Sunday, December 9, 2007

About People with Visual Disability & the Usefulness of Braille

I had the privilege to meet people with severe visual disability in a study I conducted to examine the brain regions involved in Braille reading by touch. I am interested in brain plasticity. That is, I am studying the brains ability to reorganize after a change in input from the sensory periphery, e.g. the loss of eye sight. With positron emission tomography and functional magnetic resonance imaging, brain regions can be visualized that are activated during the exposure to sensory stimuli or the execution of tasks. The findings of our study are described in detail in “Blindness and Brain Plasticity in Navigation and Object Perception”.

The study was a great learning experience for me. I had not met people with disabilities personally before.
  • I was very impressed with the ease with which most coped with the challenges of daily life, e.g. crossing a street. Next time when you stand at the lights of a busy intersection, close your eyes and decide when to go. You will understand immediately what I am saying.
  • I met many professionals with college degrees raising families. I asked one youngster whose parents are both blind, how they could possibly manage to keep track of him and his siblings. I have trouble with mine and I can see. He answered flatly: “It has never been a problem. My parents always know where we are and what we are up to.”
  • People with disabilities possess great wisdom of life. I once walked down the sidewalk with a participant, returning from a study. We were joking around fueled by the elation that we had a good session. The scanner had worked and nothing else had failed that day. A young man came up. He looked sullen. He called out: “Excuse me! May I ask a question? “ “Yes,” my friend replied. “I see you walking down the street a blind man. Yet, you seem happy and content. I can see. But I am depressed. I have got to take pills to get me through the day. There is no happiness in my life. Would you trade with me?” My friend answered: “Of course, I would rather see. But I learned to live without. Take a day at a time and make the best of it.”
  • I was impressed with the physical abilities of people with visual disability. Many actively pursue sports. There are skiing programs in Colorado like Foresight that take people with visual disability to the slopes on weekends. Small groups are assigned to sighted guides whom they follow down the trails. I am a passionate skier. When I heard of the program, I imagined something quaint. Not at all! I happened to meet a group once on a black diamond tackling the moguls at awesome clip. I still cannot fathom, how you acquire this level of skill. My performance drops considerably in the fog. I was so impressed!

Finally, I learned about the meaning of Braille. A stencil with Braille cells is as essential as a notebook. The software that translates text to voice is improving at rapid rate. All major operating systems offer assistive technologies these days. Doubt is cast on the necessity of Braille in the future. However, many professionals prefer to use electronic Braille displays to be able to read the output from their computer most expediently and efficiently. Unfortunately, the gadgets are expensive compared with the voice programs, and not every employer is willing to make the investment.

Another problem is printing or, more correctly put, embossing. When I carried out my study, we attempted to emboss consent forms in Braille. It was a very cumbersome process. The software we had was rudimentary at best. The printer was highly mechanical and slow. The Braille dots were embossed in thick paper with metal pins. The noise reminded me of a machine gun and was quite unnerving. The gadget was huge, unwieldy and too expensive for personal use. I do not blame the engineers. They came up with a solution that is solid and works. However, in our day and age there must be faster, quieter and more affordable ways to emboss Braille.

I can only encourage development. Apart from the fascinating question how our brain processes Braille, Braille is here to stay for practical reasons. Who wants to depend on a computer during a black out?

  • Driving a Prius people with visual disability may have great difficulty in hearing you coming. Please be considerate (09/27/08)!
  • New touch screen technology promises useful assistive technologies for smart phones. In his article published on The New York Times site on Jan. 4, 2009, Miguel Helft describes the work of T.V. Raman on applications tailored for people with severe visual disability using google's Android smart phone operating system. 

Friday, December 7, 2007

The World Wide Web & Access for Everybody

The steam engine and iron rails transformed our lives profoundly 200 years ago. The USA would be a very different place today without the railroad. I believe that the personal computer and the internet will transform our lives in even a more comprehensive fashion than the railroad. Unprecedented in our history, these tools enable us to exchange information globally and interact with each other almost instantly. In open source computing, people work together who live in Minsk, Mumbai, Shanghai and San Francisco, as if they sat across the street from each other. The resulting synergism is unprecedented in our history. On this post's day, SOURCEFORGE.NET hosts 164,138 projects and has 1,744,123 registered users.

It is essential for our future that everyone has access to the internet. Particularly, people in developing countries must not be left behind, if we wish to lessen the gap between the rich and the poor nations. That is why I encourage everybody to participate in the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) initiative.

Nicholas Negroponte, Professor at M.I.T., launched this initiative in 2002 with the idea to create a laptop computer affordable to people with little means. This computer was conceived to cost about $100.- and work anywhere, providing access to knowledge about our world to youngsters even in the remotest areas. The product ended up costing twice as much as initially hoped.

However, there is a way to ease the financial burden. When you participate in this initiative until Dec. 31, you purchase for a bit more than $400.- one computer for yourself and another for a kid somewhere out there who has hardly ever seen a sleek gadget like this before. I bought one for my ten year-old son. Imagine two sets of eyes beaming with curiosity and excitement, one set here and a second set somewhere else, when the kids unpack this wonder machine! Join in!

  • The XO proved itself a profoundly useful edition to our household, particularly for reading e-books. The next generation can be purchased here (Oct. 18, 2008).
  • Amazon is sold out for now (Jan. 12, 2009).
  • Brian Stelter reported today in his The New York Times article entitled "Can CNN, the Go-to Site, Get You to Stay?" that garners on average 1.7 billion page views per month. The web is the future (01/17/09)!
Build a Website in 30 minutes. Try Free, Click Here.


  • I could not emphasize the relevance of free global exchange of ideas better than Dr. Goodall in this 2002 presentation (07/07/2010):

  • In the video below with the title "Wiring the Amazon" published online by The New York Times, May 19, 2014, Michael Kleiman and Michael Pertnoy document how XOs were put to their intended use in a small Peruvian village in the remote Amazon. Sadly, the laptops' success did not last because of the scarcity of adequate technical internet support. The XOs seem to have been supplanted with cell phones (05/21/2014).

Thursday, December 6, 2007


The problem
My daughter and I used to go to work together at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. The university has got a pretty campus. The trouble was that we both needed to go to places at both ends that were hard to access at rush hour. A huge hospital, Vanderbilt University Medical Center, is nearby and long lines of cars move slowly around every block. Since we do not live very far, we opted for a bike with a back seat for a co-pilot. I am not really a pro biker by any stretch. So we bought a cheap low-riding cruiser and a seat from our local Wal*Mart. Low-riding seemed to be important to keep the center of gravity close to the ground. We had the shortest commute ever and a great time on the way, until it rained ... Boy those caliper breaks don't do very much when they are wet. Though I clamped down on the breaks with all my strength, we slid down the hill almost into traffic and turned away just so before we hit the busy road big time. We both got away with a pretty good fright.

The solution
What's the solution, here? Take the car, whenever there is a droplet in sight? Nope! I thought, it is best to ask people for advice who understand rain: the BRITS. If somebody has got experience with cycling safely drenched, it is got to be the British. They must know a solution to the problem. And certainly, they do! It is the drum break! The break pads are protected from the rain in the sealed hub.

Searching with Google on the net I found Sturmey Archer. Their drum break hubs looked very functional and cool. I found an e-mail order bike shop in the U.S. that carries them (Alfred E Bike) and ordered the X-FD for a front wheel.

The package arrived. The next problem dawned on me right away, when I held the shiny hub in my hand: How do we put this in?
Answer: You have to re-lace the spokes of your wheel. Again, I googled for answers and got them from Sheldon Brown at Harris Cyclery. Though the project seemed fascinating, I decided quickly, it was not going to be me who was going to do this. I did not have the tools, and it seemed to take quite some experience to do it right. I resorted to our local bike store, Cumberland Transit. They did a wonderful job for about $70.-, spokes included. The hub was about $50.-. I managed to install the wheel and connect the actuator to the handle myself. That was not too difficult for someone with average skill.

The picture shows the finished product in use. We had a solution for $120.-, pedaled happily away for another two years rain or shine and took breaks at Harris-Teeter to have Orangina which tastes twice as good from pot-bellied bottles, until my co-pilot grew tall, stepped outside on one chilly winter morning and announced: “It is too cold, Dad. Let's take the car!” Luckily, we had to report to different places then and the traffic was not too bad.

P.S: You may notice, we also installed a Python fork to go with the drum break. It sure makes for a smoother, be it more wobbly ride. If you choose to go down that road, too, make sure that the stem of the fork fits the neck of your frame before you order.

National Bike Registry

  • Today, I discovered the coolest advertising campaign ever, excelling in simplicity and cleverness. Those of legal beer-drinking age may check out the latest Fat Tire sales effort (05/24/10):

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Broken Cups in Your OS X Cupboard

I work a lot with pictures professionally and have been using Apple computers for most of my career, except my Master's Thesis which I wrote on a DEC PDP 11. I was only a user. However, it always struck me with trepidation that I did not understand a thing of what was going on under the hood. I was eventually roped into computing, when the Apple operating system turned to UNIX around the year 2000. With the introduction of OS X, Apple had opened itself to Open Source computing which opened a new universe to me. Seven years later, I spent way more time with compiling packages than I ought to, and way more often than I liked, I ended up in a real fix. Regardless, the euphoria of empowerment outweighed the disappointment by far.

Today I report on one example of the kinds of adventure one may encounter on this road. Several months ago, I happened on the website of cups printing. Cups is the printing routine used in OS X. I found a pre-compiled binary of a more recent version than I had ready for installation. Since I wanted to be at the cutting edge, I downloaded the offering and installed it without reading the fine print. The result was that I could not print anymore. The fine print said that one had to re-install the operating system, if the update did not work. Oh!

I was not prepared to do that. So I compiled the most recent 1.4.x version for developers from source myself and installed it. After that, I could not even get passed the login window. I had a series of sweaty moments since then. I did not believe the functions that depend on cups! Much of OS X appears to depend on the cups library in one way or another. How can this be in the age decentralization? I managed to fix the problem by re-installing n older version in the single user mode.

Months later, I re-visited the cups website. The pre-compiled packages were gone, and it was recommended to try one the versions 1.3.x. After a number of tries, one of them worked and I offer the result on my project (Software for Small Budget Science). The package is compiled with Tiger on Intel. It has worked well for me. However, one nuisance remains. The package needs to be reinstalled after each Apple security update. Let my adventure be a warning.

Apple iTunes