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.

AdSense Auto Ads: A Blind Kid’s Dream Come True?

If you run a website, putting ads on it often just makes sense. Nothing comes for free (at least not without limitations you eventually may not be able to live with), and at the very least you don’t want to go too far in the hole paying for what you need. Programs like Google’s AdSense which we’ve used for many years make it pretty easy for the most part for just about anybody to get up and running.

Why for the most part?

That’s because as simple as they’ve made things, there’s still one pretty big problem. Have you ever blindfolded yourself and tried to figure out where all of your ad blocks should go, what size and shape each should be or which colours would work best? If you haven’t, don’t. It’s no fun. But it’s what we’ve had to do here pretty much from day one.

But now, perhaps without even realizing it, Google is making the wishes of website owning blind kids around the world come true.

Today we are introducing AdSense Auto ads, a powerful new way to place ads on your site. Auto ads use machine learning to make smart placement and monetization decisions on your behalf, saving you time. Place one piece of code just once to all of your pages, and let Google take care of the rest.
Some of the benefits of Auto ads include:

  • Optimization: Using machine learning, Auto ads show ads only when they are likely to perform well and provide a good user experience.
  • Revenue opportunities: Auto ads will identify any available ad space and place new ads there, potentially increasing your revenue.
  • Easy to use: With Auto ads you only need to place the ad code on your pages once. When you’re ready to use new features and ad formats, simply turn them on and off with the flick of a switch — there’s no need to change the code again.

Holy hell, right? We certainly hope so. We’re trying it out, which is why things may look a little different than they did the last time you were here. They may also look a little wonky at times especially in the beginning while the robots sort us out.

And because I know people will ask, yes, there’s a plugin for WordPress that makes this absurdly easy. It’s called Advanced Ads, and you can read more about it plus some early impressions of Auto Ads here.

I don’t say this often, but thank you, Google. It’s going to be nice to have one less irritant to wrestle with every time we need to change something.

Be My Eyes Launches A Specialized Help Feature, Which Will Be Amazing If Enough Companies Go Along With It

If you’re a smartphone having blind person and you haven’t used Be My Eyes, I don’t think it would be a stretch to say that your life is at least a little more frustrating than it needs to be. And if you’re a smartphone having sighted person and you’ve spent any time at all volunteering as a helper, thank you for making our lives a little less frustrating than they used to be.

In the years that it’s existed, I’ve either used or seen it used to do everything from identifying details about a package that’s stumped the automated scanning apps to making sure medicine is mixed correctly to getting registration numbers off of electronics to reading room numbers in hotels to answering some of the dreaded questions about lights and silent error messages that the blind kid can’t possibly answer for the friendly tech support agent.

Long story short, there’s not much it can’t help with. But even so, it’s still trying to make itself better, and if enough companies get behind this new plan, it could be a hell of a thing.

As you know, Be My Eyes is here to help you tackle a wide range of visual challenges as you go about your day. Until today, Be My Eyes has randomly connected you to a volunteer to solve daily tasks. Some tasks, however, require specialized assistance.

Contacting customer support through email or by phone isn’t always ideal. Direct communication with a business’s customer support agent could be a more vision-friendly alternative and less time consuming for you. If someone from the company could see the issue in real time, issues with their products or services could be resolved more efficiently.

So we’ve strategized a way to better assist you: enlisting the help of representatives from companies whose products you use all the time. It’s our sincere pleasure to introduce Specialized Help. This new feature means that a trained company representative is available to answer questions or help you tackle issues with speed and in-depth solutions. Maybe you need help figuring out how to use an unfamiliar product, or you might want to interact on a company’s app or website while on the phone with their representative. With Specialized Help, it’s easy to get in touch with businesses and organizations when you encounter a challenge with their products or services. And as always, it’s completely free.

The next time you update your Be My Eyes app, there will be a second button added to the main screen to take you to the Specialized Help Menu. Clicking “Specialized Help” will lead you to the list of companies with representatives available to answer your call and assist you through a live video connection. Each business profile will include descriptions of their services, hours of operation, and supported languages.

So far the only company officially announced as participating is Microsoft, but the hope is that over time that list will grow. To that end, if you have thoughts about companies you would like to see added, Be My Eyes is looking for feedback. You can write to them at Info@BeMyEyes.com. I’ve already suggested internet and tv providers as a priority, but maybe you have an idea that’s just as good or better.

Don’t Update To Firefox 57 Just Yet, Blind Kids

In a couple of weeks Mozilla will be releasing an update to Firefox, my current browser of choice. It’ll be version 57, it’ll go by the name Quantum, and according to the makers of JAWS and NVDA it’ll mess up your screen reader something fierce and you probably shouldn’t use it if you plan on ever getting anything done on the internet again. Here’s part of FS’ explanation.

On November 14, Mozilla is expected to release a new version of its Firefox web browser. Firefox 57 represents such a significant technical and performance change that it’s going to be known as Firefox Quantum. Mozilla and mainstream reviewers of the beta code agree, the browser is much faster and more memory efficient.
The reason why mainstream users will see such a significant speed increase with Firefox Quantum is that it is switching to a multiprocess methodology. Unfortunately, Mozilla in their switch to multiprocess for Firefox has chosen an accessibility approach in which each call for JAWS to obtain information takes orders of magnitude more time.  We are disappointed that Mozilla has not at this time adopted the highly performant approach that Google took with Chrome to increase security while at the same time allowing screen readers to access information at unparalleled speed without needing to make any changes.
For now, we recommend switching to the Extended Support Release (ESR) of Firefox as work on the accessibility issues continues, because even when you are running assistive technology that supports Firefox Quantum, performance with Firefox will be much worse than you are used to. We’re working with Mozilla to improve the situation and are hopeful of further improvement.

If you want to grab that Extended Support Release, it can be found here. Just ignore all the stuff about businesses and it not being for individuals.

Otherwise, it might be time to give Chrome a try. It’s come a long way since the last time I played with it, that is to say that it actually seems to be usable now.

I’ll be curious to see who gets new Firefox support sorted out first. My money’s on NVDA because anyone with expertise can contribute to it, they seem to have working relationships with just about everyone and because god would it ever be hilarious to watch FS explain their way out of getting smoked by an outfit that survives on grants and donations from guys like me rather than extortionate upgrade policies.

Update (November 9th, 2017): Based on this post on Marco’s Accessibility Blog and the comments underneath it, I’m feeling pretty confident about my NVDA prediction. Seems that fixes are already in the works before the trouble evenb starts.

From the post:

For users of the NVDA screen reader, some of these changes may initially seem like a step backward. To make the accessibility features work with the new architecture, we had to make some significant changes which will initially feel less performant than before. Especially complex pages and web applications such as Facebook or Gmail will feel slower to NVDA users in this Firefox release.
Improvements in the pipeline
Fortunately, NVDA users will only have to put up with these slowdowns for one Firefox release. Firefox 58, which will move to beta the moment Firefox 57 is being released, will already improve performance so significantly that most smaller pages will feel as snappy as before, larger pages will take a lot less time to be loaded into NVDA’s browse mode buffer, and web applications such as Gmail or Facebook will feel more fluid.
And we’re not stopping there. In Firefox Nightly, then on version 59, performance improvements will continue, and more big pages and web applications should return to a normal working speed with NVDA.

And this, from a comment responding to a reader question.

Furthermore, we’ve provisioned for an optimization that hopefully will make it into an NVDA release soon that will speed certain things up from their end, too. The pull request on that is awaiting review and merging as we speak. So, stay tuned!

There’s some other worthwhile reading there as well, including how we can all help maybe move things along even faster. It has me curious as to how bad this is really going to be, and thinking that maybe I won’t be as quick to switch to the ESR as I originally thought I might. Hell, I spent much longer than I should have using a complete piece of shit, so who knows, I may not even notice a problem.

Closed. Not Interested, Blindy.

I don’t use my CNIB card for much, but it has come in handy for Via Rail. Apparently, they use it as proof that your guide dog is a guide dog, which is slightly twisted logic but that’s been the established piece of ID they default to. If you don’t put a piece of ID for this purpose in your file, they won’t send you EBoarding passes and you run the risk that some goof will get all weird about ID when you get to the station. Nobody ever has, but they tell me this is a thing. I have also occasionally used it to get discounted concert tickets, and it’s good in some cities as a free bus pass.

The other day, it dawned on me that I think my CNIB card is getting close to expiring, or perhaps has expired and I should figure out how to get it renewed. Back when I got my last one, I was still getting some orientation and mobility lessons, so I just asked my instructor and she set things in motion. But right now, the instructor I used to have has retired and I haven’t needed lessons, so I don’t have that contact person to go bug. But I never anticipated that the lack of a contact would make the process so unbelievably frustrating!

My first stumbling block was when I called the Waterloo CNIB office. I already knew that when you call CNIB Waterloo, you don’t actually speak to someone in Waterloo. You could be speaking to someone from who knows where. But I thought I could ask to be transferred to Waterloo’s reception or something. No, who you get for reception is who you get. You then have to name a specific person in the office you are seeking in order to get to someone who actually walks and drives and does stuff in Kitchener Waterloo. I’ll talk more about this later.

So, since I didn’t know who the person is who does CNIB card stuff, I told the one who answered the phone what I was calling about. It felt like the person answering the phone knew nothing about what would be required to renew the CNIB card. How much did it cost? Do I have to come into the office or can I email a picture somewhere? Were there requirements for the picture? All they did was say “I’ll transfer you to Waterloo.” This feels a little less than ideal. You would think if these people are going to be put out on the front lines, they should at least have been given the tools to answer some pretty basic questions.

Then, I was transferred somewhere, who knows where. I got what felt like a random staff member’s voicemail. The voicemail didn’t even say what this person did, so I had no idea if I was talking to the right person. So, I left a message and hoped they would return my call soon, because I had this week off, and after that, if I had to go see someone in person, it would get a lot more difficult.

After I left my message, I went looking on the internet, and what I found didn’t fill me with confidence. After seeing basic information from the CNIB about uses of the ID card, I found this blog post detailing the total lack of information about the ID card.

It was through this post that I learned that the charge is $10, which feels like a giant jump in rates since I last had it done, and you have to go down to the CNIB and get the picture done because it has to be a precise size.

So, I went to figure out when the local CNIB office was open, since back a few years ago, it was only open once or twice a week. I found a link which I cannot find anymore that said they were open to the public every Tuesday. Since I wanted to make double sure that was when they were open, I called their number and got transferred to who knows who. I asked to confirm that the Waterloo office was open on Tuesdays and was told that no, they’re only open the first Tuesday of the month from 9:00 to 4:00. When I expressed my disappointment, the person responded with “That’s all the resources they have.” How impressive…impressively pathetic that is.

Let me quote their service description from the Community Links database:

Primary resource for information, public education, programs, services and advocacy for people who are blind or partially sighted.

Should an office that offers such broad services be only open to the public one day of the month? If someone has just lost a massive amount of vision and is coming in off the street seeking guidance, should they be expected to wait for the designated one day a month to just start the process of getting connected? Do they really think that clients have so little to do that they can all come in on the one designated day if they need something from the office? What if, shock of shocks, we work, and getting there on some Tuesday between 9:00 and 4:00 isn’t workable?

I figured out that my card expires on November 6. The next day when we should all march to the CNIB office and graciously accept their assistance is November 7. Although I don’t use the card for a lot of things, it feels stupid to let it expire just because the hours are so restricted. So, I called back to that lovely central reception office and explained the whole expiring CNIB card thing, and the guy actually suggested that I go to Woodstock. I just finished telling him that I can’t drive and am not exactly flush with available time, and he told me to drive nearly an hour to the next city!

Thankfully my story has a happy ending. I left another message on the seemingly random person’s voicemail explaining that my card would expire before the office was next open, so what could we do, and she did respond the next day with options. She was, in fact, the right person to talk to, so I wasn’t deluging the wrong person. I could in fact email her any picture of me, as long as I wasn’t wearing a hat, and then she could take my credit card over the phone and start the process.

I’m sure there are some people saying I could have avoided running so close to my card expiring if I had just planned better. The thing is most things that are going to expire send you letters in the mail warning you that the expiry is coming up, and telling you how to renew. This isn’t what the CNIB does. They don’t even send an email, for those of us who would prefer that over print. I guess they used to, but stopped getting volunteers to do it. It was just lucky that my internal sense that something was due started bugging me. So, if not for my freakishly weird memory, I, the blind one, is expected to look at the small print on the back of my card and check the expiry so that I can go through piles of hoops to get to the CNIB one day a month to get it renewed. Something seems wrong here.

I have a bit of a problem with them consolidating reception to a central location for something like the CNIB. If I am trying to locate a business, and am close by but can’t find it, the first thing I do is phone the place and ask for some guidance, since I can’t very well look for the sign. Sometimes the person on the phone gives me specifics I can use, or sometimes they just keep an eye out for me and help me make the final leg of the journey. If I did this while trying to locate the local CNIB office, the person on the other end of the phone could offer me nothing in the way of help. Considering the CNIB is serving people who can’t see well so might need a little help locating their destination, this feels kind of like a big problem.

I asked the person in charge of CNIB card renewals why the reception person didn’t know anything about the process, and she said they were just volunteers. Volunteers do some pretty intense stuff. I have volunteered on a crisis line, at a women’s shelter, and with people with some pretty serious needs. If volunteers can be expected to do all of that, they can be given some training on how clients can reach services, especially since they are the point of contact.

I was also bothered by the comment that the only reason they were open one day a month and didn’t send renewal reminders was because they didn’t have the resources. So let’s go back to that topic of the CNIB opening up their own guide dog school. How?

I think I’m done now. I guess, of all the services the CNIB offers, the card is not as important as helping someone who is newly blind learn how to live with their situation, but I worry that the troubles getting cards renewed is an indicator of a deeper problem. If the card is this hard to get, what happens when someone needs something more complex?

The first blog post that I referenced had some pretty solid suggestions of how they could improve the process that still apply. Maybe some day, things will improve. Hopefully, in five years when I have to do this again, I will have an easier time of it. At least this blog post will roughly tell me when I did it last if I don’t get a renewal reminder.

You Need Good Passwords. Go Make Yourself Some

I got an email today about one of Carin’s old posts. You’d be amazed how often that happens, but that’s another post for another day.

Anyway, this one was about a password security tester she linked to a few years back that would tell you how long it might take for somebody to crack your existing passwords. Eric happened to see it and thought he’d let us know about a similar service his company built. Not only will it check the security of the passwords you already have, but it can also, based on criteria you can set with a few checkboxes and a slider,generate you as many new random ones as you need. Feel free to head on over here and play around with it.

While you’re at it, you should maybe also read this article on good password habits, the perils of using the same password on multiple sites and tips for remembering all the damn passwords you’re going to need now that you’re smart enough not to use the same one over and over again. Thanks to Bill for that one.

Not content with merely pointing out you need a better password, here at Cloudwards.net we’ve put together two handy little tools. The top one is a password generator that will allow you to create a new password which should be able to withstand even the most determined attacker. The one below will let you know if your password is strong enough and mainly serves as a help when deciding to change it.
As we have no desire to actually know your password, the tools are entirely browser based and will not store whatever you have entered. You can play around with the settings if you like, as there are plenty of options for you to mess around with. Though we do recommend that you use plenty of special characters as well as alternate upper- and lowercase letters, you can decide that you’d prefer something that’s easier to remember over something that’s secure.
On top of that, there is also a nifty slider that lets you play around with the length of the password (longer always being better). Between the different character options and the length slider, you should be able to create an unhackable password that will withstand the efforts of even the most savvy cybercriminals.
We hope these two tools help you stay safe out there, if you have any questions regarding protecting yourself online, don’t hesitate to reach out to us.

Airport Security Logic Strikes Again

Good lord this is stupid.

So the United States and I assume some other countries have security policies in place to prevent people from bringing dangerous bottles of water or tubes of lotion into airports or onto planes. I’ve never quite understood why, but that really doesn’t matter. It especially doesn’t matter now that I’ve learned that you can take that stuff through security as long as you do one thing first. Freeze it solid. Seriously.

That’s right, it’s not breaking the TSA’s pesky 3-1-1 rule if the drink is frozen — just make sure it’s completely frozen. According to the TSA, if the liquid is even partially melted or slushy, it needs to meet 3-1-1 liquid requirements. Here’s the agency’s wording:
Frozen liquid items are allowed through the checkpoint as long as they are frozen solid when presented for screening. If frozen liquid items are partially melted, slushy, or have any liquid at the bottom of the container, they must meet 3-1-1 liquids requirements.

I have no idea why it makes a difference or what makes liquid any less dangerous once it thaws or for that matter why nobody’s figured out that it’s much easier to beat someone to death with a frozen water bottle than it is a room temperature one, but there ya go.

A Real Uber Driver Will Never Try To Negotiate A Price Or Ask You for Cash

Normally when one of us writes about a scam, we’re doing it because we want to either laugh at an incompetent one or at the people who fall for an obvious one. But right now I’m going to be completely serious because I know that even as popular as it is, there are a lot of people out there who have no idea how Uber works.

I don’t know how widespread this is, but there’s no way in hell that this fella in Guelph is the first or the last person to try it. It’s far too obvious a con to have not at least been attempted somewhere before now.

Guelph Police say it all started around 2:30 a.m. Tuesday, when two women leaving a restaurant accepted a ride “from a man who was posing as an Uber driver.”
When the women arrived at their destination on Victoria Road, the driver allegedly demanded more money than he had originally agreed on.

At that point, police say, the upset driver grabbed a water bottle and threw it through a window.

He was captured and charged shortly thereafter, so he won’t be out giving repeat performances right away at worst or ever again at best.

But the reason I’m writing this is because as easy a scam as this is to pull off, it’s equally simple to spot before you get sucked in.

Basically, the moment your driver starts talking to you about a price, you’re being lied to. If he asks you for cash or a credit card, you’re being lied to. Neither of these things happen in a legitimate Uber transaction. Everything is handled through the Uber app. It’s both how you call for a ride and how you pay for it. You give your credit card number to the app, which then times your trip while you’re on the road like a taxi metre and then bills you when you’re done. You and your driver have no reason to discuss money unless your conversation turns to the stock market.

That’s not to say that everyone who claims to drive for Uber and offers you a ride out of the blue is a liar. I’d bet most of them are, but it’s possible. And if that happens, you’ll know he’s for real when he tells you to open the app and book a ride to wherever you are even though he’s sitting right next to you. He’ll do that because that’s how legitimate Uber drivers get paid the proper amount for their work. If he doesn’t, offer to do it and watch his reaction. If he’s hesitant and tries to talk you out of it, it’s because he’s full of shit and not a ride you want to accept.

Hopefully this clears things up before any of you run into a situation like this.

I Had No Idea That All This Stuff Was On Spotify

I’m a big Spotify fan, though sometimes I don’t use it as much as I’d like. It’s already more than worth the subscription price based on the huge selection of music and comedy, but it just got a little better now that I’ve discovered that you can also use it to stream classic novels, short stories, poetry, basic language lessons, classic speeches, meditation exercises and coolest of all for me personally, old radio shows.

Before TV, there was radio drama, and it was glorious. Fortunately, a lot of old radio shows have been saved and are still available for your listening pleasure. You can listen to some sci-fi greats like George Orwell’s radio version of 1984, multiple volumes of the Twilight Zone radio show, and some of Isaac Asimov’s best radio works, like Hostess and Pebble In the Sky. You can also find some great mystery shows like Dragnet, and some vintage superhero stories from the likes of the Blue Beetle. If you’re looking to laugh, I personally recommend the Baby Snooks show.

I wonder how much of that stuff you’d have to listen to before it starts messing with your Discover Weekly or if whatever magic is responsible for features like that filters it out.

In Spite Of Its Best Efforts, We’re Now Using DLVR.it

Twitterfeed, the service we’ve been using mostly reliably to tweet our new posts to the world since 2010, is shutting down tomorrow. If you’re a webmaster and you didn’t know that, you might want to get on finding a replacement soon. Sorry for fucking up your Sunday.

I’ve known for a while, but hadn’t gotten around to setting up something new until this morning. The service we went with is DLVR.it, which looks like it should handle things just fine and has a lot of other bells and whistles that we’re likely never going to use. At least it had better handle things just fine, considering how much of a pain in the ass it was to get going.

It’s designed to be an easy set-up, which it absolutely would have been if not for the part where I’m blind and the folks what built the dlvr.it website didn’t feel it necessary to use proper buttons, links or checkboxes to control things accept in a few places seemingly chosen at random and worse yet, couldn’t be arsed to put labels on the list of social networks you could connect to which meant I had to try each clickable until I found the right one. Thankfully Twitter was the second one from the top so I didn’t have to click all nine that were showing in the list, but why should I even have to do that? It takes mere seconds to add alt text to something. Please take them. It means a lot.

If you’re blind and choose to use this service, I should also note that if you want to get to the rest of the set-up process once you’ve found a feed, don’t click the view link that appears below the title of your feed, click the feed title itself, which of course isn’t a link and doesn’t indicate in any meaningful way that you’re supposed to press enter on it to make things happen. Also, that clickable that says sharing to one of one socials that you’ll see at some point after you’re done, don’t touch it. It’s meant to be a checkbox and pressing enter on it will cause you to suddenly be sharing to 0 of 1 socials, which is not, I assume, what you want since you’re setting up auto tweeting and it has to have somewhere to go.

Dlvr.it is far from the clunkiest, most inaccessible pile I’ve ever seen, but it’s a completely unnecessary slog since the issues are so easy to fix if somebody would just take the time. It’s enough of a slog that I, whose main functions in life are to write dick jokes and make chili, went through the process twice to spare Carin, who does accessibility for a living, the hassle of dealing with it.

My tests show that everything should be working as it’s supposed to, but as usual at times like this, if you’re following either of us on Twitter and notice anything odd, let us know. And if you’re not following us on Twitter, good for you. But if you’d like to start for whatever reason, all you need to know is on this page right here.