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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.

A Trip to the Mac App Store

January 06, 2011

Today, Apple released Mac OS 10.6.6, which adds the Mac App Store. I wanted to give a sneak peak, especially from an accessibility point of view. I also wanted to share some thoughts on the matter.

Before I got my iPhone, I wondered why everyone kept talking about apps. For those who don’t know, an app refers to a software application, and up to now it meant software running on a mobile platform such as an iPhone. That has now changed. An app also usually has a very affordable price, anywhere from free to $5.99 seems to cover most. Despite their affordable price, if you ask most long-term iPhone users how much they’ve spent on apps, they will grudgingly tell you that they would rather not know. Apple made a very smart move offering software at such affordable prices, but will this clash with the established industry and its price points?

The Mac App Store behaves as advertised. It acts just like the app store on an iDevice. It has a toolbar with categories and a search field, then the main html area with the content. Within the content area, you will either see groups or links. For VoiceOver users, just interact with a group and you will see the link for more information, and the button to purchase the app. Activate the link, then go past it and you will see the information. For links, just activate them and a new page will come up, just as it would in Safari. I feel glad to report that I found the Mac App Store a fully accessible experience, and as satisfying as my sighted counterparts. Apps install immediately, just as they do on an iDevice. I indeed found it very enjoyable. Almost too enjoyable.

For some time, I felt confused as to what exactly the Mac app store would offer. At first, it seemed like they offer the same programs you could download and buy from traditional channels. I saw software with both traditional software prices and lower app-like prices. It seemed like a good mix. The app store knows if you already have something from iWork and iLife installed. It also correctly identified TextWrangler and Yojimbo. I had already installed these myself in the standard way one installs third party software. I started to get confused again. While reading Bare Bones Software’s Mac App Store FAQ, they said that the app store versions of two of their products did not include command line utilities to comply with Apple’s app submission policies. And here we go. This blurs the distinction between third-party software and apps.

Apple sells the software in iWork and iLife as individual pieces of software. I kind of wish I would have known this, as I recently purchased iWork and iLife. From iWork I wanted Pages and Numbers, and from iLife I just wanted GarageBand. Purchasing iWork and iLife cost around $120 for the complete suites. Pages and Numbers cost $19.99, and GarageBand costs $14.99. That would have saved me a considerable amount of money.

Apple has done something very interesting here. Users will love the influx of affordable software and effortless one-click install. It may even lead to Mac increasing its market share, something I would certainly welcome, especially among the blind. A lot of developers will see their programs exposed to a much greater distribution and potential market. Apple will most certainly make a killing!

But what about the traditional software developers? This article got me thinking last night. It paints a pretty grim picture for traditional Mac developers, seeing them overrun by a new world of cheap apps. We will now see the merging of two different cultures. One group, the traditional developers, work in a very established environment dating back to the eighties when the first Macs came out. They can charge $20-$40 for a utility, $50 for a game, and more for specialty programs. They also feel very loyal towards their Macs!

The other group, app developers, come from a much newer market and culture. The mobile app market feels much more like the wild west. Authorities don’t even know how to regulate it. Apps come and go, as do the most brutal reviews, and the apps that endure can become legendary. Before today, apps exclusively ran on mobile platforms, meaning they couldn’t do as much due to hardware limitations. Developers have managed to do some pretty amazing things, but most apps will handle a very specific thing. They also cost far less than traditional software, at just a few dollars for most. And therein lies the problem.

Will someone still pay $40 for a quality piece of software? Can these companies continue to sell their software at standard prices, or has Apple lowered the guillotine upon the succulent necks of their most devout group: Mac developers? I don’t think so. Hopefully, Apple knows better than to piss off the group of people who stuck with them through the turbulent nineties, and without whom they would not exist today and enjoy their current status as industry kings. They’ve done so much good for the blind. The MacBook Air looks so beautiful. And that apple logo feels so cool!

Still, something feels uneasy to me, like a character from a Vincent Price movie. I think of Wikileaks, how the establishment hates freedom, and how they want to regulate the Internet. What better way to do that than by regulating the very software allowed on a machine? Will this lead to a trend where Apple, Microsoft, and Google become gatekeepers, regulating the programs which can run on their operating systems? Will we eventually have to jailbreak all our computers? If we see them reach for the tired excuse of national security, we should immediately drop everything and run to GNU/Linux. I really hope that doesn’t happen. A lot of people love their Apples! I feel glad I’ve learned to love both. I also feel glad knowing that humans always find ways to adapt, programmers especially. It’ll work itself out. The Goddess prevails!

Green or Gone

January 04, 2011

I thought I’d start the new year off with a little humor. In a blog post, Jason Scott said that for him, the combination of green text on a black background invokes a feeling of nostalgic calm. This may relate to the joke below.

Recently, a friend and I had a conversation, and as we sometimes do, we began reminiscing about our old computers. He had an Apple II/+ and I had an Apple II/E. This would have happened around 1983-1984. They both still work! What great machines.

We both taught ourselves to program in APplesoft BASIC because we enjoyed it, and because we had to. Back then, if you wanted to make your computer do something new, you probably had to write it yourself. I can still recall my “Ah-ha” moment when I realized I could make the computer do whatever I wanted by programming it with instructions. I knew right then I would have to learn to do it, and what I wanted to do when I grew up.

These computers had more limited configurations. We laughed about this in our conversation. My II/E had 64K of RAM, which I had upgraded to 128K and felt like the king of the world. Now my arithmetic would have twice the precision!

My friend then brought up another point. “And they only had those monochrome monitors – green or gone. I remember hooking the computer up to my parent’s color television so I could play games in color.” I then had a sudden very funny realization. “Now wait a minute. I learned how to program graphics – switching modes, plotting pixels, changing color, etc. The code looked right and I could see it in my head, but sighted people never seemed impressed. You mean to tell me that the whole time, it just came out all green?” “Yes, unless you had it hooked up to a color television. Green or gone!” I laughed and laughed.

I wrote this code which I imagined produced some pretty cool graphics – curtains of deep ocean blues and vibrant organic greens, weird waving lines of magenta and cyan, showers of red and yellow sparks like stars, just all kinds of cool stuff. Nobody cared. It looked better in my head. Green or gone!

The Death of John Lennon

December 09, 2010

I have always loved music. My dad had a great stereo system and tons of vinyl. I remember listening to a lot of bands, seeing the Moody Blues in concert, and eventually discovering the Beatles.

Something about the Beatles always intrigued me. I couldn’t put my finger on it then and don’t know if I can now. I just know that I listened to a LOT of Beatles. I remember at one point comparing everything else I heard to the Beatles, and my Dad saying: “Stop thinking Beatles.” But I didn’t want to.

I heard about the mystery surrounding the Paul is Dead rumors, and that if you played songs backwards you would hear things. I already knew about playing things backwards and hearing things from playing with my American Printing House for the Blind four-track tape recorder, the big metal one, people blind since the eighties will know exactly the machine I mean. I worried that people would consider it “devil music,” and thought that I had to take care, so clandestinely recorded Magical Mystery Tour onto a cassette for further experimentation. This just made me even more curious about the Beatles.

I have always loved the song Revolution Number Nine. I remember recording the White Album onto cassette some time later. I guess I didn’t worry about people finding out, or perhaps I figured I’d just do it with Mom there so nobody else would know. Anyways, I left to go do something, and the record got stuck in a groove during the song. The needle kept skipping back over a short segment in the already surreal collage, probably driving my Mom crazy. When I came back, she had stopped the recording. I eventually got it on a crappy tape and thought I had obtained a precious jewel. That song sounds novel even now.

A year or two later, I discovered that a lot of people must like the Beatles, because two radio stations had weekend shows dedicated to them. One, Ticket to Ride, played Beatles music for hours. The other, the Beatles: the Days in their Lives, chronicled their entire career through their music and interviews. This got my attention and I listened faithfully, now completely drawn in, and finally getting some context. This probably happened around age nine.

I felt sad when the Beatles broke up, but the series continued chronicling each of the members’ solo careers. I figured out that John Lennon didn’t like violence and wanted peace. After all, he sang that song, Give Peace a Chance. That made sense to my young mind. I didn’t think the story would ever end, you don’t think about that when young, but it did. The series ended with John Lennon’s assassination.

I remember feeling stunned. I couldn’t understand how someone who loved peace could get killed in a violent act. Even then I understood the gross contradiction. I felt sad the whole day. Not only did John Lennon get murdered, but a favorite radio series which had run for months had come to an end. I think a part of my childhood did as well. I called my friend Tony to tell him the horrible news about John Lennon. “He must have been a good man.” he replied.

It probably seemed cute to some that a kid would feel so profoundly moved upon hearing of the death of John Lennon, but it didn’t feel cute to me, and on the thirtieth anniversary of his death I can still recall that day for me very clearly. Of course I don’t remember the actual day, that would have made me around three, but I know others do. I can’t even imagine.

We would probably have a lot more to talk about had Lennon survived. He would have certainly had something to say about the Wikileaks controversy. Power to the people! I also wonder what he would have thought about digital music. Would he have clung to an outdated model, or would he have embraced this new model? Would he have cared that someone can download a ten album discography of his in a half an hour? What creative ways would he have thought of to use the Internet? Would he have left America and gone back to England by now, fearing the increasing police state? What would he have done in response to the wars going on now? How would he have affected our collective spirit? We will never know. We only know that he continues to move us thirty years later. People will know the name John Lennon for hundreds of years, unless of course we undergo a massive solar catastrophe and lose all our records of this age. I wonder what he would think about that. Turn me on, dead man!

The Seven Macaw Horror Picture Show

November 08, 2010

At midnight on Halloween, I watched the Rocky Horror Picture Show. I have enjoyed it for years, and like many have made it a tradition to watch it at this time. The next night, I celebrated four Ahau, the date in the Mayan calendar on which the long count begins and ends, the one that has become misinterpreted and which has people wrongly freaking out about 2012. As part of this celebration, I listened to a session of lectures given by John Major Jenkins talking about the mythic and calendrical mysteries behind 2012. These two celebrations in proximity finally led me to discover the elusive meaning behind Rocky Horror, and deepened my understanding of the Mayan mysteries.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show parodies sci-fi and midnight B movies. It tells the story of an engaged couple, Brad and Janet. They go for a drive on a rainy night, get a flat tire, and end up taking refuge in a strange castle. Frank-N-Furter, a “sweet transvestite from Transexual, Transylvania” leads the group of unconventional conventionalists. He creates a muscle man sort of like Frankenstein so that he can have a perfect lover, but the experiment goes wrong. Eventually, Frank traps his servants, Brad, Janet, and their friend Dr. Scott. He puts them under mind control and makes them give themselves over to pleasure, swimming around in a pool. Dr. Scott resists, and two of the servants revolt, killing a servant, Rocky, and Frank. The humans go free, and the castle returns to its home planet.

The Hero Twins make up one of the most important myths in the Mayan religion. At one point, they must defeat a god named Seven Macaw. This false god claims to have ruled over the sun and moon in the twilight of the previous age. He has the form of a bird, but with jewels for eyes and teeth, to say nothing of his fabulous crown or other wealth. The Hero Twins use Seven Macaw’s vanity against him. They bring in two other gods disguised as poor villagers. The two gods tell Seven Macaw that they just work as a humble dentist and doctor. Seven Macaw, upon hearing this, requests that they fix his eyes and teeth. Instead of healing him, the gods remove the precious jewels, and Seven Macaw dies of shame.

Both Frank-N-Furter and Seven Macaw preside over a self-centered creation. They eventually become lost in it, and their vanity finally does them in. Clearly, this represents a core archetype or story. It shows us the danger of succumbing to our ego and its base desires. By falling, they show us how we might succeed.

A number of years ago, I found myself in a Rocky Horror chat room. I ended up talking to its owner who knew the whole movie line for line, and who could type it in real time, rather impressive really. We got to talking about the deeper meaning of the movie. He said that once, he went to a live showing while on acid. “When you watch it on acid, you learn that it doesn’t make sense, just like life.” This seemed like a satisfactory enough explanation to the story’s continuing appeal, and the friend who first got me into Rocky Horror said something similar. “Austin, you’re trying to find a deeper meaning to Rocky Horror, and it can’t be done.” Even though I accepted this, I still felt that something deeper must exist, something which has kept the cult phenomenon going for such a long time. I believe I have finally found it.

If I had to sum up the message of Rocky Horror, I would say that it has the same message as the Seven Macaw myth: Don’t become lost in your own self-centered creation.

The WaterField Designs MacBook Air Sleeve

November 04, 2010

As soon as Steve Jobs announced the 11-inch MacBook Air, I knew that they would represent the future of blind note-taking devices, so I bought one immediately. Following on this thought, I knew I would need to find a case. The Apple store didn’t even have any. Some quick searching turned up the first company to manufacture one: WaterField Designs.

The site has a friendly feel with lots of positive testimonials, so I felt good about this. I selected my make and model. I then had a bit of a difficult question. It asks you to select your orientation – horizontal or vertical. I chose the vertical orientation because it can go in other bags easier and I figured you never know. I kept trying to picture it in my mind, since I can’t see the pictures. I didn’t get it quite right, but interestingly I still feel like I made the right purchase. Most laptop cases have a horizontal orientation. The laptop sits in the case in the way you would use it. This makes the case’s width greater than its length. In vertical orientation, the laptop sits in the case on its side. This makes its height greater than its width. Originally, I really pictured and wanted a standard horizontal orientation. At first when it arrived, I felt discouraged that I picked the wrong one. When I actually put it on and wore it around, however, I realized that I may have unintentionally made the right choice. With something as light as the MacBook Air at only 2.3 pounds, a sleeker profile makes it sit nicely against the hip and leg, instead of sticking out and flopping around. I don’t know if a horizontally oriented case would actually cause this, maybe not, but either way I like it. It does also have another unintended advantage: you can charge it while it sits in the case. Actually, sleeve describes it better than a case, since the MacBook just slides into it. The inside feels like a cushion, keeping your beloved MacBook Air nice and protected. It also has a little pocket on the back for flat things, but no accessories. We’ll get back to that.

After I made my choice, I had to pick the finish. They offer leather or lead indium. As a vegetarian, I figure the less leather the better, so I picked lead indium, hoping it didn’t actually contain lead, but pretty much knowing how it would feel. I got that exactly right. It feels like a classy rough vinyl type of material. Very nice.

Next, I had to choose whether or not I wanted to add a flap. At this point the picture really started to form in my head. I thought of the crappy standard sleeve that came with my netbook. I imagined it jazzed up. Now I saw how the flap would come into play. If you don’t get one, you just get the sleeve, nothing else. I definitely wanted that, and again I guessed right. You definitely want the flap if you plan to carry this thing anywhere outside of another bag. Its size and material gives it a good weight, and it has a secure velcro snap. The inner part has a soft material as well to keep things nice and safe. Not seeing the pictures felt a little frustrating, but with no recourse I had to continue forward with no other way to go, just like Mr. Bilbo.

Now things got interesting, as it asked if I wanted a strap. Now I saw that they have a whole system to assemble your perfect case. I definitely wanted that, since I rightly figured that the sleeve didn’t have a handle. They offer two types of straps: a regular strap for $12, and a suspension strap for $22. I didn’t know the difference, but figured in for a penny in for a pound, so got the suspension strap. I guess the normal strap just has a single strap, but the suspension strap has the full deal. I didn’t realize luggage had so much to it. I love the strap – light and well-padded. I hardly feel anything when wearing it, like a friendly feather on my shoulder.

So far, I wondered where I’d put my chargers, random cables, and of course a disc of Taza Chocolate for emergencies. I figured since they had already gone this far, that they would have something. Indeed, the next step asked if I wanted a Piggyback Pouch! I love this thing. Just to go that extra mile, they offer it in a regular vinyl feel for $25, and with leather trim for $27. Again, I went with the standard $25 bag. It has two hooks on it, and they hook onto the same loops to which the straps connect. The bag has the same width as the sleeve. It hangs down and actually starts about a quarter way down the sleeve, and ends about an eighth of the way from the bottom. I just made rough estimates with my fingers, but hopefully you get the picture. If you don’t, just go to their site and see for yourself, assuming you can. The Piggyback Pouch has a zipper opening under a little flap. Inside, it has a large pocket with a smaller soft felt-like pocket with a seam along the top connecting the two. Beautiful.

That completed my selection process. The entire case cost $62.00… or so I thought. They have had so much going on – probably from nerds like me ordering MacBook Air cases – that they had some problems with their web site, and the case actually cost $99.00. They made this clear to me in an email, and of course I opted to continue. Nothing i could do but say a quick prayer to Goddess and hope for the best.

Fortunately, everything met or exceeded my expectations. Every piece has fine workmanship. You won’t find anything cheap on this bag. It won’t fall apart in the rain or anything like that. It keeps my beloved safe and secure. I don’t worry about that anymore. They really have everything well thought out. All the pieces fit together to make a simple and sophisticated package. The order arrived very quickly as well. I would definitely recommend dealing with WaterField Designs for your case needs. They have tons of cases, not just those for the MacBook Air. They just did it first, and I needed one now. I had some problems just because I couldn’t see the pictures, but I figured things out well enough, and I hope my descriptions help others. As I said with my netbook, having a good case completes the set up. Now I have a fully functional note-taker which functions beyond my wildest dreams, and a smart piece of luggage to keep it in. Glorious!

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