design, dev, usability

Resources for Web and Mobile accessibility

Derek Wilson, a Career Development Practitioner with the Neil Squire Society, visited the Okanagan Developer’s Group yesterday to discuss with local devs accessibility online and on mobile. He gave us a demonstration of various assistive technologies such as VoiceOver and the Rotor on iPhone, and JAWS a popular (and expensive) screen reader application.

It was very enlightening to the designers and developers in the room, most who have never seen a visually impaired person use a computer, nevermind a touchscreen device.

I think it was enlightening for Derek as well. He got some insight into how real developers work, and was surprised that only one person in the room was a formally trained programmer (and his background was still unconventional, with much of his training in mathematical programming).

The fact that the web can work without knowing anything about standards is a boon to permissionless innovation, but a bane to users that require adherence to standards.

Below is a list of resources that Derek shared with the audience at OKDG to help them be more inclusive in their work. Follow him on Twitter @culturemate for more resources.

WAI Specs diagram

Standards

Other Resources

Tools

Articles

Videos and Audio

Screen Readers and the Web (YouTube)

See Web Accessibility Training Day, put on by The National Federation of the Blind Center of Excellence and the Maryland Technology Assistance Program. Below is a selection recommended by Derek. All links to the MP3 files are on the NFB site.

  • Accessibility: The Natural Outcome of Innovative and Inclusive Business, Eve Hill (Department of Justice)
  • Panel on Enterprise Implementation of Accessibility, Tony Olivero (Humana), Peter Wallack (Oracle), Steve Sawczyn (Deque)
  • Panel on Education Implementation of Accessibility, Kara Zirkle (George Mason University), Janna Cameron (Desire2Learn), Cheryl Pruitt, Susan Cullen (California State University)
  • The Trusted Tester Program, Bill Peterson (Department of Homeland Security)
  • PDF Accessibility in an Enterprise Setting, Shannon Kelly (Actuate)
  • HTML5 Accessible Design, Paul Bohman, Preety Kumar (Deque Systems)
  • Google MOOC Introduction to Web Accessibility, Louis Cheng (Google)
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Canada, privacy and surveillance

Undermining C-51

OpenMedia.ca organized an open letter about how C-51 will undermine Canada’s business climate:

The challenge of being Canadian today is to uphold our values of openness, tolerance, and trust of others, while maintaining a very real understanding of the dangers of terrorism and the government’s need to protect us. But sometimes this balance is not struck correctly and we, as business people and entrepreneurs, are convinced that Bill C-51 is not balanced the way we as Canadians would want.

Why rush this legislation when there are so many reasons to rethink the approach? Why not establish effective Parliamentary oversight on par with our global counterparts? Why not establish a Royal Commission into the general state of digital privacy protection in Canada and get this right? Our values are too important to rush such an important decision.

The letter was signed by 59 technology and business leaders… and me.

Learn more and sign the petition at StopC51.ca

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android, apple, tech

The long and the short of mobile messaging incompatibility

15 years ago in Japan, I thought it was pretty cool that I could send short messages via text to my friends. That wasn’t a thing yet in North America. I was living in the future!

But it was complicated. There was “short mail” and “long mail.” Short mail could be sent at a steep discount to other mobiles on the same carrier. Long mail was for mobiles on other carriers. In other words, SMS was not cross-carrier at the time. Long mail was actually an email dedicated to your phone. In fact, typically it was just your phone number @carrier.co.jp. later you could customize it. Many people had a “PC mail” address separate from their “mobile mail,” some used their mobile mail for their primary email.

Thus, we were ever asking new contacts:

  1. What carrier are you on? (AUですか?J-Phone?やっぱりDocoMo…)
  2. What is your mobile mail address? (メールアドはなんですか?)
  3. And if they had a separate PC mail. (パソコンメールは?)

15 years later, in the present future where we all have smartphones, things are even more complex. There are a plethora of messaging platforms, and none of them universal. Messaging apps are very personal. Like Todo list apps, we each have particular workflows we want our apps to conform too. Though, more likely we are influenced by the network effect. Different regions and cultures tend to have a dominant platform, say WeChat in China or WhatsApp in India.

“If only there was one app that was universal” has been the lament of the consumer for the past few years (UPDATE: h/t to @chrisfosterelli). And even earlier, by the little history lesson I opened this post with.

Benedict Evans said in a recent podcast that the notifications panel is the actual unifying app for messaging. We just have to get used to having a dozen different messaging apps on our devices, and use Notifications as our universal interface. Kind of like using a mail client with all your different email accounts.

Ah, email. Email is another old scourge of messaging. The ultimate fallback that everyone is trying to kill. On mobile, more often than not, that role is played by SMS.

This chart from The Economist has been going around to show the imminent death of SMS.

Whatsapp overtakes worldwide SMS delivery and keeps rocketing up

But it also shows how much SMS is still used in the world. The forecast is still 20 billion per day. I still txt a number of people, friends and family, even with my $500 smartphone and $80 a month data plan. Most are on iPhone or Android. One is on Blackberry. None are on feature phones. OMG RIP TXT, WTF!?

Looking at this recent chart by Comscore will show you why iMessage isn’t viable:

In Canada, iPhone has 38% of the 81% of smartphones

Well, I say not viable, but the truth is iPhone users don’t care. They use the same app either way, and if you aren’t on an iPhone, then you deserve Green Bubble Disgust. The rest of us are relegated to SMS. iPhone users are like the drunk salaryman on the train who is stepping on your foot the whole time, and if you say something he glares at you like its your fault.

My wife is one of those drunken salarymen. She txts like crazy. We pay an extra $7 a month for an unlimited txting plan for her. Since she is txting in Japanese I know she is not messaging people on feature phones. OMG RIP TEXT, WTF!?

My officemates and I use Slack. My gaming group uses Hangouts. Everyone else uses SMS.

As one the more tech oriented in my family, I have the power to convince people to adopt a platform. But what am I going to push? The options out there are terrible. Take a look at a slide from a recent presentation where I measure apps on a scale of tinfoil hats:

On a scale of 1 to 5 tinfoil hats, EVERYTHING is terrible

As I’ve said before, any universal platform must be:

  • cross platform (Android, iOS, BB… WinPhone I guess…)
  • cross device (Mac, Windows, Linux)
  • have native clients (no browser plugins please!)
  • have end to end encryption

This is otherwise known as my Inverse Pentagram of IM. Since nobody is willing to make it, we might just have to summon it from an alternate dimension.

Chad expounding on The Inverse Pentagram of IM

So, the long and the short of it is: People will use what they are used to, and what everyone around them is using, even if the alternatives are better. Unfortunately, SMS still rules the roost in my region. We might have to wait until everyone dies and the new generation takes over the earth before we see a change in messaging platform. Either that or my dream platform is finally released and I can go on an IM adoption crusade. Until then, just as 15 years ago, send me a txt.

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Canada, privacy and surveillance

Bell rejiggers RAP, but will delete user data

The victories just keep piling up (see previous victory here). The Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada ruled against Bell and it’s collection of personal data for targeted advertising under the Relevant Ads Program (RAP). The question then became: what is Bell’s next move? Well, there was a little back and forth here, so I shall recap:

Apparently Bell withdrew the RAP at the urging of the Privacy Commissioner. They then said they would re-introduce it as “opt-in” only, as per advised by the PrivCom. However, there was remained the outstanding question of what to do with the existing data? During the last victory I had questions about what exactly was being deleted (I am still waiting on my request for clarification from Bell’s privacy officer). PrivCom wants Bell to delete everything. Time passed, but today, PrivCom says that Bell promised to delete the data.

Great! That is excellent news. Does this mean the whole saga is over? No! PrivCom may close there case, but the CRTC case is still ongoing, as far as I know, and there is a laundry list of other issues that need to be addressed. Stay tuned.

Thanks to PIAC and all the others who have done such great work in moving the ball forward. We still have a way to go, but the positive momentum is building up.

If you are a Bell customer, and still in doubt, opt-out of the RAP here.

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books, movies, review

Quarterly review: FY15Q1

Each quarter I do a quick roundup of the book and film reviews that I do on Goodreads and Letterboxd. These reviews are too short and too off-the-cuff to be included with the more in depth reviews I do on this site. Below are the highlights of the quarter.

Books

I am keeping 4 books ahead of my 2015 Goodreads challenge so far, so that is good. I spend a lot of time reading The New Yorker, The Atlantic and The Literary Review of Canada while I am at home so I am glad audiobooks help me keep pace. I would have finished 1 or 2 more, but I abandoned a couple of books this year. That is something I normally wouldn’t do… but life is short right? And there is too much worthy out there to read.

Here are the longer reviews from this quarter:

Probably the number one book of this quarter – and potentially of this year – is Piketty’s Capital. A very challenging book. I am aware of the criticism, but it has certainly affected the way I think about economic policy.

★★★★☆ The Once and Future King

★★★☆☆ The Big Disconnect: Why the Internet Hasn’t Transformed Politics

★★★☆☆ The Republic of Thieves

★★★★½ Station Eleven

★★★☆☆ Ha’penny

★★★★★ Capital in the Twenty-First Century

★★★★☆ Pay Any Price: Greed, Power, and Endless War

★★★★☆ Half a Crown

Film

Out of the 10 films I saw this quarter (the highlight being The Grand Budapest Hotel) I only deigned to write a little something for the following:

★★★½☆ Like Father, Like Son

★★★☆☆ Attack the Block

★★☆☆☆ Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

Not a lot of insight there…

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philosophy, politics, tech

Technology is a symptom

As “software eats the world,” further intertwining with our daily lives, more and more discussions that are ostensibly about tech are at heart political discussions. What looks like technology criticism is actually political critique, and therefore cannot be countered by arguments resting entirely within the niche of technology.

That is why I do not look for critical thinking about tech in tech publications. I am often disappointed by full-length books that are billed as deep, meaningful and thoughtful takes on society and technology.

In my heavily annotated copy of Douglas Coupland’s Kitten Clone (see review), there are a number of Post-it notes labelled with the admittedly dismissive tag: “old man problems.” Coupland’s tech-criticism-as-nostalgia is not satisfying to me by any means, and I am sure is completely dismissed by the Kool-Aid drinking techies in Silicon Valley. This type of “critical thinking” is of no help to anyone.
Continue reading

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Japan, politics

War in the East China Sea… or lack thereof

Foreign Affairs is being unnecessarily alarmist on China-Japan relations in the East China Sea. Take these quotes:

A military conflict between China and Japan would have catastrophic consequences and would almost certainly involve the U.S. military.

And:

The cost of any military conflict between China and Japan would be immense, and neither side wants a war.

Yet:

It isn’t as if China and Japan want to go to war over a few islands.

And:

While neither side wants a conflict…

But there is always a risk:

… in this volatile reality of increasingly crowded waters and airspace, the risk that a miscalculation or accident could escalate into a major crisis is far too high for comfort.

However small:

Yet even if the probability of any single encounter resulting in an incident remains low…

We insist, there is still risk!

… the frequency of plane and ship traffic in the region increases the likelihood of an incident that could escalate to a military crisis if not managed rapidly and effectively by both sides.

Here they are referring to these MOFA stats:

vessels in senkaku by year

Despite the article repeatedly stating that this is a “war” nobody wants, FA is willing to bang the drums. This article is simply a neorealist solution looking for a problem. (Here I refer you to my master’s thesis on this exact topic). Undoubtedly, China-Japan relations are a delicate topic and a better framework in East Asia is necessary. Nevertheless, banging the war drums is not the way to bring these parties to the peace table.

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Pretentious cover
books, review, tech

What is data doing to our species? — A review of Kitten Clone

My review in the Literary Review of Canada is finally released. It is behind a paywall now, but will open up in about a month or so. Or you could pick it up at your local magazine purveyor and support Canadian publishing!

The piece is mostly about “industrial innovation” and the wonderful (and forgotten?) legacy of Bell Labs. This is a common hobby horse of mine when debating innovation and startups (re: startups do not have a monopoly on innovation!). I hope you enjoy the review. In the meantime, I thought I would share some more thoughts on the visuals of this book, which I highlight in the review:

Writers in Residence partnered with Visual Editions to produce a book design that looks great and includes the unorthodox layout and typography that we have come to expect from Coupland’s books. Mere words are not enough for him. Like having a conversation with a high-spirited partner, Coupland uses visual clues to add emphasis to the content.

The book release was delayed for months and I can only imagine it had to do with the unorthodox layout and typography. Often when reading Coupland’s books, I use my smartphone camera to capture the unique layouts (I plan on putting together a few galleries in the future). Take the below page as an example: Coupland describes quantum computing in excruciating detail (qubits, integer factorization using Shor’s algorithm, the Church-Turing thesis, etc.). As the explanation descends into technical jargon, each line of the text becomes progressively smaller until it bleeds past the bottom margin of the page and to the edge of the page, continuing on into empty space beyond the authour’s (and presumably the reader’s) understanding. It is a cute trick.

Trailing off

In another example, he breaks line justification to emphasize the single word “bandwidth”. “Oh Douglas! I see what you did there! It is funny because the word is band ‘width’ and you make it cover the entire width of the page! You clever, cultural brain you!” I hope that doesn’t come off as too condescending… I like the idea of visual puns expressed in typography.

B-A-N-D-W-I-D-T-H

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Canada, privacy and surveillance

A victory against Bell’s use of customer information

Michael Geist, law professor at the University of Ottawa, has criticized Bell Mobility’s Relevant Ads Program (RAP), saying it “falls short on privacy.” His main concern is that it is opt-out, but he also points out some of the other problems of a telecom provider mining and selling user data. Much is coming to light about the extent of Bell’s user data collection since the Public Interest Advocacy Centre (PIAC) and the Consumers’ Association of Canada (CAC) filed a complaint at the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunication Commission (CRTC).

PIAC’s Executive Director argued that “Bell has overstepped its role as a neutral provider of telecommunications services.” The President of the CAC pointed out that “Bell is trying to ‘double-dip’ by taking your subscription fees and then selling information based on your use of the services you just paid for.”

The application to the CRTC has produced some wins. Before, opting out of the program simply meant that targeted ads wouldn’t be shown to you. You weren’t opting out of your information being used. Now things are different. In Bell’s response to the PIAC’s filing, they promise (paragraph 41):

Bell has changed its opt-out process so that an opt-out will terminate all use of personal information for the RAP and the deletion of any browsing, interest and category information from existing profiles. This change was made retroactive to cover anyone who chose to opt-out since the initiation of the RAP.

To parse this a bit: this says just the CATEGORIES are what is being deleted, not the actual browsing history. In other words, Bell is still collecting information on browsing habits, it is just not categorizing those habits for use in ad targeting. I have emailed Bell’ Privacy Ombudsman for clarification. It remains an opt-out system, as criticized by Michael Geist above, but this is still a positive development: the flawed opt-out system has become somewhat more robust.

In any case, this change is an example of consumer power. Last year Shaw changed it’s process for storing service calls in response to my PIPEDA request. Now, the PIPEDA request I made revealing Bell’s 56 categories for ad targeting has contributed to reform at Bell. Luckily, thanks to a concerned citizen who found my post from last year, the results of my PIPEDA request were submitted as part of the PIAC filing. The process has been long and very involved, and I would like to publicly thank that concerned citizen for their hard work. I have not had any direct contact with PIAC or the CAC. Everything was mediated by this private citizen, who says:

As to why I got involved? The previous Privacy Commissioner of Canada stated something along the lines of, if you don’t put up a fight for your privacy, privacy lost will not be regained. Once it’s gone you are not getting it back … I’m not about to let corporate interests and shareholder-value tell me what privacy rights I have, so it was time to fight and speak up. PIAC was the force that started it, and I jumped in as the regular Joe that I am.

The fight isn’t over. More and more information is coming to light about how our telecoms treat their customers. Consumer organizations like PIAC know how to take action, but they need data. Thus, I encourage everyone to take five minutes and send off the form letters Chris Parsons prepared in his post to shed light on what our telecoms are doing, and give them the ammunition they need to effect change.

Also, if you are a Bell Mobility customer, opt-out of the RAP program here.

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books, history, review, science, tech

An overly positive contribution — A review of How We Got to Now

cover of How We Got to Now by Steven Johnson

How We Got to Now: The History and Power of Great Ideas by Steven Johnson

I have mixed feelings about this book. I am a big fan of Steven Johnson, and my familiarity of his work might be why I didn’t love this book.

In How We Got to Now Johnson explores the scaffolding of concepts throughout the history of innovation. This is the phenomenon where various social and scientific advances converge simultaneously so that a new invention or innovation becomes possible. It is the reason why co-invention exists, how radio can have more than 20 independent inventors all coming up with basically the same design within a span of a few years.

Terms like the “adjacent possible” and “network-based innovation” will be familiar to readers of Johnson’s earlier work. How We Got to Now seems like a re-hashing of his previous (and excellent I might add) book Where Good Ideas Come From. No, it is more like an appendix. And a rosy-glassed one at that. From the outset Johnson removes himself from any judgement of the innovations he covers. He does admit that each innovation has had both good and bad effects on society: when discussing the vacuum tube, he raises Hitler at Nuremberg and Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech as examples. But on the whole, Johnson is focused on “progress.” He wears his techno-optimism on his sleeve, which is fine, but if you have read much of his previous work, this book may leave you wanting.

Furthermore, he walks a fine line in the story telling of the six innovations he covers (glass, cold, clean, sound, time, light). His conceit is the “hummingbird effects” of each innovation — how these effects ripple out and impact society through time. It is an analysis only enabled by 20/20 hindsight and comes mighty close to playing Six degrees of separation. The result is sometimes a wistful sentimentality, and positively Gladwellian. “If you want to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.” A pithy quote from Carl Sagan, and one of my favourites. But I would refrain from using it as a framework to write a social history of innovation.

“Hummingbird effects” are certainly fun to ponder. Even though they had been around for centuries, popular demand for eye glasses was finally sparked by the Gutenburg press. Prior to the explosion in literacy rates, the common folk simply did not perceive that they were overwhelmingly short-sighted. Johnson’s book is littered with examples like this.

Thinking of today, and my work in computers, I cannot help but wonder what the hummingbird effects of code literacy might be. In the past 30 years the world has been eaten by software (to paraphrase Marc Andreessen). Some argue that to understand the world around us we must understand the code. Therefore everyone should learn to program. But learning to program is difficult — personally, I have had a terrible time of it. Which leads me to ponder — like the above-mentioned hummingbird effect of Gutenburg’s machine on reading glasses — is there some sort of short-coming in the human brain that makes coding so difficult to grasp for most people? Some sort of analogue to short-sightedness for programming that we are only just becoming aware of? At some point in the next 50 years will I be able to buy mental “glasses” that will allow me to code, and thereby perceive the world around me with more clarity? Or to the contrary, once we attain that clarity, might we discover that code is not the right lens to view society? In the face of the zeitgeist of our technocentric modern culture, that would be an interesting hummingbird effect.

Which leads me to another shortcoming of Johnson’s latest work: Silicon Valley-centrism. In How We Got to Now Johnson debunks the proverbial single inventor and his lightbulb moment. A laudible contribution, yet he falls flat in the last few pages. After detailing how Bell Labs was responsible for much of innovation during the 20th century (the subject of an upcoming review of mine in the LRC), he ends the book with a paen to the garage inventor — a nod to startups just south of Marin County where Johnson lives. Diversity is certainly a desirable attribute for spurring innovation, but do not discount the effects of a center of excellence like Murray Hill. Bell Labs provided literally tons of infrastructure for some of the smartest people of the age to gather around and build upon. No wonder it is called The Idea Factory (the title of Jon Gertner’s excellent book, also recommended by Johnson in How We Got to Now).

For those that have never read a book by Johnson, you may very well enjoy How We Got to Now. It certainly aspires to inspire. But I would rather recommend Where Good Ideas Come From, and then maybe pick up a more critical take to temper your view on innovation.

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