Sunday, March 20, 2022

The Curiosity Cabinet.

Changes to what Bexley Council refer to as "the public realm" in Erith are widespread; in addition to the works to redesign Erith Pier Square, which I covered in detail recently, and the construction of a low rise apartment block in Waterside Close, in what used to be the garden of the former White Hart pub. Additionally the refurbishment and improvement works to the much loved Erith Riverside Gardens are shortly to get underway. A lesser known improvement to the public realm has recently been completed with little or no fanfare, and indeed many local residents may not even be aware of it. The low profile nature of the works may be partly down to their location in Erith High Street - a road whose name belies its anonymity for the most part.  The section of the High Street affected by the changes is the part that hosts the first floor bridge between two of the three sections of Erith Riverside Shopping Centre. As you can see in the photo above - click on it for a larger version, the refurbishment has been extensive, and it looks very impressive, The official announcement from Bexley Council reads as follows:- "Works to improve the pedestrianised section of Erith High Street for residents and to provide new shop fronts and units for local businesses at Erith Riverside Centre are complete. The improvements include welcoming new street level shop frontage to encourage visitors. Inside some of the new shop floor space, known as the ‘Curiosity Cabinet’, will be offered for free to small local businesses and creative enterprises giving them instant access to a prime town centre location. The new shop units will also be the new home for Bexley’s Employment Services. The Bexley Business & Employment (BBE) team will be providing job search advice and guidance for residents who are unemployed or under-employed. The units will be used to provide one to one appointments, employability workshops and job clubs. The team will also continue to provide its free recruitment service to help Bexley businesses fill their vacancies. Some of the adjacent office space will be used by local charity Re-Instate who provide specialist employment support services for people experiencing mental ill-health. We have many talented local people in our Borough and I know that they will want to make the most of this opportunity to show off their creations in the ‘Curiosity Cabinet’  space.’ said Cabinet Member for Growth, Cllr Munur. "Having the employment services in its new town centre location will improve access for jobseekers and employers and the increased space means that working with Re-Instate we can offer an even wider range of free services to local people.” Simon Hart, Chief Executive of Reinstate said, As an Erith resident of thirty years I am delighted that Re-Instate is able to be a part of this wonderful project to regenerate the town centre. We look forward to working alongside our new neighbours, BBE to support the local community.” Comments and feedback to me at

A fascinating historical story passed by the mainstream press recently. It would have made an excellent submission for International Women's Day on the 8th of March. Since the press did not cover the story, then I am going to. The story links up with an article I wrote a while back on the world's first commercial business computer - Lyons Electronic Office - LEO. British programmer Mary Coombs, the first woman to program a computer designed for commercial applications, died on February 28th at the age of 93. She can be seen with her back to the camera, working at the LEO control console in the historic photo above - click on it for a larger view. Coombs (née Blood), was born in northwest London on February 4, 1929 to William Blood and Ruth Blood (née Petri). She graduated from Queen Mary University London with a BA Honors degree in French. After spending a summer teaching English in Switzerland, she returned home in 1952 and took a temporary job in the ice-cream sales office of food chain J. Lyons & Co. Shortly thereafter, she became a management trainee in the company's statistical office. At that time, J. Lyons & Co. became interested in applying computing to company business operations – overseeing a chain of 250 tea shops and several corner houses in London. The company devised a test to find people to program the Lyons Electronic Office, or LEO. LEO was developed at the behest of J. Lyons & Co. chief accountant John Simmons who recognized the potential of automating business operations. Simmons struck a deal to fund the Cambridge team developing the Electronic Delay Storage Automatic Calculator (EDSAC) in exchange for the right to build a copy. The catering company sent out a memo announcing a “computer appreciation course" to recruit employees to help program LEO. Mary Coombs was the only woman among the 10 participants and one of the two who ended up being offered a programming job, the other being Frank Land. "It was a simple, well, sort of intelligence test really, to see whether you could manipulate things, work out the logic of things and so on," Coombs recounted in an oral history she recorded for the British Library. After landing the job, she participated in a week-long training course. This involved, she explained to her interviewer, "Learning about how the computer worked, which of course was pretty different from how modern computers work really, because it was valves and mercury delay tubes. But we learnt about binary, we learnt about how the actual computer was organised, we learnt about what were known as the initial orders, which were the instructions which we used to take everything in and set it up on the computer. There were some things that you couldn’t at that stage do. You could add and subtract and multiply. You had to use a subroutine of instructions to divide, you know, repetitive subtraction, sort of thing." The LEO I computer occupied an entire room, ran at 500 kHz and had just 2,000 35-bit words of memory. The first LEO program debuted in November 1951. Called Bakery Valuations, it was designed to calculate the cost of the ingredients in the bread and cakes produced at J. Lyons & Co.'s Cadby Hall factory in London. According to the UK's Science Museum, this was the first routine, real-time office application. Thereafter, a LEO program for handling payroll was developed. Coombs began working on LEO programs in 1952. She learned how to program from John Grover, one of the first LEO programmers, and became part of a team that included Grover, Leo Fantl, and Derek Hemy. That group subsequently developed a similar payroll program for the Ford Motor Company. In her oral history, Coombs described the planning process prior to writing code, which hasn't changed all that much over time. "Well, once you’ve got a specification in detail which has been agreed, you then have to draw flowcharts to show how this would be done on the computer, with boxes and arrows and… and every place where you need to make a decision," she said. "...The flowcharts tended to get more complicated as time went on because the programs tended to become more complicated." In 1954, J. Lyons & Co. commercialised LEO under the name Leo Computer Ltd in order to offer it for sale to other companies. In her oral history, she describes the challenge of debugging the room-sized LEO. "I can remember one particularly long evening when it kept going wrong and we were there all evening, because you had to have a programmer involved in this, the engineers couldn’t do it on their own," she recalled. "And we eventually discovered that the management lift which went up to the fifth floor where the boardroom etc, was, was interfering. But it took an awful long time to work this out, because somebody had to think of it as a possible explanation when all else had failed. Because obviously if the lift wasn’t working, it would have been an intermittent sort of fault. So it was quite, quite difficult." Coombs continued to work on programming the LEO II (1957), the world's first commercially available computer, and the LEO III (1962). Leo Computers became part of International Computers Limited (ICL) in 1968 (then called International Computers and Tabulators) and Coombs continued working there until the following year. She married programmer John Coombs in 1955 and had a daughter, Anne, in 1961, who died at the age of six as a consequence of a disability. She and her husband adopted three other children, Andrew, Paul and Gillian.

In a second, rather more timely computer related story, the German information security service have advised users of a certain brand of computer anti virus software to uninstall it. Germany's BSI federal cybersecurity agency has warned the country's citizens not to install Russian-owned Kaspersky antivirus, saying it has "doubts about the reliability of the manufacturer." Russia-based Kaspersky has long been a target of suspicious rumours in the West over its ownership and allegiance to Russia's rulers. In an advisory published last Wednesday, the agency said: "The BSI recommends replacing applications from Kaspersky's virus protection software portfolio with alternative products." It added: "A Russian IT manufacturer can carry out offensive operations itself, be forced to attack target systems against its will, or be spied on without its knowledge as a victim of a cyber operation, or be misused as a tool for attacks against its own customers." The warning does not appear to be based on any specific threat. Instead, however, it focuses on the notion that Kaspersky could find itself being used against its management's will to harm instead of protect its customers.

Trading Standards, and consumer organisation Which? have published a report, after an investigation found dozens of weight loss supplements containing potentially dangerous ingredients were being sold on eBay,Wish and AliExpress, at a time when the consumer champion continues to call for online marketplaces to be given greater legal responsibility for the safety of products sold on their sites. Which? uncovered listings for the substances despite their potential side-effects including increased blood pressure and heart rate. High doses of the drugs could lead to strokes, heart attacks and kidney damage. Often marketed to body-conscious people as weight loss supplements and work- out enhancers, the two substances - yohimbine and synephrine - are ingredients that the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) has said have “considerable potential to cause harm if used without medical supervision or advice.” However despite these warnings and the fact that yohimbine and synephrine are not meant to be routinely available for sale without medical supervision, Which? was able to purchase and have delivered a sample of three items each from eBay,Wish and AliExpress respectively. Of the nine products Which? purchased, two carried no health warnings or dosage information at all. One had the name of the ingredient - in this case yohimbine - clearly visible on the outer packaging, though it still made its way into the UK and to the address of the recipient. In response to Which?’s investigation, eBay and AliExpress said they had removed the product listings found by Which?. Wish said it was in the process of removing them, though at the time of writing yohimbine and synephrine products were still available on the site. Sites have told Which? they will take down listings when they are reported, but it does not appear as though measures to prevent listings appearing in the first place are working, or that the marketplaces are adequately monitoring for those listings to take them down. Prices on the supplements varied considerably. Some items were priced from as little as £2.39 plus postage, though some capsules were priced at more than £80. They were available to be shipped from countries including India, the USA, Ukraine and Poland, with many offering free postage. Toxicology expert Dr James Coulson, a member of the UK’s Committee on Toxicity, told Which? that common symptoms could include agitation, aggression, nausea, and increased heart rate and blood pressure. He said: “When it comes to these drugs the critical effects we are concerned about is their effect on the sympathetic nervous system and particularly their effect on blood pressure” and “if you’d taken a lot of it you’d then start to see the effects of secondary organ damage.” Both supplements are popular among some bodybuilders and gym goers but there have been warnings of potential side effects, while some consumers have reported unverified concerns about them on social media and forums.

CAMRA - The Campaign for Real Ale is celebrating its 50th anniversary. Technically the 50th birthday of the organisation was last year, but due to Covid-19 lockdowns and all that entailed, the celebration was postponed until this year. CAMRA was formed in March 1971 by Michael Hardman, Jim Makin, Bill Mellor and Graham Lees on a trip to Ireland. At the time, the ‘Big Six’ brewers (Allied, Bass, Courage, Scottish & Newcastle, Watneys and Whitbread) had monopolies on entire regions of the country, owning hundreds of pubs that could only sell their brews. They were pushing tasteless kegged beer onto consumers because it was easier to produce, store and serve, and as a result quality real ale was incredibly hard to find. In fact, there were just five bottle-conditioned beers in existence in the world. The early years were marked by the recruitment of members and setting up what would soon be Europe's largest consumer organisation. In 1972 What’s Brewing newspaper was founded, followed shortly by the first edition of the Good Beer Guide in 1974 - originally a short pamphlet compared to the ‘bible’ produced 48-years later. These were some of the first beer/ pub centric publications produced in the UK. That same year the first-ever beer festival in modern times took place in St Albans, boasting 26 different casks from 14 brewers. In 1975 the Great British Beer Festival was held at Covent Garden and was a roaring success. Volunteers worked flat out throughout the weekend to source more beer for the festival which kept running out. It wasn’t very long until CAMRA started to get noticed. The ‘Big Six’ started to respond to the calls for cask ale, and in 1976 Allied Brewing introduced Burton Ale, it’s first real ale ever produced. Whatneys soon followed with a cask conditioned beer, and Truman’s came out with Truman’s Tap - the first cask conditioned brew in many years. That same year, CAMRA took on the fight for beer strengths to be properly labelled at the point of dispense. It’s hard to imagine, but at the time ABVs (percentage of alcohol by volume in the beer) were fiercely guarded secrets. CAMRA members collected beer samples from pubs around the country to test the original gravity of the beer, then publishing the findings in What’s Brewing and the Good Beer Guide. This move forced brewers’ hands to start sharing information on ABVs for the very first time.Other CAMRA activity had significant impacts on brewers as well. In 1986, Bateman’s Brewery was under threat of sale, and was saved as a brewery thanks to daily letters written by members. When their iconic XXXB bitter won the Champion Beer of Britain competition, investors came back on board to help save the brewery from closure.It wasn’t long before CAMRA drew the Government’s attention to the business of beer - highlighting the annual price increases from the Big Six and putting the monopoly situation firmly on their agenda. In the late 70s the Government recommended ‘pub swapping’ to encourage regional brewers to showcase other types of beers in their pubs. In 1989 the Beer Orders was introduced. These wide-reaching reforms broke up the brewing cartel by restricting the number of pubs a brewer could own to just 200 pubs, resulting in the Big Six selling or freeing from tie over 11,000 pubs. The legislation also forced brewers to stock at least one competitor beer in their pubs, and thanks to CAMRA, that guest beer had to be a cask-conditioned beer. This enabled lessees to stock real ale from whomever they wished, resulting in an explosion of new breweries.The huge success in CAMRA’s campaigns to break up the brewing cartel led to it being taken on in different areas. In 1988 CAMRA took on the mantle of campaigning for real cider and perry under it’s “APPLE” Committee. This also marked the beginning of the National Cider and Perry Championship competition to find the very best cider and perry in the UK, placing real cider and perry firmly on the side of real ale for the Campaign.Further afield, the European Beer Consumer Union (EBCU) was created by CAMRA with similar national beer consumer groups from The Netherlands and Belgium to represent beer consumers across continental Europe. The move came at a time when the European Commission was attempting to ban the guest beer provision in the 1989 Beer Order. CAMRA not only managed to thwart the activity, but successfully lobbied for a bottle conditioned beer to be added to national brewers’ lessees as well.By now, CAMRA is a well-established as a powerful campaigning force within the beer and pub sector. Over the following three decades, it influenced a number of pieces of legislation aimed at supporting and improving the beer drinkers and pub-goers experience. Over 200+ branches spring up across the country, each of which run local beer festivals and awards to celebrate the industry. CAMRA Books publishes hundreds of titles about beer and pub campaigning, and our national awards and Great British Beer Festival draw the attention of the national media. If you would like to know more, and perhaps join the organisation, you can get more information from the Bexley CAMRA website here

The end video this week is a historical piece; it features a short documentary on Travellers living in Lower Belvedere in 1992 - thirty years ago. It makes for fascinating viewing. Please send any comments to me at the usual address -

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