Sunday, February 24, 2013

The electric gasper.

The photo above shows Erith Blockbusters, which I took yesterday; closure is iminent, along with most of the rest of the chain. Morrison’s have bought a number of Blockbuster shops, as they think that this will be a cheap way for them to expand into the convenience store market. Morrison’s have an eleven percent share of the UK supermarket business in the UK, but in London and the South East, they currently only have a six percent market share. Buy purchasing ex Blockbuster sites, they aim to expand their portfolio a relatively small cash outlay. Suffice to say that the Erith Blockbuster store is somewhat unlikely to get such a rescue, sited as it is, directly opposite the Erith Morrison’s store, separated by nothing other than the car park. I have not heard if any other retailer has expressed an interest in the site, but I am keeping my ear to the ground. Another shop is about to close in Erith Riverside Shopping Centre, the long established family run business Warmlake Sports, which was one of the few shops to carry over from the old Erith Town Centre before the rebuild and refurbishment some years ago. More on the old town centre later. “The death of the high street”, which has been predicted by a number of publications, including the Economist, really seems to be happening. Walking down Bexleyheath Broadway last week, I found that around 25% of all shops were either closing down, or already empty. It was not just the well known recent failures such as Peacocks and HMV, but family run Kimberley hifi and even outdoor specialist Milletts has gone to the wall. Things are looking more grim for the retail sector than I have ever seen before. Not only are people spending less, but their spending habits are changing; people tend to do a lot more shopping around by using price comparison websites and other web based searches. Quite often the shopper will then end up buying online. I don’t see how the traditional high street business model can continue in its’ present form without some serious changes.
Regular readers will be more than aware that I have been very keen on Bexley Council’s participation in the national “Scores on the Doors” food hygiene scheme, which is aimed at any outlet offering food to the public. Last week reader Brian submitted his review of the Ark Christian book shop and cafe. The place was graded as a 2 out of 5 stars when it was inspected in August last year. Brian’s very complimentary review of the place makes me think that the standards must have improved markedly since the inspection; I am trying to discover how frequently the Environmental Health inspectors check each food outlet, and if it is possible for an improving outlet to request a re – visit and new scoring. One place which only got inspected in mid January this year is the excellent Robin Hood and Little John in Lion Road, Bexleyheath (see the photo above). It is no surprise to me that this paragon of well kept real ale and proper home cooked food scored the maximum five stars out of five for excellent levels of food hygiene. I would have expected nothing less. The Robin Hood and Little John is most definitely not a gastro pub – they serve proper food, in substantial portions at a very reasonable price (click here for their menu as a PDF), which can be washed down by six regular real ales and usually a couple of guest ales, as well as a couple of craft ciders. I understand that they also sell lager, though I am not quite sure why. They have won the Bexley CAMRABest pub in Bexley” every single year that they have been eligible to enter; in fact Bexley CAMRA had to change the entry rules to allow other pubs to stand a chance; in reality the competition is about what local pub will come second – first place is a no brainer. I would strongly recommend you try this gem of a hostelry, it is without doubt the best pub in the area by a mile.

I think a lot of rubbish has been written by the Daily Mail and the Express recently; they have been publishing articles stating that millions of Bulgarian and Romanian immigrants will be arriving in Britain just as soon as the temporary migration ban expires. I don't know why they think this will be the case. How will they get here? - We've already eaten all of their transportation!

As many longer term readers will be aware, I am a big fan and user of the Linux operating system. I have been using it in one form or another since 1997 when it was clunky, difficult to use and really only suitable for technically experienced users. Nowadays it is as easy, or easier to use than Windows. Most people think that Linux is for geeks, and yes, us geeks do use it, but a lot of “civilians” use it too, often without realising it. Most TV set top boxes run Linux, as do pretty much every kind of embedded device; most popularly, the Android OS is actually Linux with a swish graphical user interface nailed on top. I digress. Much of the reason that Linux has not got much traction on the consumer desktop is because the software available for it is limited compared to the Windows environment; this is especially true in respect of  games – though this is now beginning to change. The largest game developer by revenue is Valve, and they have ported many of their most popular games onto the Linux operating system, these can be downloaded by anyone with a Steam account. At present only the Ubuntu distribution is supported, but as this is the largest and most widely used distribution, it should not be a major issue. I know of one hardcore gamer who has not considered Linux until now, but he is now about to install the free and open source Ubuntu, purely for the purposes of gaming. The reason for this relatively sudden move into Linux as a gaming platform is that it is widely rumoured that Microsoft are going to launch a Windows 8 app store, in a similar way to how Apple launched their app store a couple of years ago; Apple get a percentage of the purchase price of each game or other application downloaded from the store – Microsoft can see an opportunity for a new revenue stream by restricting software downloads to their own store. Valve are vociferous in opposing this change in business model, and as it is looking like Microsoft are going to hold firm, Valve are looking at the alternatives. The attraction of using Linux as a gaming platform is easy to see. On the same hardware, Ubuntu Linux runs between 14 and 24 per cent faster than Windows 7 – speed is essential for a gaming platform. Valve have written new graphics drivers for Ubuntu – which has historically always had the best hardware driver support of all Linux distributions. It seems to be a win/win for end users – a superior operating system that is free to download and use, and has no digital rights management  (DRM) to cripple what you do with the computer. Hopefully as at first the hardcore gamers, then the more mainstream users will realise that there is a lot more to computing life than what comes out of the Microsoft factory at Redmond. It will also be a healthier, multiple operating system environment, encouraging competition and thus benefitting the consumer in the long run.
Whilst carrying out some research for this weeks’ Maggot Sandwich update, I came across some references to the shops in the old Erith Shopping centre, before it was refurbished and pretty much rebuilt – see the photo above for an idea as to what it was like (in a word – horrible!) The multi storey car park was dark and intimidating, and the stairwells always smelled of wee. All in all it was a pretty depressing place, which many locals consider to have been deeply flawed from when it was originally built. I have heard older residents say with conviction that it was a major mistake to have demolished the original Erith Town Centre; certainly a lot of the buildings that were knocked down would nowadays be granted listed status. There was a restaurant in the town centre, squirreled away under the car park, in the darkest and most ominous part of the concrete monstrosity; it was called Monroe’s Carvery. I never visited the place, but it seemed to turn over a steady business, in the days before the McDonald’s and KFC drive throughs in Manor Road opened. It was a very old fashioned place – in addition to the carvery, they served dishes such as Duck a la Orange and Veal Cutlets, washed down with a bottle of Blue Nun and followed by Black Forest gateaux. I thought that this kind of retro dining experience had died with the fall of the wrecking ball, but I was proved wrong. Monroe’s lives on in spirit via a very long established restaurant in Bellegrove Road, Welling.  The Avenida has been around for donkey’s years, and I don’t think that the place has been changed in all that time. Their menu would have been cutting edge in about 1976, but now it is extremely retro in a non ironic manner. If the place was moved into the West End, it would probably be a hit with trendy twenty somethings wanting a taste of the seventies. Instead it continues to plough its’ own furrow. Not my cup of tea, but some people seem to like it.

As I walked home from the station on Monday afternoon, I noticed some activity on the old brown field site that used to house Erith Tram Shed. The land has been derelict and covered in undergrowth for years. I investigated, and was pleasantly surprised to see that work had just begun on the new Bexley College campus! Workers were clearing the ground at the riverside end of the plot of land, and setting up some portacabins as site offices. The old car park in Stonewood Road has been set aside as a store for building materials and construction vehicles. The campus will replace the old skyscraper buildings off Tower Road down by the Pom Pom, which are being sold off for redevelopment as yet more housing. Bringing the college into the centre of Erith will be a boost the local economy and a benefit to the students as well. It really is an all around win. I just hope that the redevelopment plans include step free access to the London bound platform at the adjacent Erith Station. Hopefully over the coming months we will get a better idea as to how the campus is going to pan out.

I was pleasantly surprised about the reader feedback to my questions surrounding electronic cigarettes last week; it would seem that former tobacco smokers who have switched to electronic cigarettes have found the process of then moving off smoking completely to be easier than with some other methods of quitting. I was a bit cautious about my feelings for the electronic fags, but it would seem that they are a massive improvement on conventional cigarettes – not only are they several magnitudes less health harming, but they don’t make noxious smells either, which was one of my main objections. Hopefully if these devices become more widespread, it may lead to people going out to their local pubs more frequently. It has been a norm to see a huddle of smokers outside licenced establishments come rain or shine. If, as one of my respondents says (and my further research has confirmed) they are legal to use in confined public places in the UK, it may encourage those smokers who stopped visiting the pub when the smoking ban was introduced to return to their local hostelry.  Please feel free to leave a comment below. It will be moderated and published within 24 hours. I have to use comment moderation, as I get around a hundred spam messages posing as reader comments every day. The Maggot Sandwich averages around 20,000 user hits a month, and I feel that it has in some ways become a victim of its’ own success.
You may recall that I recently covered the resurgence of interest in Low Energy Nuclear Reaction (LENR) otherwise known as cold fusion; the phenomenon was big news in the late 1980’s but those behind the “discovery” were not able to reproduce a sustained reaction in laboratory conditions, and LENR got written off as a con and a fraud. The research has since been continued by others, who seem to have confirmed that there is indeed something positive going on. The U.S Department of Energy are now so interested, that they have hired Professor George Miley of the University of Illinois Fusion Lab to head a team to investigate LENR and produce a report on it. If the U.S Government are interested in this alternative method of energy generation, and are prepared to invest several  million dollars in so doing, it is pretty likely that a workable LENR generator will be produced soon. I am aware that a number of private engineering ventures are working on generators right now. It is possible that the era of cheap, endless, pollution free energy is shortly to be with us. It sounds like a story that is too good to be true; I just hope that this is not the case.

You may have seen mention of the public launch of the Google Glass project over the last few days. Glass aims to change the way humans interface with computers. Looking very much like a pair of glasses, but with one tiny lens, Glass provides the user with real-time, contextual information about the environment. It could be a glimpse into the future of computing. It is the next phase in enhanced reality. I think the project is interesting, but I have my doubts as to the real life use for the web enabled spectacles. The ability to take photos and video in real time and to instantaneously post it online, along with automatic geo tagging and facial  recognition does mean a further erosion in privacy. The fact that images recorded via Google Glass mean that anyone captured has their details automatically uploaded to Google's servers seems like a gross invasion of privacy to me. Nevertheless, it is an insanely clever piece of technology. I am guessing that the glasses use a Bluetooth connection to an Android mobile phone, which then makes the connection to the Google Cloud, where all the clever voice recognition heavy processing is actually done. As a non mobile phone user, this immediately disqualifies me, not that I would be personally interested anyway. It strikes me that the kind of people who would most benefit from Google Glass are the kind of people who lead rather more adventurous and less cerebral lives than I. See a demonstration of the enhanced reality spectacles below, and feel free to leave a comment as always. Don't think for an instant I am anti the technology as such, just cautious as to the ways in which it can be exploited for the wrong reasons. I have compiled this entry on my Samsung Google Chromebook - more on Google Chrome OS next week.

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