Sunday, September 01, 2013

Analogue Amazon.

The photo above was taken by regular Maggot Sandwich readers Neil and Kay; it shows a vessel on the River Thames on its' way to take part in the River Festival at Greenwich. Thanks to them for the photograph.

Bexley Council are deservedly in the Government’s firing line once again. They are still hiding behind the “We allow filming / audio recording of Council meetings if you have written permission in advance”. This statement has been demonstrably proved to be untrue – as has been highlighted by Malcolm Knight of the Bexley is Bonkers website. No permission has ever been granted to make a video or audio recording of a council meeting – which makes the council’s statement “We are committed to openness” sound very hollow indeed. The Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles has lambasted a number of local councils, Bexley included. Mr. Pickles said” Councillors shouldn’t be ashamed or be trying to hide the work they do. I am opening up the planning appeals that my department oversees so the public can see how the planning system works in practice. Councils should match this by opening up their planning meetings and other committees. A small number of councils are blocking filming because they want to suppress independent reporting, just as some councils are clinging to their town hall Pravdas. An independent local press and robust public scrutiny is essential for a healthy local democracy: without the sunlight of transparency, the flowering of localism will wither. Heavy-handed councils who call the police to suppress freedom of speech are abusing state powers”. Strong words indeed from the Government Minister. The behaviour of Bexley council is perplexing to say the least. We, the voting public put the councillors in their place; surely we have the right to monitor their activities – after all, they are only in power with our consent. I think that certain members of the council have forgotten (or possibly never understood, which is an even more worrying thought) that they work for us, not the other way around. I am glad that Eric Pickles is taking them on – he’s about the only person in power who has realised that local councils have to be accountable – something that Bexley either choose to ignore, or think that it does not apply to them. As I have previously written, the irony of the whole situation is that by being obstructive and secretive, Bexley Council have actually concentrated attention on their dislike of accountability – prompting the Ministers’ wrath. To be honest, most undertakings in the Council chambers are actually deadly boring – as anyone who has attended a session will no doubt attest. It is more a matter of principle. If Bexley Council act like they are the revolutionary committee in some tin pot banana republic, they will continue to be treated with the contempt that they deserve. In my opinion, Eric Pickles needs to come down hard on the Council, and give them a kick up their collective backsides that is more than a little overdue.

Erith Riverside Shopping Centre has struggled to fill all of the retail units; indeed there are a few that are still standing empty. This is a pity, as the place is always kept clean and welcoming, as a couple of readers have recently commented. The incidence of illegal smoking has reduced markedly since I brought the subject up last month, though one regular reader Justin did email me on Wednesday to say that “ I must admit I thought of you and your blog the other day when I recalled your 'no smoking' story in the shopping centre, as last week I was walking through it when I saw a member of staff from Wilkinson’s having a smoke while standing under the no smoking sign while talking to one of the security guards!” This is a bit of a difficult one; I have been in contact with the shopping centre manager, and he has explained that actually only parts of the centre are covered by the smoking ban – basically the indoor part of the building where Matalan and Iceland are located. The areas that are open to the sky do permit smoking, even though the “No Smoking” signs are in this location. Very confusing. I know that the security guards were instructed to ensure the legal ban was enforced – and I witnessed this being carried out on more than one occasion. To be honest, I don’t feel sorry for the centre management or security officers – they seem to be in a “damned if you do, and damned if you don’t” situation. Overall though, I think they do a fine job in what would appear to be a less than ideal situation. One shop that has a very positive presence in the centre is Argos; I would say that it challenges Wilkinson’s as the most popular shopping destination in the Erith Riverside Shopping Centre. Did you know that Argos is currently celebrating its’ fortieth anniversary? I must admit that it almost passed me by. That seems to be very much the nature of Argos – it is there when you need it, but it does not make an impact on the average shopper in the way that John Lewis or Marks and Spencer does. To some, Argos is a bit of a joke – indeed Bill Bailey did an excellent skit on the store, where he likened the laminated in store catalogue to “a book of dreams, plastic coated to catch people’s tears” – see the video clip below. The truth of it is however, that whilst other high street chains like Woolworth’s, Comet and HMV have bitten the dust, Argos is in rude health. It is estimated that 18 million UK households have an Argos catalogue, and 96% of the population are located less than ten miles from a store. The concept of having warehouse type stores, with very few goods on display, where instead shoppers made their selection at home then arrived at the store to fill in a small paper slip and hand it to a store person who would get the goods from “out the back” is an American concept that was brought to the UK in 1973 by businessman Richard Tompkins – the man who had introduced Green Shield Stamps some fifteen years previously. He wanted to create a union of self service shops and catalogues – the convenience of shopping at home with the traditional face to face contact of a local shop. The business model has not really been replicated by other retailers, and many regard it as “quirky” – like an analogue version of an online shop, created many years before the World Wide Web ever was conceived. Nowadays Argos do operate a Click and Collect service, which combines the convenience of online shopping with the ability to then turn up at ones’ local store and collect the goods, without the inconvenience of waiting in for a postman or courier to make a delivery. It is quite interesting how shoppers use Argos – one shopper said “John Lewis is where I shop for quality, Amazon is for electronics, books and music. Argos is for need them now goods”. Argos has always had image problems – it is widely thought of as being somewhat down market and a bit “naff”. It has always been a value retailer, and still today has elements of the betting shop about its’ stores; the little forms to fill in, the mini pens and the waiting for your number to be called. It has always been a shop focused on the working class – for people who perhaps did not want to be grilled by a sales assistant in a department store, but instead be able to turn up and collect. Whatever the details, Argos has been a British success story, and the Erith shop is always busy. The town would be worse off without it.

There was another incident on Erith Pier last Saturday morning. A chap threatened to throw himself off the pier and into the river. Gravesend RNLI and the Police were on hand, and he eventually came down. I was alerted to the matter as it was happening by a fellow member of Erith Watch. After consideration, I concluded that the best thing was for me not to blunder round there with my camera, as goodness knows what I could have inadvertently caused if I had. As I have reported in the past, there have been a series of incidents on both the pier itself and the wooden jetty that runs adjacent to it. I am wondering if a few discreet signs with contact numbers for the Samaritans might be a good idea? This has already been done in suicide hot spots like Beachy Head. It would not cost very much to do, and could end up saving a life. It might have helped back in March 2011, when a young man had a blazing row with his girlfriend, then threw himself off the end of Erith Pier. The undertow and currents around Erith Pier are extremely strong; I understand that life expectancy for anyone in the river is measured in minutes at best. Anything that can be done to stop this happening has got to be welcomed.

I have reported my troubles with my Blogger template to Google. You may have noticed that the comments box does not always appear at the bottom of recent postings, and that the “About me” and other blog shortcuts don’t always appear to the right of the text, near the top of the screen. For some reason these bugs affect the Google Chrome web browser – ironic when you consider both are Google products. Firefox, Opera and Internet Explorer seem far less affected.  To be honest, I am not holding my breath. Google’s support for non premium (as in, free) products is pretty poor in my experience. This does bring up another thought – what web browser do you use by choice? A lot of corporate intranets are set up purely for Internet Explorer, and the end user has no choice in what they use. For consumers the story is somewhat different – Google Chrome is now the single most popular web browser – which, excepting the issue with my own Blogger template is something I concur with. Chrome is minimal, very quick to render, and most importantly for me, it is supported on multiple operating system platforms, notably Apple OS X and Linux, which is great for me. I still like Firefox, which is another excellent product, but for me, Chrome just feels like a more slick and integrated experience. However, it is most definitely a case of “what works for you” as always.
The Crossrail project seems to be running both on time and on budget (still, the cynic in me says that there is still plenty of time for that to change). The tunnel linking Plumstead and Woolwich Arsenal station has now been bored and lined. Electrical and other services still have to be installed, but even so, it is an amazing achievement. The large industrial looking development near Plumstead Railway station is a spoil separation plant – the earth and stone dug out by the tunnel boring machines is pumped out as a slurry, which is separated by the plant into sand, gravel and cakes of chalk. The sections of concrete tunnel lining used to make the tunnels water tight and physically secure seem to be coming from production facilities all over the place. I was standing on the London bound platform of Watford Junction station last week, and a freight train came past , loaded with sections – the only development in London large enough to demand the huge number of pieces of tunnel lining. The freight train I saw had come from Milton Keynes, so I guess that at least some of the tunnel lining pieces must have come from that neck of the woods. The whole Crossrail project is due to be completed in 2018. You can see their website here.

I have to admit that I am absolutely dreading the next three Star Wars movies. It is not just that George Lucas made such a dreadful Horlicks of the three prequels, it is because my regard for the director of the next Star Wars movie - JJ Abrams has been severely dented by seeing his most recent movie last weekend. I watched Star Trek: Into Darkness and regretted doing so when I was not even halfway through the film. It is a disjointed, illogical mess that has more in common with a very poor fan film than a major Hollywood blockbuster. If you have not seen it, and feel that you would like to, I would advise than instead you rent a copy of Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan, which may have been made in 1981 and cost only $11 million to make. The difference is that the Wrath of Khan is a compelling, character driven story where you really care about the characters, and the story has real resonance. “Into Darkness” is bad on so many levels - characters do things that make no sense, whole chunks of the story are recycled (badly) from Wrath of Khan and the whole thing is a waste of a couple of hours of your time. It is a pity, as the first movie from the rebooted series was pretty good. I am certainly not against the whole JJ Abrams reboot concept , but this, the second movie should really not have been released in its’ current form. I fear that Abrams is going the way of George Lucas. He’s now so big and powerful that there is nobody to say “no” to him – which was exactly the problem at the root of the Star Wars prequels. Now that Abrams has been appointed as the director of the first of the new trilogy of Star Wars movies, I fear for the worst.

I see that Microsoft supremo Steve Ballmer has announced that he is to retire next year. This has been a bit of a surprise to many technology pundits, as only last year, when questioned during a press interview , he responded that he intended staying at the helm of the company for around another ten years. This has rather suddenly changed when he announced last Friday that he was to step down next year. A one year exit is proper, given Ballmer’s position; the CEO of a major listed company. What is surprising is his change of leave date, and that Ballmer is planning to start his leaving process now. From insider whispers, it is clear that the decision for him to leave was not made by him – it looks very much like a board decision – the directors include Steve Ballmer’s long time friend Chairman Bill Gates. It is ironic that since Steve Ballmer became Chairman in 2000 (when I very briefly met him at the launch of Windows XP at the Royal Festival Hall – more on this later), Microsoft revenues  and profit levels have gone up, and a huge amount of cash has been showered on shareholders. At the same time however, Microsoft has repeatedly failed to “see the way the wind is blowing” regarding emerging technologies – online search, smart phones and tablet computers, amongst other things. As recently as 2007 Ballmer was dismissive of the iPhone and was interviewed on several occasions, saying how Windows Phone was going to wipe the floor with iOS. As we know, the reverse was true; he also failed to see the emergence of Android as a threat, and now Windows for phone is a minority operating system used by very few mobile phone handsets. iOS and Android have basically carved the market up between themselves. On top of this, Microsoft have written down £1 billion in losses against the Surface RT tablet – the ill – advised Windows tablet that is powered by an ARM processor and is incapable of running standard Windows software. You may recall that a while back I wrote about what a disaster the Surface RT was going to be, and I was bang on the money. Since then, the stock market has voted with its’ feet, and wiped a little shy of $34 billion off the price of Microsoft shares. A group of dissatisfied corporate shareholders also launched a personal class action against Ballmer for appearing to conceal the extent of the losses – the days of the man nick named the Teflon CEO (for his previous ability to avoid any business errors sticking to him) are over. It seems that Bill Gates and the rest of the board thought it was time for Ballmer to go – tellingly, the Microsoft share price jumped up nearly nine percent on the news of his imminent departure – thus ironically making back the $1 billion lost on the Surface RT write down. Ironically Ballmer leaving Microsoft will massively benefit Ballmer personally – he owns 333 million shares in the company, which will skyrocket in value on his departure. If he was to cash in a few of these, he will be in a position to be comfortable for the rest of his life (before he cashes in any shares, his existing personal fortune is estimated to be around £15 billion), as well as buying the odd medium sized country, should the urge take him.  My encounter with Steve Ballmer was very brief; I attended the launch of Windows XP in London after managing to blag a ticket to the event through work (there are occasions when working for a household name multinational blue chip professional services firm can have its’ fringe benefits). I was sat in an aisle seat in the Royal Festival Hall. There was a big opening video with a track by Madonna, then Ballmer came running down from the back of the hall, all WWE wrestling style. Had I known Ballmer was  running past my seat a couple of moments earlier, I could have stuck my leg out and sent him flying. Anyway, at the end of the presentation, a few members of the audience, myself included were invited for a corporate “meet and greet” session. I said hello to Steve Ballmer; he took one look at me, and the polo shirt I was wearing, and his look was pure poison. He blanked me completely. I have to say that I was very impressed with this reaction; the polo shirt he had taken such offence to was a sober grey in colour, but on the right  hand breast was embroidered Tux – the Linux mascot; this was at around the time that he said of the open source movement  Linux is a cancer that attaches itself in an intellectual property sense to everything it touches.” Understandably he was not too impressed with my appearance!
A local commercial company have been caught by a member of Erith Watch illegally fly tipping old sofas and furniture at the recycling centre in Morrison's car park at 5.52pm on Saturday the 31st August. The evidence has already been passed on to North End Safer Neighbourhoods Police Team. It has been suspected for some time that the company has been carrying out illegal dumping, but this was the first time that hard, reliable eye witness evidence has been obtained. The recycling centre is purely for domestic waste for recycling - glass bottles, metal cans, paper / card, and plastic food containers. It is not a full council dump, and does not accept commercial waste of any description. The offenders were caught red handed dumping an old sofa and arm chairs. Whilst the company concerned cannot be publicly named until the Police and Bexley Council Environmental Health anti fly tipping team have completed their investigations, suffice to say that they are Erith based, and present a very professional appearance. It seems that the company are using the recycling centre to dump old sofas to avoid the commercial charges that are made by the Thames Road Council Dump in Crayford. It must be noted that The area of Appold Street and James Watt Way, where the Morrison's recycling facility is located is within a specified anti fly tipping zone. Upon a successful prosecution, fines for the guilty party can amount to £50,000, and be banged up in jail. I will keep readers posted as to the outcome of further investigations.

I had planned to visit Bletchley Park this weekend; unfortunately I was unwell, and could not make the trip - please see the video of a lecture which took place recently. Comments and feedback are always welcomed.


  1. Those of us living close to any part of the Crossrail project have been kept very well informed by the company. As a result of that I can tell you that the concrete tunnel lining segments are manufactured at a new plant in Old Oak Common. It was said to be the first such plant but if Crossrail have built a second they've forgotten to say where it is. Have you seen a delivery train on your regular journeys through Plumstead?

  2. The second tunnel lining manufacturing facility opened last November in Chatham and is presumably supplying Plumstead.