Friday, October 24, 2014

Eurotrip 2014: Day 1 - Paris & Brussels

Landing in Paris wasn’t as exciting as I would have hoped since it was pitch black outside and clouds prevented us from really seeing too much of the night skyline.  Whatever the case, I was down and ready to head to Brussels.  Grabbing my luggage was horrible since my baggage check ticket had a “#34” on it, and there also was a belt #34 for “oversized baggage”.  Of course, the first thing I did was make the assumption that my bag would be there.  I showed one of the handlers my baggage claim tag and he also pointed me to the belt.  But after sitting there for 20 minutes watching 1 bag come through the chute every 5 minutes, I decided to ask someone in the help office.  Within 15 seconds, they were able to look up the flight and the correct baggage collection area for me.  With my bag, I was off to the connecting high speed rail to Brussels.

The rail station at Charles de Gaulle was a lot like Union Station in Toronto; except cleaner, brighter, and better in general.  The trains were very clean, comfortable and sold food and drinks in the dining cars.  And the important thing - they were fast.  But like all good things, something had to screw it up.  In this case, it was in the form of some Englishmen.  After getting on, I walked through a few of the cars and didn’t quite understand how the seat numbers worked (as in I didn’t even see numbers on seats).  I ask a gaggle of English chaps (This is how I will address their grouping) about the seats.  One of them  luckily gave me a quick and good answer.  Apparently. you can sit anywhere as long as there’s space since stops were infrequent.  Then one of his lads suggests that if I’m travelling alone, I should find the biggest and fattest girls to hang around, and I’ll be set for my entire trip.  Then he spouted some other senseless crap which I ignore and sat back down in my seat.  After that, he just starts calling me “Jackie” from afar and throwing the usual asian stereotypes at me.  I would have said something, but I didn’t want my ass handed to me by 4 very large and hulking men who probably had a couple pints worth of drinks before I got on.  I just moved to another car and everything was back to normal.  

I arrived at Brussels Midi just before 1 p.m.  The next step was to meet my Airbnb hosts, and for that I would need to use the metro transit.  The problem was that the hosts gave me fairly poor directions to get to the place.  The “line” that I was to take didn’t even exist.  After some random asking, I found were I was to go and was on my way.  The subway trains in Brussels felt very rustic and similar to those older wooden TTC trains with the orange/brown seats.  All-in-all a pleasant experience.  

Once I arrive, I am greeted by my hosts’ mother who seems to be running this building.  She was very kind.  The only issue is that she spoke little English.  It was time to break out that up to grade 10 Ontario school system French.  And as I predicted, I was bad at it.  But she took it in good spirit and went with it.  So for the next 30 minutes, she gave me the tour and showed me on a map where/how to get to some interesting places.  It was a flurry of English, French, hand gestures and drawings! After I got settled, I took a quick walk around the nearby neighbourhood since it would get dark quickly and I didn’t want to be lost in the city at night while jetlagged. Instead I ran around  a couple nearby parks and the University.  In North America, we have the squeegee guys at intersections.  Over here in Brussels, we have acrobats.  So when stopped at a red light, I saw a man juggling bowling pins, in the middle of the road.  And on a nearby corner, and I shit you not, there was a guy juggling flaming batons.

To close out my day, I found a nearby grocery store, Carrefour, and bought some ingredients to make dinner.  Groceries were more expensive than back home, but definitely a steal compared to the prices I saw when I was in London.  So drumroll please … my first real meal made in Europe was … lettuce wraps using ground pork, tomatoes and peppers and cheese.  Hey not bad for being in a foreign country using a foreign kitchen, and being watched with a microscope by a foreign mom.  She was pretty impressed, but then again she mentioned she loves Chinese food and then showed me a bottle of instant Thai lemon grass sauce.  

It was only just after 8pm when I finished eating and cleaning up.  I decided to turn in really early since I’d had a long day and wanted an early start the next day.  7 a.m. early start!  This time I’m going to explore the downtown core, which is about a 30-40 min walk.

Eurotrip 2014: Day 0 - Toronto

Packing was crazy awful.  I kept unpacking and repacking my bag to lighten it up.  In the end, I only took 3 pairs of pants, and added a second pair of shoes (for going out). At the last minute I made the decision to bring my DSLR, but without its bag.  I guessed that carrying it in my day bag would be less conspicuous.  Total weight, 28lbs! Close enough.  

The packing process was a somber moment since while I was doing it, I was following the events that were unfolding in Ottawa.  I feel that the situation was handled very well by our armed forces at every level.  The quick acts everyone probably saved many lives that day.  Unfortunately, one life that could not be saved was the soldier at arms who was guarding the war memorial performing a ceremonial role.  He was shot by the initial gunman and later succumbed to his injuries.  My heart goes out to the family of that man.  

I hailed an uberX at around 3pm and it got to my place in like 10 minutes.  The driver I met was one of the most relaxed and cool guys I’ve ever met.  His look seemed to be a mixed of the surfer and the hockey player (the flow and douchey shades).  Regardless, I sat in the front and we had a great conversation about Europe, Uber, and apparently his odd jobs be very odd (go figure).  I was supposed to go to Terminal 3, but he just missed the ramp for it.  Cool as he was, he realized it was his fault and stopped the meter.  So the trip from my place (~Dufferin and Dundas) ended up being $31 and he got me there in 20-25 min.  As far as I’m concerned that’s a great win since flat rate cars to the airport are usually at least $50.  To my unfortunate realization, I had forgotten my noise cancelling bluetooth headphones which made my trip to London a breeze.  To those curious, my headphones are the Parrot Zik (v.1.0) headphones in the classic colour.  

Apparently I misread my flight information and the flight was to take off at 6:40, and boarding would begin at 5:55.  That being said, I was at the airport super early and thus had 2.5 hours to bum around.  But first, baggage check.  My bag, made by Deuter for all those lovers of the sac, was a 60L bag (50 + 10) and filled to capacity.  However when I got to the airport, I was planning on bringing my laptop, camera, and various cables/chargers to entertain myself on the 7.5 hour flight.  Taking these out in my day bag as carryon ended up lightening the load by 10lbs.   Baggage check and customs was a walk in the park, really.  I just had to take off my jacket and bring out my laptop, and simply strolled right through the detectors.

For the next 2 hours, I got a beer in the airport lounge and just chatted on social media and read a few hilarious news stories.  Apparently this one girl in China was dumped by her boyfriend, and then spent the next week eating fried chicken in a local KFC.  In a 24 hour establishment with numerous shifts, it took the staff days to realize it.  Luckily, she was able to stay and continue eating away her troubles since she was still making purchases and considered a valuable customer.  Now that’s what I call service!

As I boarded the plane, It wasn’t too packed.  I was able to get a window seat near the entrance and had a seat in between me and the lady beside me.  My only gripe was that there were no power outlets at all!  I guess I was spoiled last time having both power and usb outlets on Air Canada.  Mind you, this flight I got was round trip to Brussels for $650 CAD so I didn’t really care.  I knew I was on a French flight since the suave goatees were in full force [on the men].  Soon after takeoff, it was dinner time.  I was starving and just wanted something to be in me (*not that kind of thing - stupid Konrad).  What I wasn’t expecting was every passenger getting a dinner card that went over the entire menu that was going to be served. (I wish I had taken the menu with me after the flight.)  What I ended up choosing was the roasted beef in a wild mushroom and onion jus with a side of potato mash.  The other option was a type penne pasta which what I assumed was chicken/vegetarian.  I also didn’t expect getting as sides along with it: an entire loaf of bread, a large portion of carrot and raison salad (super yummy by the way), cheese, a bottle of wine, a sealed cup of water, apple sauce, and a lemon sponge cake with strawberry compote on top.  I was so stuffed and satisfied.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Web Accessibility : Project Proposal

On almost all websites, text is a major component of their makeup. However, it is not always safe to assume that the information is being easily extracted. There are many individuals that have disabilities that cause them to have trouble reading and interpreting what they are reading. An example of this would be those with dyslexia. Similarly, it is not always the case that the native tongue of those reading is the same as the language on the page. Those new to a language may understand most of the content, but get stuck on a particular term.

When was the last time you saw a term that stopped you in your tracks like the one above?

I propose a tool to help individuals read and understand sections of text on websites. By simply selecting a word or compound term on the page, the tool will bring up an assistant window. The window will be composed of separate tabs representing 3 main things:

1. A formal definition of the word or term:

2. A pronunciation tool:

3. An image (if applicable):

The benefit of this format would be its ability to reach out to auditory and visual learners through the text-to-speech and image fetching abilities respectively. As well, to emphasize a sense of learning and progress, there will be a “history” option to view the recently searched words.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Web Accessibility Tools : FireGestures

FireGestures is an add-on to Mozilla Firefox that allows commands to be run with combinations of mouse, keyboard and scroll wheel gestures made on the display area of the browser. By holding the activating mouse button (default = right), a user can make a simple mouse stroke and execute a command. A stroke to the left will represent moving to the previous page visited in recent history and similarly, a right stroke represents moving forward. Conveniently, the path of the stroke is displayed with a customizable colour on the page.

Strokes are registered as up (U), down (D), left (L), or right (R). As a result, any combination of these can represent a unique command. For example LRLRD may be mapped as a command to close the current tab. Careful thought was also put into how a new mouse gesture is registered. When registering, there is an input box where the user can draw out their gesture and the stroke combination will be displayed underneath.

Although I only mentioned mouse stroke combinations, there are also combinations that can be made with the scroll wheel and keystrokes while the activation key is held. These work the same way with the mapping.

This may be a very interesting tool, but the concept isn’t without its flaws. There being only 4 directional mouse strokes always leads to ambiguity when dealing with the “in-between” cases. If an individual were to make a north-easterly stroke, it may be read as either an up or a right stroke.

Another issue with the concept would be that compound script gestures that have similar mappings to other gestures could lead to disastrous results. The problem is that the more gestures that you add, the more similar the gesture compositions will be and the easier it will be to apply the wrong one. An extra left stroke could be the difference between reloading a page and deleting browsing history.

Also, there is a factor to consider that limits the commands you can or should use. After a while, basic combinations of left, right, up and down strokes will be exhausted, which will force the user to add more movements. Eventually, stroke sets will become so complex that it may be faster to simply click the original button associated with that action.

Tools such as FireGestures can find its uses for individuals who suffer from Repetitive Strain Injuries (RSI). Movements will be simpler and made in a smaller space to reduce the number of traditional “big movements” required for most tasks. The concept of the FireGestures add-on is very interesting; however, there are many flaws in its design that may outweigh the value.

Web Accessibility Tools : Readability

Readability is an extension that is available for Mozilla Firefox, Safari, and Google Chrome browsers. I will be reviewing the Firefox add-on. The main purpose of Readability is to make the web page text more readable by removing all the clutter such as advertisements, fancy fonts, and backgrounds.

Additional ease of use can be set with keyboard shortcuts. A user is able to customize their tool by adjusting text size, display style and margin width. Different display styles include rendering the page font like a newspaper, e-book or novel. In many cases of browsing, hyperlinks can have the ability to distract the user while they read an article. By enabling a simple option, hyperlinks can be converted to footnotes. An added bonus would be that every new page is generated with buttons to refresh the original page, print the new page or email the new page to someone else.

Although the tool seems like a very good idea, it is not without its flaws. Font choice is restricted to only 5 types. Similarly, rendered pages are displayed as either black on a light background or white font on a single dark background. Although this is standard, it would be nice to have some choice in the display colours. Not everyone has the same opinions on comfortable “reading” colours.

Even though in many cases, text is one of the most important parts of a web page, images can play an important role in adding context. Readability includes some, but not all images. However, for those that it does keep, the orientation of the images is lost. For example, if images are arranged side by side on the original page, the rendered version will place them one under the other. This is an important issue because any text that was below the initial side-by-side images will be wrapped beside the resulting column of images. As expected, the Readability tool works best with regular text based websites. Once they get fancy with flash-based sites, Readability no longer helps.

The Readability add-on is a very useful tool for those that wish to just get the meat of the website without being overwhelmed with clutter. Furthermore, it would be very helpful to individuals with conditions such as ADHD and are easily distracted.

Web Accessibility Tools : Virtual Magnifying Glass

Virtual Magnifying Glass is an application that is supported on Microsoft Windows 2000+, Mac OS X, and Linux distributions. This product literally is a magnifying glass for a user’s desktop. When functioning in regular magnifying mode, it locks a magnified frame to the user’s cursor. Wherever the cursor is moved, the area under it is magnified based on the user specified options. Unfortunately, icons and other things under the area cannot be interacted with while in this mode. For that functionality, a user would have to put the tool into “Dynamic Mode”.

This tool has multiple bugs that I noticed while using it. For example, when clicking off of the magnifier onto Windows Live Messenger, it would temporarily change my status to “busy” and then back to “normal”. Also, when trying to install onto Fedora Linux, I was unable to even start the application.

As a tool to help those with poor eyesight see small icons, it succeeds. However, for a tool with good usability, it fails.

Web Accessibility Tools : Page Zoom Buttons

Page Zoom Buttons is an add-on to Mozilla Firefox that creates buttons that can be placed on a toolbar to execute different zoom functionality. Unfortunately, this tool is not really ready to be used once installed to Firefox. The problem is that you have to physically add the buttons to your tool bar by using: View > Toolbars > Customize and drag the new icons onto a toolbar.

To be honest, the Page Zoom Buttons add-on doesn’t really add new functionality to Firefox as the zooming that it does is identical to the “ctrl +/- “ key combinations. This of course already has its issues. If you zoom in very close and then go to a new page, then you will remain at that magnification. This results in you having to zoom out a bit to gain your bearings on where you currently are in the page.

This tool, like many others, would benefit individuals with poor or degrading eyesight. Although the concept of zooming is sound, no real functionality is added to Firefox. There are better add-ons to Firefox that can do similar jobs and should be considered over this one.