On Voice Interfaces and Accents

Good piece by Sonia Paul for Backchannel, on how AI like Siri and Alexa handle accents:

To train a machine to recognize speech, you need a lot of audio samples. First, researchers have to collect thousands of voices, speaking on a range of topics. They then manually transcribe the audio clips. This combination of data — audio clips and written transcriptions — allows machines to make associations between sound and words. The phrases that occur most frequently become a pattern for an algorithm to learn how a human speaks.

But an AI can only recognize what it’s been trained to hear. Its flexibility depends on the diversity of the accents to which it’s been introduced. Governments, academics, and smaller startups rely on collections of audio and transcriptions, called speech corpora, to bypass doing labor-intensive transcriptions themselves. The University of Pennsylvania’s Linguistic Data Consortium (LDC) is a powerhouse of these data sets, making them available under licensed agreements for companies and researchers. One of its most famous corpora is Switchboard.

If voice if the Next Big Thing in technology, as many pundits believe, then systems like Alexa and Siri need to get demonstrably better at parsing accents and, importantly for accessibility, speech impediments. Otherwise, these voice-driven interfaces will remain effectively inaccessible and unusable. And that'd be a shame, because voice has so much potential to be a powerful assistive technology.

Apple Introduces Product Red iPhone 7

In a press release, Apple today announced a red iPhone 7 "in recognition of more than 10 years of partnership between Apple and (RED)." And it's gorgeous.

I've long been a fan of Apple's Product Red products, and this iPhone doesn't disappoint. I've seen some chatter from some people on Twitter saying they're tempted to trade their current iPhone 7 to this new special edition. Some have also complained about the front being white instead of black—I generally prefer black myself, but I don't mind white. The white  logo on the back looks great; it really pops against the red background.

Jet Black is wonderful, but man, this new red one is a stunner.

'London Bridge Is Down'

Fascinating piece by Sam Knight for The Guardian, on what'll happen when Queen Elizabeth II dies:

Unlike the US presidency, say, monarchies allow huge passages of time – a century, in some cases – to become entwined with an individual. The second Elizabethan age is likely to be remembered as a reign of uninterrupted national decline, and even, if she lives long enough and Scotland departs the union, as one of disintegration. Life and politics at the end of her rule will be unrecognisable from their grandeur and innocence at its beginning. “We don’t blame her for it,” Philip Ziegler, the historian and royal biographer, told me. “We have declined with her, so to speak.”

(via Six Colors)

'What's Apple's Next Chapter in Podcasting?'

Great read, as always, from Jason Snell at Six Colors:

Cue’s remarks at Code Media could easily be interpreted as mumbly marketing-speak by an executive who doesn’t have anything to say. But I take Cue at his word that Apple is “working on new features for podcasts,” and that the company has noted the huge resurgence of podcasting. I suspect that, after more than a decade of slumber, Apple’s about to become much more active on the podcasting front.

Pandora Premium

Micah Singleton at The Verge reviewed Pandora's new streaming music service. Looking at the pictures accompanying his piece, it's clear much of the UI design is inspired by Rdio, which Pandora acquired in 2015. While I'm a happy Apple Music subscriber now, I loved Rdio so seeing Pandora Premium's interface brings back fond memories. I don't know that I'll try Pandora Premium, but it's good to see Rdio's legacy lives on.

Why Apple Watch Shows 10:09 in Apple's Marketing

iMore's Serenity Caldwell wondered why the Apple Watch always says 10:09 in Apple's marketing materials, and she found this Engadget story that explains why.

The reason behind this practice boils down to marketing, with just a dash of consumer psychology to boot.

Because a watch company's name and/or logo often resides directly underneath the 12, positioning the hands at 10 and 2 ensures that the company brand is not only visible, but framed in a symmetrical and aesthetically pleasing manner. The 10:10 time also has the added benefit of making it appear that the watch is smiling, albeit mechanically.

On VoiceOver

David Pogue wrote a great piece for Yahoo on how VoiceOver works on the iPhone:

A few years ago, backstage at a conference, I spotted a blind woman using her phone. The phone was speaking everything her finger touched on the screen, allowing her to tear through her apps. My jaw hit the floor. After years of practice, she had cranked the voice’s speed so high, I couldn’t understand a word it was saying.

And here’s the kicker: She could do all of this with the screen turned off. Her phone’s battery lasted forever.

Ever since that day, I’ve been like a kid at a magic show. I’ve wanted to know how it’s done. I’ve wanted an inside look at how the blind could navigate a phone that’s basically a slab of featureless glass.

It's awesome seeing aceessibility covered by the mainstream media. We need more of these kinds of stories for the masses.

On 'Frisco'

Vinnee Tong, writing for KQED News, on San Francisco's hotly-debated nickname:


Just try dropping that word into conversation these days and see what kind of response you get. Chances are good the nickname will be met with a healthy dose of side-eye, a grimace or even a slap on the wrist.

Frisco is the nickname we love to hate.

I dislike "Frisco"—worse even is "San Fran." I've lived in the Bay Area my entire life, San Francisco for the last three years. I don't know what out-of-towners do, but regionally speaking, I've only ever heard San Francisco referred to as "The City." Again, a regional colloquialism. Anything else sounds wrong; if not "The City," I just call it "San Francisco."

'Accessibility Features in macOS and iOS That Everyone Should Try'

Jason Snell, writing for Macworld:

If you’re someone who doesn’t have any specific reasons to go there, you may have never explored the Accessibility settings on your Mac, iPhone, or iPad. While it’s true that those settings are there primarily for people who have special physical needs to modify how a device’s interface works, the fact is, many people who don’t consider themselves in need of any sort of accommodation can find something of value in these settings.

I've written similar stories to this one. I think it's great others are recognizing accessibility's broader value—as Jason writes, just because accessibility features are primarily for users with special needs doesn't mean they're relevant only to someone with a disability. Changing text size is the canonical example. Anyone can benefit from larger text on their devices, so utilizing a feature like Large Dynamic Type makes perfect sense. (And, I would argue, all the more reason for third-party developers to use the API in their apps.)

Related to this topic, I would also say the strength of Apple's accessibility feature set is a prime example of the company's ability to write good software. Nothing is perfect—software is built by humans, after all—but it's worth keeping accessibility in mind as Apple gets pilloried for a perceived decline in the quality of their software.

'Mother Jones' Magazine Sees a Surge in Support

Great profile of the publication by Dominic Fracassa for the San Francisco Chronicle:

Editor in Chief Clara Jeffery describes the Mother Jones voice as “your smart, savvy, sometimes sarcastic friend who knows a lot about politics and current events and really cares about what’s happening to our democracy.”

Given the banner year Mother Jones had in 2016 — capped off by its designation as the 2017 Magazine of the Year by the American Society of Magazine Editors — it seems that news consumers are listening.

As a nonprofit organization that relies on subscriptions and donations to make up 70 percent of its operating budget, the magazine is poised to reap the rewards of a shift in the way journalism is paid for. As the Trump administration ramps up its antagonistic posturing toward the media, calls have gone out across the country for the public to provide direct financial support to media outlets providing essential journalism.

I recently subscribed to Mother Jones, something I probably should have done long ago considering how long I've followed them online. Their voice does lean progressive, but their reporting is fair and, crucially, accurate. MoJo is an exemplar of journalism done right.

Robert Osborne, Turner Classic Movies Host, Dies

Mike Barnes, writing for The Hollywood Reporter:

Robert Osborne, the former columnist for The Hollywood Reporter who as the genial and scholarly host of Turner Classic Movies became a beloved icon to a legion of groupies with gray hair, died Monday in New York, the cable network announced. He was 84.

David Staller, his longtime partner, told The Hollywood Reporter that Osborne died in his sleep in his apartment from natural causes.

Sad news. I'm a big fan of classic film, and TCM has long been one of my favorite channels.

Stephen Hackett's Review of the 27" Retina 5K iMac

I enjoyed Stephen's take on his (refurbished) Retina iMac.

While my primary computer is the 12.9" iPad Pro—I use the 13" Touch Bar MacBook Pro as well—I've long been intrigued by the idea of a "home base" desktop machine like the iMac. I love the iMac's gigantic display, and the idea that I have a central machine at home to do stuff with (e.g., writing, podcasting, etc) is incredibly appealing. Unfortunately, I don't have the space for such a machine today, but it's something I'd definitely consider in the future.

Some Ride-Hailing Follow-Up

Earlier this week, I published a piece on how rail-hailing services like Uber and Lyft make getting around more accessible. Since that story ran, I decided to ditch Uber and use Lyft as my preferred ride-hailing service from now on.

This week’s episode of ATP features a great discussion on Uber’s problems, which I encourage everyone to listen to. The gist of the talk about alternatives to Uber is essentially that if you can find a reasonable alternative (i.e., Lyft), then you should. I’ll admit to being reticent to switching before yesterday because I was/am unsure how Lyft will survive Uber being the dominant player in this space. Still, the more that was reported on Uber’s toxic corporate culture made me grow even more leery of giving my dollars to a company so institutionally dysfunctional. However pleasant my personal experiences with Uber have been, I ultimately decided I couldn’t continue to support them in good conscience.

As the hosts rightfully pointed out on ATP, Lyft isn’t without its problems either. I use the hell out of my Amazon Prime subscription despite Amazon not being a pillar of morality. Amazon is just so damn convenient, and they’re it in terms of e-commerce. But Uber is a different animal—I can’t patronize a company with such deeply warped values. That Uber treats people so badly, particularly women, is antithetical to who I am as a person.

I wasn’t heavily invested in Uber as far as brand loyalty—my girlfriend prefers Lyft and we’ve taken many rides together—but Uber’s latest shitshow was the straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back. I’ll be calling Lyft for rides from here on out.

New York Times to Run Reporters' Tweets in Print Edition

Peter Kafka, reporting for Recode:

The catch: For now, at least, if you want to read New York Times reporters’ tweets in the New York Times, you won’t find them on the Times’ web site or app. They’ll be in the paper’s print edition.

The Times has redesigned the second and third pages of its print edition to resemble what used to be called a magazine’s “front of the book”, back when magazines still existed.*

As Kafka writes, this is a good move. It's a testament to how instrumental Twitter is at spreading breaking news. I hope The Times brings this to the Web sooner than later.

'Your Home at Your Command'

I saw a few people on Twitter mention Apple's updated its HomeKit webpage, so I decided to check it out. The new film does a great job of showing what's possible with the Home app and HomeKit-enabled devices. As usual, the production quality is impeccable.

Like with Apple TV—sigh—I don't have experience with "smart home" devices. Theoretically, however, I've given much thought to how much potential HomeKit has as an assistive technology. Its issues with parsing speech delays notwithstanding, asking Siri to lock the doors or turn off the lights is an obvious boon for people with fine-motor delays. I have trouble all the time with finding and turning light switches around my house. The Home app gives you one-tap access to things like lights, locks, etc. In terms of accessibility, it's no coincidence Apple includes HomeKit devices on its accessibility page. The accessible home will be something to watch as this technology improves, and Apple knows it.