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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 consider myself 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. To comment on what you read here, visit Disboardia, my bulletin board system.

Why Ruby Works

September 08, 2012

I recently wrote that I had begun drinking beer and coding in C++ again. I wondered about a possible correlation. I found one. Both can cause headaches. I’ve gone back to using Ruby, my favorite programming language and my birthstone.

Object oriented programming has intrigued me, has it has many others. It attempts to model the real world. An object has data fields called instance variables, and functions to run on the data called methods. Classes can derive from other classes. For example, you could have a Vehicle class, then a Car class derived from the Vehicle class – a car represents a kind of vehicle. The Car class would include all the functionality of the Vehicle class plus whatever else. I once joked that objects just keep going down forever, like the native American belief of turtles stacked on top of one another which support the world. While it might make for an interesting thought experiment, I must partially recant it.

I love Ruby. I’ve loved it ever since I started learning it. It started in Japan and has grown from there. It has a very elegant and uniform syntax. This happens because of its philosophy.

Ruby truly treats everything as an object. In most languages, if you want to get the absolute value of the number 5, you’d write abs(5). This calls the abs function with 5 as its argument. In Ruby you’d write 5.abs. This calls the abs method on the number 5, an object of class Fixnum. Fixnum itself derives from class Integer, which derives from Numeric, which derives from Object, which derives from BasicObject, which derives from nil. See the pattern?

All objects belong to a class. All classes derive from another class. At the least, they derive from the class called Object, and All objects derive from nil. In other words, all objects come from nothing.

To me, this sounds very Zen. It reminds me of the zero point experienced in deep meditation. All things come from the no-thing. This void energy contains infinite potential, and brings creation into existence. Ruby models this truth, and this makes the language work. A consistent philosophy produces a consistent syntax.

Why suffer needlessly? Use Ruby and meditate daily!

My Beautiful Birthday Bluetooth Boombox

August 14, 2012

I recently got two Logitech products in one day. First I got the Logitech Keyboard Cover for the iPad. Since my birthday of July 14th would happen soon, I also ordered the Logitech Wireless Boombox. It offers a good bass-filled sound in a compact form. I love it.

I have always appreciated boomboxes. I first got a JVC-W35 at the age of nine or so, around 1986. I still have it, it still works, and I would put it up against any shelf system from Best Buy any day. I felt a little sentimental about getting a new boombox. Unlike the ones from so long ago, this one has bluetooth technology to connect it to devices wirelessly, and it does not have an AM/FM radio! Yes, imagine that, a boombox without a radio. It does also have a line-in and comes with a patch cord, meaning you can patch in any audio, making it a very versatile device. I patch in an Airport Express and turn it into an AirPlay-enabled speaker.

It has a long and thin profile. The two speakers have indentations where the eight custom drivers reside. At first you may think it just got dented during shipping, but they actually designed it that way. It also has a clever little kickstand which pops out from the back at the push of a button.

Speaking of buttons, the front panel has four of them. On the left, the upper button turns it on, and the lower button resets it. You will need to do this if you want to pair it to a different bluetooth device. It makes things much easier. On the right, the two buttons turn the volume up and down. I figured it out very quickly and without the use of a manual.

It comes with a charger, and you can plug it in and operate it from AC and charge the battery. When plugged in, it also activates its subwoofers. This gives a large amount of thumping bass. Some may consider it a little excessive. I would consider it right on the limit. I can understand why they did it, to compensate for the small size. The batteries last for six hours, and multiple rechargings do wear them down. Without the subwoofers it has less bass, but still sounds very adequate.

All and all I really enjoy it. I saw a Jambox while partying on the roof deck of our condo. I felt very impressed with it. I wanted something similar, and this boombox actually had a higher rating and lower price on Amazon, so I went for it. I feel glad I did. Different technologies say different things to me. The Logitech Wireless Boombox says: “I’m always ready to party!”

The Logitech iPad Keyboard Cover

August 14, 2012

Ever since I held an iPad 2, I have pictured it as some kind of supermodel. It just has such a sleek and beautiful feel to it. The proportions feel just right. The curves feel perfect. Apple made a beautiful machine.

Unfortunately, the various covers just did not seem adequate. Apple’s solution, the Smart Cover, offers minimal protection. One article compared it to putting a supermodel in a wetsuit. In a way I appreciate its minimalism, and could imagine some of what a sighted guy must feel when looking at a similarly attired woman. Still I knew I had to find something more formidable.

I wanted something classy. I wanted a nice keyboard. I wanted something that wouldn’t add too much weight or bulkiness. I wanted something that would compliment the elegant contours of the iPad’s beautiful body. Even though I knew what I wanted, I didn’t know what to actually buy.

First I tried the New Trent Keyboard Case. Friends love their New Trent battery packs, so I thought I’d try it, plus it got good reviews on Amazon. Unfortunately it just did not deliver. The keyboard and cover clumsily snapped together, and the whole thing gives the iPad a bulky feel. Worst of all, it has an extra Delete key which makes VoiceOver freak out. It acts as though the user continuously holds it down in any input field, instantly deleting any entered text and making a bonking sound. Not good.

Even though I hadn’t found my answer, I had realized that a keyboard definitely compliments a tablet. I went back to using Apple’s bluetooth keyboard. In a turn of events, at the 2012 WWDC, Apple announced a new iPad case with cover. It promised complete protection for the front and back. I thought that in combination with the keyboard might provide a solution. I thought wrong.

Where Apple’s smart cover seems like putting a supermodel in a wetsuit, their iPad case seems like putting one in a baggy swimming suit. They had to make it fit the iPad 2 and the iPad 3, so on my iPad 2 that extra room feels noticeable. I felt a little disappointed about this. Apple loves minimalism, and should have seen this. I don’t have much else to say, the rubber covers the back and the cover flips over the front. After some playing I returned to just using the smart cover. Why not?

I felt discouraged on my quest, but did not give up. I read about the Brydge, but that has not come out yet and I really wanted something now. Then I found it: the Logitech Keyboard Cover!

It sounded exactly like what I wanted. It features a full keyboard, and a metal back which compliments the iPad. The cover snaps onto the iPad with the same magnetic hinge used by a smart cover. After reading some good reviews I decided to give it a try. I love it!

The keyboard cover seems like the perfect compliment to the iPad’s beauty. When closed, the two pieces feel like one unit. An unaware person would probably not even know what the held. It turns it into a whole new piece of technology, and changes the way I use the iPad. I don’t even know what you’d call it. Some call it a netbook, but that doesn’t seem quite right, more like a netbook with a giant touch screen. Welcome to the future.

It has totally changed the way I use my iPad. Now I can just open it and browse the web, or read Twitter, or read mail, secure in the knowledge I can easily type something. Apple has a very strong vision of a tablet without a tactile keyboard. I can understand it, but I don’t fully agree. For me, a tactile keyboard compliments a tablet beautifully. Unfortunately Apple will probably never make a keyboard cover, so we will have to find third party solutions. The Logitech Keyboard Cover makes a beautiful thing even more beautiful.

Why Twitter Still Needs to Care about Accessibility

July 27, 2012

In January I wrote an article detailing why Twitter needs to care about accessibility. Unlike other apps, the Twitter app has become tightly integrated into iOS. This means that it should follow the same strict accessibility requirements as Apple’s core apps. Fortunately, they have made their iOS app mostly accessible. Unfortunately, their Mac OS X app has zero accessibility, and Mountain Lion has begun integrating it.

Since its beginning, the blind have enjoyed Twitter because of its accessible format. Twitter just has text – no images, no stupid like buttons, just pure text, just the way we like it. A number of wonderful clients for iOS, Mac OS, and even Windows have sprung up. This ideal situation may not last forever. Disturbing rumors have surfaced that Twitter may stop allowing third party clients. I really hope this doesn’t happen. Twitter would feel the backlash. I might even stop using it. I might not have a choice.

Apple just released their latest update to Mac OS X, named Mountain Lion. People have generally received this update much more positively than Lion. Among other things, it has Twitter integration. This allows you to associate Twitter identities with your contacts. You can also tweet from notification center. Just go to twitter.com in Safari and sign in. It will ask you if you want to use this user name on this Mac. Say yes and you will receive notifications about mentions and direct messages.

To update your contacts, go to System Preferences then the Mail Contacts and Calendars pane. In the table of account types, go down to Twitter. A button will appear which says Update Contacts. This will associate the emails in your contacts with Twitter identities. It works very well, and integrates Twitter in a rather amazing way. Interestingly, I missed how many contacts it had updated. I typed “twitter” in the contact’s search field, and it pulled up every contact with an associated Twitter identity. I guess it must also search on attribute keys.

Now we come to the bad news. If you go to the contact, you can bring up their tweets. Or so you’d think. Sighted users should right-click on Twitter. Blind users should route the mouse with VO-Command-F5, then click with VO-Shift-Space, not that it will matter. You will see a menu with a option to tweet, and an option to show tweets. This opens the official Twitter app.

And now we come to the point of this article. The official Twitter app for the Mac has zero accessibility. I don’t mean a little, or enough to get by, I mean nothing. VoiceOver shows a close button, a minimize button, and a zoom button. And nothing else.

To reiterate what I said in my other article, if Apple wants to use the official Twitter app, then it must meet the same accessibility standards. This needs to happen now. Dark clouds have begun gathering on the relatively perfect Twitter horizon. Perhaps it has become a little too perfect. Will Twitter remain the cool social network? Or will it descend into becoming another monolith? Only time will tell. Even the smallest person can change the course of the future.

Beer++

July 06, 2012

I drank beer in college. I learned C in college. After I graduated I stopped doing both. Now I have begun using C++ and drinking beer again. Coincidence?

I started college in 1995 to get a computer science degree. I remember sitting in my dorm room the first night. Someone offered me a beer and I drank it, feeling sort of independent for the first time. Of course, like most college kids, I had some bad experiences with alcohol. By the time I turned twenty-one I had stopped drinking.

At college I also began learning Ansi C. To briefly explain, in the early seventies, some programmers at Bell Labs created the C programming language. They wanted a small and powerful language which could run on a wide variety of computers. It quickly became popular, and remains in use to this day. This eventually became standardized as Ansi C.

To me C felt clunky and wrong. Nothing I wrote ever seemed to work as I had envisioned. I could program in several other languages, but for some reason I just couldn’t quite get the hang of C. Having someone else teach it to me could have something to do with it. I tend to learn better on my own. And yes, alcohol may have also played a part.

I have a funny memory of having rather a lot to drink and going on IRC. I started chatting with a random guy who it turned out also took a C programming class. He had trouble with some things which I understood, so I offered to write the program for him. I told him he just had to do me one favor: to remind me to get water every ten minutes or so. The arrangement worked out and I wrote the program. I don’t remember much else.

A year or two later I stopped going to college, programming in C, and drinking alcohol. I felt fine with my choices. College sucked. C confused me. Alcohol made me sick. Then, a few months ago I moved into the city. I have come to the conclusion that one has to drink beer to live in Philadelphia. We have lots of microbreweries around, and Hawthorne’s Cafe has the best beer selection in the area.

I first realized this at a block party. Let me tell you that the block parties around here blow the block parties in Swarthmore away. They had cordoned off a street right by the cafe, and everyone hung around listening to an American wanna-be reggae band in the lovely May sun. A friend asked if I wanted a beer. I said I didn’t really know, but he works at a beer distributer and said he’d find me one I’d like. He gave me Daisy Cutter. I really enjoyed it, and it even gave me a little buzz. It made me begin to rethink my view on beer.

Meanwhile, I realized I needed to get comfortable with C on some level. It has some real advantages. It allows one to easily compile a program to provide a simple executable file anyone can run without anything extra. It also allows for easy linking with common libraries of code. I began trying to figure out how to pick up where I left off. I hoped that teaching myself would make it easier.

I quickly realized that C++ had become very popular. In the late seventies a new type of C began to emerge. It used principles of object oriented programming, something I’ve thought about before. It makes coding real-world problems easier, since it allows one to create a data structure with functions associated with it. In C, the ++ operator increments a variable. Thus, C++ suggests incrementing the language to the next level.

Everything came back to me, plus now I had the added benefit of understanding objects from other languages, especially Ruby. It feels like they took all the things that annoyed me about C and did their best to fix them within the confines of the language. I think they have done a good job. For example, Ansi C didn’t even have a dedicated way to deal with strings of characters. It saw them merely as an array or list of individual characters, and had functions to operate on these arrays. C++ has an object class for strings, which includes all the luxuries of more modern programming languages. Vectors and maps give dynamic arrays and hashes. This means less mucking around with pointers, something I welcomed. Now I have a grip on C++ and I feel good.

In just a few months I have rethought my views on C and beer. I prefer good beer, and I know not to drink too much. I don’t want to get too messed up. I prefer C++, and I know not to use old Ansi C ways of doing things too much. I don’t want my programs to get too messed up. It would appear that programming in C and drinking beer have a positive correlation. And for those who might feel shocked that I would reinvent myself like this, I can only say: All hail Discordia!

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