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The Ultimate Blog Challenge for October 2022 and a brief intro

Many of you might remember that last year, I took part in something called the Ultimate Blog Challenge, a challenge that encourages bloggers to post every day over a given month. I really enjoyed the experience which not only helped me to write more regularly, but which also gave me the opportunity to connect with other really interesting bloggers who are passionate about so many fascinating things.

I really enjoyed participating in the challenge last year and so am excited to be participating again for the month of October. I thought Just to mix things up a little bit, I thought that this year, in addition to writing, I might also try to produce more audio content because experiencing the world through audio is something that unfortunately, many people don’t really take the time to do.

So, who am I?

For those who don’t know me, let me give you a quick intro. I’m Steve Sawczyn and I’ve worked in the accessibility field for, well, for a very long time. I was born blind and over my life, have witnessed the incredible impact technology has had on my ability, and the ability of others, to have access to information. That access to information thing is incredibly impactful, paving the way for incredible possibilities. When people have access to information, they are empowered to make informed decisions and are better able to be an active part of society. I also view accessibility as a springboard for innovation, not something that impedes progress. Indeed, many of the things we take for granted resulted from some sort of accessibility-related innovation — maybe a topic for a future article?

So, what do I blog about? Initially, I thought my blog should have a focus, a very specific focus and accessibility should be that focus. The thing is though, while accessibility is a big part of my life, my life is far more than just accessibility. I try and blog about a myriad of topics, accessibility being a big one, but certainly not the only one. After all, the URL for my blog is Steves.life, not Steves.profession. I also love it when people take the time to comment on posts because that introduces additional perspectives into the conversation and that’s something from which everyone can learn.

In closing, whether you have followed me and this blog for quite a while, or whether you have just discovered me, I want to thank you for reading, for joining me as I attempt the Ultimate Blog Challenge and most of all, for being part of the conversation.

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It’s a boat! It’s a tank! It’s the physical description of the Nokia X100 budget phone

In my last post, I mentioned that I would provide a physical description of the Nokia X100, the budget phone I’m using to re-discover Android. As of this writing, T-Mobile offers the X100 for $252, however promotions can bring this price down even further.

When I first beheld the Nokia X100, my initial impression was one of solidity. This phone only weighs 7.65 Ounces, but somehow, it feels much heavier, possibly because of its aluminum construction. When I placed the phone on my desk, my immediate thought was that while empires may rise and fall, this phone will stay exactly where I put it, defying the forces of nature and time if need be.

The Nokia X100 display measures 6.7″ diagonally from corner to corner. In practical terms, this means that the display is larger than the decks of many cruise ships. A small aircraft could land on the X100’s display and easily have enough room to take off again. For those that are into specific measurements, the X100 measures 6.74″ long, by 3.14″ wide, by 0.36″ thick. I realize that phone size is a personal preference, but I find the X100 a bit too large for my liking: I often carry a phone in my pocket and use it one-handed, both of which are tricky to do with a device of this size. That said, if you prefer a larger screen, you will not be disappointed. Speaking of the display, the Nokia boasts a Max Vision HD+ display. I have no idea what that means, but it’s a highlighted feature, so obviously it must be important. 🙂

I absolutely love the way controls and ports are laid out on the Nokia. Along the right-hand edge is a volume control and also a slightly recessed button which serves as the lock/unlock/power button and integrated fingerprint sensor. Having the fingerprint sensor integrated directly into the lock button makes total sense to me since you have to touch that button to unlock the device anyway, why not have it read and verify the fingerprint at the same time? I don’t know what company was the first to integrate the fingerprint sensor into the lock button, my first introduction to this bit of awesome was with Apple’s iPad Air 4TH generation and ever since then, I’ve been wondering why more companies aren’t doing this; that Nokia and other Android manufacturers are doing this fills me with much joy. As a quick aside, many Android devices still have fingerprint sensors. For me, this is a major advantage because while I have learned to live with Apple’s Face ID, I have not learned to like it. Back to the X100: the right-hand side has the volume control and the power/lock/fingerprint sensor and that’s it. Along the bottom edge of the device are a speaker, a microphone, a USBC port, and a headphone jack. That’s right, in an era when most devices have done away with the headphone jack, the X100 still makes one available; it’s like coming home to an old friend. Along the left-hand edge of the X100 is a single button, a dedicated button to activate the Google Assistant. At first, I found it a bit disappointing that this button couldn’t be reassigned to some other application or function, but as I realized just how much I could actually do with the Google Assistant, I’ve come to appreciate having a dedicated button to activate it. There are no controls along the top edge, just solid aluminum, probably thick enough to come in handy during those times when you need to break your way through an ice jam, or hammer stone from a quarry. The back of the device is relatively flat with the only prominent feature being a slightly raised circular glass housing which contains the 48MP Quad Camera System.

One aspect of the 100 that I absolutely cannot fault is its battery life. I have tried and tried and tried to drain its battery and yet usually I’m the one who winds up drained and needing to recharge. According to the T-Mobile spec page, the X100 has a 4470 mA battery capable of delivering “up to 2-day battery life”. More specifically, they claim 25 hours of talk time and 39 days, (yeah, days), of standby time. I haven’t experienced this much battery life in a mobile device since, well since the last time I owned a Nokia back in 2005. Having enough battery power to get through my day has been a real challenge, often requiring me to bring along an external battery pack if I’m away from home for any length of time. With my not quite two-year-old iPhone 12 Mini, the low battery conversation goes something like this.

Phone, “Hey, alert! 20% battery remaining.”

Me, “OK, hang on, let me get your charger.”

Phone, “Hurry up, I was just kidding about that 20%, it’s actually more like 15% now.”

Me, “Seriously? How? It’s only been like five minutes since you told me you were at 20%.”

Phone, “Yeah I know, I just figured you could use some false hope in your day. 10% now by the way.”

I should note that I’ve been trying to get Apple to replace my iPhone’s battery, but apparently, it hasn’t lost enough total capacity yet. Put another way, I just haven’t suffered enough.

In contrast, the low battery experience with the Nokia is very different:

Phone, “Hey, just thought I’d let you know, my battery is at 20%.”

Me, “Oh shoot, I have a bunch of Apple chargers around, where the heck did I leave the USBC charger?”

Phone, “Hey, don’t stress, you can take the next day or two to find it, I mean any time this week is probably fine.”

There’s nothing more frustrating than running low on battery power and the idea of having a device that can get me through my day, while having enough battery left over to possibly power a small village, is a definite win.

There’s a few more aspects and specifications of the X100 that I should call out. First the processor, the X100 has a Qualcomm® Snapdragon™ 480. This is hardly the newest or fastest processor available on Android devices, but given the price point of this phone, it seems more than adequate. My usage and testing has admittedly been limited thus far, but I have not encountered any significant issues attributable to this processor. Another thing worth mentioning is that the X100 is a 5G phone meaning that the device can function on the latest mobile networks. More specifically, the X100 supports the following frequencies and bands — don’t worry if you don’t know what these numbers mean, basically, the phone works on a bunch of different networks in a bunch of different countries, with a bunch of different providers: GSM: 850 MHz, 900 MHz, 1800 MHz, 1900 MHz; UMTS: Band I (2100), Band II (1900), Band IV (1700/2100), Band V (850), Band VIII (900); 5G: n25, n26, n66, n71; LTE: 2, 4, 5, 12, 25, 26, 41, 66, 71; LTE Roaming: 1, 3, 7, 8, 13, 20, 38, 39, 40

Regarding memory, it is possible to expand the 128 GB of built-in memory storage with the use of a memory card, it’s possible to expand storage to 1 TB according to T-Mobile’s specifications. I don’t anticipate needing more storage than the built-in 128 GB, but it’s nice to know I have the option to add additional storage if I’m wrong.

I’m really pleased with the Nokia X100. While I personally prefer smaller devices, the X100 is a very solid phone at an extremely attractive price point. The X100 may not have all the bells and whistles found in higher priced Android devices, but when it comes to getting stuff done, the X100 seems more than up to the task.

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Diving into Android, a journey of rediscovery

As those of you who may have followed this blog for a while probably know, every few years or so, I generally switch my primary mobile operating system between iOS and Android. I’ve done this for a few reasons, first because I feel it’s important that I keep up with how each operating system is evolving and second, … OK there really isn’t a second, I’m just a geek at heart and it gives me an excuse to play with the other operating system.

While I am not planning on actually switching from iOS to Android this time, there are a few reasons, beyond the geek thing, which have caused me to want to dive into Android again and better understand how that platform has evolved from an accessibility experience perspective. First, it’s been a few years and both operating systems have evolved quite a bit in that time. Many of the issues that caused me to switch back from Android to iOS have been addressed and I’m really curious to see what the newer experience is like. The second and more important reason though is that Android devices exist at just about every possible price point and I still don’t feel that this is truly the case with iOS. Don’t get me wrong, iOS devices are fantastic, but for many, they are still very unaffordable and with the cost of everything increasing, this becomes an even bigger challenge for many people with disabilities. This point was recently emphasized during a conversation I recently had. IN short, I was talking to someone about all the amazing things we can do with mobile devices and her comment was that she felt very shut out, shut out because iOS devices, even used devices, were beyond her family’s budget. The conversation quickly turned toward Android, but when she started asking about the capabilities of lower priced devices, I found that I really didn’t have any answers for her. Obviously so-called budget devices are not going to be the fastest and aren’t going to have the latest and greatest features, but can they work well enough to help someone not feel so “shut out”? The more I looked into this, the more I started realizing that yes, yes they probably can, but without getting my hands on such a device, it would be difficult to really understand what that experience might be like.

I’m starting my Android rediscovery journey with a Nokia X100 budget phone. As of this writing, the X100 is available from T-Mobile for a cash price of $252, however as with most devices purchased from a carrier, this price can be decreased with various offers such as adding a new line of service. I’ll cover my first impressions of the device in another post, but while this device certainly doesn’t sport all the latest and greatest features, I’m really impressed with just how many capabilities it does have, especially at this price point.

As always whenever I blog about something, my hope is that this will evolve into a conversation, a conversation that fosters learning and understanding. If I get something wrong, feel free to jump in and let me know. If I do something and you think you know of a better way, jump in and let me know that too.

I’m excited to see where this Android rediscovery journey will take me, and I thank you for coming along.

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Tip: Does the FaceTime control bar sometimes get in your way? There’s an accessible way to dismiss it.

One of the new features introduced in iOS15 is this call control bar which provides FaceTime audio controls across the top of the iOS screen during a FaceTime audio call.

Screen shot of Steve's very messy iOS home screen with the FaceTime control bar across the top. Visible controls, from left to right, are leave call, open messages, Audio route, Mute, camera, share content.
Screen shot of FaceTime control bar

I actually really like this new control bar because it gives me the option to mute/unmute from wherever I am and for me, this is much faster than having to switch back to the FaceTime app each and every time. That said, there are times when this control bar gets in the way. For example, sometimes I’ll be in an application and I know there’s a “back” button, but I can’t get to it with VoiceOver because it’s obscured by the FaceTime audio control bar. I mentioned my frustration about this to a sighted friend and she told me that visually, it’s possible to swipe this control bar away. At first, I thought we might have an accessibility issue of some sort as I could not find a way to do this when using VoiceOver. Eventually, I remembered the two-finger scrub gesture and like magic, away it went.

For anyone unfamiliar with it, the two-finger scrub gesture is a VoiceOver command that can be used in a few different ways depending on context. IF a keyboard is visible, the two-finger scrub gesture will dismiss it. If an application has a “back” button, the two-finger scrub gesture will perform that action. The easiest way to think about the purpose of this gesture is that it can help you get out of something by dismissing a control, navigating back, closing a pop-up or menu — in many ways, similar to what might happen when pressing the escape key when using a desktop application. To perform this gesture, place two fingers on the screen and move them quickly in a scrubbing motion such as right, left, right.

Putting it all together

If you ever have a reason to temporarily dismiss the FaceTime Audio call control bar and need to do so using VoiceOver, here’s how to do it.

  1. Touch the FaceTime Audio control bar with one finger, this will set VoiceOver’s focus to the correct place. This is important because otherwise, VoiceOver’s focus will remain on your home screen or on whatever aplicationp screen you have open and the scrub gesture will not dismiss the control bar.
  2. Perform the two-finger scrub gesture. If successful, the control bar will go away. IF not, double check that you have correctly set VoiceOver focus to the control bar as just described. If the two-finger scrub gesture isn’t performed correctly, it is possible that focus may inatvertantly move away from the FaceTime Audio control bar.

A few more things to note. First, I don’t know of a way to permanently dismiss the FaceTime Audio control bar and so you will have to repeat these steps whenever you need to dismiss it. Second, if you dismissed the control bar and then want to have it back, you can make it reappear by double tapping the call indicator located on the iOS status bar.

I really like the new FaceTime Audio control bar and find it super useful to have call controls available regardless of which app I’m in or which screen I’m on. For those times though where it might come in handy to move that bar out of the way, I’m glad there’s an accessible way to do so.

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Sharing: New trend in tactile currencies

I recently came across this fascinating post which I am sharing because I think it might be of interest to my own readers.tactile markings on currency is something that has fascinated me for a while and this post is a fantastic explanation and historical account of it. I definitely encourage anyone with interest in the subject to check it out and to follow this blog.

Among the most recent tactile currency markings, a new trend is emerging: indicating the value using dot patterns. The idea is not new, it has been …

New trend in tactile currencies
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On this Thanksgiving, a quick note of thanks

As we celebrate Thanksgiving here in the US today, I wanted to send out a quick note of thanks to all of you: for reading my words, for providing encouragement as I continue my blogging journey, and for engaging in some really amazing conversation along the way. I have a lot to be thankful for this year, but there is one group of folks I want to recognize in particular: those developers who work extra hard to ensure their apps are accessible.

There are many developers who work tirelessly to make their apps accessible, not because they necessarily have to, but because they simply realize it’s the right thing to do. There are many accessibility resources out there that can help developers make their apps accessible, but finding those resources, understanding them, and figuring out how to implement them can be a real challenge, especially for developers with extremely limited resources.

I’d like to encourage everyone to think about an app that makes a real difference to them, whether for accessibility or other reasons, and consider writing the developer a positive review of thanks today. I’ve spoken with many developers who have indicated to me that while it may seem like a small thing, positive reviews make a real difference. First, the more stars an app receives, the more likely it will be discovered by others. Second, a kind review is a great way to show appreciation in a public way. And finally, your review might make a difference to someone who appreciates the hard work a developer has put into making their app accessible — I know I’ve felt more comfortable purchasing apps when I see a review like, “works well with VoiceOver” or “very accessible”. Writing a quick review is a great way to say thank you, it’s something that makes a real difference, something that is appreciated, and something that only takes a few minutes to do.

Again, thank you all for reading my words, supporting me, and for continuing the conversation. To those who celebrate, have a happy Thanksgiving.

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Quick tip: how to get rid of the iOS bubble sound when typing or using Braille Screen Input

I’ve been using Braille Screen Input on iOS for years, as it helps me to type more efficiently. One thing that has bothered me though, whether typing with Braille Screen Input or the on-screen keyboard, is this bubble sound that VoiceOver occasionally makes. While that sound does have a purpose and an important one at that, I find it distracting and have always lamented that I didn’t have a way to disable it. Little did I know that there actually is a way to disable it.

I received many replies on Twitter, some from people experiencing the same frustration as me, and others, offering a solution I likely never would have found on my own.

As it turns out, there are actually a lot of sound customizations that can be made in VoiceOver, many of which are off by default and so I never even knew they existed. Not only that, but it’s possible to preview each of the VoiceOver sounds which is a great way to learn what they actually mean. I recorded a brief video showcasing these settings in the hopes it might be useful to others.

Demo of the VoiceOver sounds dialog

Disabling the VoiceOver auto fill sound has made a world of difference for me. Now I can use Braille Screen Input without being distracted every couple of words. In fact, I’ve written this very entry solely using Braille Screen Input.

I would like to thank Rachel, Matthew, and Kara, for getting back to me so quickly with what proved to be the perfect solution. Twitter can be an awesome place for conversation and I’m glad these awesome people are a part of it.

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The easiest site migration ever.

For years, Steves.life has been a self-hosted blog, however I’ve been toying with the idea of migrating it to WordPress.com. There are many reasons for my decision, the main one being that I can focus on writing and not have to play engineer when something gos wrong. One other really neat advantage of hosting with WordPress directly is that if you receive my posts by Email and want to comment, you can simply do so by replying directly to the Email. I have no idea how many people may or may not use this feature, but it’s always bothered me a bit that readers needed to activate a link in the email just to write a comment, especially given that just replying would be so much easier. Hey wait, not currently subscribed by Email, but wish you were?

The real thing I wanted to write about today though is just how easy the migration process actually was. I decided to move everything over the Labor Day weekend figuring that I would have extra time to fix anything that might go wrong. What I didn’t anticipate though was the process taking less than an hour. WordPress publishes fantastic, easy-to-follow documentation on how to migrate a self-hosted site to their platform. Even better, with paid plans, WordPress “Happiness engineers” are available through live chat to assist with the entire process. And yes, WordPress really does call them Happiness engineers which might just be one of the coolest job titles ever.

I’m really excited with just how smoothly the migration process went and am excited to start utilizing some of the features that weren’t easily available to me before. I still have some small things to configure, but for the most part, everything is up and running, that is, assuming this post publishes successfully. 🙂

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My final thoughts as I wrap up the Ultimate Blog Challenge for August, 2021

As August draws to a close, I wanted to blog about my final thoughts regarding the Ultimate Blog Challenge. The Ultimate Blog Challenge challenges blogger to publish a new post every day for the month of August. I decided to participate in the challenge in part because of the challenge aspect itself, but also because blogging is something I love doing, but have been hesitant to actually do. I’m the type of person that will start a draft five times, finally settle on a sixth beginning, doubt myself half way through, rewrite everything and long after I’ve finished, wonder if what was written was actually any good.

When I started the challenge on August 1, I was not sure if I would manage to publish a single post, let alone more than one. The first time I saw the “Your post was published successfully” message, I was absolutely in shock. The second time I saw it, I thought that it was just the initial momentum of starting the challenge, but when I saw the message for the third time, I began to think that maybe, just maybe, I could actually get thoughts out of my head and into written form without it being a huge struggle. And so the challenge progressed, one day at a time, with each day’s post getting a little bit easier to write and publish. Over the course of the challenge I blogged from my computer, from my iPad, and even from my phone building confidence that I could actually do this from different devices, while using different assistive technologies, even while on the road. In addition to helping me become a more confident blogger, the challenge has enabled me to meet some great new people, to learn some great new things, and engage in some great conversation. All-in-all, this has been a wonderful experience and I’m really glad I decided to step out of my comfort zone and give it a try.

Unfortunately, I did not publish anything for the past three days and so technically, while I have a few drafts in progress, I cannot say that I successfully blogged every day for the month of August. While I am admittedly a little disappointed in myself, I’ve come to realize that for me, the true challenge was not in finishing the month, but in actually beginning it. After all, if people read and find value in my posts — or even just a little humor — it’ll be because the post is written and published, not because someone is verifying how many days in August I did or didn’t write. There are no rewards for this challenge (at least none that I know of), nobody’s tracking anything, it’s really just a way to motivate people to get out there and blog, and to encourage bloggers and readers to connect with one another.

Now that August, and the challenge are over, I’ve given a lot of thought to how I want to move forward. While I don’t plan to try and publish a post every day, I’ve come to realize that blogging is indeed something I enjoy, and the writing/publishing process is far less scarier than it was when I began. I also continue to see the value in sharing and in conversation and to that end, I am planning to make some changes to the blog to hopefully make the process of commenting and engaging with posts a little easier. There are still many things I would like to say and many thoughts I would like to share, and so while the Ultimate Blog Challenge is at its end, my enthusiasm for continuing on my blogging journey is certainly not.

If you’re reading this post and thinking that you might like to start a blog of your own, the best advice I can give you is to go ahead and do it. There are many different blogging platforms and many tools that can be used to help with the logistics of writing and publishing (future blog post maybe?), but ultimately, as I’ve learned, the biggest challenge is just getting started, taking that first step and writing something down. Don’t worry about if what you have to say will matter to anyone because you already know it matters to your most important reader, you. Also don’t think that you have to be highly technical to write a blog, some of the coolest blogs I’ve come across during this challenge have been written by non-technical people on non-technical subjects and I’ve enjoyed reading every word. Ultimately, you have thoughts and dreams and experiences and have lived a life that is uniquely your own and blogging is a way for you to share that as only you can.

I want to thank everyone for reading my posts, for taking the time to comment, and for offering words of encouragement along the way. To the new bloggers I’ve discovered throughout the challenge, I want to say how glad I am that you’ve been willing to share and say how much I’m looking forward to your next posts. Thank you all for reading my blog, and please stay tuned as there’s much more to come.

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Take Control of just about anything with Take Control Books

It’s so rare to find reasonably priced, easy-to-understand books dealing with anything technical, that is unless you’ve heard of Take Control Books. The Take Control Books team publishes books on a wide variety of Apple and non-Apple related topics, most of which are priced below $15, even less if purchased as a bundle. I love the Take Control series for a number of reasons, the biggest though is that they break topics, even complex topics such as file permissions and WIFI network configuration, down in ways that make them easy to understand. From an accessibility perspective, I love that Take Control books are offered in multiple non-DRM formats including PDF, ePub, and Mobi format which makes it easy for me to read them on just about any device I choose. Yes, they do not use DRM or copy protection because, as they put it,

No. Our ebooks do not use copy protection because it makes life harder for everyone. So we ask a favor of our readers. If you want to share your copy of an ebook you’ve bought with a friend, please do so as you would with a physical book, meaning that if your friend uses it regularly, they should buy a copy.

From Take Control Books FAQ: https://www.takecontrolbooks.com/faq/

While the books do often contain screen shots, there’s generally enough explanation for me to follow along.

I purchased my first Take Control book, “Take Control of Sharing Files in Leopard” (Anyone remember Mac OS Leopard?) in December, 2008. I’ve since purchase 31 titles since that time and have not been disappointed by a single one. I’ve purchased titles ranging from technical topics such as Take Control of File Sharing, Take Control of File Permissions, and Take Control of the Mac Command Line, to non-technical topics like Take Control of Booking a Cheap Airline Ticket. I always learn something new with every book, even on topics I thought I already knew a lot about, such as Siri or Apple’s Calendar and Mail apps which I use heavily every day. The $15 or less — I tend to purchase books in bundles to get the discount and also because I’m a fan — have saved me countless hours by increasing my productivity. And speaking of productivity, if you want to “take control” of your productivity, they have a book for that too.

I wanted to share the Take Control series with all of you because it has been an invaluable resource for me. I should probably also comment at this point that I am in no way affiliated with Take Control — they probably have no idea who I am — I’m just a big fan who has enjoyed the series for over 12 years. While much of their library is Apple centric, there is definitely something for everyone. If you would like to browse the Take Control Books catalog, you can do so here and of course, let me know what you think in the comments.