Category Archives: Perceptions of reality

My thoughts on how productivity is way more portable than in the past, but how annoyingly some non-visual features only appear on products with larger screens

Posted on December 13, 2019

Johan Sebastian Bach probably wished he’d had a better way to work on his “Musikalisches Opfer”, “A Musical Offering” when he traveled back home to Leipzig from visiting King Frederick the great of Prussia  near Berlin in 1747. Ok, he probably instead really wished for something faster and more comfortable than a horse-drawn carriage.

I still remember being in high school, when I had a 30 minute ride between school and home, each way; wanting a portable typewriter that ran on batteries; all the homework I could have done.

In 1987, Deane Blazie and his company, Blazie Engineering, came out with the Braille ’n Speak, very awesome for its time. David Holladay told me there was nothing like it in the sighted world at that time. He considered buying one for his own use, even though he is sighted.

The original version was a braille note taker, had 192K of memory that could be separated into 30 separate files. It was kind of that portable typewriter I wanted; it had  actually already been out when I was a senior in high school, I just didn’t know about it until a month before   I started college.. The Braille ‘n Speak was 8 by 4 by 1/2 inches and was way easier to carry around than the Perkins braille writer which I still used in my dorm room, just not loudly in my classes.

People everywhere got excited when laptops became viable, affordable, and light weight enough to not break the average back, though the most portable models even today are still definitely breaking wallets. Even the lightest of laptops back then still had rather large footprints, until the netbooks came out in the late early two thousands. People liked netbooks because they were easy to carry, and although not very powerful were good for writing projects and web browsing.

Back in the blind community, Levelstar came out with both the Icon, and the Braille Plus, which were kind of the Braille ‘n Speaks of their time in 2007. The Icon was 3 by 5 by 1 inches, the Braille Plus slightly wider. They both ran linux,, excited many people, and probably would have gone much farther if it weren’t for the industry-wide disruptive changes brought by Apple and their iOS devices. Yes, they also killed the netbook market.

When the first iPads came out, people thought they were just personal screens to consume content on; but now, ten years later, as iPads continue to get more powerful, many people see with significant success, how much work they can do on them while on the run; just ask  Federico Viticci. You can even get very nice iPad cases with keyboards built-in so that they in some ways almost function like laptops, though probably a netbook would be more accurate. The problem is, most people are photon dependent, and they can’t seem to get anything done without a large flashy screen to look at.

I often hear people talk about how much they can get done with their iPads, and that’s great, but my annoyance is that this means the majority also think that the iPhone is useless as a productivity tool. This means: I can’t press command-tab to move between open apps on my iPhone, or get a list of keyboard shortcuts offered by an iOS app. Even though both of these are completely available using the exact same Bluetooth keyboard on  iPads. I can’t think of any technical reason why the same keyboard-focused productivity features used on iPads every day can’t also work on iPhones.

Since 2010 I still carry a foldable Bluetooth keyboard along with my iPhone, and since 2014 braille screen input, more often called BSI has also been available. This means that blind users have been able to be just as productive as their sighted counterparts with their larger iPad screens. If I were in college writing papers today, I could probably do 95% of them on my iPhone only needing my MacBook for finishing touches. If I were sighted, I’d probably want larger screens too, but I hopefully would still appreciate that small screens can also be just as effective.

It seems that many products only offer their high-end features on their larger screened devices. This can be interpreted by some as kind of a screen tax. “I, who can’t use a screen am forced to pay more money for a larger screen that I can’t benefit from, just to get a quad core CPU instead of two cores, etc.” “We only make phones with huge screens and no home button, because that’s what everyone wants.”  When individuals or companies come up with some new awesome product, I just wish they would not assume that everyone thinks the same ways they do.

I still smile when I remember how my friend Eric Knapp explained how confused people looked when they saw me typing on my keyboard but couldn’t see any screen or device; my iPhone was under the table attached to my belt. I wear bone conduction headphones in public, so VoiceOver speaks to me through them just fine. If the iPhone got those cool keyboard shortcuts on the iPad already mentioned above, I would consider that a nice step towards improvements.

There is a very cool app for both iOS and Android called Voice Dream Reader, it can read all kinds of file formats, and to some degree, makes digital text into a kind of audio book. I use it every day. I also thought how amazing it would be if I could have Voice Dream Reader on my Apple watch, the smallest e-book reader ever. Alas, the Apple watch can only play audio through Bluetooth headphones and speakers. Yes, I totally get how bad music would sound through the watch’s very small speaker, but for reading a book; especially if I’m just laying in bed, it seems like another opportunity to think outside the box not taken. Voice Dream Reader is on my watch now, but requiring a Bluetooth audio device makes it inconvenient for me to use.

If I were complaining just to complain, I could have succeeded by babbling to myself in an echo chamber. I wrote this to hopefully show mobile productivity from a different angle, hoping a reader or two might take the next opportunity they have to think or better yet just step outside the box and include more users, regardless of what screen preferences they might have.

My thoughts about unlike a picture, an audio recording needs to last a longer amount of time to develop

Posted on October 19, 2019
Audio takes time.
Many have said, “a picture is worth a thousand words”, but it would take way longer to say or write those words than it did to take that picture. A picture is the capturing of a moment less than a second that lasts metaphorically forever. I imagine that someone could look at a picture over a period of time and realize more details they hadn’t before as time goes on, some of the strengths of a picture
Why am I, a totally blind guy writing about pictures? Because there is also an equivalence for people who can’t see them. I’m guessing many reading this post have pictures of their family and friends, or even of people they’ve just met; for me that’s recordings of those people in my life talking. This is where the similarities differ. Audio unlike a picture only lasts as long as it was originally. I can’t focus on a millisecond of the audio like someone can focus on someone’s face in a picture, and it’s something I think people aren’t realizing at first.

Some times when I ask someone to record, they just say a few words lasting less than 10 seconds, but I find that at least for me, it takes a minute or two before the person’s voice starts to resonate in my mind.
If you have a page of text you can take as long to read it as you want, but if that text were spoken to you faster than your brain could understand it, you would be overwhelmed. . If you only let cheese age for a day, you would probably only still have curdled milk. .

Music is also like this. It may be the only art form that actually exists in time, in the moment when it is heard; no matter when it may have originally been written. Also, if a slow song were sped up, its meaning would be lost and it’s essence destroyed.

Just some thoughts to consider.

My thoughts about what blind people see, or don’t see. Spoiler, it’s not a short answer :)

Posted on November 7, 2018

Being totally blind since birth, I get asked periodically what I see, as if sighted people can’t begin to imagine what not seeing anything would be like if they were blind; this is, actually, in fact the case. Before I had ever been in an airplane I used to have dreams about flying in one, they were all fantastically wrong. My brain had no accurate data to base those dreams on, so it just made things up. While we’re at it, a congenitally blind person will probably not dream visually because they have no visual memories to draw on. A recent study, however, shows that it is still hypothetically possible to do so. Blind people who lost their sight as early as age 5 or 6 can dream visually over the rest of their lives, and many in this situation do; and now we’re getting back to the original question.

Damon Rose, a blind journalist with the BBC has also answered this question, but very differently from what I experience. He had sight until age 13, and went blind for a different reason than I; so beyond that fact that his primary visual cortex somewhat developed, and that his optic nerves may still have some residual connections, he also has visual memories his brain can still play with.

I was born 3 months premature and became blind in an incubator from Retinopathy of Prematurity; destroyed optic nerves, my eyes never grew beyond the size of a 2 year-old’s, my brain eventually remapped. People have respectfully said to me, “If I blindfold myself I can still see black, so is that what you see?”

Seeing blackness means you can distinguish between light and dark, which means you can perceive visually, so I thought about this for a while and came up with an analogy that I think makes sense.

Say you had a radio, and it picked up a bunch of stations. We could say those stations were different colors and the white-noise or static between the stations was black, except I can’t call it black noise, because that actually exists, and  means near absolute silence. Then one day, all of the stations disappear with no explanation, so you still turn on the radio occasionally to see if they come back, but they never do. So now you’re just figuratively hearing black. Then one day you learn those stations will never come back, so you unplug the radio and throw it away. Now you aren’t even hearing black, you’re hearing in fact nothing; as far as the radio is concerned, which actually then would equate to black noise, and that time you had been using to listen to radio stations is now free for other things.

This is basically what the  visual cortex in my brain, and those of congenitally blind people does. Once enough time goes by where there is no input from the eyes through their optic nerves, the brain begins to remap and neuroplasticity happens. When a baby, humans have many billions of neurons all waiting to develop, and totally impressionable; and since 90% of a sighted person’s sensory input is visual, that’s where many of them go. When there is no visual input they get programmed to do other things. When a totally blind person reads braille for example, the same activities go on in the primary visual cortex that happen when a sighted person reads print. Blind people are often thought to hear better than those who can see, but deaf people are also way more observant visually than sighted people who can still hear; in part the brain’s resources devoted to the lost sense redistribute and enhance those that are left. Enhance sometimes means increased, but not always , as in the case of children who lose a sense after age 2 or 3, but in those cases the brain at least is more focused on those senses that remain.

So in my case, what do I see? Absolutely nothing, which is not black; black would have been like the static on that radio, or the number zero. Consider for a moment, that zero is way more meaningful than nothing in mathematics; it is the center of the number line after all.