Two cheers for the economic recovery

As we approach a council and European election in UK, and are a year away from the General Election, the government is crowing that its years of austerity politics have put Britain right again. House prices are booming (in the South East) etc. 1.2 million new jobs are (apparently) created (but what kind of jobs?). “Welfare has been capped and immigration controlled, so our economy works for those who play by the rules”, say the Conservatives.

It doesn’t feel like a Golden Age of prosperity here in my past-its-heydey suburb of South Birmingham. Our high street supports two family butchers, and a greengrocer. But there are also two slot machine shops, several discount shoes and cheap clothing shops, as well as a slew of charity shops and places to sell gadgets/ jewellry for cash.

Here are some photos of my local high street; it takes 10 minutes to amble along this route – approximately 400m to walk up, cross the road, and walk down again.

There’s an Oxfam charity shop:

Oxfam charity shop

A shop selling plastic stuff and canned food for a pound:

Poundbase pound shop

A PDSA charity shop:

PDSA charity shop

A cheque centre (for cashing cheques at a commission) next to an “Entertainment centre” (where people can buy sell phones, games consoles, DVDs etc):

Cheque cashing payday loan place, next to "cash converters" type shop

A British Heart Foundation furniture and electrical store, where people on low incomes can buy cheap used furniture:

Furniture/ Electrical charity shop

A branch of Pound Stretchers:

Pound Stretcher

“Money for Gold Rope” where you can sell your jewelry:

Money 4 Gold pawn shop

Debra charity shop for cheap used furniture:

Debra charity shop

Cash converters, where you can sell your TV, DVD player. There’s always a queue to sell at weekends:

Cash converter pawn shop

A Marie Curie cancer hospice charity shop next to a British Red Cross charity shop:

Marie Curie Hospice Charity shop next to British Red Cross charity shop

Acorns Children’s Hospice charity shop:

Acorns hospice charity shop

BetFred bookmakers, next to Scope charity shop:

Betfred bookmakers next to Scope charity shop

Albemarle Bond pawn shop:

Pawnbroker shop

Bright House, a shop that provides “high-quality, branded products to credit-constrained customers, through affordable weekly payments. Our bespoke credit management processes enable our customers to get the goods they need, in a way they can afford”. It’s basically a high-interest hire purchase shop; the front page of their website today advertises a “representative APR of 64.7%”:

Bright House high-interest hire purchase

British Heart Foundation charity shop:

British Heart Foundation charity shop

Charity shops do great work, and I love poking around them for CDs and books. But when most of your high street is charity shops, it’s difficult to believe the triumphant cries of “recovery!” from the millionaires in government.

Reading List


App Links

Facebook announced App Links, a “an open, cross-platform solution for app-to-app linking”.

Other standards ‘n’ stuff

And finally:

On October 4th 2013, YouTubers ‘Sophie Danze’ and ‘JilianlovestheBiebs’ had a conversation on the video ‘One Direction: That’s what makes you beautiful. The following is a reconstruction.”

Birmingham’s “garden tax” Nazi binmen furore: solved

Here in Birmingham (UK, not Al’A-Bama), tensions run high as Blighty gears up to a general election. Our City Council has long been profligate with cash and recently starved of money by the central government’s austerity policy, so has stopped collecting garden waste for free, and started charging £35 a year for fortnightly collections.

The problem

Thanks to advances in our understanding of quantum physics from the Large Hadron Collider, scientists have discovered that grass cuttings, plant prunings and vegetable matter will, when left in a pile and thereafter ignored, naturally decompose and add what boffins call “nutrients” into the soil. This process, known to Nobel-prizewinners as “composting”, is cheaper and easier than going out in a car and buying big plastic bags full of compost to spread on your garden.

However, “composting” is a concept so revolutionary that news of it has yet to filter out to the horticulturally-minded public who can’t afford the new £3 per month charge to collect garden waste, so naturally they throw it onto the street to rot.

Rotting matter can attract pests and vermin, and this has led to an epidemic of opportunist parliamentary wannabes berating the council for such eyesores on social media:

Why anyone should want to “put an end to” eccentric middle-aged druids in rainbow clothing kneeling in prayer to grass cuttings is beyond me; each to their own, I say. A more sinister turn of events has occurred with the local newspaper reporting that that the ex-Lord Mayor has likened council binmen to The Gestapo.

It’s getting nasty. People need to chill out.

The solution

I have a solution to the problem. The council should make it legal, or even compulsory, for residents to grow marijuana in their gardens. For the vast majority of people, their ganja harvest would far out-strip their domestic consumption, but instead of dumping the waste for Druid-Lady to mourn, they could sell it to real stoners. I’m pretty sure that a binbag full of homegrown would fetch a lot more than £35, enabling the gardeners to pay the council to take their waste and making them a tidy profit, too.

Truly, the Green Shoots of Economic Recovery™ for Birmingham’s Hard-Working Families™.

Pass the bong, please, Binman Bormann.

Should you use HTML5 header and footer?

Matt Wilcox asked “I still don’t bother with <header> <footer> etc. I assume all widely used browsers support them now. But, do they do anything more than div?”.

It’s a good question. The answer I gave is “yes”. These two elements (and <nav> and <main>) give value to users of some assistive technologies on some browsers.

In the HTML5 spec, HTML elements are mapped to ARIA information. Some of those may be over-ridden by authors, but if they aren’t, they have default implicit ARIA semantics. A <header> element that is not a descendant of an article or section element maps to ARIA role=banner, for example. You don’t need to add any ARIA information; it’s included, free, in the HTML element.

These aren’t necessarily implemented everywhere; Steve Faulkner’s excellent keeps tabs of implementation. As an example, <footer> causes Chrome to expose the element with a footer role in IA2, and Firefox to exposes as ARIA landmark role=”contentinfo” (when not a child of article or section elements).

These are useful to people, as we can see in WebAIM’s 5th annual screenreader users’s survey (which encouragingly tells us “For the first time in 5 years of surveys, respondents are more positive about web accessibility progress than in the previous survey”).

When asked “How often do you navigate by landmarks/regions in your screen reader?” (such as “contentinfo”, “banner”, “main”, “navigation”), 26% said “whenever they are present”.

20% thought 1-3 landmarks/regions per page is optimal; 29% thought 4-6 is the right number.

So my advice is: yes, use them – especially the main <header>, <footer>, <nav> and (once per page) <main>. On browsers/ ATs that don’t support them they do no harm. But don’t use billions.


Added 13 May to clear up confusion:

Happy Birthday, BASIC

The programming language, BASIC, turned 50 years old yesterday. I started using it 33 years ago, when my physics teacher persuaded our school to buy an Ohio Scientific Challanger 2 microcomputer, with Microsoft BASIC as its 8K ROM operating system and chunky 8K of RAM, then set up a computer club. I went along after school, because my mate Matt’s older brother was in computers and he was cool. (He had a job and owned all the punk LPs we listened to at lunchtime.)

Surprising everyone (including myself), I found that programming simply came naturally to me. I was soon coding games that my friends wanted to play.

It taught me several important concepts – primarily, how to break problems into logical flows, and how to debug when regaled with “Syntax error in line 40″ (you may also enjoy my Old programmer war story tale of epic debugging.)

It taught me about abstraction; I soon learned 6502 assembler and disassembled the ROM to see how the computer interpreted the stuff I typed in. (The joys of finding the message “Microsoft BASIC written by Richard W Weiland” hidden in the memory!)

It taught me about cross-platform; later, I borrowed a Sinclair ZX Spectrum, learned Z80 assembler and realised that although the code I entered was the same as the code I’d written for the Challenger 2 (with some minor syntactical variations), what happened under the hood was wildly different.

BASIC changed the world for me, and on cheap widely-accessible machines like the Sinclair ZX series and the BBC micros, it changed the whole world.

What I love about BASIC is that it was designed for simplicity. As wikipedia writes, “It was intended specifically for less technical users who did not have or want the mathematical background previously expected.” It also prefigured the WWW: “The designers of the language decided to make the compiler available free of charge so that the language would become widespread.”

Even the name “Basic” was a statement of intent; no wonder “real” computer professionals sneered at the language. “Goto considered harmful”, they said. I understood that to mean “working class 14 year olds who do literature and humanities not welcome here.”

Today there are still those who try to make programmers a special priesthood. They can kiss my algorithms.

Reading List

Reading List

The <picture> element

I proposed it 2.5 years ago. Loads of cleverer people worked hard on it. The RICG is holding a fundraiser to pay developer Yoav Weiss to code it in Blink and WebKit. Opera (my employer) contributed $1000, dozens of individual developers – people like you – pledged money as well.

The inital target of $10,000 has been reached, but don’t let that deter you from contributing – it means Yoav can work for longer, and maybe even have a break for a coffee and a piss now and then. (Coders, eh?)

Standards ‘n’ Shiz

Industry n Stuff


Notes on accessibility of Web Components

At Edge Conference on Friday, Peter Gasston unmasked me as a secret accessibility wanker by saying “For a proper in-depth look at a11y in web components, see @brucel – he’s just spent weeks researching it for a talk next week.”

Well, not weeks, but I confess to reading around the subject (A lesson on rendering trees, emerging technologies and tacos), and had some chats with the ever-helpful Addy Osmani and The Mighty Steve Faulkner as well as (gasp) thinking a bit.

(If you plan to attend my talk at Funka conference in Stockholm on April 8, please stop reading now. Or read on, and go to someone else’s talk.)

If you don’t know what Web Components are, I recommend starting with Peter Gasston’s A Detailed Introduction To Custom Elements or his excellent introduction to web components at Edge Conference.

Very, very crudely: Web Components will allow us to extend existing HTML elements, and create our very own not-HTML-but-they-look-like-it elements with JavaScript.

“Real” HTML elements have built-in behaviours. Something like a <button>, for example, can be focussed; it can be activated by the keyboard, and when it’s activated it does something. Developers don’t need to add anything to the button element to get these behaviours; they’re given to us.

However, some developers love wheel-reinvention (it can make a diverting break from yak-shaving). So we get vile messes like this, that emulate <button> but which aren’t <button>. Therefore, to make it accessible, it requires tabIndex to make it focussable, JavaScript to listen for clicks and needs ARIA roles to let assistive technology know what this tag bukkake is supposed to be:

<DIV id=:rk class="J-K-I J-J5-Ji L3 J-K-I-JO" tabIndex=0
unselectable="on" closure_hashCode_l16mgm="182" act="">
<DIV class="J-J5-Ji J-K-I-Kv-H" unselectable="on">
<DIV class="J-J5-Ji J-K-I-J6-H" unselectable="on">
<DIV class=J-K-I-KC unselectable="on">
<DIV class=J-K-I-K9-KP unselectable="on">&nbsp;</DIV>
<DIV class=J-K-I-Jz unselectable="on">Search Mail</DIV>

(The example is from Steve Faulkner’s 2010 article HTML5 and the myth of WAI-ARIA redundance. “Tag bukkake” is defined as “nastier than tag soup, and far more in your face”.)

In The Future™, you’d be able to extend <button>, so add all kinds of extra <div>s for hanging styles off etc, but without having to reinvent the base element. You’d need JavaScript, to define and register your omg-look-at-my-sexy-button element of course, but your basic markup would be

<button is="omg-look-at-my-sexy-button">

and User Agents that didn’t support JavaScript would fallback to showing a <button>.

You can also make your own custom elements with no fallback, too. But whichever way you choose, you need to add all the ARIA information and tabindex yourself. I don’t think this is misuse of ARIA; the ARIA spec says

WAI-ARIA is intended to augment semantics in supporting languages like HTML and SVG… It clarifies semantics to assistive technologies when authors create new types of objects, via style and script, that are not yet directly supported by the language of the page, because the invention of new types of objects is faster than standardized support for them appears in web languages.

Given that the whole point of Web Components is to add “new types of objects, via style and script, that are not yet directly supported by the language of the page”, this seems to me a pretty good fit.

But enough theorising – how well are Web Components supported in assistive technology?

The answer is, pretty well (although Some stuff that doesn’t work between the DOM and Shadow DOM).

That’s actually not too surprising; although Web Components and Shadow DOM can hide things from the “real” DOM of the page (by design), the browser mashes them all together to render them, and assistive technologies sit on top of browsers. Of course, if the developer couldn’t be bothered to add ARIA information etcetera, they may not be accessible – but the fact they’re encapsulated in a component doesn’t make it better or worse than if they’re in the page in the traditional way.

The primary impediment to accessibility on the Web isn’t technical, it’s social. It’s that many (most?) developers don’t give a toss. One aspect of Web Components is that they can be shared and imported into the HTML – think of server-side includes, but client-side.

  <link rel="import" href="/path/to/imports/stuff.html">

(More at HTML Imports #include for the web.)

I had a vision of a big CDN (like Google’s Web Fonts or hosting of jQuery) but Addy Osmani told me that including from third party CDNs could be a performance problem. Nevertheless, we can expect lots of Web Component libraries to spring up, and people saving them locally, using their build processes to check they have the latest versions in their directories for inclusion at run time.

I don’t think it’s necessary for me to urge developers to put the source code of the Web Components they write onto Github for forking and collaboration. Please do that, and make it easy for people to contribute, so that people who notice accessibility holes can send pull requests.

A while ago, on this blog, I got an email from a screenreader user telling me that the live comment preview below the comments box needed an ARIA live region to be accessible. It was a WordPress plugin, with the source code on Github. I sent a pull request and, a couple of days later, the developer merged my one-line change latest version of the plugin. That’s my site, and 43,410 others, made more accessible through one pull request.

Christian Heilmann recently wrote that we need more “passion” in accessibility, “Not another library to add ARIA to badly thought-out HTML“.

I disagree. If passionate evangelism were enough, the web would be perfectly accessible now. My message to accessibility advocates is “passion – great. But with pull requests, please.”


Reading List

Reading List