User accessibility

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When I read Jose Saramago’s alarmingly disturbing novel, Blindness, a number of years ago (oh, and please do not bother with the film version) – its vividness opened up a whole door to the world that I, as a sighted person, had never considered. Saramago provided an insight into the vast difference between being blind in a sighted world versus a whole world of blindness. How much do the “able” take for granted – whether it is vision, hearing, the ability to have unimpeded access to buildings or public transportation?

Having worked on and off in technology since the late 1990s, I have also been to conferences and events, where there always seems to be one or two people who yell longest and loudest about accessibility. It occurred to me, especially then – before technology was that convenient for everyone – that these activists had to yell that loud to be heard and considered.

While these concerns have been tangential to me, related thoughts about how accessibility affects everyone still come to mind. A close friend in Germany has visual impairments and has often written to me about the modifications and combinations of technology she requires to make her way through the world – but she lives a complete and full life. Most recently, as a part of her career, she has had to travel alone to new cities in different countries, so she is not only faced by the same hurdles of being in a foreign country that all newcomers to new places are, she has to navigate them with impaired sight. Technological advances have made this so much easier. Her recent travels to Stockholm, in fact, were particularly aided and enhanced by modern mapping technology, which she could – like all of us – access from her mobile phone. But many of the accessibility features that are convenient to us are essential to her.

Wired.co.uk’s junior writer, Katie Collins, discussed these very same issues in a recent article on navigating the London Underground with visual impairments:

“The London Underground can be a hostile environment at the best of times. If you have a visual impairment, though, it can be even more brutal.”

The article highlights the Wayfindr app, which of course is just one solution/aid for the visually impaired. Collins experienced traveling through London with a simulated visual impairment. Her article, in addition to pointing out vital aspects of the journey that travelers might otherwise take for granted given the use of all of their senses, explains how this app works (or can potentially work when and if it expands) to give the visually impaired traveler a sense of security and independence. As Collins rode the tube to the Ustwo design office (Ustwo created the Wayfindr app), she had people surrounding her – and stated that she would not have felt comfortable without them. Did the Wayfindr app give her the independence she hoped it would?

There’s a long way to go and so much potential – both for this and other apps like it. I complain a lot about the intrusiveness of technology, but in many cases, like this, it is tangibly improving people’s lives and increasing their mobility.

With the app delivering audio instructions and vibrating signals in this trial run, Collins did achieve greater independence – it was, she reported, the first time in the day’s journey that she felt comfortable on her own.

 

Data protection, use, rights and apathy

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Do we have any idea what we are giving up in letting our data run free? Not really.

Watch the frightening documentary Terms and Conditions May Apply and start to get the idea. In our race to have speed, convenience, access and mobility – among other things – we are willing to sign away rights, privacy and protection for ourselves without even knowing it. Or in lacking the attention span or interest to follow things like privacy rights or something like the net neutrality debate in the US, we lose choice and transparency.

As John Oliver explained on his fantastic and revealing weekly HBO program, Last Week Tonight, discussing the net neutrality subterfuge, companies can bury all the information they are required to tell consumers but don’t really want them to read or understand in EULAs. Much of the time, these terms and conditions are innocuous but some are quite malicious, misleading and violate user privacy, leaving most users uninformed and having given blind consent.

At 9:50:

“The cable companies have figured out the great truth of America: if you want to do something evil put it inside something boring. Apple could put the entire text of Mein Kampf inside the iTunes user agreement and you’d just click ‘Agree’.”

It’s one thing to just complain and worry about data collection and use – but what kinds of solutions may exist? Craig Mundie’s piece in Foreign Affairs addressing the issue. “The time has come for a new approach: shifting the focus from limiting the collection and retention of data to controlling data at the most important point — the moment when it is used.”

Some kind of change has to happen because “… there is hardly any part of one’s life that does not emit some sort of “data exhaust” as a byproduct. And it has become virtually impossible for someone to know exactly how much of his data is out there or where it is stored. Meanwhile, ever more powerful processors and servers have made it possible to analyze all this data and to generate new insights and inferences about individual preferences and behavior.”

Interestingly, Mundie cites the introduction and eventual ubiquity of credit cards as the truly disruptive technology that opened the consumer-data floodgates. Did anyone imagine that the truly disruptive technology – well before the internet – was the credit card? They open so much access for financial institutions to create credit reports and scores and to basically control a person’s life based on their spending and saving habits, to keep tabs on her location, habits, tastes, propensities – it’s a gold mine of data that financial institutions could sell to retailers – so much opportunity for consumer exploitation. Consumers, though, have trusted that this would not happen because of data handling and storage regulations.

But once the floodgates were open, and regulations in place – the internet came along. But data privacy and rights have not changed to keep pace with how industry and technology have changed.

The part that is most alarming for me when I think about it is that whole business models and companies are built on this virtually free access to, collection of and manipulation, analysis, sale and packaging of data. How many of us are actually employed in industries whose bread and butter is somehow a link in that data collection and use chain?

Are the trade-offs of allowing all this data collection worth it? The Mundie article cites the public good as one reason not to entirely do away with data collection (but to limit/change it). One example is in a case when vast data sets yielded key findings in medical research, which can benefit society as a whole. But does that supersede the right of the individual not to have their own personal data used in some way to which they have not expressly consented? (Opting into a serpentine user agreement as a layperson does not really signify consent in my mind.)

Solutions that Mundie proposes are interesting but fail to take into account personal laziness. People like talking about having their privacy violated, but if taking control meant, as the writer suggests, “It would also require people to constantly reevaluate what kinds of uses of their personal data they consider acceptable” and one would have to take personal responsibility for context and assessing the value of how their data were used, almost no one would do it.

People do not want to evaluate at all – which is why they just say yes or no in the first place – expedience, convenience. Damn the consequences.

Downsides to Cord Cutting

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Sometimes I would love nothing more than to get rid of all my cords and cables – there is a tangle of them in my living room powering my multiple computers, my speakers, my jumble of mobile phones, among other things. Streamlining this would be great – and as I have written before, I wish I had a true mobility solution for my mobile (I wrote about the Revocharge charging system the other day, but my only complaint there is that it is part of a Kickstarter campaign and not available for sale right now. And that’s kind of the trouble with a lot of great potential solutions – they are ideas or prototypes that are either not on the market or not market ready).

Similarly I am someone who has been living in the middle of the Swedish forest for years without ever connecting to TV or cable so never even got hooked up in that sense at all. I get all the entertainment I need with strictly online solutions.

But today I saw a Tweet from Adam Dachis about times when cutting oneself free of cables may compromise quality of experience. I would rather hassle with cables too under such circumstances, even if going without cables is liberating. It’s far more important to me, though, to find a way to be free of cables when I need my phone to stay charged when I’m wandering the world than to have a seamless and high-quality wireless headphone experience.

Listener experience is absolutely key for music lovers – and then having to recharge anyway makes it doubly inconvenient. No, Adam, you’re not the only one.

Sometimes cables trump convenience

Sometimes cables trump convenience

 

Kickstarter and crowdfunding: Traction or drag of the crowd

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I think a lot these days about the crowdsourcing revolution. Whether it’s crowdfunding in the form of Kickstarter and its peers, or crowdhosting like Airbnb, or crowdsharing of information, like on sites such as Trustpilot or Yelp, these things definitely have their good and bad sides.

Today: Crowdfunding

Many times in recent weeks I have been traveling – and every single time, I face some kind of phone-charging crisis. I don’t think I am alone in this. We’re all busy and counting on our phones as our connection to the world – to stay in touch, to take and send photos, to do our online banking (in fact if my phone dies and I lose access, I can’t access my online bank at all). And now that the TSA is apparently asking people to turn their electronic devices on to prove that they actually are working devices, having a charged phone while traveling is a necessity for security reasons. Since I am one of those people who worries when there is not even a reason to worry, I am always thinking about whether I have the right cable, or where I might find a power outlet wherever I happen to go. I know from experience that the phone battery is only going to last X number of hours, maybe fewer hours if I engage in more activity – and that’s a strangely helpless feeling, especially when you’re in the middle of Budapest or sitting in one of those not-so-business-friendly airports that has NO power outlets anywhere.

With this panic in mind, I often flip through projects on Kickstarter and Indiegogo to see what kinds of things might solve my problems. One day I found a smartphone keyless door lock, the Goji, on Indiegogo which got me pretty excited since I live in multiple places and often panic about what might happen if I lose my key in one city and arrive at one of the other places to find that the key is missing? (My neighbors have keys – but what if they aren’t home? And maybe I don’t want neighbors to have keys. A keyless locking system controlled by mobile phone would let me give them immediate access if they needed it – but then rescind it just as easily so the nosy old lady up the hill doesn’t just come in whenever she wants. Haha!)

And recently I found the Revocharge system – which is a magnetic, snap-on battery and case for iPhones and Androids. This might not have excited me to such a degree had I not just experienced a series of on-the-go battery failures, the elusive hunt for a power outlet and then losing the one power cable I had for my iPhone 5 while wandering around in Berlin. Does the Revocharge solve all the problems? No, you still have to not lose the battery or the case – but the chances are good that they would be connected to the phone anyway – it is not like some stray cable that could fall out of my bag or be left anywhere. My only disappointment, of course, is that this is not available right now! It’s still seeking Kickstarter funding. (For that matter, the Goji is not shipping yet either. AND… if I want to operate all my door locks from my smartphone, I need to have my phone charged all the time, too! So these products go hand in hand… our lives are more entwined with our phones – we can’t afford to let them die!)

When it comes to successful crowdfunding campaigns, though, I keep looking at different campaigns and am never really sure what propels some of them to success and not others. The two aforementioned campaigns absolutely serve real needs and are not “pie in the sky” ideas – both exist (at least in prototype form). In the case of Revocharge, it is addressing a universal problem. This campaign has a long way to go, so its funding goals may be met.

But I wonder about some of the campaigns that create a desire – that definitely do not serve a real need. Case in point: the “coolest cooler”. Serves NO need at all – and has more than 8.5 million dollars pledged to its cause. Or the campaign that famously set out to get money to make potato salad.

Why are people inclined to give money to something that is gimmicky and has no real real-world application?

humanity

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There is nothing like being packed in a hot bus or subway car to become curious about your fellow man. I always become very curious about the life stories of these strangers – what are they doing on the bus? What is their life story? Have they always lived in this city? Or do they have a zig-zagging trail like I have? It is similar in a hospital except the humanity is felt on a deeper and possibly more personal level – I don’t know these strangers any more than the ones on a subway, but I know these people are ill or suffering or something that pinpoints something about them.

And then the small, unspoken contract between most people – you do what you would hope someone would do for you under similar circumstances. A woman dropped her glasses, I picked them up and chased her down. She said I saved her life and made her day. I replied, “I would hope someone would do the same for me if it were my glasses.” She said, “There is hope for people yet.”

Apprehended

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What does it take to stop self-destructive phenomena in their tracks? Is it even possible to stop – as opposed to just postponing the inevitable? Often no choice is given. The self-destruction catches up to a man. He is stopped in his tracks involuntarily.

“To live is to tear – to die to be torn?”Yehuda Amichai

But can’t the reverse be truer still? Living feels like being torn, and dying like doing the tearing?

Misapprehension

“I’d move to Canada tomorrow to be with you.” “I thought about you the whole time.”

I keep feeling powerful waves of revulsion, sadness, worry and disgust. Doesn’t one feel self-disgust when she knows someone has repeatedly concealed information, lies, dalliances, circumstances – and even knows the details of those – some of the hurtful words ringing in her ears – but still sticks around? Another form of self-destruction? Why stay for something so tenuous, incomplete and so meaningless? If one can repeat verbatim the same sappy love words to many people, does it mean anything? Isn’t it then a matter of who bites first or who has been hooked, hoodwinked or snake-charmed into the abyss of the bottomless hole of need?

Someone’s gotta stay and clean up this mess.”

Mistaken receipt

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Years ago, I requested a copy of my university transcript. I received mine, but I also received a copy of someone else’s master’s in environmental science diploma along with it.

Today I received a job offer letter and confidentiality agreement in my email inbox from Alaska Airlines. I never applied to any job there, and it was obviously misaddressed.

I love these accidental, tiny glimpses into other people’s lives.

Characters of Glass Hell

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Found a write-up about one of my worst-ever jobs from back in my college days. Putting a few excerpts here. Nearly triggers light PTSD episodes thinking about it (exaggeration, yes).

One day in 1995, I was scheduled for a job interview at a glass company. It was far from ideal, and I immediately got a bad feeling when I missed a turn and passed the barely marked street I should have turned onto. Once I got to the correct street, I drove down, a growing sense of ominous dread coming over me, but despite the alarm bells going off in my head, I kept going. I approached an unmarked warehouse and rundown office space, which housed what would eventually be the worst job I ever had. The surroundings, the location, the dingy carpets, wood paneling everywhere – everything screamed “shady”. I knew none of this felt right, but I really needed the job.

Time makes the memories soften and the impact fade. (Note: This is especially true reviewing this in present-day, 2014.)

I was hired as a part-time, evening customer service person who would handle phone calls from the entire US. We were not allowed to tell callers where we were located. They dialed their local numbers, which were forwarded to our office regardless of where the calls came from. We had to find deceptive, sneaky ways to figure out what market these people were calling from to be able to do anything – to determine whether the service they wanted was available, to give them a price quote, to forward their information on to the appropriate store, etc. etc. I eventually just started asking for callers’ zip codes, which often made them suspicious (as if I could track them down just with a zip code), but I would try to reassure, “It is just to get an accurate quote for tax purposes” or something similar.

The fact that I had to, from minute one, lie to customers – all while the phones were going nuts (we were expected to keep 10+ customers on the line at once) – maybe that should have discouraged me.

I stuck with this for 1.5 years until I was unceremoniously “laid off due to budget cuts” – not at all the truth since they were still hiring people actively when I was let go. I know why it happened, but I guess they wanted to be diplomatic.

I won’t even go into it right now. The thing that really gets me and still, if possible, haunts me is the characters I worked with. I made a few friends (work friends, anyway – we were friendly at work and sometimes socialized outside of work) but mostly I look back and think, “Where did these people come from?” The sort of people who got married on the front porch of their mobile home in a trailer park, but would come to work and boast, “I am super high maintenance and I used to work at Nordy’s” (meaning Nordstrom department store). If she were so great, how did she end up at this hellhole as a job, getting married in her trailer? The other women were a collection of people who went out every night, coming to work in the morning still drunk from the night before. I overheard one of them talking on the phone, telling someone she planned to get her son back from the state (which had deemed her an unfit mother) once she “gets her act together and joins the Air Force”). ?! A conceited and condescending aspiring opera singer kept telling all of us that we cannot understand real love because we had never been in love like she had – she had found her soulmate, by god. Skepticism be damned. I am not sure how she met the guy from Florida that she endlessly talked about as being her soulmate. But she ended up finding out he was a registered sex offender, and then suddenly she did not talk at all except to occasionally say that she was always too good for him and so above him intellectually.

It was sort of a sad mix, a sociological cesspool – a lot of misogyny (the company owner and manager were sexist men), a lot of backbiting and backstabbing, obviously a lot of lying to customers – and then the management lied to us. At some point, the management decided that “all of you girls” need a manager. They hired a former military guy named Art. Art was told he was our manager, but we were not told that Art was our manager. Art would become furious when we refused to “obey” him, but when we confronted the manager above him as to whether or not Art had really been hired to manage us, he said no.

Eventually I insisted that we have a meeting with us, Art and the manager, at which time he was forced to admit that Art had been hired to manage us. We agreed to give Art a chance. Art had some kind of problems that required a lot of medication, at least one of which affected his short-term memory – so he would do something several times in short succession, not realizing he had already done it. This included phoning glass installers all over the US in the middle of the night for emergency calls, defying specific protocols that stated he should only phone once within a 15-minute period. He would call over and over until he got an answer, which infuriated glass installers nationwide. All of them wanted to kill him. I documented over a month’s worth of Art’s madness and presented a six-page letter to the management about his ineffective management. Naturally this was the beginning of the end for me. Even though they fired Art, they definitely did not want to keep me around. Troublemaker!

The final straw was the result of some weird daytime (the characters I mentioned earlier) versus evening employee (the evening people were like me – mostly students or doing this as a second job or something) rivalry. The daytime people handled insurance claims and got commission for the work they sold – evening people could not get commission even if we handled those jobs – it would just be assigned to someone on the daytime shift. One day I came to work and was told that evening people, despite the fact that we overlapped with day shift people, should under no circumstances handle calls that are daytime-specific/commission markets, and that we should always transfer those calls to one of the daytime people because we were “unqualified” to handle them. Haha. This was fine until evening, when there were three evening people on shift, and one daytime person, and I answered the phone and it was a daytime market customer. I told the daytimer I was going to transfer the call to her, she laughed and said I should just take it. I stood my ground and said, “I am not qualified to take it, as we have been told all day.” She got extremely angry, took the call, which turned out to be an order for which she got commission, not just a quote. No matter. She was the backstabbing troublemaker type, so two days later, I was “laid off”.

It was probably the best thing to happen to me at the time, but it definitely did not feel like it at the time. A lot of the things I had been planning to do had fallen apart, and losing a shit job definitely did not help cushion the blow of the other things that plagued me.

But I look at these experiences, so far in the future, and I laugh. They are a grind to get through, and as cliche as it is, they build character – and now it’s like reading a comic book or something – a comic book about loser assholes and total ineptitude.

Back to basics

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I am at a place in my life where I feel like reinventing and throwing a lot of things away. I have done a lot of shedding over the years because I am a nomad and not terribly sentimental. Now that I own a house, it is easy to hang onto things that have no use, so I am sorting now. Must get rid of things that are just taking up space.

I was surprised to find an ancient MP3 player that my former boyfriend brought me from a US business trip – a big, heavy brick-like device – am surprised to find that it not only still works but still contains the 60GB of music I put on it long ago. Its huge storage capacity is the whole reason I wanted that particular device at the time. In a pre-Spotify, smartphone era, it was the easiest way to carry most of my vast music collection around with me.

I found a lot of paperwork, old mobile phones, things I had forgotten.

Stripping things down as much as possible. Bare bones.