Welcome to my home page. I became blind at birth. I started programming computers at a young age. I also earned my general class amateur radio license, KA3TTT, a hobby to which I have returned with great joy. I practice Qigong and identify as a Taoist. I use Linux as my desktop and Android as my mobile OS. I eat gluten-free vegan meals. For the rest you'll have to read my blog.

My First Visit to Indy Hall

January 07, 2013

At long last I have finally come to Indy Hall, a coworking space in Philadelphia. Many people told me I HAVE to check it out, and now I see why. The web site has testimonials of people saying how it feels like home. I agree. I love it here!

I signed up for a tour on their very accessible page. The email said to reply with any questions so I replied and made sure they could assist me. Adam wrote back and said of course they could. He also checked out my blog and said it blew his mind. Good.

I don’t live far, so took a cab. The ride only cost me nine dollars. I stepped out of the cab and heard some people talking about hackers and knew I had found the right building. I pulled out my tobacco pipe and lit up. “Is that legal now in Pennsylvania?” a guy quipped. “This is just tobacco.” I said. “Oh I know.” he laughed. “But it will be legal soon enough.” I added. I think I will fit in just fine here.

I went inside and Adam met me at the desk. He wanted to know what I saw with echolocation. “I see a big space with a lot of desks.” I said. “That’s exactly what it is!” He showed me around the two floors. The actual tour didn’t take long. They have done a lot to bring a good ambience to the place. They have lots of art and plant life, as well as an aquarium with a turtle. They have a full kitchen, a healthy snack machine, and plenty of caffeine. And they have two wi-fi networks.

I didn’t really know what to expect at a coworking space, but I quickly got the idea. People rent desks, and the open area lets people talk and mingle as they choose, or work when they need to. Some people come in a day or two per month, some come every day. You can choose the plan that works best for you. And on Wednesday nights they have their night owl sessions. As a night owl myself I appreciate this, and will go to one very soon. “We also tend to drink more beer then.” “Then I’ll definitely have to go.” See I told you drinking beer made me more friends!

Adam found me a desk and said I could just hang out. I didn’t bring anything specific to do but figured I could read mail or something. I met Mike who sat across from me. I quickly dove into my email and spent a half hour doing that.

A friend of Mike’s named Corey came over and they started talking. I overheard something about the Shindig app of which I wrote about. I had wanted to talk to the developers about improving the app’s accessibility, and now by chance or design I found myself sitting with them. “That’s great! We’re all about that.” they said. Mike also runs the Philly Cocoa Heads group. Cocoa refers to the frameworks used in Mac OS and iOS. I promised I would show up for sure. They also want to know more about RubyMotion which I raved about despite still learning it. I spent the remainder of my time writing this article.

So in my first day I made some new friends, found a new user group, and a new place to work. I know i will come back here regularly. It feels so good to hear people talking about programming, HTML, games, whatever. They have created something very special here, one of Philadelphia’s gems. Anyone with similar interests should come to Indy Hall. The more the merrier! Oh and by the way they have seventy-two quartz of Baskin Robbin’s ice cream.

Social Yoga

January 05, 2013

Ever since I moved into the city I have wanted to become more social. We have so much more going on here than in the suburbs. I’ve needed to ease myself into things. I call this process Social Yoga. It has mainly involved watching football and drinking beer with my brother, as well as a few incredible excursions.

Yoga means union. Most people think of doing postures. in that case the yoga refers to the union between body and mind. In the case of social yoga, the yoga refers to the union between the self and a social act. And just like with an exercise regimen, I planned to just start by doing little social things to make myself more comfortable with doing bigger social things.

It actually started in May. A girl in our building had a party. Usually I would shy away from such things, but I decided to pull myself together and go. That started some new friendships. Now I know a bunch of my neighbors, including a few board members. I knew I made the right choice by going.

A few days later they had a block party. There I learned that I like good beer. I didn’t drink at all before moving into the city, but everyone drinks beer in Philly, and when in Rome… This new interest has made me new friends by itself.

Shortly thereafter I learned echolocation. This incredible skill has totally helped in my social yoga, because it makes me feel more immersed in the world around me, like plugging in to something larger. I could have or would not have done some of the other things I’ve started doing if I didn’t know it. It lets me go to a new surrounding and into a new building and feel much more confident.

The summer came and we started going on the roof deck. Everyone loves the roof deck. It gives a great view of the city, and has better quality air. I also swear you get drunker up there, perhaps because of the height, but then I read that actually doesn’t happen, so perhaps it just happens as a placebo, or perhaps just because of the different setting.

Autumn came, and that means football. I used to listen to football on the radio around age twelve or so. Since then I stopped following it, and regarded it as a stupid distraction set up by the new world order to keep people focused on crap that doesn’t matter. Bread and circus. My brother likes watching it, and invited me a few times, but I never did. One day my brother texted me to come over and watch the game, or if not to at least turn it on. I tuned in and felt glad I did, because I watched the end of a close game. The Eagles lost of course, but I still enjoyed it.

It got me back into the vibe though. It made me feel like a kid again. I resolved to go to my brother’s the next weekend and did. We continued this tradition all through the season. Some friends wondered about my metamorphosis, even expressing concern, but I had a method to my madness.

I learned some things while watching football. Firstly when I say watching I really mean listening. They like the television for the video, but everyone agrees the commentators suck. You just can’t beat Merrill Reese! He has provided the voice for the Eagles since 1977, the year of my birth. Hearing his homely voice brought everything back for me. I especially enjoyed his optimistic comments during this awful season such as: “It’s still mathematically possible.” “It may be impossible for [the Eagles] NOT to turn the ball over.” and “There’s not much less we can say without losing our jobs.” Everyone felt glad I insisted on the radio despite the delay. For me Merrill made the game.

Speaking of the delay, we really wanted to resolve the issue, but in the end just dealt with it. The video comes through first, so they would see the play and possibly react, then we would all hear it. They tried to keep their reactions down for my sake. We wanted to hack together something to sync the two, but it takes a lot of effort. Why?

The answer came over and over again from several different people: “Because the NFL are dicks.” This really came home for me when I listened to the disclaimer at the end of a television broadcast. It said something to the effect that any rebroadcast is prohibited, understandable, but also any description of the game. Really? So if I told you that the Eagles lost their final game on a sad penalty I would technically violate their license. I hardly believe that of course, but it still made the point.

I had to buy NFL Audio Pass on my iPad. But it won’t stream the games on an iPHone, just a tablet. No technical reason exists for this restriction. Why? Because the NFL are dicks!

During the course of the season I attended a PANMA talk. While there I made a new friend named Christine. We stayed in touch, and it turned out that we both picked this season to begin watching again. She wrote an article about her re-initiation as well. We started texting each other during the games. She said: “Football is always better with friends.” and I agree.

We picked a terrible season to get back into the Eagles. They finished with a four and twelve record. Long-time fans told me that this would harden me. If I could last through this season it would make me a better fan. And they’ll get better draft picks next year. So here’s to 2013!

Every time the Eagles score a touchdown at home they sing the Eagles Fight Song. We all would sing it as well, irrespective of their location. In a way it felt like the best part of the game. Too bad we didn’t get to sing it very often.

Fly Eagles fly, on the road to victory

Fight Eagles fight, score a touchdown one two three

Hit ‘em low, hit ‘em high, and watch our Eagles fly

Fly Eagles fly, on the road to victory!

(then my favorite part)

E! A! G! L! E! S! Eagles!

I would also like to mention some commercials, since they make up part of the experience. I award the best commercial to Dietz and Watson even though I don’t eat meat. They have Momma Dietz do the commercials which adds a homely quality to them. And for the worst, hands down the award this year goes to KeenanAutobody.com. It has an annoying song that you cannot get out of your head, no matter how you try or how many beers you drink. I figure they must have done it on purpose. I also thought it very funny that PNC Bank sponsored the broadcasts. At every break, sometimes after an awful play, they would have to say “PNC: for the achiever in you.” I could picture some guy at PNC going SHUT UP! Don’t say that now.

My social yoga continues even though the season has ended. I gave a great speech at BarCamp. On Monday I will check out Indy Hall. And my brother and I have already begun making plans to listen to baseball while drinking beer in his new rooftop pool. The future looks very bright and very social. I feel fantastic.

Austin’s Accessibility Adventure

November 15, 2012

This weekend I attended BarCamp Philly. Everyone promised a life-changing time. They spoke the truth. I had a lot of fun, met some great people and even ended up giving a presentation.

I first heard of BarCamp at the PANMA talk I went to. THe organizer also spoke then, and enthusiastically encouraged everyone to sign up. I figured why not? Unfortunately, when I went to purchase my ticket, I found the submit button totally inaccessible. I could not submit my order. I sent a message and to my delight Sarah responded within hours and straightened everything out. I had my ticket.

My friend Nick said he would go, so we began to make plans. As the day drew closer Nick said that I should consider giving a presentation. Another friend named Rachel said the same thing as soon as I told her about it, so I had already started considering it. At first I thought I’d do something about technology, but more and more people wanted to know about echolocation. I emailed a few people to get their opinions. Had I gone insane to even consider giving a presentation at a conference I’ve never attended including a topic I had never given a presentation about? Apparently not, because everyone said go for it.

Along with the official conference, BarCamp includes a pre-party and a post-party. And no, they don’t call it BarCamp because it happens in a bar, though much of it does. The name BarCamp actually comes from the programming convention of using foo and bar as metasyntactic variables. Tim O’Riley had a closed conference called FooCamp. In reaction to this, a group of San Francisco hackers started BarCamp, an unconference with nothing set at the beginning. Presenters show up that day and create the schedule in real-time. This format worked to my advantage.

The time for the pre-party had come. I had the same problem getting a ticket for that, but again Sarah helped me out. I arrived at an office building, having no idea what to expect. I found security guards and people cleaning floors. I wondered if I had come to the right place. Fortunately, a guard checked me in and showed me to the Zivtech suite.

Echolocation helped me once again. I would have felt so scared to do this before, but this time I tromped right in and found my way to the congested room with beer and sandwiches. I got a foamy Dogfish 60 minute IPA. A woman who worked at Zivtech offered to give me the grand tour. They do Drupal development, so we quickly found things to talk about. And yes, they do have an accessibility specialist.

I saw their cool office suite including a fish tank and two big conference rooms. I found my way to a beanbag chair and talked to some people about Ruby. I have to get one of those chairs! The girl who gave me the tour also brought me a spicy vegetable sandwich. I began to really like this.

Nick arrived and I really began getting into it. We started asking people what they thought about me giving a presentation. Everyone said I should, and again they really wanted to hear about echolocation. I began to resign myself to the fact that I would give a speech with sixteen hours of notice. Whatever, all hail Discordia!

I ventured to the beer room and got a Goose Island IPA, since they had a problem with the other. I started debating with myself. Should I do a talk about technology, a talk about echolocation, a talk combining the two, or two talks? I asked the organizer named Tim, and with great bravado he told me that nobody should do two talks. That settled it, I would give one talk and sort of combine the two topics under the broad heading of technology to help the blind. After all, echolocation uses the most powerful computer on Earth, the human brain.

The party started winding down. Nick and I and Nick’s friend Ruth started wandering around, and eventually found ourselves at a ping pong table. Can the blind play ping pong? I guess we’d find out.

I couldn’t actively echolocate the ball, but could find it passively, in other words hearing the sound of the ball hitting the table gave the location, then I would compensate for the bounce. Different people began giving me different advice on how to play. One guy named Jerry seemed to actually know how to play and showed me how to bounce the ball over the net. I actually started getting into it, then the place closed. I will have to explore ping pong more.

I caught a cab home, my brain buzzing from the IPA and the adrenalin from playing ping pong and the thought of giving a speech the next day. I started preparing my presentation in my head. At about 01:30 in the morning, Nick texted me. “You know, I was thinking you really should have some business cards for tomorrow.” As luck would have it, Nick works as a graphic and web designer, so printed out some right then. Check out Wingnut Art for a good local designer. He sure came through for me! I just made one or two suggestions and they came out perfectly. He even gave me a metal box to keep them in, since apparently cards produced on a laser printer will distort if kept in a pocket.

I awoke at seven o’clock after a light sleep. I usually stay up late, so this felt totally weird. I pulled it together and got ready. Nick said he’d arrive around 08:15, but ended up closer to 09:00. Maybe I would arrive too late and not even have to give a presentation. Part of me felt relieved, but a greater part felt disappointed at the prospect.

Nick introduced me to his cousin Roxy. She and I would spend the day together since he would have to leave early. We soon found out that we both enjoy smoking a lot of tobacco. I used an entire pipeful with her. We got along well. I could not have done this without her.

Nick texted Ruth from the previous night. She thought about giving a talk about cooking with leftovers. I suggested the name Leveraging your Leftovers and they loved it. They worked it out that if she texted someone at BarCamp to put us on the schedule we’d wait for her. So we waited. And waited. Nick texted her: CMON!

Finally Ruth came down apologizing and handing out Clif Bars. I thanked her as I really needed something. Ruth also had procured our time slots. We came up with Austin’s Accessibility Adventure for mine, and I would present at 02:15. It would really happen.

We arrived at the Wharton School of Business and had some bagels. They didn’t have much else by then, but we got by. They gave us our badges and a paper with a unique wifi key and password. They told us it would only work on one device, but we later learned it would work on three. They lied to us! Fear and loathing!

They told us to get the Shindig app. This provided a constantly updated schedule, perfect for this event. Unfortunately, some key parts remained inaccessible. Most notably, the venue info would just say “Venue Info” instead of the actual information. I singled them out in my presentation but later felt kind of bad about that when I found out that the local developers had attended BarCamp. They come from this place a few people have told me to go called Indy Hall. I will have to check it out.

We had now collected everything we needed, and could now go to any conference we pleased. We started by attending a fascinating talk about 3D printing put on by David Clayton of Nextfab Studio. He passed around actual objects for us to feel. I felt some screw tops, a flywheel, a bottle opener with a penny inserted into a slot for the tab, and a kind of creepy face and hand. It seemed kind of futuristic feeling objects actually generated by a computer.

I asked how 3d printing could help the blind. I thought of tactile objects, but he instead talked about the medical application. Some people have actually started researching printing complex cell structures. Absolutely amazing! Who knows, maybe one day if you want a new kidney or a new eye or even a new house they will just print it.

Next, we wandered into Ruth’s talk. I love cooking, so enjoyed hearing her talk about how to use leftovers creatively. I learned that you shouldn’t store apples near anything else, since they give off something that makes fruit go bad. I also thought about growing some herbs in my windowsill, I love mint and basil. The talk made me feel hungry, and Ruth said she intentionally scheduled it before lunch. Nice move!

But no, we had one more hour. The organizer named Tim gave a talk with the title: Who’s doing this horseshit to our internet? He had promoted it at the PANMA event, so I wanted to see it. Plus this topic always gets me fired up. Old white men who probably don’t even know how to send an email feel they have a right to regulate the internet. If you do not understand it then you have no right to regulate it.

It pisses me off how these copyright parasites act like they want to protect the artist. Music copyright laws originally existed to give white record executives control over black jazz and blues musicians. All of that early music existed because the musicians could use parts from other songs. Think of how many blues songs use exactly the same chords and melodies. Under today’s copyright law they could not do that. Before you believe their altruistic talk, remember how they began, with racism and greed!

It also gets me how they get all freaked out about piracy. Every time some new medium comes along these executive squawk about how it will bring the end of the industry. When radios came out with tape players, they said it would destroy the record industry, because everyone would tape songs off the radio. When VCR’s came out, they said that videos would kill the movie industry for similar reasons. Same with CD burners. And same with the internet. We will find a way to evolve, we always do. And we can do it without intrusive government regulation.

With those fiery thoughts I headed to lunch. This also served as my final chance to get my speech ready in my head. We only had an hour. We found our way to a pizza place and I scarfed down two slices of good veggie pizza and root beer.

I had lunch with some fascinating people. I especially remember Thomas Dixon. He suffered traumatic brain injury after getting hit by a car. As a result he has lost his episodic memory. He keeps track of what has happened with a private Twitter account, and of what will happen with a calendar. He does this on a Kindle he carries around.

I had to cut my lunch short and quickly walk back to the building. Things felt so surreal. In just a few minutes I would stand up in front of a small crowd and give a presentation with only the most general outline of it in my head. We arrived to find seven or eight people waiting around. More streamed in and eventually I had around twenty. The time had come. No going back.

I started by giving some basics about how a blind person uses a screen reader. Macs use VoiceOver. Linux has Speakup and Orca. Most screen readers for Windows cost money, but a free one does exist called NVDA.

Next I got into the iPhone, which has its own version of VoiceOver. I talked about the article I wrote which went viral. People enjoyed my experience using Color ID and realizing that you need light to see. I mentioned my appearance in Get Lamp, and told the joke I told about not needing a light source when playing a game. I gave some other good apps for the blind, including Money Reader and BlindSquare. Later on someone asked about games and I thought of Cribbage Pro since it just had an update which made it accessible. I also threw in Shredder and Chess-Wise. And even though I didn’t mention it, if you want a cute game try Stem Stumper.

Someone asked about Kindle. I delivered the sad news that Amazon clearly does not care, and have made their products totally unusable by the blind. I made fun of their fake concerns of using text-to-speech to pirate books. Everyone laughed. I pointed out that iBooks and iTunes U work just fine.

At one point I went on a mini rant about like buttons. The Disconnect and Adblock Plus plugins help eliminate a lot of this crap, and less crap means more accessibility. Someone asked to name the web site with the most accessible experience. So many exist and I couldn’t think of one, so instead I said that the Thesis framework for WordPress makes a very accessible site. I got a bunch of questions about app usability, so recommended a site called Applevis which has usability ratings.

I finished the technology portion by talking about coding apps. I first had some good success with a great Objective C course called TinkerLearn. However, as soon as I found out about RubyMotion I shifted to that. I even wrote an article about it. I encourage anyone interested in an exciting new way to write apps to get involved.

I then got into Echolocation – the topic a lot of people wanted to hear about, and the only one mentioned in the description. I think some people got confused at the abrupt topic shift. Hopefully now that you’ve read up to this point you understand how I basically had to jam two separate talks together so I wouldn’t go insane. To make it perfectly clear, this skill just involves the human body and brain. It does not use an app, though someone asked about the vOICe, but I couldn’t say much since they don’t make it for iOS.

It amazed me how interested people felt about echolocation. I plugged WOrld Access for the Blind, the only organization teaching this amazing technique. And even though I forgot, I should also mention The Beginner’s Guide to Echolocation, for which I wrote a review. I only found out about echolocation a year ago. I took a three-day intensive at my condo, and have used it since.

I tried to explain the experience, though it enters into an intangible realm of mixed senses. Images appear like dark forms. It gives all the information a sighted person gets, except for color and fine detail. Materials have different sounds. Glass has a cool “glass” feeling. Wood feels organic. Water sounds kind of like glass. Pillows sound puffy. And to everyone’s amusement, people sound very pillow-like.

All of this comes from using a discrete tongue click. I use it to navigate areas, appreciate trees, an even look at sculpture. It has totally changed my life and I want to do what I can to help promote it. It causes a feeling of greater immersion in the world, of plugging into something around you. It gives the missing piece of the puzzle, long-range vision.

That did it for the speech. You can listen for yourself. I think it went well. I only wish I would have done a little demonstration of echolocation, since it seems so fantastic. Nick and I both had the exact same thought afterward, of using one of the BarCamp shirts and his iPad to do some simple panel exercises. I can tell the difference between these two items easily, and can also pinpoint their location around me. I also could have self-promoted a little more. I wish I would have mentioned my strong desire to create the best note taker for the blind, so they don’t have to settle for crap. Oh well, now I know for next time, and knowing is half the battle.

I felt pretty worn out afterward, and pleaded with Roxy to come with me for a smoke, but instead we ended up at a talk about podcasting. I couldn’t concentrate very hard, but I had done my share of podcasting, so didn’t really need to. Darnelle Radford of Rep Radio gave a fine introduction. He made the point that you just need a simple digital recorder to create a podcast. I agree, though prefer to spend a little more money on my equipment. I recorded my speech on an Olympus DM620, by the way. I prefer the DM520’s design, but there you go.

That concluded the day’s conferences. Roxy and I had a much needed smoke, then walked to the auditorium for the closing remarks. We arrived before anyone else, and I took a few minutes to meditate. People started coming in and we learned about the party bus that would take us to National Mechanics We prepared ourselves for the final phase of this unbelievable trip.

We found the busses outside. Getting on one kind of reminded me of going to school, until someone took out a bottle of whiskey and passed it around. What the hell, we each had a little taste. It felt uniting in some way. A few minutes later we arrived at the bar. My pipe had begun to get down to the end, but I smoked it anyway, and braced myself to enter this loud environment.

Places like this make me feel disoriented, but I stuck it out and feel glad that I did. They didn’t have much vegetarian food, but Roxy found me enough to keep me going. I had a Yards Pale Ale and tried to relax. I envisioned an alternate after-party for those of us who prefer quiet conversation in a more intimate setting, and with good healthy vegetarian food. I thought about leaving as soon as I finished the beer, but then it started working.

I don’t remember very much after that. I had two Flying Dog Imperial Pumpkin Ales. Tim, the organizer of the event, drunkenly told me he liked my talk the best. I talked to two dudes named Mike and their girlfriends. I know I talked to a bunch of other people and gave out more cards. I hope they held onto them, because I could never remember all their names.

Late that night Roxy and I took the El into center city, and I got a cab home. I used echolocation to find my way inside, once again thanking myself and my teacher for teaching me this wonderful ability which comes in so much handy in these kinds of situations. I love you all.

I woke up the next day. Fortunately I had begun drinking water and eventually switched to water entirely, so felt pretty good. I pondered what had just happened. Someone said that the best part of BarCamp happens afterward, from all the connections you make there. Good things have already started happening. Now I sit here finishing this article drinking from my complimentary BarCamp pint glass full of wonder and good beer. BarCamp has changed my life.

A Cranky Review of the Latest HIMS Note Takers

November 12, 2012

I feel cranky. I didn’t get a chance to meditate. My cleaning lady can’t speak english. My neighbor’s dog howls incessantly. I ate some old Indian food which made me feel gross and bloated. And to top it off, I just saw the latest note takers from HIMS.

For those who don’t know, specialized devices exist for the blind to help them take notes. Many have since migrated to laptops or iDevices, but some still love their note takers. The best note taker came out in the nineties, called the Braille ’n Speak. Since then nothing has surpassed it. The devices today feel hacked together and heartless, with little regard to design or aesthetics. The HIMS line of products continue this unfortunate trend.

A friend of mine brought over two note takers for me to try. I started with the HIMS Braille Sense U2. I don’t know what the letter U and the numeral 2 stand for, but they reminded me of the incredibly profane and incredibly funny Negativland song. The case actually impressed me, probably the most well-made part of the whole package. The note taker itself felt solid in the case.

The layout confused me a little. It has eight dots, which I had to get used to, since the Braille ’n Speak only had six. The keys felt kind of wobbly to me, not the solid feel of the Braille ’n Speak. Each cell has a routing button above it. The keyboard has two sets of two scrolling buttons, one at each side and a little above the display. This allows one to use the braille display uninterruptedly. It has some media playing keys on the front. It also has six function keys which I didn’t even notice until my friend pointed them out to me.

The Braille Sense as its name implies also has a braille display. I’ve never used braille displays since they cost so much money and since I never read braille that quickly. However, my friend told me that a lot of blind programmers like them for reading code. I looked forward to trying that, but first I would explore the note taking functions. I did notice that the dots on the display felt rather sharp. I think I’d prefer them a little more rounded.

I switched it on with the big sliding switch on the front. It played a sound and I found myself at the main menu. I enjoyed using the familiar space-dot-1 and space-dot-4 commands to scroll through it. The scrolling buttons also did this, and the routing buttons directly take you to a choice. I liked that.

Things went downhill from here. The file manager acts sort of like the one found in Windows. You have to use Space-tab (dots 4-5) to move forward a tab and Space-B (dots 1-2) to move back. This and other little conflicts from the Braille ’n Speak confused me. On the BNS, E-chord would act like the enter key, and Z-chord would act as the escape or abort key. On the Braille Sense, E-chord acts like the escape key, and Z-chord ends the program. Dot-8 acts as the enter key. And yet, Dot-7, which often acts like a backspace, does not act like the escape key. Little inconsistencies like this began to add up.

On the Braille ’n Speak, you could type letters in combination with the space bar, called a chord. For example, E-chord means to braille E while also holding down the spacebar. In addition, the Braille Sense uses dots seven and eight as modifiers. This means three times the number of potential commands. It also means three times the confusion.

It might not matter so much, except for the minor fact that the HIMS offers NO form of keyboard identification. Most screen readers offer a feature where you can type a combination of keys and it will tell you what they do. For example, on a Mac you can use CTRL-Option-K to enter keyboard identification mode. If you then hit CTRL-Option-L it will say: Read current line, reads the current line in the VoiceOver cursor. The Braille Sense does not offer this crucial feature, a major oversight. They do offer a menu of commands, but navigating through a menu takes time and does not offer the same level of interactivity. Plus, some of the menus had multiple commands with the same key.

With mounting dread I tried the word processor. Again I enjoyed typing as if on a BNS, but it still felt different. They did do one nice thing by adding the lower-G-chord to read the current paragraph. We wanted that and they never did it on the BNS, so at least HIMS got that right. Too bad the rest of the editor doesn’t follow suit. And too bad I couldn’t easily find out what a key does.

The abundance and inconsistency of commands really showed themselves. I could never remember which modifier to use. In the good old days we just had one, now I had to deal with three. I had the biggest laugh when I realized they use the X-C-V characters for cutting/copying/pasting. This makes sense on a QWERTY keyboard, but makes absolutely no sense in braille. This simple example said it all.

I noticed something interesting about reading lines. Dot-1 and dot-4 move by lines as they should. However, the line breaks correspond to the bounds of the braille display. The scrolling buttons behave this way and that makes sense, since the buttons’ proximity to the braille display suggests a relation. However, when using the keyboard and speech, the line boundaries should happen at line breaks.

When using a one-dimensional output such as speech, line breaks may not necessarily apply. When reading text you more often want to read by sentence or paragraph. Reading by line really only makes sense when reading code. On the BNS you could type very long lines, so reading by line would read by a more meaningful unit, since you would just place the line breaks where you wanted them. Putting the line breaks at the edge of the braille display introduces more gaps in concentration.

I felt dazed and confused. I typed a paragraph of nonsense and saved the file. It does offer a number of formats, though I don’t know how well it does at exporting to them. The save dialog box reminded me of the save dialog you’d find on a PC or Mac, where you tab between the filename, format, and the save button. I got used to that and went back to the main menu.

Their email client behaved pretty much as I’d expect. You tab between mailboxes and messages. I didn’t actually try it with an account, but it did have some messages in the sent box, so I did get to try that. It seemed pretty straight-forward. I just felt too scared to link it up to one of my accounts. Maybe next time I’ll create a stupid test account for testing this crap.

I tried their calendar. I found it very confusing. I enjoyed browsing around the calendar with braille commands, but something just didn’t seem to make sense. At some point my friend told me to his F6 or something, one of those little function keys I didn’t even know existed, and it brought up a menubar. I found out how to add an event. Except they don’t call them events, they call them schedules. So you add a schedule which actually adds an event on the schedule. Then somehow I got stuck in the dialog. I could not get out of it. I added one event, and the dialog just did not go away. I added another garbage event. I tabbed and shift-tabbed around. I tried to use the stupid E-chord which remember now acts like escape. Nothing would get me out of the dialog. I let my friend play with it, who has more familiarity with the unit, and they could not get out either. I had to use Z-chord to kill the program. I started to feel cranky.

I had a similar experience with the address book. I tried tabbing around, added a record, and got stuck in another dialog. This had happened twice in a row now. I could not get rid of the goddamn thing, and had to use Z-chord to kill the program. I sense sloppy coding.

I once again found myself back at the main menu, feeling even crankier. I wondered what the database manager did. It lets you keep records of things. You add different fields then add records using those fields. I felt too scared to try.

The Braille Sense has an FM radio. From a technological point this seemed like a cool idea. It even worked! This actually impressed me. Too bad radio died in 1990.

I finally found the web browser way down towards the end of the main menu. I ominously wondered if they put it near the end because it sucks. Of course, the feeling turned out true. Note taker manufacturers: if you want your device to have any hope of competing against iOS, then you must offer an equivalent web browsing experience. Nothing but the best will do.

I went to a site I knew well, my own. I did get a kick out of seeing it in braille, but the novelty soon gave way to incredulity. The braille display will prepend “ln” to a link, for example “ln my own.(1/15).” I wondered what the numbers meant, and soon realized that they referred to the link number and the total number of links. But wait, I thought I had way more than 15 links on my page. Sure enough, I soon started seeing (16/15) and so on. What a joke!

As you might now expect, it has lots of stupid stupid stupid commands for navigating.Backspace-B takes you back a heading, backspace-f takes you forward a heading. I get the back/forward thing, but it provides an inconsistent set of commands. And it didn’t even announce the piece of text as a heading.

Other commands had only slightly more logical keystrokes, but the whole thing felt clunky, and it would take me quite a while to memorize everything. Amazingly, hitting the backspace key would not take you back a page as it does in every modern browser. No no, to do that you hit backspace-p. Terrible! And remember, no keyboard identification, just pages and pages of cryptic commands.

At some point while flailing around, I accidentally hit one of the little buttons on the front. It started recording me. I hit the stop button and then the play button and it played it back while locked in this weirdo menu. To its credit, it does have a good microphone and stereo speakers.

I had had enough of the note taking, so moved on to using it as a braille display. I tried pairing it to my iPad, and it worked well. Everything actually behaved as expected in iOS. I decided to explore using the braille display on the Mac, especially for coding. This also worked well. I could read the computer’s text, and even type in grade II. The terminal even worked, and I did enjoy reading code in braille. I just don’t want to spend $5995.00 to do it. Yes you read that price right.

I had begun to get hungry. When I get hungry I get angry. My recent experience amplified my anger. We decided to order food and try the other note taker.

The Braille Edge 40 looks cute. It has a thin profile, a nice braille display, scrolling buttons, and two sets of four-way arrows. I really wanted to like this thing. Sadly, nothing about this worked as expected.

I don’t know how many ways I can write this. Nothing I did worked. I tried hooking it up to my Mac. In Terminal it actually brailled out “greater-than” instead of a greater-than sign (>). It even brailled “space”. Turning on eight-dot braille helped a little, but not completely. And while typing, hitting the backspace key did not take you back a character, it inserted a Y-umlaut (ÿ). Pathetic.

iOS faired even worse, if such a thing could happen. Scrolling the text did not work at all. The arrows did not work at all. Nothing worked. The page says it works with VoiceOver, but don’t believe it for a moment. I consider this blatant false advertising. And the price? Oh only $2995.00. Have I gone insane? I didn’t even try the note taking functions. After my experience with their full fledge note taker I felt paralyzed with fear at the thought.

This concludes my cranky review of these two note takers. I hope it will deter a blind person from wasting their money. By the way, my friend has promised to bring over more note takers in the future, so get ready for more “fun”. Sorry for the negative article. I hope you still enjoyed it. I promise to have an amazing positive article next!

The Beginner’s GUide to Echolocation

November 08, 2012

I have some very exciting news. Ever since I started learning about echolocation I wanted a way to get started myself. I made contact with Justin at World Access for the Blind and he helped me on Skype before we did my amazing life-changing intensive. Still, we all agree that we need a way to easily teach the blind about echolocation, or at least give them enough information to get them started safely. We also need to prove to the skeptics that it really exists. Now someone named Tim Johnson has written the perfect book to get you started.

The large print version of the Beginner’s Guide to Echolocation: Learning to See with your Ears sells on Amazon, though as any blind person knows by now Amazon does not care about accessibility. Fortunately, he has also made an accessible version available, so long as you can read MSWord documents. The accessible version costs twenty-three dollars. He also has an audio version available for $37.00. It contains the complete text, plus demonstrations of the different types of tongue clicks, an essential point. This has become the more popular version, and with good reason.

Many colorful quotes decorate the book by such luminaries as W. B. Yeats and Albert Einstein. People who use echolocation pick these lofty heroes for a reason. This skill represents something truly amazing, something which will completely shift your sensory paradigm and move you into a better place psychologically.

He emphasizes the importance of meditation. Simply allowing yourself to listen to the sounds which surround you can help train your brain. I love meditating, and have begun writing a book about it myself. It seems that echolocation activists also share an interest in opening the third eye through meditation. This does not happen by accident. By the way, eating superfoods also helps.

I also liked how the book uses music as a reference. You can practice listening to music as a way to boost the range of your hearing. You use the same skill to sort out signals when doing echolocation. Music also uses a lot of reverberation, and these echoes have some similarities. Understanding how sound and music work will aide you in your understanding of how echolocation works.

The book presents many of the same exercises Justin had me do over Skype, as well as some of the things we did on our first night. As the book points out, everyone perceives echolocation differently, and will have to arrive at their own understanding and ways of explaining it. I liked how he had exercises to do individually, but also ones which require a partner. Having someone else holding the objects introduces an unknown element, something vital for your progress. Every blind person faces unique challenges. You need to push yourself just enough to make small mistakes so you can correct them and grow more confident.

I found it interesting that he suggested opening a car window and listening to the echoes to get a sense of echolocation. It does not give quite the detail of accuracy as a tongue click, but it most certainly works. A woman who taught me as a child reminded me that we would ride in her car with the windows down, and I could tell her about the passing telephone poles. Of course at such a young age I did not think of it as echolocation, but it makes perfect sense. Even a simple exercise such as this will prove its validity.

I felt most interested in the discussion of using the visual cortex of the brain to build non-visual imagery. This sounds like what I experience. When I say I see something with echolocation, I really mean it. I actually see the dark form of an object. For me it also has a strong synesthetic component. In other words, if I click against a glass surface, I will get a cool feeling that reminds me of glass. You have to learn to open yourself to these unique sensations to truly succeed.

The book ends with some recommendations of what to do next. Again, they strongly recommend the three-day intensive of which I’ve raved extensively. Along with World Access, they also list an organization in the UK called Visibility. If you have done everything up to this point, you will have a good background for approaching these organizations for further training. Now the excitement really begins!

If you’d like to see the potential of echolocation, then buy this book and try the exercises. Think about it, wouldn’t you pay twenty-three dollars to begin to learn how to see? THis book will show you just that. For the full experience you’ll need to do an intensive, but this will let you know if you should think about the more serious commitment. In my opinion you really can’t lose. If you can hear then you can see! Go for it!

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