Hixie's Natural Log

2007-09-04 08:48 UTC Fire, a two-hour weekend, accessibility, and other rants

Somewhere over the rainbow,
Way up high,
There's a land that I heard of
Once in a lullaby.

The explosion during the man's burn was quite the surprise, but I'm glad they delayed the derrick's burn until after the man because otherwise the man would have been a non-event in comparison. Holy Hannah.

This year wasn't quite as enjoyable as last year, but mostly that was just because of the weather: I didn't get to go around the deep playa and jump on art cars as much as I'd have liked.

Somewhere over the rainbow
Skies are blue
And the dreams that you dare to dream
Really do come true.

While I was away, late last week, while nobody was looking at the #whatwg channel, and in stark contrast to the Burning Man atmosphere, someone visited and asked a question which went unanswered. The log went like this:

--> Nicklas18 (i=Nicklas1@c-f54ce155.28-2-64736c13.cust.bredbandsbolaget.se) has joined #whatwg
<Nicklas18> Why leave the sense of logic at the door?
<Nicklas18> Does that mean that you are not logical?
<Nicklas18> Shouldn't people in charge of making a standard have common sense?
<Nicklas18> Hello?
<Nicklas18> Fucking retards.
<Nicklas18> Suck my huge cock.
<-- Nicklas18 has left #whatwg

(The /topic in the #whatwg channel says "Please leave your sense of logic at the door, thanks!", for reasons that should be obvious to anyone who has tried working with Web browsers for more than about 5 minutes.)

The sun is shining,
It's a lovely day,
A perfect morning
For a kid to play,

Carey and I have now seen Avenue Q twice, once on Broadway and once in San Francisco. I love this show. Everyone should see it.

The internet is really really great.
I’ve got a fast connection so i don’t have to wait.
There's always some new site;
I browse all day and night;
It's like i’m surfing at the speed of light.

Work on HTML5 progresses at a measurable pace — literally, now, since I'm measuring the number of e-mails I have outstanding on a regular basis to determine how well I'm hitting my quarterly targets. (Answer: Not as well as I'd like, but not as badly as I'd feared.) As a side-effect of writing the code to trawl my IMAP folders to count the outstanding e-mails, I wrote a tool that also exposes the folders on the Web (after having filtered out the confidential feedback I get, of course). I was hoping this would address some of the complaints about lack of transparency, and indeed a number of WHATWG contributors were interested, gave helpful feedback, and even wrote their own frontends using the tool's APIs. However, from the W3C corner of the HTML5 communities I only got complaints. The most notable complaint was that the tool didn't work in IE, which was apparently a problem not because it actually stopped anyone from accessing the page (I haven't received any complaints from anyone who actually couldn't get to the page) but because it might potentially stop users of old accessibility tools that only work with IE from accessing the page.

When you help others,
You can’t help helping yourself!
Every time you
Do good deeds
You’re also serving
Your own needs.

I've actually been using the latest version of JAWS (the popular Windows screen reader software for blind people) recently, as part of my work on HTML5. From a usability point of view it is possibly the worst software I have ever used. I'm still horrified at how bad the accessibility situation is. All this time I've been hearing people worried about whether or not Web pages have longdesc attributes specified or whatnot, when in fact the biggest problems facing blind users are so much more fundamental as to make image-related issues seem almost trivial in comparison.

For example, JAWS will happily take the last sentence of a paragraph, and the first sentence of the next paragraph, and run them into each other as one sentence, if there's no full stop at the end of the first paragraph. If you really want to make your Web pages more readable to blind users, forget longdesc or even alt, or even markup of any kind, just make sure you're using full punctuation! And that's just one example. Browsing the Web with JAWS is a horrifying experience not because of the poor state of the Web, which is admittedly very poor indeed from the point of view of semantic and accessible markup, but because of the terrifyingly poor state of the screen reader software.

What might make my experiences with JAWS even more worrying is that I'm told JAWS is amongst the best of the available screen reader software. It certainly isn't worth its ridiculous $895 price tag (let alone the $1095 price tag for the "professional" version I got). There is a big market opportunity here for someone to make a usable and affordable native speech Web browser or screen reader. Accessibility advocates could do more for accessibility by writing test suites for screen readers to check their basic HTML support (like supporting the p element) than they ever will by trying to educate Web authors.

What do you do with a B.A. in English?
What is my life going to be?
Four years of college and plenty of knowledge
Have earned me this useless degree.

Going back to my earlier comment, though, I'm a little confused as to why several people who have joined the HTML5 community from the W3C HTML WG side are so hostile, while those who joined the community through the WHATWG side are so much more friendly and constructive. A couple of weeks ago I had to temporarily ban someone from the WHATWG list after they repeatedly cross-posted an off-topic flamewar to four mailing lists including the WHATWG list. (They didn't get banned from the other three lists as far as I know.) I was really sad about having to do this, but the health of the community is important, and sometimes extreme measures have to be taken. This is the first time I've had to do that to someone on the WHATWG list, and the list has existed since 2004. (I've set up personal mail filters for people on the WHATWG list before, to ensure that I read certain people's suggestions only once I've read all the other mail, but I've never had to actually ban someone.)

The HTML working group is having a meeting in November. I don't really see the point, but as I told Dan (the chair of the working group), if we do have a meeting, I'd like us to use the unconference style, as that's probably the only useful thing we could do.

Hopefully we'll have the agenda this week, that way I can know whether I can justify going or not. I can't really justify spending Google's money on travel, let alone justify the carbon emissions and the time away from editing the spec, without knowing what exactly the meeting will consist of. If the meeting just consists of us going through open issues and discussing them, then I won't go, since in my experience that's a huge waste of everyone's time unless the issue has already failed to be addressed by more asynchronous methods like e-mail. For technical work like this you really need to be able to sit down and think about issues, and ponder them with a whiteboard; it is very hard to make sure all the applicable research has been done when there is pressure to discuss and reach a decision on a topic in 60 minutes or less. This is especially true since for almost all issues, the first time you look at it you'll find many things you need to research, and it can take days to get all the data you want to make an educated decision.

Using actual data to make decisions about technical issues isn't a very common practice in W3C working groups, which is probably why a lot of the people in the HTML working group who come from a W3C background think a face-to-face meeting is a useful thing to have.

I want you to know
The time that we've spent
How great it's been
How much it's meant.

In July we went to Oslo, Bergen, Geneva, Lourtier, Mamaroneck, Staatsburg, and Hillsdale, to see friends, family, and folk music.

The Falcon Ridge Folk Festival has a sign language interpreter on every stage. Now mind you, this is a music festival, a specifically sound-orientated event. Yet it is highly accessible; all the songs have alternative fallback content for those who cannot hear them. There are several things about this that I noticed.

First: The visual version of the song (lyrics in sign language, and the emotional content of the voice, expressed in the facial expressions and style of the sign language interpreter) doesn't convey the same thing as the original audio version (the melody, the harmony, the percussion, the lyrics, and the emotion in all of those). It is merely a translation of the parts of the audio stream that aren't intrinsically audio-only. Alternative content doesn't necessarily convey everything in the primary medium, nor does it have to to be useful and enjoyed by the target audience.

Second: The sign language interpretation is actually quite fun to watch even if you can hear the music, it's like a kind of interpretative dance. Alternative content is useful to those who don't need it as well.

This isn't just my opinion. It was clear at the festival that the sizeable deaf community present there was fully enjoying the music. The presence of sign language interpreters made them feel part of the event, and conveyed everything that they wanted conveyed. Meanwhile, the hearing patrons enjoyed the music and the sign language — I heard comments from several people to the effect that the sign language interpreters were effectively an intrinsic part of the act. (To the point where even people who didn't necessarily understand sign language had opinions on which interpreter was better.)

It's interesting how the prevailing opinion of Web accessibility experts is so far removed from the existing and successful accessibility practices in the non-tech world.

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