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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 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.

What Today’s Apple Education Event Means to the Blind

January 19, 2012

Today, Apple had an education event. It may not have received as much excitement and coverage as their last iPhone event, but I believe it has profound implications. The event covered three new apps which will greatly increase Apple’s position in the educational institutions. iBooks has a new version which features new beautiful interactive textbooks. iBooks Author for the Mac allows easy authoring and publishing of these books. iTunes U brings a full set of features for the creation and instruction of classes. These three things make the iPad a new indispensable educational tool.

Apple has always had education in its DNA, as they said at today’s event. Anyone around my age remembers some Apples sitting in a cold computer room. I got an Apple II/e, and I remember my school had an Apple II/+. I then transferred to an elementary school, but I don’t remember anything about computers there. After that I went to a private school for two years and I remember they had a bunch of Apple II/c’s but also PC’s. I used to amaze sighted students by going into the BASIC built into the Apple’s ROM and writing little programs without any kind of speech or other feedback. The programs worked and I loved working with Apples.

By the time I got to high school PC’s had taken over. I felt kind of sad not to see Apples, save for a lone sad Apple sitting in a disused corner. When rumors surfaced of today’s education announcement I began to wonder what Apple had in mind to reclaim its deserved status. Now I feel amazed looking back. I think Apple has done it again.

Textbooks suck! I know they stressed their bulk and weight at today’s event. Double that and you will know what a blind kid has to go through. A textbook does not take one bulky volume, it takes thirty. It really sucked when the class covered pages spanning two volumes. While throwing things out to prepare for moving, I chanced to find an old portable printer. I’d lug that thing around with a big heavy laptop and a backpack of braille books every day. The printer still feels unwieldy and heavy as an adult and so do big braille books. I can only Imagine the excitement felt by today’s sighted students at the prospect of doing work on an iPad. Now double that and you will know what blind kids must feel.

Print and braille have a static format, written in stone so to speak. They cannot change. They get damaged. They do not allow for easy indexing and searching. Again, try using a traditional index across a 30-volume braille set. Too bad if they haven’t published the part you need.

Electronic books solve all these problems. They also take advantage of the features offered by modern hypertext systems, including linking to other parts of the book or to external media and databases. As if that couldn’t get any better, Apple has already built VoiceOver support into the format by allowing authors to supply accessibility descriptions for widgets. This gives the potential to create the most accessible learning experience the blind have ever known.

To create one of these new electronic books, one uses the free iBooks Author app, which any Mac user can get in the Mac App Store. I tried it with VoiceOver, but got confused and trapped in a text box. Others have had better luck. Reading the help files would probably help. I really hope the blind can use this tool, and that Apple will make it as accessible as possible. I want to publish my book about meditation when I finish it. I still consider the app a tremendous step for Apple, and hope publishers will make full use of it and its accessibility features. Think of all the kids this will help.

To participate in a class electronically, one now uses iTunes U. I have always felt intrigued by this category in iTunes, and now it has its own app. It allows teachers to create online classes with a syllabus, course material in the form of iBooks, and study aids thanks to the interactive features of Keynote and HTML5/Javascript. A student can then browse and sign up for classes. Once they’ve signed up, they can view the materials, make notes, and do the exercises just as they would in a traditional class. I would have loved this as a kid. I await the day I can finish my Computer Science degree with my iPad from the comfort of my living room recliner.

Today’s event shows that Apple still recognizes the importance of education. It gives me a warm feeling to imagine how these developments will benefit the everyone, especially blind students. I know firsthand that having access to technology at a young age makes all the difference. I went to St. Lucy’s Day School for the Blind. They had Apples which talked. I bought one and started programming very soon thereafter. Now that school has kids making cute videos with iPads. Apple, you’ve done it again!

Epilog: Every apple has a worm. Apple has imposed some very severe restrictions in their end user licensing agreement for iBooks Author. If you write a book using iBooks Author, you can only publish it through Apple if you make a profit. If Apple wants to truly start a revolution, they must practice what they preach about their love of open standards. Restrictions will only hamper their efforts. They will have to address this issue if they want to succeed.

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!

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