The delusion of accessibility checkers

There is a delusion that I deal with, professionally, day in and day out. That nearly any piece of authoring software, be it Microsoft Word or Adobe Acrobat, has some inbuilt mechanism for assessing the accessibility of a document. Before I get into the details, let me just come out and say that if you are not already an accessibility professional, these tools cannot help you. I understand the motivation, but in my experience, these things do more harm than good. They allow unversed consumers to gain a false sense of understanding about the output of their product. That sounds incredibly condescending, but that’s honestly how it should work when you’re talking about fields that require extensive training.

The ultimate problem is that accessibility comes down to human decision. Accessible tech is, thus far, ‘dumb’ — it almost exclusively responds to cues embedded by a human. Some day, I believe that AI will be good enough to largely make the decisions that currently necessitate a human. But we aren’t there yet. A good analogy, but one that only gets through to a select group, is that of a compiler throwing warnings and errors. I can’t just type make me a roguelike but where all you do is find cute clothes in treasure chests into gcc and get my game to come out — the computer is not that smart. I could program dresscrawler myself, and attempt to compile it. gcc might throw errors — these are just things that make it incapable of compiling. gcc might throw warnings — these are just things that it thinks could be problematic, or are outside of accepted style. gcc can’t stop me from making dresscrawler a game where the player can spawn inside an inescapable room with no exits. gcc can’t guarantee I even remembered to code dresses into dresscrawler. gcc can’t even ensure that I didn’t create some kind of stack overflow that would cause a fatal exception when I place my jeggings of holding inside my purse of holding.

Perhaps a faultier, but more lay explanation would be that of purchasing a meal. If I go to a local restaurant, and I order a veggie burger, and it’s awful… I don’t actually know why. I might have a vague idea, that it’s too sweet, say. But why? Did they add too much beet? Did they sweeten it to make up for something else? With what? Sugar? Glucose syrup? Some bizarre synthetic? I don’t have all the information; I cannot make accurate conclusions. All I can make are vague suggestions, and this is how accessibility checkers (and compilers) work.

If I knew how to make the perfect veggie burger, I’d just do it myself. If the computer was smart enough, it would program dresscrawler for me (and, oh, how I wish it would). And if the computer was smart enough, none of what I do for a living would even exist! This is a human job because, for the time being at least, it requires human decision-making based on human experience. I am very engaged with the accessibility community, the disabled community, as far as current best practices. But these are still judgment calls. Some things are explicitly laid out — WCAG 2.0 put forward mathematically acceptable contrast levels, for example. But a lot of accessibility work still boils down to human decision-making, based on ‘how would I want to experience this, if I was experiencing it differently?’

Universal digital accessibility is incredibly difficult to do right1. But it’s so detached from the reality of most abled people, that they trust relatively naïve algorithms will absolve them. I’ve tried to get customers to use JAWS or NVDA just to experience the misery of a poorly-structured document, and… they often don’t even last long enough to care. I honestly wish vendors would stop bundling these half-baked accessibility checkers into their authoring software. Come see me once your approach involves neural networks.

  1. I’m always willing to help queer creators make their content accessible pro bono. Just FYI. ↩︎

A few of my favorite: Slide rules

I link to photos hosted by the International Slide Rule Museum, a really great resource. Unfortunately, they don’t set IDs on their pages for specific rules, but luckily I only discuss two brands: Pickett and Faber-Castell.

I love slide rules nearly as much as I love HP calculators, and much like HP calculators, I have a humble collection of slide rules that is largely complete. While I keep them around more as beautiful engineering artifacts than anything, I do actually use them as well. These are a few of my favorites, from both a conceptual standpoint and from actual use.

Pickett 115 Basic Math Rule
This is, by far, the simplest rule that I own. It lacks the K1 scale that even the cheap, student 160-ES/T2 has. Aside from the L scale, it is functionally equivalent to a TI-108. But, to be fair, the TI-108 has two functions that nearly all slide rules lack: addition and subtraction. And, true to the name ‘Basic Math Rule,’ the Pickett 115 has two linear scales, X and Y, for doing addition and subtraction. Additionally, it has one scale-worth of Pickett’s ‘Decimal Keeper’ function, which aids the user in keeping track of how many decimal places their result is. All in all, it’s not a particularly impressive rule, but it is quite unique. Faber-Castell made a version of the Castell-Mentor 52/80 (unfortunately ISRM’s photo is not that version) with linear scales as well, and I probably prefer it in practice to the 115. The 115 just has a wonderful sort of pure simplicity about it that I appreciate, however.
Pickett N200-ES Trig
This is basically the next step up from the aforementioned 160-ES/T. The 160-ES/T is a simplex with K, A, B, C, CI, D, and L scales. The N200-ES/T is a duplex model that adds trig functions with a single set of S and T scales, and an ST scale. It’s a wee little pocket thing, the same size as the 160-ES/T, and it’s made of aluminum as opposed to plastic. It’s nothing fancy, but it handles a very useful number of functions in a very small package. The N600-ES/T does even more, but it becomes a little cluttery compared to the N200-ES/T’s lower information density. Good for playing with numbers in bed.
Faber-Castell 2/83N Novo-Duplex
The 2/83N is, in my opinion, the ultimate slide rule. It has 31 scales, conveniently organized, and with explanations on the right-hand side. Its braces have rubberized strips on them, and are thick enough that the rule can be used while sitting on a table. The ends of the slide extend out past the ends of the stator so it’s always easy to manipulate (I don’t have any Keuffel & Esser rules on this list, but they had a clever design that combatted this problem as well, with the braces being more L-shaped than C-shaped). The range of C (and therefore everything else, but this is the easiest way to explain) goes beyond 1-10, starting at around 0.85 and ending around 11.5. The plastic operates incredibly smoothly (granted, I bought mine NOS from Faber’s German store a few years ago, that had to have helped), and the whole thing is just beautiful. Truly the grail slide rule.
Faber-Castell 62/83N Novo-Duplex
This feels like a complete cop-out, because it is essentially identical to the 2/83N, except smashed into half of the width. You lose the nice braces, you get a slightly less-fancy cursor, and you lose precision when you condense the same scale down to half-width. But you end up with something ridiculously dense in functionality for a small package. Even though it’s essentially the same rule as the 2/83N, I think it deserves its own place on this list.
Pickett 108-ES
This was the piece I’d been looking for to essentially wrap up my collection. It is a circular, or dial, slide rule, and it is tiny – 8cm in diameter. It’s much harder to come by than the larger circular Picketts, particularly the older 101-C. Circular rules have some distinct advantages – notably their compact size (the 108-ES is the only rule I own that I would truly call pocketable, and it cradles nicely in the palm of my hand), and the infinite nature of a circular slide. The latter advantage means there’s no point in adding folded scales, nor is there ever a need to back up and start from the other end of the slide because your result is off the edge.
The 108-ES, by my understanding, was a fairly late model, manufactured in Japan. It is mostly plastic, and incredibly smooth to operate – moreso than non-circular Picketts that I’ve used. The obverse has L, CI, and C on the slide; D, A, and K on the stator. The reverse has no slide, and has D, TS, three scales of T, and two of S. I can’t help but hear “I’m the operator / with my pocket calculator” in my mind when I play with this thing. It really packs a lot of punch for something so diminutive. The larger 111-ES, of the same sort of manufacture, is also quite impressive with (among other things) the addition of log-log scales.

  1. If you’ve never used a slide rule before, the names of the scales won’t mean much. I’d suggest reading the ISRM’s Course on How to Use the Slide Rule and their Glossary for a full description of scales, but here are some basics: C and D are logarithmic scales used for multiplication. CF and DF are the same, but they start further down the line to effectively make the slide ‘longer’. CI and DI are the reciprocals of C and D, you can probably guess what CIF and DIF are. A and B are squares of C and D, K is cube. S and T refer to Sin and Tan, ST is a combined sin/tan scale for numbers low enough that they’re effectively the same. L is a linear scale for reversing the log. LL scales are log-log scales used for arbitrary exponentiation. ↩︎
  2. Pickett released yellow and white slide rules, largely standardized by the model number ending in ‘ES’ for ‘Eye-Saver’ yellow, or ’T’ for white. ↩︎

netrw and invalid certificates

Don’t trust invalid certificates. Only do this sort of workaround if you really know what you’re dealing with is okay.

Sometimes I just need to reference the source of an HTML or CSS file online without writing to it. If I need to do this while I’m editing something else in vim, my best course of action is to open a split in vim and do it there. Even if I’m not working on said thing in vim, that is the way that I’m most comfortable moving around in documents, so there’s still a good chance I want to open my source file there.

netrw, the default1 file explorer for vim, handles HTTP and HTTPS. By default, it does this using whichever of the following it finds first: elinks, links, curl, wget, or fetch. At work, we’re going through an HTTPS transition, and at least for the time being, the certificates are… not quite right. Not sure what the discrepancy is (it’s not my problem), but strict clients are wary. This includes curl and wget. When I went to view files via HTTPS in vim, I was presented with errors. This obviously wasn’t vim’s fault, but it took a bit of doing to figure out exactly how these elements interacted and how to modify the behavior of what is (at least originally) perceived as netrw.

When netrw opens up a remote connection, it essentially just opens up a temporary file, and runs a command that uses that temporary file as input or output depending on whether the command is a read or write operation. As previously mentioned, netrw looks for elinks, links, curl, wget, and fetch. My cygwin install has curl and wget, but none of the others. It also has lynx, which I’ll briefly discuss at the end. I don’t know if elinks or links can be set to ignore certificate issues, but I don’t believe so. curl and wget can, however.

We set this up in vim by modifying netrw_HTTP_cmd, keeping in mind that netrw is going to spit out a temporary file name to read in. So we can’t output to STDOUT, we need to end with a file destination. For curl, we can very simply use :let g:netrw_HTTP_cmd="curl -k". For wget, we need to specify output, tell it not to verify certs, and otherwise run quietly: :let g:netrw_HTTP_cmd="wget --no-check-certificate -q -O".

I don’t have an environment handy with links or elinks, but glancing over the manpages leads me to believe this isn’t an option with either. It isn’t with lynx either, but in playing with it, I still think this is useful: for a system with lynx but not any of the default HTTP(s) handlers, netrw can use lynx via :let g:netrw_HTTP_cmd="lynx -source >". Also interesting is that lynx (and presumably links and elinks via different flags) can be used to pull parsed content into vim: :let g:netrw_HTTP_cmd="lynx -dump >".

  1. netrw is not part of the core code, it is in fact a plugin. But it’s been a default install with vim for so long, it feels safe to treat like ‘part of vim↩︎

Nancy (ca. 2018)

Nancy is an 80-year-old1 syndicated comic strip, both maligned and studied for its simplicity in both artistic style and humor. Originally by Ernie Bushmiller, the strip has been drawn by six different people. The sixth, as of last week is the pseudonymous Olivia Jaimes, the first woman to be in command of Nancy.

That a strip predominantly featuring its eponymous female character hasn’t, in 80 years, been drawn by a woman is… Not terribly notable in this world, and I’m glad that that has changed. Somehow the bigger aspect of the shift seems to be the fact that (so far, at least) the new strip is really good. It’s modern, quirky, and real. It’s hard to take the original Bushmiller strips decades out of context2, but the most recent incarnation by Guy Gilchrist was, to me, awful even by syndicated strip standards. The Jaimes strip, so far, feels like a lightweight web comic almost, far exceeding the quality that I expect out of syndicated strips. I haven’t actually been excited by a newspaper strip in a long time, but this is seriously fresh.

  1. Nancy, the character, appeared in 1933; though Nancy the strip trailed it by five years. ↩︎
  2. Even without the context of shifts in humor over time, I can find some enjoyment in the original strips. The Jaimes strips definitely hit me in a different way, though. ↩︎

NPR's 150 greatest albums made by women (external)

A phenomenal list that really hit home for me. While some of these albums are well off my radar, so many of them were the music I needed during my formative years. There’s a nice speckling of queer representation, but it would have been nice to see at least one trans woman on the list (I’m sure Transgender Dysphoria Blues has saved more lives than, say, Art Angels or Days are Gone), but those are the breaks. Interestingly, the write-up that precedes the list itself mentions the lack of Latinx artists and the dearth of jazz – hinting at some racial blind spots without acknowledging where the LGBT community was passed by. I was surprised at just how much Taylor Swift was on the list (not disappointed, but surprised), was shocked to see Beyoncé’s 4 but not… any other Beyoncé album save Lemonade, and was delighted to see Rumours actually considered an album made by women.