Wednesday, August 10, 2005

August 05 Tech Update: The Mighty Apple Mouse Edition

There’s about five pages of my words and links and another five in press releases and outside reviews. So we will just skip to the meat of the matter. And I can hear some of you now saying "don’t let this guy do this to us again when he comes back from vacation". Oddly enough I had some of this already sitting around. So you guys better run for cover when I take a week off. A 26 page update for sure. Or 13 two page updates. Hmm. I like that.

~ "Security Is Only One, Okay Several, Clicks Away"
MS released their annual updates, every second Tuesday of the month, to the world this week. Depending on how often you do your updates your looking at 3 to 8 files. Most are no bigger than 3 MB and most of the time it takes longer to install the darn things than download them. Remember that you will hit that Genuine Advantage thing if you haven’t done it already.

~ "Windows Love Or Format It.. I Mean Leave It"
I tripped on to someone who shares the same viewpoint that I have on Windows dominance and how this is really a good thing. Those of us who remember the 31 flavors of DOS know how hard it was to keep those versions and their switching commands in check. Linux for all it’s Open Source glory has the exact same problems that DOS had before it’s emergence. Without a common starting place we wouldn’t be as far as we are now. Hence my acceptance of Bill Gates as our Accessibility Enabled Overlord.
~ "Exploring Your Vista"
Don’t worry I will run out of Vista joke soon. I think it’s half the reason why they chose that name. I heard that a small company in California owns the product name of Vista for software by the way. I also heard that the Microsoft petty cash fund should clear that up and free the name by October’s 06 release as well.
Vista Beta 1 is out and many have some interesting views so far. One of the cool things I like about Vista is that it will have a Performance Icon in the Control Panel. Check out this one touch solution to Systray and Internet Congestion issues.

Another big feature of Vista will be the Vista version of Internet Explorer. Wait did I just say Vista version? Yep I did. There will be a Vista version of IE7 and a stand alone version that others can download. Others being XP, Server 2003 and Server 2005 that is. Windows 98, 2000 and NT support is gone with IE7. See more about this Beta from the review below.

~ "Running with Scissors In Windows"
A person with way too much time has found a way to run Windows XP with no services. Not even Winlogon if you can believe that. To see how this amazing feat was done check out the link below.

~ "How Mighty is your Mouse?"
Apple has finally released a mouse with the ability to right click. Well kind of right click. It natively doesn’t allow a context menu on a right click until you go into System Preferences and assign it that way but you get the idea. Here’s a great description and review of the new Mighty [yes that’s it’s name] Mouse from Apple.

Here’s the site for the downloading of Tiger 10.4.2. This is the latest release from July 17th 2005.

If you do that update and the consumer has an Airport running you need this site as well.

Also if your looking for a good OSX resource from the Blind perspective check out this link I nabbed from ACB’s Main Menu.

~ "Computer Voyeurism.. No Not What Your Thinking!"
Scientists are working now on object recognition with computers. Which means that your computer may act like the HAL 9000 the next time you do any pointing with a different finger.

** Press Releases
Sendero's GPS version 3.3 for the BrailleNote is now shipping including versions for the tiny PK and the new mPower. Version 3.3 introduces two huge improvements to Sendero's BrailleNote GPS, the Cadillac of accessible GPS systems.
* The Points of Interest database is being expanded from one to twelve million points in the U.S. and Canada with 108 categories. Additional functionality has been added to deal with this voluminous and newer data content. In addition to the restaurants and hotels common in previous versions, the GPS 3.3 data includes everything from beauty salons to nursing homes to churches. As our beta testers in the U.S. and Canada have said, "it is amazing how much stuff is out there and we feel like we can see it with our BrailleNote GPS, especially in version 3.3."
* We have enhanced the manual route creation software. You can now designate manual waypoints as Straight, Left or Right. You can add custom descriptions like "4-way intersection" or "slight bend in path." This makes manual routes created across a campus or in the woods extremely versatile.
For both manual and automatic routes, you now hear a natural voice telling you to "continue straight" when you are on course or, "Warning, off route" when you are not.
Directional information has been enhanced by averaging headings, making relative directions for waypoint and points of interest much better.
BrailleNote GPS has at least double the features and functions of other accessible GPS products and the PK GPS is the smallest and most powerful.
For more information, come see Sendero or HumanWare at an upcoming conference or call 1-888-757-6810. Details are on the web at

Visually-challenged computer users can now explore technical drawings
A well-received innovative, accessible system offers blind and visually-challenged computer users the chance to work on a range of digitised technical drawings and soon other drawings will be added.
Digitised technical drawings are typically presented and edited on standard PCs with appropriate software installed. However, blind and visually-challenged persons must access a user interface and presentation tool specially tailored for them.
The IST programme-funded TeDUB project has overcome the limitations of existing technologies by creating an innovative, accessible system. The Image Interpreter analyses drawings semi-automatically or automatically using image processing and knowledge processing techniques.
Project coordinator George Ioannidis explains that the system is capable of analysing and presenting diagrams from a number of formally defined technical drawing domains, primarily electronic circuits, floor plans and software (UML) engineering drawings.
Diagrams enter the system, are processed and transformed to the internal format of the TeDUB system and accessed by the Diagram Navigator, which allows users to interact via a number of devices, including an ordinary keyboard for input and textual output, either accessed through a Braille device or a screen reader.
The system also offers navigation using a joystick and sound notifications. Users can choose between interfaces. For example, the 3D sound interface provides spatial information relating to the user's current position, which allows them to 'walk' around the diagram.
An evaluation took place in Ireland, Italy, The Netherlands and the UK involving 35 blind or partially-sighted participants, including students aged 16 to 30 following courses on computer science or informatics, and professionals aged 21 to 60, working as programmers, software consultants and university lecturers.
"They were positive about how easy the system can be learned," says Ioannidis. "They also liked the simple operation of the interface when using keyboard commands and the combination of different interfaces to operate the system, as well as how to access information."
TeDUB can be integrated into available screen readers, avoiding the need to recreate completely new software environments. It also solves a problem that has traditionally demanded the more laborious solution of manually creating tactile diagrams.
Project partners are extending the number of types of drawings the system can handle and plan to include business bar and pie charts found in standard business communications.
"We are incorporating TeDUB processing and presentation technology into mainstream applications for creating technical drawings and enhancing accessibility," he says. Future plans include focusing on the educational domain, specifically e-learning content."
Dr George Ioannidis
Centre for Computing Studies
University of Bremen
D-28359 Bremen
Tel: +49 421 2187090
Fax: +49-421-2187196
Source: Based on information from TeDUB
Hands on with Roxio's Boom Box
By Peter Cohen
On Thursday Roxio announced a new $50 software package for Mac OS X aimed squarely at iPod owners called the Boom Box. It's a collection of pre-existing software that Roxio has put together to help users get more out of their iPod, and I've had a chance to put the software through its paces.
Boom Box includes five applications: Roxio's own CD Spin Doctor, MusicMagic Mixer, a playlist-building application, Audio Hijack, which lets you capture audio from applications, iPodderX, a podcast subscription management utility and iSpeak It, an application that can turn text-based documents into spoken word audio files.
CD Spin Doctor
CD Spin Doctor hasn't been available up to now outside of buying Roxio's Toast CD and DVD burning software. The software lets you digitize music you might still have on vinyl and tape - a concept that may sound odd to the college-age and younger set, but it's quite appealing for an old fogey like me - my wife and I have a ton of 12-inch singles of synth-pop from the 80s that we're really not interested in tracking down and repurchasing on CD or through iTunes.
To that end CD Spin Doctor is a very nice utility. The software lets you remove unwanted noise like clicks and crackles from scratchy records, or hiss from audio tapes, to help clean up your audio before you start playing it back on your iPod. It can also detect tracks automatically by listening for the gaps between songs, taking some of the manual labor out of having to import your analog audio into a digital format.
MusicMagic Mixer
Of the five applications included with this collection, I found MusicMagic Mixer to be the most appealing. iTunes makes it really easy to build playlists of different musicians and genres, but there's an inherent problem: It's only using the metadata attached to the individual song files to do that. This gets even weirder with iTunes' Party Shuffle feature - I've heard it to go from Dean Martin to The Beastie Boys to Scandinavian death metal, and just about then my head exploded, so I'm not sure what came after.
MusicMagic Mixer takes a very different approach by analyzing each track's soundwave, and matching songs that include similar acoustic personalities to the one you use to "seed" your playlist with. Contextual menus let you direct MusicMagic Mixer to choose more songs like the one you've selected, less songs like the one you've identified, and more. It's not perfect but it's very, very clever. Once you've configured a playlist you like, MusicMagic Mixer can export that playlist to iTunes with a single click.
If you have a really big music library, MusicMagic Mixer takes quite a while to categorize all your music. I have just shy of 3,700 songs in my collection. I let MusicMagic Mixer run over part of a weekend, since it told me it would take more than a day to build "fingerprints." The good news is that once it's done with the initial analysis, you can tell MusicMagic Mixer just to sync to iTunes to keep up to date with new music you've added.
Podcasting is the latest rage in the world of digital audio; thousands of them have popped up from news sites or anyone else with an opinion who feels like putting their thoughts down in an audio file instead of (or in many cases, in addition to) a Web page.
Trying to keep up with podcasts is a full-time job, and iPodderX helps with that by managing them in a simple application interface. You can browse podcasts by subject, subscribe to the ones you like, and have them automatically downloaded and delivered to your iPod. Finding content that's actually worthwhile to listen to, however, is your problem.
Audio Hijack
Audio Hijack is a clever application that lets you record any audio on your computer, then transfer it to iTunes and listen to it on the go with your iPod. Let's say, for example, that you're interested in hearing the play-by-play audio webcast of your favorite sports team, but the webcast is only available in a streaming format - you can set Audio Hijack up to record that audio. If the webcast happens at a specific time, Audio Hijack contains scheduling tools to help you manage that too.
And Audio Hijack works with any application, including RealPlayer, Windows Media Player or Apple's own DVD Player. This actually came in quite handy for me recently - my wife had borrowed an instructional DVD video from the library that I didn't have time to watch, but contained information I was interested in. I used Audio Hijack to snag the audio as I was doing other things, then I dropped the audio onto my iPod and listened to it in the car.
Audio Hijack also lets you apply special effects to your audio to improve the quality of the audio file. You can equalize, for example boost base and treble, and more. You can also specify sample rates, tell Audio Hijack how much space you're willing to give your files, and take specific actions like "encode to AAC with iTunes" once it's done.
iSpeak It
iSpeak It rounds out the utilities included in the Boom Box collection. This software lets you take text-based files and convert them to spoken word audio files using Apple's Text to Speech technology. The software's developers have included hooks to weather and news reports, as well as a way to download text from Web site URL's you specify, so it's pretty easy to grab things. And if you've got a text file ready - let's say, an exported Word document, or something else you want to listen to - you can click on a button and load it up, then transfer the spoken word version to iTunes with another click.
Getting the most out of iSpeak It depends a bit on being able to tweak Apple's Text to Speech functionality to work best for you - finding the right voice for example (Apple's quality here leaves something to be desired). What's more, iSpeak It also allows you to insert commands to control the rate at which text is spoken, volume and emphasis on specific passages of text to further customize your playback.
Excluding CD Spin Doctor, which Roxio hasn't yet sold as an independent application, the total cost of buying each of these applications separately is in the vicinity of $86 or so - so Roxio's bargain-basement price of $49.95 is an excellent value for all this software, especially if you include the coupons and offers that Roxio includes from Wiley Books, and Belkin Corp.
How much of the software you'll actually use is another question. For my own purposes, I found CD Spin Doctor, Audio Hijack and MusicMagic Mixer to be the standouts of the bunch. iPodderX certainly does its job effectively, but frankly, podcasts just don't interest me that much. And iSpeak It works as advertised as well, but it's hamstrung by Apple's clumsy Text to Speech technology.


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