[BlindMath] Please, more talk between blind math users and LaTeX developers

Godfrey, Jonathan A.J.Godfrey at massey.ac.nz
Tue Mar 16 21:34:35 UTC 2021

Hello Jonathan/Neil and all,

I understand Neil's points and they are relevant, but even before I saw Jonathan's reply, I was reaching for my file of quotes from people considerably wiser than me, starting with a couple from Einstein:

"We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them."

"The formulation of a problem is often more essential than its solution, which may be merely a matter of mathematical or experimental skill. To raise new questions, new possibilities, to regard old problems from a new angle requires creative imagination and marks real advances in science."

Something has to change in the very way people use LaTeX if we are ever to get truly accessible pdf documents. I've laboured the point that we need access to information much more than we need access to a specific file format, and I'll keep doing so. Jonathan's comments about developers sticking to one way of solving problems reminds me of a quote that I can't attribute to the right person, but if goes something like:

"When you know how to use a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail."

I do think a fundamental shift in thinking about how we get access to information is required across most STEM disciplines. I'm now over halfway between the age of an undergraduate and a retiree; I had no (reliable) access to pdf as an undergraduate, and offering me a promise of access as a retiree feels cold and dismissive, even if I know from personal interactions that this is not a label I would put on anyone within the software development community.

Jonathan G


-----Original Message-----
From: BlindMath <blindmath-bounces at nfbnet.org> On Behalf Of Jonathan Fine via BlindMath
Sent: Wednesday, 17 March 2021 12:05 AM
To: Neil Soiffer <soiffer at alum.mit.edu>
Cc: Jonathan Fine <jfine2358 at gmail.com>; Blind Math list for those interested in mathematics <blindmath at nfbnet.org>
Subject: Re: [BlindMath] Please, more talk between blind math users and LaTeX developers

Hi Neil

I'll respond and contribute to some of the technical questions you raised
in your open, honest and helpful message. I hope we can have a respectful
difference of opinion on these important matters. I start with this. As I
recall, in 1997 the LaTeX team said that it would develop LaTeX3 to provide
new input document syntax, that aligns with SGML/XML. We still don't have
that. If we did then math accessibility would be much easier, for both PDF
and HTML output.

You wrote:

1. Adding the tagging in a way that doesn't require authors to alter what
they wrote means the deep down guts of the program need to be modified.
2. This is not an easy task, especially when dealing with a large, old
3. If it were easy, it would have been done by now.

I'd like to break the problem down into three main parts.

A. From a LaTeX file produce a PDF document.
B. From a LaTeX file produce a tagged document.
C. Merge the outputs of (A) and (B) into a single document

The whole problem would be much easier if we already had (B) as a starting
point. And (B) would be much easier if we had a new LaTeX input syntax. But
though development of this started in 1997, it seems to have now been
abandoned. I'd like to resume that work.

The LaTeX Team wishes to solve problems largely by writing TeX macros. They
wrote that about 25% of the project would be preliminary work needed to
modernize the document processing functionality of the LATEX kernel. And
then they can start programming.

By document processing they mean text processing rather than typesetting
and PDF generation. Things that languages and systems such as Pandoc,
Python and XSLT already do very well. However hard the task is when using
the best available tools, it becomes much easier if you impose some
reasonable restrictions on the input, and much harder when TeX macros is
the only programming language you use.

Their feasibility study doesn't even consider the idea of using
pre-processing the input to LaTeX, and post-processing the output. The
LaTeX Team love LaTeX and writing TeX macros. I'm grateful to them for the
positive contributions they've made in this area. But I do not think it
wise for us to promote their project without first considering the use of
more suitable tools and existing technologies for the document processing

I would also consider alternative means of achieving accessibility, such as
providing just (B), namely producing just a tagged document from LaTeX. The
PreTeX system shows how much can be achieved once one has a suitable tagged
document. I think a good authoring environment for tagged documents is
vital. It could be a restricted subset of LaTeX. Or a markdown variant.

Finally I think that whatever the technology a tagged PDF enhancement will
work only for a subset of present-day valid LaTeX files, except with
massive (and I would say Quixotic effort). It would be best to start with a
safe subset of LaTeX files. Success here will encourage authors to adjust
their way to cooperate with the new system. And provide insight for dealing
with a growing larger subset.

Here's the PreTeXt URL: https://pretextbook.org/. Perhap a LaTeX-like to
PreTeXt XML could be made quite easily.

with best regards

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