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Earth to Spirited Away malcontents:
Drop dead

Boy, am I getting tired of complaints about the dubbing job on Spirited Away (passim).

I’ve listened to a lot of English-language dubbing fiascos. (And one absolute triumph: Omertà.) Spirited Away was resolutely fluent – so much so they should have changed the names of the characters to something English, because the only words that stuck out like a sore thumb were names like Chiharo.

Still, here we go.

Critics have been whispering to each other that Disney has dubbed the movie into English badly.... Stating neither he nor many senior staff at his Tokyo animation studio speak English, [Miyazaki] could not react to what critics have been saying about the flat dubbing. He said he left all the dubbing and dealings with Disney to U.S. director John Lassiter, “whom I trust the most of all Americans I have know.”

The more credible view:

On a more everyday level, Spirited Away also shows the potential for dubbing, usually the most onerous of film techniques, when it’s done sensitively. Under the supervision of Toy Story’s John Lasseter, a friend of Miyazaki’s for 20 years, this film’s English-language version shows the original the best kind of respect. The voices chosen are not strident and the believably colloquial dialogue (written by Cindy Davis Hewitt and Donald H. Hewitt) was timed to fit the Japanese lip movements and help make this extremely foreign world accessible while conveying critical background information.

“Does anime dubbing always have to be bad?”

Well, that’s certainly the question, isn’t it?

Jeff Kleist cunningly provides a comparison of dubbed-English and transliterated-Japanese dialogue from an anime picture and concludes, rightly:

Many times, it seems that people who direct and write the scripts for dubs tend to forget some simple facts: This show is not theirs, and their job is to not make it their own. Their job is to as closely as possible replicate the original Japanese performances. While some friends of mine involved in the industry don’t agree with this stance, and say that I have to be realistic, I think that I am, as is evidenced by some recent works that have reeked of quality [sic], showing hope that it is possible to dub anime without causing your brain to shut down in self defense. It doesn’t help, of course, that dialogue is always written to tightly correspond to the mouth movements of the characters. The Japanese dialogue frequently deviates slightly in order to not compromise a performance, so one wonders why the U.S. speech can’t.

Take that, people. (Captioners especially.)

You do not own the work you are adapting. Your job is not to fix the deficiencies of the original or reinterpret it. You have no right to alter the original in such a way that it glorifies or calls attention to yourself. It’s Miyazaki’s Spirited Away, to use an example, not Jane Doe’s Spirited Away.

You are not, in essence, an editor.

Listen, if you don’t like the obscurity and thanklessness of your job, don’t take it out through megalomaniacal alterations of the source text. Find something else to do with your lives.

Those who fail to learn from the history of Life Is Beautiful are condemned to repeat it

Roberto Benigni will continue to delude himself that his English is good enough to dub himself into English. Jean-Marc Barr or Romano Orzari he ain’t.

Miramax Films’ upcoming Italian import Pinocchio will speak with some distinctly American accents when the indie distributor opens the fairy-tale feature December 25 in more than 2,000 theaters.... The dubbed Pinocchio – the only version to hit U.S. theaters Christmas Day – will feature rapper-actor Queen Latifah as the Dove, star Kevin James as the Fire Eater, Eddie Griffin as the Cat, Topher Grace as Pinocchio’s best friend, Lucignolo, Cheech Marin as the Fox and David Suchet as Geppetto. Stars Roberto Benigni and Nicoletta Braschi have dubbed their own roles into English.

Now, why aren’t critics bitching about this?

How about intra-language subtitling?

I don’t think any program, film, video, commercial, or anything else audiovisual should be let out of the building without captions. I strongly draw the line at intra-language subtitling, that is, subtitles added because the dialect of English used is deemed incomprehensible. The Acid House is the most egregious example. (Oz-to-U.S. dubbing of Mad Max is another.)

What about Bloody Sunday?

In Bloody Sunday, director Paul Greengrass thrillingly re-creates the Derry, Northern Ireland, civil rights march of Jan. 30, 1972, which left 13 unarmed civilians dead and 14 wounded. It deserves to be seen twice. Once for the mind-quickening, heart-wrenching re-enactment of the irresistible force of Irish protest meeting the immovable object of British resistance. Twice for the intimate, engrossing interplay that Greengrass stages among a cross-section of British officers and Irish marchers, yielding penetrating insights about the wielding of power and the betrayal of trust. Americans may grasp these subtleties only when they get their general bearings: I don’t agree with Greengrass’ decision to release the film without subtitling the Derry characters and the British, too, whose jargon is just as foreign. (“Pig,” for example, means armed vehicle in this movie, not dirty cop or law enforcer).

No, honey. There are more varieties of English than the one – the one – that Americans see on TV. Get used to it.

Music Hall: Too little time to dub it

I don’t know what the big deal is about CBC’s airing Music Hall in French with subtitles (and no captions, in direct contravention of its settlement). I’ve watched tons of French-language subtitled and dubbed programs on CBC. I don’t see the timeslot as significant; CBC is already a niche broadcaster, and prime time on CBC means rather less than the Toronto intelligentsia might think.

When Music Hall begins... it will contain another innovation: It will be the first Quebec show in decades to appear in prime time with subtitles. Normally CBC-TV dubs Quebec shows, in the belief that viewers will be more comfortable hearing the dialogue in English.

“Frankly, in this business, everybody prefers subtitles,” Klymkiw says. “But we used dubbing because we thought it was better for the viewer.” He says thinking has changed, “especially since people have gotten used to subtitles by watching foreign films.”

He admits, too, that dubbing can be “laughable and embarrassing” if it’s not done properly. CBC has produced a few of these howlers, although Klymkiw doesn’t dwell on them. “Let’s just say that we only had eight or nine weeks to turn this [Music Hall] around, and you can’t do good dubbing in that length of time.”

MoPix installations

Gee, the Americans are finally getting some new MoPix installations. They’re so behind the times. Canada goes from zero to 31 screens in a year and the Americans have plateaued at what, fewer than 70 commercial screens after six years?


But the real innovation is a high-tech captioning system that enables hearing-impaired viewers to read subtitles invisible to the rest of the audience.

Wellman and Becker are most curious about reaction to the captioning system, which is installed in four of the auditoriums. “It’s very experimental, but we’re excited about it,” Wellman said.

The Rear Window Captioning System has two major components:

  1. An LED (light-emitting diode) display board, similar to those used for ticker-tape reports in stockbrokers’ offices. It is mounted on the back wall of the theater and displays the captions in reverse “mirror” image.
  2. An acrylic panel, about the size of an 8-by 11-inch sheet of paper, that reflects the LED display, allowing viewers to read the captions while they watch the movie. It is attached to a flexible goose neck, like an old-fashioned lamp, that fits into the seat’s cup holder.

Viewers adjust the acrylic panel so they can see the screen through it.

The theater also has an enhancement for the vision-impaired: descriptive-narrative headsets. They’re similar to devices available in most theaters to amplify dialogue so it can be heard above the soundtrack, but they also provide a voice track describing the action.

“We’re trying to accommodate individuals who miss part of the movie experience” because of physical limitations, Wellman said. Becker said he hopes for an enthusiastic reaction to the enhancements. That would send a message to Hollywood that it needs to release more movies with descriptive and captioning tracks encoded on movie prints, he said. “We just provide the equipment; we don’t supply the movies,” he said. “We need a strong consumer response to let the distributors know there’s a need for this.”

The theater is soliciting names for a bulk E-mail notification system that will alert patrons when a coded print is in town. But the availability of such prints “is still real hit and miss,” Becker said.

“We’re making a commitment to play every one that we can. I think you’re going to see it expand in the future. But for now we’ll have to see how it goes.”

Jobwatch: November (I)

Want to work in captioning, etc.? Well, I suppose you could. You’re probably better off being a secretary, all things considered.

Republicans: Unclear on the concept

Contrary to popular belief, while conservatives are often opposed to various minority rights (gays especially), they are not anti-disability. There’s a long list of accessibility-related legislation that was enacted by conservative governments: The Americans with Disabilities Act, the Television Decoder Circuitry Act, the Section 508 requirements, the Ontarians with Disabilities Act.

Not all conservatives are Republicans, but the ignorance of some Republicans debases the salutary history of conservative politicians. The recent example? Misunderstanding the real-time captioning of crowd applause at a Democratic politician’s funeral as a pre-arranged exhortation. [APPLAUSE], when seen in captioning, actually refers to what is happening in the present, but some critics dumbly assumed it was a pre-scripted command to the audience to start applauding.

You can’t possibly imagine that I’m making this up. I’m not.

Seventh circle of hell?

Want to subtitle Korean films? I can’t possibly imagine why, but anyway, get in line.

Imagine just another day at Darcy Paquet’s office: you settle down to measure the meter, tone of language, and verbal and cultural nuances of some of the year’s best Korean films, and work side-by-side with a number of directors in post-production. Sounds like a film lover’s dream job.

Paquet is an English-language editor at the Korean Film Commission (KOFIC) and writes for Screen International magazine. He left Massachusetts for Korea in 1997 and has deeply immersed himself in Korean culture, witnessing firsthand the renaissance of the Korean film industry. He tweaks the translation to fit the space on the screen for the Korean dialogue. “The subtitling is done by LVT, a top French company. They measure out every piece of dialogue and give us a maximum number of characters and spaces for each line,” he said.

The job calls for linguistic and cultural finesse. “When it comes to bad language, a lot depends on the director’s input. We have found that if we use a lot of equivalent English swear words, which are often quite harsh, it can annoy foreign viewers, so this may be toned down,” he explained.... Paquet pointed to a recent increase in directorial participation in the translation and subtitling of their works. Paquet cites Friends (2001) director Kwak Kyung-taek, who studied at New York University, as an example of a director who speaks good English and is able to play a more active role in this aspect of post-production.



CBC settles Vlug complaint

Big news: Something approaching 100% captioning will be coming our way on CBC and Newsworld.

Under the agreement, CBC promised to have 100% of its programming on the main network and Newsworld, including in-house commercials and promos and live, breaking news, captioned by Nov. 1. The CBC said it was already at 92%.

The issue arose when a Vancouver man, Henry Vlug, who is deaf, filed a complaint with the commission in 1997. After an investigation, a tribunal’s findings were headed for judicial review by the Federal Court.

Ruth-Ellen Soles, CBC spokeswoman, declined to say how much the acceleration of the captioning service would cost, but added they would find the money. “We’re getting new hardware and software and we’re going to have captioners on call 24 hours a day,” Soles said.

(Canadian Human Rights Commission release.)

The new software is of course Swift. Are they aware of the encoding and blink-rate problems other Canadian broadcasters have had, and failed to address, let alone fix?

I know it’s there, but... where?

FCC rules make video description more available”:

The problem is that so few who can benefit from this new programming are aware of it or know how to access it. Of the 16 blind or visually impaired people I spoke with for this column, only three are enjoying video description; three had never heard of it; and the rest knew it existed but didn’t know how to get it on their televisions.

The interface problem is a severe one. If you the TV manufacturer hive off the function to select SAP audio into an on-screen menu, the people who benefit most from it will never use it. (Yes, blind people benefit most, and not the small number of Spanish-speakers watching Spanish commentary on U.S. baseball games or anyone watching CPAC.)

The solution? Two, actually.

Also: “Broadcasters lauded for descriptions as they fight practice”:

The television industry is living a double life when it comes to a new service for the blind. Broadcasting and cable trade groups have sued to eliminate rules requiring narration of some prime time and children’s programs in 25 of the country’s largest markets. At the same time, the television industry is winning praise from the visually impaired community for efforts to comply with the mandate. “For something that has gone from zero to implementation very quickly, it’s going fairly smoothly. Everybody’s doing a good job,” says Jim Stovall, president of the Narrative Television Network.

And this transcript from On the Media, in which some prototypical NAB nabob puts his foot in his mouth:

[NAB nabob]: You can say, for example, that you have a sunset on the screen. Take a blind person who has never seen anything, what is a sunset anyway. It’s a little like trying to describe in written words what a symphony would sound like to somebody who’s deaf. I don’t think you should try because I don’t think it’s practical to do it. I think there ought to be magnificent freedom in putting out pieces of art.

Good to see a blind group standing up for art. Too band none of its members will be able to understand that art.

Jobwatch: October

Well, WGBH is the place to be this month. Two describer jobs, a captioning job, and a marketing job. Job-job-job! The Axxlog, never a blog to pass up a chance to be repetitive! repetitive!

DVDSubML draft specification

Do you recall this humble Weblog’s encomium to the totally bitchin’ mission statement of the W3C Timed Text Working Group? (How soon we forget.)

Well, it gets better. Someone has independently come up with an XML document-type definition for DVD subtitles, DVDSubML. That someone, by the way, appears to be – who, exactly? is registered to Ben Rudiak-Gould. Take a bow, kiddo! We need interchange formats like these. (More will be announced in due course.)

See also:


“A thing of beauty, ain’t it?”

Longtime description supporter Aaron Barnhart, an actual TV critic (who watches description? Unimaginable!), writes:

If you’re a Simpsons fan, you may recall the following scene from the “Half Decent Proposal” episode that aired last winter. Containing no dialogue, it would mystify a sight-impaired user if not for this description spoken by the WGBH narrator:

“Now our view moves out of Barney’s window and down the street to the Simpsons. As Homer’s snoring shakes the house, Marge lies wide awake next to him. On the nightstand an alarm clock and a lamp wobble! ... She pinches Homer’s nose and his lips vibrate. She holds his mouth shut. His eyelids vibrate. She gives up and plops onto her back.

“Morning, in the kitchen. She pours milk into a potted plant and serves it to Bart. Lisa pokes her fork into magazines covered in syrup.”

A thing of beauty, ain’t it?

We continue to Aaron Barnhart.


What’s up with the British?

Well, our dear British friends are up to yet more intrigue in accessible TV.

Activists voted overwhelmingly in favour of the paper, which also encourages the protection of local and regional television production, and unanimously supported stronger targets for the introduction of digital television and audiovisual equipment for disabled people.

Steven Goddard, the delegate for Oxford East, said deaf and partially-sighted people were being excluded from most digital television programmes owing to a lack of audio-description and teletext services.

The government had failed to include targets to meet the needs of disabled people in the communications bill, he said, and “unless we act, digital television may at best be difficult and at worst be impossible for disabled people to use in the future.”

“Blind, partially sighted and other disabled people are relying on us to stand up for them. We cannot and must not let them down.”

Denise Capstick of North Southwark and Bermondsey supported the motion, adding: “Losing your sight should not mean losing access to information and entertainment.”

The Liberal Democrats want some kind of Content Commision to be set up, in essence, to keep Mr. Blobby and South Park off the tube. Is that too great a cost for the benefit of also imposing requirements for captioning, description, and (since this is Britain) sign language?

What is “the paper” they refer to? “The Future of Broadcasting” (PDF; Google cache), and this is all it has to say about accessibility:

4.1.6 – This Content Commission could also be responsible for addressing issues such as the amount and standard of children’s programming and the accessibility of programming for people with disabilities. These are vital cultural aspects of broadcasting and should not be overlooked by any public-service broadcaster.

And if one pokes around a bit more, a paper entitled “Accessing the digital revolution: Presentation to the All-Party Parliamentary Disablement Group” (PowerPoint [!]; Google cache) tells us:

Failure of existing subtitling regulation

  • Incoherent regulatory regime that penalises good practice and denies subtitles-using viewers choice
  • No subtitling regulation of cable and satellite
  • Result: no subtitles on Sky News
  • Even on analogue, total inconsistency in regulation
  • As choice grows, access is shrinking
  • Insufficient consideration of the enormous benefits of subtitling in helping to counter the social isolation of older people and improving literacy among deaf and hard of hearing children
  • Danger that the digital revolution in television could pass deaf and hard of hearing people by

The case for improving access

British Sign Language interpretation on TV

  • 50,000 people in the UK for whom BSL is their first language/preferred means of communication
  • Technical problems mean that current targets for BSL interpretation are low and often depend on re-transmission of programmes overnight
  • There is a real need for development of closed caption signing technology to improve quality of signed output

RNID proposals

Creating a competitive-neutral, level playing field

  • Regime should be equitable and platform-neutral with all channels subject to one flexible, legal framework and coming within the remit of the ITC
  • Results of RNID consultation show that broadcasters prefer statutory, rather than voluntary regulation:
  • Target for digital channels (terrestrial and cable & satellite) to be 10% annual increment, to 100% by 2009/analogue switch-off, whichever is the earlier
  • Innovation to be nurtured through (a) bundling of targets; (b) honeymoon period for new channels; and (c) meeting targets by subtitling most popular programmes first, with minimal net cost to broadcasters and the advantage of maximising audience spread
  • Targets for volume and quality set and monitored by ITC
  • Cable and satellite TV to be set same targets as currently set for digital terrestrial

Not at all reminiscent of the Canadian experience, shurely?!

So the conductor can follow along, shurely?!

After all these years of writing like a correspondent for Private Eye, I finally buy an issue.

What was I waiting for? A singing telegram?

En tout cas. Issue Nº 1061, 23 August–5 September 2002, p. 14:

Falling on deaf ears


Late evenings, BBC2 programmes Bach’s 48 preludes and fugues, often with repeats. These are accompanied with sub-titles for the deaf for the likes of me who can’t hear the music.

What is the point?



3D captions; DTS competition

Captioning under pressure

VITAC captions 9/11 anniversary coverage: “VITAC, a captioning service, provided captioning Wednesday for much of the television coverage of the Sept. 11 anniversary.” Well, big deal! They’re just doing their jobs. It wasn’t even a particularly stressful day. Nothing untoward happened.

Much more interesting? “Captioning Stories: Captioning the ‘Attack on America’ ” – indispensable reading, and an important historical document.


In Communicating Society, Deaf Struggle to Be Heard”:

“Watching news on television can be demanding. There is a breaking news story in our community. The newscaster starts talking about it, and we watch the captions at the bottom of the screen to find out what’s up. Then they switch to a reporter in the field and there is no closed caption; we lose vital information. The reporter could be warning people about something. Emergencies that are broadcast on television are supposed to be captioned, but they are not always. We called the general manager of our television station, and he essentially said ‘tough turkey.’ We threatened to complain to the sponsors of the captions, and the manager said if we do, the station will stop all captioning of news.”

Time to file a complaint, people. Let’s just see how tough their turkeys are.

Subtitling quality standards

Conference accepts subtitling code:

A draft code of best practice for subtitling was adopted by the second international conference on translation for the media which was held in Berlin from September 15–16 [1998!].

The code... was drawn up by Mary Carroll, managing director of the German subtitling company Titelbild, and Jan Ivarsson, a Swedish academic and author of a number of works on subtitling practice.

Jan Ivarsson said that the need for a code was becoming more urgent because the quality of subtitles on television was undoubtedly falling as channels proliferated, cost-cutting became the norm, and growth in demand meant that many people were being drafted into subtitling without training.

[...] At a session devoted to the topic on Friday morning, there was standing room only. There is also a growing interest in quality assurance in dubbing and voice-overs, and it is intended that the third conference, to be held in October 2000, again in Berlin, will have sessions devoted to this.

Well, did it? Not that I can tell. Then again, so little from the world of translation is online (but see Glossblog). There does seem to be a conference this December, with a horrid inaccessible main page I won’t foist upon you.

Irony note: This translation and interpretation conference’s “languages will be English, French and German (with no interpreting).”


Quit it!
You’re distracting me from the wiggly lines!

One has seen Spirited Away by Miyazaki. Marvelous. Unimpeacheable English translation and dubbing recording. Absolute top-of-the-line. While I missed the voice of God we enjoyed in the childish yet disturbing Princess Mononoke – I refer, in all seriousness, to the voice of Gillian Anderson – Spirited Away does at least star Suzanne Pleshette. Camille Paglia will be thrilled. (Read her encomium to Pleshette in her book on and entitled The Birds.)

Now: Would you prefer a subtitled version?

Disney is also considering a limited release of the subtitled version. “You miss some of the subtleties and beauty of the film if your eye has to go down to read subtitles,” [Pam Coats, executive vice-president of creative affairs at Disney feature animation] says. “In the dub, we also made an effort to clarify some of the cultural things that need to be stated better for our audience, which I think will give it a better chance for a successful release.”

Well, I’m sorry to break this to my American friend, but you’ve got that backwards. We spend most of our time reading the titles, not staring at the picture, and seasoned viewers of subtitles don’t miss much.

I mean, I’d see it again with subtitles. Isn’t this a great way to eke out even more box office?


U.K. digital cinema, where accessibility is... boring?

To little fanfare, Screen Digest (is it actually a magazine? apparently so) released a report on digital cinema in the U.K.:

Now. What does it have to say?

A whole lot, actually. But next to nothing about accessibility.

In case you’re new to the issue (who isn’t?), “digital cinema” refers to storing movies as digital files and projecting them digitally in cinemas. No film. Most famous example? Star Wars: Episode II. Notably, the report in question considers digital cinema more broadly. DVD qualifies, though I’ll be damned if I can find the section of the report actually saying so.

It’s not widely known, but the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers has a working group on digital-cinema captioning and subtitling. They’ve got a URL so catchy it could be the name of a rap group: DC-Subcap. I’m told there’s been some action lately, but let’s cover that some other day. One will also set aside his reflex to deconstruct the report’s overarching, poncy, and inept typography.

Let’s excerpt from the report:

ENCOURAGING DVD COLLABORATION TO REDUCE COSTS AND IMPROVE MARKET POTENTIAL: A key benefit of the DVD format is its capacity to carry multiple language tracks and sub-titles [sic]. This means that many different markets can be served by a single DVD disc, thus making possible tremendous economies of scale. [p. 9]

DIGITAL CINEMA STANDARDISATION: Certain technical standards could act as a barrier to market entry for U.K. and European companies. Standardisation discussions will also need to go beyond issues of image quality and encompass a range of other matters, including storage formats, compression systems, transmission formats, protection systems, and formats for metadata carrying subtitles and multilingual soundtracks, and audio descriptions for those with impaired hearing [sic]. (p. 34)

‘EXTRA FEATURES’ – A NEW MODEL FOR FILM CONTENT: One advantage DVD has over videocassettes is the potential to include additional content, accessible via interactive on-screen menus. There is little doubt that the ‘extras’ on a disc boosts its commercial appeal. But beyond its purely commercial attractions, this interactive dimension to DVD has definite potential to enhance a wider appreciation of film culture and extend the possibilities of communication between filmmakers and their audience.... Filmmakers can also address their audiences more directly and extensively than ever before through the inclusion of interviews and voice-over commentaries. DVD provides the opportunity to allow the audience to better understand and learn about the creative process by navigating through shooting scripts, set designs, storyboards, costume drawings, and even ‘behind-the- scenes’ explanations of special effects. Filmmakers can also include different (‘director’s’) cuts of the film, scenes left out of the final version, as well as additional content shot especially for the DVD.” [p. 51]

POTENTIAL OTHER BENEFITS OF DIGITAL CINEMA: Digital cinema could be of particular benefit to traditionally marginalised sectors of the viewing public.... Moreover, the technologies used for digital cinema can easily be used to incorporate functions such as subtitles, audio description and even virtual sign language interpretation. The digital cinema of the future could thus benefit patrons who are hard of hearing, partially sighted or suffer from other such disabilities.” [p. 45]

DVD PRODUCTION INFRASTRUCTURE: As in other areas of post-production and audiovisual facilities, the U.K. is probably the European leader in mastering of DVDs for the international market. There are many DVD authoring and disc replication facilities based in the U.K., plus many ancillary operations such as graphical and interactive menu design, dubbing and sub-titling [sic]. But while the U.K. has a highly regarded DVD production skills base, there is still a shortage of competent practitioners, exemplified by the high staff turnover experienced by many DVD authoring houses and the significant salaries that the most experienced and talented individuals command.” [p. 60]

That’s it?

Pretty skimpy, huh?

Well, no wonder: Not a single expert even remotely associated with captioning, subtitling, dubbing, or audio description was among the 91 interview subjects credited at report’s end.

The report’s authors, then, know nothing about accessibility and did not bother to consult anyone who does – save for industry executives who either see accessibility as an irksome cost factor in digital production or who know nothing themselves.

Screen Digest has a couple of upcoming reports. (I’d give you a link. I saw the page a minute ago. But even after rereading every page I ever viewed on that site, I can’t find it again!) One can only suggest that wings be spread a bit wider next time. Include accessibility in every report, and talk to the experts.

NCI Help Desk: What is the point?

Elsewhere, I described the National Captioning Institute as “a large captioner with decades of experience doing bland, technologically-backward work.”

It’s still true. I’ve been watching NCI captions since Day One. I talked on the phone with NCI as far back as 1980. I owned their original media kit, complete with (female, of course) caption “editor” hovering a lightpen (a lightpen) over a television monitor displaying the opening credits of that signal contribution to world culture, Eight Is Enough.

NCI was headed for over a decade by John E.D. Ball, a widely-unloved Brit who was reputedly the 14th candidate asked to take the job of president of a “nonprofit” captioning company. (If anyone has historical documentation to contradict that claim, do please send it along.) I received many a nasty letter from John E.D. Ball in my halcyon youth.

NCI somehow managed to hoover in most of the U.S. Department of Education captioning grants through the 1980s and ’90s. Separately, it set up the ethically dubious Caption Club and Friends of NCI funds. (Note the URL on that link: capclub.htm. How much of the name has really changed?) In these programs, deaf people were encouraged to make donations to fund captioning that they already had a right to see anyway. (Captioning of commercial programming, no less – in essence, a reverse Robin Hood act.)

Thus NCI always had a kind of slush fund it could use to undercut competition (remember, this is a nonprofit corporation), and for a good decade the only captioner ABC would work with was NCI, until Susan Schneider of the Caption Center persuaded the network to require that programming simply be captioned, by any qualified vendor.

NCI’s ineptitude rivaled even Canadian captioners’, reaching its nadir with my favourite show of the last decade, Homicide. (Read Homicide captioning atrocity update.)

NCI’s technical backwardness? How about vowing never to deliver a caption the very earliest decoders could not display? (They’re now outnumbered about 10,000 to one and have been completely obsoleted for nearly a decade.) All-uppercase typesetting? Reliance on old tab stops rather than transparent-space positioning? Still-incomprehensible placement during multi-character scenes? Misrendering quotations within quotations and song names, among a host of typographic barbarities?

How about being completely unable to caption the Buffy musical episode properly even though it was entirely sung in rhyming couplets? Weren’t the rhymes something of a clue that maybe – just maybe – they’d mistranscribed the last words of each caption?

How about massively inept, not to mention characteristically ugly, DVD “subtitling”?

And can someone answer this simple question? How has this captioning “institute” contributed to scientific research or the advancement of captioning in any way, shape, or form? (Apart from the handful of 20-year-old research papers I have, that is, and apart from spreading a bastardized Line 21 system to the United Kingdom.) This is a company that won’t even meet contemporary technical standards. Oh, and about that bastardized Line 21 captioning for the U.K.? Captions, Inc. does most of it now. NCI could not even retain its own market.


What, exactly, is NCI Help Desk?

...NCI National Help Desk, a free service available beginning July 4 by E-mail, telephone, TTY and postal mail. The first of its kind in the United States, the NCI National Help Desk will assist individual consumers with questions and concerns about closed captioning and related media access services. The extensive captioning experience and industry knowledge of NCI’s full-time professional staff will serve as a valuable resource supporting the Help Desk staff in answering public inquiries.

Let me be the first to call bullshit on this entire enterprise.

And now, to top it all off, the National Captioning Institute is doing audio description.

So what’s Phil Bravin up to these days?

Phil Bravin was NCI’s first deaf president, placed in office after John E.D. Ball was finally deposed in 1993.

In January 1994, in researching what would later become the Economist article, I enjoyed a superexclusive telephone interview with Bravin. My esteemed colleagues at the Caption Center transcribed the tape for me – and in one of their little zingers (there’s always a little zinger with WGBH), they transcribed strictly verbatim, making me sound like an ESL student.

Nonetheless, here’s the transcript (unaltered save for fixing copy errors). Don Thieme here (résumé) is the much-unloved publicist who ruled NCI with an iron fist for eleven long years.

DON THIEME: spend with you so fire away and ask your questions, Joe or Phil, that you would like to ask.

JOE: OK. Well, first I’d first like to clarify that although I would like this conversation to be on the record, it isn’t for any particular story that I am doing. So is that clear?

DON THIEME: That’s fine.

PHIL: Yeah, that’s fine. Also, Joe, this is Phil speaking through an interpreter who just happens to be a women, so don’t get confused.

JOE: That’s OK. I have lots of experience working with interpreters. OK. Let’s start by asking an easy question. What do you know of me, Phil?

PHIL: Nothing other than the letter that I received from you.

JOE: Oh, I see. OK.

PHIL: You were also very upfront in your letter, which I do appreciate.

JOE: Oh. Thank you. I like to be that way. Maybe I could ask: What do you think are the most important technical upgrades that NCI will be making in the next couple of years?

PHIL: Technical upgrades? Well, from a technical point of view, the biggest objective is to reduce the costs of captioning. That comes with the technology. We’re trying to develop that in-house. In regards to that, if we reduce the costs, then the number of hours of captioning will also increase. So, that’s my objective. Ummm, people have asked me what my vision was and it’s easy. It’s really captioning 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, on 500 channels.

JOE: OK. Do you anticipate that any technical developments that NCI works on will be proprietary or will they be industry standards? I believe there was some objection to NCI’s proposed – HDTV captioning standard which would have been a proprietary system that NCI would have licensed to various parties. Can we anticipate seeing more industry-standard technology from NCI?

PHIL: OK. Your question is very complicated. The first part of the question is, I am not sure whether you are talking about whether we are working on the proprietary issue. I’m not necessarily [ready] to disclose that. The second part of it is about the HDTV and I’m a little bit confused because we are part of the HDTV task force and that is part of the Electronic Industry Agency and we’re part of that.

JOE: OK. So you don’t imagine there being anything proprietary that NCI might come out [with]. It seems that since caption technology is now widespread in every TV set, it would be counterproductive to come up with a sort of Betamax-vs.-VHS war all over again at this late stage in captioning.

PHIL: That’s a different issue. Anything that is within the TV set, it’s not proprietary. But what we are doing in-house to go ahead and achieve that point obviously is proprietary.

JOE: Hmmm. OK. What do you think the ad that was placed in the Hollywood Reporter a couple months ago that, with the headline “Select the Wrong Captioning Agencies and Your Viewers Will Probably Read About It” said to readers? What was that intended to say to readers? And do you think your message got through?

PHIL: Well, let me put it this way, as a deaf person myself, and I watch television, some advertisers don’t caption very well and I do know that for a fact. So, I want to point out to the house – well, to the public, about the advertising agencies. Specifically, I want to point out to them that if you want to go ahead and pay for cheap captioning then you pay for what you get and that was our message because there were a lot of “Mom-and-Pop” houses out there who think that they can do captioning very well. So they tried to make people believe that if you pay cheaper then you get good quality captioning. But we haven’t reached that point yet.

JOE: Hmmm. I see. And can we look forward to the day when NCI, as a nonprofit entity, would disclose to the public exactly what it does with government funds and Caption Club money?

PHIL: We’ve always done that. We do that now. We’ve never hidden one bit. If you want more information, all you need to do is ask. [I did, in 1996. No response. – Ed.]

JOE: OK. I probably will be asking about that in the future. Is it the case that any U.S. Government funding or Caption Club money from Americans is going into funding NCI’s ventures in the United Kingdom?

PHIL: Huh. No, that’s a separate case. No.

JOE: OK. What do you think are the most important things that NCI can do to improve its reputation not only with viewers but within the broadcast industry?

PHIL: I am not sure why you ask that question? Is there something wrong with it?

JOE: Well, I hear from industry sources that NCI is not as well reputed as you might think. The term “Evil Empire” has been used several times to me to describe NCI. Certainly there is a perception that NCI thinks it invented captioning, wants to caption everything, do whatever it takes, including predatory pricing, to undercut competitors and dominate the world of captioning. Now, those are the sort of things that I am thinking of. And you haven’t heard of those issues before?

PHIL: Well, I have picked it up here and there. And if that’s the case, then I’ll change the image. If that’s not the case than it’s going to stay the same.

JOE: What do you think you would do to change the image then?

PHIL: I don’t know yet. I not ready, I have only been on the job a few months. So give me time.

JOE: OK. Ummm. Also, industry sources say that a lot of caption editors at NCI dislike being rushed in their work and feel that they have a rigid quota system that they are up against that results in a poorer quality of captioning. Do you think those concerns are justified? And, if so, what do you think you can do about them?

PHIL: We have a very low turnover rate and I can’t answer that question in terms of the frame that you had asked it.

JOE: What sort of improvements do you think NCI will be making to its style of captioning? I have been watching NCI captions since Day One and there have been only the most minor stylistic evolutions in NCI’s captioning. Do you think it’s time for an overhaul?

PHIL: Overhaul is too big of a term. We’re taking the steps to change if the consumer wants it. We respond to the needs of our consumers and we do research every now and then to go ahead and see what our people want and need. If they want change then we will provide change. We can’t force the change on the consumer. That’s not the way to do it.

JOE: Well, I noticed, for example, that ABC is captioning the program Day 1 using NCI real-time captioning in upper and lower case instead of all capitals. I mean, that’s the sort of advance that a lot of the people in the real-time industry thought was way too complicated. So, if NCI is doing that, you are doing a pretty good job. So, I am wondering why evolutions of that sort can’t take place on the offline, standard-dramatic-programming side?

PHIL: Now, I am not very familiar with that specific question that you have asked. So, I really don’t want to take credit right now.

JOE: OK. What do you think that NCI can do in the future to attract hearing people to captioning? And I am not talking about the groups of hearing people that we always hear about – elementary school children, English as a Second Language learners, adult illiterates. I’m talking about people with good literacy, who might be turned on to captioning now that the decoders are built in. And what sort of outreach will NCI be doing to those kinds of hearing people?

PHIL: We have plans under development to address that. But, I am not ready to disclose the details yet.

DON THIEME: Joe, if you give us...we probably have time for one more question and then Phil needs to get to his next meeting.

JOE: I am sure that would be fine. What sort of things are you working on in the motion picture captioning front?

PHIL: You’re talking about home video, you mean?

JOE: I actually mean cinemas – motion picture[s,] first-run films.

PHIL: Oh, fine. We have a federal grant to develop specific glasses, special glasses for use within the theater. And it’s a federal grant that is currently being researched. When the results are finished, completed, we’ll share them with the public.

JOE: Oh. So that will not be a proprietary system. That will also be widely disclosed and completely documented.

PHIL: We will do it along the guidelines set forth within the federal contract.

JOE: OK. So perhaps we could correspond just by standard mail in the future. We might be able to start a dialogue that way.

DON THIEME: Well, Joe, I think for the future if you have any inquiries and so forth, if you’ll bring them to my attention first and then I will give them to Phil and take them from there.

JOE: Very good. Well, thank you for phoning and giving me this interview and best of luck to you with your new job.

PHIL: Thank you. Sure. Thank you very well. I wish people like you would keep being honest.

JOE: Well, I think I am being honest, so I take you well. Bye for now.

DON THIEME: OK, Joe. Thank you.

JOE: Over and out.

DON THIEME: Bye-bye.

The interpretrix working on this telephone call, by the way, was far more nervous than any of the parties involved. If Phil sounds a bit incoherent, blame her. As for me? Well, I didn’t say I wasn’t nervous.

To answer the question: What Phil Bravin is doing is running a small consulting business, Yes[,] You Can. Or so it appears – it’s a tilde site that hasn’t been updated since 1999.


God almighty. Updates once a month? I’m sorry; I’m going to try harder.

Bill gets upstaged

Well, a mere three weeks late, here is yr. obedient servant’s trenchant reportage of Bill Gates’ receipt of the Louis Braille Award from the Canadian National Institute for the Blind. You Are There!

On August 20 (yes, I know, I procrastinate), I attended the superexclusive dinnerette/awards presentation at the Capitol (“Event”) Theatre, where, in its cinema incarnation, I have a distinct memory of watching Lost Highway and other films in untrammelled splendour.

It took some persuading to secure press credentials, even after 392 published articles and a book on a related topic. What topic? Let’s quote from the press release:

The Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB) in conjunction with the World Blind Union today announced that Bill Gates will be awarded the Louis Braille Gold Medal when he visits Toronto on August 20, 2002. The internationally recognized medal is awarded to individuals who have made an exemplary commitment to advancing the rights and freedoms of blind people around the world. [...]

Bill Gates will be accepting the prestigious award in recognition of Microsoft Canada’s contribution to developing the CNIB digital library system, including the Children’s Discovery Portal – the world’s first Internet portal for children who are blind or visually impaired. Microsoft Canada is designing the platform architecture to manage the digital library, combining some of the world’s most complex and advanced digital access and storage systems.

(Microsoft has a press release.)

Now, I read this and I thought “They’re giving it to the wrong people.” The relevant contribution of Microsoft to the advanced rights and freedoms of blind people is really Microsoft Active Accessibility, the software interface between application and system software and adaptive technology like screen readers. There’s nothing like it on any other platform, and it explains why, to this day, blind computer users are still better off using Windows.

I know that bestowing the award on the Microsoft accessibility group would be too low-profile and unsexy. Obviously the chair of Microsoft needs to be the recipient. But it smacks too much of Marcel Masse storming onto the stage of the 1988 Academy Awards, as if by birthright, to accept an award for the National Film Board. In both cases, the question is: What’s he got to do with it?

I arrived at the appointed hour. The security guard didn’t want to let me in. I had to receive special dispensation, with my name spoken out loud, which informed my acquaintance behind me (a prominent blind person) who I was. I tried to chat with him a bit at one of the tables, but the PR girls insisted on interrupting my conversation to hand me my nametag, which presumably could have waited sixty full seconds until I visited the press table.

Ink-stained wretches were sequestered to the upstairs nether regions, an attractive but disorienting latticework of oxblood wood–and–glass boxes. Veganist food was limited to mesclun drowned in vinaigrette while formally-dressed diners down below, on whose bald or coiffed heads one could have lobbed spitballs, enjoyed a Mediæval feast of catered dead meat.

I chatted up a young journalistrix of colour from Hamilton, giving her an explanation of why the hell we were here (MSAA, adaptive technology), and then the show began.

What we were there for


The big draw of the evening was of course the onstage duo of Timothy Peters, a 10-year-old blind kid, and Bill Gates. Tim owned the room and bossed around the richest man in the world. Astonishing. “On behalf of, uh... the Children’s Discovery Portal, I am here today and I would like to invite Mr. Bill Gates to the stand.” Bill then obediently trotted onstage as though he were some random sap plucked out of the front row during a Vegas magician routine. Tim then called “his lovely assistant” to the stage, and an unidentified moustached middle-aged man appeared.

A natural ham, or what? It is claimed he wants to be a “minister.” Certainly any church service he runs is going to be a lot of fun.

Less astonishing was the demonstration. A laptop with an external keyboard used the Jaws screen reader to meander through a beta of the children’s portal (I think) and to play a Battleship-esque game, during which the laptop screen was folded down. Nothing worked without a hitch, and the constant yammering of the screen reader, which went entirely unexplained, caused nothing but confusion, even for me. (A lower verbosity might have helped. And an American rather than a British voice.) “We are experiencing technical difficulties,” Tim told us.

“Now I can do more because of the Children’s Discovery Portal,” Tim jauntily informed Bill, “and I’m really happy that you gave money to it.”

What did Bill have to say?

Bill Gates seemed entirely unrehearsed. I’ve watched him speak seemingly extemporaneously; this event proves that actual extemporaneous speech, like personal grooming, is not one of his fortes.

“It’s a wonderful cause for myself and Microsoft Canada. It’s a privilege to be involved in this.... I’ve learned a lot about making [computers] a tool that works for disabled people,” he explained. A great many years ago, Microsoft staff brought to his attention the fact that some people cannot press the Shift key along with another key simultaneously, that deaf people need onscreen text – “straightforward thing[s],” he called them.

But of all accessibility tasks, “none [was] more difficult than dealing with visual impairment.... One of our great innovations is the graphical user interface,” he explained, a bright, shining lie that obscures the fact that Xerox and Apple had perfectly functional graphical user interfaces for years before Windows was even invented. “And that was a very new thing for us, a stunning thing,” he said, referring to the realization that blind people cannot use a GUI. The task became making a GUI work for the blind. “We thought, ‘Well, jeez, how can we do that?’

“By taking a little extra effort, maybe a few percent extra effort, making these products designed for sighted people work for the visually-impaired.”

Admitting that there is “much more to be done” to accommodate the “community that CNIB works with every day,” Bill made a tremendously grand declaration:

I make the commitment that I and Microsoft will spend the rest of our careers making sure we deserve this award and doing more for blind people.

Shall we hold him to that, folks?

And how about holding Steve Jobs to the very same?

Bangs and whimpers

The instant Bill left the stage, downstairs attendees and ink-stained wretches began to bail. Next up was a live musical performance accompanying a music video that, while inexplicable, actually worked in some strange magical way. After it ended, three-quarters of the audience was gone.

I had a nice chat with my acquaintance. Later, while enjoying an equally nice chat with the CNIB library girls (my book will be one of the first full-on DAISY electronic talking books), I noticed three Toronto cops loitering by an exit with that smug time-killing expression on their faces. One fella, a tall strapping lad, could not have been older than 24 and had one of those Everlast 2.0 chinstrap beards.

Why were they there?

To escort Bill to his car, apparently. A moment later, there Bill appeared, alongside a couple of hangers-on. He handed back a pen from his breast pocket, smiled to no one in particular, and walked out of the room, unnoticed by everyone and no grander than anyone.

The dénouement

Shouldn’t that end the evening on a high note?

Oh, but the evening has not ended!

In the tunnel to the subway, two male high-school students try strenuously not to bump into an overtanned late-30s blind man wielding a cane. His head is slightly too large. Just slightly. He almost walks into me; I avoid him handily and deliver my standard warning in such cases, a carefully neutral “Careful.”

The two students are stopped dead staring at the fellow. So, three paces away, I turn to look. The blind man is visibly revving up to launch into one of his spiels. “Careful?” he bellows. “Don’t tell me ‘careful’! I know how to get around!”

He whacks the tunnel wall with his cane, which explains why it was already bent, and starts hollering continuously at a louder volume than any human being I have ever witnessed.

Half a minute later, at the ticket booth, he’s still hollering, albeit with pauses to take a breath. I try to report it to the man behind the glass. He knows. He knows already. The blind guy is there every day, and there’s nothing they can do about it.

Mr. Schizophrenic, Violent, Uncontrollable, Bellicose Blind Man, we’re doing this all for you!


LotR: No access there, no access anywhere

Bought your Lord of the Rings DVD yet?

Until very recently (with Austin Powers), New Line Cinema had not released a first-run movie with MoPix captions and descriptions. Not even LotR, which earned US$66 million in the U.S. alone in its first weekend, roughly 2,800 times what it would have cost to caption and describe the movie for theatres.

DVDs will have Line 21 captions in NTSC markets (Region 1 and Japanese Region 2) and some kind of possibly-crappy DVD “subtitles” in various regions. Let’s consider that problem solved (even though the Canadian captions and subtitles might be different and worse again in ways you could not imagine).

But with LotR, now we’re facing three different pressings of two editions (the boxed set is the collector’s edition with added bookends, apparently), both editions being multi-disc issues. (See MetaFilter discussion.) The bit budget (number of bits available on the DVD) should be quite sufficient to include audio-description track.

But it didn’t happen in the currently-available DVD set (which would have made it only the tenth Region 1 DVD with description), and it is not looking good for the four-disc set, where many bit-budget sacrifices can indeed be made on the main movie disc. (They could even add audiovisual menus, à la The Grinch and a couple of PBS DVDs.)

If a movie this popular and profitable cannot be made fully accessible, even in the 21st century, we have a problem.

Close your eyes and you can’t hear the opera

I think it’s well understood (aren’t there studies to this effect?) that you listen and understand better when you can see the speaker. Interpreters insist on being able to see the speakers they’re translating whenever possible, which often is not when interpreter booths are shunted to the back of the room. (I’ve only been interpreted a few times. I’m not an easy subject in that way.)

Obviously you can better understand an audiovisual production with captions than without. Sometimes you can better understand a foreign-language production with subtitles than without; the two languages reinforce one another.

Does this apply to opera? And how!

The reason all those singers at Glyndebourne were so completely wiped out by “Un bel di” was that there were subtitles on the TV.

Years ago I took part in a discussion about surtitles in the foyer of Covent Garden with Mark Elder (then still at English National Opera) and the composer Nigel Osborne. It was a contest between common sense and a kind of aesthetic vested interest. As a director, Elder did not want his audience distracted from his staging even for a nanosecond. Osborne, the composer, clearly felt that inaudible words were caused by poor diction and poor acoustics – and reflected very badly on the composer’s technical competence....

The first night at Glyndebourne, I was under the strong illusion that the words were at least 90% audible. However, I suggested a more modest figure to my wife: 70%. She smiled politely over my shoulder and answered discreetly: “Seven per cent. Sorry.” You see, when rehearsals have been going on for eight weeks, everyone in the opera house knows all the words by heart. Naturally, they can hear them. They have had eight weeks of preparation.

Of course, nowadays the use of surtitles is common. Covent Garden uses them, because it is no longer socially plausible to pretend that audiences are fluent in Italian, German and Czech, let alone sung Italian, German and Czech. They never were. So surtitles have arrived, but only for opera in foreign languages. Everything performed in English is slightly inaudible. [...]

It is 1993. The composer Alejandro Vinao is trying to persuade me to collaborate on an opera. He is darkly handsome. His eyes glitter. His hair is vinyl. I fear the worst. “What do you think of opera?” he asks. “It doesn’t work,” I reply. His dark brown eyes narrow. “You’re absolutely right,” he says. “But why?” “You can’t hear the words,” I say.

“Because of the music, yes.” He nods and pauses. “Well, don’t expect me to tone down my music for your words.”

“That was quick,” I say. “Goodbye.” He smiles. He grins. “The answer is to build surtitles into the project right from the beginning. No surtitles, no opera.”

Together we write Rashomon and I really enjoy working with him. The music is wonderful, but when it is loud, the singer is more than a goldfish mouthing a mute aria. The words can be heard because they can be seen. We experience surtitles for opera in English as unnecessary. But they aren’t. That’s the trick.

Jobwatch: August

Want to work in captioning, etc.? Well, I suppose you can. What’s on offer this month? Three jobs at GBH, actually:

  1. Production coordinator: “$34,626–$45,392.... In concert with WGBH’s Interactive department and Spanish-language translators, develop a companion Spanish-language Media Access Group site.” Aha! ¶ By the way, this production coordinator earns at least $9,108 more than a captioner. Why should meta-jobs, which do not require the same skill as the job itself, pay more than the job itself?
  2. Let’s revisit this other job, technical systems coordinator: I missed this little detail – “Coordinate, implement and support server-based MPEG video distribution system.” Does this imply that they do not have such a system? This could explain why DVS still uses ¾-inch tape, which nobody else in the universe does.
  3. Caption news broadcast coordinator: “$34,626–$45,392... [D]irects the production of captions for live, real-time programs.”


Austin Powers, with Canadian funding

Austin Powers in Goldmember: First-ever U.S. movie with Canadian-sponsored captioning and description. Read the press release.


Typographic atrocities revealed

Two consecutive issues of Print, two articles by me. The latest? “Reading the tube”: Typographic atrocities remain in full force in captioning and subtitling.

“Timed Text” gets a working group

Did you know there is such a thing as a Timed-Text Working Group over at the World Wide Web Consortium?

Well, there is. And their list of requirements – a manifesto by any other name – is a stunner. Edited excerpts (from the Architecture and Display sections):

A timed-text format must or should...

  1. Support streaming real-time captions. Users should be able to tune in to the text presentation at any time after it has begun.
  2. Allow for parallel languages in different documents or within the same document (e.g., via the <switch> element)
  3. Allow the language of the text to be identified using xml:lang.
  4. Support mixed-language text.
  5. Be usable in all character sets.
  6. Have a default Unicode font.
  7. Allow clean integration with sign-language captions [whatever those are].
  8. Be searchable.
  9. Use markup to clearly distinguish one speaker from another. This could be accomplished by using simple placement commands (<center>, <left>, <right>, etc.); or creating a persona for text which is spoken by each speaker using speaker="idref" attribute.
  10. Allow the creation of collated transcripts which contain, and differentiate via markup, captions and audio descriptions.
  11. Allow for long-form presentation (e.g., it should support captions or subtitles for full-length movies or other long presentations).
  12. Allow text in different languages to be appropriately styled.
  13. Permit transparent overlay.
  14. Permit text highlighting.
  15. Allow for different display options (pop-on, roll-up, paint-on, crawl, etc.).
  16. Support unique symbols, such as the musical note or the generic closed-caption symbol (“CC” in a box).
  17. Permit user override of display.
  18. Permit unlimited positioning of text.
  19. Be able to display multiple captions simultaneously (for example, when more than one person is speaking at once).
  20. Allow other ways to display text; for example, via text balloons.

2002.07.07 & 11

Earth calling Su

UPDATE (2002.07.11): Zeldman covers this three different ways (first, second, third). My own error noted below.

I have never completely understood what the single-named curiosity Su has against me, but it never does seem to end, does it?

Accessibility is not necessarily Information Architecture, which some people seem to believe is not Design, either, despite some reasoning that seems obvious to me. ¶ I wonder if the reason for the rift might be that the disciplines have become too involved or overblown that people are afraid to try the other, even at the most rudimentary level. Maybe they just can’t be bothered. At least that’s what I’m often told when I ask the appropriate people these questions. A page that’s easily interpreted by a blind user’s screen reader might not look very pretty to someone who can actually see it. I don’t think this is an especially fair sacrifice – or even just desserts – it’s just a different one.

While this is indeed a typical idée fixe, it’s not really true. A great many of the visual elements designers know and love disappear completely for certain disabled users (e.g., people with no usable vision), or are neither a harm nor a hindrance (tables, or most colour choices), or have the same beneficial effects they do on nondisabled people (e.g., for anyone with a disability that does not involve the eyes or information processing – attractive sites still look attractive to deaf people or someone with a mobility impairment, for example).

While using lime green as a highlight colo[u]r is generally effective, it’s also a bit aesthetically offensive and, I would think, of limited value on a white background. I’m sure there’s something else that could be used.

Like dotted borders or pale yellow. A bit of variety is helpful, yes?

I’ve finally found a voice reader program that has a demo available but haven’t downloaded yet.

Nearly all screen readers have downloadable demo versions. It’s often easier to buy a demo version on disc.

Odd. You would expect the sites of an accessibility advocate to be an example, and a good one, of accessbility. Bobby should just gobble them up without a peep. You’d be wrong. You might think that the reason was something involved and difficult to fix. You’d be wrong again. But as previously stated, we choose our battles. Often, in the name of one, we disregard another.

And here we witness the nonexpert stepping on a rake. Bobby, like all automated accessibility validators, cannot read your mind. Accessibility evaluation requires human insight; even the better validators, like A-Prompt, still need you to sit there and make intelligent decisions. Bobby is particularly dangerous to trust because it nags at you for things it cannot prove you did, like writing in some kind of language that is not “clear.”

To take an example (Su’s own Weblog posting), Bobby kvetches and gripes as follows (emphasis added):

Priority 1 User Checks

User checks are triggered by something specific on the page; however, you need to determine whether they apply. Bobby A Approval requires that none of them apply to your page. Please review these 4 item(s):

1. If you can’t make a page accessible, construct an alternate accessible version.

2. If style sheets are ignored or unsupported, are pages still readable and usable?

3. If this is a data table (not used for layout only), identify headers for the table rows and columns. (1 instance) Line 11

4. If a table has two or more rows or columns that serve as headers, use structural markup to identify their hierarchy and relationship. (1 instance) Line 11

The following 2 item(s) [sic] are not triggered by any specific feature on your page, but are still important for accessibility and are required for Bobby A Approved status.

5. Identify any changes in the document’s language.

6. Use the simplest and most straightforward language that is possible.

Of these, only Nº 5 has any bearing, given that Su’s HTML does not identify its source language (through, e.g., html lang="en" xml:lang="en"). Yet Bobby, as stupid as a mule, withholds its dubiously-valuable approval stamp due to complaints it cannot even prove are real (Cf. all the ifs, and Nº 6 no machine can test).

Now, stuffing into Bobby’s maw produces a report that is irrelevant from stem to stern for reasons I spend 350 pages explaining in my book. I think the machine may have a point about label and form controls, except the only form on the page is a search box which has only one possible control.

Sites by other access experts, like Jim Thatcher (report) or Kynn Bartlett (report), also produce unfavourable Bobby reports and are equally bullshit.

Even the Web Accessibility Initiative site fails Bobby. But most amusingly of all, Bobby does not pass Bobby! In short, almost nothing does. Bobby is useless.

So no, we accessibility obsessifs are in fact not hypocrites and we do in fact know what we are doing. The issues involved are more involved than an untrained outside observer, who has a chip on his shoulder anyway, would likely understand. He could, however, have simply asked.


“That’s extremely annoying”

Can you encode closed captions onto one of those oddball, doomed D-VHS tapes?

Yes, apparently:

In the menus, you can select captioning on, even for the 1080i component output.


The captions are too intrusive for my taste here though. With DVDs, you have a transparent background for the captions, while here you have a black background which makes a big black rectangle with captions inside.

Also, the captions are not centered as they should, but displayed left or right to be closer to the character speaking. That's extremely annoying, you are constantly distracted having to read left and right. Universal does that also on their DVDs, even moving the captions up and down to be near the head of the speaking character! They must think that non-English or hearing impaired people are stupid enough to need that kind of cue...

Wow. Yeah, actually, “hearing impaired people” do need that kind of cue, and “non-English” people can frigging live with it.


The vaunted .scc file

Want to add closed captions to an NTSC DVD? With the Sonic Scenarist authoring tool, you need to convert the caption file into the so-called .scc format. Did you know the file format is actually documented?

Well, it is.

“Music video for deaf,” allegedly

Out of the blue, I received a snatchmail from Gregg Brokaw concerning a music video he created. Apparently it expands upon the limits of closed captioning.

Brokaw to be honored for music video designed for deaf

“Visual Music: Expanding on Closed Caption Television” receives special award

BERKELEY, CALIFORNIA, June 2, 2002 – Gregg Brokaw, president of Chicago-based Brokaw Motion, will be recognized by the Corporation on Disabilities and Telecommunication (CDT) for his motion graphic studio‚s design efforts to explore visual music for the deaf. The CDT will present Mr. Brokaw with a special Audience Access Award at Superfest, an international media festival on disabilities, in Berkeley, California.

Brokaw created a music video for the hearing impaired bringing the lyrics to life and enabling them to “hear” the rhythm of the music. This was achieved by building the lyrics on screen against the driving beat of the music.

As a personal project, Brokaw Motion designed two experimental music videos specifically for the hearing impaired. Both used the same song, but were designed differently to test which favored visual “hearing.” One video was created using black and white typographics and imagery weighing similar importance on screen, while the other video was strictly type and a full range of color.

“Do song lyrics popping up on screen in white type within black boxes really help the hearing impaired ‘hear’ a song?” asks Gregg Brokaw. “My mission and sole purpose was to help the deaf visually hear music. I wanted the typography to become the primary performer on screen and animate to the way words were song. I wanted to help society through typographic design.”

According to Brokaw, visual closed caption television is great, but when it‚s used for viewing music videos it falls short and doesn‚t capture the essence of the music. The meaning of a song and how it is portrayed are problematic for closed caption music videos.

Gregg Brokaw has had an interesting graphic design background. His career began in Zürich, Switzerland at Designalltag, where he learned the essence of well structured swiss design from Reudi Rüegg. He then shifted gears by joining Thirst, a more experimental design studio, which is located in Chicago and directed by Rick Valicenti. Years later he opened Brokaw Motion.

Brokaw Motion is an award-winning motion graphic design studio, specializing in typographic design and animation, and all aspects of digital video from pre-production to post-production.

To view a portion of “Visual Music: Expanding on Closed Caption Television,” visit:

Or, more accurately, visit the actual movie page. It appears to be an adaptation of “I Have the Touch” by Peter Gabriel (boy, is that old – from the days when every album was entitled Peter Gabriel, with the same logotype and position). The video is quite nice to look at, but not actually understandable in real time through the captions and sign language if you can’t hear the soundtrack. Typographic music videos like these nonetheless require captioning. Trust me on this.

I suppose I am sounding insufficiently supportive.

Portable captioning LEDs

Display screens go organic”:

Researchers expect OLED screens to be brighter and – because they don't require back-lighting – thinner than liquid crystal displays, but analysts have estimated that OLED is about 10 years away from challenging LCD as the dominant display technology.

Well, with these small, portable LEDs, you could bring your own luminous caption display into a movie theatre; or, eventually, such OLEDs could replace the hideously heavy and expensive LEDs used in the Rear Window system; or a visually-impaired person could use a portable external caption display on a regular TV.

Jobwatch: Xmas

Well, let’s not pretend. All the jobs this month are at GBH. Despite everything, there are worse places to work, you know?

  1. Here’s an unexpected one. Project Manager – National Center for Accessible Media (another of those “contract” jobs with unpublished salaries): “NCAM holds a grant from the U.S. Department of Education entitled ‘Beyond the Text: Access to Images, Audio, and Multimedia within eBooks.’ Under the supervision of the Director of R&D/Media Access, the Project Manager will direct the project activities including researching, developing, and disseminating recommended practices and demonstration models that enable access to media within eBooks for blind and deaf users. The Project Manager will actively participate in eBooks standards efforts, support implementation of standards, and disseminate results. Candidates for Project Manager must have experience with eBook technologies. Familiarity with eBook standards and background in accessibility and assistive technologies are desirable. Strong commitment to collaborative work and good written and spoken communications skills are essential. BA/BS required; higher degree preferred.”

  2. Caption News Broadcast Coordinator – Media Access Group (The Caption Center) ($36,012–47,208): “Under the supervision of the Real-Time Operations Supervisors, the Broadcast Coordinator directs the production of captions for live, real-time programs. Candidates must demonstrate superior English language skills, and possess strong general knowledge of broadcasting, video equipment, and computers. Experience in captioning and directing project teams is a plus. Passing The Caption Center's proofreading test is prerequisite.” To coordinate the broadcast, you have to be able to read, write, spell, and punctuate? What a novel concept in contemporary captioning. Note that this job is anglo-only.

  3. Post-Production Supervisor – Media Access Group, Los Angeles ($39,800–$54,244). Superspecial extra proviso: PLEASE NOTE THAT THERE IS A STRONG IN-HOUSE CANDIDATE BEING CONSIDERED FOR THIS POSITION “[T]he DVS Post Production Supervisor is responsible for coordinating the creation and editing of DVS scripts and narration sessions and ensuring subsequent shipment of DVS narration tracks. Excellent, proven writing and editing skills required. Audio production experience is also desirable. Must have experience meeting writing and editing deadlines. Proven experience in a variety of dramatic forms, plus clarity, accuracy and speed are essential. Familiarity with personal computers, and experience with sensory disabilities are desirable.”

    Well, I mean, which is more important, writing skills or audio-engineering experience? Which is more readily taught?

    Further, you actually have to:

    1. Write and edit DVS scripts as assigned.
    2. Supervise the evaluation and transfer of program material.
    3. Supervise the production of DVS narration sessions, under the direction of the DVS Operations Supervisor.
    4. Coordinate receipt and handling of program materials.
    5. Coordinate the writing, review and edit of DVS narration scripts, work with describers in the production unit.
    6. Assemble and ship completed programs and paperwork.

    Rather a lot, really.

  4. Caption News Broadcast Coordinator, Bilingual ($36,012–$47,208): “Special duties for this Broadcast Coordinator will be the production of Spanish-language captions for national news programs. Candidates must demonstrate superior language skills in both English and Spanish.... Passing the Caption Center's proofreading tests in English and Spanish is a prerequisite.” You must “[p]repare Spanish-language caption files for national news programs, as well as English captions for other nightly broadcasts as needed.”

    Note the words national and nightly. In the fullness of time, one of the nightly newscasts – it could only be CBS – will obviously run simultaneous English and Spanish captions (the latter on CC3, as with 60 Minutes and 60 Minutes II).

    But that isn't nearly the most interesting job!

  5. MoPix Exhibition Manager (sic):

    Through its Motion Picture Access Project (MoPix), the Media Access Group works with film distributors and exhibitors to make first-run feature films accessible to movie-goers who are deaf, hard of hearing, blind and visually impaired.

    The Exhibition Manager will report to the L.A.-based marketing manager (whose clients include film distributors) to service existing theatres and cultivate new MoPix-equipped locations.

    Qualifications include a minimum of five years working in the film exhibition or distribution industry and excellent written and verbal communications skills. Some travel may be required. Experience with computers required, knowledge of Macs a plus.

    The job is listed as a “full-time, project contract (through July 7, 2003)” (note the absence of salary), and I am pretty sure I know who the job posting is tailored specifically for.

    Shall we continue?

    1. Develop strategy and sell MoPix installations to exhibitors domestically and internationally. Provide quotes on equipment or contacts to conventional and specialty locations (including Imax, theme parks, etc.).
    2. Develop and distribute exhibitor’s toolkit comprised of staff training materials, basic technical support documents, frequently asked questions documents, “how to use” documents for patrons, etc.
    3. Act as primary support contact for MoPix-equipped theatres.
    4. Research and implement accessible national outreach/update mechanism such as Moviefone, 777-Film, AOL Digital City, etc.
    5. Work with exhibitors to promote the accessibility of their theatres and films to the target audience through accessible Web sites and phonelines, access symbols in print ads, ticket booth and lobby signage, etc.
    6. Prepare weekly status reports and participate in regular staff meetings. Communicate activities with marketing, outreach, promotion, administration, and other Media Access Group staff as necessary.

    One notes that the Movie Access Updates sent to various mailing lists (and that are all but impossible to link to due to YahooGroups' infuriating password policy) have recently stated “Also, stay tuned for a joint announcement regarding further access to this information from a major online powerhouse.” I don’t suppose that would be “Moviefone, 777-Film, AOL Digital City, etc.,” would it?


Homosexualist porn karaoke?
I am so there

Unnamed Canadian captioning manageress, this one’s for you!

On Friday, I schlepped out to Buddies to fulfil my civic duty as a combined captioning authority and FDH (freelance downtown homosexualist) by watching PORN-A-ROAKE, Keith Cole’s outright mangling of a winning idea: Amateur porn videos shot by “artists” with added karaoke lyrics, all sung by audiencemembers gathered in a transvestism-positive environment.

“I got the different directors and told them what I wanted,” he says, “and no one understood. So I told them again, and they still didn’t understand,” Cole chuckles. “Then I said it was like watching porn with closed captioning, with the sound on mute.” And they got it.

This, at least, was the plan, rather akin to Sing-a-Longa Sound of Music, which played here for months and which I never saw. I’ve been kicking myself ever since.

In truth, I dragged myself down to PORN-A-ROAKE because I was not about to miss two of these things in a row.

The first thing I hated was the spelling: PORN-A-ROAKE. Here in the land of Irish surnames (I carry the Maritimes with me everywhere), that could only be pronouced “Porn-a-Rohk.” I suppose it was meant to evoke the universal mispronunciation of “karaoke,” namely “carry Okie.” (Carry him where? Across the Texas border?)

The second thing I hated was the feeling in the pit of my stomach that this was gonna be an amateur job. I am of two minds about amateur captioning:

  1. When applied to amateur productions, it’s probably as good as the production itself. This does not change the fact that standards are higher in captioning; even very bad films with poor production values can be understood, while the same, if applied to captioning, results in an unreadable, confusing mess.
  2. Ostensible professional captioning is so often abysmal (as in nearly all Canadian offline captioning) that who can really complain about the homemade stuff?

If only I’d known this was going on (or if Keith Cole had bothered Googling), I could have fixed things for them.

No matter. I arrived unfashionably early and was handed a printed lyric sheet. (The d00d at the counter immediately asked if this other guy ahead of me in queue and I could share a copy, “because I’m running out.” There are a lot of things gay strangers will share, but theatrical programs are not one of them.) I retired downstairs to (proof)read. Some artist type (emaciated body, loud jarviscockeresque wardrobe, overwrought costume eyeglasses, outdated retro haircut) shambled over and asked “Are you performing?”

“No,” I said without missing a beat. “Just boning up.” The fellow headed into the administration office with his friend, no doubt to join the large man in drag already in there for a line of coke.

Upstairs, I happened to be standing right next to my old acquaintance Bob Wiseman, famed for being the keyboardist in Blue Rodeo even though that barely scratches the surface of his musical accomplishment. I haven’t seen him in a while. I was six feet away and, fifteen minutes in, there was no indication he was going to recognize me, so I finally chatted him up. “Any homosexual event involving captioning you know I’m going to be at,” I told him. “That makes sense,” he conceded.

Bob, you see, plays in a bunch of bands in town, including the house band for PORN-A-ROAKE, the Slutards, a name pronounced “Sluttards” that evokes a kind of idealized self-delusion rivaling I Am Robot and Proud, for I have never met a slut who was also a ’tard. You tend to get one or the other, really.

It was a surprisingly sparse crowd, but much less hateful and elitist than I would have expected. (The ultra-leftist dykes stank, as usual; I have a crap sense of smell yet they were causing offense from an arm’s length away. It is, as we know, bourgeois and heterosexist to bathe and do laundry.) I crossed my arms, brought myself to full height, and engaged my perennial rock-concert stance (“I stand there exuding vague hauteur and elder-statesman body language”), reminding myself that I am so stiff I make Irshad Manji look like Gumby.

An interminable opening act by Keith Cole as Pepper Highway began. Only a favoured hyperleftist art(s) homosexualist–transvestite could get away with appropriating the persona of a native, in this case an hypothesized relative of Tomson and René Highway. The latter’s death has been eulogized for nearly a decade in vast excess to the man’s accomplishments. I’d never heard of him until he died (though I do not travel in dance circles); he seems to have been famous by association with his brother, who himself is not that famous. It seems people latched onto the surname Highway; a guy named René Highway died, so he must have been related to the other guy named Highway, who was kind of famous and not very out until an Xtra article in the 1980s.

I admit I am favouring artists who leave tangible works over artists who work through their bodies, but let’s get real: My dead friend Ian Stephens doesn’t get this much attention, and he sang in bands, worked in the music industry, published poetry books, put out records (music and spoken word), and wrote journalism.

Now, is Keith Cole aboriginal himself? I suppose it’s possible. But I don’t see Keith Cole donning tchotchke dreamcatcher earrings and doing a Pepper Stephens.

Eventually the videos began, or would have if the AV tech had bothered to test the equipment properly. At an event where people are paying money (if only $3) to watch videos, there is no excuse for a VCR and projector not to work on the first try. Here the whole system didn’t work on the third try: No projector on first attempt, but wall of monitors worked fine; then the projector worked, but wall of monitors was several seconds ahead on the tape(s); then, finally, the projector worked and the monitors were turned off. Perhaps only the singers watching the monitor facing the stage knew what that one displayed.

Yet none of the singers, apparently, had ever gone near the lyrics before. (Didn’t one of the authoresses also sing?) John Alcorn was the only performer with anything vaguely resembling professionalism, but it was David Gale who gave it the most gusto. He’s the only Jew in Toronto who looks good in a cowboy hat and shirt. No wonder he inseminated Diane Flacks.

Now let’s run down the actual videos

  1. “Run That Body Down” (music by Michael Caines; lyrics by Paul Simon) was a bore. It featured some kind of half-arsed face-on strip-tease by André St. Clair, which, with captions, was vaguely reminiscent of the Rentals’ music video “Friends of P,” made for $400 and worlds better than this. He barely even stripped, and I’m a bigger tease than he is!
  2. Our second selection (no title on the cheat sheet) actually had some plot. “Please, God, let him be big! As big as the gas man who was here last week. I’m still sore. But not that sore” sang our skinny artistique hero. At home stroking a banana distractedly (“Mom won’t be home till a quarter to 4:00”), he rapturously bends to the many double-entendre demands of a bear plumber who arrives at his door. Pacing was a tad slow, but the entendres were well handled. The stagey body language (long still moment, then a scene change into another long still moment) could have been actually funny had it been a hair faster paced. “Hey, kid, the crack is here. Climb up and I’ll show you the problem. It’s a good thing I’m packin’ the right gear. Now reach for my tool.” What is not to like?
  3. “Dry Hump” (Laura Cowell, Christina Zeidler) could have worked if Zeidler were actually an actress, or a competent one. A Latina chickiemama type (more cultural appropriation?) in a too-short tight blouse and one of those ridiculous golfer’s caps, Zeidlerita defiantly lectures the camera: “I don’t do dirty talk. I don’t do pillow talk. I don’t talk... No spanking. No role-playing. None of that monkey business. The only thing I do do is dry hump. That’s right, the only thing I do do is dry hump.” Excellent concept. Plays with expectations (porn karaoke video that disclaims nearly every form of sex). Zeidler was, however, not convincing. (This was David Gale’s gusto singing moment. Dry Humps Oughta Move to Kapuskasing, he told Pepper the piece should be called.)
  4. “Untitled” (Keith Cole) was an attempted homage to Warhol in which a young lad with bleach-blond hair and a choker necklace hustle-hustle-hustled through a shower. “Here I am, back at the Gerbal [sic] Motel. Finally the night off. You are never to say ‘I’m cute’ [sic]. It’s an act of rebellion. The ‘sex’ is now closed. What would I be doing before I slept with the devil? [...] Talk about talking mental! I’m gay for pay.” I’ll take you over a Woody’s sweaterfag anyday. Derivative and forgettable enactment of really quite a solid script.
  5. “Who Needs a Man When You Can Have His Best Friend” (Ian Jarvis) was Keith Cole’s Divine moment of the evening (ergo Jarvis’s John Waters). A blonde housewife in a low-cut housedress that, oddly, exposes the base of a pair of fake tits answers the phone to find her philanderin’ husband mocking her and her cellulite. “Tommy whose that woman? [sic] Tommy where are you [sic] Why are you doing this?” “Because I can Brandy [sic – what does “to Brandy” mean? Can I Brandy too?]. Because I can.” In rebellion, Brandy does an Andrew Sullivan and smears Alpo over her falsies and lures an Alsatian to lick it off. It was safe sex – falsies are latex.

Now. Captioning. This shit was not karaoke because we did not see wipes of colour across words as they were meant to be sung; dialogue was rendered; and so were sound effects. But they got a lot wrong, as amateurs will.

“But, Joe, why are you being so hard on the poor girls?”

Because they’ve got an expert a 20-minute streetcar ride away who could have done a perfect job for free.

Or are you saying that they should get away with crap captioning because they are, to paraphrase the title of another Buddies event in which Keith Cole is implicated, cheap queers?

Like I’m not?

Amateur productions cannot get away with amateur production values in captioning when I could be Googled in seconds and E-mailed in minutes.

Up your standards.

Just as the show ended, I sashayed over to Pepper and delivered my rehearsed speech. “My name is Joe Clark. I’m an expert on captioning. If you ever want to do something like this again, call me first.” I gave him my card.

Explanation of dedication

A manageress of captioning at a large broadcasting alliance yelled at me for an hour and twenty minutes in a meeting, during which she had the temerity to ask if it were wise for me to post “professional” pages and also pages that dis redheads, particularly since her company is run by one. I guess she didn’t actually read those pages, which in fact venerate redheads, as long as they’re male, not derived from a bottle, and not jailbait. The issue, I guess, is being a bit too openly gay.

Well, I’m available in only one model.


Just doin’ my job

Solving the Text2 dilemma for Alan Herrell.

Death knell for description?

Well, as you probably know by now, the MPAA’s lawsuit against the FCC to “vacate” the FCC’s requirement that U.S. networks air programming with audio description won.

if there were any serious question about proper result in this case, all doubt is resolved by reference to §713. In §713(f), Congress authorized and ordered the Commission to produce a report – nothing more, nothing less. The statute does not, as with closed captioning, instruct (or even permit) the FCC to promulgate regulations mandating video description. Once the Commission completed the task of preparing the report on video description, its delegated authority on the subject ended.

Unfortunately, this seems to be a fair assessment of the FCC’s legal mandate.

“Blindness coalition vows court decision won’t end described video”:

Coalition Chair Dr. Margaret Pfanstiehl of Silver Spring, Md., President of the Metropolitan Washington Ear, said, “...We have worked for a dozen years to make this service available, and we are not about to have it disappear from commercial television networks just when blind people are beginning to discover the pleasure of television in the same way that other people take the medium for granted. Many people of good faith have supported us in our efforts to obtain and expand this essential service. Our supporters within the industry and within the disability community will continue to promote this access.” [...]

ACB and other members of the Coalition are weighing our options and considering a number of next steps,” said Christopher Gray, of San Francisco, President of the ACB. “The population of blind and visually impaired people continues to expand as the baby boom generation enters senior citizenship. People who lose their vision later in life have grown up watching TV, and they aren’t going to like the idea of having to do without access to this mainstream medium, just when it began to appear that described video would allow them to continue to enjoy it.”

Prediction? NBC will kill it, but probably no one else will (certainly not Fox or CBS). Then peer pressure will force NBC to do it again – properly this time.


Bitmaps, shurely?!

“E-vision launches pay-per-view movie service”:

For the first time in the region, the digital video broadcasting technology will provide viewers the option of having the Arabic subtitling switched on or off.

I assume this is similar to U.K. digital video broadcasting (DVB) “subtitles,” which are simply DVD-style bitmaps, which handily get around the character-set issue.

The British do Vlug?

“BBC to face fines over standards”:

Lord Puttnam’s committee argues that the corporation should be subject to fines in the same way as other radio and TV services. They would apply to program standards on taste and decency and issues such as subtitling requirements.

Very interesting.

Run Natural Born Killers and get fined. Run Natural Born Killers without captions and get fined twice?

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Your host: Joe Clark (E-mail), a journalist, author, and accessibility consultant in Toronto.