Category Archives: Web Development

CSS Quirk: opacity

Elements with opacity styling are stacked independent of their containing object. As a result, any positioned elements that do not have a z-index declaration and that appear in the HTML code prior to an opacity-styled element will appear underneath the opacity-styled element (see example). This is the defined behavior in the CSS specification, though currently only gecko- and WebKit-based browsers (Firefox, Safari, Chrome) exhibit the “quirk” in question. From the CSS3 Working Draft:

… implementations must create a new stacking context for any element with opacity less than 1.

CSS Color Module Level 3: Working Draft 21 July 2008

Items Utility: Data Conversion Ready

After creating a new structure for the current year’s piloting data there has been a bit of disconnect in development between the two data sets. There’s just not enough time to ensure that everything works across both data sets. There were basically two choices to moving forward: 1) construct a view of the new data structure that mimics the old data structure; 2) port the old data structure to the new one and continue redevelopment of the scripts. I chose the latter, mainly because there are some improvements I’d like to make to the interface in the process.

I created a series of SQL statements to run in MySQL that will convert the data from the packet_item_records and miscon_packet_refs tables to the packet_students, packet_data, and miscon_packetdata_refs tables. After the conversion I updated any pages that referenced the old data structure. So far in testing the data seems to have converted perfectly.

Minus one issue. Multiple selections for the answer choice questions (A, B, C, D) from 2006 were recorded as a generic Multiple rather than Y+NS, N+NS, etc. This value is not represented in the updated data format or on the data entry forms or summary tables. Rather then spend too much time addressing this issue I’m going to leave these values empty for now. I don’t expect this to be a problem since the researchers are focused on data for the current pilot and field tests. Also, I’m keeping the old version of the piloting data and scripts that interact with it online in case it’s needed.

Creating Graphs in PHP

I was tasked with creating a demonstration of a dynamically generated graph for one of the grant proposals being worked on at present. This isn’t something we’ve really done before in PHP, but I had a feeling it would not be a unique requirement. A quick search revealed that a PEAR package exists for just this purpose: Image_Graph.

Installation was not too difficult, though I did have to ensure that a few dependencies were installed before PEAR would load the package. Documentation for the module is not that great, but there are a number of samples and a fairly active discussion forum. (There used to be a decent community, but the site appears to have gone under.)

I did not find the graphing object very intuitive. It seems to me that a lot of the properties and functions are abstracted from the objects they affect. I suspect this was a design decision to allow for greater flexibility, but it may also be due to an older coding style. The current branch appears to have been developed in earnest starting in 2005, and it’s been a few years since a new release. Even so, my initial exposure leads me to believe the package may be stable enough for even a production-level project so long as sufficient QA has been performed.

It took me only a couple of days to hack together the demonstration. Though the requirements of the script were few, I decided to push the limits of my object-oriented PHP and create the graphing component as a class. Overall it was a good first-try at producing something of this nature. You can find the demonstrator at

Items Utility: Piloting Data Entry Updates

Piloting packets for this year are starting to come in and the data from these packets needs to be entered into the items utility. Because the questions in the packet have changed from previous years, and due to the rigid structure of the piloting data entry form and data tables, I decided to rewrite the data entry form. The new format allows more flexible on the front-end without requiring modification of the back-end. In addition I modified the way PHP interacts with the packet data from MySQL by utilizing a structured array to hold the data.

Continue reading Items Utility: Piloting Data Entry Updates

Subversion Repository for Items

I’m currently cleaning up the items utility so that it can be brought into subversion. I’ve already deleted unused files and done some reorganization of the site files. Next up I’m going to work on some interface modifications that I hope will simplify the it as well as create some common navigational elements across  pages. The final step will involve unifying the code in a control structure similar to other recent projects.

Because this is more of a long-term project it is being performed along side any current development of the items utility. As a result any modifications to the items utility should be brought to my attention so that they can be ported to the SVN working copy if necessary.

Expanding Search Terms for More Inclusive Results

While working on the Benchmarks search I wanted to try and provide a feature I find useful on Google and other search engines: word form expansion (lemmatisation). A little research showed to me that this would require more work than we really should be spending on search functionality. Especially considering that the built-in MySQL full text search capability is sufficient for our needs. So I decided to focus on a feature that would still provide value but require little time: word stem expansion.

Continue reading Expanding Search Terms for More Inclusive Results

Items Utility: School Reports Update

I made a few updates to the school reports at the request of the researchers.

  • Added a save feature so that packet/item selections for a report can be retrieved at a later date.
  • Added the ability to set thresholds that must be met before the script will include statistics in the report.
  • Updated tables to reflect changes in displayed information and formatting.

In regards to the above changes, the save feature is of particular note for it inscrutibility. While the technique used to save/retrieve the report setting is adequate, the code to enable this functionality is not well-implemented. Unfortunately, time constraints required a fast, rather than best, implementation.

As modifications are requested this script is getting to be a little harder to work with. The code was created over the course of a week or two back in January. I was able to make quick work of it by using some concepts I initially worked out for summary table generation (and based on discussions with Brian W). While the data is stored in a psuedo object-oriented format, the script itself is fairly linear in design. If more modifications are requested the script may need some rewrites to enable a bit more flexibility.

BOL Tricks

In order to enable easier checking of Benchmarks Online against the print (aka 1993) version, I implemented a switch that allows you to specify the 1993 version as the default tab displayed. To enable to switch you have to visit the utility with the querystring bmtabver=1993 appended. So the following URL would enable the switch:

To disable the switch change the value from 1993 to 2007 (or delete the “bmtabver” cookie from your browser).

This switch is not publicly noted on the site (though visitors to this entry would obviously know of its existence).

Atlas/Benchmarks Databases

The data for Benchmarks Online (BOL) is pulled from various tables in the Items database. Some of these tables are also used for the Atlas Statements Database (ASD). Since staff would like for the statements in the ASD to reflect the most recent working version we needed a way to prevent this from affecting BOL, which needs to maintain a stable set of publicly available statements. As a temporary resolution the tables that are used to populate BOL have been copied into a new database called Standards. Going forward, if the content of these tables is updated and those updates need to also be reflected in BOL both copies of each table should be updated.

A long-term goal is to develop a system to contain information related to our standards documents (namely Benchmarks and Atlas). This new system should implement some kind of versioning capability so that we can maintain stable and working copies of the benchmarks statements. This would also allow us to keep better track of how resources are aligned to statements. Currently as a statement is modified we have no way of knowing the wording to which a resource has been aligned.

BOL Text utility updates

The Benchmarks Online Text (Verbiage) Utility has been partially rewritten to better facilitate maintenance of the new BOL website content.

Location: (same as before)


  • Search form has been added above list of existing BOL text.
  • Search and navigation of existing BOL text is asynchronously generated.
  • The initial display is no longer the ‘Enter New’ interface. Click on the ‘Enter New’ link to display the interface. The initial display is now the list of existing BOL text data along with search form.
  • ‘Enter New’ form has been updated to support Quote classified content (minor oversight in previous version).

Finding existing BOL text is now much easier and faster!