rainy day ramblings

Hi Everyone.

Well, the last day or so has been quite eventful. I went out for coffee with friends yesterday afternoon, and returned to find a large pool of water on my laundry room floor. When Jason came home, he discovered that one of our pipes was cracked, and that whenever anyone used the water, it sprayed out the pipe. We had a Plummer come out first thing this morning, and after cutting into our wall, he replaced the defective part. The good news is that we can use our water again. The bad news is that now I have no excuse not to do the laundry.

We are continuing to get rain in the area. Parts of Southern Minnesota got as much as 17 inches of rain in one day last weekend. There is a lot of flood damage, and some people have even lost their houses. It’s still raining as we speak. Luckily Kaylor, who was trained in Oregon, doesn’t mind getting wet. It’s a definite change to the couple of dogs I’ve had who refused to pee in the rain.

I just downloaded the latest version of Skype. I actually haven’t used it much at all in the past, so I’m looking forward to learning how it works.

As I mentioned in my previous entry, I’m in the process of trying to construct an IPE for my voc rehab counselor. This hasn’t been easy for me, as I need to write it with a particular goal in mind, and I’m not sure what I want that goal to be. I’ve been reading various career development books for insight and ideas. One of these is the famous “What Color is Your Parachute?” book. Part of this book includes something called “The Flower Exercise,” which has you identify ideal jobs/careers for yourself based on 7 factors: particular skills, preferred environments, preferred interests, ideal working conditions, preferred locations, wage requirements, and specific values. I haven’t finished it yet, but the first couple of exercises have been interesting. One had me think about a series of things I’ve done in my life, simply because I wanted to (whether to accomplish something or to fill some other personal need). I then had to think about all of the steps involved in those things, and what skills I had to use in order to complete them. Doing this made me realize that sometimes we achieve things without enjoying the process, and that sometimes we are good at things we don’t like to do. Conversely, there are adventures we decide to take that don’t end up giving us much to show for, except our delight in the journey, itself. There are also things we love to do, even though we’re not especially good at doing them.

Although it was difficult to recall and sift through these various events, it definitely told me a lot about what sorts of accomplishments and activities are important to me. The other exercise I worked on had me list all of the places I’ve lived, as well as what I liked and didn’t like about them. That brought to light an interesting quandry.

As a blind person, I want to live somewhere accessible. However, since I hate winter, I also want to live somewhere warm. This made me realize that I don’t know of many warm places that are also accessible. I should add to that by saying accessible…and affordable. I say this because I have lived in Berkeley and San Francisco. These places were both accessible and mild in winter, but the cost of living in these cities was also incredibly high.

I have also lived in Toronto. I love this city, and it is probably the most accessible place I’ve ever lived. It was expensive, though not as expensive as the S.F. Bay Area. However, it had very cold winters, which is why I moved to California. Unless anyone can point me to a city that is accessible, free of frigid winters, and has a reasonable cost of living, I’ve decided that my ultimate dream would be to live somewhere like Toronto for the majority of the year, but to own a condo in a warm place, so I could escape the cold weather between about January and March. I guess I need to keep working on that million dollar idea or that New York Times best seller…

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technology musings

Recently, I found out that I was approved for services through our local Department of Voc Rehab. So now the questions are: What do I want my plan to look like? And: What technology do I need?

With regard to technology, it is difficult to know what to ask for. Technology changes so fast now a-days, that I’m certain once I make a choice, something amazing will hit the market the following week. In addition, many things look really cool, but I have to consider what I will actually use on a daily basis, and what I will truly benefit from. For instance, I have a bill reader, and while it’s super cool and helpful, it’s not something I carry with me all the time. If we could just get our act together, and follow the Europeans’ idea of different sized bills, bill readers would be virtually unnecessary. But who needs accessible money, right?

Sometimes, the ideas behind a piece of technology are wonderful, but the execution is poor. Then one winds up with a gadget that is supposed to work in theory, but in practice is completely impractical (either because the interface is so poor that it becomes inefficient to use it, or because it proves unreliable). I noticed this with my Plextor. While the idea of recording lecture notes onto CD is great on paper, in practice, I found that my recordings did not always turn out the way I wanted them to. I definitely have my eye on one of those Olympus recorders. They look useful and fun to work with at the same time.

Another issue with technology is that sometimes the available options seem less than appealing. I’m thinking particularly of screen readers. I could get the latest JFW upgrade, and subject myself to the continually deteriorating product quality and customer service that seem to be F.S.’ default of late, or I could purchase Window-Eyes. In the latter case, I’d have to learn a whole new screen reader from scratch, although I have heard enough good things from W.E. users to make that prospect seem worthwhile. System Access would be the other possibility, but my recent experiences with it have been frustrating at best. Something has definitely broken in MS Word 2003, and now I’m not even receiving audio feedback when I press the BACKSPACE key. While it’s still a great program on the Internet, I do need something that allows me to perform word processing-related tasks, and I’d rather not have to purchase MS Office 2007 to do it.

This whole problem with breaking old things when implementing new features seems common in many facets of assistive technology, and is particularly frustrating to me, given that so many of we blind folk cannot upgrade with the speed of sighted consumers. When upgrading to the latest and greatest, it’s not just a matter of purchasing the mainstream software–it’s also a matter of finding the $1000 + required to purchase the latest screen reader or whatever.

I’m also still struggling with the notetaker versus laptop debate. While I love using a laptop most of the time, and enjoy it’s versatility, there are some definite pluses to a notetaker like the Braille Note or Braille Wave. I like the “instant-on” functionality–especially when I’m in a hurry and it seems to take forever to boot up my computer. I also like the long battery life on the notetakers–being able to use my notetaker through an entire coast to coast flight. The final thing I like about notetakers, is that I sometimes want to be able to read and take notes with no voice output. Sometimes, just having the braille in front of me is the best option–depending on the scenario. For instance, when giving a presentation, or having to take notes in a situation when I don’t want one of my ears taken up with the nattering of digitized speech. Also, as a writer, I sometimes find that the sound of a screen reader muddles my thoughts. However, there’s no denying that many of the notetakers on the market are prohibitively expensive without funding assistance. I understand that that is largely because of the cost of manufacturing braille cells, but it is still a reality that poses a huge stumbling block for many of us. I know notetakers are available without braille displays, but in my case, that eliminates many of the things I like most about using such a device.

Anyway, enough of my technology quandries for today.

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fucking image verification!

This is an add-on and test following my last post. When I went to publish it, I wasn’t able to do it without dealing with one of those image verification things. I could be grateful that Google actually has an audio option, but there is so much background noise behind it, that it is virtually impossible to figure out which blobs of sound are the numbers, and which are the static. These things should be banned. And looking further down this page, I see that I have to do this every single fucking time I want to post. Pardon the explatives, but seriously… Sometimes I just want to move to a deserted technologically-free island far far away.

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I’m back from the dead

Hello All.

I apologize for my extended absence. In addition to putting the finishing touches on my wedding (scheduled for less than 2 months from now), and looking for consulting gigs, my fatigue has been terrible the last couple of weeks. I won’t spend this entire entry talking about fatigue, but sometimes I’d give anything to be able to take a vacation from my body. Now there’s a business idea. Rent a body. I think it has great potential.

I’d like to say I’ve just been enjoying the lazy days of summer, but the 90+ degree heat is actually starting to get on my nerves. As much as I detest winter (and believe me, that word doesn’t begin to cover it), I’m looking forward to the beautiful Minnesota fall–with day time temps in the 60’s. I have been feeling so bad for my poor little doggies–both pet and guide dog. It is nearly impossible to walk them with any regularity in this heat. I woke up at 5:30 one morning, with hopes of beating the heat. It was already over 75 degrees, with 80% humidity. I’m not sure what other dog users do when the weather is extreme, but extreme temps are an instance when I am very thankful that the Mall of America is near by. Because of it’s huge size, I am able to walk Kaylor for hours without getting bored. The work is also challenging enough, because of the crowds, noise, and food distractions, that he actually gets a good workout while we’re at it.

Several years ago, when I lived in Toronto, I used to take my GSD into what we called “The Underground City.” It sounds rather ominous–bringing to mind dingy tunnels with low ceilings and dripping water, but it’s actually a labyrinth of underground shops, offices, and immaculately kept corridors. In fact, I’ve heard that there is approximately 16 miles of twists and turns–connecting much of the downtown portion of the city. It was a great place to take my dog when the weather was too cold to do anything else–especially since she was one of those dogs that *needed* to work. If I waited too long between workouts, she would actually put her paws up on my lap, and slap me in the side of the head with one of them–all the while uttering her various Shepherd grunts of displeasure. And talk about challenging. My O&M instructor actually had to figure out how to navigate it himself, before he could show me how to get from point A to point B.

I am much more fortunate with Kaylor, in that he is an excessively patient dog. I am also lucky because he can go for several days without difficult work, and then breeze through downtown Minneapolis as though he does it all the time. Speaking of Kaylor, he celebrated his fifth birthday last Friday. He enjoyed some wonderful venison medallions in honor of the occasion. This was a special birthday for me, because my previous two dogs were both retired for health issues before the age of five. It felt good to reach that milestone with a dog again.

He also received a very nice phone call from his puppy raisers. They are the nicest couple, and they spoil him rotten every Christmas. Last Christmas they sent him a doggy bed that could easily fit two of him–from LLBean, no less.

Now, I say this with the knowledge that I have been extremely lucky in the puppy raising department, but I actually like knowing my dog’s raisers. I love hearing all those fun puppy stories, getting the puppy photos, and hearing about what my dog liked to do as a puppy. For instance, without contact with his raisers, how else would I know that Kaylor visited the historic library at Yale when he was five months old? Or that he used to like to hunt small mountain creatures with the family Newfoundland? Explains a lot about the rabbit killing incident…

Don’t get me wrong, I think the Seeing Eye is an amazing program. I have even considered trying them when it comes time to get my next dog. I only mention TSE, because I am familiar with their puppy raising policies. At the same time, the exercise of sitting through a graduation is quite tiresome. I love meeting my raisers–I only wish I could just skip graduation and go straight to the dinner or other social activities I have done with them in the past.

Well, I’ve gone on long enough for now. Barring future bouts of extreme fatigue, I will attempt to post far more regularly than I have in the last several weeks. Hope all are well, and managing to stay cool, and out of the path of storms.

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Vista and Ubuntu



Since getting my new computer, every Blind Confidential article I’ve written describes my experience with Window Vista and the behavior of JAWS, System Access and Window-eyes in the new operating system.  I would like to take this time to express my thanks to the manufacturers of the screen access products that I have evaluated over the past few weeks.


Mike Calvo and Monster Matt Campbell have been terrific, providing answers to questions on the telephone as well as an email.  Matt’s incredible week of hacking to provide a really excellent level of ACCESS TO THE Vista speech recognition system lets me use System Access almost entirely without need to touch my keyboard and without needing to purchase a third party extension to their terrific product.


Jim Ellsworth from Freedom Scientific technical support spent a lot of time with me on the telephone and corresponding by email.  He sent me a link to a pre-release version of JAWS the fix is a number of problems that I have reported which also seems two improve the overall performance in Vista.  It was nice chatting with one of my former colleagues and I very much appreciate the help provided to improve my experience with JAWS in Vista.


Finally, I would like to thank Aaron from GW Micro for his patient help answering my novice questions without losing his temper in telling me to RTFM.  Window-Eyes pose the greatest challenge to me the cause its user interface is so different from JAWS and, by have it, I will often hit in IS JAWS keystroke without giving much thought to it.


For a project that I’m working on, I am building the table that compares the performance of a number of screen readers across a wide variety of features on both Windows XP and Vista.  From my experiences past month comparing three screen readers in Vista, I have found that each has its own set of strengths and weaknesses and feel that anyone making a purchasing decision should try to live with a number of different screen readers to determine which will best suit their needs.


For the past couple of weeks I’ve also been running VMWare and a Ubuntu distribution of the cap Linux operating environments.  In the gnome desktop I use the orca screen reader which, for many things, works very well.  I expect that in the coming weeks I will start hacking on orca a bit and hopefully be able to make some contributions that its users will find valuable.


I’m also enjoying being back in a UNIX environment for the first time in many years.  It isn’t quite as friendly as Microsoft Windows but having the source code to everything that I might have to use really makes using it a lot of fun.  Open source software can have support for an accessibility API added by a volunteer who finds the problem interesting.  With the move to an increasing level of compliance with standards the operating system and applications that a user needs can be chosen based upon their personal use case rather than being identical to every other computer in an organization.  I find this emerging freedom of choice to be quite exciting and I anticipate seeing many more open source accessibility tools emerging in the future.




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Vista Speech Recognition and the latest System Access Beta

For most of this week, I have run a new beta of System Access almost exclusively on my Vista computer.  I’ve stuck to System Access because “Monster” Matt Campbell, over a few days hacking last week, has created the best out-of-the-box solution for the Vista Speech Recognition system.  I have not tried J-Vist yet and I expect it will perform well as everything else that I’ve tried that Brian has written works great. 


Window-Eyes and JAWS without J-Vist work poorly in the various Speech Recognition dialogues and not at all when dictating into Word 2007.  With Both WE and JAWS, I could complete the speech recognition tutorial and perform some of the training tasks.  For both JAWS and Window-Eyes a user must use the JAWS Cursor or Window-Eyes Mouse Cursor extensively to get the speech recognition features to talk at all.  In System Access, Monster Matt has, excepting fairly minor bugs (remember I did say it is beta software) really made speech recognition a pleasure to use.


When dictating into Word 2007 with either JAWS or Window-Eyes, absolutely nothing gets read back to the user.  Setting screen echo to “all” (a technique that works for me in Word 2003 with JAWS and Dragon) didn’t cause JAWS to read back any of the information I had dictated and in Notepad and WordPad caused JAWS and Window-Eyes to speak far too much and I assume that Vista must be repainting the edit window far more often than one would expect.


With this System Access beta, the text I dictate is read back after the recognition engine processes the information and I can tell when the recognition system has made a mistake and correct it.  The correction dialogue works very nicely with SA as does the spelling dialogue in which a user can speak the correct spelling of a word to the system and, from which, the recognition software’s accuracy will improve.


Using JAWS, I issued the verbal “correct that” command and, with the JAWS cursor, I could find the correction dialogue laying atop my MS Word file with its text intertwingled with the text in my document.  One can sort of use JAWS if they don’t mind issuing a lot of SayLine keystrokes to hear what they have dictated and poking around a lot with the JAWS cursor to find the correction dialogues.  It is nearly impossible to use JAWS or Window-Eyes as a hands free solution with Vista Speech Recognition; System Access can be used very nicely and, excepting some odd situations, an SA user can go almost entirely hands free after the recognition system is trained well enough to understand your voice.


So, System Access, the lowest priced screen access program, without the user needing to purchase any additional software, outperforms the two leading screen readers by a substantial margin in the Vista speech recognition system.  For me, having a hands free system that I can use when my RSI problems flare up badly, is a major improvement to an otherwise difficult situation.


Once the Serotek guys post this as an update, I recommend people give it a try and, if you are patient (a virtue required of all speech recognition users), I will bet you find it impressive.


I would also like to tip my hat to the guys at Microsoft for doing a terrific job with the voice recognition features in Vista.  Having faithfully used it for a few days now, I would say that it performs similarly to Dragon Naturally Speaking and SA users will soon have access to it by default.


— End



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