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.

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!

MobileMe or Die!

November 03, 2010

Firstly, let me say that I write this using an awesome program called Mac Journal. It lets me work directly with my blog. I hope this works. Now, onto business.

For a while, I wanted to get MobileMe set up on my iPhone, iPad, iMac, and MacBook Air. MobileMe keeps contacts, calendars, bookmarks, notes, and other things in sync. It also gives you an iDisk, where you get 20 GB including a public folder. Apple builds it into their devices, and makes it very easy to use. If you want to do some things effortlessly on Apple products you have to do things their way, so I figured I needed a MobileMe account.

I went to sign up. On the second page, a visual captcha stopped me in my tracks. A blind person cannot enter the characters in the image if they cannot see it. Some sites have audio captchas, but not this one.

I decided to call Apple Care. I spoke to an Agent, whatever that means. She had an accent and read from a script. She kept telling me to sign up on the page. I kept telling her I couldn’t because I couldn’t see the image. Round and round and round we went. Finally, I felt so exasperated. “So what you’re telling me, is that you can’t help me create a MobileMe account?” “I’m sorry.” “Me too.” I hung up in disgust.

I would not give up. I emailed the Apple Accessibility team. They apologized for the inconvenience, and assured me that they knew of the accessibility problems with the MobileMe site. They promised that they would have someone from the MobileMe support team contact me. This happened last week. I hadn’t heard anything by Monday, so emailed them again. They followed up and finally I heard from Mark, a MobileMe Senior Advisor. Very good. I explained my situation, and he requested my phone number. This evening, he called.

He had the idea to take a screen capture, then email him the image, and he would read the captcha to me. Good enough. By the way, he had me remove my credit card number before sending the images, a wise percussion. Unfortunately, we had some wrinkles. He wanted to use the Grab program to take the screen capture, but we couldn’t figure out how to get it working with VoiceOver. I also tried using the VoiceOver command to save a screenshot of the VoiceOver cursor. We didn’t have initial success, and he told me I could always go to an Apple store and get them to help me set it up. I also said I could get a sighted person to help, but we both considered this a less than ideal solution. I thanked him for his help, and we hung up.

I started going through the events in my head, then my phone rang. He called back with an idea. First, I had to go into Safari preferences, then Appearance, and check the “Display images when the page Opens” option. I remembered that a keyboard shortcut exists to take a screen capture, but couldn’t recall the actual key sequence. Neither could he. We both started searching. It felt weird to look up information with an Apple employee on the line. He found it first – Command-Shift-3. Excellent. Now I could send him the file with images, and he could read the captcha.

Next, we realized that I had to check the box that I said that I agreed with the agreement. The whole problem actually came down to this legal point. They could not just check the box for me. I asked if they couldn’t just take my word for it, but nothing doing. The agreement doesn’t actually have a standard HTML checkbox, just clickable text, so nothing doing there either. We discovered that a standard VoiceOver select with VO-Space would toggle the checkbox, but would not announce the change. So now I had to send him images until we got the checkbox and captcha right.

The form still wouldn’t submit. He wondered if I had to select my credit card type. I saw unlabeled images of card names, but didn’t consider clicking them, since VoiceOver didn’t announce anything special. I clicked on the appropriate card, and it worked. Again, this happened without any announcement, but it happened.

We finally had it all straight! We had the credit card type. We had the agreement checked. We had the stupid captcha. I finished filling out the form, and submitted it. It worked! I had my account! I shouted for joy. “This is what the blind have to deal with every day.” I told him. Look how much time it took for us to fill out this form just because of a few little things. He considered it an educational experience, and assured me that he would pass along the notes he had taken to the right people. I figured I’d write this article just to capture all the salient points.

We stayed on the phone and chatted a little. He gave me a little tour of the Mac and iPhone side of things. He told me about a feature called “Back to my Mac.” I joked that Apple may have felt inspired by that for their “Back to the Mac” event. He agreed that perhaps some reference had occurred. We finished up, and he thanked me for my patience.

That brings me back to Mac Journal. Their download form links to their MobileMe public folder. The web interface to MobileMe’s file sharing has not yet become fully accessible. It has more of that almost but not quite entirely inaccessible clickable text. You can select folders, but you can’t download a specific file. I emailed them to get a direct link, but the link they sent me didn’t work. Mark gave me an awesome tip that helped! If you go to Finder, you can then go to the Go menu, then iDisk, then Public Folder. Enter it in and there you go, you can browse the whole thing from right within Finder. Quite cool. I just copied and pasted the installer to my Downloads folder, and it worked beautifully. I love this program, but now I have a different problem. Their registration form doesn’t work either! Here we go again.

So how do I feel? On one hand, Apple cares. Mark had a good attitude, and we solved my problems together. All of the client-side functions work perfectly. He even gave me a little tour. I have things set up on my Macs and iDevices beautifully. I can also access my iDisk through Finder. I got my account, but had to do a lot to get it. It solved the problem for me, but not for everyone. I have faith that Apple will do the right thing and improve the accessibility of MobileMe.

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:

0.11-0.68 Inches</p>


: 11.8 Inches</p>

:   7.56 Inches</p> 
    :   2.3 Pounds</p> 
        :   1.6GHz Intel Core 2 Duo</p> 
            :   4GB 1066MHz DDR3 SDRAM</p> 
                :   128GB Flash Storage</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="" /><a href=""></a></audio>
                            <p class="powerpress_links powerpress_links_mp3">
                              Podcast: <a href="" 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="" class="powerpress_link_d" title="Download" rel="nofollow" download="meet_my_macbook_air.mp3">Download</a>

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.

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