Welcome to my home page. I became blind at birth. I started programming computers at a young age. I also earned my general class amateur radio license, KA3TTT, a hobby to which I have returned with great joy. I practice Qigong and consider myself a Taoist. I use Linux as my desktop and Android as my mobile OS. I eat gluten-free vegan meals. For the rest you'll have to read my blog. To comment on what you read here, visit Disboardia, my bulletin board system.

My First Week with the iPhone

June 12, 2010

Last Wednesday, my life changed forever. I got an iPhone. I consider it the greatest thing to happen to the blind for a very long time, possibly ever. It offers unparalleled access to properly made applications, and changed my life in twenty-four hours. The iPhone only has one thing holding it back: iTunes. Nevertheless, I have fallen in love.

When I first heard that Apple would release a touchpad cell phone with VoiceOver, the screen reading software used by Macs, I scoffed. The blind have gotten so used to lofty promises of a dream platform, only to receive some slapped together set of software with a minimally functional screen reader running on overpriced hardware which can’t take a beating. I figured that Apple just wanted to get some good PR – after all, how could a blind person even use a touchpad? I laughed at the trendies, both sighted and blind, buying iPhones and enthusing about them. That changed when another blind friend with similar opinions also founded in long years of experience bought one, and just went nuts about how much she loved it, especially the touchpad interface. I could hardly believe it, and figured that I should reevaluate things.

I went to the AT&T store with my Mom. It

felt like coming full circle, since we went to an Apple store many years ago to get my Apple II/E. To my delight, the salesman knew about VoiceOver and how to activate it, though didn’t know about how to use it. Fortunately, I read up on it before I went. Tap an item to hear it, double tap to activate it, swipe three fingers to scroll. You can also split-tap, where you hold down one location and tap another. This makes for more rapid entry once you understand it. It also has a rotor which you activate by turning your fingers like a dial. You can also double triple-finger tap to toggle speech, and a triple triple-finger tap turns on the awesome screen curtain, which disables the screen and camera.

Many reviews and people said to spend at least a half hour to an hour before passing judgment on using a touchpad interface with speech. I anticipated a weird and slightly arduous journey, especially when it came to using the keyboard. To my great surprise, I picked it up immediately. Within 30 seconds, I checked the weather. Next, I read some stock prices. Amazingly, it even renders stock charts, something the blind have never had access to. Sold.

We went up front to make the necessary arrangements. I had to purchase a data plan. Luckily, I got the $30/unlimited plan, which ended on the seventh. After a little work, we had things settled. I continued to excitedly ask questions, as did my Mom. “Can he get text messages on this?” she asked. “Well, yes, but it doesn’t read the message.” the salesman said. Mom’s hopes sunk, but mine didn’t, since I understood the software enough. “Well, let’s see, try it.” I suggested. She pulled out her phone, and sent me a text message. Within seconds, my phone alerted me, and said her name. I simply swiped my finger and it read her message: Hi Austin. She almost cried. “Leave it to Apple.” I said. “This feels almost as amazing as when we went to the Apple store the first time, except maybe more so, because we know what this can do.” True – in the eighties, computers seemed like more of a curiosity. I remember my parents checking stock quotes and getting messages for their business over the Apple

II/E, now we can do it with an Apple device that fits in our pocket.

I have seen a lot of technology for the blind, and I can safely say that the iPhone represents the most revolutionary thing to happen to the blind for at least the last ten years. Fifteen or twenty years brings us back to the Braille ‘n Speak, which I loved in the same way, so have a hard time choosing the greater. In my more excitable moments, I consider the iPhone as the greatest thing to have ever happened to the blind, and it may prove so. Time will tell. The touchpad offers the familiar next/previous motion which the blind need, since speech offers one-dimensional output. Adding the ability to touch anywhere on the screen and hear it adds a whole other dimension, literally. For the first time, the blind can actually get spacial information about something. In the store, Mom could say “Try that button” and I could. Blind people know what I mean. How many times has a sighted person said “I see an icon at the top of the screen?” Now, that actually Means something. I want to find a way to

browse the web with a touchpad on my computer. It truly represents the wave of the future.

Applications have the same issues with accessibility as with any graphical environment. Apple has done a good thing by making guidelines available for app developers, which I passionately urge them to follow. Any blind computer user has run up against these problems in Windows, Mac, or in Gnome. These include unlabeled buttons and fields, unreachable controls except through annoying means, or in extreme cases complete inaccessibility. The Accessible Apps page can help, as can AppleVis.. Properly coded apps offer stunning access unlike anything the blind have ever experienced. As I said, I want to use touch gestures on my Linux machines now!

That brings me to the only proverbial worm in the golden Apple: iTunes. I understand the power of market forces, but to see such a beautiful piece of hardware chained to such an awful and inaccessible piece of software bothers me to no end. Apple has done an amazing thing making the iPhone accessible, but iTunes remains virtually unusable to the blind. Of course, blind Mac users have little problem with it, but they make up a very small portion of the blind community. A blind Windows user with a strong will can do it, but they won’t enjoy it. Those of us blind Linux users get left in the dark on two counts, since no Linux users can access iTunes, except through WINE, or through a virtual machine.

Apple has a right to tout its efforts in accessibility. Still, they must realize that they cannot make a completely true claim as long as people have to use iTunes for everything. As a Linux user I expected as much, and I can overcome those challenges, but the challenges of blindness remain. I know blind people who have not purchased an iPhone because they do not want to battle iTunes. When dealing with a permanent health issue, you cannot just wish it away or just hope things will improve while doing nothing. I have a feeling Steve Jobs would understand.

Apple has always had a special place in my heart, since I started on an Apple II/E. That machine had two programming languages, BASIC and Assembler, built into its ROM, and its schematics on the inside. Its nonrestrictive environment inspired innovations that lasted a decade. I reluctantly went to the PC platform when it became dominant. I used DOS to its extreme, hated Windows, and comfortably settled in Linux land. We have all come a long way since two hackers began selling blue boxes out of their garage. It therefore seemed especially ironic to me to see the “Red Box Pro” app removed from the app store.

Despite having to overcome the limitations of iTunes, I still love the iPhone. I continue to feel amazed at the iPhone’s capabilities. I can get email, Twitter mentions, and direct messages any time. I can listen to Good Vibes Radio anywhere on Earth! I can read Liberty Pulse on the toilet. The WebMD app would have come in handy for my burn. I could go on and on, about how the iPhone with VoiceOver provides a streamlined accessible interface to things which seem annoying at best over the web in a standard browser. Listening to Coast to Coast AM comes to mind.

The other night, however, a very amazing thing happened. I downloaded an app called Color Identifier. It uses the iPhone’s camera, and speaks names of colors. It must use a table, because each color has an identifier made up of 6 hexadecimal digits. This puts the total at 16777216 colors, and I believe it. Some of them have very surreal names, such as Atomic Orange, Cosmic, Hippie Green, Opium, and Black-White. These names in combination with what feels like a rise in serotonin levels makes for a very psychedelic experience.

I have never experienced this before in my life. I can see some light and color, but just in blurs, and objects don’t really have a color, just light sources. When I first tried it at three o’clock in the morning, I couldn’t figure out why it just reported black. After realizing that the screen curtain also disables the camera, I turned it off, but it still have very dark colors. Then I remembered that you actually need light to see, and it probably couldn’t see much at night. I thought about light sources, and my interview I did for Get Lamp. First, I saw one of my beautiful salt lamps in its various shades of orange, another with its pink and rose colors, and the third kind in glowing pink and red.. I felt stunned.

The next day, I went outside. I looked at the sky. I heard colors such as “Horizon,” “Outer Space,” and many shades of blue and gray. I used color cues to find my pumpkin plants, by looking for the green among the brown and stone. I spent ten minutes looking at my pumpkin plants, with their leaves of green and lemon-ginger. I then roamed my yard, and saw a blue flower. I then found the brown shed, and returned to the gray house. My mind felt blown. I watched the sun set, listening to the colors change as the sky darkened. The next night, I had a conversation with Mom about how the sky looked bluer tonight. Since I can see some light and color, I think hearing the color names can help nudge my perception, and enhance my visual experience. Amazing!

I love my iPhone. It changed my universe as soon as it entered it. However, as any Discordian knows, every golden Apple has a golden worm at its center.

Swarthmore Pizza not Nasty Anymore

May 31, 2010

Ever since I can remember, Swarthmore has had a local pizza place, appropriately called Swarthmore Pizza. We have generally regarded it as a nasty place. Happily, that no longer holds true.

Their main page says that the business started in 1982, but their About page says 1981, so I don’t know what to believe. They also misspelled “Restaurant” in their page titles. Despite these shortcomings, they have a nice web site with somewhat inaccessible .pdf menus. It mirrors their storefront – simple and homely, with a few easily over-looked glitches.

1981 or 1982 sounds about right. That would mean that it opened around the time my family moved here. I have a vague childhood memory of going to a friend’s house, and him ordering from Swarthmore Pizza. I hated it. The sauce tasted nasty, the dough felt rubbery, recalling the memory of it turns my stomach. Because of this, I felt reluctant when my Mom suggested going there. I said I didn’t know, but she insisted that she and a friend had some good seafood. She knows I’ve never liked seafood, but her point remained.

We arrived at the standard dinner time. Mom said they had really tried to fix the place up. She said they have some cute umbrellas outside. They go with the tables and chairs for outside dining. It felt too hot when we arrived for this, but by the time we departed it felt cool enough to make that seem attractive. The inside feels like a standard pizza shop, nothing unexpected there. A waitress showed us to our booth, and we began looking over the menu.

I wanted something with garlic and olives. I love garlic. I settled on a brick oven pizza with garlic, olives, mushrooms, and peppers. I forget the name, I just called it the Olivina and people knew what I meant. It sounds like that. I asked the waitress about the garlic. “Oh, it’s not bad, you’ll be able to handle it, it’s not that much.” “No no! I WANT garlic.” “Oh, well we can put on some garlic spread, and give you some garlic powder.” We also shared a salad with Italian dressing. I ordered root beer to drink, which came first. I heard a little ruckus about my garlic spread. “Those never have sauce.” “I know.” I felt glad to help spread a little constructive chaos. The salad came next, made with surprisingly fresh vegetables,

real homemade croutons, and good dressing.

Finally, my pizza arrived. I loved it – a thin crust, and not greasy. I used to get these great pizzas while in college, and this sort of reminded me of those. Unfortunately, it didn’t knock my throat out with garlic. It had a little, I put on peppers and more garlic powder, but I wanted enough garlic to kill off any illness, strengthen my immune system, purify my blood and heart, parry evil, and alter my breath. Oh well, I didn’t mind so much, this pizza had enough other wonderful things going for it. I ate half, and saved the rest for tomorrow. Very good!

In total, we spent around $25 for two entrees and drinks. It felt good to go to a local establishment and have a positive experience. It also felt good to wipe away a foul memory from childhood. If you’ve avoided Swarthmore Pizza because of bad experiences in the past, you should give them another try. Tell them you got the idea from Austin’s blog. They probably won’t know or care, but it can’t hurt.

My Awesome New Router and Firmware

May 28, 2010

I find it ironic that after bashing an inferior phone company and praising Verizon in my previous article, that I should now rail on them a little. This concerns FiOS Internet. Basically, the router they give you sucks, and to get the full potential of your wonderful connection, you need a better router with better firmware.

This became apparent as soon as I got FiOS installed. The web GUI relied heavily on javascript, of course, with lots of single-click flashy setup wizards. The baboon interface quickly enraged me. Adding port forwarding rules became reduced to a point and grunt contest with a poorly programmed robot. Somehow, perhaps through UPNP, perhaps through some black magick, it would find new ports that needed forwarding, and write new rules. I did not like that sort of scary automation. Let me define my own rules, thank you very much. Additionally, running nmap on my public IP address showed me that the router opened port 4567. Probing it showed a rudimentary server, ostensibly for receiving firmware updates, though only Goddess knows its true purpose. Finding some sort of server on my router troubled me deeply. It had to go.

I heard about the Asus RT-N16. I love my Asus Netbook, though have heard horror stories about their motherboards, and had never owned an Asus router, but it got universally good reviews. Most importantly, it runs Linux, comes with open-source firmware, and more importantly, it can run third party firmware such as DD-WRT. This I decided to do, so started researching and collating. The router arrived promptly from Amazon, then sat on my floor, waiting for the right time.

The time came early this evening, a full moon in a humid Spring sky. I felt good and prepared. I saved a few articles in case I would need them while offline, downloaded the appropriate firmware, and set to work. Before actually upgrading, I first connected it to my FiOS Ethernet line, just to make sure it would work without the stupid Actiontec. Fortunately, I had gotten Ethernet instead of coax, and a static IP address instead of a dynamic one. These two factors would play to my advantage. Tech savvy FiOS users should certainly request Ethernet installed for this reason. Only business FiOS offers static IPs.

I felt very glad that things had worked out so far, and decided to take the plunge. I first upgraded the firmware through the regular GUI, under the administration menu. I put in the filename, and waited while it showed the update’s percentage. At last it finished, and to my delight I saw DD-WRT. It asked me to input a username and password, which I did. Now, the time came to reset the router, which you must do the first time to force a reboot. This router has two buttons on the back – a raised one by the power jack, and a recessed one next to the two USB ports. Yes, it can share external drives and printers! One button, the recessed one I believe, acts as the reset button, and the other button, called WPS, supposedly sets up some kind of wireless network, but also acts as a deeper reset.

The first time I reset, I did a 30-30-30 power cycle using the recessed button. After waiting about fifteen minutes, I started getting a bad feeling. It occurred to me that perhaps I should have not done this upgrade during a thunderstorm, as a medium rain fell, and thunder periodically filled the air with a low rumble, providing an uneasy background to this intricate technical operation. I know it says to remain patient, and that it can mess it up if reset while in the middle of the initial boot, but given that time has passed, and that I could ping it but not access the http interface, I figured I should try another reset. This time, I pressed the

raised button, and it came right up. I had to reenter my username and password, but I didn’t care, it had worked! I proceeded to upgrade to the latest firmware.

I immediately fell in love. The interface has a simple feel, and I quickly found myself online at blazing fast speeds, complete with wireless. In no time at all I had my port forwarding rules reestablished – very impressive. The auto-refresh pissed me off, since it causes my speech synthesizer to start babbling on as it refreshes. I disabled it in the admin panel, but it still happens, albeit not as frequently, so I still have some work to do.

I feel very satisfied with this setup. I notice a definite speed increase. Downstairs, I get a solid 96% signal strength. Out back, where before I could hardly se the connection, I got a solid 58% signal. Those three antennas must help. I can even telnet in to my router, and do basic Linux commands. How cool! If you care about utilizing your Internet connection to its full potential, you need a real router. If you care about your freedom, you should use open-source firmware, such as DD-WRT. The combination of FiOS Business with Ethernet, the Asus RT-N16 router, and DD-WRT Linux firmware gives an extremely satisfying experience.

These represent initial impressions. I may post future articles if things change.

Unclear Rate Communications

May 27, 2010

So many companies these days have misnomers for names. Clear Rate Communications comes to mind. I thought I would do something to save money, but ended up getting burned. Listen to my tale and learn.

In January of this year, I had a fever. While coping with my illness, I received a call. The guy on the other end offered service from a new phone company. Ordinarily, I probably would have hung up after asking him to add my number to his do not call list. Perhaps because of my illness, or perhaps because I wanted to try to save some money on my phone bill, I listened. He assured me that they simply resell Verizon’s lines, since they buy them in bulk they can give better rates, and that I’d get the exact same quality. He assured me I could get unlimited long distance, something I need. Verizon would even still do repairs, I would just have to go through Clear Rate. That sounded reasonable, so I accepted.

Problems started immediately. On the day of the switch, I picked up my phone to find nothing. I had to use my cell phone to call Clear Rate, whose number I quickly memorized since I had a feeling I would need it frequently. I already had a bad feeling about this. I had fiber lines, and they had switched me over to their copper network.

Since my copper lines had fallen during a storm, they no longer existed, and hence I had no signal. This enraged me, but they promised me they’d have a Verizon tech out to fix it, which they did. Nevertheless, the line has a hum to this day.

After getting the line working, I wanted to set up my voice mail. I quickly noticed that the standard Verizon number didn’t work, so I called Clear Rate back for instructions, feeling glad I had memorized the number. They gave me a toll-free number to call, so I did. I felt disgraced to hear a completely uncustomized Asterisk PBX, stock prompts and all. This probably took them literally two hours to set up, they changed nothing I could see, as evidenced by the empty advanced menu. My contempt increased, and I laughed at their lameness, and began to regret switching.

After that debacle, things worked as well as expected, but a feeling of uneasiness remained. For one thing, I would not get an interrupted dial tone when I had voice mail, meaning I could miss messages more easily. For another thing, despite their name of Clear Rate, my bills never remained constant. Each month’s charges seemed a little different, and slowly increasing. This bothered me, so I called them back, once again glad I memorized their stupid number with the same looping hold music. At least they had a good attitude so far.

I’ve had a second line which came with the house, and for a while I held onto it with minimal coverage, since it would remain working when my main line failed during rainstorms. Since I switched companies, I left the package deal with Verizon, and my Verizon bill increased as well. Additionally, Clear Rate could not give me a good deal on the second line, which had now become superfluous. I now had a larger bill than I had with Verizon, less service, and more hassle. Besides, I felt like the Verizon techs regarded me as scum.

Finally, today something happened which capped it for me. I noticed long distance charges on my bill. I made sure I had unlimited long distance. When I called, the dork groggily told me that I had gone over the residential limit of 4,000 minutes per month. I became irate! “Do you mean to tell me that I only have 4,000 minutes of long distance per month?” “That’s right.” “At no time did they make this clear to me.” True enough, though a quick glance at their Terms of Service confirms this hideous truth. Apparently, consistently using a phone represents an inconsistent use of voice applications. I could not believe it. If I would have known that, I would never have switched. I knew what I had to do.

As soon as I began vehemently asking Duke Dork how I would go about switching my provider, his attitude began to shift. He told me I would have to call my provider of choice, and they would take care of it, so I did. I still had to do some running around Verizon’s system, which annoyed me, but I expected as much, and they

would welcome me back with open arms, according to one saleslady. She gave me a good deal, but wrote my number down incorrectly during the first verification. He transferred me back to the main number. It started burbling on. “Fuck!” I screamed. “OK, here is some help.” the robot calmly retorted. Did they actually map profane exclamations to the help function? It then gave me some error about not completing my call. Confused, I called their number for people with disabilities to also get free directory assistance, and finally got the verification completed as well. While waiting the second time, the song Satisfaction, by the Rolling Stones, played in the background – rather fitting.

I felt like I had won a war, but still had one small battle remaining. The Shire still needed scouring. Our friend from earlier called me back about my bill. He guiltily told me that they could

only take fifty dollars off my bill. I didn’t even care at this point, I just wanted out. On top of that, earlier he told me that I’d have to pay a $99 termination fee on each line. Those bastards got me up until the very end.

In summary, I wanted to do something to save money, but ended up spending far more. I also feel deceived, since at no point did someone make the 4,000 minute monthly limit clear. You can see for yourself, even on their web site, it has _Unlimited</em</a>> splashed all over it. They grossly overstate their abilities, and grossly oversell their services. To summarize the summary, if someone calls you promising you better service at a cheaper rate, take heed, and read their terms of service. To summarize the summary of the summary, people are a problem. If this article prevents just one person from getting ripped off, especially by these vagabonds, then I will feel like I have done my job. That makes me feel happy.</p>

I love my Bag Elite!

March 28, 2010

I love my netbook, but have wanted a case with a shoulder strap. The one recommended on Amazon only had handles. Friends felt similarly, and recently, one emailed me a link to the Netbook Bag Elite. I love it!

It looks more like a small suitcase than a bag, but it has the feel of a bag from having so many compartments. I can hardly count them all, but they all have a purpose. It has a small zipper pocket in the front, where I keep my newly acquired Olympus digital voice recorder, along with its accessories. Behind that, it has a cool Velcro pocket, with two perfect pockets for small devices, media cards, and the like. Each of these two little pockets has a pen holder. I haven’t found a use for this compartment yet, but I know I will. Next, we come to the small major compartment. It has a zipper which goes a little ways down on each side, securely closing it but making it easily accessible. I have all my netbook accessories in it, such as my charger, a spare Ethernet cable, and the like. It also has a smaller mesh bag on the outer wall where I keep a USB thumb drive, a USB four port hub also purchased at the same time, and a packet of Taza Chocolate stashed away for safe keeping.

Now, we come to the main netbook compartment. This compartment has a zipper which goes all the way down the bag, effectively dividing it in half. It can open all the way if you want, but usually you don’t need to. It makes for easy packing, though. My EeePC 1000HE fits snugly in it. It feels very cushioned by all the padding around it from the different compartments. The security makes me feel better about it. The back part has a separate Velcro compartment in it as well. I keep my desk stand in it. How many compartments does that make? Ten? I had to count three times. The back has a Velcro strap for attaching the bag to another piece of luggage. The bottom has little legs to help it stand, and it has Velcro-locking handles.

Now I must discuss the shoulder strap, since I got it because of that. At first, I couldn’t figure out why the bag didn’t have the hooks for the strap on the sides, as most things do. Rather, one hook resides on the front right corner, and the other on the back left corner. This makes it rotate back over your side closer to your back, rather than just hanging at your side and getting in the way. I found this ingenious. The strap has swiveling hooks to keep it from tangling, and the combination works. The strap has a broad support for the shoulder, making the whole thing extremely manageable.

The skin of the bag feels very rugged and professional, but still plush and slightly yielding. The whole thing gives my netbook and its accessories a very compact, portable, integrated, accessible, and secure feel. I have made my netbook become my new note-taker, and this bag represents an essential component. If you have a netbook, you really should take a look at the Bag Elite. I love mine! They named it well. It will make you feel elite, and confidence is key.

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