The Daily Parker

Politics, Weather, Photography, and the Dog

Portable Document Format: still crappy after all these years

Earlier this year, the Nielsen Norman Group repeated a study they first did in 1996 on the usability of PDF documents. As they've now found three times, making PDFs instead of actual web pages yields a horrible experience for users:

Jakob Nielsen first wrote about how PDF files should never be read online in 1996 — only three years after PDFs were invented. Over 20 years later, our research continues to prove that PDFs are just as problematic for users. Despite the evidence, they’re still used far too often to present content online.

PDFs are typically large masses of text and images. The format is intended and optimized for print. It’s inherently inaccessible, unpleasant to read, and cumbersome to navigate online. Neither time nor changes in user behavior have softened our evidence-based stance on this subject. Even 20 years later, PDFs are still unfit for human consumption in the digital space. Do not use PDFs to present digital content that could and should otherwise be a web page.

PDF files are typically converted from documents that were planned for print or created in print-focused software platforms. When creating PDFs in these tools, it’s unlikely that authors will follow proper guidelines for web writing or accessibility. If they knew these, they’d probably just create a web page in the first-place, not a PDF. As a result, users get stuck with a long, noninclusive mass of text and images that takes up many screens, is unusable for finding a quick answer, and boring to read. There’s more work involved in creating a well-written, accessible PDF than simply exporting it straight from a word processing or presentation platform. Factors such as the use of color, contrast, document structure, tags, and much more must be intentionally addressed.

Yah, so, don't use them.

Today is slightly longer than yesterday

The December solstice happened about 8 hours ago, which means we'll have slightly more daylight today than we had yesterday. Today is also the 50th anniversary of Elvis Presley's meeting with Richard Nixon in the White House.

More odd things of note:

Finally, it's very likely you've made out with a drowning victim from the 19th century.

The longest night of 2020

If you live in the northern hemisphere, tonight will last longer than any of the 365 others in 2020. Sunsets have gotten later by a few seconds a day since the 8th, but sunrises have also gotten later and will continue to do so until just before perihelion on January 4th.

We're also only a month from Joe Biden's inauguration. Almost everyone in the Western world and quite a few outside it have felt more relaxed and less stressed in the last six weeks, and will feel even better once the STBXPOTUS loses his public-interest protections on Twitter.

Meanwhile, we've only got a few hours before the Federal Government shuts down, because Republicans in the US Senate didn't really care about Covid-19 relief until the January 5th runoff elections in Georgia got too tight for comfort. Help Doug Perdue, yes; help 30 million Americans, no. That's today's GOP. Even if we manage to get the bill through, the STBXPOTUS has lost all connection to reality and may not sign it.

The bill as it stands calls for about $900 billion in "stimulus," even though we can't actually spend money where we need to spend it to save our restaurants and restaurant workers. As economist Paul Krugman points out, giving people $600 or $1200 checks won't help; we need enhanced unemployment benefits, which puts the money in the most needful hands. He also asks, "why is there a limit on the amount of aid?" He explains:

Republicans appear willing to make a deal because they fear that complete stonewalling will hurt them in the Georgia Senate runoffs. But they are determined to keep the deal under a trillion dollars, hence the reported $900 billion price tag.

That trillion-dollar cap, however, makes no sense. The amount we spend on emergency relief should be determined by how much aid is needed, not by the sense that $1 trillion is a scary number.

For affordability isn’t a real issue right now. The U.S. government borrowed more than $3 trillion in the 2020 fiscal year; investors were happy to lend it that money, at remarkably low interest rates. In fact, the real interest rate on U.S. debt — the rate adjusted for inflation — has lately been consistently negative, which means that the additional debt won’t even create a major future burden.

And even economists who worry about deficits normally agree that it’s appropriate to run big deficits in the face of national emergencies. If a pandemic that is still keeping around 10 million workers unemployed isn’t an emergency, I don’t know what is.

So, yes, the longest night of the year might also see yet another Republican-sponsored government shutdown. But the longest night of the year means tomorrow night will be a few seconds shorter, and 9 nights later, 2020 will end.

Happy Saturday!

Only 7 shopping days until Boxing Day! So, what's going on in the world?

And I will leave you with my alma mater's Canine Cognition Lab's kindergarten:

Two weeks left in 2020

We're in the home stretch. We have 14 days until 2021 starts, and 32 days until the Biden Administration takes office. As Andrew Sullivan said in his column today, 2021 is going to be epic. Meanwhile:

And watch this blog for information about the Apollo Chorus of Chicago's final performance of 2020.

Stupid is as stupid does

Welcome to the (abbreviated) lunchtime roundup:

Finally, Julie Nolke for the fourth time explains the pandemic to her past self.

Major, ongoing network penetration

FireEye, a cybersecurity firm, revealed last week that unknown parties had penetrated its network and that its clients, including the US Government, were at risk. Bruce Schneier has technical details about the attack. Former Homeland Security Adviser Thomas Bossert lays out the scope of it:

The attackers gained access to SolarWinds software before updates of that software were made available to its customers. Unsuspecting customers then downloaded a corrupted version of the software, which included a hidden back door that gave hackers access to the victim’s network.

This is what is called a supply-chain attack, meaning the pathway into the target networks relies on access to a supplier. Supply-chain attacks require significant resources and sometimes years to execute. They are almost always the product of a nation-state. Evidence in the SolarWinds attack points to the Russian intelligence agency known as the S.V.R., whose tradecraft is among the most advanced in the world.

According to SolarWinds S.E.C. filings, the malware was on the software from March to June. The number of organizations that downloaded the corrupted update could be as many as 18,000, which includes most federal government unclassified networks and more than 425 Fortune 500 companies.

The magnitude of this ongoing attack is hard to overstate.

The Russians have had access to a considerable number of important and sensitive networks for six to nine months. The Russian S.V.R. will surely have used its access to further exploit and gain administrative control over the networks it considered priority targets. For those targets, the hackers will have long ago moved past their entry point, covered their tracks and gained what experts call “persistent access,” meaning the ability to infiltrate and control networks in a way that is hard to detect or remove.

The logical conclusion is that we must act as if the Russian government has control of all the networks it has penetrated.

Now, if only we had an administration that believed its experts and a majority party in the Senate that would pass a Defense Reauthorization Bill...

The cruelty is the point

Josh Marshall outlines how the STBXPOTUS and his friends in the Senate have structured vaccination funding to give President Joe Biden a black eye within two weeks of taking office:

Here are some basic outlines of what’s happening. As we learned last week the Trump White House skimped on actually buying enough doses of vaccine from Pfizer. But the federal government will cover the actual purchase of vaccines. The White House says the military is in charge of and has a plan to actual get the supplies to the states. And though we don’t know all the details let’s assume they have that covered. But that only appears to be getting the crates of supplies to a central staging point in each state. That’s not a negligible job. But it’s only a relatively small part of actually getting the country vaccinated. You need public health campaigns. You need staging areas and distribution from wherever the military drops it off to actual health centers and vaccination centers around each state. And finally you need a small army of medical professionals to actually administer the doses. It’s a big job and the Trump administration hasn’t funded any of that or devised any national plan.

What the White House has arranged funding for is a critical but relatively small part of the vaccination effort: vaccinations for people in assisted living facilities and health care workers. Those are the two most critical populations. They should go first, and the plan is to get those people vaccinated in December and January. But that leaves the great bulk of the population unvaccinated. The plan is for that phase to end around Feb 1. Meanwhile CARES Act funding, which states can use for various purposes, has to be spent by Dec. 31.

So as you can see, today’s excitement and anticipation over the vaccine is cued up to turn sharply to disappointment in February when people start asking where their shots are and blame the train wreck on President Biden. No plan. And no funding to implement a plan. Of course that is potentially catastrophic in human terms. But a lag in vaccination means not only more suffering and death but more delay in allowing the economy to get back on its feet, since people aren’t going to go to restaurants and participate in public life until case numbers drop dramatically.

Also, I recently accepted a Facebook friend request from a friend of a friend from business school. He (a Republican) and I used to have long, interesting arguments over beers about policy. This new person's feed hasn't got a lot of policy in it. Rather, it's a window through which I can see some of the most eye-roll-worthy right-wing memes going around right now. It's educational.

First snow in Chicago

I'm looking out my office window at the light dusting of snow on my neighbors' cars, wondering how (or whether) I'll get my 10,000 steps today. My commute to work got me 3,000 each way, making the job tons easier before lockdown. Easier psychologically, anyway; nothing prevents me from going for a 45-minute walk except that I really don't want to.

Instead of a lunchtime hike, I'll probably just read these articles:

And just as a side note for posterity, we should remember that the President of Russia congratulated Joe Biden on his win before the Majority Leader of the US Senate did. The Republican Party must really not like democracy.

Other things to read this evening

Happy Hanukkah! Now read these:

I will now have some very yummy Szechuan leftovers.