July 2007

31 July 2007
The ethics (or lack thereof) of vandalising 4x4s
Patrick Crozier

It happens in Germany:

Greens employing guerrilla tactics have begun targeting the prized assets of car-loving Germans.

The tyres of dozens of 4x4 vehicles were slashed last week in Berlin, with each attack accompanied by a note detailing the dangers of carbon emissions tucked under the windscreen wiper.

Which, at first, made me wonder why they don’t vandalise themselves (after all, I presume these people, at very least, breathe).  Then I realised it’s the “greed” that motivates them - the idea that there are people out there who consume more than they do - far more than the idea of actually saving the planet.

30 July 2007
Red Bull Air Race
Rob Fisher

Perhaps this is only loosely about transport, but, well, the pilots of the Red Bull Air Race planes were certainly transported very quickly around a course over the Thames this weekend. I went along to see what it was all about.

The 13 pilots take part in a series of time trials around a course marked out by inflatable conical gates. Various high G aerobatic maneuvers are involved, at high speeds and very low altitudes. Watching the aeroplanes take turns to fly the same course would quickly become repetitive were it not for the sheer excitement of the spectacle and the slick presentation. Competition is close, it is obvious when a pilot makes a mistake, and thanks to the excellent PA and commentary it is easy to follow the progress of the competition.

Although air racing is almost as old as aviation, the sport in its high profile, international, Red Bull guise is young. An interesting new development is that one of the pilots flies an Extra 300SR specially modified for air racing by the manufacturer. If manufacturers start to compete as they do in Formula 1, this will add a new dimension to the sport. I hope that it grows and television coverage becomes more prominent.

Quite how Red Bull manages to sponsor so many expensive looking sporting events is an interesting question. It is a privately owned company, so I have a romantic vision of a wealthy owner with a passion for extreme sports. I wonder if this is anywhere near the truth.

26 July 2007
On the weirdness of popular rail economics
Patrick Crozier

I saw this in the Guardian’s account of the Cross Country announcement in which the franchise has been stripped from Virgin and awarded to Arriva (via Tim Hall):

The ticket hike will help pay for 40 more carriages and 3,000 more seats on the new Cross Country service…

Is there any other business that’s run on these lines?  Did Tescos charge more for tinned peaches in order to pay for their self-service checkouts?  Of course not.  Any decent well-run company is charging top whack anyway.  And any investment should be able to pay for itself.

Of course, neither of these things apply to the rail industry where fare control with its concomitants of losses and subsidy mean that all sorts of perfectly sensible investments cannot be made without someone - whether the passenger or taxpayer - being made to feel a loser.

The answer is to abolish fare control.

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Arriva’s proposed new livery

25 July 2007
Better than a Veyron?
Patrick Crozier

Well, if the asking price of £1m is anything to go by.

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La Marquise - built in 1884

24 July 2007
New train: “…almost half as fast as an airplane.”
Patrick Crozier

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New N700 Series
I admire the Japanese Bullet Trains (aka Shinkansens) very much - not least because I am not paying for them - but I had to laugh when I read this particular quote, marking the launch of the N700.  Is there a better way of saying: “Gather round everybody, look at us, we’re not very good.”?

If even the Japanese are struggling to say good things about trains, it all rather confirms my belief that as a form of transport they’re doomed.

In that vein I’ve been toying with the idea of compiling a list of insuperable train-travel bugs.  I mean problems that either cannot or probably never will be solved.  If I did I think I’d have to include this one, along with:

The ugliness of the view
The ugliness of the structures
The complexity of the fares
The inflexibility eg you can’t use trains for your trips to the DIY store
The actions of other people

Incidentally, I have yet to find out what the “N” stands for in N700.  Not-half-as-ugly-as-a 700, perhaps?

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700 Series Shinkansen

21 July 2007
How public transport fails
Rob Fisher

Yesterday I observed an interesting public transport failure mode.  Floods had closed many tube stations, so people took to the buses.  The buses filled up.  People making journeys that would otherwise have been unaffected by the tube station closures were left stranded as the full buses drove past their stops.

This situation should be a good business opportunity, but with all public transport in London provided by the same organisation, I doubt the incentives are strong for extra bus services to be laid on.  No doubt taxi drivers did very well.

18 July 2007
Third driving licence directive
Rob Fisher

This isn’t new news, but I don’t think it has been mentioned here before, and all kinds of things seem to go on at the EU without anyone asking for them or anyone knowing about them.

In the March 2007 issue of Bike Magazine (unfortunately not online), Rupert Paul writes:

What were you doing on December 13?  Working?  Shopping?  Cooking the dinner?  In Strasbourg on that particular Wednesday, the European Union was up to something more far-reaching:  achieving its 15-year dream of wrecking motorcycling.

This is a difficult subject for freedom-loving motorcyclists.  The EU is so stultifyingly boring that 98% of you have already turned the page.

According to a press release from March 2006 it looks as if the third directive on driving licences will be in effect by the end of 2012.  It consists of many changes intended to “harmonise” driving licences, but just so no right thinking MEP can object, lumped in are proposals to “improve road safety”.

Currently you can ride a 125CC bike at age 17, keep it for two years and then start riding a full sized bike.  Or at 21 you can take a direct access test and ride a full sized bike straight away.  The new rules increase the minimum age for a 125 to 18, add a second test to progress to a full sized bike, and increase the minimum age for direct access to 24.

Motorcycling advocacy organisation FEMA is not amused.  Rupert Paul continues:

Fewer riders means fewer customers, and harder times for manufacturers and dealers—which means higher prices for bikes, clothing, insurance, servicing, you name it.

Worse still, it’s an interference in our lives nobody asked for.  I mean, has anyone ever taken you aside and said: “Christ, Jack—I’m out of my mind with worry about the lack of harmonisation of European driving tests.”

The directive also contains provisions for changes to the weights of trailers that can be towed on various types of licence, increased licence renewal frequency, more communication between national authorities and various changes to HGV licences that I don’t understand.  Then there is this curious statement:  “Member States are allowed, if they so wish, to insert a microchip in the licence.” Given that it is unlikely that any previous directive prevented them, I wonder why this is mentioned at all.

17 July 2007
267mph…
Patrick Crozier

...on the Shanghai Maglev.

Fun. (Hat-tip: More Than Mind Games)

10 July 2007
Biking to nowhere
Rob Fisher

The point of many motorcycle journeys is not to go anywhere in particular, but to have fun getting there.  That’s why you see bikers congregating in large groups in certain locations:  they are locations that have interesting roads nearby.  I spent most of this weekend riding my bike around Hampshire and Dorset.  Motorways are too boring for motorcycling, so it’s a great way to explore the A- and B-roads, see the countryside and discover villages I’d never otherwise have known existed.  It’s also a good way to test out the B-road algorithm.

The video below was made, using a special camera mount, on Friday evening on the A32.  It’s rare to encounter so little traffic and experience the freedom of the open road by car, but by bike convoys of cars and lorries are quickly passed, and I frequently get the road to myself.  This makes riding a real pleasure.


09 July 2007
Electronic tolls lead to higher tolls
Patrick Crozier

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ERP in Singapore
The idea is abroad (via Marginal Revolution) that electronic road pricing (ERP) leads to higher tolls.  Bearing in mind London’s experience it would appear that you don’t the electronic bit.

Marginal Revolution suggests greedy government.  Mark Thoma suggests that, hey, with ERP roads are a better product so people are prepared to pay more for them.  A commenter on the post suggests that it’s actually all to do with our inadequacies as human beings - because with ERP you pay later you tend not to notice so much. 

I’m a bit worried about that last one.  If true it suggests that prices are not all that good as signals.  Which kind of undermines free market theory - or, at least, that bit of the theory that explains why markets work.

03 July 2007
Airliner simulation on the PC
Rob Fisher

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767 Virtual Cockpit
”Airline pilot” is the answer you would have received on asking me, many years ago, what I wanted to be when I grew up.  Myopia and a talent for computer programming meant I never pursued that ambition, but lately I’ve been discovering just how thoroughly it is possible to play at being an airline pilot at home on a PC.

There are two versions of Microsoft Flight Simulator currently of interest.  FSX is the brand new version with extra prettiness and extra behind-the-scenes realism, but it requires a fairly beefy PC, so there is the previous version, FS2004, to fall back on.  Being an incurable computer geek, I naturally have a machine NASA are jealous of and that generates so much heat that I suspect it has a carbon footprint about the size of real airliner’s.  Having a powerful computer helps if you want the latest and best of everything, but isn’t essential.

It turns out that Microsoft Flight simulator falls short in various areas, and this is where the wonderful world of flight sim add-ons comes in.  For a start, if you want to simulate an airliner with enough fidelity that it can be flown just as it would be in real life, you need to buy an add-on aircraft.  The best are PMDG’s 747 and Level-D’s 767.  These are meticulously researched using data from the manufacturers and input from real airline pilots, many of whom use these products themselves.

The three dimensional representation of a Boeing cockpit makes for an immersive experience, but when every knob and switch does exactly what it does on the real thing, you may just wonder which to turn or press first.  Mike Ray is a retired pilot who writes informal guides for real pilots to use to revise for their regular “check-rides”.  These are great for reference, but Mike has also written a more introductory tome especially for flight simmers.  Another company makes step-by-step DVDs that take you through the whole process of a flight from planning to arrival at the gate.  If you still have questions, there is an active community ready to help who treat their flight simming as a serious hobby; no mere computer game.

For flight planning there is a plethora of tools available.  You can download up-to-date charts, including standard departure and arrival routes for every airport.  You can look up the routes taken by real planes in the last few hours (or even track planes on a map in real time), and there are tools that let you calculate the correct amount of fuel and other parameters needed to set up the aircraft correctly.

An extra touch of realism comes from air traffic control, which Flight Simulator is by default notoriously bad at.  One product simulates air traffic control with recorded voices, while another allows you to talk to real people who will watch your progress on a simulated radar display and give you instructions by voice over IP.

Finally, there are products that add realistic traffic and real-time weather to the experience.

Playing with all these toys has provided me with hours of entertainment.  I now feel like I have well and truly got inside the mind of an airline pilot, and should have all kinds of added insight into what’s going on next time I fly.

01 July 2007
Tinkering
Patrick Crozier

Tinkering.  It’s deadly.  You start off trying to tart up the sidebar titles and before you know it you’ve:

  • Designed a new banner
  • Made it clickable (even in IE7, although it won’t admit to it)
  • Turned off trackbacks (waste of effort)
  • Redesigned the comments
  • Added a comments feed (it’s down there with the others)
  • And done various other stuff most of which you can’t remember

Oh well.