Sunday, September 26, 2021

C5.

I took the photos above - click on any of them to see a larger view - yesterday afternoon. The photographs are actually a bit of a scoop for the Maggot Sandwich, as they are (to the best of my knowledge) the first images of the new garden at the rear of the Old Carnegie Library in Walnut Tree Road, Erith, which is now run by Charitable Community Benefit Society The Exchange. Over the last few days, a number of volunteers have planted just over 2,500 plants and flowers. Much more work is to take place in the garden, with the installation of a custom made greenhouse, a seating area and the creation of a customised hand made brick path. If you are a keen gardener, and would like to become involved with the garden project as a volunteer, then please click here for more information

Now for a bit of housekeeping. If you are a regular reader, and are on my mailing list, you will receive a weekly Email notifying you that the Blog has been published each Sunday afternoon. Over the last three weeks, mailing list members with a BT Internet, BT Openworld, BT Connect, or BT.com Email address will not have received the usual Email. The reason for this is out of my hands I am afraid. For reasons best known to themselves, the BT domain has blocked Email sent by me from my regular hugh.neal@gmail.com address as Spam. I have spoken to BT technical support about this issue, but they tell me that they can only act if a BT Email user logs a technical support call with them. BT customers, can you please log a call with technical support and tell them that I am not a Spammer please?

Long term readers may recall that in the past I have written about the historic bus service that used to take cyclists though the Dartford Tunnel. The photo above shows a rather unusual , if not unique model of bus that was seen for a brief few years in the late 1960’s and very early 1970’s in the local area. It was used to ferry cyclists through the Dartford Tunnel; cycling through the tunnel has always been prohibited, but in the early days of the then new river crossing, the tunnel operators made provision for people using bicycles. The Dartford Tunnel buses operated out of the Dartford Bus Garage, but the service was stopped in the early 1970’s, as few cyclists availed  themselves of the service, and it was deemed to be uneconomic. You can read more about the history of these unusual buses by clicking here. I had thought that it was now impossible for cyclists to traverse the Dartford River Crossing, but it turns out that this is incorrect - there is a service for cyclists which runs regularly. Motorists are charged £2.50 to use the Dartford Crossing (the unpopular Dart Charge), but cyclists are not permitted to use the Dartford Tunnel or cross the Queen Elizabeth ll bridge by bicycle. However, it is possible to use the Dartford Crossing with a bike. And the good news is that it is free of charge. A special pick-up service is available at Essex Point or Kent Point, with a vehicle taking you and your bicycle through the Dartford Crossing. If your bike fits on a standard car roof rack, there is no need to pre-book. To use the cycle crossing service,; Cycle to Essex Point or Kent Point, Follow the signs directing you to a yellow telephone. Use the phone to request the service; there is no number to dial – it’s a direct line. Wait in the designated area for a vehicle to take you and your bicycle through the Dartford Crossing. If the bicycle does not fit on a roof rack – if it is a tandem, for example – or you are travelling in a group of more than three cyclists, you will need to contact Connect Plus in advance. This is done by calling 0203 386 8826 or alternatively emailing dartfordsecurity@connectplusm25.co.uk. Essex Point is located at 859 London Road, Grays, Essex, RM20 3AT. It is accessible from the cycleway next to the entry slip-road for junction 31 of the M25 motorway. The Kent Point is at Crossings Offices Roundabout, South Orbital Road, Dartford, Kent, DA1 5PR. The service is available seven days a week and 365 days a year, but it is not a 24-hour resource. Instead, cyclists can only use the Dartford Crossing at the following times: 3am to 9am. 10.30am to 2pm. 3pm to 9pm. 10.30pm to 2am. It usually takes 15 minutes for the lift to arrive, but it might take a little longer at peak times or if there is traffic congestion. What do you think? Email me at hugh.neal@gmail.com.

Following the sad news of the death of British home computer pioneer Sir Clive Sinclair last week, I was contacted by a prominent local figure who is a regular Maggot Sandwich reader. The person asked if I knew that there was an important link between Sinclair and the local area; as it turns out I too shared the link. I have recounted some small parts of the following story before, but I am republishing the story with considerable additions and updates following the death of Sir Clive. Back in 1985, Sir Clive Sinclair was a multi millionaire, and had recently received his knighthood for services to the computer industry. His series of home computers - the ZX80, the ZX81 and the Sinclair ZX Spectrum had been hugely successful - bringing many British children their first experience of computer programming. Sir Clive Sinclair was credited with revolutionising home computing in the UK and kick-starting the British video games industry with the ZX Spectrum in the 1980s. But his influence was especially pronounced in Dundee, where Sinclair sub-contracted the ZX Spectrum's manufacture to the city's watchmaking factory, Timex. At its peak, Timex were producing a new computer every four seconds – but not all of them made it to market. Some happened to find their way into the hands of light-fingered staff, who then moved them on cheaply to their friends and relatives. This meant that, even with rampant unemployment elsewhere in the city, Dundee homes were still awash with ZX Spectrum computers. With nothing much else to do during the dole-dependent early 80s, coding games really caught on and the city consequently became a massive video game development hub. One that would later give the world a multi-billion dollar crime-flavoured franchise in the form of... Grand Theft Auto. The success brought Sir Clive Sinclair fame and a considerable fortune. His abiding interest was in sustainable transport. He invested £7 million of his own money in developing the Sinclair C5. The C5 was a battery-assisted tricycle (not an electric car, as elements of the press kept saying) that was intended to revolutionise personal transportation. On paper it was able to drive up to twenty miles on a single battery charge for just a few pence, the C5 was supposed to be the solution to urban congestion and the high cost of owning a car. Unfortunately the design fell short of the market requirements and the machine was savaged by the press following its launch. Among the issues:- The open concept and exposed driver position meant the C5 was only really practical in dry weather, although a wet weather kit including a fitted poncho for the driver was soon available. It had no reverse gear and was difficult to turn around in confined spaces. Even modest hills were too much for the C5’s battery to handle and the design meant that using the pedals to assist was hard to do effectively. There were quality control problems at the factory, and early reports of components failing further dented the machine’s reputation. Perhaps most importantly, the public did not feel safe driving such a small and open vehicle in real traffic. In the end 17,000 were sold, but this was far short of projections. To many, the C5 was seen as a novelty item rather than a serious mode of transportation and just eleven months after the failed launch, Sinclair Vehicles went bankrupt.

I had a friend, Adam Harper (see the photo above - click for a larger view); he used to run a small, independent bicycle shop in Nuxley Road, Upper Belvedere (NOT Nuxley Village – there is no such place – that name is an invention of Estate Agents). Adam’s bread and butter was selling and repairing conventional bikes, but he had an unusual and quite lucrative sideline. When Sinclair Vehicles went bust after the commercial failure of their Sinclair C5 electric trike in the late 1980’s, Adam Harper bought up the entire unsold stock, along with all of the spares and machine tooling; he also acquired the legal rights to the C5 name and trademark. He warehoused the C5 vehicles and spares at a secret location in Bexleyheath. Many of the press “facts” about the Sinclair C5 were made up, and in many cases just plain wrong. It became an urban myth that the C5 used a washing machine motor – in reality the motor was built in a Hotpoint factory, but it was a specially designed, high efficiency unit that was even studied by NASA as it had such an impressive power to weight ratio. It was also said that the rider sat too low to the ground, making the machine dangerous – in fact one sat at the same height as if you were sitting in a Ford Capri MK III. The separate aluminium alloy chassis the C5 used was designed and built by Lotus Cars at their Hethel factory, and was capable of far more performance than the C5 had. The poor road speed of the C5 was not down to any technical limitation – it was restricted to fifteen miles an hour in order to comply with UK traffic law – any powered vehicle capable of more than this speed required a licence to use, which would have essentially killed the project before birth. This is not to say the C5 did not have problems – the short battery life being one of the biggest challenges – a rider would not get anything like the claimed twenty mile range, even when pedaling to assist the electric motor. Adam Harper invented an improved battery and power management system which cured this weakness, which was available as a retrofit to existing machines. Back in the day, C5’s were powered by a standard car type lead acid battery - this was decades before Lithium Ion batteries were invented. Adam Harper correctly guessed that the C5 would become a cult item, and its value would rise accordingly. He was correct. When new, a C5 retailed at £399. Nowadays, an unused, crated C5 with all its accessories will sell for around £5000! Harper also sold nearly all of the electric motors used by the competing robots in the original series of “Robot Wars” – because of his expertise with electric motors, the producers of the show hired him as one of the three competition judges. Back in the day, the C5 motor was one of the most compact, efficient and powerful available - which made it a prime choice for robot builders. Now electric motor technology has moved far ahead, and there are far superior alternatives available for the budding combat robot engineer to utilise. But I digress. I accompanied Adam Harper on a number of occasions to the studio to watch the Robot Wars being filmed. Back in those days it was presented by Craig Charles and Philippa Forrester, and was filmed in an old warehouse building next to the Excel Centre in Custom House, East London, which has long been demolished and replaced with an office building. The programme production was all quite amateurish and cobbled together - unlike the rebooted show which has far higher production values - even if the kind of person who took part, whether as a competitor, or in the audience has stayed exactly the same. Back in the middle to late 90's, Anyone who initially met him would think Adam Harper was an open, friendly guy – which indeed he was. It was only when you got to know him well that you realised he was someone very unusual – he had a very strong drive and ambition, accompanied by an almost non – existent sense of self preservation. As a by product of selling C5’s, Adam used to take quite a lot of flak from sceptics, who thought the little vehicle somewhat ridiculous. Harper decided to counter this by modifying a Sinclair C5 to attempt to beat the then world land speed record for an electric three wheeled vehicle, and thus give the C5 an image boost. I spent a considerable amount of time helping him design and build the world record machine in the back room of his bicycle shop. The souped up C5 had special, high power motors, fed by a custom electronic power control unit. The batteries were extremely high powered (for the time) gel units for military use – he had to get special permission to get a licence to use them – I recall a meeting at Exide in Dagenham I attended with him – his considerable charisma and power of persuasion were tested to the limit before Exide relented, and not only granted him a licence, but became of his principal sponsors . The front wheel of the racing C5 was from a Harrier jump jet, and the rear wheels from a Lynx attack helicopter. The front wheel had a small parking brake, but the main method of bringing the tiny vehicle to a halt was a parachute built by Irvin – the people who built the parachutes for the Space Shuttle. The underside of the C5 was fitted with an aerodynamic under tray of Harper’s own design, as was the aluminium nose cone – which was tested in the wind tunnel at MIRA - you can see this is the photo above. This might all sound like a bit of a diversion, but bear with me. Adam Harper realised once he had built the super C5 that he would need publicity before the world land speed record itself. Harper had been invited to join The Dangerous Sports Club, and considered what even by his own standards to be an absolutely hare – brained stunt. In the months before the Dartford river crossing bridge (now known as the QE2 Bridge) was completed, there was a large gap in the middle, before the North and South side roadways were joined up. Adam wanted to jump the gap in the super C5! He went as far as contacting the contractors, and both Thurrock and Dartford councils. Understandably, all parties immediately said no. With this setback in mind, he decided to try a different approach, and wrote to Eon Productions – the company behind the James Bond franchise, who were intrigued to the point that they invited Adam along for a chat; I was asked along too. We turned up in my not very impressive, but classic Triumph Dolomite at the iconic gates of Pinewood Studios, and were waved in. We parked the car and were met by Simon Crane, the newly appointed stunt coordinator for Goldeneye, which was at that time in pre – production. We were then ushered into the Bond production office, which was exactly as one would expect it – a 1930’s mock Tudor house opposite the main studio office block; once inside your feet sank into some of the deepest white shag pile carpet I have ever encountered. The huge, open plan office was decorated with framed posters of all the Bond movies in languages from all over the world, and the centre of the room housed a large Victorian roll – topped desk, which (then) belonged to Cubby Broccolli, who thankfully was not around, as I was already in fanboy heaven – I was gob smacked enough as it was. Simon Crane then showed us onto the Bond Sound Stage, where they were in the middle of filming “First Knight”; we also got to enter the members bar, and generally got a good look around the studio; most of which, quite disappointingly is just like a large industrial estate – if you have seen the car chase scene in “Goldfinger” around Auric Goldfinger’s metal works, that is actually the back lot and workshops at Pinewood. Adam Harper got talking in detail about what he wanted to do stunt – wise, which turned into a race through a 70 foot tunnel of fire. One regret I have is that I missed this event – I had recently started a new job, after a considerable time unemployed. I did not want to ask for a day off so soon after starting the job, so missed the show. By all accounts it went seamlessly, and Adam emerged from the inferno unscathed. One side effect of all this was that Adam ended up with a credit on “First Knight” as “Specialist Transport Supplier” – he used to have a modified Milk Float as his company vehicle – the rear milk carrying compartment was boxed in to form a storage area that was painted on both sides with his company logo and contact details. The driver and passenger compartment was fitted with Perspex doors, a gas powered heater and a car stereo system – it made a very effective sales gimmick, as he drove it locally (very slowly, naturally) and lots of potential customers got to see it. He had decided it was time to sell it on – he mentioned this to Pinewood, and they purchased it to transport the very heavy plate armour used in the Arthurian thriller “First Knight”. Harper jokingly asked to be credited, and the producers took him at his word – much to his surprise!

Later I helped him with another publicity stunt – he raced his super C5 against a VW Golf VR6 race car, along the main straight at Silverstone, as part of the pre race entertainment for the 1996 Formula 3 championship. I was the driver of one of the three unmodified C5’s that escorted Adam onto the track. As we got going the three standard C5’s did our “ground based Red Arrows” party piece. Each trike had a smoke canister attached to the back, and we slowly trundled down the straight in front of thousands of spectators with one C5 spouting red smoke, the second white, and the third (mine) blue smoke. It certainly got a big laugh, though the laughter shortly turned to amazement as Adam gave the special C5 some beans – it shot off (0-60 was something like 3 seconds) beating the race car easily, before we heard the sharp crack of the parachute deploying, and the super C5 trundled safely to a halt.

Another amusing incident involving Adam Harper and I happened in the historic pumping station in Crossness Sewage Works; as many will already know it is one of only two industrial buildings that hold Grade One listed status in Greater London – the other being Tower Bridge. The pumping station has been used as a location for many big budget movies, including the original “Alien”, the 1989 Tim Burton “Batman”, and the 2009 Guy Ritchie directed “Sherlock Holmes” (the Masonic temple at the start of the film, where Holmes and Watson foil a human sacrifice by the evil Lord Blackwood was filmed in the main pump room).  Back in the mid 90’s, Harper was a guest and occasional presenter on a BBC Children’s TV show called “It’ll Never Work” – a kind of kids’ “Tomorrow’s World”. The show was filmed in the pumping station, giving it a gothic, post apocalyptic look and feel. I was present for several of the filming sessions, which it has to be said for the most part were extremely boring. In TV you seem to spend most of your time sitting round and waiting for a technician to do something. Not a career I would have ever entertained! Anyway, during one of these long pauses in filming, Adam and I went exploring round the historic building. Back then, the restoration project had not long been running, and much of the structure had not been used for many years – there were offices and store rooms, mostly full of junk. One thing we did find you can see in the photo above. When “Alien” was being filmed in the place, the producers had no idea of the massive cult hit the film was going to become; when the movie wrapped, many of the props and costumes were simply dumped. The Alien costume in the photo above (click on it for a larger view) was a genuine one used during filming, that we came across in an abandoned storeroom – which gave us both a bit of a shock! The photo shows Adam Harper posing with the costume – bearing in mind Adam is about five foot ten, it gives you an idea of how tall the actor playing the Alien would have been. The costume was intact, if rather smelly, and nowadays it would be worth an utter fortune. We briefly entertained the idea of “liberating” it from Crossness, but decided that discretion was the better part of valour – besides which, an eight foot tall Alien warrior sitting in the passenger seat of a Ford Fiesta would attract rather a lot of unwanted attention when driving through Lower Belvedere! I have no idea what ever happened to it – hopefully it is now residing in a museum somewhere. A few months later, Adam Harper got a business offer from a Coventry based engineering group, and he sold up his bike shop and moved to the Midlands. I occasionally heard from him for a couple of years, then we lost contact. He was a real, larger than life character. I wonder what he is up to nowadays?

Yesterday - Saturday the 25th of September marked an important milestone in the history of computing, but it was hardly marked in any way, and almost everyone has largely ignored it. The anniversary was the 30th birthday of the most important and influential computer operating system in history. It was and is nothing to do with Microsoft, and does not in any way involve Windows. On August 25, 1991, Linus Torvalds, then a student at the University of Helsinki in Finland, sent a message to the comp.os.minix newsgroup soliciting feature suggestions for a free Unix-like operating system he was developing as a hobby. In his initial message, he wrote:- ""Hello everybody out there using minix - I'm doing a (free) operating system (just a hobby, won't be big and professional like gnu) for 386(486) AT clones. This has been brewing since april, and is starting to get ready. I'd like any feedback on things people like/dislike in minix, as my OS resembles it somewhat (same physical layout of the file-system (due to practical reasons) among other things)". Exactly a month later, he uploaded version 0.0.2 of his new operating system to enable computer enthusiasts to download it for testing and evaluation. Thirty years later, that software, now known as Linux, is everywhere. It dominates the supercomputer world, with 100 per cent market share of the Top500. According to Google, the Linux kernel is at the heart of more than three billion active devices running Android, the most-used operating system in the world. Linux also powers the vast majority of web-facing servers. It is even used more than Microsoft Windows on Microsoft's own Azure cloud. And then there are the embedded electronics and Internet-of-Things spaces, and other areas. Linux has failed to gain traction among mainstream desktop users, where it has a market share of about 2.38 per cent, or 3.59 per cent if you include ChromeOS, compared to Windows (73.04 per cent) and macOS (15.43 per cent). But the importance of Linux has more to do with the triumph of an idea: of free, open-source software. "It cannot be overstated how critical Linux is to today's internet ecosystem," Kees Cook, security and Linux kernel engineer at Google, told The Register technology website in a recent interview.  "Linux currently runs on everything from the smartphone we rely on everyday to the International Space Station. To rely on the internet is to rely on Linux." The Maggot Sandwich is created and hosted on Linux, and I have been using it since 1996, when it was in a very crude form compared to the slick, ultra reliable and sophisticated version that we use today. 

FIVE and a half million (one in ten people) have had a parcel lost or stolen in the last year, new research by Citizens Advice finds. In addition, over 20 million people (38% of all UK adults) have received a ‘Sorry you were out’ card despite being home,resulting in some parcels being left in insecure places like doorsteps and bins. The charity, which is the consumer advocate for the postal sector, is warning that the parcels market needs an end-to-end overhaul. Citizens Advice found: In a single week, almost 7 million people (13% of all UK adults) experienced a parcel issue relating to driver pressure. This included the driver leaving before the customer could get to the door, or leaving the parcel in an insecure place like a doorstep or bin. In a single week, almost 3 million people (6% of all UK adults) missed a parcel because they didn’t have time to get to the door. This figure rises to 8% for people who are disabled or have a long term health condition and 9% of parents with young children Despite these high figures,redress systems - like compensation - can be difficult to access. One in three consumers who had an issue said they took no action as they didn’t think it’d make a difference. The majority of delivery companies receive no penalty for lost or stolen deliveries. Currently only Royal Mail is subject to fines if this happens, despite 58% of parcels being delivered by other companies. Consumers tend to have no choice over who their parcel company is, with that choice being made by the retailer. As a result, consumers face a lottery when it comes to fixing problems or getting compensated for lateness or loss. Matthew Upton, Director of Policy, said: “When it comes to parcel deliveries, the choice is in the hands of the retailers, not the receiver. So when we find our parcels under a bush or behind our bins, it's easy to lay the blame at the door of individual hard working drivers. But the reality is that these failings are baked into the system. Over- worked drivers, no routes to compensation and a lack of penalties for poor service equals a lack of meaningful consumer protection". Citizens Advice is calling for an end-to-end overhaul for the parcels market and suggests the following action: 1. Increased penalties: All delivery firms should face penalties for losing parcels: Currently, only Royal Mail faces a fine if a parcel is lost or stolen. Ofcom should extend penalties to all delivery firms to make sure that they take appropriate measures to keep mail safe 2. Easier compensation: It should be easier for consumers to get compensation for late or lost deliveries: Redress systems are complicated. Nine out of ten people (88%) that attempted to resolve an issue experienced challenges. Ofcom should extend consumer protection rules to cover all delivery companies, not just Royal Mail. 3. Drivers need better protections: Drivers’ employment conditions are often insecure, with unstable incomes and unpredictable hours.These can lead to poor practices like leaving before consumers get to the door. The remit of the newly announced Single Enforcement Body should be widened to include the power to determine working status. What do you think? Email me at hugh.neal@gmail.com.

The end video this week is a short time lapse film entitled "How we built Belvedere Beach" - the very controversial children's play area that replaced the much loved Belvedere Splash Park. Do give it a watch.