Saturday, February 02, 2013

The Sandwich in exile - week two.

The photo above was taken by me last Sunday afternoon during the brief but very pleasant break in the current cold weather. It shows a couple of Dutch bulk freighters that regularly moor on Erith Pier - click on the photo for a larger view.

Following my Sunday morning sojourn to my Mum’s to publish last weeks’ blog update after losing my broadband connection - which turned out to be due to my wireless router. It was transmitting OK, but it had become completely deaf to the fibre optic connection linking it to the outside world. A BT engineer visit on Wednesday morning swiftly rectified this with a replacement router, though this lasted barely 24 hours before it too died; at the time of writing I am once again without an internet connection, and am for a second week running posting this from my Mum's computer. BT intend re - visiting on Monday afternoon. I will have to come home from work at lunch time, and just hope that the engineer turns up as booked.

When I returned to Erith last Sunday afternoon, the weather was unusually sunny and pleasant for the time of year, so I decided to go for an extended stroll around the town with my camera; it had been nearly a year since I last took any local photographs, and I was aware that there had been a number of changes that deserved documentation. Mindful of the story concerning the Aleff Group, and their plan to renovate and convert the former Cross Keys pub into a new corporate headquarters for their Anglo American management consultancy, I thought that I would walk along the Thames path on the section that cuts between the side of Erith Playhouse and the side and garden of the Cross Keys. I wanted to see how the renovation work to the building was progressing. I was quite disappointed to see very little evidence of any external improvement to the building. The previous owners had run the place into the ground over a period of many years, and the resulting neglect is most evident to the rear of the structure. The windows, though covered with anti vandal metal shutters, could clearly be seen to be in need of replacement, as the frames were rotten. The cold water overflow pipe looked like it had been dripping for possibly a couple of years, and there was a bright green streak of algae growing along the path of the dripping water . The former pub garden is very overgrown and in dire need of some serious attention. All in all a rather sad looking state. On Wednesday I contacted the Aleff Group, and got a very friendly Email from their Chief Executive; he informed me that renovation work on the Cross Keys is actually scheduled to begin in the next couple of weeks. The first phase will take approximately two months, and once this is completed, a skeleton staff will move into the building before phase two begins. When this is completed, the building will be renovated and modified to suit its’ new role as the HQ for the multinational organisation. Chief Executive,  Doctor Julian Hilton also wrote in his Email that he has been very pleased with the welcome he and his team have received from passers by when they have been visiting the Cross Keys site. The Maggot Sandwich will be getting a tour round the building once all of the renovation work has been completed; I hope to get photos as well. Anticipate an extended article on the Cross Keys and its’ new occupants sometime in late Spring / early Summer.

Prior to my Email conversation, the Aleff Group appeared to be a bit of a mystery; being charitable, their website certainly has a retro and homespun look. To be honest, until I did some research on them, I was half of the opinion that they were a dodgy front for some dubious fraudulent organisation. After a bit of online digging around, I came across the following: “The Aleff Group was founded in 1992 at the suggestion of the European Commission (DG XII and DG XIII) Its initial charter was to act as a mechanism for taking leading edge research and development in science and technology into the market. It has developed into a small group of operating companies dealing with consultancy, training and capacity building, project management and technology transfer. It also comprises a property company and an investment company. Each company operates on a standalone basis, but has a single ownership and management structure. The Group is privately held. It is headquartered in London, UK. It has US offices in Lakeland, Florida, and Atlanta Georgia, and an office in Ifrane, Morocco. In addition to its core staff of management, finance and IT professionals, Aleff Group retains an international team of specialists consultants. It also has long-term collaboration agreements with a small number of specialist organisations in both the public and private sectors." Well that explains that then.
The much awaited 99p shop opened on Monday this week - see the photo above, which was taken last Sunday, just as the owners made their last minute preparations for the opening the next morning; it is located in the old Pound Town unit on the corner of Bexley Road and Cross Street. Compared with Pound Town, the new shop is much better lit and not nearly as airless and stuffy. The amount and variety of stock seems a lot higher too. I had a nose around the place on Monday afternoon after travelling back from a business trip to Watford (here there be dragons!) I was impressed with what the new tenants have done with the space; I hope that they make a success of the venture. One of my local contacts told me that the previous Pound Town shop moved out not because  the business was not profitable – quite the opposite, apparently they were doing very nicely indeed. The reason for the move to their new location in the old Peacock’s shop in Crayford was that the landlord who owns the Erith shop would not extend their lease – something that seems rather strange; although I don’t know if there were any extenuating circumstances. As far as Erith’s value conscious shoppers are concerned, at least another shop offering even better low cost goods has now taken the same site, so for them, it is pretty much service as usual.

Here is a bit of fun. Maggot Sandwich reader the Rev created this spoof publicity poster - all rather "Bleak Expectations" I think!
Another couple of technology anniversaries this week; the first will surprise many. The Light Emitting Diode(LED) is fifty years old this week. I think most people think that they only appeared in the mid 1970’s, famously in early digital watches and calculators. In fact they were created in 1961, and came to market (in the USA at least) early in 1963. Several companies were working on developing the technology in parallel – GEC, Texas Instruments, and IBM all did work in the field, and the final patent was registered to GEC. Early LED’s were quite dim, and only available in red. They proved very popular, as they (and are) far more efficient that incandescent bulbs – they have an efficiency rating in excess of 90% and have a life expectancy of 100,000 hours. Other colours such as yellow and blue became available in the mid 1980’s, although they were still relatively dim, and were not commercially viable to produce until the 1990’s. The ultra bright LED’s that are nowadays starting to replace conventional domestic light bulbs were something developed by Hewlett Packard, although once again these turned out to be prohibitively expensive to manufacture in quantity. It is really only in the last ten or so years that multi coloured, extra bright and sufficiently cheap LED lights have become available, and they are rapidly beginning to dominate the market. Industry sources say that it will be less than a year that all car headlights and indicators will be exclusively LED. They are also getting progressively brighter – the latest types can generate 250 Lumens per Watt of electricity – an astonishing figure. This almost certainly the death knell for the universally hated fluorescent “energy saving” bulb. The slow to start up, not as long lasting as claimed and poor light quality mini fluorescent bulb is dodo technology. It is not nearly so efficient as LED, it contains harmful chemicals such as Mercury, and has a relatively short service life compared to LED. I have LED lights in my kitchen – both in the ceiling as down lighters, and above the work surface as multi coloured concealed mood lighting. The are brilliant – on instantly, silent, cool, energy efficient and good looking. They are still slightly more pricey than fluorescent lights, but the hugely longer service life more than compensates – you would get through thirty or forty (or possibly even more) fluorescent bulbs for the life of a single LED, not only that, but the far higher efficiency would have saved a packet on your electricity bill at the same time. Personally, I tend to leave the kitchen multi coloured mood lighting on at night – if I come down for a drink in the early hours, it saves blinding myself switching on the main lights, whilst being bright enough to see. The power consumption of the mood lighting is roughly equivalent to the output of a nine volt dry cell battery, so it is a very cost effective option. 
I was queuing to pay for some shopping in Morrison’s midweek, when a lady with a toddler approached me. “Are you Arthur Pewty”? She asked. I confirmed that sometimes I was. She then told me that her husband (who was sitting in the cafeteria with their other toddler) was a regular reader and great fan of the Maggot Sandwich, and once I had completed my shopping, would I go and have a word with him? Flattered, I agreed and shortly popped over for a very pleasant natter with Tom, who is an Erith local who has been following my inane ramblings for a good couple of years. Getting recognised in public is a bit of a novelty; it does happen on the odd occasion – mainly at public events like the Alexander Selkirk day, where I got collared by a handful of people. The experience, which I have found to be productive and congenial does make me wonder why a small but significant number of people seek fame at almost any cost. The rise of reality TV (which itself is a misnomer; it is about as divorced from reality as you can get) has left some people under the impression that appearing on television and in public is the peak of possible achievement. Of course, television does not seek to kill the golden goose by dispelling this myth. Personally – with the occasional exception as described above, I am more than happy to retain as much anonymity as possible. Not being on FaceBook, LinkedIn, Twitter or other social networking sites does enable me to have rather more control of my online profile than can be said of most people. You won’t find any embarrassing photos of me, or really get any clear picture of my interests and habits apart from that published via the Maggot Sandwich – though I would say that when I have done searches on a number of locally related subjects,  photos I took sometimes years ago for the blog do turn up. I have also noticed that if you Google “Arthur Pewty”, this blog now comes up at the top of the list, above Monty Python, where the name originates. The power of persistence.

During the few days I was without broadband, I spent more time listening to my JRC NRD 345 communications receiver. I have had the excellent since I bought it new in 1997 and it has given me countless hours of listening pleasure. Recently it has been rather neglected, as reception conditions on many shortwave bands have been unusually poor. I did stumble across a radio station I had not previously encountered at the weekend. Anglo Dutch station KBC Radio – who broadcast on 6.095 MHz on shortwave, using a hired broadcast transmitter located in Holland are an oldies station featuring archived programmes from broadcasting legends Wolfman Jack and Emperor Rosko amongst others. Rather than the usual shortwave music pirates, KBC Radio are legitimate, and are sponsored by the Dutch equivalent of Maplin. If you have a shortwave radio, try tuning to them during daylight hours at the weekend; they are definitely worth a listen. I have added them to my regular favourites, though in my opinion, the best music station on shortwave is still the excellent Laser Hot Hits on 4.026 MHz, 24 hours a day. As previously mentioned, they are rather suffering from poor propagation conditions for much of the time at present.  Check out their website here, as you can stream them online in high quality stereo if you are not a masochist like me who likes to listen via “real” analogue means via old fashioned AM radio.

Nowadays people are so used to using the web to assist with their personal and business requirements that it seems long ago that services such as Gmail and Google Docs were not around. Back in the 1980’s when most computers were stand alone units, and even with a modem you would be hard pressed to communicate with anything other than a simple bulletin board.  Big businesses had embraced computing almost from the get – go; most famously in the UK by the Lyons tea shop chain using LEO (Lyons Electronic Office) – the world’s first range of business computers. On the other end of the market, very few small and medium sized companies thought that they would either be able to afford, or indeed would ever need a computer, let alone lots of them. In 1979, the very first “killer app” was created. A “killer app” is defined as a piece of software which is so compelling and revolutionary that people will buy a particular computer than runs the application, just so that they can use it. An example of this was “Elite” for the BBC Micro – as many copies of “Elite” were sold as there were BBC Micros sold, and that was even before the game was ported onto other 80’s home computers. But I digress; the first “killer app” for small and medium businesses was also the first micro computer spreadsheet program, called “Visicalc”. You can read all about Visicalc by the people who developed it here. Visicalc was a pioneering piece of software, but it was pretty limited in its’ capabilities, and was soon overtaken by other business packages which had more power and flexibility. The most significant of these was a package called Lotus 123, which is possibly the single most influential piece of business software ever created – even web based office applications such as Microsoft’s Office 365 and Google’s Google Docs use much of the model first established by it. Lotus 123 was so called because it integrated a (for the time) powerful and flexible spreadsheet with a database and a graphics program. Back in 1983, it sold for £495 ( a huge amount of money, and more than some of the computers it ran on) Lotus 123 packed more commands and options than the competition - it automated tedious charting, detailed spreadsheet manipulation and allowed you to calculate formulae using rows and columns instead of just row and column order. Unlike the rival applications on the market, Lotus 123 wasn’t hard to understand or difficult to use. There were jargon-free prompts, explanatory messages, and fail-safe mechanisms in case of mistakes. Lotus 123 was the first program to make full use of the IBM keyboard enabling commands via the F and slash keys. Lotus 123 packed a tutorial package and context-sensitive help – You can read more about it in a contemporary review here. Lotus 123 is thirty years old this week; it scarcely seems like it. I once used the software to track and record structural steelwork building progress,  when I was a trainee quantity surveyor for Cyril Sweett and Partners, now known as Sweett Group, just before I decided that construction was not actually for me, and I ran away to sea to join Radio Caroline. That, as they say is another story.

I see that the London Borough of Bexley is due to get its’ fifth senior Police officer in four years. The current incumbent, Chief Superintendent Victor Olisa is moving on to a new position as the chief of Haringey Police, after less than a year in his current role in Bexley. According to the interview that he gave the News Shopper, the decision to move was not his, but was imposed by senior management. This can be interpreted in a number of different ways. Either they are moving him away from Bexley, or they are moving him to Haringey. If they are moving him away from Bexley, what is the reason? If they are moving him to Haringey, then is this because of the ongoing Mark Duggan enquiry. What special qualities can Victor Olisa bring to that distasteful situation? I don’t know. One thing that has been suggested by one of my informers is that the Police forces in Bexley and Bromley are going to be combined under a single unified command. This seems to have been reinforced as an announcement has now been made that Victor Olisa's replacement is to be Superintendent Peter Ayling - the plans to integrate Bromley and Bexley would appear to be reinforced,  as Ayling is only a Superintendent, not a Chief Superintendent like his predecessor. This would indicate that he will effectively become second in command to a Chief Superintendent in Bromley. Time will tell. This would make a substantial cost saving, not only with the loss of a senior officer’s salary, but possibly by the closure of a Police station. Does this potentially mean the end of Bexleyheath nick? I don’t know, but I suspect that it remains a possibility. The loss of the only remaining police station in the borough would be a politically risky move, and something to be resisted if it ever came to pass. The trouble currently is that there is so much that we don’t know, or has yet to be decided.

Did you know that a giant, 50 metre wide stone asteroid will pass astonishingly close to the Earth on the 15th of February? The asteroid, fetchingly named 2012DA14 will be the biggest object passing the closest to the planet since records began in the early 1990’s. The asteroid will pass inside the orbit of many satellites, and is predicted to miss the Earth by approximately 3.5 times the radius of the planet – a hair width in astronomical terms. If it did hit the Earth, it would make a hell of a bang equivalent to around a two megaton nuclear device, but would not be big enough to wipe out all life on the planet. NASA have said that “the impact of a 50 metre asteroid is not cataclysmic, unless you happen to be underneath it” – not exactly the most reassuring news, I have to say. All of this activity coincides with the launch of a privately financed project to mine the asteroid belt for minerals and rare earth metals. Film maker James Cameron, along with Google executives Larry Page and Eric Schmidt bankrolled a company called Planetary Resources. It plans to send small and cheap robotic probes to nearby asteroids to survey them prior to possibly mining them for raw materials. The (theoretical) beauty of asteroid mining is that the valuable minerals and metals tend to be distributed in a fairly even way throughout the body of the asteroid, unlike on Earth where they tend to be hidden away, very deep underground. How the cost of launching and maintaining a fleet of robot mining spacecraft would be offset by the sale of the mined material is not yet clear. It is apparent that a huge investment with the possibility of little or no return is possible. Still the chaps at Google have exceedingly deep pockets.

The ending video this week is a warming and wholesome winter vegetable pie from bonkers web based cookery teacher Titli Nihaan. I think that it is high time a television production company gave her a TV show - I am sure that she would be a great success on the small screen. Do leave a comment below.

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