mike watkins dot ca : November 2005 Archives

November 2005 Archives

7 entries filed this month:

November 30 2005

Election 2006 - Campaign Sites Day 2

A quick check of the primary party campaign sites gives no reason to change the rankings assigned yesterday. A couple of observations:

Conservative Party of Canada


Does the Conservative Party site really need two big, identical, images of Stephen Harper? If they need to fill this space, put some content in there!

This site continues to hold on to a last place finish among the major parties as:

  • Macromedia Flash based content continues to dominate the site, leading to accessibility issues (more on this to subject to follow)
  • responsiveness / performance remains poor – even in testing I found it painful to move from page to page
  • Site failures not only continue to happen but the application code allows the public to see these failures in all their brutal uglyness:

On the plus side, accessibility-limiting Javascript links appear to have been removed. Hooray!

Liberal Party of Canada

24 hours into the campaign and this Fact Check link on the front page of the Liberal site still points to an page with no content!

NDP


NDP – error retrieving a page
The Conservative Party site is not the only one exposing application infrastructure problems and errors. The public should never see a page like this.

Why Not Flash

Why use Flash? Many browsers support it, and, properly designed, the use of Macromedia Flash can add a certain dynamism to a web site. Why not use it? Because only many browsers support it, not all.

Macromedia says that roughly 98% of all browsers have Flash installed; real world monitoring of server logs shows that penetration is much less than this. Does any political party really want to shut out even 5% of the people visiting the site? 10%? We hope not, but that’s exactly what the Conservative Party site designers have elected to do.

Consider the front page of the Conservative site at http://www.conservative.ca/ – in 800×600 resolution, Flash objects cover almost 100% of the page:


Conservative site – 800×600 resolution, on a browser with Flash unavailable

That, dear designers, is what 5, 10, or 15% of the browsers are seeing when they visit the Conservative Party of Canada official campaign web site.

November 29 2005

Liberal Party Site Blogger

Update: over the course of the election my opinion on Feschuk’s writing flipped 180 degrees and its clear to me that I ought to have let him spit out a few more words before judging him. While I doubt he swayed many voters, his pieces were a refreshing change from the typical election banter. +1 for Mr. Feschuk, -1 to me for overlooking the value of humour.

What is probably the first web gaffe of the campaign, this ‘feature’ on the Liberal site presents a classic lesson in how not to pretend you know about blogging:

Throughout the campaign, Scott Feschuk — chief speechwriter to Paul Martin — will be filing reports from the road using his Blackberry, a wireless handheld device that enables political staffers to stay in touch, instantly communicate with the media and develop freakish, superstrong thumbs with which they can crush most European sedans. Respond to Scott’s blog at sfeschuk@liberal.ca. Link to blog, while it remains…

Most bloggers will find these examples insulting to their intelligence; web readers who aren’t clued into blogging will figure the Liberals have indeed gone off the deep end:

11:27 AM – Well, we’re off and running. Running hard! Well, technically speaking, most of us walked to 24 Sussex from Rideau Hall. Me, I waddled. But I’m a team player: I waddled hard. Now we’re talking about speeches: the PM apparently wants to give some. He’s completely resisting my strong advice that he express his vision for the country through interpretive dance.

… or…

6:36 AM – Wow, look at me! I’m in “cyberspace,” where no one can hear you scream. Or maybe they CAN hear you scream but they don’t pay attention because they’re too busy looking at naked ladies. Either way, stop screaming, would you?

I for one am betting this so-called “Internet” is really going to catch on. It’s neato. Take, for example, these things knowns as “blogs” – you’re soaking in one right now! These blogs are great because they allow people with special insight to instantly convey their astute observations and sage opinions to a knowledge-starved world. Or so I’m told. Personally, I’m mostly going to use this one to talk about the lost thespian promise of Erik Estrada. Because really, someone ought to. The man had screen charisma the way Marlon Brando had neck fat.

I sent a note to Mr. Feschuck suggesting he keep on writing in exactly this style if he wants to help Stephen Harper win.

Election 2006 - Party Web Sites II

Yesterday we took a look at party web sites before the formal start of the election campaign; today we’ll look at one site which has been revised as of the official launch of the campaign this morning.

Liberal Party of Canada – Campaign Site


Liberal 800×600 graphics mode

Pros:

  • viewable with screens set to 800×600
  • no use of Flash (an improvement over their standard site)
  • attractive design which is generally simpler but still grabs attention

Cons:

  • uses fixed font sizes which do not scale using the browsers scaling mechanism in Internet Explorer
  • Doesn’t validate against HTML 4.0 Transitional; uses many attributes which do not exist for that doctype


Liberal – text mode

Here we see the Liberal site designers making the same mistakes. There is no “skip to content” link to allow text-mode browsers to quickly get to the meat of the matter; images galore without alt attributes (and titles, where needed) take up much of the screen while imparting no information – this is an easy thing to fix without changing the design for GUI users one whit. Cost? Less than 2 minutes of time editing the template.

The postal code lookup form is unusable in text mode, unless one is willing (and astute enough) to discover why it doesn’t work and erase the text in the field.

Conclusion

Overall the Liberal campaign site is a slight improvement in general effectiveness over the standard Liberal party site in that the pop up menus have been removed; the design punched up; and content continues to dominate on most pages; navigation is consistent page to page. Users of graphical browsers will generally be well served by this site.

A few simple changes, at minimal cost, would make this site work much better for all. The Liberal site remains one of the leaders in terms of delivering the message to the broadest group of people.

Update on Other Sites

No changes to the NDP, Conservative or Bloc sites have been observed.

What’s with this – yesterday the CPC Conservative web site was dreadfully slow, today its comatose. A full minute passed before the page even started to render on my browser. All the bumpf that Conservative site designers have jammed into the site have grown the initial page size (first visit a user makes to the site) to over 358kb !!. What’s worse, their web server doesn’t employ gzip compression which would certainly help reduce text, javascript, and css file transmission times.

Liberal home page size: 93k; NDP: for some time this morning the NDP site was down/connection refused. Back up now, it clocks in at 86K; Bloc: a whopping 1 megabyte!

I looked briefly at the Green Party http://www.greenparty.ca/ website, thinking perhaps they might be a little more with it when it comes to accessibility and standards, but was disappointed. Its a decently executed site – somewhat busy – in graphics mode, which suffers in text mode from many of the same ills as the other party sites.

Updated Ranking of All Sites

With the Liberal campaign site changes in mind, page loading times, site availability and, as always, my subjective appraisal, here’s the new ranking from best to worst:

Message to election site designers: focus on content and make sure content is accessible to everyone.

November 28 2005

Election 2006 - Party Web Sites

Here we stand on the eve of the next Canadian election kickoff, as the opposition parties are just now sitting down to vote no-confidence in the government and bring it down.

Without any partisan bias (in this post only, probably), I took a look at the current party web sites (we may see some new sites spring on to the scene once the government is officially dissolved tomorrow) to see how they stack up on a superficial visual basis. In addition, I was curious to see if any of the parties is taking the time to ensure their party or campaign web sites are accessible to those who have mobility or visual impairments.

Here are my quick observations, in alphabetical order, followed by summary conclusions and a ranking:

Bloc


Bloc – 800×600 graphics mode

The Bloc site is a little busy but at least fits neatly into 800×600 screens, unlike the Conservative web site. Some menus may present a challenge for visually impaired (not just blind but colour blind) users.

Since I’m a committed Federalist whose Canada includes Quebec, and both my sons are learning French, I won’t start commenting on what I feel about the Bloc as a party, except to say that I’d be happy if they were reduced to just a couple of seats in an election one day.

Back to analysis… in text mode the Bloc site suffers from sins we’ll see repeated in most other party sites.


Bloc – text mode

Why care about text mode? Political parties in every election I’ve checked since the web came about continue to ignore disabled Internet users as real consumers of information. Blind users often employ screen readers operate off the html text on a page; its not rocket science to make even a visually complex site much more accessible to this community, and in the process of thinking about these issues, site designers are likely to correct other accessibility problems.

In an election where the marketing campaign is very short and its critical that you reach as many as possible, often for the least cost possible, spending some money on good, accessible, site design will pay off.

The Conservative Party of Canada


CPC web site – text mode

Accessing the CPC web site through a text-mode browser was an exercise in total frustration. Not only is there no actual content on the first page visible to the user, but a large percentage of the links are not followable in most text-mode browsers. Conservative Party web designers – you’ve just cut out most of the blind community from following your message!


CPC web site – 1024×768 graphics mode

At first blush the party’s web site appears attractive enough, to users of higher resolution monitors. If however, like a sizable proportion of web-users, you run your display at 800*600 resolution, you’ll completely miss the menu along the right hand side of the page (under stay connected). Whether seeing more navigation (note 4 obvious menus spread all over the page) is better is left to the user to decide.


CPC web site – use of Flash dominates the home page

Users of some browsers and operating systems that don’t have, by choice or other limitation, Macromedia Flash installed, will be unable to view much of the content on the first page. In my view, the use of Flash is really quite unacceptable for election sites.

There’s just so much not to like about the CPC site, we could pick it apart for some time, so instead, lets move on.

Liberal Party of Canada


Liberal site – text mode

The Liberal site, in text mode, completely fails any quick sniff test of accessibility for two main reasons:

I doubt the Liberals, or the Conservatives, intended to shut out persons with visual or handicaps from reading their sites. Surely there are Canadian citizens with handicaps that want to join the Liberal or Conservative parties, donate funds, volunteer, or just vote for them. Unfortunately, many persons with handicaps will be able to access the Liberal or Conservative web sites. Hopefully the parties will get a clue and fix these issues, promptly.


Liberal – 800×600 graphics mode

The site is relatively crisp and employs a drop down menu to good effect, however Liberal site designers commit a big faux pas, employing a silly Flash animation:


Liberal – this flash area will take up space with the ugly message “Click to load plugin” – no thanks!

Other than the Flash faux pas, the Liberal site implementation leads all the others in terms of imparting information. More pages give you real content as opposed to menu upon menu or big graphic blobs.

New Democratic Party of Canada


NDP web site – 800×600 resolution

The NDP web site employs no Flash nor any javascript-dependent links – this makes it immediately more accessible than any of the other sites reviewed.


NDP web site – text mode

In text mode, the NDP web site has the same failings as all the others – no ability to quickly skip the navigation links and most directly to the primary content of the page – but, by virtue of a less complicated page with less linked content, at least getting to the content can be done relatively quickly. Half marks awarded to the NDP – the only party to receive any marks for text-mode browsing.

Conclusion

I’ve ranked the sites in order of accessibility, based on my own subjective yet somewhat analytical approach. From best to worst, in text mode:

From best to worst, using a graphical browser (most of the population):

From best to worst, using a graphical browser but giving a little more weight to layout and a little less weight to accessibility:

If web pages were votes, Conservatives would turn in a last place finish. Clearly they can do better; lets hope they (and all the parties) spend a little money and clean up their web act and let Canadians with disabilities into the picture too.

November 15 2005

Python Markdown 1.0

Noted: Python Markdown hits the 1.0 release.

November 13 2005

Yo Yo Yo, give us our dough

A 10-year old, apparently with a future in politics, is organizing a symbolic boycott of MacDonald’s restaurants on December 3rd, in support of the lumber industry over the long running trade dispute with the US. http://www.wewantourmoneyback.ca./

November 05 2005

Slimserver and Windows Media... on Unix

It seems that recent versions of Slim Devices excellent open-source Slimserver product have finally caught up with my needs… and our house now has streaming CBC Radio One (Vancouver) through our audio system.

Slimserver is a streaming audio server designed for home use; it has an attractive web interface; a Java-based emulator of the Squeezebox hardware product is also part of the package, plus most any streaming music player can act as a slightly more brain-dead slimserver client – xmms, winamp, madplay, py-mad, whatever… if you are looking for a good solid music server solution, there’s lots to recommend about this one.

In addition to the open-source server solution, we also have a Squeezebox hardware player attached to our system, allowing us to stream Internet and file system based audio from a server in the basement through the wireless connection on the Squeezebox, sitting atop the audio system one story up. It all works rather well (an understatement) and was worth the invement in both the Squeezebox as well as the time it took two winters ago to convert all of our CD’s (now sitting in boxes, untouched) to MP3 / ogg-vorbis format. A few shell scripts made simple work of coverting the lot, with most of the work being done by abcde.

The only frustration I’ve had with the setup has been over streaming Windows media; we only run a single Windows box at home, and its not for server use; up until sometime this year its been difficult to say the least to get Windows Media (or Real Audio) through the slimserver solution, hosted on *nix.

But those days are past, keys to the kingdom:

  • Run the latest release of Slimserver, release 6.2 or greater.
  • Install the AlienBBC Plugin – the linux installation instructions are applicable to FreeBSD as well, with only one exception noted…
  • If you are on FreeBSD, you’ll need add at least one more fd device: mount -t fdescfs /dev/fd will extend the number of available file descriptors beyond the first three (0,1,2 for stdin, stdout, stderr); the mplayer wrapper script makes use of /dev/fd3 which, on FreeBSD at least, is not present hence the mount. A script in /usr/local/etc/rc.d is what I’ve done to ensure its presence, so I don’t have to repatch slimserver.sh each time I portupgrade it. Stumbled across this back in January, the last time I took a stab at getting this going.
  • While you’re at this, you’ll probably want to portupgrade -Rrf mplayer.* to get to the latest revision; as of this writing, the AlienBBC plugin defaults to using the “pre7” settings for mplayer (opposite of what the docs suggest) – upgrading to the latest mplayer is just simpler.
  • Restart slimserver and that should be that.

Visit the radio tune in page on the Slimserver web interface and paste in: mms://wm.cbc.ca/cbcr1-vancouver and tune in… et voila.