How should we add alternative text for diagrams?

I’ve mentioned this before to people but never wrote it down: How should we even begin to handle graphs and diagrams? What is the “alt text” for a graph, a schematic, floor plan, infographic, or UML diagram?

Just consider this diagram:

(A UML diagram used for the discussion)

How should we even describe this as an “alt text”? (Let’s ignore text browser users for the moment.) Describing the picture certainly wouldn’t work; what matters are not the visual elements themselves, but their relationships to each other.

Even worse: Imagine this being exported into PDF (or SVG, or EPS), then embedded into InDesign. Suppose the InDesign file is going to ultimately end up as an accessible PDF. But the text in the diagram is going to be a jumbled mess. So what accessibility are we talking about? Are we deluding ourselves?

This has serious implications: Imagine, for example, a piece of online instructional material full of such diagrams. Under the AODA organizations are supposed to be able to supply this in an “accessible format.” What does it even mean for this to be accessible?

Open letter to the City of Toronto on the Downtown Transportation Operations Study

Date: Sat, 13 Apr 2013 13:16:52 -0400
Subject: Invalid question in the Downtown Transportation Operations Study survey
From: Ambrose LI
To: (Matt Colwill)
Cc: (Andre Filippetti)


I am writing to report that Toronto’s transportation policy is being jeopardized by poor question design in the said survey. In particular, question 6 in the said survey, namely the question “When do you typically make trips to/from/within the downtown?” is invalid for a significant number of survey respondants.

I am a student studying in the study area and I typically go downtown in one of the listed time periods, but go back uptown in a different time period, and I know my situation is normal. How are we, students, supposed to answer this question? We are essentially forced to either lie (and you get invalid data), or give up on responding to the survey (and you lose a data point).

In essence, to/during/from should either be three separate questions, or the options should be check boxes and not radio buttons.

For an important study like this, the questionnaire should be well designed. I cannot imagine how such an obvious flaw would be able to make it into the final version of the questionnaire.

UEB and Unicode, revisited

While working on my term paper, I suddenly realized that some differences between UEB and Unicode that I thought were there aren’t really there.

Mind you, that still doesn’t mean Unicode can be reliably converted into UEB: I still don’t think the process is reliable. There still are discrepancies in semantics, and there still are cases where human judgement (or very good artificial intelligence) is required. Sure, the specific example of gross incompatibility that I thought I observed isn’t really there; but, as far as I can tell, there still are incompatibilities.

MOOC vs U, U wins

A few days ago one of the MOOC’s that I had signed up for sent me an email saying the course (one that actually relates to my program of study) was coming to an end—I did hardly any work in that course. Today I got another of these emails, from the other MOOC I had signed up for—and I literally did not do any work in that course.

So when I signed up I was already suspecting that I wouldn’t have time for any of these MOOC’s, and my suspicions turned out to be justified. Even though I could not feel the semester (and I still cannot feel it, even though I can feel its deadlines), I did not have time for the MOOC’s.

The ironic thing was how detached I have been feeling with this semester’s courses. I just logged into ATutor, trying to find information about how to write my term paper that I needed to turn in in slightly more than a week: I could not find any information, but instead found a dozen or so lectures that I could not even recognize. Such is the disconnect between me and my courses.

So how in the world am I going to finish writing this paper? Having spent nearly 10 hours on Behance today, I suddenly realized that I have probably already finished the other half of the assignment, the portfolio artefact. But after staring for half an hour at the Word file that is to become my term paper, I still have no idea what to put in it.

(And Iridescent is out: it does not currently have an open call for submissions. My term paper will remain just that, a term paper.)

On Monday, I’m going to drop into the Writing and Learning Centre…

Post-show, pre–post-mortem random thoughts

Now that the crazy week is over and the ceramics studio is not firing anything any more this semester, I’m hit with imminent multiple deadlines. I sure hope everything will be ok.

My professor said if our installation has held up for the duration of an exhibition, we are already doing better than many scientists. A comforting (and shocking) revelation notwithstanding, I am still not too satisfied that the (engineering part, so to speak, of the) design had not been conceived better.

William was calling me an “artist” today. Naturally I brushed it off. I know what we were called in the past week. But for multiple reasons that should be obvious, I still find this rather ironic.

We were chatting with Alex from IAMD last night at the closing reception (I believe “we” were myself, Brandon, and our prof), and Brandon and I told her “We don’t even have a studio.” Naturally, she was shocked…

So long

Got here at 4:30pm (having missed my class at 12:00pm) and found that things were already being taken down. I used to really hate exhibitions being taken down before their advertised closing time; I guess I still hate it, but have to acknowledge that such is reality.

I just wish if people are tearing down at 4pm, they should have advertised today’s gallery hours as 12:00–4:00pm and not 12:00–5:00pm.

Old media requires lubrication

“Old media requires lubrication.”

This was one of the answers to the fake questionnaire I was given at Night Kitchen during last year’s Nuit Blanche. Back then the answer didn’t really make much sense to me, and in fact I thought the answer was bizarre. But of course, I hadn’t been involved in any “old media” creation that would have required lubrication.

Imagine how I felt when I had left the installation turned on for the night and then discovered bits of the sprocket wheel on the wooden frame. I was so glad the wheel had not been destroyed.

So I guess I can now sympathize with that answer to that fake question: Old media does require lubrication. It probably requires daily lubrication, even. But does that mean our installation, with such a strong electronics component, is still “old media”? So “new media” is virtual only? I don’t know if I can side with this conclusion, yet.

The non-obviousness that something is an installation

When people saw our Blind Reading installation, they often ask, “How does it work?”

The fact that the piece is an art installation and not a design artefact must not be obvious. Even the speeches alluded to results of design research (when there is, as far as I can tell, only one product design presentation in the whole exhibition). Even the official blog of the exhibition sounds as if they got it wrong and thought our art piece was a design artefact.

But at least the installation held up for the evening. (The realization that, other than the incorrect wiring, the root cause of our problem was mechanical in nature helped immensely.) People did ask, we tried to explain, and I hope we got our points across. I still fear Wednesday: I have never been on this side of the table at an artist’s talk before, and I have not gone to enough artist’s talks, but my consolation is that I will probably not be the one doing most of the talking.

Got in!

There were people inside working on their artwork, and I was able to get in. Hopefully this will not take more than 8 hours…

Time running out and still not sure what went wrong

One thing that we might have done wrong is to have connected a 3V stepper to the Adafruit motor shield and using a 5V supply. But on further investigation this might not be as simple as that.

According to the data sheet, the 57BYGH420 is a unipolar stepper. However, a page Google found suggests that 6-wire steppers can be connected either as a unipolar or bipolar motor. (It also tells me that our motor is a NEMA 23.) Indeed, according to Stepper Motor Connection Options on this is indeed the case, and to be precise 6-wires can be connected either as unipolars or a “bipolar-series.”

What’s interesting is that what Angela did to the two centre taps was in fact correct (whereas Adafruit’s documentation is not): To configure a 6-wire stepper as a bipolar, the two centre taps should “not [be] connected to anything.” That is probably why when I tried connecting the centre taps to GND (as per Adafruit’s instructions), the motor stalled.

It is also worth noting that the page says that if we connect a 6-wire as a bipolar, we get twice the resistance than as rated and 4 times the inductance, and require 70.7% the current and 141.4% the voltage. Which would mean the 57BYGH420 as a bipolar would be actually a 4.23V motor at 1.414A. So it in fact needs a supply that can deliver approximately 5.43V. Our 5V supply is low, but not by so much. A 6V, but not a 9V, will probably do better.

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