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After what was in actuality a rather short just less than two weeks in Tanzania attending my cousin’s wedding (although it also felt interesting, long and loud at times) it was time to return home to Aberdeen. We returned via the same route as on the outward journey with stopovers in Zurich and London although without the need for an overnight stay. Once again, I treated Mum to Business Class as far as London, something I’m sure she appreciated and which made the long journey a little more bearable, not to mention comfortable.

We very nearly didn’t get off the ground though as, although the airport is less than 10km from where we were staying at my grandmother’s apartment and although we left at 18:00 (3 hours before the scheduled departure time), we were caught up in Dar-es-Salaam’s escalating traffic nightmare and it was nearly 20:00 by the time we arrived and were cleared through the initial check at the airport entrance. This was despite our driver taking every shortcut known to man, including a detour through a street market with the associated weaving and winding through thankfully empty market stalls.

We were checked in and met by assistance and the requested wheelchair for me without incident and, after completing the departure paperwork, were guided through to the Tanzanite business class lounge. I had to walk the last bit as to reach the lounge you have to first go up to the first floor and then down a flight of stairs to the lounge, which wasn’t a problem for me, but I’m not sure if there is a level access entrance. The lounge was comfortable enough although Mum said the food looked a little unappetising, so we stuck to soft drinks and rejoiced in the luxury of being able to watch Euronews uninterrupted for the first time in a fortnight. It may seem trivial, but I really did feel disconnected from the rest of the world whilst over there, as world affairs didn’t seem to be high on the list of interests for most present. We were boarded a mere 8 minutes before departure and left the gate at 21:17. The configuration of the at-seat facilities changes for night flights. We were each given a blanket and a night kit consisting of eyeshades, earplugs, toothpaste, toothbrush and fresheners instead of the iPad case and stationary we had on our outward journey. Also, the mid-flight progress announcements and details of our flight path are withheld, presumably to avoid disturbing passenger’s sleep, although I personally would have enjoyed hearing them.

I chose beef with potatoes and vegetables from the selection of offerings for our multi-course meal with mousse for dessert. It doesn’t sound very fancy in print, but the presentation and overall quality was definitely better than what I’ve had in Economy before. Then, it was time to lie back in the 6ft bed with a talking book, although unsurprisingly I didn’t get very far before I was fast asleep. Then next thing I knew it was 04:30 and after a comfort break, time for breakfast. I chose a fruit smoothie, Danish pastry and fruit yoghurt, although again multiple choices were available. The breakfast selections are made at the same time as for dinner to avoid delay in the morning. Shortly after                       wards, we landed in Zurich at 06:20 to a light drizzle and half as warm as when we left Dar at 14.C.

Zurich airport is bigger than I thought. Given we had a nine hour stopover we decided to camp out in the Business Class lounge which meant first passing through a security check as the lounge is land-side, rather than air-side as in Dar or London. I guess the Swiss really do take pains over their security, as you also have to pass through security when leaving the lounge to proceed to your departure gate. The lounge was large and spacious, with lots of comfortable seats, tables and even sofas on which to relax. We shamelessly commandeered the latter and stretched out for some sleep. The lounge also features computer terminals, showers including disabled facilities and a wide selection of hot and cold snacks/meals and drinks. We both enjoyed some hot pasta with a tomato and herb sauce for lunch followed by the best cream cheese roll I’ve ever tasted – the photo I took is a testament to that. I used the time to catch up on some e-mails and to get in some light reading thanks to the free Wi-Fi available. To my pleasant surprise, it didn’t seem to have any port restrictions meaning that I was able to access my Gmail account from Microsoft Outlook without issue, something that wasn’t possible from TZ.

Our connecting flight left on time at 15:25 although it was a rush to get to the plane as the assistance was sent out at the last minute and boarding cards had to be checked manually thanks to a breakdown of the computer system. For the same reason, Swiss were unable to accept card payments for Duty-Free shopping on board the aircraft. Fortunately, we were able to find sufficient hard currency to buy a small chocolate reminder of our journey. My cousin scoffed all the Swiss chocolate we brought to Dar without permission, bully for her. It was a bit of a sting as we were given it as a little extra given that we wer the only passengers in Business on the way out. Oh well, maybe karma has a sense of humour and caused the diarrhoea she came down with shortly before we left!

After a nice pasta and beef salad and a compote on the way across the English Channel we arrived in London on time at 16:15 and after collecting our baggage and checking it in for the Virgin Atlantic flight to Aberdeen without issue I decided that we should spend the three hours before we moved on in the Serviceair lounge within Terminal 1. It cost £21 per person but as we are not frequent travellers, I figured it was worth the expense to round off an otherwise great journey. It also gave Mum the chance to start trawling through her e-mail, something she didn’t do whilst away. The flight north was uneventful and after another incident-free baggage reclaim at Aberdeen we were collected by Peter and arrived home by 22:30. It was a pleasantly tiring end to an otherwise memorable journey home and again, definitely worth the premium paid. The only thing to sour the day was finding that, thanks to the tail end of a hurricane that affected the UK the weekend prior to our return, a 12ft length of tree snapped off and caught the garden shed a glancing blow. Fortunately, damage was minor when checked in the light of day so we dodged a bullet with that one, and a couple of nails and a hammer should see that sorted.

The free shuttle bus picked us up on time and on arrival at the airport, we soon made our way to the Special Assistance point on the first floor after asking for directions in German. The assistance man collected us at 08:00 exactly and we were taken to the gate and then on to the plane after a small incident with the electric buggy that is sometimes used at the airport. A couple were travelling with two small children; however, the woman had broken her leg and wanted to ride in the buggy with us. She kept repeating that she had broken her leg but did not require a wheelchair, which the airport was happy to provide. She was trying to insist that she should be taken to her flight in the buggy, but the airport personnel explained that normally only wheelchairs are used and that our use of the buggy was as the result of a special exception. Eventually we moved forward leaving the family behind, so I'm not sure what became of them. We had to clear security again, as we arrived from outside the airport transit area; however, i somehow found the checks less intensive as those in London. Again, there were no questions regarding the electronic gadgets in my backpack.

As business class passengers, we were allowed to board the aircraft with little to no waiting time. The cabin crew were extremely helpful and i once again enjoyed talking to them in German. We were given hot towels with which to refresh ourselves and a bottle of mineral water. In flight, announcements were given in both English and German with a short Swahili recording in deference to the many East African native passengers on board. The announcements given by the crew sounded far more genuine and less scripted than those given by the Virgin Atlantic crew yesterday.

Having never been or even properly seen business class accommodation before, I was fascinated to see what was on offer. The seat pitch is significantly more than one gets in economy class, 60” compared to less than 33”. Instead of armrests, a semi-padded top allows for increased room on either side that allows one to keep personal items or use it as an extended table. The actual tray table is stored horizontally inside the pseudo-sideboard and folds out to cover the full width of the seat, approximately 4-5 inches wider than the standard economy class seat. Sufficient legroom is provided to allow even the tallest person to stretch out fully, and a shelf directly in front of the seat contains the around-ear headphones as well as allowing for additional storage for items that may be needed throughout the flight.

We had to wait for passengers to transfer from connecting flights and thus flight LX292 departed Zurich 25 minutes late. This time was made up later by a shortened stopover at Nairobi for refuelling and to take on extra passengers. Shortly after take-off, we were presented with a menu offering three selections each for a starter, main and dessert. The starter was served and I enjoyed the meat platter with cheese. After this, the main followed with beef, potatoes, vegetables and a side salad. Everything tasted delicious and was definitely of superior quality to any airline food I have tasted before. We also had our selection from a range of soft and hard drinks including champagne. Finally, we were offered Swiss chocolates included the name and logo of the airline embossed onto the front. Incidentally, whilst being spoilt by the cabin crew on the flight to Zurich yesterday, we were given a large supply of Swiss chocolate together with a bottle of champagne. Unfortunately it was confiscated by security this morning – no matter, we can get one on the way back.

After lunch, I decided to catch some sleep for a few hours and with a little help from Mum to read the labels on the buttons on the control pad located on the top beside my seat, I was able to lie flat on the fully extended bed. This was formed by the vertical front of the seat folding outwards, the back of the seat sliding forwards and the rest flattening out. Once fully extended my legs slid forward underneath the storage shelf but I still had enough room to comfortably move around. A second control panel is located to the right of where my head was when lying flat. The bed was comfortable and included a massage function with the ability to control the intensity. Everything was electrically controlled and was thus effortless to get to grips with and use as required. I tried out my Bose Quiet Comfort 20 noise cancelling headphones to see if they really would cut down the noise generated by the aircraft’s engines and I’m pleased to say they worked a treat. Other freebies offered on the flight were a toiletry bag that doubles as an iPad case and a soft, furry mascot, which unfortunately was destined for the family children. Hopefully I’ll get mine on the way back – everyone deserves to have a furry mascot of some kind!

I must have been more tired than I thought even with the good sleep I had the night before as I slept right through the afternoon (including the offering of ice cream, much to my disappointment) and woke up in the evening about an hour before we landed at Nairobi. The stopover was efficiently executed and we were back on our way after 25 minutes, thus allowing us to arrive in Dar-es-Salaam on time. Listening to one of the cabin crew talking to his junior apprentice, I learnt that he had been working for Swiss for 17 years and that his lifestyle had adapted to that to fit his job requirements. This includes getting little sleep, working 12-13 hour shifts and stopping over in a variety of places depending on which routes he was asked to serve. It sounded fun, but I could also hear from his voice that he was deadbeat.

We landed in Dar and arrived at the gate by 20:05. Someone was on hand to assist me with the requested wheelchair and i was taken to the arrivals hall via the lift. Mum was able to come with me by claiming she had hurt her leg, probably mostly true, as they have been giving her problems as of late. We had our passports checked but had to complete yet another landing card. The one given to us by the cabin crew on the plane was not valid, as we did not obtain a visa prior to arrival. Although the same details are requested, the landing cards for those who have and have not obtained a visa prior to arrival are different colours. Talk about extra bureaucracy. I then had my thumbprint taken before we collected our luggage. My suitcase was searched, as there were questions over the multi-plug extension cable I had packed for use with all my different gadget chargers. The security staff must not have seen one before, as they wanted to know its purpose. This was quickly resolved though and after approximately one hour, we finally made it outside where my uncle Hamza and aunt Nahid were there to meet us. We finally arrived home by 22:00 after an exciting and, thanks to my upgrade, not so tiring journey.

Our long-awaited departure to Dar-es-Salaam to attend my cousin's wedding finally arrived. Unlike in years gone by it was a last-minute rush to get everything packed and I'm even now wondering if I've forgotten anything crucial on the technology front. I should say here that I have mixed feelings about going to Tanzania this time. On the one hand it's great to see the family again, especially my grandmother who is 88. On the other hand, I don't really understand many of the Muslim wedding customs and with the infrastructure in Tanzania not conducive to easy mobility by people with sight loss, coupled with the frantic rush to get everything ready for the wedding, it doesn't do much for my ability to get about or even have much to entertain myself with those who understand my needs. Things will only get worse as more relatives, most of whom i don't know arrive as the date of the wedding draws near. I'm using it as an opportunity to find out more about what happens and hopefully as a learning experience with the opportunity to spread the word to others as a point of interest. Muslim weddings tend to be more drawn-out than western ones, although thankfully not as much as Hindu weddings which can go on for weeks.

Mum and I took a taxi to Aberdeen airport with our usual driver and thanks to my checking in with Virgin in advance online were able to proceed straight through security and on to the gate after first letting the airline know that we had arrived. Someone was soon send to wheel me through the airport (I usually ask for a wheelchair when travelling by air as this avoids the need for me to queue in the same spot for a long time, something that is painful for me due to my flat feet). Although we arrived in good time, we did experience some anxiety as the gate for our flight first opened, then closed without anyone showing up to guide me to the plane. Apparently, the company providing the assistance at Aberdeen Airport were short staffed and so someone from Virgin eventually came to assist.

The 11:55 flight to London Heathrow was uneventful and we were served with a soft drink, crisps and a small packet of love hearts. I just love the latter, although doubtless my teeth didn't appreciate it all that much. On arrival at Heathrow at 13:50 (we were delayed slightly due to heavy traffic at Aberdeen), we were met and guided to baggage reclaim. It took approximately 30 minutes for our bags to arrive after which we were escorted to the Swiss business check-in desk. I was unsure whether we would be allowed to check in our bags in advance of our flight, but as Swiss operate several flights to Zurich daily, this was done without issue. At this point, it’s worth explaining that although we knew we would be attending the wedding by March this year, we didn’t book the ticket until the beginning of June, by which time the price of the tickets had gone up. With all the hassle of the travel agent and trying to get a refund on the original Ethiopian Airlines ticket, coupled with the long flights I decided to surprise Mum with an upgrade to business class. I arranged this through the travel agent and given the service we received, it was definitely worth the money, although perhaps not something, I’d indulge in too often.

We had nearly 7 hours to kill and did so in the Star Alliance lounge. This is open to all business class passengers flying with Star Alliance airlines or to anyone else on payment of an entry fee. The lounge offered free food and drink including sandwiches, chicken wings, breaded crab cakes and more. The selection was more than I expected given the description of the lounge’s services on the website. I was able to get some e-mails sent before moving on to the technological ‘dead zone’ that is Tanzania. The staff were great, and we enjoyed a good laugh at one passenger who seemed to have made it his mission to cram as many freebies into his bag as possible. Watching him carrying up to six cans of drink and bags of crisps at once and repeating this every 20 minutes was quite a sight. I just hope he didn’t have any onward connecting flights; otherwise, he was liable to have the lot confiscated at security.

Swiss flight LX339 to Zurich departed at 20:05 although we were again delayed by 20 minutes due to heavy traffic. Our first taste of business class was a good one, as we were the only passengers in that section of the plane and thus doted on well by the cabin crew. Given my passable German skills, I enjoyed talking with the crew and I think they were pleasantly surprised and impressed as well. The service started with the offer of a bottle of water and a newspaper from a selection in different languages. Business class on the Airbus A320 offers slightly increased legroom although the main benefit is better catering. We were given a platter with a selection of cold meats, cheese and a fruit jelly compote. The flight was smooth and we arrived in Zurich at 22:45 with assistance ready to meet us. However, here’s where everything almost ended in disaster.

As Switzerland is outside the EU, it is necessary to pass through passport control. The walk to the control station was quite long, and on arrival we realised that we didn’t have our passports. Mum was adamant that I had lost them, whereas I was equally confident that I had not had them in my possession since giving them to the gate personnel in London when boarding the previous flight. We eventually thought that they might have been left on the plane in the seat pockets in front of our seats. The poor assistance man had to run back to the plane, find the passports (which were fortunately where we thought they might be) and run back. The immigration police were ready to send us straight back to London, and even went so far as to send someone to watch after Mum when she asked to visit the toilet. With much relief, we cleared passport control at 23:20 and were just in time to catch the free shuttle bus to the hotel Allegra, accommodation at which I had booked myself as an alternative to waiting for 11 hours on a lonely bench at the airport.

The hotel was a 5-7 minute bus ride from the airport and on arrival we were quickly checked in. our connecting flight was scheduled for 09:25 and the assistance man had suggested that we arrive at the airport no later than 08:00. Unfortunately my preferred shuttle service was full and so we were booked onto the 07:15 pickup from the hotel. Our room itself was a twin room with sofa bed, and apart from a foot-controlled pedestal fan with an over-sensitive timer and a walk-in shower, was pretty standard. I had a good night’s sleep followed by a 05:50 wake-up and continental breakfast, although we were also allowed to partake of anything from the cooked menu. I particularly enjoyed the bowl of yoghurt with blueberries and other fruit.

Continued in part 2.

25th-Jul-2014 12:47 am - RNIB UK Members Forum and AGM 2014

On Wednesday 23 and Thursday 24 July, I attended the RNIB UK Member forum held once again at the Aston Business School in Birmingham. The forum is a chance for RNIB Member Representatives from around the UK to come together to discuss issues related to working with members, get news updates on the latest developments within RNIB and to network with each other. My fellow rep Amanda and I departed from Aberdeen at 08:50 via Flybe arriving at Birmingham at 10:20. The flight was uneventful and standard for what one expects from no-frills airlines. I would have preferred to catch the sleeper train overnight and arrive at the venue refreshed rather than have the 06:30 start I did this time, however Amanda had expressed a wish to travel with me beforehand and as the cost of trains was higher than RNIB were willing to pay, my hands were tied. As it was, we managed without problems and travelled to Aston from the airport by taxi that had been pre-booked for us.

On arrival and after checking in, I spent some time catching up with other reps before lunch. I think I had a quiche of some kind although I can’t really remember.

The main proceedings started at 13:15 with a short address by the Chairman, Kevin Carey. We then split into workshops discussing the best ways to engage with members and later on ways to improve member involvement with RNIB. I think this comes with the backdrop of the change of leadership within the RNIB Member ship Team. Jo Stapleton is moving to her former post full time heading up Talk & Support and a new person has been recruited to fill the post of head of Membership, due to start later this year. The overall head of membership is now also shared with RNIB Campaigns, in a bid to bring greater involvement and synergies between the two departments. My contributions included that we should tailor the content of member forums to fit the interests of members and that in particular we should try to ensure that perspective members see how they can bring their own skills to the organisation in addition to what RNIB can do for them. I also mentioned the point raised before that Scottish members should receive information relevant to Scotland, particularly with respect to campaigns. Although we have a Campaigns Officer in Scotland, his remit includes multiple roles in addition to his extra-curricular work as an elected councillor.

We finally finished at 17:15. A work shop on how to improve listening skills was arranged for immediately after the main meeting however I did not feel I would gain significantly from attending this and thus chose to head to my room for a couple of hours sleep. I very nearly overslept and arrived downstairs for dinner just in time. The menu was one of those that was impossible to understand yet tasted good: A starter of Rillettes of Scottish salmon, dill and smoked salmon, salted cucumber and shallot salad, sourdough croutes, main of Roast supreme of chicken filled with watercress and spinach and ricotta mousseline, wilted greens and leeks, carrots and crushed new potatoes with black pepper, shallot gravy and Dark chocolate truffle, raspberry compote and vanilla crème fraiche for dessert. Affterwards I hung around for a little talking to other members before heading to sleep by 22:00.

I had a light breakfast on Thursday morning before attending a voluntary networking session. We split into small groups and discussed more ways in which to improve the member experience at forums. I maintained that we have a problem in Scotland with not having the same autonomy to host forums ourselves due to the role and position of the country Chair. In England, each region has a Chair that is elected by the members. The Chair has a minor role in hosting the forum, thus allowing the member representatives to engage better with members from a position of leadership. The Chair is normally only consulted on matters of governance that is beyond the remit of the member reps. In Scotland, as we are a country rather than a region, the Chair, also elected by the members, hosts the member forum. We have had difficulty in the past trying to change this however despite trying to raise this issue and have changes implemented over the last two years we have unfortunately got nowhere. This includes trying to arrange a meeting with the Chair and membership personnel to attain a compromise. I actually put this to the Director of Inclusive Society over breakfast and was told that we should simply discuss with the Chair directly without involving Membership, however this has proved impossible thus far. i was a little disappointed that the director did not see fit to offer any help to allow us to operate in as similar a way as possible to those member reps in England and Wales. Part of the problem with getting anything resolved appears to be the hard-coded role of the country chairs that requires management and board approval to change. All this takes time, although sometimes I can’t help but feel that time is moving artificially slow.

The main part of the day started with the RNIB AGM. I confess most of this flew past me as I’ve heard it before at Programme Boards or as part of briefs for member forums. I did however manage to ruffle at least a few feathers when I asked a question about what the organisations plans are depending on which way the referendum vote in Scotland goes. Although the effect of the vote will not be felt until at least Two years away, there are understandable concerns about whether members will continue to have access to products and services they currently enjoy. Having asked this question to management personnel before, I have been told that this is something that RNIB are looking into, but I’ve also been told that they will consider actions after the vote. I put this question to the CEO and was told that everything we have been told so far is the truth, but she stopped short of giving any additional information. I got the impression she didn’t want to answer the question, but at least by asking it I have hopefully managed to have it placed on record. It seems inconceivable to me that the organisation have not considered this at all, as to my mind no business or charity can operate with a ‘wait and see’ mentality or in a purely and completely reactive way.

An at-seat lunch was provided which included some excellent salmon bagels, which I simply couldn’t resist. After this, we had a presentation on the future of the Talking Book Service from the new head of RNIB Solutions, which included the announcement that new options to received talking books via either USB pen drives or internet download will be made available to members from later this year. These are developments that have been a long time in coming and which have been made available via other paid subscription services already, at least in the case of the latter.

Given the departure time for our return flight to Aberdeen, Amanda and I left the meeting early to travel to Birmingham airport by taxi. Having taken the number of the company, which delivers assistance at the airport the day before, I phoned them to let them know we were on the way and again on arrival. However, as the taxi driver tried to be helpful and moved us to a different area to wait, we had a 20-minute delay before someone finally turned up. We were guided through check-in and security without issue and I enjoyed listening to the departure announcements in different languages whilst waiting for our flight to be called. Birmingham must use the same automatic announcement system, as at Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport, as the voices for the foreign language translations were the same.

Owing to an operational issue with Flybe, Cello Aviation flew us back to Aberdeen on an Avro R85 aircraft. I swear this plane was never designed to fly as after take-off the wings looked to me like a diamond shape with a hole through it. It was very strange and the whine of the jet engines when heard from the front of the passenger cabin was amazing. We found however that the on-board food and drinks for purchase were cheaper than those supplied by Flybe were. We arrived in Aberdeen at 20:05 and after once again being picked up by my regular driver was home 30 minutes later. I felt the meeting went well and it was good to catch up with other reps I haven’t seen since March, and whereas it was good to get updates from RNIB and the workshops were productive, I can’t help feeling disappointed that important questions weren’t adequately answered. In addition, I was hoping to hear some information on the successor to the Programme Boards, which were disbanded at the end of the last strategy period in March, but no mention was made of this even when I confirmed that the topic would not be raised during our absence towards the end of the meeting. Perhaps this is something that will filter through in time and it’s just a question of ‘watch this space’.

After a very cold and painful winter (at least as far as my hands were concerned), I contacted Aberdeenshire Council in April to ask if I could receive my next book of TaxiCard vouchers early whilst keeping the issue date for the following book the same as usual. I would have been the only person disadvantaged by this, as it would have meant managing the same number of vouchers over an extended period, something that I was happy to do. The council would not have endured any additional hardship as a result but nevertheless were unwilling to assist. I felt this was unreasonable and asked my MSP if she could intervene on my behalf. She wrote a letter to the council asking for an explanation and received a response that the council were unable to make any changes to the TaxiCard scheme due to the additional financial costs this would involve. I then responded that this explanation was baseless as I was not asking for any additional vouchers but rather that I use the same number of vouchers over an extended period, something that does not equate to additional cost.

My MSP, Maureen Watt, wrote to me this week including the council's latest response. As you will see, they now claim that the additional costs they referred to previously would be incurred by way of every TaxiCard user using their full quota of vouchers every year if they were offered more flexibility as I suggested should be the case. With the utmost respect, such a justification is stupid and is, in my opinion, a very flimsy ‘get out’ answer to try and prevent the matter proceeding further. I will explain why in a moment.

Read their full response hereCollapse )

Firstly, note the error in the second paragraph. The council claiming that every user would use their full quota of vouchers every year implies that this does not happen at the moment, which may be true but is nevertheless irrelevant. Regardless of your views on how capable the government is at future planning, it should nevertheless (one hopes) be one of the basic principles followed at the planning phase of any project or service development. In order to determine the likely resource usage and the net number of expected users (determined by taking the average from previous product or service implementations or from similar offerings if this is the first instance, or from a matrix of national or international statistics applied to the target audience size and other criteria if both the former are unavailable), both an average and a worst-case scenario need to be taken into account with sufficient standby resources available in the event of the latter to avoid a sudden collapse of the product or service especially where this relates to public infrastructure. In the case of the TaxiCard service, this means that the council should have taken into account the possibility of users using their full quota of vouchers every year when determining the amount of subsidy offered considering that the service would likely have been projected to run for the short to medium term. To say that they do not wish to make changes to the service in case the full quota of vouchers are used by every TaxiCard user (something which is unlikely given that some, particularly elderly users, may not have the opportunity to get out and about independently very often especially given the unpredictable weather here) is thus irresponsible and indicates poor planning at the outset.

To illustrate their point, the Council also included a table (I can’t paste it here as the formatting is destroyed, but can e-mail if to anyone that wants) showing the impact of my proposed changes on potential voucher usage. At present, they show users using a maximum of 52 vouchers every three months. In their ‘what if’ scenario they showed users using 26 vouchers in the first and last three months of the year and 78 vouchers per three months in the intervening period. They claimed that the increase in the summer was due to disabled people taking advantage of the better weather. I respectfully assert that this does not hold true for many people with sight loss (I cannot comment on other disabilities), who are more likely to need a taxi in the winter due to the darker lighting conditions and poor weather affecting visibility. It could be argued that in summer, people may want to be outside more often and visit new places, but in this case, I would respectfully submit that the Council still cannot disregard the likelihood of increased taxi use in winter. In either case, the scenario is flawed.

I will shortly write back to Ms. Watt putting these points to her and asking her advice as to how she feels we should proceed. She already indicated that she felt my request for flexibility was a reasonable one and that she was unsatisfied with the council's previous response. On the one hand, part of me is worried that this may cause the TaxiCard service to be reviewed earlier than would otherwise be the case and possibly result in its withdrawal (even though such an action directly as a result of my query would, in my opinion, be highly questionable), something which would be detrimental to me as someone who tries to be as active as possible where health circumstances permit, but part of me also wants to push this issue precisely to get that independence which is currently denied to me if I use up my allocated quota of vouchers to quickly in any given season due to circumstances beyond my control. Watch this space to see how this develops.
You may recall that on 02 July I wrote a letter of complaint to Stagecoach Bluebird regarding the extremely poor quality of service I received on a bus journey in May 2014 whereby the driver failed to tell me when we reached my stop and subsequently dropped me off at an unknown location without providing any guidance as to how I could return to my desired drop-off point in order to reach my intended destination.

I received a reply from the Operations Manager at the Aberdeen office today, which was disappointing to say the least. The letter stated that the manager would speak to the driver concerned to find out what went wrong and to ensure that this would never happen again. He stated that disability training is provided to new drivers as well as to existing drivers once a year and that all drivers are required to hold a Certificate of Professional Competence before taking to the road. Finally he stated that due to the delay in receiving my complaint the CCTV footage of the event had been overwritten and thus as he was unable to fully investigate the matter he was unwilling to provide any compensation.

Read their full response hereCollapse )

My main grievances not that he is unwilling to compensate me an amount but rather that he has completely failed to grasp the principles behind it. He should have spoken to the driver before writing to me in order that he could put his response to me as a direct argument to my account of events in my complaint. He demonstrates a serious lack of understanding of the consequences of the event and the impact of that on me as a disabled customer. My letter ran into four pages and included specific points where the driver failed in his responsibility to me as a customer as well as detailed explanations as to why those failures are so critical. I detailed my disability and how my experience impacted on my confidence using bus services to travel to unknown locations or at times, where poor lighting or weather conditions are prevalent in the future. None of this was accepted or understood in the response I received and in my opinion, this demonstrates that he has not understood as to how the company has failed me as a customer. Finally, there is no mention of how the feedback I have provided will be used in any way to improve the quality of services delivered in the future.

Being completely dissatisfied with the letter I received, I intend to submit a response strongly requesting a better submission from the company before I escalate the complaint of regional or even national level. Whereas this may seem extreme to some, had the manager recognised the failure, except of my points, stated what he was going to do about it and perhaps offered some gesture of goodwill if not complete compensation, I would not feel this to be necessary. As it stands, the letter does not offer anything upon which expectations of better service in the future can be based and thus is worth little if anything at all. Watch this space to see how this develops.

HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) recently sent out letters to those in receipt of Tax Credits advising them to complete their annual review and declaration before 31 July 2014 in order to continue receiving payments. In the past, this has always been an annoying process involving forms which are difficult to read with boxes so faint you can hardly see to fill them in. Granted, there has been the option of completing the forms by phone, but I see this as taking away my independence to complete them in my own time when convenient to me.

I wanted to take this opportunity to let people know that there is now an option to complete the Tax Credits renewal online. You can access the website by typing 'renewed tax credits online' in Google or any other UK search engine. There are five pages in total with only a couple of questions per page and the whole process took me less than 8 min to complete with most of the time taken up with me walking back and forth between my CCTV and the computer. You will need to check and selecting which version of the form you have been through the number on the bottom left-hand corner of the front page of the declaration. You will also need to enter your unique renewal number which is the number printed on the bottom right of the same page. If you use a CCTV or other reading device, you should have no problems locating and reading these numbers as they are printed clearly. If you use OCR, the scanner or camera should also pick these up without a problem. The relevant places online where these numbers are required also provide detailed instructions on how to find the numbers and their format so there should be no confusion at all. I personally found the whole process to be painless and I welcome the considerably less eyestrain I suffered along with the accompanying headache as a result.

I would encourage anyone who is able to try the new method of filing your Tax Credits renewal. You do not have to fill in any personal information other than your National Insurance number or if your circumstances have changed. Note however that if your bank details have changed you can only complete the renewal by contacting HMRC by phone.

Ever since I started completing my self-assessment returns online I have wondered why more social welfare and tax related formalities were not completed electronically. It is great to see that steps are now being taken to improve this, not only because it improves efficiency and the potential for people to miss filing declarations on time but it also makes the process more accessible and gives people the chance to maximise their independence, always a good thing. Good one HMRC – now if only the DWP would follow suit!

I have a friend whom, if the title ever existed has to be Wimbledon’s greatest fan. She went on holiday recently and, on realising that she would miss this great tennis spectacle begged me to record coverage of the matches for her. This was no great effort thanks to the recording features offered by the get_iPlayer package and I dutifully set to work downloading all TV, radio and online broadcast programs associated with the event.

One thing I did not consider was the extreme amount of hard disk space such an undertaking would require. Having downloaded nearly 2 weeks’ worth of coverage the result occupies at least 160GB of disk space at a minimalistic estimate. This is a problem, not only as regards the rapidly failing state of the hard drives in my desktop which are likely to expire at any moment but also as to how I am meant to get the files to her without a comedy act worthy yo-yo with an SD card between her place and mine.

I had the bright idea to purchase an external hard drive and after discussing it with her, she gave the proposal the green light last Thursday. After some not inconsiderable research I opted to go for the Seagate Expansion 1 TB USB External Hard Drive, which arrived on Saturday, and which I thought I would review for your interest.

The drive arrived in minimalistic but functional egg foam packaging together with USB cable printed manual and compliance documentation. The drive was ready to go out of the box and was detected immediately by my desktop PC running Windows 7 64-bit Service Pack 1. When copying .MP4 video files from an internal SATA II 300 hard drive the Seagate managed a respectable transfer speed averaging 32.2 MB/s and managed a 90 GB transfer in just under 20 min.

The drive is black in colour and about the size of a standard smart phone and feels quite light in the hand. It is rectangular in shape with a slightly tapered front edge with the USB connection port at the back and a status LED on the top of the drive just above. The drive has near silent operation and becomes only slightly warm to the touch after extended use. Other than this, the drivers quite unremarkable and looks at home either on a desk or as a laptop accessory.

The drive ships without any on-board software apart from an electronic version of the documentation and warranty information, serial number and warranty registration application. The latter was a welcome surprise as it avoids the need to manually fill out registration cards or wading through the manufacturer’s website to fill out an online registration form. The warranty registration application was accessible with the SuperNova Access Sweet screen reader magnifier and even pre-fills out the serial number meaning the process does not require any sighted assistance to complete.

Overall, I am very happy with the purchase, which justifies the price paid. Positive points are the size of the drive and the electronic warranty registration. The only downsides are that the USB cable is quite short and has a proprietary connector at the end, which plugs into the drive, similar to the ZIF-style connectors found on laptop keyboards and similar devices, thus meaning that the drive can only be used with the supply cable. Nevertheless, this is hardly a showstopper and I am sure my friend, like me, will find this a worthy purchase.

Following an incident on 15 May where a Stagecoach bus driver failed to stop the bus at my intended destination stop, dropped me off at an unknown location without telling me where we were and failed to help me in any way to ascertain how to get back to where I originally wanted to go, I decided to file a complaint with the company’s Aberdeen operation. I did this not only to express my dissatisfaction at how I was treated but also in the hope that it would spread awareness of specific issues related to people with sight loss that need to be taken into account by bus drivers when dealing with blind and partially sighted passengers.

I feel there is a broader challenge surrounding how drivers are trained and, more specifically, if they are given the right information regarding specific disabilities and how best to serve passengers who exhibit them. I also feel there is a greater need for training by and exposure to people with disabilities and that they should be more involved in the design of training programmes as opposed to non-disabled people from disability-focussed organisations.

Read the full complaint here (some personal info removed)Collapse )

The letter was posted today as well as emailed to the specific disability-related e-mail address for the Aberdeen operations team. Here’s waiting to see what happens and hoping for a positive response, although admittedly I won’t hold my breath. Nevertheless, I really wouldn’t mind receiving a pleasant surprise…

The one-month trial of the Bose Quiet Comfort 20 noise cancelling earphones ended today and they were collected by UPS for return. I thought I would write a short review giving my impressions of the product as well as outlining some of the negative points other buyers may wish to take note of when considering a purchase.

The box comes with the earphones attached to the controller, large and small earbuds (the medium-sized earbuds are fit onto the earphones by default), some documentation, a short USB charging cable and the small, neoprene carry case.

Despite the weight of the box, the earphones are extremely light with the heaviest component being the controller, which processes the audio picked up by the microphones on each earpiece. The controller has a single slide button that turns the noise cancelling on or off with a micro USB port opposite for charging. The controller is rectangular and is about as long as a large USB stick and as thick as a standard ruler is. It is coded in a rubberlike material, which stops it from slipping when placed on a table or similar surface.

From the back earphones look a little like the old Apple style earbuds with the flat surface facing to the rear. At right angles to this is the part which fits into your ear and over which the silicon earpieces are placed. The best way in which I can describe their shape is to say that they are a little bit like a snail with a very long front, although they do not extend very far into the year. The curved part of the earbud fits nicely into the channel on your ear and it is this fitting which allows it to stay in place even when subjected to considerable movement such as when walking, running etc.

Now for the part you have all been waiting for. I tested these earphones in a variety of environments including at home, on board a bus and train, at busy public places including a train station and shopping mall with the noise cancelling both enabled and disabled. Without noise cancelling I found the sound reproduction to be good and comparable to that my original Bose acoustic on ear headphones. Given the in ear fitting of this product, only marginal volume adjustments were required and I was never able to use the maximum volume on, for example, my iPod Video without significant pain and discomfort. This is, of course, a good thing and I am sure my hearing will thank me for it later in life. Without noise cancelling one still notices a muting effect, however it is still easy enough to hear surrounding noises including human speech. With noise cancelling enables, one enters a whole new world. Background noise really does disappear, and, for example, I was unable to hear a small child screaming whilst on a train journey. The sound of the shopping mall was almost completely blocked out and it took significant effort to distinguish those noises, which made it through. When trying the earphones at the train station, I was pleasantly surprised to find that although background noise was significantly reduced, I was still able to make out station announcements without having to turn down the volume on my music, something I personally found quite desirable. Incidentally and as a point of interest, when using noise cancelling in a quiet environment, there is little to no difference in the sound although one can distinguish a little amplification even though this does not distort sound quality.

Another feature I forgot to mention was the 'aware' switch, which temporarily disables the noise cancelling and plays the sound of the external environment as though you are not wearing earphones at all, thus even overriding the passive muting effect described earlier. This is especially useful when you want to speak to someone without taking off the earphones, for example, a train conductor or when asking for directions. The switches mounted on a small in-line control, which also contains a microphone allowing you to record your voice or take phone calls while squaring the earphones. For this purpose, another button acts as an answer/hang up toggle.

As with any product, there are some negative points which some may find to be showstoppers. Firstly, the indicator LED for the inbuilt battery is extremely difficult to see even by those with perfect vision, and there is no audio alert to identify when battery power is running low. Incidentally, if the battery runs out of juice when using noise cancelling, the earphones can still be used as if the feature were not present. It is stated that one can expect up to 16 hours of running time from one charge, with a charge taking approximately 2 hours by USB and I can confirm that this does appear to be the case. Secondly, the cord between the controller and the L-shaped jack, which plugs into audio devices, is extremely short at under 5 cm. This has the potential of placing added weight on the jack, although to its credit the Cord does appear to be of sound construction and was able to take moderately rough usage and applied weight.

Finally, the price. At £259.99, these earphones are definitely at the pricier end of the market and there is no doubt that much of this is down to the branding. Having used them extensively though over the last month and the negative points aside, I do feel that they are a good product and that it does the marketing hype justice. Bose offer finance options to spread the cost of the purchase over four months and I may well take them up on this after I get my refund for the set just sent back. There may well be other, cheaper options available but I’m moving towards adopting the mentality that you buy something for the longer term, and I’m not sure I’d want to buy something cheap that died on me in a few months – I’d rather have something that was more expensive and that I could take care of that would last longer term before necessitating an upgrade.

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