Sunday, August 24, 2014

Sewage Street.

The photo above shows the apartments and town houses in Wharfside Close, right on the banks of the River Thames. Currently a large, two bedroomed flat is available for sale for offers in excess of £180,000. If this riverside property was located in Greenwich or Docklands, it would be the thick end of a million pounds or thereabouts. Property in Erith offers exceptional value for money when one considers you can be in central London within an hour by train, or anywhere around the M25 or A2 in very little time at all. It is also very convenient for Morrison's supermarket, which is right next door.

Much as I predicted, there are currently serious problems with the Oyster card system used on public transport in and around London. A report compiled by consultants working for Transport For London has found that every day a little over two thousand travellers experience “card clash” when tapping in or out of a tube or railway station. Card clash is defined as when money or credit is taken from the wrong card during a transaction. This is usually due to several eligible cards being kept in close proximity, usually in a wallet or purse. An example of this would be a person swiping in at one station and their Oyster card being debited, but when they swiped out at the other end, a bank debit card was charged. Not only would any daily fare cap (currently £10.60 in London fare zones 1-4) not be enacted, but a penalty fare would be charged for not tapping out using the Oyster card. Bank debit cards will not currently be charged even if they become the victims of a clash, but after September the 16th, when the use of debit cards is permitted, they will be.  This is a prime example of the law of unintended consequences – I warned several years ago that something of this nature was close to inevitable; whenever you add an extra layer of complexity to a system, the chances of an unintended consequence resulting increases by a factor of four. The TfL study found “We are currently seeing about 2,000 instances per day of customers presenting a CPC (contactless payment card) in a way that, had the system been live, they would have been charged on it. As the system is not yet live, we have to infer that the presentation of a CPC is unintentional”. Contactless payment by debit card will be permitted on suburban railways such as Southeastern Trains Metro service on both the London via Greenwich and London via Bexleyheath routes. Erith station is covered by Oyster readers, but it is still unclear what will happen to travellers who continue their journey to Dartford, as Dartford station is outside of the Transport for London travel zones, and does not have oyster card readers at the station exits. I have previously warned of the dangers of contactless debit cards of the type being issued by many banks at present. I was issued with one last year, which I returned unused. I requested a conventional chip and PIN card with no wireless connectivity, and was issued with one. Banks will still supply the conventional cards on request, but they are not keen on their customers knowing this. Contactless cards can be read at a distance by a smart phone or laptop running software readily downloaded, and using a reader head unit which can be purchased from Maplin or Amazon. It is possible for crooks to then capture the transaction data and extract information from it; a scenario in which this could happen would involve a victim boarding a double decker bus. The current model used in most of South East London is the Alexander Dennis Enviro 400. This bus has a single passenger seat located directly behind the drivers cab. A hacker sat in this seat equipped with a smart phone and remote card reader could easily capture the transaction data as the passenger swiped their debit card to pay for the journey. It can also work in any other instance where a crook can get within a few feet of a victim and a contactless reader unit during the transaction period. You have been warned.

Most of the heavy road reconstruction work in and around Manor Road has now been completed. The traffic calming features such as width restrictors and speed humps are now in place, and already locals are seeing the law of unintended consequences coming in to play. The speed bumps are primarily located on the stretch of road to the East of Frobisher Road, and are designed to slow traffic heading towards and from the long, straight section that connects to the various industrial estates that make up the Eastern half of Manor Road. The bumps are in the form of low, square shaped areas that are highlighted in fine red gravel. I stood for around ten minutes on Saturday morning, watching the behaviour of vehicles approaching these speed bumps, and it was not what I was expecting. Instead of slowing down before driving over the bumps, almost every single driver instead chose to swerve into the gap between the bumps, and continue without slowing down. This has the effect of forcing traffic in both directions to share the middle of the road. It would appear that the speed bumps are actually making the road more, rather than less dangerous due to the irresponsible behaviour of drivers. I am not sure what can be done to remedy this, other than constructing a barrier down the middle of the road, which would be neither practical or desirable. If you have recently travelled on the road, what were your experiences? Did you feel the new design was inherently less safe than the previous one, or were you satisfied with the new configuration? Either leave a comment below, or drop me an Email to the usual address.

Sandcliff Road in Erith has been flooded with raw sewage yet again. The road is cursed with awful drainage, and it seems that whenever the town gets very heavy rainfall, the poor residents of Sandcliff Road end up ankle deep in poo. This has happened at least six times in the past, and it seems that Thames Water make sympathetic noises, but to date they have failed to solve the fundamental problem of the existing drainage system being overwhelmed when storm conditions dump heavy rain in the area. The damage caused to houses has been severe – one place is now condemned as uninhabitable, and the road is blighted – residents find it next to  impossible to sell their properties to anyone other than landlords wanting to let the property privately. This is the kind of problem I was highlighting when I referred to the need to improve local service infrastructure. It is not just things such as schools and doctors’ surgeries that need to be in place when new residential developments like Erith Park and Erith Quarry are built, but the fundamental things such as electricity and drinking water capacity, along with efficient drainage need to be in place. Last Thursday it was not only Sandcliff road that suffered under a deluge of rain; Fraser Road and Alford Road were also temporarily flooded. Bearing in mind the Erith Quarry site is directly adjacent to this location, it really does highlight just how much of a fundamental upgrade the local sewage and drainage system is going to require. I recall on my first visit to Erith Park on North End Road last year, I was extremely impressed by the utterly huge storm drain that was at that time being installed under the site. One of the workers told me that it was big enough to drive two hatchback cars though abreast. When I questioned whether something so big was really necessary, I was told that the engineers were having to take into account possible freak weather conditions in forty or fifty years time, not just those in the present day. What is also of increasing concern is that problems even worse than this are being reported in places other than those already mentioned. A prominent local business leader forwarded me some very disturbing photographs taken in Mitchell Close, Lower Belvedere, adjacent to both Belvedere Infant School, and also Belvedere Youth and Community Centre. My source reports that whenever heavy rain storms occur, the main sewers back up – this should never happen – the storm drains that handle rainwater are entirely separate from the foul water / sewage system. I was also told that Thames Water took over a day to attend the most recent incident featured in the photos, and even then they did a half hearted job of cleaning up the mess. I can imagine what the smell must have been like – stomach turning. Residents in the area don’t exactly flush the loo and expect to see what they waved goodbye to sailing down their street the next time it rains! It would seem that the foul drainage system for whole swathes of the area need urgent upgrading if public health is not to suffer. Do you have a story you would like people to know about? Drop me a line to

Just in case you read the article on computer passwords which was published in last Monday's edition of the London Evening Standard, the following piece was not lifted from it; the piece was actually written over a week earlier, and held over from the last blog update as including it would have made the update too long. A team of information security consultants carried out a detailed survey into computer password use over the last two years in the USA. I suspect that had the test been carried out in the UK, the results would have been broadly similar. When the white hat ethical hackers (with the permission of the organisations involved) penetrated various computer systems, they found that the user passwords most commonly used were worryingly rubbish, and extremely weak indeed. The worst offenders were, in no particular order:- Password1, Hello123, Welcome1, Letmein – you get the idea. Some people think substituting a non – standard character in a word makes their password more secure, for example by wiring Pa$$word instead of Password. To be honest, this is a false sense of security. Password cracking applications like OPHCrack use a combination of techniques to break the password on a machine, one of which is by comparing the password with a list of passwords in its memory – a so called directory attack. It is important not to use a familiar sequence like “Manchesterunited” or the name of a pet, as a cracking program would guess it in a couple of seconds. Also, when people substitute characters in passwords for non standard ones, they tend to use a shorter password, which negates any extra security the substitution might have brought them. An old password I used to use which was both extremely strong, and also easy to remember (often a difficult task) was “NoMi$terB0nd-Iexpecty0utod1e!” That would have kept a commercial cracking password program thrashing away for weeks, though GCHQ or the NSA would still break it in a blink of an eye.  Before you ask, no, I don’t use that phrase, or a variation thereof nowadays, but it does give you an idea of what a really tough to crack password looks like. To be honest, passwords are a bit of a red herring; most serious black hat baddies use other techniques to circumvent the security of a network. More on this another time perhaps.

Don’t forget that next weekend will be the first Erith Fun Day, held in Erith Riverside Gardens from 12 midday to 5pm on Saturday the 30th August. There will be all sorts of stalls selling organic food, homemade jewellery, children’s clothes and accessories, as well as all sort of activities going on, including an appearance by the Port of London Authority display vehicle (and I have absolutely no idea what it will be). On top of all this, Erith and Thamesmead MP Teresa Pearce will be unveiling a new Alexander Selkirk memorial signpost in the Riverside Gardens at 3pm, accompanied by a chap playing bagpipes – but please don’t let that put you off! It promises to be a good day; you may well see me wandering around with my camera if you come along. Do come over to say hello.

There have been a couple of sad anniversaries in the last week; as many will have read in the press, 25 years ago last Tuesday the Thames river boat the Marchioness was hit by the dredger Bowbelle and sank with the loss of 51 lives.  I was actually in London and by the banks of the Thames when this tragic event unfolded, though I have to say I saw nothing as I was about a mile away from the location of the accident. The reason for me being in London late on a Saturday night was nothing to do with a desire to be in the capital , but to do with the other event that took place on the same day – one which had severe implications to both British and European Union law, and also had a profound impact on the right to free speech in the pre World Wide Web era. On Saturday the 19th August 1989 representatives from the Dutch PTT and the British DTI travelled out into the international waters of the North Sea (where they had absolutely no legal jurisdiction, as was later proved in court) and boarded the Ross Revenge, home of Radio Caroline, where they smashed the transmitters and damaged the generators and illegally removed all of the studio gear and records from the library. Several of the Dutch PTT officers were armed with revolvers and some uncooperative Caroline crew members were both physically and verbally threatened. Much of this raid was broadcast live on air to most of Europe, before the transmitter was put offline and the valves smashed. I was out in Bexleyheath doing some shopping when this happened, but when I returned to my parents house, my sister played me a cassette recording of the events. Ironically I was already involved with the station at this point, and had been on board only two weeks previously. My photos were some of the last taken prior to the raid, and copies were used in evidence in the later court case. Caroline’s shore based management were racing down from North London to get out to the Ross Revenge as quickly as possible – a light aircraft was chartered to fly over the ship, and a speedboat was commandeered to get Peter Moore, the station manager and a couple of engineering staff on site as quickly as possible. Meanwhile I met up with the staff of local land based pirate radio station Radio Lumberjack in the Fox pub in Nuxley Road, Upper Belvedere where we had a council of war. Friend Captain Colin brought along his giant Land Rover V8 station wagon (a vehicle fitted with two RSJ girders on the front in lieu of a conventional bumper bar – Colin believed in crumple zones, just as long as they only involved the other vehicle).  We decided we would head into town and try and get onto as many radio stations with the story as we could. Suffice to say that Radio Caroline was back on air in only a few weeks; in fact it should not have come on air when it did. I was one of the team that had arranged for a very large supply run of fuel, drinking water, food, replacement transmitter parts and new records to be sent out to the Ross Revenge from a secret port in Kent (the Gravesend Canal basin) on a ship called the M.V Galexy (not a typo) – a former Tyne ferry boat that was featured in the classic Michael Caine crime thriller “Get Carter”.  We were ready to go for a very quiet and stealthy “fishing” trip when Caroline came back on air, and the authorities were alerted that the station was not dead after all. Caroline management got into a furious row over the correct policy and course of action and the supply run had to be delayed, though it eventually went ahead. Some months later with the ship, transmitters and studios patched up, I chucked in my day job and went to work for Radio Caroline. All a very long time ago now. Caroline may no longer be broadcasting from the North Sea, but they are still a very important presence online – you can read more about the station and also listen to their programmes by clicking here. The British Department of Trade and Industry had chartered a former Trinity House pilot boat, the M.V Landward - the smallest of the three vessels in the video clip above. Some weeks after it was involved in the raid, we got word that it was moored in Gillingham Marina. A sympathiser had been speaking to the owner, who was smugly boasting of how much money the British government had paid him to take officials out to the Ross Revenge at its mooring fifteen miles off the North Foreland. A small team of Caroline shore staff paid the Landward a visit late one night after everyone had gone home. There had been some debate about whether we should pour a couple of bags of Lime into the bilges; this would quickly eat through the wooden hull and sink the ship. We decided that as Caroline preached a philosophy of peace and non - violence, known as Loving Awareness that this would be inappropriate. Instead when the owner came back on board the Landward the next day, he found a Radio Caroline car sticker neatly stuck on the wheelhouse window on the inside, with no sign of the door lock being forced, and no signs of any damage. We later found out that he had been incredibly rattled by this - as it sent the message "we know who you are, and what you did, and we are watching you". He was looking over his shoulder for months afterwards! He never discovered how we did it, which to be honest was a bit of a Happy Shopper "Mission: Impossible" project. Our informer was the owner of the yard, who was a big Caroline fan; the owner of the Landward left the keys to the ship in the yard office when he went home - we just borrowed them, opened the wheelhouse door, put up the sticker and locked the door back up. Simple but very effective.

Next month there is going to be a very interesting event held at the Crossness Pumping Station; The station was built by Sir Joseph Bazalgette as part of Victorian London's urgently needed main sewerage system. It was officially opened by the Prince of Wales in April 1865. The Beam Engine House is a Grade 1 Listed Industrial Building constructed in the Romanesque style and features some of the most spectacular ornamental Victorian cast ironwork to be found anywhere in the world. Since 1987 the structure has been laboriously renovated and restored by a team of unpaid volunteers who formed a charitable trust to care for the building, which is one of the most important structures in British industrial architecture. The trust describe the place thus:- “ The culmination of the great Metropolitan Board of Works' epic civil engineering project devised and led by Sir Joseph Bazelgette. The Crossness Pumping Station is a lasting testament to the genius, craftsmanship and foresight of the great Victorian engineers and notables. A gargantuan project that saved London from disease and decline, the benefits of which we still enjoy today. Experience this magnificent 150 year old building with its 1,000 tons of cutting edge Victorian construction hailed in its day as a modern wonder of science and engineering. Decorated in the highest of Victorian design the architecture of the building is a feast for the eyes. The multi coloured wrought iron interior is both beautiful and practical. A hidden gem in the hinterland of Erith and Thamesmead, it is rightfully described as the ‘Cathedral of the Marshes’. This is a rare chance to experience this beautifully restored Grade 1 building and grounds”. The Beam Engine House is periodically opened to the public, but on the Sunday 28th September, between 10.30am and 6pm, the venue will be hosting the First Crossness Steampunk Convivial – an event celebrating Victorian engineering and derring do; the Convivial promises a working exhibition of Tesla Coils, tea duelling (which sounds mildly disconcerting) peripatetic accordionists, umbrella fencing, refreshments, and intriguing historical displays, all amongst the giant preserved beam engines. The event will have live music courtesy of musician Tom Slatter, who describes himself as ”What would it sound like if Nick Cave started writing songs with Genesis after watching too many episodes of Dr Who? How many songs about replacing your body parts with mechanical alternatives is too many? Does the world need a Steampunk / sci-fi inspired prog rock act? Tom Slatter set out to answer none of these questions, but accidentally did”. Well, it certainly has whetted my curiosity; there is going to be a guided walk from Abbey Wood Station starting at 10.45 and culminating at the pumping station; if you wish to see some of the dandiest Steampunks adorned in their Sunday finery, this would be the place to be. The guided walk is free, and entrance to the event itself is £8 per adult, or £4 for children (referred to as “coglets”).

This week the Maggot Sandwich has a guest writer in the person of businesswoman Aaisha Knights - see her piece below:- "Hi everyone; First of all let me say thank you to my good friend and former colleague Hugh who has kindly allowed me to do a short write up (aka shameless plug) on his blog. While I don’t actually live in Erith, I have been an avid reader of the Maggot Sandwich for some time now and was surprised (and very pleased), to learn that it is so popular! I read it most weekends with avid interest in what is going on where you guys live and how it has become, via this blog, an unusual yet fascinating place I visited Erith to attend a Cross Keys steering group meeting and when I came out of the station, one of the first things that I said to Hugh is “it isn’t so bad!” in reference to how the borough comes across from an outsider’s perspective via the blog. So what is the point of all this I hear you ask? Hopefully some of the citizens of Erith might want to use my services – I am CEO and founder of Dream Tresses, a luxury hair extensions brand that caters to all hair types and textures from Afro-Caribbean to European and everything in between. I also offer a premium mobile hairstyling service where I can install extensions in the comfort of your own home. I only provide the highest quality 100% human hair extensions which are guaranteed or your money back. It would be lovely to come back to Erith on a more regular basis to give some of the citizens amazing hair instead of having to travel out. I’m dedicated to customer service and won’t consider a transaction completed until my client is completely happy. I’ve included a video review of just one of the types of hair that is available on my website below and also one of me styling my own extensions. Please check out Dream Tresses for more info and thanks for supporting me by taking the time to read this! You can see my YouTube videos here and here. You can also see my FaceBook page here, and my Twitter page here." Aaisha is involved with the Cross Keys regeneration project - you may see more of her in the months to come. 

I think that some of my readers must think that I am some sort of tin foil hat wearing conspiracy theorist when it comes to mobile phones. I won’t bore you again with my reasons for not owning or using one. What is clear is that as mobile devices become ever smarter, a greater number of unintended consequences happen as a result. A recent report by the Computer Science Department at the prestigious Stamford University concludes that it is possible to extract audio information from the accelerometers and gyroscopes embedded in mobile devices such as computer tablets and smart phones. The microphone embedded in a mobile smart phone is under control of the operating system, and is configured to only operate under certain conditions which are strictly controlled by a set of rules coded into the phone OS. This means that it can be difficult for an attacker to switch the phone on and get the microphone to act as a bug. The Stamford research has taken a different, and really inventive approach. Security researchers instead looked at other resources common to mobile devices that were not so strictly controlled by the operating system. They discovered that many smart phones and tablets contain gyroscopes and accelerometers (used within the device when it is being used as a games controller, or other interactive device using motion sensing). These sensors have almost no oversight from the operating system or security settings, and seem to be pretty much left to do their own thing. They then determined that a gyroscope could be used as a crude form of microphone, and when allied to some pretty sophisticated signal processing algorithms and speech recognition software could readily be used as an almost undetectable bug which could record and retransmit conversations made by the owner, even when the phone was in standby mode. This is something that would be way outside the capability of even a fairly sophisticated hacker, but would most certainly be well within the ability of a government agency such as the American NSA or British GCHQ. If you are interested in this kind of “left field” use of technology, you can read a detailed paper here.  It is pretty technical, but if you have an interest in security, it makes for fascinating reading.

The end video this week is from the musician Tom Slatter, who was mentioned earlier; here he appears in his most recent video, hunting the horrendous monster the Kraken over England. See what you think and please feel free to leave a comment below.

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