Apathy, Sympathy, and Empathy in Books

I’ve written more than a few times about the role that emotion plays in books, even technical books. Technical books such as Accessibility for Everybody: Understanding the Section 508 Accessibility Requirements are tough to write because they’re packed with emotion. The author not only must convey emotion and evoke emotions in the reader, but explore the emotion behind the writing. In this case, the author’s emotions may actually cause problems with the book content. The writing is tiring because the author experiences emotions in the creation of the text. The roller-coaster of emotions tends to take a toll. Three common emotions that authors experience in the writing of a book and that authors convey to the reader as part of communicating the content are apathy, sympathy, and empathy. These three emotions can play a significant role in the suitability of the book’s content in helping readers discover something new about the people they support, themselves, and even the author.

It’s a mistake to feel apathy toward any technical topic. Writers need to consider the ramifications of the content and how it affects both the reader and the people that the reader serve. For example, during the writing of both Python for Data Science for Dummies and Machine Learning for Dummies Luca and I discussed the potential issues that automation creates for the people who use it and those who are replaced by it in the job market. Considering how to approach automation in an ethical manner is essential to creating a positive view of the technology that helps people use it for good. Even though apathy is often associated with no emotion at all, people are emotional creatures and apathy often results in an arrogant or narcissistic attitude. Not caring about a topic isn’t an option.

I once worked with an amazing technical editor who told me more than a few times that people don’t want my sympathy. When you look at sympathy in the dictionary, the result of having sympathy toward someone would seem positive, but after more than a few exercises to demonstrate the effects of sympathy on stakeholders with special needs, I concluded that the technical editor was correct—no one wanted my sympathy. The reason is simple when you think about it. The connotation of sympathy is that you’re on the outside looking in and feel pity for the person struggling to complete a task. Sympathy makes the person who engages in it feel better, but does nothing for the intended recipient except make them feel worse. However, sympathy is still better than apathy because at least you have focused your attention on the person who benefits from the result of your writing efforts.

Empathy is often introduced as a synonym of sympathy, but the connotation and effects of empathy are far different from sympathy. When you feel empathy and convey that emotion in your writing, you are on the inside, with the person you’re writing for, looking out. Putting yourself in the position of the people you want to help is potentially the hardest thing you can do and certainly the most tiring. However, it also does the most good. Empathy helps you understand that someone with special needs isn’t looking for a handout and that they don’t want you to perform the task for them. They may, in fact, not feel as if they have a special need at all. It was the realization that using technology to create a level playing field so that the people I wanted to help could help themselves and feel empowered by their actions that opened new vistas for me. The experience has colored every book I’ve written since that time and my books all try to convey emotion in a manner that empowers, rather than saps, the strength the my reader and the people my reader serves.

Obviously, a good author has more than three emotions. In fact, the toolbox of emotions that an author carries are nearly limitless and its wise to employ them all as needed. However, these three emotions have a particular role to play and are often misunderstood by authors. Let me know your thoughts on these three emotions or about emotions in general at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Creating the Useful Sidebar

There are many styles of writing employed for technical writing. Each style has specific benefits and today’s blog post won’t delve into them. However, many of these styles rely on the sidebar to add interest to the writing.

A problem occurs when an author seeks to present only facts as part of any written piece. Readers can find facts on the Internet. What readers can’t easily find is the specific viewpoint that an author presents, which includes supplementary materials in the form of sidebars. A sidebar adds interest to the writing, but more importantly, it provides background material that augments the topic at hand. For example, when discussing smartphone hardware, a sidebar that provides a brief overview of the communication technologies employed by that hardware can prove useful to the reader. The radio frequency transmission isn’t part of the main topic and some would argue that discussing it doesn’t belong at all in a pure hardware discussion, but the addition of that supplementary material is essential to the piece as a whole. It helps present a particular view of the technology that the reader wouldn’t otherwise receive.

Sidebars shouldn’t become a main topic. A good sidebar is at least one long paragraph, but more commonly two or three paragraphs. Never allow a sidebar to consume more than a page of text. For example, a two or three paragraph overview of the history of a technology is useful—a discourse that spans multiple pages is overkill unless the author is trying to make a particular point (in which case, the discussion should appear in the topic proper).

Depending on the sidebar content, you can include bulleted lists and numbered steps. A sidebar should never include graphics unless the book style accommodates such an addition (which is rare). The idea is not to detract from the piece as a whole, but rather augment it in a specific way—to help direct the reader’s attention in a specific manner. Using visual styles and white space correctly help make the sidebar attractive.

Many authors forget the need to evoke an emotional response in any sort of writing, including technical writing. In making a point, the author needs to express the idea fully by making an emotional appeal. A sidebar can perform this task nicely without creating distractions in the overall writing flow. For example, a piece about implementing accessibility features in an application can include a sidebar that contains a case study about the effects of such an implementation on a specific person or within a real world environment. The point is to help the reader understand the implications of a technology and make its use imperative.

Sidebars are an essential tool in the creation of a usable piece of writing that helps a reader understand a topic in ways that many factual Internet pieces can’t. Using sidebars effectively makes your writing better and more appealing. More importantly, a sidebar presents a unique view that the reader identifies with you as an author and sets your style of writing apart from that of other authors. Let me know your thoughts about sidebars at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

 

Checking for Mobile Friendliness

I’ve been writing computer books for over 29 years now and some people might think that’s long enough to know everything there is to know about computers. Actually, my involvement with computers spans over 40 years and I haven’t learned everything yet—nor will I. Every day is a new adventure, which is why I keep going. Besides the other projects I’ve been working on (which includes discovering the inner workings of both Near Field Communications, NFC, and machine learning), I’ve also been working through this whole concept of mobile device friendliness. In fact, I’ve discovered that there is actually a difference between sites that are mobile friendly and those that are mobile responsive, in that a mobile responsive design does a lot more for the mobile users (and is always mobile friendly by default).

During the time I wrote HTML5 Programming with JavaScript for Dummies and CSS3 for Dummies, the concept of mobile development was still quite new. There weren’t any good tools for testing mobile friendliness. Consequently, both books do try to address the topic to a small extent (the extent possible at the time), but neither book says anything about testing. Fortunately, vendors such as Google are now making it possible for you to verify that your site is mobile friendly with an easy to use check. All you need to do is point your browser to https://www.google.com/webmasters/tools/mobile-friendly/, enter an URL, and click Analyze. You get a quick answer to your question as shown here within a few seconds.

Verify that your site will support mobile users by performing a mobile friendly check.
Output from a Successful Mobile Friendly Check

The page contains more than just a validation of the mobile friendliness of your site. When you scroll down, you see a simulated output of your site when viewed on a smartphone. The view is important because it helps you understand how a mobile user will see your site, versus the view that you provide to desktop and tablet users. It’s important not to assume that mobile users have the same functionality as other users do. Here’s the simulated view for my site.

Mobile users may see something different than you expect, even when your site is mobile friendly.
Verify the Smartphone View of Your Site

As more and more people rely on mobile devices to access the Internet, you need to become more aware of what they’re seeing and whether they can use your site at all. According to most authorities, more users access the Internet using mobile devices today, than other devices, such as laptops, desktops, or tables. If you don’t support mobile devices correctly, you lose out on the potential audience for your site. This means that you may make less money than you otherwise could from sales and that the influence of your site is far less. Let me know your thoughts about mobile device access at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Use of the title Attribute

I try to keep up with accessibility issues so that the content I provide is always as friendly as possible. With this in mind, I’ve used the title attribute for links and wherever else it might be needed for many years now. At one time, the title attribute was actually mandated to make pages accessible by organizations such as the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). The attribute also makes an appearance in a number of my books, such as Accessibility for Everybody: Understanding the Section 508 Accessibility Requirements with full documentation as to the benefits of using it.

However, today I find myself having to take a new direction and actually tell people not to use the title attribute because it could potentially make pages less accessible. Part of the reason that the title attribute isn’t used anymore is that some people became confused about it and started using it for Search Engine Optimization (SEO) uses and that was never the point. A lack of browser support and all sorts of other issues added to the demise of the title attribute as a useful link feature. The point is that there is a reason for the title attribute, but no one was using it and people with special accessibility needs found ways around it. At one point, the screen readers I used actually did make use of the title attribute, but newer screen readers don’t. In fact, the new approach is to ensure that links contain enough text to ensure someone with a screen reader knows what they mean. It’s a situation where a specific programming technique didn’t get the job done so another technique is now in use—one that seems more natural and that people are actually using.

So, what cued me into the fact that the title attribute is no longer particularly useful? Well, I use WordPress to create blog posts and noted recently that they had removed the title attribute from the dialog box for creating links. For a while I was adding the title attribute in by hand because I really did feel I was making the page more accessible. However, after talking with a friend about the issue and experimenting with the latest screen readers myself, I find that the title attribute is one of those “also ran” features that simply doesn’t see use often enough to make it worthwhile using. The new strategy is to ensure you provide enough text as part of your link to ensure the link is clear all by itself (even if you need to hide part of that text from view). If you have a copy of one of my books that espouses the use of the title attribute, make sure you change your practice to match what the rest of the world is doing today. Let me know if you have any questions about the use of the title attribute at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Fooling the Eye

I’m intensely interested in all sorts of accessibility issues, including things that people don’t normally associate with accessibility, even though they are. For example, I was recently amused when I read Explained! Why People Can’t Agree on the Color of that Dress. Yes, the article is one of those sorts of optical illusion discussions that some people find fascinating, but many others don’t. However, it does point to something really interesting for everyone. How we perceive color depends on a lot of factors, not just the actual color. In this case, the factor is backlighting. It’s an interesting article because it points out that under the right conditions, we really can’t be sure that the color we’re seeing is the correct one.

The practical application of all this is that it’s important to understand that our perceptions of the world around us are often based on context. So, whether you’re trying to discover the color of a really wretched dress or that blotch on a piece of fruit, you need to consider the context of whatever you’re seeing. The ability to see color well could be trumped by a whole array of other factors, such as lighting or simply the time off day. Color perception can even be affect by state of mind or tiredness. In short, it isn’t absurd to think that your color vision will sometimes fail to produce the desired result.

The lesson on perception and the use of senses extends far beyond color vision. For example, people’s hearing is often fooled by environmental factors. The senses of taste and touch are equally susceptible to problems with environment or other factors that you might not consider worth thinking about. When something seems a bit too odd for serious consideration, perhaps your senses are simply being fooled. It’s an interesting and important element of the human condition to think about. Tell me about your favorite “Fool the Eye” experience at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Contemplating the Future of Prosthetic Devices

I keep up with the technology used to help people live fuller lives when they have a special need in as much as is possible. Of course, even if I devoted full time to the task, keeping up with every innovation would be impossible. Still, I try to find articles and other resources that go along with some of the concepts I originally discussed as part of Accessibility for Everybody: Understanding the Section 508 Accessibility Requirements. I recently read a Smithsonian article that helped me better understand precisely where prosthetic technology will be going in the future. Hugh Herr has turned a terrible life experience into something incredibly positive by creating prosthetic devices that work more like the flesh and blood counterparts they’re designed to replace.

The technology described in the article is simply amazing. However, the article also underscores some of the underlying issues that anyone with a special need faces. People automatically think that anyone with a special need is somehow deficient or requires special treatment. Given the resources, training, and devices available today, most special needs people can live as if they don’t have a special need. In fact, as far as they’re concerned, they don’t have one. So, while the article does describe really cool technology and tells of the heroic battle fought by several people to live normal lives, it also tells of a society that just isn’t ready to understand how technology can level the playing field and what a desirable response to special needs people should be.

Which brings me back to my book. When readers write me about my book, they often miss the point. Yes, my book is designed to help developers create really cool applications. It’s also designed to help people understand their legal and moral responsibilities in helping people with special needs. A few readers even get the idea that they’re likely to require special aids at some point in their lives. However, almost everyone misses the the point that I wrote my book to help people, all people, feel acceptance for who they are—no matter who they might be or what their requirements are.

Forward thinking people like Hugh Herr really are important today because technology such as bionics have the potential to change how we view humans as a species. A recent MIT Technology Review article highlights where Dr. Herr is going and where he wants to take us. If he can realize his vision, the things we’ll be able to do boggles the imagination. More importantly, the loss of a limb will no longer be an impediment to doing anything at all. Perhaps the makers of The Six Million Dollar Man had it right all along.

Where do you think we’re going with technology designed to overcome special needs in a way that makes them all but invisible? More importantly, what do you feel are the changes society needs to make with regard to treatment of special needs people? Let me know your thoughts at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Considering the Human Face of 3D Printing

A lot of my posts discuss the technical side of issues such as 3D printing. They’re a clinical treatment of a technical topic—devoid of sentimentality. Of course, this is a natural outcome of the kind of writing that I do. Most of my books contain accessibility aids in them because I strongly believe in the power of the computer to level the playing field for those who need a little extra help to be productive. Some of the things I’ve seen during my career have just amazed me and I’m sure that I’d be even more amazed were I to see it all. However, the technology I present is often faceless and lacks that human touch that really is needed to convince people about the validity of using technology to make life easier for those around us. That’s why a recent Parade article, How 3-D Printing is Transforming Everything from Medicine to Manufacturing, struck such a chord with me.

No longer is the technology faceless. You hear about how 3D printing has helped a real little girl live a normal life. The look on Anastasia Rivas’ face tells the whole story. It’s the same look that I’ve seen before when people’s lives are transformed by accessible technologies and it’s the same look that continues to drive me to cover accessibility in every book I write, in every way I possibly can. For me, technology isn’t about games or productivity software; it’s about making a difference in people’s lives—helping them do more with every asset they have. It’s the reason that I’d love to see fully secure, ultimately reliable, and easy to use software sometime in my lifetime, even though such a goal seems absurdly unrealistic today.

The point of this post is that the software you develop has real implications for real people. There is a tendency by developers to view software as an abstraction—as something that simply exists. In fact, there is a tendency to view software simply as a means to an end, but software and the hardware it runs on is so much more. I usually leave out the specific “who” part of an article to help you better concentrate on the technology you’re using. However, after seeing the Parade article, I just had to say something about a specific person affected by the technology that we all use and create as developers.

When you write software, make sure you consider the specific “who” of that software. Specifically who will use the application and what are the needs of that specific person? It’s a question we all need to answer despite the tendency to view software in the abstract. Let me know your thoughts about the human face of technology at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

A Question of Balancing Robot Technologies

The question of just how robots will affect us in the future consumes quite a bit of my time because I’m so interested in how they can be used for good. For example, robots are currently used to fight fires and to keep humans out of inhospitable environments. We also rely on robots to build some of the goods we enjoy and as a result, there are fewer assembly line accidents today than there were in the past (the quality of the output is also increasing). In the future, you can count on robot technology to help you remain independent, rather than ending up in a nursing home. There are even cars that rely on robots to drive them today and if things turn out as I expect, everyone will eventually use this sort of vehicle because robots will actually follow the traffic laws and reduce accidents as a result. In fact, it’s not too surprising to think that robots will appear in a lot of different situations that you don’t see them in today.

Humans are afraid of change. So, I’m also not surprised to find reports online that range from robots stealing jobs to terminator type robots killing us all off in order to save us (as in I, Robot). The fact is that robots really are under our control and as long as we exercise even a modicum of judgement, things will remain that way. I’m not saying that we couldn’t create a terminator-style robot. Recent advances in chip technology make it quite possible that we could create such a robot, but it’s important to ask why we’d ever do such a thing. In order for a new robot to become successful, there has to be a commercial reason to develop it and no one is interested in creating a terminator to destroy the human race.

What I think is more likely to happen is that robots will become companions to humans—devices that are both willing and able to take the risk out of human existence. The reduction of risk is an essential element in the robot/human relationship. We’ll continue to increase our use of robots as long as we can see a significant benefit to our personal lives. For example, it would be nice if we could eliminate the use of nursing homes altogether—that people could continue to live in their homes using robotic assistance. And, because those robots would be dedicated to the humans they serve, the standard of caregiving would increase dramatically. Of course, we have to get used to the idea of talking to a mechanical contrivance. Wait, we already do that—just consider how people interact with applications like Apple’s Siri.

Of course, people are asking what humans will do in the future if robots take on all of the tasks we have them slated for. For better or worse, the human condition has been changing at an ever more rapid pace over the last several years. If you look at just one statistic, you’ll miss what I’m trying to say here. For example, humans now live to an average age of 80 in many areas of the world—the average age will only increase barring some major change. People have children later in life now and focus more on career during the early years. Schools focus on getting kids to college and the college courses are becoming more challenging. In short, the environment in which we live today will change significantly in the next 40 or 50 years—to the point that most people won’t recognize the future as being any part of the past.

The change that has grabbed my attention most though is how much technology is now incorporated into humans (and the pace is only increasing). Yes, most of the technology currently does things like help people walk—it meets accessibility requirements. However, it’s only a matter of time before the technology will be used to help extend life and potentially make humans better adapted at excelling at tasks that we can’t even imagine now. So the question isn’t one of robots stealing jobs or killing us off terminator style, it’s one of understanding that humans are changing is a significant way and we’ll actually need robots to excel in the future. Let me know your thoughts about robots and our future at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Adding Emotion to Computer Interactions

A problem with computer interactions today is the inability of computer systems to understand the context in which something is said. Context colors the meaning of words so that a word with multiple meanings is quite clear to a human hearer, but nearly impossible for the computer to interpret. Before speech systems can truly take off, they must be able to interpret context far better than they do now, and that means being able to understand emotion. Even though such systems are a long way away, science fiction authors, such as Isaac Asimov, have long insisted that robots and other computerized systems that interpret spoken input will be able to understand emotional context at some point. In fact, the movie, I, Robot, makes this point quite clearly.

There is a new standard that has been introduced that will partly solve the problem, Emotion Markup Language (EmotionML). The standard provides a framework for describing emotion in a manner that a computer can understand. It provides a framework for future technologies, but doesn’t actually provide a technology that you can use today. A Speech Technology article provides a good overview of EmotionML that you can use to summarize what it does.

I imagine that some people are wondering why we don’t simply use something simple like an emoticon to express emotion. After all, people have used them for quite some time to express emotions as part of e-mail. The problems with emoticons are that they don’t convey enough information and they’re also used tongue-in-cheek in many cases. In addition, even though some simple emoticons are standardized, there are many versions of emoticons that supposedly express the same emotion, which would make interpreting them nearly impossible.

Of course, it’s important to understand what happens when a computer can finally interpret emotions well enough to put some speech into context. Well, for one thing, fewer people will be throwing their computers out of windows when they get frustrated with the computer’s idiotic responses to input that was clearly not meant to be processed in a certain way. However, what is more important is that the computer will correctly interpret the spoken word more often. When words have a whole list of meanings, just knowing the emotional context can help a computer select the correct meaning and react appropriately—reducing user frustration and defusing situations before they deteriorate into some sort of unexpected action.

The important thing to remember is that the EmotionML standard is only a framework, not a technology. When the technologies based on this standard start to appear, you can be certain that vendors will want to put a particular spin on the product to differentiate it from other products out there. The technologies won’t work well together at first and there is going to be a lot of confusion on the part of humans and computers alike. However, at least it’s a start in the right direction.

What other kinds of contextual information does a computer require to interpret the spoken word with greater accuracy? I think one of the next standards will need to address body language, likely starting with facial expressions, but I’d like to hear your opinion. Send your thoughts on language context and how computers can interpret them correctly to John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Examining the Calculator in Windows 7 (Part 2)

A while back, over two years ago in fact, I uploaded a post entitled, “Examining the Calculator in Windows 7.” Since that time, a number of people have asked about the other features that the new calculator includes. Yes, there are these rather significant problems that Microsoft has introduced, but there are some good things about the new calculator as well.

The good thing appears on the View menu. When you click this menu, you see options at the bottom of the list that provide access to the special features as shown here.

The View menu includes options for unit conversion, date conversion, and worksheets.
The Windows 7 Calculator View Menu

The Unit Conversion and Date Conversion options are the most useful. However, the worksheets can prove helpful when you need them. Of the new features, I personally use Unit Conversion the most and many people likely will. After all, it’s not often you need to figure out a new mortgage, vehicle lease amount, or the fuel economy of your vehicle (and if you do such work for a living, you’ll have something better than the Windows Calculator to use). To see what this option provides, click Unit Conversion. You see a new interface like the one shown here:

The Unit Conversion display makes it possible to convert from one unit of measure to another.
Calculator Unit Conversion Display

You start using this feature by selecting the type of unit you want to convert. As you can see from this list, the kinds of conversions you can perform are extensive:

Select a conversion type to determine what options are offered in the From and To fields.
The Calculator Supports a Healthy List of Conversion Types

The option you select determines the content of the From and To fields. For example, if you want to convert from kilometers to miles, you select the Length option. After you select the type of unit, type a value in the From field and select the From field unit of measure. Select the To field unit of measure last. Here is what happens when you convert 15 kilometers to miles:

The output shows that converting 15 kilometers to miles equals 9.32056788356001 miles.
Converting Kilometers to Miles

I’ve found use for most of the entries in the types list at one time or another. Every one of them works quite well and you’ll be happy they’re available when you need them. The Data Calculation option can be similarly useful if you work with dates relatively often, as I do. However, I can’t see many people needing to figure out the number of days between two dates on a regular basic. Even so, this feature is probably used more often than any of the worksheets.

The ability to perform conversions of various kinds and to access the worksheets that Windows 7 Calculator provides isn’t enough to change my opinion. The implementation of the Calculator is extremely flawed and I stick by my review in the first posting. However, you do have the right to know there are some positives, which is the point of this post. Let me know your thoughts about Calculator now that you have a better view of it at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.