Monday 01 July 2002

Transience

Michael Barrish, Bookmark:

Strangely, though perhaps not that strangely, I saw this coming. I mean when we were together. We would be fucking or… well it didn’t have be sex, just a moment of closeness, of feeling connected and happy… and I would recognize that moment, the preciousness of it, and tell myself to remember it, to memorize the feeling of it, because even as it was happening it was slipping away.

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Tuesday 02 July 2002

Accessibility tip 11: Don’t open new windows

Since Web users understand the Back button, writes Mark Pilgrim, don’t break it by using the <a target="_blank"> tag to force a link to open in a new window. That’s fine by me, though I didn’t realize that the target attribute of the <a> tag is deprecated in HTML 4.01 Strict and XHTML 1.0 Strict.

If you provide a “Links open new windows” checkbox, Mark recommends that you set it to be off by default. And don’t forget that (in Windows) right-clicking on a link offers the contextual menu choice: “Open in new window.” <edited>Or better still—as Mark Pilgrim suggests in the comments—Shift-clicking on the link offers an OS-independent way of opening a link in a new window.</edited>

Opening links in a new window is usually driven by a fear that, if the visitor follows a link to another site, They Might Not Return! Jakob Nielsen points out the self-defeating nature of this practice:

…it disables the Back button which is the normal way users return to previous sites. Users often don’t notice that a new window has opened, especially if they are using a small monitor where the windows are maximized to fill up the screen. So a user who tries to return to the origin will be confused by a grayed out Back button.

The only reliable way to ensure that visitors will return to your site is to offer them an engaging, regularly-updated experience.

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A matter of emphasis

Since Professor Salo is now taking questions about markup, here’s one that’s been bothering me for a while: what are the appropriate uses of the bold/strong and italic/emphasis elements?

The O’Reilly HTML Reference that comes installed in Dreamweaver says:

The STRONG element is one of a large group of elements that the HTML 4.0 recommendation calls phrase elements. Such elements assign structural meaning to a designated portion of the document. A STRONG element is one that contains text that indicates a stronger emphasis than the EM element. Whereas an EM element is typically rendered as italic text, a STRONG element is generally rendered as boldface text.

Dreamweaver’s preference setting to “Use <strong> and <em> in place of <b> and <i>” circumvents the fact that these elements clearly have different purposes—as the manual of the Dreamweaver course I occasionally teach suggests:

  • Use Emphasis and Strong when you want to add emphasis to text.
  • Reserve bolding and italics for typographic conventions that call for them.

My style manual suggests that among the “well-established conventions for the use of italics” are titles (books, movies, etc), ship names, scientific names of plants and animals, technical terms and terms being defined, citations, and foreign words not yet absorbed into English. But it also recommends italics for “words used in special senses or to which a particular tone or emphasis is being applied.” The <em> tag seems specifically designed for this latter use.

So, here’s an example sentence:

Traditionally, Murasaki Shikibu’s The Tale of Genji has been regarded as the purest expression of the Japanese aesthetic of mono no aware, which Ivan Morris says “roughly corresponds to lacrimae rerum, the pathos of things.” However I did not realize until recently that the term mono no aware was invented by the 18th century critic Motoori Norinaga to describe what he regarded as a “pure, emotional [uniquely Japanese] response to the beauty of nature, the impermanence of life, and the sorrow of death” (Brian Hoffert).

In this sentence I have used the <i> tag for The Tale of Genji (book title), mono no aware (Japanese phrase), and lacrimae rerum (Latin phrase). I’ve used the <em> tag for invented and uniquely Japanese (emphasized word and phrase).

I look forward to reading Professor Salo’s opinion on the correct usage of these elements. I’m hoping she might also explain whether the stronger emphasis offered by the <strong> tag is <edited>best reserved for expressions of passion, fire, and other intense emotions or whether (to quote the style manual):

…bold or colored type is generally the first thing to be noticed on a page or screen and so can be read out of context. Careful thought should therefore be given to precisely what is treated in this way.

I suspect that what they might be saying here, in their cautious way, is Don’t get carried away by your emotions.</edited>

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Wednesday 03 July 2002

Accessibility tip 12: Define acronyms

Today’s accessibility tip recommends using the <acronym> tag to provide a tooltip that explains the meaning of an acronym or abbreviation. I’ve never thought of myself as an acronym exponent, at least not to the extent of Mark (“50 acronyms and abbreviations on this weblog last month”) Pilgrim.

But I took the trouble of looking back over last month’s posts and surprised myself with a quite respectable score of 29: HTML, XHTML, CSS, IE6, MT, IRC, FTP, U Blog, QDB, GMing, DMing, SBS, XML, DOCTYPE, W3C, WaSP, Wi-Fi, 802.11b, NYT, PONR, VCR, CEO, DTD, RSS, Bb, INFJ, INTP, ENFP. Believe it or not, the acronym I used most in June turned out to be AKMA. (Put it down to my desire to catapult our illustrious pastor to the top of the Teoma results list—and to the fact that Bb spent much of the month preparing to move then moving house.)

I also modified my screen and print style sheets to produce the dotted underline (in all browsers) and to automatically spell out acronyms when printing from Mozilla and Opera.

In the course of adding the acronym definitions to all the items listed above I discovered that Dreamweaver has not just an Acronym object but an Abbreviation object too. Curious about the difference between them, I checked the examples at w3.org. They turned out to be less than helpful.

Although the OED defines an acronym as “a word formed from the initial letters of other words,” w3.org incorrectly identifies WWW and SNCF (the French National Railway) as abbreviations rather than acronyms. At least they get abbr. correct (yes, it stands for abbreviation). On second thoughts though, I think that U Blog and Bb might be abbreviations. And I’ve noticed that IE6 doesn’t recognize abbreviations though Opera and Mozilla do. Well, at least we’re having fun.

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Thursday 04 July 2002

Questions asked, and answered

Marcus Campbell (check out his unbelievable expandable weblog) cut through the acronym v abbreviation argument by quoting the Cambridge Dictionary:

acronym: an abbreviation consisting of the first letters of each word in the name of something, pronounced as a word

Mark Pilgrim followed up with a reference to the Web Design Group definition:

Unlike other kinds of abbreviations, acronyms are pronounceable words.

As Marcus said, no-one pronounces WWW as wuhwuhwuh so it must be an abbreviation, not an acronym. RADAR, on the other hand, is definitely an acronym. That’s all I was after: a rule. Now I have one, I’m happy.

Then, as I’d anticipated, Professor Salo responded in her customary erudite and comprehensive fashion to my question about bold/strong and italic/emphasis elements. Her solution surprised and delighted me: use the <span> tag for titles and foreign language words and the <em> tag for emphasis.

Burningbird, despairing that “markup folks are going to be the weblogging death of me yet” articulated her dilemma:

Sigh. At this point, I am faced with two choices: I can spend all my time fretting on these issues; or I can work on ThreadNeedle, accept the fact that I’m a hopeless web page slob who will never have an elegant weblog page, and hope that folks like Dorothea and Jonathon will specifically let me know when I’m doing something that makes my material inaccessible, or makes it break within a browser.

In the comments, a multitude of Blogarians rushed to soothe Bb’s fevered brow, including Prof Salo with a offer of remedial work on the Burningbird tempate. There’s a simple answer to Bb’s predicament: devote your time and energy to whatever yields the greatest benefit. So Burningbird should focus on the ThreadNeedle project and I’ll allow my anal retentive side out to play for a little while longer—ensuring that my weblog is accessible, fussing with markup and CSS, worrying about the <i> and <em> tags, and discussing the difference between an acronym and an abbreviation. But, in my heart, I know that the time is rapidly approaching when I’ll say goodbye to 2002 and return to where I belong: Japan in March 1945.

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Visiting Ozu’s grave

On an overcast Friday afternoon, Natsuko’s aunt’s ashes were buried at the temple, ten minutes from the family home. After another formal meal in the temple dining room, similar to the one we’d eaten at the crematorium, Natsuko’s sister drove us quickly through the narrow streets back to the house she shared with her teenage daughter.

We spread our futons out on the living room floor, took off our clothes, and immediately fell asleep. In the past two days we’d slept only five or six hours.

The next morning, Natsuko—knowing I would return home the following day—asked me how I wanted to spend my last day in Japan. More than anything, I told her, I wished to visit Ozu’s grave.

Kita-Kamakura station signI recalled a scene from Tokyo-ga, Wim Wenders’ movie about Ozu: the railway station sign saying Kita-Kamakura, Ozu’s headstone engraved with the character mu

“I think he’s buried at Kita-Kamakura,” I told Natsuko.

“We’ll have to change trains at Ofuna,” she replied.

At Kita-Kamakura no-one knew where Ozu was buried so we walked back to the station to wait twenty minutes for the next train. I wandered out and stood by the level crossing, snapping pictures of people as they waited then crossed over the railway line. As an express clattered past, I thought of the mandatory train scenes in Ozu’s films, particularly the ninety-second sequence in Ochazuke no aji, with Taeko on the train to Nagoya in a futile attempt to escape the invented unhappiness of her marriage. Natsuko sat on a bench at the station, reading a magazine.

Eventually I strolled back and we rode one stop south to Kamakura to ask at the koban, the police box next to the station. Japanese police usually know where everyone and everything is but they had no idea who Ozu was or where he might be buried.

Natsuko suggested we look for books on Ozu in the bookstore across the square but the single book on the shelf mentioned only a memorial service held in Tokyo after his death. There was nothing about his funeral or burial.

Discouraged, we went to a coffee shop. Natsuko ordered strawberry pancakes.

Natsuko's strawberry pancakes

Suddenly, her mouth full of pancake, she said: “There must be a tourist bureau, we should have asked there.”

The young woman at the Visitors Center had never heard of Ozu but she pulled a thick blue binder from the shelf behind, dropped it on the counter with a thud, and slowly flicked through the pages. Sure enough, under “O” there was a brief note: he was buried at Engaku-ji. We bought another set of tickets for the ride back to Kita-Kamakura.

Engaku-ji was just a few minutes walk from the station. The old attendant to whom we paid our entry fee spoke rapidly to Natsuko, pointing to a steep slope above the carpark. I thought I caught the word “mu.”

“He says Ozu’s buried up there, we should look for a black marble headstone with the character ‘mu.’”

We walked across the carpark, climbed to the top of a set of worn stone stairs, and looked around the jumbled profusion of Japanese graves. Instinctively—was it my memory of Wim Wenders’ film?—I headed off to the right and there it was. Ozu’s grave.

We’d come in late April, the end of the cherry season. Damp pink and white petals lay scattered around the huge marble cube. I could just make out the character “mu.”

Ozu's grave at Engaku-jiI took some photographs. Natsuko did the same. Then we stood before the grave and bowed our heads to pray.

I looked back through my life, remembering Ozu’s films, when and where I’d seen them, who I’d been with at the time… most of all I thought of all he’d taught me about the inextricable link between beauty and sadness, about mono no aware.

It had been years since I’d prayed: like Ozu, I believed primarily in nothingness. But I recalled Murasaki Shikibu’s visit to Ishiyamadera, the temple on the edge of Lake Biwa, where she is supposed to have prayed for and received inspiration to write The Tale of Genji. I asked Ozu to guide me as I attempted to write my own book.

The sound of two sharp claps shattered my reverie. Natsuko had finished her prayers in the Japanese style.

“Ozu-san ni inotta no?” she asked me. “Did you pray to Ozu?”

“Inotta yo,” I replied. “Yes I did.”

“Eigo de? Nihongo de?” In English or Japanese?

“In English,” I told her, “it was too complicated for my Japanese.”

“Well, you know, Ozu didn’t speak English,” Natsuko said tartly. “He wouldn’t have understood your prayer.”

“The gods would have translated for him,” I told her as I walked towards the stairs, trying to recall the face of a woman I’d photographed crossing the railway tracks, a woman I would never see again.

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Accessibility tip 13: Give your calendar a caption

OK, now it’s getting serious. Captions on the calendar, no less. Making Mark Pilgrim’s code change took little more than a minute (courtesy of Movable Type). “It’s easier to read in your template, saves a few bytes in your page, looks exactly the same in visual browsers, and is more accessible.” And it does “look exactly the same as it did before”—dark red and bold—because Mark included the class="calendarhead" style I’d already defined in my style sheet. We’re not done with the calendar, though; there’s more promised for tomorrow.

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Friday 05 July 2002

Accessibility tip 14: Use real table headers

As I’d suspected, more work to do on the calendar table (though replacing a slab of table header code, copying a template file to the server, and rebuilding the index page hardly qualifies as “work” where I come from). But using real calendar table headers yields a significant payoff for the blind user:

Adding proper headers to the calendar allows screen reader software to associate the table header (day of the week) with the table data (day of the month), and it reads them together. “Thursday 4, Thursday 11, Friday 12, Saturday 13.”

Mark has tweaked my curiosity about how to make general data tables more accessible so I’ll follow up by reading the references he provides at the end of today’s post.

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Saturday 06 July 2002

Accessibility tip 15: Provide table summaries

The last task in making the calendar accessible is providing a summary of the table for screen readers and speech browsers. Mark Pilgrim suggests “Monthly calendar with links to each day’s posts” as appropriate summary text and that’s what I added.

However, a check of the calendar links revealed a problem: the link associated with each day did not point to the posts for that day but to an individual post made on that day. In other words, the link for Friday 5 July was:

http://weblog.delacour.net/archives/000575.html

instead of the expected:

http://weblog.delacour.net/archives/2002/07/5.html

This was because I have my Preferred Archive Type set to Individual (so that by default my permalinks to point to individual entries). I needed to modify the MT link code from:

<a href="<$MTEntryLink$>"><$MTCalendarDay$></a>

to:

<a href="<$MTEntryLink archive_type="Daily"$>">
<$MTCalendarDay$></a>

So now the table summary not only exists, it’s accurate too.

And while I was making these changes to the Main Index template, I updated my blogroll entry to point to Euan Semple’s new MT-based weblog. It’s at www.theobviousblog.net/blog/. The stopwatch is on, Euan. Let’s see how long it will take you to customize your templates and style sheets.

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Sunday 07 July 2002

What life is like

In need of distraction I thought I’d like to read a spy novel but I’m fussy now and can only enjoy well-written spy novels, which narrows the field considerably. I recalled a Salon essay on the books of Alan Furst and managed to find Kingdom of Shadows. Early in the story, Morath (the “hero”) is telling his uncle about the death of Sandor, a family retainer:

‘Also,’ Morath went on, ‘he wanted me to tell you something.’

Polanyi raised his eyebrows.

‘It had to do with the death of his grandfather, who was ninety-five, he thought, and who had died in the same bed. The family knew the time had come, they were all gathered around. Suddenly, the old man became agitated and started to talk. Sandor had to lean close in order to hear him. “Remember,” he whispered, “life is like licking honey…” He said it three or four times, and Sandor could tell there was more. At last, he managed: “…licking honey off a thorn.”

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Tuesday 09 July 2002

Accessibility tip 16: Ignore spacer images

Mark Pilgrim writes:

Lots of people use transparent spacer images to control the layout of their weblog in visual browsers. You may use as many as you like, but you need to explicitly specify an empty alt attribute on each spacer image so that non-visual browsers know to ignore them.

No siree Bob (sorry, Mark). No spacer images in this neck of the woods. No smoke or mirrors either. Just pure and natural CSS (well, 95% pure, anyways).

Getting that out of the way frees me up to talk about another accessibility issue that cropped up last week: making data tables accessible.

Dreamweaver MX has an Accessibility preference setting that allows you to “Show Attributes” when inserting form objects, frames, media, images, and tables. With this preference turned on for tables, once you’ve chosen the basic table attributes (rows, columns, width, border, cell padding, cell spacing) the following dialog appears:

Dreamweaver MX: Table Accessibility Options Dialog

This makes it a snap to add a caption, include a summary, and set the headers for any data table I create. I’ve modified the accesskeys compliance table accordingly.

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Wednesday 10 July 2002

Accessibility tip 17: Use real lists

Though I was already using “real list markup” for my blogroll and other links, I was using a definition list (<dl>) with the definition term (<dt>) as the heading and multiple definition descriptions (<dd>) as the list items. Although the HTML specification allows multiple terms and descriptions, an unordered list is probably more suited to lists such as a blogroll.

Following Mark Pilgrim’s suggestion, I converted my Contents, Recent Entries, and Favorites to unordered lists—turning the list bullets off with a list-style: none declaration and removing the indenting with a zero left margin.

This recreated the look of the original (definition list) blogroll in Internet Explorer 5 & 6 and Opera 6 but not in Netscape 6.2 and Mozilla 1, where the list items remain indented and my navigation panel now looks vile. Definition lists with a zero left margin worked in Netscape and Mozilla so I’m not sure what’s going on. Hopefully someone can suggest a fix; otherwise it’s back to the definition list for me.

<later>Professor Salo solved the problem: define the padding-left as zero, as well as margin-left. She also tactfully mentioned that she’d “Found the fix on one of the links in Mark’s tip today.” As in:

Which raises the issue of why—instead of having a nervy turn—didn’t I read either or both those articles? I guess that’s a question better directed to a psychotherapist than an accessibility guru. Alternatively, it could just be that I believed false information about how different browsers handle lists and indentation or failed to think things through sufficiently well. I do know one thing though: I’m really angry about how the various browsers use different default values for margin and padding of lists.</later>

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Thursday 11 July 2002

Donald Richie’s visit

In the mid-eighties I stopped attending the Sydney Film Festival. The films had become increasingly earnest and didactic but the real reason was this: the audience made me ill. Smug, insular, awash with self-importance, they would cram into the beautiful old State Theater to gorge themselves on documentaries from Senegal and Ulan Bator and the latest piece of posturing from Peter Greenaway.

Years later, at a party, I insulted one of Natsuko’s friends—a Festival devotee—by saying that 80% of Sydney’s social problems could be solved by rigging the theater with plastic explosive one June and burying that audience in a pile of art-deco rubble.

But for two years, 1992 and 1994, I set aside my distaste and bought a Festival ticket. The critic and writer, Donald Richie, had curated two seasons of Japanese films.

Poster for Toyoda Shiro's Marital RelationsIn 1992, he presented ten post-war Japanese films including Yoshimura’s A Ball at the Anjo House, Kinoshita’s Morning for the Osone Family, Naruse’s Late Chrysanthemums, and Toyoda’s Marital Relations. Two years later, Richie showed ten Ozu movies including Late Spring, Early Summer, Early Spring, Late Autumn, and —of course—Tokyo Story.

Donald Richie would briefly introduce the film then take questions from the audience for fifteen or twenty minutes at the end. These sessions must have been painful for Richie for, despite the de rigeur Festival sensitivity to “other cultures,” most of the questions laid bare a view of Japan and the Japanese that could only have been drawn from the crudest of cultural stereotypes.

Still, he answered each question with warmth and generosity, revealing in his responses a depth of understanding and sympathy for Japanese society that added layer upon layer of meaning onto the film we’d just seen.

It was in one of these sessions that Donald Richie told the story about Ozu’s reaction to Disney’s Fantasia, a story that—because it was grounded in something the audience could understand (an American animated film)—was well received. Another story had that same audience squirming helplessly with discomfort and, in some cases, barely-repressed anger.

In response to a question about Japanese sexual mores, Richie had given the usual standardized response: since Christianity has repeatedly failed to take root in Japan, the Japanese are not moralistic or racked with guilt and shame about sex, which is regarded as just one of many human pleasures… then he suddenly launched into an anecdote about how an American acquaintance, visiting Tokyo, had asked Richie to take him to a Soapland, or brothel.

Richie explained that Japanese bath-and-massage parlors used to be called toruko-buro (or toruko), loan words based on “Turkish bath.” But in 1985, after a campaign by a Turkish diplomat outraged by the implied insult to his country, the Japanese Bath Association held a competition to find a replacement name. The winner was sopurando, Soapland, and so the Turkish Baths closed down and immediately reopened as Soaplands.

To the increasing dismay of the audience—who were beginning to wonder where the distinguished guest was taking them—Richie said that although he’d not been to a Soapland, he felt an obligation to his visitor and had called a Japanese friend to obtain an introduction to an appropriate Soapland in Senzoku.

He and the visitor had probably taken the Yamanote line to Ueno and changed to the Hibiya line for the two-stop ride to Minowa. Five minutes later a cab deposited them at their destination. Richie, determined to give the outing a cultural gloss, had chosen the Senzoku district since, for over three hundred years until 1958, it had been the site of the Yoshiwara pleasure quarter, the heartland of Japanese prostitution.

Inside the Soapland they discovered their arrival had been eagerly anticipated—perhaps his Japanese friend had mentioned that Richie was an important interpreter of Japanese culture to the West. The visiting American quickly chose a Soap-Lady, the pair disappeared upstairs, and Richie—who’d had no intention of partaking himself—sat down in the waiting room and began to watch TV.

However it soon became apparent that his reluctance was being misconstrued as disappointment or dissatisfaction and so, rather than risk insulting the owner and his staff and causing embarrassment to the friend who’d introduced him, Richie found himself in a large tiled bathroom handing his clothes to an attractive Soap-Lady.

At this point I became aware of a rift in my attention; for some time I had been simultaneously captivated by Richie’s anecdote and intrigued by the audience’s unmistakably hostile response. Even though, apart from mentioning that the Soap-Lady had commented favorably on his tie and that he felt like he’d been placed in the care of an exceptionally competent nurse, Richie refrained from revealing the specifics of his Soapland adventure.

But for the majority of his listeners he had already said far too much. The forced atmosphere seemed to choke off any further questions and soon the audience was filing out, a restrained silence replacing the excited chatter that followed most screenings.

At first I interpreted this incident as evidence of how completely Richie had internalized and adopted Japanese attitudes towards sex; that he’d been unconscious, to some degree at least, of the negativity radiating from the tight-lipped crowd.

But since Richie’s writing—about Japanese film and culture—displays an acute sensitivity to emotional nuance, I couldn’t believe he hadn’t picked up on their antagonism. Perhaps, I told myself, he’d decided there was no easy way to extricate himself and that he’d best press on.

Lately, however, I’ve started to wonder if his answer hadn’t been deliberate, sophisticated, and slyly malicious. I’d like to think he’d summed up his audience quite early in the season and that—following the old screenwriter’s adage of “show, don’t tell”—he’d taken advantage of their cramped moralism to demonstrate that the Japanese really are quite different. It’s just that the Festival crowd were too strait-laced, dogmatic, and stupid to understand.

As for me, I’d never been to a Soapland, but now I could hardly wait.

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Accessibility tip 18: Provide text equivalents for images

“The most important day of the series,” writes Mark Pilgrim and yes, it’s the crucial alt text:

Every single image on every single page of your site should have a text equivalent, so-called “alt text”, specified in the alt attribute of the <img> tag.

Not much to do here. I modified the alt text for the XML icon, as Mark suggested and changed the alt text for the ideograph in my banner from “Kokoro kanji” to “Site logo: xīn, the Chinese character for heart.” The latter change produced a brief moment of excitement—that perhaps only Professor Salo will appreciate—since it prompted me to find the correct “i with a macron” character (ī) for xīn. The Evolt Simple Character Entity Chart doesn’t have macron characters but they’re available at the Māori Spellchecker site. (I wonder now whether I’m being too smart by half. Do only Windows 2000 & XP and Mac OS X understand Unicode? It’s difficult to tell: on a Windows 98 machine it looks fine whereas on my old PowerPC running System 8.6 the macron appears after the “i” instead of above it.)

After my difficulty in manipulating list margins, I thought it prudent to do some addtional reading. I found the most useful of Mark’s references to be that provided by WebAIM (it includes recordings of the screen reader IBM Home Page Reader 3.0 reading the images). About alt text they say:

The general rule for the content of an alt attribute is that the alt attribute should provide a brief description of the function of the image. It is important to note here that that alt attribute should describe the function of the image which is not necessarily the same as a description of the appearance of the image…

Alternative text for images should be as succinct as possible. A good rule of thumb is to keep the alt attribute less then 15 words long. The reason for this is that users accessing the content with a screen reader or refreshable brailler will get the alt tag whether they want it or not. So if you add a very long description of the an image that the user has no interest in, they will still be forced to listen to the entire alt tag before proceeding on. If you need a longer description of the image, you should use the “longdesc” attribute or a “D” link to provide the content.

Mark might be referring to the longdesc attribute when he says: “We’ll discuss complex images on Friday.”

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Friday 12 July 2002

Accessibility tip 19: Provide text equivalents for image maps

An ultralite day for me on the accessibility front since I don’t use client-side image maps. If I did, however, I’d follow Mark Pilgrim’s instructions to ensure that “every image map and every clickable area of the image map [had] a text equivalent.”

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Saturday 13 July 2002

Better than a show

It’s been a photographic trip down memory lane at Visible Darkness. Jeff Ward’s own gallery series—Social Studies in Southern California Bars 1989-93—is simply remarkable. Forget the thumbnail sketches, choose either the 800x600 or 1024x768 show, sit back, and let the images wash over you. So much hope, longing, sadness, optimism, and desperation packed into every frame. And pay attention to the edges of the frame, there’s so much going on.

Jeff’s scattered other pictures though his blog over the past week: his own (Brak’n’Tune, Bakersfield, California 1990ish and California City, California, 1989) plus images by Lee Friedlander (Boston 1985), Bill Owens ( “We’d rather play games than watch TV”—Suburbia 1973), and Lewis Baltz (from New Industrial Parks Near Irvine, California). The Baltz photograph brought back the fondest memories. He was the first to teach me how, by carefully balancing interior and exterior illumination, you could totally flatten three-dimensional space.

I know just what Jeff means when he writes about how, even though he stopped photographing some years ago, photography “never really lets you go.”

I’ve been composing all manner of texts, excepting fiction. I approached photography much the same way, experimenting with everything except fabricated tableaus. Eventually, I’d like to be bimedial. That’s part of what this website has been about. Experimenting with combinations of words and images, just trying to see what I can make work. It think there is a synergy between text and image that is rarely explored, let alone exploited to full advantage.

Being bimedial. What a marvellous ambition. Sign me up, Mr Ward.

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Dobutsu (animals)

Eel, Beppu, 1997
Eel, Beppu, 1997

Alligator, Beppu, 1997
Alligator, Beppu, 1997

Cow, Nagasaki, 1997
Cow, Nagasaki, 1997

Dog, Minamata, 1997
Dog, Minamata, 1997

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Accessibility tip 20: Use real horizontal rules

Today’s accessibility tip deals with using horizontal rules properly as dividers between weblog posts. I don’t think I’ve used a horizontal rule since mid-1995, in the days when Web pages still had gray backgrounds. I suspect I may feel the same antipathy towards the <hr /> tag that Professor Salo has for the <br />. For me, sufficient structural and visual differentiation is provided by the “Posted 12:10 AM | Comments (2)” paragraph at the end of one post and the (red) Heading 3 post title at the beginning of the next. So, another easy day (though I await with some trepidation what Mark has in store for me next week).

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Sunday 14 July 2002

Say goodbye to LONGDESC

Mark Pilgrim has granted us a dispensation from adding the LONGDESC attribute to our images on the grounds that, while it is important, it’s “outside the scope of this series; it’s just too much work.”

As usual, Mark leads by example, in this case providing long descriptions for a number of photographs in his albums. For example, the description of Dora, futzing with sprinklers reads:

This is Dora, futzing with the sprinkler in the front lawn. She is squatting down, attempting to drive the sprinkler head into the ground and get it at the right angle so it will water as much of the front lawn as possible from one location. Over the course of the next two hours, she will futz with this and other such sprinklers, on this and other such lawns, to no avail. Sprinklers suck. We need an irrigation system, but we can’t afford one.

It strikes me that this is not so much a description as a story and, as Mark admits, writing engaging stories about pictures is not a trivial undertaking:

Creating separate long descriptions really adds a lot to the photo album (even for people who can see just fine), but it’s a *lot* of work, and I just can’t recommend it as a “fire and forget” kind of tip.

Jeff Ward photograph: Brak'n'Tune, Bakersfield, California 1990ishI thought immediately about the long description one might write for Jeff Ward’s photograph, Brak’n’Tune, Bakersfield, California 1990ish. It’s impossible—for anyone who knows the work of Walker Evans and of Jeff’s admiration for Evans’ work—not to see an immediate connection between Jeff’s picture and the Corrugated Tin Façade photographed by Evans in Moundville, Alabama in the summer of 1936.

Walker Evans photograph: Corrugated Tin Façade, 1936My LONGDESC for the Ward image might draw attention to: the structural and compositional similarities between the pictures, the tonal reversal (pale building and mid-gray foreground vs. mid-gray building and pale foreground), the electricity wires, the way that the drooping shadow in the Ward photograph references a similar shadow on the right of the Evans image… and, best of all, the fact that the ribbed surface of the main door of the Brak’n’Tune center subtly echoes the corrugated surface of the Richard Perkins structure.

But that’s just a formalistic game. Fun to play, and ultimately pointless.

Even so, it’s still true that there’s a story associated with each image, as their was with Mark’s picture of Dora futzing with the sprinkler. It’s just that I’m not well qualified to tell those stories.

Commenting on another post about this issue, Kris wrote:

…you don’t need to describe the image literally. Try to describe a piece of art made by Mondriaan, do it literally and you will soon find out that it makes little sense. Same would go for a lot of other artists. What you can describe however, through use of the LONGDESC attribute for instance or linking to other resources of information, is the artists notes on the piece, critiques, analysis, historical context. Things that would make sense to someone who is not able to see green or red lines, yet can understand the concept of pattern and rhythm when layed out to them. I think these sources even benefit people who do have eyesight.

But, as Jeff Ward might say, there are images that submit readily to description, and others that resist it. Jeff’s clear preference (and mine) is for photographs that replace, rather than augment, the written word. As Jeff did actually say, “Captions and such partially destroy the reason for using an image to begin with.” More pragmatically, I’d argue that the time spent in describing such photographs would better spent in making new ones, or in writing words that images can only inadequately illustrate.

So thanks Mark, for letting us off the hook. And I promise not to forget the ALT text.

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Eat a peach

Sun-dried peachInspired by Burningbird’s excellent post On Being a Sensualist, I’ve just eaten a sun-dried peach (the one in this photograph actually—just like Edward Weston who would photograph a green pepper in the morning then slice it up in the salad he and Tina Modotti would eat for lunch). I’d love to eat another, but at AU$39.95 a kilo I’m rationing them so that the five I bought this afternoon will last until the end of the week. (Don’t think I’m not aware that the true sensualist would have no truck with rationing.)

I like dried fruit. Over the years I’ve eaten dried fruits of every description—apricots, sultanas, bananas, raisins, prunes, figs, dates, muscatels, apples, currants—but until last Saturday I’d never had a sun-dried peach. I was at the greengrocer’s, buying some more California cherries, and I’m sure the woman behind the counter must have thought to herself: Anyone who’ll pay $21.95 a kilo for cherries has to be ripe for an upsell to sun-dried peaches.

“Have you tried these?” she asked me innocently, reaching across and plucking a fat, juicy, sun-dried peach from the box. Cherries, peaches, tamarillos… in that order, my favorite fruits.

“Well, to be honest,” I replied, “these cherries are already stretching my budget.” (Surely an authentic sensualist doesn’t know the meaning of the word “extravagant.”)

“Try one,” she said. “On me. Because you’re a good customer.” As they say in the drug business, the first taste is free. And indescribably delicious.

I held out yesterday but today I was back, asking for “just a handful.” Now I’m hooked.

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Monday 15 July 2002

Out, damned pixels! out, I say!

The problem of making my text resizable has been hanging over me like upcoming exam. I know that sometime this week Mark Pilgrim is going to hand out a test paper containing just one problem:

Given that you will no longer be controlling the text size in your weblog with absolute font sizes (i.e. pixels), submit a style sheet that allows readers of your weblog to resize all the text in each of the major browsers.

Today I spent a few hours cribbing from every available online source (no names, no pack drill) and I think I may have settled on an idiosyncratic mix of ems and percentages that meets the requirements. No doubt we shall soon see how theory translates into practice.

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Tuesday 16 July 2002

Dick and Jane see Spot run

In a comment on my post about making the text on my site resizable, Kris wrote:

As a frequent lurker of alt.html, I often read not to specify any font sizes at all, except for headings when really desired. I suggest if your efforts betray you, this is plan B then.

To which I replied:

Kris, I don’t like the idea of not specifying body text sizes one little bit. The end result almost always looks like a “See Spot Run” reading primer.

Kris responded:

“The end result almost always looks like a ‘See Spot Run’ reading primer.”
Perhaps. The real pain may actually be the “letting go”. : )

Now I understand the concept of non-attachment as well as anyone. (One friend told me not so long ago that another had described me as “kind but detached”—which I thought was perhaps the greatest compliment I’d ever been paid, but that’s another story.) Rather, what struck me was the implication that, since weblogs are really about writing, the size of the text is inconsequential, that worrying over the font size is little more than a bourgeois affectation.

But first, let me make it quite clear that I’m not even sure this was what Kris meant. The smiley at the end indicates that the remark is wryly humorous. In other words, I could easily be projecting my paranoia onto Kris, whereas his/her comments on my posts have invariably been thoughtful and constructive. So I apologize to Kris in advance, but…

Humor me.

When I started building Web pages, the prevailing orthodoxy was that the author was responsible for the structure of the document and the reader controlled the display. Design didn’t come into the picture. Not for long. Designers, rightly appalled by the ugliness of most Web sites, stretched and bent HTML in order to create visually appealing sites.

CSS and accessibility represent, to some extent, an attempt to redress the worst excesses of the design faction by reasserting the importance of document structure whilst also providing designers with the tools for creating attractive sites.

Where do bloggers fit into this? What is the nature of weblog design?

As far as I can figure, bloggers approach the design problem in one of three ways:

  • A relatively small number engage a designer to create their weblog templates.
  • Many happily accept the default templates provided with their blogging software.
  • The rest tinker with those default templates or build new ones.

Weblogs from the first two categories are hardly ever visually offensive. Those of us in the third category create designs which, although not always professional, say a great deal about our personalities and visual preferences. Strangely, I’d never thought about this but I’m now aware of how much I enjoy and admire the designs of the weblogs I visit regularly. Sure, a weblog is primarily about the texts and images that make up the daily posts. But the look-and-feel of each blog communicates so much about the author’s attitudes and intentions.

I have an unbounded admiration for the designer’s pixie dust and I’d never consider working on a paid Web project without a designer. Yet it never occurred to me to solicit expert assistance for my weblog—creating one’s own design seemed like an integral part of the process. I started my blogging career with a dramatic “white text on a dark gray background” design that many visitors found difficult to read. I changed it. Over a few iterations it turned into the current design, which fits the following criteria:

  • I do not want a liquid layout (i.e. I don’t want the content area to resize dynamically) because I want an optimum line length of 50-70 characters at “normal” magnifications.
  • I want the navigation plus content to fill the 800 pixel width screen resolution specified by about 50% of Web users (although the site looks best on a 1024 pixel wide display).
  • I want the site to be accessible and to load quickly (thus CSS for positioning and text formatting).

I don’t kid myself that it’s a spectacular design but I do think it’s attractive (in a spare kind of way) and it’s functional. The size of the text isn’t a trivial issue since it directly influences the line length, which (together with the typeface) is a key factor in readability. Plus there’s the elusive issue of “balance.” Even though I’m not a designer, I know that the site looks crappy when the text is much larger or smaller than the 12 pixel Verdana I’ve specified.

In the interests of accessibility I’m happy to relinquish control over the text size to the individual user. But I do want visitors, first time round, to view my intended design. I guess I’m happy for Spot to run; I just don’t want to hang round with Dick and Jane to watch him.

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Accessibility tip 21: Use relative font sizes

Finally, the time has come to implement relative font sizes. I’ve written about it enough and now the text is resizable. I prefer how the site used to look but I don’t have the time, energy, or inclination to fuss with things anymore. Shōganai, it can’t be helped.

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Wednesday 17 July 2002

Accessibility tip 22: Use real headers

“Think of your weblog as an outline,” writes Mark Pilgrim. (I can think of someone who’s going to love that idea.)

Now mark up your weblog as an outline, using real <h1>, <h2>, <h3> tags. Screen readers rely on these tags to interpret the structure of your pages. Your pages do have a structure, but without proper header tags, screen readers can’t find it.

A day off for me, since I’m already using the markup Mark recommends. Although this doesn’t apply to template-generated weblogs, it continues to amaze me how many designers use graphical headings (i.e. GIFs) thereby ensuring that their sites fall even lower in Google’s ranking.

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Thursday 18 July 2002

Accessibility tip 23: Label form elements

While forms present a special challenge for blind users, the <label> tag makes them a lot easier to use by allowing you:

to associate a form label with any kind of form input element: text box, multi-line text area, checkbox, radio button, whatever. This allows screen readers to intelligently announce what a particular input element is, by reading the label.

The changes to my Movable Type templates took a little longer this time: as well as modifying my Comment Listing, Comment Preview, and Comment Error templates, I had to make the same changes to the Individual Archive Template, since I have inline comments on those pages. (That’s a great reason for specifying Individual as the Preferred Archive Type. It means that your post and any comments appear on the same page.)

In the future, when creating forms in Dreamweaver MX, I’ll take advantage of the Accessibility preference setting that displays an Accessibility Attributes dialog whenever you insert a form element.

Dreamweaver MX: Input Tag Accessibility Attributes dialog

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Friday 19 July 2002

Accessibility tip 24: Make everything searchable

“Every weblog needs a site search. Period.”

Well, that’s unambiguous. I already had a Google search box—configured to search the weblog.delacour.net domain—“above the fold” on my main index page but Mark Pilgrim recommends putting it on every page, with a proper label and access key. So that’s what I’ve done.

The site search is another of those accessibility features that benefits everyone:

Jackie, Michael, Bill, Lillian, Marcus, and pretty much everyone else in the world benefit from a well-implemented site search. Especially on a weblog, where content is primarily organized chronologically, it’s very frustrating to try to find a specific post that’s scrolled off the main page.

Thus a search facility goes part of the way to addressing the problem of impermanence that Burningbird raised in her farewell post.

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Saturday 20 July 2002

Accessibility tip 25: Create an accessibility statement

It’s Day 30 of 30 days to a more accessible weblog and time to explain to others what we’ve done. Mark Pilgrim suggests that:

If you’ve implemented any of the tips in this series, create an accessibility statement that lists the accessibility features of your site.

I’ve implemented all the tips in the series so I was relieved that he also said:

Feel free to use the accessibility statement for diveintomark.org as a template, including structure, wording, and links to further reading.

And that’s exactly what I’ve done. Interestingly, having comments enabled prevents my pages from being Bobby-approved. A new window opens without warning when a visitor clicks on a Comments link on either the index and monthly archive pages (although the comments are inline with the rest of the page content on the individual archive pages). Bobby also reports the following errors (caused by the onClick event handler associated with the Comments link and the fact that there are multiple Comments links on the index and monthly archive pages):

This page does not meet the requirements for Bobby AA Approved status. Below is a list of 2 Priority 2 accessibility error(s) found:

Make sure event handlers do not require use of a mouse. (12 instances)
Lines 48, 70, 88, 98, 173, 192, 210, 256, 268, 277, 289, 310

Do not use the same link phrase more than once when the links point to different URLs. (8 instances)
Lines 88, 173, 192, 268, 277, 310, 448, 450

I could probably do something tricky to change the Comments link to Comments on <$MTEntryTitle$> but that would still leave the onClick event handler problem so I guess I’ll live with my Bobby-unapproved status.

Finally, thanks to Mark Pilgrim for providing a wonderful 30-day learning experience. I’ve learned an enormous amount.

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Accessibility

This is the official accessibility statement for weblog.delacour.net. It is based largely upon the accessibility statement for Mark Pilgrim’s diveintomark.org weblog. If you have any questions or comments, feel free to email me.

Access keys

Most browsers support jumping to specific links by typing keys defined on the web site. On Windows, you can press ALT+accesskey; on Macintosh, you can press CONTROL+accesskey.

The home page and all archive pages can be reached by using the following access keys:

Access key 1
Home page
Access key 4
Search box
Access key 9
Feedback
Access key 0
Accessibility statement

Standards compliance

  1. The home page and archives would be Bobby AAA approved, complying with all priority 1, 2, and 3 guidelines of the W3 Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, if the same link phrase was not used more than once when the links point to different URLs (unavoidable in a weblog that has comments enabled).
  2. The home page and archives are Section 508 approved, complying with all guidelines of the U.S. Federal Government Section 508 Guidelines.
  3. The home page and archives validate as XHTML 1.0 Transitional.
  4. The home page and archives use structured semantic markup. For example, on pages with more than one day’s posts, H2 tags are used for day titles, H3 tags for individual post titles, and H4 for subheadings within posts. JAWS users can skip to the next day using ALT+INSERT+2, or the next post with ALT+INSERT+3.

Navigation aids

  1. All archive pages have rel=previous, next, up, and home links to aid navigation in text-only browsers and screen readers. Netscape 6 and Mozilla users can also take advantage of this feature by selecting the View menu, Show/Hide, Site Navigation Bar, Show Only As Needed (or Show Always).
  2. Full access to monthly and category archives is also available through the archive page.
  3. The home page and all archive pages include a search box (access key 4).

Links

  1. Many links have title attributes which describe the link in greater detail, unless the text of the link already fully describes the target (such as the headline of an article).
  2. Whever possible, links are written to make sense out of context. Many browsers (such as JAWS, Home Page Reader, Lynx, and Opera) can extract the list of links on a page and allow the user to browse the list, separately from the page.
  3. Link text is never duplicated (except, as noted above, in the case of comments); apart from this exception, two links with the same link text always point to the same address.
  4. There are no javascript: pseudo-links. All links can be followed in any browser, even if scripting is turned off.
  5. On the index and monthly archive pages, clicking on a Comments link opens a new window. On the individual archive pages (the default for archives) the comments are inline with the rest of the page content.

Images

  1. All content images used in the home page and all archives include descriptive ALT tags.
  2. Purely decorative graphics include null ALT tags.

Visual design

This site and all its archives use cascading style sheets for visual layout.

  1. A default stylesheet is used that does not depend on JavaScript.
  2. The default stylesheet uses only relative font sizes, compatible with the user-specified text size option in visual browsers.
  3. If your browser or browsing device does not support stylesheets at all, the content of each page is still readable.

Accessibility references

  1. W3 accessibility guidelines, which explains the reasons behind each guideline.
  2. W3 accessibility techniques, which explains how to implement each guideline.
  3. W3 accessibility checklist, a busy developer’s guide to accessibility.
  4. U.S. Federal Government Section 508 accessibility guidelines.
  5. 30 days to a more accessible weblog, Mark Pilgrim’s tutorial that explains these guidelines and how to implement them. It’s best to start at the beginning.

Accessibility software and services

  1. Bobby, a free service to analyze web pages for compliance to accessibility guidelines.
  2. HTML Validator, a free service for checking that web pages conform to published HTML standards.
  3. Web Page Backward Compatibility Viewer, a tool for viewing your web pages without a variety of modern browser features.
  4. JAWS, a screen reader for Windows. A time-limited demo is available.
  5. Lynx, a free text-only web browser.

Related resources

  1. WebAIM, a non-profit organization dedicated to improving accessibility to online learning materials.
  2. Designing More Usable Web Sites, a large list of additional resources.

Accessibility books recommended by Mark Pilgrim

  1. Joe Clark: Building Accessible Websites. Mark tech-edited this book and says that it’s excellent—comprehensive but not overwhelming.
  2. Jim Thatcher and others: Constructing Accessible Web Sites. Mark says that this book is

    less comprehensive than Joe’s book, but goes into greater depth in the topics it covers. Gives screenshots of how various screen readers and alternative browsers interpret various tags and markup. Also has an amazing chapter on the current state of legal accessibility requirements.

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The talent myth

I couldn’t help being reminded of the steady deterioration in corporate and political leadership over the last twenty years while reading The Talent Myth, Malcolm Gladwell’s latest New Yorker article:

This “talent mind-set” is the new orthodoxy of American management. It is the intellectual justification for why such a high premium is placed on degrees from first-tier business schools, and why the compensation packages for top executives have become so lavish. In the modern corporation, the system is considered only as strong as its stars, and, in the past few years, this message has been preached by consultants and management gurus all over the world. None, however, have spread the word quite so ardently as McKinsey, and, of all its clients, one firm took the talent mind-set closest to heart. It was a company where McKinsey conducted twenty separate projects, where McKinsey’s billings topped ten million dollars a year, where a McKinsey director regularly attended board meetings, and where the C.E.O. himself was a former McKinsey partner. The company, of course, was Enron.

The picture Gladwell paints of Enron is of a company that scrupulously followed McKinsey’s recommendations, grading employees into A, B, and C groups: “The A’s must be challenged and disproportionately rewarded. The B’s need to be encouraged and affirmed. The C’s need to shape up or be shipped out.” The A’s were then allowed to do pretty much whatever they liked. At Enron, Gladwell writes, ” the needs of the customers and the shareholders were secondary to the needs of its stars.”

The broader failing of McKinsey and its acolytes at Enron is their assumption that an organization’s intelligence is simply a function of the intelligence of its employees. They believe in stars, because they don’t believe in systems. In a way, that’s understandable, because our lives are so obviously enriched by individual brilliance. Groups don’t write great novels, and a committee didn’t come up with the theory of relativity. But companies work by different rules. They don’t just create; they execute and compete and coördinate the efforts of many different people, and the organizations that are most successful at that task are the ones where the system is the star.

One organization, above all others, believes that the system is the star: the military. And to illustrate his theory of why Enron’s exclusive focus on talent resulted in catastrophe, Gladwell focuses on the inability of the US Navy in World War II to successfully counter the German U-boat threat, a problem that was eventually solved by introducing a different kind of organization to harness the efforts of the same talented individuals who had previously failed.

Then, as examples of companies whose values (and ongoing success) are diametrically opposed to Enron’s, Gladwell points to Southwest Airlines, Wal-Mart, and Procter & Gamble, each owing its success to highly effective operational systems, two having CEOs with military backgrounds.

Although Gladwell’s focus is on systems, his article makes it quite clear that Enron was a company without any real leadership. He also suggests, obliquely, that in a society of individuals with a culture that glorifies talent and worships stars, there are real insights to be gleaned from organizations like the army and navy, which place the highest value on systems, teamwork, and effective leadership.

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Sunday 21 July 2002

My military ambition

Not so long ago—in response to my throwaway remark that the German goalkeeper Oliver Kahn looks like a Panzer commander—someone commented: “Resemblance to a member of the armed forces is a good thing? Each to his own I guess.” I suspect that this attitude is not unusual, that either disdain for or ambivalence towards the military constitutes the prevailing orthodoxy in our little corner of Blogaria, though both Joseph Duemer and Steve Himmer have written honestly about their fascination with war:

About half an hour into the film, I think, comes the famous scene with Robert Duval as an Air Cav Colonel. (“I love the smell of napalm in the morning.”) I’m sitting there in the dark theater holding MK’s hand & thinking other thoughts when this pops into my mind: “I really missed out not going to Vietnam.” The particular scene burning itself into my retinas at that moment has Francis Ford Coppola himself playing a news photographer who is photographing the war going on around him, directing the soldiers so that it will play more effectively on the evening news. (Think of Conrad’s anonymous narrator’s relationship to Marlow in Heart of Darkness.) Immediately upon uttering this desire to have gone to war, even silently, I retracted it. What, are you fucking crazy? I think it is part of the genius of Apocalypse Now that it invites the viewer into the excitement & romance of war, then pulls the rug out from under him. (Yes, him.) Like Steve Himmer, I have tried to understand the romantic attractions of combat. In fifth & sixth grade I must have read 200 identically bound books for boys from my school library that detailed battles from Ticonderoga to Iwo Jima, so my psyche was saturated early with romanticism. Vietnam was still in the future—the nation’s & mine.

Joseph Duemer, reading & writing

I have a fascination with war and wartime violence that’s impossible to explain. On one hand, I abhor it and it horrifies me-violence makes me feel physically ill, especially when I’m the one being violent. At the same time, I imagine violence on the scale of battle to be something only understandable when in the midst of it, and even then all that can be understood is the tiny, tiny piece experienced by one body or mind. I guess, more than anything, I have a need to ‘understand’ war intellectually and emotionally (though I don’t expect anyone ever really has)—mostly because I’m so horribly afraid of it, and yet I’ve heard all my life that going to war is what galvanizes men. What defines a generation. What marks the occasion of capital-H History.

Steve Himmer, One Pot Meal

Reading these posts a few months ago, I immediately empathized with Joseph and Steve. I wanted to be a professional soldier when I was young, so much so that when the recruiting officer from the Royal Military College visited my high school I was one of the few to request an interview and collect a sheaf of application forms for my father to sign. He refused. “You can join the army when you turn 21,” he told me. He’d fought the Japanese in the South Pacific.

Instead I joined the Sydney University Regiment and loved it: the weapons, the cameraderie, the small arms tactics and long range patrolling that formed the foundation of Australian Army doctrine. At the end of my third year as a part-time soldier, a few of us were selected for what was seen as a prestigious assignment—acting as the enemy in an exercise for officer candidates who would eventually be assigned as platoon commanders in Vietnam. We were trucked to a rain forest a couple of hundred kilometers south of Sydney where, for the two weeks that the exercise lasted, the rain poured down relentlessly.

By that stage of my military career, I’d already begun to have misgivings about our involvement in Vietnam, particularly after learning how to search and destroy a surprisingly realistic “Vietnamese” village. And, ever the bookworm, I’d read various histories of the Indo-China War and even Mae Tse-Tung’s On Guerilla War. I would eventually reach the conclusion that in their lickspittle eagerness to please the Americans our politicians had committed the Australian Army to an unwinnable war.

With a cheerful amorality, my pals and I switched sides. We exchanged our jungle green fatigues for black pajama uniforms and applied all our skills to making life a misery for the hapless officer trainees. We harrassed them at night, laid ambushes for them by day, and melted away into the jungle when they tried to pursue us. The officers in command had done everything to ensure that, apart from not using live rounds, the conditions were as close to real combat as they could engineer. Despite being constantly cold, wet, hungry, and exhausted we had the best time. Our bodies were young, lean, and hard; our minds totally attuned to our role. Having absorbed everything the regular army instructors had taught us, we were better trained than most of the US Army troops who landed in Vietnam. We played a cat-and-mouse game that seemed utterly authentic—up until the point where we fired our blank ammunition, the designated dead and wounded fell down, and then stood up and brushed themselves off when the umpire’s whistle blew. It was real, it was a farce, and it changed me profoundly.

A few weeks later university classes started again. Though my friends happily resumed their part-time military careers, those two weeks in the rain forest had consequences for me that the Army had hardly intended. Briefly becoming a Vietcong guerilla allowed me to see the conflict from the other side. The experience crystallized all the reading and thinking I’d done. My ambition to become a soldier evaporated, as my father had no doubt hoped it would (though not for the reasons he’d anticipated).

Out of curiosity I went to an anti-war rally but the protestors were contemptible compared to my comrades in the regiment and the professional soldiers who’d trained us. Despite my belief that the war was unjust and futile, I found it impossible to discard the loyalty I felt towards the Australians fighting against the North Vietnamese Army and the Vietcong, with whom I now also identified. I’d manouvered myself into an untenable position, particularly since I was still eligible to be called up for active service.

L1A1 Self Loading Rifle

Any possible outer conflict disappeared when my letter arrived from the Army Department. The ball engraved with my birthday had not tumbled out of the barrel. I’d not been drafted. I’d “won” the lottery. My request for a discharge was granted. I never bought a lottery ticket again.

Nikon FI resolved the inner conflict by buying a camera and then another, soon handling a Nikon F with the same fluid ease with which I’d once used a 7.62 mm L1A1 self-loading rifle. I was now 21, committed to nothing other than making beautiful photographs. With cameras draped on my shoulders and around my neck, torn jeans, and shoulder-length hair, I looked just like the Dennis Hopper character in Apocalypse Now. You’d have laughed at the idea that I’d once wanted to be a soldier. But it’s true.

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Monday 22 July 2002

Beautiful

Staff on Sydney trains are typically taciturn and uninformative but on the 8:19 from Newtown to the city this morning we had an unusually talkative conductor: a young woman with, from the sound of her voice over the intercom, a Middle European accent.

“We are waiting for red light to change,” she informed us—with a hard “g” at the end of “waiting”—as the train was briefly delayed just beyond Macdonaldtown station. “We will be going again shortly.”

Then, as the train approached Central, the first station on the inner city loop, she made another announcement:

“Next stop is Central. It is beautiful morning, we are living in beautiful city. All the passengers are beautiful, life is beautiful. I wish you will all have very beautiful day.”

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Tuesday 23 July 2002

An American mystery

In a Salon Premium essay titled What the world thinks of America, Executive Editor Gary Kamiya reflects on the polarization of American attitudes towards the Sept. 11 attacks and writes of his disappointment in the response of the American government:

For those Americans opposed to the administration’s arrogant unilateralism and simplistic worldview, this failure to learn from a national tragedy is immensely disappointing, and the manipulation of that tragedy feels like a cynical defilement.

Cover of Granta 77 (What we think of America)In an attempt to see America in a fresh way, Kamiya borrows 24 sets of foreign eyes, belonging to contributors to the spring issue of the quarterly literary journal Granta, titled What We Think of America.

“In this issue,” explains Ian Jack in the introduction, “twenty-four writers drawn from many countries describe the part America has played in their lives—for better or worse—and deliver their estimate of the good and the bad it has done as the world’s supreme political, military, economic and cultural power.”

Twelve of the contributions are available online, including one by British writer James Hamilton-Paterson, which Kamiya singles out for particular mention:

Again and again, the writers hammer away on the disparity between the sophistication of Americans and the crude conservatism of their leaders and their nation’s international policies. The British writer James Hamilton-Paterson, who also notes that Americans are singularly ignorant of the rest of the world (another familiar theme) writes, “Time and again I’m struck by the extraordinary disparity between the United States’ global face and the many individual Americans I know and love. Their sophistication, generosity of spirit, intellectual honesty and subversive humor seem wholly at odds with their country’s monolithic weight on the world. Why is it, I wonder, their government is never represented by people like themselves? … Are my friends in some way disenfranchised: part of a vital, intelligent, and quintessentially American constituency doomed to be forever unrepresented in their Congress and Senate? And if so, why?” For Americans who have essentially given up even dreaming that their politicians might reflect them, this question is painful.

For non-Americans, this vast discrepancy—between the individual Americans we know and love and the behavior of the American state apparatus throughout the world—is an unfathomable mystery (and a topic that arises with startling frequency in conversations about the United States). My American friends (whether it’s those I’ve met in the US and elsewhere or those I’ve come to know and value through blogging) are exactly as Hamilton-Paterson describes: sophisticated, generous of spirit, intellectually honest, and subversively humorous. How is it that in recent times, at least, such warm, intelligent, gifted people have virtually no influence on American policy and the projection of American power?

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Sunday 28 July 2002

Opinions

Everyone should keep a weblog, if they have any interest in sharing their opinions with others.

Jorn Barger (via Dave Winer)

opinion noun a view or judgement formed about something, not necessarily based on fact or knowledge

The New Oxford Dictionary of English

Well, opinions are like assholes… everybody has one.

Inspector Harry Callahan

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Monday 29 July 2002

Ego and arrogance in blogging

ME

Anyone who’s been scolded by Mike Sanders for offering an analysis of the Middle East tragedy based on “believing false information or not thinking things through” might be tempted to take his recent posts on ego and arrogance in blogging with a grain of salt or three.

“A meaningful life,” Mike explained, “can be summed up as doing positive things and not doing negative things.”

On the positive side, we need to be outer directed. We need to give to others with our financial, physical, mental and emotional resources. This includes giving charity, volunteering for community service, helping people with their problems, encouraging people in their endeavors and making people feel good about themselves and others.

On the avoidance of negative, we need to be inner directed. We need to control our anger, watch our words, focus our desires, introspect on our motivations, and most of all reduce our egocentricity.

Mike also suggested three ways in which bloggers might implement this advice:

  • Introspection must ultimately be done in private.
  • A blogroll, link or complement on a blog are at the lower end of the giving spectrum.
  • Share your experiences, but be aware of self-centeredness.

To which Katherine Derbyshire replied:

Most of the blogs I read violate at least one of these principles, and several violate all of them. If every blog followed Mike’s advice, the Internet would be like a steady diet of white bread: utterly lacking in taste, texture, or nutrition.

And followed up with:

My take is that I’m not convinced that ego and arrogance are necessarily bad things. The neurosurgeon whose ego drives him to be the best, most well-informed, and richest doctor on the planet is the guy I want holding the knife if I have to get my skull cut open. Arrogance is part of where people get the chutzpah to do things that are supposed to be impossible, and so arrogance has led to many of the breakthroughs that support modern medicine (not to mention the Internet).

And, where Mike described a vision of a low-egocentricity, reduced-arrogance Internet as an extremely beautiful place of compassion, sharing and love, S.L. Viehl saw a tranquillized psych ward, with bloggers doing the Thorazine shuffle. “People who preach to others about how they must behave,” she added, “remind me of Super Nun.”

I’m not going to be like Super Nun, or hand out tranquilizers, or otherwise tell you what to think or how you should behave. I may make observations and suggestions from time to time, but that’s all they are. You do what you want, and have fun. As for me, I’m an arrogant egotistic bitch and proud of it.

Book cover: Theordore Dalrymple, Life at the BottomOne wonders what it was in Mike’s posts that engendered such ferocious responses. After all, he’s simply made some “observations and suggestions” for implementing changes in one’s own life that would almost certainly benefit society at large.

Part of the problem is that you can choose to interpret Mike’s tone as kind of sanctimonious or preachy. S.L. Viehl did. I think it’s also the case that humility and social responsibility—which are really the values Mike espouses—have fallen out of fashion. At least it’s seemed that way to me for a long time now. I liked Mike’s posts very much, probably for the same reasons that attracted me to Peter Saunders’ interview with conservative doctor and writer, Theodore Dalrymple, whose recent book, Life at the Bottom, is based on his work as a doctor in British slums and prisons.

PS: Let’s try to pin down in a bit more detail what this culture is and what’s bad about it. You’re saying that it’s something that’s developed since the 1960s—it’s come out of the intellectual ferment of that decade, and it’s trickled down, and now we’re living with the consequences of it. So what is this culture?

TD: First of all I think it’s a radical egotism. And self-importance. What one wants oneself becomes all important. At the same time as that egotism, you also have a conception of rights. I suppose you can say it’s the libertarian right admixed with an element from the left of a rights-driven agenda.

This focus on ME produces advertising slogans like “You can have it all” and “For the most important person in the world: You.” And statements like “You do what you want, and have fun.”

Needles to say, a world view based on an exaggerated sense of one’s own rights requires a correspondingly diminished sense of one’s responsibilities. No wonder Mike was castigated for suggesting means by which rights and responsibilities might be brought back into balance.

The more we are focused on ourselves, the more we take and exploit and the less we give and share with others. A healthy society and healthy relationships are founded on giving, caring and sharing which are antithetical to self-focused taking.

It’s difficult to argue with that—as either an individual or a social ideal. The problem arises, however, when you add blogging to the mix. Perhaps that’s where Mike got himself into trouble. Storytelling isn’t founded on “giving, caring, and sharing” but on artfully constructed conflict. With blogging, which is essentially a new way of telling stories, the conflict can either be created within a post or, alternatively, can arise from the interplay between a post and other blogger’s responses to it. Like this.

What Mike and his adversaries could be missing is that—just as Theodore Dalrymple suggests “it’s perfectly possible for people to be economically left-wing and culturally conservative”—it might also be possible to be arrogant and egotistical in one’s blog and humble, generous, and compassionate in one’s offline life. Unless you believe in the unitary self. Which I don’t.

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The birth of pleasure?

Margaret Talbot casts an acerbic eye over Carol Gilligan’s The Birth of Pleasure:

While I see a lot of four-year-old and five-year-old boys jostling for independence and testing out attitudes, I do not see many who are “separating themselves from their relationships” with the people closest to them. Moreover, some of the signs of intimacy that Gilligan admires in the relationships of young prelapsarian boys and their mothers are actually signs of children’s profound dependence on adults. Gilligan dwells on the observation that little boys (one could say the same of girls) perceive their mothers’ subtle shifts in mood—anger simmering beneath an even tone of voice, and so on—and wishes that men could be more like that. “I am hearing mothers describe their four-and five-year old sons as emotionally present and clued in to them in a way that their husbands are not,” she writes. As a woman named Rachel explains to Gilligan, speaking of her four-year-old, “Nobody pays attention to me like that. Jake is just, like, clued in. It’s like Mom why did you kind of use that angry voice with me?”

But surely small children notice “angry voices” and the like because they are utterly dependent on their mothers and on the emotional weather that the adult world establishes for them. Children are always looking for storm warnings, or for more auspicious signals—Will we go out for ice cream tonight? Are Mom and Dad getting along?—because the vagaries of the adult world are mysterious to them and completely beyond their control. (Indeed, Rachel describes Jake as her “barometer.”) It can be sweet and gratifying when small boys keep a close watch on their mothers’ moods, but it is also a function of the essential powerlessness of the child. Relationships between equals do not generally elicit or require such vigilant monitoring. Gilligan writes admiringly of Rachel’s refusal to shield her toddler from the tension that she was feeling at work because “to do so would have been to betray his love.” But transparency is not the highest duty in relationships with children. There are some things that children do not need to know.

(Link via Arts & Letters Daily)

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Tuesday 30 July 2002

The immutable Buddha

Japanese woman wearing Western dress photographs another wearing kimono in front of the Great Buddha at Kamakura
Fashions change but Buddha remains immutable

(from Kimono by Kawakatsu Ken’ichi, Maruzen, 1936)

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Wednesday 31 July 2002

Joy in dishwashing

Am I wrong in believing that AKMA is the only Blogarian who blogs doing dishes? As in:

After I collapsed in a heap to nap for the afternoon, I went to the store for Margaret, ate a delicious dinner of gluten-free quiche (with a crust you could never tell was gluten-free if you didn’t already know), washed dishes, and then we headed to the Evanston Megaplex (which is why I haven’t had time to blog today).

(Or could it be an oblique way of saying that he really loves using his Dishmatique?)

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© Copyright 2007 Jonathon Delacour