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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 it the most important thing in my life. I cook gluten-free vegan meals. I use Linux as my desktop and Android as my mobile OS. For the rest you'll have to read my blog.

What Apple TV Means to Me

January 19, 2012

I have recently gotten AirPlay working to prepare for a move. As I wrote, I got an Airport Express and an Apple TV. At the time of writing I had to wait to get the Apple TV working. Now I have, and I love it. The whole model of content distribution needs to mature, and Apple will lead the way.

I ordered my Apple TV and it arrived within twenty-four hours. I felt amazed just examining the box and its contents. The Apple TV looks like a little square with a few ports on the back and rounded edges. The remote looks like the coolest remote I’ve ever seen, just a thin rectangle with convex surfaces and round corners. The remote has a button with the four arrows and enter in the center, plus a Menu/Back button and a Play/Pause button below it. It reflects a zen minimalism perfectly.

I couldn’t wait to get it working. Things worked out very nicely actually. For Christmas my Mom gave me a little lightweight TV to bring with me on the move, as compared with the bulky one I bought when I bought the house in 2002. It amazed me how in ten years media and the technology around it has totally changed. The old one didn’t even have an HDMI port, something Apple TV needs. I had a friend come over and haul the old one outside with a FREE sign on it. In my excitement I had tried hooking up the Apple TV to the new TV, but hit the wrong button on the new TV’s remote, putting it in a perpetual menu and making it silent and useless. I really hope APple really does come out with a full TV which talks! Imagine that, no more inaccessible menus.

My friend got the new TV working with Apple TV just fine. Hitting the lower right button (Play/Pause) three times during the initial setup will enable VoiceOver. Once we got it off the ground I could operate everything with Apple TV’s remote, plus a few buttons on the other remote my friend taught me. I could now try to evaluate this thing.

Apple TV has a simple menu structure. Going left and right goes through the different categories of things (movies, TV shows, etc.) and going up and down goes through the options in that category. In this way you can rent movies, watch TV shows, listen to music in your iTunes library, subscribe to podcasts, watch Youtube videos, and lots of other fascinating things. For the first time I can lounge in my recliner with a remote and browse on-demand content and have it talk to me, something sighted people have enjoyed for years. I love it!

First I looked at hot movies. Apple has a notorious anti-pornography stance, so it seemed interesting to see the fascinating documentary DMT: The Spirit Molecule in the top ten independent films. You can’t have sex, but smoke all the DMT you want! I also saw a documentary about Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, one of my heroes. I plan to rent both.

Next I looked at TV shows. I added some favorites to my list. I watched the latest episode of the Simpsons just to try it. The episode parodied Glen Beck and the tea party movement, and I enjoyed it. It felt cool to see all the different networks and shows. It just has on-demand content, nothing live. As soon as they start streaming live content we can cut the cable forever, and I look forward to that day.

Then I wandered over to the internet category. I watched a Ron Paul video on YouTube, and subscribed to a few podcasts, including the very funny Radio Free Oz. I really like listening to podcasts on my Apple TV from the comfort of my living room. I could really get more into podcasts this way. I also browsed my iTunes library, very cool. And of course, Apple TV acts as an AirPlay device, so I can hear anything I want over it as long as I can stream it.

All and all, I love Apple TV, but the current generation represents a stepping stone. I think that things need to mature so we can enjoy live TV. People have become tired of paying insane amounts of money to watch their favorite two or three channels on cable. In his biography, Steve Jobs said that he has cracked the secret to an easy high definition television. I hope he has, because I welcome a full Apple TV. Should you get one? If you like watching on-demand content or have a large iTunes library then I would say yes. If you don’t know then you might want to wait to see how the rumors play out. Either way, I have found my Zen TV.

Why Twitter Needs to Care about Accessibility

January 07, 2012

Twitter has had an official app for a while. Now it has become less accessible, and it has also become integrated into iOS. Twitter must make the same commitment to accessibility which Apple has.

Accessibility refers to making something usable by everyone. In this case it refers to making an application work well with VoiceOver so that the blind can use it. Sites like Applevis post accessibility ratings for different apps. If an app does not play nicely with VoiceOver then the blind cannot use it and it may as well not exist for us.

This can seem very annoying, as you can imagine. For example, several friends have asked me to play Words with Friends. As you can read, everything works except for the game board, a rather important feature. I played a lot of Scrabble as a kid and would really enjoy playing again. The official Facebook app also sucks, and many have found alternatives. App developers can choose to improve accessibility, and many do. Many apps also work with little or no modification. All well and good, and normally I wouldn’t write a blog post about this.

The Twitter app falls into a special category however. Apple has chosen to integrate it very heavily into iOS 5. The Twitter settings has a link to easily download the official app, and iOS accesses it if using its built-in Twitter integration. This puts the app in a special circumstance. If a blind person wants to use iOS’s Twitter integration, they have to use the app. Because of its unique position, Twitter must care about accessibility.

Since it came out, Twitter has provided a clutter-free social network which the blind have enjoyed. I know many of us prefer it to Facebook for that reason. And don’t even get me started about Google+! Twitter must recognize this and continue along these lines.

Apple has become the leader in accessibility. Every Apple device talks out of the box. This includes the iPhone, iTouch, iPad, Apple TV, and Macs. No other company has done this. The blind have come to expect that anything Apple does will have accessibility in mind. Turning over their Twitter integration to a third party means that third party must have the same commitment. If they don’t it makes Apple look bad. Apple must recognize this and demand appropriate action.

In summary, the blind have come to know Apple as the leader of accessibility. Steve Jobs insisted that Apple’s devices should have universal accessibility. Having a Twitter app with less than full accessibility goes against this philosophy. Twitter must fix their official Twitter app as long as iOS depends on it. The Me tab has serious issues and unlabeled buttons. Oh well, back to using Tweetlist Pro!

How to Make MPD work with AirPlay

January 06, 2012

As I wrote last night, AirPlay rules! As I have written previously, iTunes does not. It has always seemed like a bloated program to me. I far prefer the Music Player Daemon (MPD), a program for Linux and Mac OS X to manage and play your music. The MPoD app seals the deal! Fortunately, if you have a Windows or Mac, you can easily stream MPD over AirPlay. Just follow these easy instructions.

First, install and configure MPD as normal. I will not cover that here, since the official site has plenty of documentation. Once you get it playing music locally, you can begin tweaking it. Edit mpd.conf and add the following block. If you use the default configuration file you can uncomment and edit the this block, otherwise just insert the following.

audio_output {

        type                ”httpd”

        name                ”My HTTP Stream”

        encoder                “lame”        port                ”8000″

        bitrate                “320”        format                ”44100:16:1″

bind_to_address “0.0.0.0”

}

This tells MPD to stream its audio over a high quality HTTP stream. You can make the port whatever you want, just remember it and make sure people cannot access it from outside of your network. Also, make sure your MPD machine has a static IP and that you know it. You can find this with the ifconfig utility. Advanced users who want a truly lossless connection could switch lame to vorbis, use quality 10, and get iTunes to play vorbis files with a plugin, but we’ll keep it simple for now. A 320 kbps stream sounds nice and sparkly. Now restart MPD and you should see your new HTTP stream. Just type “mpc outputs” at the command line, or go to MPoD’s settings and you should see it.

Now that you have it working, go to your Mac or WIndows machine and open up iTunes. Hit Command-U on a Mac, or go to the Advanced menu then choose Open Stream. Type in the URL of your MPD output, for example http://192.168.1.100:8000. If you did everything right it should open up and you should hear MPD in iTunes. Congratulations! Now just configure AirPlay as normal and there you go, MPD running over AirPlay for free! Enjoy!

AirPlay All the Way

January 05, 2012

The time has come to move! By the end of the month I will have moved from the suburbs into the city of Philadelphia. I feel excited about it, but I’ll save that for another post. While evaluating everything as one does before such a move, I realized I needed to find a new solution for streaming music throughout my living space. I have settled on Apple’s AirPlay. I had the answer all along.

Ever since I moved out on my own I have wanted music streaming everywhere. First I had a crappy apartment, and simply ran some cables under the door from one room to the other, and rigged up a quick analog solution. Things got more interesting when I moved into a big older house. Running wires seemed unfeasible. I tried a low power FM transmitter, but it just couldn’t hack it. Old houses have lots of RF-absorbing wood and metal. I got a slightly more powerful transmitter, and have radios throughout my house. This has worked well. It offers a universal solution. I can always add or change a radio. It also has some drawbacks. Some signal loss does occur, and the setup does introduce some background noise. It also introduces a small amount of RF energy into my system, which can become annoying when working with other sensitive equipment. Plus, more people probably live in this condo than on my whole block, and I certainly don’t want them tuning into my audio.

It became clear I needed to find a closed digital system. Such a system offers a way to transmit audio wirelessly without any loss of quality. I wanted something easy to deploy, something which I could integrate into my existing setup, and something that wouldn’t cost me an arm and a leg. I also wanted something simple. I started doing my research.

A lot of people love the Sonos music system. It offers a transmitter and receiver, as well as speakers. It has lots of services, such as Pandora and other radio directories. It also has support for zones, meaning people can listen to different music in different areas. I didn’t need that, a single guy in a single condo just needs a single stream. Plus, it costs a lot. Squeezebox offers some of the same functionality, another popular choice. Of course, accessibility remained a concern. I can’t use touch screens unless they have voice feedback. Sonos and Squeezebox do both offer iPhone apps which would do this, but not the main units. I learned a long time ago I can’t tolerate an inaccessible sound system.

My brain had begun to turn to mush. I tried calling around to some places to get some answers. I called Crutchfield. “Hi! This is Buzz! How can I help you?” He sounded stoned. I told him my problem and he transferred me to their A/V department, but I had to leave a message.

At 09:52 the next morning, Ringo called me back. Buzz and Ringo? Do they live on the Yellow Submarine? I already had a bad feeling, and resolved to hold my tongue. I quickly munched some cacao nibs to wake up and told him my situation.

He pushed Sonos. Everyone loves Sonos, and it has so many streaming options. I don’t care about streaming options. I have the audio! I asked how much it would cost. He said the unit that acts as a transmitter or a receiver costs $300, and the speakers cost around $350. I did some quick math in my tired head and arrived at a figure I didn’t like.

Then, the kicker happened. I asked if a Sonos amplifier would plug into my stereo. Remember I hadn’t fully woken up yet. “No, that plugs into your speakers. This would take the place of your stereo.” “But I want to use my stereo, that’s kind of the point of this.” “Why? What would your stereo offer that this wouldn’t?” He sounded condescending and it pissed me off. “Dude, this is an analog system!” I realized he would never understand, so thanked him and lay back down for a few minutes to think. To quote Hunter Thompson: “It was time I felt for an agonizing reappraisal of the whole scene.”

I rolled the options around in my head. One possibility remained, Apple’s AirPlay. The more I thought about it the better it seemed. After all, I love Apple and their products. But could AirPlay stand up to the demands of an audiophile’s multi-room system? I ate breakfast and resolved to call Apple and have a little chat and see what turned up. It couldn’t go much worse than the chat I had just had.

I told their voice automation system that I wanted to know more about AirPlay, and it transferred me to sales. I spoke to a nice lady, but I forget her name. We started having a good discussion about networked audio and what I wanted to do. She assured me it would synchronize the audio between speakers. I asked if it transmitted the audio losslessly, and she said she had never heard that word before. I later found out that if using ethernet or wireless it does send it losslessly, but if using bluetooth it does not. I also wanted to make sure iTunes could play an arbitrary internet station, and we both learned that it can. Just hit Command-U and type in the URL.

The more we talked the more promising this sounded. I began to form a picture in my head. An Apple TV would cost $99 and go well in the living room. I had thought about buying one anyway just to try it out. Amazingly, an Airport Express would provide a $99 solution to bring AirPlay to any room! Though it primarily functions as a router, it can also passively join a network and use its 1/8 inch audio out jack to provide the audio. Various manufacturers also make AirPlay-compatible speakers. I could hardly believe my luck. Once again Apple had come to my rescue.

I figured an Apple TV and an Airport Express would get me started so placed the order. It arrived on my doorstep within twenty-four hours. I eagerly unboxed everything. I remembered to pay attention to every detail from reading the Steve Jobs biography. The box for the Airport Express smartly has it tucked away with the documentation in another little box. The router looks unlike any router I’ve ever seen. It just looks like the plug to a MacBook Air without the cord. Imagine a plastic rectangle with prongs that swing out, plus a few ports. I hooked it up via ethernet and the Airport Utility came up on my Mac. I told it I wanted the Airport Express to join my existing network, and it joined it effortlessly.

The test had come. I brought it into my bedroom, plugged it in to an electrical socket, and plugged a patch cord into it. I attached the other end to the RCA jacks of my trusty old boombox I got in 1986. I remember buying it, as much as a nine-year-old buys anything. My Dad said I should have a real stereo, so we went to Silo Electronics and picked it out, a JVC-W35. I don’t know how I remember that, but I do. It has served me well ever since. I’d put it up against any shitty shelf system from Best Buy any day! After connecting everything I went back to my iMac, turned on AirPlay in iTunes, started playing some music, and selected my bedroom speakers. Boom! It worked! I had brought wireless connectivity to a radio made twenty-five years ago. Plus, I could hear the same audio coming from my iMac hooked up to a pair of studio monitors. I felt amazed!

Once the shock passed I realized I had to hear this on my good stereo. The Apple TV would have to wait, so I brought the Airport Express downstairs and hooked it up. It didn’t start, so I toggled the speaker off and on, and that got it going. This works from iTunes and with the Remote app for the iPhone and iPad, by the way. This lets you control iTunes and AirPlay from anywhere.

Now I sit in my living room typing this article on my MacBook Air and listening to music with AirPlay. The audio sounds incredible, and has not lost sync in eight hours of continuous play. I think that answers the synchronization question! The crisp clean digital audio makes my FM transmitter sound like crap. Booming base! Crystalline highs! No background noise! No hum! No degradation of audio! I feel like i have missed out on so much good audio, but not really, since this technology became available comparatively recently. This definitely represents the next decade’s way of listening to audio. I have fallen in love all over again.

Now I know what some of my long-time readers will say at this point. “Now wait a minute Austin. In your famous article about the iPhone, you called iTunes the worm in the apple. Now you have begun using it as your source for media. What gives?” I have considered this, and in fact it kept me fro jumping right into AirPlay right away. For now it works, since I mainly play internet radio streams. However, alternatives do exist, and I intend to research them for hack value if nothing else. I think one could use the Music Player Daemon and the MPoD app to provide a very nice experience that would rival or surpass using stupid iTunes.

In fact, iTunes has already caused some problems. I felt very annoyed to learn that it does not allow setting the audio output, a very basic feature found in other media players. I called Apple to confirm this. The guy apologized and told me to send them feedback about this lameness. Consider this my letter. Other than that, I have loved my AirPlay experience. It just works!

I will have more to write. After all, I still have the Apple TV to unpack. That will require getting rid of my old TV and setting up the brand new TV my Mom gave me for Christmas to aide in the move. Now I won’t have to get someone to lug the big old TV I purchased in 2002 when I bought this house. I also won’t need to store tons of CD’s as readily, which means I can buy a new lighter entertainment center, which the movers will also appreciate. This fits into my plans perfectly, for now I can just install the Apple TV and get everything tested and ready, then move into my awesome new condo and hit the ground running with AirPlay.

At first I felt nervous about moving into the city, but now I know it will mirror my experience with audio. I thought I had a great solution with my transmitter. It has brought me and my friends countless hours of enjoyment. Now I have something that blows it away. And now you will have to excuse me as I go back to listening to my beautiful analog stereo with its perfect digital sound. AirPlay rules!

My New Cane

December 13, 2011

I have begun a dialog with World Access for the Blind. They teach a skill called echolocation, where a blind person can train their brain to synthesize images through reflected sound instead of reflected light. This opens up a lot of doors and I will have more to say about that in future entries. As soon as I read about it I contacted them. A trainer named Justin wrote me back and we met on Skype. Along with giving me some basic exercises to practice this incredible skill, he also told me to use a longer cane. I figured these people have cutting edge information, so gave it a try.

I became blind at birth, so began learning mobility at a young age. This included getting my first cane which happened in first or second grade. I learned the standard way to hold a cane. This involves bending your elbow down and in front, placing your forearm parallel to your abdomen. This feels rather uncomfortable and a lot of kids naturally resisted, preferring to keep their elbow at their side. They probably got yelled at for their defiance, but it turns out most of my blind friends prefer this as adults. I stuck with the traditional program and shorter cane.

Justin at World Access corrected me on the issue. For kids, a shorter length works fine, but an adult has a longer stride. This means one of two things can happen. You can walk faster than your cane can cover, causing you to miss things and contributing to a general sense of disorientation. The cane could hit a bump, causing the elbow to painfully jab you right in the gut. Ouch! Using a slightly longer cane and keeping the elbow by the hip fixes both of these problems.

His argument made sense, so I headed over to Ambutech and proceeded through their delightful form to make a custom cane. My mobility teachers always taught me that the cane should come to the breastbone, which comes to 52 inches for me. Justin said to give it abut six extra inches, putting it at the height of the chin. I ordered a 58 inch rigid cane and it fit perfectly. Rigid? Yes rigid. I have always used folding canes and made fun of rigid cane users for carrying such an unwieldy instrument, but they do give better tactile feedback. He also recommended a ceramic tip. I hadn’t heard of them before and neither had my friends. “Oh, they’re like the best things ever! You can land a helicopter on one.” Justin enthused. I used a marshmallow tip before, but this sounded cool. We did agree on one thing: we both like graphite for the material of the cane. I also ordered an extra one made of heavier illumine for karate. I bent my cane during the last demo.

It felt weird to place an order for a cane which had pretty much the exact opposite configuration from the one I had used forever. My old one measured 52 inches, folded, and had a marshmallow roller tip. This new one measures 58 inches, does not fold, and has a ceramic tip. I thought I knew the best thing to do, and according to common advice I did, but now I found myself totally revising my views on an issue. Sometimes that happens in life. Unfortunately, since Ambutech resides in Canada, the package had to go through a long process of import scanning. I waited and wondered and practiced echolocation.

My new cane finally arrived in a long box after ten days, and I tried it immediately. What a difference! Indeed, the longer length gave me more time to react to things around me. It felt more liberating to have an expanded sphere of awareness. This enabled me to travel more smoothly and quickly. The rigid length does give more feedback, though it does still get stuck in cracks sometimes. At least it doesn’t get stuck in my gut. Ouch! The light material and tip also make it easier to skip over cracks and get back on track. I made two street crossings perfectly. Even if I missed a little, the longer length again came in handy, helping me reorient more quickly. I felt very impressed.

I haven’t gotten a chance to use my karate cane yet. I brought it to class, but I think Sensei Chris felt scared of it. I don’t blame him. The rigidity should give it a nice whipping motion, and that tip at the end will hurt!

In conclusion, World Access for the Blind has cutting edge information about mobility which the blind establishment ignores to their disadvantage. Even something as simple as having a longer cane makes a big difference. If someone blind since birth needs more mobility training, say after a move, they won’t really learn anything new as far as techniques go. They will learn new routes, but they will not learn new ways to navigate and orient themselves to their environment. What they learned at age twelve will still hold true. It therefore feels very refreshing to hear a new voice with new knowledge and techniques. Just wait until I master echolocation!

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