Complex Images – Going Beyond Simple Alt Text

This is post #4 in a series of twelve posts intended to help you improve the accessibility of your online courses.

In the previous post I tried to explain the basics about Alt Text for images used in online courses. However, some online course content may be far more complicated to describe, and thus require the instructor to provide much more alternative information than can be handled through normal Alt Text methods.

Complex Image Types

The following items represent the most common types of complex images used in online learning:

  • Numerical charts, graphs, and scatter plots
  • Flow charts
  • Organizational charts
  • Diagrams and illustrations
  • Infographics or similar text-heavy graphics such as word clouds
  • Maps
  • Cartoons and comics
  • Photos with a great deal of visual information that is important to the learning process

Starting with the Obvious

The “table” shown below is not a table at all. It’s an image of a table. A screen capture or whatever you want to call it. It’s a .jpg, not readable by assistive technology.

This flat image is illustrative of how difficult it would be to describe all this information.

You would not be able to include much information at all in the Alt Text attribute to describe this information. 125 characters is NOT going to cut it.

So, the obvious point here is to NOT take an otherwise difficult-to-read piece of learning content and make it even more difficult by turning it into a flat image that cannot be read by a screen reader.

However, imagine that the table above is not an image, but a properly constructed data table with headers and formatting that allows a screen reader user to tab through the information contained therein. Even then it would be a difficult task to understand all the info contained within.

More Examples to Consider

How about this infographic (shortened for space but still illustrative)? The text in this infographic is not machine readable, and many infographics have an enormous amount of text.

The real infographic is 3 times this long

Or how about this Org Chart?

Lots of information in the organizational chart

How about this column chart of student survey data?

Only 9 columns in this chart, but lots of information to explain.

Long Descriptions for Complex Images

In each example above, how you would go about describing this information to a student who cannot see the images? You can use some of the strategies described previously to write longer descriptions:

  • Long Descriptions, using the HTML <img> longdesc Attribute, can be provided on a separate webpage and be as long as you choose
  • Describing the image in the surrounding paragraph text also allows you to say as much as you like about the image
  • Image captions can be longer than Alt Text, but not super long

Or you can convert the image information into a more accessible format, such as adding a data table adjacent to the column chart or a turning a diagram into a tactile graphic.

Data Tables as Alternative Text for Charts

A properly formed data table is the best way to provide access to the data contained in an image of a chart, such as the column chart above. In a later post we’ll look at how to make an accessible data table.

The data in the table is real text, so it’s very accessible and provides an excellent alternate description for the chart image. Depending on the publishing platform, a data table might also offer the ability to sort and manipulate the data, so presenting the data in this way would definitely benefit all students.

Here is the data table for the column chart above

Survey ItemFY04FY05FY06
Online bookstore service5.285.715.67
Online info for financial aid5.325.485.71
Institutional responsiveness5.455.675.72
Priorities Survey for Online Learners for Lake Huron College. Student satisfaction ratings on a 7-point scale.

Before you decide on a Data Table

Consider the context and the learning goal. Is a data table needed? In other words, are the specific data figures and details an important part of the learning? Consider the following image that might be used in a tax class for an Accounting major:

Tax chart from IRS website, described in the surrounding text
IRS chart: Gross Collections by Type of Tax, Fiscal Years 2009-2018

How important are the details above. Is the exact amount of total tax collected in 2012 an important number? Almost certainly not (so says the former accounting instructor). So what is important? Of course it depends on the intent of the instructor, but possibly:

  • how much the total tax collected has grown over the 9 years
    • and yet business income tax collections are essentially flat over the same span
  • How income taxes on individuals in 2018 are approximately 8 times larger than the taxes collected on business income
    • or maybe how the difference in 2009 was 5 times and then it grew to 8 times by 2018
  • How “Other” taxes are 5 times larger than business income taxes – and what are those other taxes?

In other words, often times the gist of the information is really what you want the students to know. If your instruction is based around knowing the gist of the information in the chart, then you can provide a summary of the important things to know. However, if the goal is for students to be able to summarize the data in plain language – then they will need to be able to analyze the details in order to come up with their own summary or gist – thus the need for a data table.

Making that Infographic Accessible

You can find the infographic shown earlier in this post at the Big Hack website. What you’ll find there are two things I want to highlight.

  1. The text version of the information is provided directly below the infographic. That is their alternative text for the image, and they even included links to the sources of the information. This is very good.
  2. They also provide embed code “If you would like to share this infographic on your website.” This is where the accessibility typically falls apart.
    • This next section is important: “Please include a copy of the plain text version alongside the image for anyone who cannot access the information. Alternatively, you can signpost to this page saying there is a plain text version available.”
    • If you don’t do either of these things (and many people don’t), then you’ve just divorced the inaccessible infographic from the accessible alternative text. Don’t do that!

Before Wordle We Had Wordle

Here we have the lovely (jk) word cloud. Let’s assume that you teach some sort of language class and the exercise at hand is to look at how words from one language seep into usage in another language. Such as the words in the image above that are Spanish words commonly used by English-speakers. In other words, let’s assume that there is some educational value in the words in this cloud. That very often is not the case with word clouds.

This graphic was made years ago at Wordle dot net, which appears now to be in the deadpool, likely thanks to the NYT Wordle site. The original Wordle word cloud generator appears to be alive in an alternate site called EdWordle.

Word clouds are very strange from a web accessibility perspective. To make the word cloud, you enter words in plain text (usually copy and paste or provide a URL) and have the generator make a flat image that contains the same words in text that is not machine readable. Then you need to provide Alt Text so that the words in the image are available to assistive technology. To do that, you need to provide the original plain text words. That’s a strange workflow.

If your word cloud has no significant educational value, then you can safely mark it as a decorative image. If you have a word cloud that you really want to use in your course content or elsewhere, go ahead and do so, But, and this is a big but, you must provide all the important words and possibly the reasons that make those words important in plain text on the same page or as a Long Description page.

Last Example – An Attempt at Humor?

Here’s a poster I put together many moons ago.

This may be the best accounting joke ever told.

I don’t think that the regular Alt Text attribute (about 125 characters) will work for this image. Assuming that you don’t decide to mark it as decorative, how would you provide Alt Text for this image?

Directory to posts in this series:

  1. Improving Accessibility of Online Courses – the why
  2. What do Educators Need to Know about VPATs?
  3. Alt Text for Simple Images in Online Courses
  4. Complex Images – Going Beyond Simple Alt Text

Alt Text for Simple Images in Online Courses

This is post #3 in a series of twelve posts intended to help you improve the accessibility of your online courses.

What are Alternate Text Descriptions?

For a sighted person, images related to the learning content can be very informative and valuable. A picture’s worth a thousand words and all that stuff. So let’s assume that you have included several images in your online course; such as images in content pages, in discussion posts, possibly in a quiz question, and so on. Let’s also assume that one or more of your students has a visual impairment and uses a screen reader (assistive technology) while accessing your course.

Visual impairments make it difficult or even impossible for the student to see the image and comprehend the information you are trying to convey with that image. That’s where Alt Text come into play. For this series of blog posts, I will refer to Alt Text as shorthand for Alternate Text, also often called Alternative Text.

Alt Text is the text-only information that is associated with an image for the purpose of providing information that is equivalent to the image itself.

Informative Images or Decorative Images?

Informative Image Example

Many images used in online courses are informational in nature; which means that the image conveys information that is part of the learning activity in which it is used. For example, in an Entomology course on Bees and Beekeeping, this image of a honeybee pollinating a sunflower is most likely an important image for the learning process, or at least it could be. Students who can see the image won’t necessarily know what is educational about it, but they might. In other words, the educational purpose might be obvious to someone who can view the image, but it definitely won’t be obvious to someone who can’t view the image. This is where Alt Text comes in. More on that in a minute.

The important part of learning from this image might not be obvious to your learners.

Decorative Image Example

A decorative image in an online course is one that does not convey important educational content. They are often used for layout purposes, humor, or just what could be called eye-candy. For example, assume that you want to have a little fun with your students so you post a News item stating that today is National Hoagie Day, and post a photo as well (maybe to spark a debate as to whether it should be called a hoagie, a sub, a hero, or a grinder). A student who is unable to view the image is at no educational disadvantage by missing this image. There is no need to explain the image to the student either. Your text announcing that it is Hoagie Day is sufficient for them to see your humorous side.

No need for Alt Text since this is decorative

Alt Text for Informative Images

For a student who cannot view the image, the informational content must be explained in real text in some way that is accessible to the student using assistive technology, typically screen reading software. That readable text can be in the form of:

  • An alt text description that is part of the HTML code, but is not viewable on the screen.
  • A descriptive caption for the image that can be read by sighted people and read by screen readers.
  • A description of the educational content conveyed by the image in the surrounding paragraph text.

For the honeybee image shown above, we would need to know the context in order to determine what should be included in the alt text or caption or surrounding paragraph. Possibly the point has to do with the fact that sunflowers are self-pollenating, which might beg the question of whether the honeybee is adding any value by visiting the flower. Let’s make that assumption for this example. Here is one possibility for the alt text:

Even though sunflowers are self-pollenating, research shows honeybee activity can improve crop yields.

Is that the best Alt Text for this image? We don’t know, that’s a trick question. The answer of what is the best alt text is contingent on the point of the learning conveyed by the image. That’s where your professional judgment comes in.

However, there is information in the Alt Text above that is not obvious in the photo. The info about bees improving crop yields is a piece of learning that would be important to all your learners. If it is only contained in the Alt Text, then sighted users could be at a disadvantage. More on this at the end of the post.

Effective practices for writing Alt Text

Some basic guidelines:

  • Do not include “picture of” or “image of” in the Alt Text.
    • A screen reader will automatically announce that it has come to an image. So an Alt Text “Image of a honeybee” would be read aloud by a screen reader as “image, Image of a honeybee”.
  • Using correct grammar can enhance the experience for screen reader users:
    • Capitalize the first letter.
    • End whole sentences with a period.
  • As a general rule of thumb, keep Alt Text prose to about 125 characters or less.
    • Look at other methods for longer descriptions of an image.
  • Many images contain embedded text which is not readable by assistive technology.
    • If any embedded words are important, make sure they are included in the Alt Text.
  • As illustrated with the honeybee, don’t include unique information in the Alt Text.
    • Don’t put sighted users at a disadvantage by putting important information ONLY in the Alt Text.
  • Don’t repeat yourself.
    • If the information is already available in the content within the proper context, repeating the same information in the Alt Text is a waste of the learner’s time.

You’re not trying to improve SEO in your online course

SEO is shorthand for Search Engine Optimization. You can visit many websites where they school you on writing good alt text for an image on a website. They tell you to be as descriptive as possible. Refer back to the bee and sunflower photo. Here are two possible Alt Text outcomes:

  1. Honeybee sitting on the outer edge of the disc florets of a bright yellow sunflower.
  2. Even though sunflowers are self-pollenating, research shows honeybee activity can improve crop yields.

Number 1 is very descriptive of the image. But what is the educational value of that text?

Number 2 conveys information that is relevant to the course and may be made more memorable including the image.

For webpage optimization, many web developers will fill the Alt Text for images with a bunch of keywords since search engines typically scan image Alt Text. Keep in mind that an online course has a very different purpose, so please don’t dump a bunch of keywords into your Alt Text.

Alt Text for Decorative Images

Images that are for decorative purposes do not need to be explained to students with no or low vision. To properly communicate the fact that the image is decorative, you need to use null alt text so that assistive technology can inform the student that the image is not important to the educational content of the topic.

Code example of null alt text: <img src=”yummy-hoagie.jpg” alt=””>

It is important to understand that null alt text (as shown above in the code with alt=””) is not the same as no alt text, where the alt text attribute is completely missing. If null alt text is entered, assistive technology will ignore the image altogether, which is a good thing since it conveys nothing important. However, if the alt text attribute is completely missing, then the student will be told that there is an image, and they will wonder what they are missing since there is no alt text to explain the importance of the image.

How do you determine whether an image is informative or decorative? I see many examples of where authors error on the side of caution. To me, the side of caution is to write Alt Text for an image just to be on the safe side in case it’s not merely decorative. I might be one who pulls the decorative lever more often than others. If it doesn’t add to the learning at hand, or if the info conveyed by the image is available in plain text somewhere else in the materials, then I’m likely to call it decorative.

Why not add Alt Text anyway even if the image is decorative?

Students using assistive technology such as a screen reading platform already have hurdles to clear in order to learn the course content. Anything that saves them time or doesn’t muddy the waters is a good thing for them. Adding Alt Text to a decorative image may even be a signal to the unsighted learner that there is something more important about the image than intended by the instructor. If you decide the image is decorative, then use the null Alt Text attribute and let the learner skip over the image entirely. It’s the learner-friendly thing to do.

Should decorative images even be a thing in online courses?

I’ve had several people ask whether it’s a good practice to just completely leave out decorative images. One school of thought is that if the images don’t enhance the learning in any significant way, then why have them at all?

Short answer: Decorative images are fine

Longer answer: Decorative images are fine as long as they are marked properly with the Null Alt Text attribute. Some of the main reasons for using decorative images include:

  • adding an icon next to a text link to draw attention or increase the clickable area;
  • the image is already described by surrounding text;
  • adding borders, spacers, and corners for visual styling;
  • because you want to include some “eye-candy”.
    • just because an unsighted student can’t appreciate the eye candy isn’t a reason to take it away from all learners (remember, there’s no enhancement of the learning with these images).

What about Captions?

Some software platforms make it easy to enter an image caption, while others require you to add the caption coding directly into the HTML for the page. If you know how to do this, it is an effective practice to put this information in the caption for the benefit of all students. If you enter the text in a caption, then do not repeat it in the alt text attribute.

If your authoring platform doesn’t provide an easy way to insert captions, then you might want to consider the other possible ways to provide your learners with the important info in the images.

Don’t Forget About Surrounding Text

Many experts will suggest that the best practice, and in this case I really do mean best, is to put all of the relevant information in the surrounding text. For the sunflower and honeybee photo above, that would mean that everything that is educationally important about that image should be explained in the on-page text that accompanies the image. Sighted students and those using assistive technology would all have access to the same information. If all the information is conveyed in the surrounding text, then it is appropriate to not repeat that info in the alt text, at which point the image can be treated as decorative for students using assistive technology.

Alt Text: a Useful Point-of-View, IMO

I like to think of Alt Text as if it’s living “behind the photo.” If you were viewing a physical photo album, it would be something that someone wrote on the back of the photo, or on the page behind the photo. Unless you know it’s there, you’ll never know what it says.

Of course it’s possible for a sighted student to find the Alt Text for a digital image on a webpage, but it’s not easy nor intuitive. Remember, the mouse over popup is NOT the Alt Text.

Refer back to the suggested Alt Text for the bee and sunflower. There is information in the Alt Text that is not obvious in the photo. This is a clear example, IMO, of a case where you should not use the Alt Text code attribute but should either insert a caption or put that information into the surrounding text on the page. That way the info is readable by sighted users as well as learners using assistive technology.

Even though sunflowers are self-pollenating, research shows honeybee activity can improve crop yields.

Some recommended resources for more info on Alt Text for simple images:

Directory to posts in this series:

  1. Improving Accessibility of Online Courses – the why
  2. What do Educators Need to Know about VPATs?
  3. Alt Text for Simple Images in Online Courses
  4. Complex Images – Going Beyond Simple Alt Text

What do Educators Need to Know about VPATs?

Post #2 in a series of twelve posts intended to help you improve the accessibility of your online courses.

This is a greatly shortened version of the full post. Check out the TL;DR version to see it all.

In this installment, we’ll take a look at a somewhat technical, and often over-looked aspect of using technology and software in education. Often-overlooked unless you are an IT professional or an employee working in a purchasing office.

Check the Accessibility Concerns of your Educational Software

What is a VPAT?

The Voluntary Product Accessibility Template (VPAT) is a tool that provides information about how well a vendor’s product or service conforms to the Section 508 Accessibility Standards. Since it is voluntary, not all companies will provide a VPAT for all of their products, but most companies that take an active interest in being inclusive with their product development will provide this information.

How to Find a VPAT

In the Web Accessibility MOOC for Online Educators (WAMOE), we asked the students (who were educators) to search for a VPAT for software or hardware that they used in their online courses. It could be something that they used themselves for content creation or similar purposes, or it could be something that they encouraged or required their students to use.

In most cases, WAMOE participants would do a web search using keywords of VPAT and the name of the tech product. This simple web search would often bear fruit very easily, with an obvious search result that would lead to the desired document. However, there were many times when the search brought back confusing results or no helpful information at all.

What if They Don’t Have a VPAT?

Unless you can be assured that the recommended technology will be accessible to all students, it is a good idea to provide an alternative assignment that can be used by those who cannot make use of the primary technology that has been assigned.

What Can You Learn from a VPAT?

The VPAT is a series of tables, each comprised of three columns. The Summary Table provides the vendor’s information related to conformance with Section 508 Standards of the United States Rehabilitation Act. Column one of the Summary Table contains eight accessibility criteria that are found in subparts B and C of the 508 Standards. Column two describes any supporting features in the product or service that helps conform to the individual criterion. Column three is for any remarks and explanations that the vendor would like to share.

VPAT Example – a web conferencing solution

The detail table for Section 1194.22 Web-based Internet information and applications includes the following (excerpting criteria a, c, and g as examples):

  • Criteria: (a) A text equivalent for every non­text element shall be provided (e.g., via “alt”, “longdesc”, or in element content).
    • Supporting Features: Supports with Exceptions
    • Remarks and explanations: The product interface itself does not have any deficiencies requiring this, and authors are urged to do so should the need arise.
  • Criteria: (c) Web pages shall be designed so that all information conveyed with color is also available without color, for example from context or markup.
    • Supporting Features: Supports
    • Remarks and explanations: All color contrasts comply with industry standard minimums.
  • Criteria: (g) Row and column headers shall be identified for data tables.
    • Supporting Features: Not Applicable
    • Remarks and explanations: The product does not contain any data tables.

Row (a) contains something that you’ll see quite frequently; the vendor saying that their product doesn’t have accessibility issues with a criterion, but content loaded by the end user just might. It’s always important to differentiate between product features and items added by the end user.

In an educational context, this boils down to the following: a) is the technology accessible to the instructor or student who needs to create educational content, and b) is the output of the technology accessible to users/viewers of said output?

You’ve Found a VPAT, Now What?

At many colleges and universities, vendor VPATs are used as a first step to verify the accessibility of the technology (both software and hardware) that will be purchased or recommended for use by students and employees. This is only a first step, because it is a wise choice to do some additional end-user testing to verify the information contained in the VPAT. For example, consider a software product that indicates in the VPAT that text included in an object created by that software is readable by assistive technology such as a screen reader. It would be a good idea to test that yourself using the screen reading technology that is normally deployed at your organization.

More info in TL;DR

Yikes, it’s Inaccessible. Now what?

Okay, so now you’ve reviewed the VPAT and completed functional testing and found the product to have accessibility barriers that cannot be accommodated. Now what? Well either the product shouldn’t be used or you have to provide students with disabilities an accessible alternative when they encounter a barrier. These accessible alternatives should be figured out well in advance of a student with a disability enrolling.

Still need more about the VPAT? Check out the longer version of this post.

Directory to posts in this series:

  1. Improving Accessibility of Online Courses – the why
  2. What do Educators Need to Know about VPATs?
  3. Alt Text for Simple Images in Online Courses
  4. Complex Images – Going Beyond Simple Alt Text

Improving Accessibility of Online Courses – the why

This is the first post in a series of twelve posts intended to help you improve the accessibility of your online courses.

During this series, the word accessibility is used in the context of making your online courses better for students with various disabilities. To help set the stage for this series of posts, let’s start with a couple of videos.

Keyboard image with Accessibility key replacing the Enter key

Portland Community College: To Care and Comply

Portland Community College (PCC) created this 11-minute video in 2015. PCC employees talk about their web accessibility guidelines and how supporting students with disabilities is a shared responsibility across the college. Tips and techniques that faculty and staff can use to improve their online course materials to make course components more accessible are also included. It is embedded below, or you can open it separately in YouTube.

These things jump out at me from the PCC video:

  • The intro examples of navigating online courses with assistive technology
  • The various students’ stories about their needs for accessible learning materials
  • Mission of PCC, and there is no success without access (10:30)

You can learn more about the various accessibility resources provided by PCC at their website.

University of Washington DO-IT: IT Accessibility: What Campus Leaders Have to Say

I also highly recommend a second video, this one from DO-IT (Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking, and Technology) at the University of Washington. DO-IT provides many excellent resources for educators and students. They also have an excellent Center for Universal Design in Education. This video highlights the importance and strategies for making Information Technology accessible on a campus-wide basis. Open DO-IT video separately.

Highlights for me in this video include:

  • Notice that the video is audio-described (AD).
  • At 1:37, Tracy Mitrano clarifies that making an accommodation was a good starting point, but only the start of the conversation about dealing with accessibility.
  • At 2:32, Pablo Molinda states that just like privacy and security, accessibility needs to be designed from the initial conception, not an afterthought.
  • At 3:58, Gerry Hanley shows that his state system requires all vendors provide equally effective access to the services provided by the vendor.

In the second post we’ll look into the importance of a VPAT and what you can learn from them. In the remaining posts we’ll focus more on the question of how to improve the accessibility of online courses. I thought it was important to start with this post dealing more with the question of why improved web accessibility is important in online learning.

The PCC video is shared with express written consent from PCC, and the University of Washington video is shared under the license of Creative Commons Attribution. The accessibility keyboard graphic is shared under Creative Commons Attribution by creator Poakpong.

Directory to posts in this series:

  1. Improving Accessibility of Online Courses – the why
  2. What do Educators Need to Know about VPATs?
  3. Alt Text for Simple Images in Online Courses
  4. Complex Images – Going Beyond Simple Alt Text

Hate-filled Facebook Deserves to be Unfriended en Masse

This was published as a Local View column in the Duluth News Tribune on September 3, 2020.

Image used by the Duluth News Tribune

Facebook has proven itself to be a danger to democracy. The republic is under attack, and Zuckerberg is the attacker.

If Facebook is your main source for news, then you’re not getting news; you’re getting indoctrinated by propaganda. According to PBS News, fake accounts created in Russia during the 2016 election reached more than 126 million Americans, almost equaling the 136 million who voted in the election. A fake account is one that is not backed by a real person — or not by the person purported to be behind the account.

According to the Wall Street Journal, Facebook knew about the Russian disinformation campaign during the 2016 election but didn’t take action because of organizational dysfunction. Regardless of why Facebook didn’t take action, it knew and did nothing.

As we near another presidential election, we again find that the information fed to the public across social-media platforms is far too often filled with lies and fake videos. In 2020, Facebook still knows and yet does almost nothing to stop it.

Even if Facebook became more effective at cracking down on fake accounts and misinformation detection, I wouldn’t recommend anyone trust the company to take action. The Proud Boys hate group was permanently banned from the platform in October 2018. However, in July 2020, Facebook removed 54 accounts, 50 pages, and four Instagram accounts (also owned by Facebook) where the hate group was back up to its usual violence-inducing tactics. Sure, Proud Boys got caught, but how much damage did it do before getting caught?

Facebook has rules against accounts and posts by violent militias, and yet the Kenosha shooter was egged on by a page that encouraged armed Americans to take to the streets of the far southeastern Wisconsin city. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said Facebook made an “operational mistake” by failing to remove the page until after the event occurred. So people died because of an “operational mistake?”

Facebook is Fakebook. The amount of misinformation and fake news is staggering. Your timeline is littered with fake outrage over every little stupid thing. Not to mention the fake enthusiasm about the minutiae of life (“Oh boy, baked potatoes tonight!”).

I left Facebook almost two years ago. I no longer was willing to be the product it was selling to others. Believe it or not, I find I can still stay in touch with friends and family. Facebook made that easy, but the price tag was too high.

If your business uses Facebook as your only “website,” then I won’t be your customer. If you’re a local politician who mainly talks to the people through Facebook, then I won’t hear your message. If you’re trying to sell something on Facebook, then I won’t be your buyer.

Zuckerberg doesn’t care a whit whether his platform is used by foreign agents in an attempt to manipulate the U.S. presidential election. If you are a Facebook user, then you support Zuckerberg and his goals. You are not an innocent bystander.

More than 1,100 companies and organizations joined the advertiser boycott against Facebook in July to pressure the platform to take more action on hate speech and deceptive posts from politicians. I suggest that you join in by deleting your Facebook account and leaving the hate-filled site behind.

If you don’t want to believe some rando who wrote a “Local View” commentary (that’s me), that’s fine. Do your own research. Just don’t do your research at InfoWars and Breitbart — and definitely not at Facebook.

Barry Dahl of Superior is an educator who taught at the University of Minnesota Duluth for six years and worked at Lake Superior College for 16 years, including 10 years as a dean and vice president. He works now for an online learning software company. He was an early user of Facebook when the platform first opened to the general public. To learn more about the evidence against Facebook, he recommends “The Great Hack,” an Emmy-nominated documentary on Netflix.

My Beer Experiment: What I Learned

I started 2019 with a personal mission to study my beer drinking habits and effects. I started the year drinking 50 beers in 50 days. Then I dove into the next 50 days without drinking any beers.

Hoops Brewing in Duluth

After drinking some great beers during the first 50 days, I had zero beers in the next 20 days. Then I quit. Although this was not an actual New Year’s Resolution, this plan was very similar to one. And like most resolutions, I gave up on it. Here’s what I learned.

  • As much as I like a good craft beer (it’s a lot, trust me), 50 beers in 50 days was actually a significant increase in my normal beer consumption.
  • Several times I had to force it (by drinking a beer or two) in order to stay on pace. Not a big deal, but those beers were less enjoyable than the times that I really wanted to have one. I guess that makes sense.
  • I think my sweet spot is about 5 beers a week on average. That usually works out to 2 or 3 beers about twice a week. In other words, 35 beers in 50 days would have been a more normal pace for me. I didn’t realize that until I started down this path.
  • I’m to the point where I would rather not drink a beer at all than drink a crappy beer.
  • I gave up the experiment after 20 days because I really missed my beers. I didn’t feel any better or worse (physically) than during the first 50 days, but I felt like I was depriving myself of something I like…for no good reason.
  • I also noticed that I was drinking more coffee and more soda (pop?); neither of which is probably all that terrific for me.
  • Besides, I like having beers in social situations, such as when I play poker a couple of times a week. Also when I visit friends; such as my upcoming trips to Tucson, Portland, and elsewhere.

So, there you have it. Call me a beer drinker.

I gave up on Facebook, but I’m still an avid user of Untappd (I’m dahlontap) so I can get a mild social media fix while tracking my beer consumption and learning about new opportunities to make myself hoppy. Cheers!

The Beatles and #MeToo

It was 55 years ago today (Feb. 1, 1964) when I Wanna Hold Your Hand became the first #1 hit for The Beatles in the USA. I was a very young lad when The Fab Four made their big splash. I went along for the ride because my two older brothers were in high school at the time and bought all the albums. So, I’ve been a Beatles fan for as long as I can remember. In fact, I can only remember a little bit of the music that I listened to before I listened to The Beatles.

I have several favorites, or near-favorites on my Beatles playlist. There’s one song that haunts me. For many years I paid no attention to the lyrics. This song has a great beat and an awesome sound. It’s a real toe-tapper. But then there’s the lyrics.

Lyrics – Run For Your Life

  • I’d rather see you dead, little girl,
  • Than to be with another man.
  • You’d better keep your head, little girl,
  • Or I won’t know where I am.
  • You’d better run for your life if you can, little girl,
  • Hide your head in the sand, little girl,
  • Catch you with another man,
  • That’s the end ah, little girl.
  • Well you know that I’m a wicked guy
  • And I was born with a jealous mind.
  • And I can’t spend my whole life
  • Tryin’ just to make you toe the line.

Repeat 2nd stanza.

  • Let this be a sermon,
  • I mean ev’rything I said.
  • Baby, I’m determined
  • And I’d rather see you dead.

Repeat 2nd stanza

Repeat 1st Stanza

Repeat 2nd Stanza

John Lennon wrote these words. I guess this was before he tried to be a pacifist. He admitted in a 1980 Playboy interview that he treated women badly. “All that ‘I used to be cruel to my woman, I beat her and kept her apart from the things that she loved’ was me. I used to be cruel to my woman, and physically… any woman. I was a hitter. I couldn’t express myself and I hit.”

I’ve heard many people argue that even though John wrote these lyrics, he wasn’t writing about himself. Apparently, he was writing a story about some crazy jealous dude – but not him. Based on his own words as a younger lad, and based on his statements that he wished he had never written this song – I tend to believe that it’s autobiographical.

It’s a shame that this song has such nasty lyrics. Take this same beat and melody and put it with decent lyrics and it would probably be my favorite Beatles song. Bummer.

I’m a Prepper, a Death Prepper

Over the past few months, I’ve been preparing to die. Or at least I’ve started preparing for that inevitability. It’s actually been kind of fun.

I don’t actually believe that I’m going to die soon; not that one can ever be too sure about those things. I don’t have a terminal disease, nor a death wish. I’ve just seen a lot of people die in the past few years, and I want to be ready.

The grim reaper awaits all of us.

As a death prepper, here’s what I’ve been up to lately:

  • I’ve written my own obit. It’s ready to go, once somebody else is able to add the date and cause of death.
  • I’ve chosen the songs I want to be played at my death party (or memorial service, if you will).
  • I’ve prepared a shared online spreadsheet to make sure my wife has access to all the financial accounts information.
  • I’ve decided on cremation, because I really like the word “cremains.” (I hope you cremember me when I’m gone.)
  • My headstone is being prepared. Tasteful little thing, no 24K gold or diamond studs. I don’t feel like I actually need a headstone anywhere in the world, but my wife would like to have our markers side-by-side. That’s a good enough reason for me.

I do have a couple of things left to do:

  • I’m working on a solution that will delete almost all of my online accounts when I die, except for this blog and my Twitter feed. I’ll leave those for my kids to look back on someday.
  • I still need to prepare a will. This should be moot, because I expect my wife to live 30 more years after I die, and everything goes to her with or without a will. However, it’s not a sure thing that I go first, so a last will and testament needs to be prepared.
  • I’m going to prepare a 5-minute video about my life. My whole life condensed into 5 minutes. That’s going to be a challenge. Lots of good stuff will hit the cutting room floor, but death is cruel – and most people will start to check out after five minutes anyway. Why a 5-minute video? I don’t know; I just want to.
  • And lastly, to steal phrase, I need to get busy living.

If and when you see my obit, you’ll see that I don’t use the phrase “he passed away.” You don’t pass away – you fail away. You didn’t pass, you failed. You failed to live forever. Death is not a hall pass, it’s a pink slip.

50 Beers in 50 Days

I’m starting 2019 on a personal mission. My plan is to drink 50 different beers in the first 50 days of the year. That doesn’t necessarily mean one beer each day, but a total of 50 over 50 days.

beer-1513436_1280

Then, starting February 20, I will go 50 days without a beer.

Then, starting April 10, I will take a self-assessment. Do I feel healthier? Am I happier? Am I an emotional wreck? Is there no significant difference?

I like beer. I really like craft beers. I really like craft beers that are dark, or hoppy, or unique; or possibly all three things at the same time. I hate to think that I’ll be better off without beer, but maybe that will be the case. My father had to stop drinking during the last 8 to 10 years of his life. He still liked beer, but beer didn’t like him.

I’ll keep a running list here, and then report out on my conclusions in April and May.

  • Day 2 – Beer 1) Big Sky IPA
  • Day 4 – Beer 2) Bent Paddle Harness IPA
    • Beer 3) Bent Paddle Black
    • Beer 4) Beaver Island Sweet Miss Stout
  • Day 7 – Beer 5) Summit Extra Pale Ale
    • Beer 6) Lake Superior Duluth Coffee Stout
  • Days 8, 9, 10 – ice fishing on Lake of the Woods – Beer 7) Fulton Citra Double Dry-Hopped 300 bottle
    • Beer 8) Shiner Bohemian Black Lager
    • Beer 9) Indeed Flavorwave IPA 

ice-fishing-2019

  • Day 14 – Beer 10) Odell IPA
    • Beer 11) Bell’s Two Hearted Ale
  • Day 16 – Beer 12) Alaskan Icy Bay IPA (meh!!)
  • Day 17 – Beer 13) Beaver Island Brewing ’39 Red IPA
    • Beer 14) Earth Rider Superior Pale Ale
  • Day 19 – Beer 15) Third Street BrewHouse Sugar Shack Maple Stout (can)
    • Beer 16) Oskar Blues G’Knight
  • Day 21 – Beer 17) New Belgium Fat Tire
    • Beer 18) Castle Danger Cream Ale
  • Day 23 – Beer 19) Tallgrass Brewing Buffalo Sweat Oatmeal Cream Stout
    • Beer 20) Hop & Barrel Hudson Haze IPA
  • Day 24 – Beer 21) Milwaukee Brewing Louie’s Demise
  • Day 25 – Beer 22) Big Wood Portside Porter
    • Beer 23) Rush River Unforgiven Amber Ale
  • Day 28 – Beer 24) Bent Paddle Harness IPA
  • Day 31 – Beer 25) Deschutes Jubelale
    • Beer 26) Earth Rider Duluth Coffee Pale Ale
  • Day 33 – Beer 27) Zipline Kolsch
  • Day 34 – Beer 28) Schell’s FireBrick
    • Beer 29) Surly Furious
  • Day 35 – Beer 30) Guinness Stout
    • Beer 31) John Smith’s Newcastle Brown Ale
  • Day 36 – Beer 32) Sierra Nevada Hop Hunter IPA
  • Day 37 – Beer 33) Alaskan Brewing Smoked Porter
    • Beer 34) The Fermentorium Underwater Panther
    • Beer 35) Earth Rider North Tower Stout
  • Day 38 – Beer 36) Deschutes Fresh Squeezed IPA
    • Beer 37) Sierra Nevada Torpedo Extra IPA
  • Day 39 – Beer 38) Stone IPA
  • Day 40 – Beer 39) Big Sky Scape Goat Pale Ale
    • Beer 40) Fitger’s Biere de Garde
    • Beer 41) Fitger’s Nuff Said English Pale Ale
  • Day 42 – Beer 42) Hoops No. 9 Pomegranate Rye
  • Day 44 – Beer 43) New Belgium 1554 Dark Lager
  • Day 45 – Beer 44) Earth Rider Cognac Barrel Aged Valhalla Ale
  • Day 47 – Beer 45) Firestone Walker Brewing Union Jack IPA
    • Beer 46) Golden Road Brewing Mango Cart Wheat Ale
  • Day 48 – Beer 47) Hammerheart Laurentian Porter
    • Beer 48) Surly Todd – The Axe Man
  • Day 49 – Beer 49) Thirsty Pagan Pabsh Double IPA
  • Day 50 – Beer 50) The best beer of the first 49 deserves a repeat – and the winner is…the Duluth Coffee Pale Ale from Earth Rider Brewery in Superior, Wisconsin.
  • It wasn’t easy drinking 50 beers in 50 days. Turns out that is more than I would normally drink. About 20% more, or so.
  • So now the fun part begins.
  • This beer lover is going to abstain from beer for the next 50 days.
  • Then we’ll see which Barry is best; Beer Barry or that other guy.

#F*ckOffFacebook

In December 2018, I finally left Facebook. There are several reasons why I stayed as long as I did, including:

  • A couple of private groups where I found value connecting with either family members or educator friends.
  • A few distant friends (who are real friends not just “accept my friend request” friends) who I’ve been able to reconnect with, including a few college buddies.
  • And that’s about it.

Those reasons weren’t good enough, as the scales kept tipping further and further against the Bookface.

Bookface photo of woman with a magazine obscuring her face

Facebook, because time isn’t going to kill itself.

The main reasons why I left include:

  1. The bastards cannot be trusted.
    • Donald Trump. FB significantly helped bring this plague upon America. See Cambridge Analytica if you don’t believe me; and Russian trolls, and Fake Election News (not of the Trumpian Fake News variety), and more.
    • Most recently, it was disclosed that “Facebook allowed Microsoft’s Bing search engine to see the names of virtually all Facebook users’ friends without consent, the Times reports. It gave Netflix and Spotify the ability to read users’ private messages. It allowed Yahoo to view real-time feeds of friends’ posts, despite the fact it publicly claimed to have ended that kind of snooping years ago…” (lots of good/bad stuff at The Ringer)
    • “Facebook News” isn’t The News, and cannot be trusted.
    • Hacked! Login credentials for 50 million users were stolen in September 2018.
    • If you aren’t familiar with the many other FB scandals, this article gives a great summary of their plethora of distrustful behaviors. My faves are:
      • In May, at a congressional hearing it was noted that Cambridge Analytica, under the direction of Steve Bannon, sought to “exploit certain vulnerabilities in certain segments to send them information that will remove them from the public forum, and feed them conspiracies and they’ll never see mainstream media.”
      • Reports in April indicated that “Facebook granted Zuckerberg and other high ranking executives powers over controlling personal information on a platform that is not available to normal users.”
      • In October 2017, Facebook expanded their engagement with Republican-linked firm Definers Public Affairs to discredit “activist protesters.” This was the whole “let’s imply that Facebook critics are anti-Semitic and somehow link the protesters to George Soros.” Oy.
      • the “view as” feature exploited for 50M users – reported Sept 28, 2018.
      • In July, blocked people became unblocked.
      • As reported by Vice News in October, “Facebook’s political ad tool let us buy ads “paid for” by Mike Pence and ISIS.”
  2. Zuck is creepy. His company is creepy. I’m creeped out by them.
  3. Time Suck. Not wondering what I’m missing on FB is surprisingly liberating. I still have several other time sucks, but FB is no longer one of them.
    • The signal to noise ratio on FB is low. Really low. The amount of time I spent sifting through the bullshit to find a few nuggets is depressing to think about. Using more trusted sources for reading material is far more productive.
  4. I learned to hate the fakeness of it all.
    • Fake birthday wishes from people who wouldn’t otherwise say a word to you if FB didn’t tell them that hey “It’s Barry’s Birthday, help him celebrate!” Gag me. These gestures lost all meaning for me – even to the point of being negative communications rather then positive.
    • Fake outrage over every little stupid thing.
    • Fake enthusiasm about the minutiae of life. Seriously people, 99% of what you post just isn’t that interesting – same goes for 98% of my former posts.
    • Facebook should be renamed Fakebook. So fake. Bigly fake! SAD!!!

      Fake Zuckerberg protester in London

      Avaaz protest in London ; 04/26/2018 – Flickr – PD photo by Rob Pinney

  5. FB definitely caused me more angst than joy. Some examples:
    • A friend of over 40 years who pissed me off nearly every day with his nasty political posts.
    • Relatives that I stopped liking once I got to know them better.
    • All the untruths shared as truths – maybe mix in a fact checker once in a while.
  6. This could be a never ending list. But I’d rather end it.

Several months earlier I deleted the FB Messenger app off my Android phone, amid reports of serious violations of personal privacy. If it wasn’t a spy, Messenger would be a reason for me to stay on FB instead of leaving. But alas, it definitely cannot be trusted.

FB has about 2.4 million active users in Q4 of 2018. That’s all fine and good, but I think I’ll align with the 5.2 million humans worldwide who aren’t aren’t in The Book.

I thought I would suffer from F.O.M.O. (the Fear Of Missing Out), but so far I think I’m experiencing J.O.A.F. (the Joy of Avoiding Facebook).

For a while, I too was caught up in all the social sharing, thus limiting my ability to be present and live in the moment. It’s easy to start viewing everything we do with the lens of our phone camera. I’m over the need to constantly report on my life rather than living it. Except maybe here on this blog – like the good ole days.

I still want to be connected with most of the people who were my Facebook friends. It’s a bit sad to think that deleting this one connection might turn out to be the end of any communications with a friend or family member. But it seems that if our relationship is more than Facebook telling us that we’re friends, then our friendship will endure. Almost all of my former FB friends know how to get in touch with me via many different technology options. And I know where they are, too.