Sunday, December 30, 2012

The turd minefield.

Appold Street (see the photo above - click for a larger view) in Erith has an unenviable reputation. Due to the actions of a small number of irresponsible dog owners, it has become what would appear to be the most heavily dog poo infested road in the town. For some unfathomable reason, a number of local pooch owners take their pets to vacate their bowels in Appold Street - and I am pretty sure than nobody in their ranks has any truck with the concept of a pooper scooper - even if they had heard of the device in the first place. Walking along the road is a lottery - the thoroughfare is a minefield of dog's eggs. The only upside of this foul miasma of second hand dog food is that it may help to discourage the illegal fly tippers that frequently dump their loads here. Everything from old lorry tyres to loads of builder's rubble seem to find their way into the road - the residents must be steaming - just as the freshly laid canine turds do in the icy weather. The local Police and council are aware of the issue, but exactly what can be done about it remains to be seen. 

The News Shopper have been publicising the PubSpy pub of the year (the “Golden Pint”awards); as I have previously mentioned on the Maggot Sandwich, the PubSpy has been a somewhat schizophrenic character over the last couple of years, as it became increasingly obvious the job was being passed to several different journalists in succession. A year or so ago, the PubSpy was written by a vicious and vindictive author, who managed to annoy a large number of people, myself included. Fortunately he (and it was a he) moved, or was moved on forcibly. The column is now written by a woman, who has a better, more fair handed approach and writing style. The down side to this is that she is not a beer drinker, and in my mind one of the principle tasks of a pub reviewer is to comment on the quality of ale being served. It is a bit like having Jeremy Clarkson reviewing the latest Aston Martin from his push bike. The second issue is that I have noticed that since the new journalist took over, a vast majority of the pubs and bars reviewed have been in the South of London – Bromley, Penge, Lee, and Catford being common locations. I am guessing that this is the area in which she lives, and she does not want to stray too far from home. I understand that the whole News Shopper organisation is run on somewhat of a shoe string, and I would hazard a guess that pub reviews are probably carried out in the personal time of the journalist, so I can understand her reluctance to venture further afield. Perhaps the role of PubSpy can be farmed out to more than one person, to get a better geographic coverage, and to better represent the News Shoppers’ catchment area. The fact that Bexleyheath based The Robin Hood and Little John has not received so much as a mention in passing in the newspaper is curious; the pub has won more awards than any other in the South East of England, and consistently wins the Bexley Camra best pub in Bexley award, to the point the competition has really become a race to see what pub can win second place. The Maggot Sandwich does get occasionally read by News Shopper staff, I understand; it will be interesting to see if I can elicit any feedback on this issue.

I, like many, were gutted to hear of the (not unexpected) death of Gerry Anderson. I had been aware that he was suffering from dementia for some time; a fact that understandably was not common knowledge. He had a degenerative neurological condition very similar to that which eventually saw off my Dad, so I can feel an affinity with what he and his family went through. Of all the series he produced in his long career, Anderson is best known for Thunderbirds. What many people don’t realise is that only 32, fifty minute episodes of the show were actually filmed, between September 1965 and December 1966. It is staggering the influence this tiny number of shows has had on TV and movies since. The fact that each episode was (with advert breaks) an hour long was virtually unheard of at the time. Many television producers incorrectly assumed that children’s attention could not be held for a full hour, and the standard length for a kids’ show was thirty minutes. On top of the unusual episode length, Thunderbirds was made with movie production values – the model and miniature work has to my mind not been surpassed. The credit for this went to Derek Meddings, special effects designer extraordinaire – a man who also was responsible for many James Bond films (he created the Lotus Esprit that turned into a submarine in “The Spy Who Loved Me”), and the man who made Superman fly. I suppose that the reason more episodes of Thunderbirds were not filmed was because initially the show did not succeed in finding an American audience, and it was extremely expensive to make. This became a characteristic of Gerry Anderson – his ambitions for his shows nearly always exceeded the will or ability for TV production companies to support them until they took off. You may recall that a couple of months ago I wrote at some length about another Anderson series – Space: 1999. At the time of production (1975) it was the most expensive show in British television history. Once again it failed to find a market in the USA and the plug was pulled after two seasons. It is ironic that both shows later went on to great success in syndication in many countries around the world, and were actually a great financial success – it just did not appear that way at the time, and the bean counters decided the productions had to be scrapped. In hindsight, the legacy of Gerry Anderson will live on for many years.

I think I am going to end 2012 with a much overdue whinge; On Thursday last week I was working from home; as so few people were going to be on holiday in the bridge between the Christmas and New Year holidays, my company made the decision to close most offices. A sensible move I believe quite a number of organisations have undertaken. Anyway, it came to midday and I thought I was due my break. My travel card was going to expire shortly, and I thought I would renew it whilst things were relatively quiet. I checked the National Rail Enquiries website, and it confirmed that the booking office at Erith Station would indeed be open as on a normal working day. I trudged down there in the rain, and – yes, you guessed it, the booking office was closed. I saw a chap in South Eastern Trains uniform and asked him what was going on. He shrugged and said – “Booking office is closed – you are too late!” I remonstrated, saying that the office was to be open until 7.25pm according to the website, which specifically outlined the opening hours for the 27th. The reply was dismissive – “Nothing to do with me mate, I’ve done my shift!” Realising I was going to get no further with the useless waste of space I went over the bridge and waited for a London bound train to take me to Abbey Wood station – somewhere where the ticket office is pretty much always open. I got to Abbey Wood and got off the train (who “alights” a train, as they say on the official recorded announcements? The only thing alight in Abbey Wood is the odd car or two). I made my way to the booking office. It was shut. By this time my patience was wearing thin, and I was starting to resemble Victor Meldrew. A couple of other passengers were milling around, similarly inconvenienced. I decided to go to plan B. I went back onto the London bound platform and waited in the rain for the next train. I got to Woolwich Arsenal station and went to the ticket office there – Yes! It was open. Of the three positions, only one was working, and the queue was long. I could see several members of staff inside the ticket clerks’ cubicle who were standing and chatting whilst drinking coffee; it was evident that there was a long queue, but they made no efforts to open other booking windows. When I eventually got to the front of the queue, I politely asked the clerk if they had a complaints procedure. Without missing a beat he flicked a leaflet through the turnstile to me. I got the feeling my request was a very common one. Eventually I got my new travel card and then headed home. The whole experience, which should have taken only a few moments to complete, ended up wasting ninety valuable minutes. If it wasn't such a hassle and a waste of even more time, I would bill them for my inconvenience. I cannot understand why South Eastern Trains make it so difficult to give them money. They are talking about closing the ticket office for good – to be honest, with experiences like mine, I do wonder that it would make a great deal of difference. The excuse is that you can get a ticket from the machine outside. The trouble with this is, the machines only do bog standard tickets – you cannot get travel cards or season tickets, or buy extensions for existing tickets to other travel zones. On top of that the machine is unreliable and frequently out of order, either through mechanical failure or vandalism. The chap who normally staffs Erith ticket office is affable and efficient enough, but he seems to be the exception to the rule. I have got a theory. I reckon the South Eastern Trains staff recruitment questionnaire probably goes something like this:- “Are you A) Lazy, B) Feckless, C) Ignorant D) Rude E) Incompetent F) Smelly? If you can tick all of these boxes, then you are hired!” Your thoughts below, as always.

I mentioned my interest in acquiring a Google Chromebook a couple of weeks ago; I have the device now, and have spent quite some time with it over the festive break. I have to say that I am very pleased with it indeed. One thing needs to be made clear at the outset. A Chromebook is NOT a replacement for an ordinary laptop, although it looks identical to one. Google’s rationale is that most casual computer users spend about 90% of their time on the web, rather than using a specific locally installed application. Nowadays most people have web based Email, rather than using a local email client, and their main computer uses are for Web 2.0 sites like Facebook, Twitter and the like. A Chromebook is ideal for this kind of use. Chrome OS is a very stripped down Linux build with the Google Chrome web browser on top, which is pretty much the only piece of software installed. All of the “Apps” are really just bookmarks to websites with application – like functionality. This might sound quite restrictive, but I have found that it works surprisingly well. The hardware specification might look rather unimpressive, but Chrome OS is so lightweight, in practice the machine really flies. Most activities which used to only be possible by having an application installed on your computer are now replicated with online versions – for example, you used to need MS Office or Libre Office to make documents or compile spreadsheets and presentations. Nowadays there are a number of excellent web based alternatives like Google Drive and Zoho Office, which offer most (if not all the advanced functions) for free and online. I have made extensive use of the Google spreadsheet when calculating the costs of the refit of Pewty Acres, and to be honest, I find it preferable to MS Excel. It is not quite so feature rich, but it is much more intuitive and very fast indeed – you cannot tell that it is web based. “Ah” you say, “but what if you have no web connection?” This indeed is a salient point. The Samsung Chromebook I have has built in WiFi and the ability to take a 3G SIM card (which I don’ t have). In practice, public Wifi spots are all over the place nowadays, and if you do a lot of travelling, 3G connectivity would be a good idea. How much work / play do you do on your standard laptop / desktop without being online? Not very much I would guess. Google Docs are very good. If you are working on a letter, spreadsheet or presentation and you lose your web connection, the web based apps just keep on ticking, storing the information locally. When a connection is re – established the cached data is quietly and without ceremony uploaded to synchronise with your cloud based storage. When you first log into Google Drive on a Chromebook, your standard 5Gb online storage allocation gets automatically and in perpetuity upgraded to 100Gb for free. Google are very keen to promote web based “cloud” storage. I know a lot of people are still very concerned about storing their information online instead of locally on their computers’ hard drive or backed up onto DVD or BluRay. The trouble with local backups is that they are rarely up to date, can easily be lost or damaged and invariably don’t work when you try and restore from them. I recall an old system administrator once told me “an untested backup is no backup at all”. Google have their faults, but their online storage is amazing. Every time you back up a file, it is mirrored to nine separate data centres around the world using military grade encryption. Even a volcano, tsunami or local nuclear exchange will not harm your files, even if a couple of Google data centres get wiped out, your data is still safe at other locations. Only an extinction level event such as a huge asteroid hitting Earth would endanger your data, and to be honest, I think you would have other things to worry about at that point! There are other companies offering a similar service, and my opinion is that it is the way forward.

The end video this week is a retrospective review of the classic 16 bit Atari ST range of computers from the mid 1980's. I used to sell and support these computers when I worked for Silica Shop at the time.Virtually every recording studio had one or more of these machines in use for many years, as they were the first popular computer equipped with MIDI. Watch the video for more information. Please leave a comment below.

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