Video Test

This post is just a test post playing with embedding video with the HTML 5 video element. First, I’m going to try just dragging in a video, and see what WordPress gives me, then I’ll probably end up hand coding it.

This video was shot during my 2012 hot air balloon ride, with my iPhone. One problem I’ve had using iPhone video is that it often comes out upside down. It looks OK in Aperture, and in the QuickTime player, but when I go to transcode it into other formats, it comes out upside down. I discovered tonight the trick is to open it in QuickTime player, and export it.

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New Year, New Look

Just in time for the new year, I’ve revamped the appearance of the site. This is something I’ve been wanting to do since I first set up the site, but I had the notion that I needed to create a whole new theme, and was very slowly working my way through a WordPress book.

As it turns out, that wasn’t necessary. WordPress supports child themes–it isn’t necessary to create a whole new theme, you can simply override the parts of an existing theme that you want to. In this case, I’m basing my theme on the default TwentyEleven theme I was already using.

I’d fallen in love with the theme’s header image feature, and had already created some really nice banners from some of my pictures. But I wanted more color, I wanted to play with web fonts, and I wanted an appearance that was mine.


The fonts I’m now using are Museo Slab for the titles and Museo Sans for the main body text. Right now, I’m using TypeKit to provide them. One thing I’m less than crazy about is that you need to add a script to bring them in, and they’re hosted by TypeKit. I need to look into self-hosting them.


The main blue background is a PNG gradient applied to the HTML (root) element, with the “words” as a repeating PNG image applied to the BODY element. I’m of two minds about this background, from an accessibility standpoint. On the one hand, they’re meant to denote some of my interests, which would indicate that that some programmatically determinable method should be available. On the other hand, they’re meant to be decorative and kind of subliminal, and not to be really read. They’re not in a meaningful order, and in fact, you can’t see them all. They’re almost just texture. In the end, this is the line of thought I’ve followed.

The other gradients are created via CSS, using code based on ColorZilla’s Ultimate CSS Gradient Generator.

HTML Changes

Most of the generated HTML is still straight TwentyEleven. During development, I had to replace the stylesheet link with a hard coded link to my development site– WordPress is absolutely bloody-minded about using absolute links, which makes things needlessly complicated when you’re developing on a development domain. The one HTML change I’ve made so far is to add a little markup to facilitate the “posted on” calendar, which I implemented via a filter in my child theme.

One other change I want to implement in the future (hopefully, near future) is to provide alternative text for the header image. Surprisingly, the stock theme only provides an empty alt attribute with no easy way to add alternative text, and from what little I saw on the support forums last night, this was a design decision–I gather the feeling is that they regard the header image as being strictly decorative, and want to head off keyword stuffing. I can see that, but I can also see a site creating header images that include text, which would need alternative text. In my case, I’d like to add alternative text indicating what the header is a picture of, and it would even be nice to add a little visible caption with that information.

Browser Support

The site looks great in Safari, Opera, Chrome, and current Mozilla browsers like Firefox or Camino. I’ve looked at it in IE 7 and 8, and it looks good in those browsers too, though it’s missing some of the niceties like text embossing and rounded corners.  I haven’t seen it yet in IE 9. I am aware of an issue in older Mozilla browsers — the typography is missing, as is the gray background at the top, due to a bug in the way those browsers dealt with unknown elements. (The site uses some of the new HTML 5 features). The site is still readable, though, and the work-around– serving the site to Mozilla as text/xml– is risky, since one misplaced entity or malformed comment or post would blow the page out of the water. In the end, I’ve decided to accept that older Gecko based browsers won’t see as nice a presentation of the site. Fortunately, usage of these browsers is well under 1%.

Update 1/4/12:

I’ve now seen it in IE 9, and of course, IE Is Being IE. Earlier versions of Internet Explorer don’t support rounded corners, but IE 9 does. Unfortunately, since I was using an IE filter style to provide the top gray gradient, there were square corners poking out of the header. Apparently, it can’t clip the rounded corners when using older filter styles. I’ve replaced that gradient with an image; which took care of the problem.

Future Plans

As I stated above, I’d like to add alternative text/captioning to the header images, and I may add a little control to the home page enabling the user so rotate through the images without reloading the page. I also need to look into a widget to display tweets (I’m @ShutterAperture on Twitter). I will be adding an About page, and uploading and providing links to some of my older static pages that I was hosting either on Comcast when I was using them, or MobileMe. And in two weeks, I’ll be heading to Bonaire for a week of diving, and am looking forward to blogging about that.

Happy New Year, everyone.


On Being “Programmatically Determined”

I’ve been dealing a bit with the WCAG accessibility guidelines at work, and one of the concepts that keeps recurring is that various kinds of information about the page is supposed to “be programmatically determined”. But what does that mean, and why is it important?

The thing is, when you can look at at a web page, the human brain is very good at figuring out the relationships between the parts of the page based just on their visual presentation. See some bold faced type? Must be there for emphasis. Those bigger runs of text? Must be headings and subheadings. And tables make sense when you can run your eyes up and down the columns, and across the rows.

HTML was originally designed as a way to mark up text documents semantically for the scientific community. But as the web became more popular, more and more presentational elements were added, and the focus of of web development turned to how pages look. For example,  I distinctly remember my then-current copy of the The Non-Designer’s Web Book recommending that you create headings by using the <font> tag to bump up the font size, and using a <br> tag to separate it from the text body, because browsers made headings too big and put too much white space around headings, and it couldn’t be adjusted.

That’s all great if you can see the page, but pretty useless if you can’t. And many people can’t, so they have to rely on software to read the pages to them. Making sure that information about your page can be “programmatically determined” just means using the features of HTML to embed information about the page in the markup so software can figure it out.

Examples of making things able to be “programmatically determined”

Let’s start with headings and subheadings. If you just use font sizing and a break tag to denote a heading, like we used to, it looks like just a part of the paragraph to a screen reader. On the other hand, if you use one of the heading elements, like an <h3>, the screen reader can recognize it, and indicate it to the listener.

Form controls are another problem. Typically, the labels for the controls are recognizable because visually they’re right next to the control. Not so easy for the screen reader — it doesn’t know which words are tied to which control, and if a table is used to lay out the form, the label might not even be adjacent to the control in the HTML source. This is solved by wrapping the label text in the <label> element, and using its “for” attribute to indicate which control it’s associated with. The software can now determine the relationships programmatically.

Another problem with forms is organization. Forms can get pretty big, and hard to comprehend. You can indicate relationships between form fields by using the <fieldset> and <legend> elements to group sections of the form; this also has the benefit of grouping elements visually. Assistive technology can now recognize the organization, because it’s in the structure of the page.

Emphasis can also be indicated structurally. <em> tags indicate emphasis, and  are generally rendered in italic, while <strong> elements indicate strong emphasis and are generally rendered in bold. Screen readers can pick up on these cues, and add the proper inflection.

On the other hand, the <b> and <i> tags have no intrinsic meaning — they just indicate bold face and italic text. The recommendation is to use <em> and <strong> if you want to convey emphasis, and a span element with a style declaration for a presentational effect.

Here I differ a little from the recommendation; if my intent is strictly presentational, I’m willing to use <i> since my intent is just presentation. For example, <p>I <em>loved</em> visiting the USS <i>Constitution</i>.</p>, which would be rendered as:

I loved visiting the USS Constitution.

The difference is that “loved” is emphasized, whereas the italic on “Constitution” is just a typographic convention.

Finally, there are tables. Back in Ye Olde Netscape 4 days, we used to use make table headings by setting the color and background of the first row of cells, and maybe making the text bold. This is fine if you can scan up and down the rows, but sucks if the you’re listening to the table cell by cell. The right way is to use the <th> (table header) element to mark up headers. Even better is to use the scope attribute on the <th> element to indicate if it’s a header for a row or a column, and to use the <thead>, <tfoot> and <tbody> elements to indicate sections of the table. With this markup in place, software can then decipher the relationships between cells and communicate them to the user.

Don’t abuse semantic elements

A last part of making sure that information about your document can be “programmatically determined” is to recognize semantic elements for what they are, and to not pollute your document for their presentational side effects. The biggest offender here is the <blockquote> element, abused far and wide because it has indented sides. Well, dummy, it’s intended to convey the fact that the enclosed text is a quotation, and if it isn’t, you’re saying something about the text that isn’t correct, and can confuse software that’s trying to figure out your content programmatically. If all you want to do is indent text, use styles to do so. Other elements that tend to get misused for their presentational effects are the list elements <ul>, <ol>, <dl> <dd><dt>.

But Why Should I Care?

Making information about your content “programmatically available” benefits more than screen readers. It makes your content more accessible to software generally — and that includes search engines as well.