Monday, May 18, 2009

New ideas for entrepreneurs in India

I recently came across instructions for building a DIY milling machine on the great Instructables web site. This fascinating web site has detailed instructions for building all kinds of interesting gadgets ranging from solar powered cars to do-it-yourself CNC milling machines. I myself have successfully built an IR sensor for my model train layout based on plans I found on that site.
It occurs to me that with the tremendous reduction in cost of creating sophisiticated machine tools, it would make a great deal of sense for some entrepreneur in India to create a machine shop on the cheap. Most of the cost in creating a physical object nowadays arises when creating a CAD model. However, there are large numbers of recent Indian engineering graduates trained in most popular CAD tools. All it takes is for some enterprising engineer to get things rolling.
Thirty years ago when I was in high school and college, there was a vibrant DIY culture in India. Due to high import duties and "licence raj", it was very hard to get consumer electronics at reasonable prices. To save a few bucks, many people used assemble their own radios and casette players.
In every big city there was a place you go to get electronics components. Lamington Road in Mumbai, Richie Street in Chennai and Lajpatrai market on Chandani chowk in Delhi. I have many happy memories of hours spent in Lajpatrai market haggling with shopkeepers over transistors, resistors and capacitors. We would design and etch our own printed circuit boards - getting heavily stained with ferric chloride in the process.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

The inspirations for my train layout

One of my main inspirations for my model train layout are my memories of train travel in India where I grew up. I have been on many memorable railway journeys in India but the ones that stand out in my mind were in the mid to late 1970s when I often travelled between New Delhi and Chennai (then called Madras) by the Tamil Nadu Express (Click on photo at left to see the original photo taken by by Mick Pope in 1977 on the IRFCA web site).

Newly introduced in 1976, this train had a remarkable average speed of almost 75 Km/h. While this may be low by European or Japanese standards, it was a very big deal 30 years ago in India. At that time, the only trains faster than the Tamil Nadu Express were the Rajdhani Express trains that ran, respectively, between New Delhi and Mumbai and Calcutta. The top speed of the train was 110 km/h which it touched on many sections. My brother and I used to time the trains with the help of a stopwatch and pocket calculator.
Apart from the high speed, there were several other interesting features on this train. The train had five classes of accomodation: air conditioned first class, air conditioned sleeper (one of the first in India), air conditioned chair car (yes, you had sit for 29 hours!), regular first class and regular sleeper. The chair cars had closed circuit TVs on which movies were shown. The train even featured a small on-board book store that sold magazines and novels.
My eventual (very long term!) goal is to model Indian Railways and the TN Express (as of 1977) in particular. Of course, there are no ready-to-run models of Indian trains - which means a lot of scratch building. To be sure, at the moment, I have neither the time nor the skill to scratch build rolling stock. Consequently, to get things started, I will be running American models. However, given that there is a fair bit of American derived running in India, this is not too much of a stretch.
The scenery, however, will definitely have a strong Indian flavor. I would like to capture the look of the Coramandel coast. My area of interest is near Ennore, an industrial area north of Chennai. The main line to the North passes over a backwater of the sea on a bridge and is quite picturesque. The scenery will mostly consist of palm trees and scrub bushes. There will be a big oil refinery on the layout. All railway structures will have to be scratch built. This should not be too hard since railway structures in India are not too ornate.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Kevin Kelly on complexity

Since I am on a complexity theme here it seems relevant to point out a new article The Arc of Complexity by Kevin Kelly in his Technium blog, about the things in the real world that we generally consider to be complex:
It is precisely that goldilocks state between predictable repeating crystalline order and messy chaotic randomness that we feel captures real complexity. 
A railroad consists of a large number of  independently controlled machines by agents (both humans and computers) that interact in seemingly infinite ways seems to meet this definition perfectly. The question about why some people like myself enjoy analyzing complex systems is outside the scope of this discussion :-)
A related topic: In my own work as a software researcher, I often find it useful to distinguish between what I call "good complexity" and "bad complexity". 
An example of good complexity is an intricate algorithm like that for, say, maintaining AVL trees. This algorithm has a personal significance since it was the first really complex algorithm that I encountered in my study of computer science. It took me a while to figure out what was going on but ultimately I found it rewarding.
I encounter "bad" complexity all the time in my work in the form of arbitrary requirements that often seem to arise for business or political reasons. The main characteristic of having to deal with these kinds of complexities is that time spent circumventing them is simply not rewarding. My guess is that this is caused by the nagging feeling that the whole problem is artificial and avoidable. A great place to read about these kinds of problems is The Daily WTF and this recent article in particular epitomizes bad complexity.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

A different kind of modelling

Thanks to the Programming Reddit, I came across this fantastic 12 part article by Shamus Young about how he wrote a program to generate a night-time cityscape from first principles (check out the video below). His methodical, iterative approach to creating the visual model is very similar to the approach that I have seen taken by some of the best model railroaders.
This leads me to think that there is something common to all modelers, whether they are using physical materials (wood, plastic and metal) or computer code. There is the same desire to capture aspects of the real world and to show off to an admiring audience.
My favorite model railroading sites tend to be those where a master modeler takes you through the detailed steps in creating a model such as, for example, Craig Bisgeier's Housatonic RR. In my view the similarities between the respective sites is striking.