Mind the Gap

With yesterday’s drama seemingly at an end, here follows a brief description of the events which brought about my sudden initiation into the “broken phone hall of fame”.

Having been gifted ample time for locating the optimal train doors for a speedy getaway, I stood waiting for my train home from work for several minutes. Eventually, the final Amersham stopper of the day arrived and slowed to a standstill. The doors opened as normal and my cane found its way almost automatically aboard the carriage through the centre of the open doorway. Unfortunately, my right foot was not quite so keen on emulating my cane’s bold approach. In fact, it lost height if not forward momentum such that it fell through the gap. I fell forwards onto my right knee and left thigh. I mercifully escaped serious injury, but my left thigh bore much of the impact, particularly the front left pocket of my jeans which contained my phone. Smartphones apparently react distastefully toward being caught between their owner’s unbalanced body and the sharp corner of a metallically reinforced tube trains, so the screen bid an abrupt farewell, shattering into countless tiny shards and taking with it much of the bottom edge, rendering future charging and headphone use impossible.

Some time spent queueing for service and my foresight in buying an inexpensive insurance policy for my phone several months ago lead to a relatively painless restoration. Even so, I would be well advised to start obeying those “mind the gap” announcements!

More Marvellous Memories

Let me tell you a story of a child’s first holiday away from his family. A warm and wet Saturday morning heralded the beginning of my six week vacation. The sounds of another dominant performance by the Australian cricket team accompanied me and my Dad in the car journey to Worcester, where I was bound for my first week. Though this was my first visit, I’d heard much talk of Worcester in the previous year. Dad was taking me to spend a week full of fun activities, hosted by the boarding school my parents were so keen for me not to attend. I was certainly excited, because this was the week of adventure promised to me instead of the year seven school trip to the river dart. This was it! Horse riding, bowling, computers, camping and freedom, all to look forward to! Yet, I found myself growing perhaps a little anxious throughout our journey along the country lanes that marked Dad’s preferred route through the Oxfordshire and Worcestershire countryside.

We turned into the grounds of New College a little before 3 in the afternoon. The rain had eased a little, but the day remained thick and faintly gloomy. Dad guided me down a small slope which lead to a porch entrance with two double doors that creaked as we went through, finding ourselves in a corridor. Our footsteps echoed as we turned left and made for a room at the end of the passage. We were met by one of the kind people who’d agreed to take care of me for the week. He ushered us through a side door and along a pathway to one of the three boarding houses reserved for our company. Through the front door, or was it the back door? I’m not sure. Upstairs, through a fire door and into a sparsely furnished but homely corridor. It certainly possessed that indefinable scent of anonymous cleanliness indicative of hospitals. One more door and bravo, my room! Our guide invited me to wander around upstairs while Dad retrieved my belongings from the car. I didn’t bother packing much; just a few clothes, towel, toothbrush and toothpaste, along with my walkman. So it took me next to no time to fill my three small chest drawers.

Dad stayed with me for another half an hour as another volunteer walked the grounds with me, until I’d learned how to navigate between the three main buildings we’d be using. Then after a cup of tea, Dad made to return home. As he prepared to leave, he took me aside, pressing a £20 note into my hand. Wow! For a young boy who was used to 60p pocket money, this was just like having a second birthday!

I quickly locked the money away upstairs before joining my new friends. This was my first time spending more than a few hours with other visually impaired young people. I was amazed to discover that I wasn’t the silliest there! We were divided into three groups and handed timetables. Wow, a Braille timetable! I devoured the details within with glee. So much to look forward to! Our first evening even included swimming! Can you imagine my delight at being able to swim around an entire pool without fear of hitting anyone else or being restricted to a single lane? There were even diving boards! So began my ridiculously short-lived career of belly-flop diving.

The highlight of the next day was the talking computer. We were granted a few days to acclimatise to our new surroundings and be distracted with informal class-like sessions of computing and baking. The computers could talk, let you type words into them, read back what you wrote, let you print it and then email it around. This was our chance to begin planning for the week’s project which we were set in our groups. From then on, there were opportunities to win points for our group.

Monday’s highlight was a trip to a local funfair. I bought my first ice cream! Sure I loved ice cream long before then, but this was the first time I experienced handling the entire transaction myself. That night we were told to pack for our three day camping trip. I couldn’t wait! I’d been camping before with cubs but this promised an altogether more intriguing adventure. This time, I wouldn’t be the only blind boy in the canoe.

Tuesday night was a warm, clear, dry night. We were invited to go trekking through the woods with our groups, encouraged by the promise of extra points for the group who returned fastest. To my surprise, our group leader asked me to lead our procession. I was amazed to find myself capable of this assignment. We were all blind folded, so for once it made sense for me to be at the front. I revelled in this new found freedom to explore. Our whole group made it back unscathed and in plenty of time to claim our bonus points. Brilliant!
The next day consisted of several other small tasks. In the afternoon we got to ride on a farmer’s trailer, towed by the farmer’s tractor through a couple of his meadows. I missed out on much of the haystack hilarity as I began violently sneezing everywhere! Still, what a treat awaited our return to camp.

Our final night in the woods was spent in the company of a drumming band. I was in my element! Here was a chance to make noise and be proud of it. Fantastic!

The highlight of our final day of camp was the minibus tug of war. I was startled to discover that eight people could pull a minibus by rope, even with the driver standing on the brake!

Back to New College and back to bowling. I don’t think I scored particularly well but I certainly had fun.

Friday was our last full day and so the momentum of our project preparations was in full swing. We travelled to Worcester city centre in the morning and I remember having a wonderful time climbing the spire of Worcester Cathedral and celebrating with a hot chocolate in the cafe afterwards.

The last night witnessed all of our project presentations. Our group won! I even got to play with the hi-fi equipment as temporary DJ during the final night disco!

I began the week with trepidation and ended it in triumph. None of us wanted to go home! I simply couldn’t wait to be back for Worcester Vacation Scheme 1998.

Crash! Why?

Here is an amusing summary of a software crash which I recently experienced, according to its manufacturer.

“This problem occurred because Microsoft Internet Explorer, which was created by Microsoft Corporation, was slow or unresponsive. This type of problem occurs when a program is slow or has stopped responding and you choose to shut it down. This is also referred to as an application hang. Most of the time, there’s nothing you could have done to prevent this type of error. It’s hard to determine exactly what causes Internet Explorer to stop responding.”

Bottom line – When you next fall fowl of an unresolved software glitch, don’t panic, you’re not alone. Chances are, the people responsible for causing you inconvenience don’t know what’s going on yet either!

Open Letter to Transport for London

Sir,

I am writing to express my frustration and deepp sadness regarding the measures recently adopted by station staff at Victoria Underground Station, concerning provision for assisting blind passengers to and from platforms during the afternoon rush hour. I personally experienced a 35 minute delay at Victoria in August. However my grievance was strengthened by an article published today on the BBC News website, entitled “Victoria Tube station: Staff told not to help blind people”.

The quoted leaked memo suggests that between 1530 and 1930 Monday-Friday, VIPs are advised to travel to nearby stations and avoid Victoria completely. In my view, this is contrary to disability and equality legislation and also indicates a blatant contradiction of TFL’s policy, as stated on the Tube section of the transport accessibility area of the TFL website.

I would be the first to acknowledge the difficulties in sustaining passenger services during the undertaking of vital maintenance work. Nevertheless, it is totally unacceptable for London Underground to pursue this policy of undeserved and unwarranted persecution. Indeed, it is the legal and moral responsibility of station staff to accommodate the needs of all lawabiding passengers wishing to utilise its services.

I am a blind person and therefore, directly benefit from the assistance provided by tireless and thoroughly committed members of London Underground staff. The assistance I have experienced is for the most part, exemplary and highly efficient. I strongly desire this to continue. These measures at Victoria are a phoenomenal backward step. At best they are incompetence, at worst they are effectively communicating that disabled people are second class citizens. It’s utterly deplorable seeing the promotion, encouragement and prosperity of such blatant prejudice, within the very governance of what is supposedly the most sophisticated transport infrastructure in the world. I urge this matter to be addressed swiftly, with immediate priority.

Yours faithfully,

Darren Paskell

My BIG Year: an Introduction

Hello there!

A while ago, I promised to write more about my experiences of The BIG Year. The class of 2011 began two months ago and already our number has grown to twenty students! It’s been a real joy getting to share more of my life with a select few, representing a wide range of demographics and backgrounds. Were all united in our shared desire to know more about God.

We receive in depth teaching, mentoring and wisdom from the wonderful people responsible for leading River Church. I’m discovering more about myself each week. On Saturday we spent the day at Llanelli in Wales. We began at the Antioch Centre, where we were introduced to their ministries in the community. I’d love to spend more time there.

Afterwoods, we drove to Moriah Chapel, where we were made welcome by a very kind and knowledgeable elder of the church. I would gladly mention this lady by name, if I knew how to spell – my apologies. It’s hard to think of a man more committed than Evan Roberts. A minor who can find time to pray and lead an active life in the community.

 

Darren in the Pulpit
Darren in the Pulpit
A photo of Darren standing in the pulpit of Moriah Chapel, Wales; home church of Evan Roberts and the birth place of the 1904 Welsh Revival.

This was a very profound experience for me. Life is such a precious gift. I may share more of my thoughts in the future, but that’s all for now. Thank you for reading!

Today, I love technology!

A very good afternoon from a comfortable coach on board the slightly delayed 12:00 train from Cambridge to Birmingham. Mobile broadband is at my disposal and so I’m doodling a few thoughts to help pass the time. Yesterday I watched the Great Britain Goalball squad commence their World Championship campaign and tomorrow I shall be returning for some more of the action. Goalball is not necessarily the most obvious spectators’ sport. Nevertheless, it’s great fun supporting our men and women and a real privilege to see our players perform at international level. If you have nothing else planned this week, come and grab a slice of the action for yourself in Sheffield. There’s no better opportunity until London 2012!

General Election: Personal Political Meandering

Here is a reflective summary of my personal political journey.

I have an unusually long memory where tory policy is concerned. I was featured on the front page of a tabloid newspaper the day after Thatcher’s government proposed a 50 percent cut to the RNIB’s public funding. I began to take an interest in British politics in the mid 90’s and remember wishing I could vote in 1997.

I had a GCSE exam on the day of the 2001 election. At the time, I remember saying that I would probably have voted Lib Dem, but that I liked Gordon Brown.

I doubt my personal political allegiance has changed much. It is possible to like or respect politicians from alternative political persuasions. I had more time for John Major than Tony Blair. However, I hope my final vote will be decided primarily on policy. No election manifesto has ever been fully implemented in a Parliament. The question is, which assortment of politicians are most likely to take their responsibility of governing this country seriously, in respect of us, the British public who put them there. Is there a party with a past Parliamentary record of anti corruption legislation? When we read between the lines, do any of our politicians appreciate the damage to their authority caused by the last Parliament’s blatant dereliction as exposed by the expenses revelations? Of course it’s in every politician’s interest to convince us that they are squeaky clean, so I intend to look beyond contemporary rhetoric when deciding where my vote goes.

The Disabled Student Scandal

Today, the BBC is reporting that many Disabled Students are still waiting for grants. Only 6,507 out of 19,006 approved applications from disabled undergraduate and postgraduate students have been fulfilled, leaving 12,499 students without their entitled assistance.

12,499 students is approximately equivalent to 1.5 times the size of Royal Holloway’s entire student population. Thousands of students are struggling without necessary equipment or support required to facilitate their studies. Staggeringly, the organisation responsible for administering support for disabled students has already identified a recognised need to provide additional facilities for these 12,499 students and has failed to deliver over four months from the start of the academic year.

Many have sat exams without the technology enabling them to perform at their best, whilst others have been forced to subsidise their equipment themselves, in hope of reimbursement at some unidentified future date. All are studying at an unfair and significant disadvantage.

I am one of the lucky ones. I have all the equipment and human support to which I am entitled. Yet that still isn’t enough. My recent challenges include access to reasonably complex technical diagrams and PDF lecture slides produced by a LaTeX compiler. In one module I’m currently approximately ten days behind which would certainly be the full four weeks if I hadn’t managed to find an exceptionally generous support worker who is prepared to work more hours than I can pay her for.

I shudder at the thought of the unnecessary stress the vast majority of new disabled students are being subjected to due to such gross incompetence and blatant dereliction of duty by the Student Loans Company. This behaviour is indeed truly shocking undoubtedly unacceptable in a society supposedly as inclusive as ours. I sincerely hope all those who are presiding over this scandal are at the very least, seriously considering their continued involvement. I’m also astounded at the government’s continued silence over this issue, in an election year. I’ve no doubt that my already prolonged academic career would have been haulted long ago without the provision of a laptop. Should those politicians in opposition be seeking our votes, an immediate apology, public enquiry and some sort of emergency equipment loan scheme might persuade me.

Accessible Literature

Reading can be difficult. Many people have never received an education and yet of those of us who have, there are still a multitude of possible obstacles that might prevent us from enjoying books.

As a blind person, the most obvious barrier for me is that of finding accessible books. Technology is constantly improving the situation with the development of scanning and character recognition. Yet even then, legal considerations often prohibit distribution of such materials, making finding them, challenging.

I’ve recently devoted more of my time toward reading the Bible. As you might expect, the same difficulties exist in reading the Bible as with anything else. There are a number of websites which freely offer online access to a variety of translations. However, there still remains the problem of accessing materials offline. Fortunately, help is available. Optasia Ministry is an organisation offering their entire library without charge to visually impaired people throughout the world. As well as Bibles, their library contains a surprisingly comprehensive collection of related literature. Take a look at their website to find out more by visiting www.optasiaministry.org.

oh for the love of everything “markup”!

I’ll try and keep this short, since the internet is boring. Did I say that? Some bits of it are, but there is also some fabulous stuff around! I’m targeting some of the technology behind it today, in particular the stuff that exists to hopefully make the life of the programmer, easier.

In a fairly simplistic level, I’m fond of html and its derivitives. This is the simplist method out there for creating web pages. Ever wondered why that bookmark ends in bla.html? Now you know! As with almost everything vaguely geeky, it’s an acronym of Hyper text markup language but since that’s almost entirely irrelevant, don’t worry about it for now.

Then we have XML. Why? Someone somewhere realised a few years ago that it was really inconvenient for those of us with more than one computer, to transfer our documents and the like from one to the other. Shouldn’t be a problem if we all have the same version of Word, Excel and the like installed, but what if we don’t even have Excel? All I want to do is look at some spreadsheet (goodness knows why), but I don’t have Excel! That’s hardly fair now is it? I’ve been given permission to read the spreadsheet. Why should I have to pay Microsoft for the right to read my work?? And so, some boffins came up with the idea of extendable markup language, XML. It’s just a way of defining all sorts of other ways of saving files, with the main advantage being that it is relatively straightforward for anyone to understand other people’s methods of storing data. Ever tried opening a .doc file in Notepad? Try it some day when you’re bored, and you’ll see it’s just a scrambled load of gibberish, even if it happens to be your prise dissertation when you open it in Word. If it were based on XML, it wouldn’t be quite so daunting, although it would be necessary for someone like me to write some sort of filter to strip the words in your document from all the rest of the junk that should show a computer how to format it.

Again, don’t worry too much if you haven’t got a clue what I’m on about, you’re not necessarily supposed to understand this stuff – that’s my job!

Why am I going on about “markup”? Wonderful as it is, a third of all of our lectures this semester seem to be devoted exclusively to markup. That is the same amount of time we had last semester in class, for the express purpose of learning how to program for the first time.

“But,” you ask. “Isn’t this markup blurb programming as well?”

Absolutely! But, it’s far easier by definition than learning how to write the software which renders web content. I guess they want anyone to be able to put stuff on the web, even without the benefit of wikis and expensive tools like Dreamweaver. For want of a more apt example, think of it in terms of learning to write a web page versus learning to make our own web browser to display it.

Sure, the internet appears to be constantly increasing its penetration of influence into our daily lives. It’s important, possibly vital for the future career path of a computer scientist. I happen to have enjoyed a time of employment thanks to my knowledge of these web technologies. That is my point. Why bother to lecture us about this stuff now? It’s important, I’ve already said that! If it’s necessary to spoon-feed computer science students with this sort of stuff, why not do it before we come onto more advanced programming? As far as I can tell, this module is wasting at least four hours of my life a week – time I could be spending robot building or researching the under-documented methods implemented by Microsoft for including sounds in their XBoxes. Or better still, it could be devoted to extra time understanding theories of computation and logic programming, or the “maths stuff” as I like to call it, stuff which I’m quite crap at by nature.

We’re expected to use our resourcefulness to find out about the finer points of robots and our Java programming in general. If there’s one thing well documented on the web, it’s web programming, so why does the same principle not apply here?

P.S: I’m proud to have spent all of these lectures so far, working on prolog and generally procrastinating. I am however, reassured by the promise of low-level network protocol troubleshooting and hacking later on in the term. Bring on March!