January 2008

31 January 2008
Airport on stilts
Brian Micklethwait

Weirdness blogger deputy dog doesn’t do capital letters, but on the plus side collects strange structures and circumstances.  His latest weirdness is Funchal Airport, in Madeira, which is mostly not on the ground, but up in the air on pillars.  Lots of pillars.  It was on the ground, but was too short for comfort, and this was how they made it longer, apparently.  Underneath, there’s a big car park, which makes sense.

DD has photos of this, but the best photo of it that I found was this, on Flickr:


Whenever you find an interesting object, it’s worth looking for it on Flickr, I find.

This elaborate contraption - which looks rather like an aircraft carrier, I think – illustrates what an economic impact aviation can have on a region.  This is the trouble they are prepared to go to just to have airplanes serving them satisfactorily.  See also: Heathrow.

Half a million rail passengers delayed for several days at Guangzhou
Brian Micklethwait

If you find your trains sometimes to be late and always to be crowded, try putting up with this:

China’s most important railway, Jing-guang Railway (Guangzhou-Beijing), cannot reopen to traffic for 3 to 5 days, due to the power supply cut in Hunan Province and the aggravated snowy weather in the regions along the line, according to the Guangzhou Railway Group. Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao has gone to Hunan to inspect and oversea the situation.

Some 500,000 people have been condemned to waiting in Guangzhou for their trains. Passenger accomodation sites in the city are in good order and there are no crowds seeking refunds.

For the time being, all seems well.  But this blogger, who has pictures of various bits of the teeming thousands, reckons it will soon turn much nastier:

Because of the vastness of the situation, it was very hard to get a decent photo from the ground ... the pictures I have here only tell the story from a short vantage/viewpoint.  It is important to click on these pictures and to examine what lies beyond the initial view of the shot…what you will see are people.  Thousands and thousands of them.

I worry that as these people run out of money and grow more and more frustrated, tired, hungry, cold and wet, things will come to a boil.  You can imagine what will happen with these crowds once the first trains are announced on the loudspeakers ... the crush of those wanting to get tickets or those that have tickets trying to get through in time to catch the train.  It will be ugly ... no doubt.

I heard about this when Instapundit linked to the story.  Half a million people.  Half a million.

28 January 2008
Penalty Points Changes
Rob Fisher

The fog at Heathrow is lifting but my flight is delayed for some time yet, so a blog post is in order.  My in-flight entertainment, this month’s Bike magazine, has an article about DfT’s proposed changes to the penalty points system.  The idea is to introduce 6 point penalties for “excessive” speeders.  They have a nice chart illustrating speeds at which various penalties apply under the current and proposed systems.  Currently, on the motorway, you won’t (in theory) be prosecuted until you drive at 79mph.  Between 79 and 83mph you’ll be fined and offered a “speed awareness course”.  I can only imagine how useful that course is.  Between 83 and 96mph you’ll be fined and get 3 points.  Over 96 and you’ll be banned.  The proposed change is to introduce a 6 point penalty at 94mph.

The changes make more sense in a 30mph zone, where you’ll face the 6 point penalty for going faster than 45mph, and a ban for going faster than 50.

Various people are quoted.  Paul Mostyn of the Met is the most interesting.  He says, “Personally I don’t think the threat of more points will scare people into slowing down.”  He goes on:

The DfT has completely given up on dealing with driver standards and they just want to focus on speed.  Even though their own figures show that 50% of drivers regularly exceed the speed limits—70% of drivers on motorways—excessive speed is a contributory factor in in only 5% of accidents.  The real issue is the decline in standards, with 80% of of accidents caused by the worst 20% of road users,

Suppose we drive past a school at 3:45am at 35mph.  The place is deserted and no danger is caused.  But to drive past the same school at 3:45pm with traffic everywhere and kids spilling off the pavements also at 35mph may well be extremely dangerous.  Clearly these two offences are not equal, but the new penalty proposals will make them equal.  It’s absurd.

This sort of common sense is why I like the idea of police having discretion about who to prosecute.  As ever, I wonder what type of penalty system would be used if insurance companies made the rules.

27 January 2008
Presumably they have very nice stewardesses
Brian Micklethwait

Oh dear.  Foreigners are pretty good at devising their own versions of English and good for them, but it seems they’ll never really master English English:


Go here for the story.  Which is pretty obvious really, except that the airline in question is Turkish despite sounding rather South East Asian.

24 January 2008
Oyster Security Vulnerability?
Rob Fisher

A Samizdata commenter linked to a story about a security vulnerability in Mifare Classic RFID cards.  According to the wikipedia article for Mifare, which cites an article on what looks like an independent website called Mifare.net, these are Oyster cards, but there are variants of Mifare card so Oyster cards could be different.

The press release from the University of Virginia has the important details about the vulnerability, and an article by the CEO of a smart card consultancy company goes into even more detail.  What it boils down to is that only a 48 bit key is used to encrypt tha data stored on the card, so with the right equipment and know-how it is possible to quickly try all the keys and find the one that unlocks a given card.  Then it will be possible to read and write the data.  How useful this is depends on what is stored on the card.

If the prepay balance is stored, it would be simple to modify the balance.  But there may be other safeguards in place.  Certainly it should be possible for TfL to spot discrepancies between journeys made and balance deposited to a card.  But would-be hackers might be more sophisticated, so if Oyster cards do rely on Mifare Classic encryption the situation has changed from mathematical certainty that Oyster is secure to a battle of wits between TfL and computer hackers.

On the other hand, the effort required may outweigh the benefits of fare dodging.  Things could be much worse if Oyster cards had evolved into general purpose micropayment cards.  That idea was dropped last year.

23 January 2008
“Insurers put the brakes on teenage drivers”
Patrick Crozier

I had a double take when I saw this headline in the Telegraph.  I had another when I saw some of the premiums being quoted (some were over £4,000).  I even checked them for myself - £2,300 was the best I could do for a 17-year old with an ancient Ford Fiesta.  Lower but still very high.  I certainly can’t remember this being an issue when my generation were driving for the first time.

So, what’s going on?  When government ministers are losing their heads(1), I tend to look to actuaries and their world of real, actual numbers for some sanity.  My guess is that something is going on and for some reason young drivers are having more accidents although in the murky world of government regulation and the threat of government regulation it is just possible that nods and winks are having an effect.

Does anyone know for sure?

1. They want to increase the age for driving to 18.

22 January 2008
Low-cost airlines: a Transport Blog podcast
Patrick Crozier

Last week Michael Jennings and I sat down in a Central London café to record a podcast on low cost airlines.  Here’s my favourite bit.

We talked about how the low cost airlines operate, the lengths they go to to cuts costs, and the lengths they don’t go to, the situation before deregulation (bizarre as well as amazing) and how the low-cost way is now starting to spread to Asia.

Listeners will notice there’s quite a lot of hubub in the background.  I can only hope it’s not too distracting.

Oh, and there’s an odd bit of distortion as the microphone saturates.

11 January 2008
18 Stunning Bridges from around the World - some of which have actually been built (hat-tip: Marginal Revolution)  …link
Patrick Crozier • PermalinkFeedback (0)Bridges & Tunnels
"Schoolboy hacks into city's tram system" according to the Telegraph, though on closer inspection it seems a bit more complicated than that and without the hacking. The action took place in a place called Lodz which I understand it pronounced Woodge. So perhaps the headline should have been "Schoolboy makes Poland's trams as bad as its spelling." Just a thought.

Patrick Crozier • PermalinkFeedback (0)Trams
The Metros of South East Asia: a Transport Blog podcast
Patrick Crozier

“It’s not much of a quid pro quo for having lived through the Cultural Revolution and the Great Leap Forward…”

The other night Michael Jennings, Brian Micklethwait and myself sat down with the intention of recording a podcast about South East Asian Metros, Michael being pretty clued up on the subject.

We started well.  We managed to keep to the subject for a good five minutes before veering off onto topics as far apart as colonial architecture and the evils of communism1 the Metropolitan Railway’s Club carriages, the importance of passenger information, maps and timetables (or lack of them), international fare system convergence and commuter escalators.

The Singapore Metro with fancy butterflies

And our tendency for all talking at once continues unabated.  Oh well.

1. As evidenced by Michael’s quote at the top.

Update 11/01/08 Michael tells me that that “South” bit in the title is inaccurate.

05 January 2008
Train User Interfaces
Rob Fisher

Overheard on a train yesterday:

Passenger:  Can I have a ticket from North Sheen to Reading please?
Guard:  This train doesn’t stop at North Sheen.
P:  Oh, I changed at Richmond.
G:  Why didn’t you buy a ticket at Richmond?
P:  There wasn’t enough time to make the change, I’d have missed my train.  And there was no-one selling tickets at North Sheen.
G:  It’s your responsibility to buy a ticket before you get on the train.

And with that the passenger was made to sign a slip of paper and got booted off at the next station.  I don’t know the rights and wrongs of the situation.  It seems a little harsh to me but perhaps the guard knew that North Sheen is well staffed.  On the other hand the passenger didn’t look like one of the ticket dodging kids I frequently see who hide in the toilet.

But all this is just another user interface problem.  No-one would put up with software that threw away half an hour’s work because they didn’t have time to click the right button when they first loaded it up.  Being thrown off a train half an hour into a journey because you didn’t have time to buy a ticket, or there was no-one there to sell it, is a similar problem.  Being too late to buy a ticket but not wanting to miss the train is a dilemma I’ve faced.  Another is forgetting to extend my return ticket and, having hunted the train for a guard who won’t sell me an extension, choosing between breaking my journey half way to buy one or risking getting in trouble at the end.

The solution is a better user interface.  Oyster pre-pay is better than paper tickets, although not without its own UI problems.  The best idea I’ve heard of is buying tickets by text message.  This has the advantage of working wherever you are, so no queuing and no missing trains.  Happier customers and less aggravated guards will result.

When I hear of some funky, new idea which is going to revolutionise the world of transport - or anything else for that matter - I ask myself one question: who’s doing it?  Because, if it’s a finger-on-the-pulse, go-getting, business, the chances are that it will work and if it is something that’s being developed in an extortion-funded university it probably won’t.  Universities are, as Brian would have it (and me, for that matter) places where “...old ideas go to die.”

So what am I to make of this crash-proof car idea?

The engineers, working with DaimlerChrysler…

Sounds good.

...Glasgow University’s Centre for Systems and Control…

Sounds bad.

What is a girl to do?

Patrick Crozier • PermalinkFeedback (0)Miscellaneous
02 January 2008
Train travel advice
Brian Micklethwait

From Johnny Vaughan, glimpsed during a plug for QI on Dave TV.

“If you’re on a train and you don’t want anyone to sit next to you, and you see someone approaching, smile at them and pat the seat.”

Or just: look the way I do.  That always seems to work.

And, since I appear to be the first poster here this year: Happy New Year.