Sunday, July 28, 2013

The need for tweed.

The Hav Snapper (photo above - click for a larger view) is one of a small fleet of bulk freighter vessels that moor regularly on Erith Pier; it is used to transport spoil material dug from the Crossrail tunnel development down into Essex where the earth and mud is being used in a land reclamation project. It is a case of win/win - you dig muck out of a hole under London, then use it to create some new land elsewhere. A bit of clever and creative thinking.

The News Shopper have been vocal in their editorial promoting stripping off in the hot weather. I am pretty sure that editor Andrew Parkes is seeing who he can successfully troll in his editorial piece on the subject. Parkes writes: "Personally, I’m all for people showing off just as much as they feel comfortable with. And before anyone climbs onto the ‘sexist bandwagon’, the same applies for men or women – get ’em off and don’t be afraid to show off your natural beauty." After extolling his opinion on the virtues of stripping offHe then goes on to say "While we’re on the subject I honestly believe the majority of right-minded, perfectly decent people look forward to the warmer weather precisely because the number of beautiful bodies on display will increase". Whenever I read the phrase "right minded people" it sets my alarm bells ringing. The user of such phraseology is usually either a rabid communist or a neo nazi. You don't tend to get moderate writers using the term. All the more reason why I think the whole piece is designed as a vehicle for a big wind - up. Nevertheless, I fundamentally disagree - the editorial talks about tuning white skin into bronzed flesh. Does he not realise that tanning is the bodies' method of defending itself against the harmful Ultraviolet radiation from the Sun? If you are tanned, your skin is damaged, and you are at an increased risk of several kinds of skin cancer. Personally I keep every possible body surface covered with a robust layer of tweed; I refuse to modify my clothing because of a surfeit of heat. I dislike the heat in any case - the best strategy for me is to stay indoors in the shade, with a cooling fan running close by. As with pretty much anything, if you ignore it for long enough, it goes away. 

Every local radio station set up in the Bexley area has historically closed down through a lack of both money and listeners. The original community radio station Radio Thamesmead, which originally broadcast by cable from its’ studios in Tavy Bridge later metamorphosed into RTM Radio in 1990, when it got itself a FM broadcast licence on 103.8 Mhz. It was very much a community centred station, and any profits generated were ploughed back into projects to benefit the local area. It ran successfully for nearly ten years, until in 1999 it was successful in an application to the Radio Authority to change its’ remit and become a fully commercial operation. When this was permitted, the station changed its’ name to Millennium 106.8 FM in the year 2000. This name was again changed in 2003 to Time FM, in an attempt to try and forge a link with the Greenwich Meridian, and to strengthen its’ local identity. Shortly thereafter the station was purchased by the Sunrise Radio group, and was run by them until 2009. The stations’ audience ratings were never that good, though it did have a small, but dedicated following. In its’ final year, the audience had shrunk to just 13,000 people – less than one percent of the listening audience for the area. Sunrise put Time FM up for sale, famously putting an advert on the station’s website before any staff knew about it. No buyer was found, and the station closed for good in April 2009. One of the presenters back then was a chap called Craig Hannington, who’s one of the people now behind Miskin Radio - more of which later; in a way this does provide a degree of continuity between the old and new stations. Time FM was not alone in being a local radio broadcaster – there was a second contender, which actually had studios in Erith, based on the Europa Industrial Estate in Fraser Road. This was a station called TGR Sound 103.7 FM. It was a volunteer run, not for profit station that went on air back in November 2006 and set out to provide community information and news, as well as both mainstream and specialist music programming. When it initially started, it was Internet only, but soon got an FM broadcast licence. To say the station was homespun would probably be probably under – describing it. There were many occasions when I would tune in and be able to hear a conversation going on in the studio, as the presenter had forgotten to switch the microphone off whilst they were in the middle of playing a track.  Bearing in mind part of their mission statement was to train future presenters, a certain degree of mistakes were I suppose to be expected, but it did seem that things went wrong with depressing regularity – it was as if there was no supervision of inexperienced presentation staff. Coming from my own historical background in radio, it was very easy to work out what was going wrong and when, and it made for occasionally painful listening. TGR stood for Thames Gateway Radio. It was designed to be a community resource, not a commercially viable radio station. It was funded from a mixture of government and GLA grants. Once the recession began to bite, the funding soon dried up and TGR Sound was forced to close down. I am always supportive of local enterprises, but TGR Sound was really not very good at all, and it never really succeeded in finding an audience – I doubt that many people in the London Borough of Bexley realised that it existed, and if they did come across it whilst tuning around the radio dial, they probably thought that it was a particularly inept pirate. Things are different nowadays – the number of amateur / hobby stations that broadcast online is huge and extremely varied. A potential listener can be spoiled for choice. A new radio station has not long been set up; You may not have heard of Miskin Radio. They are a small band of volunteers who have set up a new local station. This is what they say about themselves:- "Miskin Radio is a community radio service, open to anyone in Kent and the surrounding area who has an interest in radio and/or the media industry. We deliver and support community integration by providing opportunities for young and old, people from different cultures, genders and those with or without disabilities to come together and work as a team, producing and/or presenting programmes, features, campaigns and ideas for broadcast that they have created. Miskin Radio has been broadcasting via the internet since April 2012. We also broadcast on the FM waveband across Gravesend and Dartford during the Summer 2012 Olympic Games. During this time we assisted Kent Police with relaying traffic bulletins and breaking news during the games, which also gave local residents’ prior knowledge of any road closures or changing circumstances that affected them. We will continue to broadcast via the web until we have successfully secured a full-time radio license from Ofcom’s next community radio round, due in 2013/2014, if successful we will be bring local radio back to the North West Kent area which is lacking within the media currently. Before going ‘live’ full training is provided to all volunteers by industry professionals, ensuring the knowledge, skills and techniques used within the radio industry are passed on to them." Quite; I hope that they do well, but they have an uphill struggle ahead. The history of local radio does not read well. Every station that has been set up in the area has ended up closing through lack of money. As a follow – up to this story, there is another radio station which may be making an appearance in the area next year. I cannot say any more at the time of writing, as plans are subject to change. Suffice to say if things come together, it could be a big treat for the people of the area, and especially Erith. Watch this space.

Yesterday I was saddened to hear of the death of singer / songwriter JJ Cale. He was one of those artists that many people had not heard of, but whose songs were immensely popular. The song "Cocaine" is thought by many to be an Eric Clapton original - not so; it was written and first performed by JJ Cale, from his superb 1976 album "Troubadour". Cale mixed classic Americana, bluegrass, blues, country and a bit of rock to make a totally unique, laid back sound. He was a major influence on the sound of Dire Straits. I was introduced to his music by my Dad, who had an incredibly diverse and eclectic musical taste. You can see JJ Cale playing "Cocaine" below - click to make the video full screen.

Whilst laptops and desktop computers have been subject to malware attacks, phishing and all sorts of digital nastiness for years, and a whole industry has grown up in creating defences against these compromises, mobile phones seem to have largely escaped the attention of the black hat community. Until recently, that is. The mobile phone networks were very cleverly designed to be secure by default, and a lot of effort has gone into maintaining that level of security. It is rumoured that many top cryptanalysts are lured away from jobs at places like GCHQ by very lucrative offers from the cash rich mobile network operators, who can afford to pay the top candidates salaries that they could have only dreamed of whilst in government employment. Despite this, a German IT security researcher has uncovered a way in which he can take control of any mobile phones’ SIM card, then subsequently hijack the handset by cracking the encryption on the device. The phone networks have always been able to remotely take control of any phone on their network –  the ability so to do was built into the original standard; understandably it is not something that they are particularly keen on everyone knowing about, but the feature has always been there. Here is a very brief explanation of how it works:- GSM mobile phone networks are secured by what is known as shared secrets; each subscriber (customer) is issued with a unique cryptographic key, which is embedded in their SIM card. A copy of that unique key is also held by the network – the network can identify the user by comparing the keys – when they match, a connection is permitted. Until now, these private keys have remained secure from hackers, but that seems to have changed. Highly reputable German security expert Karsten Nohl has discovered two unrelated security flaws in the GSM encryption standard that, when they are combined, could result in millions of mobile phones around the world becoming vulnerable to attack. Such attacks could include call interception by a third party, the interception of NFC “pay by wave” cashless transactions, and even the complete takeover of your mobile handset. It is not easy task to extract the secret encryption key from a SIM card, but recent increases in computer power, and the flaws uncovered by Karsten Nohl have created a “crib” – a back door making cracking the encoded key very much easier. Nohl’s crack uses a special type of SMS message – one that is normally used by the phone network to send information to the phone, rather than send text to the user. Normally this class of message contains information such as details of new roaming arrangements between network operators, new deals on call rates, and all sorts of relatively boring administrative information the phone handset needs in order to interact with its’ network. The thing is, this particular type of SMS message can be used to do a lot of other things too. If the message contains the correct, authenticated encryption key, it can completely overwrite the phone’s operating system. This is something that the network operators very rarely do, but it is built into the original GSM standard “just in case”. Nohl’s system crack involves sending a fake SMS message, pretending to be a system instruction from the network. The message does not include the authentication key (because at this point he does not have it). Most SIM cards will detect the lack of key and flatly reject the instruction. Some older SIM cards have a flaw – rather than rejecting the message, they respond with a digitally signed error message, which basically says “sorry, I did not understand your message – can you send it again?”. The message the older SIM cards send contains a copy of the digital encryption key for that phone, though the key itself is encrypted, but the encryption system used in the older SIM cards (called 56DES) is now crackable with a modern laptop and some easily downloaded software. Once the key has been broken, the mobile phone with the cracked SIM card is completely controllable by the hacker – and the user will have absolutely no idea it has happened – the phone will not ring, beep or show an SMS message; as far as it is concerned, it has just been taking legitimate system updates from the mobile phone network. With a cracked encryption key, the miscreant can reprogram the SIM card to do just about anything; redirect SMS messages to another phone, change the preferred network operator, run up huge bills to premium rate numbers, authenticate payments via services like PayForIt, and also generate false payment transactions if the phone is equipped with contactless payment functionality.  Karsten Kohl estimates that around a quarter of all mobile phones are vulnerable to this serious exploit. It does not matter what make or model of phone you have – what is far more important is how old your SIM card is; many people become very attached to their SIM cards and hang on to them though they may change the handset itself every eighteen months or so. If your SIM card is more than a couple of years old, you should seriously consider asking your network operator for a replacement. If they ask why, tell them that your current card only support 56DES encryption, and that has been hacked – they will give you a new card without a problem, as the networks are now aware of the serious security breach. The reason the networks don’t just issue all of their users with a new SIM card is simple – it costs money. If you run a large network like Vodafone or EE, it will cost around a pound to send each user a new card – and if you have ten million subscribers, this is a big hit to explain to your shareholders. I reckon this story will hit the mainstream press pretty soon. You can say that you read it here first though. As if this was not bad enough, Karsten Nohl has gone on to say that the second vulnerability in the GSM phone system also relating to SIM cards. Apparently there is a flaw in the JavaCard operating system used by the SIM card, though Nohl has yet to release details of it, as he is still researching the issue. Suffice to say from what he has already revealed (and he has impeccable credentials) the whole roll out of EE’s contactless payment scheme later this year may be under severe jeopardy, unless some drastic changes are made to their security model. If your SIM card – and by extension your mobile phone – does get compromised, it is pretty unlikely that you would have much in the way of recourse from your network provider. All the traffic and transactions authorised by your device would look exactly like they had been undertaken and authorised by the owner – there is no “smoking gun” to prove the phone had been remotely hacked. If you are unsure, contact your mobile network and request a brand new SIM card; this (for now) should keep you secure. Better still, do as I do and lead a quite satisfactory life without a mobile phone.
Health Minister Norman Lamb MP got himself into some very hot water this week, with a very group whom he ought to be supporting. He said that Neighbourhood Watch members should be given the task of feeding and washing vulnerable pensioners in their watch area. Quite how he came up with this one is anybody’s guess. He went on to say that “the truth is that many people in this day and age lead miserable lives. If someone lives on their own and has substantial care needs, and the extent of their life is getting out of bed, getting washed, sitting in a chair and going back to bed, with no-one to see during the day, that is a miserable life. We have a national movement that looks out for whether our houses are being burgled, so should we not be thinking – all of us stepping up to the plate – about whether there are people on our streets who have care needs, or who might be lonely and could do with a bit of companionship?” What Lamb says has some merit, but it is also obvious he does not have a clue about the roles and responsibilities of a Neighbourhood Watch group. I can speak from experience. I was a carer for many years, and I run the largest Neighbourhood Watch group in the London Borough of Bexley. It is true that Neighbourhood Watch do encourage neighbours to look out for local elderly and vulnerable people – to look for signs like lights being left on in the day time, and post not being taken out of letter boxes. What we don’t do is go on patrol like Police officers on the beat (it amazes me the number of people who think Neighbourhood Watch is like some kind of paramilitary organisation that organises foot patrols around their “patch”, ready to pounce on any wrong doer, or person who puts their bins out on the wrong day).  The fact is, we are there to assist the Police with local intelligence – “The Khans at number 42 are on holiday this week – must keep an eye on their place” – that kind of thing.  It is also to assist people with crime prevention measures, like advice on using Smart Water kits, arranging for the Police to provide free security audits on local houses, and keeping an eye out for suspicious activity, fly tipping,  fraudulent door to door sales people, and the like. What we are not is a modern version of “Dad’s Army”- which it would seem is what Norman Lamb seems to think. Neighbourhood Watch members don’t have nursing or other skills needed to assist elderly or infirm neighbours, nor in many cases do they have the time. It is true that a substantial proportion of Neighbourhood watches are run by retired people; this does not mean that they have nothing else to do with their time – the kind of people who volunteer to serve in the community usually are involved in a number of activities on top of their watch work. Others, like myself and my deputy, have demanding full – time jobs, as well as other duties. Norman Lamb seems to have got his ideas confused. I am sure that he meant well when he made his statement – it is just a pity he did not consult with Neighbourhood Watch first, as he’s ended up making rather a fool of himself. Bexley Neighbourhood Watch Association have already issued a statement that their member watches are not expected to provide any additional services over and above those already provided and agreed on. Hopefully mister Lamb will think before he speaks in future.

The News Shopper also reported this week that a gun had been retrieved from the mud on the banks of the River Thames at Erith; this is a fairly regular occurrence. The thick, deep mud of the Thames has been used as a way of getting rid of evidence since Roman times. Quite a lot of the archaeological items found on the Thames foreshore are things that have been chucked in the river to get rid of evidence. In this weeks’ case, the gun in question is nothing more than a rather poor quality spring operated air rifle, not a rim fire or centre fire weapon. It was probably thrown into the water by kids after it broke, by the look of it. I would imagine that the Police who retrieved it must have been a bit disappointed, though I completely agree that they could not take any chances.  The irony is, there are almost certainly a whole pile of illegal, dumped weapons in the same stretch of river as the broken air gun was found, but unless you are prepared to fund a large, and very expensive full search of the area, they are likely to stay in the mud for eternity.

The ending video this week is an episode of an American TV show called "Good Eats" which has never been shown in the UK. It is not just a plain cooking programme; instead it is a bit like a culinary version of the old Johnny Ball show "Think of a Number",  covering the science behind food and cookery. Well worth a look, as it is entertaining as well as being educational.

1 comment:

  1. JESUS! That's a big ship!
    Was it laden when it moored up? Surprised it didn't do any damage to the pier as it's really just a promenade now not a proper working place of mooring.

    I was involved with TGR Sound when they first started.
    I had time on my hands and wanted to get involved with radio, they were a lovely bunch and very dedicated but as you described they were quite amateur but that was great in its way as it meant they would train and let anyone get involved although it did seem like they said "there's the studio, you're on air in half an hour" and there was zero budget for promotion. I was only involved for about 3 months or so as about that time I got back into playing in bands as I preferred the camaraderie and social aspect of that rather than sitting in a soundproofed box by myself for hours at a time.
    Thanks for the info on Miskin Radio, I'll be getting in contact with them.
    I'm interested in what this other station might be, exciting!