Tags filed under ‘web’

adamnorwood.com

adamnorwood.com 2009

Freshened up my personal blog and portfolio site for 2009. While similar to the transitional look and content that you’ve seen for the past couple of years, this theme has been hand re-written from scratch and features many advancements over the old style. The entire site is better integrated through WordPress than ever before using features newly available in WP 2.7.1 (gravatars, per-post styles, threaded comments, etc), a handful of customized plugins, subtle jQuery enhancements, and Subversion to tie it all together on the backend. I’ve also moved to a new domain after about ten years of being at asnorwood.com. All of the old links should still point to the right place (or get you pretty close), but let me know if you find something missing.

The bulk of the improvements are behind-the-scenes, but I can at least say that the following changes make my life easier and me happier:

  • Uploading new portfolio work is much more straightforward.
    No more need for a separate gallery plugin!
  • The category and link organization is more sensible! Tags, too!
  • Better error-handling — hopefully you won’t end up 404 Not Found, but you at
    least have a sporting chance of getting unstuck now!
  • The search engine optimization (I hate that term) seems to be working
    already, too. Thanks, Google!
  • The search form pulls up better, more accurate results!

All of this tech stuff is secondary, of course, and I’m still trying to decide how best to balance the blog entries between my different interests. Maybe I’ll eventually split off into two or more distinct sites to keep things from rambling together. I’d also like to figure out a better way to incorporate the side-channel links (currently I’m using del.icio.us) and scrap-collecting elements (I love Tumblr for gathering quotes and other detritus, but not sure how best to tie that content in with my main site). Being nearly the fifteenth anniversary of my first website, you’d think I’d have this all figured out by now!

What do you think? What would you change?

Mixed Bag

mixedbag.marshariti.com

Another fairly straightforward WordPress theme built from the ground up. This time it’s for Marsha Riti’s secondary blog, MIXED BAG, which collects her project instructions, recipes, and Craigslist finds from around Austin (are you obsessed with midcentury modern furniture and weird old junk, too?).

UT Law: Border Wall Working Group

Border Wall Working Group

Another simple site for the University of Texas School of Law, this time for a working group dedicated to investigating the political and cultural implications of the Texas/Mexico border wall currently being erected. The main challenge for the design was to appeal both to the general public looking for basic information about the activities of the group while primarily serving as a clearing house for hundreds of declassified government documents and other academic material about the wall.

MarshaRiti.com

marshariti.com

A quick but cute WordPress site for budding Austin children’s book illustrator Marsha Riti, designed to highlight foremost her paintings and sketches. After looking at so many other illustrators’ sites with slow-loading Flash intro pieces, broken navigation, and missing content, I vowed to keep this one clean, accessible, and friendly.

Bleep Labs

Bleep Labs

The WordPress-powered Bleep Labs site was commissioned by good friend Dr. Bleep himself, purveyor of fine homemade analog synthesizer noise toys. His best-known product is the Thingamagoop, co-designed by cartoon legend Goopy. It’s the beloved device seen above (and more notably seen in MAKE Magazine, boingboing, Wired, and in the hands of some very popular musicians).

I especially enjoyed building the  custom jQuery color picker for the Thingamagoop — it’s lightweight, works in all browsers (including the iPhone), does its best to be accessible, degrades nicely if JavaScript is unavailable, and runs purely off of an XML list of colors currently available.  It also felt great to be working with a product that itself is so nicely designed.

Paging Dr. Sbaitso

Accessible Rich Media
Some of the best panels and meetups I attended at this year’s SXSW (the famous technology/music/film/designer eyewear festival) were on accessibility and adaptive technology, a good forum to hear what’s stirring in those fields. In particular, it seems like there’s a growing open source movement to provide tools for users with special needs and to help web designers produce accessible content.

Closed source software like JAWS will face a real challenge as open screen readers like the NVDA project become more mature and build on the popularity of other software like Firefox — while NVDA is certainly lacking the features and polish found in the more widely-used commercial products, the price (free vs. $1000) and ease-of-installation certainly make it compelling.

I also learned about the following accessibility-checking programs and Firefox extensions, immediately adding them to my developer’s toolbox:

Content Colour Analyser

  • Colour Contrast Analyser, a great tool available for Windows and OS X that gives you two color pickers: one to choose a foreground color (probably your main text color) and a second to pick a color from the background to compare it with. It then gives you detailed contrast ratio information for the two colors along with clear indicators as to whether your site or application complies with the suggested contrast needed for visually impaired users and for colorblindness. It’s one of those tools that simply works as advertised.
  • Fangs, a screen reader emulator built as a Firefox extension. When run on a page, Fangs displays a mashed-together, color-highlighted, text-only version of your content as a screen reader would read it aloud. If you’re a sighted web developer, this is a handy tool for getting a quick impression of how your page will hold up under JAWS or similar. (Bonus points for having an attractive, accessible website)
  • The Firefox Accessibility Extension from the Illinois Center for Information Technology Accessibility. This tool helps you generate reports on various accessibility issues, can display information about your page’s semantics (headings, list items, links), lets you easily switch into various high contrast modes, etc. It’s a great companion to the awesome Web Developer extension.
  • You should also check out Color Oracle, the cross-platform color blindness simulator. It’s pretty sobering if you have regular vision like I do, and it will make you appreciate that yes, two different hues can be very, very similar-looking to a good portion of your audience, and yes that’s a big problem.

(It goes without saying that these are useful but imperfect tools, never capable of giving you the full insight that would come from actual user testing. The only real way to know what real frustrations an impaired user will have with your new web app or site? Get one to come in and give it a spin!)

The other good news coming out of the past couple of weeks is the support the major browser makers are giving to the WAI-ARIA suite of standards for making web applications and forms and controls more semantic and accessible. Opera 9.5, Firefox 3, and now even IE8 (imperfectly?) are slated to support ARIA (whither Safari?). The Secrets of JavaScript Libraries panel discussion at SXSW also brought news that jQuery will soon join the Dojo toolkit in supporting ARIA-enabled widgets (I think that’s where I heard the news, feel free to correct me if I’m wrong).

These are the kinds of open source projects that I really dig: good for users, good for shaking up the established software licensing model, and good for helping solidify support for web standards. Know of any other good tools?

IE8’s Faustian Bargain

Faust IE7

“If the swift moment I entreat:
Tarry a while! You are so fair!
Then forge the shackles to my feet,
Then I will gladly perish there!
Then let them toll the passing-bell,
Then of your servitude be free,
The clock may stop, its hands fall still,
And time be over then for me!”
 — “Faust,” Norton Critical Edition, lines 1699 – 1706

The above lines are from Goethe’s story about the scholar Dr. Faust and his famous bargain. The scholar promises his soul to the devil in exchange for earthly knowledge and power, on the condition that his life will be forfeit only when he experiences a moment that he wishes would persist. What does this have to do with Internet Explorer 8? It’s a tortured and overblown metaphor to be sure, but for some reason this week’s developments in the world of web development reminded me of this fable.

If you haven’t already, start off with this article from A List Apart and perhaps move along to Eric Meyer’s analysis of the news. These articles appeared almost simultaneously with a post on the IEBlog about the scheme. To grossly summarize, the IE team has worked out a deal with some of the major players in the web standards scene and representatives of the browser makers to introduce a new <meta> tag allowing developers to target specific browser implementations. They argue that this move will help prevent complaints of new browser versions “breaking the web” when they are released to the public.

This news seems to have come as quite a surprise, with heated discussion (mostly negative as far as I can tell, and at times sadly mean-spirited) breaking out in the usual forums. Molly Holzschlag provides the most level-headed analysis I’ve read so far, and alludes to the secretive, NDA-protected discussions that led up to this decision. Even Ars Technica and El Reg have weighed in on the issue.

The contemptible part of the new specification is that it’s designed to allow sites to lock into a current implementation, and Microsoft has made the decision that the default rendering engine for pages lacking this meta tag will be IE7 (not IE8, the browser that’s introducing this feature, or the more sensible default of “latest version”!). The implications of this are that future versions of IE (and other major browsers?) will contain emulation code allowing it to switch back to a previous engine at will so that sites will always look and act the same as the designer intended, quirks and all. If you have IE10 and look at a page lacking the proper meta tag, it will use IE7 to display the page. I guess that means IE8 won’t pass the Acid2 test by default? What does that even mean?

In my humble, semi-educated opinion, this could be a major setback to the web standards movement and to the speedier development of better web technologies (and things already move at a glacial pace in the web world). We’ve been taught for years that the road to enlightenment was paved with progressive enhancement and future-proofing, and this goes against that grain. I find the idea disquieting too for its other more pragmatic implications — how will this actually be implementable? I was relieved to find in a post by Robert O’Callahan, a coder who works on Firefox, that he was puzzled by many of the same questions I was having. Won’t this increase dramatically the footprint of each successive browser release? And I’ve used emulators of all kinds in the past, and they simply aren’t perfect.

Will this end web development as we know it, or kill the open standards movement? No, of course not. But it’s confusing enough and sudden enough that it’s not surprising that more than a few people are upset by the news. Maybe I’ll warm up to it when I hear more specifics about how this will actually work in the real world, but for now I’m highly skeptical.

Update: The debate continues, with two further articles from A List Apart. The first, “They Shoot Browsers, Don’t They?” by Jeremy Keith makes the case that a good beta version of IE8 would go along way towards making the case for one side of the other, depending on how its display holds up on the current web. I’d have to agree, and I’m glad to see ALA giving a contrary opinion some space, after the articles from last month caused such an uproar. Having said that, Zeldman’s “Version Targeting: Threat or Menace?” fans the flames a bit as he tries to make his case again in favor of the default opt-in method. This time it’s revealed that major DOM scripting changes are the root cause of Microsoft’s concern, which I don’t think was mentioned previously. The argument doesn’t seem to stick, at least based on the response the article’s drawn. I still stand by my view that this is a pretty bad deal, and one that’s only intended to help Microsoft’s short-term financial interests. Check out the commentary on these two articles, though, for a handful or other good opinions. Even though there doesn’t seem to be much traction, public discourse is always welcome.

Institute for Transnational Law

Foreign Law Translations

This summer I had the pleasure of designing and coding one of our largest recent projects at UT Law: the new system that would house the collection of English translations of international law for the Institute for Transnational Law. The previous version of the system was an ungainly assortment of static, invalid .html and .shtml SSI files that were inherited from another university (meaning no offense), and at a couple of thousands pages deep it was a bear to maintain. The new version of the site is now available for your perusal.

We consulted with main campus ITS to build the perl scripts that culled the juicy bits from the old html, the resultant data scrubbed a bit and dropped neatly into an Oracle database. After a few strong shots of relational SQL kung fu and a bit of object-oriented PHP, everything is up and running efficiently. The front end display is now (mostly) valid XHTML, with CSS for the visual styling. Google’s much happier, I’m much happier, and hopefully the refreshed site will help make this important legal resource even more visible and valuable.

LTS: Law Technology Services

LTS Mousepad

I designed all of the branding for our in-house technology department at the UT School of Law, including the logo, color scheme, and website. The department had recently undergone a restructuring and a name change (we were formerly called “Internet Initiatives”), and it was time to reposition ourselves as a more service-oriented and forward-reaching organization. This particular graphic was used as “marketing” for our site in the form of mouse pads given out to all faculty and staff.

UT Law: Freshlaw Central (2007)

UT Law Freshlaw 2007

Freshlaw Central is a site on the University of Texas School of Law’s site aimed at incoming 1L’s (freshman law students, basically, hence the name). The design usually changes every other year to keep things moving forward, and this year the theme went sort of blog-gy and plain but finally with a stronger use of photography.