How about this for a CAPTCHA:

A screenshot from reCAPTCHA, in which a bunch of mathematical symbols form part of the CAPTCHA

reCAPTCHA is sure getting difficult!

I wrote this letter to Omni Serv, the contractor responsible for providing special assistance services at London Heathrow Airport, on 20th June 2011:

I am writing to complain about an experience that I had with your special assistance services at London Heathrow (Terminal 3) yesterday, 19th June 2011.

I was travelling into London with my grandmother, aged 86, on [flight details removed]. We had requested wheelchair assistance for her. This is what happened:

Upon leaving the aircraft we were taken to the main holding area for special assistance passengers. There, we were greeted with chaos. There were about 25 passengers already there, waiting for assistance. Listening to them, some had been waiting for almost an hour already. There were no wheelchairs or wheelchair operators in sight. The manager at the desk was, unfortunately, nonchalant and dismissive towards anyone that approached her, and only served to make the already tired passengers more frustrated. There were no clear instructions given to anybody, and it was only after waiting for several minutes that we realised we were supposed to present a boarding card to the manager to get on the list to be assigned a wheelchair.

There was a lot of shouting and general confusion in the waiting area. Whenever wheelchair operators did appear (it seemed there were only three or four altogether), they wasted a lot of time chatting and idling before taking the next passenger.

My grandmother and I waited patiently for an hour. During this time 8 of the 20 passengers that had arrived before us were taken by wheelchair (and more had arrived in the mean time). It was clear that at that rate we would be waiting for at least another hour. Plenty of people were getting very frustrated, understandably so, but the manager was once again dismissive. There may have been a shortage of wheelchair operators, and legimitate reasons for this, but it was the perceived lack of concern and urgency from the staff that were present that was most disappointing. Nobody bothered to explain that there was going to be a delay, or why. Anyone who attempted to ask was rather rudely asked not to interfere.

Eventually the manager approched me and suggested that I take my grandmother myself, using a spare wheelchair that was available (there was no operator). I might have agreed if we did not have to collect checked-in luggage — it would have been impossible for me to manage both a wheelchair and a baggage trolley. So, she then suggested that we had better walk.

So, after waiting for an hour for a wheelchair, we ended up walking. I hope you will appreciate that for an 86-year-old with impaired mobility, walking the distances involved at Heathrow Airport is not a small matter. However we were presented with no other option, and had we waited would have been delayed by at least 2 hours.

I will reiterate that the most disappointing part of our experience was not the delay, but the attitude of the Omni Serv staff. Had they been more polite and communicative, the passengers would have been a lot more accommodating. In my opinion this level of service reflects very poorly on Heathrow Airport, particularly as a gateway into London ahead of the 2012 Olympics. I hope you will take this complaint seriously so that others do not receive such an unpleasant welcome to London in future.

Sincerely,

Samir Shah

This complaint was written on the back of EC Regulation 1107/2006, which places responsibility on airports to ensure that passengers with reduced mobility are given reasonable assistance in getting around the airport. I felt that these responsibilities were not met in this case.

I received no response after two weeks. I then copied the same message to Heathrow Airport. I received this in reply:

Dear Mr Shah,

Thank you for contacting us following your journey through Heathrow with your Grandmother.

I am sorry you had a poor experience. I have contacted Omniserv about your complaint and asked that they prioritise a response.

Should you require any further assistance please do not hesitate to contact me.

Two months and several follow-up emails later: no response. During this period I contacted the Civil Aviation Authority, who referred me to the Equality and Human Rights Commission as the body in charge of handling complaints of this type. The EHRC were very helpful: they explained what rights my grandmother had, and how I needed to pursue the matter if I did not receive a satisfactory response to my complaint. They said I should send my complaint by mail, recorded delivery, so that I had proof that it had been received (apparently email still does not suffice). If I failed to receive a response after 30 days from receipt, I could take further action through the EHRC, and if necessary, take the matter to court.

It was never my intention to go to court — my grandmother did not suffer any lasting injury as a result of this experience — and in any case it was more the manner in which we were treated that I found unnacceptable. The handlers were very rude. However I did feel that some response was warranted, and that failure to receive one was a sign that both Heathrow Airport and Omni Serv do not take customer complaints seriously. So I sent a formal letter, and waited.

A full two and half months after my original complaint (and after the 30 days had expired), I received the following from Omni Serv (in a Microsoft Word document):

Dear Mr Shah,

Firstly our apologies for the delay in our response to you, however this letter is to confirm that we have now looked into the issues you have raised and we would like to apologise to you for the level of service that you feel Mrs Shah received through London Heathrow.

The level of service received by Mrs Shah was not up to our usual standard, this was due to the fact that the day on which she arrived was an exceptionally busy one for Omni Serv, nevertheless the way she was dealt with by the Omni Serv host was not appropriate, both in her manner and having not offered baggage assistance. The member of staff concerned has been reminded of the level of service expected.

We apologise for the poor experience she had when arriving at Heathrow and as a gesture of our apology we would like to send her some flowers. We would like to ask therefore that you provided us with her address in order to make the necessary arrangements.

Finally, we would like to suggest that when making future travel arrangements through London Heathrow that she contact our office in advance to ensure that she receives the appropriate and expected assistance.

The flowers, incidentally, never arrived. The flowers arrived a month after I gave Omni Serv my grandmother’s address.

My advice to anyone who has had an unpleasant experience with the special assistance services at Heathrow is to contact the Equality and Human Rights Commission. They will tell you how to make a formal complaint to Heathrow Airport, and if the complaint is not addressed, they will assist in taking further action.

Another time-lapse, this time of a different type of lotus flower.

The flower didn’t open fully — possibly because it was quite windy — so I decided half way to experiment with zooming in on the flower. The result is quite jerky and a bit distracting. Evidently manual adjustment of the camera lens is just too clumsy for this sort of thing.

It’s curious how the lotus closes really quickly towards the end.

My grandmother is a master knitter. The items she’s knitted — sweaters, scarves, hats, gloves, socks, teddy-bear pantaloons, to name a few — easily number in the hundreds. She’s taught dozens of learners how to knit. People come to her when they get stuck with their own knitting projects, and she has yet to fail to sort out their difficulties. At 86, she shows no signs of slowing down.

Recently she started on one of her more ambitious projects, a large dress knitted on circular needles. A couple of inches in, she realised that something was quite wrong: there was a twist in the strip! I got very excited, thinking that we had on our hands that topological wonder which is a Möbius Strip.

Closer and calmer inspection revealed however that there was actually a full twist in the dress, which isn’t as exciting because it still has two discrete sides and two edges. It’s equivalent to turning one end of a flat strip of paper 360 degrees and then joining it to the other end. To produce a Möbius Strip you have to turn it 180 degrees, which with knitting isn’t quite so easy to do. It also turns out that the full twist is quite an easy mistake to make on circular needles.

Having once had the idea however, the engineer in me was determined to have a knitted, seamless Möbius Strip. (Stitching the ends of a strip of wool together is cheating). So, several hours, much head-scratching and some sore fingers later (kitting needles are to me what Linux is to my grandmother), here it is. My very own hand-knitted Möbius Strip.

A knitted, seamless Möbius Strip

Now all I have to do is explain to my grandmother that it isn’t a mistake, but a thing of beauty!

There is no shortage of controversy and complaints about Network Solutions, but here is my advice to anyone thinking of doing business with them: think again.

Here’s why.

  • Their terms of service are questionable, if not downright misleading. Here is what the service agreement says in the section about country-specific domain names (I registered a .co.uk domain with them several years ago):

    No transfers or legal name changes are allowed for .am, .at, .be, .ch, .cz, .de, .es, .com.es, .nom.es, .org.es, .fm, .li, .mx, .com.mx, .co.nz, .net.nz, .org.nz, .pl, .ru .co.uk, .me.uk, or .org.uk country-specific domain name registrations, which includes, but is not limited to, CRA, RNCA, channel transfers, account consolidation by 2 or more users.

    (where RNCA is a “Registrant Name Change Agreement”, and CRA is not defined anywhere in the document!)

    The implication is that once you have registered one of these domains with Network Solutions, you are not permitted to change registrar or transfer ownership of the domain — and you are therefore stuck with Network Solutions, and with the domain, ad infinitum. This struck me as somewhat unfair, if not illegal.

    I wrote to Nominet, the .uk domain registry, to find out whether I was indeed locked in for ever as a result of failing to read the fine print when I registered my domain. The response:

    I believe the ‘transfers not permitted’ relates to transfers coming into Network Solutions.

    The American companies seem to be unable to accept .uk domain names in although they can register them directly. They should still be able to transfer the domain name out for you, however if they are unable to, you may do so by logging into your account with us and completing a ‘registrar change’ online.

    So the restriction appears to be only on transferring domains to Network Solutions, not away from them. And if they don’t cooperate, you can make the change unilaterally. Funny that they don’t say so in the agreement.

    Incidentally, there are other controversial bits in the service agreement too, like this, for people who buy hosting plans from Network Solutions:

    You agree that any domain name directory, sub-directory, file name or path that does not resolve to an active web page on your Website being hosted by Network Solutions, may be used by Network Solutions to place a “parking” page, “under construction” page, or other temporary page that may include promotions and advertisements for, and links to, Network Solutions’ Website, Network Solutions product and service offerings, third-party Websites, third-party product and service offerings, and/or Internet search engines.

    So, you buy a product on condition that your supplier can use it for their own marketing purposes. Nice!

  • Their administration interface is ghastly. Getting the simplest things done is a mission, not least because at every step of the way you are affronted with aggressive marketing of add-on products that you really have no interest in. Every time I log in, I have to decline several “special offers” before I can get to the control panel.
  • Their customer service is poor. They promise to respond to support requests within 24 hours, and they do. But the response I invariably get is along these lines:

    Thank you for contacting Network Solutions Customer Service Department. We are committed to creating the best Customer experience possible. One of the first ways we can demonstrate our commitment to this goal is to quickly and efficiently handle your recent request.

    With regard to your concern, we have forwarded your request to the appropriate department for immediate attention. Please allow 1-3 business days for the issue to be resolved.

    See how 24 hours has now turned into 1-3 business days?

  • Finally, their prices are far, far above the market average.

    I’m pretty sure that the majority of their customers are those (like me) that registered with them when Network Solutions was the only place you could go for this sort of thing. Thank goodness that has changed.