Sunday, June 05, 2016

The Internet of Things.

The photo above was taken by me during the recent "Our Erith" art exhibition in Christ Church Erith. It shows the choir and altar area of the church, along with two landscape paintings done by local professional artist Patrick Hearne. I have now uploaded the first batch of photos taken at the exhibition onto my Flickr site. You can click here to see the photos.

There has been much press coverage over the last week about the lack of public toilets in the UK nowadays. The London Borough of Bexley does especially poorly in this respect. Prime Minister David Cameron has pledged to do more to save Britain's dwindling number of public lavatories. The Prime Minister said he would examine the case for lifting thousands of pounds of taxes from them every year to try to save them from closure. The search for public toilets in towns and cities has become more and more desperate in recent years because the number of lavatories has fallen markedly. Campaigners say that many have had to be closed because of councils have to pay onerous business rates on them. The British Toilet Association has estimated that 40 per cent of local authority run public conveniences have disappeared in the last decade, taking the number down from 12,000 to 6,000, in part because councils have to pay business rates on them. The Daily Telegraph reported earlier in the week that Public toilets have traditionally been liable for business rates in the same way as non-domestic premises such as shops and offices, while churches and premises used to care for disabled people are exempt. Four out of five councils have cut spending on public toilets since 2011. Overall expenditure has declined by almost a third in four years, with £21m less spent last year than in 2011, and 43 councils have slashed their budgets by more than seventy percent. Raymond Martin, managing director of The British Toilet Association, said: “This is a public facility. People have to go to the toilet. We have to do five things in life – we have to eat, sleep, breathe, drink and we have to go to the toilet. Failure to go to the toilet we get sick, we get disorientated, we have high blood pressure, we can have strokes – this is a health and wellbeing issue. It is about equality, social inclusion and bringing more older people into town. The reason that toilets are closing is councils do not get any financial support from government to do it, so they have to sit down and look at costs. I have calls coming into me from councils saying ‘how do we close down all our toilets’. Councils really want to provide these facilities, they really want to have them but commercially and economically they can't afford to do it. The fall in numbers of public lavatories meant more and more shop owners are complaining about people urinating in the street, and worse".

Following the account from Maggot Sandwich reader and occasional contributor Alan Magin last week, where he shared his recollections of his part in the construction of Thamesmead, and a photo of him from back in June 1969 where he was helping install a stressed steel beam onto what was to become East Bridge on Yarnton Way. This week I have been sent an Email from local resident Tom Burnham, also with a historic photo of Thamesmead. Tom writes:- "Incidentally, in 1969 I had a holiday job working for Bexley Council at Sidcup Place, where the Borough Engineer's Dept was located in those days, and was set to constructing a scale model of the Harrow Manor Way flyover at Abbey Wood station.  The model showed the then proposed station entrance directly off the flyover, adjacent to the bus lay-bys) so it's interesting to see that idea now coming into effect, 47 years later. It had also been expected that there would be a third platform so that trains could terminate there - I think a Victoria-Abbey Wood service was envisaged". Interesting stuff. It just goes to show that pretty much every plan has been thought of in some form before. The Abbey Wood Crossrail terminus design is obviously a lot less groundbreaking than many had considered. 

It seems that the vision of the “Smart Home” is more than a few years away. A survey has recently been carried out by accountancy giant PwC shows that British homeowners are more concerned with practical applications and financial advantages rather than the need to be “tech-tastic” when it comes to smart technology at home. The majority of participants (72 per cent) were uninterested in making their homes smarter, and were not looking to buy smart appliances, renewable energy devices or automated cleaning appliances over the next two to five years. Research shows that they could be convinced if there were financial incentives such as reduced energy bills or free installation of smart energy meters or lights. Less than ten per cent of consumers were not bothered by pressure to keep up with tech-savvy friends and family with smart homes and were unimpressed with the ability to control devices through an app, possibly preferring to stride over and flip the switch themselves. Concerns were expressed over the security of certain smart devices, after the revelations last year that smart TV’s could be used by hackers to spy on individuals, by remotely activating the TV’s camera and speech recognition microphone. People seem to want simplicity and reliability over additional functionality, according to the report. One of the problems very few people have considered when discussing “The Internet of Things” as digitally connected domestic devices are often called is that of durability and lifecycle. Whilst, for example, a central heating system may last for twenty or so years (with a boiler swap – out halfway through), a smart phone with an associated app to remotely control the heating system has an average life of not much more than a couple of years. There is no guarantee that the app will continue to be supported on later version of the phone or tablets’ operating system, or that the app itself will still be available. As some of you may know, my “day job” is as a technology analyst in a multinational consulting company. I did some research a little while back into the possibility of replacing some very expensive, proprietary interactive touch screen screens outside of office meeting rooms which showed who was using the rooms, and who would be in there next with much cheaper Android tablets fixed to the outside of the meeting room. The Android tablet hardware worked out at less than one third of the cost of a proprietary screens, but the problem was that the company that provided the meeting room screen software could not guarantee that their code would carry on working for at least five years, and after multiple Android updates. The project ended up dead in the water because of this. I think that many similar situations may well arise in domestic environments, where a device such as a heating or lighting system with a relatively long lifecycle is to be controlled by a tablet or mobile phone with a far shorter lifecycle, and with software with a shorter lifecycle still. I feel that much of the “internet of things” is actually a solution looking for a problem. What do you think? Leave a comment below, or Email me at

You may recall that a while ago, back in December I featured a story which debunked the myth that the Homeleigh Care Home in Avenue Road, Erith was to be converted into a centre for fifty Syrian refugee families. The malicious hoax story had been created and spread via social media by extreme right wing hate group, the English Defence League. "Bexley is Bonkers" author Malcolm Knight had also investigated the story, and came to the same conclusion as I. In fact, the former care home has been converted into a refuge for homeless people, including women seeking shelter from domestic violence. i am not going to debate the bones of the story, as to whether the building is actually fit for purpose - others are already doing that, and I see no benefit in duplicating that discussion. What does concern me is that several of the residents of the former care home are photographed and named in the News Shopper piece. The location of Homeleigh House is very well known both locally and beyond. It strikes me as irresponsible for the News Shopper to run the story in the form that it has. Any disgruntled former partner could easily trace the women from the information published in the story - the possibilities are potentially dreadful. Bear in mind that it is only a few months since the appalling murder of Sian Blake and her two children in Pembroke Road, Erith. I would have expected the News Shopper to have been more responsible under the circumstances. 

Did you know that the words “Internet” and “Web” are no longer considered to be proper nouns? As of last week the bible of English speaking journalists, the Associated Press Stylebook , which offers a comprehensive guide to the usage of words, style, spelling and punctuation. "The argument for lowercasing Internet is that is has become wholly generic, like electricity and the telephone. It never was trademarked and is not based on any proper noun," writes Tom Kent, Associated Press Standards Editor, in an interview with technology news website, Slashdot:-  "The best reason for capitalising it in the past may have been that the term was new. At one point, we understand, 'Phonograph' was capitalised." The two names will join the likes of website (formerly Web site) and email (formerly e-mail). Thankfully, for capital letter enthusiasts, there's one prominent holdout: PDF, short for Portable Document Format, will remain capitalised. I don’t make the rules, I just report them.

I took the photo above recently; it shows an empty mini canister of Nitrous Oxide gas (commonly known as "laughing gas"). The canister was dumped on the road by the pedestrian crossing on Manor Road, Erith. "Legal Highs" are no longer legal;  Synthetic drugs such as "Spice" and substances such as Nitrous Oxide are now illegal to sell. The Psychoactive Substances Act  2016 came into force on the 6th April 2016. The Act will make it an offence to produce, supply or offer to supply any psychoactive substance if the substance is likely to be used for its psychoactive effects and regardless of its potential for harm. The only exemption from the Act are those substances already controlled by the Misuse of Drugs Act, nicotine, alcohol, caffeine and medicinal products. The main intention of the Act is to shut down shops and websites that currently trade in ‘legal highs’. Put simply any substance will be illegal to produce or supply if it is likely to be used to get high. Possession of a psychoactive substance will not be an offence, except in a ‘custodial institution’ (prison, young offender centre, removal centre etc.). Possession with intent to supply, importing or exporting a psychoactive substance are now all offences. I have never understood the attraction of such substances, but after undertaking some online research, I came across the respected academic journal "Addiction". In an article aimed at UK lawmakers, The opening statement, by Prof Peter Reuter and Bryce Pardo of the School of Public Policy, University of Maryland, outlines three problems with the Psychoactive Substances Act's total ban of new psychoactive substances (NPS): 1. The Act's definition of psychoactivity is too broad: it applies to substances of potential and known minimal to moderate harm. 2. The Act does not provide a way to establish psychoactivity. On this topic, the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs has warned that "There is currently no way to define psychoactivity through a biochemical test, therefore there is no guarantee of proving psychoactivity in a court of law." 3. The Act's penalties for violations of a total ban are not proportional to the harm of the substance involved. Under the Act, judges cannot impose a common sense approach in sentencing since they will have little if any evidence on the harms of the specific drug involved in the case. On the other hand, Reuter and Pardo point out that total prohibition of NPS has two major potential advantages: 1. The Act will likely reduce the number of different NPS introduced in a given period. 2. The Act should reduce the cost of managing the NPS problem by eliminating the need to study and classify each newly emerging NPS. Professor Reuter says: "Given the prominence of the United Kingdom in drug policy affairs internationally, the choice made by the UK is likely to reverberate throughout the world. The Expert Panel that developed the Psychoactive Substances Bill identified several alternative approaches but did not have sufficient time to study them fully. So little is known about the subsequent Act's feasibility and consequences that it would have been better to delay until more effort was made to assess all the alternatives." Thought provoking stuff, indeed.  Do you have an opinion on the new act? Leave a comment below, or send me an Email to

The following announcement was made this week by Bexley Borough Neighbourhood Watch Association:- "Two youths have been arrested and charged in relation to 28 offences over the theft of motorbikes across Plumstead, Erith, Abbey Wood and Dartford. One aged 19, and officers from Metropolitan Police arrested the other 18, who are both from Erith, on Wednesday March 16th. The 19 year old is charged with 12 offences - four counts of theft of motorbikes, one count of burglary, one count of attempted burglary, two counts of driving without a licence, two counts of driving without insurance, and two counts of riding a bike without protective headgear. The 18 year old is charged with 16 offences - five counts of theft of a motorbike, one count of burglary, one count of attempted burglary, two counts of driving without a licence, two counts of driving without insurance, two counts of riding a bike without protective headgear and three counts of breaching a criminal behaviour order. This is merely the tip of an iceberg and where it is hoped our BikeWatch scheme will, in future, help to reduce offences".  Excellent news - illegal bike riding is a major problem in the local area, something I know is a major source of annoyance to the majority of law abiding local bikers. 

As many readers will know, whilst being very interested in science and technology, I do have issues with privacy, security and the way in which seemingly benign and everyday information is mined by large corporations and governments to enable them to profile us in ways that many could not even imagine. One such method was published earlier this week on IT news website The Register, and has just been picked up by the BBC, though they miss a few key points in their coverage. It turns out that popular social media behemoth Facebook is monitoring its users in ways that few could have ever previously considered. Professor Kelli Burns of The University of South Florida, with the help of several television journalists, has verified the fact that Facebook's mobile app grants itself access to your mobile phone's microphone by talking about a holiday she wanted to take. "I'm really interested in going on an African safari. I think it'd be wonderful to ride in one of those jeeps," she said out loud with her phone in hand. According to the report, under a minute later, the first story in her Facebook feed was about a safari. And a car advert soon appeared on her page. Of course, the "evidence" is purely anecdotal, and as soon as the report spread, Burns has walked back her claim, saying that she may have been searching online for the same things she said out loud – in which case Facebook may be reacting to other data it has picked up on her habits. It may also be worth noting that before Professor Burns became an academic, she spent seven years in corporate marketing and the course she teaches is the "principles of public relations." Facebook's app access to a phone's microphone is fact, and, critically, it now appears to be turned on by default, meaning you have to dig into your phone's innards to disable it. This is not the first time Facebook has faced this charge: last year it was also accused of listening to people and selling ads in response. It said at the time that users had to turn the microphone on. But that may have changed subsequently, since most users find their microphones are on as a default for the Facebook app. Facebook says this about its use of the microphone: "We use your microphone to identify the things you're listening to or watching, based on the music and TV matches we're able to identify." It also points out that it doesn't record conversations – although it doesn't need to actually record conversations, of course, to act on them and relay "relevant ads." And last year it claimed that listening was limited only to when you are writing a Facebook update. In response to Burns' report and other similar anecdotes reported online, the company has denied using what you say to place ads or impact your news feed. It said: "Facebook does not use microphone audio to inform advertising or News Feed stories in any way. Businesses are able to serve relevant ads based on people's interests and other demographic information, but not through audio collection." Of course, it is possible to parse that official response and question what Facebook's definitions of "inform" and "collection" are. Unlike other better-known voice services such as Apple's Siri and Amazon's Echo, Facebook has given itself far greater control over what it can do with your microphone. Its explanations also follow a familiar trend of Facebook responses: vague policies, followed by clear denials, followed by a new set of policies. Apple's Siri assistant can listen to you any time, but there are three significant differences between it and Facebook. First, it waits for its "wake word" – in this case "Hey, Siri." Second, it is turned off by default. You have to activate it and then carry out four voice tests before it turns on. And third, it only works when plugged in (although Apple has reportedly considered turning off the plugged-in restriction). Likewise, Amazon's Echo technology listens for a wake word before carrying out any analysis – in its case, "Alexa." Amazon is also upfront about its collection of audio and allows you to delete recordings plus play around with settings. Facebook, on the other hand, gives itself access to your phone's microphone – seemingly by default despite earlier claims – and is capable of always listening and does not tell you what it does with the information it receives. None of this should comes as a surprise to people: Facebook has repeatedly given itself access to people's personal data and then begged forgiveness afterwards. It continually tweaks its privacy settings, requiring people to keep making changes to prevent the company from sharing the information you provide. And whenever there is an uproar, it announces small changes that require people to actively change their settings again. Most don't. Facebook claims the feature is good for users because it makes it easier and faster for you to post about what's going on around you. If that's a persuasive argument for you, continue on, but for everyone else the answer is to go into your phone's settings and manually prevent your Facebook app from accessing your microphone. How to turn your mobile phone microphone off:- iOS: Settings > Facebook > Settings > Microphone. Android: Settings > Privacy and emergency > App permissions. Find Facebook and turn off mic access. Better still, ditch the phone altogether. I know some people thought that I was mad for not having a mobile phone - perhaps they can see that my concerns were not "tin foil hat paranoia" after all. On top of all this, another story broke with a very similar message. If you are using a mobile device (phone or tablet), then you will almost certainly rely on encryption, whether you actually know about it or not. If you use services such as Gmail, or buy anything from an online retailer, or use online banking where the website URL beings with "HTTPS" - this indicates the connection between your device and the website is encrypted. It has generally been understood that this connection is practically uncrackable in normal situations, however a research paper has now put this into doubt. It has been known for some time that tiny fluctuations in electrical current during encryption routines, or even the sounds made by the system, can be picked up wirelessly to ascertain the encryption keys used – but it usually requires hooking up expensive analysis equipment and takes long periods of time to gather all the bits needed. The NSA's TEMPEST programme was set up to do just that. Now, in a paper published by the Association for Computing Machinery, researchers from Tel Aviv University have detailed how inexpensive kit can be used to harvest 4,096-bit RSA encryption keys in just a few seconds and from distances of around 10 metres (33 feet). This is the same security research group who hid a loop of wire and a USB radio dongle in a piece of pita bread last year and used it to steal encryption keys over the air. In their latest research, the team managed to pick up encryption keys using acoustics. As a computer's processor churns through the encryption calculations, the machine emits a high-frequency "coil whine" from the changing electrical current flowing through its components. By using a parabolic microphone, the team was able to pick up the coil whine from 10 meters (38 feet) away. Trouble is, that mic is a little obvious if you're trying to be sneaky, so they managed to get the same result from a mobile phone's microphone placed 30 centimetres (12 inches) away from the spied-on PC. In both cases it took an hour of listening to get the 4,096-bit RSA key. To combat this security hole, you need tweak your software, the team wrote. It's possible to use acoustic dampening inside a PC against sound attacks, Faraday cages to block electromagnetic emissions, and insulation of the enclosures of laptops. This is not practical in the real world. Instead, the team recommends encryption software writers build in "blinding" routines that insert dummy calculations into cryptographic operations. Software developers and website operators such as Amazon and Google are already working on this. Whilst this type of security exploit is (as far as I am aware) only being deployed in research labs at present, it will not be very long before criminals are using it "in the wild". You have  been warned. 

There have been rumours that the forthcoming Crossrail (Elizabeth Line) could be extended, with an additional station at London City Airport. The Wharf newspaper has reported that London City Airport has questioned why Transport for London is rebuffing its proposals to fund and build a Crossrail station at the Docklands hub. The newly-named Elizabeth Line has stops at Custom House, to the north of Victoria Dock, and at Woolwich and it is carried in tunnels underneath the airport but the airport itself is not on the initial roster of stations. A spokesman for the airport said that the station would generate the £3 million a year operational costs and another station would add just under three minutes to overall journey times according to the airport’s calculations. The airport is currently awaiting the outcome of its planning appeal against the decision to block its £300 million expansion plans with the new Mayor, Sadiq Khan, more receptive to the idea than his predecessor. It will be interesting to see what happens now that we have a new mayor in charge. 

The end video this week is a short film about how The Peabody Trust intends to rebuild and improve Thamesmead. It is not all a one - sided commercial for the redevelopment - there are some very interesting objections made by long - time Thamesmead residents. Give it a watch and see what you think. 

1 comment:

  1. Asa serving councillor on a large unitary council elsewhere in Britain (but originally from Erith) I concur with your comments on public loos. I have to say that in my eyes it isn't that they are business rateable (many of our buildings are) but down to more simple cause of persistent and prolonged vandalism. Take one example - last year we refurbished a toilet which had been the subject of structural damage. Within a week we had to close it again so bad was the damage - including, in the ladies - electric wall fittings being pulled out leaving live cables exposed. And this wasn't in a spot out of sight but in the main car and coach park of one of our towns. Spending capital cash on continued repairs is akin to simply pouring money down the pan - if the pan's still there that is.