Sunday, September 23, 2012

Erith Watch.

Southeastern trains have announced their best performance and punctuality figures over the summer; according to their figures, 95.5% of the 50,500 trains that have run over the last four weeks have arrived within five minutes of their scheduled time. This sounds impressive (as no doubt it is designed to), but the reality is somewhat more prosaic. Southeastern shortened many trains from eight to four carriages over the Olympic and Paralympic period and spread the shorter trains around the network in order to fulfil their punctuality targets. How many people were stranded on the platform, unable to join a train due to the subsequent overcrowding is anyone’s guess. What also niggles with me, is that the much vaunted programme to extend railway station platforms not only has ground to an utter halt, but nothing has been said of the reason why. At Erith station, the platform extension was completed back in June, yet the extended sections are still barricaded off and unavailable for use. At other stations on the same line, such as Plumstead, the work has been abandoned half finished. I recall some reference being made to problems with the track power supply which would prevent longer trains from running – a definite case of not thinking the problem through properly before commencing work; not that we should be surprised I suppose. I can recall when the Networker trains were first rolled out; they were touted as being the best thing since sliced bread, and in many ways they were an improvement on the old slam door stock that they replaced. One thing the track engineers had overlooked was the tunnel between Woolwich Dockyard and Woolwich Arsenal – the tunnel was too small for the new Networker rolling stock to fit through. There were months of remedial engineering to enlarge the tunnel bore to allow the Networkers to fit through, and red faces all round. I just hope the station platform elongation programme has not ended up with a similar fate. Nobody seems to be talking about it.

Following my recent discourse on the future of OLED television displays, I have had a couple of readers ask me for advice on 3D televisions, and which of the two main viewing technologies was best – active or passive glasses. The answer to that is not straightforward, and in most instances, “it depends”. Passive 3D televisions work by creating two separate pictures, each one aimed at either the left or right eye. The glasses are simple polarised plastic or glass – the advantage here is that they are both inexpensive and light. If you have a large family, seven passive sets of glasses can cost the same as a single pair of active glasses. The disadvantage of passive systems is that because the image is split, each eye only gets 50% of the normal HD screen resolution, so an HD picture in passive 3D actually only has an effective resolution of 540 horizontal lines. Another disadvantage is that the 3D image can only be seen if the glasses are kept horizontal – no lying on your side on the sofa, unfortunately! Active 3D systems rely on sometimes heavy, and always expensive glasses that require battery power. They synchronise (usually via a Bluetooth wireless connection) to the TV and have microscopic shutters which open and shut at slightly different times for each eye to create the illusion of 3D. Technically, active 3D systems are more sophisticated, but with that sophistication comes the additional expense. I can see a situation very similar to the conflict between Betamax and VHS video tape formats in the late 1970’s / early 1980’s. More affordable TV’s tend to use passive technology, whilst more expensive “smart” TV’s tend to use the active technology, although there are exceptions to this. I note that Sky are voting with their feet nearly all 3D content on Sky is set to favour passive displays. Personally I am not a fan of 3D; I find it wearing to watch, and most of the effect is gimmicky. My smart television has active 3D, but to be honest, the only time it ever gets used is when I have guests who wish to try out the novelty. I think that even when “no glasses” 3D television comes of age, it will only attract a minority following, as 3D really does not add anything to the enjoyment of whatever content you are watching, once the novelty has worn off. Your thoughts are welcomed by clicking on the comments option below.

Talking of television (and who says that I don't plan these things?) As a kid, I used to watch all the imported American action shows that used to be on ITV on Saturday early evenings - you know the kind of thing - The A-Team, Knight Rider, Airwolf, The Dukes of Hazzard and the like. There was one show that even at a young and impressionable age I could never suspend disbelief over, it was utterly dreadful at every level. Do you recall "Manimal"? The show starred British actor the late Simon MacCorkindale, who played a character called Doctor Jonathan Chase, who had the ability to transform himself into any kind of animal. He used his unique talent to fight crime. Despite the animal transformations being created by multiple Oscar winning makeup special effects genius Stan Winston, the show was a mess; when Jonathan Chase transformed into an animal, it was (I guess for budget reasons) almost always a hawk or a black panther. The strange thing was, in a similar fashion to the TV version of the Incredible Hulk,  Chase was depicted generally wearing a three-piece suit and tie, and the viewer would see it rip off of him as he shape-shifted into an animal, though once the transformation was complete there would be no sign of his discarded clothing. A bit later, he would transform back into human form with all of his clothing perfectly restored upon his person, even if he was unconscious. The show was camp and very cheesy, to say the least. One would think that such things would be very much left in the excesses of the 1980's, but it turns out not to be the case; a big budget Hollywood movie of Manimal is currently in pre - production; you can read all about it by clicking here. I somehow  don't think it will be a success - I can see it bombing in a spectacular fashion.

If you were extremely lucky last Saturday morning, you might have seen an object hovering over Erith, it was small and dark, and emitted a faint humming sound. Before anyone picks up the phone to Nick Pope, or phones the MOD UFO hotline (actually, you can't any more - it has been closed down), it was a flying object, but not an unidentified one. It was an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) which is owned and operated by a company called Aerosight. They are registered by the Civil Aviation Authority, and use UAV’s to film aerial footage for TV and films, they conduct land surveys, check the condition of power lines and tall buildings, and they can provide air footage for commercial and private applications. You can see their website by clicking here. Basically they can do everything a camera operator in a helicopter can do, but at a lower price and more flexibly. The UAV’s can launch and land vertically in an amazingly small amount of land. I was fortunate enough to be asked along to witness the test, and I have to say that I was extremely impressed. Whilst in some ways it looked like a large flying toy, the Aerosight UAV is a very serious piece of kit. You can see a demonstration video above, which was filmed using a UAV and also some helmet mounted mini cameras. I recommend that you click the lower right hand side of the video box to get it full screen to really get the full impact - really impressive stuff.

The Autumn / Winter edition of the Erith Watch neighbourhood watch newsletter has been published. Local residents in Manor Road, Crescent Road, Appold Street, Aveley Close, Springhead Road, Aperfield Road and Britannia Close should have received a copy through their front doors this weekend, thanks to a small group of local volunteers who helped to distribute the leaflets to 400 local households. This issue is printed in black and white, unlike previous issues, which were in full colour. The decision to simplify the printing process was taken to save money. The Erith Watch team had lost their colour printing facility, as it was so expensive to use. As with so many things, there are times when cutbacks have to be made. The content of the newsletter is unchanged however. You can see a copy of the latest newsletter above – click for a larger version. The team are keen to encourage local residents to join the Erith Watch website; it has strong elements of social networking – members can post discussions and photos, and learn the latest information on local security and safety matters. Members also get automatically emailed with updates on local security – it is an excellent way to keep track of what is going on in and around Erith, and it has the involvement of the North End Police Safer Neighbourhood Team. Local residents who sign up to join the Erith Watch site may have to wait up to 24 hours before their account goes live. The Erith Watch team have recently had problems with spammers posing as residents, then having the discussion forums on the site deluged with spam about fake pharmaceuticals and the like. Account moderation has had to be enabled to prevent this happening again. The spammers have had their accounts deactivated, and the spam messages have now been deleted from the forum pages.  You can see the website by clicking here.

It never ceases to amaze me how concepts and technology originally created as plot devices in science fiction soon become reality. In my opinion, the biggest contributor to this phenomenon has got to be Star Trek. Mobile phones, tablet computers, and the 3.5” floppy disk are all devices inspired directly from the original classic TV show. Scientists are now saying that warp drive is theoretically possible, even if we are a huge way off being able to build a starship using warp technology. In essence, a warp drive will exploit a loophole in the law of the speed of light (nothing can travel faster than the speed of light in a vacuum). Instead of trying to move the ship ever faster, requiring greater and greater input of energy, the warp drive turn the problem on its’ head. Instead of trying to go faster, the warp drive distorts space/time around the starship; in effect the ship remains stationary whilst the  space in front of the ship is contracted, and the space behind the ship is expanded – basically the universe moves around the ship. The concept for a real life warp drive was suggested in 1994 by a Mexican physicist Miguel Alcubierre, however subsequent calculations revealed that his design would consume prohibitive amounts of energy. Recently physicists have re – examined the calculations, and have discovered a method of redesigning the warp generator to run on significantly less energy, and bringing it back from science fiction and into the realm of (theoretical) science. An Alcubierre warp drive would involve an American football shaped spacecraft attached to a large ring encircling it. This ring, potentially made of exotic matter, would cause space-time to warp around the starship, creating a region of contracted space in front of it and expanded space behind. Meanwhile, the starship itself would stay inside a bubble of flat space-time that wasn't being warped at all. Everything within space is restricted by the speed of light.  The really amazing  thing is space-time, the actual fabric of space, is not limited by the speed of light, and can be warped. With this concept, the spacecraft would be able to achieve an effective speed of about 10 times the speed of light, all without breaking the cosmic speed limit. This is all very well in theory, but some absolutely staggering advances in engineering and materials technology will need to be made before this ever approaches practicality. Having said that, it is very cool indeed.

Over the last year I have highlighted a number of technological anniversaries - whether it was the 30th birthday of the BBC Micro, or the birth of the floppy disk. This week is no exception; it marks the 30th anniversary of the launch of the Jupiter Ace computer. A machine that could have potentially been the herald of a revolution in home computer programming, had it managed to sell more than a handful of units. The unique feature of the Jupiter Ace was that it was not programmed in the Basic language - something all 8 bit home computers treated as a de facto standard in the 1980's. Instead the Ace used the Forth programming language. You can read all about Forth by clicking here. Forth was a more advanced language that was compiled at runtime, and was on average ten times faster on equivalent hardware than Basic. The problem with the Ace was by the time it was released, the hardware specifications were obsolete - the build quality of the computer was extremely poor too - very few were ever sold; consequently they are now worth a small fortune to computer collectors. There is a second computer anniversary this weekend, which does not appear to have been picked up by anyone of note - which is curious, when one considers the number of people who run their lives with the technology. It is the fourth anniversary of the launch of the Android operating system. in four short years this revolutionary piece of open source software, based on the Linux operating system, has come from nowhere to now dominating the mobile device market - independent surveys say that Android now has 68% of the market for smart telephones and tablet devices - not bad for something that was originally written off my Microsoft as a no - hoper. Windows phone or Windows 8 Metro anyone? I am pleased to see Android take off in such as successful manner, as I have been a keen Linux user since the very early days of Red Hat 5.1 - back in 1997, when Linux was horribly clunky and reliant on expert configuration and administration. Things are much changed now - if anything, it is easier to set up and operate than Windows.

The closing video is something of a novelty. It shows the toy "Thomas the Tank Engine" owned by a small boy. It is his favourite toy, and it goes everywhere with him. He fantasises about Thomas going into space. Dad makes his dream come true. It goes to show that ventures that only twenty years ago were only the concern of NASA can nowadays be undertaken by private individuals, thanks to modern technology. Please feel free to leave a comment below.

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