use your new time-travel machine first you need to build yourself a nice inter-planetary capable space craft. At least you’d not have to worry about getting off the planet but you would have to make sure that your time jump was long enough to make sure nothing was in the way when you popped back into reality.

Well, this would be fine as long as you had a decent inter-planetary drive and enough time to travel back to Earth. The problem comes when you want to travel for more than just a few hours, or maybe days. You see, the further you travel backwards or forwards in time the further you will be from Earth when you arrive. After a few days you’ll be finding yourself popping back into existence outside the Solar System so you’ll need not just a fast inter-planetary ship but an inter-stellar one. If a fast inter-planetary craft is hard to come by at the moment then a nice inter-stellar one is even rarer.

Of course, there are other problems when you start moving very far from where you began, the most notable of which would be the change in the distortion of space-time due to gravitational field differences. Goodness knows what the effect would be when popping out of the high gravitational field distortion close to the Sun, Moon and Earth and then popping into a far “flatter” field in inter-stellar space. Would the instant change in your own space-time bubble be detrimental to your survival or physical integrity? I don’t know. Of course, this effect would be amplified greatly if you made large time jumps as space-time itself would have changed size due to the expansion of the Universe.

Overall then, time travel, other than the usual one second per second forward, is probably not a good idea, and likely to be a tad unhealthy at that. It’s probably why you’ve not met any time travellers yet.

White (or rather blue) van man damage.

It’s not been a good week for my car. Sometime on Wednesday, whilst it was sitting on my drive, a good 10ft (3m) from the entrance it was hit by another vehicle. It was little more than a rub but it has caused some paint damage and also subtle denting to the rear, driver’s side wheel arch and passenger door. This is a right pain.

From the paint left behind from the other vehicle and the other evidence it looks like it was a dark blue (the same sort of colour as “Home Delivery Network” use on their vans) and the height of the bumper was that of a van. From the angle of the impact it seems that the vehicle was using the wide driveway as a turning place.

The worst thing about it all is that he/she didn’t stop and leave their details. Still, it’s definitely not worth claiming on the insurance as for the next five years I’d be paying far more than any potential repair cost, even though there is no way that it could have been my fault. Such is the way that insurance companies gauge risk.

As I said, what a pain.

The end of an era, or should that be epoch?

Yesterday was the last day of the move of the University of Oxford Department of Earth Sciences from the building(s) it’s occupied since 1948 to the new building just around the corner. (The chemistry labs are still situated there until November but the building is now technically “owned” by Chemistry.)

This was the end of an era for me as well. I was the first person to move into the extension in late 1992, getting key number 139, and my office was one of the last to get moved out as well. So, I’ve certainly been the longest resident. Yesterday I handed that key back for the very last time, after having it in my pocket continuously for 18 years almost to the day. The end of another era.

The new building is very different from the old one. It’s light and airy but also more “corporate” and soulless. One real benefit is, however, that the common room is on the roof and last night, at the weekly Happy Hour, it was very pleasant sitting on a sofa with only the spot lights switched on watching the nearly full Moon climb above Headington Hill intermittently shrouded by scudding, silver-rimmed clouds and the sky changing from a light turquoise to a dusty dark blue over the period of an hour or so.

Still, the only constant in life is change and I can see that the new building *IS* an improvement in many ways from the old one. There are things the old building had which were better, such as a larger library, but on the whole there are fewer of those than than the new one’s advantages. Let’s just see how things progress…