A few thoughts about the Brexit vote

As a person from outside the Commonwealth, I didn’t get to vote in the referendum that the UK held this week regarding its membership in the European Union. The referendum, called, variously, “EURef” and “Brexit” (for “British exit”), asked UK voters whether they wanted the country to remain in the EU or to leave it. “Leave” won by just under four percentage points, 51.9% to 48.1%.

It is not my intention to provide here a history of the referendum or a discussion of the political issues surrounding it. If you want to know more about that, I’m afraid you’ll need to google it yourself — or you could look at the BBC’s FAQ.) I just want to share a few thoughts, partly about how it affects me personally and partly about some things I’ve noticed in the aftermath.

Let me begin by saying that I am deeply disturbed by this vote. I would have voted Remain if I had had a vote — I think it benefits all of us to cooperate and collaborate.

How Brexit affects me personally

Residence: Brexit doesn’t have much effect on my immigration status in the near term, since I am not an EU national and have to have a visa to live here anyhow. Right now I’ve got a student visa, and I’ve been planning all along to take steps to get a longer-term visa for when I finish my PhD. So I have no need to worry about Brexit’s effect on that part of my life, at least not any time soon. (Note to the EU nationals among my friends: I will be happy to share with you what I know about work visas, if you decide you want to stay in the UK and if it turns out you will need one. Contact me privately if you would find that helpful.)

Costs: (1) The British pound is down with respect to the US dollar, about 10% down as I write this. Who knows where it will go in the next few years? This decline works to my advantage for now, though: now that my university-funded studentship has ended, all of my income is in USD and will continue to be so until I start working in the UK. So what I spend in the UK costs me less of my income than it did just a few days ago. (2) Probably the “Eurozone” plan I get from my mobile phone provider — which costs £4 for each day I use roaming in European countries, including a fair amount of data — will end. I don’t know what my provider will offer as a replacement, but it will probably cost me more for roaming in EU countries.

Health: The NHS is like an excruciatingly slow HMO (health maintenance organization, a type of healthcare coverage in the US), and it is only going to get slower. (I do use the NHS; see below.) There’s talk of splitting it up and privatizing it, but if all they do is reduce the funding… Shudder!

Opportunities: I suspect that I will have a harder time finding a job with a visa sponsor in the UK. Already there is news about banks moving several hundred jobs from London to Dublin. Not that I was planning to work for a bank, particularly, but it’s a bellwether. (I love the word “bellwether”. Also “harbinger”. :-)

Reactions that worry me

Racism. I’m hearing and reading stories of white Britons harassing and threatening immigrants who have a foreign accent or a different skin color, telling them “Go home; we voted Leave!” It seems as though some of these people took “Leave” to mean, not Britain leaving the EU, but ethnically different immigrants leaving Britain. Racism has come more out in the open, it seems. In fact, The Washington Post reported just this week that the Brexit debate itself has brought racism to the surface in Britain: “Because of the Brexit campaign, racism is no longer racism – it’s legitimate opinion.” Some (although by no means all) of the Leave campaign was about reducing immigration, and many white Britons talked about “getting their country back” as a euphemism for reducing the dilution of their culture by black and brown people coming to live among them.

I am NOT saying that a Leave vote was necessarily a racist vote or even an anti-immigration vote; people had diverse reasons for marking their ballots that way. For one thing, the Leave campaign virtually promised that the £350 million a week that the UK has been paying to the EU would be redirected to the NHS. (They have since rescinded that promise, blackguards that they are.) And I am inclined to agree with the person who tweeted that it’s not so much that half the country is racist as that the racists think they are. But the vote does seem to have been taken as permission to take racist behavior out of homes and back lanes and bring it into the light of day on public buses and High Street pavements. This must stop.

Now, I use NHS services regularly (paying a paltry £150/yr for the privilege), and being over 60 I get prescription medications at no cost. Also, I have a senior bus pass that gives me free travel on any local bus in England after 9:30am on weekdays and all day on weekends, and because Newcastle has good bus service and I don’t own a car I use my pass a fair amount. And as a full-time student I pay no council tax (analogous to property tax in the US).

I’m sure that I cost the UK just a wee bit more than do most of the immigrants that racist and anti-immigrant groups are targeting. But I look like a native. No one has ever accosted me to threaten me or demand that I “go home”.

In fact, until people hear me speak or see me eat with a knife and fork, they tend to assume I’m a native. And as far as I know, all of my ancestry traces back to Great Britain. But it’s been more than 200 years since the last migrant among them sailed west across the Atlantic. I myself am no more a native of Britain than is the Muslim girl that some Birmingham youth harassed on the street, shouting “We voted Leave!” And she doesn’t deserve abuse any more than I do.

Ageism. Much is being made of the differences between how older and younger people voted. According to a YouGov survey taken after the vote, people over 65 voted Leave by a ratio of two to one and people under 24 voted Remain by three to one. It is being said that the older generation is denying the younger generation their future, and all because of a fantasy of returning to the Good Old Days. From anecdotes I’ve heard, I tend to give credence to the idea that there was a lot of nostalgia behind the votes of older people who went for Leave and didn’t bother to find out (and/or didn’t care) how it would affect younger people. What bothers me about what’s being said about the old is twofold: (1) other demographic variables (education and income, in particular) explained more of the difference in the vote than age did, but people are targeting the old as the ones to be disparaged and condemned; and (2) people are using age to target old people in general (see this much-liked and much-retweeted tweet attacking old people), not just the 69% of voters who voted Leave. As far as I know, this has not (yet) turned into physical threats against older people, but I have heard it expressed as a wish that they had not been allowed to vote on this question. I wonder if folks would have expressed such a wish if older people had gone for Remain; it sounds like basing voting rights on outcome rather than principle. The question of the fairness of allowing older people to vote on younger people’s future isn’t a simple one, but one thing I can say for certain: Disparaging older people in general because you don’t like how two-thirds of them voted is ageism, and it’s ugly.

So what am I going to do?

Personal goals. First things first: I will finish my PhD. And I will continue with my pursuit of post-PhD opportunities in the UK. There’s still a lot to like about living here, and as far as I can tell, the overt British racism isn’t any worse than the overt American racism being fuelled by today’s <unprintable> politicians, of whom Donald Trump is the most <unprintable>. Scotland is talking about possibly having another independence referendum and then joing the EU on its own, and I will keep an eye on that. (I wish I thought my Gaelic surname would give me an in. :-)

Post-Brexit racism. I am well aware of my white privilege. My life in the UK is easier than that of immigrants of different culture or ethnicity because of what I look like. Because of this, I have the power — and the responsibility — to let racists know that racist behavior is unacceptable. So far I have not personally witnessed any incidents of people threatening foreigners, but if I do I will speak up. If I feel it isn’t safe for me to confront the perpetrators in person, I will speak out later and help publicize the incident. And I am encouraging my friends to do the same. Hopefully, just as these Tyne and Wear Metro passengers did in Newcastle in November 2015. (Here’s a Guardian article on how people can respond in such situations.)

Ageism. I probably won’t do much about this. I have limited time, and despite what I say about how ugly it is, racism is so much uglier and its effects far worse. People generally don’t hate and attack old people just because they are old.

But that’s enough for now; I’ve already spent more time on this than I had planned and I need to get back to my thesis.

The summer of writing up

On Wednesday I met with my primary supervisor to discuss the draft of my Methodology chapter. In his written comments he described the chapter as “a thorough and meticulous account of your research process with an [enviable] attention to detail and rigor in argument” and “a fantastic first draft”. More specifically, he said, “It provides a very robust defense of the methods chosen and makes a strong case for a coherent and theoretically informed approach. It is well structured, clear about claims and superbly well referenced.”


He wanted to see more discussion of a couple of things, he said, and we talked about those. But on the whole that chapter is in great shape and I have agreed to send him the final draft on Tuesday. Day after tomorrow.

I have drafted a timetable for finishing the drafts of all my chapters over the summer, and I’ve got my work cut out for me. Good thing I had already decided to forgo my usual holidays — a week of singing Renaissance polyphony in the East Midlands in July and a couple of weeks in Italy in September. I may take a weekend or two and go somewhere, but basically it’s The Summer of Writing Up.

Wish me focus and persistence!


Some thoughts on gearshift design

Gearshift arrangement of the hire car, showing 1/3/5 up and 2/4/R down
Gearshift arrangement for the car I hired
I’ve just turned in a car I hired for the weekend, and the UX part of my mind has, naturally, had some thoughts about its design. These thought are prompted by the trouble I had in downshifting from fifth gear. The arrangement of my hire car (see image) has fifth gear directly opposite reverse, and every time I needed to downshift into fourth I was afraid I would put the car into reverse (in fact, I almost did it once). This car had a weak spring that encouraged the lever toward the middle: when the car was in neutral and I was not touching it, the lever stayed in the middle. But the mechanism wasn’t strong enough to help me keep it from going into reverse when I was trying to downshift from fifth. This of course leads me to conclude that the gearshift is not well designed.

My first thought was that the problem is a poor arrangement of the gears — having reverse opposite fifth is risky because accidentally going into reverse from fifth is far more dangerous than doing it from first. Some cars have reverse in the upper left and first in the lower left, with some sort of mechanism that makes it easy to slide from first to second and difficult to go into reverse; my first new car, a 1976 Datsun F10, had this design. I don’t recall ever accidentally trying to go into reverse with it, but perhaps automakers rarely use this arrangement because first-to-second is a much more common move than fifth-to-fourth.

But then I thought about the cars I’ve owned (all of which have had manual transmission), and the last two (Toyota Corollas both) had reverse in the lower right, opposite fifth, just like this weekend’s hire car. So I’m thinking that the human factors issue may be a matter of which hand and arm are doing the shifting. Moving from fifth to fourth involves pulling back on the lever and moving it to the left. When you’re shifting with your right hand, reverse is away from your body and the more natural movement when pulling back is to pull toward you as well, so the danger of going into reverse from fifth is small. But when you shift with your left hand (which is for me the hardest part of driving in the UK), reverse is closer to your body than any of the other gears and it takes more effort to push the gearshift lever to the left while at the same time pulling it back, so the risk of going into reverse from fifth is much greater and a stronger preventive mechanism is needed. (I wish I had time to make diagrams of these movements.)

Some cars have a ring on the lever, just below the knob, that you have to lift to put the car into reverse; some require you to push down on the lever. Still others have a rather strong spring (or something that behaves like one) that will slide the lever from fifth to fourth when you pull back, unless you maintain substantial rightward pressure to force it into reverse. The strong spring is what my Toyotas had, as I recall, and I’ve driven cars with both of the other mechanisms.

Now, I imagine that people who learned to drive in the UK might not have any problem with the arrangement that my hire car had, as they’ve developed from the beginning the habit of the pull-back-and-push-away-left movement and their muscle memory works in their favor. (Or else they just don’t downshift. But I seriously doubt it’s that.) Nevertheless, this movement is, I maintain, less natural than pulling toward the body on a diagonal, and the gearshift should have something more than a weak(ish) mechanism to guide the lever away from the “reverse” position.

I am not sure whether I favor the ring approach or the push, but in any case the Ford Fiesta’s mechanism is not enough. And it’s not simply because I’m profoundly right-handed.

I’d be interested in hearing from people who work in automotive design, especially those who have experience in human factors of both right-hand-drive and left-hand-drive vehicles. What are your thoughts?

Update: A friend has pointed me to some info that indicates that it’s not possible actually to GO into reverse while the car is moving because reverse gear is not synchronized. So  maybe I have overstated the danger here. However, it could still cause damage to the gears (I did hear a godawful noise when I accidentally tried to do it), and that could be dangerous for one’s pocketbook. Certainly it’s no good for peace of mind.

Update: Wheelchair assistance issue at Global Entry

Early last week I wrote a long post about my first experience of airport wheelchair assistance during my recent trip to the US. The following day I wrote to Bruce P. Heppen, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) Coordinator for the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA), as the incident where the wheelchair assistant had inappropriately tried to help me with Global Entry had occurred at Washington Dulles Airport. Here’s what I wrote:

Dear Mr. Heppen,

I received wheelchair assistance at IAD after arriving on BA 293 from LHR on the 28th of April. I am writing to alert you of a problem I observed that may indicate the need for additional training of your wheelchair assistants.

When the wheelchair assistant picked me up, I told her I had Global Entry, and she seemed to know what that was. We got there and she wheeled me up to the kiosk. Two or three times while I was using it the assistant tried to tell me what to click. The second time it happened, I assured her I was very familiar with how to use Global Entry, but I’m not sure she believed me. The third time, she did it while I was thinking about whether what was displayed was correct (I decided it was), but evidently she thought I was confused, and when she said “Click ‘Next'” I lost my patience and said “Don’t rush me!”

It later occurred to me that her behavior was highly inappropriate. Wheelchair assistants have absolutely no business watching what travellers do with Global Entry, let alone trying to help — it’s a matter of both traveller privacy and national security. If the CBP personnel monitoring the area sense that a traveller needs help, they will offer their assistance. CBP is authorized to do so, wheelchair assistants are not.

I hope you will take steps to address this urgent matter without delay.

Thank you for your consideration.


Elizabeth Buie

Mr. Heppen replied very quickly, apologizing on behalf of MWAA but saying that under Federal law it’s the airline’s responsibility to provide wheelchair assistance and the airlines have subcontractors for this service at each airport.

Now, I have no clue how individual airlines could be responsible for hiring their own wheelchair service providers, and I really thought it was the service provider that needed to be providing the training. But he said he would pass it along to BA, so I waited.

Tonight I heard from British Airways. They completely misunderstood my complaint — they apologized for the behavior of the wheelchair handler, and they got her to apologize too. I will grant them an attempt at empathy — they said they understood “how upsetting this must have been” for me — but even this statement misunderstood the issue. BA got in touch with Air Serv Corporation, the service provider, who had the assistant’s manager talk to her, and they all relayed to me an apology from the assistant, who “was just trying to help” but “now understands she overstepped her boundaries” in assisting me with Global Entry. BA told me that if I didn’t feel the matter had been resolved I could file a formal complaint with the US Department of Transportation. BA told me that according to my account her behavior

…did not comply with US Department of Transportation § 382.141 which states (a) As a carrier that operates aircraft with 19 or more passenger seats, you must provide training, meeting the requirements of this paragraph, for all personnel who deal with the traveling public, as appropriate to the duties of each employee. (2) You must also train such employees with respect to awareness and appropriate responses to passengers with a disability, including persons with physical, sensory, mental, and emotional disabilities, including how to distinguish among the differing abilities of individuals with a disability.

Hmmm… The regulation says that the carrier must train all staff in how to treat people with disabilities, but it says nothing about a requirement to train them in how they should behave while a traveller is using Global Entry.

Admittedly, I did not convey to Mr. Heppen that I thought the responsibility belonged with the assistant’s employer, who had failed to provide adequate training for her regarding this area of assistance. And I really didn’t mean to get the assistant in trouble! I suspect it had never occurred to her that she should not even be watching me use Global Entry, let alone helping me with it, and I don’t blame her in any way for not being aware of the privacy and security issues. The only thing I fault her for is intruding into something that was none of her business, but that pales in comparison to Air Serv’s failure to train her properly.

So here’s what I sent to British Airways in response to their email:

Dear Ms. Altadonna,Thank you again for your substantial email. I see that my concern has been misunderstood, so I am writing to I clear things up.

Wheelchair assistants cannot be blamed for trying to help when they have not received adequate training in their duties regarding how to behave when someone they are assisting uses the Global Entry kiosk. “Global Entry is a U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) program that allows expedited clearance for pre-approved, low-risk travelers upon arrival in the United States.” (from http://www.globalentry.gov) I feel fairly confident that most wheelchair assistants have not been pre-approved as low-risk travelers and thus I maintain that they should never see, let alone influence, what a traveler enters into the kiosk. If they sense that a traveler needs assistance with Global Entry, they should summon a CBP official to provide it.

Yes, the wheelchair assistant made an incorrect assumption about my abilities. (I admit I was tempted to tell her I had arthritis and not dementia.) But her assumption was not the real issue, and the burden of apology does not fall on her. That burden falls on Air Serv Corporation for failing to provide their staff with adequate training. I really do not want an apology, however; I want a change in behavior, a change in the system. I want an acknowledgment from Air Serv that they have the responsibility to ensure adequate training in this area; I want a commitment from them to provide it. This sort of behavior compromises not only traveler privacy and autonomy, but US national security.

I do wish to file a complaint, but against Air Serv Corporation, not against the assistant. Please let me know how I can do that.

FYI: I have reported this incident to CBP.

Please see my blog post about my wheelchair assistance experience: https://leisurelyseekingdoctorate.wordpress.com/2016/05/16/airport-wheelchair-assistance-a-first-experience/
I am about to post an update.

Your cabin crews were all marvellous, by the way. Nobody patronized me, and they all provided exactly the help I needed when I asked for it.

Elizabeth Buie

The “update” I mention at the end of my letter to BA is the one you are reading right now. Stay tuned.

Note to Air Serv: Your website is dreadful. And have you noticed that your logo and typeface look eerily like Global Entry’s? Hmmm…

Songs about self-transcendent experiences

I’ve just had the idea of collecting a list of songs that describe experiences of awe and wonder, of self-transcendence, in ordinary life, outside of a specifically religious context. This came to my mind as I listened just now to Luca Carboni’s “Alzando gli occhi al cielo” (“Raising the eyes to the sky”, see YouTube video below), which expresses amazement that mafiosi on their yachts can look at the sky and manage not to shit themselves (his words — “come fanno a non cagarsi sotto”) with awe, how they manage not to feel remorse for the harm that they do. Carboni is not describing an actual experience that someone has had, or even inventing a fictional one. He is talking about such an experience as a normal response to such a sky, and I’m inclined to think that he himself has had a self-transcendent experience in contemplating the sky.

I invite readers to post comments that describe songs that you think portray experiences of awe and wonder, experiences of self-transcendence. I’d love to know what it is about the song that leads you to see it this way.

Airport wheelchair assistance: a first experience

I recently travelled to the US and back, spending time on the East Coast with family and friends and then going to California for a conference. My trip involved six flights total, two for each change of location. Since the last time I flew I’ve developed osteoarthritis in my left hip, which restricts my movement somewhat and makes it painful to walk, and most of the time I use a cane (UK: stick). When I’m not burdened by luggage (even a rolling bag can make things worse) I can usually walk short distances with little pain, but transatlantic travel involves both a carry-on bag and a checked bag, and many airports (especially London Heathrow) require substantial walking. (I’ve learned that when I use Heathrow I often end up having walked a total of five miles on that day.) So I decided to request wheelchair assistance in getting through the various airports. Although this was a necessity for me under the circumstances, it wasn’t all roses.

Herewith the story of my experience.

Newcastle to Washington

For a noontime departure I would ordinarily have taken public transportation (bus and Tyne and Wear Metro) to the airport, which with my senior pass would have been free for me. With two bags and a cane, however, I needed to take a taxi, which cost me about £15 each way.

Newcastle (departure)

Specialized airport wheelchair (link will open in a new window)I managed to get my two bags to the bag drop, walking gingerly, and went to traveller assistance to request a wheelchair. The agent asked for my boarding pass, did something on his computer, and gave it back to me and directed me to a waiting area. Not long thereafter a woman arrived with a specialized wheelchair for airport use (see photo), which was narrow and with a shelf underneath for a carry-on bag. The arms lift to let the person sit from the side, where access is easier. It has a basket in back for a small handbag or something, but mine was too large for it and in any case I also had my cane and the poster I was to present at the conference. The wheelchair got me fast-track through security and boarding. The aide wanted to help with my security baggage management, but this is the sort of thing I have to do myself because I know where my electronics and liquids are and I needed to get them out and put them into the security bin myself. I guess they don’t expect wheelchair passengers to have a laptop, a tablet, a pedometer, and three cell/mobile phones. :-)

London Heathrow (transfer – leave UK)

Wheelchair assistance passengers are asked to wait until all other passengers (I hate hearing transportation companies call them “customers”, but that’s a rant for another time) have deplaned before they leave the aircraft. I guess they think we’ll be slower to get off and will slow the others down, which is probably a reasonable assumption. But they give us aisle seats, which means we have to get up to let our seatmates off and then sit back down to wait. I don’t know what I would have done if I had been completely unable to stand.

I was pleased to note that the wheelchair assistance agent at Newcastle had arranged for assistance at Heathrow as well, and they were waiting for me at the entrance to the jetway (UK: air bridge). That part, at least, is well organized. One aide pushed me to a waiting area inside the airport, where I sat for about 15 minutes, then another one came to get me; he took me to the Special Assistance Lounge in Terminal 5, where I waited for more than two hours for boarding. The description in the airport guide (see link above) is not quite right: the lounge is not “fully catering” because they have a very small number of electrical outlets/sockets in one area of the lounge and because all they have to eat or drink is water and you have to go around the corner a hundred feet or more to get anything else. I didn’t find out about the outlets until I was about to leave the lounge, as the aide didn’t mention them but just placed me in front of one of the TVs. Sigh.

The aide who took me to the lounge insisted that I needed a paper boarding pass (I had checked in online and had a mobile one), so he got one printed. That was probably OK, though, because the lounge staff held onto it while I was there, so that they could ensure another aide was available when my flight was about to board. This time I needed to go to a different area of the terminal, so they sent me with another passenger in a beeping electric cart. We descended in a large elevator to the bowels of Terminal 5, where the ceilings were full of pipes and tubes and the walls were replete with doors that required a badge to open. That was the most interesting part of this experience — getting to see a part of the airport that must be off-limits to most passengers.

I showed the gate agent my mobile boarding pass, and she exclaimed at how high-tech I was. Nobody has ever made such a comment while I was walking without assistance; did she expect me to be senile as well as disabled? Grrrrr…

Washington Dulles (arrival – enter US)

Again, an aide was waiting for me when I arrived. I told her I had Global Entry, and she seemed to know what that was. We got there and she wheeled me up to the kiosk. I know the kiosks accommodate travellers with various disabilities, but I didn’t see any that were low enough to accommodate someone in a wheelchair, so we used a regular one. Because I wasn’t standing, the photo that was supposed to show my face showed instead the crowd in the background behind me. Oops!

Two or three times while I was using the kiosk the aide tried to tell me what to click. The second time, I assured her I was very familiar with how to use it, but I’m not sure she believed me. The third time, I had been thinking about whether what was displayed was correct (I decided it was), but evidently she thought I was confused, and when she said “Click ‘Next'” I lost my patience and said “Don’t rush me!” It later occurred to me that she shouldn’t have been watching at all, let alone telling me how to answer — it’s a matter of both traveller privacy and national security — so when I had my Global Entry renewal interview a couple of days later I reported the incident to the CBP officer (who strongly agreed with me) and said I thought it was probably an issue of airport training of wheelchair aides. I hope they manage to do something about it. In any case, if it ever happens again I’ll be prepared to insist that the aide not even watch. (I hope I don’t need to cross the Atlantic again before I get my hip replaced.)

The same aide got me to the Hertz shuttle bus, whose driver asked if I wanted to give her (the aide) something. It had not previously occurred to me that I needed to tip these people in the US, and I’m afraid that what I gave her was a wee bit less than what is customary. I later looked it up, and the consensus in the discussion forums was for at least $20 for this amount of service. Yowza!

Washington to San Jose

The wheelchair assistance folks were expecting me, and they didn’t have to enter new info into their system. Kudos to the Newcastle folks for arranging the whole shebang.

Washington to Dallas / Ft. Worth (outbound)

TSA Pre-Check logo (will open in a new window)This time they were using a regular wheelchair, and the aide placed my carry-on bag between my feet and I had to hold it with my knees. I sailed through security because for this flight I got to go through the TSA Pre-Check line. (Note to readers and especially to the Transportation Security Administration: Pre-Check has the stupidest logo in all of government (see image). The graphic checkmark fails to convey the word “check” and leads most people to call the program “Pre”. Also, not everyone calls that graphic a “check” — Brits call it a “tick”, for example — so even if it did imply a word it wouldn’t necessarily be “check”.)

Except for the logistics of the carry-on bag, this was the smoothest of all my wheelchair adventures so far. My tip this time was, I think, commensurate.

Dallas / Ft. Worth to San Jose (transfer)

A long ride in mostly regular wheelchairs, again with my carry-on between my knees, and with two different aides. The first one was surprised at how far I had to go to my next gate, and he started weaving quickly in and out of the foot traffic, trying to get me to my gate as fast as possible. I asked him not to do so much back-and-forthing, and he said he had to hurry back for another passenger. I pointed out that that was no reason to make me uncomfortable, and he agreed and stopped doing it. The next trip was just from the gate to the door of the plane (down two ramps and a jetway), and I tipped both aides according to the length of the trip.

San Jose (arrival)

Regular wheelchair, as I recall, to the airport shuttle pickup point. No problems.

San Jose to Newcastle

San Jose (departure)

This was the best of my airport wheelchair experiences — although the aide was new and somewhat inexperienced, she was so nice and not in the least patronizing, and as she pushed me we talked about our respective studies. This one I tipped a little more than what I understood was customary for the work and she appreciated it very much. At the gate she put me where I requested, next to an outlet, and I got an hour’s worth of work done. The same aide came back to wheel me to the plane, and after I boarded I felt bad that I been so focused on getting myself to my seat that I hadn’t said a final good-bye to her. What a lovely young woman.

Unfortunately I didn’t get to use Pre-Check this time, as I was on British Airways and they don’t participate in the program. That will make me think twice about using BA for future travel to the US.

London Heathrow (transfer – enter UK)

Again, an aide wheeled me from the plane to a wheelchair waiting area. Since I had four hours before my next flight, I waited there about an hour before they got someone to take me to the Terminal 5 lounge. People kept arriving who had flights earlier than mine, and they were taken first. I agree that people should be taken first who might otherwise risk missing their connections, but I don’t think that someone who has 3.5 hours should be taken before me at 4 hours if I got there half an hour before they did. This waiting area had no sockets and no amenities except toilets. The staff member asked if I had any liquids, and when I said yes she started reciting a list. I looked at her blankly, wondering why she was going on about it, especially as most of the ones on her list are not the kinds of things I carry (odd that she didn’t mention contact lens solutions :-), and she must have thought I didn’t know what she was talking about. I assured her that I was accustomed to flying, saying that I had crossed the Atlantic more than a hundred times (this is true), and then I showed her the plastic bag of fluids from my handbag, which is the way I always carry them. (Strictly speaking they aren’t all liquids, but why quibble with airport staff over physics? :-) I wanted to say to her, “Look, I’ve got arthritis, not dementia.” Grrrr…

The first aide who came to get me in that waiting area was smallish, and she complained about the heaviness of my carry-on bag, so a manager came along and insisted to me that my bag was too heavy and her people were pushers only and not lifters of bags. She said I’d have to lift it myself through security and advised me not to bring so much stuff in the future. This was the only time anyone had complained about having to lift my bag. It doesn’t make sense to me, as most people have carry-on bags and I’d think wheelchair assistance would automatically include assistance with the baggage. The aide didn’t ask what kind of passport I have and automatically took me through the “normal” (UK/EU) side, but fortunately the Border Control agent was understanding (no doubt because I was in a wheelchair) and everything went smoothly from that perspective.

I finally got to the Terminal 5 special assistance lounge, but as I had a lot less time there than I had expected I decided not to dig out my laptop and try to work. Having just come off the longest flight I’d ever had and not having gotten the 3+ hours of sleep that I usually manage to get on transatlantic flights, I was rather jetlagged.

This time it was a shortish distance to the plane from the gate, so I agreed to walk while a BA gate agent wheeled my bag on board.

Newcastle (arrival)

The aide here was chatty and pleasant, and everything went smoothly. He wheeled me out to the passenger pick-up area and helped load my bags into the taxi.

Overall Observations

The pluses of this service were more or less what I expected, except for the first one on the list below. The minuses were much greater than what I expected.


  • Having to arrange the service only once, not at each airport for each flight
  • Fast-track security and boarding
  • Speedy movement through airport
  • Not having to do all that walking (duh!)


  • No real way (as far as I could tell) to arrange the service to begin on arrival at airport, had to get to bag drop first
  • Tips in the US (I think I spent at least $75 in total)
  • Waiting in areas and “lounges” with no real amenities
  • On landing, being last to deplane
  • Heathrow wheelchair assistance manager requiring me to lift my own bag
    (not all staff did this, but even if it had been only one it would have been too many)

I’d also like to say that on all six flights all of the flight attendents were wonderful. They cheerfully stored my CHI poster in the closet up front, and they treated me well. Thanks very much to British Airways and American Airlines for their great staff.

On the whole, I don’t think I could have made this trip without wheelchair assistance. But I do wonder how I would have managed if I hadn’t been able to stand or walk at all. Something to ponder.

Time to renew my passport

I’ve just returned from just over two weeks in the US — ten days with family and friends in Maryland and North Carolina, and five days in California at the CHI 2016 conference (more on that later). Good thing my passport has more than six months left on it, but it is time to renew it. Fortunately, I can do it mostly online via the US Embassy London. The online renewal process seems quite straightforward (they seem to have been taking lessons from the UK’s Government Digital Service in their Citizen Services web design) but the requirements for US passport photos differ from those of the UK and EU. The bad news is that I can’t get mine done at an automated photo booth; the good news is that the US lets you smile. Fortunately, I’ve found a chain of photo stores that do them, and they have a convenient location in the Newcastle City Centre. It takes approximately four weeks for processing and return, so it’s as well I’m not planning to travel outside the UK in that time. I’ll get my photo done and my application sent off this coming week.

The best kind of compliment

Last night I received an email from another graduate student doing research in techno-spirituality. This woman is in a different university, in a different country, and in a different area of techno-spirituality — her research involves Islamic applications, mainly for helping elderly people conduct their spiritual and religious practices. She has asked my input from time to time, and now she’s finishing her thesis. She wrote me last night that the alt.chi paper that my supervisor and I published three years ago — “Spirituality – There’s an App for That (but not a lot of research)” was the primary motivation for her study.

It’s a nice feeling of accomplishment to be considered and cited as an expert in my field. I find it far more gratifying, though, to know that my work inspires and motivates others.

I love this work.

CHI 2016 poster for my late-breaking work

In my last post I wrote that I had submitted a thing to the Late-Breaking Work venue of the CHI 2016 conference. For some reason I neglected to add a post saying that my submission was accepted. Odd that I would forget something like that.

Transcendhance poster for CHI 2016 (small version)Anyhow, it was accepted. LBWs are presented as posters, and I’ve just finished preparing mine. You can find the “paper” on the “Papers” page of this blog and you can see a larger version of the poster (one where the text is actually legible) by clicking on the smaller version on this page. (I put “paper” in quotation marks because it’s not considered a paper in the CHI sense of a full research paper that gives quasi-maximum kudos and counts toward academic tenure.)

I’m on the schedule for the Wednesday and Thurssday, so if you’re at CHI I hope you’ll stop by and talk to me during the conference reception or one of the relevant coffee breaks. See you there!

Clarity, I hope

Earlier this week I completed and sent off a submission to the late-breaking work venue of the CHI 2016 conference. (I got it in about an hour later than I had hoped, but a good 45 minutes before the deadline.) I’ll find out in about three weeks whether it’s accepted and I’ll be presenting it as a poster in San Jose, but my supervisor says it’s “brilliant” and “cracking” and I am optimistic. I know it’s good work and provides a contribution to knowledge.

Even if my submission is not accepted, though, writing those six pages has given me a sudden clarity on what my thesis must contain, and I can now see my way clear to moving ahead with that. I still have a little analysis to do, but I’ve finally finished data collection (shortly before Christmas) and now my task is to write it up.

I’ve put “I hope” in the title of this post because there’s always the possibility that the writing-up process will reveal things that I still need to clarify. But I do now, finally, have confidence on what my main contribution will be to knowledge in the human-computer interaction field. That’s a good feeling.

An aside: For a thesis, they call it “writing up”. I find myself wondering what the difference might be between “writing up” and “writing down”. :-)


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