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Charles on… anything that comes along

Wednesday 31 May 2006

Filed under: — Charles @ 10:51 pm

Aftermath of an implant operation

Wow, that’s a long incision.

Put a finger a little up from under your earlobe, hard against the ear (where that ridge of bone is), and then run it up, following the line of your ear, and then when you’re level with the top of your ear drift it backwards towards the top and back of your head for nearly the same distance, to the bony ridge. That’s how long the incision for baby3’s cochlear implant is.

But the operation itself (read the gruesome details, previously) went well. The surgeon (Patrick Axon, for anxious parents, or implant-awaiting adults Googling him) came in to us, still in his surgical greens, as we desperately tried to make the time pass since we’d bid goodbye to a now-sleeping infant in the anaesthesia room. “Went well, all the electrodes in, got a good response” were his words (slightly though not that much edited). He seemed happy with it, which is the important thing, I guess. He came around again that evening (having just removed some huge cancer from someone else) and once more the following morning, when he removed the huge pressure bandage that had been in place overnight.

And there weren’t any of the problems that can follow: no facial paralysis (so he avoided the nerve). We can’t tell if his taste has been affected. How do you ask a deaf baby if things taste different from yesterday? But his balance isn’t affected; 24 hours after the operation he was charging around the house, determined to do what he would do, while we gazed at the long, long slice in his head and followed him like presidential bodyguards against the possibility of his falling over and whacking the side of his head. He’s on painkillers, three different ones, alternating to create a two-hourly pattern (most infants don’t need so much pain relief after this op; he is one of the 10% who went against that).

It’s good to be out of the hospital. Childrens’ wards are like Tolstoy observed on families: the unhappy ones are all different in their own way*. We were probably the least unhappy; there were parents who’d been there ages and whose child would cry ever 20 minutes, and one small baby who seemed almost abandoned, her eyes occasionally opening to empty seats beside her cot; the mother apparently was too busy looking after her other five children to attend. The sheeer weight of unhappiness is almost too much to bear. As with parenthood, only when you’ve had a child who’s going through something like that do you understand what it’s about. Until then, it’s just a theoretical concept - “what would you do if your child had, I dunno, cancer, eh?”

But now that’s in the past. All we have to do now is keep dosing him with painkillers, keep the wound scrupulously clean and dry, prevent him falling sideways or forwards and banging his head, which could obviate the whole exercise (much easier to inside against with older children than 15-month-old toddlers), and stop him getting exposed to too many germs from huge family gatherings like the one we’re due to go to this Saturday. Gah!

And in two weeks we see the surgeon again for a checkup, and in six weeks we have “switch on” - when the external part gets linked to the internal processor that just got fitted. And then a long slow process of “tuning” the external processor to match his hearing response to the sensitivity of the external parts. But we’ve got past the hardest hurdle.

Still, that is a long incision, like someone marked him with a knife. Which I guess they did, in a way.

* the first lines of Anna Karenina: “‘All unhappy families are different from one another. The happy families are all the same. All happy families are like one another; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” [Corrected according to result below, and comments - thanks.] Searching on Google Books today yields no results. (Update: The reason: I was doing this search on Google, which is looking for words that aren’t in the book. Durr.) Ah, but for this one - if you go to the Google Books home page and do the search on “Tolstoy”. So, the followup links from Google don’t work too well, if you search for a phrase that isn’t in a book, you won’t find the book, we conclude.

Monday 29 May 2006

Filed under: — Charles @ 10:13 pm

Faster than a speeding train.. though we’d settle for just being able to hear one

On Tuesday morning, baby3 will have an operation: once it’s concluded, if everything goes well (and we’ve no reason to think it won’t) he’ll be able to run at 70mph, and jump 10ft in the air from a standing position.

Well, no he won’t. That’s not the operation at all. But in the same way, the aim is to enhance what he has, to take it beyond what he was born with. The operation is a cochlear implant: a tiny processor is bedded in the skull, and filaments inserted into the cochlea (the inner ear, which connects to the auditory nerve). It’s almost keyhole surgery; the intention is that the scar will only be an inch or two long, behind the ear, almost invisible. And when that’s healed, an external processor - sort of like a hearing aid, except it generates a digital output - will attach magnetically to the processor under the skin, and stimulate his nerve directly.

It’s not been an easy decision. What are the risks? Some think there’s an increased risk of meningitis (but a BMJ paper retrospectively looking at the incidence of meningitis among implantees didn’t find any significant different compared to the population). There is a risk that the surgeon will hit the facial nerve and damage it; that would be bad, possibly the worst “expected” thing that could happen in the operation. Then there are all the imponderables about operations - although he has had general anaesthetic before, to have grommets inserted earlier this year.

How did we get here? First we discovered he’s profoundly deaf. Equally, he’s vivacious, clever, delightful. He’s building up a vocabulary of sign language with increasing speed; soon, I suspect, he’ll start stringing words together. So why subject him to an operation at the tender age of 14 months? There’s nothing medically wrong with him.

A skin incision is made behind the ear. A special instrument is placed on the patients face to monitor the facial nerve.
Incision? Ow, that’s big. Careful with that scalpel, Eugene.

Because he lives in a world where everyone runs at 70mph and jumps 10ft in the air. Plus, our limitations are in effect holding him back: we’re not nearly good enough at sign language (we can probably manage about 50 or 60 words, of which he understands probably 30 or 40), and don’t use it consistently enough, to satisfy his sponge-like desire for more words, more language, more comprehension, more understanding of the world. He picks up words almost as quickly as he sees them now: you sign ‘dolphin’ (curved hand going over waves), and he echoes it straight back. Who knows how quickly he might pick up spoken language if we can only connect him with it?

The mastoid bone (bone behind the ear) is then removed with a high speed surgical drill. An area of bone above the ear is also removed in order to make room for the internal receiver magnet and processing unit.
I’ve heard the sound of a drill meeting live bone. I couldn’t be in the room.

Conventional hearing aids just don’t do the job; they have to be cranked up so high, and the moulds so often don’t quite fit well enough, or there’s a bit of wax reflecting the sound out, that you get whistling feedback (aka howlround) which means that’s all he’ll hear in that ear. The combination of our inability to sign well and the comparative ineffectiveness of his hearing aids says to us that a cochlear implant is the best way forward. Plus, at this age, the brain is adaptive enough to work out what it’s hearing actually is. Children have had implants at 3, 4, 5, 6 and done well.

An area called the facial recess is then uncovered to reveal the round window. A microscopic drill is then used to open this window and enter the cochlea. If substantial infection is found in the middle ear, the procedure may have to be abandoned.
He hasn’t had a cold recently, has he?

The leadup to the meeting where we were offered the implant for him took ages: months of evaluations every few weeks, or meetings at home, in addition to all the meetings we already have with his Teacher for the Deaf (who is fantastic; shout out for Stephanie Gillingham of Essex Support Services, since she doesn’t get much Googlelurv) and the weekly or fortnightly trips to the hospital for more moulds.

In accessing the round window, the electrode must be channeled between the facial nerve and the chorda tympani (which determines taste). Clipping either of these nerves can lead to loss of facial control on that side, or of taste in the front part of the tongue on that side.
They have monitors for the facial nerve. No such for the chorda.

They called us to a meeting (a few weeks after they’d had their own internal meeting to decide) to tell you whether it’s yea or nay for the implant. Except that while we were waiting, one of the nurses gave us a letter, which she explained was for our doctor, so that baby3 could get a pneumococcal meningitis vaccination pronto. Since we knew that that vaccination is indicated if you’re going to have a cochlear implant, it rather took the surprise away when we went to see the specialist. But that’s OK. Sometimes, you don’t want the surprise. “We think he’ll fly,” the surgeon, Patrick Axon, said. Perhaps not meaning it literally.

The electrode is then introduced through the facial recess into the round window and into the cochlea. The surgeon uses both visual and tactile information to ensure that the electrode is in proper position and that a full insertion of all electrodes has been achieved. The round window and facial recess is then packed with a small plug of muscle to insure that the electrode array stays in place.
You just hope they don’t get what the surgeons call a “gusher”, where the cochlea is filled with fluid at pressure.

Then a few days later there was another meeting - choosing which make of device to implant (Med-El, Advanced Bionics, or Cochlear). This is really difficult. We wanted (1) minimum amount of drilling into the skull required to seat the internal bit (2) most appropriate external system for a toddler (eg, separated into batteries and processor, so they’re not bearing the whole weight on their ear (3) best results from comparative studies (4) best useful number of “channels” (the more channels, the more frequencies and phase changes an implant can provide to the auditory nerve).

In the end I picked the Advanced Bionics model. It’s light on the bone. They’re developing “virtual channels”, which can be implemented by the external processor - so an upgrade could mean better hearing. They can generate a “map” of how his nerve responds to sounds in the operating theatre, so they’ll already have a rough idea of how the processor should be programmed.

What amazed me most in the whole thing is the method by which they determine what the “loudest” output level should be. You’ll remember that the ear has three parts - outer (the bit you see, up to the eardrum), middle, and inner (with the cochlea). The middle ear has three tiny bones - the hammer, anvil and stirrup (stapes) which transmit the sound from the eardrum to the cochlea. The stapes is the last of the trio. But when a sound gets too loud, it triggers a reflex from the auditory nerve to the spinal nerve that controls the stapes, and effectively freezes it. So you can’t hear a sound that’s so loud it’s damaging. What’s fascinating is that the auditory nerve is the 8th spinal nerve; the stapedial nerve is the 7th. So the reflex works up the spine. What happened in evolution to make that happen? What’s more, why should the stapedial reflex work in people who are deaf? Yet it does.

At this point the skin incision is temporarily and partially closed. this allows the surgical and electrophysiological team to test the prosthesis. In the unlikely event that a problem with the electrode placement or a defect in the prosthesis exists the difficulty may be quickly and easily remedied.

So they figure out the ceiling for sound, and they can get an idea of the floor for stimulating the nerve. They can work out the map pretty quickly. That’s the job of the “medical physicist”. Though the people at the centre also said to us that Mr Axon is “quick”. They kept using this word, “quick”, like it would reassure us. “Actually,” I said after a while, “the word we were hoping to hear was ‘accurate’.” He has a very good reputation, though, and he’s done plenty of implants.

The internal receiver is then secured in place to the bone of the skull with sutures and the skin incision is permanently closed. A sterile dressing is placed on the incision and the patient is awakened.

What’s really hard about this is what I said at the beginning. It’s not medically necessary; not now. But we have to make the judgement that it’s going to be necessary for him to leap tall buildings and catch trains that have left the station already. Because the language train rushes along, and waits for nobody. You’re on it or you’re not.

We’ll have to wait six weeks or so before the surgery is expected to have healed enough for the implant to be “switched on”. And then begins the long, slow process of seeing how well he adapts to having it.

And the other thing? He’s still going to be deaf. Take off his processor and he’ll not be able to hear a thing - in the bath, the swimming pool, anywhere with loads of static (such as a soft play centre), in bed. We’re a bag of nerves, stressed, trying to keep calm for the other two kids, trying to get everything organised. And the uncertainty goes forward. Hell.

(To see the procedure with gruesome pics, see Warning: contains pictures of surgery. Yup, warned you.)

Friday 26 May 2006

Filed under: — Charles @ 10:02 am

Insert long word here: is this blog wordier than others?

Journalists write easier to read copy than PRs: “

Media Orchard has a fun little experiment to assess some media, marketing and PR blogs for their readability using the Gunning-Fog test. I thought I’d add a few extra to the pot (one or two duplicates) and see how PRs compare to journalists and politicians.

It’s almost scary. I come nearer to the Sun than the Guardian/Times/Independent axis of vocabulary, apparently. (All right then: disestablishmentarianism!). A long and interesting list, though I think that one would expect journalists to write more clearly than PRs, since that’s what we get paid for specifically.

Among those Stuart’s analysed are

PR Voice (Tony Bradley) 11.77 - CIPR president and PR consultant
Mediations (Philip Young) 11.45 - PR academic
Boris Johnson MP, Shadow Minister for Higher Education 10.78 - Politician
Desirable Roasted Coffee (Allan Jenkins) 10.24 - PR consultant
AccMan Pro (Dennis Howlett) 10.19 - Journalist (ex, but also an accountant)
A PR Guru’s Musings (Stuart Bruce) 10.07 - PR consultant
Neville Hobson 10.03 - PR consultant
The Business Editors (Caspian Publishing) 9.67 - Journalists (team blog)
A Shel of My Former Self (Shel Holtz) 9.57 - PR consultant
PR Squared (Todd Defren) 9.55 - PR consultant
Simonsays (Simon Collister) 9.42 - PR consultant
BusinessMatters (Stuart Jones) 9.36 - Accountant
PR Studies (Richard Bailey) 9.25 - PR academic
Guy Clapperton 9.20 - Journalist (freelance)
PR Blogger (Stephen Davies) 9.07 - PR student
Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (David Miliband) 8.84 - Politician
Teblog (David Tebbutt) 8.59 - Journalist (freelance)
Charles on…. anything that comes along (Charles Arthur) 7.94 - Journalist (Technology Guardian editor)
ITWEEKBLOG (Gary Flood) 7.29 - Journalist
PR Opinions (Tom Murphy) 7.14 - PR in-house

(Via A PR Guru’s Musings - Stuart Bruce.)

Filed under: — Charles @ 9:55 am

Just one tab per day in the watre suppli, and another in the are cnoditioning

OK, I think I really must have arrived at The Guardian now. The standfirst on this week’s Guardian Technology lead story - about how people are being led to believe the “grassroots internet” hype about artists like the Arctic Monkeys, Sandi Thom and Lily Allen - reads:

Don’t believe all you read about web-driven musical phenomenons. Old-fashioned PR and marketing still have a big part to play in their success.

Hmm, yes, phenomenons. I still can’t believe that I read it at least twice to pass it and didn’t pick that up. Come to that, I’m a bit unsure about the page 3 basement headline - “Window’s Vista requirements come into view”. More coffee required perhaps.

Then again, when the Agamemnon family went on holiday, how did they refer to themselves when they booked into the hotel? (Someone’s going to say that’s a different -on ending now, aren’t they..)

In the same section, I’ve written about broadband as the 21st-century utlity. And there is a good interview with Jakob Nielsen, and a great piece by Eric Sink about why software inevitably ships with bugs. You can read the original, but I like to think we got to the core of what he’s saying in the edited piece. The longer one is funnier, though.

Wednesday 24 May 2006

Filed under: — Charles @ 11:14 pm

The thing about anonymity is that there’s always someone behind it

It’s only a little thing, but it did give me a little glow of satisfaction. For some time I’ve been bugged by the identity of Les Hack (well, specifically, since he laid into me claiming a conflict over interest over the creation of the Free Our Data campaign, and my work with UKClimbing). Anonymity works pretty well in circumstances like these. No clues in the whois. No clues in the headers of an email “Les” sent me. It sat on my list of things I’d like to know: interesting, but hardly important.

But finally, this afternoon, I spotted the last of the clues I needed, and after a bit - OK, an hour - of searching and cross-checking and thinking, I finally put a name to the posts.

Sent off an email to the person I’d deduced. Got a confirmation that yes, I had it right. (To their credit. They could have said I was wrong, which would have left me floating.) We have had an interesting, pleasant email conversation which certainly left me wiser. I’ve promised not to reveal any clues or the identity; and I’ll stick to that. I do protect my sources. What’s most interesting is that once one stops standing behind anonymity, all sorts of really human interest pours in. All I’ll say is that it’s probably nobody you know.

Even so, it does get one thing off my to-do list. And it is satisfying to do a bit of even the most trivial “investigative” “journalism” (it’s hardly bringing down governments) in this way.

Though hang on, what’s this in the email from “Les”?

I wrote it [the blog] until late April. But since then handed it over to others.

Gah! Crank the search engines up to warp factor 9..

Tuesday 23 May 2006

Filed under: — Charles @ 3:13 pm

And typing the headline took only –damn, time’s up!

Hey, this is fun: how fast can you type? And how accurately?

Mine was..

The exercise was

Airplane food will no longer be the disappointment it once was, if you don’t want it to be..If you travel or are going to, your flight time can be an opportunity for you to enjoy a healthy meal.

You typed

Airplane food will no longer be the disappointment it once was, if you don’t want it to be. If you travel or are going to, your flight time dcan be an opportunity for you to enjoy a healthy meal.

Your speed was 63 WPM with 1 mistake (adjusted speed 62 WPM)

Apparently this qualifies as “good”. Which surprised me, because I backspaced^H^H^H^H^H^H^retyped big bits of it (no Blockwriter for me). 62 wpm feels respectable. And it’s a great way to while away those essential hours leading up to deadline.

Sunday 21 May 2006

Filed under: — Charles @ 9:06 pm

Reflective vs matte screens: not so simple as it’s portrayed

According to John Gruber, John Siracusa absolutely nails it on the glossy-MacBook-screens issue: He quotes Siracusa:

Glossy displays have effectively taken over the entire laptop market.
Why are they so popular? Here are three possible reasons.
  1. They are better than matte-finish displays.
  2. They are cheaper than matte-finish displays.
  3. People are idiots.

Gruber concludes I won’t spoil it, but you can probably guess what his conclusion was.

Yes, but his conclusion is wrong. In the comments to the Ars Technica article is a link to a page about PixelBright LCDs

Both anti-glare and anti-reflective LCD screens serve a distinct purpose. Anti-glare LCD screens may be better suited to office environments, where spreadsheets, word-processing, and similar tasks are the norm - along with many light sources and less flexibility in screen placement. Anti-reflective, on the other hand, may be better suited for graphics, gaming, and multimedia applications - like watching DVDs.
While anti-reflective high-gloss LCD screens may seem superior in all facets, they are better suited in indoor environments where ambient light conditions are not as bright. This way the user gets ambient light reflection reduction without sacrificing any image quality.
Anti-glare, on the other hand, may be better suited to the outdoors or indoor environments with brighter or direct light. In this situation, the user may be better off sacrifice image quality for maximum ambient light reflection reduction.

Clear enough? It’s horses for courses. It’s because “reflective” has particular benefits; we can conclude that reflective has won over matte because when people who had a reflective screen came to buy another, they chose the reflective one. They didn’t want to go back to matte. They had brighter colours, deeper blacks, all that stuff.

Other things this very useful page explains in simple language why Apple can now claim its screens are ‘brighter’. It’s because less light gets diffused going through the (matte) filter over the screen.

Thursday 18 May 2006

Filed under: — Charles @ 10:36 pm

Siebel vs the ASCII character set: apparently it’s no contest

The people at the Department of Work and Pensions, stung perhaps by the angry email I fired off (around the same time I wondered “Is it Siebel or the DWP which is completely crap?”) the other day when I found that I couldn’t submit a form by email even using the browser the DWP recommended (Firefox).

Quick recap: I’m trying to fill in a 56-page form online. It takes three hours. It’s powered (that may not be apposite) by Siebel. I got to the end and it failed. I tried again and it failed. I tried on Firefox and it failed. I got, oh, a teeny bit frustrated.

Today, the DWP got back on the phone. Two people, in fact: Customer Services, who have - to be fair - dealt with it very much better than you might expect from many of the organisations that get put into stockades in the press from time to time for not delivering kitchens etc. The Customer Services people at the DWP do want to get things sorted. However, they don’t have the tech-fu to do that.

However I also got a call from one of the managers of the service at DWP, who does have the tech-fu. He had overseen some of the testing and had clearly been as perplexed as me by the fact that I couldn’t enter the form. More so, because he’d seen it tested and work on that browser and a Mac.

But, he explained, here’s the catch. When they put in their test data, they just put in big blocks of text in the text fields (where you have to explain things like “Why do you think this person needs more attention when outside?”). And it worked. (As I’d surmised, it’s a pretty standard system - you enter a field on the web form, it fills in a field in a database record. So far, so standard.)

However being someone who has grown up trying to make text clear for the reader, I would put a return character at the end of the paragraph.

Siebel, it turns out, can’t handle the ASCII character represented by “return” from Apple Macs in OSX; only those from Windows. In OSX, the return character is ASCII 10; in Windows, it’s ASCII 10 plus ASCII 13. Siebel’s system sees that single ASCII 10 character and interprets it as indicating that the file is corrupt.

Well, I mean, obviously. Why, who can blame Siebel’s engineers for assuming right off the bat that Unix machines would never be used to enter data through a browser, and certainly never into their pristine database? (ASCII 10 is how all Unix machines do line endings.) It did of course leave the DWP manager with a certain amount of egg on face, since they thought they’d tested it on Macs. Oh, yeah, except they didn’t actually fill in a form like a person - well, me - would.

DWP has raised this as a bug with Siebel, but the guy I spoke to didn’t seem to hold out high hopes of it being solved in what you would call a hurry. (I still think DWP could have saved themselves.. I mean us .. a pile of money by going with MySQL, which does do support too despite offering a free version of the database. Airlines use it, guys. Have a think on that one.) So they’re doing a dump of the content - which is still there in the database, just labelled “corrupt” - and we’re going to edit it one way or another.

What’s remarkable is that I can’t find any reference to this bug online - searches like “Siebel apple line ending bug” don’t turn up anything that looks like a bug reference. (In fact something off this blog - about the latest version of Word not opening RTFs - comes out on top.) Although this one, which is a page referring to Siebel and to IBM Eclipse, seems to have something.. perhaps. I dunno. But it’s not good.

Monday 15 May 2006

Filed under: — Charles @ 2:16 pm

Turn your computer into a manual typewriter (some code needed), and audiophile USB leads

  • Blockwriter
    At its heart, Blockwriter is a crippled text editor. What makes it like a typewriter is that it regards every character you type into it as basically ‘committed’ and permanent. Rather than allowing the flexibility of cost-free deletions and insertions — and the attendant temptation to continually massage text beyond usefulness — this application only allows you to continue typing forward.

    To remove a word you’ve already committed, you can use the back button to actually strike-out text — with x’s, dashes or any character you’d like. It’s as simple as it was on a manual typewriter: you’re just ‘physically’ creating a second character impression over an existing one.

    This makes for a messy presentation, but I think it’s that messiness that will discourage people from wasting time on refinements and will encourage them to move on to the next idea. Of course, it will always be necessary, at some point, to get a clean output of the text without the strike-outs. For this, Blockwriter allows the option of printing a copy of the writing without the struck-out text, and the export feature will automatically omit the same in the RTF file that results.
    (Seen at Subtraction)

    Hey, I used to use manual typewriters (and then an electric one - the latter was faster). It was good. I rather like this idea, perversely. Now all it needs is for someone to code it…

  • Kimber Kable: Another company loses my respect and business
    Kimber is now offering a USB cable. But not just any USB cable. This USB cable is optimized for audio use with extra fat conductors, nitrogen infused polyethylene signal conductor dielectric (huh?), and gold connectors.

    All for the price of 29 pounds for a half meter length of cable.
    (Seen at bbum’s weblog-o-mat)

    Bill Bumgarner on daft cables, a subject that seems to recur on this blog. Who are the people, I wonder, who truly believe they can hear the difference between a nitrogen-infused cable and a, well, non-nitrogen-infused one? Is there any objective measure to show such a difference exists, except in their minds?
    Cableophiles - is that a word? - assert that they can tell the difference between cable A and cable B, even though no oscilloscope or similar “objective” system might detect it. This may be a new class of philosophical question - a bit like asking whether anyone can disprove my assertion that I just heard the noise of a tree falling in a forest somewhere.

Saturday 13 May 2006

Filed under: — Charles @ 11:16 pm

Is it Siebel or the Dept of Work and Pensions which is completely crap??

OK, I have had it with Siebel and its e-service that it provides (I assume) for the Department of Work and Pensions.

They are crap, either collectively or separately. The end result is that I cannot fill in their online application form for a Disability Living Allowance for my child after THREE attempts - one of which took three hours and which I thought had gone perfectly until the very last moment- and from their feedback to me, I am not alone.

Filling out the Disability Living Allowance (which we qualify for because of baby3) is a very time-consuming business. You have to explain why the child needs extra attention and time taken, and specify when during the day and the night extra time has to be spent on him compared to a normal child. Have his social skills been delayed? In what way? How about the effect on his sleep? Does he need extra attention at bathtime? In what way? All to be explained in detail relating to his deafness. It’s a benefit, so it has to be justified. The government wants you to do it online. Frankly, so do I. I don’t want to mess with printing and paper and ink and which colour and crap like that.

Remember: it should be easier to do it online because you just fill in fields, and they’re recorded on a system as you go along, and then you jump back in where you were (because it’s all saved to a database as you go, right? Just records in a big table, yes? That’s how any designer would design it, eh?)

Try it out for yourself to discover just how badly an interface can be written. Go here and try a couple of things.

Try creating a user account. You’ll need your name, and to make up a password. Fine. Oh, but if you get your name details wrong - that is, if it doesn’t like your name details - or if you don’t do the right sort of password, you’ll get a message. Not a helpful message. Not a message that says - as people like Amazon have been managing since, oh, 1995 or so - “that password is too short”. Try doing it wrong: try giving “John M” for your first name. (You might always be known as that, eh?) Try putting “fred12″ as your password.

Oh, and now you’ve created your user account, better put it somewhere safe. You’ll never be able to find it again: you don’t get emailed it and there’s no way to get it out. And then you can log in. Try creating a Disability Living Allowance form for someone, anyone. Make sure you read the warning about browser compatibility. (They added Camino - a browser for the Mac which is built on the same code base as Firefox - after my experience.) After two failed attempts, I tried with Firefox, which they say is OK on pretty much any platform.

They lied. It isn’t. It doesn’t work on a Mac. Here’s what I got after I saved my third attempt at the form, and tried to return to continue filling it in.

That’s right. A completely blank screen. The DWP/Siebel e-service is crap. It does not work - at least, not on the systems I’ve used. Which includes a Mac and a PC running Windows and Internet Explorer - the latter being one of the systems that allegedly works with the system.

It shows all the hallmarks of something that’s been thrown together without thought, or badly copied from the paper. For instance, you give your address - it can work out from your postcode where you live. Then on the same page there’s a question: “If you live in Wales, would you like to receive further communication in Welsh? Yes/No” (they’re radio buttons). First, it should be two cascading questions: Do you live in Wales? If so, do you want future communications in Welsh?
But as neither applies to me, I ignored the question, which was the last on the page.
And when I clicked to submit the page (to who knows where, as we’ll find), what happens? Yes - it flags the fact that I haven’t answered the question, even though it might know from the last line in my address that I’m not in Wales. Similar idiocies crop up all over the place.

The first time I actually completed the form - it took three hours - and pressed “submit”, nothing happened. Ah, I thought, that’s because.. why is that? I didn’t know. But I could find my form. Or at least see my form. I logged in to my account and there was the form. But clicking on “Edit” brought nothing. No error message. No nothing. I called the helpdesk. “Oh, we’ve had a couple of people say that,” they said.

What that’s saying is that the claim exists. But I couldn’t get at it. So they tried to access my form. I gave them my name and password. “I’m sorry, we can’t get into it,” they said. They tried and tried and couldn’t get into it. The “technical team” tried. They couldn’t do it either.

I don’t know about you, but at this point something goes ping! in my mind. If this is done in any sane manner, then each field in each web page you fill in is saved as a field in a MySQL or Access or whatever database, isn’t it? That’s how web designers design systems, right? That’s how databases work, right? Table, record, field. So if the record insists it’s there, you do a dump of the record. You use your admin tools and you dump the record - in text form if necessary.

Does this happen with the DWP? Does it hell. Despite my insisting on speaking to the “technical team”, and getting passed on to people who had increasingly less vague ideas of what a browser is and what an Apple Mac is, nobody had the faintest idea how my three hours of labour had been stored - if indeed it had, because some suggested clearing all my cookies (I am truly not going to wipe my access to dozens of web sites for a government department that hasn’t bothered to consult a usability expert), to which I replied, absolutely amazed: “Are you saying that my three hours of work was stored as a cookie on my machine?” That did offer the faint hope that it could be resurrected. Except nobody knew.

I’ve tried to do it again and got the same result. Let’s admit it: the Department of Work and Pensions has done no proper user testing on this (else they’d have a more user-friendly interface for bad fields) and the people who are made answerable are either too lazy or too stupid or too indifferent to improve the system.

I want to know how many of their applications come online. I want to know how many work. I want to know how many don’t work. I want to know what format records are stored in. I want to know why nobody knows such minor but important detail like where the hell records live.

So what have I done? Downloaded the 52-page PDF. Tomorrow, I print it out and fill it in. Then I start the attempt to get the benefit we’re entitled to - no thanks to Siebel or the DWP’s IT people.

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