Riding the Rails, and Happy iVersary

So, its been a little while since I last wrote in here, mostly because I’ve been in my own head trying to figure stuff out. Have I made much progress? Hmmm, maybe not. I thought I knew what I was going to do next but am now quite unsure. The only thing I know is that some kind of change is needed, and soon.

So last Friday was my birthday. The unlucky Friday the thirteenth, of course. On the whole though, I would have to say it turned out to be a great, much needed day in which I felt connected to others, and as if I mattered. I took what is probably my last day off for the year and bounced around Chapel Hill, enjoying the nice weather and fraternizing with those known and not yet known.

Then when I got home, I was pleasantly surprised by my fun neighbors who had decided to buy me some delicious cake and a fun birthday card, the audio of which I may record when I get back home. It says

Don’t just stand there,

And when you open it, it plays a snippet of Celebrate Good Times.

And finally for that weekend, I got to spend some time with my cousin. He and his wife came up to attend a wedding in Durham, and also took me to Texas Roadhouse where I consumed some great country fried chicken and mashed potatoes, both smothered in cream gravy. Man, I’m making myself hungry writing that. I wanna go back there for more!

At this moment, I’m headed to my hometown of Charlotte for another birthday dinner, made I think by my aunt and for me and my uncle whose September birthdays are relatively close. I don’t know what’s on the menu just yet, but look forward to it nonetheless.

I’m on a crowded Amtrak, where I can hear someone’s blaring music. I was about to say walkman, but then my 90s flashback ended. No wonder we all aren’t able to hear anymore!

I, on the other hand, am typing on my iPhone using the Fleksy app. I’ve had this thing, or at least some version of it, for a year as of tomorrow. Ice said repeatedly that it has changed my life, and that continues to be true.

In acknowledgement of that, I thought I’d quickly highlight twelve of my favorite iPhone apps, one for each month.

There of course is Fleksy. Admittedly, I haven’t used it much since April or so, but that’s primarily because I do my longform typing on the PC these days. It is great though, as I can just sling my fingers all over the screen in an approximation of the keyboard, and rapidly produce words and sentences.

My second favorite these days is a gaming app called Dice World. Is has helped kill many an idle hour at the workplace. Dice games of Farkle, Pig, yatzy, and a fourth whose spelling I’m not entirely certain of.

The third app is Amazon’s Kindle. My latest book reviews of up and coming authors attests to that.

Fourth would be the first I ever downloaded, Serotek’s iBlink Radio. I enjoy this one, because it gives me access to so much information in and about the blindness community.

The fifth, well sort of, is Facebook. I don’t know if I like so much what they’re doing to the side itself, and especially posting so many status updates in the notifications section, but I do appreciate that they now have an accessibility team that tries to make the app and associated experiences better for us.

Twitter is now doing similar, but I still prefer using the Twitterrific app, my sixth listing. They have a grey team who will respond if users report that they are having issues or wish to learn more about a function.

Speaking of responsiveness, I also sometimes enjoy using Earl, an accessible app that allows you to hear the news read by a dedicated electronic voice. The audio is pretty high quality, and one can control story selection simply by speaking to the device. It aggregates news from several major sources, and allows gathering of other sites as well.

My eighth, although I must admit I don’t entirely understand what I’m doing and why, is Solara. This is a game where you fulfill quests by using an ever expanding group of heroes to fight bad guys, and increasing the size and strength of your castle fortress. If anything, it too is a great time waster.

Because I’m tired and feel like it, my last four apps will be sports related. MLB At Bat and college football radio make for great audio of games, and are relatively accessible. NFL Mobile now works too, though I’m hoping they will make getting to the game fees less cumbersome soon.

For score checker apps, I use Sports Alerts, and another that I really like called Team Stream which pushes notifications whenever news becomes available on any of your chosen favorite teams.

If any of these interest you, they should easily be found in the App store. If not, let me know and I’ll find the link. More soon.

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My Tech Experience, 2007-Present

I’ll say that this was, for me as for probably everyone else, the era of social. Or at least online social.
I had been blogging since 2003, and especially connected to my Live Journal community since 2006. It was a joy to try and generate interesting content that could be evaluated, appreciated, and expanded upon by strangers.
But the prospect of finding and reconnecting to high school friends finally drew me into this weird world of social media, micro blogging?, whatever you wanna call it.
I therefore joined on the tail end of MySpace’s dominance of this new form of communication. I ended up being glad that I did, as this allowed me to receive the information so that I could attend my ten-year high school reunion. My goodness, I’m already only four years from the 20th. How time flies and things change.
Speaking of change, people were already encouraging me to go ahead and create an account on the rapidly emerging site Facebook. I didn’t really like it though, because it wasn’t too entirely usable with screen-readers yet and there were very few people I knew on there. And besides, it clearly catered to people who were still in college, as you needed to use your university email address to sign up. Even though I’d been out of undergrad for four years, I still got my old address to work.
Over the following years, Facebook did of course become a lot more important in driving my decisions about many things, including in many respects my return to graduate school. I was able to get advice from people regarding which course of action I should take. And once arriving at UNC to start that crazy time in the Fall of 2009 I friended the other incoming classmates and thus found it easy to get transportation, help with study materials, and other things I needed starting out. Of course no amount of technology can really make one do what he truly needs to do in order to succeed, as I learned.
I could argue though that Twitter is giving me an even better chance to succeed, as it is bringing me into contact with the communities of interest that I’ve never really had access to before. I hopped onto that network in November of 2008, at the urgings of one of my Live Journal friends, and initially found it even more useless than Facebook. It just kind of puttered along in the background, with me remembering to log onto and post on the website a few times a week or so. Isn’t it funny to think that it was once that quiet?
I had interacted with Twitter some via text message on my LG EnV phone, still a relatively new innovation to blind folks. This worked ok, but was kind of cumbersome as the tweet stream continued to increase the farther we went into 2009.
Twitter use really took off for me in March of 2009 with the advent of Jawter, the first blindness specific client. And while clients have since become more complicated and divorced of being only able to function with the JAWS screen-reader as that first one was, its basic functionality has continued to underline most of them.
To read tweets, one holds down control+windows, which are basically modifier keys, and taps either the up and down arrows depending on whether one wishes to go forward or backward in the timeline.
With later iterations of this concept such as The Qube and Qwitter before it, it became possible to tap the left and right arrows to cycle between buffers, home, mentions, etc. These clients don’t have an on-screen interface, but are instead operated with hotkeys meaning they can be accessed no matter what else one is doing with the computer.
So suddenly I was able to follow hundreds, even thousands, of people, and keep up relatively well with what was going on. I probably have more followers who are blind or low vision and/or deaf/hard of hearing, naturally. But of course bloggers are a big segment of those I watch as well, as the influence and inspiration gives me ideas such as this very tech series. Then, there are the folks at networks like NPR, with accounts like NPR Generation Listen helping tremendously in my realizing the desire to travel up and check that place out as I will this week. Pretty good stuff, huh?
My ability, some may say productively, some maybe less so, to interact with social media has definitely been enhanced by the introduction of the smartphone, and specifically the iPhone, to my life. I think the Android platform has finally almost caught iOS in terms of usability by people who are blind, which makes me happy as we definitely benefit from having more and better competition.
As I’ve provided short samples of how the PC-based screen-readers sound, I thought you might also like to hear VoiceOver, which I should again point out that you can do if you have a fairly recently device running iOS by clicking home three times rapidly. Remember if you choose to do this that gestures do change slightly. You’ll need to first tap the icon which you wish to select, then double tap to activate it. Try doing this with your eyes closed, just to add to the fun.
I know I was and often still am surprised at how well I can actually operate a touch-screen device. In fact, I may now write faster on it than I did with cell phones that had buttons, and especially those on which you had to text using only the numeric keypad. This is because if one puts it into the mode called Touch Typing, one need not find each letter then double tap it in the way I described above. Instead, I just place my finger on the screen close to where I think the letter I want is located, slide it around a bit until it repeats that letter, then release to input it. It takes practice, but becomes a lot more convenient once the skill is acquired.
And I suppose this entry sums up the look through my experience with technology, starting with those big bulky computers and shrinking to the tiny machine I have sitting across from me streaming Stevie Wonder on Pandora. It really is amazing to contemplate how far we’ve come, and harder to imagine where we might in fact be going. I plan to enjoy the ride!

My Tech Experience, 1997-2007

In 1997, I was first introduced to the glories of Email. Well kind of, as for the most part our screen-reading software wasn’t exactly able to interact with the now primitive clients used to send and receive messages.
I’d taken a course over that summer at North Carolina State University. This was designed to prepare me for the academic side of life in college, which of course was rapidly beginning to include interactions with and an understanding of the Internet.
At that time, in order to work with the messages I occasionally had to receive, I’d have to get a sighted person to read them on the monitor. Also, I would take exams by writing the information into my affore mentioned Braille Lite and taking it back to the Rehabilitation Center on the campus of the Governor Moorehead School for the Blind to print it. This introduced some integrity issues, leading the professor to allege several times that I had cheated because I achieved no less than a 98 on any of the exams. I certainly hadn’t cheated though, and was able to prove my high level of understanding of the subject matter, Interpersonal Communication, during the group final. The group in which I was included obtained a score of 99, highest in the class by far.
By the time my freshman year began that Fall at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, Job Access with Speech (JAWS) for Windows, was finally becoming more widely used. This is the screen-reading, (text-to-speech) program that Freedom Scientific developed. There were at that time a couple of other solutions for accessing information vocally, but JAWS was by far and away the preferred option as it was most able to support needed software in the employment setting.
Many different synthesizers work with JAWS and its ilk, but the one I still primarily use because it’s easiest to hear is Elloquence. Here’s a sample. I know you may find it challenging to understand still, but trust me it’s a far cry from the days of the Braille ‘n Speak.
I gained my first real exposure to this when having to take exams in the campus office of Disability Services. It took me a while to master all of the keyboard commands, and often if I even so much as accidentally alt+tabbed out of my exam’s file I’d be hopelessly lost.
By 1999, it had become clear that those of us who hadn’t grown up with the current technology would need to be fast-tracked so that we could get enough of a grip to remain competitive in class, work, etc. So, the North Carolina division of Services for the Blind put us through a week-long crash course in the Internet and email, also at the Raleigh Rehab Center. We were asked to type a sample paper into Microsoft Word to learn about spell check, formatting, tables, and the like. We also had to conduct searches on a site called 37.com, that supposedly aggragated the functionality of a bunch of search engines. This was certainly in the time before Google had risen to prominence. A highlight in that for me was finding the first video any of us had located online, a trailor for the Titanic movie after having been prompted by the instructor to type in “largest moving object ever built by the hands of man”.
I took my newly acquired skills, especially email, back to UNCC that fall and spent hours in one of two university labs that had computers with JAWS loaded on them. I browsed sports scores, read the newspaper, but used much of that time composing messages to people I wanted to get to know. One of those regular correspondences did nearly lead to a deeper relationship with a woman, as I ended up taking her number and going home that holiday season with a stack of long-distance calling cards so that I could continue chatting with her. For various reasons though, that kind of fizzled out.
By 01, the Division of Services for the Blind had begun providing personal computers to students on a larger scale. Many of these systems were used, and so they weren’t of the highest quality. Still, I found it very cool to finally have a machine in my dormroom, and to thus be able to hop out of bed at 2 AM and get online.
I slowly became more proficient, mainly because I was surrounded by some really gifted blind individuals who taught me how to do many things. They sat with me as I banged on the keys and swore at the unit as I struggled to configure instant messaging software. Plus they showed me the wonders of downloading music! Oh c’mon, I know y’all remember Audio Galaxy. It was magical to be able to type in a random song and suddenly hear it in my speakers. In my defense, I hadn’t realized that was illegal at the time, although I don’t know how as we weren’t having to pay for it.
When I had to relocate to Southern Pines in 03, actually an even smaller town called Pinebluff, I signed up for dial-up service with Earthlink. I hadn’t initially realized that I could dial a number in Southern Pines, and so was calling one in Fayetteville instead. Hello $250 phone bill. Oops? My folks accepted my apologies for that, as sadly I didn’t have the cash to reimburse them for it then. Lessons learned.
I could barely get online though, because by the time I finally won the phone wars with everyone else in the household it’d usually be well after 12 AM. And, it was so slow! I did think the sound made when one was connecting to dial-up was kind of cool though, it just sounded technological.
On moving back to Charlotte later in the summer of 2003, I acquired cable Internet access, and the rest was history. Finally, I could really stream audio online. Baseball, football, Internet radio stations, you name it.
I actually think that not a whole lot more significant happened between that point and 2007, and so I’ll go on with the rest in the next entry.

My Tech Experience, 1987-1997

I had written an entry like this in my previous blog, but it got sucked down the drain in the great Spam attack of mid-February. Ugh. So, I shall try again. Also, this’ll be more comprehensive. There’s a pretty good chance I’ll make at least two and perhaps three entries out of this, so as not to go entirely too long. Plus, it’ll give me some days and topics in this challenge.
Now, this topic is going to be more of interest to the sighted people who may know little or nothing about the kinds of soft and hardware that blind folks are able to use. I’m writing it specifically because someone I came across in the #31WriteNow challenge asked questions about this, and hey what am I if not a divulger of information? So, why don’t we start from what I think is the beginning.
My first interactions with technology came about in approximately my third grade year. This means 1987-88.
I’m not savvy enough to know which kind of computer we were using, other than that it was one of those big, clunky Apple machines with attached monitor and on which you had to flip a switch on the back of the unit to power up.
Remember those loud six-inch floppy disk hard drives? One had to insert a disk in order for the system to work, and if you popped it out prematurely it sounded as if an electric shock was being delivered! Even though that sound terrified me I couldn’t get enough of it, having to be admonished repeatedly by my teachers to “cut that out!”
Attached to our unit was a specialized external synthesizer that we could adjust and turn off and on independently of the computer itself. I believe at first, the synthetic speech may have been generated by whichever program ran on the disks we used, but I’m not entirely sure about that. Anyway, by today’s standards the voice was rather annoying. I wonder how I even understood it.
We primarily used the computer at this time for gameplay. My favorites were Space Invaders, one that asked you to listen to an ascending tone and whack the space bar whenever the tone matched where you were on the screen, supposingly causing you to hit the invading alien ships. This tone would get faster and faster until eventually you misfired. I could spend hours with that one.
Another favorite was the Math Olympics, a fun, multiplayer game that had a series of problems to solve in order to take home the medal. Each player selected a country to play under, and the winner would have its national anthem played. Ah, the sneaky ways to educate children without them even being aware of it.
Most of my typing skills were actually acquired on a typewriter, though. We had a big, electrical thing, and I loved feeling like an officeworker as I struck the keys rapidly, enjoying that sound and making no doubt countless errors. In 1992, I used that thing to nervously hammer out a Valentine’s note to one of my first crushes.
By about that year, technology took a considerable leap forward for blind individuals. I think it had existed in some form prior to that period, but that was the first year my school system got access to what were called Braille ‘n Speak machines made by the company that would eventually become Freedom Scientific but was then known as Blazie Engineering. These things were amazing to us, because for the first time we had a really portable device on which we could write Braille quickly and efficiently. They also had somewhat boring synthetic speech voices by comparison to today’s technology, but my cousin, a number of friends and I never tired of playing with the speech rate and pitch and doing such silly things as making it read a long string of A’s, variably punctuated sentences, and any other thing that would make the voice react oddly.
I have a synthesizer on my machine called eSpeak as part of another software application that I will profile in a later entry. While not exact, the uninflected eSpeak voice nearly approaches that of the Braille ‘n Speak. Listen to a short sample.
From my technological point of view, not much really changed up through 1997. They did eventually create a better version of the Braille ‘n Speak, called a Braille Lite, that had a refreshable Braille display. This is a device that uses little pens to simulate the dots one would feel on a Braille page. Some, like the Braille Lite’s, are built entirely into the machine, although it is more common for the units to be detachable these days. They are fantastic pieces of equipment, however the price of these is prohibitive for most would-be users.
This had sadly been the case for most all blindness-specific technology, but fortunately those old barriers are being bulldozed. In subsequent entries, I will detail how some of this has occurred. From 1997-2007, the rise and proliferation of the personal computer, still dominated by two or three screen-reading products. From 2007-present, the introduction of cheaper, effective screen-readers, and the rapid accessibility gains made with smartphones.

The Course, and Summer Travel After All?

Man, what! A! day! A very good, and full one, but one on which I find myself quite exhausted.
First, I’m wondering if I should ask to be downgraded to a four-day workweek for the duration of this HTML class I’m taking. I have no idea how I’ll make it through Friday otherwise, as by the time class ends it’s very definitely my bedtime. I’ve already taken tomorrow, because I knew I’d need the adjustment time.
Speaking of the class, I think it’s going to be great. There are a mix of creative, intelligent, humorous people therein. This is the first such course that I’ve taken strictly online, and so for that it’ll be a new experience anyway.
Today, we mostly covered what would be required to complete the course. The most interesting aspect is that we must create a website based on a topic of our choosing. We all know how hard I struggle with making decisions on such things, well truthfully how hard I struggle with making decisions period. Ha, ha. So do you have ideas about what I should try to base my site on? Music? Sports? Disability issues? I don’t know, but I guess I’ll come up with something.
I think I get a pass on a solidly written post tonight, huh? I’m at least putting out something!
The final good news of the day is, it seems anyway, that I’m going to get to tour the NPR headquarters after all. We’re just working out the time that I’d go, and they’ve said they’ll be willing to accommodate me through the building with a guide.
I hope to visit Washington on the 22nd, well in all likelihood arriving on the 21st and crashing so I’ll awake in the morning refreshed and ready to go. That’s assuming any sleep can be had, as I’ll doubtless be as excited as a kid on Christmas.
I’ve been an NPR junkie since late in 2001, and seriously contemplated some way of working as part of that network for the last few years or so.
So tomorrow I’ll pour over travel websites to see if I can find a hotel close to Union Station, both because that’s where Megabus will arrive and because it’d also put me close enough to NPR to easily take a taxi if that’s what I end up doing. Wish me well. I think that would indeed be my summer’s last hurrah.
Ah, this season is winding up far too quickly, but it’s been a pretty good one overall. So tell me to stop complaining and look at all of the things that have gone right!
Back with something more coherent tomorrow, once my brain is functioning properly. I feel quite pleased, though.

Vacation Wind Down

Ah, I can’t help but wonder how many Americans are in my same boat. I thought that being off for a week was supposed to rejuvenate one. Instead, I feel I’ve fallen so far out of my sleep pattern that it’s gonna be real tough to lug myself out of bed at the appointed time tomorrow: 4:15. *big yawns*
Even though I didn’t really go too many places this week, I still feel that it was quite productive. I initiated my application for the computer training course I referred to a few entries ago. It will cost a bit, but I am hoping that the benefits will be more prominent for me. Because almost everything depends at least to some extent on computers and knowledge of them these days.
That feeds well into what I’ve been reading these days. I started the WWW series by Robert J. Sawyer, mmm, maybe 3 and a half weeks ago? The books are, in order, Wake, Watch, and Wonder.
The main premise is that a young woman named Caitlin, an American citizen who has moved with her physicist father and learned mother to Canada, gains sight for the first time via an experimental operation by a Japanese doctor. He connects her to an electronic device that they jokingly call an “eyepod” that corrects the scrambled signals from her nerves to her brain and thus make her able to see. This requires a lot of adjustment, as she’d previously been blind all of her life.
Something goes a bit wonky, and Caitlin discovers that she is able to also “see” the web. She makes a fascinating find that seems quite relevant when viewed against the current revelations regarding NSA data collection capabilities.
There are a lot of controversial philosophical and religious ideas within those pages, but I find it to be good food for thought. I’ve just started the final book this week, and am curious to see how the story will end.
I read almost the entire second book during this past week, and especially on the 4th of July. I hadn’t had much to do for the early afternoon, so I texted around to see what some of my friends were up to. One of my very kind former classmates offered to come and take me to get some frozen yogurt at a local place that I think is called, sensibly I suppose, Local Yogurt. I forgot to ask her specifically, but just googled area places and that’s the one to come up. I had delicious cheesecake flavored yogurt covered in crumbled brownies. We sucked it down while sitting at an outdoor patio and taking in the beginnings of an area fireworks show.
And so I prepare to totter off and get another workweek underway. Hopefully it will be a good one, and especially if I can get all of the ducks on which I am still working in a row. I’ve opted to participate in a project called Audio Mo that asks folk to come up with and record some sort of piece every day for the month of July. You can hear those, as well as my other Audio Boo uploads, if you wish. Also, give me more topics! I’ll write more probably by Friday, as things finally start to take shape. Till then, have a good week.

Because Somebody Gotta Be the Goat: My initial thoughts on Seeing Eye GPS

On my last trip to Charlotte, my Aunt told me that I have the potential to be a leader. This in terms of helping my family and of course the blind community to make progress. These were powerful words, and I’d like to think I’ve been attempting to find the best way for me to do that over the last few years.
Certainly one of my strongest areas is rapidly becoming technology. I’m getting better all the time at using the iPhone/iOS, and I will hopefully soon be acquiring a Braille display via the National Deafblind Equipment Distribution Program.
Speaking of that, if you are Deafblind by that program’s definition, I’d recommend looking into what kinds of equipment they may be willing to provide. This is best done by contacting someone in your state’s equivalent of the Division of Services for Deaf and Hard of Hearing, or your vocational rehabilitation counselor if you have one. My new medical providers at UNC Family Medicine knew about the service too and were ready to refer me if the Division of Services for the Blind hadn’t. I was pretty impressed by that.
Anyway, so I decided I’d step out on a limb and get the newly released Seeing Eye GPS iOS app. Now the observations I have may be specific to my device, although it states that the app should work with an iPhone 3gS running iOS 5 or later. I also freely acknowledge that this is the first version, and thus things should change pretty quickly with updates. But given the app’s cost, $69.95 for one year and $129.95 for three years, I’d say that one might want to be aware of potential challenges.
So I got the app installed fine, clicked register, entered my info, and stepped outside. I decided I’d first take it for a spin along a familiar route to see what it said.
I saw buttons that said POI, standing for Points of Interest, Route, Map, and something else I think. The only thing is I couldn’t often view them, because the app caused my entire system to drag incredibly. I’d touch the screen, flick left and right, and still rarely hear a click.
I thought it may have been because I was still kind of connected to my WiFi when I started, so I disabled that and went solely on the 3G network. Still very slow. Maybe I just need to re-configure some things, I don’t know.
There were definitely some good things, though. As I approach the Exxon station that I usually try to reach, I often have some difficulty because it is at the top of a driveway and set off at an odd angle across a wide open lot. The app told me which way I was walking, as well as the direction I needed to face if I wished to locate the Exxon station. It had an impressive accuracy level too, all the way down to just 16 feet. The best I could get on Ariadne GPS was 64 feet. Intersections were called out as well as which type of intersection it was, (E.G) 3-way.
I turned on the look-around wand, and that’s when it began more specifically describing what exactly was around me. There were some sound effects too, the nature of which I’m not entirely sure. I suppose they were meant to alert me to if the app had lost signal acquisition or if an intersection was actually coming up.
Finally, I noticed a fairly significant battery drain even compared to other GPS services I use. Given the complexity involved in this particular app though, I suppose I could live with that outcome. It just means one really has to be aware of how much juice is left in the device prior to departure.
Despite the drawbacks I noticed, I’m still pretty excited about this app’s potential. So many more buildings and surroundings were labeled as I walked by. And yes, MapQuest noted these buildings too. However, it doesn’t give anywhere near the level of specificity in helping an individual to locate them, not surprising, as they figure most of their users to be sighted. So if any developers do see this entry, keep in mind that I point out the things I notice only in the hopes of improving things for all of us, not as a means of tearing the app down. I know that a lot of work has gone and continues to go into it. Also, the pricepoint is actually not too bad when compared to the hundreds of bucks we’d have to spend for such a system just 5 short years ago. I’d say it’s a fair start.