Sunday, January 02, 2011

Easter here already?

The view of Erith Railway Station, taken looking down from the bridge on Bexley Road earlier this week. A bit different to the views of the place I posted last week, when highlighting the damage caused due to neglect, negligence and cost cutting by Network Rail's maintenance contractor. I have passed my findings on to Linda Piper of the News Shopper; the story is not exactly Pullitzer prize winning material, but I am sure it would suffice for a slow news week at least.

Morrison's in Erith started promoting Easter bunnies and chocolate eggs this week; I was gobsmacked to see a large display of chocolate novelties placed in the main entrance lobby. At first  I thought that they were leftovers from Christmas put on reduced price to clear, but on closer inspection they were indeed intended for Easter. Utter madness. Morrison's used to promote themselves as being more down to earth and "local" than the other big chains; no more - they are as venal and money grabbing as their bigger competitor, Tesco. It is hardly that we are past the festive season, though I do note with satisfaction that the number of people festooning their houses with Christmas lights and illuminated figures has reduced drastically in the last couple of years - It would seem that the house decoration arms race has thankfully blown itself out. I think this is a combination of a number of factors; the need not to show conspicuous consumption in the recession, the desire to keep ones' electricity bill down, and maybe the lingering thought that it was all rather tacky. 

I notice that the television ad breaks are now full of commercials for companies that want to buy up old mobile phones. Some of them, like Mazuma and EnviroFone are pretty reputable, but many of the smaller companies are not. Most say that they refurbish phones for sale in developing countries like India and China. This may be true for some, but it is now so cheap to manufacture and distribute new handsets in these markets, the effort and expense of refurbishment becomes an unwelcome overhead. Secondly, as some of the component materials have more value than the item they are inside, it may be more profitable to break the phone for the materials. Most phones contain quantities of copper, silver, molybdenum, gold, nickel, and palladium, as well as a range of plastics and glass. A lot of phones sold or donated for re-use do indeed make it to the developing world, but only to be broken for component materials, often by cheap child labour in sweat shops. on top of the substances listed above, some phones contain elements such as cadmium, arsenic and mercury, all of which are extremely hazardous both to health and the environment. This has become a major business, and really needs to be better regulated, but there is too much money changing hands for this to happen. There are alternatives, such as the Fonebank scheme operated by Oxfam. Not only does your old mobile handset get ethically treated, but you can donate the money to the charity to help in their valuable work. Everyone is happy. The other, even more environmentally friendly way is to not have a mobile phone in the first place - but that is another story - click here if you have not read my rant on mobile phones before.

I read in the news that singer Bobby Farrell of Boney M fame died this week whilst on tour; Here is a scary fact for the conspiracy theorists out there - he died in a hotel in St Petersburg, Russia on the 30th December - on exactly the same date and location as the death of Grigori Rasputin, subject of Boney M's biggest hit. Spooky!

I recall spending many happy hours playing the Atari 2600 games console as a kid; it was always when I was round at a friend's house, as it was far too expensive for me to have one of my own. I think it was most people's introduction to video gaming. There were hundreds of available games cartridges, and the system was in production from 1977 until 1992 - a hugely long life for any console. You might think of the Atari as long dead and buried, but far from it; there is a large retro gaming community that still produce new software titles for the machine. One of the latest, and indeed most ambitious is a port of the X-Box hit game Halo onto the Atari - it is called Halo 2600. It was written as a hobby project by former Microsoft Game Studio Vice President Ed Fries (nice to see a boss who can actually write decent program code). As with all Atari VCS games, the whole thing runs in just 4K of ROM, with 128 bytes (yes, bytes!) of RAM to store system variables, such as the score. The whole game was hand coded in 6502 assembly language in the old school way. No fancy visual development environments, or libraries of pre - written utilities to plug together and pass off as your own. No wonder the Atari 2600 is still so attractive to hobbyists, it is such a simple system by modern standards, but still capable of enduring and absorbing game play.

You can play Halo 2600 on your web browser by clicking on this link. Use your computer keyboard arrow keys to move and change direction, and the space bar to fire - but only after you have found and picked up the gun. Please let me know what you think. Leave a comment below - it will be moderated and published within a day.

Something I have written about before seems to have come back onto my radar. People putting their feet on the seats of trains and buses. This has been exacerbated by the recent terrible weather; the slush, grit and muck from travellers' feet really does not deserve a place on the seat cushions. It just shows an unthinking, selfish and thuggish attitude to ones' fellow travellers. I have recently discovered that tests at several UK teaching hospitals have found bacteria from fecal matter on visitors' hands, which had been transferred from their clothing after sitting on a bus or train seat. A previous occupant having stepped in dog poo, then stuck their feet on the seat. Vile, disgusting and wholly unnecessary.  

I am pleased to report the money transfer I undertook with Moneygram last week was successful, and the cash managed to reach the recipient safely, and did not end up financing Somalian pirates, as I had been fearing. I still think the system is in urgent need of a serious overhaul and modernisation. I would not recommend it to anyone unless there really is no other way to transfer money.

The video clip this week is from the excellent U.S TV series Mythbusters. They are exploring the urban myth that it is possible to saw through a tree trunk with machine gun bullets. The team have unsuccessfully tried this with a Thompson sub machine gun and an FN Minimi squad automatic weapon. They now try with an M 134D mini gun. I wish more educational content was like this.

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