Sunday, September 26, 2010

The Unconvention.

I have had a very busy week; Pewty Acres has had a new central heating system installed, which was a far bigger endeavour than I had been anticipating - but more of that later.

Yesterday I was one of eighty London bloggers and community website operators who was invited to attend the London Online Community Unconference 2010 at the OFCOM headquarters on the South Bank, close to Shakespeare's Globe Theatre and the Millennium Bridge. What is an unconference? Well, unlike a conference, an unconference does not have a pre - set agenda or well defined set of aims. What happens is that the delegates sit down together at the start of the event (although not before a restorative cup of tea or coffee) and come up with a list of subjects that they would like to discuss. These are noted down on large sheets of paper, which are then hung on a wall. During a break out period, the delegates then sign their ames to the papers containing subjects of particular interest to them. The organisers then timetable the discussion workshops to enable as many delegates to attend their meetings of choice throughout the day. I met a number of interesting and socially active people, including fellow local blogger, and Belvedere resident, Malcolm, who produces the Bexley is Bonkers website. I also met Guardian journalist Sarah Hartley, who has kindly linked to my Flickr photo album of the event. You can see her blog, along with her thoughts regarding the event by clicking here. I also bumped into Darryl of the excellent 853 blog, covering the Charlton area; I have been reading his writing for quite some time and it was great to meet him, even if it was quite briefly. You can find a link to 853 on the right of this text column. I also met the organiser of the whole event, a very nice chap also called Hugh from the Haringay online web site.

I attended workshops on working with the Police and Emergency Services, the legal position of local website authors and bloggers, with special reference to copyright, defamation and contempt of court, when reporting legal matters online. Later I attended a meeting to discuss how local sites should network and share information, and a lively debate about whether hyper local sites and blogs should share a set of basic technical standards and have a method statement outlining any political or special interest affiliations of the site owner. We then broke for lunch; I was expecting some curled up sandwiches and a few tired crisps. What we got instead was an amazing free spread - the photo below really does not do it justice, as quite a bit of the fare, including most of the hot dishes had not yet been laid out when I took the shot, and by the time it was, I was too busy troughing it up!

I had a Thai glass noodle salad with mint, coriander, lime and chilli, accompanied by quite a few wooden skewers of chicken satay with a peanut and sweet chilli sauce. I also had a kind of tortilla wrap, filled with a creamy and savoury bean mixture that I have never encountered before. It was delicious. There were a variety of hand made sandwiches, all minus crusts for that extra posh look, along with several types of fish and vegetarian sushi too. Needless to say many people went back for seconds, as there was plenty for everyone with some to spare. There was a continuous supply of free tea, coffee, still and sparkling water and a variety of fruit juices too.

After lunch the workshops continued. I attended a session on the coalition governments' "Big Society" project, and the impact and potential empowerment that this will have on local website providers and bloggers. This was led by William Perrin of the Kings Cross Environment website who has met with the Prime Minister to discuss how the new governments' policy on the transfer of power from local councils to local community groups will actually happen. William, speaking from experience, made two very telling comments about dealing with local and national governments; many of their staff are reluctant to hand power over to local people, as this would mean that their annual budgets would be reduced - departmental status in both local government and Whitehall is determined by the size of the budget. His first comment was "Don't think that Yes Minister was a political sit com; it was really a gritty, fly on the wall documentary". He then followed with some advice for getting things actioned in the web enabled world. "If you want to get things done, form an online network. If you want to stop things getting done, form a committee". Strong stuff, indeed.  Also present in this session was the PM's special advisor on community networks and the big society, who agreed with everything that William stated; though somehow I doubt he would do so in public.

There were sessions I had to miss, due to scheduling conflicts - these included the choice of technical platform for your local site for non technical users, an introduction to micro blogging using Twitter (which I have to confess I detest - I cannot see the point of posting a couple of lines of text. How can you provide context or analysis for anything you "tweet"? Not one for me I am afraid). There were sessions on site monetisation and sustainability, marketing your site and how to forge links with the non - online world. The day ended with some hyper local sites being demonstrated on the big screen in the presentation room, and then a wash up session to finish the day. I found the whole experience to be excellent, informative, entertaining and it also enabled me to meet and network with some friendly and like - minded people.

I was asked if I would make the photographs I took of of the event available online. As this is something I automatically do anyway, this was not a problem. They are all available for free use to all, under the Creative Commons Licence. All I ask is you link back to the source and that I receive credit for them. Other than that you are welcome to use them as you see fit. You can see the photos here.

A community web resource has been established following the success of the unconference. If you are interested in finding out more, click on this link to take you to the Neighbourhoods Online web site.

I see that the Erith branch of the Redeemed Christian Church of God (what a mouthful!) have had their planning application reviewed by the Council. Their Praise Embassy Centre - what used to be a tyre warehouse - normally has several hundred worshippers on a Sunday. I have walked past many times and heard the music and drums. It would appear that there have been objections from local residents and businesses. You can read more about the story on the News Shopper website here.

Blogger have recently upgraded their spam filtering software; and not a moment too soon. I get some very annoying and regular Chinese spam, which now seems to have been joined by more in English. Fortunately none of it gets online, as I have comment moderation enabled. This is the reason that you don't see your comments appear instantly on any article - I have to check it out before it goes live. Originally this was because Blogger did not have any kind of automated comment filtering. This has now changed, and it now manages to capture nearly all the rubbish that was threatening to clog up the Maggot Sandwich. If you click on the image below if will expand to full size and you will be able to see the kind of junk that hits this website on a daily basis.

Another issue that seems to be affecting people locally is the irresponsible actions of a number of Dominos Pizza staff. They are currently involved in a sales promotion that entails staff dressing up in fancy dress costume (usually something like Spiderman, Sylvester the Cat, or Homer Simpson). What they apparently are meant to do is stand on the pavement in shopping areas whilst showing a placard with details of the special offer displayed. What has been happening in Erith is that the costumed numpties are lurking, awaiting passing vehicles, then jumping out into the road, waving their placard at the windscreens of passing vehicles. They have also been seen on the central reservation of the Erith Fish Roundabout, jumping out in front of passing vehicles. Obviously this poses a danger both to themselves and the general public. The local Police are investigating.

Thanks to Swale Heating I now have a new boiler, magnetic water filter and scale remover, along with five refurbished double radiators, all new valves, thermostat and digital system controller. The existing heating infrastructure was first power flushed and treated with corrosion inhibitor before the new hardware was subsequently installed. All in all the work took two very long days, during which time Pewty Acres resembled something halfway between a building site and a bomb site. Floors were taken up, the ancient fuse board was rewired, and walls were drilled and chased for new wiring. Swale did an excellent job, and their rates offered good value for money. The only caveat in the whole experience was the sub contractors that erected scaffolding on the rear of my house to enable access for the removal of the old flue and installation of the new one. The scaffolders were the only part of the operation not directly controlled in - house by Swale. One neanderthal bloke was found standing on the transparent polycarbonate roof of the lobby that connects my living room and the kitchen. The whole reason for the scaffolding being erected was that this thin roof, constructed of the same materials used in conservatories is unable to support a person's weight. I told him to get down immediately, which he refused. I then shouted at him that the roof was bowing under his weight and would collapse if he did not move. Eventually he did get down under protest. The Swale engineer was as amazed as I at the scaffolder's behaviour. The engineer gave me the contracts manager's phone number and I immediately phoned him to complain (the contract with the scaffolding company is between Swale and the scaffolders, not with me). Whilst I was on the phone, the scaffolder had got back onto the roof again. At this point I was incandescent with rage. Anyway, cutting to the chase, Swale have launched a complaint and investigation against their sub contractor, and I will update you when news becomes available. My main concern is that the lobby roof has become damaged and will no longer be weather proof. One thing is certain, if this proves to be the case, yours truly will not be footing the repair bill.

The video this week is a repost from October 2006; the reason for the re - run is that a lot of current Maggot Sandwich readers were not around at that time, and the item deserves another airing. As you may know I am a Radio Amateur, and hold an advanced class radio licence. What you may not be aware of is that if you tune around the short wave bands on a suitably equipped receiver, you will quite regularly come across mysterious electronic voices reading out lists of apparently random letters and numbers. The stations transmitting these messages come on and off apparently at will. What these strange things are is secret numbers stations. They are run by various intelligence services as a way of passing coded messages to under cover spies. You may think this is all part of the past, and the cold war.  Actually there are more secret numbers stations transmitting now than at any time in history. This is one area where old fashioned analogue communications beats digital in terms of secrecy and untraceability. You can watch the following short documentary for a little more detailed information. Please feel free to leave a comment below.

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