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.

Blind Gaming on iOS

Lately on weekends, there hasn’t been a whole lot going on around here. Well I guess last weekend was nice, with my cousin’s bachelor party that was mostly a laid-back affair of music listening, some consumption of adult beverages, and a late-night trip to the Waffle House.
It would have been more enjoyable for me if I’d had hearing aids that were fully functional, but fortunately my old aid that had been sent in for repairs has now been returned. Amazingly, I’ve noticed a huge improvement in battery life. Even if they put a new battery in on Tuesday as I received it, the aid should have run down by this point. It still hasn’t, but for safety reasons, I will probably go ahead and replace it tomorrow as I venture out and off to work again.
The most exciting thing that I’ve noticed with these aids now is that I can again hear in stereo sound without them wavering or scaling back so that things don’t come across as they should. This means I can engage in audio gameplay that often involves the use of headphones to help gauge where things are coming from. As such, I’ve recently more thoroughly ventured into the world of gaming on the iOS platform.
I’d attempted some non-audio games a few months ago, most notably iAssociate, a puzzle-type game where you try to solve words based on categories and enhanced by the solving of previous words. This game wasn’t so much my cup of tea, largely because I just couldn’t figure out enough of the words with the few hints I was given. I don’t know how good a puzzler I am anyway.
In the past couple of weeks though, I’ve become addicted to a simple, silly game called Audio Archery. In this one, you attempt to shoot at a “moving” target as it slides from the left to the right ear. You shoot by flicking your finger down, then releasing as you wish for the arrow to fire at the target. There are ten rounds of seven shots apiece, and as far as I can tell it, the target seems to gain speed with each successive round. You also have to score higher and higher in order to continue advancing.
This game is especially fun as I rattle down the highway on the bus heading into the plant. Although perhaps other passengers wonder what that occasional muttering is about when I misfire or a game ends prematurely. Ah well, most of them are probably barely awake for the majority of the ride.
Finally, because of a recent AppleVis Podcast Extra, I was inspired to try the Papa Sangre game. In this one, you walk through a castle attempting to save someone who is “in grave danger” by collecting musical notes, avoiding hogs, and overcoming all sorts of other amusing challenges.
On the podcast, the game developers said they wanted to create a game with enough complexity to rival those made with fancy graphics and video, but also playable by individuals who are blind. I would say that they have done this in many respects. I like the female character who speaks and tells me what I should do as I navigate through this world, apparently with a Spanish accent.
I wonder though if my iPhone 4? At least I think it’s still a 4, has enough juice to really handle this game though. Sometimes, it gets stuck as I am to transition between levels. I only just figured out that I need to re-enable VoiceOver in order to click the “Continue” button, or I might accidentally go back to the beginning of that level. Those are minor quirks though, and eventually I will work my way through them.
It continues to amaze me how much I’ve adapted to this iPhone over time. It is in many ways my entertainment platform now, with the trusty PC serving as my mechanism for writing when I choose to do so. Learning gaming is quickly enhancing my ability to navigate around the keyboard and to get even more out of this product. And it’s probably the first computing device on which regular game developers begin to grasp the concept of creating feature-rich audio games that are thus accessible to a greater percentage of the population. Take a look, and enjoy!

Needing Change, Wanting Work

Adulthood. Stress. The inevitability of expectations becoming reality. This seems to be my story.
Well, I’m not sure it’s quite reality yet, but it’s beginning to seem scarily close.
Remember the entry I posted near the end of April in which I detailed my pending plans for a summer trip or two? And how I talked about needing to hold back just in case I get bounced, at least for a time, from this job?
Well, I went to work today and was immediately concerned, because there was little to nothing to do. I spent nearly the entire eight hours, well ok I didn’t actually clock in till 9 due to another set of problems that I’ll get to later, in mind-numbing boredom. It seems no new orders have come in for the product we put out in my section, locks, in quite a bit, and thus all of the material has been used.
So to pass the time, I was given a tub with two different types of nails that I was to sort into piles in a different bin. It was busywork in the extreme. I’d grab one nail, drop it into its pile, deliberately count off either a minute or a minute and a half, and then grab another.
On top of that, it slowly warmed back there, as I suppose they’ve not really turned on the AC yet. While I am a big fan of warm weather, I either like to be outside in it or in a building with some degree of climate control. Its lacking, along with the generally aggravating nature of the work, made me a bit grumpier than maybe I would normally be toward anyone who attempted to talk to me.
I know there’s no way we could possibly continue to perform in that way for probably even a week. I’m really disturbed now and hoping that somehow some way we get some sort of order to work on.
I can’t afford to have this happen right now, as I suddenly find myself having to spend a lot of dough just to keep these hearing aids on. On Friday, shortly after having had my left-side aid shipped off for repair and a loaner installed, my right-side aid decided to die. I was thus stuck inside for the whole of the holiday weekend, which didn’t turn out so badly because the weather was fantastic. I just ate pizza and enjoyed some favorite movies from childhood to take my mind off of all the craziness and responsibility.
I have to pay $65 to cover repairs to my left-side aid, and will likely fork out another 70 or so in order to obtain a dry aid kit to hopefully avoid having this problem constantly in the future. So that’s the reason why I definitely need to keep some cash flowing in.
I guess this all is keeping me motivated to continue pursuing more meaningful career opportunities. As I reiterate, my dream is to work for either NPR or one of its local stations, perhaps as a social media person. They’re posting a lot of descriptions in an attempt to fill such positions, meaning that I may well be onto something. As it stands, I don’t really qualify for most of these positions. However, I’ve learned to view the descriptions as a sort of road map that tells me how to arrive at my destination instead of a roadblock that prevents me from getting there. This is an important shift in thinking.
One thing nearly all of the openings specified is a desire for the candidate to have some basic ability to design websites. To that end, I’m going to try and take a course this August that will cover a lot of the important components of web design. Offered by the Cisco Academy for the Vision Impaired (CAVI), they clearly place an emphasis on working with persons who are blind. They will teach such things as HTML, PHP, and CSS. Do I know what all of that is yet? No, but that’s why I’m taking it! They say you can come in on the ground floor and they’ll work with you to learn. It sounds intensive, but I’m excited to hopefully take a concrete step to opening the doors I need for advancement.
And that’s just a little of what’s been going on in my topsy turvy life. No wonder I’m exhausted already. Thank goodness for a shortened week.

Accessibility Ups And Downs

Today is Global Accessibility Awareness Day, hash tagged #GAAD on Twitter. In so saying, we first attempt to get a handle on what “Accessibility” actually means.
I am in agreement with one of the panelists on the Serotalk Podcast that there really is no overarching definition of accessibility. It relates to the ability of an individual to interact with his or her environment in such a way that productivity is made easier. I would perhaps say that, if one views it as a sort of social construct, it is the opposite of disability. That is to say accessibility means that one is able to mitigate the limitations typically experienced as a result of a medical condition through the use of technology or the removal of physical and societal barriers.
When blind folks hear the term Accessibility, we most often think of ensuring that a website or app works well with our screen-reader of choice and/or in our browser of choice. This means not only being able to launch the site, but also to move around, make purchases, and interact with its content.
One of the more exciting developments in this area has certainly been the rise of the smartphone. Currently, the most prominent of these among our population is the iPhone, with its easy-to-use VoiceOver program. Some sighted individuals don’t realize it, but if you have an iOS device of any kind you can easily activate and play with VoiceOver yourself by simply clicking the home button three times in rapid succession. To deactivate it, just press that same button three times quickly again. When this is on, you’ll need to tap each icon twice in order to cause it to launch, but it’s pretty easy. As the founders of this day encourage everyone to try out some of these techniques to learn a little about our experiences, such as going mouseless and using keyboard commands, I’d encourage you to give VoiceOver a shot.
One of the most exciting recent developments in the iOS world is that Amazon has finally made its Kindle app usable with VoiceOver. This has been a long time in coming, and still I am pleased that yet another mainstream company has taken the time to dip its toes in the accessibility waters as well. They’ve actually done a pretty good job with it, at least in my opinion. I snagged a title from their site, admittedly a free one so that I could sample how things would work, and was able to read it with intuitive gestures that anyone who uses iOS with VoiceOver would quickly figure out. And they allow for more flexibility in book navigation, use of information contained therein, and the like. It’s a great start, and I salute you.
I have also found that iOS can come in handy when one is unable to get sites to work on a Windows PC. I had been trying to purchase Microsoft Office 2013 from their site, and whenever I entered my debit card information the page would refresh about halfway through putting the numbers in. I guess there are legitimate reasons for creating pages that do this, but I was still relieved that when I launched Safari on the iPhone I was able to enter all of my information without being removed from the proper edit fields.
There has been a lot of progress made with regards to access to technology for those with varying needs, but an area that remains a thorn in my side, as it has for at least seven years, is Captcha. You know what I’m talking about. The characters that, I’ve heard, are even a challenge for sighted people to interpret in many cases that must often be entered to complete sign-up for sites, obtain tickets, and other things.
There are specialized Captcha-solving programs for individuals who are blind or otherwise have real difficulty interpreting what’s on the screen, but my issue with those is I can’t get them to work very well on my machine. The programs are no longer actively updated, and much of the help information is no longer available to instruct one on how to use them anyway.
And audio captcha? Well, you may as well be listening to Chinese. I have a hearing problem, but again even people with normal hearing say that in most cases they can’t really understand what is being said.
“Accessibility” as we know it is such a vast topic that it is impossible for me to thoroughly cover every angle of it. What about for persons in wheelchairs: being able to get apartments that they can enter with relative ease. There is a real shortage of such units, sadly. And captioning for individuals who are deaf, so that they can enjoy TV programs like everyone else. I’m sure that some of these topics are covered in greater detail by other #GAAD participants, and invite you to go and check them out.

On Music And Connection

Music. The great salve that sooths the soul. And nothing is better
than music, in my opinion, than old music that takes one back to his
glory days!
I’ve recently downloaded the Pandora app to my iPhone. I’d had access
to it before through a screen-reader-friendly program called Hope,
which I wrote about in another entry over two years ago.
It’s hard to believe it’s been that long!
The thing I love about having this program on my phone, and now the
premium version which means no ads, is that I can have it streaming
through my speakers across the room as I pound away on the keyboard.
I’m presently listening to the Michael Jackson station, where ABC by
the Jackson Five is playing. Of course Jackson’s station is going to
be one that’ll make you feel like dancing around the room, with songs
by Stevie Wonder, his sister Janet, whoever sang Brick House, and
others similar.
These songs remind me of being a kid, flying around the living room
with head just about touching the ceiling as I yelled in equal parts
fear and excitement. We’d sometimes stay in that living room with the
old stereo vibrating till well after 9, our pajamas on but bed clearly
forgotten.
I try so hard not to just get stuck in that past time, when I had
nothing to worry about but whether homework had been completed, a big
worry to a child mind you but nothing compared to the craziness of
which I am aware nowadays. Because of the sadness that happened in
Boston and the resultant, rampant, unfounded speculation about the
whys and hows, I’ve stuck to my music over news pretty much all week.
I suppose that at some point we’ll have a clearer understanding of
what went down, but until then I’ll just try to spread happiness
wherever I go, pray for us all to love each other and never forget the
song.
Like nearly everything else lately, I learned of this tragedy via
social media as I boarded the bus to head home from work. Recently,
upon being sidetracked from going to look at the personals ads on
Craigslist (for the entertainment value!, oh alright, maybe to see if
I could find someone to hang out with here too), I found a study being
conducted by folks at the University of Michigan that sought to
understand how our social media habits had changed over the past three
years or so, and to what extent this effects other kinds of
relationships. It came with some modest compensation for time, and
given that I’d have a lot to say on the subject anyway, I decided why
not participate?
I said that I’ve certainly become more a part of social media now that
I have a smartphone. Twitter and Facebook are some of the more
powerful innovations the Internet has seen. I love that people from
high school now know what’s happening with me, just as those from
former employers, college, and other current and former life circles.
Where I think it may be getting us in trouble, and I keep beating this
point home especially when we have sad things happen, is I think it
may be minimizing our desire to go out and talk to that person next to
us on the bus or park bench. In so doing, it makes easier the
perpetration of acts of violence against that same person. So as we
remember to sing that song, let us do so together.
Just a bit of my rambly thoughts as I continue to get older and try to
plod on through this life. I’m sure I think too much for my own good.

iPhones and Pc’s and Players Galore!

I’ve been asking myself this a lot lately: how many devices are enough? Am I in danger of becoming so absorbed in all of this stuff that I float through every day without any interaction with the people around me?
It’s amazing to think about how much this has changed over the last 10 years. Serotalk did an April Fools day podcast recently where they acted as if they were doing a show from 2003. One of the most notable things about that show is that Apple products were pretty much inaccessible to people who are blind. That company somehow went from practically nonexistent to taking the lead in bringing usability to mainstream technology. I’m not sure how or why they began that transition, but even though all of my products are not of their line, I still very much appreciate Apple’s actions.
Even as I watched many of my blind peers venture more fully into the touch screen environment, I still chose to just stick with my Windows computer and barely functional SamSung Haven cell phone. I just couldn’t imagine how I might be able to figure out an iPhone when there were only a couple of buttons on the thing.
I was finally propeled over the abyss by the offer, shortly after my birthday in mid September, of a free iPhone 4. I said to myself “Well if I don’t have to pay for it up front, I can feel more comfortable experimenting with something that I might not actually like.”
And admittedly I hadn’t cared for it all that much for those first couple of weeks. However, as I went on living out in the very small town of Pinebluff, North Carolina where I couldn’t access many other services, I grew fairly quickly to appreciate that phone. It served as my Internet link to the outside world, and definitely helped me to secure everything that I would need to make the move to Durham.
Now that I am back out here though and have a computer, my NLS digital talking player with another amazingly small flash drive, I’m trying to determine the best way to integrate all of these pieces of technology in such a way that I feel will benefit, and not overwhelm, me. I supose realistically, they all have their uses.
As the Serotalk podcast folks pointed out, there was a tie when we had to lug around a laptop with an attached receiver if we wanted to use GPS. And this equipment could easily cost hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars.
Now though, all I need to do at least basic GPS locating is a $5 iPhone app. That’s right, I used Ariadne GPS, a VoiceOver friendly program, to steer me to my apartment complex’s leasing office this past Friday. It doesn’t give navigational directions, but by saving the office as a favorite in the addresses, I was able to find it as if it had a sort of beacon on its roof. I just kept zoning in closer and closer until there it was.
And as a quick aside, I should point out that there have been two excellent, free, picture-taking apps introduced to help visually impaired people identify products. The first, Tap Tap See, allows you to take a quick shot of something and gives feedback about color, composition, and likely type of material. The second, Cam Find, tells what the product probably is, but also it conducts a Google-like search of similar images to help one note where online other things like it could be purchased or to do a price comparison. I’m enjoying these thus far, as they give me a better sense of what my clothing looks like, cut down on guesswork as I select something to have for dinner, and the like.
As with everything else over the past six months or so, I had been purchasing iBooks on the phone. Now that I have access to my player again, I will make extensive use of the BARD service and read many more books and magazines than I could have otherwise. It should make those commutes full of snoring passengers that much pleasanter, and hopefully won’t result in my ignoring the time for hopping off of that bus in the process.
And of course even as I often point out the somewhat antiquated status of my Windows computer, I can’t deny the ease with which I am able to write on here, even compared with the iPhone and apps such as Flexy that do greatly improve my typing ability therein. I am beginning to assemble the pieces that I hope will help me design a career path, more on which I will be writing shortly.
So how do you do it, with your iPad, iPod, iPhone, computer, entertainment system, and goodness knows what else? Do you ever feel overstimulated by all of this stuff?