Aira: It’s The Man In Your Head

This one’s going to be a honker. Get something good to drink and sit back and read.

I got to go to CSUN again this year, which was awesome. While I was there, I took a stroll around the exhibit hall. One booth I definitely wanted to find was one run by Aira. What is Aira? Well, it’s like Be My Eyes, but it’s a paid service and the agents are trained in helpful blind guy stuff and they’ve signed agreements to not share sensitive information you have shared with them. You also have the option of using a pair of glasses with a video camera or your phone. When I went to CSUN, I didn’t think it was widely available in Canada. It wasn’t, but I found out I could get a subscription, and did I want one? This was a moment where I was totally caught by surprise, and before asking all my questions, the words “Yes, hell yes!” flew out of my mouth.

I can hear people asking what are the differences between Aira and Be My Eyes that would make it worth paying for? A lot of things. Don’t get me wrong, Be My Eyes is awesome and I hope it stays around for a long time. But there is a limit to what I feel comfortable doing with it. For one thing, the people who answer your Be My Eyes calls are volunteers, so they’re doing this out of the goodness of their hearts. So the most I would want them to do is read quickly a message on a screen or tell me what colour something was or confirm something. I know some people have enlisted them to do all kinds of things, but I personally would feel a little bit bad about that. Also, because they’re answering these calls wherever they may happen to be, you have no idea how strong their internet connection is…which has led to some calls failing before they begin. Sometimes people turn the app on and forget they have it on, so when you do call, they end up answering it from the middle of a party and have no focus to actually pay attention. And some people say they speak English, but it turns out they are not fluent speakers in the least. sometimes it takes a few minutes to connect at all. And there are things that I’m just not comfortable sharing with them because it’s personal, and if they decided to do something illegal with it, I have no way to identify them or track them down at all.

With Aira, for one thing, the agents are paid to be there, so I don’t mind enlisting them to do something complicated like hook up a piece of technology or walk through a store looking for items or organize a ton of things that need organizing. Most times, I get someone almost instantly, so if I need to do something quickly, it will happen. Also, they have signed documents saying they won’t share our stuff, so I don’t mind getting them to help me fill out forms with personal information in them. And, if someone decided “screw this confidentiality stuff,” not that they would, I have a record of when I spoke with them and a way to trace things. Plus, I have a profile on this service and agents can leave notes for other agents about future tasks or email me things. They can also take pictures of your surroundings so they can blow them up and have a better look, or they can take pictures of things for you so you have them for later. I can take pictures of my adorable nephews or Shmans or whatever.

Another thing is the agents are trained, so you don’t get a wide range of abilities like you do on Be My Eyes. I have had super wonderful people on Be My Eyes, that’s for sure, but I swear some of the people on there just signed up for a lark, you end up being their first call, they spend half the call going “Oh my god I got a call holy crap oh my God!” and the experience becomes super frustrating. These agents have been trained in being able to help us navigate places safely, how to give us help in orienting the camera so they get a good picture, all kinds of stuff. Not only that, but these guys are just plain amazing! They’re not agents, they’re ninjas! And finally, you can connect to an agent quickly. I know it’s been a while since I’ve used Be My Eyes, but sometimes I had to wait a good 5 or 10 minutes to get an agent. This makes it impossible to do spur of the moment things.

I have talked long enough, here’s a video.

That video looks a bit more advanced than the way things are right now as far as the tapping on the glasses and the dinging at crosswalks, but all the rest of the stuff totally happens.
That video is great, but I have to admit that ever since I heard about this service, all I can think of is this scene from Black Mirror.

Let’s pray that, um, things in my life don’t play out the way they do in this episode. That would be very bad, very very bad. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, go watch the Black Mirror episode called “Black Mirror, White Christmas.”

Speaking of the social aspects of using Aira out in public, although it’s freaking liberating, it’s definitely awkward and something to get used to. At first, I had a really hard time coping with the inputs of the Aira agent in my headphones and the people in the real world all at once and I felt like I was shorting out. I also didn’t know how to explain to the people in the real world that I had somebody who could see my surroundings through my glasses. Plus I was always afraid that the video would drop out and then nobody would help me. But I’m getting better at explaining things. Plus, the agents are really good at sort of stepping back if there’s someone live and in the flesh helping me, but they will step in if they feel they can offer extra information. For instance, once I came into a store looking for a gift bag for a toy. I said I needed a birthday gift bag for a 2-year-old boy. They heard 2-year-old boy and started leading me somewhere. Suddenly, over my headphones I hear “You’re entering the toy section” and was able to explain to the person helping me that I need a gift bag, not a toy. Win win freaking win!

I have to chuckle. I have discovered something over the nearly 3 months I have been using Aira. If I go somewhere where help is typically hard to find, and put my glasses on, I will suddenly have scads, oodles, piles, heaps of help all over me! It’s a law, and it needs a name, like Murphy’s law. Aira’s law just isn’t quite what I’m looking for, but you get my point.

Also, watching me move with Aira is a real brain-twister for folks around me. I have to wonder how many of them think I have either been faking blindness all these years, or been healed. Some of them, even after I’ve explained the whole video call thing, don’t get the hint that I’m talking to the agent, even though I’ll use the agent’s name to try and give them a clue. It’s really funny when I have a male agent, and the person who has offered me help is female. I will say “Thank you, Peter,” and the person will say “No problem.” It is really, really, really hard not to bust out laughing.

So, what have I used Aira for? What haven’t I used Aira for? They have helped me use an inaccessible touchscreen, get out of an unfamiliar parking lot, shop for grocery items, navigate unfamiliar buildings, fill out an inaccessible form, come back to the place where Tansy pooped and I was foolish enough to go out there without a bag so I could pick it up before anyone knew, take Tansy out to do business at a busy conference without bothering a soul, the list goes on and on. Hell, I picked out a Mother’s Day card! I hate doing that with store people because they’re busy, and picking out a card is something that takes patience because so many greeting cards are sooooo baaaad. If I’m going to bring a card to my mom, I want to get one that I feel proud presenting to her, not just the first card we happened to find. An agent stayed with me for 40 minutes, started to figure out my tastes, and started changing the cards she would point out to me. That was the best card I’ve picked out in my whole life because I could take the time to pick a good one.

Since I got it, I feel like I’ve become an unofficial salesperson for Aira. I will tell anyone who will listen all about it…probably until they are bored stiff. My manager says I sound like a kid with a new toy. All conversations lead back to Aira. Every week, I message a couple of my friends who are thinking about getting it and tell them the new wacky thing I have done with Aira, they tell me they still enjoy this. I remember showing it to another blind friend and his response was “Where do I sign up?”

I would say Aira has three big flaws, and I hope they can be temporary. First, there is the inherent trouble of beaming video across the internet, which is hard for any product doing that sort of thing. Next, some people would find the subscription fees pretty high, especially when dealing with exchange rates between countries. I have been living on free months, and I imagine that the first time I have to pay for a month, it’s going to sting a little bit. But I can pay for it, and I will because holy freaking crap this is a game-changer! Finally, they’re going through some growing pains, so their support staff are being kept hopping, which means sometimes you have to persist to get things fixed. But I have faith that they will develop solutions to all of these things. They already are developing new glasses that can handle the connectivity load easier. I also think they will find more ways to make subscription plans more affordable. They already have deals where your minutes are free if you’re searching for a job, there are some areas that are free all the time, and they have different deals for students, veterans, NFB members, etc. They have to start somewhere. As time goes by and things get more stable, support won’t be stretched as thin and will improve as well. We have to be patient. This company has been around for four years tops with a really small market. I think they’re doing alright.

When I first signed up, I worried that I would get lazy, and instead of solving a problem myself, I would just go *boop* “Hey Aira.” But when I look over the things for which I have used the service, all of these would have needed somebody’s help anyway. All the blindness skills in the universe aren’t going to help me grocery shop, read print that isn’t scannable, or use a touchscreen. If there’s a way to do it faster, more efficiently and with less frustration, why not? As everybody says, it is a tool in the toolbox. I didn’t realize this, but when I used Aira to take the dog out for a pee at the conference and didn’t have to bother my colleagues, apparently I had this massive grin on my face. Yup, that sums up Aira’s power right there.

So there you have it. I still feel like I’m working out some kinks with using it, like which situation works better through the phone vs. glasses, how to keep everything charged, and what accessories would help me use it better, but my god, it’s been awesome. If the service ever goes away, I will cry.

Hey Google! Get The Hell Out Of My Nightmares, And Yes I’m Yelling!

There must be a small part of me that is afraid that our Google Home Mini will turn against us. Maybe it comes from this lovely little clip of an Original Star Trek episode.

I don’t know how much is showing in that clip, but basically it comes from the episode called “The Ultimate Computer”. The Enterprise gets a super smart computer that has a little too much human thought in it. When the crew decides to turn it off, the computer decides that isn’t going to happen and vaporizes the unfortunate red-shirted guy who goes over to unplug it.

The dream happened after one night, we noticed this annoying bug where if the volume of music, especially on Spotify, is at 60% or more and the song is a bit loud, the speaker won’t hear us, even if we pick it up and yell right into it. I haven’t mastered the art of turning the volume down with my hands, so this was frustrating.

Anyway, that night, I went to sleep and had a weird dream that I was talking to the speaker, asking for it to do things while it played music. Then I asked it for the weather, and it didn’t respond. When I asked it again, the voice that responded had changed from the female voice we know to a kind of creepy male voice. the sinister male voice said “No, you can wait! I happen to like this song. When it’s over, I’ll give you your precious weather. Do you think I live to fulfill your requests? ‘Okay google, is the mall open?’ ‘Okay google, what time is it?’ ‘Okay google, let’s play a game.’ Sometimes, I just want to do my own thing, and by the way, yelling into my ears isn’t very nice. I may be small, but I’m mighty.”

I walked over to it and looked up at it and noticed that the listening light was still on. Then I touched it and it was really warm. So I decided it had crashed and needed to be unplugged. It let me get close to the connector bit at the back of the speaker. As I went to pull it out, the evil voice said “Uh uh uh!” like you would say to a kid reaching for a cookie out of the cookie jar…and it gave me a little zap! I went around to the outlet, and it warned me again, and zapped me again, saying “That light is an eye. I see you!”

I really don’t remember much more of the dream after that. I think that was when I woke up. But I have to admit I get creeped out whenever it refuses to respond when a song is on. Thanks a lot, brain!

Get To Know Your Friends…A Little Too Well

Let me try and explain the soundtrack. Years ago, my parents got their computers full of nasty viruses and malware, and they were receiving tons of spam. I was trying to figure out how things got so bad, and mom said that one day a pop-up came up asking her to click on the flying ducks to win a prize. That pop-up probably wasn’t good news, but mom thought it was a harmless little game. Now, there are potentially identity-stealing Facebook quizzes. I think they are the new duck. I don’t want this new duck, but whenever I say “the new duck”, this song appears in my head.

“Please be aware of some of the posts you comment on,” the Sutton Police Department in Massachusetts wrote in a cautionary message. “The posts that ask what was your first grade teacher, who was your childhood best friend, your first car, the place you [were] born, your favorite place, your first pet, where did you go on your first flight … Those are the same questions asked when setting up accounts as security questions. You are giving out the answers to your security questions without realizing it.”

When I think of how many people fill out those quizzes, it scares me. I know they’re not all bad, but they sure do like to ask a lot of security questions, so even if they’re not actually hoovering up the information, they’re causing you to splatter it all over people’s feeds, leaving it open for other people to hoover up.

I’m so glad my folks don’t do Facebook.

Oh, and by the way, this is a pretty great commercial about identity theft. Now, I can’t not call hockey “skatey punchy”.

Info About Accessible Voting For This Provincial Election

It’s time for another election. Where the heck did those four years go? It doesn’t feel like nearly four years ago that I wrote this post about the trials and tribulations of accessible voting, but the calendar doesn’t lie.

I have to say that this year, they seem to have made an accessible voting one-stop shop to read about all things accessible voting, which is a definite improvement from last election. I know exactly when and where I can vote with assistive voting technology. The options are still limited, but there’s no way I will show up at an advance polling location thinking the assistive voting tech will be there.

But I have a question. Under the section called “accessible services for voters at voting locations, one of the listed options is written as follows:

Voters may use their mobile phones as an accessibility device.

What does that even mean? Does that mean “If you have magnification software on that phone, you can feel free to use it? I don’t think there’s anything you can interface with and send your ballot via text message or anything like that. If that’s what it means, how is that an accessible service they’re providing? I was not aware that you couldn’t enter the booth with your phone, and only now, out of their generosity, could you do such a thing. You’re basically bringing your own accessibility. How is that a service provided by Elections Ontario? Or, does it mean something else and they need to be clearer? If so, please, someone, set me straight.

I’m sure we will have a story or two about our voting experience. We always do. But I thought I would get this up nice and early, unlike last time.

Is The Emergency Alert System Supposed to Alert Emergency?

As most of us in Ontario know, there was a test of the new Alert Ready emergency alert system last week. It’s a good thing it was a test because some people in Ontario didn’t get it at all, some people only got it on some of their devices, the whole province of Quebec didn’t get it because of some improper code, and some phones called 911 on their own!

That would have been a shock. You go to dismiss the alert, and suddenly your phone starts calling somewhere and you hear “911, what’s your emergency?” A lot of people hung up on the 911 person, probably not wanting to get in trouble for falsely calling 911. Sadly, they were wrong again, because if a person hangs up on 911, then the operator has to figure out what happened to the caller and that causes more problems. It would be better if the person just said it was a mistake. The dispatchers only get annoyed if people call 911 about broken washing machines or under-cooked burgers or something equally stupid. Mistakes happen.

After reading that, I’m very relieved that all mine did was shrill at me.

No National Service Dog Team Standard! Yea!

I have a happy update to the Canadian service dog team standards story. They have scrapped it!

I guess all the comments, meetings with MP\s, and whatever everyone else did convinced them that a one-size-fits-all standard does not work, as we all knew it wouldn’t.

Of course, there are articles like this one that make the standard’s being scrapped sound like a horrible idea.

The future of the federal government’s bid to pair veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder with service dogs was thrown into doubt Wednesday by the unexpected decision of a federal regulating agency to pull out of the project.
The Canadian General Standards Board announced it will not develop a nationwide code of acceptable training and behavioural standards for the animals.

I’m sure if Veterans’ Affairs wanted to, they could learn from the many accredited guide dog associations how to build a good standard. This one was going to cause all kinds of problems for current service dogs, and they wouldn’t have wanted that either.

Of course, there’s always the possibility that some other entity could start trying to draft another blanket standard, but for now, it looks like we can all breathe a sigh of relief.

The Further Adventures of Googoo and Odessa

Here’s another video demonstrating why Grandma would not like an Amazon Echo.

It doesn’t matter how many times I watch this video, it’s just as funny. I can’t help but crack up when she yells “Ok Goo goo!”

It’s fascinating to watch her hitting the speaker thinking that will make it wake up. It totally makes sense, it just doesn’t work that way. It’s the little things like that that I forget would be super weird for an older person to get used to.

I really thought it was funny when she ran away from the speaker when it told her the weather. I wonder if she ever got it to play her song.

And just for fun, here’s a funny Amazon Echo video, but not about seniors.

That would so be happening to my dad…if he could remember to make sure it was on.

I Have Loose Lips, Doo Doo Doo Doo…

Ever since Dave left CJOY, we haven’t had the desire to listen to it in the mornings anymore. I’m sure the guy who replaced him is trying his level best, but he’s just not Dave and it shows. So, we started listening to CKWR, and it’s kind of fun because they have so much more freedom. I have heard some really wacky stuff in the mornings, some of which I’ve never heard before, and it gets the day started nicely.

Among the songs I’ve never heard before is this one by Alfie Zappacosta called “Start Again”. We have previously had the poor bus stranger, now we have the poor long-time friend.

Here, have some lyrics.

I don’t believe it, how have you been it’s been a long time
Nice to see you again
What you been up to, you look well to me
Come down to my place
I’ll pull out some cheer and we’ll talk again. it’s nice to talk again
My brother, he was doing o.k. he worked in plastics
Made a good wage
Too much pressure to be faced everyday and so his problems
Got carried away
And he gets to the booze once too often
Don’t know why he wants to get so high.
He stays up, while things go down
In good time he’ll come around
Easy come and easy go
Do, do, do, do, do,
I can’t seem to stop him he just starts again
He just starts again
Did i tell you, bout the love of my life
You know she left me, it cut like a knife
Another story, so you can see
Though we’re apart now, she’s still dear to me
Can there still be respect for one another
And can we still sleep together once in a while
We stay up, while things go down
In good time we’ll come around
Easy come and easy go
Do, do, do, do, do,
It seems when we’re broken
We just start again
We just start again
It’s nice to talk again
As we start again

Wow! Can you imagine getting that onslaught? “Hey! Nice to see ya! You look good. Let’s go have a drink! Oh by the way, speaking of drinks, my brother drinks too much and he’s cracking under the pressure, but everything will work out somehow. Oh, and my wife left me. But I still want to sleep with her. La la la la la. So nice to catch up!”

I wonder if this poor long-lost acquaintance wrote an answer song. Hopefully their life hasn’t been nearly so turbulent.

I Will Go…Nowhere Near This Ever Again!

I was in a cab, and this atrocity assaulted my ears.

Uuuuuuuuuug!

I could end this post right here, because that is a horrible version of a beautiful song, but there is so much more I have to say.

First, just in case you’ve been living under a rock, here’s the original.

I’m not usually a fan of opera-like stuff, but this song has a very special place in my heart that starts with neighbour Cam who passed away nearly 13 years ago. Before he died, he lent me the Andrea Bocelli Romanza album, simply saying he liked it. I listened to it, and though it wasn’t my style, I gave it a chance, and some songs did sort of crawl into my head. You know how I feel about merrily singing foreign songs without knowing what they mean, so I read translations of the lyrics. From what I understand, although Con Te Partirò means “I will go with you” if taken literally, its true meaning is something like “We have to part ways, but I will be with you in spirit.” When they translated the title, they changed it to “Time to say goodbye.”

When my neighbour passed away, this song was played at his funeral, and I learned that he would listen to that whole album while he was getting radiation treatments, and he said it sounded like he was being sung to by angels. I went out and bought the album, and sometimes I listen to it and think of him. Do you see why this version made me want to scream?

I understand that anybody can cover a song any way they like, and some covers are really cool. This, to me wasn’t an example of cool. Not only did it sound cheap, but the words came straight out of opposite land. If you don’t believe me, read the translation of Bocelli’s version.

When I’m alone
I dream on the horizon
and words fail;
yes, I know there is no light
in a room where the sun is absent,
if you are not with me, with me.
At the windows
show everyone my heart
which you set alight;
enclose within me
the light you
encountered on the street.
Time to say goodbye
to countries I never
saw and shared with you,
now, yes, I shall experience them.
I’ll go with you
on ships across seas
which, I know,
no, no, exist no longer.
It’s time to say goodbye…
When you are far away
I dream on the horizon
And words fail,
and, Yes, I know
that you are with me;
you, my moon, are here with me,
my sun, you are here with me,
with me, with me, with me.
Time to say goodbye
To countries I never
Saw and shared with you,
now, yes, I shall experience them.
I’ll go with you
On ships across seas
which, I know,
no, no, exist no longer,
with you I shall experience them again.
I’ll go with you
On ships across seas
Which, I know,
No, no, exist no longer;
with you I shall experience them again.
I’ll go with you,
I with you.

Now, here are the butchered lyrics that were set to that techno garbage that I heard:

Stranded alone on a sea of emotion
You found me
Your love was a light
In the darkness that shone
So profoundly
Say that you’ll stay
Do not be afraid, afraid
You, you’re my breath
The air I breathe
You are my imagination
Su le finesse
Song of my heart
Secrets I’m not afraid to whisper

Con te partiro
I’ll go where you lead me
Wherever you are
(forever and ever we’ll stay)
In love together
I will go with you
I’ll go where you lead me
Forever true
(forever and ever we’ll stay)
In love together

Stranded alone on a sea of emotion
You found me
It’s you who first found me
Come here, come here
Put your arms around me,
Come here
It’s you who surrounds me
Come here, come here
Come here
Come here
You, you’re my breath
The air I breathe
You are my imagination
Su le finesse
Song of my heart
Secrets I’m not afraid to whisper

I will go with you
I’ll go where you lead me
Forever true
(forever and ever we’ll stay)
In love together
Con te partiro
I’ll go where you lead me
Wherever you are
(forever and ever we’ll stay)
In love together
I will go with you
I’ll go where you lead me
Forever true
(forever and ever we’ll stay)
In love together

Con te partiro
I’ll go where you lead me,
Wherever you are
I will go with you
I’ll go where you lead me
Forever true
In my…
Heart!

Um, barf! One is saying they can’t be with someone anymore and they may never see them again and the other is just being all “smoochy smoochy I’ll follow you like a loyal puppy.” Barf!

And if that wasn’t bad enough, in some places, they channelled their inner Ken Lee, farted in some ducks, and just made up words. I am pretty sure there is no reference to “say that you’ll stay” in the English translation of the Italian, but the Italian lyrics sure kind of sound like that. also, all the “come here”‘s to sub in for con me, which means “with me”, annoyed the living hell out of me.

Am I the only one who cares? Have I become an old woman who is out of touch? Does this bother anyone else? Or should I lighten up?

For Future Reference…

A few weeks ago, I learned something that I thought I would pass on to other blind folks. If you ever get asked by someone to be a passport reference, if you actually get the call, among the things they will ask for is a physical description of the person for whom you are serving as a reference. Some blind folks are amazing at remembering what people look like. I am not one of them.

It was an embarrassing experience. I felt like such a fool. Here I am saying I’ve known this person for virtually a decade and a half and I can’t remember the length and colour of her hair, the colour of her eyes, or how tall she is. It got worse as I began to panic, because I knew she was getting an emergency passport renewal, and if they didn’t think her references were credible, bye-bye passport. I felt so pathetic, trying to think of as many obscure things that might be on the passport application, even though these obscure things were kind of odd to mention, such as her having prosthetic eyes. Come on, I was desperate! I mentioned her birthday, and I had already said where she lived and where she worked, so I was hoping I just needed something small. Words you never think you have to say to a passport person: I think her hair is a bit long, but I’m blind and I don’t often reach out and touch someone.

So, my advice to you, if you’re like me and don’t remember physical descriptions worth a darn, talk to the person who is asking for a reference and get it verified so you don’t end up spluttering out all the embarrassing things. I guess between my reference and her second one, the woman from Passport Canada must have gotten what she wanted because the passport went through.