Category Archives: Office software

Mac OS X accessibility tweaks

An apple logo in grey, accessibility logo in blueA few weeks after the stroke I had in June I wanted to get some new podcasts. Listening to radio shows proved a great way of keeping myself occupied.

Up until my unexpected health setback I was an inveterate, dextrous computer user. Years of constant honing meant I’ve created an onscreen environment that’s familiar and comfortable. I was at home on my system. (Find out more about my unplanned hiatus).

To simplify things, you could say I woke up with impaired vision. This meant all of a sudden I couldn’t easily use my computer the way it was configured. Completing basic tasks like getting new podcasts was no longer something I could breezily do. The idea that I’d actually enjoy using a computer again initially seemed a ludicrous one.

Over the last two months through experimentation and research I’ve made adjustment to my computer settings and habits. I’ve also found some new tools that are making my life easier. I’m writing here about these things in the hope it’ll be of use to others who face similar challenges. Included are notes about a few of the frustrations I’ve faced along the way.

Vision impairments are not all equal so it’s important to be fairly specific about this. One label for the type of vision deficit I’ve got is homonymous hemianopia. For me this results in a blindspot in the upper right quadrant of my visual field. I’ve got a constant pulsing flicker in my eyes.

Imagine having overlapping concentric circles rippling out across your eye, much like a pond disturbed after a stone hits still water.

Not only do I tire when reading on screen or paper, but I have particular trouble scanning. Ironically, I found this really pronounced when visiting one of my favourite websites. The multiple columns and cramped layout mean I avoid it nowadays, when once I was a daily visitor. I can read a page of a book, a letter or some recipes, but this tends to be limited to a single page at any one time.

This means I’ve got to adjust the way I use my computer set-up. Fortunately, Apple is seriously committed to accessibility. Built-in to the operating system of my two Macs running OS 10.6 Snow Leopard were lots of useful looking features. Working out exactly what would suit me is something I’ve be progressively working on.

Basic re-settings

View Options dialogue box showing how to change Icon and text size, from Mac OS X 10.6The first thing I did was to reduce the resolution of my screen. Rather than cramming as much as I could on my 22 inch monitor, I’ve scaled back to 1280 x 1024 pixels.

Folders in the Finder are something I use constantly, so I’ve tweaked the display of these as much as I can (using View Options). The font and icon size is now large, and there are wide spaces between lines in lists of documents or folders. Something I’d like to do, but can’t see how to, is increase the font size of the text in the Sidebar.

Using the same View Options to modify the look of folders on the Desktop has made a subtle improvement. I increased the folder size to 52 x 52 pixels and fonts now display at 14pt. It may seem a very minor change, but because it’s an area I regularly use so anything that speeds up the ease of scanning is worth it.

For applications I regularly use, including Thunderbird email client, I’ve also tweaked the display of text. This has meant tweaks to text sizes in individual applications including iPhoto, iTunes and Evernote. Within Thunderbird, I can adjust the body text in messages, but it’s not possible to increase the font sizes for navigation items nor for folder names (unless I’m missing something). This makes me wonder about using Apple’s email client, something I ditched years ago for reasons I can’t recall.

The one area I haven’t been able to adjust the font size for is the menu bar at the top of the screen. It would be good increase the font to 14pt the same as on the rest of the labels, but I can’t easily see how to do this.

I’ve made little use of Screen Magnification. All this takes to use is holding down the Option key and swiping vertically on my Mighty Mouse to increase/ decrease the size of the whole screen. Because the text often renders in a blurred way, I don’t find it something I want to use.

The wonders of full screen

Button used to enlarge to full-screenThe time eventually arrives when everything I can find where things live. It’s time to actually do some work. For me this means doing research (ie surfing the web) and typing up reports, notes, memos, articles, and the like.

The thing that makes the biggest difference to me easily completing these types of tasks is the magic phrase: Full Screen. Many applications now provide users the option of expanding a document so that all navigation and menus are hidden out of sight. The document you’re working on takes up the majority of the screen.

As I type this blog post using Microsoft Word all I can see is a white page with my pithy paragraphs, with a wide black border on the left and right. Over on the far right, out of sight, is a scroll bar. If I move the mouse to the top of the page a limited pane of navigation options is revealed. This clean, minimalist approach means I can focus on what I’m writing.

The Full Screen option is widely used in many applications. Other office productivity suites offer this feature, including Apple’s iWorks and the free, open source NeoOffice. The latest version of Firefox offers the same thing. This simple feature will no doubt take off like wild fire.

Another related find is a tool which strips out distractions on webpages (including navigation, menus, article stubs and ads). I’m using the readability add-ons for Firefox and Safari.

Whether it’s an article about The B52s or RWC2011, I can easily get down to the substance by clicking on the “Read now” button I’ve installed. Up pops a window with the article, naked, neither distracting ads nor navigation are shown. I’ve set the default font size to 14pt and made the column fairly narrow, so I can easily read articles on screen.

There are other features bundled with readability which give it the edge over other comparable tools (eg Read It Later) and the built-in Reader in Safari. I see the benefits as being worth the monthly US$5 fee. I’ll write more about this when I write about Kindle accessibility.

Hearing rather than reading text

Crowded list with 50 reasons to use VoiceOver, Mac OS 10.6When I first looked at the blurb about the Mac OS 10.6 accessibility features I was a bit overwhelmed. There was so much I could tweak and adjust I didn’t know where to start. As the image above shows, there are over 50 reasons to use something called VoiceOver. Rather than try to read the scrambled page listing all these reasons, I just dived in.

To come straight out with it, I found the process of trialling VoiceOver to be pretty confusing. This was in part because I wasn’t ready to learn about something new. It was also because there are screeds of information, lots of options, all of which are seemingly of equal importance. I couldn’t easily find a guide to switching on the things that would suit my particular needs. Sadly the Take Control series doesn’t have a guide to these features of the Mac OS.

After a few sleepless nights and fruitless searches for real life guidance (as opposed to marketing spiels) I gave up on VoiceOver. I probably could have done with some help. Nursing some frustration, I realised I was trying to do too much. By chance I remembered the KIS maxim: keep it simple. And that’s what I did.

I decided to start by setting up “text to speech”. Built-in within System Preferences on the Speech setting tab is an option to “speak selected text when the key is pressed”. (To find speech look for the for the old fashioned microphone). I ticked this option and set up a memorable keyboard short-cut.

Now, after I highlight text in virtually any programme and tapping in the shortcut then sit back to listen to a sentence, paragraph or whole article as the computer reads it aloud. This feature is brilliant. Because it’s system wide, I can use to give voice to emails, webpages, documents, PDFs and more.

My initial burst of enthusiasm soon waned. I began to tire of the metallic, synthesised tone. Even with a choice of several male and female voices the voices begin to grate. While they’re adequate for short bursts of text, they are definitely not something I could endure listening to for long.

By adding Infovox’s iVoice pack I’ve found a way to overcome this limitation. In place of computer-generated voices, iVox offers what sounds like real human beings. Although packs with New Zealand accents are not available, I could get speakers using the Queen’s English. Now, when I use the text to speech function I can choose who addresses me: Lucy, Rachel, Graham or Peter from the UK.

I paired my British iVoices with another piece of software to give me more control over the text to speech process. Amongst other things, GhostReader allows me to easily switch between the voices I’ve installed, skip paragraphs, speed up reading, and export spoken documents as MP3s to iTunes.

These two third-party extras have transformed the basic tools. I decided to spend NZ$184 on these – initially for just one of my computers – as it means I can engage with ideas so much readily.

An alternative option was to use the expanded voices available in the new Mac OS 10.7 (Lion). If these are anything like the voices available on the iPad, then they’re not much of an improvement over Alex, Bruce, Fred, Kathy, Vicki and Victoria installed with Mac OS 10.6.

I am actually using the text to speech tools almost every day as it reduces eye-strain and tiredness. Coupled with a portable ebook reader and MP3 player, I’m continue to do things I like doing (ie reading articles, browsing newspaper sites, etc) as well as getting back to work.

After initially being a bit bamboozled by the accessibility options, I’ve got my computer set up so I can actually do things. It’s a great relief that it ended up being pretty easy to do, despite a few hitches along the way.

I’m sure I’ve missed some adaptations or extras that would help with my peculiar visual impairment. I’d welcome any pointers. Better still, if you can suggest a short cut that will help others, make sure you add a link in the comments.

More on: adapting my reading and computing habits in the aftermath of a stroke

This is the first of four blog posts I’m writing about the tools I’m using so I can get do the stuff I like and need to. The other subjects I’ll cover are:

  • how audiobooks are a saviour
  • why I chose a Kindle
  • what stopped me from getting an iPad from an accessibility point of view.

Switching back to Word

A list of months, days in Excel

For a while now I’ve been living with some glitches in my open source word processing programme. That all changed on Wednesday when frustration drove me to the other side.

NeoOffice is a version of the popular OpenOffice designed for Mac OS X. It has integrated dozens of native Mac features and provides most of the bells and whistles you’ll find in other similar productivity programmes.

However, it’s not without some limitations. Despite the relative ease of saving files for editing in Microsoft Word®, I find the the exchange process is seldom fault free. The biggest obvious problem is formatting going askew. And as macrons seldom survive a document being edited in both Word® and NeoOffice, lots of time can be wasted.

Other things that repeatedly bug me are:

  • absence of an option to merge to a catalogue when generating lists
  • near impossibility of using find and replace to change or remove paragraph returns, tabs and other formatting codes.

The final straw came when I was using Calc for making a list. I don’t think this was especially complex, but NeoOffice wasn’t cooperating when with my efforts to get 365 numbers in a unique format. So much for software speeding things up, I wasted about half an hour trying to get this sorted out.

After Calc crashed 3 times, I gave up.

If there are answers to these dilemmas, I haven’t been able to find them. So, I’m turning back to Microsoft Word®. I know this venerable programme is capable of doing the things I want. As it’s used by 99% of the people I interact with, the compatibility niggles I’ve been facing should fade away.

I couldn’t wait to go to a store so I downloaded the fully-featured 30-day trial version of Microsoft Office for Mac 2011®. After getting an update, it was a 1GB download.

The new interface is a bit daunting and I can understand why people say there is a learning curve require to get the most of out the software.

With my list merged and sent off, I’m feeling a bit more relaxed. I am truly grateful for everyone who voluntarily puts time into programmes like NeoOffice. And I’m a staunch supporter of open source philosophy and programmes. However, if it’s not working quite right, paying for the latest software can be worth it.

A month with SUSE Linux

After I cram in spare clothes, relevant documents from the paper war, spanners and sandwiches there is never much room for my 15in laptop in my cycle pannier. This tight squeeze, the hefty weight to lug up Brooklyn Hill and a nagging worry that constant vibration is shortening the life of my computer started me thinking.

What say I get a smaller, more portable device?

After reading an interminable number of reviews about netbooks, I settled on the HP Mini 5101 netbook. The sleek, black gadget has a 160 GB hard-drive, 2 GB ram and 92% keyboard.

Rather than opting for a machine with Windows pre-installed (which would have made a lot of sense given my need to test websites using Internet Explorer), I chose the model with FreeDos from Ascent Computers. When the netbook arrived it actually came with Novell’s SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop operating software.

Although familiar with free, open source software (FOSS) I’d never spent much time using a computer with a FOSS operating system. Using Firefox, Thunderbird for email and OpenOffice on proprietary operating systems was the extent of my experience.

When I fired up the wee HP brute I was in familiar territory. My initial impression was an interface that mixed the best of both Mac OS 10.x and Windows. The keyboard shortcuts are the same, there is a Windows Explorer style file navigator and even easy switching between between multiple windows. SUSE is designed to slip into corporate environments where people are happy using Windows.

Pre-loaded software includes familiar productivity tools as well as more exotic vector graphics and diagram editors, the slick Banshee music player and T-spot for organising photos.

At the click of a button a webpage will magically expand to take up the whole screen (sans any browser bars). The 1366 x 768 resolution and high level of brightness mean that even with a 10.1in screen it’s an ideal for reading while lounging on the couch with a cuppa.

When I want to reconfigure any system settings (including allowing for a wobbly effect when windows minimise) there is lots even a regular user can do. I imagine there is much more configurability under the hood. I’m pleased virtually everything has worked out of the box, including the built in webcam.

A few bumps along the way have meant my first experience with FOSS has not been without some aggravation.

At first I couldn’t connect to my home wireless network. Calling in a techy provided a pretty speedy answer. SUSE didn’t like the jolly green giant, the name of my multiple word SSID, or the password with funny characters. It took a reset of my router’s account details to connect.

Installing new programmes has not been encouraging. I’m not actually sure I’ve got the right version of software as there are open source variants for the many FOSS operating systems, and you need to find the right one. As I haven’t figured out how this works I’ve tried downloading a few files that won’t unpack. I must have the wrong version of Skype as the one I’ve got doesn’t work.

There have been a few other niggles:

  • Using some Flash based software, including Adobe Connect Pro which I’ve written about before, can crash the computer. Some customisations to system settings are lost in the process.
  • Not all the messages that should appear from my IMAP email server actually appear in the inbox of Evolution (the email programme). There is often a handful missing.
  • A few icons for applications have disappeared. Hardly important in themselves, but it makes me wonder what else is happening under the skin.
  • Separate keyboard layouts are used for login screens and when I’m actually logged in. It was my mistake to select the UK keyboard when I was setting up (the ampersand key is where the quote marks are on US keyboard) and later try to change keyboard layouts. Repeated attempts at a fix have not worked.
  • Ejecting my JungleDisk WebDav folder bring up an error message – permission denied even though I’m administrator numero uno.

I admit some of the problems are because I’m lazy: I haven’t read the manual. I think I’ve been spoilt, with software on other systems working with a minimum of fuss and a maximal amount of intuition.

With three months of phone support, I better call HP before time runs out. I’m also going to try using an alternative to SUSE Linux. When I get usb drive with more than 4GB storage, I’ll try running Ubuntu Netbook Remix, a slim version of the popular desktop distribution.

As the open source fraternity is a sharing bunch I’ll try to tap into some local expertise. Going to an ‘installfest’ is not only a way of learning useful stuff but as you can lug your own computer around, you do some fine-tuning settings on the day. What a great way to get some help from a wise Linux techie.

In good time I’ll get everything sorted, but I’ve become a bit more realistic about what it would take to change a whole organisation over the an open source software. Rather than the haphazard approach I’ve taken, good planning and support are a must.

It’s comforting to find out I’m not the only one grappling with how to carry a laptop on a bike, as Pashley from Lovely Bicycle writes in her post about “Laptop Transport: Trusting your bicycle with your precious machine”. If all else fails, Anonymous suggests in a follow-up comment:

A few layers of bubble wrap is a cheap and very effective shock absorber. I don’t carry a laptop, but bubble wrap is great for groceries like eggs and tomatoes in the pannier.

With my little HP brute I’m confident throwing (not literally!) the netbook in my pannier, and I’ve now got room for an orange.

Personal technology configuration: backups

Yesterday when I arrived at Deirdre Kent’s place she was sitting with a friend sharing tools and tips for using their laptop computers. It looked liked they were having a productive session. Deirdre is a convenor of the Transition Towns Aotearoa social media network.

It’s about the third time in the last fortnight where I’ve encountered people talking about their peculiar mix of technology and practices to get work done, communicate, and ideally be creative.

On the groupings blog Earl draws out some insights from a post by Nancy White describing what he sees as an “Object lesson in ICT competence”. Nancy has written about the “the architecture of the information technology of a person busy online” (see “the social media I use”, 12 August 2009).

Earl suggests she “never, ever, uses just one [tool] for any particular task”.  The list for email alone includes the Eudora email client, two Gmail accounts, web-based mail plus probably a Yahoo or Hotmail account.

The question raised on the groupings blog is “whether this feels doable and reasonable or just a welter of work and organisation that is too steep a cliff to climb?” I’d suggest many individual practices come about in an organic way. New needs dictate new tools, but the old ways don’t necessarily disappear. This is different to how organisations generally approach things where planning and some element of rigor plays a far greater role.

Pausing for a second to look at my personal technology configuration, to use Nancy’s phrase, most of what I end up doing is the result of a happy accident or an urgent need. It’s got me thinking I could write about some of the ways I learn and adapt what tools I use, how and why.

My back-up regime is classic example. Most of my back-up is manual. Even though I’m using the ChronoSync programme which allows for scheduling I’ve never got around to learning how to set this up. Instead I’ve got a weekly habit of backing up at a specific time.

It’s a bit complicated so I’ve got a list. I’m want my back-up to cater for recovery of any files I accidentally over-write and for disaster recovery (including fire), so I’ve got a combination of on-site and online back-up. I mostly save just files I’m working on plus associated resources, though I do have an old snapshot of the entire contents of my hard-drive.

At the moment this is the backup I’ve got in place:

  1. Hourly: Portable hard-drive using Time Machine programme which makes back-ups via Firewire cable. I’m able to instantly retrieve files from the last month.
  2. Daily: synchronised backup to JungleDisk, online service. I found this particular service after reading an opinion piece in by Cory Doctorow called “Not every cloud has a silver lining”. My data is transferred securely and can be encrypted. I’m able to drag and drop files or use my file sync programme. I only pay for data transferred or stored, rather than a set amount per month. As it’s backed by Amazon I feel pretty confident about the reliability of the service.
  3. Weekly: synchronised backup to my 80GB iPod and another computer. As I generally take my music player out with me I class this as offsite storage. With an iPod files will easily be able to extracted, singly or en masse, should I need it.

To get another perspective on backups, listen to Peter Griffin reviewing some of the free and paid-for options for storing and backing up your important personal data online (see “Digital back-ups”). (This aired on This Way Up on Saturday 3 October is available online for  up to 10 weeks).

As my backup regime is something that’s evolved over the last few years I’ve grown to be pretty comfortable with it, but I don’t know if it’d stand-up to outside scrutiny.  Perhaps reflecting on my personal technology configuration and sharing my thoughts might lead to some changes. As I’m not going to do everything at once I definitely think it’s doable and reasonable, to answer Earl’s question.

iWork software for sale

I’ve been perfectly happy with Apple’s iWork ’08 suite of software. I’ve created business cards, brochures and reports, a few slide presentations and played with the spreadsheet. It’s been easy to learn and use, especially with loads of templates. Best of all it only cost about $80.

Last week I hit a glitch – I couldn’t move labels on the pie graph. Two long, even unwieldy titles were overlapping.

With a deadline looming for a customer satisfaction survey I’m working on I decided to get the latest iWork package. Released earlier this year the ’09 version is the greatest yet, at least as is suggested by the blurb brimming over with superlatives about being new, improved and other spurious similar connotations. I can’t really comment in any detail on how it compares with the earlier package, though I am now able to move the labels. Phew! However, the price has shot up by over 100%. The same three programmes are now $179.

I can understand the drive to continually improve already great software but I’m not so sure about the pricing increase. What about an upgrade price for people who already have it? The price of Apple’s latest operating system is just $59 for a single license, so the computer giant is not averse to fair pricing models.

Because I don’t need two versions I’m selling off my copy of iWork ’08 on TradeMe (closing 11 October). What’s it worth now? I have no idea but the TradeMe punters will be sure to let me know.

Update (11 October 2009): the software sold for $65.

Software up for grabs

Over a year down the track it’s good to news to hear the TechSoup New Zealand programme racking up a substantial number of software donations.

At a function at Te Papa last night jointly hosted by TechSoup New Zealand’s local partner, NZFVWO, Barnardos and Microsoft, there was a fair bit of hoopla about the volume of donations. Some 288 organsations (subject to fact checking) have received donated software since the programme started in July 2008.

The main focus of the cocktail function was on a big donation by Microsoft to Barnardos.

Murray Etheridge, Barnardos CEO, was radiantly postive as he acknowledged the $1.4 million donation. The gift comprises software, along with technical support and I think someone mentioned cash as well. Whether this is a one-off or an example of a new partnering drive by the multinational software giant wasn’t mentioned.

Four other organsations which have substantially benefited from the TechSoup New Zealand programme were highlighted in a short video.

One of these is the Mangere East Family Service Centre. I first met the Centre’s director Peter Sykes when we were both studying social policy at Massey University.

He says the software donation means “for the first time in 15 years all our computers can talk to each other with common operating system”. Peter wants technology to be ubiquitous and essentially invisible to his staff so they can focus on doing the stuff they need to, which means talking with people. In the past, staff have spent be frustrated and distracted by computers getting in the way, rather than supporting their work.

Despite being an ideal time to alert people to an expansion of the range of software products available through TechSoup New Zealand, there was no mention of any forthcoming sources of software donations. I’ve since learned some other suppliers of software will soon be added to the list.

While Prime Minister John Key only talked about the corporate side of things, NZFVWO’s Tina Reid really emphasised the spirit of partnership and community building that sits behind TechSoup New Zealand. In it’s first year it’s off to a great start, with more to come.

BTW: Tech savvy John Key hasn’t yet shared his speech notes (perhaps because he realised after talking he made a slight ommission – he blatantly avoided any references to co-hosts NZFVWO) nor issued a tweet to his 5,982 followers (see JohnKeyPM).