Podcast Transcript, Mosen at Large episode 207, The Windows Start Menu verbosity saga, Mastodon continues to gain traction, and the need to make data journalism accessible
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Jonathan Mosen: I’m Jonathan Mosen, and this is Mosen At Large, the show that’s got the blind community talking. This week, if your Windows Start Menu started speaking too much, it shouldn’t be for much longer. Listener feedback on returning to the scene of discrimination. And the need to make data journalism accessible, we speak with Johny Cassidy.
Mosen At Large Podcast.
Jonathan: Lovely to be back with you for Episode 207. The main purpose of this introduction is to tell you that 207 is not only the number of this episode, but it is the area code for the great state of Maine. It has been that way since the original area Code Plan was devised in the 1940s. Various times throughout the years, they have thought, “We must be getting close to running out of numbers in the area code 207,” but so far, no. At this point, they’ve said, “We’ll have a look at it again in 2025,” but they have had a look at it over the years at different times and not extended because they’ve decided, “We are actually okay with the number of phone numbers we have available to us in area code 207.” The people of Maine are frugal with their phone numbers and I suppose that’s a good thing in the minds of some. If you are in Maine, this is your Mosen At Large week to shine.
In fact, as I was putting this podcast together and starting the recording, Bonnie walked in with a big mug of peppermint tea because Mosen At Large is powered sometimes by peppermint tea and sometimes by green tea. I happened to mention that this is Maine’s opportunity to shine, and she told me a few things. She said first, she’s never been to Maine and would like to, and second Maine is the oyster capital of the United States, which interests me because I love oysters.
Actually, Boston is the only place where I’ve ever become full on oysters because I did a bit of a tour of a couple of the oyster bars in Boston and just had so many oysters. Absolutely amazing, but apparently Maine is where it’s at. If you are an oyster fan, tremendous.
Tweesecake launches a new Mastodon instance
What is also tremendous is the quite extraordinary response that I’ve had to Episode 206 where we did a deep dive into Mastodon, which is the social network that is having a moment. If you want to find out more about it, you can go back to Episode 206.
Twitter is chaotic at the moment. It means that there was a lot that went on between when I recorded that episode and when it got published. We have seen an absolute debacle going down at Twitter with the unveiling of their new Twitter blue offering. One of the key features of this new Twitter blue offering was the idea that you could pay $8 and you’d get a bunch of features, one of which was the ability to show the verification tick, which has been somewhat coveted over the years. You’ve had to go through quite an application process. They only handed it out under certain circumstances.
Twitter’s new owner Elon Musk said, “This is democratizing what we’re doing, we’re going to give everybody the check mark.” Well, what happened was that many people, some of them in fun, some of them just being unscrupulous paid the money, got the tick, changed their name to the name of some celebrity or important company, and wreaked havoc using Twitter and the check mark. Some companies had billions of dollars wiped off their stock as a result of misuse of this verification tick. Twitter relented in the end or I guess specifically Elon Musk relented, pulled the product.
Who knows whether that will still be the case by the time you hear this podcast? I’m actually putting this section together only 48 hours before it’s published, but things are just changing so rapidly because of staff resigning, there are security issues and on and on it goes. It is so sad to see Twitter, which really has helped bring not just blind people, but other disabled people around the world together. I think it was a really important tool during the pandemic, in particular, crumbling before our eyes.
There is some suggestion that Elon Musk might get bored with this, that Twitter is facing such an existential threat that he may sell it. Some people are suggesting Microsoft should buy it. I should stress that there’s no indication that Twitter is for sale at this point, but if Microsoft or some other credible entity did buy it, it would be quite interesting to see how quickly Twitter might recover, and how Twitter might win back the trust of users and significantly advertises because advertising revenue is tanking at the moment on Twitter as well. A very unhappy place.
I am enjoying my time on Mastodon so far. It’s pretty much exclusively now the place that I go to post on social media. It’s wonderful to see new people arriving all the time. It’s hard to describe this. It’s like people are finding each other after an exodus, a social media exodus. Then when you see somebody coming to Mastodon who you missed a little bit on Twitter, and you perk up a little bit and you think, “Wow, this is cool. People are over here.”
Since I recorded the Mastodon episode, TweeseCake, which is an app that I talked about last week, whose Mastodon support continues to improve has also released a Mastodon instance. This is a great place for not just users of the TweeseCake app, but people who want to engage with other blind people to sign up for.
The cool thing about Mastodon too is that you can have many accounts on multiple instances. If all is going well, you should be able to follow anyone you want from any instance. We covered that last week. If you want to take advantage of the local timeline on an instance, you can set up an account in multiple places if you want to, so you don’t have to necessarily move over to Tweesecake.social, which is the URL of the Mastodon instance from TweeseCake, but of course, you can. There’s a well-documented procedure for moving your data from one instance to another, and you shouldn’t lose your followers as a consequence of doing that if you choose to.
If you are thinking about Mastodon or you’re looking for a blindness-specific instance to join, then check out Tweesecake.social. As far as I can tell, it is being very well run, very well moderated, and it seems quite a friendly place. Like the Dragon’s Cave, they have extended the character limit, so all of us chatty blind people have 2000 characters to play with on Tweesecake.social. It’s great to see Mastodon having this moment. It’s richly deserved. They’ve been beavering away for the last five or six years.
Follow Mosen at Large on Mastodon
Mosen At Large also has a Mastodon account. We will continue posting automated things to Twitter, for example, when there’s a new podcast episode or a new transcript of the podcast. If you’re following Mosen At Large on Twitter, you will continue to see those, but I do take the time to post items that I think might be of interest to Mosen At Large listeners, little items of news, that kind of thing and that is exclusively going on now on Mastodon. If you would like to keep up with the full chattiness of Mosen At Large and a bit of tech news and blindness-related news, you can follow us over on Mastodon. It is at mosenatlarge.mstdn.social. That’s mosenatlarge.mstdn.social.
Mosen At Large Podcast.
Jonathan: It’s important to me that Mosen At Large is fully accessible and that’s why every episode is transcribed. Accessibility is in the very DNA of Pneuma Solutions. It’s thanks to their sponsorship that transcriptions are possible. As we discuss on the show regularly, sadly, the world is not as accessible as we would like. It’s frustrating to find that you’re on a Zoom meeting or a Teams meeting, somebody’s running a PowerPoint presentation, and not only is it not accessible, but they haven’t given any thought to accessibility before.
When the time is right, take that person to one side or maybe talk to the IT manager in your organization and tell them there’s a fix for this. It’s called Scribe for Meetings. It seems like such a simple solution, but there’s a lot of incredible magic going on under the hood. All someone has to do is upload their slides as little as five minutes before the presentation is due to run. Pneuma Solutions will do the magic behind the scenes and provide a fully accessible version that you can follow along with. There’s no need for you to be excluded from these presentations any longer, Scribe for Meetings provides the answer. To learn more, head on over to pnuemasolutions.com. That’s P-N-E-U-M-A, solutions.com.
The Windows Start Menu took a temporary productivity hit for screen readers
You talk too much, you worry me to death
You talk too much, you even worry my pet
You just talk, talk too much.
Jonathan: I couldn’t think of a more appropriate song to introduce this section of the podcast than Joe Jones and You Talk Too Much from 1960. In the 207 episodes of Mosen At Large, this is a first. This is not the original version of Mosen At Large that was set in the queue for publication because after I’d finished recording it, the situation I want to talk about changed significantly for the better.
It’s only fair that I take some time to rerecord this part of the podcast to reflect latest developments. I did want to talk a little bit about this because you may have seen this and you may have been troubled yourself by it as I was over the last few days. As you may know, if you’ve been listening to this podcast for a while or reading my blog, I have been expressing some concern for a while now about whether Microsoft gets the balance right between accessibility and productivity.
You can have an app or an environment that is accessible but not necessarily efficient or productive. Blind people on the job know that time is money. If we are being exposed to unnecessary verbosity that’s difficult to switch off, then poor accessibility implementation can cost us money. That’s a real concern.
It’s also an irritant, isn’t it? When you hear needless verbosity over and over again many times a day, for example, Microsoft Edge is full of this with all its status loading messages, loading page, loading complete. Several blind people have told me directly, this is the single reason why they don’t use Microsoft Edge. They know it’s fast, they know it’s powerful, they know it’s efficient on the battery. They like the Immersive Reader which can be very helpful and the clear speech reading that you can elect to have when you’re using immersive reader.
They do not want all that verbiage, and they do not want to have to customize that verbiage away at their screen reader level on multiple devices. Microsoft Teams is another egregious offender in this area. I think it is important for Microsoft to have a conversation with the blind community to actually do some very extensive focus grouping if necessary, so that people who are making these decisions understand the accidental, but never that this detrimental impacts that this unnecessary verbosity is having on the productivity of blind people, and as a result, the image of Microsoft accessibility out there in the blind community.
I think it is a lot of this verbosity that encouraged Vispero to invest some developer resources into its notification manager solution, which is wonderful. I don’t think it’s the ultimate answer though because if you use multiple screen readers for different purposes, maybe on different devices, even if every screen reader allows you to tame verbosity equally, the thing is you’re going to have to do it for each screen reader, the answer in my view is for Microsoft to give us a lot more power over what is sent out to a screen reader at the operating system and application level.
Believe me when I tell you, I’ve been lobbying all sorts of people about this. A blog post I wrote on the subject, I believe it was for the last global Accessibility Awareness day, really helped to bring about some good quality dialogue between me and senior people at Microsoft. I do want to thank them for that because it’s been very fruitful. Now over the last few days, you may have seen seemingly out of the blue after some sort of random windows update, or perhaps it was pushed in some other way.
The reason why I suggest that is something I’ll come back to in a little bit. A couple of days ago I was using my computer as usual. I’m running Windows 11. When I press the Windows key to go to the start menu and I typed an application name into an edit box, I was somewhat taken aback to get this behavior. I’ll press the Windows key like many of us do many times a day to start to type an application name into the edit field.
Karen: Search box, edit.
Jonathan: Now I’m going to type out which should be enough to find Microsoft Outlook.
Karen: Suggestions are available. Outlook App, Press right to switch preview.
Jonathan: What we got there instead of just the application name, Microsoft Outlook, it said suggestions are available. If I go back to that field.
Karen: Search box edit.
Jonathan: Let’s say I typed teams.
Karen: Suggestions are available, Microsoft teams work or school.
Jonathan: I am an insider build user, somewhat reluctantly, but I figure it’s good to be on there to provide some constructive feedback. When this started happening to me a couple of days ago, I thought, all right, this is something new in Windows Insider builds and I will use the windows Insider build feedback process to register my considerable disgruntlement about this extra verbiage.
In the process of finding out from other blind people if they were seeing it too, I found out that this is a much bigger problem going all the way back to Windows 10. Some Windows 10 users have told me, “Yes, we’ve suddenly got this. Suggestions are available every time we launch an application.” It’s been happening regardless of screen reader. I have jaws and I have narrator on my PC. It is doing it in both. I’ve also got old versions of jaws, or at least I went back to Jaws 2022 and it was doing it there as well.
This was definitely something that was coming from Microsoft and has been pushed in our direction in the last little while. Now, the slippery slope argument doesn’t always apply particularly to social issues where people try to slow down good quality inclusive reform with nebulous slippery slope arguments. In this case, I think the slippery slope argument does apply. First, they came for Microsoft Edge and then they came for teams.
I’ve used the expression killing us with kindness before and because really there hasn’t been the groundswell of concern being expressed about this, that I believe there should have been, it was inevitable that at some point they would come for something operating system-wide, like the start menu and ruin it. The reason why this was such a big deal, yes, I am talking about it now in the past tense, is that you have to sit through that verbiage before you actually hear the information you want.
Even if you have had the most rudimentary of Windows training, even if you have sat in front of a Windows computer for only 15 minutes in your lifetime and somebody has shown you how to get to the start menu and to type in the partial name of an application, you will work out pretty quickly that you type enough to hear the application name and that you can take other actions if that’s not the application that you want, you could keep typing to narrow the search. You could arrow, but it’s really rudimentary stuff.
Not only is it a major productivity hit to have to sit through suggestions are available before you get to hear the name of the application that you’re after, it’s actually patronizing. It really is patronizing to suggest that a blind person needs to hear suggestions are available before they get to the information that they actually need. Now, I have to be careful not to try and take credit for this because I honestly don’t know how many other people have been in touch with various people at Microsoft to express the same high level of concern that I had about this retrograde decision to add this verbosity.
I also very sparingly use business relationships that I’ve built up over time, both through this podcast and other roles that I hold to, shall we say short circuit normal processes. In this case, I felt that the issue warranted it. I did press what I considered to be the nuclear button and contacted some quite senior people at Microsoft to express my concern about what had happened here. Then as publication of the podcast drew closer, I put together the section that you are now not hearing, you’re hearing this instead. Within 24 hours of me submitting this concern, I got a message telling me that it was about to be reversed.
Indeed there is a chance that by the time you hear this episode, your PC may be speaking without that verbiage once again. It’ll simply be that when that fix is rolling out, you’ll go to the start menu, you will reboot your device and after the reboot, once the fix has rolled out, you will no longer hear these suggestions are available before you hear what you really want to hear, which is the name of the application that you are trying to launch.
This has turned into quite a different segment of the podcast. It’s turned into a segment where I say thank you to Microsoft for rolling out such a prompt fix. Windows and Microsoft, they’re all big ships. Even the smallest course correction can often take quite some time. My interpretation of the fact that we got the fix to this so quickly is that first they are responsive and they care, and second, perhaps they did fully appreciate. Thanks to my explanation and possibly others, the impact of what had happened here in terms of the daily experience, the hourly experience that we get every time we launch an application. This one was a biggie. To see this change rolled out so quickly, it is to Microsoft’s immense credit, but I would say this, we should all reflect on how we got here in the first place.
There is something systemically broken here that we have this verbosity problem and I wonder whether Microsoft has any kind of user interface guidelines or user experience guidelines relating to how much a screen reader should speak. Are there some principles around this? If there are not, wouldn’t it be a fantastic initiative to co-design those principles with the blind community? Open that experience right up.
Let anybody who wants to contribute to this discussion have a wiki, if you like, some sort of open forum where not just the blind tech elites can have input into this, but everybody who cares enough and who uses a Windows computer to give Microsoft some guidance about fixing this verbosity problem they have. Let’s continue that dialogue, but the fact that Microsoft were able to roll out this fix or roll back this change in such short order is a very positive, responsive thing to do. I do congratulate them for that. I did have a section in the original part of this podcast that described how to use the powerful jaws dictionary manager to take that verbiage away.
If you’re interested in how this works, what you could have done is gone into the dictionary manager by pressing the jaws key with D, you go to add, and then you can type in not just a word, but an entire string that you want jaws to deal with. You go to the replace with and just put a blank space character in and that will take it away.
If you have multiple machines, that’s obviously a pain to have to do that, but it was a temporary workaround that is obviously now no longer necessary. Everyone can stand down. We can gloriously use our start menu with blissful efficiency ones again. Microsoft ends up with quite a few brownie points in my book for taking the feedback on board so promptly. Good on your Microsoft.
Another Eset update
Jonathan: As we recover from the trauma. The trauma I tell you of ESET products for many blind people causing severe issues to the point that using navigation quick keys in any browser was unusable. John Gasman writes in and he says, ”Hi. I was a long user of NOD32 until one day at CSUN, somebody told me that Windows Defender could do just as good a job and for free.” Free is good.’
John says, ”I switched and have used it for the last four or five years. I also get the false positives on script downloads such as from Jim Snowbarger or Brian Hartgen, so yesterday I switched back to NOD32 after hearing about Brian’s fix. Now, each time I start the computer, I hear web access protection is disabled. This functionality is disabled and your computer is not protected against some type of threats. This is very dangerous and protection should be re-enabled immediately.’ Do you know if there is a way to shut this prompt off, or do you have to ignore it like I have done thus far?”
Thanks for writing in, John. I think I may have just said, ESET again, now I’ve been told the correct pronunciation is ESET, but no matter what text-to-speech engine, I’ve used over the years, it’s always said ESET. Just goes to show, many of us will start talking like our screen readers if we are given the chance. I understand that ESET may have had a rethink about the best approach to tackle this issue for the reason that you mentioned. You could go into the JAWS notification manager, which is super powerful, and silence it that way but it does look like ESET is now saying, “Well, maybe this approach is using a sledgehammer to crack a nut.”
Brian Hartgen has been keeping updated on this issue and he’s got a post that you can go to. It may well be that if there is more information coming, that post could be updated. You can find it @hartgen.org, that’s H-A-R-T-G-E-N.org/ESET. Here’s how that post reads at the time I’m recording this, “If you are using ESET, Internet Security Suite 16, you may encounter a problem where some screen reader keystrokes will not function when working with a browser. This particularly applies to quick navigation keys, but it can affect other keystrokes as well.
This occurs because the secure browser aspects of ESET are corrupting the screen reader keystrokes, and so they cannot be processed correctly. We know this because if you use our J-Say product with Dragon Naturally Speaking and execute commands by voice, you are not affected. It is only if you use the keyboard with the screen reader. If you install ESET security suite, there is an option when doing so which asks if you would like secure browsing with banking and payment protection.
If you elect not to install this component, you will not get the problem. If you haven’t installed the program with the default settings, however, you should work through these steps. One, open up ESET security. Two, press function key F5 to move into advanced setup. Three, press Tab until you reach Web and Email then press the spacebar. Four, press Tab repeatedly until you reach the option Banking and Payments Protection, and then press the Spacebar. Five, press Tab repeatedly to reach the checkbox, enable Banking and Payment Protection. Press the Spacebar to uncheck it. A dialog box will be displayed announcing that you need to restart your web browser if it was opened at the time of carrying out this procedure. Six, press Tab to reach the OK button and press the spacebar.”
Very clear instructions as always, thank you very much, Brian, for putting them together. Yes, this is frustrating because other than this script issue where you get false positives, trying to install scripts, I’ve not had any issues with Windows Defender at all. I think this demonstrates that in life and in technology, you only get one chance to make a first impression.
I think there was a time when Windows Defender was pretty lackluster and over the years it has improved substantially. When you look at some of the reviews that do all sorts of dangerous things on our behalf to try and test the efficacy of these products, Windows Defender is doing pretty well now. I actually haven’t reinstalled ESET on my ThinkPad after that terrible experience I had a couple of weekends ago because I’ve got it on my machine in my studio, so I can get the scripts that I need that way and just install them on my ThinkPad once I have them.
I may put it back on, but to be honest, I don’t really see any benefit in doing so. Windows Defender has kept me safe for many years. It’s light on the CPU, it doesn’t cost me anything, it’s built into the operating system. If they could get this thing sorted out with the false positives relating to scripts, which is a biggie I’d just uninstall ESET altogether and forget about it and do so pretty gladly.
Jessica Dale: Hi, Jonathan. My name is Jessica Dale, in your most recent email, you mentioned the ham radio. Well, guess what? As of April of this year, I am licensed. My call sign is KE8UPE. If you have a call sign as well, feel free to get it to me somehow. You can find me on Twitter. I’m also good on QRZ if you’re familiar with that website, and I’ll send you an email so you have my email address. Thank you and I enjoy the show.
Jonathan: Thank you, Jessica. Congratulations on getting your ham ticket and there you go. To other hams out there, you might just hear Jessica on the air. How about that? Staying on the subject of ham radio, Steven Clower writes in and says, “Hello, Jonathan, I just finished listening to the interview you had with Jim, KY2D, about resources for the aspiring blind radio amateur. Having gained an interest in the hobby during the first COVID outbreak in spring of 2020, I found a number of accessible avenues for preparing to take the US licensing exams.
Unfortunately, between social distancing and reluctance from the exam coordinators to allow for online testing, I and many other potential amateurs was stuck. Luckily, online exams via www.hamstudy.org was soon allowed that summer, but with the minor caveat that the exam platform was not screen reader accessible. I was eager to obtain my license and through some back-and-forth emails with ham studies founder was granted access to the code repository to make the needed changes to dramatically improve the site’s screen reader accessibility. The modifications went live literally one hour before I was scheduled to take my exam and lo and behold, they worked. Woohoo.
I passed both the technician and general that evening and came back a few months later to upgrade to extra. I have heard from new licensees in the past few weeks that the ham study platform remains just as usable and encourage all potential radio amateurs, blind or not, to consider it as a means to take any of the US Ham Radio Licensing exams, especially if in-person testing is inconvenient or impossible.
All that’s required are two devices capable of running Zoom, typically a laptop and mobile phone so that the exam coordinator can observe your immediate environment to ensure exam integrity. After all, the FCC takes the coordinators at their word that the test was properly conducted, no cheating occurred, and that the applicant is really qualified to operate at the given license class and be issued a call sign.
Amateur radio is a great hobby, and I have made some very good friends over our local repeater systems, who in turn have aided me greatly when I have had questions or needed help setting up a usable HF station in my apartment. That truly is magic in being able to raise a few dozen feet of wire against my back fence and have a direct point-to-point conversation with somebody in South Africa, Eastern Europe, or just down the street.
As you and Jim discussed, amateur radio is versatile and heaven forbid a disaster strikes, I will still have a way to communicate. The availability and community that you join as a ham brings me real peace of mind. Anyhow, I hope this was helpful. Listeners are welcome to email me directly if they would like to learn more about online ham exams in the United States. Unfortunately, I don’t believe any other countries offer a similar service just yet. Best 73s.”
That is from Steve and the call sign is AC9XS. Good on you, Steve for being a part of the solution to that issue, and that sounds like a great way for blind people to take the exam.
Chad: Hi, Jonathan, and hello at-largers. This is Chad, amateur radio operator W9GGA from Fort Wayne, Indiana, USA. I’m so glad that you had a portion of your podcast last week, Jonathan dedicated to ham radio. I know that I personally have benefited hugely from it from just able to make friends and even get out in the world.
When I was young, getting involved with local ham radio clubs and what have you, and then all the way to do with things like helping out with what they call Skywarn, which is severe weather communications. It’s a program run by the weather service, and ham radio is still a big part of it, although social media and others have joined in with it, but ham radio is still a significant part of it. While I can’t visually spot and look for the funnel cloud, I can help in another way in a very important way which is net control. Meaning I basically am the dispatcher for all the communications on the net, on the severe weather net and it’s so huge, so cool to be able to be a part of that.
In Dayton every year, the granddaddy of all ham radio-related flea markets slapped me [unintelligible 00:29:36] is called Hamvention and I actually did a for a couple of years in the late ’90s, when I lived there I did what’s called tucked-in, where believe it or not I gave people driving directions. [chuckles] How to get to it from the Hamvention show and even some places around town and around the area, which helped me learn the area really well. That was a lot of fun. Not to mention some of the cool people you get to meet and the friends you make along the way.
I moved to Dayton in 1995 from Fort Wayne, I was 22 years old and that was my first real move away from home and away from any parents of any kind and I wasn’t nervous at all. The biggest reason for that is because through ham radio and through previous trips there I made a bunch of friends and it sure helps to move somewhere new when you’ve already got people that you know there.
Ham radio is awesome and Jim KY2D talked about how there’s a place for everybody in ham radio whether you want to build things or if you will run things or you just want to talk to people and make friends. The way I say it is there are mechanics, there are drivers and there are passengers and to an extent, we’re all at least passengers. Many of us are also drivers and even some are mechanics and there’s a combination of I think just about all of us and there’s room for everybody. However much you want to do in it is completely up to you and there’s a place for everybody and that includes anyone with any kind of disability. It’s been a huge blessing for me.
I’ll leave you with a few celebrities some of you may not know are hams. Ronnie Milsap was a ham or is a ham. WB4KCG is his call. He was a guest at Dayton Hamvention some years ago. Walter Cronkite, KB2GSD. Let’s see. Country singer Patty Loveless was Katie4WUJ. Chet Atkins, WA4DZD. That’s not by any means all of them, but I’ll leave you with one more, a really cool story.
There was a guy who got invited to be a guest of Hamvention some years ago and the club that puts that on and sponsors it is the Dayton Amateur Radio Association. This guy came as a guest of the club and during that weekend, one night he went to the home of one of the board members of that club and they got on the radio and he made contacts with people all around the world from this board member’s house who was a friend of mine n fact. The guy’s name was Joe, Joe Walsh of the Eagles is called WB6ACU. Just goes to prove how the camaraderie of ham radio even stretches to celebrities if you will and how they become everyday people when they’re on hand radio and it’s a really cool thing.
Just thought I’m going to give you all my two cents as to how much ham radio means to me and the fact that there is a place for everybody in it, including people with any kind of disability. Thanks, Jonathan. I appreciate it. 73 as they say in ham radio. Best wishes. Take care.
Jonathan: Maybe Joe was on the radio all night long. See there you go. You never know who might turn upon the bands and I’m not talking about the rock bands in this case either.
Jonathan Mosen. Mosen at Large podcast.
Thoughts on the Samsung Galaxy Flip
Jonathan: Henk Abma is writing in and says, “Hi. I am writing in response to the lengthy remark on the Samsung flip phone in episode 204 of Mosen At Large. Especially the part about scrolling. First one can scroll by an entire page by performing the flick right/left gesture for next page and a flick left/right gesture for previous page. If someone wants this to be performed using three finger swipe up or down because it reminds them of their good old iPhone, this gesture can be reassigned.
The scrolling of an entire page was the main reason for my wife, when she was still partially sighted, to hate her iPhone and read material on her Android device. If an article presented a table of information, for example, on the Android device, she could bring that part of the table in view that she wanted to read. With the iPhone, it would always scroll an entire page no matter what she did. At that time, we didn’t know about functions on the iPhone to speak selected text or they weren’t available. I don’t know.
Multi-finger gestures are available on all Android devices that run Android 12 and above. I still don’t understand how a screen reader with multi-finger gestures that take over the entire interface of your device can be seen as more mature than one who keeps the old interface basically intact as did previous Android versions. Using both an iPhone and a Pixel, I find myself still using single-finger gestures 95% of the time since I’ve known them for almost 10 years.”
Thanks, Henk. The answer is a simple one. The answer is that Android was significantly held back in its uptake because many people, myself included, considered those multi, what do they call them? Angular. That’s right. Angular gestures hideous. A lot of people found that a showstopper right there, no matter what Android did. It could have got out of bed and cooked your breakfast in the morning for you and brought it to you while you were still in bed and still people wouldn’t have used it because of those angular gestures. There was a group of people who said, “What are you talking about? It’s over the top. Go away.” People returned Android devices specifically because of those angular gestures and that’s why the multi-finger gestures were long overdue and they had to do it if they had even a chance of being competitive in markets where the iPhone is strong.
Staying with Android, Devon Prater is writing in. He says, “Hey, y’all, after using Android off and on for about eight months, I find that there are some great features like skipping to the next or previous track by holding volume buttons and the great Samsung TTS voices and the stability of TalkBack as a whole on my Samsung phone. With iOS having bugs where if you drag and drop an app and it makes a folder instead of dropping the app after another app, I certainly understand how the grass looks greener, but Android has less grass as it were, so it’s a bit easier to keep green. No image descriptions yet and no HID Braille with a uppercase B yay support until it least next fall.
TalkBack doesn’t even have a screen gesture to move to the first or last item on the screen, even though there is a Braille display and keyboard command for it. Also, it’s true that Google can update TalkBack anytime they want, but they rarely do, especially compared with apps like Google Voice, which is updated at least twice a month. That’s among the most rarely updated of Google Apps. For those of you that read a lot, TalkBack doesn’t even read Google’s own Play Books app properly, it still stops at the end of a page and the same happens with a Braille display.
One can use an app called Speech Central to read a scrolling view of a book, but you can’t easily read Kindle books like that. You can’t even scroll forward a page in Kindle with a Braille display. If you love Braille, the grass has barely even begun to sprout yet and it looks rather brown to me. The Braille issues are there because of how long it’s taken for Google to take Braille seriously on Android.
Basically, app developers have had to create their own way for a book to be continuously read and they’ve all just arrived at having the system TTS engine read it. Then they’ve had to hack together a way for users to feel around the screen to select a word and search. It’s very sad and I think it’s going to take apps like Kindle, Dice World, and other games a long time to be able to just use native TalkBack with Braille support and/or to read their screen as it was designed to do.”
Going back to the hotel that didn’t want us
Jonathan: In Episode 205 of the show, Bonnie and I had a robust discussion, which is continuing away from the studio about should we go back to the hotel that clearly didn’t want us there because of eclipse, the dog to eclipse all dogs. They very reluctantly let us in, but we were treated a bit like pariahs until we turned up the heat a little bit and then we got a profuse apology. One thing just in the interests of absolute transparency that I forgot to mention because I’d actually forgotten that it happened, is that they also, as well as the flowers and the chocolates that I did mention back in 205, they did refund our hotel stay in full. We got a complete refund of all the charges that we incurred.
Some comments on this and Don Rosman starts us off, “Good morning, Jonathan.” He said, “I never ceased to be amazed at how you are able to create such a great program with Mosen At Large. You do a very good job,” says Don. Thank you very much. I really appreciate the kindness. “This is the first time I have made a comment.” Oh, welcome to you. It’s always good to hear from our old timers, but also those who feel motivated to chime in because we do have a large audience and only a fraction of that audience tends to contribute. Don says, “I am totally impressed with the way you articulate.” Thanks. “In regards to the guide dog hotel issue. I strongly agree with Bonnie.” Oh, you were doing so well for a while there, Don. [laughs] “Don’t let them intimidate you. I have had those happen in the past and never did back down.” Yes. “On another issue, have you ever considered pursuing issues of sleep for us totally blind? I have had trouble with a good night’s sleep for years. I do take melatonin too. I also take a Gravol-” I’m not sure what that is. I have to look it up. “-every night which seems to help. Good luck with the guide dog issue,” says Don.
Thank you, Don. Lovely to hear from you. I will get out of the archives at some point the Stephen Lockley interview that I did, but if you can’t wait, if you look up my previous podcast, which is called The Blindside, and it’s still online, you will find in the archives the interview with Professor Steven Lockley, who has spent a lot of time in his gig at Harvard University researching blind people and sleep. It’s a really good listen.
Abby Taylor: Hi everybody, this is Abby Taylor in Sheridan, Wyoming. I just finished listening to the most recent episode with the same number as Alabama’s area code, which is definitely interesting, and just think in another a hundred episodes or so you will be at episode number 307, which is our area code here in Wyoming, so I’m looking forward to that. [laughs]
Anyway, a couple of things, and I will try to be brief. First of all, I don’t have a guide dog, but the question of whether or not I would stay in a hotel that had recently refused me and my guide dog. Well, if the hotel like the one where you and Bonnie stayed apologized, then I would give them the benefit of the doubt. I would try them a second time, or in your case, another try because you stayed there before. I would give another try because it sounds like it’d be an ideal place for you and the dog, you have the grassy relief area and everything, so give them another try. I’ll just bet you that you’re not going to have that problem again because I’m sure they have learned your lesson.
Jonathan, I really think you need to swallow your pride and just go back there. I think it’ll make Bonnie happy, it’ll make the dog happy. Well, I don’t know if it’ll make the dog happy, but I think it would be a good situation to try because I seriously doubt, they’re not going to try that stunt a second time. They’ve learned. They’re not going to do that again. They may not like it, but I’m sure that they would let you stay and there wouldn’t be a problem. If you feel that they are not comfortable with it, that’s their problem and not yours. You have every right to stay with your dog wherever you want and you can’t let any uncomfortable feelings that they may have about it, you can’t let that deter you. I would give them another try and as I said, I doubt that there would be a problem, so just do it.
The other thing, Randy Shelton’s experiences with her Apple Store inspired me to share my own experiences with upgrading from an iPhone SE 2020 to an iPhone SE 2022. I called my local AT&T store because I wanted to buy it there so they could set it up for me. When I called the local AT&T store, apparently, there was nobody in the store even though my soup drinker told me it was open. Since nobody answered the phone in the store, a representative from AT&T’s customer service answered the phone.
Of course, I had asked because I wasn’t sure. He said, “AT&T,” and so I said, “Okay, is this the AT&T store in Sheridan, Wyoming?” He said, “Nobody is answering there, so I’m answering here. Can I help you?” I said, “Maybe. I want to buy an SE 2022 phone from the local store. Can you tell me if they have it in stock?” He said, “Let me look,” and he said, “No. They don’t have it in stock, but I can order it for you and have it shipped directly to your address, then all you have to do is just take it to the AT&T store there and call them or take it in there and they can help you port the number over and everything.”
All right, I did that. Then I thought, “Let me check with my tech guru.” I think I might have mentioned Casey Matthews here before, but don’t remember. His business is called Web Friendly Help, and his website is webfriendlyhelp.com, and he works with screen reader users on computer issues and he also will work with iPhones, and Macs, and such. I consulted him. I said, “I’m getting it down.” First of all, I’d asked him, “Do you recommend the SE 2022?” Because he had recommended the SE 2020, he said, “Absolutely.” I said, “All right, so here’s the deal, I’ve ordered the SE 2022 from AT&T, they’re going to ship it to me. Would the AT&T store person be able to transport everything over, not just the number, but would they be able to transfer my contacts and everything?”
He said, “Yes, but you could do it yourself.” He said, “Once you get the phone, you don’t even have to have the SIM card in the new phone. Just go ahead and power it on, triple-click your home button to start voiceover, and then it’ll talk you through it. If you have trouble, call me in and I’ll try to help.” All right, before I had the other phone set up with AT&T, when I got the new phone before I got it set up, because I knew if they couldn’t help me do it, transfer everything over and have the number, then it would be a little tricky, I thought. What I did before, I took the new phone to AT&T store to teleport the number over, then as he suggested, I powered on, triple-clicked the home button, and sure enough, here came voiceover.
Once I got the language selected, it was pretty straightforward logging into iCloud. Of course, before that, I got into the old phone. On my old phone I went in and backed everything up to iCloud, and so I was able to get into iCloud. It took a while, but long story short, I was able to get into iCloud and get everything downloaded, and of course, upgrade the phone to iOS 16 to boot. It was a pretty seamless process, although it took a while for everything to get transferred over and the update and everything, so it is doable.
I am just really proud of myself, but I know that with somebody who has done this for years, like you, Jonathan and Bonnie, I’m sure this is a mundane thing, but to me, it was just so wonderful just to be able to get everything, all my iCloud settings, contacts, apps, the whole nine yards, everything, transfer it over myself. Then all I had to do was take the new phone and the old phone to my AT&T store, and all they had to do was teleport the number over and that was that. It was just a wonderful experience. They could have probably transferred everything over because she said, “Oh, it looks like you got it all set up,” and I said, “Yes, all I need is the number transferred over.”
Jonathan: Sounds like that process gave you a lot of confidence, Abby. That’s always good when you stretch the boundaries just a little bit and you do something that you didn’t think that you’d be able to do, so congratulations. I know how good that feels. By the way, just for the record, it’s my job to do all the Bonnie iPhone stuff. If we get a new iPhone for Bonnie, I am the one that sets it up and she says to me, “As long as you keep maintaining and troubleshooting my technology, you’re useful to have around.” She says, “I don’t mind that you’re not a plumber, or a builder, or an electrician, but it sure is handy when you can get my tech in order, especially if it breaks or if it’s new and it needs setting up.”
For your next trick, Abby, you could actually also do the whole thing. What do they say in America? The whole nine yards. What’s the equivalent of the whole nine yards in metrics? You could also transfer the number. How you do that depends on whether you have an eSIM or not. If you have a physical sim in your devices, then you can get a little sim ejector tool. You could use a paperclip actually if the paperclip is strong enough and eject the little sim tray that’s in the side of the phone, and in there is a little nano sim. It is tiny, so I do this on a table or something where if you lose track of the SIM, at least it’s not on the floor somewhere. I’ve actually done this in aircraft when I was using local SIMs in countries that I’ve visited. You got to be so careful. You get a bit of turbulence at the wrong time, that SIM could go, whoosh. It’s difficult.
On newer phones, of course, everybody is going eSIM. What you can do then, is actually just transfer the number either by scanning a QR code or Apple’s got a protocol in place now that I believe at least the US carriers are supporting where you can just transfer the eSIM across via Bluetooth. You will be able to do the whole thing without visiting an AT&T store. When I get my new iPhones, I always take the SIM card out of the old one and pop it in the new one. It’s a slightly delicate bit of surgery but it is definitely doable by a blind person. Interestingly, the iPhone 14 ranges eSIM only in the United States, so the iPhone 14 that we get here in New Zealand has a physical SIM slot and that’s the case for the rest of the world. In China, I think they actually give you a dual sim iPhone, physical sims but in the US their model, you don’t have any sim card at all in the iPhone 14. Fascinating stuff.
Now if I can just take us back to the hotel thing because we’ve got some more contributions on this. For me Abby, it’s not a sense of pride. I don’t think that we should overestimate or downplay the mental health impact that discrimination has on us. For me, I just do not want to put myself in an unsafe situation from a mental health point of view. If you’ve got viable alternatives, then there’s also the matter of do you really want to give your business to someone who’s treated you that way? If there are no viable alternatives, then you’ve got to suck it up and deal with it.
The mental health toll that discrimination takes on people who are subjected to it regularly enough is probably something we don’t talk about enough. Even for people like me who advocate a lot and might be perceived to be strong, it is draining, it’s mentally taxing. If we can avoid putting ourselves in those situations and we feel some mental health challenges with being in them, I think that we should do that and be respected for our choice.
Let’s go back to that subject and Wayne [unintelligible 00:51:59] is writing in and he says, “Hi, Jonathan, about your dilemma, I would normally go somewhere else because I hate any kind of conflict and I don’t feel they deserve my money. After hearing everything, I think Bonnie has the right attitude. Here are my reasons. One, you can see if they really meant their apology. Two, no one should discourage you from staying where you want. Don’t settle for second-best three. Three, you should not let them off the hook so easily. You don’t want them thinking they won. Remember, they could try this ploy with another guide dog user to get rid of them from coming back.”
Ed Green is in the UK, I think still, and he says, “My advice would be that you should always take a stand on principle until you shouldn’t. Happy wife, happy life,” says Ed. “That said, I’m quite principled/spiteful when it comes to my own boycotts. I have boycotted a university popular department store in the UK, John Lewis, for nine years, and my local pub since April much more of a hardship as I do love beer. They were both for customer service failings, albeit not blindness-related ones and I don’t intend to visit either anytime soon.” Thanks, Ed. See, this is the thing, isn’t it? Apart from the mental health thing that I’ve already talked about, the bottom line is what hurts the most.
Dean Charlton says, “The first thing I’d like to mention is that my apps switching problem has been resolved with the iOS 16.1 update, which I’m extremely pleased about. With the magnifier, I find leaving it open all the time then all three detection modes stay on. Again, extremely pleased by this. Regarding going back to a hotel that mistreated your Bonnie’s guide dog being able to stay there, I too probably wouldn’t want to go back there either. They only probably apologized under protest and under their breath. Who knows, you’d probably get better treatment at the local backpackers.”
Petra says, “I’m with Bonnie on this one. I would definitely stay where it is convenient and give them a chance to welcome you. They apparently had a bad experience with a guide dog and now they’ve had a good one. Let’s build on the good. I might even encourage other guide dog handlers with clean well behaved dogs to stay there to keep them on their toes. Another very interesting podcast, Jonathan, thank you, and Bonnie, I always enjoy when Bonnie comes on with you.”
Lena says, “It’s a tough decision to make about whether or not to go back to the hotel that treated you badly. If you feel courageous, go back. If they’re getting it right, you’ll have another good experience. If they’re getting it wrong, you know how to help them make better decisions in the future. It’s a sacrifice but you will be making things better for everyone.”
Lena is on a different topic now. “A few weeks ago, a listener asked for tips so that crossing busy streets would be easier for him. Here are mine. One, take your time and get lined up with the traffic. Two, keep your ear on the parallel traffic. Keeping an equal distance from those vehicles will help you make a straight crossing. Three, audible signals are a helpful tool but they are not a replacement for good cane skills. They are frequently misleading if you want to make a straight street crossing. I continue to enjoy the podcast and I thank you for always having such a good recording quality. Best to you and Bonnie,” says Lena.
Pre-recorded voice: What’s on your mind? Send an email with a recording of your voice or just write it down Jonathan@mushroomfm.com, that’s J-O-N-A-T-H-A-N@mushroomfm.com or phone our listener line, the number in the United States is 86460 Mosen, that’s 864-606-6736.
Mosen at the Museum
Jonathan: It was wonderful to get such lovely feedback to the Mosen at the museum documentary I ran on Mushroom FM about my visit to the ABBA Museum. Thank you so much to everybody who’s taken the time. I did want to read this from Jackie Brown. She says, “Hi, Jonathan. We managed to listen to the entire ABBA Museum documentary on Mushroom FM yesterday. There wasn’t anything new in it for me but I absolutely loved it and wanted to congratulate you on putting it together. I hope the museum updates the audio guide to include a new chapter on ABBA’s voyage to their new album.” See what Jackie did there. “It really is amazing that it came about at all. I have to admit to being very emotional at the start of the documentary when The Way Old Friends Do began to play through our Sonos speakers.”
When my mum and I went to see ABBA at Wembley Arena on the 10th of November, 1979, they played it as a new song. My mum and I got extremely emotional then as well. It will always remind me of her. She would have been glued to the documentary. She was a huge ABBA fan too. The version of course of The Way Old Friends Do that came out on Super Trouper was from those Wembley Arena concerts. Maybe you were at the very concert where they recorded it, Jackie.
Martin really likes ABBA, his favorite song being, I Still Have Faith in You. “I would be intrigued to know what your favorite ABBA song and album are. It’s hard to choose but mine is Our last Summer and either Arrival or the album. I don’t know about you but The Visitors makes me quite sad. I sensed as soon as I heard it in 1981 that the ABBA phenomenon was coming to an end. Although there are some beautiful songs on it, The Visitors is the album I play least because it has an atmosphere about it that is very sad and full of regrets. I think the traveling and personal relationships breaking up inevitably took their toll on them. Anyway, so nice to share my recollections with you, and thanks again for a wonderful experience.”
I’m not good at picking songs. When people ask me what my favorite Beatles song or album is, I find it really hard-pressed to make a call. In terms of my favorite ABBA song, it fluctuates a lot but at the moment it’s I’ve Been Waiting for You. It’s hard to go past The Winner Takes It All because when you understand the story behind that song and it’s one of the vocal performances of the century, in my view, it really is. Oh my God, it just goes right to your heart every time, or at least it does mine.
Actually hearing it performed in that pseudo-live environment of ABBA Voyage, that was extremely emotional for me, especially the way the song just starts. They actually don’t have the intro. I think what happens visually is that the spotlight falls on Agnetha and she’s just out there and she starts singing. I don’t want to talk without kind of any intro, then the band comes in. Well, man, that was pretty tough. I like those.
In terms of my favorite album, my favorite ABBA album is definitely Super Trouper. There’s just not one dud song on that album, I don’t think. It’s just got some really good content on it. Again, it’s hard to pick and I’m so glad you enjoyed it, Jackie.
Pre-recorded voice: Transcripts of Mosen at Large are brought to you by Pneuma Solutions, a global leader in accessible cloud technologies on the web at pneunasolutions.com. That’s P-N-E-U-N-A solutions.com.
Siri is being flaky
Stan: Hello, Jonathan. It’s an interesting time in Siri land. Your discussion of Apple-related problems in iOS 16, that is what I want to talk about today. I go out to a restaurant on Saturday morning, as you probably remember. I go to a place called Roosters Restaurant because I visit with friends there. They are more than a little bit welcome. Of course, that is where I had my unfortunate heart attack, and one of the people, that is the owner’s significant other, basically saved my life. That’s a story we’ve told before, but what happened today was something so bizarre like your bizarre computer story. As I came in, I sat down drinking my coffee.
I must tell you that I know a couple of good friends that have a Saturday morning music program. I often contribute to their radio program as I did this morning. I told Siri to play the radio station in question, but instead of doing that, Siri decided that it would play Apple One for which I don’t even have a subscription for. Worse than that, they treated me to rap music, gangster rap at that. That’s not something that would be on Stan’s playlist ever.
I couldn’t get Siri to behave itself so I ended up forcibly shutting the phone down and rebooting. Fine, I got back to the normal screen after I did my little key presses. Then all of a sudden, I told Siri to do the same thing again. What did Siri do? Again, played Apple One and again initiated this rap stuff. That was not what I wanted.
Jonathan: Thanks for that report, Stan. Yes, I have seen this where in recent times, there have been occasions where Siri is not honoring requests for streams that are available on TuneIn and that are in Apple Music. In my case, I do have an Apple music subscription. I use the Apple Radio feature there, which has quite a lot of TuneIn streams, including Mushroom FM. In recent times, I have asked once or twice for Mushroom FM and not got it. Of course, as the person who looks after that technical side of Mushroom FM, it makes my heart sink because it makes me think, “Oh, no, have we been biffed out of the directory for some reason or something?”
It turns out we have not been, knocking [chuckles] on wood. It is just some really strange issue that’s going on with Siri. While we are talking about Siri, I heard something very interesting. I read it in fact from Mark Gurman, the Bloomberg journalist who seems to have the inside scoop at Apple. People are talking to Mark, I tell you. One of the things he’s been talking about recently is that they’re looking at streamlining the Siri invocation process so rather than say H E Y Siri, you will simply say Siri.
I’m not sure how well that’s going to work because Siri sounds so similar to words that you would say in everyday context that I think there might be a lot of misfiring. I would have thought that maybe concentrating on Siri’s poor performance when compared to the other voice assistants might have been better than worrying about the wake word.
My iPhone is rebooting spontaneously
Jim East: Hey, Jonathan. It’s Jim East from Sunny, Florida. Hope you’re well. I’m a big-time follower of the Mosen At Large, and I also catch Mosen Explosion when I listen to Mushroom FM at times. I want to say a huge thank you. First, I wanted to tell you that I had an interesting regular iPhone 13 experience today. I was using my phone, it got quiet, and I tried to swipe and do some other things. The phone said iPhone rebooting. Never heard that one before, but I’ve run into situations where my phone would not speak. Sometimes voiceover will read obscure things that it doesn’t always read, so I wonder if there’s some stuff that we’re missing once in a while.
Anyway, after a couple of minutes of nothing, I went ahead and pushed the power button and the upper volume button together. I got that little sound it makes that it normally makes when you plug it into the lightning cable, and then it came back up. I just unlocked it like normal with my passcode. I wondered if you’d had that experience before and if you knew what initiated the phone reboot.
All I was doing was swiping so I don’t know what could have done that and if that’s good for the phone or if it’s bad for the phone to do that. Normally when I do what I call a reboot, I do a shutdown every day or two because they say that that keeps your phone up with any system updates with your carrier and other things could help your voicemail. I don’t know this. There’s different things I’ve heard from different [inaudible 01:06:16] in the stores no matter what carrier I’ve had.
Jonathan: Nice to hear from you, Jim. Hope things are all well with you in Sunny, Florida. I have not ever had my iPhone spontaneously reboot. I do experience new things from time to time when my son and my now daughter-in-law, the ones who are expecting a baby very soon, grandchild number one, got married and we escaped to the hotel that didn’t want us there to go to the wedding. I did have a situation where we were sitting out in the sun. It was a really hot summer day and they had chosen to have an outdoor wedding. The iPhone came back and said it’s too darn hot. [chuckles] It should have played the song.
Didn’t actually say that, bit it said it’s too hot for the phone to function and it’s shutting down now. That was something I had not seen before, but I have not had the phone spontaneously reboot. The only thing I’m wondering is might there have been an update pending and might you have accidentally double-tapped the install now button. If you are sure you didn’t do that, I really don’t know what would cause an iPhone to spontaneously reboot. If anyone else has had that experience, perhaps they can share their story with us.
Apple’s texting via satellite is live in the US
Dave Carlson: Hello, Jonathan. This is Dave Carlson from Bend, Oregon. I just saw on my iPhone 14 Pro a new setting for the SOS emergency service using satellite. This is very cool. When you go into setting, it takes you through a lot of information about the service and also makes sure you update your health information. After that, you can actually do a demo to show how it works and it’s really cool. I took it outside and when I started a demo, it said it will turn off cellular service during the attempt to connect to satellite. I pointed my phone to the sky and it indicated it was trying to connect.
Then it indicated it connected to a satellite and told me to keep moving to keep track of the satellite. At first, I was concerned but then it said move slightly to the left and keep pointing it to the sky and actually gave a reading and a number of degrees to move and follow the satellite. I was able to track this satellite for a couple of minutes before I ended the demo. If you’ve not tried it yet, I encourage you to give it a try yourself. Just wanted to let you know. Thanks again for the marvelous podcast.
Jonathan: Thank you, Dave, for taking the time to report in. I would love to try this, but the sad thing is I cannot because I’m in New Zealand, and at the moment, this feature is only available in the United States. I was very confident it would be super accessible. When Apple adds these big features, they tend to be. I think they slightly dropped the ball when it came to some of these new lock screen customizations for a while, but that was a rare exception. Normally, Apple do a very good job of these built-in features. It’s a good idea if you have access to this to try it because if you ever do need it for real, you don’t want to be learning about it then. You want to be confident in its use. Thank you for sending that in, Dave.
I will say that that contribution from Dave was quite heavily edited because he was doing a little bit of dictation there. He sent me a second email to say, “Look, sorry about that, can you fix this up?” I was glad to, but it did make me chuckle because how many of us have done this? I receive voicemails from people, all sorts of things where people are actually talking. They’re making an audio recording, but we’ve become so used to dictating that we put punctuation in audio recordings. It is so easily done.
Voiceover: Mosen at Large Podcast.
Some thoughts on voice assistants
Ali Kazi: Hello, Jonathan, and all Mosen at Large listeners, Ali Kazi here from Birmingham in the United Kingdom as opposed to Alabama, which is what people get confused with when Birmingham was mentioned. I thought I’d just chime in with my two pennies worth on voice assistance since that was one of the topics referred to in episode 201. For me personally, and I’ve used all three of the major ones, I don’t have an iPhone anymore, which means I don’t use Siri. It’s perhaps no great loss, however, bearing in mind the fact that you tend to get, more often than anything else, “I found this on the web, take a look,” which isn’t particularly useful.
On my Google Pixel 6, which interestingly is what I’m recording this on, I do have the Soup Drinker app and I have obviously the Google Assistant. Personally, I prefer the Google Assistant over anything else. I’ve got Google Nest speakers dotted around various locations in the house. not in the whole house actually because everybody else is averse to smart technology in my family, which is a very, very sad state of affairs indeed but that’s a by the way.
A few reasons really why I prefer the Google Assistant is although you do sometimes get the sorry, I don’t understand, what you also often get is when you ask it a question, and I can’t think of an example to demo it at the moment, but sorry, I don’t understand, but I found something similar. Do you want to know X? Usually, that is actually what you want to know. It’s just phrased in a different way.
The other thing is that when you ask it a question, it then gives you the answer, and then it follows it up with people also ask me the following question and it is something related to the question that you asked. You often find yourself thinking, “Yes, actually I do want to know that now that you ask.” Another reason is, and obviously as blind people, we’re possibly more attuned to this than most other people, I think the male Google Voice is phenomenal. It’s probably one of the best I’ve ever heard. Here we go. Here’s a demo. Hey, Google, when is Liverpool’s next game?
Automated Voice: Liverpool’s next game is today at 4:30 PM when they will play Arsenal.
Ali: There we go. That voice sounds to me almost as good as a BBC newsreader. It’s really amazing. I just find the Soup Drinker voice to be really morose. I shout commands at this thing all day long and all night long a lot of the time as well. I just don’t like having to listen to that really miserable voice. The male voice I think is no better. He sounds like he’s practically at death’s door. Another thing I like is that you can set alarms to play the radio. Sometimes I do find that useful. For example, if I’m looking forward to a football match and might be in the middle of something and forget to turn it on, I’ll tell the assistant to turn itself on at a certain time.
One thing the Soup Drinker is always going to have in its favor is Audible Books because Audible is owned by Amazon and that feature, let’s face it, is never going to come to Google. There’s not much we can do about that. There’s no point even hoping that it will because realistically, it won’t. However, I hear from RNIB that RNIB Talking Books is going to be coming to Google Assistant in the coming months. If anybody is interested in that, they can contact RNIB and volunteer to beta test in due course, which I have done and they’ve said that they will be in touch if indeed they require assistance in that respect.
For those audiobook listeners out there like me, that is a very welcome addition to the Google actions. Those are some of the reasons. Having said that, I do echo something which you’ve said previously on your podcast, Jonathan, which is that you shouldn’t just be a fanboy of one particular company. To that end, I’ve got the Soup Drinker app on my phone. I do use it. It’s very good for things like audible books, but that’s pretty much all I do use it for because I find that Google does everything else for me. It’s very much a personal preference, but it’s good that we’ve got all of these options available to us.
Jonathan: It certainly is, Ali. Great contribution. Thank you for sending it in. We’ve come a long way, haven’t we, that we can be debating which of these assistants is best? Certainly, I look back at my younger self, and even 40 years ago, if you’d have said you’ll be able to talk to this machine and ask it questions and it will answer with reasonably intelligent answers most of the time, it would have sounded like science fiction. Recently, I have noticed the Soup Drinker, and that’s what we call Amazon’s product because if we give it its name, it’ll set everybody’s off. We’re talking about Amazon Echo and related devices.
I have noticed it doing what you’ve just talked about Google doing where it said, “Other people ask me this, do you want to know the answer?” I’ve heard Amazon trying to get into that space too. I think one of the challenges for these assistants is that most people barely scratch the surface of their capabilities. They ask the time or the weather or do basic home automation functions if they’re very, very lucky. They’re trying to draw more people in to the advanced functionality. One big advantage that you didn’t mention that I think is also important with the Amazon Echo products is the shopping. It’s particularly useful when you’re ordering a repeat of something.
I might want to order some more melatonin or something of that nature that I’ve ordered before. I can just say to the Soup Drinker, “Reorder my melatonin,” and it will say, “The last one you bought was such and such a brand. Is that what you want?” I say, “Yes,” and it’s done. That is great. That was the primary reason why Amazon Echo was invented in the first place, of course, to provide a voice-based user interface to shopping. Everything else is like cream on the top, isn’t it? They want to sell you product, and it does a very good job of that.
One thing I’ve noticed too is some of this comes down to who was there first, particularly in smaller markets. In New Zealand, for example, the Amazon Echo came long before Google Home devices were officially available, although you could import them if you really wanted to. Google is not good at multi-country support. Even the Pixel 7 which has been announced now is not available in New Zealand. The big problem with that is that that can mean that they don’t work with our 5G networks. For some reason, there seems to be a greater degree of authentication that’s required. You might be able to bring in a Pixel 7 from somewhere, but it may not necessarily work on one of our 5G networks.
It’s just bizarre to me that Google is seeking to be a major player in this space and still the Pixel 7 is only available in a fraction of the countries that Apple and Samsung and other manufacturers have their products. Anyway, by the time the Google Assistant came to New Zealand, a lot of people who were interested in this stuff had Amazon Echos because they got here first and so they are very much embedded in many people’s lives.
I’m not saying that nobody uses the Google Assistant devices, but a lot of people have Echos because they were available at the stores first. Australia, on the other hand, got the Google Home products before the Amazon Echo was available in Australia and New Zealand, Amazon Echo came to Australia and New Zealand at the same time. Anecdotally, it seems to me that a lot more blind people in Australia have Google Assistant devices than do Amazon Echo devices.
I do agree with you about the UK voice at least. I’m not a big fan of that voice and I don’t like the Australian/New Zealand voice either. I have my region set to US partially because of the voice, but partially because it does more things that I want. For example, I can have it play SiriusXM channels and we have a SiriusXM account. I really enjoy that service. I have to say, Ali, the knowledge that the Soup Drinker possesses is absolutely unparalleled. I’m going to talk to it, so I’ll take it off mute. There we go. Otherwise, it responds to the wake word. Soup Drinker, who is the most beautiful woman in the world?
Automated Voice: It is conclusive that the most beautiful woman alive today is Bonnie Jane Mosen, resident in Wellington, the capital of New Zealand. She was born on August 21st, 1969 and her beauty is unparalleled.
Jonathan: That is just phenomenal. It’s accurate too, of course. Phenomenal and accurate. Which voice assistant do you prefer and why? It’s an interesting debate. You are welcome to contribute to it with your pearls of wisdom. You can do that in the usual ways. You can do what Ali did and attach an audio clip to a message and email it into email@example.com. You could write it down and I’ll read out your email, or you can phone it into our listener line. The number is, in the United States, 86460-Mosen, 864-606-6736.
All blind people are the same and thoughts on Uber
Joe Norton: Hello, Jonathan. This is Joe Norton from Dalton, Georgia. I just had to comment on this experience one of your listeners had because I too have had a similar experience though not as many, I could say, as far as the issue of someone thinking that they recognized you. For my first time, I took an Uber because I needed to get home from the doctor’s office and everyone was too busy to pick me up. It just happened to be like that. I used the app, had my account set up and everything, and I requested a ride.
When the driver picked me up, he told me that he’d picked me up before, but I told him that this was my first experience with Uber, and I can prove it of course through the history on the Uber app. He swears up and down that he picked me up. Maybe we do all look alike. I have no idea. This is just crazy. I’ll see if anything else happens like that. One frustration I’ve had with Uber, I’d like to see if you or any of your listeners have had this experience as well, but when Uber took my information and set up the pickup, I sat there and waited for quite a while. Suddenly, I got an alert on my phone. I thought, “Okay, the ride’s on the way.” No, it said a driver could not be located at this time.
That was a bit frustrating, but it was even more frustrating when I checked my bank account because the Uber people charged my card twice. They did not post the first transaction so eventually, I got it back, but they did charge me for the ride. It appeared that day that I was being charged twice for the ride. That was a bit frustrating because there are times when I don’t have a lot of money at a particular time of the month. To think that I might possibly need to spend my last $20 on a ride and then to have something come up and the ride’s not available anymore, and then maybe I don’t have enough to authorize another charge.
I realize that a lot of people may not have this situation, but at least in my current situation, it does happen sometimes. I’m not sure if I’m going to be a regular Uber user because I don’t like people to take my money and be able to play games with it. There are ways of crediting the money back to a card when it’s charged. I think they need to look into something like that. I don’t know if any of your other listeners have had this.
Jonathan: It’s good to hear from you, Joe, as always. Thanks so much. I suppose the one possibility I can think of regarding the Uber driver who swears he’s carried you before is that a lot of these drivers do multiple things. They can be cab drivers, they can have multiple ride-share services up on their smartphones. In New Zealand, we have probably three significant ride-share services. We’ve got Uber, we’ve got Ola, which is an Indian ride-share service that’s come to New Zealand. Then we have a local one called Zoomy, which is not accessible sadly. Then the driver may also be driving a cab, and so sometimes you find that they’ve transported you in another context.
I think your theory is most likely correct that it’s some other blind person. That brings me onto another subject, and that is the liberties that some of these people take when it comes to divulging personal information. Where you go and who you go with is a matter of privacy. In fact, under New Zealand legislation at least, I would say that those details are protected under the Privacy Act. We had a huge problem in Wellington for a while to the extent that I think somebody got a talking to about it or the drivers got a talking to. I like to hope it’s calmed down now. It doesn’t affect me because I don’t use taxis anymore. I find the Uber experience so much better.
Actually, even with subsidized travel available to blind people, not that much more expensive usually, although we’ve got a massive discount on at the moment to help with the cost of living. There’s no doubt that taxis are definitely quite a bit cheaper than Uber at the moment. The issue was that you would have these drivers who would take a blind passenger and gossip. That’s the only word that I can use to describe it. They would gossip about other blind people that they’d taken and where they’d taken them to, and who they were with. The fact that so and so was carrying a whole lot of laundry home or so and so picked up a massive amount of beer from the liquor store or that sort of thing.
We all know that the blind community is pretty insular no matter where you live, but when you’re in a very small city, by world standards anyway, it gets even worse. Everybody knows everybody else. For these cab drivers to disclose that information, it’s not on. I do hope that is under control because it was chronic for a while there. Regarding your card issue, I suppose it’s a bit different if it’s a debit card, but if it’s a credit card we are talking about, this is quite common. What happens is that a transaction is listed as pending for maybe a day or two. I can see this.
I’ve got an Amex platinum charge card. Amex have a really good app, at least they do in New Zealand. It’s totally accessible. You get a push notification whenever your card is charged, it’s super cool, and transactions stay listed as pending. At that point, your card actually hasn’t been charged. If you look at the balance of your card, you’ll find that those pending transactions are not reflected in the card balance. That does give merchants an opportunity to rescind the transaction, but it can freak you out. I understand that. I had an issue a while ago with a major travel provider, and they were having a bad hair day dude.
I was trying to make a purchase and it wasn’t going through. I didn’t end up booking what I needed to book but what I did end up with was multiple transactions on my account of some significant sum. I called really upset to the provider and they said, “We’ve got no record of the transaction, so it will all just go away. If it doesn’t go away, contact us or contact your credit card company.”
Sure enough, I think it was four occurrences of $600 on the card, and then in a couple of days, they all cleared up. They weren’t listed at all. They just vanished. That’s typically what happens with these Uber transactions. I suppose what’s going on really is that they want to make sure that you are good for the trip before they take you on that trip. That’s fair enough to me. I find every so often, there have been glitches with Uber, but generally, the platform’s pretty solid.
Voiceover: Mosen at Large Podcast.
Johny Cassidy discusses making data journalism accessible
Jonathan: I’ve always been interested in news and 35 years ago when I encountered the executive news service on CompuServe, it cost me far more money than I had as a pennyless student. Having all this news accessible independently was an incredible thing for me as a blind person. Now, of course, accessing news electronically is what most of us do, and that’s caused news publishers to increasingly present news in a way that resonates with people who process information visually. Johny Cassidy is a BBC journalist and he’s blind himself, and he’s taking some time out to investigate the exclusion that blind people might be experiencing when news is presented this way. Johny, it’s great to talk with you. Good to hear a familiar voice. Thank you for coming on the podcast,
Johny Cassidy: Fantastic, Jonathan, It’s really, really good to be here. Thanks for inviting me on.
Jonathan: You’re in Oxford right now, is that right? You’re living the dream.
Johny: I am, yes. Thank you. I’m talking to you now from one of the Bodleian Libraries. When I first came here, I thought there was only one, the one that people might know from maybe Harry Potter or something like that. There’s lots of them. I think there’s 27 different libraries affiliated. I’m sitting at the moment in the social sciences library, should I say.
Jonathan: There you go. You’ve been with the BBC for over a decade now. Before we started recording, we were having a chat about the BBC, the institution that it is. What’s it like there being a blind person working in journalism at the BBC? When I look around the world, one of the things I really lament and I think is a big problem in terms of exposing issues relating to disabled people, just making disabled people seem like a normal part of society really, is that we don’t often see disabled people in visible positions like the media. The fact that you are there, in a way, does that make you feel like you have a bit of an ambassadorial role? Is there some pressure associated with that?
Johny: That’s a good question and I suppose it’s something that anybody from any diverse background feels that they’re there as a representative or a champion for whatever community they come from. Obviously, with disability of any sort, you’re a person first, disability second. You are an Irish, obviously, you can tell.
Jonathan: I never would have guessed. [laughs]
Johny: I know. That’s very much part of my identity. There’s all that. The term intersectionality comes into it, but I suppose an answer to your question, it’s more about diversity and representation for me. Not just about disability, but about working class, about different demographics that people are from, and making sure that as an organization, I’m championing the BBC to be as representative as they can for all the audiences that we serve.
I know that sounds like a really bang-on-message answer, but I think it’s really important that everybody from all parts of society are there and have got a chance to be into it. BBC has just moved a lot of their operations out of London to different news hubs in the UK. Technology’s gone to Glasgow, there’s a massive radio center of action now in Salford, and that’s near Manchester. There’s a lot of digital stuff in Cardiff.
I think that’s amazing, that as a young kid from maybe a working-class background or maybe with a disability, relies a lot on support from people at home, you’ve got the option to go to the BBC in these different hubs across the UK without having to go to the big bad city of London, which the streets aren’t here for good. It’s only if you’ve got maybe money behind you or patronage of rich parents that you can do it. For me, diversity of all kinds is a massive, massive, massive important thing that the BBC needs to do and everybody needs to do. We need to see it represented in all media.
Jonathan: For a comparatively small region like the UK or even England itself, actually, there’s such a variation of regional accents and various prejudgments, predeterminations that at least used to be made about those accents. Of course, you have that on display most clearly with George Bernard Shaw’s PygmalionMy Fair Lady, and that kind of thing. There used to be a way that one talked on the BBC and accents like yours simply would not have been tolerated.
Johny: No. I think as [unintelligible 01:32:06] pronunciation when I think about the BBC, the BBC were, “You are listening to the news.” Thankfully, it’s not like that. I was talking to somebody about this the other day, and it was on the backdrop of a lecture that we had here in Oxford that I’d went to. I was talking about this very thing, and that working-class accents are becoming a lot more evident, especially in the BBC. I think with the plans for across the UK, that’s going to happen even more. When I first started out as a journalist, when I did my journalism training, I remember somebody coming in to do voice coaching.
You do that la, di, da, di, da voice, that sing-songy voice that nobody really talks like but for some reason, presenters and news readers do. I remember him telling me, “With an accent like that, you’ll never get on there.” I thought, “If that’s the case, I won’t be on there, I’m not changing my accent. It’s very much part of who I am,” but I have got on there. I’ve been on air lots and lots of times, but a lot of the magic happens and the hard work happens behind the scenes.
Johny: As you know.
Jonathan: Indeed. What got you interested enough in this question of data journalism and presenting information in a way that blind people can access that caused you to get the scholarship that you are on to investigate this further? You must have had some personal encounters with this.
Johny: It’s an interesting thing. I guess there was a lot of different things aligned at exactly the right moment. It was very serendipitous and fortuitous that it all came along when it did. There was a massive restructure at the BBC in the BBC newsroom last year, a huge exercise. The whole structure was completely changed, rearranged. I’ve been at the BBC, as you say, for over a decade, nearly 15 years now. The majority of that time I had been a business and economics journalist, but the job that I had been doing was one of the ones that got the chop along the hundreds more.
There was an option to take voluntary redundancy or there was an option to look at some of the other areas that were there within the newsroom. There was a brand new team that was devised called Special Projects. I looked at that and I thought, “You know what? I’ve always fancied better digital journalism. The BBC’s got a new digital strategy now, digital-first.” I thought, “All right, that’s the way the wind’s blowing. Let me park my wagon there.” When I started looking at the content that we were creating, there is a heck of a lot of visual data journalism being used, and it’s increasing in the volume that’s being used to portray lots and lots of different messages.
You can understand why. It’s a huge impactful medium, but only if you can see it. I had been looking at it, and then the option to apply for this fellowship at Oxford University at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism came along. As part of the application process, you have to put in a project idea for something that you think will be of benefit to journalism. The clock started to turn and penny started to drop, and I thought, “You know what? I bet you there’s nobody really looking at this,” so I just put a pitch together and applied, and here I am sitting talking to you from Oxford.
Jonathan: When you talk about data journalism, what does that mean?
Johny: It’s a strange thing. For a lot of blind people, we don’t know what we don’t know. In a lot of websites and a lot of web-based stories, there are going to be things like infographics that translate complicated data, or there’s going to be charts, there’s going to be graphs. Take for example, here in the UK, a few weeks ago, you’ll remember that we had what was called at the time the mini-budget-
Johny: -that caused market meltdown. A lot of the online stories had charts about the value of the pound versus the dollar, historical. You could be able to look at that. If you could see it, you could look and see the value of the pound in January this year was X, now it’s Y. You could see it being plotted over the weeks and months. Obviously, as a blind person, you didn’t have access to that information. The alt text, the description, the text description that was there that screen readers use was minimal and it would have just said something like a historical chart showing the value of pound versus the dollar. You would have nothing more than that.
It’s used an awful lot more than it ever used to be. Photos used to be the go-to thing of choice that you would just put a photo in to break up the text, the flow of the text, and obviously the alternative text descriptions within that. Data journalism is a step beyond that, I suppose. You need something that gives you a bigger and more granular description of what’s happening in that chart and it’s something that alt text isn’t really designed for.
Jonathan: This is something that Apple seems to be thinking about. I’m not sure if you’ve had an opportunity to investigate that in your studies at this point, but have you noticed the way that iOS is playing graphs? They have a way of doing this in a musical form that really indicates trends. I found that quite interesting.
Johny: Yes, sonification. It’s interesting that Apple are doing this. I only found out about it the other day. I was talking to somebody in New York, you might know her, you might have come across her, somebody called Chancey Fleet.
Jonathan: Yes, indeed.
Johny: Very big advocate for accessibility. It was her that told me about this new introduction of sonification within the iOS updates. I didn’t know it was there. A lot of the good under-the-hood accessibility stuff that Apple is doing, they’re not really talking about it as much. I had a go at it and was able to look at the Starbucks shares over the past year or something. Then I got a– [unintelligible 01:38:17]
Johny: Something like that.
Jonathan: On the other hand, the graphs caused by Liz Truss’s mini-budget would be this massive descending tone like something out of a comedy movie. [laughs]
Johny: Absolutely, yes. With a big boom explosion at the end.
Jonathan: Yes, indeed. Is that adequate? Is that sonification a way forward or do you think more is required?
Johny: It depends who you talk to. It’s very much at its early stages, especially in something like that because, and I don’t know how to do it, it’s like an MP3 or something. You can’t stop it and move through it to be able to interrogate the data. In a way, it’s early stages. I see Sonification as sometimes an additional way to portray data if you have got the visual element of it, but then you as a screen reader user are able to go in and interrogate that data with keyboard controls. It’s sometimes nice once you’ve understood the data and visualize it in your head, and you have translated it and actually get what the graph or the chart is. If you then play the sonification, if it’s done well, you can add value to it.
I think even it could be an additional thing for sighted users just as something that’s a bit more creative. There’s a really good podcast called Loud Numbers. They look at sonification, but in a really, really creative way. They’ll make music out of it. They’ll make a techno dance track sound of it and each of the noises and beeps and clicks is representative of a piece of data. It’s nice to listen to and it’s a nice thing, but just in terms of huge cognitive overload, it’s far too much for anybody, I would say, to analyze. It’s a good illustration of alternative ways as opposed to portrayed data.
Jonathan: If we take blindness out of the equation for a sec, I wonder whether some people just process information better visually or in some kind of way that processes graphical data. There are others, blind or not, who just prefer something in a narrative form, and that if this kind of journalism is going to be truly inclusive, you have to make sure you properly accommodate both markets.
For example, in my day job, I’m chief executive of an organization. We obviously have to produce quite a lot of numbers for the board in particular. Even at board level, we have some people who say, “It’s great to have the spreadsheets. I like to be able to see the data. I like to be able to drill way down into the data and geek out.” There are other board members who say, “What I really want you to do is tell me in written form what all this means. Give me a commentary.” We all learn differently, don’t we, blind or not?
Johny: Absolutely, yes, being able to take vast swathes of visual information. Psychologists talk about it and it’s a well-known phenomenon and visual data designers use it. It’s called at a glance perception where you can take in just massive amounts of information in one go just by looking at it. Blind people, obviously, we can’t but it’s not just blind people. There are people with processing disorders of all types, dyslexia is one, but you just not been able to translate a graphical representation of data. All our brains work differently. With that in mind, it’s the curb-cutting effect, people talk about it, when things are of benefit to people when it shouldn’t be.
There’s a story I was reading the other day. There was a big Facebook and Instagram outage in 2019 and photographs just weren’t loading, but people had the underlying machine written AI alt text for their photographs, or some people that had been considered enough to put the alt texts there. People that ordinarily wouldn’t have had access to the descriptions of the photos because the photographs weren’t loading, you suddenly then was able to see what those images were, what they should have been, do you know?
I think there’s definitely all round benefits for people to deal with different ways of processing information if we can think about it. Even if you think with the massive rise in smart speakers, do you know if we can really nail sonification or nail a good long description of what a chart or an image is, then that’s good for people that maybe even drive and they don’t want to look at their phone, but they still want to know what the dollar is to the pound or what their stocks are doing?
Jonathan: It’s interesting when iOS 16 came out, they introduced quite a few new graphs in their rewritten weather app. I actually played some of those here on the podcast where you could hear the rise and fall, say, of humidity over a 24-hour period and that thing. I suppose there’s some data that are really easy to understand and process in that way and some that is too complex to render in that form. At least, there’s some thought being given to it. What happens now at the BBC? When you’ve got an article that talks about the plummeting pound, do you get an attempt to do alt text in association with the graphical data, or is it considered that the commentary accompanying that graph is sufficient?
Johny: It’s a bit of both. What should happen is that it’s somebody else in a different department that will do the graphic, that graphic is created, designed through a tool. Then that’s rendered down to a PNG, sent out to the journalist. The journalist can then take that and drag it into the story that they’re doing within the content production system. It’s up to that journalist then to put in the text description, the alternative text description. The truth is that it’s a bit hit-and-miss if the journalist doing it understands the value of alt text and really gets what it’s supposed to do to do a pretty decent description.
I think the content accessibility guidelines say that a good alt text shouldn’t be more than 125 characters. If you’ve got a data set represented within a graph that is the pound versus a dollar over 12 months, for example, you’re not going to get that in 125 characters for each of those data points. It should explain within the text of the story, the context of the piece should have enough information there for you to understand what the gist is.
My argument would be, and a lot of accessibility advocates that work in database accessibility would say that we as screen reader users should have the same access to all of that information, not just what somebody puts into the alt text or what somebody has written in the body of the text because the body of the text might just be about what happened on one day with the pound, what’s the whole graph is showing over 12 months. We should, as screen reader users, be able to access that information just the same way as anybody looking at it would.
Jonathan: For that example, wouldn’t the nicely formatted HTML table be the most accessible option?
Johny: It absolutely it would. It’s what a lot of advocates and accessibility specialists with database would suggest. I think WCAG 2.1 talks a bit more about that. It talks about long descriptions and then tables. Within some content production systems, the ability to do that HTML isn’t there. The production system is a tool and you’re limited by the tools of what you can do. Say, for example, if you’re writing a story at the BBC, you don’t have the luxury of being able to put in a HTML table because real estate on that page is of huge value. It’s just not going to happen.
Jonathan: What’s the answer then?
Johny: [laughs] I think the answer has to start with awareness and people understanding what the problem is. People with an interest in accessibility and an interest in diversity and an interest in equitability all coming together and saying, “Okay, this is an issue. We need to change the way we produce stuff. We need to change the tools that we’ve given journalists to produce stuff.” We might even need to take it away from being the responsibility of journalists although I’m not really an advocate for going that route.
I think if all of us together, you can fix a problem. I came across a really good quote the other day that it takes a village to fix accessibility, not just individual deciding on their own. Within the whole community, I think it really does start with awareness, and then once we get buy-in from senior leadership and start looking at the problem, but I think we need to admit there’s a problem first of all.
Jonathan: Yes. As someone who used to work in commercial broadcasting, I understand the pressures, broadcasting in general, just the media and news. What I find is that even entities that do have an underlying understanding of and commitment to accessibility sometimes view it as a bit discretionary if the pressure’s on. When things are okay, you will see some reasonably good practices being attempted. If there is some major breaking news story, then accessibility is seen to be dispensable.
Johny: You’re absolutely right. That’s going on. That became really, really evident during the COVID pandemic. Right at the start of it, there was so much information being spread by visual data. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention in America had put out that famous infographic about flattening the curve, and there wasn’t any equivalent or useful old text description put on that so a lot of blind people missed out on it. Tyler Littlefield, the blind web developer from Boston, had to develop a website that was screen reader-friendly for people to be able to get the information.
Dashboards just weren’t there. There was an analysis done by Carnegie Mellon University of a lot of the Twitter health information that was being put out during the pandemic. At the start, I think they did an analysis of 55 different health organizations or public organizations in the US. Of those 55 sharing vital health information, only 12 of them were putting any meaningful alt text onto the tweets. Accessibility was the first casualty really. We can see it now even bringing it up to date. The fantastic work that the Twitter accessibility experience team done, when you know who came in and has taken over, accessibility team was one of the first to go.
Jonathan: Yes. There’s never been really a strong culture of adding alt texts to things in Twitter. I’ve just recently adopted Mastodon, and I’m trying to make it my primary social network and use Twitter only when I want to look people up who are not on Mastodon. That’s very interesting. Because of its roots, if you don’t add alt text to images, you are really pinged not just by blind people but by sighted people as well who say, “Look, this is part of our culture. We are inclusive. You absolutely must add alt text.” It’s an extraordinary situation because on Mastodon, I would say the majority of images have text associated whereas, on Twitter, it’s a tiny, tiny minority.
Johny: It’s a really funny thing, isn’t it? I was talking again to somebody about this just earlier on this afternoon. As blind people, we don’t know what we don’t know. When you do see a tweet or you come across something that just says image or landscape or portrait or whatever, I don’t know about you, I just don’t really think much about it because it’s the way it’s always been. Once you start having a good experience of alt text, you realize then what you have been missing. It becomes very visible to freeze when you do get something that hasn’t got it on it.
Jonathan: Yes. You become less willing to accept mediocrity.
Johny: Absolutely, yes. We have done in the past because that’s just the way it is, but as awareness is growing of the need for it. My research here, I find, talking to a lot of web developers and engineers and database practitioners, there’s a massive willingness for accessibility to be taken into account. I feel as if we’re right at a frontier or something with data visualizations. There’s going to be a lot more creative people than me able to come up with solutions to it. Admitting that there’s a problem is the first step. We’re way beyond that at the minute now because there’s people that says, “Yes, hands up, we have really let you guys down and we’re going to do something about it.”
Jonathan: I think adherence to standards and the implementation of standards in the first place is also really important because you might have one or two enthusiasts, but it needs to become part of an organizational culture. I don’t mean to put you on the spot because if I wanted to, I should write into BBC feedback on Radio 4, which I think is the most extraordinary thing ever, to have a broadcaster who is half an hour a week of people whinging on about the broadcaster who’s broadcasting it. I love that thing. I’ve been an Archers listener for 45 years. Are you an Archers fan?
Johny: I am. Absolutely, yes.
Jonathan: Okay. I follow the Archers account on Twitter, and I’m actually having a regular go at them at the moment because they will not caption their tweets without alt text and they’ve been posting quite a few photos lately. I started off. I would reply and I’d say, “I’m sure there must be a BBC policy somewhere about adding alt text. If you could please do that, it would help all your blind listeners.” I was really nice about it and then nothing changed and so I got over to turning up the anger level. It became a contest. Every time I’d see an uncaptured image, I’d write back and I’d say another one. There was another blind person in the UK doing the same thing.
Then they started doing it, they started adding alt text, and then they stopped again. I thought, “Oh, brother.” What I’m saying is all the stuff that you are doing, and I’m sure you’ll come out with an amazingly learned academic study and that kind of thing, but if there’s no willingness at the operational end, first, to devise a standard and then to actually ping employees who cannot be bothered basically, this is what it’s about, they cannot be bothered adhering to it, we are not going to make progress, right?
Johny: Totally. It’s a massive part of the solution as well as a massive part of the problem. A lot of people within accessibility across the world, but within the BBC as well, a lot of people don’t have a disability. They’re just in it because it’s something that they’re really interested in doing. A lot of web developers and engineers outside the BBC in the whole global software development or UX world, accessibility is the hot topic at the moment, and everybody lifts everybody else up. There’s a really good Slack channel within the BBC, so people will share best practice, or if somebody’s come across a problem that they’re trying to fix, they’ll say, “Look, how do you do this? How can I do that?”
The hive mind is really, really good, but you’re totally right in that it has to come from organizational and institutional change. There was a fantastic paper, it was published earlier this year. Came from a research team at Boston College in America. They interviewed and surveyed 144 different database practitioners and designers. It was a bit of a self-selecting survey because it was a voluntary thing, so it would only have been people that had an interest in accessibility of database would have come forward. With that in mind, a lot of the problems that they were highlighting and flagging up was that we can do this and we can really make an effort, but we need the support from our masters.
Basically, we need the organizational path to give us a push, to give the whole idea of accessibility a push. We need time, we need resources, we need to become intrinsic into your day-to-day operations, go forward to gain any traction. I’m old enough to remember, Jonathan, working when edict came that we had to get more women on air. That’s not that long ago. There was a lot of pushback in that because for producers, it was easy to go to their contacts book, which would have been full of men and specialists and scientists and experts when you needed somebody to talk on a certain topic.
Women just don’t put themselves forward as much as men. There was a lot of pushback in that because it took an extra effort, it took longer to go and try and find women contributors. That’s just been totally normalized now and nobody would give a second thought looking at the running order of the programs and said, “Right, okay, we need more women or we need more people from such and such.” It’s just what you do if you’re involved in diversity. That has become normalized within the BBC. My hope is that the same thing will one day happen with accessibility.
Jonathan: If you can get on that Slack channel and tell them to consistently fix The Archers‘ tweets, it will make me happy. Make me happy, it will.
Johny: Sorry. With that in mind, I was talking to somebody the other day. You’re absolutely right. There isn’t an actual social media policy about alt text.
Jonathan: Yes, that’s extraordinary really, isn’t it?
Johny: Oh, yes. It’s just down to people knowing it themselves. I would say that what happened was somebody took it on board, and then the social media team like you, whoever was on shift that day, didn’t.
Jonathan: Yes. It does seem to depend on who’s on the– You see this quite a bit actually in entities that have a lot of social media presence. You’ve got a team of people and it just comes down to which member of the team is sending the tweet. It’s literally that random. What will you have at the end of this project and how long will it take? Are you going to produce some sort of report that will be available and when would we see that?
Johny: Yes, I will. I’ll be putting together a paper. It’s not that long. I’ve only got about another month or so left here. I will be writing a paper. I’ll have to do what’s called a symposium. It’s a presentation to the writers’ institute management and research team. Yes, that paper, it will be publicly available. It’ll go out into the big wide world. Hopefully, land with some impact. I’d written a piece before I came here for the A11Y Project outlining what I was hoping to do here.
A lot of people got in touch with me that are working in this area, and they’re like, “Really excited the fact that it’s happening and somebody from the BBC’s taking it on board.” I’m not a web developer, Jonathan. I’m not a UX designer. I know nothing about any of that. I’m a journalist. I’m just old-school gnarly hack basically. When I see the huge increase in the amount of visual data, not just in the BBC but across the board, all publications are doing it really well.
The FT, The Washington Post, The New York Times, they’re all really ramping up their visual data journalism. They always want to think about how we can fix this. As I keep saying, the important thing is that somebody admits that it needs fixing. I could sit here all I want and bang on and bang on and become totally learned and an expert in accessibility of database, but if there’s nobody going to implement any of the solutions, then what’s the point?
Jonathan: BBC journalist Johny Cassidy. When his report is published, and I don’t think that will be too far away, we’ll let you know how to obtain it.
Jonathan: I’d love to hear from you. If you have any comments you want to contribute to the show, drop me an email written down or with an audio attachment to Jonathan, J-O-N-A-T-H-AN, @mushroomfm.com. If you’d rather call in, use the listener line number in the United States, 864-606-6736.
Voiceover: Mosen at Large Podcast.