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Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Six Days Left

On Sunday, September 30, we will get on the Massachusetts Turnpike,
drive west, make a left turn into Connecticut and continue south for a
few days until we reach the god forsaken sandbar called St.
Petersburg, Pinelas County, Florida. Cambridge, Massachusetts, where
I have spent as much time as possible during our stay in the area can
be described as the intellectual hub of North America and, with a
little competition from some great University towns in Europe, can
probably call itself the intellectual capital of the world.

People who live or work in Cambridge have, collectively, received more
Nobel Prizes than any other place in the world. Even California, with
its great universities, has fewer Nobels received than does Cambridge,
a small city with a population less than 100,000. Cambridge hosts
Harvard University, which according to a BBC story last week topped
all universities on Earth in an extensive survey of college professors
around the world. Cambridge is also home to MIT, arguably the
greatest institution for the study of and research into all things
scientific and engineering. Combined, Harvard and MIT have received
more Nobel prizes than any other place of study in the world but
University of Chicago has received more Nobels than either of the two
Cambridge colleges when taken separately and City University of New
York has had more of its graduates receive Nobel Prizes than any other
educational institution in the world. To its north, Cambridge borders
Belmont, MAA – the city that boasts the most Nobel Laureates per
square mile in the world, most of whom work in Cambridge.

Needless to say, Cambridge, Massachusetts has a ton of really smart
people and I really enjoy the great conversations one can find in most
coffee shops and tea houses. I also enjoy spending time in a city
where X-Celerator and I can travel independently either on foot or on
the extensive network of subways and buses that go virtually
everywhere in the metropolitan Boston area.

Harvard Square provides a hugely diverse collection of eateries and, a
short walk to its south, Central Square provides even more diversity.
For one like me who enjoys flavors of nearly all parts of the world,
Cambridge and the cities that abut it give both New York City and
Toronto a good run for their money.

On pedestrian issues, the City of Cambridge realized that automobile
traffic moved too rapidly through Harvard Square to be safe. So,
rather than inconveniencing we pedestrians, the Department of Public
Works made the sidewalks wider in order to slow the cars to a safer
speed. Meanwhile, to discourage automobile traffic in the densely
populated cities like Cambridge, Somerville, Boston and Brookline the
Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority (commonly known as the T) built
large parking lots at the most distant subway stops so motorists could
park their cars and, in much less time than driving, arrive at their
destination.

Finally, on the topic of pedestrian safety, Cambridge requires that
any construction site that disrupts either the sidewalk or the street
have a "detail cop" assigned to it 24 hours per day. While people
from less pedestrian friendly places might find it difficult to
believe, in Cambridge, if something blocks a sidewalk there will be a
police officer there to help anyone who might have trouble navigating
past the obstacle. As a result, when we lived here full time, I had a
friendly, first name basis relationship with many of the boys in blue.

I wouldn't use the word "perfect" to describe Cambridge, the horrible
weather and incredible darkness for nearly six months of the year make
life during the winter months pretty damned uncomfortable. Of course,
one never needs to walk very far to get to their destination or to a
public transit stop to ride the T to wherever they want to go. Did I
remember to say that the entire public transit system in Massachusetts
is free to people with vision impairment?

One nagging winter problem for Cambridge pedestrians comes when it
snows more than a few inches. You might refer back to a BC article I
wrote a while back called "A Snowbird's Tale" which details a day when
I had to get from my Cambridge condo to Harvard Square after we got
hit with a 38 inch blizzard on April 1, 1997. Snowplows push all of
the white stuff from the streets onto the sidewalks. The
responsibility for shoveling snow falls onto the owners or residents
of the homes in front of each patch of sidewalk. Some good people
clean up there patch of the pedestrian thoroughfare responsibly; most,
however, wait for the sun to shine and allow the warmth from it deal
with the effort. I will assume that using a guide dog would make
walking the streets during snowy days easier than doing so with a cane
as the snow causes nearly everything to feel soft and provide few
clues as to where one might actually be. Maybe GPS would be good too.

A Few Observations from our Month in Civilization:

On Yappy Little Dogs

Next door to my mother-in-law's house in Natick, MA (where we've
stayed all month) live a pair of small and highly yappy long haired
dogs. They seem to think that barking at X-Celerator, a 95 pound
Labrador will have some effect on his behavior. The X-Dog ignores
them entirely and acts like they are not present. One day, the yappy
dog's owner yelled at them, "That dog could eat you in two bites, stop
barking at him."

Thus, I found myself identifying with the yappy little dogs. While I
tend to bark about issues related to access technology and civil
rights for people with disabilities, focusing mostly on issues
interesting to people with vision impairment, I also find that the
metaphoric "big dogs," organizations like Freedom Scientific and other
profit driven AT companies seem to ignore all but an occasional bug
that I report and, if my barking annoys them enough, I will receive a
letter threatening legal action which, as I cannot afford a lawyer to
defend myself, is akin to putting a muzzle on me.

Pedestrians in Harvard Square versus Those in Manhattan

I have worked with X-Cellerator as a guide in only two urban settings:
namely, Harvard Sq., Cambridge and Manhattan, New York. I have made a
number of observations about the differences between the sets of
pedestrians in each location and how their actions effect how one can
work with a guide dog.

First off, many more pedestrians fill the Manhattan sidewalks than
those in Cambridge. I made the erroneous assumption that a less
crowded place would provide fewer challenges than the more crowded
one. As every block in New York has a traffic light, most of the
pedestrians either stop or continue walking as a group. Thus, in
addition to finding a curb and waiting for the traffic to pass so I
can instruct my dog to cross the street, I could follow the crowd
assuming that their intention has nothing to do with a mass suicide.

Streets in Manhattan have a wonderful regularity to them. When
walking north or south, each block is roughly one eight of a mile.
When walking east or west, each block takes roughly one eighth of a
mile. Excepting places where Broadway (one of Manhattan's rare
angular streets) or in Greenwich Village, a very old, pre city
planning part of the city, crosses an Avenue, all corners are right
angles. Cambridge and Boston, with the exception of a few more modern
neighborhoods, had their streets laid out following the patterns
followed by the largest number of cows whose owners would bring them
into the commons to graze. Some may find the absolute regularity of
Manhattan as borderline fascist in design and, quite definitely, the
pre-revolutionary layout of the streets in metropolitan Boston does
add charm to the city but, when navigating with a guide dog, the
predictability of the Manhattan sidewalks makes the flow of pedestrian
traffic easier to predict and, as a result, one will experience fewer
collisions.

In Harvard Square, where streets take a number of rather peculiar
twists and turns, one will, with some degree of frequency, find
themselves face to face with another pedestrian coming from one of the
unpredictable directions. Also, because fewer people use the
Cambridge sidewalks as those in New York, they take various liberties
afforded them by the lack of crowds. In Manhattan, if one stops to
gawk at something, they might get trampled by the ever moving crowd.
In Cambridge, pedestrians will stop and assume that others will go
around them, not a difficult task for a guide dog. Pedestrians in
Harvard Square and its surrounding neighborhoods frequently fail to
concentrate on their destination and will walk into a blink guided by
a dog. When this happens to me, I decide whether the offending
pedestrian is female and will grope a bit as she apologizes for
walking into me and, if male, I will ask, "Are you fucking blind?"
Which tends to illicit laughs from other pedestrians?

So, while Cambridge provides an excellent level of independence for
the automotively challenged, one must accept the occasional bump from
a clueless pedestrian wandering around contemplating some things
entirely unrelated to walking to a location. Fortunately, the
clueless ones tend to walk slowly so said collisions cause little pain
and can work as a way to meet interesting strangers.

The Hip Factor

A few years ago, the Utne Reader named Davis Square, Somerville (two
subway stops north of Harvard Sq.) the "hippest place in America."
I've hung out in Harvard Square since autumn of 1983 and must admit
that, in fact, it has lost a lot of its cool. As Cambridge real
estate has ballooned in value (something I appreciate as we still own
our Harvard Sq. condo), the Square has decreased in hipness. I
believe that there exists an inversely proportional relationship
between real estate prices (including rental rates) and the maximum
amount of "cool" any place can claim.

When I first came to the area, I got an apartment on Newton Street in
Somerville. This five room, one bath apartment located within walking
distance to Harvard, Union, Inman and Central Squares rented for $350
per month and provided the four of us with ample room to live quite
comfortably. I cannot even guess at its current rental rate but I
have a close friend living in a similar location who pays $1200 per
month for a small basement studio apartment.

I've observed this dynamic in a number of metropolitan areas. An
affordable neighborhood sees an influx of artists, musicians and
others into very cool activities. Next, these people rent some
abandoned storefronts and open up galleries that promote the local
artists, a used clothing store or two, maybe a used book store and, in
lofts, they ignore the zoning and liquor license regulations and open
nightclubs that will feature performances by the neighborhood
musicians. This level of very cool will cause similar people to
"discover" the neighborhood and as they move in, the landlords will
start to realize that they can get a little more for the crappy
apartments they own. Following the second wave of artists, writers
and performers, the gay population usually shows up to open eateries
and fancier galleries amidst the still cool neighborhood.

Enter the posiers who claim to play music, make art, take photographs,
perform in some manner and, when they deliver you a meal at one of the
eateries they identify themselves as one of the dreaded AMWs
(actor/actress, model, whatever). This is the sign to start looking
for the next hip location (which may mean you need to move out of your
current city) because the next class of individuals to move in will be
the old ladies with the afghan dogs which signals the conversion of
your affordable apartment into a very high priced condominium.

I have lived the entire cycle I describe above in Manhattan's Lower
East Side then occasionally called Alphabet City, now called the
fashionable East Village. My old haunts, the real dive bars with pool
tables and drug dealers have been replaced with fern bars and drinks
with names that do not list their ingredients. The area remains
medium cool with a warming trend that cannot be reversed. My aging
hip friends have all moved to Williamsburg in Brooklyn and complain
about the speed with which that area has lost a lot of its cool. I'm
told that Coney Island has started attracting the very cool.

Thus, in the 24 years that I've hung out in Harvard Square, I've
witnessed the later phases of its deterioration into hyper-trendy with
minimal cool. The all night cafeterias where one could get a meal for
a couple of bucks, all replaced by stores and restaurants that no
students, even Harvard students can afford to eat in or buy the
clothes, jewelry or whatever over priced item they sell. The used
book stores have fallen victim to the big chains and online shopping
and their replacements sell more boring overpriced crap.

Harvard Square definitely remains somewhat cool but not as obviously
so as in the past. Even the street performers have upgraded from a
folk singer with an acoustic guitar or a magician or juggler to fairly
slick shows with amplified music and lots of rehearsal.

We can't go back. Once a neighborhood loses its cool, it takes at
least a century for it to reach a state of deterioration that can
fertilize a new movement and the cycle will begin again.

On the Debate between Mike Calvo and Will Pearson

I've very much enjoyed watching Mike and Will debate the concepts of
user interface innovation for software used by people with vision
impairment. I also enjoyed Darrell's comment on the importance of
broadening the types of applications supported by screen readers.

I believe that both advancements in the presentation model to increase
the amount of semantic information that a screen reader user can
receive simultaneously and the broadening of applications supported
out-of-the-box by screen readers are both important tasks for screen
reader vendors to pursue. I also do not believe these tasks are in
any way mutually exclusive and that, especially the richer AT
companies like Freedom Scientific, Humanware and AI^2 have the duty to
their users to work on these and other features that will broaden and
streamline the user experience.

When I worked for FS, various research groups invited me to join their
advisory boards and participate in discussions about the work they did
in areas of rehabilitation engineering. When I left FS, I also left
most of these boards as I hadn't the financial wherewithal to continue
traveling to universities that hosted Rehabilitation Engineering
Resource Centers (RERC), Centers for Assistive Technology (CAT) and
researchers funded through other programs. I continued with the U.
Florida RERC on Technology and Successful Aging because we can drive
to Gainesville in a couple of hours. All of these groups have pleaded
with AT companies like Freedom Scientific, GW Micro, Humanware, AI^2
and probably others to come to their meetings and conferences to see
and comment on how their scholarly pursuits might fit into commercial
access technology products. At the same time, these academic
researchers would love to see their work show up in products from the
leading AT companies. Unfortunately, the AT industry leaders either
want to avoid the expense of learning the different discoveries made
in the research centers or feel that they have enough market share
that they do not need to expose themselves to highly innovative
concepts that might distract them from milking their loyal customers
out of their money without making any interesting improvements from
one release to the next.

I leave my friends at Serotek and ViewPlus out of the set of
businesses that do not innovate. Clearly, some of the ideas in the
presentation model exposed by System Access provide a different and
enhanced experience from their competitor products. Also, the SATOGO
distribution model is probably the single most interesting thing any
AT company has done with the Internet since JAWS introduced the
virtual buffer in version 3.31 back in 1998. Meanwhile, ViewPlus,
with its Accessible Graphing Calculator (AGC), has raised the bar for
blind math students and their Tiger line of embossers has redefined
the state of the art for Braille printers and tactile graphics. Is it
any wonder that these two companies both have blind people in charge?

One issue on which I disagree with Mr. Calvo is his suggestion that
Will Pearson "become a capitalist," get into the screen reader
business himself and put all of his interesting ideas into a new
product.

First of all, I don't think the screen reader market needs another
program and I believe that most, if not all screen reader developers
can afford to include many more innovative features if they choose to
do so. These companies all seem pretty healthy and adding an HCI
expert to their product management teams could be done with little
pain to their bottom line.

Also, I can't speak for will on this issue but, coming from my
personal experience, I know I can define very interesting user
experiences to be delivered through non-visual stimuli but I also know
that I have very poor skills as an entrepreneur – a fact proven by my
track record of failed attempts at making a start-up fly. Anyone can
be a capitalist by accepting the principles of a free market economy
but not all capitalists need to also be entrepreneurs. Mike Calvo has
very good user instincts as well as good skills at making a start-up
work; I do not have such skills and I suspect that Will doesn't
either. That we cannot successfully run companies does not, however,
discredit our work as researchers.

If the AT industry actually cares to move toward a new generation of
user experience which increases the productivity of computer users
with vision impairment, they don't have to listen to Will Pearson or
me (I do think we have good ideas though) but, rather, get involved
with the research centers around the US and the world that work on
ideas that the AT biz can employ to make major improvements to their
products. Most universities license their technology relatively
inexpensively, probably for less than it would cost to hire a person
to figure such things out, and such research centers are begging the
AT players to listen to what they have to say.

-- End

5 Comments:

Anonymous Mike Calvo said...

Wow! BC what a great post dude. You have really embraced the blogging thing. I meant that Will should get a company if he didn't feel that We "the AT providers" weren't providing what he felt we should. I for one, would love to sit down with Will one day, as I have done with you, for a few hours and pick his brain. Hey Will, I have never had the pleasure of speaking to you in person nor communicating via email, but, I would truly enjoy your from the hip direct feedback on Serotek's products. After all you are a well known and respected member of our community and I invite you to get in touch and if you find yourself in a place I can buy you a coffee or something, let's connect.

Again Chris I truly enjoyed your post! This is really one of your greatest posts ever.

6:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Never seen so many dysfunctional people gathered in one place in my entire life...

4:19 AM  
Anonymous Will Pearson said...

Chris has it right. I don't function too well in industry, and he should know as after all he did used to be my manager when I was a contractor for FS.

I did recently come across two pieces of good news regarding advancing user interfaces in AT. Firstly, I read somewhere that the CEO that Humanware recently appointed comes from an HCI background. The second piece of good news is that I was looking through academic job ads a couple of weeks ago and came across one from the University of Christchurch. The U of Christchurch are setting up an AT research center and Humanware look to be involved in that. So, it looks as though Humanware at least may be working on advancing user interfaces within their products.

I do think that the major screen reader vendors could do more though. Attending a conference such as ACM assets or ACM CHI or subscribing to a journal such as the ACM's Transactions on Accessible Computing (TACCESS) are not impossible tasks for a screen reader vendor to do. Even these simple things could give the screen reader vendors a lot of ideas on how they could improve their products. There are also usability consultants that screen reader vendors could use for short periods of time if they didn't want to hire someone longer term.

I really do hope that the AT vendors start to realise that they have to change their products soon. There are some changes in mainstream technology that are starting to emerge that are completely incompatible with the concept of a screen reader. Text is starting to be replaced with other forms of communication and without text screen readers fail to function. Unless the AT industry starts to work on solutions to these problems or accepts the help of academia then blind people are going to fall further behind because the technology they use to access things just isn't capable of functioning in the modern world or providing real equity.

Mike, I'll send you an email. i did try and phone you up on that toll free number that Serotek has earlier this year, as Chris said I could reach you on that, but I just got through to some sales guy.

By the way, it's nice to see that the trolls from the major AT vendors are about.

Will

1:01 PM  
Anonymous Richard Wells said...

I have a comment and two corrections:

1. I agree with Mike Calvo that this is the best BC blog entry to date. I believe that unlike larger adaptive technology companies, Serotek is still innovative enough to listen to ideas from folks like BC, Will and others. Concepts will be received with an open mind and will be implemented wherever practical.

2. JAWS 3.31.35 was released during the second quarter of 1999 some time between April and June and worked with Internet Explorer 5.X.

3. GWMicro actually introduced the virtual cursor concept using MSAA in Window-eyes 2.1 about 18 months earlier. It worked with Internet Explorer 3.02.

Back in those days, Henter-joyce was playing feature catch-up in other areas as well. Adobe and Flash are a couple of examples that come to mind. The difference was, especially in the case of the virtual buffer concept, the JAWS 3.31.35 environment was so much faster to load. Quick key navigation would later make the virtual buffer feature shine even more.

2:24 PM  
Anonymous assistive technology said...

This is a really really great post. I agree with the other comments here. This post gives a lot of perspective. Much needed perspective.

-Aaron Marks

2:21 PM  

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