Sunday, April 27, 2014

Walnut Tree House.

As I have previously written on a number of occasions, I don't get involved in party politics. For the most part, the mainstream political parties are all aiming at pretty much the same targets, albeit from slightly different angles. On a national basis it is a case of voting for one bunch of idiots over another bunch of idiots. Locally the story is slightly clearer. If you want to know what is going on at a local council level, I would highly recommend that you regularly consult Malcolm Knight’s “Bexley is Bonkers” website – he has his metaphorical finger on the local pulse – and much of what he uncovers is not very encouraging. Malcolm recently attended a meeting convened by the Bexley branch of the UK Independence Party – a group of individuals who would appear to make up in enthusiasm for what they lack in political experience. Their local manifesto makes for interesting reading; though I doubt how much of it they would actually be able to bring off in the (not very likely) event of them winning the local election. They do have one policy which strikes me as well thought out, and indicative of something created by people with real local knowledge. Long term readers may recall that quite some time ago, I suggested that there was a need to improve public transportation for commuters into and out of London. At present, if the overland rail service is non functional, the only option for travellers in the Erith / Belvedere / Abbey Wood areas is to get a bus to Woolwich Arsenal, and pick up the Docklands Light Railway from there into town. In a few years we will have Crossrail from Abbey Wood, but right now the public transport options are somewhat limited when compared to those available on the other side of the River Thames, where the tube is available. What we do have at Erith, which is pretty much unique to the riverside town, is Erith Pier (photo above - click for a larger view). UKIP are suggesting that the Thames Clippers should extend their coverage from their current termination point at Woolwich Arsenal further East to Erith Pier. The mechanics of this would require the rigid concrete pier structure to have at least one moving, floating jetty installed. The reason for this is that the tidal range of the Thames at Erith is very great. If a floating pier was not present, the clipper vessels would be limited to landing only at high tide, which would hardly be practical. I think this could be carried out as a cost neutral exercise. The Clipper service already has corporate sponsorship, and I think that Transport for London could be persuaded to contribute towards the pier modification work that would be required. The travel time from Erith into London by Thames Clipper would understandably be somewhat longer than by train, but I think the overall experience would be far more pleasant – it would also be easier to get a wheelchair or baby buggy onto a Clipper than onto a London bound train at Erith, as South Eastern still refuse to install a lift – but that is an ongoing story for another time. I would be interested in what others think of this proposal? Please leave a comment below, or Email me at

The photo above (click on it for a larger view) was taken back in 1880 of a very grand property which was called Walnut Tree House. It was owned by the Parish family, who by the looks of it were not short of a bob or two – the place looks lovely. The patriarch, John Parish owned the ballast wharf in West Street, and the ballast pit in what is now the Europa Industrial Estate in Fraser Road. The very fine quality loam dug from the pit was taken to the wharf to be loaded onto freighter ships for transportation up to the great iron and steel forges on Tyneside, where it was used to make moulds for metal castings. Unfortunately Walnut Tree House does not exist today; it was demolished to make way for Erith Council Offices in the early 1930’s. I don't know what the Parish family would have made of the location nowadays, with 24 hour motor traffic using the hideous fish sculpture roundabout, it would definitely be very different from when the house was occupied. Still, the needs of the council had to be satisfied then, and again today. The migration of staff from the old Bexley Council offices in Bexleyheath Broadway to their newly converted, ex Woolwich Equitable HQ base around the corner in Watling Street will be taking place, starting  in May, and running through in phases until the end of July. Malcolm Knight of the Bexley is Bonkers blog details the move, which you can read here. Malcolm makes some interesting points. The “new” building was originally designed in a pre – office data network age, and was more suited to the storage of large numbers of paper files, and has required extensive internal remodelling to make it fit for purpose. He also points out that the new entrance arch resembles a gallows – for “when the revolution comes” – and I can definitely see his point. To be honest, I am pretty certain that it will be a big improvement over the old Civic Offices, which were only ever intended to be a temporary structure in the first place. I recall that when my late Dad worked there in the early 1980’s, staff would have to grab waste bins to use as buckets every time it rained – the roof leaked in many places even then. I cannot imagine things have improved much in the intervening years. Whilst most of the Council functions will be moving into the Watling Street offices, some departments are staying put. I am pleased to say that the Housing, Council Tax and Benefits unit will be staying put in the old Erith Town Hall, where it has been located for many years. I recall that for a period my Dad worked in Erith Town Hall, before moving to the Bexleyheath offices – to be strictly accurate his office was a very rickety portakabin in the car park to the rear of the main building, as they did not have enough space in the main building, and they did not have any money to extend it – nothing much seems to change in around 35 years. I recall that a number of staff back then used to take in cans of pet food to feed a family of feral cats that lived in the undergrowth that bordered the car park. I wonder if any of their descendants are still around nowadays? Some time ago, and prior to the Woolwich Building Society office being selected, it had been mooted that the council would commission a brand new, purpose built office building somewhere in Erith. Whilst we have been fortunate to become home to the new Bexley College campus in Walnut Tree Road, which opens in September, I could not realistically see many senior council employees wanting to travel to the furthest Northern town in the whole London Borough of Bexley in order to come to work. If you live in the “posh” parts of the borough, like Bexley Village, Bexleyheath or Sidcup, you will hardly want to slum it in Erith. For various reasons the borough of Bexley seems to be divide in two; with the wealthy south versus the post industrial North. Bexley Council are definitely neglecting local roads in the North of the borough, and I can see it causing a serious accident in the not too distant future. Main roads such as Fraser Road and Manor Road in Erith are not just host to cars and vans; as they both provide access to large industrial estates, many heavy goods vehicles, often fully loaded use the roads, and both are also on the 99 bus route, which employs large double desk buses. The road surfaces are riddled with deep pot holes, which are hazardous to all road users. I was a passenger in a car last Saturday afternoon; we were driving along Manor Road when the driver had to steer towards the pavement to avoid a large hole. A driver who had parked, opened their door without checking to see if any traffic was coming. We almost took his door off. Fortunately an accident was avoided, but something similar to this near miss is bound to turn into something much more serious unless the local road surfaces are greatly improved. Manor Road was resurfaced in May / June 2009, and then partially again in 2011; I talked to the engineer overseeing the work on both occasions. He told me the problem of the road surface falling apart so quickly was at least partly caused by the specification of the foundations. In his opinion, the quality of the foundations were only designed to support regular car and van traffic, not the very heavy lorries and buses that use the road. The top layers were cracking and failing as the too weak foundations sagged under the weight. This would seem to make sense – if you go to either Manor or Fraser Road, and look where the road damage is the worst, it is by the 99 bus stops. Not only do the heavy double deck buses stand periodically at the stops, but their tyres scrub at the road surface as they brake, and then accelerate away from the stops. From what the engineer told me, the only long term solution would be to totally rebuild both roads from the foundations upwards – not re – skin the road surface as was done in 2011, as this merely puts off the inevitable. Bexley Council Highways Department seem to be fixated with “street remodelling” in places like Bexleyheath Broadway and Sidcup High Street – to the almost universal disapproval of local residents and visitors alike. I feel that the money being spent on these high profile unwanted works would be better spent on fundamental problems such as the quality of the Borough’s roads. It might not win any planning design awards, but it would reduce the likelihood of traffic accidents, as I can attest from my own recent unfortunate experience.

Another IT anniversary happened this week; the Nintendo Game Boy hit 25. The Game Boy was the first handheld game unit that could use interchangeable cartridges. Up until this point, all hand held games came with just one game, with maybe a few variants of it. Nintendo had been a big player in the single game market, with a range called “Game and Watch” – you got a simple game like a Space Invaders clone, and it also showed the time. This market had slowed – and Nintendo were looking for a new product. Their head designer Gunpei Yokoi came up with a battery powered hand held unit that housed an 8 – bit processor manufactured by Sharp, along with a whopping 8K of RAM. This might sound laughably puny nowadays, but when it was launched, the hardware was way more powerful than anything else on the market. It had a grey scale screen (colour displays were still a few years off, and even then, they would have had a catastrophic drain on the batteries). The Game Boy was designed to fit in a child’s pocket, and could be brought out to play during car journeys and the like. What made the Game Boy so massively successful (it sold more than 64 million units in the ten years it was in production) was that not only were there a mass of great games available for it (estimates are that around 800 titles were produced, including classics like Tetris, Pok√©mon, Super Mario Land and Zelda) but that Nintendo continually released add – ons, such as a rudimentary digital camera and printer, as well as a cable allowing two Game Boys to share game content ensures that the system continued as a viable toy for many more years than the seemingly low technical specification would suggest. There have been many hand held games computers since the Game Boy, but none have had the success or longevity in the market.

The period advert above came from an old local publication that I own; I believe the ad dates back to early 1947, which was when the map the advert appeared in was originally published. The reference to war damage claims would tend to back this up. Old maps are a great way to find out about local areas - not just for the maps themselves, but for the adverts that they invariably contain. I always look out for them when out and about.

Only a week after I wrote about how the Ladbrokes betting shop in Erith High Street had recently closed, reports are emerging that the giant William Hill bookmaking chain are about to close around 109 shops around the country, putting 420 jobs at risk. I feel sorry for those who will be put out of work - the company blames the rise in tax on Fixed Odds Betting Terminals (FOBT) - the "crack cocaine" of gambling. The Government has raised the tax levels on these terrible machines from 20% to 25% in an attempt to curb their invidious spread. Last year, a report discovered that over £13 billion was gambled on FOBT machines in that year, often by the poorest and most disadvantaged members of society. After doing some digging, I have discovered that the story about William Hill closing outlets may be a bit of a red herring. I understand that the company has been based in Gibraltar for tax reasons for some considerable time. They are looking to increase their revenues by migrating much of the business that has up until now been taking place in their network of betting shops and moving it online, where it will not be taxed, and they will be saved the expensive overhead of having to employ shop staff. The excuse that they are being penalised by an increase in taxes by the Government would seem to be little more than a cynical move to try and elicit some kind of sympathy, when in actual fact the increase in FOBT taxation would seem to be playing directly into their hands. Personally I detest gambling, but at the same time I continue to espouse my personal libertarian philosophy of "If it works for you" - but beware. 

Three years ago, Transport for London trialled contactless payment by mobile smart phone. It was a very low key effort, and it was quietly dropped after a number of problems were encountered. The trial took place across London, but problems were found with devices not registering with the readers, accounts being debited more than once despite only being swiped a single time, and a general slowness in the system. TFL are about to try again, citing the improvement in smart phone technology in the intervening period as the reason to give it another bash. The main motivator behind this is that TFL feel that the Oyster system is too expensive to operate, and they are thinking of the long term – where payments will go in the future, in a post – Oyster environment. There are a number of issues with NFC (Near Field Communication) payment systems. Whilst it is possible to store encrypted details of a number of debit and credit cards on a smart phone employing NFC, it is not always a good idea to do so. The Near Field Communication technical standard does not make any allowances for the  prevention of eavesdropping, and it is possible to record an NFC signal up to ten metres away from a smart phone, with suitable equipment and software – which is all available online already. Gangs who previously have been engaged in illegal “card skimming” activities at cash points are now known to be working on NFC snooping. The problem with the NFC protocol is that once contact has been made and verified between the smart phone and the computer at the far end of the connection, the far end computer will accept almost any data sent over the connection; only the most basic of parity checking is undertaken. This leaves NFC open to all sorts of trickery. I am sure that in a majority of cases NFC smart phones will work splendidly with the TFL electronic ticketing system. The problem comes when something does go wrong – be it due to malicious interference, or a plain old fashioned mistake. The onus is on the device owner to prove innocence, not the other way around, as is already the case with chip and PIN debit cards. NFC may be acceptable (due to convenience) for many regular public transport users, but it does not help occasional travellers such as elderly people and tourists. Some form of manual ticketing system is going to also need to be put in place – even if it is a single use passive NFC ticket, as is already deployed in the public transport systems in places as diverse as Singapore and Canada. What is clear is that Oyster is regarded as old, nearing end of life technology, and a cheaper replacement is needed soon. Comment below.

The BBC News website has been getting quite excited about a subject I have covered on the Maggot Sandwich in the distant past, but now seems to be back in the news. For some inexplicable reason, they have been writing about Secret Numbers Stations in some detail. Secret Numbers Stations have been in existence since World War II. They can be found quite easily if you have a radio which can receive the shortwave bands. Generally speaking, numbers stations appear somewhat erratically and consist of a disembodied electronic voice reading out streams of numbers which repeat a fixed number of times. The stations are usually outside of the main shortwave broadcast bands, and can sometimes be encountered in the amateur radio bands – much to the annoyance of their legal users. Whilst number stations are well known to radio enthusiasts like me, most of the general public will be unaware of their existence. The purpose of numbers stations is simple. They are the most secure method of communicating with spies in the field. Computer communications are easily intercepted, and even the most heavily encrypted ciphers can be broken over time by supercomputers – and it is relatively straightforward to identify a person from an Internet Service Provider. Old fashioned shortwave radio is completely anonymous – no sign in, or account is required, and a suitable radio can be picked up in a shop for a few pounds. Anyone found with a radio which can receive shortwave will not get much attention – most compact travel radios can receive shortwave broadcasts; thus a spy can be completely anonymous and untraceable whilst listening to the coded broadcasts. You can hear a BBC Radio 4 documentary about numbers stations by clicking here. Sometimes new technology is not the best solution to a problem, and this is most definitely the case here. Each numbers station transmission is read out by a computer generated voice, giving it an eerie, somewhat creepy sound. One would have thought that once the Cold War was over, the need for numbers stations would cease, but in many cases, the number of stations has actually increased – radio traffic, including numbers stations has been recently noticed in the Ukraine, where before the recent dispute with Russia, it was pretty much a backwater. You can watch a short news broadcast about secret number stations below. It is a few years old, but still very accurate and insightful. Please leave a comment below, or Email me at

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