Sunday, August 07, 2016

Self Service? No Service.

An event took place earlier this week that many had hoped would not happen. Bexley College in Walnut Tree Road was taken over by Bromley College. It has been marketed as a merger by Bromley College, who have also taken over Greenwich Community College. This is to form a new conglomerate called the South East London College Group. Unfortunately in the process, several key members of staff have fallen by the wayside, most notably Danny Ridgeway, the former Principal of Bexley College who has “retired”. The combined college organisation will be headed up by Sam Parrett, the former principal at Bromley College, who is now leading the newly-formed London South East Colleges. The financial success of Bexley College had been in doubt for some time. A combination of cuts in central funding, and a change in the law caused them all sorts of headaches. When the law changed, requiring all young people to remain in full time education or training until the age of eighteen has been very problematic for many further education and community colleges. There is a significant minority for whom education is not suitable, and who would rather be out working (or not, as may be the case). They leave school, sign up for a college course which they don’t attend, and they drop out of education. The funding their sign – up generates is soon cut when their non – attendance is noticed.  Many colleges suffer from “ghost” students to some degree or other. I think the whole ruling that young people should be in full time training or education until the age of eighteen is fundamentally flawed, and really needs to be revisited.

Another piece of bad, but not unexpected news happened this week; Harriet Harper, the Project Manager for Regeneration and Assets for Bexley Council sent the following message to members of Erith Town Forum:- "I am emailing to update you on Erith Market; unfortunately a number of stall holders are unable to attend the market tomorrow and it has therefore had to be cancelled. As you are aware, the market launched as a trial in March and it has proved difficult to establish it as a weekly event in Erith due to a number of reasons. We feel this gives us a good opportunity to evaluate the lessons learned from the trial period and assess it in light of the feedback received. We will be instigating a temporary break for the market and will be working with key partners to re-launch a market later in the year. I trust the above is if assistance and we will continue to keep you informed. Please get in touch with with any feedback on the market that you would like us to consider". Last Wednesday I walked through the market area and there were four traders with stalls; this Wednesday there were none whatsoever. As several readers have told me in the past, it has been held on the wrong day. The most telling content was from a regular reader called Derek:- "I hear are giving Erith Market a trial go. When they know it will fail before they start. They only seem to be catering for the unemployed and the elderly. Because they are the only one that can go to the market. The market should have been bigger and on Wednesdays and Saturdays like it used to be. Saturdays for the people that go to work all week." Several local people have expressed the opinion that the revamped market had been "set up to fail". I must admit that the evidence would seem to support this view at present. It will be interesting to see what happens in future.

Bexley Council are proceeding with the next phase of the selloff of the family silver. Six open spaces are being offered for sale to the highest bidder. The sites being offered for sale are: - a plot of land adjacent to the railway in Gable Close, Crayford, the piece of land at the junction of Bexley Road and Kempton Close, Erith, the Millfield Open Space in Iron Mill Lane, Crayford, the junction of Napier Road and Wellington road in Belvedere;  the land on Holly Hill Road, Erith and the spit of land that separates Fraser Road and Alford Road in Erith. These are all relatively small parcels of land, some of which would have minimal commercial value. One thing that I do notice when looking at the list is that all of the areas are located once again in the Northern part of the London Borough of Bexley. Not one of the areas to be sold off is located in Bexleyheath, Welling, Sidcup or the other wealthier Southern parts of the Borough. This comes as absolutely no surprise; just as Bexley Council forcibly closed (against massive and very well organised opposition) the Belvedere Splash Park, but did not even consider closing the smaller and less popular one in Danson Park. The reason for this is sad, but pretty simple. Bexley Council concentrate on the South of the borough – the reason is that the Conservative majority council see no votes being either won or lost in the predominantly less wealthy, Labour voting North of the Borough. For this reason all of the unpopular money saving / money generating sell off projects the council undertake happen in the North – as this does not affect their primary electoral base in the wealthier, predominantly Conservative voting South. In essence in their eyes they have little or nothing to lose by ignoring the North of the borough.

More promotion is currently being done to encourage local people to book an appointment for a Smart Meter “upgrade”. These meters are part of the "internet of things". I have noticed that several of the national energy companies are currently targeting local residents with letters asking them to make an appointment to get their current electricity and gas meters replaced with a smart meter. Personally I have received three such letters from my energy supplier, EDF. As I have mentioned before, Smart Meters send real – time power usage data back to the supplier via a 3G mobile phone signal. This means that the meter does not have to be connected to a home data network. This sounds all well and good; the power company can bill you without having to send a meter reader to your house, and you get the option to monitor your power usage in an almost real – time way. There are however, problems. The data sent from the Smart Meter to the supplier is sent unencrypted, and “in the clear”; it is possible to intercept the data stream, and also a malicious attacker can potentially send instructions to the meter remotely. Several Smart Meter companies do tacitly admit this, but they play the whole lack of security aspect down. Secondly if one discounts the security implications, the various energy companies all supply different makes of Smart Meters, many of which are incompatible with each other. If you choose to change your energy supplier at some point in the future, you will need to have your Smart Meter changed again – with the associated additional cost to you that this implies. Tellingly on the EDF letter there are a series of frequently asked questions. EDF initially state in the letter that “your current meter is old and now needs to be replaced – you need to book an appointment for an engineer to carry out this work”. They then go on to stress how old meters can be inaccurate and possibly unsafe. There is a giveaway in the FAQ’s that follow though – and I quote verbatim:- “Occasionally we may be unable to install a Smart Meter, usually due to communications issues with signal strength. If this happens we will not replace your meter, but will contact you again when we believe the Smart Meter national infrastructure will be able to support a Smart Meter in your premises.” There is the smoking gun – they don't actually need to replace the meter for the accuracy and safety concerns expressed earlier – they purely want to do it to make you have a Smart Meter, with all the security, privacy and expense worries that they entail. I have a preferred technique for dealing with such unwanted attention – I ignore everything they send me until they eventually give up and go away. Smart Meters primarily benefit the energy companies, because they no longer need to employ meter readers. The benefits to the consumer are minimal at best, and when allied to the security and compatibility concerns mentioned earlier, they don't add up for me. As always, your mileage may vary.

Work continues on the Crossrail development, with much development continuing on the stretch between Plumstead and the terminus at Abbey Wood. In many ways this is one of the most complex parts of the entire Crossrail project (and before anyone comments “it is called the Elizabeth Line now” – it will only take on the new name when the entire project is completed and officially opened – until then it is still the Crossrail project). The Crossrail project will arguably be more transformational at Abbey Wood than anywhere else along the route. The Elizabeth line will halve journey times to many central London destinations and add twelve trains an hour to the services already provided by the operator Southeastern. The new station will open for Southeastern passengers in December 2017. From December 2018, an Elizabeth line train every five minutes at peak times will allow passengers to travel right through central London to Paddington. From December 2019, when the full route opens, passengers will be able to catch one train right through central London to Heathrow or Reading in the west. When fully open in 2019 it will add ten percent capacity to central London’s rail network, bringing an extra 1.5 million people to within 45 minutes of central London. The Crossrail project is also helping to drive regeneration along the length of the route. It has been projected that new line will support the delivery of over 57,000 new houses. Nearly half of planning applications within a kilometre of an Elizabeth line station has cited the new railway as a justification for the development proceeding, equating to around 5.3 million square feet of residential, commercial and retail space. One quite eye opening example is the journey time from the new Abbey Wood Station to Heathrow Terminal Four (the furthest terminal by train) will be only fifty one minutes. This figure is going to be the cause of much worry to mini cab operators all around the local area; a cab from Abbey Wood to Heathrow costs around £55 and can take up to a couple of hours, depending on the level of traffic congestion. Whilst the fare structure for Crossrail has yet to be published, I think it will be highly unlikely that the fare from Abbey Wood will cost anything like £55, and the journey time will be so much shorter. This is going to prove a real challenge to mini cab companies. I am aware that for many of them, airport trips are their “bread and butter”, as they are far more profitable than short tips to and from pubs or shops. I wonder how many companies will go under once the rail service is fully operational? It seems to me that mini cabs will be mainly confined to running short journeys rather than the profitable long haul journeys of yore with a consequent drop in income. What do you think? Feel free to leave a comment below, or Email me at

The photo above shows Erith Odeon cinema and the RACS shop adjacent to it, on opposite sides of James Watt Way. The photo was taken in July 1966. In 1936 Coles designed the "Odeon", Erith as an absolutely typical Odeon, with its slim faience-faced advertising tower contrasting with the more horizontally emphasized brick and faience body of the cinema. It opened on 26 February 1938 and seated 1,240 people. The cinema was later used as a bingo hall but was later illegally demolished (it was a Grade 2* listed building) and now a block of flats with offices and the new Erith Library stand in its place. The RACS shop has also long been demolished, and is now the site of a KFC drive through takeaway. The dockside cranes that can be seen in the distance between the buildings are now where the giant Morrison's supermarket is now located. 

Malcolm Knight of “Bexley is Bonkers” reported earlier this week on a meeting of Bexley Transport User’s Sub Committee that took place on the 21st July. An issue was raised at the meeting which struck me as being of particular interest. Malcolm wrote:- “The police reported that they had issued a couple of speeding tickets but “the big issue” for the borough is people riding motorcycles without helmets. “They are very much aware that by not wearing a helmet there is nothing we can do. There is a group of people who will not wear a helmet specifically so that we can't pursue them.” Councillor Brian Beckwith (Conservative, Blackfen and Lamorbey) asked how many hand held speed cameras there were to cover the whole borough. The answer was two. Councillor John Davey (Conservative, Crayford) said the helmetless riders were wearing balaclavas and they were doing “wheelies on the pavement” and “not chasing them was absolutely ludicrous. It sends out completely the wrong message”. The police officer agreed but then dropped back into politically correct mode. Sometimes air support is called in to track the bikers “but it is not always practical. I don’t know what the answer is and I don’t see it changing”. From the research that I have carried out, it would seem that the Police are in a very difficult situation. One quotation I have read from an inside source said “British police very rarely engage in pursuits of any kind and need to get permission before they do engage. Police have a responsibility to protect the wellbeing of both those being pursued as well as the general public. Being pursued by the police frequently causes collisions that can kill or injure those being pursued and/or innocent bystanders. Motorcyclists are at such high risk of injury or death that police would never pursue, a motorcyclist without a helmet is a full scale deflection on the "will this pursuit kill someone" scale”. The problem with this policy is the message that it sends to the offenders and potential offenders – if you don’t wear a helmet (an offence in itself) you will in essence be immune from consequence. The Metropolitan Police have a set of guidelines that state that criminals on motorbikes or scooters that are not wearing crash helmets should only be pursued by Police helicopters. The demands on the helicopter crews are high, as anyone who has watched any of the numerous TV documentary series on Police chases will understand. It costs somewhere between £850 and £1000 per hour to operate a Police helicopter – which is usually considerably more expensive than the resale value of any bike or scooter being ridden illegally. It is a conundrum what to do in situations such as this, though I do feel that the current position of the Police Service actually does nobody any benefit. What do you think? Leave a comment below, or Email me at

As I have previously written, I am of the opinion that other than for very specific uses (such as exercise and health monitoring) Smart Watches are a solution in need of a problem. Now, for some users a serious health related matter has come up with one fairly popular brand. Intel has recalled every single one of its Basis Peak smartwatches – as well as urging people to stop using them – because they can become dangerously hot. In June, San Francisco-based Basis Sciences – which Intel bought in 2014 – warned that its Peak smartwatches can cause skin burns and blistering, and hoped to issue a firmware update to correct the problem. It turns out that was impossible without stripping out most or all of its features. An Intel spokesperson said "We are issuing this safety recall of the Basis Peak watch because the watch can overheat, which could result in burns or blisters on the skin surface. It is important that you stop using your watch immediately and return it. Although we are stopping support for Basis Peak immediately, you can access your data until December 31, 2016. After that date, the Basis Peak services will be turned off. Once we shut down the services, your watch will no longer be able to sync, which will cause it to stop working". Some commentators have observed that it is entirely possible that Intel just got bored of running a smartwatch cloud service and pulled the plug, using the overheating problem as a convenient stopping point.

A report was published this week, the findings of which surprise me not in the slightest. A new report from its Department of Criminology at the University of Leicester suggests that supermarket self-checkout technology encourages even normally honest shoppers to commit theft. The report found that installing self-service checkouts raises lost revenue by 122 percent. Some of it is accidental – people forget to scan items, or get confused by instructions; other times shoppers get so frustrated with self-service kiosks that they feel justified in not paying. But the report  states that mostly people shoplift because the technology makes it so easy. Mobile phone scanning technology is just as vulnerable – the study found that at the end of a typical shopping trip, up to ten percent of items had not been scanned, leading to “shrinkage” (loss through wastage or theft) of about 3.9 percent of turnover. Unfortunately the technology makes it very difficult to prove that customers are deliberately stealing. One retailer admitted they almost never prosecute people. For that reason supermarkets are now introducing tagging systems so un-scanned items trigger alarms. Supermarkets such as Morrison’s in Erith have now expanded the number of self – service checkouts so that now half of all tills are of this type. Finding an open, traditionally staffed checkouts are becoming a challenge to find.  I have been told that the cost savings in checkout staff wage reductions is more than offset by both the increase in stock theft and the requirement to hire more security guards – who in any case are usually on a higher hourly rate than the checkout staff that they replace. I have always wondered why you have to pay the same price for an item when it is purchased via a self – service till when compared to a traditional one – after all, you are doing work on behalf of the supermarket, and surely this should be reflected in a cheaper cost? Personally I refuse to ever use self-service tills – why have a dog and bark yourself? I would not be at all surprised if the losses incurred via self-service till thefts cause the big supermarkets to re-think their strategy – which at no point is aimed at helping the customer – it is purely about making it as easy for the supermarket to collect money as cheaply and efficiently as possible.

You may have heard that the BBC is going to start enforcing licence fee payment by people watching BBC iPlayer. People who watch BBC programmes only on iPlayer will be required to buy a TV licence to view the content from 1 September. Previously a licence was only needed to watch live broadcasts, so catch-up content was technically exempt from the £145-50 annual fee. But due to a change in the law, a licence will be needed to download or watch BBC programmes on demand. Those who already have a TV licence will not be affected. Personally I have a licence, so will not be affected by this change, but I can foresee a lot of problems in enforcing this new regulation - in fact I think the BBC are making a rod for their own back - but they seem not to have realised this yet. In the "olden days" of analogue televisions with Cathode Ray Tube displays, BBC Detector Vans could patrol the streets - the vans detected the leaked local oscillator from the first stage of the radio receivers that picked up the TV signal. Colour TVs had more receivers to pick up the colour signals, and so could be distinguished from black and white sets. The local oscillators themselves could be quite powerful (as these things go), around about 1mW, so they were easily detected in the street having leaked back through cheap mixers and up the aerial cable. The same thing still applies today for Freeview digital sets. One of the problems I think they'll have with this new technology is that they cannot identify the people using devices. I will explain with the following theoretical scenario:- I have a TV licence, I'm entitled to watch BBC anywhere in the UK, including when I use a public WiFi network such as BT WiFi. I go to a friend's house, who has a BT hub. I use the BT WiFi that their BT hub has switched on by default. That friend has not got a TV licence, and I'm watching BBC at their place but not on their private WiFi that comes from the same BT Hub. However the BBC cannot tell the difference; they are not allowed to examine the network data packet contents, encrypted or not. Effectively they are doing a primitive traffic flow analysis attack on encrypted communications. Only the likes of the NSA and GCHQ have the kind of hardware, software and skilled operators to successfully undertake this kind of work. Another problem - two adjoined houses have their living rooms next to each other. The WiFi routers are in the same corner of the rooms, separated by only a couple of feet and the partition wall. One of the houses has a TV licence, the other one does not. I bet they are unable to direction find the emissions to the accuracy required to tell which of those WiFi routers is in which house. My fear is that the BBC will be too aggressive with prosecutions, and the courts will take an unreasonably optimistic view of the reliability of the technology. The UK courts have not exactly been that clever at sorting scientific fact from pseudo-fact, and there's too many holes in this technique for it to be relied upon as the sole evidence required to jail someone. The Courts have been appallingly willing to accept scientific evidence with low probabilities of correctness as being evidential fact. If an 'expert' states in court that something is fact then the court accepts that, and no amount of dissenting scientific opinion will change their mind. As defence you're not even allowed to challenge the "expert" evidence in court or even discuss probabilities. I feel the new licence conditions will be un - policeable, and unenforceable

The ending video this week shows the work that has been going on at London Bridge Station for the last few years. For those who use the station on a regular basis during the construction work, it has been a real pain, but when one sees what has been going on behind the scenes, the transformation and renewal is extremely impressive, and will be even more so when it is all finished in another couple of years from now.  See what you think. 

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