Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Address fields in Thunderbird message reader now accessible!

Until a few days ago, the From, To, Cc, etc. header fields in the Thunderbird message reader pane were inaccessible (or at least extremely painful) for those using screen readers. Using NVDA, I was sometimes able to read them with a lot of messing around, but I often found myself viewing the message source because it was so much easier to search for the header names in the raw message. In the few years that I have been using Thunderbird, this has probably been one of my biggest gripes with its accessibility. However, this has now been fixed thanks to Jason Lim Yuen Hoe, a student from a university in Singapore doing a course focused on developing for Mozilla. When I move to the header fields with tab or shift+tab, both the header name and its content is now announced instead of a whole load of nothing. It might seem trivial, but it makes my life a hell of a lot easier, and once again demonstrates the beauty of open source development. Thanks, Jason!

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Quickly selecting a folder with the keyboard in Thunderbird

The folder selection tree in Mozilla Thunderbird can be a bit of a nuisance for keyboard users. You cannot jump to a folder by typing the first few letters of its name. In addition, when you move between folders with the cursor keys, Thunderbird opens the newly selected folder immediately. IF you have several accounts and many folders in some of those accounts like I do, this means that moving between folders which are quite far apart will cause Thunderbird to try to open every folder you visit on the way. This is not only slow, but also probably wasteful of bandwidth.

I've just discovered a way to solve this second problem, which I'm posting in case others didn't know about it. To move between folders without opening every folder in between:
  1. Move to the folder selection tree.
  2. Press ctrl+space to deselect the current folder.
  3. Rather than using the up and down arrows to find the desired folder, use ctrl+up and ctrl+down, respectively. You can of course keep your finger on the control key. Notice that Thunderbird does not open each folder.
  4. When you reach the desired folder, press ctrl+space to select it. Thunderbird opens the selected folder.

There is also the Nostalgy extension, which, among other keyboard productivity enhancements, allows you to jump to a folder by typing all or part of its name. However, I use Thunderbird 3 nightlies and there have been a few compatibility issues recently. Also, Nostalgy overrides the functionality in the quick search bar and it makes the quick search menu inaccessible, so I don't use it anymore. (I should really report a bug, but I can't quite figure out what's going on.)

Friday, February 13, 2009

Blog Posts as Facebook Notes

I've now imported my blog into Facebook, so posts to this blog now also appear as notes on Facebook. This way, those of you who live primarily in the land of Facebook can't so easily avoid them. :) If you want to know how to do this yourself, see this post.

Selling My Soul to Google

It seems I'm using Google services more and more as time goes on.

First, several years ago, I started using Google (the search engine) and never looked back at other search engines. Like many others, I use Google search an absurdly ridiculous amount and find myself using Google and its derivatives (Googled, Googling, etc.) as verbs far too often. Then, I started using Google search to perform calculations and conversions (which I still think is a very cool feature). It's so convenient to be able to type "50 aud in usd" into Google search. I keep wishing that Google would allow me to perform quick searches of the Australian White Pages so I don't have to use its annoying interface and deal with its often suboptimal search logic.

Then, I experimented with using Google Calendar. I quite like its features, although it has some serious accessibility problems which make it rather frustrating to use, so I don't use it much now. I probably would if these were fixed, though.

Last year, I got sick of the amount of email spam I was receiving. I could probably have found ways to improve it, but I got sick of maintaining it all myself. I used to love fiddling with all of this stuff, but these days, I just want essential things like email to damned well work. I then discovered the joys of the free Google Apps Standard Edition and subsequently moved email hosting for to that. I still get the nice benefits of having my own email domain like being able to create multiple email accounts if I wish. (I've never really done this, but it's the principle!) I'll also be able to use Google Calendar on this if the accessibility improves.

I've recently started using Google News on a daily basis to keep abreast of the latest news. I was previously somewhat notorious for not watching t.v. or listening to the radio very often and thus being horribly out of touch, so this is great.

As anyone who has followed my previous blog incarnations can attest, I update them for a little while and then can't be bothered anymore. (Time will tell whether this will happen once again. It probably will. :)) However, i started to realise that part of the problem was that it was too much effort to post new entries with my previous blogging platforms. Again, I could have done something to improve this, but in the spirit of laziness that made me switch to Google Apps, I decided to switch to a service which hosted my blog for me and allowed me to use There were a few candidates, but as you know, I ended up using Blogger, which is yet another Google service.

The scary truth is that all of this really has made my life much easier and I'm not particularly inclined to change it, despite my zest for open platforms and solutions, as well as my general wariness and cynicism of large, world dominating corporations. I don't like being locked into a service running on a proprietary platform which doesn't allow me to export my data, but Google does allow data to be exported in open formats, so this isn't such a problem.

Nevertheless, I have to wonder: what next? How much more of my life will involve Google in some way? What if it fell apart and died? Could I stop using it, even if I found out that it was becoming an awful, anti-competitive, privacy invading, unethical corporation which squashed all in its path to world domination? :) Okay, so that last bit might have been a bit melodramatic, but it does give one pause for thought even so.

Getting a Python Traceback without an Exception

Any Python programmer will be familiar with the stack traceback associated with an exception; most will be particularly familiar with a traceback being displayed for an unhandled exception. This is extremely useful in finding and resolving the issue in the code. However, for a long time now, I've often thought that it would be extremely useful to be able to get a stack traceback at any arbitrary point without needing an exception, which would aid in determining what code path was taken to get to a particular function call. I knew this was possible - Python does allow you to get at the stack frames - but I thought I might have to do a bit of work to obtain a nice traceback. Finally, figuring someone else must have wanted this, I did a bit of Googling and turned up this article. I somehow missed print_stack(), format_stack() and extract_stack() in the traceback module. :) Sooo easy! :)

Thursday, February 12, 2009

The Stupidity of Forced Password Changes

Changing passwords on a regular basis is supposed to increase security. If someone somehow gets hold of a password you used some time ago (perhaps they took a few months to get through their camera footage at the local wireless hotspot?), hopefully, it won't matter. Centrelink (the organisation responsible for social security services in Australia) enforces password changes after a defined period; I think it's every three months. Unfortunately, I tend to forget my new passwords when I have to change them like this. I believe I pick relatively strong passwords, but as a result, it sometimes takes me a while to memorise them. You can do silly things like changing one character, but I sometimes forget which character I changed. :) I would argue that enforcing password changes like this actually encourages insecure, stupid behaviour like writing them down, because people know they're going to forget their new password!

Monday, February 9, 2009

In praise of Darwin and the spirit of inquiry

This article is a rather interesting read:
In praise of Darwin and the spirit of inquiry
While it is centred specifically on Christianity, it strongly advocates my fervent belief that science and spirituality/religion/faith are most definitely not mutually exclusive; rather, they should support each other.

Friday, February 6, 2009

iPhone Ocarina

Okay. So some of you will know that I'm a bit (?) cynical of the iPhone. This is partly because it seems like yet another flashy new piece of largely closed, proprietary technology with lots of over-exaggerated hype. I've always been cynical of a lot of Apple stuff in general because of the huge number of people that see Apple as gods who can do no wrong. In truth, I think my cynicism towards the iPhone is mostly due to the fact that it has a touch screen which I can't use. Yeah, yeah, I know - I'm a sore loser. :) Anyway, despite my cynicism, even *I* was wowed reading this article about an iPhone application called Ocarina. From the article:

Once you install and open this program, your iPhone's screen displays four colored circles of different sizes. These are the "holes" that you cover with your fingers, as you would the holes on a flute. Then you blow into the microphone hole at the bottom of the iPhone, and presto: the haunting, expressive, beautiful sound of a wind instrument comes from the iPhone speaker.
Different combinations of fingers on those four "holes" produce the different notes of the scale. (You can change the key in Preferences--no doubt a first on a cellphone.) Tilting the phone up or down controls the vibrato.

Now *that* is pretty damned cool. I haven't actually played with it myself, but I'm sure it could keep me amused for a while... assuming I could figure out where to put my fingers. :)