meyerweb.com

Skip to: site navigation/presentation
Skip to: Thoughts From Eric

Archive: August 2002

Inaccessible Accessiblity Information

Remember the flap, back in April, when the Section 508 site‘s markup didn’t validate?  Guess what: it still doesn’t, but that’s not what I’m here to talk about.  I just found, thanks to a co-worker, a story almost as good.  It involves Microsoft’s Accessibility page.  Think it’s accessible, let alone legible in anything other than Explorer?  Hah!

Given my employer, I thought about taking a pass, but you know what?  To heck with it.  I’d be taking Microsoft to task over this if I worked for myself, so I’m going to do it now.  So here’s the deal: go to the page using a Gecko-based browser like Mozilla.  Or use Opera, which has its own display problems, but which aren’t the ones I’m about to describe. A screenshot showing poorly styled links on Microsoft's Accessibility page. Okay, take a look at the links on the right side of the page.  Nice.  Even someone with my eyesight can’t read that text without major squinting.  I suppose there’s a witty remark to be made about forcing the user to squint at a link to a page on “Visual Impairments,” but in a rare display of moderate taste, I’m not going to make it.  Now look at the left rail.  A few of the links, and all of the search area, are completely gone (you may have to compare the page in Explorer to see what I mean).  They’ve been pushed out of the top of the left rail.

Are these display errors due to bugs in Gecko?  No.  They’re due to sloppy authoring practices made possible by bugs in Explorer.  To wit:

  • The teensy link text is due to the site’s use of font-size: x-small for the table that encloses the links.  IE thinks x-small is one “step” below the user’s default font, when in fact it’s two “steps.”  To give some rough approximations, IE thinks it’s 80% normal whereas it should be 60% normal.  (Those percentages are close to reality, but remember that CSS doesn’t define how big or small the keywords should be.)  Changing the value to small gets you a decent display in Gecko, but of course the text gets bigger in IE, which thinks that small is the same size as the user’s text.  As opposed to, say, medium, which is clearly defined to be the same size as unstyled text.  Todd Fahrner has written about this topic far better than I ever could; see “Toward a standard font size interval system” and “Size Matters” for details and good advice.
  • The cut-off links and search area are due to stupid table tricks.  The entire left rail is a single table cell with a bunch of stuff inside it—no great surprise there.  But how does Microsoft try to get the content of the rail up against the top of the cell?  By sticking in a table with a height of 100% below the rest of the cell’s contents.  IE assumes that if an element is too tall, then it should be resized.  Gecko, on the other hand, properly calculates the height of this table to be equal to the height of the entire left rail.  So you have a table as tall as the whole rail, and then more content above it, and all of it is vertically centered in the rail… which means the visible content gets pushed out of the cell.  The fix?  What most any Web designer would have done in the first place: add valign="top" to the rail’s cell.

In addition, the page’s markup comes nowhere close to validating (of course!) and is composed of so many convoluted, nested tables, spacer GIFs, and font tags that I shudder to contemplate what a screen reader, or a text-mode browser, might end up displaying.

It’s not like these particular authoring errors were difficult to spot, or even to fix.  Tracking down the source of the problems and fixing them took me about 20 minutes, tops.  I think I’ve spent more time writing and editing this rant than I did on the diagnosis and testing of the fixes described above.  Of course, there are doubtless other problems on the page, but if so they weren’t immediately obvious—and as much as I’d love to spend my days fixing obvious authoring mistakes for other people, I only have 50 or 60 more years to live.  I hate to start a project when I know I can’t finish it.

What is it about accessibility sites that brings out the absolute worst in the Web and its authors?

Let It Go, People

I hope everyone enjoyed the “Eric Meyer made up Jeffrey Zeldman” thing.  I’m still sort of amazed by it all, and Kat and I have gotten more than a few chuckles out of it.  I freely admit that I don’t have the creativity to come up with Jeff—he’s far too unique and interesting a guy to be my invention.

So Netscape 4.8 was released.  The howls of protest began immediately; I noticed disparaging comments from Zeldman (who was pretty funny about it, of course), Shirley, and Meryl, among others who I can’t recall at the moment, not to mention a mercifully short thread on css-discuss.  Apparently this release is the worst thing to happen to the Web in memory, or something like that.

To which I say: could we all please calm the %#@$#! down?  As I’ve tried to explain several times, updates to Netscape 4.x are driven by security patches.  Period.  End of story.  The rendering engine does not change, so it’s not like there are new bugs to worry about there.  These updates are required by support contracts between Netscape and enterprise users.  I suppose Netscape could just abandon the product line and leave enterprise customers open to future security exploits, rather like some other companies that spring to mind.  Yeah, that sounds like a swell idea.

To get back to my original point: the louder people howl about new a NN4.x release, the higher its visibility, and so the more people will actually download it.  See where I’m going with this one?  If people would just ignore the NN4.x releases, there would be fewer NN4.x installs in the world.  Users would instead find another, more current browser.  Everybody wins.  How hard is that?

Sometimes I’m astonished by the human drive to stir up controversy where none need exist, not to mention the ever greater drive to complain at length about trivial things.  Sort of like I’m doing right now, in fact…

The Truth At Last!

I knew I shouldn’t have gone to work for a Netscape group that interfaces so directly with the Mozilla crew—those guys are sharp.  Sooner or later, they were bound to figure out my secret.  I suppose I may as well confess it all now.

A few years back, I realized that while I was making good progress toward total domination of the CSS space (thanks to some judicious “retirements” of my competitors), something more was required.  There needed to be a rallying personality for all standards, not just CSS, and unfortunately my name was already too well associated with CSS.  A whole new persona was required—a figurehead, if you will.

So I invented Jeffrey Zeldman, whom I’ve always thought of as the imaginary friend I never had.  Sure, zeldman.com says it’s been online since 1995, but how do you know that for sure?  You don’t.  A little Wayback hacking and is all it takes to create a false Web history, specifically from 1996 through 1998, when the site actually went live.

Eventually, though, both “Zeldman” and I were getting invited to the same events.  I was facing a very awkward situation, because obviously Clark Kent and Superman can’t both be in the room at the same time.  So whenever I need “Zeldman” to appear, I use a NYC-area stand-up comic and character actor whose real name is Moishe Applebaum.  He’s actually picked up a lot of this Web stuff in the course of playing the role, and makes a little extra money on the side doing sites for small non-profits.  His stand-up routine is really funny, too; catch it some time when you’re in the Village.  I think he still has a couple more dates this month.

Fun trivia facts:

  • I came up with the name “Zeldman” because I’d just finished reading The Prisoner of Zenda and The Invisible Man.  Somehow the two mutated into “Zeldman.”
  • The “Jeffrey” part is actually a riff on Jeff Veen‘s first name.  I thought at the time that it would be funny to have two experts with the same name.  Of course, when Eric Costello came along the joke was on me, but that’s okay.
  • The incredibly different color schemes historically used on meyerweb.com and zeldman.com was sort of an in-joke, in addition to being a simple way to make the two personas seem more distinct.
  • My wife Kat is in fact a real person, and so is Carrie.  She’s Moishe’s girlfriend, not mine, so get your minds out of the gutter.  You’re blocking my periscope.

The next time “Zeldman” and I are supposed to appear at the same time is an upcoming Web Design World this November.  I’ll probably keep the illusion going; I’d hate to call it off after all these years.  Still, you never know what could happen now that the word’s out…

css-discuss Public Archive Announced

The very active mailing list I chaperone, css-discuss, has always had an archive.  However, it was only open to list members so that spammers couldn’t harvest the members’ e-mail addresses, it wasn’t searchable even for members, and it had some stupid display problems that were beyond our control.  I always felt a little embarrassed about sending list members to the archives, but it was all we had.

Well, good news, CSS fans.  List member Simon Willison has put together a very slick public archive of the list where e-mail addresses aren’t exposed, and the incredible depth and breadth of content the list represents is now available to non-members and Google alike.  The archive is even searchable using Boolean terms, so you could run a query to get every post Mark Newhouse has ever made to the list where he mentions floated elements.  For example.

This is an amazing resource, the collected discussion and experience of 2100+ list members now available to the world.  Simon (and his company, Incutio, which is generously hosting said resource and developed the archiving software that drives it) deserve hugs, hosannas, and high praise to the heavens for putting in the effort to make this a reality.  Spread the word.

Speaking of words to be spread, here’s another: DevEdge just got a makeover and a new address.  The legacy site will live where it always did, at developer.netscape.com.  The address devedge.netscape.com will point to the new site, which was laid out and styled by yours truly.  The new site is where we’ve concentrated all of our cross-browser information and work, including scripts and tools you can use today.  Check it out!

Write a Haiku, Win a Book

In one of those surreal turns that really makes life worth living, I spotted a link (on zeldman.com) to a contest at Consolation Champs where the winning haiku gets a free copy of Eric Meyer on CSS.  I love haiku; it’s probably my favorite poetic form and about the only one in which I ever intentionally set out to compose verse.  Some of the entries are funny, others elegant, still others sublime… and I was very amused by the entry that says, in effect, “CSS is inferior to HTML-based design.”  Check it out!

With everything else going on, it’s nice to know that life still retains its capacity to surprise and delight.  It can be all too easy to forget that simple but important truth.

August 2002
SMTWTFS
July September
 123
45678910
11121314151617
18192021222324
25262728293031

Archives

Feeds

Extras