A month off the grid. Living blindly without Internet

Usually, once in our lives, if not more than once, there’s a sentence that flutters out of our mouths without a hesitation. People have uttered this sentence in all cases of need, where they wanted something really badly but they felt as if that new book would enhance their lives or that video game would make the winter bearable or this movie would help with bringing the family together. So people say it, feeling like they really mean what they say,

It’s the sentence, “I need that.”

A dictionary has many definitions for the word need. Until October, when I decided to take up a challenge by a friend to not use any Internet for a whole month, I didn’t really understand what I needed or even why I needed it.

In September 2014, the sun speckled the ground with bursts of bright light even though the weather was cold in Chicago. I was sitting in a park with an engineer friend of mine, stealing his fries as we talked about the internship that I applied for but didn’t make. The topic nestled into the internship miss until, suddenly, he blurted out an exclamation of “oh my god, Robbie, you have GOT to read this!”

And so I did, or rather, listened, having limited vision and everything. It was an article that said that killing net neutrality would help the disabled. Verizon was saying that, if the Internet were split into a fast lane and a slow lane, disabled people would have much better Internet. Naturally, the irony wasn’t lost on me. In most cases, no matter how politically correct people wanted me to be ever since I started saying it, a good portion of the disabled populace were very poor, so the idea Verizon had was just utter nonsense.

“That’s a complete fallacy!” I spluttered, shifting my weight so my good eye could stare at Marcus full on in the face. “That’s just plain wrong!”

“I know,” he agreed, but we ranted and raved for a bit, just to make sure our thoughts were out in the open. Suddenly, though, as I was stealing a fry, he commented, “I have an idea. Why don’t I give you a challenge, you know, like a dare?” I liked the prospect of a dare so I accepted his challenge before having the intellect to ask what it was.

“Why don’t you, as a disabled person, live without the Internet for one month, and this means using Internet in schools and in libraries and the like, don’t use the Internet at all for one month.”

And that’s how it began.

Now, my memoir details my journey of living offline. Through my words and reflections, readers will know what adapting to a new kind of world is like. I was soon swept up in a different world, a world that was inaccessible to me and a world that I had to learn how adapt to, on my own since I live in an apartment complex by myself. I really did learn the difference between needing something and wanting the convenience of something.

I assumed I was going to do the everyday things that people did, such as walk outside, even though it was starting to get cold in Chicago. I thought my entries were going to be filled with sentences outlining what I did, rather than what I’d think about and declarations and observations of people. I thought that I’d write more about what I did and why I did it, rather than my observations about the Internet-less life and how it changing everything from communication to education to human interaction.

In the memoir, many aspects of life are examined. Why? Because I had a lot more free time to share with myself. The memoir is a diary that’s intimate and allows for a glimpse into the human psyche before being connected to everyone.

Living offline changed me in many ways that I didn’t even see coming. For the first few days, I needed to get online, I wanted to look up something. I wanted to type in the commands and the search strings that would get me exactly what I wanted, how I wanted it, where I wanted it. Without that power, for a few days, I was utterly lost because I didn’t know how to cope after that power had been taken away.

Even though I felt as though I was going to back down on the first few days, I gave it a shot still, and kept on with the challenge.

The fact is, the Internet is a requirement, especially for the disabled. I experienced much frustration simply because I could no longer do something so basic, such as hooking up a landline phone because I couldn’t download the manual from the website. I had to rely on the sighted population more than I have ever needed to.

This is because there isn’t as much accessible information offline as there is on the Internet. On the Internet I can look up any news I want to look up or any manual, for that matter. Take news content: Writers are not filtered by space and advertising columns so they can pepper the Web page with in-depth reporting and I could read it all.

Mainstream offline media doesn’t tell you about all the news that’s happening or the kind of topics people want to know. The fact is, people want to know. On the radio and TV everything is delegated by space and time. When you have limited options to get information, information becomes a need, not a luxury. I had to cope with losing that by asking more questions from other people and relying on their answers. Sometimes, it was effective. Other times, it left me feeling as if I was being denied information simply because I didn’t use the Internet.

We live, however, in a world that needs the Internet. I learned that the hard way when I didn’t get hired for a job because I couldn’t use the Internet. It really has shocked me how it’s turned into an unclassified utility. Sure, apartment owners are saying it is a utility but not the government, not the people higher up. It should be. Why? Because I know what it’s like, as a disabled person, to live without the Internet for one month. A disabled life without Internet is not a completely independent world. The Internet breaks down barriers, even if we can’t see them.

Posted in Assistive Technology, Blindness and Low Vision, SeroSpectives | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Three-and-a-half Ways to Improve Time Efficiency

There is no such thing as time saving anything and I can prove it.

Don’t believe me? Okay, we often say time is money, let’s say I gave you $1,000 yesterday and told you to get whatever you could with it, and you got 25-items.

Today we do the same thing. But this time you were twice as thrifty with the $1,000 and got 50-items. What happened? You didn’t save any money; you just doubled your stuff.

Isn’t that how time works? We can’t bank it in our life like some savings account. We’re given only a limited amount and forced to spend it with every blink and every breath. About all we can manage is to be more efficient with what we have, we can’t save it up to use in the end.

That said here are 3.5 easy methods proven to let you be more efficient with your time.

1. Mail. When we pull in the driveway at home, one family member who shall be nameless immediately goes for the mailbox. I’m grateful the mailperson only comes once a day at a predictable hour or this person might be out there every hour checking if we’ve got any new mail. Okay, not really, but you get my point.

Unfortunately, e-mail comes 24/7/365 and so many of us entrepreneurs really do check e-mail way too often.

Smart phones have helped with that which I’ll touch on later, but do yourself a huge favor; when on task don’t tempt yourself to check mail continually. Even if you feel you have some fairly important mail coming or think it will just take a second, because you run the risk of getting hooked on answering e-mails or writing new ones as long as you are there, and before you know it one-eighth of your work day was set adrift never to be heard from again.

Instead, turn off the automatic e-mail checking feature on your mailer, or at least turn off the audio notification, and allow yourself a set amount of time to do e-mail once or twice a day. When time is up, stop. Even if you are in the middle of something, stop. I guarantee you the more you do this, the more efficient you’ll be and the better distinctions you’ll make in what mail to receive in the first place.

2. Automobile University. Zig Ziglar, one of the great motivators of the past use to have a thing he’d call Automobile University. Basically, it was making use of unproductive time you are forced to spend in a commute to work, cleaning an office, or even mowing the lawn.

I’ve listened to many audio books, webinars, motivational programs, and on-line courses while commuting somewhere, exercising, cleaning the office, or any other task that doesn’t require much thought. I even answer or weed out unwanted e-mail with my iPhone on the fly.

This actually does two things. First, of course it allows you to get so much more good information in you that you’d not otherwise have, but more it makes a droner of a task… sort of fun. It got to a point with one audio book I read where I couldn’t wait to clean up the house or mow lawn just so I could get back to the book. I think my wife secretly hopes I’ll find a similar book… maybe even a trilogy or series.

3. Schwartz 33:33 Rule. Back in the day, copywriting legend Gene Schwartz came up with a method which allowed him to write his many books, and entrepreneurs still use it today. Set a timer for 33-minutes and 33-seconds, and start working. When the timer goes off, get up for a 5- or 10-minute break, then repeat the timer and get to work again.

At first, breaking your flow and interrupting your day seems counterproductive, but this mini-deadline is proven to work. You are training your mind to stay more focused when you sit down at your desk. Try it and see if it helps your productivity.

And now for the one-half-method you wondered about since reading the header …

3.5. Don’t work at all. That’s right, take some time off. Working continually only burns you out, makes you feel like there is no reward for your efforts, and your brain needs time away from what you do, even if you love what you do.

There is proof that your subconscious will go to work producing solutions and background work when your mind is at rest. We can reach a saturation point of productivity if we never give ourselves conscious time away from it.

I say this is the one-half-method not because it was half as important, but if you are like me, you are half likely to do it if left to your own workaholic tendencies; and it really does need to be observed and enjoyed.

This is just a sampling of ways to be more productive. Try journaling your day’s activities noting how much time you spend on each item, you’ll quickly identify the patterns and tweaks to your productivity.

Posted in Entrepreneurship | 3 Comments

Goo-Goo for Google, but Are the Blind and Visually Impaired Being Left Behind?

The following is a guest post by Laine Amoureux. Laine is employed as an assistive technology specialist at the Idaho Commission for the Blind and Visually Impaired. She has served the state of Idaho for seven years. She recently obtained a M.S. in Assistive Technology Studies and Human Services from California State University, Northridge. Laine is an avid consumer of screen reading and magnification technologies, and best of all, you will soon be able to enjoy her contributions as part of the new SeroTalk Podcast team!

72 of the top 100 Universities in the U.S. and 7 of the 8 Ivy League schools were using Google Web Apps
for productivity according to a 2012 “Official Google Blog”. Further 1 in 5 U.S. School districts are taking advantage of the Google platform, including web apps, according to a 2013 article. In addition the Google Blog also reported in 2012 that 5 million businesses, worldwide are taking advantage of Google Web Apps for business. Telework/commute opportunities are on the rise, according to a 2014 NY Times article and guess what platform lends itself perfectly to virtual meetings and collaboration? You guessed it, Google.

Why is everyone, at least in the main-stream, so goo-goo for Google? Could it be the incredible price tag of FREE for individual consumers? The incredibly low prices for educational institutions and businesses? The decrease in employee hours focused on information technology “IT) as a result of Googles’ simple deployment system?

Why are so many blind and visually impaired consumers complaining about Google? Why aren’t more blind and visually impaired users using them? Are individuals who utilize access technology being left out/overlooked/forgotten?

Instant Gratification

Instant gratification cannot be overlooked as a contributing factor to the widespread adoption of Google Web Apps across personal, educational and professional environments. Google leverages HTML 5 and Web 2.0 to create a dynamic virtual environment that provides instant communication and collaboration. Google has also implemented design attributes that make the interface easy to use, and learn to use. Little to no time is required to learn to use the apps.

As I chat with AT specialists in the field of visual impairment and blindness I am commonly asked to share tips and tricks for using new web pages. The sentiment expressed in many conversations is that web pages don’t behave like they used to, and users never quite know what to expect. Sometimes users can activate or interact with an item one way, and the next time they encounter the same type of element they must activate or interact with it differently.

The Google Gmail Web App is often used to demonstrate the specialist’s frustration and concern. It also tends to send the message that, in fact, individuals who use access technology to interact with the web are being left out. Some AT users, and specialists, will argue that it is how the web page was created, others will argue that it is the fault of access technology manufactures falling two steps behind.

Why is that? Why are so many in the visually impaired and blind community experiencing so much difficulty with inconsistent web pages? The simple answer is that not all web pages are created equal.

HTML offers developers many tools to render a web page. Each designer has preferences regarding which features work best, and how they should work. Many web designers are unaware or unconcerned with the fact that there are people on the web accessing their content with alternative tools like magnifiers and screen readers.

HTML 5, one of the tools used to render Google Web Apps in a browser, has introduced new elements that can be used by designers to render web pages. The new elements are dynamic and interactive in nature. Some of the elements are put in place, and when interacted with/activated information changes on the page. That type of activity goes unnoticed by screen readers, and for individuals using high levels of magnification the activity may also be missed, as it occurs outside of the field of view. This is one reason AT specialists report that Gmail is one of the most difficult environments.

The best resource for web designers to gain a greater understanding, and to find guidelines for using all of the great tools and elements available to them in HTML is, of course, the World Wide Web Consortium. However, that does not solve the immediate problem of using existing web pages and helping new users learn to use the increasingly chaotic web. Imagine the surprise when the tip that I give to AT specialists who requests tips and tricks for using and teaching Internet concepts and how to handle complex web pages is to use Google Web Apps.

All arguments related to how and why individuals using access technology being “left out” or “forgotten” and complaints about web designers have some validity. However, they are learning to use and implement new tools, they’re not going to get it right the first time, and if they aren’t provided with information about the problem they can’t fix it. The manufactures of access technology also play a role. They are, admittedly, one or two steps behind the main-stream. Again however, cut them some slack. They are still learning too, and what are the odds that the access technology manufactures are better than the web designers? They are going to get it wrong the first time too. If you were running before you were crawling, by all means, jump into the fray and fix this discrepancy for us.

Some Thoughts on Chrome

The accessibility features in Chrome OS can transfer, in some respects, to the Web Apps displayed in any web browser. At the time of this writing there are 3rd party tools available as well, however they are not discussed here. For anyone interested, NVDA with Firefox appears, at the time of this writing, to be the best combination for accessing the Google apps environment, and provides new users with the most consistent experience.

In Google Web Apps, prior to enabling any accessibility features, users are already at a large usability advantage, if they must interpret and work with information in this way. The interfaces are “clean.” There is not a lot of meaning conveyed in the layout, but what meaning is conveyed by placement of web edit fields, or text changes, there is white space surrounding the item. This allows magnification users to clearly find, and read, text or view images, with fewer distractions. Google also tends to use simple images to convey meaning through pictures. For instance, one gear to represent “settings” rather than a complex, colorful, interwoven image of multiple gears.

The high contrast mode, that can be enabled in Google Chrome browser (on Chrome books) or on the Android tablets, can aid in reducing glare. In turn, for some users, this reduces eye pain and fatigue and allows users to spend more time on the computer than they might otherwise. Unlike high contrast in Windows or Mac OS, I found that all content is displayed in contrasting colors. In Windows, for example, links remain dark blue, but the background is black. In that environment links become indistinguishable from the back-ground. This did not appear to happen when high contrast was enabled in Google Chrome, on a Google ChromeBook.

The experience of the ChromeVox TTS extension is highly variable. Variables that impact a user’s experience include, but are not limited to: ChromeVox developer flaws, flaws in the HTML, the ability for one to tolerate the TTS synthesizer, previous screen reader experience; ability/willingness to learn new methods of navigation/interaction; ability to memorize key strokes; the platform on which the browser is running; and the user’s ability to conceptualize based strictly on textual information.

The magnifier extension in Chrome, on the ChromeBook is nothing too exciting. It falls in line with most magnifiers. You can select full, docked or lens magnification. The image begins to pixelate around 7 power, which is consistent with other screen magnifiers. The user can control the level through key strokes, but to make more advanced setting changes, like the type, the user must enter the accessibility settings. This is inconvenient for users who need to change the visual appearance frequently.

A Side Note on Magnifiers

I want to quickly touch on one of the most innovative magnifiers I’ve encountered. It just so happens to come on the Google Nexus 7 Android Kit Kat tablet. I know, a little off topic, but I feel the need to share since I’m on Google.

The user must enable the feature in accessibility before the short cuts will work, however, once enabled, the user has simple, one-touch access to the type and level of magnification. The user can triple tap one finger to enable full magnification, increase and decrease magnification with the “pinch to zoom” gesture, and is provided with an automatic switch to 0 magnification when a new page loads. This provides the user the opportunity to get an idea of the overall content, gather some of the contextual information provided by layout, and to select where he or she would like to see in greater detail.

IN addition the user can triple tap and hold to magnify only the area under the finger. This is similar to the lens type of magnification offered by most desktops. To the best of my knowledge this is a feature only available in Android. This allows a user to gather contextual information, focus in on specific details without losing other reference points.

Final Thoughts

One factor that is sometimes missed in the accessibility finger pointing game is us, the AT specialists. Yes, I’m including myself. Often AT specialists are self-taught in the technologies they use and instruct on. When providing 35 hours of direct service to consumers each week, with the other 5 spent on preparations and report writing there isn’t much time to try to figure out something new. The concepts behind the Google Web App interfaces, and how the access technologies can interact with the interfaces, is significantly different than most are accustomed to in a traditional PC environment, either Windows or Apple. I’m guilty of dismissing something as a possible tool for professional, educational or instructional use because it took more than 5 minutes to figure out. So, again, we’re back to that instant gratification thing.

For the AT specialists it may not be instant gratification, as much as it is ease of use, or learning to use, the tool. As I’ve read more on the learnability and heuristics of text-to-speech I’ve come to believe that individuals who use TTS, or high levels of video magnification, to access content are unaware of contextual information provided by formatting, layout, font size etc. As a result these users synthesize the information differently (i.e. smallest detail to big picture). As a result the learnability factor of Google Web App interfaces, rendered with HTML5, often take more time to figure out. They are however consistent, and provide a solid environment in which to teach people about the dynamic HTML 5 elements, that will hopefully transfer to using other web pages. It is much like using Microsoft Word to help reinforce, or teach, Windows concepts.

To aid fellow AT specialists, and access technology users, I have committed to learning as much as possible about the Google Web App environment, and want to share that information. If we are not careful we will be the reason our consumers cannot compete in education and employment environments. This is not an easy under taking. I am still learning, so cut me some slack too, I’m going to get some things wrong to start, and of course the web pages, and other tools are likely to change as well…

Posted in Assistive Technology, Blindness and Low Vision | 1 Comment

It’s the End of the World as We Know It

It’s highly unlikely the world will fall to the likes of the walking dead. I read an article the other day explaining the logistical impossibility of a virus triggering the kind of symptoms common to Hollywood zombies, and if the Internet says it’s impossible, it must be true, right? Then again, who needs hungry corpses when there are enough real world scenarios to turn our world upside down?

The Setting

Consider the following quick facts:

  • More than 8 million homes across 17 states lost power in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.
  • In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina most major roads into and out of New Orleans were damaged.
  • It took at least 3 days to partially restore cell phone service in New York City after 9-11.
  • The Chernobyl nuclear explosion contaminated 56,700 square miles of Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia, a region larger than New York State.
  • 11 hospitals treated 98 victims in the first 40 hours after the Mississippi River Bridge collapsed in Minnesota; 13 people died in that incident.

The immediate takeaways from these examples are self-evident. Emergencies can happen anywhere. Nature is not the only culprit, and you don’t need a thousand casualties for the incident to be a personal tragedy.

Then there is the matter of advance notice. In the case of hurricanes, tornados, and wild fires, you may have a little time to prepare and possibly evacuate. Mass shootings, terrorist attacks and other forms of large scale violence could happen at a moment’s notice.

Consider these questions to gauge your current level of preparedness:

  • How much food do you have in your house right now that could be prepared without electricity?
  • Are you likely to want to eat that food?
  • What will you use to prepare the food?
  • How much water do you have stored up?
  • How much of that clean water could you easily transport?
  • How much clothing do you have to meet the temperatures of the current season?
  • What kind of light source can you count on, such as candles or flashlights?
  • What kind of heat source can you rely on?
  • What kind of access, whether battery-powered radio or HAM radio, do you have to news services?

Special Considerations

It’s safe to assume a blind person’s usual modes of independence could be disrupted in the wake of a widespread disaster. One could possibly use a cell phone to navigate with GPS, but an earthquake could reshape the topography of one’s local surroundings. Besides, with the power out, it may not be so easy to run a Google search on nearby emergency shelters. Of course, navigation and technology of any stripe could be of secondary concern if you rely on medication that needs refrigeration.

Disabilities introduce their own set of priorities in the aftermath of an emergency. In such a scenario it is best to follow the tired flight attendant admonishment to help yourself before you help someone else.

Consider these questions if you have a disability:

  • Do you have extra canes and cane tips?
  • Do you have extra dog food for your service animal?
  • If the service animal is on medication, do you have some stored up?
  • What about your own medication?
  • What is the list of mobility equipment you rely on a day-to-day basis, and do you have backups?

Supply Recommendations

To start, people who live in urban areas should, at the very least, maintain a 72-hour kit. These are essential items that could see you through a few days of uncertainty.

Items could include, but should of course be customized to your needs:

  • Water bottles
  • Canned food
  • Can opener
  • Utensils
  • First Aid Kit
  • Hand crank radio
  • Currency in small denominations
  • Sufficient change of clothes
  • Sleeping bag
  • Basic hygiene products

Follow the steps in this article to avoid 10 72-hour kit mistakes.

Don’t forget to store bartering goods. You may not drink or smoke, but whiskey, coffee and cigarettes could make for good bartering chips. Silver and gold are another option, but collecting and securing these requires such a specialized coverage as to warrant their own blog post.

General Advice

First, it seems like a given, but don’t forget to factor in your pets! You don’t want to be put in a position where you have to pick between your kids or your pooch. No one really knows how long kids could survive on their own.

Kidding!

Second, your family should agree on a primary and secondary assembly point. This could be your home, a known shelter location, a hospital or some other well-established facility. In the event of a disaster, everyone will know to report to this location without being told, because cell phone and Internet access could be out of service. Once there you can decide if you are equipped to hunker down for an extended stay, seek shelter, or evacuate to a safer region.

Third, use this opportunity to think of how you’re going to store water. Remember, you will die of thirst before you die of starvation. The basics include storing one gallon of water per day per person per pet. A minimum of 3 days’ supplies would be great. 2 weeks would be better. Rotate the supplies every 6 months. Check out this CDC article for excellent information on emergency water storage.

Fourth, establish an out-of-state contact. When you are able to get past the cell phone congestion, you should have one point person who can confirm you’re okay to the rest of your family.

Next, self-sufficiency is essential. Take the time to learn how to hunt or fish. The fruits of this labor could be your family’s primary food source on the go. Otherwise, learn to start and maintain a garden. Consider canning for extended food storage.

And, don’t forget your labor will be for not if you have no means of protecting it. Consider firearms training and self-defense. In the aftermath of disasters, rule of law can be elusive. No one is above learning how to guard their families and their belongings. If you find that extreme, consider the civil disobedience in Ferguson. Moreover, learning to protect yourself is key in micro emergencies you could encounter while out and about.

Final Thoughts

Mormons are well-known for incorporating emergency planning into its culture. In fact, the bulk of this article was written based on notes from a recent church lecture. It’s no secret the church maintains large stores of food in central locations for grim eventualities, but the advice herein ought to be of value to you no matter your faith, or lack thereof.

If I could offer two major points for your consideration, the first is to start planning now. A disaster may never happen, and my writing may only amount to the mad rants of an over-enthusiastic prepper in the making. Still, the impact of disasters is compounded by our instinct to make rational decisions in the midst of irrational situations.

Think now about what you would do, or what you would need, if: Fill in the blank.

Second, building an emergency store can become something of an addiction when you tune into the news. Any number of climate shifts, political developments, or brewing storms could create chaos. My favorite theories are those dealing with economic collapse, but you cannot live your life planning for the worse. It would be financially irresponsible to throw money at books, bullets and bomb shelters out of fear of disaster. Think carefully before you create an avoidable financial crisis before the true crisis comes knocking.

Did you find this article helpful? In 2015 I am working hard to double up my own emergency stores, and if there is enough interest, I will maintain a column documenting my progress, review the products and services I use, and delve deeper into the points I raised in this introduction. Trust me, we have not even scratched the surface.

To read future emergency prep articles, subscribe to my personal blog or follow me on Twitter @ScribblingJoe.

Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments

The Return of SPN

So, what’s the scoop? Is SPN dying a slow death? Well, that’s what skeptics would have you believe, but thank goodness SPN is the intrepid cat that keeps coming back and feeling more than ready to rise to the challenge!

Let’s start with staff changes. To that end, we’ll begin with your Serotek Communications Director. I oversee the company’s external channels. Hence, the SPN platform and its staff fall under my supervision, an excitingly daunting prospect to be sure. My philosophy for SPN moving forward is pretty straightforward: Recruit the best talent to bring you the best information you can count on.

But, I am boring. Let’s move onto a couple of the people who are the real stars behind this operation.

Derek Lane and Hope Povenmire are Serotek’s new Co-Content Directors. They have quickly become my trusted pilots at the helm, and our highly engaging strategy sessions make me confident you are going to be in really good hands. For everything that goes well, thank them. For anything that goes wrong, blame me.

Derek in His Own Words

My primary hobby and professional work have always dealt in different aspects of audio production. I learned how to run live sound at church–where we run mixes for the house and musicians. My work there exposed me to different microphones and maximizing peoples’ voices with a variety of equipment. When Sound Forge rolled out, I moved my work away from a minidisc recorder and into computers.

I graduated from Gardner-Webb University with a major in communications and an interdisciplinary minor in music. The college experience taught me valuable interviewing techniques, recording styles, and collaboration with different personalities to design optimal products. I enjoy special interests ranging from teaching an audio fundamentals course with the Cisco Academy to audio restoration and Internet broadcasting on such stations as TBRN, where I am joined by Patrick Perdue and other talented personalities.

I am no stranger to SPN. You’re familiar with my work if you’ve been a fan of Triple Click Home and High Contrast, among other imaging products around the Network. In my new role my creativity will be stretched, and while there are moments when it can feel daunting, I am blessed to count on a community so willing to pitch in their assistance. If there is something that is missing that you want to see, let me know. I’ll be monitoring the SAMNet forums, and doing what I can to act on your ideas.

SPN and SAMNet are solid platforms. I can’t wait to work with you to make it stronger and better than ever.

Hope In Her Own Words

I grew up in a small town in Ohio. My family encouraged me to do what I wanted to do and not let my blindness stand in my way. Even though it really scared my mom, she encouraged me to cook on the stove, ride bikes, build tree houses and hit the ski slopes in Vermont.

Music helps me in so many ways. It is my water colors; my clay, my garden. It allows me to create, and, put into music emotions that words alone could never begin to fully express. As long as I can remember, music has been a part of my everyday life. I love playing the piano, the Celtic harp, the accordion, the recorder and really just about anything I can use to produce notes. My attempt at the violin was brief, though at least I was able to calm the screeching cat I initially produced. I enjoy singing, almost as much as I enjoy playing, though I love choral singing and hope to do it again one day.

My interests are pretty diverse. I enjoy cooking. It’s intriguing to combine a number of ordinary ingredients to create something memorable. Maybe that’s why I enjoy the way some authors can string a few words to create awesome plots. I love epic fantasy, thrillers, and yes, even a few well-written Nora Roberts books now and then. I also love to travel; to see new places and experience the way people work within different cultures.

I’m a very curious person. When I learn something, I want to learn as much as I can from it. The same thing can be said for when I take on projects. It’s either all or nothing. If I take on a task for someone, I know that I gave it my best. Those are the attributes I plan on contributing to Serotek and for you, our loyal followers.

Current Momentum

Our guys have been hard at work rebuilding the wonderful platform you know and love.

Over on SAMNet, an awesome feature of the Accessibility Anywhere package, the user forums have been hopping with suggestions we’ve been able to tackle on your behalf. Among other fixes, we’ve improved the organization of the described audio library to better help you find what you’re looking for. We’ve revamped the sound quality where you told us it was lagging. You wanted to see recent listings in television, not just movies. We heard, obeyed, and we’re looking forward to making other improvements to make SAMNet the place you turn to for the best in information and entertainment in the company of good friends.

We’re proud to report the SeroTalk and Triple Click Home Twitter feeds have been reactivated. If you’re not following, now’s a great time to change that!

Our podcast rosters are bringing back a few familiar voices along with some fresh talent. Technology will always be a staple of the SPN brand, but in the New Year we are branching out to other special interests. You said the world does not revolve around Apple and Android. We hear you loud and clear and have recruited talent to meet you at your interests. We will of course continue relying on the combined wizardry of Derek Lane and Patrick Perdue to create that clean, crisp audio landscape you know and love.

Finally, SPN is more than just a digital tapestry for your ears. We’ve already begun recruiting writers to boost our blog for those of you pressed for time or who prefer the written word to the spoken one. We look forward to covering everything from entrepreneurship to product reviews, from current events to financial management. In time we hope for our blog to play a lead in stimulating great debates over hot topics of impact to the community.

So, yeah, you could say we’ve been busy. Things are definitely looking up, and we really want you to be a part of our upward momentum. Stay tuned for regular programming to resume just around the corner. Sign up for our RSS feed or use the e-mail sign-up form below to get regular updates on current happenings.

Spread the word: SPN … has returned!

Posted in Announcements, Uncategorized | 5 Comments

SeroTalk Podcast 222: where’s my remote?

Listen to SeroTalk Podcast 222: Where’s my remote?

What happens when you put three guys, three computers and one heck of an idea together in the same room? There’s bound to be strategic chaos, but that’s only natural of a product set on disrupting the assistive technology industry.

NVDA Remote Access will give blind users the freedom to enjoy a number of career and educational options. Blind Technical Support Professionals and amateurs alike can Use NVDA Remote access to connect to their clients computers remotely in real time and walk them through multi-step procedures or teach them new applications, techniques and workflows. Educators can hear what their students are doing on their computers and vice versa, providing a perfect environment for hands-on training from afar. Whether in an office down the hall or a datacenter on the other side of the globe, NVDA Remote access will provide powerful, minimal latency access to the Windows desktop via speech.

Actually, we think NVDA Remote Access is bound to lay the groundwork for some exciting innovations for the free screen reader, and we’re counting on you to help get it off the ground. Tune in, as Derek Lane and Patrick Perdue bring you a rather different kind of product demo that will make you look twice at NVDA!

Feel free to send your feedback on this show to resources@serotalk.com

You can always find the latest on this show and others on the SeroTalk Podcast Network

using iBlink Radio for your iOS device, the Kindle Fire, the Mac or your Android device. You can even leave us an iReport right from the iBlink app.

Thanks for listening!

Posted in Assistive Technology, Blindness and Low Vision, Interviews, Podcasts | Comments Off

Is the Death of the Third Party Screen Reader Really a Good Thing?

These days it seems more voices are adding to a chorus of death to the third party screen reader. Apple fueled a universal hope in the blindness community that if one company could make their products talk straight out of the box, so could the rest of the mainstream. Paying over a thousand dollars for a commercial screen reader is always a daunting prospect, but reducing screen reading choices to a free built-in solution could create its own grim reality.

The current built-in screen readers are insufficient for the blind professional. Apple’s Voiceover, an excellent choice for core functionality, does not grant blind professionals the access to, or flexibility with, a wide range of enterprise products required in the workplace. Actually, these core screen readers sometimes have difficulty with day-to-day tasks. Read Chris Hofstader’s frustrations with OSX.

Microsoft is hardly better. Though they are not last in accessibility, it would be an exaggeration to suggest Narrator has evolved to the point of self-sufficiency. Microsoft may or may not improve on the built-in screen reader in Windows 10. Microsoft may or may not fully incorporate Window Eyes into their operating system, but the blind professional needs to be productive today, not tomorrow.

The Cost of Free Products

Have you read Tim Connell’s take on the cost of free products on the NFB’s Braille Monitor? It’s a thought-provoking piece suggesting free assistive technology is not always better and that a super market approach may sacrifice the level of detail and response only smaller specialists can afford. Read the article in its entirety so you can decide for yourself if my own points are fair or full of bologna.

Here’s an excerpt of the article:

“A growing number of people in the print-disability field are not happy with the status quo and with the fact that specialist products are expensive and not available to all. The prospect of cheap or free products has become the goal that many individuals as well as some agencies are now supporting. When I started to think about this subject, my first question was, “Who is going to support an argument against free products?” “Not many people” is the answer. So perhaps the days of specialist developers and vendors really are numbered. In a world where many problems still exist, particularly in employment, some people need to assign blame and prefer to view the specialist providers as the problem. The cost of a commercial screen reader is viewed as the problem, and getting something free would help solve that problem. However, I keep returning to the supermarket analogy and have come to the conclusion that those small steps of change that occur incrementally mean we may not know what has been lost till it is too late. We may not really be aware of the change that is currently underway in the AT market. The point that is being missed is that it is not the cost of the product that should be our focus, but the ability of the product to fully meet the needs of each individual. Does a keen fisherman get all of his fishing gear at Kmart, or does he go to a fishing gear specialist? Do elite athletes buy all their sporting gear from Target, or do they go to specialist suppliers? Is price going to be the driver to make people successful, or is it getting the best possible solutions that will determine whether people can achieve their potential?”

A few critiques

First, Damn political correctness. I didn’t realize blind people were now part of the “print disability” community. When did the equally dreadful “visually challenged” fall out of style? I can’t keep up!

Sorry, I digress.

Second, while free or cheap is certainly desired among blind professionals, it’s hardly unique to the blindness community. Who doesn’t like a good deal, and in a market where it costs hundreds, sometimes thousands, of dollars to read a screen, scan a book, and read the Braille, it’s more than fair to ask why manufacturers continue to peddle prices that are rational for government agencies but completely out of step with reality for the individual consumer?

Third, yes, I am guilty of believing screen reading technology ought to be available to all. The assistive technology industry cannot claim small market arguments to justify exorbitant prices and then turn around with prices only accessible to an even smaller piece of that market. Surely the core products and business models have evolved to a point where companies can drop prices and still enjoy a healthy profit.

Next, Connell’s argument about our need to assign blame is perplexing. Is it the author’s claim that consumers do not have the right to complain when they do not get a return on their investment? He makes the point that we should not judge a product by how much it costs, but rather, by how fully it is meeting our needs. From where I’m sitting, and gauging by the comments accompanying my complaint against Freedom Scientific, the so-called specialists are not fully meeting the needs of the blind professional. Surely the elite athlete has the right to complain when the specialty store fails to produce adequate equipment.

Blind professionals recognize the value of the specialist but equally recognize the specialists too often overlook the value of their customers. Despite the prices, blind customers are still paying for the products, and it is not unreasonable to raise expectations for the amount of productivity you get out of that investment.

While the cost of certain blindness apps can sometimes be higher than usual, people still purchase the products because they fulfill a need. You don’t have to look far beyond the KNFB Reader app to prove the blind will pay if the app is solid.

To be fair, there is a uniqueness to the assistive technology arrangement. The industry does not pitch customers. They pitch to agencies with the capacity to meet market prices, and the agencies are too bureaucratic to demand better deals.

Common Ground

By now you may’ve gotten the impression I thought Connell’s article was outrageous. Not so. His overarching argument that pricing should be second to the best solutions could be painting too simplistic a picture of the status quo, but on the whole, Connell makes some valid points we should consider before deciding the third party screen reader should die.

If the industry is indeed drifting toward a single, built-in solution, I worry about what that means for stability. How many Voiceover and Braille glitches persist in iOS 8? How much attention has Microsoft given Narrator in its regular updates to Windows 8 and later in 8.1? Apple and Microsoft feature excellent accessibility lines, but these teams can only respond to what their products offer today. They are not in the position to execute accessibility bug fixes overnight.

Perhaps there’s comfort in the devil we know? JAWS can be nerve-wracking. Professionals want to squeeze advanced features out of the consumer-friendly System Access. Window Eyes is…Well, it’s Window Eyes. I mean no insult. I’m just too much of a simpleton to understand their command logic, and NVDA always seems to be on the verge of dying if they don’t generate enough donations, but by golly, there’s something to be said for on-the-fly choices when one application can work around an accessibility issue better than the others. I believe I would have already switched to a Mac if there was a logical alternative to Voiceover, which is extraordinary on iOS but worthy of a few offensive gestures on OSX.

Screen readers have generally reached a plateau. This is not because there is nothing else that can be done to make screen readers better. It’s because manufacturers are not devoting as much creative thinking to adapting their product to emerging apps.

Final Thoughts

Am I selling out after railing against my perceived evils of certain companies? I like to do my tiny part to keep them accountable, but I am always going to fall on the side of choice for the blind professional who needs more than one option to get things done.

Perhaps the Freedom Scientifics of the world are also betting Apple and Microsoft will soon dominate the screen reading market, rendering their solution irrelevant. Maybe that’s the best explanation for the general plateau we’re experiencing. If so, we may be in for a rough ride.

The current screen reader landscape could be far better than what it is. Yet, competition creates choice, and choice makes for greater productivity. Microsoft has had ample time to make something extraordinary happen with Windows 8. Maybe something will surprise us in Windows 10 under the new CEO, but I’m not holding my breath. Even if we are pleasantly shocked, I will still consider it a really good thing if customers can continue enjoying a diverse market to get their work done as sighted peers. Whatever Mr. Connell may believe, the blind do appreciate and pay for good products.

Okay, let me have it. If you think built-in screen readers and universal accessibility is preferable to the third party screen reader we love to hate, let me know about it in the comments!

Posted in Assistive Technology | 15 Comments

What is Net Neutrality and Why Should I Care?

The best way to think of net neutrality is to think about the telephone. When you pick up your telephone, you can call whomever you want, say whatever you want to say, and your telephone company can’t regulate any of it. They can’t choose to connect your neighbors’ calls faster than yours. They can’t disconnect your call if they decide you’ve spent too much time chattering over the phone line.

The Internet has always been approached in a similar fashion. Your speeds depend on the quality of your service. Dial-up connections using copper cables are not going to move as fast as fiber networks, but once you’re on the Internet, the Google website should be as readily available as Yahoo, Netflix as available as Hulu, etc.

Net neutrality seeks to maintain the open nature of the Internet. Supporters want to keep the environment decentralized. This makes it possible for people and companies to conduct business without interference from a third party, unlike countries like North Korea where the Internet is no more than an Intranet closely censored by its government.

But, it’s more than just an open Internet. There are cable companies that want the ability to charge content providers like Netflix more to stream movies. Now, you may or may not be a Netflix subscriber, but we’re talking about cable providers appointing themselves gatekeepers of what is and is not easily accessible. A cable provider could severely hinder or block access to a competitor’s website. Ten years ago that would have not mattered, but these days we see a small landscape of mega corporations with vast interests across print, web, music, and video content. Think of Comcast prioritizing NBC over other networks. Can you imagine a world where a handful of companies can control what you can access and hike prices up to access it?

Now, on the other side of the aisle, opponents of net neutrality see nothing wrong with a tiered service. Bandwidth hogs should pay more to move their packets of data faster. The revenue generated from these fees can help pay to expand broadband access to underserved consumers.

Besides, the Internet has already proven to be anything but neutral since larger companies pay for more servers and high-bandwidth services. Activity like file transfers are more likely to take priority over real-time communication. Some networks are not prepared to handle the surge from popular streaming services, which could deteriorate quality of service for all customers on that network.

Think of it this way, Google and Skype can clog up the pipes for free calls we spent billions to build. Why shouldn’t they pay their fair share to maintain these pipes?

Pros and cons aside, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) made a mistake when it classified Internet service providers as information services instead of telecommunication services. That means the FCC cannot keep AT&T, Verizon and others from prioritizing some content providers over others.

Okay, so why should you care?

First, if content providers like Netflix have to pay more to move their data, guess who’s going to pick up the bill? Here’s a hint, it’s not going to be Netflix! The same could be true of Amazon, Spotify and other services you rely on for multimedia content.

Further, you’re likely to experience changes in the quality of service. The United States already pays among the highest bills for pathetically slow Internet speeds. A tiered system sounds good on the surface, but how much is too much for less than adequate Internet speeds?

Finally, it’s the principle of the matter! We should not have gatekeepers dictating what websites and services can reach customers according to the highest bidder or business agendas. They should not slow down or block content providers they do not like. We should care because it will impact the open access to whatever information you want from whatever source you desire.

But, over to you. What are your thoughts on the debate? Do you think the Internet ought to continue being the open decentralized system it’s always been, or do you feel times have changed and bandwidth hogs should pay for their share of traffic congestion? It’s an issue more of us should closely follow. It’s a topic being debated in the courts, in the news, and pretty soon it’s going to hit your bill.

Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off

SeroTalk Podcast 221: The Good, The Bad, the Future

Listen to SeroTalk Podcast 221: The Good, The Bad, the Future.

Serotek does not simply serve the community; it is very much a part of it. For fourteen years we have faithfully met you where you needed us, so in that spirit of fair exchange, we invite you to listen to a special edition of the SeroTalk Podcast for a candid conversation between Joe Orozco and Serotek’s co-founder, Mike Calvo, to cover everything from the Serotek product line, SPN, staff departures, and more.

Feel free to send your feedback on this show to resources@serotalk.com

You can always find the latest on this show and others on the SeroTalk Podcast Network

using iBlink Radio for your iOS device, the Kindle Fire, the Mac or your Android device. You can even leave us an iReport right from the iBlink app.

Thanks for listening!

Posted in Interviews, Podcasts, Serotek, SPN Special | 16 Comments

High Contrast Episode 27: Blind Hockey

Listen to High Contrast Episode 27: Blind Hockey

Have you ever heard of blind hockey? If so, did you scratch your head and wonder how such a visual game could be enjoyed and played by both blind and low vision hockey enthusiasts? This month, Maurie spoke with Kevin Shanley, co-founder of both the New York Nightshades blind hockey club as well as Courage USA, a spinoff of Courage Canada. Kevin spoke of his introduction into blind hockey and his experiences at the annual Courage Canada Blind Hockey Tournament in Toronto, Ontario. Kevin’s hope is to bring the sport below the Canadian border so we can eventually have some true international competition and perhaps be involved in the birth of blind hockey as a paralympic event. Kevin explains how it works and the rule changes that make it possible for blind and low vision athletes to work together and exhibit a pretty impressive athletic competition.

Historic Movement in Blind Hockey includes a video of the first Courage USA blind hockey event discussed in Maurie’s interview with Kevin Shanley.

Courage USA Brings the Sport of Blind Ice Hockey to America

2015 Courage Canada National Blind Hockey Tournament to Take Place Feb 13-15

For information about registering for the 2015 Annual Courage Canada Hockey Tournament in Toronto,

Matt Morrow, Courage Canada Executive Director

845-234-1650

Courage USA

Christine Osika, Courage USA Co-Founder and Vice President
courageUSAhockey@gmail.com or
845-234-1650

Interested in developing your skills?
If you live in upstate New York, here are 2 organizations ready to hear from you:

New York Nightshades in Newburgh, NY

Kevin Shanley and Christine Osika

Central Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired

CABVI is in search of blind or visually impaired individuals who would like to play hockey! Beginning in 2016 CABVI will introduce its new blind hockey program. Please contact Kathy Beaver, VP of Rehabilitation, at (315) 797-2233 for more information or to express interest.

How can you find out what our hosts are up to outside the podcast?

Follow Maurie Hill on Twitter

Check out Maurie’s writing on the AI Squared Zoomed In Blog

Follow Rodney Edgar on Twitter

Check out Rodney on the Tech Access Weekly Blog and Podcast

Follow Byron Lee on Twitter

Check out Byron’s LowVisionRants.com Website

Feel free to send your feedback on this show to resources@serotalk.com

You can always find the latest on this show and others on the SeroTalk Podcast Network

using iBlink Radio for your iOS device, the Kindle Fire, the Mac or your Android device. You can even leave us an iReport right from the iBlink app.

Thanks for listening!

Posted in Blindness and Low Vision, High Contrast, Interviews, Podcasts | Comments Off