Sunday, October 07, 2012

All in the best possible taste.

A possible outbreak of unpleasantness has been avoided after some prime diplomacy between the local Police and the operators of Amazing Bikes – the specialist motorcycle restoration and customisation company based in Maypole Crescent on the Darent Industrial Estate in Slade Green. Amazing Bikes run a biker’s get together / club on the last Friday of every month. The event attracts a large number of motorbike enthusiasts from all around the region. This popularity has had a bit of an unintended result; the sheer number of bikes heading along Manor Road has in the past caused noise disruption to local residents; a handful of bikers did not do themselves or their club any favours by pulling wheelies and treating Manor Road like a race track. For some reason the main offenders in this respect were not young kids – they were middle aged blokes with £700 leathers, riding powerful racing bikes – exactly the type who should have known better. The August meeting was particularly bad in this respect, and it caused a lot of bad feeling from the residents of Manor Road. You can read some opinions on this page of the Erith Watch website here. Subsequent to this, the North End Safer Neighbourhoods Police Team met with Amazing Bikes on the evening of the September meeting. Some diplomacy and mutual accommodation have been undertaken. The Police report that the club meeting was very well organised, with proper event marshals. They have reminded the club management that they need to ensure members don’t act irresponsibly on their way to and from the monthly meetings; any further transgressions will attract the attention of the traffic division. Understandably nobody wants to go down this avenue. To give Amazing Bikes their due, the speeding and bike gymnastics witnessed by local residents back at the end of August were not repeated at the September meeting; the riders kept religiously to the 20mph speed limit on Manor Road, and the number of bikers using the route was drastically lower than on previous occasions. I think that the darker evenings, and the wet weather may also have had an influence on the situation. If the bikers can keep the noise and minority bad behaviour at bay, I don’t see a problem with peaceful coexistence. Time will tell.

The mystery around the platform extensions on some of the stations on the Dartford to London train line deepens once again. As recently described, some of the extensions were completed, or very nearly so (such as at Erith station) whilst others were apparently abandoned whilst half built (Plumstead is a good example). I thought that this would have been an end to it, at least until the next financial year. I notice that a whole new set of portable site offices and workshops have been set up in the car park of Erith station (incidentally, I cannot recall when it was last actually used as a car park – it has been out of bounds to rail customers for several years). At present I don’t have a clue as to what work is now to be undertaken – but from the number and size of the units, it looks like they are likely to be around for quite some time. The units are converted from sea containers – the interiors have been refitted to turn them into offices and workshops. The bonus is that the units are extremely strong and difficult for a thief to break into, as the windows and doors are covered with steel hatches when the units are unoccupied. If any reader has an insight into this new spate of building work, please let me know.

This week marks the tenth anniversary of a piece of software that shook up the online world like nothing before it. Until 2002, most computer users had only one real choice of web browser. Microsoft's Internet Explorer had something like 98.5% of the market, as the once wildly popular Netscape suite had imploded some time before – the ins and outs of the way Microsoft rose to such dominance in the browser market are not something I will detail here; suffice to say that that battle is very well documented online, should you choose to read more on the subject. So confident of their continuing dominance with Internet Explorer, that Microsoft stopped development with Internet Explorer 6. They famously said that there was nowhere left to take a web browser.  The fact that IE6 was even then renown for being a buggy, slow, full of security holes pile of junk was neither here nor there. M$ had decreed the browser war was over, and that was it. Only not quite. At the end of September 2002 a very early (and at that time somewhat rough and clunky) new open source web browser called Phoenix appeared for online download. It was written by two programmers – Dave Hyatt and Blake Ross, as a fork of the Mozilla (now called the SeaMonkey) software suite – an integrated web browser, Email client, newsgroup reader and web page designer. The two men wanted to remove the bloat from the massive combined package, and concentrate on just the web browser element, as they correctly surmised this was the way forward. Initially they renamed their new browser Firebird, but encountered copyright and other legal issues – there was already a database server application using the Firebird brand. In February 2004 the browser was renamed again – to (and you have guessed this already, I suspect) Firefox. Since then, Firefox (and more recently the Chrome browser from Google) have gone on to utterly shatter the Microsoft browser monopoly, to the point where Internet Explorer is now a minority web browser – despite the continued and very irritating campaign of TV adverts that are currently airing in the UK and elsewhere. The statistics I get from Blogger regarding visits to the Maggot Sandwich show that Firefox is now the most commonly used web browser by readers, closely followed by Chrome, with Internet Explorer coming in third. This may be a bit unrepresentative of the “real world” though, as a lot of companies and government departments still use Internet Explorer, as they have web based applications specially coded to the quirks of that browser family. A lot of corporates are still stuck with IE6 – even though this has been out of support for what seems like an age. To give IE its’ dues, the latest versions (9 and 10) are actually not bad at all, although they are limited to the Windows platform. Much credit to this dramatic improvement can be handed to the Firefox team, who upped the bar on web browser development, and showed Microsoft that they could no longer rest on their laurels. Happy birthday Firefox.

The News Shopper finally picked up on my story about the installation of the Erith Wind Turbine from last week; they currently are featuring a story first posted by them on Tuesday about a man from Slade Green who was taken aback at the sudden appearance of the 285 foot tall structure located adjacent to the junction of Manor Road and Ray Lamb Way; to be honest, the guy cannot take much interest in local events – it was on the Bexley Council planning website for several months prior to work commencing, and notices were attached to a number of lamp posts in the area directly surrounding the proposed site. All I can surmise is that he must have walked around with his eyes half shut. I always read planning applications when I see them posted locally (it is where a significant number of my local stories originate). I also keep an eye on the council planning website – despite it being a bit of a nightmare to successfully navigate. I don’t think he really has very much of a case. Quite a handful of other locals have taken up the cudgel, agreeing with him - and none seems to have been aware of all the planning publicity. I do think the council could have leafletted nearby houses just out of courtesy though - it would have only taken a few minutes to stuff a flyer through letter boxes, thought there would always be a danger that it was binned after being mistaken for another bloody pizza menu. If you live in close proximity to an area designated as for industrial use, it somewhat goes with the territory that new and potentially unusual structures may appear from time to time. I knew that when I moved into the area – it is one of the factors that keeps the house prices affordable, so it is a two way street. The NIMBY's who oppose the wind turbine should have picked another back yard. I do think that the wind turbine is imposing – when you enter Erith and look Eastwards, it does dominate the skyline, that had previously been notable for the Erith Riverside Shopping Centre structure and the pseudo barnlike bulk of Morrison’s. Now the wind turbine makes a new land mark for the area; in my mind somewhat preferable to the hideous fish sculpture (tm) that the town has been notorious for over the last few years. There has been little local resident feedback other than in the News Shopper (whose talkback comments do tend to attract a certain number of habitual whingers - which devalues their worth, in my opinion) so far; it will be instructive to learn what other people think of the newest architectural addition to the town. If there was going to be a wind turbine in the borough, it was always going to be on the cards that it would be located in Erith - it is the only town in the London Borough of Bexley that has direct access to the River Thames, and thus the strong winds that regularly blow upriver; it is close enough to the main national grid power cables to minmise transmission losses, and Bexley Council generally treat Erith and Slade Green as the arse end dumping ground of the borough anyway. To summarise, if you don't like developments in the industrial area, you should not have moved next door, as it is what happens around here. Sad but true.

The CD and CD player have just turned thirty. The Sony CDP-101 CD player (see photo above - click for a larger view) was launched on the 1st October 1982 in Japan, though it did not make it into the UK until the following year. My friend Andy, a fellow Saturday boy in Silica Shop bought one; I recall when he first played it to me - I was impressed by the total silence between tracks, but it was so toppy and squeaky that "Holiday" by Madonna sounded like it was being sung by Minnie Mouse! I also pointed out to him that it sounded like his loudspeakers were wired out of phase, which he hotly contested. It was only very much later (actually, when I was researching this piece) that I discovered that the CDP-101 used a single Digital to Analogue converter to save money. Normally, CD players have a Digital to Analogue Converter (DAC) dedicated for each audio channel. The Sony CDP-101 only had a single one, which had to process the audio for both the left and right audio channels. This was done as a money saving exercise - the DAC was the single most expensive component in the player. The down side of this cost cutting was that audio from the left and right channels was out of synchronisation by eleven microseconds due to DAC timesharing - this was what I was incorrectly detecting as speaker phase shift, though the sonic results were the same. Everyone of a certain generation can vividly recall when Tomorrow's World presenter Kieran Prendiville famously spread strawberry jam on a CD by the Bee Gees and then got the disc to play on live television. What most don't recall is that the jam was spread on the label side of the disc, not the data side; also, early discs were half again as thick as later production ones, and were far robust than those that were sold to the public. 

As an anonymous poster has recently commented, I thought that I would give my readers some background information on event that was planned, but never came to fruition. Back in 2008 my former employers, Radio Caroline planned to move their then newly restored radio ship, the Ross Revenge to a mooring on Erith Pier. I was involved in the plan, as working for Caroline is a bit like joining the Mafia – you never really leave. The organisation is run by volunteers, and pretty much everything is powered by goodwill. Because of my close proximity to Erith Pier (Pewty Acres is less than five minutes walk from the pier) I would have been the ship’s key holder when it was not crewed. The plan was to moor the ship on the pier for a few months, broadcasting using a special event radio licence. This was designed to coincide with the release of the Richard Curtis film The Boat that Rocked”. The biggest obstacles were the Port of London Authority (PLA) and Bexley Council. The council were concerned that the ship would lay on the Thames mud, and kill small worms that were apparently unique to the area. They did not realise that ships moor at the pier all of the time. I had to trudge round to the pier from Pewty Acres every time a new ship moored up, in order to get photographic evidence to back this up. The police were concerned about the Ross Revenge attracting anti social behaviour – primarily from local chavs trying to break into the ship when unmanned, in order to steal anything they could. The fact was (and is) that the Ross Revenge is built like a fortress; following the illegal 1989 Anglo Dutch raid on the vessel, it was re – engineered to make a future boarding next to impossible. The doors and portholes were armoured – it would take several hours with oxy – acetylene torches to gain ingress to the locked ship. Secondly, any scrotes seen acting suspiciously on the pier would have no means of escape. If the Police sealed off the entrance to the pier, in Morrison’s car park, there is no other way for a person to get away, other than by jumping in the river – and the last time this happened, it ended up in a death. So the perception of risk was far greater than the reality. I understand that there was also an objection from a resident of the retirement flats nearby; from my understanding, several of their claims were malicious – they basically did not want to have a “bunch of scruffy pirates” nearby. They were also worried that they might get harmed by “radiation” from the ship’s radio transmitter. The fact was, the main 50 Kilowatt medium wave transmitter would not have been used. All Restricted Service Broadcasting Licences specify the maximum available transmission power, and this is usually no more than a couple of Watts – not even enough to power an incandescent light bulb. A much smaller, dedicated transmitter would have been used – it is not economic to “turn down the wick” on either the 50kW or either the 10kW or 5 kW transmitters on the ship to less than ten Watts. To be honest, had the 50kW transmitter been powered up in a fit of madness, every fluorescent tube in half a mile of the antenna would have spontaneously lit up, powered by the intense radio frequency field. I have seen this happen myself when I was on board in 1990; the induction of RF into fluorescent tubes is quite a spooky experience – seeing a tube light up on its’ own is counter intuitive (and you can have great light saber fights, as long as you don’t clash the tubes, or wave them around so hard that they shatter!) Anyway, for various reasons that I am not fully party to, the Ross Revenge never made it to Erith. It was a great lost opportunity, as for at least part of the time, the ship would have been open to paying visitors. I was looking forward to guiding locals around what once used to be my own floating home. Incidentally, if you watched "The best possible taste" on BBC 4 earlier this week, the dramatised documentary about the life of Kenny Everett - the section with him on board the Radio London ship, the Galaxy in the mid 1960's, was actually filmed on the Ross Revenge at its' current mooring in Tilbury.

And now to the traditional ending video; I have had some very positive feedback regarding my coverage of the unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) a couple of weeks ago. People were generally fascinated by it, and several wanted to know more. I pointed them in the direction of Aerosight - the company that owns and operates them. The video below is a piece of test footage, and thus not as slick as the original promotional video I shared when I first talked about the company, and their recent test flights in Erith. This footage, shot in a field, has a humorous ending - look out for the blonde bloke with the fishing rod...

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