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.
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.
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.
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? 😉
The last two weeks have brought me a barrage of incredible and enthusiastic comments to my article about my first week with the iPhone. I have felt moved emotionally by many. My article has caused some to laugh, some to cry, and some to buy iPhones. It feels so good to make a difference in other’s lives. For years I have wanted to help change the world, especially the world of the blind, through technology. Now I have my chance. Nevertheless, in these four hundred or so comments, I did receive a negative one. I therefore felt compelled to address my detractor in a somewhat sarcastic academic fashion, making a medicine out of the malady.
I don’t even know or care who wrote the comment. I could go and find out, or even go to make sure I get the comment exactly right, but I would rather not disturb it from resting in its rightful place in my trash folder. I did not approve it on the iPhone article, because I did not want it to blight the enthusiasm. The comment read:
It’s the software, not the phone. I guess even the blind can be Apple fanboys.
Oh I’m sorry, did I break your concentration? I didn’t mean to do that. Please, continue. You were saying something about Apple fanboys? What’s the matter? Oh. You were finished? Well allow me to retort!
The blind have always needed other ways to keep notes and the like. In the late eighties, a wonderful machine came out called the Braille ‘n Speak. The company which produced it, Blazie Engineering, had heart. They really cared. The machine held its own for ten years, but eventually became outdated and the company merged and became lost. When this happened, I thought that I would have to create the next device, since everything else sucked. I imagined building an operating environment for the blind on top of Linux, and having a piece of hardware designed. Obviously, one person trying to do this presented difficulties. Suddenly, Apple stepped up and released the iPhone and siblings,. They also made Macs accessible. Suddenly I found something akin to my vision – a consistent environment built on top of a Unix variant. Amazing! Things have finally started coming into focus, and with the strength of a corporation behind them. They saved me a bunch of work. This does not make me an Apple fanboy.
For years, the blind have gotten nothing from corporations. Accessibility means as much as its market share, in other words not much. Big companies usually do not have an incentive to care about a very small base of users, or so they think. In truth, the blind represent a tightly knit community who tend to follow products loyally and passionately. If something works, word travels quickly, and everyone adopts the thing in question. If something doesn’t work, word travels even more quickly, dooming the product to failure. Apple’s devices have withstood the test. Recognizing this does not make me an Apple fanboy.
The blind have even gotten used to getting nothing from the very companies selling products to the blind. One time, a friend ordered a talking thermometer. When it arrived, she couldn’t figure out how to use it, so called the company for help. “Oh, what’s the matter? Can’t you read the instructions printed on the box?” This represents the level of so-called care to which the blind have sadly become accustom. Finally seeing a corporation actually doing things which actually help the blind represents such a welcome change, and one about which I feel justifiably enthusiastic. I do not believe this makes me an Apple fanboy.
My esteemed critic seems to put all emphasis on software. Obviously, you could run these kinds of programs on any platform, so in that sense the platform doesn’t matter. You could probably do a lot of this on a Droid or a Netbook. I love and advocate free open source software. If my illustrious colleague would have bothered to actually read my blog, they would have seen the very next entry after my iPhone article detailed how to export your Emacs calendar to the iPhone, making it possible to integrate part of the epitome of free open source software with the iPhone. GNU/Linux represents something equally important to what Apple has done, though for different reasons. You can’t beat its price or underlying philosophy! Clearly, the fact that I still advocate free open source software does not make me an Apple fanboy.
Everybody knows that you need hardware to run software, and that without software the hardware becomes useless. Hardware and software represent two complimentary elements, like earth and sky, or the negative and positive poles on a battery or magnet. Focusing on one to the exclusion of the other results in the same follies that it would in any other field of activity. Apple’s platform has allowed for amazing innovation. Countless developers have done countless things, some of which you might never even have considered. Because of this balance, I do not think feeling excited about a piece or five of hardware makes me an Apple fanboy.
With all of this APple goodness, I should also point out that I have also criticized Apple for some things as well, clearly separating me from the Apple fanboys. I wrote at length about how iTunes prevents certain functions of the phone from becoming accessible to the blind. I said that until they update it, they cannot claim full accessibility. I even went so far as to draw comparisons between battling a disability like blindness and battling cancer i.e. Steve Jobs. This seemed rather harsh in hindsight I admit, but nevertheless the truth remains: you cannot just wish away a disability or illness. I then watched in amazement as these remarks appeared in the Atlantic. My love of open source software has also caused me to question Apple’s closed application submission policies, as have many. Do these sound like the words of an Apple fanboy?
I’ve had quite a transformative summer. I bought an iPhone in June. I bought an iPad in July. I bought an iMac in September. I know that I will buy a Macbook as surely as I know the sun will rise. I have done this because I see Apple’s hardware and software at the cutting edge of accessible technology. I did not do this because of some wild impulsive behavior, or because I like spending money to get more stuff, as some cynically suspected. I certainly did not do this because of some groundless unrequited love of a fanciful personification. I realize my critic will probably have to look up half of those words, so let me make it simple. I do not consider myself an Apple fanboy!
I love the autumn, I always have, largely because of the wonderful apples which come in season. I love good slightly tart big juicy crispy lovely golden apples. I always have. Since buying my iMac, I have eaten something Apple-related every day – fresh apples, apple cider, apple pie, whatever I can find. The other day, I ordered a Stromboli from my favorite pizzeria. The guy delivered the food, and started discussing the weather, which led us to talking about apples. Man this guy went on and on about apples. Apples! Apples! Apples! Apples! Apples! “There’s this place, it might be Linvilla, where you can go and pick your own apples! I mean, they have like fifty kinds of apples, can you imagine that? And you can get a bucket or something, and go pick them.” “Yeah, I just went there last week and bought some things, but I don’t know if they have that.” “Oh, their apple pies are to die for, but they’re, what, like eight bucks, right?” “I don’t know something like that yeah.” I hoped my Stromboli would stay warm in the cooling night. “And, another thing, have you ever had a pawpaw? You know the Jungle Book, that song Baloo sings, about being Under the Pawpaw Tree?” “Um, yeah, I think so.” “Well, they were a staple of the early colonists, but are hard to grow commercially, so you don’t see them in stores, but I lived next door to a private orchard which had them. They are so good, but they have a hard skin like a kiwi, kind of prickly, but they are so good, you should try them.” I thanked him, paid him, and went inside. When I unpacked the order, I noticed he forgot the hot peppers. About ten minutes later, someone rang my doorbell. I wondered if he had come back just to deliver me this little bag of hot peppers. “Sorry, I forgot something.” he said, holding out a rectangular box. I told him that he must have gotten the wrong order, actually he just forgot my peppers. “Oh, sorry, we have this new guy tonight, I think he got blasted or something.” Ok, but you just spent five minutes talking about apples, then got an order confused. Just saying. I didn’t actually say that to him, of course, he seemed nice enough. Apples! Pawpaws! More apples! Still, even with all this apple-related fun, I would never call myself an Apple fanboy, though some may begin to nervously disagree at this point.
In conclusion, I do not consider myself an Apple fanboy for several reasons. Firstly, Apple’s commitment to accessibility deserves real praise. Secondly, focusing solely on hardware or software misses the other. Thirdly, I continue to advocate free open source software, even criticizing iTunes and Apple’s closed submission policies. Fourthly, I have never really considered myself a joiner. I tend to remain on the sidelines or behind the scenes, attempting to maintain my individuality amidst unity. I named my site Behind the Curtain for this reason. Fifthly, I have always loved apples in all forms. I got my start with computers on an Apple II/E, the first home computer made accessible to the blind. I love the apples in the autumn. Discordians value the party-crashing golden apple thrown by our Goddess to crash a certain wedding to which she was not invited. Now things have come full circle. If Apple continues its commitment to accessibility, the Golden Apple will indeed crash the party of certain companies and even philosophies whose time has come. The inferior must make way for the superior. I believe I have made a logical retort. Given the illogical and mean-spirited nature of the original comment, however, I doubt it matters. Oh well, any article which references Pulp Fiction and the Jungle Book has to have some merit, right?
While reading over this article for the final time before publishing, I realized something. So what if I may seem over-enthusiastic, an Apple fanboy if you will. Apple has changed my life forever and for the better. Their products have opened doors and rekindled friendships. Judge a tree by its fruit. Kallisti!
This summer has inadvertently become the Summer of Apple. First, I got an iPhone, which changed my life. Next, I got an iPad, which I love as well. The other morning while eating breakfast, Goddess told me that the time had come to purchase a Mac. I started out on an Apple II/E, and bought a II/GS, but had to give them both up when PCs gained prevalence. The time had come to rejoin the Apple family.
The adventure started on Wednesday. I went with my Mom and a friend of the family and fellow Mac owner named Bob. I figured both of their presences would help with this major purchase. We arrived, and found it less crowded than last time, meaning we could carry on a mostly audible conversation. The first saleslady had a good attitude, but quickly admitted knowing nothing of VoiceOver, save its function. I expected this, and said I basically knew what I wanted. Instead, she ran off to find someone else who knew more.
The next saleslady arrived, and we went through what I had already said, that I wanted it for audio editing and whatever else. She customized a few settings, but we still couldn’t figure much out. I hadn’t read up much, so didn’t fully understand the concept of interacting with an area. At one point, she said: “Oh, here, let me adjust the speech rate.” It did seem rather slow to me. “It’s so fast!” she exclaimed. I laughed. “Oh, actually, I thought you were going to go turn it up. Faster!” “What? ReallY?” We continued bumbling around Safari and Text Edit, not accomplishing much. I said that I knew the blind could access the Mac, I just didn’t know how to work VoiceOver. It didn’t matter, as I knew I could learn, and as I had not heard complaints, I felt confident. Nevertheless, she didn’t want me to buy something I couldn’t use. The argument continued, I started getting hungry and cranky. I just wanted to buy the thing! As I reached for my wallet, she told me maybe I should wait and come back for a one-on-one shopping appointment. Mom and Bob agreed much to my chagrin, so I grudgingly agreed to come back the next day. “You can read up on it more.” Mom said. “That’s what I’ve been doing!” “Anyways, it will be interesting to see what they offer. We’ve gotten so used to getting nothing from companies, just buy it and get out. Let’s see what they do.” I saw her point, but did I really have to wait a day just to gather some data in this experiment we call life? I told Mom that they wouldn’t know anything, and we would just end up buying exactly what I had picked out – an iMac, long keyboard, and magic trackpad, and that nothing would change. Of course, I predicted correctly…mostly. My enthusiasm had waned but I knew I still had to do the right thing. I satisfied myself by upgrading my iPhone and iPad to the latest versions of iOS, which itself has some excellent improvements to VoiceOver.
The next day arrived, and we made our way back to the store. We found it more crowded than the previous day, meaning we had to speak at close range to carry on a reasonably audible conversation. I gave my name and said I had a one-on-one shopping appointment. When she came back, I also pointed out that they said they had someone trained in accessibility. “Yes,” she said, “but he’s out to lunch right now.” I tried to remain calm as I explained the story. A miscommunication must have occurred, as they had not noted the special circumstance. When I called before even going for the first time, the person on the phone said I didn’t need an appointment, and to just come on in. Then I came back yesterday and wanted to buy an iMac, but they told me to come back today to meet with someone trained in VoiceOver. “Yes, but he’s out to lunch for an hour. Could you maybe come back?” My rage built. I just wanted to buy the thing!
I started talking to some salespeople, making basic conversation, talking about audio, etc. Everyone said the same thing: that they knew about VoiceOver, but they didn’t actually know how to use it, exactly as I said they would. At one point, I met the manager, the oldest guy there by his own admission. It occurred to me that when I told these people that I started on an Apple II/E, that they probably didn’t even know what I meant. This guy did, and almost wept when musing on the beauty of Apple’s products. He also told me something interesting, that the accessibility improvements began when Steve Jobs returned to the company. We had a good chat, but he had to go, so introduced me to another salesman.
“Wait, before we start, what do you think this is?” he asked. He held up a thing that looked like some sort of powerful wrench. It would come in handy for smashing problematic hardware, and I wondered why someone would wield such a device in an Apple store. I felt up the wrench, however, and felt it join with his arm. I figured he must hold the other end, and didn’t want to impose, so stopped feeling the thing in question. “Um, some kind of wrench? Or pliers or something?” I guessed. “Naw man! That’s my hand!” “Wow.” “I have an artificial hand. I only have one arm.” After getting over the slight shock of what I had just felt, we fell into a friendly conversation about using computers with a disability. “One-handed people are the most overlooked disabled group, because everyone figures that we can just do everything since we have a hand, but we can’t.” He said typing with one hand pissed him off, and I wondered about some kind of one-handed keyboard. Haven’t they invented something? Also, I swore I read an article about a prosthetic hand controlled by neural impulses. He controlled his “like the brakes on a bicycle” by pushing and pulling. I inquired about getting a job training others in VoiceOver, and he said that obviously they have no problem employing disabled people. Right on! What a trip. You just never know what life will throw at you.
While I enjoyed talking to everyone, I really wanted to just buy my beautiful iMac and get it home to start playing with it. I started asking questions about Audio and everyone told me i had to talk to Mike. You have to talk to Mike. Oh yes, Mike knows his audio. You have to talk to Mike. I think I did for a few minutes, but he had another appointment, and he introduced me to another guy. As we talked about MIDI controllers, I couldn’t help but notice the distinct smell of freshly smoked cannabis upon his breath. Perfect! I ended up adding an M-Audio Pro-Keys keyboard to my purchase, a cute little number with 24 keys, pads, equalizers, USB and MIDI. It just plugs right in. When it came time to find the obligatory next salesperson who might know something, even my Mom said: “You know, I think he just wants to buy it.” “Yes. yes yes yesyesyeyseyseyseyseyseys.”
The dude with one arm remained through this, and we walked and talked on the way to the front of the store. I again mentioned my enthusiasm for Apple’s commitment to accessibility, and said I wanted to get involved somehow. He gave me a helpful tip: take the one-on-one training just to meet the managers and other people, get your foot in the door that way. That sort of networking stuff doesn’t come naturally to me, so I welcomed the suggestion. We said our good byes, and finally, finally, finally I had purchased my iMac, Apple Care, one-on-one training, a long keyboard, magic trackpad, and MIDI keyboard. I felt satisfied.
Mom dropped Bob off and drove me home. She insisted on dusting off my desk before placing the new equipment on it, but that didn’t take long since I have good cleaning people now, and I quickly unpacked. Within minutes I had it set up. When Mom bought me an Apple II/E way back in 1984, it took her and another friend hours to get speech working. They had to assemble the card, insert it, connect some jumpers, and who knows what else. I believe beer may have also played a part. I just remember encouraging them. “You can do it, come on you can do it.” They finally did after a hard afternoon’s work. This time, I just hit command-option-f8 and on came VoiceOver. “That was sure a lot easier than the last time you had to get speech working on an Apple, eh?” I asked. Mom couldn’t talk. It had brought her to tears.
Today, I had a sudden childhood memory. I LOVED my Apple II/E. I bought the II/GS and felt amazed at its capabilities, but frustrated that I couldn’t easily program them. My II/E still worked as it still does, and I had purchased my first PC. I knew I had started using it more and my Apples less, especially my beloved. Some programs still would only work on the II/E, such as older programs which used sound. I had a program which would play a number of songs. By this, I mean single-tone melodies, nothing like today. Just beep-beep-beep, even the II/GS could do better. One song had the title “Tears on my Apple.” I played it, and listening to the simple song, and suddenly felt sad. “Are there tears on my Apple since I don’t use it as much?” I wondered. For the first time in my life, I realized that things come and go, and that PCs had come and the Apple II had gone, and that very shortly I would have to leave the Apple family forever to use the PC. Very shortly thereafter I did.
I used MSDOS and customized it to its absolute fullest. By the end i had a full Internet setup with TCP/IP over dialup, and a very heavily modified shell with Unix-flavored commands and all. I then unfortunately got into WIndows. After it drove me to a white rage one weekend, I knew that had to stop. Eliminating sources of stress in one’s life does wonders for health, and I knew WIndows had to go, so I dove right into Linux.
I love Linux, I still do. It serves as a monument to the achievement of what people can do for free. For servers and automated things, you can’t beat it. It hasn’t caught on commercially because it has a somewhat ahem different philosophy towards user interfaces. It lets you choose. For the techie this seems like a blessing, but the average harmless end user may think otherwise.
Here, Apple has always come through, sporting a consistent interface for years on the Mac. Artists, musicians, and academics love them. Douglas Adams loved his. They lacked a satisfactory screen reading solution for a long time, though some tried they never really became popular. I never knew of any blind person using a Mac before recent times. You just didn’t hear of it. VoiceOver has changed all that.
I feel brimming with enthusiasm! While i have had some initial stumbling blocks, I already feel more confident within the first day. Has only a day past? Despite everyone’s concern, I’ve learned things well enough to write this article. The Apple has excellent speech, the best software speech I’ve heard. Alex has the most emotion of any synthesizer. He even breathes. I’ve cracked up several times at his intonation while reading funny parts of this text. Apple deserves nothing but praise for their efforts. Learning how to use my Magic Trackpad to navigate the current application’s window just as I would on my iPhone or iPad has me falling in love. This represents the cutting edge of accessible technology for the blind. It cuts! I joyfully look forward to the day when blind people finally catch on and realize that for $700, HALF the cost of JAWS for Windows, the most popular software used or rather pushed on the blind, they can get a fully functional computer that delivers a superior experience and comes with a superior screen reader with superior speech. May the Mac relegate Windows to the recycle bin, where it properly belongs. Don’t worry, they’ll still have their corporate clients. This probably means that we can expect crappier services from these companies, but who cares, WE will have all switched to Macs by then.
I feel so glad to have fully become part of the Apple family once again. I feel like one cast out unfairly for twenty years because of bad relations or something, then suddenly everything changes and the family can welcome me back. I look forward to exploring this beautiful machine to its full potential. The fact that it runs on top of BSD, another flavor of Unix and one very similar to Slackware and Arch Linux has me feeling very hopeful. I also look forward to finally making audio and music with a professional suite of tools rightly suited to my work. One last note to my long-time friends: does the idea of a computer based around a consistent user interface running on top of a flavor of Unix remind you of something someone may have said ten or so years ago? Just saying.
I feel wide-eyed and amazed like a child. No more tears on my Apple!
Oh yes! I have wanted to do this for such a long time, and
glancing through the iPad manual gave me the answer. I will now show
you how to synchronize your Emacs diary files with the calendar in the
iPhone or iPad. I should warn you right out that the implementation
seems broken in some ways, for instance I don’t see cyclic dates
showing up, but it provides a start. I have tested this on an iPad
running iOS 3.2.1, and an iPhone running iOS 4.0.
To do this, you just need a working Emacs and a place to put it on
the web. First, within Emacs, use
icalendar-export-file. Put in the name of your diary, for
~/diary. Make sure the output file has the .ics
extension, for example
diary.ics. Now, copy the .ics
file to the web. You should probably do this on a server where you
can implement some security restrictions, or just delete the file
Now, go to your iPhone or iPad. Go to Settings, then
Mail, Calendar, Contacts. Add an account, choose
Other then Add Subscribed Calendar. Put in the full
URL of your .ics file in the server field. You don’t need to worry
about the user name, password, and SSL fields, unless of course you
do. This would also make a good way to secure your diary. Now save
it and enjoy. You could also enter the URL in Safari, but doing it
through the settings menu lets you put in a description and other
things. Either way works. To update your calendar, just go back to
the mail settings, and Fetch New Data.
I hope this helps some Emacs using iPhone enthusiast out there. I
wanted to sync my calendar for the longest time, and felt an obvious
way existed, and I found it. I look forward to discovering other ways
to integrate Emacs with my iPhone and iPad. I consider it a very