Giant babies kill the floppy disk

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Letters Sad news this week as California coastguards were forced to call off the search for Microsoft researcher Jim Gray who has been missing since setting out in his yacht last Sunday. A respected IT personality and database developer, Google chipped in with an offer to use its high resolution satellite imagery to aid the search:

Very sad news, let us hope Jim is found. I've known Jim since the early 1980s, when he used to visit our group at Bell Labs. Oddly, we both ended up in Microsoft Research many years later (I'm retired now).

I have to say, most of the famous CS researchers at Microsoft are sort of wind bags (well in fact most famous CS researchers period). Not Jim. His articles and books are beautifully written, designed to communicate not intimidate. And he is also one of those rare academics who has serious hands-on experience with commercial systems software.

I see Google is volunteering to search for Gray. That's cool and also ironic. Jim Gray built Terraserver as a demonstration of MS SQL Server in the mid 1990s, and it was certainly the forerunner to Google Earth.

- Don P. Mitchell

Harking back to Wednesday's mail bag trawl, reader Douglas' rant on behalf of all Americans, to allay our concerns that the Bush administration might be getting too big for its boots, drew much wrath. We thought we'd keep the battle going a little bit longer. 'Cause that's just the kind of people we are:

Would your excitable correspondent Douglas like to

a) Learn how to spell "pen" correctly


b) Comment on the view that current American behaviour is explainable by the notion that they were late for the last two world wars so they are trying to make up for it by being really punctual this time?

(Apologies to Not The Nine O'Clock News)


It was interesting to see poor old Douglas in his third rate flame refer to the fact that their greatest minds informed the inking of what I assume are supposed to be John Locke & Algernon Sidney.

Given that both were parliamentarians in the [English] Civil War and died before the Founding Fathers got around to the idea of an independant state I would suggest that the reverse is the case.

Indeed Algernon Sidney tried to get the Dutch invloved in a republican revolution after the restoration of the Monarchy in England and Locke was quite keen on revolution as a form of social change - predating Marx (and the Founding Fatherrs) by quite some time !!

I do wish that the Americans would do at least a little reseacrh (and have their dictionary to hand) before they sat down in fornt of their keyboards

of course I could be wrong and there may well have been two philosophers by the names of John Loche and Algenor Signey



Re: Douglas "The US position on the peaceful and perhaps non-peaceful position on space is that of self interest as it would be for any nation. Our response is clerarly reprentative of the old british attitude we have incorporated into our military and non-military positions.

However unique to Americans is that we are workable but don't screw with our understanding that where freedom exists and personal accountability is required, industry and self achivement abounds."

There seems to be a bit of Douglas' letter missing - the section where he moves on to explain that he is in sole control of DOLAR NINTY MILION, and you can get your mitts on it SIMPLE BY SEND YOR EMAIL ADDRES AND SMAL PROSESSING FEA.

Or am I being a spelling (and grammar, and coherence) snob ;-)

Last week we ran a story about a computer-based exam that discriminated against a blind candidate. We heard from a blind reader:

In your last roundup, you had a correspondant write in the matter of the discriminated disabled exam candidate, in part:

"However, blind or deaf people are going to have difficulty justifying that sites like Youtube or iTunes are illegal - just because some people are blind / deaf does not mean that everyone is. This should be common sense, but I fear that common sense died a long time ago in Britain. While it is important to defend disabled people and provide them with reasonable opportunities, it must also be borne in mind that the rest of us shouldn't have to pay a disproportionate price to accommodate their needs. Will all book publishers now be sued because they don't release Braille and audiobook versions of all their works? If the laws move in this direction, expect to find any material - printed or online - harder and harder to find in the UK; everyone in the UK will suffer in this case, not just disabled people. Oliver."

As a blind person myself, and as a savvy consumer with enough knowledge of the kind of useless hip technologies employed by sites for no other reason than that of desiring greater market share and looking kewl, I have to say that I find this sort of logic rather dangerous. The thing is, most people just aren't able to explain the defficiencies of their websites in regard to accessibility very satisfactorily.

To take Itunes, it is no great difficulty to imagine a deaf person buying tracks of interest to a hearing individual; of a blind person listening to the audio (as I often do now) in some YouTube videos. Both sites were disgracefully inaccessible when I last used them (but it looks like ITunes has improved markedly since then), but I get by. They and sites like them should be more accessible not because they are required for disabled people, not because there is any legal requirement, but because there's no good reason for them to fail to be accessible. No-one should feel happy with their website unless even a text-browsing user cannot get the spirit of the content. A loss of functionality is not the same as a reasonable adjustment. There are very few cases of sites devoted so thoroughly to one type of media (just audio, just pictures) that the addition of comprehensive alternative content would seem inappropriate, and no-one is going to suffer if (say, in the case of a Flash presentation, a cartoon is given along with alternative text, labelled controls and captioning). Even factoring in all useability cases offered by blind and other disabled testers of popular websites, voluntary help, W3C specs, accessibility now available in both Flash and Acrobat PDF files, the good work done by various organisations like the DRC and everything else, it's very hard to see why the tiny amount of forethought website authors could show toward accessibility in the very beginning is so terribly absent.

Once again, the idea that being disabled (either by design or by birth) is a reason for websites to fail in an ungraceful way for that user is always wrong. You must do something better.

Every now and then, a new popular site becomes in some way accessible and part of the disabled community is grateful for it. But it's often not easy (the case of Gmail's CAPTCHA requirement, for example, had to go to the board of directors in the form of a petition protesting absence of an alternative which eventually came out as an audio CAPTCHA). But every success case finds that it isn't the technology and that a little thought goes a long way.

In the matter of books, legislation is being proposed that would allow translation of books into formats suitable for disabled people without the usual requisite consultation of publishers which is typically a long-winded process and leaves nasty gaps between print and other format publications.

Even then, charities are burdened with the work of the translation, and they're already overworked. With only 5%-or-so of all books actually readable or listenable by the blind, is it any wonder that we can't help blaming the publishers? Is it any wonder that any and all work done by publishers to accessify their content is welcomed? They are, almost certainly, in the best position to do it, if not for expertees then for their might and resources. They control the medium, have exclusive rights in literature and work that, yes, everyone has a right to read.

They should bare some responsibility and embrace possibilities that are more inclusive to disabled people, rather than trying to hang on to the one and only way they know of making big money - print. Just like the music labels who would rather fight for old-style physical sales over possibly more innovative digital content (not that you'll catch me buying that stuff). Have a look at the RNIB's Right To Read campaign, here:

Cheers, Sabahattin


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