blarg?

Another Angle

Ah, here we go. I knew that eventually it would be either too expensive or too difficult to figure out who owns all these foreclosed homes at all, much less to actually do anything about them. And property taxes pay for things like police, firemen and utilities. So I was wondering when this would start.

By way of introduction, mentioned earlier in an essay called “Feral Cities – The New Strategic Environment”:

In a feral city social services are all but nonexistent, and the vast majority of the city’s occupants have no access to even the most basic health or security assistance. There is no social safety net. Human security is for the most part a matter of individual initiative. Yet a feral city does not descend into complete, random chaos. Some elements, be they criminals, armed resistance groups, clans, tribes, or neighborhood associations, exert various degrees of control over portions of the city. Intercity, city-state, and even international commercial transactions occur, but corruption, avarice, and violence are their hallmarks. [...] The city’s structures range from once-great buildings symbolic of state power to the meanest shantytowns and slums. Yet even under these conditions, these cities continue to grow, and the majority of occupants do not voluntarily leave.

In the March 30th New York Times:

City officials and housing advocates here and in cities as varied as Buffalo, Kansas City, Mo., and Jacksonville, Fla., say they are seeing an unsettling development: Banks are quietly declining to take possession of properties at the end of the foreclosure process, most often because the cost of the ordeal — from legal fees to maintenance — exceeds the diminishing value of the real estate.

The so-called bank walkaways rarely mean relief for the property owners, caught unaware months after the fact, and often mean additional financial burdens and bureaucratic headaches. Technically, they still owe on the mortgage, but as a practicality, rarely would a mortgage holder receive any more payments on the loan. The way mortgages are bundled and resold, it can be enormously time-consuming just trying to determine what company holds the loan on a property thought to be in foreclosure.

In Ms. James’s case, the company that was most recently servicing her loan is now defunct. Its parent company filed for bankruptcy and dissolved. And the original bank that sold her the loan said it could not find a record of it.

I wonder if you’d taken Marx or Lenin aside and told them just wait, the capitalists, the oligarchs and the plutocrats, they’ll build themselves a house of cards tall enough to blot out the sun. And when a great wind finally brings it all to earth, the entire idea of ownership will be brought down with it. Don’t fight them; wait. Wait, and they’ll eat each other. They would have said you were mad.

A Trail Of Fire

The woman running our prenatal class yesterday turned out to be hugely more useful than the hippie doula running the baby-bath thing we did last week, which was a huge relief. Last week’s course was 25 minutes of information fluffed out into two hours with the help of constant reassurances that there’s no rules, everything’s fine, you just need to be considerate and loving and there are no rules and everything’s fine.

I imagine that’s helpful for some people, but when both of you are Type-A personalities that straddle the line between OCD and rabies it’s a more than a little crazymaking. If you’re not going to add some value to the handout and the 20 minute video then we might as well not have shown up, you know? But sadly it was about as useful as, say, any of these. “When treating dry skin: olive oil, yes! 10-W-30, no!” Thanks, hippie.

But despite the second course’s more pragmatic bent, I don’t think the creators of these courses are quite geared up to deal with people like my wife and I. At one point, just to give you a glimpse of what the inside of our relationship looks like, our prenatal instructor asked the class “what qualities in your partner would you like your baby to have?” And, of course, she started with me and my wife. I’m kind of proud of myself for this, because I didn’t miss a beat before answering “She sleeps through the night.” That sort of threw off the instructor, who I suspect was looking for the answers everyone else gave – sense of humor, kindness, lovely hair, that sort of nonsense – but my wife did me proud as well, answering “He eats a lot”, as smooth as could be.

This is what love looks like. Forget your assurances and companionship and feelings and validation; buy a puppy and a hallmark card for that. True love gets things done.

I Feel Safer Already

The widely-linked Douglas Bowman says, on leaving Google.

Yes, it’s true that a team at Google couldn’t decide between two blues, so they’re testing 41 shades between each blue to see which one performs better. I had a recent debate over whether a border should be 3, 4 or 5 pixels wide, and was asked to prove my case. I can’t operate in an environment like that. I’ve grown tired of debating such miniscule design decisions.

It must be awesome to work somewhere that’s rolling in so much more cash and manpower than direction, management or competent competitors that they can afford to expend so much effort on obvious nonsense. I bet this is how Chrome came about; hey, we’ve got a million extra man-hours here and reading code, fixing bugs and speaking to others is no fun, so instead of helping those guys over there, fuck ‘em. Steve Jobs says webkit’s pretty sweet, let’s just make a new one from scratch.

Not surprising if I’m reading this right, from a NYT article he links to, on Marissa Mayer and Google’s hiring process:

One candidate got a C in macroeconomics. “That’s troubling to me,” Ms. Mayer says. “Good students are good at all things.”

Am I overgeneralizing from two data points here? Sure, but my overgeneralization is data-driven. But that, in one line, is how you end up with a room or a building or an enterprise full of people who don’t try anything they don’t already know they’re good at. Growth involves risk, and risk involves occasional failure. Otherwise it’s not called risk.

But good luck being good at everything, Google. Maybe you could get some of those people who are good at all things together in a room and figure out how to make money off something that isn’t advertising.

Legacy

This is so great; the cojones on these people are amazing. From Bell’s page describing their 3G USB sticks for business users:

System Access Fees are charged by all wireless companies to help pay for the network and the ongoing software, technology and other upgrades to that network. Generally, the higher the fee, the greater the opportunity to invest in network quality to enhance your experience. Just one more reason to choose Bell.

Really? After fighting hard to keep this country an overpriced technological backwater for more than a decade, you’re saying “You should choose us, because you’ll pay more”?

Way to stay in-character, Bell. You keep being awesome.

All Way Stop

I should preface this by saying that I’m not an accessibility expert but, not to put too fine on it, a lack of expertise has never stopped me from giving people advice. I’ve done some work for the Joy Maclaren Centre at Carleton, through some family and friends I’ve got some skin in that game and (of course…) I tend to get on a rant when I’m talking about stuff that I think is important. Which is, I expect, how I got roped into this.

Following a discussion about the merits of Firefox as compared to Internet Explorer (the case for IE being Sharepoint integration) I told him that above my security concerns, the main reasons for my advocacy of Firefox revolve around open standards and open accessibility. I suppose this was tipping my hand, to the manager of web development no less, but he jumped on that and pretty soon he’d roped me into making a presentation to his team on the subject.

Below is a roughly idealized (and therefore, in truth, somewhat false) transcript of that talk – it was originally delivered (at my french-language workplace) in a sort of functional english-french pidgin, switching back and forth between them to try and get my point across as best I could.

I’ve translated and block-quoted my slides here rather than providing the original PowerPoint, which would be a little inappropriate considering. So here goes:

Accessibility

So, let me begin by saying that I’m not an expert, and that there’s a lot more to cover than we have time for. But I’m going to try to give you an idea, I hope, of what accessibility means, why it’s worthwhile to bother at all, and where to get start.

Three Reasons

  • Social Responsibility
  • Greed
  • The Law

There are a couple of good reasons to aim for accessible websites, but these are good ones. If you’re not going to buy the straight-up social responsibility angle then greed, like the line goes, works. Greed is good. As web developers, being able to build sites that meet accessibility criteria is something you can put on a resumé, something worth money. And in our line of work, as a government-funded organization, it’s going to happen either way; website accessibility is mandatory for government agencies now, and if it’s not mandatory for government-subsidized organizations yet, it will be soon.

Generally Speaking

  • Visual impairment
  • Hearing impairment
  • Mobility impairment
  • Learning disabilities

Broadly speaking, there are four categories of disability with respect to accessible websites; visual impairment, hearing impairment, mobility impairment and learning disabilities. There are some subtleties here, and this isn’t a checklist – you don’t want to pick one to work on at the expense of the rest. Visual impairment, for example, covers everything from reading glasses and colour-blindness to macular degeneration and absolute blindness. Mobility impairment might mean an inability to do any kind of fast-twitch movement, and might equally mean that a person can’t single-click reliably or interacts with their computer only through voice-control software.

Finally, learning and cognitive disabilities, which may be the most challenging to address, but which are also more common than you’d think – dyslexia counts, but so does plain old not speaking the language the site was written in.

The Joy Maclaren Adaptive Technology Centre

Screen readers
Screen magnifiers
Braille screens
Keyboard shields
Adaptive software
( Jaws, Dragon NaturallySpeaking, others)

My own exposure to these technologies and their users comes mostly from time I’ve spent working with the Joy Maclaren center at Carleton University. We did a fair bit of work for them to get a number of these things to work together, and getting all of those things to work right or at all was often really difficult, even for experienced, fully-able administrators. I’ll get back to this in a moment, but one important point that I want to make today is that very often the installation of adaptive and mobility software can be quite a challenge, and my experience has been that upgrades are something to approach reluctantly and with quite a bit of caution.

[ Picture of a mysterious device ]

But the other side of that is that there are some really remarkable tools available in that space as well. That picture right there? That’s a laptop. And not some half-assed compromise, either; that’s a braille screen and a keyboard, runs Windows and lets you write up essays and you can connect to a network and use the web just fine. That thing is all solid-state, fits in a woman’s purse, weighs two pounds, has wifi and great battery life; aside from the fact that it doesn’t have a standard keyboard or a standard screen, it’s the laptop we all want.

[ More detailed, informative picture of the aforementioned device ]

Your information comes to you with the help of that line of braille down at the bottom there but when I met the woman using it, she claimed she could get thirty words per minute out of it. Now, she’s not going to be getting the same experience of the internet that somebody fully sighted would, but that’s fine. We’ll revisit this later, but her experience of the internet doesn’t have to be the same as yours for it to be equally valuable to her.

The disabled are not second-class citizens.

And if you take nothing else away from what I have to say today, it is this. The people for whom we are making our websites accessible are first-class citizens of this province, and of this country. They vote. They pay the taxes that, in part, pay us, and not only are they entitled to derive as much value from our efforts as any other citizen of this province, it is a personal and professional failure on our part if we don’t make that happen.

I have a blog. I take pictures. And my parents are aging. My parents already need reading glasses, and one is getting a little hard of hearing. One grandfather is essentially blind. But here’s the thing: I’m proud of what I do, of what I create, and I want my friends and family to be able to see it, to read it. To get it. And if they’re going to keep doing that, it means that I have to get better at making what I create as easy for them to get at and understand and interact with as possible.

People with disabilites cannot have the same experience of a website that fully able people can. It’s just not possible, and people who are setting the bar at “equal” are setting you up to fail. So that can’t be the goal; you need to give everyone looking at your site equivalent, but not equal, access to that content.

So what do we do?

This isn’t really a simple question, but I’m going to start with a simple answer. Well, in truth, I’m going to start with what not to do.

Don’t retrofit.

Don’t even try.

Accessibility isn’t something you can slap on a site like a fresh coat of paint. Trying to retrofit a site for accessibility, particularly in this modern age of complicated back ends and content management systems, basically means doing the whole thing again. But you’ve got a site redesign planned, right? I know you do, because all websites always have a redesign in their future. But that’s your opportunity, that’s the time to work on accessibility. When you can integrate it into your forward planning and make it a part of the process, not when it has to be a laborious afterthought.

And the benefits of that integration, in this modern age, can be huge. Not just in terms of accessibility, but for long-term productivity and asset management there are huge economies to had further down the road, when the redesign after that comes due.

So, what can you do?

Use Open Standards

  • W3C – HTML4, SMIL
  • WHAT-WG – HTML5

Well, this. Use open standards. Please, use open standards. Well understood, publicly-documented, validated formats are the ones that are going to work reliably with accessibility software, that are going to work properly with screen readers, that are going to work right with a world full of software you might never even need to know is out there.

I know we’re a TV station, too, but there’s good news on that front. The SMIL standard, the “Synchronized Multimedia Integration Language”, is a way of adding text information along with video, so that as with subtitles, people who can’t see or hear video can still get value out of what we make. SMIL is actually better than subtitles in a lot of ways, and most modern media viewers support that format.

The WHAT-WG people, the Web Hypertext Application Technology Working Group, are busily creating the next generation of web standards, and they’re doing it with usability and accessibility very much in mind. That process is still ongoing but they have a very public development process, so if you’re interested in following along or participating, you certainly can. HTML 5 isn’t carved in stone yet, but it’s coming, and whether you’re interested in accessibility or not you’re going to need to know about it.

Use standard HTML. Use SMIL. But maybe the most important thing you can do, more than anything else, is this:

Use Text

It’s accessible to:

  • Screen readers and magnifiers
  • Braille screens
  • Other standard accessibility tools

Fallback Media

  • <alt = >
  • <title =>
  • <longdesc = >

Use text. Use text. I’m begging you, use open standards, and use text. Wherever possible and wherever you can. Text works. It works in screen readers, magnifiers, braille screens. Don’t use pictures of text, and don’t fill your screens full of spacer gifs to make it look just like the mockup you put together in Quark or Photoshop. We’ve all done it, but the world is past that now, and CSS stylesheets mean we don’t need to spend any more time wedging transparent one-pixel-by-one-pixel gifs all over the place to make things look good.

Use those three tags, for every image, every time. Most of your automated tools will generate content for the first two already, but they’ll usually just give you the filename in both the “alt” and “title” slots, and nothing at all for the long description. That’s not good enough, and won’t get anywhere near the equivalent experience we’re aiming for, but putting the work into those tags can pay huge dividends in the long term in areas you wouldn’t really expect. Good titles, good descriptive text and good long descriptions doesn’t just mean that the site becomes accessible to disabled users, it also means the site becomes more accessible to search engines, asset management tools and other automatic processes in ways that were never possible before. It means that users who don’t speak your language can take better advantage of machine translation; it means that three years from now, when you need to find that one picture you had of an afternoon at long beach you can do it in a heartbeat with a keyword search instead of having to flip through dozens or thousands of archived photos, and your asset management tools become that much more effective at actually managing your assets.

This, on its own, will get you an awfully long way. But it’s not all that needs to be done, and again, this isn’t a list of things you can cross off or some sort of accessibility pixie dust you can just sprinkle over a site to make it work, but it’s a critical part of the process.

Test. Validate.

Aim for equivalence,
not equality.

There are tons of free tools out there you can use to validate your websites, to make sure that they’re compliant to the documented standards. Test your site in that. Test by putting your hands in your lap, and trying to navigate around your site using voice control only, with Jaws. Test, validate and test, and aim for equivalence. Not equality but equivalency; make sure your site has an accessibility statement right up front that you have to live up to, and then live up to it.

Because there’s one other thing you should be aware of.

Accessible systems are often brittle

  • Installation
  • Making it all work together
  • Updating software is hard
  • Installers are a disaster

And you’re not going to like this, but it’s something you should be aware of. Even for me, an able, experienced systems administrator, making different pieces of accessibility software and hardware work properly together is hard. It’s genuinely capital-H Hard, and the people I know who rely on them are reluctant to upgrade and have to be exceedingly cautious about it when they do. The version of Jaws or Dragon that they bought and learned to use, at a substantial investment of time and money, might not survive an upgrade to XP or Vista. Software that worked fine on the version of Java they have installed might never work again if we upgrade to the latest version.

And this is going to be difficult for you, professionally. We all want to learn the latest cool new technologies and we often feel that we have to, just to keep up; if I go into that job interview saying that I’m comfortable with Flash 5 when everyone else in room is thinking about Flash 10, that’s a no-hire flag. But when your audience is legitimately wary of upgrading, because the risk of something they need just not working anymore is very real, you’d better have a damn compelling reason for forcing them to upgrade a plugin.

Because as far as accessibility goes the average software installer is a war crime. You want to brush off somebody with a disability? Force them upgrade Flash.

This is not just for the disabled.

Because there is no “them” here, not in any meaningful sense. Next time you go to an Italian or German opera, and follow along with the surtitles? That’s an accessibility technology. And I say again, these efforts ultimately pay off in lots of different ways, not the least of which are the first three I mentioned: social responsibility, legal obligations and greed.

Thanks for your time; I hope that was useful, and I’ll forward some useful reading on to you when I get back to my office. If I can answer any other questions for you, let me know.

… and that was the end of that. I closed off by playing the Four Deaf Yorkshiremen video, a play on the old Monty Python “Four Yorkshiremen” bit, which got a few laughs, and which I got to point out was only funny (or useful to the audience at all, in fact) because of the subtitles.

The two major sources for this talk were Joe Clark’s excellent Building Accessible Websites and Mark Pligrim’s also excellent Dive Into Accessibility, both available in their entirety online. And by “sources”, I mean “were largely cribbed from”. But I also referred people to the W3 Consortium’s Accessibility Quicktips page, as well as the Ontario Government’s Accessibility page.

I’m going to go over this in the next few days, add links in where I can, better (where “better” is “more than none”) footnotes and more references, but I’ve been thrashing at this for a few days, and wanted to get this first version out. Comments are always welcomed.

Globe Terrestre

Do I need another reason to feel smug? I should think no, and yet they accrete before me. Know that I bear this weight nobly, and without complaint. Atlas Smirked, that’s me.

You know what they say about YouTube commenters, right? Well, funny story; remember how late last year I put up that one video I took of buskers and banjos, and called it the Hoedown Throwdown?

Somewhat earlier, I assume, the Walt Disney Corporation decided (again) that the right thing for them to invest their effort in was another prepackaged starlet, so they tarted up one more anonymous milquetoast ingenue and dropped her into the front end of the Disney Machine. They’ve got the process pretty much down by now, so presumably there’s a plant somewhere in Burbank where they drop these teenagers into a chute at one end and two albums, one movie plus soundtrack, fifty thousand vaguely recognizable plastic dolls and a disshevelled 23-year-old chain smoker with a greasy ex and a nagging drug habit are belched out the other end and quickly forgotten.

In this case though one of the songs in the movie misappropriated (or possibly outright swiped, who knows?) the title from my own infinitely superior video, and Google has seen me right; I’ve still got the top result. And now all the people searching for Hannah-Montana-flavored pablum are finding my video and not… well, it seems inaccurate to call it “hers”.

But let me tell you: when people who set out to look for Disney’s little girls on YouTube don’t find them, my goodness, they get exactly the kind of upset you’d expect. I They squat little nuggets of joy into my inbox every day or two now, and it invariably lifts my spirits.

pateaditi8 (1 week ago)

what the hell were you thinking
bitch


iLuVWiLlIaMLeVy (1 week ago)

what the fuck is that


xxbunnylover23xx (1 week ago)

looks good and all but not the video I was looking for.\
:'(


yunah101 (1 week ago)

wut the hell its nuthin like the hoedown throwdown


Chickofmanywonders (6 days ago)

that was REALLY annoying


LeXiroCKs1 (3 days ago)

WTF!


BantaOrangerBunny

not hoedown throwdown
????

It doesn’t surprise me at all that there’s a certain kind of somebody in the world looking for a musical experience as polished, inoffensive and white as a urinal bowl who’d get very upset to come across a couple of black kids getting down to real, live country music just for the sheer unadulterated hell of it, finishing off to a round of applause no less. But I’m glad that this thing that’s upset them is my fault.

Don’t ever change, internets. I love you so.

Last Car

So, I just cut and pasted a piece of text. That text:

  • Was stored in a Filemaker Pro 9 database
  • running in a virtual machine,
  • on a Linux cluster,
  • which I accessed via an FMP8 front end,
  • running in a different virtual machine,
  • behind a virtual network switch,
  • on a different Linux box,
  • that’s bridged via the host server’s network port,
  • to the rest of our network,
  • which I accessed via VMWare’s Web Access plugin,
  • running in Firefox,
  • on my Windows desktop.

I pasted it into a different Filemaker Pro database, via much the same path, and got a little irate that it took me one or two tries of hitting control-C and control-V to get it to work before I realized what I was asking for.

It is flat-out amazing that any of this works at all, much less as well as it does.

Do Not Enter Here

Do not click these links. There’s nothing in them but text, but what miserable text it is.

“This is why I don’t trust anyone who’s job was created after 1990.” – Malokai, on Livejournal

It should be warning enough that an article is on TechCrunch, doubly so when you know going in that the title is “Are Blogs Losing Their Influence To The Statusphere”. So I should have known better than to even let it hit me in the eyes. But I did, and now I hate the world just a little bit more.

Let me count the ways:

  1. Made up words that are portemanteaus of other made up words.
  2. The uncited third person, blurring seamlessly into the Royal We.
  3. Questionably relevant, completely fabricated metrics given important-sounding names,
  4. and then equated with other questionably-relevant, important sounding things.
  5. More sucking up and kissing ass than a toilet full of starving remoras.

Exhibit 1:

“As the leading blog directory and search engine, Technorati maintains a coveted Authority Index which is considered amongst bloggers as the benchmark for measuring their rank and selling their position within the blogosphere.”

And if the author had the honesty to wrap up right there with the phrase “…and for just three easy payments of $19.95, you too can be a New Media Douchebag“, we wouldn’t be having this discussion. But it only gets worse.

“By the way if anyone here is in advertising or marketing, kill yourself.” – Bill Hicks

I struggled past the author’s bizarre “So why do I believe that blog authority is losing its authority? It goes back to the definition of authority”, as I politely overlooked the awkward, clunky attempt at misdirecting me made-up metric of “Authority” to the small-a “authority” that might just mean something else. I even fought bravely on past the bit where the phrase “Think about it” was hung out to dry in its own condescending paragraph, but when the sentence “With the right tools, everything is measurable” dropped, I gave up.

This must be what happens when the marketing worms start to shit in the holes they’ve eaten through your brain; do articles like this start to make sense after a while? Do you feel a sense of accomplished pride, publishing them?

I hope to never find out. We’ve had a glimpse of the intellectual abyss at end of that road with Pepsi’s recent logo redesign, whose attempt to link a half-assed knock-off of the Obama logo to every significant artistic achievement in history, the inexorable march of human civilization and the fundamental forces of nature is one of the towering pieces of epic bullshit of our time.

And somebody created that document, somebody else signed off on it, someone sent it to the client and the client apparently approved it, and somehow nowhere in that process did anyone say no. That this it too stupid for regular human words, what sort of con do you think you’re running here, that I can’t be a party to this. Or does everyone just shut up and play along and hope they all get paid?

This is a part of the reason that without Adblock Plus, Flashblock and Noscript the internet is very nearly unusable, the reason that in fifteen years everything that isn’t a members-only walled-garden or straight-up darknet will be automated processes trying to sell each other cheap watches and drugs.

And the worst part is, these jackasses won’t feel culpable at all.

Together, They Fight Crime

We finally opened the boxes of baby furniture that have been haunting our first floor and moved their contents up to their permanent home on the second, and unboxing them caused my wife quite a shock. She thought we wouldn’t get it all done tonight, because they’d take too long to assemble. Surprisingly, they might be the first pieces of furniture we’ve bought that didn’t arrive in the house packed flat, and her remarking on it caused me no end of amusement.

So I put the Jefferson’s theme song on while we hoisted it all up the stairs, a cultural appropriation I’m sure amounts to some sort of trans-ironic cultural obscenity but which made me grin like an idiot regardless[1]. So now we have a our gutted office back, our baby room is in play, and with a little bit of luck it’ll be calm waters from here to whenever El Kid arrives.

( [1] – Forgive me; I know it’s no excuse but I swear it really is the only furniture we own that doesn’t contain the Ikea Nature. )

Showing A Little Skin

The internets have demanded belly pictures, but I am very rarely allowed to post pictures of my wife at all, much less showing any quantity of skin. But you’ve been good this week, internets, and I asked politely, so here you go. Lucky for me there is now this handy guide for prospective parents. It seems simple!