Bordering on Factual

Yesterday, a cool-looking map showed up on my Facebook feed, shared by a friend; it depicts the North American continent with the historical political boundaries of the native Americans. It listed clear boundaries for separate states of the First Nations: Anasazi, Apache Empire, Arawak, Aztec Empire, Beothuk Empire, Cherokee Soverignty, Cheyenne, Chickasaw, Chilcotin, Chinook, Chumash, Comanche, Cree Federation, Creek, Crow, Dogrib, Flathead, Great Sioux Nation, Haida Gwai, Hopi, Huron Supremacy, Inuit, Iroquois Confederacy, Mayan Empire, Mi’kmaq, Mohican, Navajo, Ojibwa, Olmec Kingdom, Pawnee, Pequot, Pomo, Powhatan, Salish, Shuswap, Slavey, Tlingit, and Ute.

Facebook post of Native American map

I’d never before seen such a clear depiction of the geopolitical boundaries of pre-Columbian America, and it was a stark reminder of how we, as a people, systematically invaded and destroyed a continent of cultured peoples. We wiped away their cultures, their languages, their history, and even the memory of them, leaving only scraps behind, and we protect our current borders of land they used to live on. The American Indian Wars ended in 1924, less than a hundred years ago, but it’s not even part of the American political dialog. And we’ve whitewashed our pogroms against Native Americans, in the same way we’re presently sugar-coating slavery in history courses.

The original person who posted the picture on Facebook also included this commentary,

America before colonization…. I’ve never seen this map in my entire 25 years of formal education. Not in one history book or one lesson. This is not a mistake… Representation matters!!! #NativeHistory #BeforeAmerica

Well said. And others agreed… the post has over 150,000 shares as I write this!

But something smelled wrong to me about the map itself.

Continue reading “Bordering on Factual”

You’re drunk FCC, go home

I just chimed in to the FCC to request that they stop the merger of Comcast and Time-Warner Cable. I don’t know if my voice will make a difference, but I do know that saying nothing will definitely not make a difference.

Here was my statement to the FCC (flawed, I’m sure, but I hope the intent and sentiment is conveyed):

Allowing the merger of Comcast and Time-Warner Cable will dramatically decrease consumer benefits and choice.

Some mergers can be good, allowing struggling companies to reduce losses; in this case, neither Comcast nor Time-Warner Cable is in a situation that needs this merger for financial stability; both companies are currently thriving in the marketplace.

Innovation and an open market for goods and services is in the best interest of the American people. This was clearly shown when the Bell System was broken up January 8, leading to the emergence of advanced competitive services, including cellular phone service, and lower prices. The FCC should take that as a model, and decrease the monopolistic merger of competitors, which decreases this innovation, price competition, and customer choice. Customer service is already notoriously poor at both companies, and decreasing customer choice is likely to make it harder for customers to receive adequate service.

Without competition, Internet providers have little incentive to provide either improved service or lower prices. The US is already widely regarded as having relatively expensive and slow Internet service compared to other industrial nations, and this merger threatens to make that worse.

In addition to the loss of benefits to the consumer, this merger threatens American jobs. When a merger occurs, service departments also merge, and workers lose their jobs. This is especially true when the mergers are in similar industries; some studies have shown an average of 19% job loss, far above the norm of 7.9% when the industries are unrelated. Comcast currently employs 136,000 people; Time-Warner Cable currently employs 51,600 people; if the average job loss takes place, that could mean approximately 35,644 jobs lost, or more conservatively 14,820 jobs, in a still-struggling employment market; many of these will be unskilled labor, which is even harder to resolve. While no laws in the US take into account the effect of job loss on mergers, this is still a factor that can be taken into account by the FCC; laws are only necessary when systemic problems arise in the behavior of key industry players and regulators, and allowing this merger could necessitate the creation of a law that would otherwise be avoided.

Please take the necessary steps to block this merger.

If you are a US citizen, you have until August 25th, 2014 to file a comment. The FCC seems to have gone out of its way to make this difficult, so here are some step-by-step instructions:

  1. Fill out the Free Press petition first just in case. Then, if you want to register your opposition independently…
  2. Go to the FCC  Electronic Comment Filing System page
  3. Enter “14-57” in the Proceeding Number field; you’ll get no immediate confirmation, but this is the code for the “Applications of Comcast Corporation and Time Warner Cable Inc. for Consent to Assign or Transfer Control of Licenses and Applications”. (Note: this is not arcane at all. That’s just an illusion.)
  4. Fill in all required personal information
  5. Ensure that the Type of Filing field is set to “Comment” (the default)
  6. Write a text document explaining why this is such a bad idea; crib mine if you like, or find a much better rationale, but be sure to be clear in your opposition (or support, if you’re a masochist).
  7. Upload your document using the Choose File button. (That’s right, you can’t just leave a comment in a text area, you have to write a separate document. The FCC seems to accept at least .txt and .doc files.) Add your optional description of the file in the Custom Description, so they know your sentiment even if they don’t open your file (which is pretty likely); I labeled mine “Block Comcast-TWC merger”.

Yay! You live in an arguably democratic country!

A Life in a Day, in 2024

I woke up startled; my glasses were ringing. I was late for a telcon… again. I’d stayed up working too late last night.

I slipped on my glasses and answered the call. Several faces popped up a few feet in front of my eyes. Okay, so it was a videocon… sigh. I muted and blanked my glasses, switched them to speakerphone, and placed them on the table, the lenses vibrating as speakers. I pulled on some clothes and rubbed my face awake, trotting into the bathroom with my glasses in my left hand. As I splashed some water on my face, I heard my name called from my glasses on the counter; “Doug, did you get in contact with them?”

“Specs, delay,” I told my glasses, and my phone agent told the other participants, politely, “Please wait for 10 seconds for a response.”

Drying my face quickly on a towel, I put my glasses back on, looked into the mirror, unblanked the camera and unmuted the mic, and replied, “Hey, folks, yes, sorry about that. I did talk to them, and they are pretty receptive to the idea. They have their own requirements, of course, but I’m confident that we can fold those into our own.” I noticed my own face in the display, broadcast from my camera’s view of my reflection in the mirror, and hastily straightened out my sleepy hair.

A few minutes later, when the topic had changed, I opened a link that someone dropped into the call, and started reading the document in the glasses’ display. With the limited space available, I scanned it in RSVP (rapid serial visual presentation) mode, but quickly found it too distracting from the simultaneous conversation, requiring too much concentration. So I muted and blanked again, and walked down the hall to my office. Ensconced in front of my big screen, I re-routed the call to use the screen’s videocamera and display.

On the screen, it was easier to scan the document at my leisure. I could easily shift my focus back to the conversation when needed, without losing my place in the document. I casually highlighted a few passages to follow up on later, and made a few notes. I did the same with another document linked from the telcon, and my browser told me that this page was linked to from a document I’d annotated several months before. I marked it to read and correlate my notes in depth after the call. One thing that stood out immediately was that both documents mentioned a particular book; I was pretty sure I’d bought a physical copy a couple of years before, and I stepped over to my bookshelves. I set my glasses camera on auto-scan, looking for the title via OCR, and on the third set of shelves, my glasses blinked on a particular book; sure enough, I had a copy. I guess I could have simply ordered a digital version, but I already the physical edition handy, and sometimes I preferred having a real book in my hands.

My stomach started grumbling before the call ended. I decided to go out to lunch. Throwing the book and one of my tablets into my bag, I asked my glasses to pick a restaurant for me. It scanned the list of my favorites, and looked also for new restaurants with vegetarian food, looking for a nice balance between distance, ratings, and number of current patrons. “I’ve found a new food truck, with Indian-Mexican fusion. It’s rated 4.5, and there are several vegetarian options. Dave Cowles is eating there now. It’s a 7-minute drive. Is that okay, or should I keep looking?”

“Nope, sounds great. Call Dave, would you?” A map popped up, giving me an overview of the location, then faded away until it was needed. A symbol also popped up, indicating that my call to Dave had connected, on a private peer session.

“Hey, Doug, what’s up?”

“I was thinking of going to that food truck…”, I glanced up and to the right, and my glasses interpreted my eye gesture as a request for more context information, displaying the name of the restaurant, “… Curry Favor. You’re there now, right? Any good?”

“I just got here myself. Want me to stick around?”

“Yeah, I’ll be there in about 10 minutes.” I headed out the door, and unhooked my car’s charger before I jumped in. My glasses showed the next upcoming direction, and the car infographics; the car had a full charge. “Music”, I said, as I drove off; my car interface picked a playlist for me, a mix of my favorites I hadn’t heard in a while, and some new streaming stuff my music service thought I would like. As I got out of range of my house’s wifi, my glasses switched seamlessly to the car’s wifi. It was an easy drive, with my glasses displaying the optimal route and anticipating shifting traffic patterns and lights, but I still thought how nice it would be to buy one of the self-piloted cars. My car knew my destination from my glasses, and it alerted me that a parking spot had just opened up very near the food truck, so I confirmed and it reserved the spot; I’d pay an extra 50¢ to hold the spot until I arrived, but it was well worth it. My glasses read out the veggie menu options out loud on demand, and I chose the naan burrito with palak paneer and chick peas; my glasses placed my order in advance via text.

I pulled into my parking space, and my glasses blinked an icon telling me the sub-street sensor had registered my car’s presence. Great parking spot… I was right across the street from the food truck. I walked over to the benches where Dave sat. “Hey, Dave.”

We exchanged a few words, but my glasses told me my order was ready in a flash. I went to the window, and picked up my burrito; the account total came up in my view, and I picked a currency to pay it; I preferred to use my credit union’s digital currency, and was glad when the food truck’s agent accepted it. “Thanks, man,” I smiled at the cashier.

Dave and I hadn’t seen each other in a while, and we caught up over lunch. It turned out he was working on a cool new mapping project, and I drilled him for some details; it wasn’t my field, but it was interesting, and you never knew when a passing familiarity might come in handy. With his okay, my glasses recorded part of our conversation so I could make more detailed notes, and his glasses sent me some links to look at later. We finished our food quickly –it was tasty, so I left a quick positive review– and walked to a nearby coffee shop to continue the conversation. While we were talking, Dave recommended an app that I bought, and I also bought a song from the coffee shop that caught my ear from their in-house audio stream; Dave and the coffee shop each got a percentage of the sale. I learned that the coffee shop got an even bigger share of the song, because the musician had played at their shop and they’d negotiated a private contract, in exchange for promotion of her tour, which popped up in my display; that was okay, I liked supporting local businesses, and I filed away the tour dates in my calendar in case it was convenient for me to go to the show.

Dave went back to work, and I settled into the coffee shop to do some reading. First I read some of the book I’d brought, making sure to quickly glasses-scan the barcode first so I could keep a log; I found several good pieces of information, which I highlighted and commented on; my glasses tracked my gaze to OCR the text for storage and anchoring, and I subvocalized the notes. I then followed up on the links from earlier; my agent had earned its rate, having found several important correlations between the documents and my notes, as well as highly-reputed annotations from others on various annotation repos, and I thought more about next steps. I followed a few quick links to solidify my intuition, but on one link, I got stopped abruptly at an ad-wall; for whatever reason, this site insisted I watch a 15-second video rather than just opting-in to a deci-cent micropayment, as I usually did when browsing. I tolerated the video –unfortunately, if I took my glasses off while it played, the ad would know– only to find that the whole site was ad-based… intolerable, so I did some keyword searching to find an alternate site for the information.

Light reading and browsing was fine in a public place, but to get any real work done, I needed privacy. I strolled back to my car –my glasses reminding me where I’d parked– and I returned home. Back in my office, I put on some light music, and started coding. I started with a classic HTML-CSS-SVG-JS doc-app component framework on my local box, because I was old-school, and went mobile from there, adding annotated categories to words and phrases for meaning-extraction, customizing the triple-referenced structured API, dragging in a knowledge-base and vocabulary for the speech interface and translation engine, and establishing variable-usage contract terms with service providers (trying to optimize for low-cost usage when possible, and tweaking so the app would automatically switch service providers before it hit the next payment threshold… I’m cheap, and most of my users are too). I didn’t worry much about tweaking the good-enough library-default UI, since most users would barely or rarely see any layout, but rather would interact with the app through voice commands and questions, and see only microviews; I paid more attention to making sure that the agents would be able to correctly index and correlate the features and facts. Just as I was careful to separate style from content, I was careful to separate semantics from content. At some point, I reflected, AIs would get powerful enough so that information workers wouldn’t have such an easy time making a living; I wondered if we’d even need markup or APIs or standards at all, or if the whole infrastructure would be dynamic and ad-hoc. Maybe the work I was doing was making me obsolete. “‘Tis a consummation devoutly to be wished,” I thought to myself wryly.

I put the finishing touches on the app prototype, wrote some final tests, and ran through a manual scenario walk-through to pass the time while the test framework really put the app through its paces, spawning a few hundred thousand virtual unique concurrent users. Other than a few glitches to be polished up, it seemed to work well. I was pretty proud of this work; the app gave me real-time civic feedback, including drill-down visualization, on public policy statements, trawling news sites, social networks, and annotation servers for sentiment and fact-checking; it balanced opinion with cost-benefit risk-scenarios weighted by credibility and likelihood, and managed it all with voting records of representatives. It also tracked influence, either by lobbying or donations or inferred connections, and correlated company ownership chains and investments, to give a picture on who was pushing who’s buttons, and it would work equally well for boycotting products based on company profiles as it would on holding politicians accountable. As part of the ClearGov Foundation’s online voting system, it stood a chance of reforming government, though it was getting more adoption in South America and Africa than it was in the US so far. Patience, patience…

Megan came home from work with dinner from a locavore kitchen; the front door camera alerted me to her approach, and I saw she had her hands full. “Open front door,” I told the house as I rose to help her. We ate in front of the wallscreen, watching some static, non-interactive comedy streams; we were both too tired to “play-along” with plots, character POV, or camera angles, and it wasn’t really our style anyway. I hadn’t gotten enough rest the night before, so I turned in early to read; the mattress turned off the bedside light when it sensed my heart-rate and breathing slow into sleep.

Note: This story of the Web and life in 2024 is clearly fictional; nobody would hire someone who’d worked in web standards to do real programming work.

Invisible Visualization

Last year, I put together a talk called “Invisible Visualization” on making accessible data visualizations. Several people have asked me about it, so I thought I’d write a post about it.

By “accessible”, I mean able to be consumed and understood by people with a variety of sensory needs, including people with visual limitations, cognitive impairments, mobility challenges, and other considerations. I provided a few simple ways to expose the data in SVG images, but mostly I described different constraints and suggested ways of thinking about the problems.

I didn’t want to lecture people about the need for making their content accessible; I wanted to excite them about the possibilities of doing so. It’s great that there are legal regulations addressing the needs of people with disabilities (like the “Section 508” laws here in the US), but that’s not going to empower and motivate developers and designers to want to meet these kinds of design constraints and solve these kinds of technical challenges. I sought to avoid the “threat and guilt” trap that I’ve seen too many accessibility talks fall into.

Continue reading “Invisible Visualization”