App Review: EXPRESS Yourself

I was trolling around in the app store a few weeks ago, in response to one of the Emails that Apple sends out, and found an amazing product that does something no other app has, at least that I’m aware of: it makes the face visible to me! What do I mean? Read on.

First, it never ceases to surprise me the extent to which this one piece of metal? plastic? whatever your iOS device is made of, has brought to my life as a blind person. And yes I know, Android is nearly there, and maybe surpassing iOS in some aspects, but I’ve not yet played with a device running this system so I can’t say what I would think of it.

Anyway, with my trusty phone stowed safely in pocket and Braile display on my lap, I can use programs to read, write, listen to music, and even navigate successfully on the bus. And thanks to some enterprising individuals and organizations, there are even apps that allow me to do more complex things, such as take my own photos, (no guarantees as to their correctness but I can be pretty sure I’m at least shooting the right thing), and read my own mail. All great, life-changing stuff.

But what about that most elemental of human interactions: the ability to communicate. More specifically, that communication which occurs nonverbaly, which studies have repeatedly shown to be far more believed than mere words. While some of this is passed along through other body language cues, much of it happens through that most natural of transmissions: facial expressions. Blind folks prove its innateness in fact, as we too are able to call up a smile, frown, etc when it reflects our inner emotion, or even if we want to kind of fake some inner emotion. These expressions tend to be more believable though, since they are harder to “make up” than spoken language.

Enter Express, a powerful engine that can, through quick analysis of pictures shot via a discretely placed camera, provide unprecedented information regarding one’s possible thoughts, as displayed on that facial window to the soul.

How It Works

The Express app can run in the background and even with a locked screen, so long as it is launched and the camera activated prior to use. If you think you’re entering a situation where you might wanna know what is being unsaid, simply open the app and tap the “Start” button. You are then presented with two options: Constant, or Summary Analysis.

If you pick Constant, the app takes a shot of the face you’re “focusing” on in adjustable intervals, and alerts you through a series of vibrations as to what the likely expression is. The list of vibrations and their meanings can be found in the “Demos” menu. It is important to practice these repeatedly, so that you know what you’re getting when it comes across. It wouldn’t do, after all, to think that she’s smiling at you when you’ve actually made her quite angry!

(DISCLAIMER: The app developers assert that the rendered interpretations are reasonably accurate, but cannot guarantee 100% certainty. In field testing however, very few errors were reported. Use with some caution, and act on this info at your own risk.)

If you choose “Summary” the app will still take pictures of the person’s face, but instead of vibrating regularly it will generate a report of overall mood: how often did they fluctuate, were there sudden changes, and the like. This might be a good idea if you don’t want the person to wonder why you keep vibrating.

“Goodness! Are you just crazy popular or something?”

Equipment/Accessories

You can, in theory anyway, use the phone itself to snap these pictures. However, the developers suggest that this might introduce unnecessary error into the results. How will you know, for example, if she still finds that joke you’ve told for the fourth time amusing, or is just wondering why you’re sitting there holding your device aloft for no apparent reason?

So, for an additional $45.99, the user can get a specialized camera made of a strong, thin material that matches the color of the wearer’s skin so as to significantly decrease visibility. It is fitted with a revolutionary adhesive that bonds to the skin, probably the forehead, at the molecular level, making it water-resistant. No worries though, as it can be taken off by simply scrubbing with a finger in a circular motion, as it responds to a bacterium that all humans carry.

The camera charges using kinetic energy, that which is generated from movement. So if the battery begins to run low and you for whatever reason are unable to engage your entire body, just nod your head a few times. It is recommended that care is used in so doing, though, as this too may alter the interaction and lead to inaccuracies.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.”

“Are you actually agreeing with me, or just really sleepy.”

My Final Thoughts

I’ve used this app for about 12 days now, and it has unquestionably changed my life. As I sit here on this warm day at the beginning of April and write this, one of my friends is playing with it, sitting across the table from me and informing me that it reports that I have a big, silly grin on my face. I love it! Now for something to come along that can clean my apartment. MMM.

So, have any of you gotten this thing yet? If so, what do you think of it. If you wanna find it, do a search in the app store for Express, o yes! for iOS (Don’t ask me who decided to call it that, and let me know how it goes.

ACCESS: It’s More Than a Device

As I go about my day-to-day existence with this great new tech that continues to come out and change things for me and so many other blind folks, a disturbing thing is starting to occur to me. Many of our older members are rapidly being left out, and if they actually get something it’s either poorly designed or they receive inadequate training in its operation.

Take for example an individual at my workplace. I don’t know her whole story when it comes to blindness, but I assume she’s been blind for an extended period. Or maybe not, who’s to say.

If so, it would be kind of odd for these things to continue to happen to her. It seems that she keeps getting stuff that she finds hard to work, for whatever reason, and when I go to help her, I’m not at all surprised that she struggles to take advantage of her tools.

First, she has this really tiny cell phone. Oh, it does speak a bit when opened, I think maybe one of those that you can kind of issue commands to. But, the buttons to dial, start, and end calls are so tiny that even I and my fairly nimble fingers can barely distinguish where one stops and the other starts. She will in many cases summon someone at break time who then helps her to place needed phone calls.

Then today, she asked me if I would set her watch. Ok, sure. The watch tells the time, but only really beeps when put into the settings mode. I wish it at least said “Entering Settings,” or something to that effect. And when learning which buttons to press, I initially caused some sort of song to play. I guess it was an alarm? I did get the thing set eventually, but yeah it would be tremendously frustrating for a person who maybe doesn’t have as much of a handle on tech to figure out.

See, stuff like this is why I had thought about going into Rehab Counseling back a few years ago. Too bad I’m not really cut out for that, but I digress. Now, I grant that some of these issues may be due to the consumer, and how much he/she is willing to learn. But I also know that many of the folks who are charged with ensuring that blind and low vision people have what they need to lead as independent a life as possible just slap something into their hand and say “here” without evaluating the fitness of device and person. If this is done, then in many respects the person may as well not even have the piece of equipment for all the good it’ll do them.

I guess there isn’t a whole heck of a lot I can do about this situation, except to bring it to the attention of the five people who read these words. I also hope that device manufacturers keep this stuff in mind, and make their information more readily available to even the most low-end user.

Truth be told, these days I’m starting to become more concerned even for those of us blind folks who are more proficient and can navigate iPhones and other smart mobile technology. As some have pointed out, and I can see this becoming a bigger and bigger problem, as these little machines become more computer-like, application developers are creating “prettier” apps without regard to whether they still maintain functionality with the onboard screen-readers. I’m looking at you, Twitter official iOS app which just lost Braille display support as the edit screen can no longer be easily accessed via swipe with VoiceOver when inputting a new tweet.

So, I hope we as individuals, as well as large consumer advocacy organizations such as the National Federation for the Blind and American Council of the Blind continue to apply pressure to these guys. Because just as quickly as we’ve gained access to all this revolutionary tech, we could lose it.

2345-125-15 12-15-1-136-2345-13456 15-124 12-1235-1-24-123-123-15

In its simplicity, it reveals the word(s) to so many on an 8-by-11 inch sheet of thick paper. At least this time-tested method had been the most common way to present written text to those who are blind for many years, taking me from the good ol’ days of primary school up through the proud moments of my high school graduation. Its existence ensured that I was able to get an equal education to that of my sighted peers.

It is not, in and of itself, a language, as so many think. Thus the question “is it harder to read this way than in English?” is an incorrect one. Rather, it is a medium: a means of transmission in the same way that print is.

“24-2345” 24-234 12-1235-1-24-123-123-15, and throughout this entry, I intend to pepper little bits of code that are to represent the dot presentations as we see them. View the Code Legend here, and try to figure out as many of the words as you can. Many can probably be ascertained by 14-135-1345-2345-15-1346-2345.

Braille is made up of different dot combinations that are centered around a six-dot cell. On the Perkins Braille Writer, the most regularly used device for hardcopy output, the dots are as follows: to the left of the space bar going right to left, dots 1, 2, and 3. To the right of the space bar, going left to right, dots 4, 5, and 6. The dots are pressed simultaneously to create whichever letter/number/symbol you wish to generate.

When viewing Braille characters on the paper, however, the dots are aligned so that dots 1, 2, and 3 are on the left side of the cell, while dots 4, 5, and 6 are on the right. I am not certain how challenging it would be to discern this visually, but know of many people who are able to sight-read Braille so suppose it can be done.

As I suspect many are aware, Braille was created, or more like modified, by the Frenchman Louie Braille, who had lost his sight due to an unfortunate accident involving an awl that stuck into his eye. This actually helped to give rise to the first method for writing in Braille: the slate and stylus.

1235-15-123-1-2345-15-145: Connecting the Dots: Braille in the Digital Age An excellent post recently written by one of my online friends.

While Braille is not a language, it does have the ability to shape thought. For example, take the oft-used phrase “knowledge is power”. Because Braille tends to take up so much space it also has a contracted form, called either Grade 2 or Contracted Braille. In this form, the word “knowledge” is represented by only the letter K. Oddly, this does seem to confer an unusual amount of power into that statement.

Well, I should say that Grade 2 Braille is what I grew up with, but that is now being phased out as attempts are being made to move to a single standard called United English Braille, or UEB. I don’t really know much about nor have I seen this type of Braille in action, but I hear that some of the symbols we’ve been used to are changed or removed. Hopefully, it doesn’t take us older folk too long to master this new incarnation, though.

I’m writing this, because in theory at least, I will get a new refreshable Braille display, the Brailliant BI 40, next week. This designation means that it has 40 of the six-dot Braille cells I referred to earlier, making it 15-1-234-24-15-1235 to read an entire line. I am happy about this, as the previous display I had only contained 18 cells. This meant a lot more clicking, and was generally not all that 14-135-1345-1236-15-1345-24-15-1345-2345.

This equipment is being provided to me via the National Deaf-Blind Equipment Distribution Program (NDBEDP), a trial effort to help individuals who need this technology but cannot practically afford it. In order to obtain it, I have been working for the past year with my deafblind specialist at the North Carolina Division of Services for the Blind, who has handled much of the paperwork and coordination with the Division of Services for the Hard of Hearing. There are some income eligibility and hearing/vision requirements, and so if you are interested I would advise checking with your state’s equivalent department(s) to see if you meet these and can be assisted. I think in my case, the ear infection incident I suffered earlier this year definitely showed why I should get my hands on a display as soon as possible. Not to mention it will be pleasant to be able to read books and create my own ideas of how characters sound without the interference of 15-123-15-14-2345-1235-135-1345-24-14 or human voices.

Currently, the cost of these displays is quite high, I would guess no less than $1500, and well upwards of 10 G’s for a high-end model. Happily, there is an attempt by two orgs to bring that down to around $300. It looks like those models would have only 20 cells, but that would still revolutionize access for people who aren’t able to utilize government programs for whatever reason. It also would bring the price in line with most other mainstream pieces of technology. I have high hopes that this will happen. I do not think Braille will disappear as technology advances, but as my friend said in her piece, it will become more accessible and useful than ever before. 123-135-1345-1245 123-24-1236-15 12-1235-1-24-123-123-15!

Ramblings on a Crisp Day

Hello. I have to admit I’m feeling a bit uninspired, but need to try and type something out anyway. So, I am sitting under the sun, for it is so cold out that one must be in sun to enjoy it if that one is me, and just letting my brain wheels spin.

I guess the first piece of news, which most of you already know, is that I got my iPhone 6 on Friday. It’s both longer and wider than the 4S, and amazingly thin. The unit is subtly faster than my other one as well, as I’m noticing that apps start up immediately on launch. And the battery life is fantastic! I’ve been running it, outside of the hours I took for sleep of course, almost continuously since 1 PM yesterday, and it’s still at 20% charge. My 4S definitely couldn’t do that.

Thus far, there are only a couple of things I don’t really like, and I think they’re more iOS 8 related. First, there is no way to turn off key echo in VoiceOver. This isn’t a big deal, but it probably slows me down a bit as I pound away on the screen. Also, the A button in particular only works intermittently, with me having to swipe away and back in many cases in order to input it. I do like that autocorrect seems to be less intrusive, in that it doesn’t make that pop-up sound but will just correct the word once you hit space. I need to figure out how to more adequately use the predict feature, but once I do I think that will be pretty cool as well.

I downloaded Alex, the voice that Apple had already included with VoiceOver for the Mac but only just put onto the iPhone. I like it, I suppose, but am just so used to Samantha, the American voice that had been there since this software was made for use on iOS, that I ultimately had to go back to her. I just feel I understand more of what she says at a higher speech rate. People’s milage with this may vary, though.

And now for something completely different in this largely pointless post: a topic I’ve not talked about much in a while. What am I reading. Well, I currently have two titles going, trying hard to get that somewhat low year’s book count of 26 up before we end it.I’ve read others by both of these authors before.

The first is Half of a Yellow Sun, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. This is about what I assume is a little-known war in Nigeria, a Civil war of sorts between that country and a breakaway southern country called Biafra. (Assuming I spelled that correctly, having consumed it in audio). The story is told through the perspectives of three main characters, a house servant boy, the mystress of that same house, and her sister’s boyfriend. The latter is a white man originally from England, who has come to live in Nigeria and is writing a book on his experiences there, and particularly in the war.

It is a beautiful story, but kind of sad as so many kids slowly starve to death in villages that have been cut off by the warring Nigerians. While it does show that side of Africa, the side we often think of in referring to it, this novel also demonstrates that there was a substantial middle class even at those times. Some work for the area’s major university, while others are employed by the government. Some live in a sprawling oceanfront house, while others reside in a village near the city. I’ve heard Adichie talk about how she wishes to show those in the west that such parts of African society do exist.

The other I’m reading is Earthbound, by Elaine Calloway. The third in her Elemental Clans series, it takes place in Portlant. The earth elemental is attempting to stop the Acobi fallen angels from taking young girls into tunnels dug into the riverside and torturing them. He must also do battle with a woman who lives in a pressure-cooker family of workers in a business who try to get her to further develop the riverfront in a way that would thwart his plans.

As always with her books, the best part is the amazing description of the town and its surrounding scenery. I’ve also read the other two books in this series, Water’s Blood, which I think I reviewed earlier, and Raging Fire. They take place in New Orleans and New York respectively.

And now I’ll disconnect and continue listening to this Carolina Panthers game as I sit outside here at Dunkin Donuts. Given that we are a virtual mash unit lately, with so many of our players hurt, I’m surprised that we are at present winning 7-0. Hope we can hold on. More soon.

iTurn 2: and 12 Apps List

And now, I have had this wonderful piece of technology, the iPhone, for just over two years. The huge leaps and bounds in what it can do astound me, and give me plenty of reason for optimism going forward. I think we, those with disabilities, do have an obligation to stay on these folks and make sure that they continue to value accessibility though.

As I had last year, I thought it would be fun to list my 12 favorite, (i.e) most used, apps of this past year of the iPhone. I think they clearly demonstrate my love for travel, learning about the area around me, and gaining access to so much more information than I have ever been able to have before. The list is long, and so I’d recommend you use the headers to skim and look for ones you would like to read more about. Also, the ones with stars have received their second recommendation. So, let’s go, shall we?

Ariadne GPS:

I know that most blind folks have fallen in love with BlindSquare lately, I’m sure with good reason. I haven’t yet purchased this one though, and still enjoy Ariadne for its feelable onscreen maps.

I can click to explore around where I actually am, or put in another city to peruse its layout. This has actually proven helpful in some cases, as I would know which streets were nearby as the bus or other form of transportation approached where I needed to exit.

I have also discovered some interesting sites that I might want to visit someday, like the Museum of Broadcast Communications in Chicago? That sounds cool.

Finally, I enjoy the sounds it makes to indicate water, kind of relaxing, a park or green area, the highway, and even someone walking. It’s fun, and the price, about $5, can’t be beat!

*At Bat:

The official app of Major League Baseball, I love this one because it is so wonderfully accessible. They are the only sports league that even seems to get it, ahem NFL Mobile and NBA Gametime. I especially wish the NFL would step up to the plate and fix that thing! a fact about which I have complained a few times on Twitter. I’d listed theirs as one of my favorites last year, but they definitely broke things even harder this season sadly.

Anyway back to baseball. I can so easily view the schedules, standings, scores, and flip from game to game and team network to team network if I wish. I am glad that this app has basically remained the same as it was last season.

Audible:

Need I say more? One of several reading apps I use actually, I like it because usually the books are well marked up and I can stop at chapter’s end with the sleep timer. I say usually, because there have been some cases where the timing was off for whatever reason. This once led to an amusing case where I kept on reading past the bell while at work, having gotten so into the section without the timer stopping it appropriately. I had to run full tilt back to my work section after that lunch!

I began using this app to read a novel by Veronica Scott, one of my favorite authors on Twitter, at about this time last year. Since, I have consumed approximately 15 other titles. I like how quickly they can get new audio books up there, often very close to the same time the printed version is dropped.

Downcast:

A podcast-grabbing app, I’ve gotten more into this one over the last couple months as I aim to consume less cellular data. It will download and store content while I am on a WiFi connection, and I can listen to that content when on the move or at work on break. I love that the WiFi aboard Triangle Transit buses has improved so drastically as well, often allowing me to acquire new shows more quickly than I can even at home.

I don’t listen to a whole lot of shows, yet. Thus far, I subscribe to Airplane Geeks, Betty in the Sky with a Suitcase, On Being, and Serotalk. This usually gives me enough to listen to during the week.

Google Maps:

Well, I still love this app because it can show me where the nearest restaurants are located, as well as menus, numbers to call, and their website. The only thing is, in the last month or so I’m noticing that the menus seem a lot less accessible, as I noted on my birthday. They keep refreshing, and don’t allow me to finish checking all of the options before I am put back at the beginning. I hope they fix this.

I think overall though that this app now works a lot better than it used to. I haven’t really played with the Public Transit directions in a while, but believe that now even that information is more viewable with VoiceOver than it had been in previous iterations.

KNFB Reader:

I acquired this app only yesterday, and already it has risen to the top of my favorites list. It makes possible excellent object character recognition (OCR) on the iPhone. Heck, I would argue that I’ve seen some of the best OCR with that thing that I’ve ever known.

It’s technically not even supported on my current hardware, the iPhone 4S, but given that I’m due to get my 6 next Wednesday and I suddenly can’t find my mail-checking older neighbor, I figured I would go ahead and try it out. Once I came up with a method of holding the phone in the most optimal level position that involved placing both elbows on the table, putting both thumbs on the bottom edges of the phone and both middle fingers on the top edges, it read my text nearly flawlessly.

I often experience anxiety until I can find out what a letter says, and so finally having the freedom to view it immediately is a huge deal. Plus, one never knows in what other situations good OCR may well be needed. I should note that the app costs $99, but in my opinion it is money well spent.

NPR News:

Ah, I’m still and will probably always be an NPR junkie. This app allows me to listen to Morning Edition and All Things Considered wherever I am, as long as I can get an Internet connection. I also enjoy conducting random searches on topics that interest me and listening to audio and blog posts concerning them.

The app is reasonably accessible, though I wish they would only important the current day’s Morning Edition or ATC shows to the playlist when I click “Add All” as they once did. Now, it brings in the last 30. It can be difficult to tell when a show has actually ended.

Pandora:

This is the app that wakes me up in the morning and propels me out the door! I usually select from a varying list of stations. Sometimes I wanna bounce to some 70’s funk. Others, I mellow out to some early REAL! jzz. Or, I might open up my thinking pipes with some Mozart or Bethoven on the Classical Music for Studying Channel. All music is all good to me.

There was a bit of an accessibility kerfuffle when the names of stations suddenly became viewable only by enabling VoiceOver hints. I will credit the developers in eventually responding to and fixing this issue, though.

Rider:

A great, real-time transit app, I appreciate that Transloc Rider has worked to improve the accuracy of predictions regarding bus arrivals. This app has helped me and my sighted companions several times, by letting us know where the nearest stop was and when a bus would arrive.

The only issue we experienced with it is that we were never sure if the bus that was being referenced was inbound or outbound. This was usually not a huge deal, but it did mean that sometimes we would end up standing there 15 minutes longer than we had expected.

As stated when I last wrote about this app, I’m not sure how widely available it is. I guess you can try downloading it though and check it out. It definitely works with Triangle Transit and all of its associated networks (DATA, C-tran, CAT, Chapel Hill Transit, etc).

*Sports Alerts:

This is by far and away the best way for me to check scores on the iPhone. It reminds me of my Yahoo Sports days on the computer. I like that they are adding more information particularly to NFL and MLB scores, such as the team’s down and distance in the former and who is batting and pitching in the latter.

There had been a bit of an issue with refreshing, where the app would suck me back to the beginning of the list before I finished checking scores. However, this has somehow smoothed out with time. I think these developers do take accessibility into account, and I appreciate that.

Twitter:

I know many prefer to use other apps for this social media client, such as Twitterrific and Tweetlist, but lately I’ve much more enjoyed the native iPhone Twitter app. I’m finding it to be more stable, and haven’t yet had the kinds of problems with repeated crashing or it just becoming very slow that I experienced with those other two programs. I also like the way that it organizes conversations, making it easier for me to jump over threads with hundreds of replies (and yes I’ve seen some of those).

I am however having an issue where I no longer receive push notifications. I think this problem will be corrected once I am able to update to iOS 8 next week, though. So in the meantime, I just have to remember to check in periodically.

Uber:

Well I’ve been talking about this one for the past couple of months at least. For those not in the know, Uber is a rideshare service that allows you to summon a car with the push of a button on your phone. I love it, because I can put in my intended destination and get a fare estimate before departure. It also shows me the estimated time of arrival, changing as the vehicle gets closer. This makes life way easier for me, because I know once that timer goes to 0, if I still don’t hear anyone I should place a call. I have yet to have a bad experience with them.

I would say that the only thing I do notice is that the fare is usually at least a dollar higher than that which is quoted. This probably has more to do with the times I choose to travel though, and their subsequent heavy traffic. Again, for the last time I promise! if you want to try it out and help me in the process, use my promo code at sign-up: johnm1014. We’ll then both get a free ride!

And that’s my exhaustive apps list. I hope you find one or more that you can use and enjoy. Here’s to the coming years of iPhone 6! Mine had better stay straight.

Tools To Build A Dream: The sleeper

He kept dreamin’
(Dreamin’)
Ooh, that someday, he’d be a star
(A superstar but he didn’t get far)
But he sure found out the hard way
That dreams don’t always come true, oh no

Read more: Gladys Knight And The Pips – Midnight Train To Georgia Lyrics | MetroLyrics

Midnight Train To Georgia, by Gladys Knight and the Pips (YouTube)

Oddly, I’ve had this song bouncing around in my head ever since I began planning my Atlanta trip to visit one of my sisters. It probably has more to do with the Amtrak that departs from Greensboro, North Carolina at 12:22 AM for Atlanta. This makes up the second leg of travel if one wishes to reach the city of peaches? peach tree city? haha I don’t know Atlanta’s knickname but imagine it’s something to do with peaches right?, from Durham.

First The Backstory

Because every character must have a backstory, and my family is full of characters.

Many of us see social media’s dark side: its tendency to isolate us and make a person more likely to hold a conversation with someone 2,000 miles away than one sitting right across the table from him. Board any bus or train these days, and you’ll note that there is an element of truth to this assumption.

However, there are some silver linings. For instance, I think that Facebook has made our somewhat scattered family more aware of what is going on with each of its members than we have been in many years. Most of us don’t really have easy access to constant transportation, or else priorities like kids, jobs, etc mean that we must stay relatively close to home. The online space allows us to celebrate achievements, pick each other up, and otherwise respond on a near daily basis, bringing some real closeness back.

So, my eldest sister responded to one of my recent Facebook posts by saying that she would really like it if I made the journey down to Atlanta someday. I thought about it, and decided why not sooner rather than later. I go to see my cousin most holidays, and while I will always enjoy hanging out with him and would do so whenever possible, a little variety is, as they say, the spice of life. Daring to do something different creates unexpected opportunity, as I most certainly discovered throughout this vacation. I left Friday and returned yesterday.

The First Leg

As the Friday workday drew to a close, I was already feeling concerned due to a wave of tiredness brought on by Sunday night’s lack of sleep. How does that make any sense, you ask? Well, I never really get the chance to fully catch up if that initial workday is offkilter, at least not till the next weekend. I figured what the hey though, after that long overnight train ride I would be way out of sorts anyway.

The cab deposited me at Durham Amtrak Station, and after stepping inside of its frigid confines to retrieve my boarding pass, I insisted on waiting in the mugginess that threatened rain.

“I’m not built for cold!” I told the woman behind the counter as she slid the ticket into my hand. Maybe it’s a sign of how many times I’ve passed through that station that she was saying “Hi, Mr. Miller” before I even got all the way to the counter. And her voice didn’t even sound like one of the people I know for sure.

The train is supposed to leave at 5:24, but that big thing is almost never on time. Yet for a holiday weekend it did remarkably well, rolling in at 5:39. A passenger ran up to assist me, because she hadn’t seen that one of the other women who works in there, my favorite, was making her way out. As I made my way down the aisle, a pair of hands popped out to suck me into a row and I settled in.

“Hi,” I said, because I must always attempt to greet the person sitting next to me. I allow them to decide if they wish to converse further.

Immediately, this person was interested. It seems that she rather suddenly lost a significant amount of sight, especially her central vision. I don’t know much about how sight works, but apparently this makes it hard for her to identify faces, view things that are either too close or too far away, and results in a classification of legal blindness. Understandably, she has found the adjustment challenging. I talked about how I can empathize due to the fact that I have lost so much hearing over the years and have to keep re-thinking how I handle social situations. Unintended feelings in others of having been snubbed by simply not knowing that our attention was being requested was definitely a common issue.

I’m never sure to what degree I am helpful in such situations, but this is a big reason why I am always open to talking to people about my blindness, heck we may as well say deafblindness at least if not wearing hearing aids, and how I cope. I’m just hoping that she can use technology that she already has, like the iPhone, to at least mitigate some of the changes. I will continue to do what I can.

The train arrived in Greensboro pretty much on time, after another minor delay while we awaited the passing of the Raleigh-bound train. I was interested, because I would finally get to enter their vaunted station.

On entering, I met a nice individual who made sure I had everything I needed from arrival till departure. We got to their little coffee shop just as it was closing, and I snagged a Mountain Dew. Then, she dug up menus from somewhere and I placed an order with a place called, I think, Big City Burgers for, you guessed it, a burger and fries. It seems that any restaurants in that general vicinity will deliver to the station, which is pretty cool. Given that I had six hours to wait, I had contemplated taking a cab somewhere. I guess this saved me some dough, though.

I didn’t do much else, except wolf down that sandwich, listen to some of the college football game between Syracuse and Vilanova, and read a little. The wait didn’t seem that bad, so long as my wonderful entertainment device was charged and functioning. And speaking of, if you have a smart phone or tablet and don’t have an external battery, I recommend getting this one from Amazon. It has changed my life. Well ok that’s probably an exaggeration, but you get my point.

The Second Leg<

Because the train left from Greensboro’s station, it departed right on time. This time, I was seated beside an older woman who wrapped up in her blanket and dropped off pretty quickly.

In fact, the whole cabin felt almost otherworldly, with the whistle sound drifting in as if on a fog. This may have had more to do with the mode in which I had my hearing aids set. I’d wanted to see the lounge on this train, if that were even possible, but figured it would be hard to summon someone with everything so quiet. No stations were called either, and after a 45 minute stop in Charlotte, we largely just kept on rolling.

Continued in next entry, as it stretched on into Saturday like my flight to Madrid nearly 10 years ago. Stay tuned!

The Real Deal 4: Last Full Day

Tuesday is already here? Man, how the week has flown.

I ring in the day again listening to a bit of that morning show. This time though, I turn it off at about 7, so I can shower and come back to listen to some of that day’s ACB General Session. I most enjoy listening to the scholarship recipients, as I hope maybe their career choices will inspire me to become unstuck somehow. Still thinking…

On Twitter, Indianapolis woman mentions she is at the Java Stop, s I indicate that I might come down and try to meet her. Given how incredibly crowded it is, I know that us actually finding each other are not all that high. However, I happen to be seated just behind her after purchasing a banana nut muffin and coffee, and she hears me arrive, thus scooting over to the small, rickety table. The woman from Canada then tries to find us as well, but this does not prove to be as successful.

We sit here for a few, chattering about all sorts of things. Then, we go to the exhibit hall again, mainly to pick up an iBill currency reader, but also to check out a couple of other products/vendors.

In place of fully accessible paper currency, which I’m pretty sure they’re still working on and think should debut no later than 2020, the US Bureau of Engraving and Printing is distributing the iBill free of charge to all blind folks who need one. They essentially had a trial run during the convention, allowing attendies to snap these things up in exhibit hall. The representative told us that they will be available for all blind folks by January, with those who are already eligible to use the National Library Service for the Blind (NLS) being able to preorder in September. I’m not sure what advantage preordering confers, but maybe they get them first?

So I can cheat a bit, now that I am at home and have unboxed the reader. The instructions are readable, and it doesn’t take too long to figure out how to work the thing. I put the money in wrong initially, though. I want to really learn the vibrations, as then I won’t have to have the thing call out “50!” when I scan that, not that I carry around that kind of cash anyway. Still, vibrating would be more effective in very loud situations as well.

After grabbing the box containing that device, they also ask for our contact info, we make our way toward others. I go over to the Freedom Scientific booth, where I play a bit with a Windows tablet running Jaws 16. They have a nice Bluetooth keyboard with that thing as well. I don’t notice anything particularly exciting about that, but I think it may be a bit cheaper than buying an iPad or some such. If I do go for a tablet, I will probably still get an iPad and Bluetooth keyboard anyway, maybe once this laptop is on the fritz.

I also play with a Blaze EZ, at least I guess that’s how it’s spelled. This is kind of a combination of blindness-specific notetaker and smartphone, and its most impressive feature is OCR technology. They scan a document and let me hear as the voice reads it. Apparently, these things have been selling like hotcakes.

Finally, we make our way back toward the lobby and food court, as she wishes to have lunch before attending a 2:00 event. There, we run into our Canadian friend, and the four of us head to Big Burger where I opt for just a soda as I will have dinner at 4:30 with yet another friend.

Since the woman from Canada and I are planning to meet the same person, she and I hang out for the next couple of hours. Neither of us really have anything else on our schedule. I am already starting to feel drowsy and somewhat sad.

Dinner is again at Wicked Vicky’s, a place with pretty good food for prices that aren’t too bad for hotel stuff anyway. Canada woman has me craving popcorn shrimp, but I decide at the last minute that I want one of their chili dogs. I figure I can get shrimp whenever I want, and that this hotdog is probably unusual.

And I figure correctly. First, it’s huge! The bun is super-sized, and still the frank extends beyond its edge. The chili isn’t ground beef, at least not like hamburger meat that one might expect, but rather real, delicious chunks of meat. There are also beans and veggies. Served with fries, it has me full to bursting and happy to part with the $13 it cost.

I contemplate attending the Talent Showcase, as I have at the previous two conventions to which I have gone, but decide against it. Admission at the door is $25, not too bad I guess but higher than the $10 it usually goes for. Plus, I can just stream it from my room. It is a pretty good show though, and I think I most would have enjoyed the band that accompanied people and had its own tracks as well. One woman does a particularly stong spoken word piece, and a couple of others perform great original songs.

The last thing I really do in Vegas is to ask my friend from the previous day’s breakfast if she could come and take a picture of me in the casino. Hopefully it can be seen here, via Twitter. I’m sitting at a slot machine. Do I gamble? Well, no. I keep meaning to, but just feel it’s basically throwing money away. I know I know, I could keep it really small and stop after a couple of turns. I guess I’ll do it the next time I go out there.

My picture-taker and I then wrap up the evening again at Banana Leaf while drinking delicious mango smoothies and talking more. That smoothy reminds me of the sweet mango milk shake I had in Washington DC, MMM. She tells me that a smoothy and milk shake differ in the same way that yogurt differs from ice cream: that the former is generally healthier.

She needs to head back up and do some work though, so I take about a third of that to my room, listen to the ever-saddening news, and go to bed.

The Real Deal 2: Sunday Fun Day!

Sunday arrives, slow and sweet. I allow myself to lay in bed, luxuriating in the fact that I have no immediate reason to rise and can enjoy the time away.

As always, my favorite thing to do is listen to road morning shows. I initially reach for what I think is the clock radio, but quickly give up on that and start playing with the Tune In app on my iPhone. I hate that they no longer make it as easy to change stations, other than once they’re in the Recent Stations feed. They have some sort of cumbersome social media-type interface now, which just makes it harder for me to find stuff.

Of course, most Sunday mornings are given to religious content. So, I listen to a bit of some pastor in Vegas before rising at 10:30? 7:30? something:30! What is this time thing we’ve made up anyway. They say humanity is really the only species that so closely watches it.

After spattering water all over the floor from my shower, as there seems to be no way to stop it from flying out the side, I slip into a casual pair of slacks and button-down shirt. I hope to look just presentable enough for new sets of eyes that I might encounter.

Then into the hall for the fun elevator game! Gah it drives me a little bit crazy when places have four of them from which to choose. Whack the button, stop breathing, stand really still, and there it is! Only BANG! no? wrong one. Oh that one wait, I nearly lost a finger! Relax, begin cycle again.

I play this annoying sprint around the vestibule a couple of times, until I hear some, I guess high, heels come clicking into the room.

“Sir, may I help you?” she asks. I’ll finally get down!

I don’t notice till she tells me, but she is from Scotland. One of my favorite accents, for sure. She says she’s about to check out of the hotel and head back, I think.

She kindly walks me to the jam-packed Java stop, where I latch onto an endless line. I try not to pound the person’s back who stands in front of me too many times, but also to balance that with moving up when I need to. I sometimes feel I’m the worst at waiting in line.

Audio recorded from therein: Initial Craziness

Then I meet a kind volunteer from Georgia, cool accent too, who agrees to help me find somewhere to sit while I await my city tour. Only everything is pretty much full, so I go back into the Java Stop and sit till she again comes to collect me at 12:45 to board the bus for the 1:00 departure.

I love heat! But, that Vegas heat is something different somehow. The second we step into it, I feel all of my water leaving my body.

“I couldn’t stay out in this for more than ten minutes,” I say.

More audio: City Tour Snippet

And that woman continued being just as entertaining, having us all applauding, laughing, or groaning in turn. One thing became clear from her words: Vegas was built by rich folk who had that kind of money to throw around. I know she said one person built a casino at the request of his wife, so that his love for gambling wouldn’t end up costing him everything. He’d just be recycling his own money. Not surprisingly of course, Vegas is seeking to diversify beyond strictly a gambling Mecca of sorts, as well.

I had always wanted to get to convention early enough to do the city tour, just because I love hearing people talk about their area. Yes, it would’ve been cooler to walk around some of those places, but I’m not sure how much of that I could have handled anyway.

Back into the hotel by 3, I finally decide to make my way to the exhibit hall. Here, I meet a couple of long-time online friends and folks who were selling products for the first time.

From the AT Guys, I purchase a Soundpods portable Bluetooth speaker. I’m pretty satisfied with it, and think for its size it doesn’t sound half bad. It does make it easier for me to take in content from my iPhone while in bed.

From Elegant Insights, I acquire a Braille-embossed, copper key chain that reads “ACB 2014. It’s a nice little souvenir. I also volunteer to be this vendor’s first experiment using a credit card, a task made interesting by the fact that she uses a somewhat challenging iPhone app that requires turning VoiceOver off and back on a few times to get it to record the card info. Still, it is great that such technology is even moderately accessible to blind folks, and I hope it continues to become more so.

Finally, it is the part for which I have most been waiting: the tweet-up! I am surprised that the crowd there isn’t larger, but it works out for me as I can easily hear everyone in attendance. Here, I meet one of my longest-running online friends from our neighbors to the north, Canada. I also meet a long-running friend who stays in Vegas for the second time ever. We all introduce ourselves by name and Twitter handle, then spend the rest of the time chattering away about any and everything.

I plan to go to the opening ACB General Session, but as soon as I make my way out of the tweet-up location around 6:30, my Canadian friend, one from Indianapolis, another person from Canada and I think yet one more ask me if I wish to join them for dinner.

“Hmmm, that sounds fun,” I reply.

We then spend the next half hour working our way to the Wicked Vicky’s Tavern, being given spotty directions and losing each other a time or two in the process.

“Hey, this is how we roll at convention,” I say. “We’ll get there eventually.”

Once seated, I opt to have some delicious-sounding meatloaf and mac and cheese. The mac and cheese wasn’t the “real” baked stuff I most prefer, but then I guess I shouldn’t have really expected it to be. It was pretty good anyway, though I had to stop eating it once that runny cheese began to make me feel sick.

This is really the last thing I do, after which I retire to my room to see how my speaker works. I know that, not being the most technologically adept person, it would probably take me a minute to figure out the Bluetooth component. In the meantime, and this is probably unfortunate as I may never get around to learning said component, I discover that the cable they provide for charging also has an end that will allow it to be plugged into a headphone jack. So, I’m still kind of just using that.

I play with the volume, trying not to turn it up too loudly as those walls seem to retain no sound. As I feel myself flagging by 11, I finally slide under the covers and call it a night.

On Disability and Connection

I’ve been pondering this topic for a while, as I seem to have unending challenges in maximizing or at least maintaining my links to others. At its root, connection is the basis of our humanity. We all want to belong to an organization, form solid romantic and/or friendship relationships, and ensure that our family bonds are strong.

I guess whether we like it or not, we tend often to be defined by what we do. What kind of job/occupation/career do we have?

I suppose not only persons with disabilities but many have a hard time associating with the individuals who might help them get to the place where they would like to be. However, I can say from my own experience and that of some of my friends that those of us with disabilities may grow up never really learning how to accentuate networks, and thus we find it harder to obtain meaningful employment, if any at all.

Fortunately, I think that modern technology is leveling that playing field for kids of this generation. I can’t imagine how different my trajectory would have been if I had Facebook, an iPhone and the like during my formative years.

What this tech is doing for career possibilities, I’m not sure it can do for interpersonal connections. In my experience, there is a bit of a rock-in-a-hard-place thing that happens, and particularly for individuals with clearly visible disabilities.

I have learned my way around almost my entire half-mile neighborhood area, from the leasing office on one end to the restaurant strip containing Dunkin Donuts, Noodles and Company, and other establishments called, I think Pavillion East. It’s a very pleasant spot, especially when the sun is shining and I can grab a coffee and a sandwich and take a seat on the patio.

Anyway, so I might be cruising along thinking to myself and mapping where I am and wish to be.

“Hi sir,” I hear someone say. “May I help you?”

Often, I say no as I don’t actually need assistance at that moment. “But hey, I would like to chat if you’re interested.”

My experience is that people rarely are interested, unless they feel they can fulfill that apparent need. Because of this, I have had relatively few friends without disabilities. More than that even, I’m finding that increasing independence can often lead to increases in isolation, as people have fewer obvious reasons to interact with me. It kind of makes me think of what others have said to me, that we are so often seen only as our disability, and not as a whole person potentially full of interesting traits and yes even character flaws.

I guess the people who are most likely to see us as whole are of course our families. Even as much as they do know though, I have found that many even in my own family are surprised by some of the crazy stuff I enjoy doing.

Actually, I feel fortunate to have the folks around that I do. One problem that is common among folks with disabilities, causing us to sometimes feel a strong urge to act recklessly just to establish our own identity, is that our well-meaning families can be a bit overprotective. I know some, for instance, who have been practically forced to live at home into their 30s, because their parents feared imminent harm if they were unable to track their every move. This sort of thing makes me sad, and I guess I’m just hoping that things continue to improve for all of us as time marches on.

So those are some of my thoughts regarding how persons with disability connect and fit in among society. I suppose things aren’t actually as tough as they could be and have been in the past. I will continue to do my part in helping us all to make gains and understand each other just that little bit more.

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.