January 2008 Archives

HTML Tables are Not Evil...Just the Bad Ones

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This is inspired by a fight I was having with a content management system trying to create a properly accessible data table.

Those of us who follow Web standards and accessibility have heard the mantra that layout tables are bad. Those would be the ones with the colored sidebars and top menus that designers created to add some formatting order to the chaos of the original vanilla Web site. FYI - the problem with layout tables was NOT usability but screen reader glitches (which were bad) and slower load times because table code is pretty chunky

But...that does not mean all tables are bad. The HTML table tags were originally designed to present tabular data much like Excel does. And guess what, the TABLE is still the best tool for that job. Especially if you add properly tagged headers (TH and CAPTION) and use style sheets for formatting.

By now though the mantra that "tables are evil" is so exagerrated that many modern tools have lousy support for tables. In many cases, you  have to manually insert the HTML because the WYSIWYG tools have no table options.

To add insult to injury, some systems don't know what to do with TH and CAPTION. I had a perfectly well-formed data table (thanks to my personal friend Dreamweaver), but when I copied the code over, the borders for the TH cells look really really weird.

What did I do? You  guessed it - I changed the TH  cells to TD cells because I didn't have enough time to fix the CSS (maybe next week). I like my Web 2.0, but I don't want them to get in the way of my accessibility fixes!

Create a Comic Strip

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We've seen courses, especially social sciences, in which students are sometimes asked to write scenarios. Maybe it's a vignette on a diversity issue or maybe you might be asked to write a script the miniseries on Balboa's discovery of the Pacific.

In any case there's a new tool - http://www.makebeliefscomix.com/comix.php where students can create comic strips. In this tool, students can select a cute character (animals and humans), then write out dialogue or thought balloons. It could be useful for elementary video storyboarding. Interesting premise.

People are Blog Migrating

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When you're in the trenches of tech support, it can be hard to tell if your documentation is helpful or so confusing no one knows how to begin to formulate a question.

But I've been seeing that my colleagues are able to migrate between systems. I'm not spying - my RSS reader is registering the feeds as brand new entries (interesting).

I do want to give a sincere thanks for trusting in the Blogs upgrade despite our bug reports. And if you experience a problem, you can always find us at blogs@psu.edu...

TWT Powerpoint Presentation for Spanish Department

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Here's some information on the Teaching with Technology Certificate I will give to the Spanish Dept tomorrow. The Blogs is a great way to store files you need to download somewhere else.


I Migrated A Blog

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We have "Blog Migration Documentation" at http://blogger.psu.edu/gethelp, but I thought I should walk the talk.

First, I found earlier that the export files from IE7 are funky to say the least, so I used Firefox (and documented this new quirk). The other gotcha is that you have to Publish (circle arrow button in top menu) in order for the new entries to appear - unfortunately the system does not prompte me (sigh).

In terms of logistics, my big concern was that I not loose my custom widgets. You have to create a new blog so you can import and configure it, but you still want access to the old blog, so for me the key was hold off publishing the new blog as long as possible. Ignore the publish messages until you are ready, then press the circle arrows at the end.

But as you can see - I'm up and running on this blog. The other ones might be trickier because I really did create custom styles and tweaked the template.

Database Cleanup Outside In

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I had some free time today, so I decided I would clean up my language database. As it happens, it's a small relational database setup in File Maker with the following table relations.

LanguageTableKey.gif - see description below

As you can see the Language table (more or less the center of the DB universe) has a relation to a script table. The script table in turn has a relation to the script direction table (left-to-right or right-to-left) and to the script type table (alphabet/logographic, etc)

The interesting thing was that even though I had to clean up the Language table, I first had to clean up the script table, and to do that I had to clean up script direction and script type.

Not all clean ups are like this, but I did find that when I'm setting up a database first time (especially configuring drop down menus), I often have to set up the "peripheral tables" first because they will become the contents of the drop down menu. It's a little backwards from the actual design where you usually you begin with one or two central tables, then see which peripheral tables are needed.

Maybe it's a quirk of mine, but it was an interesting insight for me.

Disclosing Setbacks: A Serious Commitmment to Transparency

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I think we all know that ANGEL had a minor meltdown during finals week. Although it was an unfortunate situation, I have to say I was impressed with the relative openness of how it was handled.

The ANGEL Help team was very diligent about e-mailing whatever updates they could (I'm pretty saw one at midnight). Soon afterwards, I saw that Kevin Morooney wrote a detailed blog entry about the ANGEL crisis and what steps would be taken with a sincere apology.

The idea of transparency is very important to our organization, but I'm not sure you can be truly transparent unless you can share your failures as well as your successes. Even though it was not pleasant for anyone to explain that ANGEL had crashed...again, I think the speed and detail was important to users. It told them that ITS was aware of the serious impact on the PSU community, and that they were committed to solving the problem.

The alternate would have been to say nothing or be vague, but then the faculty and students would legitimately wonder - "Don't they know how bad this is? Don't they care?" It is true that when you deliver bad news, you probably will hear complaints from users and that your reputation may be slightly besmirched, but I think we have to trust that users will be forgiving.

We all know computers die, but it's even worse when computers die and you get the runaround. I'm not saying we have to give ALL the ugly details out, but if something unexpectedly bad happens, I think it's better to inform the public when you can so help people can make backup plans.

I know a lot of faculty complain about ANGEL, but I think they do trust the ANGEL staff at the end of the day to do their best. I know I do.

My PDF Digital Signature

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Thanks to PDF and online forms, I think we've managed to streamline electronic forms, with only one minor gap - the actual signature.

Recently, I was asked to to "complete and return" a PDF agreement form which usually includes your signature. Interestingly I was given no fax number or other instruction (e.g. "mail"), so I was a little perplexed. If it were Penn State, I would print, sign and send it via Interoffice Mail.

But if speed is of the essence, you may need a different strategy. In this case, I opened the PDF file in a graphics program, then used my home graphics tablet to sign and date the document. Unlike paper signatures, I was given the chance to resize my signature art and redraw unclear numbers in the date.

FYI - This isn't the first time I've done this. Opening PDFs in graphics programs is very helpful for letting you fill in standardized information for new prescription order forms for your doctor so they can fax them in for you.

Not only can you avoid filling out the same information over and over, but the resulting type is much more legible than my actual handwriting.