Tag Archives: Efficiency

My beginning explorations about less visual alternatives to spreadsheets for screen reader users

Posted on December 12, 2018

Almost 2 weeks ago  I was listening to the Mac Power Users podcast with David Sparks and Katie Floyd, the episode had one of the best titles I’d ever seen,  “My Life Is a Subscription” this could be a blog rant all by itself, but what they wanted the listener to get out of that episode was how to be aware of and manage their subscriptions. Sadly for me, they used the sighted person’s go-to, the spreadsheet. If you can see spreadsheets are nice and visual, convenient, but not so much when using a screen reader. Especially if using Apple’s Numbers program, because there is no go to cell keyboard shortcut  command. Beyond that, even if there was one, like in Microsoft Excel it still leaves it up to the user to figure out which cell they want to navigate to.   I’d been frustrated before by how people love their spreadsheets, and even complained about this in a speech I gave at Madison UX 2014.  David and Katie reminded me of this frustration, so I  decided to explore if there were less visual   alternatives.
My friend Kyle Borah suggested databases, so I went there first.
The mac has sqlite installed by default, and sqlite can run on just about anything. The lite really only means that it doesn’t run on a server and doesn’t allow for concurrent users, but for an individual person, it can work very well. SQL  was originally called SEQL (structured English query language) so now we know why people say sequel today. SQL is easier to learn than many other programming languages and will probably be where I play and blog about in the future, but then I remembered I had a cool little app on both macOS and iOS called Soulver, and for this case, managing my subscriptions, Soulver was more than equal to the task.
Soulver is kind of like the Microsoft program called  notepad and a calculator, so you can write things in a sort of natural language and it will do the math for you. lines beginning with // are comments so you can write notes to yourself. I didn’t feel like putting my real subscriptions into a public blog though, so I made some up. Besides, that way I could show currency conversions.

//fictitious subscriptions

//say that 3 times fast

//subscription 1 renews on January 1

sub1Annual = 100 GBP in USD = 125.69 USD

sub1month = sub1Annual/12 = $10.47

//subscription 2 renews on the 10th of the month

sub2month = $5 = $5.00

//subscription 3 renews on the 21st of the month

sub3month = $2.99 = $2.99

sub1month + sub2month + sub3month = $18.46


Here’s what the developers of Soulver call “back of the envelope calculations”.


//my fictitious  day trip to Chicago

//oh wait, I actually did something almost like this back in 2015

//some of these prices are also  fictitious, though I tried to be somewhat accurate The bus roundtrip from Madison was $62 = $62.00

Tickets to the Shedd aquarium and 2 other museums cost $65 = $65.00

Transportation on the L cost $15 = $15.00

two  meals and a snack cost $30 = $30.00
//that Chicago pizza was worth it.



In this last example I didn’t use variables, I just wrote how someone might write down notes on the fly. Most reviews I’ve seen unfortunately showoff Soulver with screenshots, but that would be disingenuous of me, so I exported my examples from Soulver into .txt files and then pasted them into this post. Soulver can export to html and PDF as well as text, which is great if you want to share calculations with others who don’t have it.


Soulver also has your ensemble of basic scientific functions, it can do quite a bit; so  let’s go further. Wisconsin can get pretty cold  in the winter, and I’ve actually heard some people wonder why heated air inside houses and buildings is so dry then, so here’s a bit of what you might learn in meteorology 101. Depending on the temperature, air can only hold so many grams of   moisture per cubic meter; The warmer the air, the more it can hold. This is usually told to us as relative humidity, but to the meteorologist what’s more important is the dew point. The dew point is the temperature at which the air is totally saturated, e.g. at 100% humidity. So your furnace sucks in a bunch of cold air from outside heats it up to 70 degrees F or 21.1 C and keeps your house warm; but without adding extra moisture to the air, it only has what it could hold when outside. Let’s use Soulver to figure out a real life example. As I write this the current temperature outside my window is 24 F the dew point is 19 F and the relative humidity is 79%Let’s see what the humidity is when that air gets  warmed up to a much more acceptable 70 degrees.
First let’s calculate with the original outside temperature of   24


//calculating relative humidity from air temperature and dew point

//b is a constant used for calculating vapor pressure is in degrees C

b = 237.7 = 237.7

//air temperature and dew point must be converted to Celsius

//with no interface to input data, here’s where we do it

atf = 24 = 24

dpf = 19 = 19

//temperature conversions

atc = (atf-32)/1.8 = -4.4444444444

dpc = (dpf-32)/1.8 = -7.2222222222

//calculating saturation vapor pressure svp,  and actual vapor pressureavp

svp = 6.11*10.0^(7.5*atc/(b+atc)) = 4.3967971796

avp = 6.11*10.0^(7.5*dpc/(b+dpc)) = 3.5564947151

//returning relative humidity

round(avp/svp*100) = 81


I know, it’s 2% off, this formula seems to lose a bit of accuracy when the temperatures go below 0 C.
Now’ with just changing the atf from 24 to 70 I get 14. Now we know. This also demonstrates one thing databases are not so good at that spreadsheets are, what-ifs. When I was talking about this last week with my friend Fintan, he said he uses what-ifs all the time in his spreadsheets at work,  and that was not so convenient with a database; Soulver can easily do what-ifs also, we just saw one above. I also realized something else cool about Soulver.Being a programmer as I am, instead of using Soulver for more advanced calculations like calculating relative humidity, I had already written a function to do it in a python math environment I put together 2 years ago, more blogs about that later. Soulver besides being notepad and being a basic spreadsheet at least in functionality, it can also fill in as a basic programmable calculator. You can’t do if-then, or loops but still a fair amount, more than a TI36 which can do just about anything numerical but has no programmability at all. Soulver could also be useful for someone who wants to figure  out some math but doesn’t  know any   actual programming language at all. As we have found, Soulver is quite useful.
The big down side though is it’s only on Apple devices, but there is a similar program called Calca that works on both Apple and  Microsoft Windows. It seems quite a bit more powerful even able to do some symbolic math including linear algebra, playing with that is probably one of my January projects. Calca’s downside I can see thus far though, is that   Soulver’s way of performing calculations is more convenient, closer to natural language,   and for that  still  keeps a place   in my tool box.

Another post I wrote with additional thoughts about Apple’s Face ID

Posted on October 1, 2018

Two weeks ago, I wrote about how I strongly dislike Apple’s Face ID; and although some in the blind community have agreed with my thoughts, there are also some who do not. They say “oh Face ID is just fine and it’s accessible,” etc. Accessible for sure, but not efficient; and in some cases totally breaks people’s workflows.

Because accessibility has lacked efficiency in many ways, some bigger than others over the years, blind people have often collectively accepted that they have to deal with it. There might be an app that is almost accessible except 1 screen so blind users memorize the screen and don’t complain. Then there are environments like  amateur or ham radio, where the equipment isn’t really accessible at all, or the accessible versions are often considerably more expensive, (though things are improving) so blind people write and share guides to help them get around the problems. I respect the people who wrote those guides, and appreciated them many times, and even wrote a few myself, but the question needs to be asked: why are we just rolling over as a community and accepting this? Why aren’t we pushing back harder and finding polite and respectful ways to ask for or joining in to help create more accessible and/or even more  efficient solutions.

With some pretext, I now return to the Face ID situation. To date, Twitter is the most accessible and efficient social media for blind users, and it is there will you will find them discussing anything and everything they find important. As we have had a year with Apple’s Face ID, there have been tweets among the blind community about it, though I find most of them just saying things like, ye it’s ok, I got used to it; or even a few of it’s amazing works great. Santiago’s tweets shared here I think encompass much of this mentality.

Santiago – @kevinrj There are blind people that say that faceID is an accessibility issue, but I don’t feel like it is. Unlocking your phone with touchID in your pocket isn’t an accessibility feature. It’s simply a convenience. A nice one at that, but not necessary.
Santiago – @kevinrj Well, that convenience certainly goes away, and I honestly wish I could have it back sometimes. Could FaceID improve? Certainly, but I think everyone experiences similar issues with it. Even sighted people.

Santiago – @kevinrj You do also have the security issue with it. When it comes to sighted people, the phone actually looks for your attention in order to unlock. It automatically turns it off if you’re using VoiceOver. I have a work-around, but again… not very convenient. 
Santiago – @kevinrj I’m all about efficiency. Heck, I sometimes upgrade my products, because they slow down after years and affect that greatly, but I, a totally blind person, have efficiently used my iPhone X for almost a year now. Is there a learning curve? Yes. But it’s accessible.

Yes, as I said earlier, it’s accessible, but that doesn’t mean efficient. Could I take a bus from New York to Las Angeles? Sure, it’s totally accessible, and would even be way cheaper, but if I had to do it every 2 months for my job I would not like wasting up to a week each time I could save by flying. For a blind person, Face ID is very much like that; even though some are making it work or even enjoying it, some also enjoy long bus rides; I haven’t found that from my own personal experiences, but I think it has something to do with the scenery.

Sina Bahram has an ABD in  PHD in computer science and is probably the most advanced computer user in the blind community who I know of. Last week I found a thread on Twitter with him and a few other people about why Face ID is a step back for blind accessibility. These are not just opinions, but hard facts that should be taken seriously.

In this thread, screen curtain is mentioned, but is mostly only called curtain, which I realized may be confusing to those who don’t know about it. Screen curtain is an amazing VoiceOver feature that along with bringing added security and privacy to VoiceOver users on Apple products can definitely also save battery life.

Sina Bahram – Wow, I was not expecting to do this, but I’m returning the iPhone 10S. I cannot believe what an atrocious experience this is now. FaceID is nowhere near as efficient or accessible as fingerprint sensor. Not having a home button is ridiculous. No more immediacy of access. #a11y

James Teh – @SinaBahram I suspect my feeling will be the same. Some people seem to cope okay, but I just can’t see how face ID could be more efficient for us. And my understanding is you have to disable the gaze stuff, which means we reduce security due to disability, but I might be misunderstanding.

Michiel Bijl – @jcsteh @SinaBahram I’d be curious to know how that is measured. If it’s done by detecting whether your eyes are pointed at the phone with eyelids open—it might not be a problem for everyone.
Of course you can always use the passcode but that’s a major step back from Touch ID.

Michiel Bijl – @SinaBahram The interaction to go home with VoiceOver is weird. I mess that up rather regularly. Any tips?

James Teh – @MichielBijl @SinaBahram Also, the whole idea of having to actually pick up my phone and bring it to my face just to unlock it… so many kinds of bleh. The number of times I just quickly look at my phone with one hand while it sits on my desk…

Julianna Rowsell – @SinaBahram A friend of my is having similar feelings. His physical access disability doesn’t allow him to effectively use it. The angles to his face are wrong and such so the recognition  software doesn’t authenticate. – Retweeted by SinaBahram

Sina Bahram – @jcsteh @MichielBijl Exactly. This is just simply unacceptable. I really hope that some advocates inside of Apple bothered trying to speak up. It’s just not like them, sir. There are so many use cases this completely destroys.

Sina Bahram – @MichielBijl Yes, the tip is to get another phone. I’m not being sarcastic. I just boxed mine up. I am an expert in this topic and the most power user I have encountered, not bragging just facts, and this is unusable. So, I’m done. I’ll try to motivate some internal Apple convos, but no idea.
Sina Bahram – @MichielBijl @jcsteh I, plus its default now if it detects VO running, have turned off attention requirements. That’s not the FaceID issue here. The issue is that it doesn’t work in the dark with curtain on and it requires your face instead of your hand that’s already touching the device.

Sina Bahram – @jcsteh You are absolutely not misunderstanding. You are reducing security because of disability. Welcome to every X phone from original to the S and Max. Other concerns make this unusable, though.

James Teh – @SinaBahram @MichielBijl Oh… I didn’t think of that, and that’s super frustrating. So I’d have to turn off curtain to unlock my phone or go turn on a light? How utterly ridiculous.

Sina Bahram – @jcsteh @MichielBijl Yup, I can confirm that. I turn off curtain, and oh look, it’s magically like 10X more accurate, and turn it back on … pin code it is!
Tomi 🇭🇺 – @SinaBahram wait, doesn’t work in the dark with curtain on? Is this a thing? Does having screen curtain change this? I thought infra-red works with low or no light anyway since it’s using its own infra-red beams, so most people I read about using it said it works at night /in dark.

Sina Bahram – @tomi91 Everyone assumes infra-red means works in dark. This is not true. Infra-red buys you depth sensing independent of (visible)  light. That barely matters since gaze is disabled by most VO users. Face ID  still needs (visible) light in addition to depth info.

Tomi 🇭🇺 – @SinaBahram oh that’s interesting. I wonder if people re-enable attention mode if it changes. But then again some people can’t even get their eyes straight (like me) so it’d probably just fail over and over. Man I’m really glad about my 8 now, thanks for that hope. lol

Sina Bahram – @tomi91 That feature is automatically turned off for VO users, so the eyes thing is not an issue itself, though it negatively impacts everything from lack of full messages on lock screen to everything else.

I wish Apple had an iPhone pro line, kind of like their iPad pros. Face ID would be a great feature on those phones, but then instead of an iPhone Xr they could have what the iPhone 9 should have been, still an a12 processor but maybe a slightly lower quality camera, a smaller screen, and also still a home button.

There are still people who would like a smaller phone. There are even still some sighted people who are not obsessed with the latest perfections in screen technology, or don’t even care if they have the best camera. There are even some sighted people who would still prefer Touch over Face ID, even Alex Lindsay, who is one of the most visually oriented people I know of, said on MacBreak Weekly recently, that he personally prefers Touch ID but thinks phones should actually have both.


My thoughts about how as a VoiceOver user, Face ID although accessible is not very efficient

Posted on September 13, 2018
On January 9, 2007 Steve Jobs introduced the first iPhone, but I wasn’t sucked into his reality distortion field quite yet. My friend Nathan Klapoetke was ecstatic about it though and told me later that day when reinstalling Windows for me that he couldn’t wait to buy one; that was a very long 6 months for Nathan.

I, and much of the blind community were frustrated though, and felt left out. Some of us new that the touch screen, just a piece of glass for us then, would be the future and that soon no companies would make phones with number pads anymore. Then, at WWDC 2009, Steve Jobs introduced iOS 3 and mentioned VoiceOver during the keynote; the blind could use modern phones again. Those 2 years were hard though. Many of us in the blind community had Nokia phones, and some were playing with Windows phones, but they weren’t changing our lives anywhere near as much as the iPhone would later. This is how I feel current things are with the iPhone X models starting last year.

Apple is obsessed with Face ID and is making it their future, but I’m feeling a bit left out again.

Yes Face ID is accessible, I played some with an iPhone X last fall but as more people are recently realizing, accessible does not always mean efficient. I found it quite finicky when setting it up, and because I wear prosthetic eyes, when they’re out, I appear as a different person. There is an article written specifically for a blind person setting up Face ID, but note that they tell you to put your face in the frame, but don’t actually explain how to do it when unable to see the frame. Then there’s the trick of figuring out how far away to hold the phone from your face. I also have no idea how to move my face around in a circle while simultaneously staring at one spot. Ok, I understand the concept, but can’t physically do it. It took me about 15 minutes to get Face ID setup the first time. Another problem is how attention mode is disabled by default when VoiceOver is enabled. I understand that Face ID would work less with it on for blind people who are unable to visually focus, but that’s a potential security hole. A blind person could have their phone next to them on their desk and another person could quietly walk by pick up the phone pan it by the blind person’s face, and they’re in.

Beyond setting it up and all the problems of having eyes that don’t work, there is the inconveniences of work flow. My phone is often on my belt, and most people blind or sighted keep their phones in a pocket. If you’re blind, and have headphones, why would you ever want to  take your phone off your belt, or out of your pocket to use it? Taking your phone out just to authenticate gets annoying real fast, it also may require the person to stop what else they were doing. I’m rarely if ever looking at my phone when I use it, often my face is completely in a different direction.

I could go on a rant, oh wait I already am. I could be cynical, flame Apple, or just give up and switch to Android, and some might; but from my experience where although it took 2 years, Apple did bring VoiceOver to the iPhone in 2009. Here are some thoughts.

Things I could do today to unlock my phone, I have a long complicated password, I really don’t want to enter it every time. I could use the Bluetooth keyboard I already carry with me. I could plug in a series 4 Yubico key when I’m home or not around other people or in a situation where having something rigid plugged into the phone has a low probability of being bumped or damaged. These are only hacks though, I’m really hoping Apple can come up with an awesome solution again.

The iPhone can already unlock the Apple watch, and the watch can unlock my mack; I really hope that my Apple watch could unlock my iPhone too. Just having the phone unlock if my watch is on would definitely not be secure at all, but with the new Apple watch series 4 having some capacitance in the digital crown, having to touch the crown to unlock the phone could be a start. Putting Touch ID into a future model of the watch crown would be awesome.

I already wrote about how there are solutions that let me use my wired headphones even with no headphone jack, I know there are solutions for Touch ID equivalents that don’t include Face ID too. Whether Apple implements any of them is still a question, but I really hope they will realize how visual only options inconvenient a non-trivial segment of their market, and give us an alternative.