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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.

On CBC’s Spark!

October 30, 2010

A few weeks ago, Dan Misener from the CBC contacted me, asking if I would like to do an interview for their weekly technology radio show Spark. Of course, I agreed. We did a great interview, which they posted in full, and last night the actual radio show went online. Go here to check it out. You can also use the controls at the end of this post to play or download it directly.

I felt very satisfied with it. As an audio person myself, it always pisses me off when I do something for a show, then someone bungles it in the editing stage and it sounds like crap. This did NOT happen with the CBC! They do good work. The show even started with a few samples from our warming up, alternating counting to get our recorders synchronized. I felt that gave the show a great tech touch right from the beginning. I would have found that cool even if it didn’t feature me.

The “User Friendly” program first talks about technology to try to bring the advantages of paper to the digital world. Paper gives people the more analog ability to freely write and associate things, which does not translate to digital storage. We will continue to see advances along these fronts in hardware and software design. I enjoyed using Orgmode for Emacs, now I have to find something similar for the Mac.

The program next talks about busses. I can relate to this. A few weeks ago, I had to meet a friend at a bus. I had no idea where she’d end up, so asked my sister for some sighted help. As we got in the car she asked, “Where’s the bus stop?” “Um, I don’t know, that’s kind of why I asked for your help. Don’t you know?” “No, I never take the bus.” she said. Even locals get confused by busses, and I welcome any improvements, especially with regards to accessibility, smart phones, and the like. I found it interesting that once again accessibility can become a mainstream issue, as everyone would enjoy hearing the stops and other information announced in a clear voice.

Next, the program features none other than the Dalai Lama. Wow! I saw him in Central Park in 2000. Some shady dude giving off creepy Illuminati vibes stood at the entrance, offering “Free purified water from Coca Cola!” with a false cheeriness. We all turned it down – purity doesn’t first come to mind when thinking of Coca Cola. They picked the wrong crowd, most meditators would agree I’d think. The presentation left us feeling awed. The Dalai Lama and his entourage managed to put down a sacred vibe right in the middle of Central Park, an amazing thing to feel. In this segment, he talked about his views on technology. People can have lots of stuff but still feel unhappy. Technology can bring us things instantly. Still as always, true happiness comes from within. I share in the optimism that technology can do good in the world. I decided to start a business for that reason.

After that, a cool guy came on who works as an editor for the best news site on the net, The Onion! It always cracks me up when some foolish reporter picks up an Onion headline as real news, and propagates it in an article. He talked about email lists, and their advantages over other forms of social networking. Companies control these networks, and companies fail. When the networks fail, all the information and contacts go with them. Email represents a more intimate and permanent way of communication. He said it seemed so nineties, and that made me smile. I think of that as just yesterday, but not really! I ran a dial-up bulletinboard for years, and that had private mail, so email didn’t seem especially novel to me when I made the transition. Still, he got it right, you’d feel excited when you got one. His points made me want to set up a special Behind the Curtain mailing list. I’ll have to look into that.

Following all these awesome guests came my interview. If you read my blog you probably have heard everything in it, but again I felt very impressed by their editing job. We each recorded our respective ends – a double ender as they call it. I used my Olympus DM520 Digital Voice Recorder, and just got the .wav file from there, encoded it as a .flac, and threw it on a local web server for them. They mixed it all and presented it back. We went through some iPhone and VoiceOver basics, though if you want real instruction you should check out Apple’s page. We had a great time doing the interview and it came out wonderfully.

They concluded the program by talking about something fascinating, interfacing with the brain to control a computer. A guy actually composed a tweet using an EKG. They talk about some other cool things too. This stuff really intrigues me. The mind truly represents the final frontier, as any trekker knows.

Meet my MacBook Air!

October 27, 2010

What do you get when you combine an iPad with a MacBook? Pure heaven!

Ding dong. My doorbell rang at nine something in the morning. Fortunately, I had already awoken, and lay in bed collecting my thoughts for the day. As soon as I heard the doorbell, I immediately realized what it hopefully meant. I threw on my slippers and rushed downstairs to see the Fedex guy with a package. I signed and thanked him. “New computer?” he asked. “Yep! The new MacBook Air! Thanks!” “I’m just glad you were home.” he said as he left. I felt the same way.

I brought the box upstairs and opened it, revealing the most beautiful laptop I had ever put my hands on! At first, I wondered if they had sent me an iPad by mistake, since it has the same aluminum enclosure, but I quickly brushed that thought off as I found the front indentation to open the screen. I gently lifted it, and beheld the perfect keyboard and amazing glass trackpad. The keys feel great, not too rigid, but a little mushy, but not to that extreme either, a good balance. I find it very pleasant to type quickly on it. This text flows very naturally. The glass trackpad feels like a Magic Trackpad in the center of the bottom below the keyboard. It feels so liberating to finally own a laptop with a trackpad I can actually use! Thank you again Apple! It has two USB ports, one on either side across from each other. The whole thing feels so cool, with its one-piece enclosure. I can’t quite explain it, but it feels totally different than holding a laptop or netbook. It feels more sturdy, you feel more at one with the frame of the machine. The whole thing just feels very solid, like a firm home foundation always with you even when on the road. It has a special feel about it for sure. Perhaps it has to do with its environmental considerations. The speakers sound wonderful, as they reside below the keyboard. My Netbook’s speakers resided on the bottom, rather boneheaded when you think about it, as when you set it down especially on your lap, it muffles the sound. This impacts a blind user who must hear the speech on the computer, especially in a loud remote environment. The MacBook Air has a wonderful sound to match its design. Alex sounds rich and full, with plenty of bass. I feel very impressed. By the way, when they say,` Instant On, they mean Instant On! It turns on instantly! This happens because it does not have a hard drive, using flash memory for its storage.

How do I know all this? Because I managed to get the thing talking all by myself! After a little orientation and bumbling around, I figured out how to get VoiceOver going, and it went well. At first, hitting VO-FN-F8 said “English” and seemed to bring up this weirdo menu where up and down arrows made a screeching sound. I hit enter on that and said a quick prayer to Goddess. After the opening promotional video, somehow I got VoiceOver going. It took a few tries, but I got it. I felt amazed! Now why the hell would someone want a PAC Mate?

I quickly got things up to speed. The migration assistant helped, and I installed Xcode and got all my Unix goodness going. I can sit downstairs and ssh into my Linux machine upstairs and enjoy. It feels like having two computers in one. I feel so overwhelmed with love and beauty that I can hardly focus on a single topic.

I feel impressed by the suspend/resume. On most netbooks, if you shut the screen while the computer speaks text, the speaking stops, and it sometimes can cause errors. Once, I shut the screen while Alex spoke. When I opened the lid, it continued speaking from where it had stopped! Amazing!

Some criticize the processor, calling a dual core 1.2 or 1.4 ghz for the 11-inch model underpowered. I did upgrade the RAM, CPU, and Flash, so I did take that into consideration. However, let me put it in perspective. My first Apple computer didn’t have dual processors, but it did have dual floppy disc drives! So given that, I feel grateful for what I have right now. Some bemoan its short battery life. They advertise around five hours with the one I have. I will see how it stacks up running VoiceOver. Whatever the circumstance, I will just fall into a routine, charging it in the evening if necessary. My love will not diminish.

For the record, my MacBook as the following specs:

Height</p>
0.11-0.68 Inches</p>

Width</p>

: 11.8 Inches</p>

Depth</p> 
    
:   7.56 Inches</p> 
        
    Weight</p> 
        
    :   2.3 Pounds</p> 
            
        Processor</p> 
            
        :   1.6GHz Intel Core 2 Duo</p> 
                
            Memory</p> 
                
            :   4GB 1066MHz DDR3 SDRAM</p> 
                    
                Storage</p> 
                    
                :   128GB Flash Storage</p> 
                        
                    Accessories</p> 
                        
                    :   USB Ethernet Adapter</p> 
                            
                        Total cost</p> 
                            
                        :   $1428.00 </dl> 
                                
                            I recorded opening the box and getting the MacBook Air up and running with VoiceOver, in case you want the full vicarious experience. It drags a little in parts as real life can, but I still consider it a fun recording. 
                                
                            <div class="powerpress_player" id="powerpress_player_1053">
                              <audio class="wp-audio-shortcode" id="audio-773-7" preload="none" style="width: 100%;" controls="controls"><source type="audio/mpeg" src="http://96.245.209.9/curtain/meet_my_macbook_air.mp3?_=7" /><a href="http://96.245.209.9/curtain/meet_my_macbook_air.mp3">http://96.245.209.9/curtain/meet_my_macbook_air.mp3</a></audio>
                            </div>
                                
                            <p class="powerpress_links powerpress_links_mp3">
                              Podcast: <a href="http://96.245.209.9/curtain/meet_my_macbook_air.mp3" class="powerpress_link_pinw" target="_blank" title="Play in new window" onclick="return powerpress_pinw('http://blog.austinseraphin.com/?powerpress_pinw=773-podcast');" rel="nofollow">Play in new window</a> | <a href="http://96.245.209.9/curtain/meet_my_macbook_air.mp3" class="powerpress_link_d" title="Download" rel="nofollow" download="meet_my_macbook_air.mp3">Download</a>
                            </p>
                                
                            <!--powerpress_player-->

Let’s Go Skywatching!

October 09, 2010

For years I have sought ways for me as a blind person to relate to the night sky, especially since sighted people cannot seem to describe it. “Oh no. It’s always changing. Oh no no no, forget it, I could never describe it.” they say for some reason. It intrigues me that something can exist which transcends visual description. Sighted people may debate about the things they see in the night sky, but they cannot debate its existence, and yet they cannot describe it. Once again, Apple’s iDevices make it possible!

I can always remember loving stories about space. I watched the space shuttle launches as a kid, becoming intrigued with the radio communication. I had toy space shuttles. I had glow-in-the-dark stars, moons, and planets both as stickers on my wall, and as sheets and pillowcases. I could turn on a large black light and see the whole room illuminated in an eerie glow, pretending to see the night sky. I always wanted to go into outer space, maybe even go to the moon, or perhaps build a time machine and visit the future. Later, I became a trekker, a passion which remains to this day. In fact, Levar Burton, who played Geordi La Forge, the blind chief engineer, retweeted my iPhone article. How cool!

A few weeks ago, I heard a broadcast about the ancient Maya. They watched the sky incessantly, and constructed very complex calendars to aid them. Originally, they did this for survival reasons – navigation and agriculture. Eventually they developed the more occult aspects, but it all came back to the stars for them and many other ancient civilizations as well. I thought about using the sky for navigation. I wondered if they had an app to figure out your current location based on a picture of the night sky. Then I had another thought. Do they have an app that tells you the stars and constellations in the night sky as you point the iPhone at them? It turns out that several exist!

I decided to try Go Skywatch Planetarium. I liked how it said that it had a simple setup – just start it and go. That sounded about right, and it behaved as advertised. I turned it on, started pointing my iPhone around, and started hearing constellations! Amazing!

But something seemed wrong. At one point, it read “Mensa.” I remembered the Simpsons episode They Saved Lisa’s Brain, in which she joins Mensa. “Welcome to Mensa, the society for those with high IQs.” says Principal Skinner. “It’s also a constellation visible only from the southern hemisphere.” Lisa quickly responds. “She’s good. She’s very good.” notes Professor Frink. I felt glad I remembered this, because I realized that by pointing the iPhone down, it shows me the sky as if I stood on the ground in the southern hemisphere with the iPhone angled up. Think of a sphere and it should make sense. Now I felt doubly amazed!

I soon realized that the iPad makes an excellent choice for this app. This has nothing to do with function – you can do this on an iPhone, an iPad, or an iPod touch. It has to do with aesthetics. Holding a larger object in your hand seems to convey a better sense of the angles and positions of the stars. It feels more like actually holding a piece of the night sky in your hand.

It feels exhilarating to actually get a sense for these different stellar bodies, feeling the angles and imagining the distances between them. I can also get some idea of the constant change taking place within the night sky. While this does not actually give me a better idea of what the night sky looks like, it does, for the first time, give me a way to relate to its contents. Besides, a lot of constellations have cool names, so you can always use your imagination. I quickly began to learn some of them, and felt glad I took Latin in school. I’ve heard the constellations don’t look anything like their names, but I don’t care. Looking at Microscopium the Microscope through the reality augmentation of an app never designed for the blind running on an iPad seemed more than symbolic. And Perseus the Hero stands atop them all- at least he did last night.

Perhaps physically aligning oneself to these stars causes one to receive the energy of its archetype. Perhaps the Mayans, Egyptians, and the other ancient civilizations got it right after all. Perhaps not. Either way, I have found a new activity to enjoy, one I never thought possible.

I have prepared a complete audio demonstration. Just use the links below to play or download it. I’d recommend listening to it late at night through good stereo headphones.

South Park Sped Up by a Semitone

October 07, 2010

While watching South Park tonight, we noticed something which surprised us. Big thanks goes to Bec for noticing this right away, as she has perfect pitch. It took me a little longer, but I heard it too. The episode played at a faster speed, almost a semitone higher!

This might not seem like much to a non-audio person, but your brain does notice it on some level. To me, the music sounded thinner, and something just felt off. Bec says it gives her a headache. She has never noticed a Television show that has done this before, she has only heard this on Clear Channel radio stations. As a blind viewer, I can’t also help but wonder if sighted people notice the affect on video. They would have to speed that up as well to keep it synchronized with the audio. It sort of ills me out, because they just get away with doing it, and probably nobody notices.

Listen to Bec’s audio demonstration and hear for yourself. First, you will hear a very clear doorbell played at normal speed as it did when the episode first aired. Next, you will hear it as it aired tonight sped up. After that, you will hear a segment of music from the original episode, and then from tonight’s rearing. Notice how the original sounds fuller?

And why did Comedy Central do this? A segment has an average of eight fewer seconds. A show has three segments. This makes twenty-four (24) fewer seconds or thereabouts in total. Just enough time to show yet another ad for Jackass in 3D. Just what we wanted, and sandwiched in the middle, an ad for “Power to the People” a CD of John Lennon’s greatest hits. He would have loved that.

And they wonder why they have fewer viewers. In tonight’s season premier, Cartman becomes a Nascar driver, and does a podcast, and they really make it sound like it. Some audio person actually said: “Make this sound like some kid’s crappy podcast.” and equalized it to sound like a Laptop’s crappy internal microphone. To see such fine audio work wasted on commercialism disgusts me. Fair to note, they did not speed up the premier, but the point remains. Consumers must demand better. Do people know? Artists must demand better. Do Matt and Trey know? We all must demand better. If we don’t, we will live in a world with nothing but sped up processed content, with plenty of room for commercials.

Hearing Emoticons

October 05, 2010

As a programmer, it always amazes me when a simple feature makes a profound difference. Any programmer will know what I mean. In this case, I refer to VoiceOver’s ability to speak emoticons.

Emoticons refer to little faces made out of punctuation and other characters, usually resulting in a simile of a sideways image. They make absolutely no sense to the blind, at least those blind since birth, not knowing what the punctuation characters look like. In fact, most screen readers simply filter them out as extraneous noise, resulting in nothing, or at the least any letters, for instance reading “:)” as nothing, “:-)” sometimes as “dash”, and o)” as “o.” A VoiceOver user will have heard “Smiley” for the first two.

Most screen readers have a word exceptions dictionary. This lets the user modify the pronunciation of individual words. Screen readers also usually ship with a default set of pronunciations. For example, “Qty” becomes “Quantity.”” The brilliant geniuses who program VoiceOver simply added the following definitions to the default word exceptions dictionary. The iPhone even has these built in, though the user cannot edit the dictionary.

🙂
Smiley
🙂
Smiley
🙁
Frown
🙁
Frown
😉
Wink
😉
Wink

Anyone can probably do something similar in their screen reader of choice, assuming it will let you substitute strings of punctuation. This shows how a very simple addition makes a profound difference in the user experience, and most blind people don’t even realize the amount of emoticons which surround them. 🙂

For a long time I scoffed at emoticons and those who use them. Keep in mind that most screen readers do not even report them. 🙁 Suddenly hearing the smileys and frowns interspersed with text felt like seeing color in a way, adding a new sparkly dimension which had always existed but which I could not perceive up until this point. I could not believe how this made a difference, since I had never given emoticons much thought, preferring to express myself in language.

I have a friend on Twitter who uses a lot of emoticons. She and I met in part because we both enjoy the humor of the Firesign Theatre. They tend to have very dry intellectual humor, delivering incredibly intelligent jokes with double and triple meanings with a complete straight face. I wouldn’t know the appropriate emoticon. This means we both tend to have a rather sarcastic brand of humor, and unfortunately sometimes that sarcasm can become lost in an emotionless unidimensional text stream. For her and others, emoticons help make their sarcasm clear. At last I understood. We’re all bozos on this bus! 🙂

Once again, at least to my knowledge, Apple has paved the way with something brilliant. I remain open to correction on this point, if other screen readers have adopted this feature please let me know. If not, I imagine things going down something like this. The free screen readers like NVDA and Thunder will quietly adopt it in their own time, as will GW Micro and System Access, if they haven’t already. Freedom Scientific, on the other hand, will adopt it amidst much fanfare, increment JAWS’s major version number, and charge $400 for an upgrade. I can see the press release now.

Freedom Scientific introduces new JAWS 15.0, now with revolutionary new support for speaking emoticons. For the first time, the leader in access technology brings to the blind the experience of hearing emoticons. Feel the freedom of seeing the faces around you.

I almost regret typing up such a perfect press release for the competition, especially because it contains a flagrant falsehood. If Freedom Scientific really wants to use it, I therefore request that they send me a check in the amount of the purchase price of a Macbook Pro, plus a few hundred extra for the inevitable accessories. That will do nicely. If you can’t pay all at once, then how about $500 down and a 36-month contract? 😉

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