Monthly Archives: September 2005

Utah’s High Participation, Achievement on AP Tests #

The percentage of Utah high school students demonstrating college-level mastery on the AP test was reported at 19.3%, the third highest in the nation (behind New York and Maryland) and well above the national average of 13.2%.

An ethnic gap in both participation and achievement still exits: we still have a discrepancy between the percentage of minority students enrolled in public schools, and the percentage of minority students taking AP courses. The report indicates a rigorous curriculum is the leading indicator of success in college.

Students from families within the lowest socioeconomic brackets who had taken AP or other similar courses were found to complete college at greater rates than students from wealthy socioeconomic brackets who had not participated in such curricula…

Accordingly, the National Association for College Admission Counseling’s 2003 survey of college admissions officers showed that the most important factor in college admissions is success in the most challenging high school courses available.

Advanced Placement Report to the Nation 2005 [pdf]
Referenced Thu, 29 Sep 2005 11:05 (MDT)

Being published by the organization overseeing the AP program, it is biased toward AP, and does not include successes for comparable rigorous college preparation programs also implemented in some Utah high schools, such as International Baccalaureate.

Using <label>s #

In a past article, I mentioned that the lack of <label> tags bothered me, and managers don’t always know what to look for when evaluating delivered code.

<label> tags are, unfortunately, one of least understood tags among amateur and self-taught web developers. I suspect it is because there are no obvious visual indicators when used. Differences do exist, however. Without peeking at the underlying HTML, can you tell me which of the following sets of radio buttons uses label tags, and which does not?

Group One

 Apples
 Oranges

Group Two



If you’re not familiar with what the label tag does, (or if you’re using Safari) you may not see the difference. The secret? For most visual browsers, the clickable area to activate the radio button now includes the text associated with the button. Most major operating systems work this way, as the button text is really part of the control, but Internet browsers don’t work that way. The browser doesn’t know what text to associate with radio button unless the developer explicitly associates it—and that’s what the <label> tag does.

There are other benefits too: form usability is improved for users with screen readers or motor disabilities. (See Dive Into Accessibility: Labeling Form Elements.) It’s an easy accommodation to make, and really benefits all users, particularly when you need to associate buttons and labels located in different places on your page—say, if you put them in different table cells (egad!).

Here is the second set of radio buttons again, with the clickable areas highlighted (again, not so for Safari users):

Group Two



How do you use it? There are two ways: explicitly associate the <label>‘s for attribute with the id of any <input> control, or nest the entire input and label text inside a <label> tag. It’s as easy as that. If you want to go a step further, associate access keys with your labels.

<label><input type="radio" name="fruit2" value="Apples" /> Apples</label>

or

<input type="radio" name="fruit2" id="f2Apples" value="Apples" /><label for="f2Apples"> Apples</label>

If you absolutely must duplicate the increased clickable area for Safari users, Chris Cassell has published a Javascript solution designed to do just that.

What Managers Should Know About Web Developers #

It bothers me that so many web developers don’t understand basic accessibility concepts. HTML is a funny thing in the education world. When I studied computer science it was never discussed, but we were expected to use and understand the basics for several assignments. (The same for XML.) Most of the professional web developers I have worked with have never received formal training in HTML. Graduates with degrees in Information Systems may have had some training, but their emphasis is on business, rather than web development. The end result? Most college graduates don’t know much about HTML unless they’ve studied it on their own.

The problem with self-study is you often don’t know what you don’t know. I’ve worked with competent C programmers who write complex applications which output poor HTML. I’ve worked with contract web developers who can’t get beyond tables for layout or overusing the <span> tag to apply presentation better achieved by simpler, more effective means. I’m meeting this week with a local business owner who built his site using a rather expensive WYSIWYG tool. Unfortunately, his site—and oddly, the site of company who developed the tool—doesn’t work properly on either Firefox or Safari. It’s not his fault; he doesn’t know any better.

Across the internet, and particularly with locally developed sites, the biggest problems I see (in no particular order) are:

  • Using POST when you should GET. This drives me batty. Several cities in the area have some great features and tools built into their web sites, like dynamic maps that show schools, fire stations, or local construction efforts. At a local university, the majority of their intranet uses POSTs for nearly every user request. There are two major weaknesses of POST: you remove the user’s option of the back button, and make the page unable to be bookmarked. Both are major user expectations and result in major loss of functionality.
  • Lack of <label> tags. There are all sorts of reasons to use them, but few people do. It’s been my experience developers who don’t use them have never been taught, but if taught properly are excited to implement them.
  • Failure to test in more than one browser. More than one local site performs poorly when I try to access it with my Mac. I always have my PC to fall back on, but why should I need to? This is often reflected in Javascript drop down menus that are poorly implemented, and make the entire site unnavigable.

If you are a manager hiring web developers or evaluating their output, do you know what to look for? How can you tell what quality code is or isn’t? Do you understand advantages of CSS over table-based layout and spacer gifs? I would ague that most managers don’t—that’s why they hire a web developer in the first place. But managers need to be savvy enough to ensure their web developers know the answers to these questions.

One Response

The Personal MBA #

For about three years now it has been my goal to get an MBA. Not just from a "pay your fee, get your ‘B’" institution, but an honest to goodness university with a solid business program. In addition to the not inconsequential cost barrier, something has always been in the way. Traditional day programs are out, as I have both a family and a mortgage, and I’m not yet willing to go into as much debt as a daytime program would require. I intend to pursue evening classes (which will still require loans, but to a lesser extent), but my life needs to settle down first.

In trolling the blogosphere, I happened across "The Personal MBA Program", an open project with a recommended reading list and community discussion dedicated to increased business knowledge through self-study and group interaction. I’ve been looking for a good business reading list, and this fits the bill. Although a resume line that says "MBA" is something I look forward to, acquiring the knowledge is really what it’s all about. After all, like any degree or certification, it’s not the diploma that’s important, but the knowledge behind it.

I’ve toyed with the idea of reviewing business books I have read recently here on the blog, mostly as a reason to get some hands-on experience with web services. Books on the list which I have read and highly recommend include The Goal by Eliyahu M. Goldratt and Jeff Cox, and The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R. Covey.

Although not on The Personal MBA Program reading list, I found Good To Great by Jim Collins, The E-Myth Revisited by Michael E. Gerber, and Leadership and Self-Deception from the Arbinger Institute to all be quite worthwhile.

Helped by the World #

I had decided to not comment on hurricane Katrina or its aftermath, primarily to avoid the conversations devolving into finger-pointing and racism. I have some very strong opinions on these topics, but nothing which hasn’t already been said. My adding to it won’t change anyone’s mind.

However, I did come across an article that deserves repeating. If we have ever felt like the U.S. has been providing humanitarian aide to the world, but that no one ever does us any favors, we need to read this:

The State Department says the U.S. has accepted pledges of more than $1 billion in aid from 95 other nations. Even so, there are news reports from several countries that say their offers have not been acknowledged. In Sweden a C-130 transport plane has been ready to lift off with a water purification system, blankets, and mobile network equipment for four days – but has yet to get U.S. approval. Some of the problem, just as it has been with aid offers here in the United States, is clearly a logistical one and the State Department, which is not used to such coordination, has said as much… In the meantime, it would be best if Americans – and that includes our letter writer and the president – show a bit more graciousness over the outpouring of offers.

To India, which has offered $5 million in aid and has a planeload of supplies ready to depart.

To Canada, which is sending three warships and a coast guard ship to to Gulf Coast with emergency assistance and already has Canadian divers working on repairing the damaged harbor at Pascagoula, Mississippi.

To Mexico, which has an army convoy headed overland with supplies and a navy ship on the way. To Thailand, which is donating food.

To Kuwait, which has donated $400 million in oil and $100 million in cash. To the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, both of which have donated $100 million in cash. To Ireland, which donated $5 million to the Red Cross.

To North Korea, $30 million in cash and donations; to Australia, $7.6 million; to China, $5.1 million in cash and relief.

And to Bosnia, which has offered the United States $6,414 cash.

To them all we say, “Thank you. Thank you for your donations and for your thoughts. We will remember this.”

Journal Times Online: A generous world gives U.S. help
Referenced Tue, 09 Sep 2005 11:39 (MDT)

Back to Blogging #

Nearly a year after a rather abortive attempt at blogging, I’ve decided to try again. I’ve chosen to violate one of Jakob Nielsen’s Top Ten New Mistakes of Web Design, by removing a handful of my old posts (it’s number six on his list). They weren’t me; they lacked personality, and tended to be overly preachy and high-minded. But that’s okay, as no one read them anyway. I’ve also chosen to expand my focus to include politics and public education in Utah. I realize this is a rather broad leap from discussions on web standards and Internet usability/accessibility, but it’s an issue that is important to me.

I’ve struggled with the site layout. I wanted something different from what WordPress offered. In no particular order, I wanted:

  • Table-less design
  • Three-column layout, with fixed sides and a variable width
  • Browser-independent (X)HTML, free of hacks
  • A source order that placed my content first, and my side columns second, yet still maintaining left and right columns

I didn’t get everything I wanted, but I came pretty close. This layout is based loosely on The Jello Mold Piefecta. I’m still moving things around a bit, so you may find an occasional validation error or glitch.

I also still need to add some usability pieces, including "jump to navigation" links, and a stylesheet for smaller screens. I also intent to experiment with ways to allow users to apply a large print style sheet easily. I’ve seen several sites do it, but it’s generally through a prefs link that isn’t easily accessible.

Standards and Search Engines #

Molly Holzschlag has posted an interesting comparison of web standards as used by popular search engines. Of particular interest were the comments regarding Google, whose site does not validate, uses tables for layout, and generally violates the sensibilities of hard core standards proponents. The following comment to Molly’s post by "Frank" says it all.

Google’s search results page has been retooled using semantic markup and CSS by at least two dozen people as it is, but they just don’t care. It’s annoying, it’s sad, and it’s also pointless.

There have been some retooling jobs that saved an awful lot of markup and would thus, as a result, save Google ridiculous amounts of bandwidth, but did they show any interest? Nope.

From Searching for Standards (Comments)
Referenced Thu, 08 Sep 2005 11:45 (MDT)

This flies in the face of what I’ve heard about Google: namely that they make every effort to optimize their output—not for file size, but for speed. Changes which increase their output time are rolled back. (I imagine gzipping their output is an exception to that, but given their traffic volume, the savings are likely significant.) Take a look at their source code, there are several things worth noting. First, it’s quite compact; there is little extraneous white space, and shortened versions of tags are frequently used. Second, style information is embedded in each page rather than linked separately. Why? I suspect they found it’s faster to simply output their (brief) style sheet than to embed the link and have to process and additional web request, causing load on their servers (TCP is not exactly a light protocol), and delaying the browser’s ability to display content.

I made a similar standards argument during my recent work with a major internet retailer. Not only did they use table-based layout (frequently wrapping single-cell tables around block level elements), they unabashedly used spacer gifs. I jus about screamed when I saw it, but I wasn’t there as a web programmer, so their wasn’t much I could do about it. I did, however, write a brief paper outlining the performance and bandwidth savings. While processor performance likely wouldn’t be terribly affected (the limiting factor being the network connection), I estimated bandwidth savings to be at least 15%, just for tweaking the worst 20% of the page! The idea was tossed around, and gained some interest by a handful of middle managers, but was never implemented. Strategic projects—those focused on making money, not saving it (and bandwidth is sort of a sunk cost anyway)—were given priority, and developer resources were limited. Additionally, all changes to the web code were costly, as the entire site was handled by a monolithic CGI (which should be apparent to any technical user who bothered to study the URLs).

Web standards is a great ideal, and can be a great cost savings, but can also get in the way of performance. It requires web developers trained in implementing them properly—which nearly always costs more than college students who learned on their own. Few companies are willing to pay a premium for an end result that looks the same to 80%+ of their customers.

While I firmly believe standards should have broader adherence, I think standards advocates sometimes forget about the bottom line.

Board Position on Evolution #

Amidst some rather unwarranted political furor and sensationalist headlines, the State Board of Education approved a position statement supporting the teaching of evolution in high school biology classes.

The public participation was the largest it’s been this year. The primary proponent for including intelligent design as part of the curriculum has been Utah Senator Chris Buttars (R-West Jordan). In a statement to the Board, he threatened that if the Board chose not to revise their position statement, he would trump them with legislative action or a public referendum.

Rather than devote his time during the public participation portion of the meeting to arguing on behalf of his position, Senator Buttars instead chose to berate the Board for not allowing public comment (which he was actively taking advantage of), and accused the board of not giving him the time he felt his position deserved. The irony was he was granted more time than any other participant. Yet, he chose to use none of it to define or defend his ideology, but rather to complain that he wasn’t being given time. He finished well before his allotted time had expired. Senator Buttars was the only person during the full Board meeting to speak against the position statement.

Speaking in favor of the Board’s statement were professors of biology, geology, and other scientist from major state universities, including our equally beloved red and blue institutions of higher learning.

Hire Tom! Hire Tom!