Sunday, September 27, 2015

Mysterious lights in the sky.

The photo above was taken by me recently; it shows the sun setting over Erith Pier at high tide. It is the only time when you can get a glassy stillness to the water - providing there is little or no wind. It is a beautiful place to be when the weather and tide conditions are just right. On Monday evening I had an exceedingly strange experience, which I want to share with you in case anyone can shed a light on what I saw. At about 8.30pm I was returning home to Pewty Acres after an evening shopping trip to the Morrison’s supermarket in James Watt Way, Erith. As many will know, the supermarket is located on the banks of the River Thames, which you can see in the photo above - click on it for a larger view. As I walked home across Morrison’s car park, I looked out over the river. Normally one can see ships moving up or down river, or aircraft coming in to land at London City Airport. This time I saw something which immediately grabbed my attention. I saw a total of eighteen (and yes, I did count) balls of bright light in the sky, travelling at what appeared to be several hundred miles an hour eastwards, away from London. Each ball of light was roughly the same orange colour of a sodium street light, and they were arranged in formations of three, in a chevron pattern. They appeared to be following the course of the river, and they travelled silently. I also saw much higher up a passenger plane making a descent to London City Airport. I watched the formation of lights for around two minutes as they travelled from horizon to horizon. I could hear no engine sounds from the lights (although I could hear the jet engine sounds from the passenger jet travelling in the opposite direction).  Normally if I saw an orange light moving in the sky, I would immediately identify it as a Chinese sky lantern, but these lights were travelling in formation, were far too bright to be lanterns, and were travelling far too quickly to have been blown by the wind (which in any case was blowing in nearly the opposite direction).  I have absolutely no idea what the lights were, but I am certain that many other people must have seen them as well. I am really surprised not to have seen any mention of this puzzling event on the local or regional press; I assumed that thousands of other people must have seen what I saw. Did you see the lights too? Do let me know – drop a line to me at     

Concerns are growing locally in respect of Bexley Council and their plans to sell off the small public park in West Street. You can see a Google Street View image of the park above - feel free to navigate around the virtual area. Local Councillor Abena Oppong-Asare has written to the council, and she kindly sent me a copy of her letter, which I reproduce below for your information. "I am writing to you as an elected Labour councillor for Erith Ward in response to the council’s public survey regarding proposals for possible redevelopment of four open spaces. My response is on behalf of my Erith residents regarding the release of West Street small park and has been developed following discussions with Erith residents.  I appreciate the Council is facing substantial financial challenges, but I strongly oppose the removal of green spaces. Public Health England statistical data published in June 2015 shows that in Bexley, 22.5% (576) of children in Year 6 are classified as obese, worse than the average for England and I feel that keeping open spaces will help reduce obesity in the area. I recognise that the council has been trying to tackle obesity in adults and set up an adult weight management service in September 2014. We also need to tackle the problem of childhood obesity.  Public Health England has carried out research which has shown that over half of people living in deprived areas would take more exercise if green spaces were improved. Furthermore, good quality and well maintained parks are more likely to be used and local residents report higher ‘neighbourhood satisfaction’ and better health as a result.  A lot of regeneration is taking place in Erith. Bexley College Erith Campus opened a year ago. Erith Quarry received planning permission from Bexley Council in March for their development and there is possibility that the former Riverside Baths might be turned into flats. It is therefore vital that Erith maintains what is left of its green public space. I also have grave concerns about the way the survey has been conducted. Question 5 of the survey gives very limited options to residents objecting the closure of any of the parks. The council has many more options than the three mentioned and is misleading ones listed. I also don’t believe that it clarifies the reason to keep West Street small park.
The questions asked are as follows:

Substantial reductions in ground maintenance, which would result in unmaintained parks, the removal of children’s playgrounds and the loss of sports pitches. 
£1 million reduction per year in spending on other Council services. 
A Council tax rise of more than 1.99% (subject to a local referendum) 

I urge the Council to remove its proposal to dispose West Street small park and work with local residents, community groups and ward councillors to establish a way of keeping the park in public use while achieving savings for the council. I would like to conclude by saying that green open spaces are in scarce supply in our area and that West Street small park provides a valuable contribution to the street scene and environment in this deprived area of our borough. I would also like to thank you for giving me and residents in Erith the opportunity to add our comments. 

I look forward to receiving a reply to my comments. 

Yours sincerely 
Councillor Abena Oppong-Asare Erith Ward"

Following my earlier, rather X-Files like experience, I thought that I should bring a note of scientific realism to the rest of the blog update this week. Today we are witnessing a similar outburst of enthusiasm over the to my mind unlikely notion that in the relatively near future, some people are going to be living, working, thriving and dying on the planet Mars. A Dutch non-profit venture called Mars One aspires to send four people to Mars by 2026 as the beginning of a permanent human settlement. In the United States, the non-profit Inspiration One has plans for a two-person team to fly within one hundred miles of the planet, launching from Earth in January 2018. And the entrepreneur Elon Musk, who runs a rocket company called SpaceX, has said he hopes to send the first people to Mars in eleven to twelve years. Unfortunately, this Mars mania - perhaps encouraged by the recent release of the sci fi film "The Martian" reflects an excessively optimistic view of what it actually takes to travel to and live on Mars, papering over many of the harsh realities and bitter truths that underlie the dream. First, there is the tedious business of getting there. Using current technology and conventional chemical rockets, a trip to Mars would be a gruelling, eight- to nine-month-long nightmare journey for the crew.  Nine months is a long time for any group of people to be travelling in a small, closed,  spacecraft. (it would have  to be far smaller and more functional than the relatively comfy confines of a habitable satellite like the International Space Station). Tears, sweat, urine and perhaps even solid waste will be recycled, the astronauts personal space would be reduced to the size of a small van. Crew members would be in microgravity for the entire trip, with consequent health problems: Bone mass wastes away,  teeth become more susceptible to cavities, the body’s muscles, including the heart, and even the small muscles that control the eye movements, atrophy and lose mass, and astronauts immune, digestive, vascular and pulmonary systems function at impaired levels. In addition, there will be persistent mechanical noise and vibration, sleep disturbances, unbearable tedium, trance states, depression, monotonous repetition of meals, clothing, routines, conversations and so on. Every source of interpersonal conflict, and emotional and psychological stress that one can experience in ordinary, day-to-day life on Earth will be magnified exponentially by restriction to a tiny, hermetically sealed, pressure-cooker capsule hurtling through deep space. To top it all off, despite these constraints, the crew must operate within an exceptionally slim margin of error. As with any cutting-edge technology, there will be continuous threats of equipment failures, computer malfunctions, power interruptions and software glitches. Getting there is the easy part. Mars is a dead, cold, barren planet on which no living thing is known to have evolved, and which harbours no breathable air or oxygen, no liquid water and no sources of food, nor conditions favourable for producing any. For these and other reasons it would be accurate to call Mars a veritable hell for living things, were it not for the fact that the planet’s average surface temperature is minus 81 degrees Fahrenheit. Oxygen on Mars exists as a constituent of water — the O in H2O. Thus, one way to get this essential component of air is to first obtain an adequate store of water. However, there being no proven liquid water reserves on Mars, water, too, must be produced from raw material sources, specifically from the soil, which contains large quantities of Calcium Perchlorate. One plan calls for digging up the soil and placing it into a heater that will evaporate off any water within it. The water vapour is then condensed into a liquid. Oxygen, in turn, can be separated from the hydrogen in the water by means of electrolysis, and then stockpiled. The nitrogen component of air could be “mined” from the thin Martian atmosphere. With these two constituents in hand, and then combined, we finally have a breath of air (although not “fresh” air). This is dependent on water being found in sizable quantities, locked up in the soil and rocks of the Martian landscape. At the time of writing, historical evidence for past stocks of water have been discovered, but it appears that much of it has long evaporated off into space.  These are only a few of the many serious challenges that must be overcome before anyone can put human beings on Mars and expect them to live for more than five minutes. The notion that we can start colonizing Mars within the next ten years or so is an over optimistic, delusory idea that it strikes me as nothing short of wish fulfilment. Much more has to be done before a viable, relatively safe and long term colony on Mars can realistically be contemplated. The proposals so far published all make sweeping assumptions in respect of conditions and the human technology – in a similar way to it always seems to be forty years away from hot fusion power generation becoming feasible in practical terms; we are a lot further away from a viable Mars colony than some of the pundits would have the pubic believe. I wish it was not the case, but unfortunately it is. Mars is still a distant dream.

The last few months have been very quiet in respect of the antics of Joshua Bonehill.  You may recall that I wrote extensively after the self-professed racist anti-Semitic homophobic bigot sent me a threatening and wildly inaccurate Email back in February. The reason that things have been so quiet is that Bonehill has been in prison awaiting trial. On Monday of last week, he went before Southwark Crown Court. He is charged with publishing or distributing written material intended to stir up racial hatred. It is alleged he posted links on Twitter in June to material that would stir up racial hatred ahead of a rally that organisers planned to hold in Golders Green, a predominantly Jewish area of north London. It was later moved and held in central London. Bonehill, of Yeovil in Somerset, loudly declared he was  “absolutely not guilty” as he appeared in the dock at Southwark Crown Court. He was remanded in custody to appear at the same court for trial. A provisional date of the 14th December was arranged. So Bonehill’s still in jail in the meantime. I just hope he gets some diagnosis and treatment for what would seem to be a serious mental illness.

Last week I wrote in some depth about the late Erith born comedienne Linda Smith. This prompted local resident and occasional Maggot Sandwich contributor The rEV to write the following article about Linda Smith and events shortly after her untimely death:- "In 2006 I was an avid listener to BBC7 (or Radio 4 Extra as it is now known), DAB radio was still pretty niche and a station playing classic comedy and radio plays even more so, but I lapped up the likes of Hancock, Round The Horne and assorted drama and documentaries as well as classic sci-fi like Doctor Who. I’d heard of some of the shows but being in my mid-30s I had never heard stuff like this before, quality laugh out loud comedies and programmes to make me ponder and get excited about that were made (mostly) 20 years or so before I was even born. Beat the hell out of what was currently on TV (even if no-one got the references I dropped into day to day conversation!) and as we had two small children I spent a lot of time in the kitchen pottering about so had the time and space to listen to the radio where as sitting on the sofa watching TV was a distant memory. I signed up to the BBC7 weekly newsletter and a few months after Linda Smith’s passing they announced they would be having a memorial tribute show and a competition to win tickets and a rather spiffing BBC branded portable Roberts radio. I’m not sure if I was the only entrant but I’m 99% sure I was the only entrant from Erith, Linda’s home town, whichever the case I won. I must admit I’d heard of Linda Smith but only vaguely. I remember about 10 years before hand flicking on the TV late one night and seeing her talk about “Eriff” in her stand up and had heard a few shows with her as a panellist on The News Quiz, Just a Minute and I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue but I can’t say I knew her or her comedy that well but was…proud (?) to have a comedienne who came from the same area I lived in (the only other one I can think of off hand from the local area is the brilliant Mark Steel, who originated from Swanley). The BBC7 controller (a lovely lady, sadly her name escapes me) contacted me to say I’d won and we ended up striking up quite a nice little friendship that lasted a few months after the tribute show. She seemed interested on my thoughts and enthusiasm about the station because of my age and the fact I went against the BBC’s demographics of who would listen to the station, she’d also run into Linda a few times whilst working at the BBC and was interested in my view on Erith (nicking and paraphrasing a line from Mr Pewty, I once told her the best view of the place was through the viewfinder on a bomber flying over). The night of the show rolled around and after securing a babysitter my wife and I trooped up to a studio theatre in the backstreets of London to sit and watch the recording of “Linda Smith: A Modern Radio Star” compared by Andy Hamilton (writer and performer in the rather fabulous Old Harry’s Game and BBC1’s Outnumbered) with a stellar cast of comedy stars, friends and colleagues including Jeremy Hardy, Mark Steel, Hattie Hayridge, Sandi Toksvig, Nicholas Parsons, Chris Neill, Tony Hawks, Phill Jupitus, Simon Hoggart, Barry Cryer and her partner Warren Lakin. I was a bit awestruck to be honest as we were sat in the front row and mingled with the cast in the bar. Some of these people I had grown up with on TV, read books written by them and in the case of Barry Cryer I was in the presence of a veritable God of comedy (he’s written or had a hand in writing for everyone from Bob Hope to Morecambe and Wise to John Cleese, Marty Feldman, The Goodies, Kenny Everett, the list is never-ending). I offered to buy him a drink and he laughed wryly and waving his bottle at the bar told me he drunk for free. The BBC7 controller was there too and was a gracious host and I noticed she kept watching me and my wife during the show when Linda’s life in Erith was brought up. The show that went out didn’t bear much relation to the one we watched as it was very off the cuff and relaxed and (Phill Jupitus especially) very sweary. There was obviously a lot of love for Linda in the room but even though her dying was the reason we were all there was no maudlin sadness, in fact there was nothing but joy. Sadly we had to leave just before the end of the show due to having to catch the last train home but it was a wonderful night and I can’t think of a warmer, more intimate, more affectionate send off to a comedian. She was obviously well loved by her contemporaries and that shone throughout the show". Fascinating stuff; I wonder how long it will be before the local area produces another entertainer of similar calibre?

Software maker Adobe has patched nearly two dozen vulnerabilities in its Flash media player last week, including sixteen that lead to code execution, but is still serving flawed versions with hundreds of holes as part of its Shockwave bundle. The Flash vulnerabilities patched in the last week affect Windows, Mac OS X, and Linux as part of the version 19.x updates. It addresses code execution flaws resulting from buffer overflow vulnerabilities, memory corruption, and stack and stack overflow corruption - all of the nastiest types of software vulnerabilities. Flash was originally launched back in 1996, when web browsers could do little more than render basic HTML (the underlying code which makes up web pages) into colours and text. If you wanted any kind of animation, or streaming video on your website, you needed to use an additional third party toolkit – and Flash was the market leader for many years. Flash Player can run from a web browser as a browser plug-in or on supported mobile devices. Flash Player was created by software developer Macromedia, and has been developed and distributed by Adobe Systems since Adobe acquired Macromedia. Flash Player has a wide user base, and is a common format for games, animations, and GUIs embedded into web pages. Adobe states that more than 400 million out of more than 1 billion connected desktops update to the new version of Flash Player within six weeks of release. The problem with Flash player and the associated toolkits which it comes with is that it is generally accepted as being the single most bug – riddled piece of software to be found on any Windows PC, Mac or Linux box. It is notorious for being a continuous source of serious security vulnerabilities, and patching these seems to be the digital equivalent of painting The Forth Bridge – as soon as one set of security holes get patched, another bunch of them turn up. The irony is that most everyday computer users have not actually needed to have Flash installed on their computers for quite a while now. Over the years the technology built in to the humble web browser has advanced to the point where multimedia plug – ins such as Flash are simply not required. The web browser can use more modern coding such as HTML5 to do create the same functionality without the need for the performance and power sapping overhead of running Flash. Indeed, sites like YouTube, which once required the use of Flash no longer require it at all – everything runs more efficiently and smoothly on modern web browsers such as Google Chrome or Firefox, that Flash is but a distant memory.  In fact, Google (who are the developers of the Chrome web browser) actually block Flash files from downloading automatically, and Mozilla, the organisation behind Firefox are considering doing the same. Flash is old and very past its sell – by date. Very few computer users actually need it nowadays, and it has a horrible propensity for introducing some nasty security holes in your computer. Maybe it is time to wave Flash goodbye?

As Malcolm Knight of the excellent “Bexley is Bonkers” blog has comprehensively beaten me to publication (he publishes daily, I publish weekly) I cannot claim any kind of scoop on the story that the historic Lower Belvedere pub the Leather Bottle has not only closed down, but it looks like the land next to the listed pub building that once was home to the car park and garden is shortly to become the site of a four storey block of flats - at least that is what the local scuttlebut is saying, but no planning application has thus far been received by Bexley Council, and the grounds of the pub contain a well - known public right of way. It would appear that the pub building itself will be safe, due to the listed status of the structure. What will happen to it is currently rather unclear. The Bexley council planning website (never the easiest of experiences to try and extract information from) does not have any recent mention of the Leather Bottle. Hopefully more details will come to hand shortly. I for one am not at all surprised about the closure of the historic pub. I can recall that when I was in the sixth form at school, a group of us would meet in there on a Thursday evening when they had a live music night. The atmosphere was jovial, the staff and customers friendly, and a good time was had by all. I revisited the place a couple of years ago expecting more of the same – as the pub had enjoyed a reputation for being the best (if also the most expensive) pub in the locality. What I found was a scruffy and unkempt pub, surly staff and sour ale which the landlord denied was off. We stayed for one pint – most of which ended up in a pot plant, and left, never to return. I can assume that we are one a couple of many who deserted the place as it entered a terminal decline. One comment from pub review website said of the place “Have been using this pub on and off for over 35 years and have seen different owners come and go and of course many bar staff. Went in the other night and the bint behind the bar was chatting on her mobile phone rather than serving anyone. Naturally when she'd finished gas bagging she served the first person she came to which of course wasn’t the person who was next, The disgusting regulars do not have the manners to point out someone was before them and blatantly jumped the queue. What a complete hole this has become. Sad but true of many old haunts I’m afraid. Glad i used it in its heyday.” At least I understand the building itself will be retained, hopefully intact. More on this story in the future.

The ending video is something of a curiosity, and something I found on YouTube, It shows the Brooklyn Organ Synth Orchestra playing Mike Oldfield's classic "Tubular Bells" on a large collection of old synthesisers and organs. Very strange, but very good. See what you think.

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