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Jonathan Mosen: I’m Jonathan Mosen and this is Mosen At Large, the show that’s got the blind community talking. This week, Mastodon is having a moment. Let’s look at it from a blindness perspective. How relevant is ham radio today and how do you get started and a fix for the series ESET experiences many of us have been having.
It’s a pleasure to have you back for Episode 206 and if you’re keeping track, 206 in North American area codes is Seattle, a lovely part of the United States. I must say that every time I visited, it seems to be raining. I’m not sure whether it’s me, perhaps I attract the Seattle rain or something, like the Rain God in one of Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy books, I’m not sure, but it does seem to rain an awful lot in Seattle. Still, it may be wasted on me, but I’m sure it’s green and lovely in Seattle.
If you are listening from area code 206, the very area code that represents this episode number, enjoy your moment in the sun or the rain.
An introduction to Mastodon from a blindness perspective
Now, I’m going to get right into a lengthy discussion about Mastodon, and I want to welcome people listening to this podcast from Mastodon because one thing I’ve learned in my short time on Mastodon is that the old timers in Mastodon that is people who have been on for longer than about two weeks at this point, really are proud of what they’ve built and they’re protective of their community and I like that.
Who can blame them? I’m sure there’ll be some people here who are making sure that I fairly represent the platform that they’ve painstakingly built and the platform that they love. Welcome to you. This podcast deals with issues from a blindness perspective. Some of the things that I’ll talk about are general, they’re all done through a blindness lens, if you will. Now, with all the Twitter shenanigans of late, there’s been an increasing interest in Mastodon. I’m going to devote quite a bit of time to this open source social network.
I’ll do a little bit of demonstrating at the end, but mostly, I want to take time to explain some key concepts of Mastodon. People seem to have got the impression that it’s super geeky and it’s difficult. It really isn’t. When you come into any community, there’s terminology, there’s culture, there are expectations, and it was probably like that the first time you joined Twitter, it was a bit confusing, and then you just got into the culture. I’ll do my best to give you a balanced take on the strengths and the weaknesses of the ecosystem as I perceive them.
It’s not my intention to try to persuade you to use the service, although I must admit, I started this a little bit skeptical, a little bit on the fence. Now, I am a major Mastodon enthusiast, at least for now, but you have to decide whether you want to use it instead of, or in addition to Twitter, if at all. I hope though, to give you some facts so you can make up your own mind about that. What I’ve noticed is that not surprisingly, given the source, a lot of misinformation is being spread about Mastodon on Twitter.
I won’t be teaching you everything you need to know, but I hope that this will give you a start and I will put some useful resources in the show notes for you if you’d like some more information. First, let’s talk about why I have set up a presence on Mastodon now in November 2022, even though as a voracious reader of tech news, I’ve actually known about Mastodon for at least five years, I would say. I’m still optimistic enough to believe that social media can be used for good in the world, but with a busy day job and this podcast to produce every week, I’ve got limited discretionary time.
Social networks come and go, of course. Those of us who’ve been around a while will remember the phenomenon that was Myspace. Remember Myspace? At its peak, in April 2008, Myspace boasted 115 million unique users. That’s quite astounding. LiveJournal was another platform that had a significant user base, including in the blind community actually. At its peak, it had 2.5 million users. It’s gone now. Look at the former popularity of AOL or CompuServe. The online world is full of offerings with large audiences that are now distant memories.
Even look at Facebook, the number of young people using Facebook is tanking. The longevity of Facebook is clearly in serious jeopardy. That’s why Facebook became Meta and they started dabbling in all sorts of other things. Young people have gone to TikTok in major ways, and Facebook is what the oldies now use. It’s very clear. Sometimes trends change, sometimes poor decisions are made that cause a mass exodus. The jury is still out on whether Twitter’s on a downward spiral or not.
I’ve decided that it’s prudent for me to have a presence on a similar social network just in case I want to reduce my Twitter activity or even delete my Twitter account altogether. I first joined Twitter back in late 2006, so this is quite a wrench for me to do this. At first, I wasn’t that impressed with Twitter and I deleted my account, but I came back to stay in October 2007. I’ve used the platform with varying levels of enthusiasm, and in fact, one of the first books I wrote when I founded Mosen Consulting was on using Twitter from a blindness perspective.
I’ve had a continuous presence there for 15 years, and during that time, I’ve lived through various phases of potential crisis points on Twitter. I’ve been cyberbullied at a time when Twitter took a very hands off approach to content, I guess like it is going to do now. I’ve known of people who tragically have died by suicide when they felt overwhelmed by Twitter cyberbullying. I have seen Twitter adopt a more responsible humane approach to cyberbullying. We have seen a pandemic of misinformation fueled in no small part, of course, by the former occupant of the White House in the United States.
Twitter has taken various stances over the years towards third party developers and the applications they write. Sometimes developers have been welcomed and sometimes the application programming interfaces allowing third party developers to tap deep into Twitter have been restricted and outright discouraged. You may remember a discussion on the Blind Side Podcast with the developer of Twitterrific when Twitter had one of its little crisis points a few years ago. Twitter has shown varying degrees of commitment over the years to accessibility. It hasn’t always been easy as a blind person to use Twitter using Twitter’s own offerings, and many people are likely to have given up completely during those times if API changes had restricted blindness specific apps too much. Now, my fear is that anyone of several deal breakers are starting to happen or could happen very soon. As I mentioned back in Episode 176 when the potential for Elon Musk to buy Twitter was discussed, I’m concerned about an individual who himself has engaged in deeply distasteful and harmful cyberbullying owning Twitter outright. The desire to monetize Twitter might result in a disallowing of third party apps that provide an alternative consumer experience.
This would strengthen Twitter’s control of the user experience and push people to premium products. I think it is highly possible that, at some point, all the third party clients now in use on a variety of platforms could just stop working. Hopefully, we’ll get notice, but this is Elon Musk we’re talking about. Twitter has now fired its entire accessibility team. For me, there is a moral issue around this that such repugnant disregard has been shown for accessibility and the people who made a difference. It’s possible then that future new features could have accessibility challenges. In other words, they might just not work with your screen reader.
The number of content moderators has also been cut significantly, and anecdotal evidence suggests that there’s already been a significant uptake in hate speech. It is very possible that disabled people won’t be able to discuss accessibility issues or other issues of discrimination without incurring significant abuse that won’t be moderated. If you, like me, have been on Twitter since nearly the beginning, you will remember the frequent Twitter outages because the infrastructure didn’t exist to accommodate its growing user base. In fact, there was even a website devoted to telling you whether Twitter was down at the moment or not.
Infrastructure has just been trimmed to save money and it may be that the service becomes unreliable when it’s needed most, as more people flock to the service than the service can cope with. Finally, it would be difficult for me to remain on the platform if Donald Trump is allowed to return there. In my view, someone who deliberately spreads misinformation and in sights an attempt to overthrow a democratically elected government should not have access to any credible mainstream platform. While I’m not ready to pull the plug on my Twitter account just yet, it pays to be prepared and there could be any number of events which could cause me to delete my account very quickly. For that reason, I’ve set myself up on Mastodon so I can alert Twitter users who have similar concerns and want to be similarly prepared where I’ve gone. No one owns a Mastodon’s network because it’s software that facilitates what’s known as federated microblogging functionality. Anyone with the right infrastructure and the skills can set up a Mastodon server, which is known in Mastodon jargon as an instance.
This means that there’s not one single place one goes like twitter.com, for example. Mastodon is a lot like the internet itself. A devolved series of connected computers that talk to each other to make the social network function. Yes, if you go back with technology as long as I do, it is quite a lot like the old bulletin board systems in some way. Each Mastodon instance can have its own look and feel, and its own set of rules. Typically, the instances are monitored by volunteers for adherence to those rules.
A bit like the moderator of a well-run email list actually would make sure that the rules of the list are being observed. System admins can take action, including warning or even banning transgressors. Some Mastodon instances are organized based on geographical communities. For example, at the moment, the Mastodon instance I use is mastodon.nz, which is for New Zealanders. Some Mastodon instances are based on communities of interest. For example, as you would expect, there are several Mastodon instances dealing with a wide range of technology subjects.
There are other instances for writers, people interested in social issues, and more. There’s one Mastodon instance that I know of currently run by blind people and that has quite a few familiar names on it. It’s called The Dragon’s Cave, and you can find that one at dragonscave.space. Yes, that is a real domain name dragonscave.space. Because of the explosion of interest in Mastodon in the last couple of weeks, new instances are popping up all the time. I think it’s likely that some people running these instances are going to become overwhelmed by the commitment involved in administration and moderation and close their instance down eventually.
If that happens to you as a user of an instance and there is sufficient warning, you can move to another instance, and I’ll talk about that more in a moment. This is really no different from people who might close a blog or stop running an email or Facebook group. Instances can opt to be part of a federation of Mastodon instances and other servers known as the Fediverse. It’s the Fediverse that means that even if you are not on mastodon.nz where I am, you can still follow me. In this regard, it’s like email.
Even though we have our own mail server on mushroomfm.com, you can email me there if you use Gmail or Outlook or wherever you are. Mastodon usernames are a bit like email addresses. If you want to mention someone on Mastodon, you do what you would do on Twitter and you start the mention with the @ symbol and then you type the username followed by the instance they’re on. For example, to mention me and you’re welcome to, you would type @jonathanmosen all joined together, and then @mastodon.nz. A post on Mastodon is known as a toot.
By default, its maximum length is 500 characters compared with Twitter’s 280 characters. Because Mastodon is open source, some instances have modified the character limit to be even longer. The Dragon’s Cave is one such instance, they’ve got a 2,000-character limit there. I welcome this. On Twitter, tweets used to have a maximum of just 140 characters. When the length was doubled, some people on Twitter thought that the sky was falling in but I believe that some of the toxicity of Twitter is because of the condensed way people have to express themselves without starting a longer thread.
Many people just don’t bother to do that. Even 500 characters versus 280 in my view, is one significant factor that changes the quality of the discourse. There’s a form of direct messaging on Mastodon. To make the Mastodon experience familiar to Twitter users, some apps brand it as such. In reality, all you’re doing is sending a toot that is unlisted. In other words, not on the public timeline and only visible to the people you list. Be careful in apps that don’t give you a DM-like interface that you get your permissions right. These messages are not encrypted.
Not all Mastodon instances federate with all others, and this is a strength. It permits the maximum amount of free speech while also allowing system admins to opt out of speech they might consider objectionable. For example, if there’s an instance for those promoting racist ideology, that instance is free to do its despicable thing but few other instances are likely to affiliate with them. Haters are going to hate, but at least they hate in their own toxic little echo chamber. Hopefully, authorities in various countries will do what they should do if the material contravenes the law there.
Filtering a whole collective of objectionable material out this way can make the experience optimal for everyone. If users can, for the most part, talk to each other regardless of picking an instance, why is choosing the right instance for you important? Well, it’s because an instance has its own local timeline. You can drop into this timeline anytime you like and read any public toots from people on the same instance as you. When you pop into the local timeline on Mastodon NZ, for example, you’ll read New Zealanders talking about things of interest to New Zealanders.
It’s a great way to discover people with interests similar to yours so you can follow them. You can also check into what’s called the federated timeline any time you want. Now, the federated timeline contains all the posts from the local timeline plus any users being followed on your instance from any other instance. For example, once I started following a few blind people around the place, those people started appearing in everyone’s federated timeline on my instance. It’s fun to browse the federated timeline sometimes, and I have connected with some people that way that I otherwise wouldn’t have discovered.
You have your own timeline, of course. This is much like Twitter, your own personal timeline consists of people you have chosen to follow. How do you choose an instance? Well, first it’s important to note that you’re not making an irrevocable decision. There is a well-established protocol for moving instances. Your posts aren’t moved across, but all your followers are. To get the people that you are following at your new instance, you’ll need to manually export your followers’ list to a CSV file and then import it.
If you’ve ever switched podcast clients on iOS, it’s similar to that process where you export your list of podcasts from the clients that you’re moving from and import them into the new app that you’re moving to. Unless, of course, one of those apps is Apple Podcasts because that doesn’t offer this courtesy. You might ask someone you know on Mastodon to recommend you an instance or you could use your favorite search engine to type in Mastodon instance followed by a geographical location or community of interest or you could search what’s on offer @joinmastodon.org.
It is essential to check out the rules of the instance before you join it. There are plenty of places to go but whoever’s running the instance is the queen or the king of that instance. They will set the culture. They will determine what kind of content isn’t acceptable. As someone who has been the victim of cyberbullying, I feel safest on a well-moderated instance. Once you have your account set up, you can follow a user on any instance and when you do, just like on Twitter, their toots will appear in your timeline.
You can protect your account, so you would have to approve your followers. It would be a follower request that you receive. You can favorite toots and you can boost them. I have seen one or two apps calling this reblogging but it’s usually called boosting. Boosting is the Mastodon equivalent of a retweet. There’s no quoting ability in Mastodon and that’s a deliberate design decision because they say quoting discourages communication between people and encourages talking at people. The Mastodon experience will feel a lot more like the Twitter of old to anyone who currently uses Twitter’s own official client or website.
Twitter, for some time now, has used an algorithm to prioritize tweets based on what it thinks will interest you and it also shows ads. Mastodon is much like the experience you would see if you were using a third-party app like Spring, Twitterrific, TWBlue, or TweeseCake. Toots are displayed in reverse chronological order and there is no algorithm of any kind working any magic or evil. For this reason, if you favorite someone’s toot, it feels nice to be recognized that way. If you are the author of that toot, it is always nice when my phone goes ping with a favorite, but it does not promote the visibility of the content in the same way that it would using Twitter and its mysterious algorithms. Since there is no algorithm, making content easily searchable is a user responsibility. There is one very important thing to understand about making content searchable on Mastodon and that is that it isn’t publicly searchable unless you use a hashtag. Let’s say that I want to send a toot discussing an accessibility issue that I’m having with a website.
If I sent a toot saying something like, “I’m having major issues with the accessibility of this website, what are others seeing?” Only those who follow me or who are looking at any of the public timelines will see that toot. You can’t simply search on any word in that toot but if I want to make the toot even more findable, perhaps by people with an interest in the subject matter, I can use a hashtag because hashtags are searchable. As the content author, this gives me far more control than I have on Twitter and it minimizes the chances of being trolled.
Even better with Mastodon, there is a way on many instances or clients to follow a hashtag so that it appears in your timeline. That way, when someone toots with the hashtag, it just magically appears with all the other toots that you were reading, no need to do a special search for that hashtag as is required on Twitter. Following hashtags is also built in to Mastodon 4.0, which as I record this, is close to release. Another significant cultural difference between Twitter and Mastodon is that on Mastodon, you are expected to show respect for others and use content warnings.
Now, this can take a bit of getting used to because when people think about content warnings, they often just think it’s sexual content. On Mastodon, content warnings have a much broader use. Content warnings are about triggers. For example, people use content warnings before posting political content because in this highly charged era in which we live, political content can be stressful and triggering. If you’re posting about discrimination that you’ve experienced as a blind person, you may want to put that behind a content warning.
If you think the content might distress someone, put it behind a content warning. When you do this, the reader will be told about the type of content that the toot contains based on the content description that you’ve provided. Then, they can choose to reveal the content or not. If you, as the reader, want to allow all content through, you can set your preferences to do this automatically. One of the aspects of the Mastodon culture that I think every one of my listeners is going to love is that they are passionate about using alt text to describe images.
Repeat offenders are often called out for it. As more users have migrated from Twitter, I’ve seen an increasing number of cases where alt text hasn’t been used. Old hands are trying very hard to preserve this alt text culture. Time will tell if they are successful. But it’s a wonderful thing to see. On my timeline, I find far more people using alt text than not. The complete reverse is true on Twitter. When you join any social network, finding people to follow can be a challenge. If you choose an instance with people whose interests are similar to yours, that can help a lot.
The one limitation that I found most frustrating about Mastodon is that if you try to look up who your friends are following and who’s following them, you can only see those who are on the same instance as you. You can go to the user’s profile on the website for their instance and get the full list there. I think this is a little bit geeky and potentially confusing, and it limits how you can connect with others. There are not a lot of corporate users on Mastodon at this stage that I can find.
As Mastodon’s popularity increases, that may create some tension, as those who’ve been around for a while feel like newcomers moving into the neighborhood are changing the culture. I’ve seen a few journalists appearing in recent days, and a couple of politicians in New Zealand as well. It may be that if media outlets want to embrace Mastodon officially, or even corporate entities offering support and promotional content like they do on Twitter. They might set up their own instances, connected with their domain.
For example, if you see someone sending toots from the not yet established, I hasten to add, mastodon.cnn.com, you could be confident that those toots are really coming from CNN staff members.
Using Mastodon on various platforms
Let’s have a look now at ways that you can use Mastodon as a blind person and you’ll be pleased to know that there are multiple accessible ways of doing this. We’ll start with the web interface. This is accessible on all platforms. There’s actually a rich array of keyboard shortcuts. It may not immediately appear that that’s the case so I’ll discuss how you get to them.
I’ve got Microsoft Edge loaded and I’m using the latest version of JAWS with Vocalizer Tom as the text-to-speech engine, I’m going to check the title bar of my browser.
Tom: Mushroom FM, the home of the fun guys.
Jonathan: All right, I’m on mushroom FM’s website, I’m going to go to the address bar by pressing Ctrl L for location.
Tom: Selected https//mushroom.
Jonathan: I’m going to type mastodon.nz, which is my instance. Now before I do that, a word about this because I already have an account on Mastodon NZ, I’m signed into it. As a rule, you will stay signed in until you choose to sign yourself out. If you’re just getting started with Mastodon, then obviously, you’ll need to go through the process of getting an account on an instance. How you do that will vary a little bit. There are some instances where you can just sign up and start using the service right away. When I signed up with Mastodon NZ, it literally was that simple.
I read the rules. I said I agreed to them, and I signed up. As there’s been increasing interest in Mastodon, and there’s been this massive boom in the last couple of weeks, what you are finding is that there are more instance moderators, who just to keep things under control, are requiring people to make an application. It’s not arduous, you read the rules. Often what happens is that within the rules, there’s some sort of phrase that you are asked to put in your application explaining why you want to be on this particular instance.
Just using that phrase confirms that you really have agreed to the rules because if you’ve read them, you’re more likely to adhere to them. Not all instances are like that. It really depends on which instance you choose. I’m going to go to mastodon.nz. I’ll start typing in that domain.
Tom: Selected [unintelligible [00:26:38].nz.
Jonathan: I typed MAS and that was enough for Edge to work out that I want to go to mastodon.nz, so I press enter.
Tom: Selected PS//mas Mastodon NZ Microsoft Edge personal, Mastodon NZ Microsoft Edge, personal page, Mastodon NZ, compose, new post region, Mastodon NZ, Mastodon NZ, what’s on your mind edit?
Jonathan: This is just like going to the Google site in the sense that the moment you land there, you are placed in the edit field where you can start composing your toot. This is really cool. If you suddenly think, “I really need to send this to the Fediverse,” you can just go to your instance, you land in the edit field, focus is put exactly where you need it to be to start typing. If you use a screen reader that uses some sort of HTML buffer, and it makes use of hotkeys, you may need to turn your forms mode on or your browse mode off, or whatever it’s called in your screen reader. I’ll talk a bit more about that in a moment. I can tab around here at this point, I’ll press Tab.
Tom: Insert emoji button collapsed.
Jonathan: I can insert an emoji. If I press Enter, it would expand the list, I’ll tab again.
Tom: Add images, a video, or an audio file button.
Jonathan: I think this will interest a lot of blind people because not only can you add images and video, but you can add audio as well. If you’re a podcaster like me, and you want to attach a short snippet of your podcast, then you can do that just as a standard MP3 or an M4A file. If you want to record something rather than write it. From your Voice Memos app on your smartphone, something like that, you can attach it as well.
I can remember during what I now think of as the golden age of Twitter, there were several services around that were audio-specific, and not surprisingly, blind people flocked to those services. It’s back if you can to Mastodon and you can attach audio to your toot, it’s actually baked right into the code. I’ll press Tab.
Tom: Add a poll button.
Jonathan: You can add a poll. This is a fully accessible process in both directions. I had the misfortune of witnessing New Zealand crashing out of the semifinals of the Twenty20 Cricket World Cup, and we had a whole lot of New Zealanders who were tooting with the hashtag about this and we ended up commiserating with each other. At the innings break, I set up a poll which only lasted for an hour, saying, “Do you think New Zealand’s got enough runs to win this thing?”
An overwhelming majority of people responded to the poll and said, “No, they have not.” I think it was like 80-something% said, no, they have not. They were right. The poll process is fully accessible. I’ll tab.
Tom: Change post privacy button collapsed.
Jonathan: Let’s have a look at what happens here if we choose change post privacy, you can set your default post privacy in preferences but there may be an occasion where you want to change it for a specific toot and this is where you go to do that, I’ll press the spacebar.
Tom: List with four items. List box item, public visible for all, one of four.
Jonathan: Now that I’m in this list, I press the Tab key.
Tom: List box item, unlisted visible for all but opted out of discovery features, two of four. List box item followers only visible for followers only, three of four. Mentioned people only visible for mentioned users only list box item, mentioned people only visible for mentioned users only, four of four.
Jonathan: Effectively, this is like a direct message when you select this last option. I’m going to press Escape.
Tom: Compose new post region. Change post privacy button collapsed.
Jonathan: Press Tab.
Tom: Add content warning button collapsed.
Jonathan: This is where if you press the spacebar on this to activate it, you will expose another field where you can add your content warning as we discussed earlier.
Tom: Change language button collapsed. Toot button.
Jonathan: There’s the Toot button and once you press that Toot button, you will have sent your toot. Assuming we had written anything in the edit box by default. As I said earlier, you’ve got 500 characters to play with. It may be more on certain instances. I’m going to navigate by heading now and I’ll just explain for cited Mastodon users who may be listening to this that typically in Windows screen readers, what happens is that they’re not actually reading the screen, they’re loading the HTML into a virtual buffer and that allows users to navigate a well-structured HTML page by element.
For example, there’s a hot key you can press to navigate to headings on the page. There’s another one for radio buttons, edit fields, any combo box or form field in general. These tend to be pneumonic where possible but not always. I’m going to press the letter H to navigate by heading.
Tom: Home button, show announcements, toggle button, show settings, heading level one, toggle button.
Jonathan: That’s almost where I need to be, but what I want to do is set the focus to the first toot in this list.
Tom: Home region show announcements. Heading level one, toggle button.
Jonathan: I’m pressing Tab.
Tom: Show settings, adding level one toggle button. Article.
Jonathan: Now, it’s that word article that’s key because we’ve got to the right region of the page now. If I press Tab one more time.
Tom: Darcy Burnard, “If you’re new to Mastodon like I am, you can use this tool to see if anyone you follow on Twitter is also here. I believe it does this by looking for Mastodon IDs in people’s twitter profiles, or their screen names, so it may not find everyone.” https://pruvisto.org/debirdify/ November 10th [8:37] AM @DHSDarcy. [unintelligible [00:31:51] accessibility. Social boosted link.
Jonathan: That’s an excellent tip, by the way. There are tools that are scouring Twitter for Mastodon usernames to help people discover each other on this new platform. If you are on Twitter and you are going to be using Mastodon, then add your Mastodon to your Twitter bio. If I press Tab here.
Tom: Michael do’s link public 33 meters link graphic, Darcy Burnard @DHSDarcy link. “If you’re new to Mastodon like I am, you can use this tool to see if–”
Jonathan: I’ll tab again.
Tom: https://– reply button, boost toggle button, favorite toggle button, share button, more button. Article.
Jonathan: All those things are happening because I’m pressing tab repeatedly and that’s okay, but it’s a little bit unwieldy and there is a much better way and that is to disable the virtual HTML environment, whatever your screen reader calls it. In JAWS, it’s the virtual cursor and in narrator, it is scan mode. I’m going to press the JAWS key with Z to disable the virtual cursor off. Depending on where you are, you may need to tab around a bit, but eventually, just with a couple of tab key presses, you should then be able to up and down arrow through this content. Down arrow now.
Jonathan: Now, you can reply to it by pressing R, you can boost it. There’s a whole lot of hotkeys. I can down arrow again.
Jonathan: As is the case with a lot of these user interfaces which are consistent actually across platforms like Twitter and Facebook, you can use the J key and the K keys to do the same thing as down arrowing and up arrowing. I can press Alt+N, for example.
Tom: Compose new post region. Edit.
Jonathan: I’m right there in the composed new post region. You can navigate to the search field, you can do almost anything that you need to do from the keyboard. When I first looked at this and I saw a link on my Mastodon instance, it’s called Hot Keys and if you try that link, you will get to a very accessible table with all of the hotkeys that you can use in the web environment. I actually thought they were broken, I thought they didn’t work, but the trick to it is to first land yourself in a toot and then turn your virtual browser environment off and then the hotkeys work beautifully.
In Apple environments, it may even be easier because they tend not to use the same approach that Windows screen readers have adopted. Now, there is another web interface that may be just a bit easier because you don’t have to mess around in the way that we just did to be in the right place. The nice thing about Mastodon is because everything’s open. Mastodon is not reserving certain features for its own website or app. The user experience should be quite similar if the developer has chosen to implement all the features available in the API.
An alternative web interface from the official one that I would actually recommend is called Pinafore and we’ll go to the browser address bar again, I’ll press Ctrl+L.
Jonathan: Now, I’m going to type Pinafore, that’s pinafore.social and I’ll press Enter.
Tom: [unintelligible [00:35:06] app available four regions, two headings, and 50 links, mastodon.nz, home navigation region list.
Jonathan: I’m using Pinafore quite a bit. I have already logged into Pinafore and it knows that I’m on mastodon.nz and I’m logged in. The authorization process for third-party apps is really straightforward and it is similar in many respects to Twitter. What happened was when I first used Pinafore, it asked me what instance am I on. It then saw that I was already logged into that instance and I got a simple screen inviting me to give access to Pinafore to my Mastodon account. Be careful obviously and make sure that you’re doing that with something credible. I’m going to just turn off my virtual cursor with JAWS key with Z off and it doesn’t matter where I am. If I down Arrow now.
Tom: mastodon.nz, home main region. Dr. Sarb Johal Verified, “Late night last night was a bad idea. First coffee barely touching the sides. Like chucking bricks into the Grand Canyon #xp” Six minutes ago. @sarb. Public.
Jonathan: All I had to do was turn the virtual cursor off and down arrow, and I’m right there.
Tom: Log up. Why is Whitmer, who unlike dissenters actually leads a state that will decide the presidency not given the same attention as Ron, despite being a much more transformative leader? Let’s go with sexism https//www.editorialborn.com/ The unbearable sexism of a press corps covering Ron DeSantis–
Jonathan: There we go. There’s a political tweet and you can continue to move through. Most of the keyboard shortcuts are the same and work the same way as on the main Mastodon website, but the big advantage of Pinafore is not having to get focus into a specific region for keyboard shortcuts to work. While we’re talking about desktop platforms, let’s take a look at TweeseCake. Now for those who’ve not heard of it, TweeseCake is a brilliant app. It is a multi-purpose app. It works well with Twitter with many of the features that you would expect from the blindness-specific Twitter clients.
It also works with other services too though. You can look at RSS feeds, so that would include podcasts. You can also use Telegram, you can browse your computer. It’s got a really nice radio application in there and it supports Mastodon. When I got on Mastodon, TweeseCake support was quite rudimentary. It was very much a work in progress. Well, a lot of progress has been happening in recent times. As I put this recording together, I think it’s fair to say that there are a few kinks to be ironed out, but progress has advanced significantly in a very short time.
If you’re using Twitter anyway and you want to be on both platforms, then why not do it from the one client? TweeseCake works on Windows and it also works on Mac. I have TweeseCake open now.
Tom: TweeseCake config, one of six.
Jonathan: I’m in the config session and if I press the letter M.
Tom: Mastodon email@example.com, five of six.
Jonathan: That’s my Mastodon session, so I’ll press Tab.
Tom: Timelines. List box, home, one of five.
Jonathan: We’ve got home.
Tom: Sent two of five notifications, three of five. Federated timeline, four of five. Local timeline, five of five.
Jonathan: The federated timeline and the local timeline will not show up automatically, you have to make them show up. To make the federated timeline show up, you press Alt+P and to make the local timeline show up, you press Alt+L, you can also make it disappear again by dismissing the buffer and there are commands in the invisible interface to do that as well. For example, if I go–
Tom: Notifications, three of five.
Jonathan: To my notifications and press Tab.
Tom: List view.
Jonathan: I’ll go to the bottom of the list.
Tom: Laney Carmelo, Lane 91, followed you, Multiply Disabled number, Christian woman, totally number blind number autistic chronically ill students studying software development and number accessibility testing when health allows. Passionate above number disability writes a number, accessibility mom to a miniature [unintelligible [00:38:49] named Squeaker and a cat named Jericho. Interests include working with technology, reading, swimming, [unintelligible [00:38:59], and listening to music. Two hours ago, 145 of 145, not selected.
Jonathan: One of the things I really like about Mastodon and you see this in a lot of the third-party apps is that when you get a notification about someone following you, the bio is right there and that allows you to very quickly tell whether this is someone that you might be interested in following back. All the notifications, including mentions, are here. If I Shift-Tab–
Tom: Timelines, list box. Notifications, three of five.
Jonathan: And up Arrow.
Tom: Sent two of five, home.
Jonathan: One is home so I can go in here.
Tom: List view, Jason Smith listing Kevin Kev. Now that this platform is becoming so popular, I wonder if the creator of [unintelligible [00:39:33] will make a third version with more [unintelligible [00:39:34]. Two minutes ago, Mastodon, 187 of 187.
Jonathan: Another thing I appreciate about TweeseCake’s implementation of Mastodon is that it shows you the clients being tooted from, and that’s pretty cool. As you start to look at what clients are out there, just keep in mind that TweeseCake is in beta at the moment and I think that the Mastodon implementation is particularly beta right now because it’s actively under development, but there’s a lot of really encouraging work going on with Mastodon in TweeseCake and in fact, with TweeseCake, in general. I think this is a fantastic app. It’s like a Swiss army knife that does all sorts of things.
On mobile platforms, we are spoiled for choice. I’m an iOS user so that’s what I’ll concentrate on predominantly, but I will convey some advice that I’ve received from Android users as well. There is an official Mastodon app for iOS and for Android. Some Android users have told me that the Mastodon app on Android is okay. Other people have said that a far better option is called Tusky. This is a third-party app that is spelt T-U-S-K-Y. In early November 2022, when I’m recording this, I don’t think that the official Mastodon app is necessarily the best option for blind users with voiceover on an iPhone.
The reason for that is that at the moment, while it’s accessible, it’s not really as efficient as some alternatives. That could change very quickly. I understand there might be some work going on that would implement the actions rotor, for example, on iOS. There are no actions at all in the version that’s out there in the App Store right now, but there are plenty of other options. If you are getting in to Mastodon and you’ve been a Twitter user, I think the most Twitterrific-like or Spring-like app that I have encountered is one called Metatext, that’s M-E-T-A-T-E-X-T.
There was some concern for a while that Metatext was no longer being developed and the author came back to dispel this. He said it is being developed, it’s not actively under development, but it’s not abandon wear. He’s a volunteer, he gives this app away, and there may be enhancements in the future. I think certainly if something seriously broke, there would be a fix. Metatext is really good and I’ll show you that in a moment. There’s another really good one called Toot, which is a bit more Mastodon-like and I like Toot a lot.
The one thing that I have found, and I don’t know whether any more seasoned Mastodon users have an answer for this, is that whenever somebody attaches audio to a Toot and I try to play the audio, the app actually crashes. This is using iOS 16.2 beta and I’m dropped out of the app and obviously, I’m very interested in audio content, so that’s a bit of a show stopper, but a lot of the features in Toot are excellent, including the fact that you can view results of a poll right from your timeline without having to open anything or even having to vote while the poll is in progress.
That’s a nice feature and there are a lot of things to like. There’s a lot of customization. One feature I truly appreciate, and I’d love to see this much more widely used is that you can turn a feature on where if you attach an image to a Toot and you haven’t attached alt text to it, then you won’t be able to send the Toot until you correct that error. That is super, so you might like to check that out. I wish I could get to the bottom of why audio was crashing with Toot because it is really good.
There’s also another one that’s accessible called Mercury and there are others under development, so you do have a lot of very good options available to get access to Mastodon. Let’s open Metatext. Open Metatext.
Siri: I’m sorry, I didn’t quite catch that. Could you please say that again?
Jonathan: Open Metatext.
Karen: Metatext tab bar selected, notifications tab, three of four.
Jonathan: It gets there in the end. I have a lot of issues with Siri not hearing me these days. I hope it gets the hearing aids it needs. We’ve got a tab bar at the bottom of the screen and I’m on notifications at the moment, which is where I last was when I opened the app. Let’s start from the beginning of this tab bar.
Karen: Tab bar, timelines, tab 1 of 4.
Jonathan: I’ll flick right.
Karen: Explore tab, 2 of 4. Selected notifications tab, 3 of 4.
Karen: Messages tab, 4 of 4.
Jonathan: If you’re familiar with third-party Twitter apps, this looks very familiar and there’s also at the bottom of the screen everywhere, a composed button, you double tap that and you can start composing your toot. Let’s go to the first tab.
Karen: Tab bar, timelines tab, 1 of 4.
Jonathan: I’ll double-tab. We’re in the timelines section now and I have found that Metatext does a pretty good job of remembering your place. Just like with Twitter, what I prefer to do is to read the toots that come in in the order that they came in so that you can see things unfolding. I don’t like reading in reverse chronological order, just starting with the top and working my way back because you’re effectively watching life go by backwards doing it that way. An app that remembers your place accurately is really important and Metatext seems to be good at that. I’ll go to the top of the screen.
Karen: Account menu button.
Jonathan: You can have multiple accounts on Metatext, so if you have accounts on multiple instances or different accounts depending on what you’re doing, you can set these up and it’s easy to change from one to the other. You can also create accounts right from within here, so I’ll double-tab.
Karen: Close button.
Jonathan: And flick right.
Karen: Jonathan Mosen @JonathanMosen. My profile button.
Jonathan: You can edit your profile here and I’ll show you mine. I’ll double-tap.
Karen: Back button.
Jonathan: And flick right.
Karen: @jonathanmosen. Heading header image, Jonathan Mosen dimmed button.
Jonathan: There are two images that you have the opportunity to upload to your profile. One is known as an avatar and the other is known as a header image. You should at least have one because this is social media and people want to know what you look like.
Karen: Avatar, Jonathan Mosen button.
Jonathan: There’s my avatar there that I have uploaded.
Karen: Jonathan Mosen. @jonathanmosen, 93 toots, Join force/11/22 Mosen At Large, mosen.org, The Mosen Explosion mushroomfm.com/jonathanmosen verified, Sunday the 6th of November, 2022.
Jonathan: Let’s explain what we are seeing here. You can add metadata and that can be any metadata that you like to your profile. There’s a label field and then there’s also a content field. What I’ve done is added the URL for the Mosen At Large website, and I’ve also added the URL for the Mosen Explosion page on Mushroom FM, and I have verified that. The way that you verify yourself is not to pay $8. What you can do is if you have a website that you have control of, you can add a special link back to your profile and that link can be anywhere on the page.
It’s all explained in the Mastodon docs, which are quite comprehensive. It’s a fairly geeky subject, but if you want to verify yourself, then that’s actually all that it takes. I’ll flick right.
Karen: Husband, dad, #accessibility geek, proudly totally blind, disability advocate, CEO of Workbridge Inc, broadcaster on and owner of Mushroom FM, host of the Mosen At Large #podcast, Beatles fan, cricket nut, Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit. Opinions here are mine because I thought of them myself.
Jonathan: There, that’s my wee description and it really is important to have one. If you don’t include a bio, you’re very unlikely to get a large number of followers, so take the time to describe yourself.
Karen: 85 following button, 160 followers button.
Jonathan: Those are buttons, so by double tapping them, I can give the full list of people that I’m following and people who are following me. I’ll flick right.
Karen: Selected toots button, 1 of 3.
Jonathan: This will display a list of all my toots. I’ll flick right.
Karen: Toots and replies button, 2 or 3.
Jonathan: That’s an even bigger list because it shows not only my toots but replies as well. And finally–
Karen: Media button, 3 of 3.
Jonathan: I can show all the media that I have sent to Mastodon. I’ll continue to flick right.
Karen: Jonathan Mosen, “Not our night. But it’s been fun on the Mastodon. Good night.”
Jonathan: And there’s my list of toots that I have sent. I’m going to perform a two-finger scrub.
Karen: Account menu button.
Jonathan: It’s great that Metatext supports that gesture. It’s an easy way to activate the back button and it does actually drop you all the way back to the main screen. I’m going to double-tap the account button again. If you double tap and hold or triple tap this button, by the way, you get a different screen and you can add a new account from there.
Karen: Jonathan Mosen @JonathanMosen. My profile button, accounts button.
Jonathan: You can also look at accounts from this screen here.
Karen: Lists button.
Jonathan: Just like Twitter, Mastodon supports lists. If you want all your technology people in a particular list or blind people in a particular list, you can absolutely do that just as you do on Twitter.
Karen: Favorites button.
Jonathan: When you favorite a toot, it will pop into this list and you can go and browse them later.
Karen: Bookmarks button.
Jonathan: This gives me a chance to talk about something in Mastodon that I haven’t covered yet. When you favorite a toot, it’s a nice way to make the author of the toot feel good because they’ll get a notification to say that you favorited it. Because of that, you’re inclined to favorite something, even if you will never really come back to it again. You just want to send a signal to the person who sent the toot, “Hey, this is good, I appreciate you sending this,” or whatever. Your favorites list can get pretty cluttered pretty quickly, but what if you want to refer to something later? Perhaps it’s a link to an interesting article or for example, as I’ve been putting this podcast episode together and I’ve been gathering intel on Mastodon, I might want a place where useful information is gathered and that’s where you can use bookmarks. If you bookmark something, then it will appear in a separate list of bookmarks and it does not tell the author of the toot that you have bookmarked it. You may want to do both. You may want to bookmark something for your reference and you may want to favorite something to tell the author, “Hey, this is good content, thank you for sending it.” I’ll flick right.
Karen: Preferences button.
Jonathan: I won’t go into Metatext preferences today because this isn’t necessarily a Metatext tutorial, but it is highly configurable. There’s some good stuff in there
Karen: About this app.
Jonathan: You can find out about the app. That’s the last item on the screen. Just to show you what this feels like when you use it, if I back out of here.
Karen: Account menu button.
Jonathan: I’ll just tap somewhere randomly on the screen.
Karen: Dr. Sarb Johal, “Well, Pakistan’s fielding in that last over signals they think this total is totally gettable for them. NZ will feel that was under par, I think. But also on the tail end of defendable. They’ll need a heck of a start though. #NZVPAK thoughts? #ICCT20WorldCup2022” Poll: Option one, NZ score too low 56%; Option two, NZ think they can defend 44%. 9 people closed, 11 hours ago. Two replies.
Jonathan: Well, that was a good toot to pick actually because it contained some text and it also contained a poll that has closed. We got the results of the poll in the toot, and then you heard the sound that I have for iOS telling me that actions are available, rather than it saying actions are available every single time. That means I can just flick down.
Karen: Link #NZVPAK.
Jonathan: On the actions rotor, we’ll have every hashtag that’s mentioned there and if you double tap, you will go and track that hashtag.
Karen: Link #ICCT20WorldCup2022.
Jonathan: If a website is mentioned, then there’ll also be a link to that website as you flick through the actions rotor.
Jonathan: We can reply to the toot.
Jonathan: Boost it.
Jonathan: And favorite it.
Jonathan: We can share it, which is an external thing.
Karen: View author’s profile.
Jonathan: If I want to find out about the author, then I can go in here and get their bio. The kind of thing that you just saw from me. That’s really cool when you’re browsing the federated timeline or the local timeline on your instance and you find somebody that you’ve not heard of before and you think, “Oh, they’re posting some interesting content, maybe I’d like to follow them.” You can just look at their profile and see what they’re about.
Karen: Copy text.
Jonathan: You can copy the text to the clipboard. That can be handy.
Jonathan: There’s that bookmark feature we were just talking about.
Karen: Mute, block, report, activate, default.
Jonathan: If you believe that somebody is in contravention of the rules, you can report the post. It will be seen, it will go to a moderator of the instance, and they do take this seriously, so don’t report it just because you disagree with somebody, but if somebody’s being objectionable and not keeping with the spirit of the instance that you’re on, absolutely report them. That’s what’s going to keep Mastodon the great environment that it currently is. There’s a brief look at one of the apps called Metatext.
It’s available for free in the App Store but there are others and you should try them and decide which one works for you.
Concluding thoughts on Mastodon
As I wrap up this intro, a few final thoughts. Right now, I like Mastodon a lot. I think that we can expect some speed wobbles over the next little while. The influx of people to Mastodon in recent times has been dramatic. New Zealand has embraced it, particularly I believe Mastodon in Ireland is taking off big time as well, but mastodon.nz is the fourth busiest instant in the world now, despite New Zealand being a country of only 5 million people, that’s a remarkable statistic.
Mastodon feels like social media being reclaimed by regular people who want a safe space to engage with each other respectfully. That said, you’ve got the classic catch-22 situation. Not everyone you may want to engage with or read content from is on there, not by a long way. Currently, Twitter claims to have 396 million users globally and around 206 million active users. They have critical mass. By contrast, Mastodon has around 2 million active users at the moment. Although it’s hard to give you an accurate number because it is growing very quickly.
My understanding is that the number of new users on Mastodon right now is far higher than the number of new users signing up to Twitter. When breaking news happens though, and you want accounts either from journalists or just anybody who happens to be on the spot, you can be sure of finding content on Twitter, but in the end, I think it’s important to be the change that we want to see in the world. If everybody says I’m not going to use Mastodon because no one’s on it, well, no one’s going to get on it, right? We’ve got to make the first move.
You don’t have to delete your Twitter account if you choose to give Mastodon a shot. It’s not a case of I have to choose one over the other. My view may be controversial, but my recommendation is that if you run both places, do not use tools that are available to cross-post from one service to another. I say this because the culture of Mastodon, like content warnings, the way hashtags are used differently, and expectations around alt text where the lack of it is really frowned upon highly on Mastodon, they’re just so different.
One sure way to lose followers on Mastodon is if people get the impression that you’re only doing a mirror of your Twitter account, they won’t follow you. If they followed you and they discover it, they’ll unfollow you. I’ve seen this happen to a few users in my very short stint on the platform. If you feel that you absolutely must cross-post, at least stop your retweets and replies from going to Mastodon. I follow a lot of journalists on Twitter, most of whom aren’t on Mastodon yet.
Although I am seeing a number of journalists going there now and there is a journalist instance that has popped up that’s proven a little bit difficult for them and I hope they can sort those things out. Who knows how many journalists might ever gravitates there? Remember that there are other technologies for getting news that are not algorithm based, so they may actually be better in terms of getting balanced news in the long run. You could use an RSS reader, for example. We covered Lire, which is a brilliant, fully accessible RSS reader, amazing voiceover support for iOS and we did that in Episode 80.
Who knows if Mastodon can retain its current cultural norms with the massive influx that it’s currently experiencing? I hope so. For now, it’s democratizing. If you are on a well-moderated instance, it is safe and I’m enjoying using it. I actually looked forward to using it, whereas with Twitter, I was motivated to use it most of the time due to a fear of missing out. As I say, I will try and provide some links in the show notes. I’ll try and be good and make sure I do that. If there were one that I would mention, it’s a very simple URL to go to for more information mastodon.help. That’s mastodon.help.
There is an accessible guide there with lots of information if you can get yourself on Mastodon. It is a very friendly community so if you can get yourself signed up, you will find plenty of people who are all too willing to give you any advice to clarify any concerns that you have. Good luck and thank you to everyone who has built Mastodon. It’s quite an incredible environment and community and it’s renewed my faith in people power and technology.
Jonathan: We can make transcripts of Mosen At Large available. Thanks to the generous sponsorship of Pneuma Solutions. Pneuma Solutions, among other things, are the RIM people. If you haven’t used Remote Incident Manager yet, you really want to give it a try. It is a fully accessible screen reader agnostic way to either get or provide remote assistance. These days, not a day goes by that I’m not using RIM, and one of the ways I use it is to either receive or provide technical support from family members. I’m a tech support guy in our family, so I quite often get questions from family members that they want me to solve.
It’s not realistic to expect them to install a specific screen reader even the demo. Before RIM came along, I found myself having to try and talk them through what they needed to do. Now, I can tell them to go to getrim.app. Install a simple application on their Windows PC and just by exchanging a code word, I can have a look at what’s going on. I can either run Narrator on their system or if you’re using NVDA, you don’t even have to do that. It’s an amazing tool. Do check it out. RIM from Pneuma Solutions at getrim.app.
A fix for screen readers and Eset
It’s always a comfort to know that you’re not the only one experiencing a bizarre problem. Last week, I told you here on Mosen At Large about one of the most bizarre computer experiences I’ve ever had, which I tracked down to ESET. I won’t tell you the whole thing again because you can go back to Mosen At Large 205 if you want to hear the deeps but the upshot of it was that I could not use any browser as long as I had ESET installed and it happened rather suddenly and I’ve had people throughout the week letting me know, “Well, this was happening to me,” and it’s interesting because it’s progressively happening to more people, or at least it was. There may be light at the end of this tunnel but at least for a while there, a lot of people were getting in touch saying, “Hey, this is happening to me too, and you just can’t use the browser anymore.” People were resorting to uninstalling ESET because that seems to be the quickest way to resolve the problem.
Now, we do have an answer here. I just didn’t have the opportunity to make contact with ESET. I’m not saying that they wouldn’t have been helpful to me. It’s just really busy for me and the quickest way to just get back to normal was to uninstall it, get back to Windows Defender, and go on my merry way, but Brian Hartgen, have I got that right?
Speaker: Brian Hartgen.
Jonathan: I’m not quite doing it like he does it. Brian Hartgen.
Speaker: Brian Hartgen.”
Jonathan: Well, I don’t know he does it better than me. Funny that. He says in an email here, which is very kindly written up, and I appreciate this.
“The reason apparently this occurs is because there is an option in ESET secure browser, which does extra processing of keystrokes. A screen reader is not able to interact successfully with the keystrokes once they are scrambled, which is why when your daughter was connected to the computer, she could use the keystrokes but you could not. While I am sending you these instructions, two things have happened.”
I should just cut in here and say Brian experienced this and this is why he decided to investigate. He says, “First, the build number has been updated. I don’t know if they’ve pushed out an update to deal with this. I hope so because you would think they might be able to detect the presence of a screen reader and respond accordingly.” The second thing he says is that, “Now if I reset the options back to the defaults, it still works, which is why I think there may have been some kind of update.” Anyway, let’s do this and make sure that nobody has this problem ever again, who listens to Mosen At Large and gets the intel.
“Open up,” says Brian, “The ESET security window, press F5 for advanced setup, tab to the web and email button, and press space. Tab to the web access protection button and press space. Uncheck the box Enable Web Access protection.” Thank you, Brian. I appreciate you looking into that and it’s great that when you did contact ESET they were onto it and Brian said he was speaking with a knowledgeable person who was able to assist with this.
Obviously, it would be very helpful if they’ve got some means of changing the behavior based on the presence of a screen reader but if you have had your computer totally disrupted like a number of us have this week, that is the fix without having to uninstall ESET.
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Jim Kutsch offers an introduction to Amateur radio from a blindness perspective
Jonathan: Andy Smith writes in and says, “Hello, sir. I love the podcast and have been listening for a long, long time.” Thank you, Andy. “Congratulations to you and your family on the awesome news. Man, you are getting old,” says Andy. Well, we’ll keep you around anyway, Andy. “I was wondering if you or your listeners might know anything about ham radio, I know pretty much nothing but thought it might be a fun hobby to get into. My understanding is there’s an exam that one must pass in order to obtain a license but I was hoping that the Mosen At Large community might have good accessible resources for study material, and also good radios to buy. As my understanding is that the majority of radios are not all that accessible.”
Well, this is a great topic and it reminds me of when I was a kid and I used to listen to a bunch of blind people. First of all on the old VHF ham repeaters. Then way up on 75 meters, I would hear blind people talking away from right around the country and beyond but I never got into ham radio because then technology came along and I got distracted. Someone who’s done both, very tech savvy and into the ham radio stuff still is Jim Kutsch and so I thought we’d have a chat to Jim. He can give us lots of answers. Great to talk with you again, Jim. Thanks for coming on the podcast.
Jim Kutsch: Oh, thank you, Jonathan, and besides seeing eye dogs you’re talking about my other most favorite topic ham radio.
Jonathan: There you go. When did you get into it?
Jim: Actually, I started when I was in high school. My blindness was a result of a backyard chemistry accident when I was in my junior year of high school. I was always interested in radio the same way you and many of the listeners here to the podcast, talk about chasing down those long-distance AM radio stations at night and trying to see how far away you can hear and all that. I did all that and after I lost my sight in the accident, the folks in the local radio club heard about my accident. It was publicized in the newspaper and they knew from neighbors that I was interested in radios.
I did a radio repair business. Back then it was just a question of testing tubes, and replacing whatever tube was or valves as they’re called in other parts of the world that might need to be replaced. Folks knew about my interest in electronics and radio, and some of the local hams said, “Why don’t you do ham radio?” I said, “Well, I’ve always wanted to do that, but didn’t know how to do it or how to get involved.”
I started studying and about halfway through in December of my senior year in high school, I sat for the exam and got my first-level license. There are multiple levels of licenses in the US. There used to be five levels, it’s now been reduced to only three. Other countries in the world, some have only a single level but most have more than one level of expertise, which gives you more privileges the higher you go up the levels.
Jonathan: We’ve had some pretty major natural disasters in New Zealand and when they happen, I’m reminded of how the Ham community is still very important because when all the cell sites go down, the technology is broken, you have the ham radio community assisting. How big is ham radio today and what role does it play in the world?
Jim: The disaster recovery is a big part of ham radio. One of the sayings amongst many hams is when all else fails, there’s ham radio. If you think about it, for you, and me to be having this conversation tonight and recording this, or for you to use the internet or anyone to use the internet, we are dependent on literally billions of dollars of technology around the world. Whereas when that fails, which has a lot of points of failure, if you really think about it.
Power can go out. Even cell towers that are on battery backup, the power can be out long enough that the batteries go down, cables can be cut, even fiber optics cables can be cut, satellites can be interfered with solar flares, all of that. If you think about it for literally a few $100 and a wire in a tree, the ham radio operators can still communicate with each other.
Jonathan: I do think that a major catastrophe at some point will be some sort of terrorist attack on internet infrastructure that will cause major disruption for a possibly protracted period. I think that’s inevitable, it will happen one day.
Jim: I hope that is not true but we all prepare for that each in our own ways and certainly the ham radio community does a lot of preparing for that but even things at a lesser scale. Look at some of the major hurricanes throughout the United States or Puerto Rico, power was out for weeks and in the case of Puerto Rico, the ham radio community was the only way to get messages in and out until some new cell systems were airlifted into the country and so on.
That happens in many, many places around the world. Ham radio was there very quickly, very rapid to deploy. Many of the hams already lived there but it’s easy for others. Again, using Puerto Rico as the example, many continental US hams went to Puerto Rico took radio equipment with them, and provided that lifeline just simply sending what we call radio grams. A radiogram is a telegram sent over radio. Just something like lots of damage, but we’re fine, no injuries, and send it off to a relative in another town and you can imagine the sense of comfort that gives when all the communications are otherwise unavailable.
Jonathan: Obviously those are extreme situations. What about the day-to-day use of ham radio these days? What’s the advantage of having a chat with someone over the airwaves as opposed to say, using WhatsApp or any number of other technologies that are out there?
Jim: Very good point. Let me take us back in history just a little bit. Ham radio was the first social media before all the social media of today. Again, I was licensed in 1967 and at that time, long-distance phone calls were very expensive. Families would wait until the lower rates on the weekends to call Aunt Mary in a faraway town. Postal mail took a while. We didn’t have text messaging, we didn’t have cell phones, we didn’t have the ubiquitous communications at the price points that we have today. Yet folks could get on ham radio and talk truly long distances just for the sense of catching up with somebody, keeping in touch with a friend, perhaps from college or a friend from your hometown if you are away in college.
Yes, today we have these other technologies, but one could ask, why do we have so many of them? What’s wrong with everybody using the same single social media platform? Again, there’s a group, there’s a community that centers around ham radio. It tends to be technology folks, either folks who are good at technology themselves or are interested in technology. You don’t have to be an expert, but they’re interested in technical things and they’re interested in doing a little pushing of the state of the art.
If you go back, I’m speaking of US history here, if you go back to the beginning of ham radio, it was amateurs, non-professionals who really came up with radio in the first place. If you look at some of the scientists who did that, they weren’t professional radio people, because radio didn’t exist yet. The government stepped in and said, “This is pretty cool. We need this, we need this for military. We’re going to use this to let people on boats, ships, Navy talk back to people on land.” The government said, “Well, we’re going to take all these frequencies.”
At first, it was a belief that radio only existed up to 1600 kilohertz. That’s the top of the AM band here in the United States. There wasn’t anything above that. It just didn’t exist. The US government said, “Okay, we’ll take everything 1600 and below and we’ll give the hams everything, all spectrum above 1600.” That didn’t last very long because the hams kept pushing the state of the art and kept realizing, there are higher frequencies and we can make this work. Today we see radios in the megahertz range, in the gigahertz range.
Along the way in recognition of the importance of ham radio, hams have a little chunk of spectrum, a little section of spectrum throughout that spectrum. We talk about them as bands and we talk using meters because there’s a relationship between frequency and wavelength. Wavelength is measured in meters. People will talk about the 80-meter band, the 40-meter band, the 2-meter band, you mentioned at the beginning people on VHF. All along that range of spectrum hams have a little chunk where they can operate and continue to push the state of the art.
Today it’s not just voice, there’s digital communications. I have a system here that’s an email server. It runs on high frequency. It basically is an email server. Other hams can connect to this upload mail or download mail. All done over radio frequencies with no reliance on the internet. Then my system is part of the backbone network. It can connect to other servers again on ham radio around the world and pass these radio telegrams.
Jonathan: It’s Fascinating. There’s a whole different infrastructure out there bubbling away under the surface.
Jim: Ham radio is so large, I’ve been doing it now since 1967, and I am still dabbling in new areas that I’ve not yet touched. There’s still lots of those out there. Hams can do slow-scan television. Hams can do regular television. There are amateur radio satellites, multiple of them that hams have built. Then they tag on a launch vehicle and these satellites get launched in orbit around the earth then you can communicate through those satellites. There’s little handheld radios, little portable radios you can carry around.
More recently we’re seeing a lot of marriage between radio technology and computing and internet technology. There are a huge number of radio projects using the Raspberry Pi computers. I have four of them running here in my home office or radio room as I call it. They have an internet interface, but they also have a radio interface. I can actually connect to the Raspberry Pi with a handheld radio and using a touchstone sequence, I can direct my Raspberry Pi to connect over the internet to somebody else’s radio elsewhere in the world.
On Friday night at eight o’clock, we run a meeting room. You would consider it perhaps analogous to Zoom. We call them nets in the radio world. We run a net and it’s the Friday night Blind Hams net. I’ve been running this net now here from Morristown, New Jersey for I think 15 years. There are about 20 or 30 people at eight o’clock Eastern on Friday night who connect over the internet using their radios and Raspberry Pis or other equivalent radio internet interfaces.
In fact, we have several folks from down– Jonathan, we’ve got some ZL people. ZL is the prefix of the amateur call signs for New Zealand and some VK folks from Australia. We get some folks from England and so on. You can tell where a ham is based on the call letters that have been assigned to them. Each country has a prefix that says that’s where the person is. Just by hearing or looking at the call sign, you know this is a US ham or a Canadian ham or whatever.
Jonathan: It’s interesting. I can still remember some of the ham call signs from some of the blind people that I would listen to as a kid. I used to have a world band receiver that would pick up, also up on I think about 75 meters. They would do what they call the white stick net here in this part of the world. That was very much analog though then.
Jim: That’s still going on. There are still a lot of analog nets. AM has pretty much gone by the wayside as a modulation technique. Now on the HF frequencies, we tend to use single sideband and that allows you to get twice as many users or twice as many conversations in the same amount of spectrum. We also can operate FM frequency modulation and as I said earlier several digital modes. Some of the newer digital modes are very effective in extremely weak signal. They can receive signals that literally you cannot hear if you crank the volume up high on the speaker, but it’s there, it’s a very weak digital signal and the software can pull it out.
Jonathan: I suppose that ham radio is a lot of these things where for some people it’s the geekery that dominates. It’s a challenge of what you can do. How far away can you pull a signal? It’s a bit like, I guess the distinction that people used to make between being a DXer or being a short-wave listener. Then there’ll be some people who genuinely are mainly in it for the conversation.
Jim: There are so many reasons to be in ham. Those are but two of them. The DX, the chasing distance is still very prevalent. There are approximately 350 country entities around the world that are recognized for ham radio. One of the challenges is try to talk to as many of them as you can. There are certificates that can be had for proving that you’ve talked to a hundred different DX entities or DX countries. Then above that, every 50 more you get a little sticker to put on your certificate. I’ve been doing this since 67 and it isn’t my primary drive, but I have talked to 250 of the roughly 350 countries around the world in all those years.
Others are into it for the social aspect of talking to people. You can leave a radio on all day long and other people in town are talking and you listen to their conversation and you jump in if you want and just have some company around the house. Others are into it for the geekery as you said. They want to build new things and design things, write new software, see what they can do. Others want to do the emergency communications so they train and practice and they make sure they have batteries and a GO kit as it’s called, a radio in a backpack or rucksack with some batteries and you can go right away if there’s a need for you to go do communications. There are others who want to go to unusual places.
One of the things more recently is summits on the air and you take your radio to a mountaintop somewhere, set it all up and try to talk to as many people as you can. People who aren’t on the mountaintop try to talk to those who are. It is truly about as wide open as you can imagine. As far as the things that are available and interesting to do.
Jonathan: Whether it’s any specialized area, podcasting is another one where people take a look at it, they think I’d like to start a podcast. Then there’s just so much terminology, so much equipment to consider, get your head around, understand. Where does one get started with ham radio?
Jim: There are a lot of resources on the internet. Of course in the United States, there’s the American Radio Relay League. That’s an organization that other amateur radio operators or ham radio operators can join. There’s similar entities in other countries. Again in the US there’s an organization called Handiham they’re in Minnesota and they have some accessible training material, they have newsletters, and the like. Lots of places you can get started. As you may know, there are levels of license, you do have to take an exam before your country’s communications regulating entity. In the US it’s the Federal Communications Commission.
That test is a multiple-choice test. In the US the question pool is available ahead of time so you can look at the hundreds of questions and get an idea of what you will be asked and then the actual exam is a random selection from that pool of questions. Many years ago back when I started you had to be able to send and receive in Morse code. That requirement was dropped again in the US in the mid-1990s although Morse code is still very attractive, I do a lot of Morse code and a lot of other people enjoy that as well.
When all else fails the Morse code can get through much, much longer distance in bad noise conditions, bad signal conditions than voice because all you have to hear on the receiving end is the presence or absence of the tone. You don’t have to decide what– all the speech frequencies of actually being able to hear human speech is far more complicated than just being able to hear Morse code so in a given set of noise conditions it can go much, much further.
Jonathan: What things do you have to know to get your first level of license in the United States?
Jim: The tests are a combination of radio and electronic theory and regulations. You need to know the regulations. You need to know what you’re allowed to do and not allowed to do. Hams are allowed to run a pretty significant transmitter power level. Hams are allowed to run a thousand watts which is that of many commercial radio stations and probably more than some commercial radio stations. You need to be aware of the rules and regulations from things as simple as how often do you need to identify your station by announcing your call letters to what kinds of logs you need to keep about your station safety and so on.
On the theory side, it’s how to operate the radio a little bit of Ohm’s law, a little bit of electronics, it’s not something you would sit down for most people and pass without at least looking through the material. The beginning level exam for anyone who is interested in working on it and has some technical interest and some drive it’s not that hard to pass. First level is called the technician’s license, and the next level is the general license, and then the highest level is called the extra license, extra class.
Jonathan: What do the different levels of license allow you to do?
Jim: Mostly you are getting more spectrum, more places to operate. The technician licenses are limited to the higher frequency bands the (VHF) Very High Frequency, (UHF) Ultra High Frequency, and a little bit of the top end of the HF, the High-Frequency bands. Those tend to be line-of-sight propagation meaning you’re not going to curve that signal all around the world. There is a bit of an exception for the HF band that technicians are allowed that can in a good day get you all around the world but it’s very dependent on the sunspot cycle and what’s happening in the ionosphere. The lower frequencies which tend to be more reliable bands for any day, any time communications those require the higher level licenses.
Jonathan: When I used to listen to this stuff as a kid I remember that there were VHF repeaters which would allow the signal to essentially be bounced because you’d trigger this repeater. It would be up on the top of a big mountain somewhere and allow you to do VHF or UHF with much greater coverage, is that still a thing?
Jim: Absolutely, that’s still a thing. If you think about two of us holding a small handheld radio, walkie-talkie type device it’s not going to get very far because there are things in the way, other buildings, mountain or hill or something. If you put a radio up on the top of the mountain you can talk to it from the valley pretty well.
If that radio is a repeater as you said and again translating the technical terms a little bit here, the repeater listens on one frequency and rebroadcasts whatever it hears on a second frequency. That mountaintop repeater hears me talking in one valley and it retransmits on another frequency and you in the next valley hear the mountaintop repeater. You and I can talk to each other where there’s no way we would be able to do that with our small radios with a mountain intervening between the two of us.
Those repeaters are very similar to what I was talking about earlier with the Raspberry Pi radio interfaces and they’re called hotspots. The difference is they act as repeaters but you can connect them together with each other over the internet. I can take my repeater here, mine’s on my dresser up in the bedroom because that’s on the second floor of my house.
I can walk around the yard and around town pretty easily and I can connect it to somebody else’s hotspot their repeater and what I say here goes into my radio in the bedroom, is sent out over the internet, goes into somebody else’s radio wherever they have it in their home and goes out on the air in some other city.
Jonathan: Does that mean that using that technology you could actually be talking to someone half a world away if that other repeater that you’re connecting to is based in another country?
Jim: Absolutely correct exactly and that’s the event. Now you are reliant on the internet so this is not the best plan for serious disaster recovery, but for our disaster operation. It’s great for the social connections, you can talk to many, many people all over the place if they have one of these hotspots.
Jonathan: Then when you get onto the second level that’s where you start getting onto I guess what I would think of is the short wave frequencies.
Jim: Correct. Then when you get to the third level there are some reserved subsections that are just reserved for the third level on a crowded day gives you a little bit more space to operate.
Jonathan: How busy are the hand bands these days? Do you sometimes find that it’s become so quiet that you just don’t find people to talk to anymore?
Jim: You do find people to talk to provided propagation is smiling on you. The way short-wave radio communications carry around the world is by reflecting off of a layer of the ionosphere an ionized layer of the ionosphere. The more ionized it is, the more it will reflect radio signals back to earth, if it’s not ionized at all your radio signal goes just straight out through the atmosphere and off into space.
If you’re trying to find out what’s going on in another planet not as a ham obviously you want a non-reflective ionosphere, but as a ham you want it to be highly ionized and highly reflective. How much it’s ionized depends on where we are in the 11-year sunspot cycle, every 11 years we go from a peak of lots of sunspots to in the middle of the cycle hardly any. We are on the climb right now, we’re about halfway up between the bottom of the sunspot cycle and a peak of the sunspot cycle that’ll be coming in another couple of years.
That makes propagation pretty good most of the time and you will be able to find people to talk to. Sometimes the bands are very crowded. Sometimes there are special events. One of the special events is something called Field Day which occurs in the northern hemisphere summer and everybody takes equipment, usually as a club or a group takes their equipment and a generator and goes out somewhere literally to a field. Usually, it’s a park or a parking lot of a big store or something like that and they set up portable antennas and they set up their generator and they try to communicate with as many other people doing that as they can across a 48-hour period.
You go out there and nothing’s there, you start set it all up, talk to as many people as you can in 48 hours, and then tear it all down. Those weekends you can barely find a place to talk if you’re not trying to talk to another Field Day person.
Jonathan: It’s extraordinary the things that come back into your memory when you have conversations like this, I’m pretty confident that I remember there used to be a repeater here in Auckland where I grew up on 146.75 megahertz. I don’t even know why I remember that so clearly but I’m pretty sure that’s right.
I also remember Media Network which was a show on Radio Netherlands I don’t know if you heard that Jonathan Marks used to host it and I love that thing. At the end, he would talk about shortwave things and offshore radio things. At the end of the show, he would do the propagation report, which a guy from Australia called Mike Bird would do every week. It’s funny the things you remember when you start talking about this though.
Jim: You can still find propagation reports on the soup drinker and you can say open ham radio propagation.
Jonathan: I guess the big thing though is so many of these devices are computerized. I bought, a couple of years ago, two or three years ago, a World Band Radio just because I got curious about is there anything on here anymore. I think partly because of how much computer gear I’ve got around here, and partly because just it’s a waning thing. There wasn’t a lot on the shortwave bands. I was struck by how even these little radios are mini-computers with menus that you have to scroll through that aren’t accessible. What’s the ham scene like in terms of being a blind person and being able to drive those? It sounds like the way you’ve gone where you’ve essentially turned a computer into a ham radio to some degree.
Jim: Accessibility remains a challenge in ham radio as it does in so many aspects of our lives. Fortunately, the ham ingenuity really helps. I know many hams have developed their own accessibility. When I was first licensed, I used a bent hair clip and put it behind the radio dial. There was somebody who made a plexiglass skirt that went behind the knob and it had basically little brass nails through the plexiglass and it displayed in Braille the frequency.
When you spun the knob to tune to different frequencies, you had this hair clip thing that was stuck on the front of the radio and it would be the pointer. Then you would read on the dial these nail heads and under the nail heads, they had Braille. It was 25 kilohertz per rotation. There was a 5, 10, 15, 20, and so on around the dial and 25 nails. That was kind of primitive. Many people had audio tones that would give you meter readings. As the meter needle went higher, the tone would go higher pitched. You could tune your transmitter, you could tune other things based on the pitch of that device since as a blinding person, I can’t read the meter.
Several of the companies later came out with speech boards. There are several companies that have some pretty good speech boards in their radios and you can push a button and it will tell you what a setting is on the radio. Morse code, again, we used to all know it. Not everybody today learns Morse code, but many do. I have a radio here that anytime I push a button, it gives me one letter in Morse code. If I’m going to AM it’ll say, “A” in Morse code, send the letter A to help the speakers. If I’m going to upper sideband, it’ll send the letter U. That’s a way to get some accessibility.
A lot of the modern radios have a computer interface, so you can actually control your radio over a comport from your PC and it’s bidirectional. You can use your computer to basically read what’s going on on the radio or set things on the radio. There’s a blind ham in Texas who has developed a software, Jim Shaffer, it’s called JJ Radio. He takes that computer interface data out of several radios. Not all of them obviously, but of several. It will display it on a Braille display in front of your radio.
There are ways to make it accessible. Is it trivial out of the box easy? Not necessarily. There is a ham down in Tasmania, Joe Stevens, who has developed talking software for a very popular handheld radio for the VHF/UHF bands. This thing is incredible. It speaks every possible setting and option out for the radio. You have a good set of options of how fast to make it talk and how terse or verbose to make the readings.
Jonathan: Yes, he’s an incredibly talented JAWS scriptor, so it doesn’t surprise me that he’s been able to do that. I guess in terms of input, a lot of these radios now would come with keypads, what they know, but you can punch in the exact frequency that you want.
Jim: Yes, that’s correct. You can do keyboard input for the frequency. You have the other extreme too. I don’t want to make it sound like it’s all trivially easy because it isn’t. As in my opinion, in everything with accessibility, we have successes, we have victories, and then we have brutal defeats and setbacks, and then we have another victory. I’ve seen that so much through my journey with accessibility.
What’s happening with the radios is similar. We’re seeing a move to displays and touch screens. You touch something on the radio display and that does something with respect to either frequency or mode or some other setting. We aren’t yet to accessibility in the way the touchscreen on the iPhone, for example, which originally was a huge obstacle and then became not so much, so as we went through this game that we always play with accessibility of better, worse, better, worse.
Jonathan: Are there communities online where say somebody who’s interested in getting started can ask really basic questions about how they get started, about perhaps what people would recommend in terms of hardware these days?
Jim: Absolutely. There are several places online. There’s a significant online forum in email. It’s an email group. It’s called Blind Hams. It’s worldwide. I will have to look it up and send it to you after we stop the recording, Jonathan.
Jim: I will get you that subscribe link. There are some Facebook groups. The biggest connection I think is on the Blind Hams email group. If you want to listen there’s a ham here in the New York, New Jersey area who has put together a large network of linked hotspots with people all over the world. He does a feed from that network into the soup drinker. If you ask to open the Blind Hams network, you will be put in a receive-only mode of just listening to all these hams that you may have dead periods, you may have a time when nobody’s talking, but you could be in the middle of some pretty interesting conversations. You just get to listen in.
Jonathan: If you’re interested in this, in listening in, can you buy a transceiver and not use it to transmit before your license? Just tune in and listen to what’s going on.
Jim: You are absolutely allowed to listen to ham radio. You’re allowed to buy equipment. It is a broadcast, in the same way, a commercial broadcast. Hams never expect privacy. They know that they are transmitting into the ether. Anybody with a receiver that is close enough or the right place from the standpoint of signal propagation, they can listen to that. There’s a whole nother related hobby called Shortwave listening SWL. You hear about that with listening to shortwave commercial stations, but you also have a lot of shortwave listeners that are listening to hams. It’s perfectly okay to do that. Countries vary in their regulations in the US, you’re allowed to buy transmitting equipment. You just aren’t allowed to use it without a license.
Jonathan: Where are people hanging out? I mean, if you wanted to buy a receiver so you could just tune into the hand bands and find out what it’s like. Where would you go these days? Are you still looking around 75 meters or would VHF be a bit of UHF? That kind of stuff.
Jim: What kind of receiver to get depends a lot on your area of the country. What’s going on in your community? I would suggest a good way to get an idea is jump on your favorite search engine and type in ham radio or amateur radio. Ham is informal or slang. It’s truly called amateur radio but look for amateur radio club in your town. I know when I go on vacation, one of the first things I do is jump on a search engine and I look for ham radio clubs in whatever town I’m going to go on vacation in just to get an idea of what’s going on in the area. You can drop into a meeting.
We have a club here in Morristown, New Jersey. We’re open to anyone who wants to drop in, wants to learn a little more about the hobby. You can usually find somebody who will invite you over to their station again from the old days, we call them ham shacks. I don’t know if this story is true or not, but it’s allegedly because the ham radio operators had so much junk in their house that they were thrown out by their spouses into a shack in the backyard. The ham radio room is always called the shack or the ham shack.
Jonathan: That brings to mind that you can foster a lot of lifelong friendships with this hobby as well. For people who travel, for example, I know of people who completely bypass hotels and stay with people that they’ve got to know over the years through amateur radio.
Jim: The amateur radio bond between operators is very strong. It lasts a long time. You’re an instant member of the community if you move or go to another town. I found it was very helpful in job seeking. If you were looking particularly in a technology-related field, the person who comes in, the applicant who comes in who’s a ham and if one of the managers in the hiring side is also a ham, you’ve got an edge there.
You’ve got something credible. Absolutely, I put that I’m a ham radio operator on my resume. I’m retired now so it doesn’t matter but all my career, my ham radio hobby was part of my curriculum vitae or resume. I was always looking for technical jobs until I became an executive like you and then you have to let other people do the technical job and I have to do the management part.
Jonathan: Hard letting go, isn’t it? Sometimes.
Jim: It’s very interesting the long duration of these relationships. One of the folks that I still remain in touch with was somebody that I went to college with in the early 1970s. He and I were both hams. At the university every semester we would teach a class to individuals that were interested in getting their ham radio licenses. He and I did that continually and we went our different ways. He went out to Texas worked for Texas Instruments for a while and I went around different places for my career and we still get in touch from that time to time.
Right when COVID started there were several hams here locally who wanted to learn Morse code even though it isn’t required anymore. I agreed to teach a Morse class to these individuals on Zoom. I called my friend because he and I did this whatever it was 50, 60 years ago. I said, “Hey, Bob I’m teaching a Masco class, you want to join me or we can buddy teach this thing?” He said sure. He got on the Zoom call he and I would send Morse code to each other and all the other folks would listen and learn. Those friendships just they’re very deep and very long-lasting.
Jonathan: You talked about the public nature of amateur radio but is encryption possible these days? Presumably, if you can digitize a signal, then there may be some greater degree of privacy or is there something that prohibits that?
Jim: Encryption of any type is explicitly forbidden. That is something that it can get you a violation notice and a fine because the whole ham radio the reason it exists is not for financial gain, it’s for the public good. You can’t do anything illegal. You can’t do anything in secrecy so no encryption. Now you can use digital modes which if you don’t have the right decode for the digital modes, somebody may think they’re encrypted. You have to publicize or others have to know how to build the decoding hardware to decode those digital modes. Somebody who invents a new digital mode, they have to put in the public domain the algorithm.
Jonathan: Just to be clear this is no place to play DJ, right? You’re not going to be sending stereo you can’t play music.
Jim: Yes. Another no, no. Another illegal activity. You cannot play music, you cannot sing, you cannot create malicious interference with other hams or any other activity, so this is for communications not for any kind of performance.
Jonathan: How confident are you in the future of the medium? Do you fear it may be dying out or has it got a secure future do you think?
Jim: I think ham radio has a secure future. We have more hams today. I’m using US statistics more hams today numerically than we ever have before. As a percentage of population, it’s lower. There aren’t as many hams percentage wise but there are a lot of them out there. There’s a new thing going on around the world called the maker movement.
You see maker fairs, you stem education science technology engineering, and math in the public schools. That can tie in very very well with ham radio because it was, again, I mentioned this early it’s the first social media. It was the first maker group as well because so much of the ham radio equipment was self-designed and put together and all that.
It’s still out there. The draw of avoiding long-distance telephone calls is long gone because everybody can text or send email all around the world. There’s something magic about just being able to pick up a microphone or a Morse code key, throw a wire in the tree in the backyard. I have a small portable radio that’s about the size of a brick. A brick that you would use to build a house whatever that is. Two by three by six or something like that. I can use that radio with a wire in a tree and talk or send code all over the place. It’s just something magic about sending as well as receiving.
I’ve listened over the last several months to folks who’ve come on your podcast and they talk about the magic of listening on the radio and hearing all those stations. This is that plus talking to them. You not only hear them but you want to try to make sure they hear you and you exchange information back and forth. It’s magic and it’s contagious. I think we’ll still have folks that want to do that. We’ll still have folks that find that magic and want to jump onto it.
Jonathan: Fascinating conversation. As a kid, it was always something I thought that I would get into. Then I got my 300-board modem and went in a different direction but I guess it’s never too late. It’s a fascinating thing. I appreciate you coming on the podcast and explaining that. We will put some resources in the show notes of people would like to follow up and maybe in future episodes, other hams might like to chime in and talk about what the hobby means to them.
Jim: That would be wonderful. Before we quit here, I should mention that my call sign is KY2D for the other hams that are listening to this that’s Kilo, Yankee, 2, Delta, KY2D. I would look forward to seeing what anybody else has to say. I am far from the only person who’s knowledgeable on this. There are many many folks who are incredibly knowledge, many more knowledgeable than I am on some of the aspects. It’s a big tent with a lot of acts under that tent. You find your own area that you want to work in. Thank you for talking about this. I hope we generate some interest from other folks.
Jonathan: You can often find ham radio operators because they use their call signs and their email addresses as do you.
Jim: Yes, you can and if I can tie this back to blindness for a second, ham radio if we go back to ’50, ’60s ham radio was a hobby that seemed to attract statistically a high percentage of blind people compared to the percentage of members of the general public. Part of it was you could communicate with all these folks, you didn’t have to disclose blindness, you were evaluated and met without any of the prejudices that sometimes happen when somebody sees the white cane or sees the dog. It was a great way to participate especially for somebody who wasn’t real comfortable with being highly mobile. You could be in your ham shack and talk to people literally all over the world and be part of a lot of society. Still today we see lots and lots of blind folks who are ham radio operators.
Jonathan: I look forward to others sharing their experiences and this may well motivate others to get into it. If anyone who does as a result of this please keep us updated with your journey and how you’re getting on. Thanks so much for sharing your knowledge with us, Jim. I really appreciate that.
Jim: You’re most welcome. 73.
Jonathan: Really looking forward to everyone else’s words of wisdom on amateur radio should be fun. Jim gave us a couple of soup drinker references. Let’s check those out now. The first one was this one, we’ll try it. Soup drinker, open ham radio propagation.
Alexa: Here’s ham radio propagation forecast. Here is the propagation report from nZero NBH from Monday, August 22nd, 2022 at [12:00] AM. Today expect 80 and 40 meters to be fair 30 and 20 meters to be good. 17 and 15 meters to be fair and 12 and 10 meters to be poor. Tonight expect 80 and 40 meters to be good. 30 and 20 meters to be good. 17 and 15 meters to be fair and 12 and 10 meters to be poor. Thank you for using propagation report. How many stars would you rate this skill from one to five?
Alexa: Got it. Your rating will help Alexa recommend skills to other customers.
Jonathan: It’s my pleasure that was fun. It’s like the weather forecast but for hams you see. Now the other thing that Jim told us we could do was tune in with the drinker to find out if any blind hams are talking through this skill, so let’s try that. Soup drinker, open the Blind Hams network.
Alexa: Okay, here’s the Blind Hams network. Now monitoring the Blind Hams network. Remember that what you hear could be delayed by up to a minute.
Jonathan: Oh, no, it was always going to be the luck of the draw to see if anybody was going to be talking on the Blind Hams network and I could just read emails or something and talk and see if anything happens, but you can try this and just see if you hear anything on there. The Blind Hams network, I guess I’ll tell the drinker to– Soup drinker, stop.
Alexa: 73 and good DX.
Jonathan: Thank you very much.
Alexa: Visit www.blindhams.com to learn more about our multimode amateur radio network.
Jonathan: There you go. There’s your invitation blindhams.com.
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Using a Chromebook with Focus 40 Blue
Kevin: Hey, Jonathan. This is Kevin Athey. I’m an assistive technology instructor in the United States. I enjoyed your podcast episode 155 and 156 when you did a tutorial on the Chromebook and ChromeVox screen reader. I have been working with this device and I have connected a focus 45th generation and I’m trying to work inside Google Docs. The issue that I’m having is when I press the seven key to backspace text, it is inserting a forward slash the number seven, and then this irregular slash.
The same thing with when I press the eight key for enter it insert a forward slash, the number eight, and a backslash. I have changed several settings. I have used both six and eight-dot Braille on input. I also have chosen the Unified English Braille table and the Braille settings. I’m pretty sure I’m missing something and I’m just asking your professional opinion or the opinion of anyone that may have some information to help guide me in this. I appreciate your podcasts and it is a great source of knowledge. I hope all is well.
Jonathan: Thank you, Kevin, good to hear from you. I don’t have an immediate answer to this because it’s been a wee while since I got the Chromebook out and put it on charge and connected the focus but I do have one thing that you might try. Have you tried chording the dot seven and dot eight? Press dot seven with the spacebar for backspace and dot eight with the spacebar for enter, it might help. Maybe it’s something you’ve already tried.
I know we do have some people from Google who lurk about. We have people from the industry generally who lurk about. Somebody might want to drop me an email and let me know if you have an answer to this one. Even if you want to remain anonymous because you can’t be quoted and all that sort of corporate stuff. Let me know that and I’ll just pass on the solution. If there’s a Chromebook user out there who’ve experienced what Kevin is seeing with the dot seven and dot eight, and you’ve got around it, please do share.
Jonathan@mushroomfm.com is my email address. You can do what Kevin just did and attach an audio clip to an email and send it in or you can just write the email down. The listener line number in the US 86460 Mosen. 864-606-6736.
Using the iPhone as a phone
This email comes from Rod Karn he says, “Hi there Mosen-tees, I overcame my issues with using the iPhone as a phone. Well at home at least. I purchased an eMeet Luna speakerphone and combining this with my Apple Magic keyboard completely removed all the frustrations generated when making and receiving calls.
The eMeet is a circular device, which is 5 or 6 inches, or 12 to 15 centimeters in diameter. There are seven physical buttons located in a row around the leading edge. From the left, noise reduction, answer/end call volume down and mute microphone, volume up, and Bluetooth pairing on and off. On/off automatically pairs with last used phone. There are four sockets on the rear side, USB charging port, audio in and out, plus a connection to a laptop, et cetera, as most users are on Zoom. Sadly, this doesn’t solve the issues when I am out of the house but hopefully when I upgrade to a 14 the Siri end call function will be useful, or don’t say it. Do I need a pro model to achieve this?”
Well, I don’t think you do, Rod, but it doesn’t work for me. As I demonstrated when I looked at iOS 15, it does not work. I can ask it to hang up or end call as much as I like and for me, it does not work. I have no idea if that is related to the other issues that we’ve been talking about with low voice-over volume on a call, but it is interesting. It does seem to work for some people because I see it come up all the time.
I take it you know, Rod, and that for some reason, this is causing you grief, but you can just do the magic tap. You can end the call by performing a two-finger double tap and that at least continues to work flawlessly for me every time. Anyway, thank you very much for telling us about this eMeet Luna. It sounds like the eMeet Luna will be something you love good. It’s a wee Harry Potter reference there and it really does sound like a very cool device.
JAWS and the Dvorak keyboard
Shawn: Hello, Jonathan. Shawn Theo here. Wanting to let you and your listeners know, if they use the Dvorak keyboard layout as I do that in JAWS 2023, it will now be possible to add this layout to Windows and JAWS will be aware of that change, and even upon closing and restarting it, it will continue to be aware of that. Which is particularly important in terms of the webpage Quick Nav keys, because in the last release, we almost had it, but it would forget when you closed and reloaded JAWS. You would be trying to invoke move by headings and instead, you’d be getting jumped to line so that is now working properly.
For Dvorak users, I recommend a combination of the laptop layout along with a numpad if you can, because so many of the laptop commands just get spread all over the keyboard in ways that really don’t relate to positioning anymore. This is a huge deal for those of us who use this. I’ve got my SMA ready to go and I did test this with the beta and then took it off because I still wanted to use Lisi. Which of course you cannot use with the beta at this time and Brian’s put out a blog post explaining that, but this does work.
The other piece of information I want to let people know about is Matthias offers a Dvorak pro hardwired keyboard for about $150 and this would be good if you are in a corporate environment where you’re not going to be allowed to change the language settings. It will work if your computer is set to the normal QWERTY US layout, and it has a button to switch layouts. The Dvorak letters are in blue, and the light turns blue when you’re in that mode.
The QWERTY letters are in slightly smaller type, and they are in white and when you press the button, the light near switches to white, and then QWERTY typing can be done as normal for someone who uses that. I haven’t seen it yet but if I end up working in a corporate environment, I may seriously be looking at one to ensure that I can type competitively and have less hand strain. Wanted to let people know that that resource is also available, and it’s supposed to be a mechanical board as well.
Jonathan: Thank you very much, Shawn, appreciate it. I haven’t mentioned JAWS 2023 on the show yet. The big one for me in this release is the enhancements to managing notifications and the fact that you can now use what are called regular expressions. This is fun, and powerful, and geeky. I love this sort of stuff. If you haven’t heard it yet, and you want to tame your notifications and have spoken what you need to have spoken and even change the order in which things are spoken from notifications, it’s worth checking out the most recent FSCast as I put the show together where Glenn Gordon is talking about this. You can also read the transcript if you prefer.
You may want to do that if you’re following along with a couple of the examples that Glenn gives. It whets your appetite, it shows you what’s possible and Glenn will give you some other resources in that podcast as well to follow up and really master the power that is now in this notification manager in JAWS 2023. I have also found eloquence even more responsive on certain systems so you may well observe that as well. A nice release from Vispero this time round with JAWS 2023.
Jonathan: I love to hear from you so if you have any comments you want to contribute to the show drop me an email written down or with an audio attachment to Jonathan J-O-N-A-T-H-A-N@mushroomfm.com. If you’d rather call in use the listener line number in the United States 864-606-6736.
Mosen at Large podcast
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