Archive for July, 2004

Happy fifth Birthday to my Multiple Sclerosis

It was five years ago today that Dr Naraporn Prayoonwiwat of the Bangkok Nursing Home diagnosed me as having Multiple Sclerosis. After a short-lived period of semi-paralysis of my left leg and arm in 1995 which seriously impaired my enjoyment of a gig by The Stranglers, and a bout of optic neuritis in 1996 that was cured by steroid tablets and two anti-inflammatory injections into my eye (the second most hideous medical procedure ever inflicted on me), it took a period of spazziness and trembling of my left arm in 1999 to bring me to Dr Naraporn’s clinic. I was very lucky, because although MS is highly unusual in Asian people, Dr Naraporn had worked in the west and knew MS when she saw it.

As quick as you can say "Yes, I have medical insurance", I was in a private room with 1000 mg of methyl prednisolone dripping into my left arm, and undergoing a lumbar puncture. This is the most hideous of medical procedures; you curl tightly into a foetal ball while a hypodermic that makes a knitting needle look like a flu jab is shoved between your spinal discs and cerebrospinal fluid is withdrawn. Should this ever happen to you, here’s my advice: drink gallons of coffee as caffeine prevents the LP migraine, demand pre-skewering valium, and don’t move a fucking muscle for the 20 minutes that the needle’s in there.

The next day got me an MRI scan (the third most hideous … you get the picture) and a formal diagnosis of Multiple Sclerosis. I was given some prednisolone steroid tablets to shut down my immune system so that my nerves might be given a chance to repair themselves, something else to counteract the acne that the steroids cause, Triludan to stop the neural pain and something to counteract the abdominal spasms that the Triludan cause.

Then, it was to internet cafés for hours to google for English language information. It was Jooly’s Joint that I found, and that helped me a lot (so it’s especially pleasant that a few years later I met Jooly in connection with Web Accessibility without even realising it was the same Julie Howell). Also, my colleagues at Bell Thailand made it bearable by covering my lessons and being lovely to me.

Five years later, I’m still well – I get tired quicker than I did 5 years ago, but then, who doesn’t with two young kids and a rock-star lifestyle? I still work, drive, drink, and smoke, although seldom simultaneously these days. My comparative wellness is not a sentimental story of my Herculean willpower triumphing over adversity or any bollocks like that, but purely the physical lottery of the disease. I’m simply lucky to have only 2 lesions, in the top of the spine and none in the brain. The only things I don’t do any more are womanise (and that’s nothing to do with MS, that’s because I’m terrified of my wife) and play guitar, as the last MS flare-up damaged fine motor control in my left hand. Some people who’ve heard my songs might consider the guitar-curtailment a blessing, however.

For me, to be honest, the worst thing about MS is the uncertaintly. Prognosis can only ever be statistical, rather than individual; I may never have another relapse again – or I may wake up tomorrow and find myself permanently in a wheelchair or blind in one eye. It’s purely a percentage game. It makes getting a simple cold a nightmare – could this be the time when my immune system, awakened by the bug, starts again at destroying my own spinal cord?

If you’re unlucky enough to have been diagnosed as an MSer recently, don’t despair; don’t deny it and wear yourself out, but don’t let it limit you – or even worse, define you. Here endeth the feelgoodbullshit psychobabble: Happy Birthday, incurable degenerative spinal disease – you bastard!

Letter from Lisa following the Spam Letters

You don’t know Lisa. I don’t know Lisa. But she wrote to me after
reading my conversations with spammers saying "Just a quick
note, found your web page whilst looking up a twat!. Found him on your page
and your winding him up!.Fantastic, I love it! Keep up the good work oh man
of the cloth!. Ta. Lisa".

Lisa – I’m flattered that you read it, liked it and told me so. But I’m worried
that you were "looking up a twat"; I feel it probably contravenes the Hippocratic
Oath to surf the web while conducting a gynaecological examination.

Posted in ephemera . Comments Off on Letter from Lisa following the Spam Letters

JavaScript onclick pop-ups: not Satanic, but still naughty.

After my somewhat intemperate rant about the evils of JavaScript pop-ups, I talked to some experts about whether they are evil, after all. Received wisdom is that JavaScript shouldn’t be used because some screenreaders couldn’t understand it, or would read scripts as text rather than executing them. The same information is duplicated in many, many places – but exactly which screenreaders get confused? I couldn’t seem to find a list anywhere. So, I fired up Eudora and started emailing folks with bigger brains than mine.

The splendid Julie Howell, a tireless campaigner from the Royal
National Institute for the Blind
wrote: "There is no ‘pop ups is bad’ thing – if anyone says there is, they need correcting.  Sure, pop-ups can cause usability probs, but there is no ‘accessibility’ issue there necessarily."

Bob "The Bobster" Regan of Macromedia concurs that it’s largely a usability problem: "They ‘break’ the back button. If you are focused on a pop up – then the back button suddenly doesn’t work and you won’t know why. They are actually allowed, you just have to warn the user ‘opens in a new window’ … They can actually be good in certain cases. Imagine a complex Flash app used to simulate a chemical process. You may want to put that in a pop up to limit the other ‘noise’ around it. It’s like frames – not purely evil.".

Jim Thatcher suggests that JavaScript pop-ups and navigation that can be operated on the keyboard are all fine: "The key is, can you conveniently handle the navigation with the keyboard? If YOU can do it then JavaScript is no problem.

Mike Burks, Chairman of the International Center for Disability Resources on the Internet points out that there may be a backwards compatibility problem: "later versions of JAWS may support JavaScript, but at 6 – 800 US dollars for the software, not everyone can afford the latest."

Mike has written to the U.S. screenreader manufacturers and asked them about their JavaScript support, and will report back.

I agree with Rachel Andrew of the Web Standards Project that, although JavaScript is available to Screenreaders (unless Mike reports back otherwise), there are so many associated usability problems with pop-ups of any sort, they’re best avoided. And although no-one seriously uses the Lynx browser any more, devices like PDAs, cellphones and my soon-to-be-patented internet-enabled sextoy® have no JavaScript support, and so can’t cope with JavaScript pop-ups at all. (Although no-one would seriously want a sextoy that pop-ups, would they?)

Rachel says: "I think it’s a bigger picture thing. A well implemented screen reader is probably going to cope with JavaScript because its users will demand it – that doesn’t mean that using javascript when there is an alternative is right, as there will be many other users who find a new window confusing or problematic – not just the visually impaired. If you are navigating with the keyboard, a new window appearing can be problematic. If you use a device that has no concept of multiple screens, you have lost the opening window, as focus goes to the new one – and the popup window may assume you stil have the parent so ofers no way back. If you don’t have javascript then you don’t get the window at all."

So while I was probably over-reacting by saing that JavaScript pop-ups are the tool of the Devil, I think we can still say that they’re considered harmful.

I’ve also had a couple more mistakes pointed out by Jooly: "’DDA compliance’ and ‘web accessibility’ aren’t interchangeable terms. A site can be WAI complaint and still in breach of the DDA, ya know… all comes down to the definition of ‘service’ and how the ‘service’ is administered.

Oh, and that bit about ‘we’re approaching the deadline for DDA’… that’s wrong. The deadline for web sites was 1 October 1999. Honestly, these misapprehensions are keeping me in this job far too long."

15/7/04, Jim Thatcher told me:" The WCAG checkpoint on this issue says your web page should work just fine with scripting turned off. This covers mouseover color changes. There is nothing the screen reader does with these. But another common use of JavaScript is writing HTML; this is done as the page loads, and the screen reader doesn’t care – it just sees the html. These cover much use of JavaScript and it doesn’t depend on screen reader version – the fact that screen readers have no trouble. I can’t think of a single situation where "JavaScript support" depended on version."

A mail to Freedom Scientific elicited a similar response, althougn my request for a list of back versions of Jaws that support JavaScript-spawned pop-ups and onsubmit forms is unanswered.

Thanks to all the experts. Even the scary ones who told me off.

Web Accessibility – Defeating the Devil.

Having dreamed up the first and best post-legislation book on Web Accessibility, and been cited as having "been
influential in promoting web standards"
, I’ve obviously got an interest in the Accessibility debates, but had been out of the game for a while. But in addition to my new job, I’ve got myself a consultancy gig looking at the UK Disability Discrimination Act compliance of a friend’s new company site.

“There’s so many useless decorative nested tables, it looks like the aftermath of a nuclear strike on an Ikea warehouse.”

It’s an interesting, and I suspect rather typical corporate site: content owners publish through a browser-based CMS, and I must say that on this one, they do an excellent job. Without training – and remember, these are writers, not HTML monkeys – there is alt text for images and intelligent text for links. Unfortunately, that’s all that they have privileges to do; the main structure of the page is beyond their control, as it was made by a large web design organisation who didn’t know their arse from their tits. There’s so many useless decorative nested tables, it looks like the aftermath of a nuclear strike on an Ikea warehouse. Each page has exactly the same 43 links before the main content, and no "skip to main content" link – so imagine tabbing through all those, or hearing them read by a screenreader! It would be enough to give you a paranoid belief that you were being stalked by Stephen Hawking, or that a Dalek is trying to hypnotise you.

But the worst, very worst aspect is the use of pop-up windows that are triggered by a JavaScript onclick with no provision to degrade to a good old-fashioned href if those naughty customers fail to have exactly the same browser set-up as the designer. It makes those links completely inaccessible to users of screenreaders, or PDAs or mobile phones. This is a major sin.

The Secret Lucifer/ JavaScript Nexus of Doom REVEALED!

In fact< , I can exclusively reveal that in my copious spare time, I have decoded the Voynich Manuscript and discovered it to be an account written by the 16th century alchemist John Dee, describing how five hundred years before Al Gore invented the Internet, Satan used JavaScript pop-up windows to transport himself from Hades to earth in order to appear to his minions, drink blood, kill kittens and wreak his terrible vengeance upon the world! And I I say this without risk of contradiction (because there is no comment facility on this blog): if you use non-degradable JavaScript pop-ups, you are helping the Anti-Christ!

In which I rant more soberly ..

I’ve a serious point to make, though. I expect an amateur making websites for beer money with FrontPage to ignore the development of Web Standards and Accessibility techniques that we’ve seen over the last four years. But not a large technology contractor.
And it’s no use blaming the customer; they have their own business to attend to – that’s why they contract the code development out. A hospital needs to know the latest developments in medicine, not best practice web design. A bank doesn’t want to think about the linearisation of tables; it wants to concentrate on its core business of loaning billions of dollars to lunatic dictators so they can build luxury palaces and repress their population with expensive western-made helicopter gunships.

Imagine if university chartered an expensive architect, who went away designed a building and then said, "Oh, I didn’t realise the law requires wheelchair ramps, and you didn’t tell me. Anyway, $500,000 please." It would be unprofessional and inexcusable if that happened – and is equally so if a Web Design house does not know how to comply with the Disability Discrimination Act, and doesn’t advise its clients of the necessity to do so. Personally, I hope that something like the Guild of Accessible Web Designers can act as some kind of accreditation, to distinguish the clued-up from the charlatans, especially as we approach the deadline for implementing part 3 of the DDA.

Protect yourself from accidentally being evil, with Dan Cederholm

Buy from Amazon

In addition to the new job and the Consultancy, I’ve been reading a new book by Dan Cederholm, called Web Standards Solutions: The Markup and Style Handbook. I’ve no connection with it, other than my mate Mills commissioned and edited it, but I have to say it’s excellent. A colleague read a chapter and pronounced it "the best and most lucid explanation I’ve ever seen of when to use <b> and when to use <strong>" and I agree; in the next few weeks I shall be putting into practice loads of his tips. I’ve already fancy-Dandified my header styles, removed presentational <br /> tags, and made them sleeker than Lisa Kudrow rolled in yoghurt. I will be marking up more semantically from now on. I understand the benefits and need; I always wanted to – just didn’t know how to do all that CSS wizardry. This book shows how.

His tip on using the same css and specifying whether it’s a 2 or 3 column page via an id on the body tag is likely to lead to a 40 foot statue of him being erected in the centre of several metropolises. I have to carry the book in a briefcase to protect myself from attractive women trying to seduce me because of it … and any one of those women could be the devil in disguise, summoned by a state-of-the-Ark web designer’s pop-up window. The threat is real. No exaggeration. You know me.

Further information and mistakes corrected.