Friday 30 October 2009

A lull

The word 'lull' usually conveys a negative sense of not much happening. As if a bad thing. In this case the lull is exactly what I was after. I remember writing shortly after Jake's palate operation that I wanted the next year to zip past. Not that I was wishing away my time, but that years only tend to go by in the blink of an eye when nothing much happens. To clarify, again, I'm not saying I don't want anything to happen, but I don't want to change jobs, move house, get married, have a baby or take a baby to hospital again for a long time. Just some normality.

I'm even done with holidays; Clare and I always live for our trips to Spain but, having been away with Jake 3 times this year and separately once each on our own, it's nice to be able to enjoy now without having to plan.

So the lull is welcome but the lull is also a lull in Jake's development; again this is not negative. I'm not saying Jake isn't developing but he's just being Jake right now. He's walking so we're not waiting for him to walk, he's eating everything he can so we're not waiting for that and he's sleeping through 9 nights out of 10 so we're not waiting for that either. It's just Clare, Jake and I and we're just living our family life.

There's some stuff at work which has stopped me making more blog posts and added some stress but other than that it's pretty much normal. We're looking forward to Christmas but only in the regular sense of needing a break and wondering how Jake will find his second festive season.

At some stage next year Jake will either start talking coherent words, or, of course he won't, but it's not until then that the cleft thing will be raised. I am what some would call pessimistic but what I would call a realist, so knowing that 50% of cleft affected kids require speech therapy I'd bet on Jake being in the needing-it group. But that's cool, he'll get the therapy and will be able to speak fine soon enough, there's no hurry.

So there you have it, a blog post about having nothing to blog about. Which is exactly what I wanted!

Monday 26 October 2009

21st Century Mummy - a blog for mums (and dads) everywhere

A friend of mine has started writing a blog for mums everywhere. She's just quit her job to concentrate on a new career as a journalist (something I always wanted to be) and from what I've read so far, she won't struggle to find work.

She's writing about everything that affects mums everywhere both old hands and new. From pregnancy and birth to childcare, shopping and travel and of course, everything about being a mum in the 21st century

The link is below, please feel free to hop over and check it out.

Wednesday 21 October 2009

Never say 'I can't' again...

I saw the following video on a Facebook post and I defy you not to be impressed. The link I saw (which I can't find on You Tube) started with a series of statements before this video. They were as follows:

This is a true story...

A son asks his father, 'Dad would you run a marathon with me?'

Despite his age and a heart condition, his father says 'Yes'

And they run that marathon together.

Then the son asks him 'Will you run another marathon with me?'

Again his father says 'Yes' and they run a second marathon.

Then the son asks him 'Would you run the Iron man with me?'

For those of you who do not know, the Iron man is the world's toughest triathlon. A 4Km swin, followed by a 180Km cycle and finished off with a 42Km marathon.

Again, the father says 'Yes'.

This story may not have touched you yet. Now watch the video below.

Wednesday 14 October 2009

"Jake" - coming to a theatre near you...

Recently I spent a small fortune on a new pc. I thought, early last year, when I spent a small fortune on a laptop that this wouldn't have been necessary, at least not as soon as this. The laptop was £800 which is a lot of dough for me and had all the features I needed: 2Gb Ram, dual cores for improved multitasking, dvd burner, fast graphics etc, etc. What I hadn't realised was that when I bought my HD video camera it wouldn't be man enough to edit the footage.

I always do a lot of research when it comes to tech purchases and the Canon HF-10 was no exception. My basement is fully HD'd up, 40 inch flat screen, PS3, blu-ray, the whole charabanc. I have an OCD-like predisposition which forbids me from buying anything which is either functional-but-bottom-of-the-range or that has the potential to become out of date within the year I purchase it. This, unfortunately means that I end up buying items which are more expensive and often, prone to faults. See my posts on buggies for instance.

Part of my research was to look into video formats and what was the most user friendly for the novice editor, i.e. me. I wanted something which I could connect to my pc, let me download the footage and make something nice. I hate home movies with a passion; they're all the same. Endless panning of views, zooming in and out, the same unaccomplished commentary, the standard hands covering the face of embarrassed women and so on. I think that home movies are only interesting when spliced, cut together, overlaid with titles and put to music. Cue new hobby or so I thought.

Being a keen amateur photographer and a brand loyalist, I chose the Canon. Canon has adopted the AVCHD ('Advanced Video Codec High Definition' if you care) format for tapeless HD recording. As a piece of hardware it really is impressive and the quality of the footage is excellent when viewed on its monitor or via an HD cable into the telly. The problems only start when you transfer it to your pc.

I appreciate that Canon is not a programming company but it has chosen to ship what is a very advanced hardware product with woefully inadequate software. Given that you could easily shoot professional quality video, the editing tools which accompany the purchase allow you to do little more than view and cut chunks of the footage out. There is no timeline, video transitions, effects or sound options etc. I have a 20 minute rule when it comes to software which means that if I can't get my head around something in that time, it's clearly not been designed properly. This is normally more about me and my lack of skill than the developer's interface design shortcomings, however in this case the software lasted about half that time until I uninstalled it.

I'm sure everyone's had that moment where they buy something they thought they really wanted, for more than they could afford (£650 in this case) only to discover that it doesn't live up to expectations or that they needed something else to make it work. It's like when you're really out of your depth, like buying an expensive sailing boat before you've learned to sail. Or something.

Luckily we have people at work who know about these things so I install a copy of Adobe Premiere Pro which is similar to the industry leader, Final Cut Pro which you may have heard of. Turns out that CS3 doesn't support AVCHD natively so had to 'source' a plug in for this which could have cost a further £150 on top of the £500 + for Premiere. Also turns out that 2Gb or Ram and just the 2 processors wouldn't even get me close for editing. I could view a 5 second clip but still had to reboot every time.

Eventually I sold the video camera at a £200 loss but do have a year's worth of Jake sitting on my pc. I bought a Panasonic Lumix TZ7 digital camera which also shoots HD, albeit 720 as opposed to 1080. Much more useful as Clare takes it everywhere and we'll get a lot more of Jake that way.

Anyway the point is that up until I bought my new pc, the new hobby I was so excited about just over a year ago has been well and truly on hold. At long long last I have the new pc, installed newer versions of the software, learned how to use it and am finally putting together nicely edited video of Jake's first year. The software is quite intimidating at first but I'm slowly getting to grips with how to create subclips from larger clips (the ones where I do a lot of panning and zooming and Clare covers her face a lot), add mp3 files, add still images etc and cut the whole thing together. It's quite addictive but also time consuming. I'm up to around 40 mins of the final video and it's taken me 6 or 7 hours so far but I'm enjoying it immensely.

It's incredible looking back at videos of Jake, especially before his lip was fixed. It's still not shocking to me but I notice it more now than I did then. He's changed massively in a year and although the video thing was a hassle I'm so pleased I bothered to get the footage I did.

The finished video will be too big for You Tube but I'll try to break it up and put some up here when I'm done.

Friday 9 October 2009

And the Oscar goes to....

I spent yesterday trying to think what sort of evening we would have. I didn't know if there'd be 500 or 50 people. I made a sensible guess that I would more likely be part of a larger number than a select few. In the end I reckon there were maybe 120 ish guests so between us, to make up over 1% of the audience made us feel particularly privileged.

I'll start by saying it was a really great night and we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. I thought I'd been to the Berkerley before when trying to flog them a website years ago but I now think that may have been the Burlington. Whatever. The Berkerley is pretty swanky and after sat nav had failed to get us anywhere close enough to be useful and several heated words later, we eventually found a parking spot and managed to only be 20 minutes late. The room was filling up and we sipped our sparkling whilst I scanned the room for signs of Martin. As it turned out he couldn't make it due to last minute business complications. It was a shame as I was looking forward to catching up and more importantly saying thanks for the invite. Perhaps next time.

Clare and I were chatting when an American chap came forward, stuck out his hand and introduced himself as Brian Mullaney, the co-founder of the Smile Train, as if the last part of the intro was necessary. I was a little shocked and almost star struck but needn't have been. He seems almost matter of fact about his achievements but he still speaks with passion about the job which lies ahead. We chatted for a while - it was him who told me Martin had been caught up with work - talked about the blog and Twitter etc and then went into the banquet room.

We sat on a table of 9, closest to the stage and had the privilege of sitting next to Mr. Mullaney Snr., a former vice president of Gillette. Shortly after Brian took to the stage and gave a riveting speech detailing the back story of the Smile Train. Photos accompanied the talk via two large projector screens. Most of the story I had heard in parts before but Brian has such a business-like way of telling it. Showing the difference that the 'teach a man to fish' ideology makes over the more traditional missionary approach. I could be wrong but I believe the stats read something along the lines that in the first year that the Smile Train took hold some 8,000 cleft repairs were made possible and that it would take 30 years to achieve the same using the alternative method. One slide showed the number of operations performed over the ten years with an ever increasingly vertical trend. This was compared against a very similar graph, although this one was for the number of donors. Currently the Smile Train has 1.4m donors and although I have no idea what that equates to in terms of finance, I can imagine it is a huge amount of money and this is obviously a major reason why the problem is being tackled so effectively.

One of the things which resounded most was that unlike many health problems which affect so many such as malaria or AIDS, there is no search for the cure, we have the cure and it takes 45 minutes! No funding is provided by UK or US governments, this has all been achieved through charitable giving.

Brian went on to make a couple of points that I have written about. The first being the fact that they will fix more Indian and Chinese clefts this year than the number of children who will be born with one and that he hopes we'll all be back in a few years at the Smile Train's 'going out of business' party! Also they touched on the greater number of people who will have been positively affected by the good that ST does. I.E those families, villages, communities who have better quality of life, hope, education etc following a cleft repair to one of their number. I'm glad we're onthe same page, I felt pretty flippant when I made those observations before.

He said that the finishing line is in sight. Apparently the backlog was 4 million un-repaired clefts before they started. The next half million repairs will happen in half the time the first half million did, so this thing is scaling up at an alarming rate. I honestly think that the Smile Train might be one of the first charities ever to eradicate the backlog of a problem and be easily able to contain the ongoing problem within its founder's lifetime. That has got to be the ultimate motivator for Brian and his team. He showed pictures of a man who'd spent 40 years waiting for a 45 minute operation which changed his life forever. He also told stories of girls who were literally thrown away at birth in shoe boxes on rubbish tips as their parents couldn't cope with having given birth to a deformed child. One of the speakers said that in India to be born a woman is already a disadvantage but to be born a woman with a cleft is unthinkable.

Dinner was delicious; a trio of mushroom soup, risotto and flat mushroom with parmesan to start (Clare had the alternative, she hates all fungi) followed by fillet of beef with rosti and veg and finished with an apple struddle and ice cream. Coffee and chocolates accompanied the final speeches. The last speaker was an Indian man, Dr Hirji Adenwalla, who was fixing clefts, one smile at a time, long before the Smile Train ever came to town. Aged just 20 he set up camp in a disused hospital, his new wife / untrained anaesthetist in tow and with rudimentary medical supplies started making magic happen. When the Smile Train did come along the partnership which formed thereafter has been making history ever since. He said;

'To see a child smile is one of the most wonderful things one can experience however to see a child unable to smile is one of the worst things one can experience.'

This man spoke with such reverence and you can see the passion he still has today and it's truly awe inspiring. He mentioned that along with the donors, and children who are helped, the surgeons gain so much from this process. He spoke to the audience about how, even as caring donors they will never know what the parents feel when they collect their child or they will not see the look on those parents' faces when they see their child fixed for the first time. We do though, we know that absolutely. I shook his hand afterwards and thanked him but also told him, we know just how it feels. A lovely man.

The agenda made reference to the Smile Pinki Oscar success but it never occurred to me that the actual Oscar might be there. Brian made a point of inviting us up to hold it and take a photo or two and I jumped at the chance. Also, it seems I didn't have to play the stalker as Brian was only too willing to pose for a photo as you'll see below. We only had an iphone hence the quality but at least we captured the moment.

There's so much more I wish I could remember so I'll update this if it comes back to me but for now, I'm really grateful we got to go and I believe in the charity even more than I did before.

We were all given a copy of Smile Pinki to go home with but you can order yours for nothing at the Smile Train website. They're giving a million of them away, Brian said 'It amazes me how cheap it is to distribute a film when you own it'. Cheap only if you discount 10 years of unbelievable hard work and all of the millions raised!

Thursday 8 October 2009

Smile Train Dinner is tonight!

The time spent on the Kiddigate affair has almost lead me to forget more important events. Tonight is the Smile Train 10 year anniversary celebration dinner. It's at the Berkerley hotel in fancy London and starts at 7pm. We're going to drive as the logistics of taking the train are too precarious and wouldn't leave much room for error or unforeseen events. Jake's at my mum's and will stay there until we get back around midnight later so it does work out o.k.

I have no idea what to expect. I reckon it'll be reasonably intimate, it seems that the audience has been hand picked to an extent, something which makes me feel both privileged and unworthy at the same time.

I like events like this, everyone's in a good mood and small talk (which I hate) comes easy. This time though, the talk will not be small, it'll be something Clare and I are expert in. Even Brian, Mr. Cleft as he could rightly be called, doesn't have a child who was born with a cleft lip and / or palate. I'm really looking forward to hearing the stories and getting more of an inside track on what makes the organisation tick. For all the research one can do and words one can write nothing will compare to actually being there. The main man and main men and women will all be there and so will we.

I'm taking my camera and hope to get something to put on here. I have no idea what. I am definitely not the sort of person who'd go up to a celebrity in the street and ask them to pose with me for a picture but I will try to get a picture of Brian. In this case I think I might ask him to pose with me, I almost feel justified but will feel stupid while posing! I reckon he'll be pretty accessible, hope so but we'll see.

Anyway, work to do.

Kiddicare customer service - a result!

I love to be proved wrong in these cases. It seems ridiculous to be surprised when common sense prevails but surprised, in this case I am. Despite the fact that I had to wait in the Kiddicare telephone queue listening to 'slam dunk da funk' by 5IVE on loop for 15 minutes, and despite the fact that I was making the call two days after I was meant to be receiving it, I did get to speak to Lisa.

Lisa, the customer services supervisor listened patiently while I explained to her the basics of customer services and how online businesses ought to operate. I explained the point about consumer opinions being every bit as visible as those of independent reviewers and that prospective customers gravitate towards the web before any significant purchase. I told her to Google 'Ryan Air Sucks' and see my post in 2nd and 3rd position and then to Google 'Kiddicare customer service' and see the 3 customer reviews mentioning words like 'appalling', 'abysmal', 'disappointing' etc. Anyway she got my point and promised to go check the lever personally.

She promised to call me back and she did. This in itself was a milestone given our experience to date. What happened next is a consumer victory to make even Lynn Faulds Wood proud. She agreed with me. She said that she'd tested our buggy, one from the shop floor (they do have one branch afterall) and one from the warehouse. All three levers seem stiff and inconsistent in their operation. The resolution, a full refund!

So, there you have it. Many people give up and just can't be bothered when it comes to bad service and I get stick from those who say I complain too much. But I seriously believe that, by not pushing the issue and just accepting things, poor service is perpetuated and things won't improve. It's frustrating and hard work but eventually as long as you have a point, you'll find someone who agrees and who cares about the place they work and its reputation. You don't always need to go to the top either. There are plenty of people willing to help but sadly they more often than not sit behind inept and poorly trained automatons who are only there to pay the bills. Customer service operators, like waiting staff are looked down upon in this country, as if it's not a proper job so you can hardly blame them. In the States, service is EVERYTHING and although I'm sure you can find poor service if you look for it, those people on the front line do seem to care.

Check out the video below on It's an online shoe store. So what, right? Actually no. This is a shoe store which people evangelise about because of guess what? Great Customer Service. These people give you free shipping, both ways so if it's not right send it back for nothing. Oh and you've got a year to make that decision. The CEO answers some of the customer services calls from his desk in the open plan office. Also, if they're out of stock, employees are instructed to look online and send an email to the customer with up to 3 links to competitors' websites where they the shoes are in stock. The result is that people tend to buy more and more shoes from Zappos instead of anywhere else and tell everyone they know how good is. People like me blog about it and tell people like Kiddicare about it and the good word spreads. It really is that simple.

Wednesday 7 October 2009

Kiddicare - still waiting

We never received the call back from the Kiddicare supervisor. Clare tried calling them at 17:20 last night but their phone line was constantly engaged. At 17:30 it switched to a recorded message which said the offices were now closed. Funny that the website is still open for business though. A cynic might think that the phone was taken off the hook for the last ten minutes so as no caller could delay going home time. Not me though, no siree.

Whilst we're waiting for the elusive call back, check out what happens when you Google Kiddicare customer service.

Tuesday 6 October 2009

Kiddicare - a test of customer services

A few weeks back we bought the Maclaren Quest Sport stroller. It has been a breath of fresh air. Don't get me wrong, the Quinny Buzz has been a faithful servant over the last year and of all the travel systems I still rate it highly. It's just a bit heavy now that Jake's got heavier. It was a real work horse and we still use it when we need more space for shopping and such but we wanted a cut down version for, well, strolling. It's also great for holidays, you can literally open and collapse it one handed and it weighs nothing. Perfect for when you need to collapse it at the steps up to the plane so you still get a good seat.

Anyway, it has a fault. The mechanism at the back which you push with your foot when you want to collapse it gets stuck so as you have to bend forward and wiggle it loose with your hand. You may think this is not too much of a hassle but do it a few times every day and you'll see the problem. Also, at £130 this wasn't the cheapest we could have bought and besides, it should work as it's meant to.

So, we email Kiddicare and get a series of frustrating replies. The first is to ask us for a photograph. They want a photograph of a buggy which has a stuck lever. The point is that the level is stuck in a position it has every right to be in. A static picture shows only a perfectly good lever, it's just that we can't push it with our foot. Perhaps they'd prefer us to go to the trouble of recording and editing a video? Anyway alarm bells started to ring.

The next email is a series of instructions so patronising, they could have come from Sky TV themselves. The ones where they ask you if your satellite box is plugged in. Anyway we go back to them to say we've tried it, and believe us, there is a fault, we're not doing this for fun etc.

Then they tell us we must pay them £29.95 to have it collected and if they do not find a fault then they keep our money and send it back to us. This is like saying 'we don't believe you but you can pay us for our time to prove it'. Incensed, I called the technical department and spoke to the only person there who sounded like they knew what they were talking about - I should point out at this point that every email we had received was peppered with spelling and grammar mistakes and that when I put this to the technician, he told me that their email system does not have a spell checker. In 2010, no spell checker! At best it shows that the emails are going out unchecked and at worse it shows that people are checking their emails and missing fundamental mistakes which is more worrying. A mistake is fine, a checked and missed mistake is pure incompetence. (God I hope there's not too many in this post!).

So after a few diagnostics with the technician, he concurred that there was a fault and put me back to the customer services operator after telling me the fee would be waived. We then were told we had to box up the buggy ready for collection. My loft is full of every box to every product I have ever purchased. Except one. For some reason I recycled the Maclaren box within minutes of getting it home. Typical. Admittedly the 'box' we sent the buggy back in was a rather makeshift affair but it did constitute a protected package of sorts.

Yesterday we received an answer phone message saying that no fault had been found and we'd have to pay the £29.95 to have the buggy released back to us. After we called back and were, frankly, insulted by a woman who could only say 'there's no fault' and 'we've all tested it', we are now waiting for a call back from the supervisor.

Depending on the outcome of that call, I may well have to write a letter to someone further up the pecking order. I hope that I do not have to write another 'Ryan Air sucks' type post but I can feel one coming on.

Web-only companies have only two things to offer. One is price and the other is customer service. Customer service should be a cost centre, not a profit centre. By providing excellent after sales customer service any cost associated with it, ought to be negated via word of mouth recommendation and repeat purchase. It really isn't rocket science.

Watch this space.

Thursday 1 October 2009

Another week

Just like any other I suppose, although Jake is coming along at an alarming rate. He only goes to nursery once a week but it seems to make a real difference to his development. In particular his walking and general standing. He seems much more steady when standing still and more confident going forward. Before he would start his toddle and couldn't believe his luck so whilst his brain was saying 'run' his legs were saying 'hang on...' and he would lurch forward, hopefully within adult reach. Now he is able to keep his excitement under control and walk and walk until he reaches his destination. We're not confident enough to just leaving him wandering around but it won't be long.

He also recognises the achievement we think. It would be hard not to, to be fair, given our reaction every time he completes 6 feet or so. Perhaps we should save some of the enthusiasm for other major events so he won't expect too much. He does seem genuinely happy to be walking around though and is very mobile generally now. Whether it's the proper crawling, toddling, cruising or pushing the brick trolley, he's on the move. Sitting is so last season.

A downside of this is bath time. Undoubtedly my favourite time with Jake to date has been every other or third night when it's 'bath time with Daddy'. The routine would be run bath, check temperature, add toys. Prepare Jake, let him see the water, control his excitement and then plonk him in. He'd sit up playing whilst I would shampoo his hair and apply wash to all parts above water. After more play I would lie him back, whereupon he would kick and kick until all newly exposed parts were clean and all exposed parts of bathroom and Daddy were soaking wet. He loved it, I loved it. Now however is a different story. The first part remains the same. It's when I need to clean the parts other beers can't reach that things go pear shaped. I try to lie him on his back and he does two things. The first is to lock his arms rigid against the sides of the bath and the second is to look as if the end of the world is approaching. It's a look of sheer terror, the kind you see in cartoons when the character strapped to the conveyor belt is approaching the chopping / sawing / drilling device. Given his distress I desist and stand him up to continue his ablutions. When finished he'll sit back down and instantly lurch forward onto his front. So he's lying down in the bath on his elbows and appears to be trying to swim. Manically. At first I thought he was doing it because he liked it but on inspection his expression is similar to the one previously described. So I put him back on his bottom. He then relurches, same expression. It gets to the point where I have to hold his arm to stop him drowning himself. The process is repeated until I can get the towel and haul him out. It's really annoying; what was a pleasure has become a chore in a matter of days. Evening bath routine is quite important and I guess will become more so when he has them more regularly, although by then he ought to be more able to get himself from front to back to sitting again. or perhaps he'll realise how ridiculous all the lurching is.

Anyway far too much description there, this was only meant to be a quick post. More soon...