Escape from Noise

Art Bell has returned to broadcasting! The other night, he interviewed Joe Rogan. Among other things, he talked about floatation tanks. I had meant to try one for a long time. I did a DuckDuckGo search and quickly found Halcyon Floats. I just had my first float. I feel like I went on vacation.

I called the day after the Joe Rogan interview and talked to Keri, the owner of Halcyon Floats. I told her that I meditate every day and have read some of John Lilly’s work along with others. I booked an hour and a half for $79. It took longer to get there than i anticipated, and we had to go over some basics, so I had a slightly shorted session discounted to $59. Good enough.

First, I had to sign a waver, which Keri read to me, and which I signed on an iPad. Keri explained some basics to me, a lot of which came down to basic meditative practices, and learning to trust the water. I asked how they clean the tanks and she explained the process, which involves filtering it three times, cleaning it with hydrogen peroxide, and using an ultraviolet light. They test it at the beginning and end of each day, plus the high salt content makes it very antimicrobial. The tank has 750 pounds of epsom salt in 11 inches of water heated to around 95 degrees F.

After she made sure I understood everything she showed me the facilities. The float spa has two tanks, each in a room of its own. Each room has a chair and table with shelves, the tank, and the shower. The shelf contains the earplugs, towels, and a water bottle, in case you get salt water in your eyes. You have to shower before going in to wash anything off your body, and after to wash off the epsom salts. Keri also recommended wearing the earplugs, which you have to put in before the first shower. This meant I had to learn to navigate by touch, but I did. The room felt very vacation-like.

The tank has the shape of a rectangle with an angled door. The door has an interesting smooth feel, because it uses metal with a special coating. The door has no locks or latches, and has a handle on the inside. A bar runs along the opposite side for stability. You get in pretty much as you’d enter a bath. The water has a slimier feel than regular water because of the salts, so holding on to the bar helps with the increased slipperiness. Then you close the door (unless you feel claustrophobic) and lie on your back. The water instantly supports you.

This took a surprising amount of time to get used to. You might not think it requires much skill to float on your back in water, but it does. I recalled learning to swim as a child and feeling terrified of the water, and of drowning in it. Once I learned to let the water support me it became much less scary. Swimming requires some level of tension to keep from sinking, and we build up this safe instinct. In the tank you have to totally relax, and let the water support you entirely. I can’t explain it any further, you have to do it to understand. The water has seven times the level of salt as the Dead Sea, and you really will float on the surface. Your head and ears will sink down a little, but never enough to get near your eyes.

Keri said that the first twenty minutes usually feel boring, so I spent the time acclimating myself. I had read about all kinds of far out experiences, but I went into this session wit the simple intention of an initial visit. I learned to center myself by making slow deliberate movements. I learned to trust the water. I learned to relax.

At this point I had a very strange experience. I lay in complete darkness, plus I have a vision impairment anyway. To see I’ve learned to use echolocation, seeing with sound, but I had silicon earplugs in my ears. Yet somehow I became keenly aware of the borders of the tank. I sensed the straight sides and the door on an angle. I felt my body in exact relation, and felt the orientation change as I moved. I cannot explain how I knew this, but it peaked my interest. Perhaps it relates to kinesthetic sensations.

I began to meditate, and quickly came to some amazing realizations about my practice. They would take too long to explain here, so you’ll just have to wait for the book. Basically, learn to appreciate the value of fully relaxing the muscles of the body within your meditation technique. I felt a lot of tension in my jaw from my TMJ. I thought that I should really make it a point to wear my night-guard.. My jaw popped and I felt a little better.

I then had the sudden realization that I should switch to a siesta sleep schedule. Late night talk radio has me up late, but I still want some morning time. Taking a power nap in the afternoon would allow me to do both. And a lot of cultures around the world do it, not just a few weird computer nerds. My internal dialog at this point went something like:

“You should switch to a siesta sleep schedule.”

“That’s an interesting idea. It’s a good schedule.”

“It’s a chill schedule!”

I felt impressed by this sudden realization. I spent more time trying to relax, using different hand positions, moving around the tank. I settled with my arms at my side, palms usually down, feeling the support of the water. Once in a while something would happen to jerk me back to reality, such as a twitch or hitting the side of the tank. I dealt with these moments and relaxed again.

I heard a few drones. The theta brain wave state can result in audio hallucinations, so I took that as a confirmation. Or had the music started? I wondered if something really far out would happen. Suddenly my neck relaxed even more than it already had. I felt a lot of tension suddenly leave. My neck curved back more. Energy flowed through me, and I returned to the root state of awareness. I felt my own existence and nothing else. It had happened. I had arrived.

I began to definitely hear music. I wondered if this made up part of my hallucination, or if it really existed. I wondered if all of reality existed as some sort of grand hallucination. The music got a little louder and I realized that the time had come to exit the tank, right as I had arrived. I figured something like this would happen, so it didn’t bother me.

I felt a little disoriented as I stepped out of the tank. I removed my earplugs and took a shower. My senses felt amplified, and I noticed more beauty around me. As I gathered my things I noticed a beautiful salt lamp on the top shelf. I love salt lamps, and have them all over my condo. Everything felt perfect in its own imperfect way.

I exited the room and went to the bathroom, then made my way to the main office area. Keri asked how I felt and I said like I had come back from vacation. She offered me lemon tea and graham cookies, which I gratefully excepted. I caught a Lyft home. Then the changes really began.

Coming home felt like returning from a nice incident-free vacation. My head felt very clear, and I noticed beauty all around me. I ordered mediocre Chinese food, but it tasted like a feast. Some other changes have happened, but I can’t quite express them. The journey ended when I arrived at my destination.

Nothing really far out happened. I didn’t have a lucid dream, though have had them in the past. I didn’t communicate with aliens or dolphins, only my body’s inmate intelligence. I didn’t feel like flying through space in an orb, though I’d really like to experience that – I love the Orb! Instead I had some very down-to-earth insights, and began to learn the process of floating. I got exactly what I came for, and will return as soon as our stupid beep-beep society starts pissing me off again, probably in a few weeks. Stay tuned for more Adventures beyond the Ultraworld.

By the way, the title of this article comes from a Negativland album. One of their members named Don Joyce died last month, and it hit me pretty hard. He hosted a radio show called Over the Edge. Both of these efforts will continue, but without his cranky wisdom. A floatation tank provides escape from noise. And as Don said many times: it’s all in your head.

The Apple Fancast

I just took part in an email interview with the Apple Fancast for their segment the Rounded Rectangle. They asked me a series of questions. They did the same with another accessibility expert named Steven Aquino,, a low vision user. I had a lot of fun and got out some good information. Enjoy.

Read the article here.

I Love my Apple Watch

I finally got around to writing my review of the Apple Watch and its accessibility features. When I first got it, I deliberately held off, figuring that anyone could write an article saying that the Apple Watch rules. I wanted to write something more thoughtful. After two months wearing the watch, my opinion has not changed, and I should have just written it then. Apple has described it as their most personal device and I agree. They have created the first accessible wearable and I love it.

When Apple first announced that they would come out with a watch, the blind community immediately became interested. Would it have accessibility like all of their other products? Some said yes. A few said no. Others said maybe not at first, but eventually. In October of last year Apple released WatchKit as part of iOS 8.2. I wrote an article showing that WatchKit contains methods to set accessibility attributes. In March of this year I gave a talk at Philly Cocoa summing up what we knew then. Apple still had not released any details about VoiceOver, and the blind still made an anxious noise. Fortunately, and not surprisingly, when the watch did come out it had a full version of VoiceOver much like that on the iPhone.

On April 13, the Monday after the Apple Watch became available to preorder, I went to the Walnut Street Apple Store, a place with which I have become familiar. They setup an individual session with me in the briefing room. Sadly, at the time they only had demo units which did not have VoiceOver enabled. They just ran a dumb demo loop over and over. The Apple employees tried everything they could think of to give me access, including opening the precious safe to check the Apple Watch Edition. I felt a little bummed out that I couldn’t try VoiceOver, but it did give me a chance to try them on so at least I could order one. I kept coming back to the 38 mm Apple Watch Collection with the milanese loop. The metal mesh has an intricate feel, and it makes a clever use of a magnet. I ordered it as soon as I got home. My friend at the Apple Store said that Apple wanted to under promise and over deliver.

Even though I ordered the watch I still wanted to try it, so emailed a friend in Apple accessibility. She told me that the Apple Store would have fully functional units for accessibility testing in two weeks. Sure enough they did, so two weeks later I returned. VoiceOver worked exactly as I had read and thought, borrowing the one and two finger gestures from the iPhone and adding in a few more. Now I really wanted mine to arrive.

Another customer had a demo in the briefing room at the same time, and I couldn’t help but overhear that they would get the Apple Watch Edition out of the precious safe. I asked if I could try it on and they said yes, even though I made it clear that I did not make enough money doing accessibility work to afford the $17,000 price tag. It felt just like the stainless steel Apple Watch Collection which I ordered, except slightly heavier. Honestly as a blind user I had to laugh, I just didn’t see the point. It has the same internals! It does come with a classy leather jewelry box with an inductive charger built into it and a beautiful tactile Apple logo on the top. Maybe one day.

On May 6 I got a notification that UPS would deliver my package. Time slowed to a crawl as I waited for something to happen. Nothing did. At some point in the early evening I checked one last time. UPS claimed they made a delivery attempt. I felt enraged. I had waited all day. As it turns out they had a problem getting into the building, and left the delivery slip. I got my Mom to help me print out and fill out the form on Apple’s site to sign for the delivery, and we put it where they’d hopefully find it. I began having flashbacks to my iPad 2 delivery.

I had nothing to worry about. It arrived the next day as I made dinner. I didn’t care, I set it up immediately and sent my Mom a text. Everything worked out of the box. I had my Apple Watch!

At first I worried about the battery level. It reached 10% close to the end of the first day. Then I read some tips to save battery, many of which also apply to iOS. Turn the screen brightness down to 0%, turn on screen curtain, turn on the reduce motion and grey scale settings in Accessibility. Now my battery usually goes down to a little under 50% at the end of a day.

People ask if it replaces my iPhone and I say no. I use it for doing quick tasks such as checking a notification, or quickly replying to a text with “Ok.” or a simple dictation. Sometimes I will take a quick phone call and feel like I’ve entered the future. I often check the stocks or weather. I also use Siri a lot more on my watch than on my iPhone, since you kind of have to. It also feels cool to open the Uber app, hitting the single “Request” button, and having a car pull up in a few minutes that I ordered from my watch.

I enjoy tracking my workouts. I do yoga, as well as the workouts from BlindAlive. The watch tracks my calorie count and heart rate. I also have my activity right on my watch face, and seeing “Exercise, 0%” often goads me into action. I do which they’d allow setting the hour at which the day begins. Currently I work out and go about my day, but then at midnight it magically resets like Cinderella’s pumpkin turning into a coach. I feel pretty certain a few Apple employees have stayed up past midnight. I recall stories of them wearing shirts that said “80 Hours a Week and Loving It” in the Steve Jobs era.

I really like the haptic feedback. In Apple Maps, you can get directions right on your watch. This works very well for the blind, since we don’t have to keep getting out our phone and fumbling around while walking. When I tried it, it did have some issues syncing with the phone, but that has nothing to do with accessibility.

Using the first edition of the Apple Watch reminds me a lot of using the first iPad. It works well enough and proves the concept. Sometimes it lags or gets confused, but over all it works. When the iPad first came out a lot of people felt unsure about its purpose. Some made crude jokes. Then when the iPad 2 came out, it had a thinner design and snappier performance. No one laughed. I think the same will happen with the Apple watch.

Someone might wonder why you’d need a watch when you could easily take a small phone out of your pocket. For some reason having something worn really does make a difference. It does feel very personal, and this extends to accessibility. For example, when you earn a workout achievement, it actually says “A shining achievement award rotating into view.” When meeting for my demo I said that Apple has created the first accessible wearable. “You know, when you say it like that it sounds really big.” said an employee. “It IS really big!” I exclaimed. Nobody else has made an accessible wearable, but Apple has, and it works beautifully. I love my Apple Watch!

Don’t Panic Alarm

I recently celebrated Towel Day, a day to honor the life of Douglas Adams, author of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. The book sells so well because it has “Don’t Panic” on the front in large friendly letters. It inspired me to make a Don’t Panic alarm for my Mac. Sorry I don’t know how to do this in Windows, perhaps someone can leave instructions in the comments.

During one part of the radio drama, Zaphod has to get out of the Hitchhiker’s building in the middle of a bombing. An alarm sounds and starts saying “Don’t panic.” I extracted this, put it in a .wav file, and installed it. It has already helped diffuse a few situations.

First, download this file. Next, move it into your ~/Library folder. Finder hides this by default, but just type Command-Shift-G and type ~/Library. Next, copy it as you would. Assuming you have it in your Downloads folder, the following command in Terminal will also do it:

mv “~/Downloads/Don’t Panic.wav” ~/Library/Sounds

Once you have moved the file, open your system preferences and select Sound. Choose the Sound Effects tab. You should then find Don’t Panic in the table of alert sounds.

Share and enjoy!

EvoHaX and the Accessibility MacGuffin

A few weeks ago I participated in EvoHaX, an accessibility hackathon which happened as part of Philly Tech Week. Ather Sharif of EvoX Labs did a wonderful job organizing it. I had other commitments during the main coding day, so we compromised and made me a judge. I also gave a little speech poking fun at their prize of a Google Chromebook. I enjoyed the experience and feel glad they have already said they will do it next year.

I find it funny that I have helped plan two accessibility hackathons, but have not written a single line of code for either. I’ve had other accessibility-related commitments. Last year I spoke at the annual RubyMotion developer’s conference, and this year I gave a workshop at the University of the Arts as part of our new business called Philly Touch Tours, more on that soon. I met with Ather and the other planners and we went over the whole event. Ather had an interesting idea to pair groups with a random subject matter expert, in other words a user with a disability. This mirrors the real world – you never know when you will suddenly have to face a challenge.

On Friday April 19th the event began. Benjamin’s Desk hosted it. We listened to several informative speeches. One professor specialized i rendering infographics for screen readers. A cool topic for sure, but he kept asking “What do you see in this graph?” I wanted to yell out “Nothing!” In my head I heard my high school geometry teacher saying “You’re not much of a visual learner, are you.”

On Sunday I rolled in for the judging. I met the other judges and experts. I also saw my friend Faith Haeussler and her very cute kids who know the word hackathon. Everyone had finished coding. I got out my MacBook Air and prepared to begin.

Before I continue I have to explain something which it seems a lot of people don’t know. Blind people tend to not use Google products. Google has become synonymous with second rate accessibility. iOS dominates the mobile and tablet space. None of my blind friends use Droid, and I mean that literally. Zero! For the desktop we use Windows or Mac OS and their respective screen readers. I don’t know anyone who uses Chromevox. Personally I use a Mac with VoiceOver and Safari for my browser. When designing something for the blind you must remember the platforms used by the blind.

Because of this, I couldn’t get over the prize of a Google Chromebook for each member of the winning team. It really depressed me. For a few days I lay around, lamenting that I would have to participate in an accessibility hackathon that gives away Google Chromebooks as prizes. The world will end! Then I pulled myself together and remembered that the prize doesn’t really matter, all the wonderful inspiring work does. This gave me a great idea for a speech. I composed it in my head as I waited to judge the entries.

First up, West Chester University wrote a Chrome plugin called Jumpkey to easily navigate to common places on a web page, such as the home or contact links. Interesting concept. They brought over a MacBook Pro running Chrome with Chromevox, which I had never used. It started talking in a goofy Google voice which made me laugh. I figured out a few keys and the plugin worked. One of the authors told me he could port it to Safari in an hour. I hope he does.

Next Lasalle University demonstrated their project, a browser framework called Blind Helper. They admitted they needed to find a better name. Fortunately this one worked with Safari. They designed a system for crowd sourcing image descriptions and rendering them as alt tags. I liked the idea, and the demonstration worked. However, their logo didn’t have an alt tag, and the form fields did not have labels. It struck me as rather ironic. When coding an accessible platform you should make the platform accessible! They lost a point or three for that. Still it has potential.

Next, an all female team of hardware hackers from Drexel stole the show with their speech reader bluetooth module. They designed it for those with cognitive difficulties, but it has other uses as well. They used an Arduino with some other components. They even tested it with NVDA, the popular free screen reader for Windows. Excellent!

St. Joe’s presented a browser plugin for those with dyslexia to place icons next to familiar words. This helps their brain figure out the proper word by giving it some context. They could even make it multi-sensory. I couldn’t use it so couldn’t really comment, but I like the idea.

Finally, Swarthmore College presented a visual data representation of the Youtube videos which have captions, or rather the lack thereof. I couldn’t see the graph but they could render it in textual ways. I also grew up in Swarthmore so wished them well.

To vote, EvoX Labs wrote a little web app for the judges. And yes, they made it accessible. I filled out my form and Faith read the results. After congratulating everyone we made speeches. I called mine The Accessibility MacGuffin. A MacGuffin refers to an object which drives the plot of a story. The object itself doesn’t matter, the story around it does. For example, the briefcase in the movie Pulp Fiction doesn’t really matter. We never know its contents. We only know that some gangsters have to retrieve it and protect it for their boss, using some rather extreme means to do so. This graphic scene demonstrates the power of a macguffin. Pay attention to the briefcase!

I didn’t know how people would feel about making fun of the prize, but it went over well. I hope the participants will think about accessibility in all their projects. I also hope they continue developing the projects started at EvoHaX. See you next year! Maybe I’ll actually get to write some code.