Tuesday Dec 01, 2009

Dining in the dark, and the high cost of access

Last month I was in Brussels for a bunch of meetings, and while walking to dinner from my hotel, came upon Only 4 Senses - the blind experience. They were about to open, so I hung out and met with the staff to find out that they are a periodic/episodic restaurant that serves meals in total darkness. So I signed myself and two Sun colleagues up for dinner the next evening.

Only 4 Senses in Brussels is not the only outfit that offers a "taste" of what it is like to be blind through dinner. I first heard about this kind of restaurant in Germany - "Dinner in the Dark" - and since that time read articles about similar places in Switzerland and France. In fact, a quick web search turned up one near my home - San Francisco's opaque which offers dining in the dark every Wednesday evening (perhaps time for a Sun accessibility team dinner?).

The dinner was lovely, and carefully designed to be easy for the "beginning situationaly blind diner". The food came in several courses, each on its own, easy-to-manipulate plate/bowl. If necessary, you could even dispense with the silverware, and upend several of the dishes into your mouth as if drinking from a bowl. You did have to pour your own wine if you were drinking wine, while the less challenging water came in a bottle. Wait staff was provided by Ligue Braille, a Belgian organization for blind and and low vision folks. Our server had come to Belgium from the Congo - chosen for us in part because of his English skills.

Dinning there reminded me of my first "dining in the dark" experience - in Prague just about a year ago. Flying into Prague on Czech airlines, I read an article in the in-flight magazine about Pod křídlem noci, and determined I would dine there one of the evenings of my stay. We would up roping in some 10 people, including several from Sun's NetBeans team, several from Czech Technical University, and various friends/girlfriends/spouses. Unlike Only 4 Senses, this dining experience was a bit more challenging: we sat down to a full, fancy place setting (multiple knives, forks, spoons, dessert spoon, water and wine glasses), and our meal was served on a large plate filled with all of the various dishes that we had to discover by tasting (particularly if, like me, you choose the "surprise me" menu). Before entering the "dark part" of the restaurant, all electronic device we carried that could emit any sort of light were confiscated from us (something I wish they'd done in Brussels, as we occasionally saw light from what was probably a cell phone in the distance). An interesting discovery for me was the extent to which my vision aids me in discerning wines. I asked for a "wine pairing" with my meal - so I didn't know what kind of wine it was in advance. I found I had a hard time discerning whether it was a white or red wine (being a Czech varietal grape might also have had something to do with it).

As we were enjoying our meal, I struck up a conversation with the woman who was serving us. I talked to her about our work - in open source accessibility - and asked her about computer use among the blind in the Czech Republic. What she told me was stunning - and coming from the wealthy West, maddening. She said that if she wanted an accessible computer, she would need to get a copy of the JAWS screen reader which cost 100,000 Czech koruna ($5,800 at today's exchange rates). As the average Czech salary is just over 17,000 Czech krouna/month (and 10,000 CZK/month average for the restaurant trade which she worked in), accessible computers are essentially unaffordable for the blind in the Czech Republic. She told me that to get JAWS, she would have to "beg the local city government to buy a copy", which as often as not would be denied.

Heading back to my hotel that evening, I passed by a computer store. On several big sign boards, they had posted prices for some computers. their cheapest PC with Windows XP cost 2,490 CZK. Thus in the Czech Republic, a blind person has to pay at least 40 times the cost of a computer for the software to allow her to use it!

Or... you could buy the 1,990 CZK bare-bones computer without any operating system, and install something like Ubuntu and the included Orca screen reader on it (whose minimum system requirements are more than met for 1,990 CZK) and have something that costs 20% of a month's salary of a blind waitress, instead of 10 months' salary.

...and this difference is one of the main reasons why I work in open source accessibility.

Monday Apr 14, 2008

Underwater photography in the Channel Islands

Just before this year's CSUN conference (blog trip report to come), I went diving with my "friend in the news" Mark Epstein for two days with Truth Aquatics in the Channel Islands off of Santa Barbara. I brought my new Canon G9 camera (bought in part because I thought it'd make a great underwater housed camera), and a new underwater lighting rig: the Brightstar Darkbuster diving torch mounted on their camera arm set.

You can see the photos at this slideshow of my Truth Aquatics dive trip.

The typical underwater digital camera is a housed camera with a flash and perhaps a focusing light (as is shown in this photo of Mark with my old rig + his HID light). The best underwater photos these days are taken with SLR cameras in special custom housings with multiple large flashes. Such a setup can cost more than $10,000! This gets you something like a Canon 5D, a housing for it, and then strobes and arms (ideally 2 strobes!).

For this dive trip, I tried to put together an effective setup at 1/10th the cost. I went with the Canon G9 in order to have something small, but with a bright 3" LCD screen and pretty fast focusing. And then the big experiment: going with the new and incredibly bright 24W HID light from Darkbuster in "video light" configuration (plus diffuser) in the place of a flash. Going this route allowed me to save on buying a bright and expensive flash (the cheapest good underwater flash is more expensive than the Darkbuster!), and meant that I didn't need an electrical sync cord (which requires a more expensive housing and significantly increases your chances of getting a leak) or a fiber optic flash trigger cord (which I haven't found to work that well and getting the right amount of light is always more of a challenge).

I'm pretty pleased with the results, especially for macro photography (check out all of the nudibranch photos). So long as I took the time to adjust the light, and made sure to zoom in a tad so that all of the photo was within the cone of light from the Darkbuster, I got pretty good results. If I do a lot more of this, I'll probably get a second Darkbuster in order to achieve more even lighting results (and use my makeshift "lens cap" - PVC pipe end fitted over the light with holes drilled in for water cooling - to cover one for more dramatic side-lighting - like in this shot). The biggest challenge will still be dealing with surge underwater, which combined with even 1/10th of a second of shutter delay means a high percentage of slightly-out-of-focus photos. My old housed film camera never had this problem...

Tuesday Nov 14, 2006

Strč prst skrz krk

If it is Tuesday, I must be in Prague (Praha)...

Today was World Usability Day 2006, and as they did last year, the Sun Prague user interface design team helped host the Prague edition of World Usability Day - with a full agenda of speakers (text in Czech). I was a last minute supplement to my boss Harry Burks' keynote talk. He and I co-delivered our presentation (I got to do all the fun demos).

Being as I had a sore throat from all of my travels (first DC for the second TEITAC meeting, then a brief 25 hours in Denmark, and now Prague), I rather felt as if I had stuck my finger through my throat, and so began my remarks accordingly...

Prague is a beautiful old city, and I would be remiss if I didn't share some of my photos. The Charles Bridge (Karlův most) over the Vltava River is spectacular at night. Above it is the St. Vitus Cathedral (Katedrála svatého Víta) and Prague Castle (Pražský hrad). Alfons Mucha's work is visible everywhere in Prague, but perhaps nowhere more strikingly than in a stained glass window in St. Vitus Cathedral. No photo collection of Prague would be complete without the astronomical clock of Old Town Hall (Staroměstská radnice). And finally, I wanted to share with you one of the incredibly detailed marionette figures (available for sale to tourists and folk art aficionados).


Peter Korn


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