Sunday, April 06, 2014

The curse of the Bot.

The photo above shows the block of flats which replaced the old Erith Odeon cinema; the old cinema was a grade II listed Art Deco building which was illegally demolished by the property developers of the current residential block. Having said that, I have visited one of the top floor flats in the block, and I have to say that it was extremely nice indeed, with a view across Morrison's car park towards the River Thames. It is a pity that the original building was not sympathetically restored and converted internally, rather than having a faux Art Deco block put up in its place.

I, along with many other people, was unsuccessful in my efforts to secure tickets for the forthcoming residency of Kate Bush at the Eventim Hammersmith Apollo (don’t worry, come the revolution, it will return to its proper name – the Hammersmith Odeon). Even friends who were fan club members with preferred ticket access were unable to get any. This seems to ring true for many fans who tried repeatedly to book tickets, only to discover that they had all gone within fifteen minutes. Many took this to be an indication of the huge popularity of the acclaimed local singer / songwriter, but unfortunately the situation runs far deeper than that. A problem exists now when anyone wishes to book a popular cultural event such as a concert or play or even tries to book a table in a popular restaurant – the venue will be booked out for the entire period however assiduous the booker has been. The reason for this situation is that certain unscrupulous people – often ticket agencies and others who wish to resell tickets or restaurant bookings at a profit, hire programmers to create what is known in the trade as a Bot. A Bot is a piece of software code that automates the process of making a ticket reservation or restaurant booking. It scans the relevant booking website and sends regular requests for page updates, looking for openings such as cancellations and filling in the web page request form far more rapidly than any human could ever hope to do. The Bot can run for days – never getting tired, never making a typo or missing an online field, and just grinding on until the required bookings have been made. It is almost certain that the Kate Bush concerts were mainly booked by software Bots. Although the promoters have put pretty strict conditions on concert attendees (booker has to turn up with photo ID and their companions have to be with the booker at the time of entering the venue). This has already been shown to be ineffective. Tickets with a face value of £139 are available via a number of outlets at prices varying between £1,000 and £1,500 each. What the Americans call “scalpers” and we call “ticket touts” are behind this behaviour. I recently read about “Bot Wars” where organisations such as Ticketmaster are trying to analyse online booking behaviour in order to exclude orders submitted by Bots; recently they rejected just over 120,000 orders made for a number of events after they had been detected as Bot generated. The Bot writers get more sophisticated and there is a war waging between the two sides which shows no signs of abating. I can suggest that the only way to be sure that an event is not booked out by software Bots is to remove online ordering completely – go back to ordering via telephone or turning up at the venue in person to book tickets. Something that is unlikely to happen in many cases due to the high costs of employing staff to carry out the bookings. It may well mean that confidence in all forms of event booking are irretrievably damaged unless some drastic actions are taken – such as making the use of Bots a criminal offence with a suitably hefty penalty. People will swiftly cease booking events online once they lose faith in the system, and this would be a real shame – it would be like taking one step forwards, followed by two back. You can read more about software Bots by clicking here.

Bexley Council seem to be a pretty powerless and ineffectual lot in general; okay they keep the street lights lit and the bins emptied (after a fashion, though personally I take my rubbish to the recycling point in Morrison's car park myself each day, and don't trouble the bin men, who tend to leave a trail of destruction in their wake). They did not do too badly in respect of the KFC application to open 24/7 that recently got dropped, I will give them that I suppose. I wonder if we would be better off returning to a localised monarchy. Did you know that Erith used to be ruled by King Eadbald of Kent? No, I thought not - it was a few years ago, I suppose. It is amazing what you can find online if you look hard enough.

Last week I wrote about my personal thoughts in respect of a new crossing on the lower River Thames. I have had several messages agreeing that the place would make a good choice, and yet others asking for more details, and for me to more fully explain what I meant. You will see a map above which graphically indicates the route of the tunnel I propose – click for a larger view. The tunnel I propose is purely my own thought, and is not intended to reflect on any of the other “official” transport solutions which are currently being proposed. My suggestion, provisionally entitled “The Arthur Pewty Memorial Tunnel” would stretch between the Ferry Lane roundabout, South of Rainham town centre and the A2016 Bronze Age Way / Picardy Manor Way roundabout in Lower Belvedere. In effect, this would connect the A13 and Rainham in South Essex with the A2 and M25 via Bronze Age Way, and the South Circular via the A2016 Eastern Way towards Woolwich. It could also have the added bonus of connecting Rainham and Belvedere railway stations via a regular bus service through the tunnel. My vision would be of a structure very similar in size and scope to the existing Medway Tunnel which links Strood with Chatham in Kent. The Thames tunnel would use the same kind of immersed tube construction that the Medway Tunnel does – that is, sections of prefabricated tunnel sections are sunk into the river, joined together, then the water is pumped out. This relatively new method of construction is well suited to shallow and medium depths of water, and creates tunnels which are both very strong and relatively cheap to construct. Unlike the Medway Tunnel, I would hope that the Lower Thames tunnel would permit the use of bicycles via a raised cycle / walkway kept physically separate from the vehicular traffic. As previously indicated, by the time any tunnel of this nature had been constructed (which I understand normally needs an Act of Parliament) the level of harmful pollutants emitted by vehicles will be far lower than the already pretty low levels now, and many of the cars may well be zero emission via either conventional batteries, Hydrogen fuel cells or possibly even LENR (Low Energy Nuclear Reaction) power, if one is somewhat on the optimistic side. This would not be the only new link needed across the Thames South of Tower Bridge; I suspect that the proposed Gallions Reach crossing will probably go ahead in some form or another, despite the traffic having to run through a housing estate and close by a large residential nursing home on the South side of the river. Please feel free to leave a comment below.

When I first heard the following announcement, I had to check the date, as I was sure that the story was an April fool joke. It was not to be – the story was first published last Monday, a full day before April the first. I then had to check the year, just in case I had been caught inside some kind of temporal vortex and shunted back in time to 1972. The reason for my consternation? The announcement that a movie version of the TV sitcom “Mrs Brown’s Boys” is due to be released in UK cinemas at the end of June. I fully understand that humour is probably the most subjective of human interactions, based as it is on shared culture and experiences, but Mrs Brown’s Boys seems to have come into existence as though the last forty years of British situation comedies had never evolved. To me, it makes the likes of “On the Buses” and “Love thy Neighbour” look sophisticated and knowing. The way the show treats characters such as the gay son are a relic of the 1970’s, and I am astonished that such a large number of the British public love the programme. I am genuinely amazed at how many people watch Mrs Brown’s Boys and greatly enjoy it. Personally I find it excruciating, embarrassing and downright bad. The script, performances, characters and direction are all very lazy, uninventive and old fashioned in a bad way; Les Dawson in a dress was funny - Brendan O’Carroll is merely foul mouthed and excruciating . I concede that the show has a huge and loyal following (otherwise I doubt that the Producers would have green – lit a film version). I just fail to understand why.  I am sure that the movie version of the TV show will be a big hit – after all the programme gets the kind of viewing figures shows of its ilk used to get back in the 1970’s – a figure of fifteen million viewers was quoted by the Guardian in a recent article on the subject. It also seems to be a “Marmite” show – I am not the only person to express a strong opinion – others find it the funniest thing they have seen for ages. I suppose that my main gripe is in the way the show treats the main characters as caricatures – something frequently done in popular sit-coms, but usually so much better – if you look at a recent classic like Father Ted, the main players were indeed caricatures, but they were also sympathetic and in many cases, likeable. This is not something that I can find in Mrs Browns Boys. Still, I have in the past found cinema outings by British institutions to be less execrable than anticipated – the one that comes most readily to mind is Bula Quo – the comedy adventure film made by Status Quo, which I reviewed on my February 16th update where I wrote of it “ Bula Quo is cheesy, cheerful and fully aware of exactly how ridiculous it all is”. I somehow doubt that I will be able to say the same thing about Mrs Brown on the big screen.

Welling based micro pub The Door Hinge has been voted as Bexley CAMRA Pub of the Year only a year after it first opened to the public. That is a really shining endorsement of the place. Thus far I have only visited it once, as it is a bit of a pain to get to using public transport from Erith, situated as it is in Welling High Street – which involves some bus juggling. I found it far easier to get a cab door to door. It is certainly worth a visit if you like real ale and good conversation. If you did not see my previous posting in respect of micro pubs, a micro pub is a pub that does not serve spirits or much in the way of food. It tends to concentrate on real ale and cider, with usually one or two wines on offer. Micro Pubs tend to be established in former shop units, or other relatively inexpensive commercial property. They don’t have TV or piped music, and encourage visitors to talk to each other as was the norm in pubs of years gone by.  The other unifying feature of micro pubs is that they don’t serve gassy, mass produced lager. The Door Hinge fits this profile exactly. It is located in a former shop at the Bexleyheath end of Welling High Street, not very far from Crook Log. I can highly recommend the place.

The photo above was sent to me midweek by local historian Ken Chamberlain. It shows the old Erith Central School, which was located in West Street, just opposite St. John the Baptist - the oldest Church in the area at around a thousand years old. The photo below was sent to me by Garry "Tadge" Taylor, and shows another view of the same school from the other side. I understand that the field next to the school was subject to frequent flooding, as the only drainage at the time consisted of a couple of culverts, which frequently became blocked. Both photos of the Central School were taken in approximately 1910. I must admit that the area has changed substantially over the last century. The site of the school currently is occupied by housing, and is adjacent to an abandoned tyre warehouse, which I understand is shortly to be redeveloped as offices and a new church hall for St. John the Baptist. Click on either photo for a larger view.

The News Shopper has been reporting on a new spate of fly tipping that has been occurring in the area; in this time the worst incidents appear to be happening in and around Dartford. The fly tipping problems experienced around Dartford are really nothing new. The problem has been affecting most of the country for a while now. For once, fly tipping in Erith seems to be slightly on the wane. Certainly the problems I have documented over the months may be less common than of late. The reason for this is straightforward. The recycling centre behind the large Morrison’s supermarket in Erith is operated by Bexley Council. The recycling centre is easily accessible by road – James Watt Way leads directly to it; on top of this it is out of the way and concealed from view, as it is shielded on one side by the wall of the supermarket on one side, and the Thames riverside walkway on another. This means it is an ideal place for illegal fly tippers to dump their rubbish. Fly tipping is free, if illegal  – until the offender gets themselves caught. Fines can be eye wateringly severe. The Erith recycling centre is within a fly tipping exclusion zone which also includes James Watt Way and Appold Street, where fines upon a successful prosecution can go as high as £50,000. I have been reliably informed that even though the Erith recycling facility is one of the smaller ones operating in the borough, it suffers the worst from fly tipping. I think the ease of access and lack of visibility factors play heavily on this . Fortunately Bexley Council Environmental Crimes Unit have been busy. The Erith site now has closed circuit TV coverage for twenty four hours a day. Several fly tippers have already been caught red handed by the cameras, and action against those so caught is being taken. Hopefully a few examples can be made which will discourage others from fly tipping in future.

Did you know that GMail is ten years old this week? Google announced the (then) revolutionary browser based Email client on April 1st 2004. Many industry pundits at the time thought the whole thing was an elaborate April Fool’s Day hoax – who would ever offer each and every user an online message storage capacity of 1 Gigabyte – five hundred times the capacity of the then market leader, Microsoft’s Hotmail? As history shows, it was anything but a trick – it was the single most important release Google had made to date since it launched its search engine in 1998. GMail was revolutionary for a number of important reasons: It has vast storage, a very zippy and responsive user interface that was well thought out, user friendly and intuitive. It also had a very powerful message search function, which other browser based Email solutions were not able to replicate. On top of this, it was the first major cloud based application that was feature complete and capable of replacing conventional PC software, rather than complimenting it. GMail was started by a chap called Paul Buchheit – a (then) young software engineer, who was Google’s 23rd employee. He wanted a tool that would search through his archived Email messages, and realising nothing suitable was available, decided to write a search function himself. Initially the Email search engine was running on an old PC on his desk; then other Google engineers asked if they could use Buchheit’s search engine to search their own emails. At the time, the likes of Hotmail and Yahoo! Mail had little or no inbuilt search functionality – but then, it was not really a priority when users were limited to twenty megabytes of storage, and were having to continually delete messages in order to keep under their storage limit. Messages were hard to lose when the limits were so small.  GMail gave users a Gigabyte of storage – all for free. Initially the web based GMail was a product only used within Google itself. The company managed much of its business via Email, and having an in – house solution made a lot of sense to them. A decision was made to offer the web application (a first – previous web based Email clients from other vendors had been clunky and dog – slow efforts written in HTML – every time something changed on screen, the whole page needed to be reloaded, which was slow and flickery and gave a very poor user experience – something Google were keen to avoid). Instead Google wanted GMail to feel like an installed application that one merely happened to be accessing via a web browser – something revolutionary at the time, and not that common nowadays. With GMail, Buchheit worked around HTML’s limitations by using highly interactive JavaScript code. That made it feel more like software than a sequence of web pages. Before long, the approach would get the moniker AJAX, which stood for Asynchronous JavaScript and XML; today, it is how all web applications like FaceBook and Google Docs are built. But when GMail was pioneering the technique, it wasn’t clear that it was going to work. The fundamental issue was that back in 2002/3, when GMail was being developed, web browsers were far less sophisticated than nowadays. The problem with using large chunks of JavaScript programming code to make a slick, quick web experience was that Internet Explorer 6 (by far the most widely used web browser at the time) was pretty crap at handling JavaScript, (actually IE6 was pretty crap at everything, but that is another story). Google were worried that by making a sophisticated, cutting edge product, they would end up crashing Internet Explorer 6 every so often, which would annoy and alienate their key user base. Eventually the quirks and shortcomings of Internet Explorer were tamed, and GMail was ready for release. Initially it was going to be offered to a limited number of public Beta testers (I was one of these people – I have one of the first 1,500 Gmail user accounts ever created). Google were so unsure of how GMail would be received that they initially hosted the entire service on three hundred old Pentium III computers that nobody else at Google wanted, and were otherwise going into the recycling skip. The initial limited run of accounts was soon boosted, as a GMail address became the new, fashionable thing to have – the scarcity made it cool. Not everything was going Google’s way though. The GMail business model, which was (and still is) based on scanning the message text, and serving up discreet, context sensitive adverts was not universally well received. A U.S politician, California State Senator Liz Figueroa  sent Google a letter of her own, calling GMail a “disaster of enormous proportions, for yourself, and for all of your customers.” She went on to draft a bill requiring, among other things, that any company that wanted to scan an email message for advertising purposes get the consent of the person who sent it. (By the time the California Senate passed the law, cooler heads prevailed and that obligation had been eliminated.) Nevertheless, if ultimate privacy is a concern of yours, GMail is not for you. Despite this, the last time Google released usage figures was back in 2012; at that time GMail had 425 million active and frequently used accounts, which suggests to me that discomfort with Google’s approach to online advertising is a minority concern (either that, or many people know no better, which is a possibility). Compared with Hotmail (now the look and feel of GMail has changed little – any updates and changes are incremental and subtly performed; Google realise that a substantial portion of their customers value the familiarity of the application, and don’t want change for change’s sake. Whatever your views, GMail has come a hell of a long way in a decade, and it is a cornerstone of many people’s lives. Happy Birthday GMail.

The News Shopper are reporting as to how the Nemesis Gym in Erith Riverside Shopping Centre has launched a health and nutrition bar, which is specialising in the currently fashionable "Caveman Diet". This is all well and good, and normally I am always keen to promote independent local businesses. The problem with the Nemesis Gym is that they had a visit from Bexley Council health inspectors not long ago, and their kitchen only scored a 1 out of 5 stars on the "Scores on the Doors" food hygiene rating system. It was judged to be "Poor" for for food hygiene and safety, "Fair" for structural compliance, and "Little" in confidence in management. I think that before the Nemesis gym start making claims about health and nutrition, they really ought to be sorting their own house out - chances are you would end up with food poisoning if you ate there at present. On a brighter note, the newly opened "King of the Grill" kebab shop in Manor Road was inspected last week, and rated a very respectable four out of five stars for food hygiene, which is very good news. They have their sticker proudly on display in the shop window, but the Council have yet to update the Scores on the Doors website. Let us hope that more local food outlets up their hygiene standards in future.

The end video this week is a full length two hour documentary on the calamitous state of American health care when compared to places such as Canada and the United Kingdom. We may think the NHS is far from perfect, but the situation on the other side of the pond seems to be far worse. Give it a watch and see what you think. Please leave a comment below, or Email me at

1 comment:

  1. I think your review about Nemesis Gym is very unfair!! I am a member of the gym and have eaten there on a few occasions lately, the food was fresh and highly nutritious. The Health Bar was relaunched on the 29th March '14 by new management and now has new staff who are very polite and helpful. The menu has been designed by a Nutritionist and is amazing. The menu is based on the "Primal Health" range (i.e. The Caveman Diet). I have personally eaten a gorgeous Spinach Salmon Salad with flax seeds served up with Sweet Potato Wedges and it was lovely. Other foods available include Nuts, Grilled Chicken, Fruit and Freshly made Juices etc...... I am pleased there is now somewhere local where I can buy top quality healthy food to complement my training in martial arts, Nemesis is a great gym, top trainers and a great vibe. I hope Bexley Council revisit soon as i'm sure they will be giving a well deserved higher grade next time. Glad to read that you normally try to support local businesses!!!