HACKED: When The Dark Web Arrives At Your Door

A few weeks ago, I brought you a fun story about acquiring and setting up my new Windows PC. And I definitely still love this machine and all that I get with it. My feelings have however been tempered by the ugliness regarding technology and the Internet that none of us likes to talk about: data breaches, possibly sold information, and a life set on its head.
It all started innocently enough for me. I was walking around my room this Monday afternoon, doing my 15 minutes of exercise with the sleep timer set on my audio book. As I wore out the carpet, I felt a tapping on my wrist. This meant that the Apple Watch had received a text message. “Ah, it’s just my cousin and friends chatting on our iPhone sports group,” I thought. Then I got another message. “And now they’re starting a conversation,” I said. A third “wow, what are they talking about!” a fourth, a fifth sixth seventh. “Ok, what the heck is going on” I asked myself, finally ceasing motion and disabling my sleep timer to check.
“Thank you for subscribing to…” the current message said, and even as it did so the phone pinged another three times. “Your log-in code is…” another said. “Go here to download the app…” a third said.
Within minutes, the count had exceeded 100 messages, and they kept coming without abandon. I paced in circles, wondering what the heck to do. Then, I sat at my laptop to try and get some sense of where to even begin solving this problem. I opened my email inbox and saw “677 unread messages”. Let’s just say a couple of expletives may have slid past my lips as my heart rate ramped up and I felt sick.
Definitely flummoxed by this point, I sought my wife so that I would have someone with more ideas. We then spent the next hour scratching our heads, resetting passwords, and checking everything on the phone and computer. I was happy that just de-linking the Gmail from my iPhone at least killed the flood of texts, but the emails were still coming.
At my wit’s end and with no other choice that I could see, I finally went for the nuclear option, deleting my email account entirely. It’s funny, I’m reading Ready Player Two right now and had been wondering why they chose to take such a negative bent toward technology. The main character had mused on the very idea of having to press the “big red button” to delete the Oasis, their virtual universe where most people lived during that disaster-ridden time of 2045, and how such a mammoth decision might unravel their lives.
My choice wasn’t quite that drastic, but it’s up there for sure. I’ve had that email account for some twelve years, and nearly every important thing came to me through it. I am still working vigorously to clean up the mess that caused, aware that there may have been identity theft and having taken preliminary steps to deal with that very big problem. Our news a few days later said that someone had broken into my hospital health system’s internet portal and stolen a lot of people’s information. While I’m not absolutely certain this is what happened to me, I think it likely. And especially as some other purchases were made using my name, probably on some kind of credit card someone acquired. So, I’m following the steps my bank gives and hoping that this will all clear up eventually.
More than anything, I felt violated. My trust in the inherent security of these products has now been shaken, and I suddenly am more empathetic to those who do not want to interact so fully with this stuff, especially with all of their personal information. Unfortunately though, we really kind of have to in order to survive in this modern world. So we can just protect ourselves the best we can, and hope that we are able to come back from whatever nonsense is doled out to us.

Come To My Window(s) On My Return to the Microsoft PC

After a little over 4 years and much thought, I have decided to return to my roots and re-acquire a Windows machine. I guess I am not, in fact, a Mac Daddy after all. For starters I’ve rarely used the Mac since completing grad school in 2017, though I credit it with helping me to survive that program and do pretty well with it. But especially as I’m working to tutor someone at work on Jaws for Windows, a screen-reading program from Freedom Scientific, I am realizing that I just am not productive on that platform.
Now, I am not one to “blame” the Mac per se. I am aware that a lot of my lack of productivity has to do with my own inadequate knowledge on how to get the most out of said computer. But I think that if I have something I am comfortable with, then perhaps I’ll get back to writing as well as learning some of the stuff regarding accessibility that could present me with real advancement opportunities within my employer. So I think this transition is worthwhile.
I received my new Dell Inspiron laptop this past Tuesday, after the post office ingloriously left it sitting right in front of our door in plain view. I was glad that it got there at 4:15 and I arrived only a couple minutes later. Excitedly I extracted it and its cables from the box, plugged the cable into the machine and whacked the on button. And… nothing. Do you see the problem here? Because I sure didn’t at first.
“Is this thing on?” I said as I fired up the Seeing AI app to try and gauge whether anything was displayed on the screen. Then I spent the next thirty minutes railing at Windows for not having made the installation process accessible, as I thought it would be by this point. I finally shut it down till Friday.
As I pulled it back out to review the issue, I first asked myself if the correct cord was plugged into the PC. How could it not be? But wait… is the other end of the plug in the surge protector! The answer to ath was no. I fixed that, whacked the power button again, and Cortana immediately began chattering at me. “…if you need screen-reader assistance, press Control+Windows Key+Enter.” I sheepishly did as told and was off for the races. Never forget, try the simplest thing when nothing else works.
And now I have most things set up as I want them. I’ve also gotten the Jaws Home Annual License, which I’m glad to see they offer in lieu of their $1,000 perpetual license. I just love having the feeling that I really know what I’m doing with this thing, and I can again have easy access to some of my favorite games and an easy-to-use Twitter app. I’ve also spent more time in the chair my wife got for me this past Christmas in the last two days than I had otherwise, combined. So I hope this thing takes me onward and upward, toward great places. More soon.

IOS Game Review: Swordy Quest

When selecting games to play on my iPhone, I usually have a hard time either because they are too challenging or they rely heavily on sound for direction and orientation. Naturally, the latter is going to be the case in those that are designed at least to some degree with blind people in mind, but they tend not to work as well for those, like myself, with significant hearing loss. If I have to put on a pair of headphones to fully perceive what is happening for instance, well I may as well not bother.

On the other hand, games that are say Tex-based are usually too abstract for me to follow and/or don’t have as many cool sound effects. The effects are what really make things come alive for me. Or if they do get all of this stuff right, they lack some key accessibility components that make it difficult for all but the most expert blind player to execute.

So imagine my surprise when I downloaded a fun game called Swordy Quest from the iOS App Store after hearing of it on the Blind Abilities podcast. (I guess it is only available on iOS, but do not know for sure). Before starting it, I figured it would be too involved for me to figure out what was going on and that I would quickly lose interest. But I’ve found that it very well walks the fine line between being too challenging and so simplistic that accomplishing anything offers little pleasure. The addition of a “spirit guide,” who tells you which moves you might want to consider next helps with that.

As best I can tell, you’re on this island in a world called Fonetazia (like Fantasia? Haha). You fight all sorts of strange animals and travel about the island gathering resources that you can use to build stuff and trade. The story behind what you’re doing slowly unfolds as you unearth clues by solving fun puzzles that involve matching pairs of items. The sound effects are rich, especially as you fight and defeat the animals. And I’ve found that turning the in-game music volume down to 10% allows me to hear VoiceOver speaking and yet leave said music on to enhance the game’s mood.

And on the subject of hearing, and accessibility in general, I do not know if this title was built specifically for individuals who are blind but the accessibility is top notch. You are even told how to best use VoiceOver’s features to navigate among items within the game, and there are buttons that allow you to quickly revert to the top of the list after skimming your inventory items, for instance. I would even say that, while it might be kind of clunky to do so, one who is deafblind and fully relies on a Braille display could play this game. All of the prompts appear in text, and you would only need to touch the screen to hold down the button for gathering stuff. You can feel the phone’s haptic engine causing it to vibrate in your hand, and if the alert duration was set high enough, say at 3 seconds, you could read in Braille which items and how many you’ve collected. I have encountered very few games of this complexity that also reach such a high level of access for everyone. For this reason, I am certainly inclined to support it financially to the extent that I can.

I started playing on Friday night, and well we probably shouldn’t talk about how much time I’ve already put into it. But it’s a great way to kill rainy summer days, and it makes me feel more motivated when I do sit down to do the work that needs doing. This is the best iOS game I’ve seen since the makers of Dice World began working with us some eight years ago to improve accessibility of that platform. If you like that sense of adventure, I would say you’ll love Swordy Quest.

The Mantis, My Updated Thoughts

I’ve owned a Mantis QX40 Braille display from the American Printing House for the Blind for almost ten months, and my viewership numbers at least suggest that there is still a lot of interest in what I make of this product. So I figured it was high time to capture some of the things I love about this device as well as those that I hope change in some way or would just like to see added. My overall impression though is that this is one of the best little machines I’ve ever had. I’ve written every blog post since its acquisition on this springy QWERTY keyboard. So that’s a good start, right?
And that would probably be my favorite element of the Mantis, its keyboard. I probably noted that in the original post, but it still holds true: having the easy ability to type and to see a Braille display at the bottom without carrying around 2 devices is a big plus. I can certainly type on a Perkins-style keyboard, but it just seems that in some way that can impede my thinking. I should note that for those who want what the Mantis offers (and a little more) on a display with the Perkins keyboard, HumanWare has just released the Brailliant BI 40X. It’s like the previous display I owned, but definitely improved. I know that some would just prefer that form factor, and it’s good to be in a world of choice where we have such options.
Anyway, my second favorite thing about the Mantis is it size. It feels good on my lap and allows me to read easily even in confined spaces, without too much fear of it sliding off of said lap and hitting the floor. The APH-provided case adds to its heft and also decreases the slidiness (that’s a word because I say so!) That Brailliant I had before was built like a tank, having flown from my hand more than a few times but only carrying slight dents and still functioning quite well. I suppose the Mantis is equally strong, but because of its purchasing price I have no desire to test that theory.
Stability and typing speed are all well and good, but my truly favorite thing about the Mantis is the reading services present therein. It connects to NFB Newsline and Bookshare, both of which I have now signed up for. The latter requires a $50 membership fee, but for all of the reading I do these days it’s well worth it.
And I suppose here I can get into some of the things I wish the Mantis had, noting that APH is already aware of some of these and have made significant updates to the unit since I acquired it. The first, and this is superficial to me and not overtly necessary, is that it would be cool if the Mantis allowed access to the NLS BARD Braille catalog, as I hear the Brailliant BI X will. This is not a big problem for me, as I’d guess that Bookshare already has many of the titles available on NLS, but for a true book junkie like me the browsing and adding to wish list never stops.
A more wished-for update whose implementation I do not know even is possible, is for the Mantis to maintain the Braille settings used on the device when it is connected via the Terminal. For example, I have reversed the thumb key configuration, because I have found it easier to advance forward through a document using my left hand. If I use my right hand, I tend to bounce a spot ahead of what I had intended too many times for my liking. It will not allow me to access this setting though when working on the iPhone, which affects my ability to read in Kindle or Apple Books.
Finally, I discovered recently that when charging the unit, it seems best to leave it powered off for the entire time to get the most accurate reading on battery status. For a while, I thought that the fast-rising percentage I’d seen if the Mantis had been turned on and then back off during charging was accurate, but I noticed that when the status reads say 60% it would suddenly plummet to 20% and need immediate recharging. This would often happen a day and a half after having refilled it. Now, when I let it go to full charge at power-off, I can get about 4 days before needing to recharge. I would find it beneficial if somehow the unit could be made to display a accurate battery status no matter its powered state.
Those are surly small potatoes though, and do not at all detract from my enjoyment of using this device nearly all the time. I would still recommend it, and especially as the connectivity has also improved a great deal with the latest update, along with a near vanquishing of the Terminal Stopped issue that would occasionally pop up requiring a force quit. I certainly hope to get many more years out of it.

A Christmas Gift To Myself: My Upgrade from iPhone 8 to 12 Pro

After listening to visionaries like Shelly Brisbin of the Parallel Podcast, and Blind Abilities, both of which have done extensive demos, I finally opted to acquire an iPhone 12 Pro. Ever since Apple began what is essentially its new presentation of iPhone form factors with the 10, I have both contemplated and rebelled against upgrading into this line. The mai reason is because I knew that, like the headphone jack before it with the 7 upgrade, I had to swallow the fact that Apple would take away another item that I loved: the home button. I’ve had my new piece of hardware for almost a week, and I have a few thoughts about what it does, and doesn’t, do the way I want it.

First, there is the loss of that blasted home button, and perhaps more importantly the loss of Touch ID. I used to love being able to just place my fingers on the phone and launching the unlock screen from my pocket, and thus being able to hop onto my Braille display without even having to remove the phone. Even more though, as a blind person who has little idea of how to have a camera “see” me, it took a few tries and some suggestions from my wife To figure out how to get the thing to work. And what I’ve learned is that the best way for me to open it is to place the phone on level with my nose and move it about a foot away before squeezing the side button to activate. If the Face ID works, I get less haptic feedback than if it doesn’t work. I assume there is also a sound that accompanies that, but I have that feature turned off because sound effects with my Braille display would not be convenient, to say the least.

That aggravation, the use and somewhat unreliable results of Face ID, is real but not a deal breaker. What I do like, love! about this phone is the much-improved battery life. By the time I ditched my 8, I was charging it nearly 3 times a day. Now of course that has a lot to do with how old the phone had become, but even at its newest, I only could get a good half a day with it if I wished to use it extensively. Now, I get home from work and still have nearly 75% left, meaning I can just plug it in prior to bed time, get it off right before going to sleep, and it’s ready for the next day.

Power is important, but processing capacity matters to me even more. I could read the tea leaves, and tell that pretty soon I would not be able to use the newest accessibility features on a phone that lacks “juice,” one might say. Already, some of the stuff available in the 12 line, such as photo and text recognition, are not fully available in anything lower than the 10. And the photo recognition is fantastic, as it can explain pictures on sites like Facebook with context that I have hardly ever seen anywhere else. I can truly understand for the first time what is actually intended by a person’s photo.

I know that many say that some of what the 12 Pro brings in particular with the Lidar, are largely not useful yet, but with apps like Microsoft’s Seeing AI And others are already lining up to take advantage of this technology in ways we cannot fully fathom. So from my point of view, I feel that the purchase was worth it.

Some General Observations

  • I can’t seem to get Face ID to work in-app, to enter passwords and such, so usually have to enter the passcode. Annoying, but again not the end of the world
  • This phone’s sound, especially when connected to my Bose speaker, is different. I’m no audiophile and am mostly deaf, so can’t say if it’s better or worse, but I did have to tinker to get it set so I could hear speech clearly
  • The added accessibility features won’t really work unless you turn VoiceOver Recognition on in the accessibility settings. So it could be a little confusing when using, say the Magnifier app, to identify what’s in one’s surroundings

So I guess my main hope is to get at least three years out of this thing, and that by such time I still feel like the decision was worth it. I do hope that they don’t leave those who with to maintain the use of Touch ID and perhaps even a home button out of further advancements, but I fear we may be headed in that direction. If I’m wrong and something comes out next year that still wraps all of this into one package, I won’t be mad! Till then though, I’ll enjoy and have fun exploring the world in new ways.

Eight Years of I: My Thoughts On Apple’s Recent Updates

On this day way back in 2012, I posted my first ever iPhone status to Facebook. It was error-riddled, but still I was proud to have mastered use of the touch screen enough to do so. Did auto-correct exist then? I don’t know, but perhaps even if it did I hadn’t learned to use it as I’d only owned the device for a couple of days.

Who could have known in those days that the iPhone, and really all aspects of Apple would take me in as they have. As an aside: what does the letter “i” even stand for as Apple uses it? Internet? Information? In any event, they seem to be deprecating it as time goes on, which makes sense as the company matures.

As I note eight years of Apple products, I thought it would be fun to look at my favorite and least favorite aspects of them. First, there’s my trusty iPhone (now I’m up to the 8 as I have been since this time in 2018). I upgraded it to iOS 14, and it’s still mostly working fine. On-screen typing seems a bit laggy, but I can still do it. This is not a huge deal anyway, since I now have the Mantis Display, which is also working considerably better under 14. So I do most of my typing on this keyboard anyway.

I also notice cosmetic changes, like the fact that it describes Facebook photos better with VoiceOver on, although the 8 does not gain full access to the newest accessibility features like image and text recognition because of its slower processor. I have thus been bouncing back and forth on whether to acquire the iPhone SE 2020, as I suspect that whatever else comes the 8 will be just about unable to handle anyway. But I am glad I have held out now, as rumor has it that the new iPhone 12 might re-introduce some form of Touch ID. If they do, we’ll see how much the phone goes for and consider it.

The biggest, and happiest, change I’ve gotten from the Apple updates Has been to the Apple Watch. My issue with this watch has been the inconsistent vibration to check time that one initiates via a double tap. If your finger didn’t hit the watch quite right, or sometimes if the system just got confused as double tap is an extremely common gesture in VoiceOver anyway, the time would be spoken aloud. This meant that if, say, I opted to check time during a meeting, I was rolling the dice and might end up ruffling feathers, especially at work. So what they seem to have done to fix this, and it took me a while and a whole lot of frustration to figure it out at first, is to make it where you first activate the watch with a single tap, then perform whichever gesture you wish. This, along with speeding up the haptic output, has made the response a lot more consistent and thus has decreased the amount of aggravation I might give my coworkers as I keep needling that clock toward the end of the day. And even more than that, I now have access to Volume Control right from the VoiceOver Rotor, meaning that if I’m in a situation where I really don’t want it to speak I can easily turn the watch down without needing the phone as before.

And that’s about the heart of it, from my perspective. The major Mac update hasn’t launched yet, at least I don’t think it has as I rarely turn on that machine anymore these days other than to edit and post these entries. But I’m satisfied with the fairly small but important improvements I have noticed. The watch vibration thing is especially useful to me, as it even allows me to check the time without reinserting the hearing aids or disturbing my wife. Without knowledge of the time, the night can seem to drag and I feel uncertain as to whether I’ve overshot my wake time, even though she has the alarm there and will let me know.

Anyhow, Apple has continued to enhance the power and usefulness of these products to those with disabilities over these 8 years, and I look forward to however many more they have as a relevant tech company.

Bugging Out With the Mantis Q40: My Quick Take Review

Hey hey! Comin’ at ya from my new display. I have, after five years of great use with the Brailliant, acquired a Mantis Q40 from the American Printing House for the Blind. After all, technology marches on and this represents the potential fora significant upgrade. This machine has a full-sized laptop keyboard located above the row of Braille cells, which makes typing a lot easier and more intuitive.

I surprisingly received it yesterday. With APH’s ordering information, I had a hard time deducing when the device had actually shipped, and was thus kind of nervous and concerned until it finally arrived. After that, of course the rest of the day was spent playing with my new “toy”

So, first I had to familiarize myself with the display’s functioning by reading much of the user manual. It is relatively straightforward, but getting everything to work was… not. I would say the experience was similar to that when I first got my Brailliant five years ago, which is to say that a new device is going to have some issues. I think many of these are of Apple’s making, and I hope that they will be resolved sooon.

The primary issue I’m having, and just had as I typed this, is keeping the display connected to the phone via Bluetooth. It took four tries to even get some semblance of joining, and with each attempt after that the connection seemed to become more stable. Now, when it freezes periodically, I have only to go into the Bluetooth menu on my iPhone, disconnect and reconnect the display and it usually works. Obviously this would present long term challenges, but well we’ll see.

To find the positive: I love the machine’s size as they still manage to have a thin, very portable device with the full keyboard. The keys have nice spring and are just fun to type on, although the Braille bug that doesn’t let you type too fast, which has existed since iOS 11, is still a big nuisance. What was I saying about hope for a fix to these other problems soon? Yeah.

I also enjoy the crispness of the Braille, and find that I can now read at about 1.5 times the speed. Of what I used to manage. The thumb and panning buttons, while likely he Brailliant’s, are just a bi t smaller and perhaps more responsive in some way. So until the myriad writing stuff is reworked, I will likely most enjoy the reading experience.

So would I, in my short time having this device, recommend it? Well yes, and especially fort he educational//professional audience for whom it is most intended. As I mentioned before, typing is just easier than Braille in many respects, most notably when one must enter email and passwords, which even if I know the correct Braille symbols the translator just gets wrong. I would also recommend it for its charge, which seems lightning fast, and the replaceable batttery. This machine looks like it will hold up for at least another five years, and hopefully at some point I will be able to pound out my great American novel on it as well as to get back up to regular posting. There will be another probably in less than a wee k. Till then, have a good Fourth of July holiday.

To The Max: On HBO’s New App and Accessibility Challenges

Yay, Fresh Prince is finally available through streaming. This was my thought as soon as they rolled out HBO Max this past Wednesday, as I’d heard that this one of already so many streaming services would be the one to cary that show. So I knew I would immediately try to get it and see what, if anything, they have in the way of accessibility.

The short answer, at least at the time of this article’s writing as I know and hope that things can change quickly, is not a whole lot. The challenges began as soon as I downloaded and launched the HBO Max app. Fortunately you can connect the app to Apple TV and find shows that way, but in order to do that you must first subscribe.

At first, I swiped around on the screen and it just kept repeating the immediately viewable icon, until I had the bright idea of touching the screen in different places, a method called Explore by Touch. I eventually encountered a button labeled Subscribe Now and tapped it. I was able to enter my username, email and password, but when I tried to press “done” it wouldn’t take. I later deduced that this was because I had not checked the box accepting their terms, as I could not even find said box except on the HBO Max website. So I was forced to use that to sign up, after which I discovered that the web site worked little on the Mac and I could not actually sign in once the account had been created. So back to the phone, I guess somehow shutting and restarting the app made a usable sign-in button appear that I could press and enter my account info, and finally I was ready to go!

A subscription costs $14.95 a month, but it could be worth it as they have several good movies, documentaries, and series. In addition to the Fresh Prince, which I intend to watch in its entirety over the next few months because of the nostalgia (ah, simpler times, well not really but they always seem so when looking back right?) They have the series From the Earth to the Moon, which chronicles America’s Space race with the Soviets. I also saw The Big Bang Theory, which I didn’t watch when it initially came out but might catch now.

However, if the app does not make accessibility improvements in the coming months, honestly it boggles my mind that they would release it without these in the first place these days, then I probably will no longer fork over my dough. I am glad they have closed captioning for individuals who are deaf. I had hoped that, at least with HBO programming, they would include audio description for those of us who cannot see, but as far as I can tell this is not available. Also, because of the way one must interact with the screen, the app is completely inaccessible with a refreshable Braille display. If one could not connect it to Apple TV, then I would definitely have to hold out for some kind of improvements. Please take a look at your competitors, Amazon, Netflix and the like, and follow some of what they’ve done. After all there’s no need to reinvent the wheel. But we blind folks and others with disabilities want to be able to come along for the ride.

The short answer, at least at the time of this article’s writing as I know and hope that things can change quickly, is not a whole lot. The challenges began as soon as I downloaded and launched the HBO Max app. Fortunately you can connect the app to Apple TV and find shows that way, but in order to do that you must first subscribe.

At first, I swiped around on the screen and it just kept repeating the immediately viewable icon, until I had the bright idea of touching the screen in different places, a method called Explore by Touch. I eventually encountered a button labeled Subscribe Now and tapped it. I was able to enter my username, email and password, but when I tried to press “done” it wouldn’t take. I later deduced that this was because I had not checked the box accepting their terms, as I could not even find said box except on the HBO Max website. So I was forced to use that to sign up, after which I discovered that the web site worked little on the Mac and I could not actually sign in once the account had been created. So back to the phone, I guess somehow shutting and restarting the app made a usable sign-in button appear that I could press and enter my account info, and finally I was ready to go!

A subscription costs $14.95 a month, but it could be worth it as they have several good movies, documentaries, and series. In addition to the Fresh Prince, which I intend to watch in its entirety over the next few months because of the nostalgia (ah, simpler times, well not really but they always seem so when looking back right?) They have the series From the Earth to the Moon, which chronicles America’s Space race with the Soviets. I also saw The Big Bang Theory, which I didn’t watch when it initially came out but might catch now.

However, if the app does not make accessibility improvements in the coming months, honestly it boggles my mind that they would release it without these in the first place these days, then I probably will no longer fork over my dough. I am glad they have closed captioning for individuals who are deaf. I had hoped that, at least with HBO programming, they would include audio description for those of us who cannot see, but as far as I can tell this is not available. Also, because of the way one must interact with the screen, the app is completely inaccessible with a refreshable Braille display. If one could not connect it to Apple TV, then I would definitely have to hold out for some kind of improvements. Please take a look at your competitors, Amazon, Netflix, Apple, and the like, and follow some of what they’ve done. After all there’s no need to reinvent the wheel. But we blind folks and others with disabilities want to be able to come along for the ride.