Accessibility of Unicode as styled text

Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and other internet sites often lack the ability to style text, like making it bold or italics. Some “clever” people have discovered ways of abusing Unicode to make the appearance of styled text with these sites. Unfortunately doing so renders the text completely inaccessible by users of assistive technology.

You might have run across an Instagram profile, Facebook post, or tweet that includes styled text and wondered how the person did that. They probably used a site like YayText [which I’m loath to reference at the risk of encouraging its use]. These sites take a string of text as input and present the user with what visually is the same text but styled in a variety of ways. How does this work? To explain that, we need a brief primer on Unicode.

Unicode is a technology standard that allows computers to encode and represent hundreds of thousands of characters, letters, and symbols used in over 100 world languages. It allows computers to differentiate between the English letter K (U+004B) and the Greek letter Κ (kappa, U+039A) because while they are visually similar — at least in many fonts — they are two very different letters and mean two very different things.

But Unicode supports more than just languages, it also supports mathematical symbols including a whole slew of alphanumeric ones. These mathematical symbols are intended to be used for math texts and are semantically different than their Latin counterparts. Said another way: just because the 𝐴 looks like an italic A doesn’t mean it is one.

Why is this important? Is this just a language nerd getting uppity about incorrect use of Unicode? It matters because beyond being semantically incorrect, using Unicode in this way renders the text completely unintelligible to assistive technology like screen readers.

When a screen reader encounters 𝐴 (U+1D434), it will read it as “mathematical italic capital a” because that’s what it is. It isn’t the English letter A (U+0041) that is italic. Which means that the string “apples 𝐴𝑁𝐷 bananas” will be read to the user as:

apples mathematical italic capital a mathematical italic capital n mathematical italic capital d bananas

The video in this tweet by @kentcdodds does an excellent job of demonstrating just how horrible this is for people with screen readers.

While I can certainly sympathize with the desire to add style and emphasis to help convey emotion in written form, let’s not do so at the exclusion of others.

Thank you to this StackExchange question & answer for confirming my suspicions and providing the video link when I was investigating this back in July.

YouTube Music is a poor replacement for Google Play Music

Google is replacing Google Play Music (GPM) with YouTube Music (YTM) starting this month and shutting down GPM entirely in December 2020. Google is touting YTM as a great replacement for GPM but are conveniently not revealing that YTM does not have feature parity without a YouTube Music Premium subscription.

With GPM I can listen to my music in the background on my Pixel. But with YTM you need a monthly subscription to do that.

With GPM I can listen to my music on my Sonos. But with YTM you need a monthly subscription to do that. Ars Technica reports that Google Home users will need a YTM subscription too, just in case you forked out money for Google-branded smart speakers.

And it doesn’t matter if this is music that you’ve uploaded or that you’ve purchased from Google. That’s the real kicker for me. I’ve been buying music from Google since 2013 — 669 songs to date, some of them via albums and some of them as individual songs. It’s hard to know exactly how much money I’ve paid to Google for music over the past 7 years, but at $1/song that would be just under ~$100/year. 

I don’t subscribe to music; I still purchase music. More over I’m not going to pay $12/month for YouTube Music Premium to be able to access the music I’ve already purchased. If I wanted a subscription service I would pay $10/month to Spotify. I realize that I am no longer Google’s target audience.

Instead I’ve downloaded my purchased music from Google and am trying out a Plex server. I can listen to music on my phone and Sonos without a subscription of any kind. So far it’s working out well.

Now I just need to figure out who to purchase music from that isn’t Amazon or Apple.

“Beefy” seitan

As a vegetarian household we use a lot of different sources for protein, like beans, tofu, and seitan. Many of you might be familiar with seitan through Field Roast products. Indeed, their Italian and Apple Sage sausages are some of our household staples.

Over the past few years we’ve been making our own after discovering two great recipes in Isa Chandra Moskowitz’s Isa Does It cookbook. We’ve played with the recipes a bit and crafted something of mashup between her Simmered Seitan (p240) and her Steamed Chicky Seitan (p241). This “beefy” seitan slices up great and browns nicely for saucy recipes like “beef” and broccoli and numerous other stir-frys. These also freeze very well.

“Beefy” Seitan

  • 1c veggie broth
  • 2T tomato paste
  • 1/4c soy sauce (yes, you read that correctly)
  • 1/2c water
  • 2c vital wheat gluten
  • 5T nutritional yeast
  • 2t onion powder
  • 1t garlic powder

Prepare a steamer and bring the water to a boil. Tear off 4 squares of aluminum foil.

Mix together all wet ingredients. Add in the dry ingredients and mix well. While you can start off with a fork be prepared to get your hands dirty to knead it all up towards the end.

Divide the mass into 4 equal patties (ours end up resembling very thick hamburger patties) and loosely wrap each in a piece of foil.

Steam for 40 minutes.

You can use them immediately or store them in a ziplock in the fridge (for about a week) or in the freezer (for several months).

Searching for evidence of beauty you cannot see

[I]n this pandemic haunted world in which we now live, some of y’all are in dark places too, some of you for the first time. And while I don’t know what it is like to be you, I do want to let you know that it is important to realize that your reality is not the only reality, and the world is still a beautiful place and worth fighting for, and that sometimes the best you can do is to search for the evidence of the beauty you cannot see, and then rest in it until the darkness passes.

Hugh Hollowell, Life is So Beautiful #54

Accepting the new normal

I think I’ve moved into the final stage of grief: acceptance.

For 8 weeks I’ve been grieving, among many things, that my old life is over. Going to the gym at 5:30a every morning. Running with good friends on Sundays and laughing with them as we share lunch together. Going to shows at ACT and listening to the Seattle Symphony. Eating out at amazing restaurants. Hugging friends so dear to you that they’re family. Board game nights and shared dinners with loved ones.

That life is over for the foreseeable future for very valid reasons.

This is the new normal.

Now I’m focused on switching from “surviving until this is over” to “living in the mid- and post-pandemic world”. It’s hard and sad. It’s also necessary for me to drag myself out of “I’m alive out of obligation” back into “living again”.

Accessing Ubuntu desktop UI over SSH+VNC

During this pandemic I’m working from home on my Mac laptop and accessing things on my Ubuntu 18.04-based Linux desktop in the office. For most things this is fine via SSH or sshfs, but there are times you just need access to the desktop UI to get things done.

Specifically I had a 500 MB OVA that I needed to upload to an ESXi system — both of which are in the office. I could have downloaded the OVA to my laptop over the VPN, then uploaded it back over the VPN to ESXi but that is both slow, tedious, and wasteful. Instead after a bit of googling I figured out how to get a VNC client on my Mac securely accessing my work Xwindows display and do it all local to the office:

On your desktop, install x11vnc:

sudo apt install x11vnc

On your home computer, open an SSH tunnel and start the viewer on your remote system (below as $HOSTNAME):

ssh -t -L 5900:localhost:5900 $HOSTNAME 'x11vnc -localhost -display :0'

Then start a VNC viewer on your home computer (on MacOS I recommend RealVNC) and connect to localhost:5900

Security advisory: when accessing your desktop like this your computer is unlocked and accessible by keyboard and mouse to users who wander by your desk. Granted, in a pandemic when everyone is working from home is this really a problem? Lock your computer when you’re done as if you were walking away from your desk and you’ll be fine.

Granny Dot died today

My maternal grandmother Dorothy Birkelbach — Dot to her friends and Granny Dot to her grandchildren — died today. She was an amazing woman who will be missed. I am grateful that I was able to speak with her this morning before she passed to tell her that I love her — I’m confident she never doubted that.

My grandmother was quite the influence on my life. Reading, travel, laughter, adopted families, crafting, baking — I see so much of her life reflected in my own.

She was always an avid reader and I have many books that she gave me over the years. She and my grandfather liked to travel, unlike the rest of my family, and I attribute my joy of seeing other countries and cities to them.

Always quick with a smile and a laugh, she loved fiercely. When I was about three my grandmother met a woman named Wally Watson, her husband Darrel and daughter Renee, at a soaring event. My grandmother “adopted” Wally as her own, which is how I came to know Renee — we’ve been siblings ever since. My Granny was always “Granny” to Renee. If my Granny decided you were family that was it: you were family, loved through and through. My Granny also had her shit list. It took a lot to get on it; it took a lot to get off of it too!

My Granny did ceramics when I was growing up. She always made the trophies for the soaring competitions held in Littlefield: beautiful soaring seagull. She made some for her grandkids too and it stands on our mantle next to a picture of my grandfather in his sailplane. Needless to say she was always interested in my pottery. She was also a crocheter, making me numerous sets of house shoes over the years. Something my husband Daniel continues to this day.

Granny loved to bake. Chocolate sheet cake, cinnamon roles, cookies, you name it. In college, and even years after, I would receive a box of homemade cookies from her every Christmas. Dozens of different cookies. Chocolate chip, oatmeal, cowboy cookies, Marfa Light cookies.

But her chocolate sheet cake is my favorite and the most memorable. Granny always made it when I would bring friends to my grandparents’ lake house. I never saw her make it, it always just seemed to appear when we walked in the door. Years later I would get the following recipe from her:

Granny Dot’s Chocolate Cake

Bake a boxed chocolate cake mix (Duncan Hines, Betty Crocker, etc)

5 minutes before the cake is done, start the icing:
Melt and bring to boil 1 stick margarine, 4 T cocoa, and 6 T milk. Take from stove and add 1 box (16 oz; 3.5 C) powdered sugar, 1 t vanilla, and 1 cup chopped pecans. Mix well and spread over hot cake.

Imagine my surprise to discover it started with box of cake mix! But that was my Granny, not a pretentious bone in her body. I made a chocolate cake last night in her honor.

But the most cherished memory of my grandmother was back in 2009. My youngest brother was getting married and my brother and parents said that my (now ex-) husband Benjamin was not welcome at the wedding. They didn’t want us to be a “distraction”. I told my family that I would not be attending the wedding if my husband were not welcome. I had not yet come out to my grandparents, but it was clear I needed to do so before the wedding.

I called Granny Dot and told her that I was gay and why I wasn’t going to be at the wedding. I forget the details of how that conversation went, because I was a nervous wreck, but I remember it going well. I received this letter from her a few days after the wedding:

Dearest Casey,

It was so good to hear from you. The news you told me was no surprise to me – I had suspected the situation for a long time. I know you didn’t wake up one day and decide to be gay – it is an inborn thing and is natural to you but the average person views it as unnatural, because it doesn’t follow the norm. They need to stop and evaluate all the couples who co-habitate. In my opinion there is not much difference.

Of course I had looked forward to your children to love, but my love for you has never changed and never will. You are a part of me and Papa and we have always been proud of you. Just be happy and people will learn to accept the situation. I wish you every happiness.

I love you –

I love you too Granny.

Preparing your software engineering team for a pandemic

We would be naive if we didn’t consider the possibility that the Coronavirus might flare up into a full pandemic over the next few months. Here are some things you can do to ensure your engineering team keeps humming along if that happens. If the pandemic doesn’t happen at least we’ll be better prepared for next flu season.

For individual contributors

If you’re sick, stay home and take care of yourself.
Your colleagues want you to feel better and also for you to keep your germs to yourself.

Don’t come back to work until you’re fever-free for 24 hours.
If you feel like you can work, work from home rather than come back too soon and risk a relapse or sharing your illness.

Note: the CDC goes further and says to stay home until you’ve been fever- and symptom-free for 24 hours without the help of medication.

Be prepared to work from home.
Whether it’s because you’re sick, you’re taking care of a loved one who is sick, or your kid’s school is closed, be prepared to work effectively from home.

Make sure you have the tools (computer, monitor, keyboard, etc) and access (VPN, routing to AWS resources, etc) you need to do your job effectively. Don’t wait until you’re sick to figure it all out, do so now while you have the energy to tackle some bumps along the way.

Talk with your manager about your team’s WFH policies, procedures, and best practices.

Be prepared for others to work from home.
Add call-in info to all of your meetings and actually call into them. Consider ways for those working from home to participate in stand-ups and other activities (my team does daily chat-based standups, for example).

For managers

Allow & enable your employees to work from home.
Even if your engineering org prefers to have employees in the office, allow your employees more latitude to work from home if a pandemic happens. Some employees will need to stay at home and take care of their children if schools close.

Be sure to provide employees with the resources they need to work effectively from home. That might include computer hardware, VPN software, head sets, etc.

Have WFH policies, procedures, and best practices.
Ensure your employees have clear expectations for when they work from home. Be clear if you have different expectations for when employees are working from home vs working in the office such as daily status reports or check-ins. Working remotely may be challenging for some individuals who may need more structure.

Be prepared for a lot of people to work from home.
Ensure your infrastructure will handle many more people than usual working from home at the same time.

Factor potential sick time into your planning and sprints.
When doing planning, be sure to add in some buffer for people who might be out sick. You may need to take on fewer stretch goals.

And…. ?

What did I miss? What are you doing to ensure your engineering team is prepared in case Coronavirus goes full pandemic?

Further reading

Investing with your values

Since the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando in 2016, I’ve made a concerted effort to not invest in ETFs or mutual funds that hold stock in gun manufacturers, and to divest in funds who do. (I also buy my anti-NRA membership every year). But knowing if a given fund invests in the likes of American Outdoor Brands (AOBC) and Sturm Ruger & Co (RGR) can be difficult.

Enter, one of several values-based websites run by As You Sow. There you can put in a stock symbol and see if the fund invests in gun manufacturers, and if so which ones.

As You Sow has other values-based websites too:

One tip is that when you look up a stock on one, scroll down to the Sustainability Scorecard and you can see the results from all their sites together, regardless of which one you are on. That’s way better than having to look up a fund in multiple places to see how it rates.

As with anything, this is just additional data to consider and should only be a part of your decision making process.

Oh, and while it should go without saying: I am not a financial planner, this is not financial advice, and stay hydrated.