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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.

My Battle with Verizon to Save Money and Retain Power

March 09, 2012

I just fought an epic battle with Verizon. I thought I would document it here, and give some tips for power users. Get ready for a confusing and ultimately victorious account.

My Mom and I both moved into condos wired for FiOS already. When Mom called them to move her services, they told her they did not offer FiOS and to install a satellite dish on her roof. She informed them that condos don’t have roofs and called back. The next person told her that in fact they do offer FiOS and transferred her over. Since she had standard residential services things went easily. They did not go so easily for me.

I got FiOS in my old house as soon as it came out in 2009. Since I run a number of services on a Linux machine, I wanted a static IP. They did not offer that through residential and still don’t, so told me to get my internet through their business center. For a while I had that arrangement: a phone and cable bundle through residential, and my awesome unrestricted internet through business. It got a little confusing having two bills, but it worked.

When I moved, I wanted to see about trimming things down, consolidating things, and saving money. They told me what they told me before, and I left my services intact and just had things transferred. I figured I would deal with modifications after the move since I had enough else to deal with. In retrospect I should have just switched everything over to residential then. It would have saved me a lot of problems and money.

The Verizon techs came at 08:30 A.M. on the day after I moved and installed my services. They did an awesome job putting up with my weird demands, such as wanting to use my own router. I also asked them to run an ethernet instead of a coaxial connection, which they did. They also ran a phone cord so I’d have it by my computer. The poor guy expended the most effort installing the stupid cable box. I kept telling him I could hardly use the damn thing anyway since I can’t see its visual menus, but it didn’t matter. He wanted it working! It just would not work and they did not give him the right tools. Verizon take note: your techs feel under-equipped unhappy! Still, the guy did his best and finally left at around 05:00 in the evening.

About a week ago, I got my bill for the business internet. It had a $99.99 charge for the stupid router they give to everyone that I won’t use anyway. It also had a $149.99 activation charge for the internet. I did not want to pay either of these charges. The activation fee seemed especially annoying. They never said anything about that!

The calls started on Monday. I took care of the router easily enough. They said they would send a return kit and I just can send that back and they will refund the charge. Good enough. The activation charge came from the fact that I had a single service on business, the internet. I explained my configuration to them but it mattered not. So it begins.

After a lot of talking, the people in the business center said I could bring my phone over to business, then pay $127.99 a month for those. I would lose cable but I would save money and I don’t watch cable much anyway. That sounded good. They said they would transfer me back to residential, where I would cancel my order for those services. Then, business would pick up that order and move them over to their side. It sounded a little complicated but I did.

It took them ten minutes to disconnect everything. I felt kind of amazed and the tech in business agreed. He had given me his email address and this remained my sole way of correspondence through this madness. At least that worked. He asked if I could move it to Thursday. This happened on Monday. He said they needed 3-5 business days. I called back Residential, but everything had gone through. Business told me that they would proceed as fast as they could.

On Tuesday I got another email. “We have a problem.” I could not have my old phone number, the number I’ve had for over twenty years. It seems residential uses digital voice and business does not. He gave me a choice: either proceed and lose my beloved number, or cancel the order. This would mean reverting to the previous billing configuration as well. I decided to revert and consider my options. I felt angry and needed dinner.

After some time I realized what I had to do. I had to transfer my internet to residential so I could take advantage of a bundle. I would just have to put up with the stupid limitations of a residential connection, including a dynamic IP and port 25 blocking. I’ll go over how to circumvent these problems later. The more I thought about it the more sensible it seemed.

Wednesday came and I had no phone services. I would have to use a low quality cell connection to do everything. The iPhone rules, but a cell phone sounds like a cell phone. I emailed my contact in business and told him I had no phone service, and asked if he had cancelled the order. He wrote back that he had. I figured they just had to get everything connected or whatever. The day ended, but I still had no phone service.

By Thursday I had enough! I got an email back saying that business had cancelled the order, but I would have to call residential to get my service turned back on. Now that I look through previous emails it does say that I would have to call residential, but the full meaning of this didn’t quite hit me until then. So I sat for a day without service just because of this little misunderstanding.

Verizon has a serious communication problem between their departments. The residential side cannot access the business side, and the business side cannot access the residential side. This proved an increasing source of frustration. I began getting bounced around so much I don’t even know what happened or who I talked to. I remembered that part from The Pirates of Silicon Valley when Steve Jobs yells: “You people are a bunch of clock punching morons! I need Artists!”

At one point I found myself talking to someone in residential about my plan. She told me I could do it, and that she would conference us in with the retention department in the business center. This would coordinate the cancellation of my business internet with the activation of my residential internet. That sounded great. The phone rang. A woman from business picked up. The woman from residential had vanished! No! I felt trapped and alone. I could hear Hunter Thompson yelling: “You scurvy shyster bastards! I’m a doctor of journalism!”

The woman in business listened to the story so far and seemed to offer a ray of hope. She said that they could transfer me to business after all, but it just takes a little more work. I began to get excited. She put me on hold. She came back and said some encouraging things. She put me on hold again. She came back and told me that she didn’t realize I had a phone number from another area and that in fact they could not do it after all oh sorry. I told her of my plan to transfer my internet to residential, then get a bundle and have the activation charge waved. She said it would work, but that I would have to talk to someone in residential to get the activation fee waved. Finding ourselves back at square one, she transferred me back to residential. At least she had a good attitude.

I found myself talking to a new woman in residential. I explained my story for the seventy-eighth time. She sympathized, and we talked about the various bundles they offer. She sold me the fastest internet they offer (35 mbps up/down), telephone, and cable for $99.99. This sounded great. SHe understood about transferring the business internet. She gave me a temporary phone number, and assured me that I would have my old number back in a day or so. She told me I could keep the DVR I already had. This sounded great. I asked her about getting a refund for the activation charge. I told her what the business people had said. She told me that I had to talk to them since the charge happened on my business account, but they would do it now that I had placed this order. I began to get a headache. This did not sound so great. Back to Business.

The guy in business seemed to have a problem with his computer. It “crashed” for lack of a better word. I sat on hold for a while looking at dynamic DNS providers. After a while, he came back on and said that he had to reboot the system. After more time past, he said that he would have to try to place the order later. He assured me that he would have it placed by 08:00 AM, in time for the residential internet. I could only hope for the best, and say a quick prayer to Goddess. The image of a crazy woman goddess of confusion ruling over the material world made perfect sense, completely reaffirming my faith in Discordianism.

I then brought up the $149.99 activation charge, since now I had proof that I had internet through them in the form of the order number. He brusquely told me that they could not just credit my account. I explained that I had simply transferred my service, and at no point did anyone mention anything about a $150 activation fee. If they had, surely I would have just gone with residential to start with. He insisted that he could not credit me, since I had purchased a new installation of a single service. I insisted that residential told me that business had to credit me, since the charge happened on a business account. That made logical sense, so it meant nothing. After bantering back and forth, he finally agreed to roll back the order to the beginning of the month, which would credit me for that month’s worth of internet, around $109. We said our good byes. By this point I had to take a shit, so did.

On Friday I woke up and to my delight, found all my services working, though with a few little glitches. I had to reconfigure my router which went flawlessly. I also had to update addresses in a few servers, perfectly normal. I still had my temporary number, but that would get resolved. I had done it. I had won the battle and with a few easy technical tricks, retained my power. Now I will show you how.

First, I will share a tip anyone can use. It involves updating your DNS server. If you don’t know how a DNS server works, then for the sake of the internet’s freedom please learn. Basically, a DNS server takes an internet domain name such as “behindthecurtain.us” and resolves it into a string of numbers called an IP address like “97.107.140.179”. To find out these numbers, your router contacts a DNS server. By default, Verizon FiOS routers come configured to use special Verizon servers with some nasty little surprises. Thiese servers give Verizon an easy way to know every single domain name you visit. They also help target the advertisements you see when you type an incorrect URL. Fortunately, you can fix this rather easily.

First, log into your router. You do this by going to a web browser and opening its address. If you don’t know the address try 192.168.1.1, or check the documentation which came with it. Now find where you enter the DNS servers. If you use the shitty router they give you, just go to the My network icon, and then click Network Connections on the left menu. Now find your connection. Look for something like “Broadband” which shows as connected. Go down to settings and choose the DNS servers from the drop down menu. I ripped off these instructions from this article. By contrast, if you use Tomato USB as I do, go to Basic, then Network. So simple. If you have a different router, just find where you’d enter the DNS. If you used the settings Verizon gave you, then you will see a sequence of numbers ending in “.12”. Change the 2 to a 4 so it reads “.14”. This uses Verizon’s DNS servers without the nastiness. You could also use a service like Open DNS. if you wish. Bottom line: get off the default servers.

Now we will discuss IP addresses, the things domain names resolve to. Business FiOS offers static IPs. This gives an easy way to refer to a machine which would never change. Residential does not offer this service. It offers dynamic IPs. These addresses come from a pool, and renew often. I knew I would need to use a service which would give me a constant domain name which would resolve to my changing dynamic IP.

A number of these Dynamic DNS services exist. I worried about using one. Would a stream of data continue without interruption? Could I get it working easily? Would it cause everything to break? I wrestled with these questions and battled with CAPTCHAs. I finally settled on NoIP, because they had a number where I could talk to a human who helped a blind user set up a free account to get free services. Very nice! Tomato once again came to my rescue, as it has a NoIP client built right in. THis means that I do not have to run some program on a computer which could fail, it runs right on my router. And I feel pleased to say that everything works flawlessly.

We will now dive into the mysterious world of port 25 blocking. Most residential internet service providers, including Verizon, block port 25, used for sending email. They had to start doing this when lots of Windows machines began getting infected by malware which turned the machines into hapless little spam zombies, running their own miniature mail servers and pumping out spam. Once again Windows caused the problem! THis block means that you can send email through Verizon’s servers, but cannot connect to any other mail server. This means if you use your own mail servers you run into a problem. I did not invest hours of my time just to use some other mail server, so I resolved to fix this.

The easiest way around this problem involves not using port 25 at all. Using SSL uses alternate ports, and gives you a more secure connection. If you use Postfix, just uncomment these lines in /etc/postfix/master.cf. This will allow you to connect on port 465 and 587. Remember to update your mail clients to use SSL.

smtps inet n – – – – smtpd

-o smtpd_tls_wrappermode=yes

-o smtpd_sasl_auth_enable=yes

-o smtpd_client_restrictions=permit_sasl_authenticated,reject

-o milter_macro_daemon_name=ORIGINATING

If you use another mail server, you could always write a port forwarding rule in iptables. To do this just run:

# /sbin/iptables -t nat -I PREROUTING -p tcp –dport 465 -j REDIRECT –to- port 25

Which redirects all requests from port 465, the alternate SMTP port, to port 25 internally.

That will do it for the tech tips. I hope you enjoyed them and learned something useful. I also hope you learned something from my battle with Verizon. You know you’ve talked to them too much when you have their hold music in your head.

Aftershokz!

February 28, 2012

I feel very excited to review the Aftershokz bone conducting headphones. These new headphones use bone conduction to deliver sound, leaving your ears open to the outside environment. Originally developed for special ops, they have now found their way into the public sector. They help the sighted and the blind even more.

As with many good things, synchronicity surrounded my discovery of Aftershokz. I wanted a way to hear my iPhone’s GPS while still leaving my ears free to hear my environment, especially given my recent interest in echolocation. At first I wondered about some kind of shoulder mounted speaker. I thought someone would have done this, but I found nothing. I started using a small earpiece, but it did obscure my hearing slightly in my left ear where I wore it. Still, it worked for the time being. As I pondered my options, I saw a tweet about these headphones, and I knew Goddess had answered my prayers!

I wondered how they would help the blind, and others did as well. I found a great review and podcast from SeroTalk. It got me excited and I ordered a pair of the mobile headphones on the spot. I received them yesterday and have had a chance to play with them a little. They deliver as promised, and I really enjoy using them.

The headphones look sort of like a little pair of regular headphones, but with some differences. The band wraps around the back of the head, and the ear pads sit in front of the earlobes right where the sinuses begin. Wearing them feels very comfortable. They have a single cord on the left side which connects to the battery box, and in the case of the mobile headphones, the inline microphone. The battery box also has a power light, and two buttons. The top button turns the headphones on and off, and the bottom button acts like the middle button no a pair of Apple headphones, allowing for answering calls, and playing and pausing music. The battery box also has a hefty clip to keep everything nice and untangled. The cord then continues down to a standard 3.5mm jack, the kind used by iPhones and iPods. The box also comes with a little extension cord and a USB charger which plugs into the headphones.

After plugging the USB charger into my iMac and letting the headphones charge for three hours, I wanted to try them out. I turned them on and hooked them up to my iPhone and fired up Ariadne GPS. I walked with my family to Hawthornes Cafe, an awesome local restaurant. To my delight, everything worked as expected. I could hear my location while carrying on a perfectly normal conversation with my family.

The sound has a slightly tinny quality to it, but I sort of expected that. I would not consider them for serious listening, but then again I did not get them for that purpose. For human and synthetic speech they sound just fine. The sound has an interesting quality since it comes through your bones. It sort of sounds like it comes from within your head as when wearing headphones, but something does seem a little different. I like it.

Later I had a call, and again the voice sounded fine. I asked how the mic sounded, and she said she didn’t even know I used the headphones and thought I just used the normal microphone on the iPhone. We talked for four hours and my ears never hurt or felt uncomfortable in any way, plus I could rome freely around my condo. This beats wearing headphones which makes navigating impossible even in a familiar space, or wearing one headphone over your ear and letting the other rest against the head to keep an ear open, or just leaving it on speaker phone and manipulating the phone while doing other tasks. This use really impressed me and showed the real potential of bone conduction.

I also played some music through them. First I loaded up a goa trance track by Psychonaut. I could actually feel the bass thumping into my head through the ear pads, though lower frequencies do sound a bit muted. It felt unique. Then I put on a mellow ambient track by the Orb. While the headphones don’t deliver the full bass response of standard headphones, they sound just fine for casual background listening.

The freedom offered by Aftershokz feels so wonderful. Now a blind person can hear any audio they desire without sacrificing their orientation and mobility. My Mom said I look like a space cadet because of the shining power indicator, and it sort of feels that way, walking and talking with a GPS overlaid onto my reality. I can see how soldiers would benefit from this technology. I recommend these to all blind users. They fill my needs perfectly, and arrived at the perfect time. They range in price from $59.99-$79.99. You can preorder them now and the site also has a link to order them immediately. Go get them now, you will not feel disappointed.

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!

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