Sunday 01 December 2002

Wrong answer? Or wrong question?

Halley Suitt cited an interview with Cybill Shepard in a new magazine for women aged 40 and over, called More. Theorizing about the magazine’s name, Halley wrote:

You may be thinking of Dicken’s Oliver, holding up his begging bowl, “Please sir, may I have some more?” No, that’s not the idea. It’s for women age 40 and over. More. Maybe they have more to offer? Maybe they expect more? You figure it out.

How about: more of the same old women’s magazine bullshit? As exemplified by the breathless promo copy:

More magazine promo copy

Though the interview isn’t available on the Web site, which provides for little more than subscribing online and reading advertisements (sorry, sponsor messages), Halley quotes a couple of snippets that offer a fascinating insight into Ms Shepard’s methodology for winnowing out unsuitable male companions:

They ran a interview with Cybill Shepard that was really something. She’s 53 and looks pretty terrific. They asked her how she screens the new men she meets. “People introduce me. It’s interesting trying to screen your dates over the phone. The first thing I said used to be, “Are you pro-choice?” If they said, “What do you mean by that?” I would say, “You know, I think this is not going to work.”

Then they asked her what she asks men now? “I ask if they’ve ever masturbated in front of someone. Not in the first conversation, though! If they say no, I ask how often they masturbate. If that say, “I’d rather have somebody else do it,” that’s a bad sign … Next!”

Just as ignorance about the pro-choice issue leads to instant disqualification, I think it’s also fair to suggest that you won’t get a passing grade from Ms Shepard by answering the question like this: “No, after a great deal of reading widely, thinking deeply, and discussing the subject with many different people, I have grave reservations about the morality of abortion.”

Now this could be because Ms Shepard feels so strongly about a woman’s right to a safe abortion that she cannot countenance sharing her life with a man who does not hold the same view. Yet one of my closest friends, who has spent nearly twenty happy years with a woman who is vehemently pro-choice, has grave reservations about the morality of abortion.

“If your wife became pregnant and decided to have an abortion would you try to talk her out of it?” I once asked him.

“Of course not,” he replied. “If she went ahead with the abortion, it would cause me deep sadness and distress, which I’d keep to myself.”

This statement came as no surprise since I know that he regards (and loves) his wife as an autonomous being, capable of making her own decisions, rather than as an extension of his own value system.

But I doubt that Ms Shepard’s abortion and masturbation questions are based upon issues of high principle. Rather, I suspect that questions like these are calculated to eliminate anyone who doesn’t subscribe to a fixed set of beliefs. I meet people like this all the time now: after chatting with them for five minutes, I can predict their opinion on almost any issue. Liberal or conservative, it’s as though they purchased their strongly held convictions, neatly packaged, via mail order or from a convenience store.

Surely much of the joy and many of the rewards of any relationship come from having our beliefs challenged, from having the opportunity to experience the world through someone else’s eyes. Otherwise, you’d inevitably find yourself in the situation of Jerry Seinfeld , who—on meeting his “cereal loving, wisecracking, Superman-obsessed counterpart, Jeannie Steinman” (played by Janeane Garofalo)—has a flash of insight:

“Now I know what I’ve been waiting for all these years. I’ve been waiting for me. And now I’ve swept myself off my feet!”

only to realize at the end of the episode:

“I can’t be with someone like me - I hate myself!”

Part of the genius of Seinfeld, his co-stars, and the show’s writers lay in their ability to use comedy as a means of encouraging us to reflect upon the motivation for less than admirable attitudes and behavior.

It is neither here nor there that Cybill Shepard appears not to want a companion who might disagree with her on issues large or small. But her flippant dismissal of someone because of his answer to a single question seems, to me at least, uncomfortably like discounting the worth of an individual on the basis of their race, religion, sexual orientation, physical appearance… or gender.

Later. Lots of feedback in the comments to this post. From where I stand, the most insightful response is a post by Jeneane Sessum, in which she grounds the discussion in terms of love, intimacy, human frailty and desire, fleshing out my argument in human terms. The comment count, when I last checked, stood at a resounding zero. Perhaps the notion of “relationship and emotional intimacy” cuts a little too close to the bone, in a world where enduring relationships can be established on the bedrock of correctly answering a single question.

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Tuesday 03 December 2002

Looking at everything from another’s point of view

I owe Dorothea and Tish an apology. It’s been knocking around in my head for just over a month and Dorothea’s recent post provided the impetus for me to settle down and write. There’s a lot of history in this, that stretches back as far as August (I should have written this earlier, but it took me a long time to figure out what it all meant). If you’re sufficiently interested, the archive for Dorothea’s Grunchy stuff category is a good place to start (she links to all the important contributors). Yesterday she wrote:

I guess I’ve gotten to a place where I don’t feel my contributions to the blogsphere are effective, welcomed, or useful, because of what I have said about sexism. This is in all likelihood a false impression, given the many private emails and some public blogposts with explicit or implicit support, explicit or implicit thanks even, for what I have said and the way I have said it. Moreover, this is a far cry from all I talk about. I checked the sizes on my category files the other day, and the “grunchy stuff” category is near the bottom of the list; only announcements and metablogging are smaller…

I do not say these things in anger, or even in a Burningbirdesque passion, though I have posted in anger in the past, and done rather more harm than good thereby. I say these things in sorrow, in disappointment, in a certain amount of disillusionment. I don’t know why I thought the blogsphere would be any different from a world in which the true stories I have told about myself, and many others I haven’t told, happened. If anything, I ought to have known that a medium priding itself on its expressiveness and openness would bring to light ideas and attitudes I’d rather not face, rather not believe exist—even in people I daresay I’d have no trouble at all liking in real-life encounters, when those attitudes are more or less carefully masked.

No, take that back—I like these people now. I do. I am upset and bewildered that this should be such a barrier, that this self I am constructing is so difficult for other selves to accept. I don’t know how best to handle my own thoughts and feelings, much less those of others concerned.

When I read Dorothea’s post I was surprised. What did she expect? There aren’t too many shrinking violets in the Blogarian population given that weblogging is, crudely, about putting your thoughts and feelings out into a public arena in the hope of inspiring a response. At the level Dorothea is playing the game—which, whether she accepts it or not, is first grade (or the major league, call it what you will)—isn’t it inevitable that you’ll encounter pushback from the opposition? (And that players drift in and out of the opposing team, depending on the issue, so that someone who was on your side last week wants to kick your head in today.)

More to the point, Dorothea isn’t exactly shy about dishing it out on occasion:

I am completely apoplectic that this pompous jerk had the unutterable gall to accuse David and the hard-working WETA people of dishonest and intentional traducing of Tolkien’s work when he either didn’t or couldn’t (honestly, I don’t know which is worse!) read the runes himself. (The Khuzdul Incident)

I could try to explain why NetLibrary’s systems were so messed-up when I saw them, but I’d rather point to my article on conversion houses and remark quietly that NetLibrary when I visited it was the epitome of the stupid, short-sighted, crap-ejecting conversion house. (Why E-Books Cost More)

The OEBF working group that Frumkin sits on is poorly led, has accomplished nothing, and when I left bore no signs that it was going to accomplish anything anytime soon. Poor leadership is the bulk of the problem, but lack of technical expertise also looms large (though Frumkin himself is pretty clued, most of the other WG participants are very not). The expression that comes to mind is “fiddling while Rome burns.” (On Fire!)

(Hmm, you might be thinking, this is a weird apology. Don’t worry, I’m getting to it.)

There’s a difference between Dorothea’s forthright criticism and her upset/bewilderment that the “self [she is] constructing is so difficult for other selves to accept.” The difference is this: Dorothea’s critical remarks are invariably directed at organizations or anonymous individuals (on the rare occasions the criticism is directed at an individual, she apologizes).

Her distress, as I understand it, springs from another place. The key issue—her experience of sexism and her sense of failure in communicating its importance—is entirely personal. And it’s my part in contributing to Dorothea’s frustration that warrants an apology.

It all started with my response to the Doc Searls/Burningbird sexism controversy. What I wrote was overwhelmingly well-received. For example, Tish commented: “This is an eloquent, generous and precise synopsis.” I should have quit while I was ahead.

Instead, I wrote a follow-up post about men’s magazines in the barbershop, ostensibly in response to a post of Dorothea’s about the sickening grunch, but really because I’d been wanting to write about the barbershop for a long, long time. Because I genuinely believe that blogging is a conversation, many of my posts are framed as responses to items I’ve read on other blogs.

The barbershop post was different, because it was written in bad faith. Instead of responding honestly to the substance of Dorothea’s argument, I used her post as an excuse to write about something that interested me, in a manner that was guaranteed to cause her discomfort:

Heck, I’m already starting to feel uncomfortable (not grunched—uncomfortable) with the directions Jonathon is going in; I’m wondering if I’m about to be set up as the Straw Feminist so that arrows can be shot at me.

I’ll save you some time, Jonathon: the arrows will hit, sooner or later.

I don’t have a problem with discomfort. If I thought the purpose of my weblog was to make those who read it feel comfortable I’d stop immediately. “If the book we are reading does not wake us, as with a fist hammering on our skull,” wrote Kafka in a letter, “why then do we read it? So that it shall make us happy? Good God, we would also be happy if we had no books, and such books as make us happy we could, if need be, write ourselves.”

But discomforting ideas should be voiced with an honest intent: not out of an immature desire to shock the bourgeois, but because there’s a truth that deserves to be articulated. In essence, I appropriated Dorothea’s issue (the sickening grunch) and her anguish, in order to make a cheap point. “Is it OK then,” I asked disingenuously, “to read girly magazines in the barbershop?”

For that I apologize, in Dorothea’s own words, “humbly and unreservedly. It’s not enough, but I do.”

The barbershop post also offended Tish:

Do I think Doc is sexist? Yes. And in the two places I spoke out about it I was quick to say that I don’t read Doc. There’s no big reason for that. Look at my blog role. I have places I need to be. There’s only so many hours in the day. Do I think Mike is sexist? Yes. I think I am sexist. I think we grew up in and live in a sexist culture. It takes work to understand that in our selves and others. It’s a hermeneutics thang. And it seemed to me that when one woman said she thought something a man said was sexist she got jumped on by men and women. She was scolded for not valuing her allies. A swirl of refracted pros and cons hit the web and at the end of the day what seemed to happen, in my opinion, was that she was told not to criticize the little bit of sexism in the good guys. And when another woman asked to not be included in the loopy valuing of women’s bodies we saw crazy extreme images of women’s bodies embedded in the response of an generally lovely, respectful, generous man. The whole thing left me feeling incomplete, raw, and a bit afraid to speak up.

The “crazy extreme images of women’s bodies” were contained in a composite image of three men’s magazine covers included in that post. I knew at the time it was provocative to include them, though I didn’t understand that—again—I was acting in bad faith. I’d written:

I accept that other people—men or women—may have ethical, religious, or ideological problems with such photographs and I respect their objections. The simple answer is, though, that they are not obliged to enter the barbershop, pick up the magazines, and read them. If the mere sight of a scantily-clad young woman on a magazine cover causes profound discomfort, I’d point to the multiplicity of more serious injustices that warrant their immediate attention.

On the other hand, I would be offended if I saw Inside Sport, FHM, or Ralph in amongst the magazines in the doctor’s or dentist’s waiting room. Or in the magazine rack at the local library. Or in the pile of newspapers and magazines in the pickup area at the local pizza shop.

I’m guess I’m saying that it all boils down to context. What might be acceptable in the barber shop isn’t necessarily tolerable elsewhere.

Firstly, I argue that girly magazines are OK in the barbershop (where one might expect to find them) but not in the doctor’s waiting room or the pizza shop where they would be reasonably regarded as inappropriate. Then, I plop the girly images in the middle of my weblog, images that would be entirely unexpected given those I normally publish.

I should have followed Stavros’s example. Linking to an item about a rape in Korea, he wrote: [Warning : Graphic and disturbing image of rape victim, halfway down page.]

I’ve subsequently amended the post. Again, I apologize to Tish, humbly and unreservedly.

What have I learned? I’ve learned this: I need to pay more attention to nuance and intent in another blogger’s post before responding with one of my own. Not all the time, but sometimes.

I need to occasionally corral my instictive exuberance, my heartfelt belief that conflict, and only conflict, offers the key to engaging an audience’s attention.

I need to resist the temptation to commandeer someone else’s ideas to make a point that’s only tangential to the topic under discussion. If blogging is to be a conversation, it needs to be a genuine conversation in which each of us listens carefully and responds honestly to what the other has actually said. Otherwise, we become like bores at a dinner party, cutting across the conversation to score debating points.

How does one learn to listen carefully, to pay close attention? Andrius Kulikauskas suggests relinquishing one’s strongly held point-of-view:

The only thing you really need to know is “Always look at everything from their point of view”. Then you can be hyperflexible, respond in the ways that any good person would, and ready for the good to come from any direction. And you will get hurt just a very little bit…

“Always look at everything from their point of view”. I may apply my own mind, but only to their situation. We may disagree on everything, but never the fact that I am one with them, completely devoted, not I but he, not I but she.

Needless to say, this takes a sustained effort. Discussing Christopher Hitchens’ Why Orwell Matters, David Brooks writes:

Hitchens argues that Orwell’s most prominent quality was his independence, and it was an independence that had to be earned through willpower. Orwell was, Hitchens continues, something of a natural misanthrope: “He had to suppress his distrust and dislike of the poor, his revulsion from the Jews, his awkwardness with women, and his anti-intellectualism.” It was through continued acts of self-mastery that Orwell was able to overcome most of his natural prejudices, in order to see things as they really were and champion groups that needed championing. Orwell was always checking himself, which perhaps explains the tone of cool reserve that marks his prose.

I adore Orwell as a writer and I admire him as a human being. I love this image of his “continued acts of self-mastery”—that conveys to me the core requirement of existential good faith.

Is it difficult? Almost certainly. Is it impossible? Probably not. I’ll leave the last two words to Tish.

I guess I want to hope that men who are my allies – deep in their hearts – will listen when I tell them that something that they say is sexist, think about it for a minute, if they decide they agree acknowledge the sexism and then we can laugh and move on. No pillaring. No silencing. No expectation that it’ll never happen again. Just a moment of mutuality…

There is a part of me that wants to say that the young men who felt like they had a right to comment loudly on and reach for Dorothea’s breasts may have just been at the barber shop. And there is a part of me that feels like the minute I say it I will hear the tongues hitting the backs of teeth, and see the eyes roll. But I gotta tell ya, that whole boys will be boys thing is lost on me.

And Dorothea was asking for help. We are all asking for help. We can not do this alone.

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Friday 06 December 2002

Smokers are selfish scum

Map of Sydney bushfire locations, 4 December, 2002Summer has hardly commenced and Sydney is again ringed by bushfires described as the worst in the last 20 years. A combination of high temperatures, low humidity, and strong winds has led to dozens of serious fires on the outskirts of the metropolitan area. Parents have been advised to keep their children at home, the rail system is in chaos, and major roads are closed (including the main highways to the north and west).

Yesterday I spent the day working in North Sydney, across the harbor. I arrived at the railway station around 6pm, expecting to catch a train back to Newtown where I live, only to find that services were suspended. Bushfires under powerlines had caused problems with the electricity grid, leading to signal failures. The trains had ground to a halt. I was lucky. I took a pleasant two kilometer walk across the Harbor Bridge from North Sydney to the CBD and caught a bus home. Hundreds of thousands of rail commuters were trapped on trains for a couple of hours or more. Other Sydneysiders lost everything they owned.

It is believed that most of the fires were the result of human behavior: either deliberate or from acts of negligence. Tonight the State Premier appealed to smokers not to discard lit cigarette butts from moving vehicles, warning that they faced criminal charges and 14-year jail sentences.

Smokers really are selfish scum. They pollute the air and despoil the landscape with discarded cigarette packages and butts, putting their need for a nicotine fix above the comfort and health of most of the population. The only thing that can be said in their favor is that the tax on tobacco products more than covers the cost of their inevitable need for medical care.

You’d think that even the most inconsiderate arsehole would think twice before tossing a smoldering match or cigarette butt into tinder-dry bushland in the middle of a heatwave. They don’t. If only their homes and cherished possessions were destroyed by fire, as well as their hearts and lungs. (On second thought, maybe they don’t have hearts—just polluted, festering lungs.)

Update. Dave Winer takes me to task in the comments on this post for failing to make the distinction “between smokers who start fires and the vast majority of smokers who don’t.” Fair point: sweeping generalizations like the one I made are neither reasonable nor helpful—though Dave’s plea for tolerance would merit more consideration if smokers didn’t appear to be so monumentally indifferent to the discomfort their habit causes those who must inhale secondhand smoke.

(For the record, although I’m happy to live in a state where smoking is forbidden in restaurants and I’m equally relieved it’s been banned by most airlines, I don’t support banning smoking in pubs or clubs—that seems unnecessarily harsh. As long as smoking remains legal, smokers should be able to enjoy their habit in at least some public places. Nor am I opposed to cigarette advertising; if a product is legal, its manufacturer should be free to advertise it. I accept the inconsistency of my position, preferring to see it as pragmatic. Banning cigarettes entirely would be no more practical than Prohibition was in Twenties America.)

As for smokers who throw lit butts from their cars, reading a review of Keith Bradsher’s book, High and Mighty led me to think that perhaps it’s smokers who drive SUVs who are the culprits. Bradsher says that research by automakers reveals SUV buyers to be:

insecure and vain. They are frequently nervous about their marriages and uncomfortable about parenthood. They often lack confidence in their driving skills. Above all, they are apt to be self-centered and self-absorbed, with little interest in their neighbors and communities.

This Salon interview with Keith Bradsher offers persuasive evidence that SUVs pollute and kill. Like cigarettes.

More. Smokers aren’t to blame at all, argues Sydney Morning Herald columnist Miranda Devine, it’s the fault of Premier Bob Carr and the Greens:

We all need a scapegoat right now as NSW burns. But I suggest we make it the guy with the deep voice and the hard hat who has been touring burnt-out suburbs.

Carr has presided over seven years of green-inspired neglect of proper fire management of bushland in NSW, creating an environment exquisitely vulnerable to arson attack, or the careless flick of a cigarette, or a spark from a car exhaust.

She hasn’t twigged to the SUV angle, though.

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Saturday 07 December 2002

Progressive lenses for the hyperflexible personality

I need to wear glasses for reading: I have one pair for using the computer and and a slightly stronger pair for reading books. But since I’ve started to work on improving my Japanese reading skills I’ve realized that a single pair for both tasks would be more convenient. So I had my eyes tested today, by a new optometrist who’d been recommended by a friend.

He turned out to be a fascinating person. We chatted about reading foreign languages—I said I had no trouble reading Japanese from either left-to-right or top-to-bottom (the Japanese do both) but that I thought I’d have difficulty with right-to-left languages like Hebrew and Arabic. He told me that he used to be able to read and write Hebrew but that his writing skills had diminished for want of practice. He also mentioned the higher than average proportion of left-handed Israelis (compared to other countries), suggesting that the Hebrew writing system probably makes left-handedness more acceptable. If this is true—and, although a Google search yielded no references, I have no reason to believe it is not—then one would expect it would also be the case in Arab countries.

(I recall that in elementary school the nuns used to force left-handed children to write with their right hand by the simple expedient of tying their left hand behind their back with a length of coarse twine.)

Halfway through the testing procedure, which took nearly 45 minutes, I commented on the fact that I felt a degree of performance anxiety, experienced as a strong desire to provide the “correct answer” to each of the optometrist’s questions about the relative sharpness of individual test charts. He told me that this was quite natural, since I had such a strong emotional investment in the process. (He was right, of course: there are certain Japanese texts that I’m desperate to read in the original rather than as translations. I’d unconsciously linked the success of my Japanese reading project to having the right pair of glasses.)

He said that he listened very carefully to a patient’s voice while conducting these tests, in many cases giving greater emphasis to the emotional resonance of their answers than to the choices they actually made. Why? To avoid the risk of prescribing a lens that is stronger than necessary. He also factored this “emotional coefficient” into his choice of one kind of spectacles over another.

My friend had recommended this optometrist because he’d prescribed spectacles for her husband who, like me, needed to use a computer and read printed material on the desk in front of his monitor. So I went to the appointment expecting that he would recommend the same eyeglasses: progressive lenses, which would provide a smooth transition from intermediate to near. This was, in fact, his recommendation but out of curiosity I asked him about bifocals, segmented lenses with two distinct regions for—in my case—intermediate and near vision.

“I only prescribe bifocals for patients with rigid personalities,” he answered. “In other words, people who see the world in terms of black and white rather than shades of gray. Of course I wouldn’t be having this conversation with someone who needs bifocals.”

The optometrist as psychotherapist, I thought to myself, what an intriguing character.

He had another patient waiting so he took me to the frames department, where I selected a pair of thin black rectangular frames just like the ones I currently wear (chosen after seeing and admiring the spectacles the Wes Studi character wears in Michael Mann’s Heat).

My new eyeglasses should be ready late next week (the anti-reflection coating takes three days more). I’m looking forward to switching my attention seamlessly from screen to printed page, hyperflexible guy that I am.

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Sunday 08 December 2002

Sixteen years a priest

On December 6, AKMA celebrated 16 years of being a priest.

Jeneane Sessum wrote:

I know a caring person, a good dad, and an empathetic and passionate human being when I read one. AKMA is all of those.

Burningbird wrote:

No, I just don’t see the priest. I see the man who has made choices in his past that have carved out the person we know today. If his actions are the actions of a Man of God, then I would say that AKMA has really been a Man of God since the day he was born.

As I thought about the wording of my own congratulatory post, I couldn’t help feeling it strange that two of our smartest bloggers had missed AKMA’s essence: the one characteristic that demonstrates his humility and lack of pretension, while defining the Blogarian chaplain as unique amongst clergymen:

AKMA is the priest who washes dishes.

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Thursday 12 December 2002

I knew I was weird but…

I’ve been thinking some more about the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator and the fact that the PTypes questionnaire suggested I have an Idealist temperament of the Sensitive personality type. PTypes lists the attributes of each temperament (the others are Rationalist, Traditionalist, and Hedonist) as well as each of the four personality types associated with each temperament: the personality types for the Idealist temperament being Conscientious, Sensitive, Vigilant, and Dramatic. Tellingly, the HTML files for each the detail pages are named according to the psychic pathology for each of the personality types:

  • obsessive-compulsive.html (Conscientious)
  • avoidant.html (Sensitive)
  • paranoid.html (Vigilant), and
  • histrionic.html (Dramatic).

The temperament pages list positive and negative attributes for each of the four temperaments. Those for the Idealist temperament are:

Positive attributes: altruistic, analytical, authentic, behaved, believing, benevolent, calm, caring, chart maker, communicative, compassionate, compliant, conscientious, considerate, creative, cultured, deep, deliberate, dependable, detail conscious, detailed, disciplined, emotional, empathic, enthused, enthusiastic, ethical, even-tempered, exacting, faithful, fervent, genuine, helpful, idealistic, industrious, inspired, intuitive, loyal, musical, nurturing, orderly, organized, perfectionist, persistent, personal, planner, pleasing, precise, prophetic, psychic, relating, reliable, respectful, scheduled, self-sacrificing, sensitive, serious, sincere, spiritual, subjective, sympathetic, systematic, thoughtful, understanding, unifier, unworldly, visionary, warm, well-behaved, well-organized.

Negative attributes: alienated, bashful, confused, credulous, critical, depressed, detached, difficult, estranged, exacting, fussy, guilt prone, hard to please, hypochondriac, indecisive, inflexible, insecure, introvert, judgmental, loner, moody, moralistic, mystical, negative attitude, overly sensitive, perfectionistic, pessimistic, picky, revengeful, resentful, too sensitive, skeptical, self-absorbed, self-critical, self-righteous, stuffy, suspicious, touchy, unforgiving, unpopular, unrealistic, withdrawn, worry prone.

I did try graying out the attributes that I believe don’t apply to me but rapidly wound up feeling like a conceited prat.

I had greater success with choosing from the characteristic traits and behaviors for each personality type listed in Dr. John M. Oldham’s The New Personality Self-Portrait. These are more concrete and I felt more comfortable graying out those that didn’t seem to match my behavior. (As always, comments are welcome, with the proviso that I already know I’m the least qualified person in the world to make such judgements.) Nevertheless, I’m convinced that my choices of traits and behaviours from each of the personality types yielded a reasonably accurate self-portrait.

Sensitive

  1. Familiarity. Individuals with the Sensitive personality style prefer the known to the unknown. They are comfortable with, even inspired by, habit, repetition, and routine.
  2. Concern. Sensitive individuals care deeply about what other people think of them.
  3. Circumspection. They behave with deliberate discretion in their dealings with others. They do not make hasty judgments or jump in before they know what is appropriate.
  4. Polite reserve. Socially they take care to maintain a courteous, self-restrained demeanor.
  5. Role. They function best in scripted settings, vocationally and socially: when they know precisely what is expected of them, how they are supposed to relate to others, and what they are expected to say.
  6. Privacy. Sensitive men and women are not quick to share their innermost thoughts and feelings with others, even those they know well.

Vigilant

  1. Autonomy. Vigilant-style individuals possess a resilient independence. They keep their own counsel, they require no outside reassurance or advice, they make decisions easily, and they can take care of themselves.
  2. Caution. They are careful in their dealings with others, preferring to size up a person before entering into a relationship.
  3. Perceptiveness. They are good listeners, with an ear for subtlety, tone, and multiple levels of communication.
  4. Self-defense. Individuals with Vigilant style are feisty and do not hesitate to stand up for themselves, especially when they are under attack.
  5. Alertness to criticism. They take criticism very seriously, without becoming intimidated.
  6. Fidelity. They place a high premium on fidelity and loyalty. They work hard to earn it, and they never take it for granted.

Dramatic

  1. Feelings. Dramatic men and women live in an emotional world. They are sensation oriented, emotionally demonstrative, and physically affectionate, They react emotionally to events and can shift quickly from mood to mood.
  2. Color. They experience life vividly and expansively. They have rich imaginations, they tell entertaining stories, and they are drawn to romance and melodrama.
  3. Attention. Dramatic people like to be seen and noticed. They are often the center of attention, and they rise to the occasion when all eyes are on them.
  4. Appearance. They pay a lot of attention to grooming, and they enjoy clothes, style, and fashion.
  5. Sexual attraction. In appearance and behavior, Dramatic individuals enjoy their sexuality. They are seductive, engaging, charming tempters and temptresses.
  6. Engagement. Easily putting their trust in others, they are able to become quickly involved in relationships.
  7. The spirit is willing. People with Dramatic personality style eagerly respond to new ideas and suggestions from others.

Conscientious

  1. Hard work. The Conscientious person is dedicated to work, works very hard, and is capable of intense, single-minded effort.
  2. The right thing. To be Conscientious is to be a person of conscience. These are men and women of strong moral principles and values. Opinions and beliefs on any subject are rarely held lightly. Conscientious individuals want to do the right thing.
  3. The right way. Everything must be done “right,” and the Conscientious person has a clear understanding of what that means, from the correct way to balance the checkbook, to the best strategy to achieve the boss’s objectives, to how to fit every single dirty dish into the dishwasher.
  4. Perfectionism. The Conscientious person likes all tasks and projects to be complete to the final detail, without even minor flaws.
  5. Perseverance. They stick to their convictions and opinions. Opposition only serves to strengthen their dogged determination.
  6. Order and detail. Conscientious people like the appearance of orderliness and tidiness. They are good organizers, catalogers, and list makers. No detail is too small for Conscientious consideration.
  7. Prudence. Thrifty, careful, and cautious in all areas of their lives, Conscientious individuals do not give in to reckless abandon or wild excess.
  8. Accumulation. A “pack rat,” the Conscientious person saves and collects things, reluctant to discard anything that has, formerly had, or someday may have value for him or her.

At this point, you’re probably wondering what happened to Narcissistic? Well, believe it or not, that’s not an Idealist trait. What surprised me most is that, even though I’m supposed to be Sensitive, I got a full score for the Vigilant (a.k.a. paranoid) personality type (which maps to an ENFP Myers-Briggs type). PTypes has a chart that lists the Correspondence of five personality typologies (PTypes personality type, Keirsey’s Myers-Briggs type, Riso’s Enneagram type, PTypes personality disorder, and Brau’s astrological type).

I guess I can be best summed up as a Sensitive/Vigilant, INFJ, Expressive, Dramatic, Self-Absorbed, and Temperamental, Avoidant/Paranoid Aquarius.

Which might explain why I’m having trouble getting a date (though not my obsession with the Dishmatique).

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Saturday 14 December 2002

A summer cold

Dimetapp Cold and Flu packageI used to boast that taking Echinacea had protected me from colds and the flu for years. Since it’s generally accepted that it loses effectiveness after prolonged use, I’d break up my Echinacea usage by only taking the tablets from the first to the tenth and the sixteenth to the twenty-fifth of each month. But I’ve been careless about it over the past few months and on Thursday I came down with a severe cold. I tried taking a triple Echinacea dose for a couple of days but it was too late. I needed chemical, as distinct from herbal, assistance.

Dimetapp Cold and Flu capsules I haven’t taken Dimetapp for a long time and was happy to see that it was still available. It’s ridiculously expensive compared to the generic equivalent which is, no doubt, equally effective. But I love the DayGlo-colored capsules: bright orange (non-drowsy) for during the day and a kind of teal color for night time (with added Doxylamine Succinate to help you sleep). It’s one of the all-time great packaging jobs—Dimetapp overwhelms the surrounding cold and flu medicines on the pharmacy shelf and, when you pick up and flip open the package, those shiny fat orange and teal capsules look as though they’re bursting with chemical goodness.

So, that’s my cold and flu regime. Echinacea to ward away illness, Dimetapp to relieve the symptoms if I succumb. I guess you could call it the sublime and the ridiculous.

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Sunday 15 December 2002

Fire

Looking for something light to read while I recovered from my cold, I remembered something Robert Birnbaum had said in his second conversation with Allan Furst:

Martin Cruz Smith’s latest book, December 6, is set in pre-WWII Japan and it was the first book by a current practitioner that reminded me of you. I think people use the word ‘atmospheric’ to describe you. Smith seemed to get the pre-war Japanese culture right as well as placing the reader in an authentic, palpable Tokyo.

So yesterday afternoon I bought the Cruz Smith book—in the British edition available in Australia it’s called Tokyo Station—and took it home to read in bed.

December 6 opens with five boys playing a game based on one of the best-loved stories in Japanese history, The Loyal 47 Ronin. Halfway through the second paragraph, I already regretted buying the book:

The story was tragic, true, profoundly satisfying. Lord Asano had been taunted by the unscrupulous Lord Kira into drawing a sword in the shogun’s presence, an act punishable by death. He was beheaded, his estate confiscated, and his retainers dispersed as ronin, wandering samurai with neither home nor allegiance…

Well, actually, no.

Lord Asano assaults Lord Kira in Mizoguchi's The Loyal 47 Ronin
Lord Asano assaults Lord Kira in Mizoguchi’s The Loyal 47 Ronin

Lord Asano attacks Lord Kira in an open corridor in the shogun’s palace, but the shogun is nowhere near. The seriousness of the offence lay not only in the fact that the assault took place in the palace but also that it occurred on the day of an important ceremony. Nor was Lord Asano “beheaded” for this breach of etiquette—in the sense that we in the West understand the term—since it is unthinkable that such a punishment would be imposed on someone of Asano’s rank. Rather Lord Asano was sentenced to commit seppuku (harakiri), ritual suicide, one of the five grades of punishment for wrongdoers among the samurai class. The Kodansha Illustrated Encyclopedia of Japan explains:

All aspects of the seppuku ritual were prescribed with precision: apparel, site, time, witnesses, inspector, and assistant. When the site had been readied and the witnesses, guards, and inspectors assembled, the doomed man would open his kimono, stretch out his right hand to grasp his knife, and cut into his abdomen from left to right. Often this wound was neither deep nor intended to bring on death. He would then make a prearranged signal to his kaishakunin (assistant), whereupon the kaishakunin’s sword slashed down, severing his head.

Nor does Cruz Smith “get the pre-war Japanese culture right as well as placing the reader in an authentic, palpable Tokyo.” He makes a reasonable stab at it, but the novel is populated with stock characters and the descriptions of places and customs never feel authentic. I couldn’t help but think that Alan Furst’s novels about Europe just before and during World War II are infinitely better researched and written. But perhaps it’s because I know so little about Furst’s milieu that I find his books authentic.

I was, however, engaged by one of Cruz Smith’s descriptive passages, about a fire in a tailor shop in Asakusa—ironically the epicenter of the first American firebombing raid on Tokyo in March 1945:

The house was old, built of wood frame with a bamboo front, the typical tinderbox Japanese lived in. The fire was already in full throat, an oven roar accompanied by exploding glass and the excited whoosh of paper screens. The crowd inched close, in awe of how a hovel’s straw, books, bedding, needles and thread could transcend themselves into such a beautiful tower of flame, the sort of fireworks that spread, rose and blossomed a second time into a glowing maelstrom. The way Eskimos had words for different kinds of snow, the Japanese had words for fire: deliberate, accidental, initial flame, approaching blaze, invading, spreading, overwhelming fire. Harry found himself next to the tailor, who was explaining through his tears and with many apologies how the girl had left her homework on a space heater. The paper had caught fire and fallen and lit a mat, then a screen and scraps of rayon that lit as fast as candlewicks. Sufu was worse. It was a new wartime material, ersatz cloth made of wood fibers, basically cellulose that disintegrated after three or four washings but burned like hell. One minute, the tailor said, one minute the family was out of the room, and then it was too late. Harry saw the wife and children, everyone painted orange and black in the fire’s glow. Two Red Cross workers bore off the grandmother on a litter. Air-raid drills were all the fashion. Well, this was more like the real thing.

It’s said that Eskimos have words for different kinds of snow, or different words for white. I have no idea whether this is true or not. [Burningbird sent me a link to this essay by Stephen J. Derose, which argues that they do not.]

The Chinese (Japanese) character for fireBut I was taken by the assertion that the Japanese have a multiplicity of words for fire, so I checked my dictionaries. Sure enough, there were a hundred or more. (The Chinese character for fire is pronounced ka, hi, ho, bi or bo, depending on the context.) Some fire-related words:

kachū in the fire
hisaki direction in which the flames are spreading
hosaki flame tips
kataku house on fire
kasai conflagration
kaji mimai sympathy visit after a fire
kajidoro thief at a fire
kajiba scene of a fire
hiyo(ke) protection against fire
hibashira pillar of flames
hidaruma mass of flames
hiashi spreading of a fire
hiusturi catching fire
kasei force of the flames
kaen fire and smoke
kanan’yoke charm against fire
shōka, boya small fire
yamakaji forest fire
tenka fire caused by lightning
inkasei flammability
shikka accidental fire
tsukebi arson
bōka yosui water for putting out fires
kinka, chikabi a fire in one’s neighborhood
jika a fire starting in one’s own home
haikakyō fire worship
kaika fire of mysterious origin
to(bi)hi flying sparks, leaping flames
kyūka a sudden fire; a nearby fire
rekka raging fire
funakaji fire aboard a ship
mora(i)bi catch fire (from a neighboring burning building)
gyoka, isa(ri)bi fire for luring fish at night
ruika a spreading fire

It’s hardly surprising that there are so many Japanese words for fire. In Tokyo alone, two single conflagrations have each taken the lives of around 100,000 people: the Meireki Fire in March 1657 and the American raid nearly three hundred years later.

Meireki Fire in Tokyo (March 1657)
Woodblock print of the Meireki Fire

So I haven’t given up on December 6. With a little luck Cruz Smith may still have one or two sparks awaiting me.

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Monday 16 December 2002

Building Accessible Websites, by Joe Clark

Building Accessible Websites comes highly recommended. In late October, Mark Pilgrim wrote:

Joe Clark’s Building Accessible Websites is now shipping. I was one of the technical editors for this book; having read it thoroughly, twice, I can assure you that it is the most comprehensive and most well-written web accessibility book in existence. Every web designer should read it. If you can only afford one web accessibility book, buy Joe’s book. (If you can afford two, buy Joe’s book and Jim’s book, reviewed here.)

Joe Clark's Building Accessible WebsitesWhen Joe emailed me to ask if I’d be interested in reviewing his book, I readily agreed—I have a strong interest in website accessibility (largely triggered, I confess, by the experience of making my own site accessible by implementing the tips in Mark’s series, Dive Into Accessibility: 30 days to a more accessible web site). Joe also agreed to answer a series of questions about the book and, more generally, about accessibility. I’ll publish this extended interview in a series of posts over the next few days.

The structure of Building Accessible Websites is much as one might expect. After briefly explaining how he intends the book to be read, Joe Clark runs through “some typical objections to providing accessibility, blowing them out of the water one after another,” then lists a number of active reasons for making one’s site accessible. He outlines the various kinds of disability (hearing-, vision-, mobility-, and learning-related), explains how disabled people use computers, and defines both accessibility and the structure of accessible pages.

Having mapped out—in five relatively brief chapters—the nature and extent of the problem, Clark gets down to the nitty-gritty: how to make images, text & links, navigation, type and color, tables & frames, stylesheets, forms & interaction, and multimedia (including Flash) all accessible.

The chapters on images and navigation are much longer than any of the others, reflecting Clark’s belief that addressing these two issues—even at a basic level—will make a site “vastly more accessible” to two large disability groups: the blind and visually-impaired and the mobility-impaired. (Clark’s Slashdot interview, which appeared last week, is essential reading for anyone interested in accessibility.)

These how-to chapters are all structured similarly. For example, Chapter 6, The Image Problem, covers:

  • the three levels of accessibility for uncomplicated image types (the alt, title, and longdesc attributes);
  • variations in browser support for each attribute and workarounds;
  • problem image types including advertising, animated GIFs, bullets, charts & graphs, exploded drawings, hit counters, maps, pictures of text, porn, image portfolios, rollovers, sliced graphics, spacer images, and webcams);
  • succinct advice on implementation; and
  • a supplementary section with more hints on making online ads accessible.

A section titled Bottom-Line Accessibility Advice concludes each chapter. For example, the advice for images is:

Basic accessibility
Use alt texts on absolutely every image without exception.
Intermediate accessibility
Add titles to images in increments no smaller than a page: Either all graphics on a page contain titles or none.
Advanced accessibility
Write long descriptions for the rather more intricate images.

In the last two chapters, Clark discusses certification & testing and outlines some “future dreams.” Finally, he provides appendices on accessibility & the law and language codes, a bibliography, and a colophon (describing the making of the book). In addition, the entire text of the book is included on the accompanying CD-ROM, making it easy to search the book’s contents and to check the code samples—you simply copy the code into an editor then view it in a browser.

Although I hope by this point I’ve convinced you that Building Accessible Websites is comprehensive and full of practical advice, those are not the only reasons the book is worth buying and reading. Mark Pilgrim is absolutely correct when he says: “Joe’s an incredible writer; he can explain the most esoteric topics in a way that anyone can understand.” And it’s not just that he writes with great clarity and elegance. A large part of the book’s appeal is Clark’s refusal to pull any punches:

Usability is a good predictor of accessibility, since usable sites are put together by intelligent, thoughtful people (not necessarily paid experts), and that is exactly the group that pays heed to access without being pushed and prodded. But we should not expect a one-to-one relationship. Usable sites can be inaccessible (e.g., an E-commerce site where every navigation button is an image without a text equivalent). Conversely, accessible sites can be unusable - e.g., Jakob Nielsen’s Alertbox.com, which is so outlandishly undesigned as to make it hard to find anything, not to mention dozens or hundreds of pages at the World Wide Web Consortium itself, where we similarly drown in accessible data.

Frequently provocative, Joe Clark is also remarkably pragmatic. For example, it’s almost an orthodoxy in Blogaria that table-based layouts are inferior to those that use CSS-positioning. Not so, argues Clark:

The use of tables for layout has never been prohibited by the Web Accessibility Initiative. You are not creating an inaccessible page if it contains tables used for layout. You have committed no sin—necessarily. You will not be forced to turn in your trackball and badge while WAI Internal Affairs conducts an investigation. But you are not off the hook: You must code tables properly, which, for layout tables, is not difficult at all.

He is similarly relaxed about pictures of text:

For small amounts of text (typically, text rendered as graphics is used for navigation buttons), enter the complete text into alt; you can add explanatory details to title if you wish. (Example: alt=”Contact” title=”Contact information, job listings, and feedback page”.) Accessibility purists may hate this entire approach, but I simply do not see any harm whatsoever in limited bits of text rendered as graphics since it is dead simple to make those graphics accessible. I use pictures of text myself.

Though I nearly fell off my chair when I read Clark’s advice on headings:

The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines tell us to use heading elements in strict numerical order—<h1></h1>, then, if necessary, <h2></h2> through <h6></h6> in that sequence. That dictum suits androids and Vulcans quite well, but here in the real world you can skip intervening levels and you don’t have to start at <h1></h1>. I am telling you that you can defy the WCAG in this limited way. You must not, however, use heading elements in anything but ascending order.

Call me a Vulcan—or an android—but this makes no sense to me at all. The usual reason given for starting with (say) <h3></h3> is that <h1></h1> is too big, black, and ugly. Yet you can easily define the appearance of any element with CSS so the <h1></h1> can be as small, brightly-colored, and pretty as you like. More importantly, assigning <h1></h1> to the first heading on a page will assist in securing a higher Page Rank in Google. And why would you want to skip intervening heading levels? In other words, what’s the advantage in defying the WCAG in this case?

I was also surprised at Clark’s advice concerning resizable text, particularly when I recall the angst that accompanied my switch from pixel-based to relative font sizing. Clark argues that anyone with significant visual impairment will be using screen magnification software, thus rendering the font-size argument irrelevant. While I can see his point, I still believe that it’s worth accommodating normal-vision people who find small type difficult to read, even if it is “too low-level for this book to worry about.”

So, what’s that then? A couple of quibbles in over 400 pages. Mark Pilgrim was right: Building Accessible Websites is the book to buy. (Jim’s book, to which Mark also referred, is Constructing Accessible Web Sites by Jim Thatcher et al.) It’s a fine book, packed with useful information. But, because it has eight authors, it lacks the most appealing quality of Joe Clark’s book: the sense of being guided through the subject by an informed, literate, entertaining, and—above all—iconoclastic expert who absolutely fulfills his own aspirations for the book:

You will, I hope, find the book quite readable. I have this fantasy that Building Accessible Websites will be as enjoyable to read as a well-written cookbook. (What, you’ve never read a cookbook while reclining in bed, far removed from the kitchen?)

I’m not a great reader of cookbooks (I’m not much of a cook, for that matter, though I discovered tonight I can cook a trout to perfection). But I did find myself reading Joe Clark’s book in bed and almost everywhere else in my house—as well as on the train and in a couple of my favorite restaurants. Building Accessible Websites is a considerable achievement: a thorough practical guide to Web accessibility that’s also a pleasure to read.

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Tuesday 17 December 2002

Conversation with Joe Clark: 01

Yesterday I reviewed Building Accessible Websites, the new book by Toronto journalist, author, and accessibility consultant, Joe Clark. Today and for the next couple of days I’ll be posting Joe responses to a series of questions about the book, his background, and accessibility in general. If you’d like to learn even more, then visit Joe’s Media Access website, “the starting point for everything you ever wanted to know about captioning, audio description, Web accessibility, and related topics.” Now, on to the first question:

Would you describe how and why your interest in Web accessibility developed?

Actually, I’ve been interested in what is now known as accessibility for over 20 years.

I credit Geoff Freed at WGBH for having brought up the topic of Web accessibility, which I believe was about five years ago and in the context of a design competition for a symbol to identify accessible Web sites. (Not a very good idea, obviously, since sites should simply be accessible and all the candidate designs, including the winner, were poor examples of graphic design, but it got me started.)

I then began reading. Really, that’s all you can do to start. At the time, I had a lot of knowledge of accommodation for blind or deaf people and a smattering of other accessibility expertise, but I knew nothing about accessible Web development, and pretty much no one else did, either—remember, the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines were not released until 1999.

I have a history that parallels other people’s, but I start from a different place. I used to think captioning was terrifically interesting (it’s the field I started out with) but audio description was too weird and extraneous. I now consider description the greatest thing since sliced bread. Then I added Web accessibility to my range of interests, and, having given up on a definition of accessibility that restricts itself to disabled people, I have since read everything I can about two very old accessibility forms related to language, subtitling and dubbing. So it was a series of upgrades and a few cases of overcoming denial. I think people new to the field will have similar experiences— they find out about topic X, maybe can handle that topic but think Y is just too weird to worry about, and later, over time, come to understand that X and Y are important and so is Z, a topic they had not imagined before. (Web accessibility, PDF, and Flash could sit in for X, Y, and Z in that example.)

Had you met some disabled Web users, perhaps while working on a particular Web site? Did your commitment to accessibility increase over time or was there a sudden flash of understanding that this was a crucial issue?

No, there were no galvanizing, life-changing meetings with disabled people or anything like that.

Has your understanding of accessibility changed in unexpected ways during the period you researched and wrote your book?

No, not really, except in the few topics that required a lot of factual research, like colourblindness and the exact populations of disabled people online. I now know quite enough about both topics to stupefy people at dinner parties. The HTML code and the many dozens of illustrations needed some looking up, too. But I mostly wrote the book off the top of my head.

In my experience, both site owners and Web developers complain about the amount of work required to make a site accessible. Given your belief that “lawsuits are the worst way to achieve accessibility, particularly in the U.S., with its poisonous atmosphere,” what could precipitate the shift in thinking so that site owners take pride in the fact that their site is accessible and Web developers regard the ability to build accessible sites as a “cool,” highly-desirable skill?

Managers and clients are gonna have to be educated about what valid HTML is and why it’s mandatory. Content-management systems are gonna have to be updated to produce valid HTML and to fail to mangle existing valid HTML.

Then we will have achieved something vaguely resembling an understanding of standards compliance. Accessibility is one of the standards sites must comply with, and you gain a lot of accessibility automatically just through valid HTML.

Then, some years later, after many more valid-HTML sites are deployed than we could presently point to (nearly every valid-HTML site today is an individual Weblog site and not a commercial venture), these standards-compliant, accessible, well-designed sites will stand as proof of what I’ve been telling everybody for ages—not only can you have all three of those at once, you *must*.

In the meantime, firing all the boy-racer HTML programmers who think they’re tough shit would be a good place to start. They’re jumped-up script kiddies; it was quite telling that my submission of well-written, copy-edited text in a valid HTML document was an absolute first for Slashdot. This is a clientele that does not know what the Shift key does or how to debug two nested ordered lists. (The latter is an actual example from a site I worked on. The concept of closing a paired tag had never occurred to them, so they could not find the error in the sequence <ol><li><ol><li></ol>.)

And of course we’ll also have to fire the boy racers’ clueless Dockers-wearing manager dweebs, who consider themselves old-timers because they got online in 1998 (!) and whose entire experience of the Internet is the commercial Web as rendered through Internet Explorer for Windows. These people cannot even *spell* “W3C” and still think banner ads have not been given a fair shake.

If we could rid the Web-development ecosystem of life-sapping parasites like these—essentially, everyone who is immature and/or has *bad taste*—then we stand a good chance of making valid, standards-compliant Web development the norm rather than the exception.

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Wednesday 18 December 2002

Conversation with Joe Clark: 02

In the Slashdot interview you say that the two most significant accessibility features a Web developer can implement would be to make “all your images accessible including, crucially, adding alt="" to every spacer GIF and every other meaningless graphic” and to place visible “skip-navigation links on top of every navbar with, say, ten or more links.”

Let’s assume that we’re already doing that. What other (three? eight?) accessibility features will make a substantial impact, in order of importance?

Corollary of Point 2: Make sure your site makes sense when “linearized,” to use the buzzword. It is easiest to understand linearization in the case of table-based layouts. Turn borders on in your table, print out your page, and then cut out each table cell in strict left-to-right order based on your <tr> elements. (You kind of have to understand the underlying HTML to linearize properly, with with cellspan and rowspan values.)

Now place these in a single column in that strict order. Voilà: You have just linearized your site. For certain adaptive technologies like screen readers, linearized reading is *one possible* reading order. Visitors can override the reading order (as by skipping table cells), but if you just sit there and let the thing read, it does so in a linear or sequential manner.

For CSS-based layouts, the advice is not clear-cut. It is not widely understood that screen readers do not directly interpret underlying HTML. (There may be specific technical exceptions, but that is the thrust.) The order of inheritance is HTML → browser → screen reader → speech and/or Braille. The browser in nearly all cases is IE for Windows for various historical reasons, though Netscape 6 and 7 are said to work passably well with screen readers. Ordinarily the advice I’d give for CSS layouts is to make sure the page makes sense if the <div>s on the page are read in the order encountered in source code, but in practice the browser interprets and renders the page, which the screen reader then reads. I do not have firsthand knowledge of how linearization applies to such layouts, if at all.

Forms: Correct form markup is a bother but is quite necessary. The HTML elements for accessible forms, including <label>, <fieldset>, and <optgroup>, and the ubiquitous title attribute, are not conceptually difficult but are a tad tedious to add ot every single form element of every single page. Unfortunately, there’s no way around it. For the screen-reader user, it is rather difficult to conceptualize where one is located in a form without these elements. I would also add that screen-reader support for forms isn’t as good as it should be. For various technical reasons that may or may not be surmountable, putting yourself in forms mode in a screen reader turns off certain other modes. It’s difficult to get around, but not by any means impossible if the form is coded correctly. <optgroup> is pretty nifty, though its limitation of a single level of grouping is a pain. Adding a title to every single form element is helpful, even in graphical browsers.

You may have to fiddle with stylesheets for an acceptable visual appearance—for <fieldset> especially—and keyboard access could use some attention in complex forms, which are the next problem. Don’t put forms in tables unless you absolutely have no choice whatsoever. Suddenly the screen-reader user must deal with simultaneous forms mode *and* tables mode. Placing a label for a field (like “Name”) in a cell adjacent to that field is unnecessary and leads to a great deal of confusion.

People use tables for forms so that online forms look like printed forms—that is, they use as much of the “paper” as possible, because “paper” is expensive. But online we have unlimited screen real estate, at least in the vertical dimension. HTML forms, at root, yearn to be vertical, not horizontal. Do not flout their natural desires. Do not attempt to overlay the design of printed forms onto online forms.

Next, don’t be posting Flash or PDF without using those formats’ built-in accessibility features. That’s my advice. But it is difficult to heed because there is so little documentation of those features; they’re a bit limited at present; and the software interfaces, especially for PDF, are tremendously inconvenient (and essentially unavailable on any platform other than Windows).

Mark Pilgrim linked to a First Monday article called Users with Disability Need Not Apply? Web Accessibility in Ireland, 2002, describing it as “not encouraging.” What was your reaction to this article by Barry McMullin?

This seems like a reasonable way to use an automated checker tool (in this case Bobby, which I have described as “dumb as a mule,” but any such software is going to be that dumb) to quickly gauge the spread of obvious and indisputable accessibility errors, which are pretty much the only kind that a software tool can even spot, let alone fix.

It would be interesting to carry out a further qualitative study of the small number of sites that passed Bobby tests and a number that did not, this time using qualified accessibility experts (not necessarily me, of course). A longer and more ruminative explanation of what’s right and wrong with those sites would make it clearer to people new to the field, and to nonbelievers, that accessibility may be relatively simple but it is not always obvious and requires human interpretation. The downside, of course, is that people tend to want issues like this cleaned up by computers themselves without human intervention (like publishing a file using a content-management system), but that is simply unrealistic.

A study like this is useful in pointing out the scale of the problem, even with its limitations.

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Thursday 19 December 2002

Conversation with Joe Clark: 03

Betsie is the filter program used by the BBC to create automatic text-only versions of some of its websites (e.g. the BBC News site and the Betsie version). You make it quite clear in the book that you believe text-only versions of websites should be discouraged (the biggest myth is that “the most accessible sites are text-only”). Therefore I’m wondering what you think of an automated tool like Betsie (produced by the BBC in association with the Royal National Institute for the Blind).

I’m sure it was created with the best of intentions. Radio-Canada appears to have emulated the BBC in this respect. It seems like the kind of small programming assignment a well-meaning person would put together: The programmer takes the issue seriously and makes a concerted effort to do something about it. Unfortunately, what the programmer actually does is questionably useful, and after it’s all finished, the BBC pretty much figures it’s handled the problem and can get back to its real work. (In fairness, BBC accessibility tends to be OK.)

I wish people would put more effort into providing reconfigurable interfaces, with, say, navbars placed at the bottom of the page to get them out of the way. Rearranging information for convenience is infinitely better than eliminating information, which is what creating a text-only page does. It essentially says “We’re going to destroy our content to save it for you, the disabled viewer.”

In a number of places throughout the book you take the WCAG and WAI to task for their unrealistic, unimaginative, pedantic, design-hostile (my words) attitudes. Have you had much (any?) contact with other “accessibility professionals”?

Mm, sort of. I have some friends in town.

Are you aware of how they regard your book?

Oh, probably the same way they regard me, and my colleagues have shown no hesitation whatsoever in posting and talking to the press to tell the world what they really think of me, which does not actually *matter*, since they don’t have to like me to work with me.

Have you been invited by the WAI people to speak at any of their meetings or functions?

No. In fact, I cannot even remember being specifically asked to write or improve the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, and when I dare to provide expert criticism anyway the reaction is comparable to handing Superman a chunk of Kryptonite. But again, I’m not going to put words in their mouths when they are quite free to advance their own opinions.

Are the companies who develop content management systems—apart from blogging tools—way behind in thinking about accessibility

The larger CMSs are a kind of protection racket: You buy our system for six figures, and then you keep paying us every year to maintain your license, and also you’ll have to hire a person trained in our ways to keep your system up and running. Fail to do any of that and your entire site crashes. It’s extortion, really, and high-end CMSs are dogs in so many ways—they can’t produce valid code, their URLs are appalling, and they are difficult to use. In essence, big CMSs are mainframe systems, with the same need for constant nursing and non-stop tending by codependent system administrators as those old mainframes.

So of course you can’t expect these products to work well with accessible sites. It’s not impossible, but it’s another complication.

Meanwhile, it’s the freebie and small-time CMSs, like Movable Type and LiveStoryboard and Macromedia Contribute, that produce at least passable valid code and enable accessibility features. If nothing else, you can add features to a page and the CMS won’t destroy them when untrained users add content.

If you were Chief of Software Engineering for the Entire Universe, what kinds of changes would you like to see implemented in both Web authoring tools and content management systems?

It’s simple and sweeping: You couldn’t put out an inaccessible product. Now, the exact degree of accessibility and the disability groups covered would perhaps be up to discussion (as ever, learning-disabled people are difficult to accommodate), but the idea of releasing an inaccessible product should be unthinkable the way releasing a product that misspells the company name is unthinkable.

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Friday 20 December 2002

A permanent reprieve (from socializing)

Although it looks like the boss’s illness has given Dorothea a reprieve from the compulsory office party, it’s clearly only a matter of time before she’ll be expected to attend the rescheduled event:

…there is a social compulsion involved in this office’s activities that does tend to irk me, I confess. It’s just not acceptable to dodge the various after-work get-togethers. Now, they’ll go out of their way to accommodate everyone’s schedule, I happily grant them that—but it’s indeed frustrating to feel that I do not have permission to say, “Thanks, but I have other plans. Have a good time without me, though!”

What’s more, I honestly don’t think this style of compulsory social interaction would exist in a mixed-gender office. Last couple places I worked, if I didn’t want to go out for a beer after work, it was no big. Great if I did come, fine if I didn’t, and nobody cared that I don’t actually drink beer.

I haven’t encountered this style of compulsory social interaction in any of the mixed-gender organizations where I’ve worked. And although I’ve never been employed in an all-female office—which I imagine would be a salaried version of What Fresh Hell Is This? A Guy Marooned in Women’s Studies—I did spend my university summer vacations working in an exclusively male environment, a shipyard, with workmates who drank together for two or three hours at the end of every work day. I never felt any obligation to join them and, when I occasionally did, the group opened up and absorbed me, as though I’d been a fulltime participant all along.

My family, on the other hand, almost defined itself through compulsory social interaction. When I was younger, I found nearly impossible to avoid “family gatherings,” which I experienced as every atom of boredom in the universe compressed into four or five excruciating hours. Gradually, however, I devised strategies for extricating myself. The first, and easiest, was to have other engagements: work functions, gallery openings, babysitting for friends… but, as I suspect Dorothea discovered some time ago, it’s impossible to recycle these excuses indefinitely.

Happily, once I had established myself as a photographer and was showing my work in galleries, I could redefine myself as “an artist” and thus be excused from most social obligations. It didn’t hurt that my mother paints in her spare time and accepts the idea that artists need to be anti-social in order to create. But, even in the larger society, which has almost no interest in the arts, the myth of artistic eccentricity encourages many people to make exceptions for an “artistic” friend or colleague that they would refuse for anyone else.

For the resolutely unsympathetic, I augmented my “I just vant to be alone” persona with a veneer of scientific respectability in the form of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. It only takes ten minutes or so to explain the various types, a little longer if you encourage your colleague to think about the behavior of their family members and friends in terms of the MBTI. And once extroverted people understand how excessive social interaction drains introverts of their vital life force, they respond with a mixture of sympathy and pity. “Poor you,” I see them thinking, “to be missing out on all the fun.” But then, the magic words: “You’re excused.”

So, if I were in Dorothea’s situation I’d use a multi-pronged approach. I would disengage from the workplace by redefining myself as someone for whom the data entry job is simply a means to an end: a career in markup, e-Books, librarianship… in other words, a higher calling. This needs to be handled with a degree of delicacy since I wouldn’t want to come across as a snob. But, in my experience, most people are happy to relax and let us driven folks get on with it. (I learned to do this gracefully while working in the shipyard.)

Then, I would recast my passion for gaming as a form of social research. I’d explain that I function badly in informal situations since I can’t help analyzing the behaviour and interactions of those around me in terms of game theory. I don’t do this on the job, of course, since my attention is fully absorbed by interpreting and entering the census data. But, put me in a social situation, and I immediately become an observer. And who wants to be studied while they’re relaxing and having fun?

Next, I’d explain my introversion in Myers-Briggs terms. (Dorothea revealed that she’s an IXTJ in a comment on one of my recent MBTI posts.) I’d add that my observational behavior at parties is typical of introverts.

Finally, I’d attend an office party every now and again, to show I understand and accept my social obligations—to a degree. Inconsistent? Not at all. Because I would make it clear beforehand that I would only attend for an hour. When the hour was up, I would thank the organizer or hostess, say goodbye to everyone individually, and leave. How would my colleagues react? They’d be thrilled that, given my discomfort in large social gatherings, I’d made an effort on their behalf. (Although I quite like babies, in my guise as Dorothea I would never go to a baby-related event, not even for an hour—since babies only occur infrequently and I’d only attend work gatherings infrequently, it’s not hard to ensure that the two occasions never coincide.)

A long time ago I realized everything would be OK when my mother told me she’d picked up the photographs of a party I’d attended at her house. “There’s one of you I’m going to have framed,” she said. “And I’ll look at it every time I’m planning a party. You’re standing in the background of a group of people and you look as though you’re hoping the ground will open up and swallow you or, failing that, that you might be lucky enough to be struck by lightning.”

That’s the thing about introverts: while all you extroverts are enjoying each other’s company, we’re happy to have a fabulous time on our own.

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Saturday 21 December 2002

Fresh out of trinkets

Steve Himmer posed some questions about writing for the web:

What are we we writing, and how are we writing it? What constitutes good writing on the web, and is it determined by the same criteria that determine good writing elsewhere?

Jeff Ward suggested that conventional web writing bore strong resemblances to the writing taught in school:

It’s academic. Sort of like speaking up in class with just the right comment at the right time, rather than providing a complex dissertation on a topic.

Sometimes I think that the discourse of blogs doesn’t really reach that high. It’s more like show-and-tell—like kindergarten. See the nice link I found? Admit it, show and tell is fun and most outgoing adults still enjoy it. Some blogs stake out that territory and stay there—it’s comfortable and non-threatening. To an extent, it’s academic too. Say hello to the class and show them something so they will like you. Link heavy blogs create persona through a process of selection, of valuation. It’s interesting that this is perhaps the longest surviving mode of blogging, which does not show much sign of fading—I remember when I started that this seemed mostly bush-league. It takes guts to put yourself out on the commons without any trinkets to sell.

Comparing the link+quote+comment weblog to show-and-tell made me laugh, even though I started out that way myself. I didn’t stay there for long—within my first week of blogging I’d written my first long form post. Thinking back to how I approached blogging in those early days, there was an element of wanting to please that’s less evident now (to me anyway). And it does make sense that this is the longest surviving mode of blogging given that it requires hardly any effort and even less risk.

Perhaps, though, Jeff’s analogy depends on defining show-and-tell such that the objects brought to class should be produced or created by a third party, that one’s own creations are not admissable. Such a definition would allow us to easily differentiate between the link+quote+comment weblog and the long form weblog that consists mainly of original writing.

Marcel Duchamp, Fountain, 1917I have friends with young children so I called a couple of them to ask whether original works were accepted at show-and-tell. Absolutely, they replied. My nine-year-old goddaughter summed up the intellectual property issues: “You can take anything you like.” Why, then, was I surprised to learn that a found object—such as a seashell plucked from the beach or a Barbie doll purchased at the mall—is treated with the same seriousness as something the child actually created, a ceramic coil pot or a handmade dress? Anyone with even a passing knowledge of art history could have pointed out that show-and-tell and weblogging lie squarely in the tradition established by Duchamp’s readymades.

It’s not clear from Jeff’s post whether he still thinks that link+quote+comment weblogs are mostly bush-league but it seems to me that we’re all engaged in show-and-tell, of one kind or another. I read both kinds, although—as my (soon to be extinguished?) blogroll indicates—I prefer the long form to the traditional weblog. I guess it’s like having two different friends: one who has fascinating ideas and another who knows interesting facts. You enjoy spending time with both of them while acknowledging that it’s a lot tougher out there on the commons, when you have no trinkets to sell.

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Monday 23 December 2002

Please, sir, can I have some more constraints?

I appear to be one of the few to have appreciated Burningbird’s post about potential problems with the newly announced Creative Commons Licenses. The general reaction has been one of horror that anyone could actually question what is clearly intended as A Good Thing.

Interesting too, though mainly dispiriting, how little time it’s taken for the term Stop Energy to join Ad Hominem, Racist, Anti-Semitic, Sexist, and Homphobic as a fast and effective means of avoiding reasoned debate. Anyone with half-a-teaspoon of common sense and a couple of sprinkles of imagination could see that Burningbird’s reservations were articulated in good faith and in the hope of encouraging a productive discussion. Instead, the CCL advocates (with the notable exception of Matt Haughey) seemed outraged at her temerity in questioning the impact of a CC license on a weblog’s RSS feed—an problem that those who designed the licenses had clearly not considered.

I’d almost decided not to implement a CC license for any of my weblog content. My instinctive distrust of schemes cooked up by lawyers for improving the common good was echoed in Dorothea Salo’s question: “What is the good of automatically branding creativity with the mark of the lawyers, as if there were no other way to think or act toward it?” And the example Dorothea cited—of the ripoff artist who authored a spurious Don Quixote continuation, thus prompting Cervantes to write an inspired second half of Don Quixote—exemplified the best response an artist can make to his or her imitators.

I was equally influenced by Burningbird’s framing of the issue as a difference between optimists (the advocates of the CCL) and pessimists (those who worry about unintended consequences). Except that instead of pessimism and optimism, I prefer to see the problem as Thomas Sowell describes it, in terms of the conflict between constrained and unconstrained visions:

The constrained vision is a tragic vision of the human condition. The unconstrained vision is a moral vision of human intentions, which are viewed as ultimately decisive. The unconstrained vision promotes pursuit of the highest ideals and the best solutions. By contrast, the constrained vision sees the best as the enemy of the good—a vain attempt to reach the unattainable being seen as not only futile but often counterproductive, while the same efforts could have produced a viable and beneficial trade-off…

Running through the tradition of the unconstrained vision is the conviction that foolish or immoral choices explain the evils of the world—and that wiser or more moral and humane social policies are the solution… By contrast, the constrained vision sees the evils of the world as deriving from the limited and unhappy choices available, given the inherent moral and intellectual limitations of human beings.

Sowell uses Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations as an exemplar of the constrained vision. Smith, he says, believed that “economic benefits to society were largely unintended by individuals, but emerged systematically from the interactions of the marketplace, under the pressures of competition and the incentives of individual gain.”

People could also be persuaded to act altruistically, though for

reasons ultimately reducible to self-interest. It was not an atomistic theory that individual self-interests added up to the interest of society. On the contrary, the functioning of the economy and society required each individual to do things for other people; it was simply the motivation behind these acts—whether moral or economic—which was ultimately self-centered. In both his moral and economic analyses, Smith relied on incentives rather than dispositions to get the job done.

Therein lies the source of my uneasiness about the Creative Commons Licenses: nothing I’ve read about the licenses (on the Creative Commons website and elsewhere) explains in a persuasive manner why granting such a license is truly in the interest of the creator of the work—whereas both observation and experience have led me to the conviction that self-interest is the single most reliable indicator of human behavior.

Certainly, the Creative Commons FAQ mentions self-interest in their answer to the question: Why should I turn my work over to the public domain, or make it available under a Creative Commons Custom license, if copyright provides more legal protection?

You might do so for a few reasons. Some people may be attracted by the notion of others building upon their work, or by the prospect of contributing to an intellectual commons. As the Creative Commons community grows, licensors will have the satisfaction of helping develop new ways to collaborate. Or you might license your stuff purely out of self-interest. A scholar might want his writings to be copied and shared so that his ideas spread around the world. An upstart designer may want to encourage the unfettered dissemination of her sketches to help build a reputation. An established commercial musician might post samples to whet the public’s appetite for his other, fully protected songs. A political activist may want her message to reach the widest possible audience through unlimited copying. Our licenses can help implement such strategies, all while leaving you in ultimate control of your copyright. Read more examples.

One example is Get Creative, a 1.5 Mb Flash animation that, tellingly, starts with the case of a musician who adds a bass track to another band’s songs. This is easy to understand since music is, if not primarily then substantially, a collaborative art. We already have, in our own corner of Blogaria, a successful example of the collaboration envisaged by Creative Commons. Scott Andrew La Pera reworked a Shannon Campbell song, Dreaming of Violets, by “inserting himself as her backing band.” The result, Dreaming Of Violets (redux), absolutely delighted Shannon:

I’m absolutely, unbelievably, entirely in love with it. I would marry it and have 10,000 of its babies, if that were at all possible.

I have no doubt that the Creative Commons founders envisage the same thing happening a million times over, with just as many happy outcomes. But what if Shannon Campbell had hated Scott Andrew La Pera’s reworking of her song? Scott had the decency and integrity to email her his new version before mentioning the process on his site. What if, since this occurred a couple of months ago, he had published his new version without asking her? Alternatively, she might have released Dreaming of Violets under an Attribution-NonCommercial License, only to have someone else publish a version she despised and see it turn into a runaway hit.

Another Creative Commons example is that of filmmaker Jack and photographer Jill, who has taken a dramatic black and white picture of the Empire State Building. Jack can use Jill’s photo in his digital movie because it is available under a Creative Commons License. The reason for Jill’s largesse? Because “when she is still trying to build her reputation, she wants people to copy her work as much as possible.”

But what if Jill, in an attempt to have her work reach the widest possible audience, has chosen an Attribution-No Derivs. Licence that allows commercial uses of her work? And Jack’s film wins the Oscar for Best Documentary Short Subject. Knowing that Jack has profited handsomely from his film, will Jill be satisfied with merely the kudos? How will she feel when she realizes the photograph is being reproduced in books and magazines around the world—attributed to her, of course—without yielding her a cent in royalties? What if it turns out to be the definitive image of the Empire State Building? CCL advocates would argue that Jill could parlay the success of that photograph into a successful career. I rather think that every time Jill saw the photograph she’d feel stabs of resentment and regret at her own naivety.

And, unfortunately, it doesn’t appear that she can change her mind, since every Creative Commons license:

  • applies worldwide
  • lasts for the duration of the work’s copyright
  • is not revocable.

What is the duration of the work’s copyright? Let’s assume that Jill took the photograph after January 1st, 1978. In that case, the duration of the copyright is life plus 70 years; or, if she publishes the picture before the end of next week (December 31, 2002), the copyright period is life plus 70 years or until December 31, 2047, whichever is the greater.

“Not revocable” means “not capable of being revoked or cancelled.”

So Jill has given away all potential revenue from anywhere in the world, for why would anyone want to pay her to use the picture when they can have it for free? And she has also ensured that her descendants are unlikely to profit from the work.

Let’s use an example closer to home… some years ago I took a series of photographs of sick, recovering, and dead babies in the Neonatal Intensive Care ward of the Childrens Hospital in Sydney. If I publish these pictures on my website under an Attribution-NoDerivs-NonCommercial License, anyone can copy, distribute, display, and perform unaltered copies of the photographs as long as they give me credit and do not use them for commercial purposes.

What recourse do I have if one or more of these photographs is used in a context of which I disapprove? For example, on a poster advocating euthanasia for terminally-ill infants or in a right-to-life brochure—both published by non-profit organizations.

What’s to stop someone overlaying racist captions on photographs I took in the New Guinea highlands twenty-seven years ago, should I choose to release them under an Attribution-NonCommercial License? Or to include the photographs in a white-supremacist collage? How am I to respond when the pictures I made at a Jewish funeral appear as illustrations in an anti-Semitic diatribe? Not only has my artistic intent been subverted, but I have also allowed myself to be portrayed as a racist or an anti-Semite.

As far as I can tell, there is no remedy for such misuses of my work. The Creative Commons FAQ makes no reference to such situations. For Matt Haughey, one of the key advantages is that people don’t have to ask to use his work:

Here’s the reality of my situation and why I applied licenses to my work: over the past few years several dozen people have emailed me to request permission for reuse of my photos and essays. I had to answer each one individually, and I’d like to make that automatic for them instead. This way, more people use my creations (since they don’t have to go through the bother of asking first), my name gets out there in more places (with attribution requirements), and wild new creations are made based on my work (since I allow for derivative works). Putting something online and into the world already has lots of risk, but I don’t want to interfere at all with the legitimate reuses of my work, in fact I want to encourage it.

I guess it depends on how you define legitimate. But one thing seems certain. As long as they stick to the terms of the license, no-one is under any obligation to contact me and say: “By the way, I’ll be using this picture of yours in my racist/sexist/anti-Semitic/homophobic/neo-Nazi publication.” What makes it worse is that, as in the case of Jill’s photograph of the Empire State Building, the licenses I grant apply worldwide, last for the duration of the work’s copyright, and are not revocable.

A similar argument applies to writing since it’s entirely possible that the text of an essay released under an Attribution-NonCommercial License could be subtly (or blatantly) modified to convey a meaning opposite to that which I’d intended. It hardly matters that my original essay is available online if my name and reputation have been tainted by this revision (and negation) of my ideas.

If I’ve got this all wrong, then I’m happy to be corrected. Yet I can’t help but ask:

How is it in my best interest to so comprehensively relinquish control of the context in which my work appears?

And what am I offered in return, apart from a warm inner glow?

I note that, having had “many of [her] concerns about the legality of CC licenses… allayed by [Denise Howell’s] writeup, Burningbird has decided “to incorporate CC licenses, gradually, throughout [her] web sites.” I read Denise Howell’s step-by-step explanation and it allayed none of the concerns I’ve raised.

“Why do this at all?” asks Denise. “Creative Commons explains this nicely, she suggests. Well, explains is the FAQ entry I’ve already mentioned; this is the explanation of the licenses that includes “every license applies worldwide, lasts for the duration of the work’s copyright, and is not revocable;” and nicely is a Flash animation that, to me anyway, is long on style and short on substance.

“Collaboration across space and time,” says the confident, optimistic Flash movie voiceover, “…creative authorship with people you’ve never met. Standing on the shoulders of your peers. That’s what this Internet is all about. It’s can be that easy when you skip the intermediaries.”

Picasso and Braque stood on each other’s shoulders as they invented Cubism but they were careful (and sufficiently smart) to maintain the copyright on their works. The Creative Commons Licenses, on the other hand, typify Thomas Sowell’s unconstrained vision of human nature by relying on people (“I’ve never met”) to behave honorably and to respect the integrity of my work. Spend five minutes on “this Internet” and tell me I’m not bound for disappointment.

I wouldn’t be so skeptical if the Creative Commons Licenses relied less on a rose-tinted vision of benign collaboration and instead provided greater safeguards for the real interests of those licensing their original works; or if, to borrow Thomas Sowell’s words, they replaced—to at least some degree—their “moral vision of human intentions” with a more pragmatic acceptance of the “inherent moral and intellectual limitations of human beings.”

In other words—and pardon my bluntness—what’s in it for me? Really? Other than distress and disillusionment?

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© Copyright 2007 Jonathon Delacour