Yes, Things Have Been Quiet, But That’s Only Because We Were Off Learning That Siri Existed 30 Years Ago

Well hello there!

Yes, both we and the site do, in fact, still exist. Things have just been quiet the last little bit because it’s summer and that tends to be how things roll around here regardless of intent. Usually you all have the same idea as us, but for some reason numbers haven’t fallen off of nearly the cliff this go round that they generally do this time of year. I can’t decide whether to credit that to the list or if the lesson is that we can abandon you more often without having to care.

It’s been a good summer, for the most part. Some relaxing, some time with family, some time with friends, some music on our own porch and elsewhere, some relaxing after the friends and music because we’re starting to get too old for this shit and some other, less fun real life stuff that I won’t get into right now.

I can’t promise that we’re back up to speed starting now since it is, after all, still summertime, but in almost 15 years there has yet to be a month in the archives with 0 posts in it, so I had to come up with something since that’s a thing I’m strangely proud of.

So to keep the streak alive and also because it’s good, please enjoy this video demonstration of Siri…the 1980s edition.

As a blind guy I’ve heard a lot of awful computerized voices and have gotten pretty used to them out of necessity, but this one is so over the top awful that even I can’t make some of it out. The only thing I got out of the Nirvana’s first album question was 1967, and I don’t even know where to start on the coolest German song bit. But there’s some nice dumb subtle comedy here when you can understand it and they absolutely nailed the hokey old school presentation, so nice job.

FlickType Just Got Even Better

A few months ago I wrote about FlickType and how nice it was to have an honest to god easy way to type on my iPhone again. And today, the news gets better.

Dear AppleVis friends,
We could not be any more excited today to share with you our biggest news yet: The brand new, system-wide FlickType keyboard is now available on the App Store! Packed with emoji, cursor control, better dictionary and so much more! A huge thank you to all our amazing testers, we couldn’t have done it without you ☺️
The new container app is also much easier to navigate, has improved instructions and is totally free to use. For the system-wide custom keyboard, we are offering a free 7-day trial, and after that it’s just 99 cents per month. Continuing to build out this technology is no small task, and this will support our ongoing development costs so that we can continue to provide you with the very best VoiceOver typing experience available.
All beta testers can continue to use the custom keyboard free of charge, but we hope that you will also support us by simply downloading FlickType from the App Store and choosing the “Upgrade” option. You will still receive new beta builds as usual.
A big thank you to everyone for your support over the last few months, and we can’t wait to show you what else we’ve planned for the future of VoiceOver typing. Please help us spread the word!
Warmly, Kosta and Ashley

Yes, you can now make FlickType the default keyboard anywhere you’d like! No more bouncing between apps to paste text! I mean sure that was still faster than touch typing and not a huge inconvenience by any means, but now things will be even faster and more convenient! Ok, I’ll stop with the exclamation points now!

One thing I should note about the subscription price: Here in Canada, that 99 cents per month is actually $1.29. It’s still completely reasonable and based on what I’ve seen of the trial so far I’m going to be more than willing to pay it, but if you’re in a country that isn’t America, that’s something to be aware of.

Ok, off to get used to how all the new bits work now.

What’s That, Lassie? You Can Speak English Now?

I read about the idea of a pet translator, and although it’s in primitive stages, I got a little bit excited. Maybe, finally, this could be what I have been wishing for in this old post. Maybe this would allow me to ask my guide dog why she’s having trouble, or if anything hurts, or what is making her anxious. Maybe, just maybe this could help me when the poor thing is trying to tell me she’s ready to retire so I wouldn’t have to do so much guesswork, putting the poor beast through more misery.

It blows my mind that some folks managed to train some dogs to not only go into an MRI, but to be able to complete tasks in there. I read the book on that, and although I didn’t learn what I wanted to, I was still amazed.

Anyway, hopefully, in 10 years or so, at least vets will have a pet translator in their office so we can figure out why the dog is having troubles that are hard to diagnose from mere observation. Then, maybe, in my lifetime, people with pets will be able to buy these suckers and have one in their home.

Spooky Stuff Coming To Real Life

Here are eight “Black Mirror” things that kinda sorta exist in real life. Actually, we should make that nine.

I meant to put this up last week to make people go “Woe, freaky!” Steve sent it to me. I knew about a few of these, but not all of them. No. 2 and 3 were the freakiest to me. We don’t need people recording snippets of things every time they blink. We blink a lot! And the idea that somebody made a social robot based off someone is just too weird. I wonder how good it actually is, because it wasn’t that long ago that Chat bots weren’t the greatest at chatting, so maybe this robot isn’t scarily good yet either.

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!

Hey Google, Why Didn’t You Tell Me There Was A Website Listing Everything A Google Home Can Do?

Why this page has never once come up when we’ve Googled things about our Google Home Mini is a bit of a mystery to me especially since Google built it, but now that I’ve found it, I think things are going to be a whole lot easier and probably more fun.

It’s categorized, it’s searchable, it features a bunch of new and trending capabilities on its main page, and it’s right here if you ever need it.

Thank you, random post I happened to see on Lifehacker.

Google Duplicitous?

It seems people have some questions about Google’s creepy human sounding AI assistant. Fortunately or perhaps unfortunately, these are questions that go beyond why are you trying to give us all nightmares from hell, Google?

As Axios noted Thursday morning, there was something a little off in the conversations the A.I. had on the phone with businesses, suggesting that perhaps Google had faked, or at least edited, its demo. Unlike a typical business (Axios called more than two dozen hair salons and restaurants), the employees who answered the phone in Google’s demos don’t identify the name of the business, or themselves. Nor is there any ambient noise in Google’s recordings, as one would expect in a hair salon or a restaurant. At no point in Google’s conversations with the businesses did the employees who answered the phone ask for the phone number or other contact information from the A.I. Further, California is a two-party consent state, meaning that both parties need to consent in order for a phone conversation to be legally recorded. Did Google seek the permission of these businesses before calling them for the purposes of the demo? Was it staged in the simulated manner of reality TV?
Google isn’t saying. When Axios reached out for comment to verify that the businesses existed, and that the calls weren’t set up in advance, a spokesperson declined to provide names of the establishments; when Axios asked if the calls were edited (even just to cut out the name of the business, to avoid unwanted attention), Google also declined to comment. The company did not immediately respond to a series of questions from the Hive.

Let me say right off the top that I’m glad people are asking questions. Right now and headed into the future, we need all the critical thinking we can get. But some of this stuff strikes me as being kind of nitpicky, and in one case just flat out wrong.

Let’s start with that one. No ambient noise? Ok, in the salon call there isn’t any, but in the restaurant one you can pretty clearly hear people jibbering in the background. I’ll hear your argument that it’s not as loud as maybe you would expect it to be, but it’s there. Part of that could be proximity of the phone to wherever those people are, but part of it I’m going to go ahead and blame on the somewhat poor quality of the recording.

As for the salon, maybe it was closed. Maybe it wasn’t busy. Maybe there’s an office with a door on it and a phone inside. Plenty of things can explain that away.

Did Google edit the calls? Of course they did. The way the calls are answered is completely unnatural. It sounds like the person picks up while their greeting is already in progress. It’s a pretty obvious edit for a pretty obvious reason. I’m sure they did the same thing if there was an exchange of contact information. Nobody wants an 867-5309 situation on their hands.

But what about two-party consent laws? Glad you asked.

Federal law and many state wiretapping statutes permit recording if one party (including you) to the phone call or conversation consents. Other states require that all parties to the communication consent.
Unfortunately, it is not always easy to tell which law applies to a communication, especially a phone call. For example, if you and the person you are recording are in different states, then it is difficult to say in advance whether federal or state law applies, and if state law applies which of the two (or more) relevant state laws will control the situation. Therefore, if you record a phone call with participants in more than one state, it is best to play it safe and get the consent of all parties. However, when you and the person you are recording are both located in the same state, then you can rely with greater certainty on the law of that state.

That’s simple enough to understand, and simple enough, I suspect, to get around. Do we know for certain that those calls were placed from and to California? Google has offices and employees all over the place, and salons and restaurants are even more all over the place than that. As long as these recordings don’t involve problem areas, this is a non-issue.

The way I look at this, Google being doubted is all Google’s fault. Why not answer the questions? Better yet, why not be up front about the sorts of processing you did on the recordings so that maybe questions won’t have to be asked in the first place? Saying that yes we edited some stuff for privacy reasons or even yes the businesses knew we were going to call them isn’t going to give away any proprietary information that could be swiped by a competitor. Nor is it going to make what it seems you’ve accomplished here any less impressive…or scary. Because holy hell is it ever scary.

Did You Guys Hear All The Loud, Useless Noise After The Emergency Alert?

Today in people who can fuck right off in the direction of hell and hopefully choke on a party-sized bag of dicks on their way if good fortune is smiling on the rest of us: Everyone complaining about getting Amber Alerts on their phones yesterday.

The Ontario Provincial Police had issued the alert for a missing eight-year-old boy in the Thunder Bay region. (The boy has since been found safe.)

But gripes about the system soon began to pour in. Kingston police said they received “several complaints” regarding the Amber Alert notice. On social media, people startled by the alerts complained about the number of alerts they received and that they had received separate alerts in English and French.

“Sooo, is that emergency alert going to happen at like 4 a.m. with sleep mode enabled? Just asking for my heart health,” tweeted James G. 
Meanwhile, others who were located far from the incident felt that receiving the alert was pointless.
“I’ve received two Amber Alerts today for Thunder Bay, which is 15 hours away from Toronto by car,” tweeted Molly Sauter.  “Congrats, you have trained me to ignore Emergency Alerts.”

Is the system perfect? No. I didn’t need three notifications not including the he’s been found message yesterday when the kid went missing. Clearly, between that and all of the test failures, there are some bugs to work out.

Is the sound frightening? Sure is. Scared the hell out of me, it did. But that’s kind of the point.

Is Thunder Bay anywhere near me? No. But because I understand how an airplane works and also that people are capable of moving in both directions and might somehow meet in the middle, I don’t care. Like I said the last time we talked about this, if that was your kid, you’d want that alert going out far and wide. Don’t even try telling me any different, because you’re lying.

Nobody wants to be woken from a much needed sleep or to jump so hard that they spill their damn Starbucks on themselves. I get it. But one thing about this life is that it’s not all about you all of the time. You being inconvenienced for a few seconds doesn’t even register on the importance scale compared to getting the word out to as many people as possible when lives could literally be on the line. We’re humans, and as such, we’re always going to bitch about stupid crap. Sometimes it’s fun and even therapeutic. But seriously, we all need to resolve to stop whining about the loud somebody can’t find their kid noise. The world could do with a few less assholes.

Google Made A Human Sounding AI And It Feels Kind Of Gross

Listen to this phone call.

And now listen to this phone call.

Just somebody calling to make reservations and appointments. Nothing odd about that, right? Well, nothing aside from neither of the callers being human.

Today we announce Google Duplex, a new technology for conducting natural conversations to carry out “real world” tasks over the phone. The technology is directed towards completing specific tasks, such as scheduling certain types of appointments. For such tasks, the system makes the conversational experience as natural as possible, allowing people to speak normally, like they would to another person, without having to adapt to a machine.
One of the key research insights was to constrain Duplex to closed domains, which are narrow enough to explore extensively. Duplex can only carry out natural conversations after being deeply trained in such domains. It cannot carry out general conversations.

While sounding natural, these and other examples are conversations between a fully automatic computer system and real businesses.
The Google Duplex technology is built to sound natural, to make the conversation experience comfortable. It’s important to us that users and businesses have a good experience with this service, and transparency is a key part of that. We want to be clear about the intent of the call so businesses understand the context. We’ll be experimenting with the right approach over the coming months.

That is both amazing and extraordinarily creepy and unnerving. It’s yet another case of it’s cool that you can do that, but should you really be doing it? As someone who often gets headaches because of the telephone I like the idea of somebody else doing all my scheduling and such, but having a computer dressed up as a person do it feels dishonest and wrong, like I’m tricking people.

I want my machines to sound like machines. Clear voiced machines sure, but still obviously machines. It’s a trust thing, like I said. Right now it’s just scheduling appointments, but eventually it’s going to get more sophisticated. And the better it gets, the more its use will spread. The more it spreads, the more likely it becomes that any of us could find ourselves interacting with it. And the more we interact with it, the less we understand what’s real and what isn’t. Google might want to somehow be transparent, but what about the next company? There are already enough things in this life that can’t be trusted (audio clips, video clips, photography, corporations, the government), the last thing any of us needs is for our basic one on one interactions to join that list.