Wednesday, December 19, 2012
Tuesday, October 9, 2012
For a while now, we've had a Samsung LCD TV, Samsung Blueray player and Palsonic PVR in our lounge room, as well as an old 2005 notebook running Windows 7 connected to the TV for watching video files, media on the web, etc. I've recently made some major enhancements to this setup. I think they're pretty cool, cost effective and don't require lots of different devices, so I thought I'd document them here.
TV speakers really suck. For a while now, we've wanted to be able to listen to audio, particularly music, in decent quality. So, after my usual several months of research and deliberation, I bought a set of Audioengine A5+ powered bookshelf speakers. They cost around AU$400 and we're very much loving them. They're quite small and the amp is built into the left speaker, which suits well given the limited space on the TV cabinet. They have dual inputs, enabling both the notebook and TV to be connected simultaneously.
I've used foobar2000 as my audio player for years and saw no reason to diverge from that here. Our music library is now on the notebook and added to foobar2000. In addition, I'm gradually building playlists for various occasions/moods.
Having to interact with the notebook to control music sucks, so I installed the TouchRemote plugin for foobar2000. This enables us to control everything, including browsing and searching the entire library, from our iPhones and iPad using the Remote iOS app. (I could have used iTunes for this, but I despise iTunes. :))
We don't own a digital radio. However, we mostly listen to ABC radio stations, which all have internet streams. I added all of these internet streams to a separate "Radio Stations" playlist in foobar2000. This shows up in Remote, so listening to radio can be controlled from there too.
Although our music library is on the notebook, there are times when we might have audio on one of our iOS devices which we want to hear on the lounge room speakers. Of course, we could connect the device to the speakers, but that's inconvenient and sooo 20th century. Apple AirPlay allows media from iOS devices to be streamed wirelessly to a compatible receiver. I installed Shairport4w on the notebook, which enables it to be used as an AirPlay audio receiver.
This has already been useful in a way I didn't initially consider. Michael and Nicole were over for dinner and Michael wanted to play us an album he had on his iPhone. He was able to simply stream it using AirPlay without even getting up from the couch and his glass of red wine. Facilitating laziness is awesome. :)
For video files, we use Media Player Classic - Home Cinema. We don't watch too many of these, so a proper library, etc. isn't important. However, we can't currently control it remotely, which is a minor annoyance. There are several ways we could do this such as the RemoteX Premium iOS app or a web server plugin, but requiring yet another app or web browser is ugly. I wish there were a way to control this using the iOS Remote app. :(
This isn't entertainment, but it hardly warranted a separate post. We own a Canon MP560 printer/scanner, which we're very happy with. It has built-in Wi-Fi, which is nice because it means the printer can live in a separate room and we can print from anywhere in the house. Unfortunately, it doesn't support Apple AirPrint, which means Jen, who primarily uses her iPad, can't print to it. To solve this, I set up the printer on the notebook, shared the printer and installed AirPrint for Windows. It works very nicely.
Tuesday, November 22, 2011
A common complaint about mailing lists like this is that they produce a lot of messages. Some users cannot (or do not wish to) handle this high email traffic and therefore end up unsubscribing from the list fairly quickly, thus limiting its usefulness. Instead, users contact us directly or are driven away from the project. When directed to the tracker and email lists, one user who contacted me directly complained about having to "sign up to a thousand lists".
To combat this, we decided to selectively moderate the list, as full moderation is too time consuming. Users who broke (or bordered on breaking) list rules or otherwise had the potential to generate a lot of unnecessary traffic were moderated. Any post from those users that was irrelevant, unnecessary or might start such a thread was rejected.
Unfortunately, several users have been unhappy with or even outright offended by this. Today in particular, I rejected a post from a user (previously moderated for an off-topic post) which, while intended to be helpful, provided an incorrect (or at least very indirect) answer which I believed would cause more questions than it answered. No accusation was made, but this user took this very personally and made it clear that he would no longer support the project in any way.
Another common gripe is that users are often told to read the documentation when they ask questions. If it seems that a user hasn't even tried to read the documentation before asking a question, I do not think this is unwarranted. If they've at least tried and don't understand, this is a different matter entirely. If they don't wish to make the effort to at least try to understand the documentation, they should not expect free support.
It seems I can't win. I tried to do what I thought best for the NVDA community in limiting the traffic on the list so more users would be encouraged to use it. As a result, I'm accused of being unfair, draconian and ungrateful. Therefore, I've disabled all moderation on the list and I am withdrawing from the list myself for a while. I am done with support for now.
Tuesday, November 15, 2011
Digging through their code, it's not too hard to work around this. I was able to come up with a link which enables auto-play, so at least it begins playing automatically, avoiding the need to use the video player controls. However, the average user would not have been able to do this themselves.
Ideally, everything should be accessible to all users. Sometimes, for whatever reasons (valid or not), this isn't possible. When it isn't, at least consider your target audience. If, for example, a large number of them are probably going to be blind, it might just make sense to implement and test accessibility for screen reader users. The APC are using an external service to provide the stream. Regardless, they should have tested and resolved the problem somehow or, at the very least, openly provided a work around such as the one I gave above.
It's worth noting that Adobe clearly document that windowless (transparent or opaque) Flash is inaccessible.
Tuesday, August 9, 2011
The biggest issue is that there are many buttons on the site which are presented using clickable graphics, but they have been marked with @alt="", indicating that the graphics are for visual presentation/layout only and suggesting to screen readers that they shouldn't be presented to the user. Obviously, this is very wrong, since these graphics are buttons which the user might wish to activate. It's bad enough that no text alternative is provided, but specifying empty text is extremely incorrect. With the current version of NVDA, this issue makes the portal practically unusable.
This turned out to be a great success. I now have a Greasemonkey script that not only gives friendly labels to many graphic buttons, but also injects ARIA to transform these graphics into buttons. In addition, there are parts of the portal which use graphics to indicate which option has been selected and the script turns these into radio buttons using ARIA. There is a navigation bar where the items are only clickable text, which the script changes into links for quicker navigation using ARIA. Finally, @alt="" is removed from all other clickable graphics which the script doesn't yet know about, which at least allows screen readers to present the graphic using their own algorithms to determine a label. Once the script is installed, this all happens transparently without any special action.
If you happen to have a PennyTel account and would find this useful yourself, you can grab the script. I'm sure there are more things I can improve, but this is sufficient to make the site quite usable.
Monday, July 25, 2011
Thursday, March 3, 2011
In the Apple world, the application developer is generally responsible for ensuring accessibility. Users don't tend to complain to Apple when an application is inaccessible; they complain to the application developer. More often than not, this is correct. An accessibility framework has been provided to facilitate application accessibility and Apple's assistive technologies utilise this framework, so it's up to the application to fulfil its part of the bargain.
In contrast, in the Windows world, the AT developer is generally held responsible. In the past, before there were standard, fully functional accessibility frameworks, I guess this was fair to some extent because application developers had no way of making their applications accessible out-of-the-box. As a result, AT developers worked around these problems themselves through application specific scripting and hacks. However, Windows has had standard rich accessibility frameworks such as IAccessible2 and UI Automation for several years now. Therefore, this is no longer an acceptable justification. Despite this, the general expectation still seems to be that AT developers are primarily responsible. For example, we constantly receive bug reports stating that a certain application does not work with NVDA.
Some might argue another reason for this situation is that application developers have previously been unable to test the accessibility of their applications because of the high cost of commercial ATs. With the availability of free ATs such as NVDA for several years now, this too is no longer an acceptable excuse.
So why is this still the case in the Windows world? If it's simply a ghost from the past, we need to move on. Maybe it's due to a desire for competitive advantage among AT vendors, but the mission of improving accessibility and serving users as well as possible should be more important. If it's resultant to poor or incomplete support for standard accessibility frameworks, ATs need to resolve this. Inadequate or missing support for accessibility in GUI toolkits is probably part of the problem. We need to work to fix this. Perhaps it's because of a lack of documentation and common knowledge. In that case, the accessibility/AT industry needs to work to rectify this. Maybe there just needs to be more advocacy about application accessibility. Are there other reasons? I'd appreciate your thoughts.
Whatever the reasons, I believe it's important that this changes. Proprietary solutions implemented for individual ATs are often suboptimal. Even if this wasn't the case, implementing such solutions in multiple ATs seems redundant and wasteful. Finally, the more applications that are accessible using standard mechanisms, the more users will benefit.
Tuesday, February 22, 2011
Early last year, my trusty 6 year old Nokia 6600 was finally starting to die and I decided it was past time to move on. (Amusingly, that phone even survived being accidentally dunked in a glass of wine.) My aim was to satisfy all of my portable technology needs with one device, including phone, email, web browser, audio player (standard 3.5 mm audio socket essential), synchronisable calendar, synchronisable contact manager, note taker, ebook reader and portable file storage. And so the quest began.
Making the (First) Choice
My ideal mobile platform was Android. Aside from satisfying all of my needs, it is an open, modern platform. Unfortunately, although I seriously entertained the idea, a great deal of research and playing with the Android emulator led me to realise that Android's accessibility was at an unacceptably poor state for me.
I considered the iPhone. I've written about the iPhone's out-of-the-box accessibility to blind people before and have played with an iPhone several times since. Although I was pretty impressed, especially by the fact that VoiceOver comes out-of-the-box, there were two major problems with the iPhone for me. First, I dislike the closed nature of the iPhone environment, commonly known as the "walled garden" or "do things Apple's way or not at all". Aside from the principle (you all know I'm a big advocate for openness), I would be unable to play ogg vorbis (my audio format of choice) in iPod, I would have to transfer music and files with iTunes (which I detest), I couldn't use it as a portable file storage device, and I would be limited to apps that Apple permitted (unless I wanted to jailbreak). Second, I wanted a device with a physical keyboard. In the end, I decided against the iPhone.
I briefly considered another Symbian Series 60 phone. However, based on past experience (both mine and others'), I didn't think I would be able to play audio and use the screen reader simultaneously, which immediately disqualified it for me, although I've since been informed that is no longer true on some newer phones. I also feel it is a dying platform. There are probably some other reasons i discounted it, but i can't remember them now. If nothing else, I wasn't entirely happy with it and wanted a change.
Finally, I settled on Windows Mobile, specifically the Sony Ericsson Xperia X1, with Mobile Speak. I guess Windows Mobile is a dying platform too, but at the time, I felt it was perhaps less so and provided more functionality for me. While the operating system itself isn't open, you can develop and install apps as you please without being restricted to a single app store. There are several ogg vorbis players for Windows Mobile. I also had the option of buying Mobile Geo for navigation if I wanted to later. I was warned by someone who played with an older phone that Mobile Speak on Windows Mobile was fairly unresponsive, but unable to test this myself, I hoped that it might be better with a less resource intensive voice such as Fonix and/or a newer phone or that I'd get used to it.
Frustration, Pain and Misery
A bit less than $800 later, I got my new phone and Mobile Speak in June. I expected and accepted that it would take me some time to get used to it. I loved finally being able to access the internet from my phone and play audio through proper stereo headphones. However, despite this, the next few months were just downright painful and frequently induced rage bordering on violence. I often had the urge to throw my new phone across the room several times a day.
Primarily, this was due to Mobile Speak. I found it to be hideously unresponsive, unstable, unreliable, inconsistent and otherwise buggy as all hell.
- The unresponsiveness proved to be unacceptable for me, often taking around half a second to respond to input and events, even using Fonix. Aside from the general inefficiency this caused, this made reading text incredibly tedious, and despite the physical keyboard, typing was painful due to the slow response to backspace and cursor keys.
- Mobile Speak crashed or froze far too often and there was no way to resurrect it without restarting the phone.
- In Internet Explorer, working with form controls was extremely inconsistent and unreliable, especially multi-line editable text fields. Quick navigation (moving by heading, etc.) was very slow and failed to work altogether in many cases. On my phone, Google services (including Google Search, even the mobile version, of all things!) refused to render at all.
- I encountered problems when reading email as well. Sometimes, Mobile Speak wouldn't render emails. Others, it wouldn't let me navigate to the headers of the email, which is essential if you want to download the rest of a message that hasn't been fully downloaded.
- Reading text in Word Mobile was even slower than everywhere else, which made reading ebooks infeasible.
- Braille display scrolling is either broken or unintuitive. On my 40 cell display, Mobile Speak only seemed to scroll half the display and I couldn't find a way to change this.
- Definitely quite a few other bugs I can't remember all of the details about...
I had two other major gripes with Mobile Speak.
- Despite years of experience with screen readers, I found the Mobile Speak commands, especially the touch interface, to be tedious and difficult to learn. The touch interface is inherently slow to use because you need to wait after certain taps to avoid them being construed as double or triple taps.
- Mobile Speak's phone number licensing model was a major annoyance for me when I went overseas for a few days. Mobile Speak allows you to use it with a SIM card with a different number for 12 hours, but you have to reinsert the original SIM card after 12 hours if you want Mobile Speak to continue functioning as a licensed copy. Also, I seem to recall that this also applied if the phone was in airplane mode.
There were other things that irritated me about my phone and its applications.
- I found Windows Mobile in general to be very sluggish. Even something as fundamental to a phone as dialling on the phone keypad or adjusting the volume was incredibly laggy, sometimes taking several seconds to respond to key presses.
- Far too many apps, including Google Maps and both of the free ogg vorbis players I tried, had significant accessibility problems.
- Windows Media doesn't have support for bookmarking, which made reading audio books infeasible. There was a paid app that provided this and other functionality i wanted, but i wasn't willing to pay for it in case I discovered it too had major accessibility problems.
- Windows Mobile doesn't have enough levels on its volume control.
- If the phone is switched to silent, all audio is silenced, including Mobile Speak.
- Internet Explorer doesn't support tabbed browsing!
- Windows Mobile only supports one Exchange Active Sync account, which meant I couldn't maintain separate personal and work calendars.
The Snapping Point
In the end, after less than 6 months, I just couldn't take it any more. I tried to learn to live with it for at least a couple of years, as I'd already spent so much money on it, but it was truly unbearable. It's worth noting that a close friend of mine had a very similar experience with Windows Mobile and also gave up in equivalent disgust around the same time. It particularly angers me that I paid $315 for a piece of software as buggy as Mobile Speak. I started playing with Jen's iPhone a bit more, and finally, I gave in and got my own.
The iPhone: Peace at Last
For reasons I mentioned above, I felt like I was going to the dark side when I made the decision to switch to the iPhone. Among other things, it's a bit hypocritical of me, given my belief in and advocacy for openness. Nevertheless, I have not looked back once since I got it. It has truly changed my life.
The in-built accessibility of the iPhone is amazing. I strongly believe that accessibility should not incur an extra cost for the user and Apple have done just that. VoiceOver is very responsive. Usage is fairly intuitive. All of the in-built apps and the majority of third party apps are accessible. Once you get used to it and start to remember where things are on the screen, navigating with the touch screen becomes incredibly efficient. The support for braille displays is excellent; I can see this being very useful next time I need to give a presentation. The triple-click home feature means that I can even toggle VoiceOver on Jen's phone when needed, which has been really useful for us when she is driving and needs me to read directions.
I still hate iTunes, but thankfully, I rarely have to use it. I manage music and other audio on my phone using the iPod manager component for my audio player, foobar2000, which is excellent and even transcodes files in unsupported formats on the fly. The iPod app is great, supporting gapless playback for music and automatic bookmarks for audio books and podcasts.
- Very nice email and web browsing experience.
- Push notifications for mail, Twitter, Facebook and instant messaging.
- Multiple calendars.
- Skype on my phone, which is far nicer than being tied to my computer when on a Skype call.
- Voice control, which works well most of the time.
- Smooth reading of ebooks using iBooks.
Resultant to all of this, I find I spend far less time in front of my computer outside of work hours. Also, when I'm away from home, even on holiday for a week, I often just take my phone. Previously, I had to take my notebook almost everywhere.
Like all things, the iPhone isn't perfect. I still dislike the walled garden, and I have to live with transcoded audio and can't use my iPhone as a USB storage device because of it. I am definitely slower at typing on the iPhone than I was on the numeric keypad on my old Nokia 6600, although perhaps surprisingly, I'm probably faster on the iPhone than I was on the Xperia X1. There are definitely bugs, some of which I encounter on a daily basis and are very annoying.
Even so, I love the iPhone. I'm willing to make some sacrifices, and I can live with bugs that are at least consistent and easy enough to work around. On the rare occasions that VoiceOver crashes, I can easily restart it with a triple click of the Home button. I wish I'd gone for the iPhone in the first place and not wasted so much money on the Windows Mobile solution, but ah well, live and learn.
Tuesday, February 15, 2011
From: Dave. I lost my cookie at the disco. <computerguy125@****>
Date: Sun, 13 Feb 2011 23:40:16 -0500
hEY MOTHER F****R YOU SCREWED UP MY LAPTOP. fIX YOUR SCREEN READER. bLIND ASS MOTHER F****R. f***ING BLINKY. cHANGE YOUR SHORTCUT KEY SO IT DOESN'T CONFLICT WITH SYSTEM ACCESS TOO. yOU DON'T KNOW THAT THEN LOOK IT UP. mOTEHR F****R.
Email services provided by the System Access Mobile Network. Visit www.serotek.com to learn more about accessibility anywhere.
Thursday, October 28, 2010
Note: I will primarily discuss access for blind users here, since that is what I am most familiar with. However, some of this applies to other disabilities as well.
In the Beginning
In the beginning, there was no accessibility whatsoever in Android. It would have made sense to design it from the start with accessibility in mind, which would have made it much easier, but as is sadly so often the case, this wasn't done. Nevertheless, many other platforms have managed to recover from this oversight, some with great success.
Then came the Eyes-Free Project, which created a suite of self-voicing applications to enable blind users to use many functions of the phone. Requiring blind users to use these special applications limits the functionality they can access and completely isolates them from the experience of other users. This is just a small step away from a device designed only for blind users. I guess this is better than nothing, but in the long-term, this is unacceptable.
Integrated Accessibility API and Services
With the release of Android 1.6 came an accessibility API integrated into the core of Android, as well as a screen reader (Talkback) and other accessibility services. A developer outside Google also began working on a screen reader called Spiel. This meant that blind users could now access standard Android applications just like everyone else.
Unfortunately, the Android accessibility API is severely limited. All it can do is send events when something notable happens in the user interface. An accessibility service such as a screen reader can query these events for specific information (such as the text of an object which has been activated), but no other interaction or queries are possible. This means it isn't possible to retrieve information about other objects on the screen unless they are activated, which makes screen review impossible among other things. Even the now very dated Microsoft Active Accessibility (the core accessibility API used in Windows), with its many limitations and flaws, allows you to explore, query and interact with objects.
Inability to Globally Intercept Input
In addition, it is not possible for an accessibility service to globally intercept presses on the keyboard or touch screen. Not only does this mean that an accessibility service cannot provide keyboard/touch screen commands for screen review, silencing speech, changing settings, etc., but it also makes touch screen accessibility for blind users impossible. A blind user needs to be able to explore the touch screen without unintentionally activating controls, which can't be done unless the screen reader can provide special handling of the touch screen.
Inaccessible Web Rendering Engine
The web rendering engine used in Android is inaccessible. In fact, it's probably impossible to make it accessible at present due to Android's severely limited accessibility framework, as a user needs to be able to explore all objects on a web page. This means that the in-built web browser, email client and most other applications that display web content are inaccessible. This is totally unacceptable for a modern smart phone.
IDEAL Apps4Android's Accessible Email Client and Web Browser
IDEAL Apps4Android released both an accessible email client and web browser. The accessibility enhancements to the K9 email client (on which their application is based) have since been incorporated into K9 itself, which is fantastic. However, access to the web still requires a separate "accessible" web browser. While other developers can also integrate this web accessibility support into their applications, it is essentially a set of self-voicing scripts which need to be embedded in the application. This is rather inelegant and is very much "bolt-on accessibility" instead of accessibility being integrated into the web rendering engine itself. This isn't to criticise IDEAL: they did the best they could given the limitations of the Android accessibility API and should be commended. Nevertheless, it is an unsatisfactory situation.
More "Accessible" Apps
There are quite a few other applications aside from those mentioned above that have been designed specifically as "accessible" applications, again isolating disabled users from the normal applications used by everyone else. Again, this isolating redundancy is largely due to Android's severely limited accessibility framework.
Unfortunately, even though Android is open source, solving this problem is rather difficult for people outside the core Android development team because it will require changes to the core of Android. The current accessibility framework needs to be significantly enhanced or perhaps even redesigned, and core applications need to take advantage of this improved framework.
While significant headway has been made concerning accessibility in Android 1.6 and beyond, the situation is far from satisfactory. Android is usable by blind users now, but it is certainly not optimal or straightforward. In addition, the implementation is poorly designed and inelegant. This situation is only going to get messier until this problem is solved.
I find it extremely frustrating that Android accessibility is in such a poor state. It seems that Google learnt nothing from the accessibility lessons of the past. This mess could have been avoided if the accessibility framework had been carefully designed, rather than the half-done job we have now. Good, thorough design is one of the reasons that iPhone accessibility is so brilliant and "just works".
Friday, September 3, 2010
A few years ago, Apple revolutionised the accessibility industry by building a fully fledged screen reader, VoiceOver, right into Mac OS X. Ever since, many have asked why Microsoft can't do the same for Windows. Many are angry with Microsoft for this continued lack of built-in accessibility, some using it as support for the "why Apple is better than Microsoft" argument.
Here's some food for thought. I'm not sure Microsoft could do this even if they wanted to; their hands are probably tied in a legal sense. If they did, they could very likely be sued by assistive technology vendors for anti-competitive conduct, just as they have been sued several times concerning their bundling of Internet Explorer with Windows. Once again, Apple don't have to be concerned with this because there wasn't an existing screen reader on Mac OS X and they don't have the dominant position in the market.
I have no evidence for this argument. Perhaps I'm wrong, but history suggests that it is highly likely that I'm not.
Even as one of the lead developers of NVDA, I'm first and foremost a blind user who wants the best possible access, both for myself and other blind users. As such, I would very much welcome a screen reader built into Windows. Competition is good. A built-in screen reader doesn't mean that other screen readers can't exist. If the built-in solution were good enough, then there would be no need for NVDA to exist. If it weren't, NVDA would drive accessibility to improve through innovation and competition.
Sunday, January 31, 2010
Monday, January 25, 2010
Throughout the wedding, I was quite proud and happy to be the centre of attention alongside Jen. :) I was truly humbled and awed by the love and respect for us that everyone - our family and friends - showed. And of course, the whole point of all of this was that Jen and I were publicly declaring our love for each other and intent to be together for the rest of our lives.
The wedding also helped me on a personal level in ways I had not expected. I am a self-critical perfectionist by nature, sometimes to an almost self-destructive extent. I waste so much time regretting, wishing I could do things better and worrying about both the past and future that I almost miss out on the present. Nothing I do is ever good enough for me. However, the wedding was a transcendental experience and helped me to see beyond this. I have made many mistakes, I've downright failed sometimes, but I realised that my path, with all of its ups and downs, had led me to this moment and I wouldn't change it for the world. If I'd found such happiness and love and earnt the respect of so many, especially Jen :), I must have done something right overall. It has left me with a lasting, wonderous sense of clarity, relief, peace, contentment and confidence. I have a great deal to live and learn, but I am who and where I want to be. Now I just have to try to take this state of mind into the new year and beyond. :)
Thursday, January 14, 2010
Jamie: The last destination of our honeymoon was Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Aside from breaking up our long flight back to Australia, we wanted to catch up with some of my relatives: my Uncle Jerry, Auntie Janet and Dad's cousin S.Y. Upon arriving in KL, we were picked up by my uncle and aunt, who (very generously) drove us to our hotel, also giving us a brief tour of KL on the way. KL is a city that never seems to sleep. It is incredibly well lit at night. Most shops don't close until 10pm, some even later. The city is busy with people on the streets and in shops even late on a weekday evening.
The 5 star Traders Hotel where we stayed was absolutely fantastic and incredibly well priced. Located in the heart of the new city centre, it was walking distance from everything we wanted to visit.
The first thing we did after emerging from our room on Tuesday morning was to find some brunch. Both Dad and Uncle Jerry recommended that we visit the food court in the Pavilion, which is a huge shopping centre. And wow, what a food court it was, sprawling across most of one level of the complex. Food in Malaysia is so damned cheap and so delicious. Among other things, we had Malaysian satay, which is just incredible and miles above the satay one gets in Australia.
Later in the day, we visited KL's acquarium, located in the KL Convention Centre. Although much of the display was obviously visual and informational, but there were also three touch pools. I was able to touch a little shark, a stingray, a horse-shoe crab and a sea cucumber, all of which were fascinating. The most bizarre was definitely the last, which was just... squishy. You can literally squish it in your hand; it's a little creepy.
On Wednesday, we met my aunt and uncle again, along with S.Y. I've never met S.Y. before, despite having heard a lot about her over the years, so it was nice to finally meet her. After spending a very nice hour or so chatting at the hotel, during which we had to call hotel staff to rescue Auntie Janet from the bathroom due to a broken lock :), we went to lunch at a restaurant specialising in Penang food and ate a hell of a lot of it. We were introduced to two delicious side dishes and desserts which I've never had or seen before in Australia, all of which I will miss.
On a random impulse, Uncle Jerry, Jen and I decided to visit the music science section of KL's science centre. ...
As I write this, I'm on the plane back to Australia. The honeymoon is over. I'm a little sad, but also glad to be coming home and looking forward to seeing everyone again. It has been a fantastic and memorable trip. We really have had the time of our lives.
Jamie: Our journey from Florence to Cork in Ireland was extremely long, boring and tedious. We left our hotel in Florence at around 6am and didn't arrive at our hotel in Cork until nearly 10pm. Our train from Florence to Rome was running late, so we were worried we'd miss our plane to Dublin, but thankfully, we made it in time. Due to icy roads, we were told it was going to be extremely difficult to get a cab to the hotel, but thankfully, we were okay there, too. These are yet another couple of proverbial travel related bullets we've dodged this trip. We also found out that the weather in Cork was uncharacteristically cold. Soon after, we started hearing endless talk about the "big freeze" on the news. :)
Our hotel in Cork, The Ambassador, was a very nice hotel indeed, probably the best of the trip so far. This was quite fortuitous, as we spent a considerable amount of time there, partly because we wanted to lie around and relax a bit and also because of the icy roads and extreme cold at night. It resides on a hill, which afforded Jen a spectacular view of the city from our room.
We both very much enjoyed the atmosphere of Cork. Everyone we met was extremely warm, friendly and helpful. Of course, there was an abundance of Irish pubs. On our first day, we stopped at a pub for a cup of hot port and one of hot whisky. Yum! (I love warm alcoholic beverages.)
On our last day there, we took a bus to Blarney, a very small town about 15 minutes drive from Cork. Its prominent feature is Blarney Castle. ...
Wednesday, January 13, 2010
Jamie: We had a pretty quiet new year's day, having slept rather badly due to the insane, spectacular, long-lasting fireworks and other celebration the previous night.
Before leaving Rome, we visited the Spanish Steps and the Trevi Fountain. We didn't walk all the way up the Spanish Steps due to major crowding, but we did walk about half way up. I was fascinated to see such a long, wide set of steps. There are no turns; it just goes straight up with landings in between. It was difficult for me to get a true sense of the Trevi Fountain, as much of it was out of my reach, but its width, its length and the volume of water cascading therein was pretty spectacular.
We arrived in Florence on Saturday afternoon. Over a half bottle of wine in the hotel bar, we saw a brochure for a tour company called FunInTuscany which does wine tours and Tuscan cooking classes, among other things. We'd wanted to do something like this while in Europe, but hadn't had any luck booking such before we left. Tours were either hideously over-priced or unavailable at this time of year, so we'd pretty much given up on being able to do it. We called FunInTuscany and were delighted when we discovered that we were able to book a combined wine tour and cooking class for the next day.
It turned out to be probably the best day of our honeymoon. After a rocky start (we couldn't find the meeting point and were worried we'd miss the tour), we found the tour van, were introduced to our guide and began our journey. Aside from us, there were only two others on the tour.
The first leg of the journey was about a 40 minute drive. Our first stop was San Gimignano, a small, walled medieval town.
Its 13th century medieval architecture is incredibly well preserved. I was able to get a good sense of this; it just "feels" very old, with its worn, solid stone walls, cobbled streets and frequent narrow alleyways. We spent about 45 minutes there, during which we became more familiar with our guide, who was extremely warm and friendly.
After leaving the town, we drove to the country villa where we were to have our cooking class. This is where the real fun began. We were introduced to our very friendly chef/instructor (and his mother, who also helped out) and a few minutes later, our lesson began.
First, we were taught how to make pici pasta from scratch. This was interesting, very much hands-on and much simpler than I had expected once you have the basic idea. I knew that fresh pasta was basically dough, but somehow, i hadn't imagined that making and manipulating it would be just like any other dough. Also, I've never had or heard of pici pasta before.
After this, we made two pasta sauces, one tomato-based and one cheese-based.
Making the sauces.
Our master-chef teacher, Fuglio.
We learnt that Tuscans use a hell of a lot of extra virgin olive oil in their cooking. :) We used cayenne pepper in both of the sauces, which is something we've never used ourselves before and discovered that we quite like. Subsequently, we made a salad which, among other things, includes crumbled three day old bread soaked in water!
We then made two kinds of bruschetta, as well as preparing three kinds of cheese with various accompaniments. One of the cheeses was covered in honey, sultanas, pine nuts and freshly ground nutmeg. Yum! Finally, we observed the preparation of chicken which would later be cooked in a sauce primarily consisting of orange juice.
Garlic and oil bruschetta. Mmm, garlic and oil...
Tomato bruschetta and three kinds of cheese.
Our wet bread salad.
Jen: So that we didn't have to remember all the recipes, our lovely chef made us a cookbook to take home.
Following lunch, our guide spontaneously took us up onto a big hill on the property to have a glass of wine. The view was spectacular, and it was such a perfect, clear day. (Jamie: There's nothing quite like fresh, crisp air in the middle of the peaceful, quiet countryside.)
We then went to a local winery for a little tour and some tasting. The white wine there was spectacular, so we bought a bottle to drink the next day - pretty much the only white we've had over here. (Jamie: It, along with most of the other wines, only cost 5 Euro. 5 Euro! So cheap! I wish we could have brought some home with us.) We returned back to our hotel in high spirits, and received some exciting news the next day - Jamie's sister Ro was in labour! The beautiful Siena Rose Scott was born on 5th January at about 2.15am AEST, weighing in at 7 lbs 7 oz.
Tuesday, January 12, 2010
I had always imagined that communicating in a country where you have little to no grasp of the native language would be somewhat visual in nature, but I don't think the full extent of that reality hit me until I actually lived it. Jen did quite a lot of pointing, other body language, reading signs and menus, etc. in order to communicate. I'm curious to know how other totally blind folks have coped without knowing the language of their destinations while traveling. Of course, one solution is to try to learn the language to at least a basic level prior to traveling; i.e. a little more than hello, goodbye, thanks, do you speak English, basic counting and a few other words. This is something I hope to have time to do before I next venture overseas.
Smoking seems to be a hell of a lot more prevalent in Europe than it is in Australia. There's still quite a bit of smoking in Australia, but there just seemed to be so much more smoking in Europe, particularly in France and Italy.
We encountered an ATM with a qwerty keyboard in Italy! The only use for this that I can come up with is passwords with alphanumeric characters instead of just a numeric PIN, but I suspect it isn't used this way. I can't fathom any other use for this. I'm very curious to know whether it is ever used and, if so, how.
Venice's lack of land traffic really was very different and fascinating. It felt very strange (and quite pleasant) not to have to listen to busy traffic, wait for cars, cross roads, etc. The "streets" in Venice were mostly just alleyways, some of them very narrow at that.
It seems that many street sidewalks in Italy are extremely narrow, in some cases virtually non-existent! This is rather frustrating for those of us who require sighted guide, which can be quite challenging on a narrow sidewalk, especially when others are trying to pass at the same time.
Wine is so cheap in France and Italy! (I assume this is also the case in many other European countries.) Generally, even at a relatively good restaurant, a glass of house wine costs around €2 to €4. Furthermore, rather than being average as is often the case in Australia, the house wine was almost always good (and sometimes excellent), at least according to our palates. It was also great to see Australian wine on several wine lists during our travels.
Dogs seem to be allowed and taken everywhere in Europe, even in some hotels and restaurants! We frequently saw dogs being walked in the streets throughout our travels, which is pretty cool. I wondered about issues caused by bad dog behaviour, but we never saw any problems, apart from the occasional short barking match.
The pedestrian traffic in Rome was absolutely insane. On some roads, people just amble along, often standing in the middle of the road calmly having a conversation, barely moving at all when a car needs to get through. Moving through the massive crowds was slow and tedious enough on foot, let alone in a cab!
The cobbled streets in Rome were certainly a different experience. We encountered cobbled streets in other parts of Europe as well, but nowhere near as many as in Rome. Some of the sidewalks in Rome were also cobbled. They just feel so different under foot and vehicles even sound different as they pass over them.
Friday, January 1, 2010
We're just spending some time in our hotel room before we go out and celebrate Roman New Year (as I like to call it). The cool part of this is that we got to call our families at Australian New Year time. It's like two New Years in one! In a display of solidarity with the Australian revellers (or gluttony, maybe?) we have cracked open a bottle of wine and bought a bunch of chips, nuts and lollies which we've been grazing on for the last few hours. I'm going to have to summon every Chinese bone in my body (I like to think that now that I'm a Teh I have Asian heritage) to assist me in soldiering on through the thousand-course dinner we have booked for a few hours time.
So yes, we're in Rome, and have been for a few days now. We're staying at the Hotel del Corso, which is right on Via del Corso, one of the main streets in the heart of Rome. The great thing about this is that we walk out the front door and straight into the city. The bad thing (especially for Jamie) is the crowds. Here is a picture of the current view from our window (about 6pm on New Year's Eve) - it's very mild right now. Usually we have to squeeze our way through massive crowds outside.
So apart from the usual eating and drinking..
This was a couple of days ago. It was very rainy and we were cold and wet, and our tour guide was a sexist moron. If I was in the picture I would be frowning.
and the Monument to Vittorio Emanuele.
We also discovered that there are a number of Braille maps here in Rome - very cool! (Jamie: Unfortunately, I'm still struggling to read them but hey - they're cool anyway.)
We haven't bought much for ourselves over here (apart from the tonnes of food and alcohol we've consumed) but we did decide to treat ourselves to some leather jackets.
We're here for the next 2 nights, then we go to Florence for 2 days then onto Cork, Ireland. Apparently we both have ancestors from there - hopefully not the same ones...
That's about all I have to say, but here are a few more pictures that we (ok, I) have taken over the last few days:
Saturday, December 26, 2009
We didn't just eat and drink today, though - we started out (after breakfast) by going to Piazza San Marco. Many of the shops were closed due to it being Christmas day but we still managed a look at the Basilica and the bell tower. I'm loving the calm of Venice - the total lack of cars etc is absolutely lovely, and the gentle (if a little bit smelly) lap of the canal is very peaceful.
Here is a little video of our gondola ride. We have seen a lot of tourists spending their whole time in gondolas with video cameras poised - what is the point??! We only have a few seconds of footage here for you - we spent the rest of the time being a starry-eyed newlywed couple. Enjoy!
Jamie: P.S. We just heard and saw a guy riding past our hotel loudly singing jingle bells in Italian while ringing his bicycle bell. Hilarious!
The remainder of our stay in Bordeaux was very enjoyable, although the weather was pretty dreary, drizzling almost constantly, the kind of annoying rain which doesn't really stop you from going outside but which leaves everything slightly soggy and cold.
On the food front, although we very much enjoyed the rich French meals, by dinner time on Wednesday, neither Jen or I could stomach any more of it, so we randomly decided to eat at a Brazilian restaurant we encountered. This turned out to be fantastic, especially the desserts! We'll be looking out for a Brazilian restaurant when we return home.
On Thursday morning, we visited Bordeaux's cathedral, which is huge! We happened to visit as the organist was practising on the pipe organ, which was a real treat. I love the sound of a true pipe organ, but rarely get to hear one live. I also got to touch some of the big angel statues, which was rather interesting.
The overnight train ride to Venice was certainly a mixed experience. First of all, the train was running late due to bad weather conditions; we ended up arriving in Venice about two hours later than intended. We had a private sleeper cabin. The worst part was the food. The only food available (or at least as far as we were led to believe) was in the restaurant carriage. Dinner cost Eur28 per Person. Major rip off! First of all, we were both tired and the train was already running late, which meant that dinner didn't start until 9:30pm. There was only one (very curt) person serving the entire (rather full) carriage. We were given some very stale bread, which no one ate; Jen saw lots of pieces of bread with tiny nibbles taken out of them, similar to our own. The food was very average (and that's probably being kind) and service was hideously slow; we didn't get out of there until after 11, and even then, we left before dessert (pre-packaged chocolate cake) was served. Breakfast was Eur9.50 per person and was similarly crap. Airline food service receives its fair share of complaints, but this was far worse.
We returned to our cabin after dinner to discover that it had been locked while we were away, so we had to find someone to unlock it. The beds were comfortable enough and both of us did manage to get a few hours of disjointed sleep, although the ride was pretty jerky. Just being able to lie down and rest made it far better than a plane trip for me and it was fantastic to have privacy.
Upon arriving in Venice, we took a water taxi to our hotel.
I knew Venice would be fascinating for me and I wasn't disappointed. The whole concept of a city (or at least a large section of it) where non-pedestrian travel occurs in the water instead of on land is just so different to anything I've experienced. Also, the constant, gentle lapping of the water is quite relaxing. Our hotel is in a terrific location, just metres away from the water and the Rialto Bridge and walking distance from everything we want.
The room is quite old-looking, quaint and (according to Jen) "girly", with patterned fabric on the walls, an old-style key and other similar cuteness.
One more thing: just after we arrived in Venice, the following (slightly paraphrased) conversation occurred:
Jen: (excitedly) "Oo! China Town!"
Jamie: "Err... we've just arrived in Italy and you're excited about Chinese food?"
Jen: "Yeah, it's because I'm a Teh now..."