bestkungfu weblog

20 years

Filed in: General, Mon, Apr 30 2012 09:07 PT

20 years ago, I was working in a newsroom in Arizona. The first sign we were in for a long evening was the AP feed chirping to us with the message:


For the next hour and a half, the bulletins kept chirping every few minutes, but the “RODNEY KING” slug soon gave way to a new one: “L-A RIOT”.

Meanwhile, we all watched the NBC News Channel feed, which went from background video and scripted packages on the verdict to live KNBC helicopter footage of people in LA taking to the streets – first to vent about the verdict, then to walk out of abandoned storefronts with whatever they could haul. It wasn’t until early evening that we saw Reginald Denny, the truck driver who had been pulled from his car and brutally beaten under the helicopter’s watchful eye.

I was 17, doing an internship for my senior year of high school. There were few events in my life up to that point that rated a where-were-you-when. I can only remember the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan, which happened on a sick day, and the Challenger explosion, which happened on a half-day. The previous year, we’d seen the launch of the Gulf War, the Scud Stud, and the streams of tracer fire and clouds of smoke rising up from Baghdad. Unlike these other events, however, it wasn’t a single event, or set up with choreographed team coverage. It was a chain of events that spun out of control as we watched. And from the newsroom, we scrambled to make sense of it.

I’ve been a spectator to a lot of news since then, all from outside the newsroom. The internet-connected individual has faster and higher-quality access to news today than we did back then. What we lack as a society is the ability to synthesize all of those voices. And there are very smart, connected people who are using that fact to distract and divide us. It’s not enough to have access to al-Jazeera or the BBC or Russia Today; we need to develop a level of news literacy few of us have to understand the forces at work, what they want us to believe and why.

The narratives of the LA Riots are generally known: a black man was pulled out of the car and beaten by five white officers, who were recorded by a bystander in the act, but were acquitted of police brutality charges, sparking five days of rioting in Los Angeles during which 53 people died. There’s so much more to the case than that, though, and if it were to have happened last night, we’d hear another story in parallel: one of a convicted felon (King served two years for robbery) who led officers on a high-speed chase through Los Angeles while drunk and disobeyed the officers who stopped him, leading to the well-documented efforts to subdue him. Numerous polls would be taken, and the public would get to vote on which side was right.

What’s wrong with today’s media is that they so pander to the audience that viewers feel their opinion is valid, however poorly-informed. That’s anathema to a journalist. While we struggle to process all this information we have available to us, we need to realize that cases like Rodney King, or today, Trayvon Martin, are not episodes of American Idol. There are no pure good guys or bad guys. The stories can’t be boiled down to a 30-second synopsis. The information we consume today is stripped of all the conflict and nuance that journalists were meant to help process for us, and instead, we’ve seen the rise of stripped-down storylines that lead the viewer to an emotional appeal – opinion as news.

Twenty years later, the societal problems brought to light (however briefly) by the Rodney King beating are still there. We will never even begin to approach them if, each time a case like this comes around, we talk ourselves into a deadlock over conflicting narratives about who did what to whom. It reaches far deeper than most of us ever get to hear, even when we have access to more stories than ever. Access to instantaneous news should not lead to the production of instantaneous opinion. And that’s why we need to seek out that information, even from sources we distrust, and start working it out. Together.

On April 29, 1992, that was my job. It still is. Only now, it’s yours, too.

Facebook needs accessibility help

Filed in: General, Wed, Jan 26 2011 20:17 PT

That title looks a little confrontational, I know. But no, seriously. They’re actually looking for someone with the skills necessary to help make the most popular site on the web a little more accessible to its users.

Okay, there’s the good news. Here’s the bad: while they’re looking for that person, they’re also busy reinventing my greatest nemesis: the CAPTCHA. Now, at first blush, it might look like it’s not going to be that big of a deal. Reportedly, Facebook is rolling out a service that will display three images of one of a given user’s friends, and prompt them to select that friend’s name from a list. This will appear as a prompt to users who are exhibiting suspicious activity, in an attempt to keep hacked accounts from spamming others, for example.

I will admit that asking people to identify themselves by verifying knowledge of their social network has some significant upside potential. However, by pinning that knowledge on being able to see and recognize an image, a couple groups of people get screwed in this deal. First and foremost are blind and low-vision users, who would fail this test just as readily as they’d fail to recognize mangled patterns of numbers and letters. Given that most of these users have no chance of passing this test, they would presumably be locked out of their own accounts with no real recourse to regaining access. My fear is that the tenor of any subsequent screening would be similar to what one might expect of someone from Nigeria who just failed the same test: that is to say, not pleasant. (Another group I’m less concerned about is people like Robert Scoble, who famously hit up against Facebook’s 5000-friend limit, and who I’d bet dollars to donuts would fail a photo ID on 4/5 of those friends. No offense, Robert. I’m just playing the odds.)

What really worries me about this isn’t that it’ll be a failure, but that it’ll probably be a success. Facebook has all the information it needs to provide random information that tie users together. If that happens, it won’t be long before we start getting these kinds of searches on our Ticketmaster orders in place of CAPTCHAs. Companies would love that kind of certainty because it would reduce fraudulent transactions dramatically. But what makes that a win for Facebook and its partners would also make an already-huge problem for blind and low-vision users even bigger. From what I see here, there isn’t any way to fall back to another kind of test, and this is precisely the role an accessibility specialist needs to play inside Facebook. Somebody has to jump in at this stage and say, “hey, guys, I think you forgot something.”

This one’s a freebie. (By the way, does this count toward my community service? Man, I’ll never punch that mascot again.) What I would say to them is that there is quite likely some other set of information that could be shared, that doesn’t require vision, but merely provide some kind of safeguard beyond the information that’s presently available. Provided the user’s email account hasn’t also been captured, something like a simple password reset could do the job. Failing that, Facebook needs at a minimum to provide a way for blind and low-vision users to contact a human being and prove their identity. That could be as simple as locking down access to a user’s private info once the account has been flagged as suspicious, and asking questions about that info. Sure, hackers could jump in and capture that information first, but once the more sophisticated hackers get wise to this new prompt, they’ll start capturing every friend’s photo as well. There’s no perfect security solution here, but we have to create some way to allow blind and low-vision users to protect themselves more or less equally.

Mind you, any blind user who’s created an account on Facebook has already had to defeat at least one CAPTCHA, which is another problem to solve, but remember that the user has no skin in the game on account creation. When your account may have been hacked, it’s critical, especially on a social networking site, to regain control of it as soon as possible to minimize the damage. (I wish I didn’t know as much about that feeling as I do. Thanks, Gawker.) So it’s important to the overall security of Facebook to ensure that legitimate users can retrieve their accounts quickly, irrespective of their sensory capabilities.

If you have the skills called for in Facebook’s job posting, let me know you’re interested and I can put you in touch (in confidence, if necessary) with someone there. I can’t think of an open position in accessibility that has a greater potential for one person to do a whole lot of good for a whole lot of people. And you will not want for design challenges.

Dear future Android tablet users…

Filed in: General, Sun, May 16 2010 19:54 PT

So, I own an iPad. (And here I am working for Adobe. You may point and laugh… now.) I’ve had it out in public—including in Europe, where I might as well have worn an “ask me about the iPad” t-shirt. I’ve got the pattern down now: someone does a double-take, and I think, “Oh, shit. Here we go again. ‘Yes, I couldn’t resist. I bought it because (reasons), and I’m (mood) with it.'”

I enjoy using my iPad (nicknamed “killer”, by the way), mostly. iBooks and the Kindle app have been perfectly stable, which is good, because the moment my ebook reader crashes, it’s not a serviceable ebook reader. It’s the kind of thing you need to have nailed down.

I’ve got about four pages of downloaded applications, only one of which consists of go-to apps: Twitter client, media streamer, remote keyboard and mouse. The rest are kind of a blur and a distraction. Games, magazines, utilities. I could do without them. That one page covers 95% of what I want to do.

What I can’t do is listen to NPR while I browse my email, and while I’ve been promised that will change this fall, I’m not a patient man. Nor am I the kind of fanboi who’s going to say the promise of multitasking tomorrow is as good as multitasking today.

There are about four things I expect out of a tablet: I want a good-looking screen, HD-quality video, the ability to run the occasional app in the background, and I want it to run all day on a single charge. The iPad meets two and a half of those requirements, if we take off a half-point for only playing 720p video.

Here’s the thing, though. Of my four main requirements, precisely zero of them are unique to Apple. Between now and Christmas, there are going to be dozens of Android-based tablets flooding the market. They’ll all be at or below the price point of the iPad. And you’ll be able to pick the winners fairly easily: they’re the ones that meet all four of my criteria.

So let’s say for the sake of argument that things shake out this way, and by the time you’re in an L-tryptophan coma, your Black Friday ads are loaded with non-iPad options. And let’s say the following morning you sneak into a Best Buy at 5am, scratch and claw your way to one of these devices, and start browsing the Android Market.

You are now invested in the success of Android.

When someone does a double-take in a coffee shop, you’re going to think, “Oh, shit. Here we go again. ‘Yes, I looked at the iPad, but I went with this because (reasons), and I’m (mood) with my purchase.'” The reasons are largely fixed in the hardware, so once you’ve rolled your Gooblet off the lot, you already have your answer to that. How you feel about your purchase, however, is going to depend largely on what you can do with it, and that has a lot to do with what software is available to you, and whether or how well it works.

There’s a tendency to be more forgiving of open-source platforms. Your Free Software Foundation adherents will insist that it’s better to have products that are clearly inferior because free-as-in-speech is better. But try telling that to your mom when she’s trying to make head or tail of your tablet while she maps out the nearest Apple Store.

For Android tablets to succeed, users of the platform need to fight the instinct to apologize for its shortcomings and that of its software. You need to be vocal, even brutal, about the problems you find. If an open-source product doesn’t cut it, call it out. If a payware application crashes left and right, let ’em have it.

The tablet market is not the same as the Linux hobbyist market. The vast majority won’t be compiling their own apps, much less rewriting them. They shouldn’t be expected to. As a result, developers of tablet apps need to be very responsive to their users. If you want the Android platform to take off on tablets, the applications can’t be just great for Android apps. They need to be great apps, period. No editing text files, no byzantine dependencies, no open-source shovelware.

You, the user, should use all available avenues to establish the bar for your expected user experience, and hold developers to it. On the iPhone/iPad platform, ostensibly, the App Store serves as a quality filter. (In reality, there are mountains of shitty little applications, but there, the App Store at least does the service of letting us one-star them.) In the Android Market, users need to be just as brutal, demanding and vocal as they are in the App Store. Android tablets are not going to succeed by being almost as good as iPads, but, like, less evil. The best way to make them successful is to be very clear about where the system, the hardware and the applications fall short. The best way to make them fail is to pretend they’re good enough, when they’re not.

Realistic sentimentality

Filed in: General, Fri, Jun 12 2009 18:18 PT

“Whenever people say, ‘We mustn’t be sentimental,’ you can take it they are about to do something cruel. And if they add, ‘We must be realistic,’ they mean they are going to make money out of it.”

Brigid Brophy, author

I’m old

Filed in: General, Mon, Jul 10 2006 12:39 PT

…and here’s what made me feel that way.

I just looked at the Italian World Cup squad on Wikipedia. Their birthdays are listed.

I am older than all but five of them (Cannavaro, Materazzi, Peruzzi, Inzaghi, and Del Piero, who’s five days older than me). That leaves 18 World Cup champions that are younger than me. This is problematic for me, because it means I probably won’t be able to get in shape for the next World Cup, and if I did, at 35 I’d be too old. Though I suppose my complete and utter lack of soccer-playing talent may be a larger obstacle.

Oh well. Back to my rocking chair.

Clearing out

Filed in: General, Fri, May 5 2006 00:26 PT

My inbox contains fewer than 100 messages. It’s been 9 years since last I could say that.

Our move is complete. During the move, and the resultant settling in, I’ve spent a lot of time relieving myself of clutter. I sold a guitar, a couple of MIDI keyboards, and even did the first weeding of my CD collection since 1993. We sold most of our furniture, and we keep pruning. Fewer pieces. Fewer computers. Fewer gadgets. Fewer books. Fewer clothes. We may even get rid of our storage locker.

Of course, none of this is to say that we have become ascetics, disposing of the things we need along with the things we don’t. It does appear, though, that we are growing out of our desire for more, and into the desire for better. We want things that work as intended, things that solve our problems, things that serve many purposes. We don’t want to have cords cluttering our field of view; instead, we want free spaces for us to enjoy.

Our place is really coming together, and hopefully tomorrow I will rid us of all our remaining boxes from the move. Once that’s complete, the next phase will be to bring my online life into some semblance of order, including this blog and all of the other places I do my writing. Organization is the theme, and will continue to be the theme until it’s not something I have on my mind all the time.

Chez New

Filed in: General, Wed, Mar 22 2006 21:39 PT

I have an announcement I’ve been putting off until it’s official, but it’s close enough now. We’re closing on a condo next Monday. The signing is tomorrow afternoon. This is good for me because, as you may know, I’m just not doing much of anything lately.

We sold our first house (Chez Mew) last July, and have been living in an apartment complex that doubles as a dorm for the nearby performing arts school, so I can say without reservation that I am thrilled beyond rational thought at finally having a place of our own again. The new place is about six blocks from where we are now, and we’re on the top floor, in a building we’re told won’t be 300 degrees in the summertime.

Now, all I have to do is find time to get rid of many of my possessions, then pack, move, and get settled in while also not having an opportunity to take a day off until the first week of April.  I’ll do a video tour once we’re all moved in. (It won’t take long: there are only three rooms in the place.)

Random podcasting tip

Filed in: General, Tue, Mar 7 2006 23:35 PT

If you have problems being lucid for several minutes at a time, and as a result think you sound like an idiot, my advice is to try doing your show in a foreign language. Preferably one you have no business speaking. Once you’re done, if you’re like me, you’ll feel like you can go hours without falling victim to vocal vapor lock.

That’s what I did. Staccato 26 is in French. It took a month before I could actually make myself complete it. I finished the show by giving out my email, confessing I’m an American, and asking my francophone listeners to be kind.

I think I’ll be able to do #27 in my sleep.

Which is great, since it’s the only time I have available to do it. Anybody want to do some SQL for me?

Set your compasses

Filed in: General, Thu, Mar 2 2006 18:18 PT

If you’re going to be at SXSWi in a week and a half, you’re cordially invited to join us for a Saturday evening social event. It’s rather like a cotillion, except without dance cards, and everybody’s drunk.

It’s the inaugural South by Northwest party, though I’ve been calling it Bryght Blue Vine City. Whatever you call it,  this will be the event for folks who have waterproofed their PowerBooks, drink six-shot raspberry macchiatos, or remember seeing Nirvana in somebody’s basement back when they totally sucked. Do show up between 10:30pm and 2am and help me prepare for my first panel, Bode Miller sty-lee.

Oh, and don’t forget to bring your tough sIFR questions. Mike D loves those.

Three words

Filed in: General, Fri, Feb 3 2006 21:47 PT

Staccato returns Saturday late Monday Tuesday.

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