It’s Your Letters

Earlier this month, I received a handwritten letter from my pal Katy. We’ve known each other online for nearly two decades, ever since LiveJournal was the dominant blogging site.

However, this letter was one of the few times our friendship has seeped into the real world. We haven’t even spoken by phone before. I think our last piece of written correspondence was when I surprised her by sending a birthday card to a radio station where she volunteered.

This month’s letter was actually the second one she’d sent recently. The first went AWOL en route from Wales – and has never turned up.

I occasionally speak here about the enjoyment I gain from writing by hand. I keep a particular style of notebook with perforated A5 pages, plus several blue pens of the same type so I can carry on if one of them runs out. Even when I’m working on a non-handwritten project, the first draft is usually done in pencil and only transferred to a computer at the second stage.

I’ll reply to Katy when I have the opportunity. She’s given me eight optional questions to think about, but I reckon I have an answer for each one.

The Text Behind the Text

At the time of the Sydney 2000 Olympics, access to the Internet was becoming more common outside of academic settings, and many people used the official event website to keep track of the news.

One such user, Bruce Lindsay Maguire, won a court case against the organising committee because that website wasn’t accessible to him. One point of complaint was that no alt-text had been provided for images, so his Braille display wasn’t able to tell him what the images represented. The Australian Human Rights Commission website features a summary of the case.

With 22 years now passed, it’s easy to imagine this problem was confined to the early and more experimental years of the Web, but that’s not always the case.

Let’s use Instagram as an example, which employs software to try to identify what’s in a picture. A typical caption is ‘May be a picture of two people’ or ‘May be cars on a road’. However, it’s not easy to find the option to type your own alt-text. On the Android app, you need to click a small ‘Advanced settings’ link just before posting the picture, then head to ‘Write alt text’. There seems to be no good reason not to provide this box in plain sight.

A good piece of alt-text is one that fills in any important details that aren’t conveyed by the image caption or any other context. It doesn’t need to contain every detail, just enough to help someone understand the scene if they can’t see it.

One exception is purely decorative images. On this page, I often use headers created from fractals; these are generated by software as a copyright-free source of images. It’s not important to know that the image has dots and swirls of blue or pink, so these are typically labelled as simply ‘Fractal’.

Skip to Next Week

I’m in the unusual position of having an entry almost entirely planned out in my head, but no time to write it out.

It’s all about alternative text, which describes images and other media either for people who can’t see them, or for context that’s not obvious from the media.

So I’ll catch you next week, at which point I expect to be ready to present it.

Creating a New Phonetic Alphabet

I didn’t expect to be writing about this topic as a full-length blog post, but last week, I devised a new phonetic alphabet.

The existing NATO version is well-known and intended to be understood in a few different languages, so why tamper with that? It was partly for fun but partly for curiosity: to find out whether I could compile the list using as many rhymes and homophones as possible, thus rendering it useless for any practical purpose.

For example, the terms ‘Bravo’, ‘Delta’ and ‘Papa’ remove any ambiguity between ‘B’, ‘D’ and ‘P’, even when said with other words on a dodgy radio connection. I’ve instead used ‘Banter’, ‘Damper’ and ‘Pander’, which can sound identical over a radio, especially surrounded by other words.

Here’s a full list of my Frankenstein phonetics:

  • Ampere
  • Banter
  • Clacton
  • Damper
  • Empire
  • Falcon
  • Guitar
  • Hogarth
  • Impair
  • Jackson
  • Klaxon
  • Llanelli
  • Mighty
  • Nineteen
  • Oughwhere
  • Pander
  • Qatar
  • Roger
  • Saviour
  • Tamper
  • Umpire
  • Vulcan
  • Waiver
  • Xavier
  • Yngling
  • Zloty

There are other easily-confused groups such as ‘Guitar’, ‘Hogarth’ and ‘Qatar’. Then we have ‘Nineteen’ and ‘Roger’, neither of which sound as though they represent letters. Finally, the vowels more or less sound similar, while ‘Llanelli’, ‘Oughwhere’ and ‘Yngling’ are included because none of the words has an obvious correct pronunciation for people who are unfamiliar with them.

So what have I learnt from this exercise? Mostly that it’s not as simple as it sounds to create a hodgepodge of similar terms. If I’d picked words at random, they probably would have been distinctive enough from each other.

And what will I do with this list? Probably nothing; it is, after all, meant to be a useless alphabet.