Audio Players, Music, Thoughts on Standards

Like many other blinks, I enjoy listening to a lot of different audio content.  I haven’t learned to use more advanced audio editing tools but will soon need to so I can expand my capabilities for creating different audio scenarios for experimental purposes.  Thus, I use the more pedestrian audio and media players like Real, Windows Media and WinAmp but have never done more than play around with Sonar, Gigastudio, SoundForge and other such tools.

I use a Linksys Wireless G Music Bridge to play audio content from my PC through my Bose stereo.  The Linksys hardware works pretty nicely for a blink in that it has no user interface, aside from three LEDs that tell one if the device has power and if it can find a signal through either Ethernet or WiFi.  All of the rest happens on the PC through miserably inaccessible software.  One definitely needs sighted assistance to run the installation program as both JAWS, using the JAWS Cursor, and Window-Eyes, using its mouse cursor, cannot “see” some of the information presented to you.  Then, the little application one needs to turn the thing on and off, to revert to the PC speaker for sounds and to adjust settings and such has similar accessibility problems.  With the help of my sighted wife, I wrote some very primitive scripts for the application that work pretty well but would cause problems for people who use a magnifier as I move the JAWS cursor around (which might look like an earthquake has started if viewed with MAGic or ZoomText) and the points to which I move do not seem to work on different computers.  So, if you write to me, I’ll send you my scripts but you must keep in mind that you may have to ask a sightie to place the cursor on the different spots that need to be clicked, ask JAWS to tell you the x,y coordinates, open the script manager, replace those that work on my computer with the values that work on yours, recompile the scripts and you’ll be just fine.  As this task is about one of the easiest scripting that one may endeavor to do, do not think you need to have any real programming skills to get it done.

I’d like to toss in a plug for the DancingDots guys as, although I can’t claim to know how to use Sonar, their scripts and other add-in software makes a very difficult program work very well with JAWS.  So, hats off to Bill McCann, David Pinto and Gordon Kent (and anyone else involved) for an outstanding product.  On the closing night of a CSUN conference a few years back, we got to see the great Ray Charles take the stage at a DancingDots party and demonstrate, along with David Pinto, the real power of their product.  Ray entertained, teased Pinto and showed us just why he chose JAWS as his screen reader.

I have a question about the different audio players: why does every bit of audio software on my computer have its own volume setting?  Real, WindowsMedia, WinAmp, Linksys and, of course, Windows itself all let me set the volume separately.  Thus, if I can’t figure out why something sounds too loud or too soft, I need to look in at least four places: the Linksys Bridge software, the media player, the Windows volume setting and my stereo.  I understand why my stereo and computer would have different volume settings but why does every application need its own way to set volume?

Does anyone know what the “SW Synthesizer” entry in the Windows volume dialogue does?  Using JAWS, with Eloquence, Window-Eyes, with its default synthesizer and every other program I own that uses software speech, I can’t seem to get this control to change anything.  I think it might have something to do with SAPI speech but still haven’t found a way to make it do anything.  

Does anyone other than me find it incredibly annoying that every time one installs a different media player (I only know about Windows Media, Real, WinAmp, QuickTime) that it seems to hose their other media players?  I can install both Eudora and Outlook, Excel and Quatro, IE and Firefox, Word and WordPerfect and seemingly any two programs from any other class of application and they peacefully coexist.  The media players all assume that they should take the lead role in delivering my content to me and, therefore, screw the others up.  WinAmp and WindowsMedia seem to offend the worst but Real and QT don’t fall too far behind.  At least WM 11 Beta tells you that it has seized control of your computer and reminds you to check your other media players for problems it may have caused.  Installing WinAmp seems to have changed so much stuff (using the default installation settings) that it took me a few days to get Real and WM working again.  I have not and will not install iTunes, even if Brian’s scripts make Apple’s superfluously inaccessible but “very cool” interface sing and dance with JAWS – I’m boycotting Apple these days.

If you collect MP3 files and enjoy music, I recommend you go to, they have an offer running that gives anyone who signs up for an account fifty free MP3 files.  If you kill your account within 14 days, you don’t get charged anything so you might as well go there, get your fifty free songs and pay nothing.  If you do choose to subscribe, I think their rates look fair ($10 per month for 40 songs) and the site works pretty well with screen readers as long as you’ve can use the Quick Keys in JAWS or whatever Window-Eyes calls their version of the feature.  Unfortunately, the link that brings you to the place where you can sign up for your fifty free downloads doesn’t have a proper label so, as you tab through some nasty sounding links, listen for the gibberish that contains the words “fifty free.”  I suppose I could make a .jgf file for this page if people would want me too.  

I have found to have one of the most extensive libraries of MP3 songs out on the web.  I could find really obscure Brooklyn based rappers on very obscure independent labels very easily as well as what seemed to me like the entire Glenn Gould (my favorite classical pianist) collection, something URGE (the MTV owned music download store) had about a third of.  I wish they had full length samples rather than clips as, on many occasions, the intro portion of a song lasts longer than the sample (especially on live albums) so it makes figuring out if you like a song or not kind of difficult.

As I allude to above, I recently installed the Windows Media Player version 11 beta.  Compared to most other media players, it works pretty well out-of-box with JAWS 7.0, I haven’t tried it with the JAWS 7.1 beta or any other screen reader yet.  If you can use the JAWS cursor and tab keys pretty well, you should find it pretty nice to use.  Before I explored the program a bit, I made the assumption that I would be better off with the classic menus, this does make using the player a bit easier but one can use all of its features using the stock UI with JAWS.  As media players go, WMP11 seems to integrate nicely with a number of sites where you can purchase digital content.  MS offers URGE as the default but the beta works with a laundry list of other stores and promises to work with even more in the future.  Unlike the iTunes service which sells music in the iTunes format which only works with Apple software and only lets you purchase music from Apple, MS, once again, takes the populist approach and provides a wide array of choices for its users.  Go ahead, start throwing your rotten Apples at me, I can take it.

As for blinks who create audio content, if you haven’t heard the MP3 getting passed around of JAWS doing some serious gangstah rap you really should find a copy.  I heard that a high school kid somewhere in Arkansas made it.  Me thinks the legendary Patrick Purdue might have some competition from the deeper south.  One BC reader suggested we do a parody song contest.  I think this sounds like a good idea but are there enough people out there with this hobby or the associated skills to have enough entries to really make it a contest?  The last competition we announced here, the BC programming and software design championship, has, thus far, received zero entries which makes me glad I didn’t try to hustle up any prizes as I would have no one to give them to.

Other than the awesome JAWS Jam, I’ve found a lot of new music that I like a lot lately.  First comes Willy Nelson’s latest album,
“You Don’t Know Me: The Songs of Cindy Walker,” which may just come as close to a perfect album recorded by a country music performer.  Even if you don’t typically like country or Willy, you should give this record a listen.

Next comes the latest by Bruce Springsteen, on which he assembles a folk act (none of the E Street band on this album) and does songs previously recorded by the great Pete Seeger.  Especially in these times of war and American crisis, these songs stand out in an anthemic manner.  Bruce’s voice lends itself very well to these songs and the folk act smokes.

Otherwise, I’ve found a lot of the politically and poetry charged Brooklyn rap scene to have delivered some truly kicking and thought provoking stuff lately.  If you like creative language and serious ghetto politics, check out guys like Wordsworth, Pumpkinhead and others from that scene.  If you want to hear about blunts, guns and forties, stick to the LA scene and you won’t be disappointed.


Maybe I need a music critic alter-ego to go with the gonzo writer, the evil capitalist, the former punk rock singer, the English professor and the rest.

Finally, a recent article that I read on Blind News about the WAI standards not going far enough to bring real accessibility to we blinks made me feel a bit uncomfortable.  I agree that one can follow the WAI standards to the letter and still create a hopelessly inaccessible or, more likely, extremely inconvenient web site for screen reader users but I also feel that any web developer worth the title, if they follow the standards and do not have a severe mental deficiency, can do a decent job without a whole lot of extra effort.

I found the blink who demonstrated how a site could follow the guidelines but produce a page that wastes a lot of the user’s time very annoying.  In the first example he showed his audience, he had to hit the TAB key something like 90 times before he found the link he likes to use most often.  

Is this 1996 or 2006?  What screen reader or web access utility is this nimrod using?  If it’s JAWS, Window-Eyes, HPR, HAL or any other that I’ve looked at the web with in the past few years, this guy needs to learn to use his screen reader.  Every one of these has a way to pop up a list of links and, very conveniently, find the link they want and go to it.  If anyone still thinks they need to hit TAB 99 times, they should find some simpler way to spend their day.  If this guy uses a screen reader or access utility that does not provide this functionality, he should call his vendor and complain about being ripped off.  Finally, if this example comes from some ancient GNU/Linux based, text-only Internet access utility that does not provide a lot of the navigation conveniences available in the proprietary, Windows based, screen readers, then he has the source code, he can add them.  If he can’t program, he can ask a friend to add them.

Standards should not focus on the lowest common denominator but, rather, should address the state of the art as that provides the only motivation for people who develop access software, free, open source or proprietary to take real steps forward.  GW Micro didn’t make a version of Window-Eyes for the NT platforms until Microsoft announced it would no longer ship the Windows 95/98/ME series any longer.  I think this was true for AI^2 and ZoomText as well.  If standards bodies working on disability issues aim to include decade old technologies, we, as consumers, will have to live with decade old support.

The AT industry has enough money and the open source/free software side of things have enough volunteers to take on the challenge of keeping the software we depend upon up to date.

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Is Anything True Anymore?

Recently, I fell into and continue to struggle with something of an existential crisis.  The source of my angst has two roots, the personal and what I will call the philosophical.  The two sources weave into a fabric of questions for which I have no answers.  Hence, I have written little for Blind Confidential since the “Letter to our Investors” article by Sy T. Greenbacks.  I don’t feel motivated to write news articles and my creative muse seems to have left town to celebrate Memorial Day without me.

I’ll start with the personal.  I worked for Freedom Scientific for six years and left for personal reasons about 18 months ago.  I think we did some pretty innovative shit in JAWS, PAC Mate, OpenBook and the other projects I managed.  I honestly still believe that JAWS remains the king of screen access utilities because of my commitment to inventing, Eric Damery’s commitment to selling and Joe Stephen’s commitment to coding features to deliver far more contextual information to users than any other screen reader at that time.  Thus, my career in AT started when Ted Henter and Jerry Bowman hired me and will continue into the future.

Now, I work for and study at U. Florida.  My personal research into methods to convey multidimensional semantic information through non-visual stimuli keeps my desire to discover happy.  My work at the Rehabilitation Engineering Resource Center keeps my more practical, engineering side happy.  The experimental programs I write for the smart house and to demonstrate the issues regarding semantic information makes my hacker self happy.  I feel that I live a fairly enviable life these days as I get to work on topics ranging from linguistics to psychology to neuroscience to computer science to software engineering and, I can honestly say that, unless I choose to do so, I never get bored.

So what is old BlindChristian crying about now?

I have a deep fear that no one, outside of a few accessibility advocates and other researchers, gives a shit about my work or that of others (my friend Will Pearson for instance) and, even if we make some profound breakthroughs in the area of increasing the efficiency with which a blink can access a computer, no one will see it implemented in a real access technology product, commercial or open source.

When I talk to people who hack on open source screen reading problems, they tend to feel that a good API and solid speech technology stands as the key to the third generation of screen access programs.  In my mind, UIA and the gnome accessibility API layers definitely demonstrate a step forward but they still base their delivery systems in a serial manner, hence, the information presentation remains linear and inefficient.

The paper I published at CHI 2006 and the article in the March AccessWorld both describe the fundamental problem I try to address in my research.  In short, almost all speech and Braille programs used by blind people to access computers and other information comes in a stream of semantic bits, typically either a syllable or pause.  A user can increase the efficiency by increasing their speech rate but, ultimately, the limit on the amount of information they can receive in the time allotted for a task is bound by the number of these semantic bits they can hear in that amount of time.

The guys who make the really cool, Direct X based audio games, David Greenwood for instance, without studying the science behind their interfaces, deliver very complex scenarios using up to 32 simultaneous audio streams; screen readers deliver one.  Thus, the game players can do far more in the same amount of time than they can using a screen reader at work.  Their game play demonstrates credible, albeit anecdotal, proof that the mind can handle a lot of simultaneous information.

My research studies the “why” and “how” these game interfaces can do some much more than standard AT.  This brings me into the different sciences I mention above and, as a result, the philosophic side of my existential crisis.

What ever happened to concepts like truth and appreciation of expertise in the United States?

Back in the sixties and seventies, When I grew up in Westfield, New Jersey, virtually every kid in the neighborhood could recite the names of astronauts, high profile scientists and, of course, the batting averages and ERA of our favorite baseball players.  Today, I will venture a bet that if we sampled a randomly selected group of 1000 ten year old kids around the US, fewer than 100 could name an astronaut (current or retired) and fewer than 50 could name a scientist who is not a member of their family.  Meanwhile, more scientists work in laboratories around the world today than throughout all of history since the first researcher figured out how to make a wheel or strike stones together to create a spark.  

Many adults if asked to identify a single living scientist could probably think of Stephen Hawking as he has transcended the laboratory to become a media figure.  If he hadn’t appeared on Star Trek, the Simpson’s and other icons of pop culture, people wouldn’t remember him either.  If asked to name two, I think only a small minority of the sample could do so and three or more would stymie all but the statistical noise in our survey.

A hundred years (or so) ago, Harry Houdini, the legendary illusionist and escape artist, turned his attention to debunking claims of the paranormal.  Scientific American magazine offered a substantial prize to anyone who could prove that the seemingly paranormal events that occurred during Spiritualist ceremonies were not simply tricks of an illusionist.  Houdini joined the jury and zealously debunked every claim of the paranormal to which he received permission to test.  The remarkable fact of this bit of history does not fall into the genius of Houdini as he, one of the greatest performers of such tricks in his day, could far more easily see through the techniques the Spiritualists used to con people into believing that they could communicate with the dead and other paranormal activities.  The truly incredible facts that have survived the famous Scientific American challenge sit in libraries all over the nation in the collection of newspapers from that time.  Houdini’s debunking of the trickery consistently made the front page of newspapers ranging from the New York Times to the San Francisco Chronicle.

At that time, Houdini’s discrediting of claims of the paranormal interested people in all walks of life.  His efforts made mainstream news and the Spiritualist movement, although it still has some followers, fell from the role of fad religion of the day to a handful of screwballs in upstate New York.

Today, though, James Randi and his educational foundation (JREF) offer a prize of more than a million dollars to anyone who can convince a jury of magicians and scientists of any claim of the paranormal.  Once a year or so, some charlatan shows up in Fort Lauderdale (Randi’s home town) and tries to claim the prize.  JREF sets up an experimental framework and, more often than not, the candidate withdraws the entry.  The few who let the experiments continue all failed the test.

Why, then, doesn’t James Randi and other skeptics organizations including the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP) which was formed by Carl Sagan, get any coverage in the mainstream media?

Because Americans no longer trust scientists.  As my research definitely falls into this realm, I feel a bit like a man screaming loudly while alone in a desert.  I can express my ideas but the cactus and lizards don’t care.

My friends on the religious right probably think this attack on distrust of science tries to single them out.  Quite the contrary.  I’ll leave the nonsense about intelligent design, the denial of much astronomical theory, even the denial of plate tectonics to others to dispute.  The people who subscribe to these belief systems get enough crap from we intellectual types so I’ll leave them alone.

When, however, I hear absolute bullshit from more “enlightened” individuals, I cringe. I hear people who tend toward leftie politics make completely uninformed and absolutely incorrect assertions about everything from nuclear power to the power of crystals, I want to scream.  Quantum teleportation, popular among the new age nuts, has no basis in fact and, when studied for an article in Lancet, was demonstrated to have no basis in reality.  Its advocates, though, claim that there are so many things we don’t know that the instruments used by scientists haven’t yet been invented that can measure anything from their aura to their chi.

The alternative medicine freaks have been bamboozled by an industry with revenues in excess of $50 billion annually.  The purveyors of all sorts of herbs, crystals and God knows what goes into some dietary “supplements” claim they have no money to fund research into their efficacy and, since the Clinton administration, can sell their products with virtually no regulation.  Legislation gets introduced into Congress when some kid dies from a heart attack brought on by “Herbal XTC,” a product that could be sold legally until fairly recently.  As there were no trials, potential side effects could not be discovered until teenagers started dying on baseball fields.

I leave the century long fraud of homeopathy apart from the rest of unproven alternative remedies as it may just be the longest running con job in the history of mankind.  They claim that their remedies, sold as alcohol or water based tinctures, contain a “shadow” molecule of the thing that made you sick and, according to their “law of similars,” will cure you of your ailment.  A “shadow” molecule is, according to these nuts, created when one dilutes a substance to a point of 1 unit in more than Avogadro’s number of molecules of the alcohol or water used as a solvent.  Even people with the tiniest bit of knowledge about chemistry can see through this nonsense.  Plain and simply, the homeopaths sell little jars filled with alcohol or plain old H2O for a very significant price.  

One part of me wants to know why I didn’t choose confidence man as a career path as I’m a damn good liar and preying on the sick and desperate is the American way after all.  My resentment toward this particular branch of pseudo-science stems from the tens of thousands of dollars I personally spent chasing alternative “cures” for RP.  I tried everything from acupuncture to enemas to macrobiotics to all sorts of herbs.  I traveled hither and yon to chase someone who published an article in Yoga Journal or Vegetarian times about their amazing cures for RP.  As this blog is called “Blind Confidential” one can assume that none of these methods worked.

Most recently, a friend of mine who believes strongly in the powers of “healing touch” and some ancient Japanese art of putting one’s hands near the effected part of a person and channeling the energies of all of the other practitioners of this ancient art, will cure anything from constipation to cancer and, therefore, a little case of RP shouldn’t be too hard.  To amuse my friend, I let her practice away and, as I expected, nothing happened.  I then gave her an article that ran in Nature (one of the world’s top three or four science journals) that, with a very strict experimental framework, completely debunked the idea of “healing touch.”  The most remarkable thing about the article in Nature is that it was written as the report a 12 year old girl submitted to her local science fair.  If a 12 year old junior high student, even an especially bright one, can set up a framework that can debunk a whole movement, it must be extremely bunk.

So, why do the masses hate us scientists and intellectuals?

As everyone has demonstrated, the level of understanding of science and mathematics started to decline around 1981 and nothing has stopped its down hill plunge.  We have a president who denies the science reported by the people he appointed at NAS, NSF, EPA and elsewhere.  We have talk radio that repeatedly makes jokes about the Ivory tower.  We have the Internet where any idiots with a conspiracy theory ranging from a denial that man has ever landed on the moon to an ability to tie the Knights Templar to the Kennedy Assassination can find an audience.  We have the religious right, the new age center and the atheist left all claiming that even the most well founded theory remains theory and not fact, obviously misunderstanding the use of the word theory but willing to accept a hypothesis that conforms to their spiritual or political beliefs better than the body of published science that has been subjected to the scientific method, the scrutiny of the author’s peers and the test of time.

Too often, I her people, from all backgrounds, say that because some other scientific principle that had been generally accepted was disproven then absolutely everything is temporary and nothing can be described as true.  Fine, I can actually accept this argument if it is accompanied by an experimental framework with which they can test their hypothesis and that can be independently reproduced.  Until then, I tell them to defer to the experts and then get told that MIT, Stanford, Harvard, Yale, Oxford, Cambridge and the other great institutions of research around the world have formed a secular religion of their own and won’t even test an alternative hypothesis.  When I explain how science in the academy works by confirming or denying other scientists work and that anyone who can disprove a major theory will make so much money that she’ll never need to work again, they return to their completely unfounded belief that the academy conspires against the regular people.  When I illustrate my argument with examples like Pons and Fleishman and the Korean geneticist in the news recently, they further their point by claiming that the world of scholars tosses some things out from time to time to maintain credibility.

It’s 2006 and I find myself arguing with reasonably intelligent adults about concepts I learned in junior high school.  I find these anti-science people to accept items that conform to their world view and reject anything else.  From all perspectives, Americans claim that everyone, from the media to the president to scientists to preachers to philosophers to engineers to medical doctors do nothing but tell lies.  Truth is dying a slow death in this nation as the populace increasingly refuses to believe in anything concrete.  Imagine, if our founding fathers, all bright stars of the enlightenment could hear truck drivers deny the work of the world’s leading scientists if their personal opinion differs at all.

If something doesn’t change, we will enter another era like the “dark ages” in which a select few maintain the knowledge inside places like Cambridge, Berkeley, Oxford and Cambridge, UK.  Who will be the El Cid who comes along and discovers the modern equivalent of the library in Toledo that kicks off the next renaissance?

Finally, returning to my personal angst, I feel that my pursuit of universal accessibility, shit, even marginal accessibility to many more things than we have today, is the most quixotic idea I’ve ever believed in trying to accomplish.  Maybe the lunkheads of the world are right and none of the science and engineering really matters.

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Review of the Novint Falcon

If you have followed this blog for a pretty long time, you will have been reminded repeatedly about three topics: I have a strong preference for technologies like JAWS that make mainstream programs work properly rather than products designed specifically for people with vision impairments; I have a great interest in multimodal and multidimensional techniques to increase the amount of semantic information that a technology can deliver to people with vision impairments and, finally, that I think game hackers like David Greenwood in the audio world and others who make parts for video games demonstrate a variety of technologies that we can transfer from the mainstream that people with vision impairments can use to improve efficiency.  My personal hacking lately has used a number of off-the-shelf hardware and I’ve enjoyed working with Direct X and force feedback controllers to develop some new UI paradigms.

A while back, I wrote an article for BC about the Novint Falcon, a three dimensional haptic game controller expected to hit the toy stores in 2007.  At that point, I got my information from Novint press releases and their web site so, like any advertising propaganda that comes directly from the manufacturer of any product, one must assume that we only hear the good things about the device.  The other day, though, I received from Blind News a “hands on” report written by a third party without a financial stake in the Falcon.

Now, I really can’t wait until I can get my hacker hands on this device.  The description by the critic, written for a mainstream audience, has thrown me into a whirlwind of ideas for applications for we blinks.  The fact that Novint plans on selling it for less than $100 continues to blow me away.

Even though I didn’t write a BC entry yesterday, I feel pretty lazy this morning so, rather than doing any analysis, I will copy the story verbatim for BC readers to enjoy.

IGN Entertainment (UK)
Friday, May 12, 2006

By Gerry Block

Think the Wii’s remote is innovative? Get ready for haptic (3D Touch) that’ll blow your mind.

May 12, 2006 – At an E3 dominated, in large part, by the Nintendo Wii and its motion tracking controller, innovative physical interaction with games has become the next-big thing in gaming. While the Wii has certainly opened our eyes to exactly how cool it is to go through the motions, literally, of playing a game, when it comes to feeling a game, we’re still living in the days of the rumble pack’s vibration feedback. With a little luck, that might all be about to change.

Novint rolled into E3 to show the gaming industry what “haptic” (3D touch) interaction is all about. Their flagship product, the Novint Falcon, is a highly futuristic looking pod that allows motorized force feedback to simulate the experience of touching three-dimensional objects in virtual space.

As you can see from the pictures, three articulated arms attach to a center grip. Users move the grip much like a mouse, except in a vertical rather than horizontal orientation. By applying motorized resistance to the arms, highly developed software algorithms and some impressive engineering allow a user to experience a wide variety of stimuli that mimic many real world physical interactions.

For example, a Novint demo at E3 placed a three dimensional ball on screen, covered with a variety of lumps and bumps. The falcon grip controlled an on-screen hand that ran over the surface of the ball. As the hand went up and down over the lumps the resistance increased and decreased accordingly, which produced a rather believable sensation of touch. Another demo involved shoving a hand through a ball of goop. Movement was free and easy until touching the surface, at which point the resistance became much stronger as the hand penetrated the ball until it suddenly popped out the other side and once again became free. Another fun demo allowed users to draw back the string of a bow and arrow, with resistance becoming increasingly strong as the bow became taught. Arrow release resulted in the sudden disappearance of all resistance and an incredibly realistic sensation of the release of a great deal of physical tension.

The coolest part of the Novint demonstration was, of course, real gameplay. A Half-Life 2 mod has been developed to let the Novint Falcon control and interact with the game in amazing ways. Moving the grip in vertical space performed the same movement functions that a horizontal mouse would, but now the in-game physics of Half-Life 2 translate directly to real life. Picking up a box in game makes the Novint Falcon apply down force to the grip, effectively creating a truly realistic sensation of real-life weight. Hitting the wall with the crowbar resulted in a jarring-vibrating-jolt. The coolest part was gunfire. Each weapon in Half-Life 2 had a particular recoil effect. A shotgun blast produced a lurching balk on the Falcon, while automatic machine gun fire resulted in lighter repeated kicks as well as an upward pull, perfectly simulating real life barrel-rise in automatic firing.

Words can only do so much in describing something so intrinsically physical, but rest assured, the effects we experienced were extremely impressive. Even cooler is the fact that Novint seems to have a real understanding of what gamers will demand of their product. The grip, which is a door-knob looking bulb in the pictures, is easily removable, and can be swapped with any conceivable design, such as a pistol grip. Even better, Novint promises that the Falcon will launch in 2007 for less than $100.

Our hands-on experience with the Novint Falcon left us totally stoked and begging for more. We’ll follow this story through development as best we can, so stay tuned!

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A Letter to our Investors (Fiction)

Sydney “Sy” T. Greenbacks
President/CEO OATS Inc.
1 Hot Place
Pinellas Park, FL 33716

Tuesday May 23, 2006

Dear Investors,

On behalf of myself, the management team and staff of Overpriced Access Technology Systems, Incorporated, I write with great pleasure to inform you that the OATS financial team has upwardly revised our fiscal outlook for the year ending December 31, 2006.  A number of global factors have gone the way we had hoped and the new marketing initiatives that I will describe in greater detail further in this communication have paid off far in excess of our expectations.

On the relatively dry, purely numeric side of the story, our CFO, Tony C. Goode, who will send a more complete set of documents later in the month, has told me that OATS can announce a 40% increase in our 12 period (annual) forecasts raising our original forecast of $43.5 million to approximately $61 million USD.  Following 2005, when we set a record with $38 million in sales, this demonstrates growth unprecedented in the current technology climate.

The OATS story, as I described during our last stockholders meeting, goes far beyond inventing our own assistive technology products and selling augmented versions designed by other AT companies to people with disabilities.  We, far more than any assistive technology company in history have taken action to increase the size of our market through highly innovative techniques.  In addition, certain social and global events which we try to influence but cannot take total credit for their success have contributed to the OATS EBIDTA.

Typically, I separate the executive summary by disability and domestic versus global income streams.  This year, all of our lines of business have converged in a manner that separating them would only cause confusion in my narrative but, when you receive it later this month, you can read the details in Tony’s report.

Our single largest success continues to result from injuries incurred by soldiers and civilians participating in the Iraqi and Afghani conflicts.  Simply put, war is good for the disability business.  Our brave returning soldiers continue to come home blinded, severely vision impaired, missing limbs, brain damaged, paralyzed and with some of the less popular but highly lucrative handicaps.  Thus, our sales of everything from screen readers to wheelchairs to prosthetic limbs to blow pipe systems have increased dramatically.

Additionally, our partners at Kellogg, Brown and Root have convinced the Bush Administration to open up a series of training centers and jobs programs for newly disabled civilians in both Iraq and Afghanistan.  Our relationship with KBR and our friends on K Street ensured that these projects would not require bids nor accountability as we’ve come to know it in the liberal US so, needless to say, the margins on all of our products, especially the Arabic language versions have increased dramatically.

Although some of our board members balked at working so closely with Freeman Scientology, our cross town competitors, the success we have had reselling the Suicide Backpack Mate augmented with a bit of C4 to partners like Islamic Jihad, Al Queda in Iraq and Hezbollah have generated a marked increase in disabilities in Israel, the Palestinian Territories, Lebanon, Jordan and have added to the remarkable sustained surge in sales in Iraq.  

While I had wished that OATS had designed our own weaponized PDA for the blind, we, by adding the highly valued explosive and selling into markets that Freeman cannot touch, can report a 500% margin on each unit which, I believe, represents far more dollars than the competition makes on the units we resell by adding value.  I expect that we will start exploring VAR relationships with more companies as we move forward.

I would like to applaud the Tampa jury for finding that our good friend and Middle East Technology Consultant, Sammy al Arian not guilty of most charges.  Now, with this reclassification, he can keep a laptop in his cell and has already started writing specifications for some new concepts that we will hopefully introduce into the marketplace by Q4 2007.  We have held discussions with Sammy and his family about his relocation abroad and will likely set up a development center headed by him when they choose a new homeland.  Surely some convenience issues will arise with Sammy located in a different country but, assuming he chooses an Arabic speaking locale, we can leverage the lower cost of labor in the desert countries and further increase margins on products he invents.

Thus, we have proven wrong those who called for our domestic political strategy to favor Democrats as, although services for people with disabilities shrink in each Federal budget, President Bush and the Republican Congress have created so many newly disabled people here and abroad that our numbers have reached heights we hadn’t expected for a few more years.  Even better, our relationship with KBR permits us to pick nearly any price, without any market restrictions for sales in Iraq, Afghanistan and, soon, Somalia.

The $1.3 million contribution to the Diabetes Foundation, Another of the controversial decisions I had to make over even Tony’s objections, has proven fruitful in an indirect manner.  Obtaining their mailing list helped with direct mail advertising to people losing their vision to the disease.  The coupons for Krispy Kream and McDonald’s have had an even more effective result as our statistics show that a solid 10% of the recipients of these mailings have gone blind far sooner than their doctors had predicted.  Marketing statistics show that a typical direct mailing with results greater than 2% beat all expectations, a 10% return resulting in thousands of dollars of sales can probably result in OATS receiving the AdWeek award for most creative strategy of the year.

As I stated at the beginning, we still face a number of challenges.  Only yesterday, Blind News reported that a doctor in the US has successfully transplanted stem cells into a human with RP.  This may result in an actual cure that can put a huge dent into one of our most lucrative markets.  Unfortunately, all of the contributions we have made to congressmen, senators and religious organizations to slow down or even stop stem cell research doesn’t help in this case as the doctor in charge of the project chose not to use controversial embryonic stem cells but, rather, takes his from the placenta, an item typically thrown away even in the most Catholic of hospitals.

We plan on launching a new marketing initiative aimed at the religious sector, similar to Exxon/Mobil’s Acton Group, which will take the position that Jesus, the last person to truly restore vision to the blind, did so through divine measures and that mere humans should not traffic in miracles.  Exxon/Mobil has gone a long way to convince this politically powerful group that only God can affect weather patterns and that global warming actually results from divine intervention so why can’t we convince the same group that restoring blindness has similar divine qualities that only God should perform?

Also, we find President Bush’s polling numbers disturbing and understand that our party might lose a significant number of seats in the upcoming elections.  We have advised our political action committee (OATSPAC) and our public relations firm to stir up as much hatred for Iran as possible in the coming months so the president can deliver an October surprise with some strategically placed bombs and a whole new front in the war.  This will, of course, help our boys win the election and keep our government cash flowing and will also open markets for a Farsi version of all of our products.

To conclude, OATS has never held a better position in the global or domestic markets.  The “war dividend” flows into our coffers and we expect to have the money and muscle to either acquire or push aside competitors like Freeman Scientology and Humidware in the coming 24 months.  

Sy T. Greenbacks
President/CEO OATS, Inc.


So, today we introduce another fictional alter-ego.  I did have my vision until I turned thirty-five or so and, therefore, can think of disabilities from both sides of the fence.  I’ve also worked for a number of highly leveraged, venture funded companies as well as for investment banks in New York and Boston so I know what it feels like to have someone holding the pawn ticket on my soul and the deals I’ve needed to make with the devil to get it back.  Thus, Sy T. Greenbacks falls into the category of an alter-ego, albeit the darkest one who shares the fewest dreams, goals and ambitions with BlindChristian, the regular author of this blog.

So, to keep everyone up to date on the pseudonyms and who is who around Blind Confidential, I add the following roster:

My real name, Chris Hofstader, rarely shows up in this blog.  I write everything here (unless otherwise cited) but do so using various pseudonyms that represent my various moods, ideas and feelings.  I do not always agree with everything written here as the alter-egos have their own “personalities” and tend to represent an archetype rather than a complete person.

BlindChristian writes almost everything that appears in Blind Confidential.  I “invented” BlindChristian when he played acoustic blues in Cambridge with a friend called Chunder.  We thought, Blind Christian and Chunder sounded like a cool name for a blues act.  The act went away years ago but the nickname has followed me.  Chris Hofstader, aka cdh, and BlindChristian share a lot of values but we do have our differences as BlindChristian tends to feel angry more than cdh who tends toward depression and agoraphobia.

Gonz Blinko, who has only written two stories here, takes his inspiration from the late great Hunter S. Thompson and blends in issues regarding blindness and the absurdity that the world around us brings to our lives everyday.  If you look around, the world tends toward the bizarre and Gonz sees it more clearly than the rest of the gang.  He and cdh share some things in common but I never had his kind of adventures, spent a lot of time with a tall African lesbian and, although I like guns and have had people shoot at me, I never participated in a real fire fight nor have I shot up my own house.  I really like Gonz and BC readers can expect to see him more frequently in the future.

Boris Throbaum, another alter-ego, came into existence when he joined the real life Corporate Pigs hardcore punk rock band back in the heyday of CBGB and the New York punk scene.  Like BlindChristian, he has appeared in public, performed, published articles and hung out with a lot of people back in the day.  For a while people had trouble telling Boris and cdh apart but, in 1984 or so, Boris went off to lead his own, fictitious, life and, unlike cdh, he never went blind.  Boris has yet to publish anything in BC as he actively works to get his own blog, “Hanging Out at 322” started but he will make an appearance here soon to announce his new blog and to reunite with old friends like Gonz, Samhara, BlindChristian, cdh and others who run through these pages.

Today, we introduced Sy T. Greenbacks.  He fills the role of “evil sighted twin” to all of the others who write here with the best interests of people with vision impairments and other disabilities as a goal.  Sy lets me say the most horrible thoughts that cross my mind in my deepest, darkest, most ruthlessly capitalist moments.

Others will emerge as time goes on and some characters like Blind Master Crash, our rap star, will start showing up soon.

Author’s Note:  As a purely intellectual exercise in writing, I intentionally refused to use the passive verb “to be” in this entire blog entry.  I did end up using it once in a reference to a common idiom in which I couldn’t avoid the verb without distorting the phrase.  I like active verbs much more than the passive.  I like sentences that do things rather than be things.  Of course, anything written by Shakespeare, including the very passive, “To be or not to be…” goes without criticism from this writer.  So does Earnest Hemmingway’s powerful statements of being.  I’ll think I’ll have to invent an English professor alter-ego, Igor C. Badinov?

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How Much Thompson Do They Read In China?

I wanted to address a couple of comments left here over the past few days.  Both of these come from good friends of Blind Confidential, Chairman Mal, who has been reading and sending along comments from nearly our start and the second by Leon Gilbert, editor par excellence, of Blind News.

I’ll start with the Chairman as his comment inspired the title of today’s post.  Following the last Gonz Blinko entry, Chairman Mal wrote, “I am flattered that Blinko’s lawyer promised him an autographed poster of me for his birthday.”  I have caught myself contemplating this statement since I first read it.  I couldn’t decide whether or not to mention the thoughts it provoked so I waited a few days.  Now, after sleeping on the matter a couple of nights, I felt that I really should respond.

I think that Chairman Mal, as a name, shows a bit of cleverness and creativity.  Mal means “bad.”  When I think of Chairman Mal, I think of terms like “bad boy,” “prankster” or someone who wants to make an interesting statement on current events by picking a name that sounds like a legendary dictator.

When I think of Chairman Mao, though, I remember things like the cultural revolution, books and essays by An Chi Min, friends who escaped his evil regime and others, millions of others, who perished due to his genocidal leadership.  I don’t think of clever pranksters living in the land of Hippy Hollow, great live music, a billion cool bars, one of the best universities in the world and a culture that celebrates diversity.  Chairman Mal is funny; Chairman Mao is tragic.

Austin may not have the same cool factor it did back in the days before Michael Dell and all of those other technology entrepreneurs made so many people so rich as to have moved them to a state where they cannot reach the heights of hip available in Austin back when they first arrived, young and broke.  I’m not suggesting that coolness requires poverty as Samuel L. Jackson, Frank Sinatra and Johnny Depp have (or had) beaucoup bucks and raise the bar for coolness quite a few notches.  These techno-millionaires, though, didn’t start out with a whole lot of cool and working around the clock to fuel the boom certainly didn’t help.  Sure, Austin still has Hippy Hollow but, recent reports suggest that the place has been overrun by fat, rich, long haired millionaire nerds wandering around naked in hopes of finding a gold digging U. Texas cheerleader.  In most other cities, these fellows understand that they should pay hookers for their sexual needs but Austin’s famous nude beach gives them a place to park their sports cars and romp wildly among other naked people.  These geeks should probably, due to the visual impairments they might cause, never be permitted to remove all of their clothing, even at home.

Gonz Blinko, my HST inspired alter-ego, like Hunter himself, keeps photographs and effigies of people they detest.  I think it has something to do with the masochist side of their paranoia.  While the real Hunter S. Thompson kept a life sized Nixon doll in his living room, he didn’t do so to honor the man who had moved to the retired president’s home but, rather, as a reminder of the person who ended the hope and joy that Thompson enjoyed during the sixties.  HST refers to the way Nixon caused the end, the crest of the wave of cool that broke in the California desert somewhere near Needles, Barstow or Mescaline Springs in both “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” and in “Fear and Loathing on Campaign Trail ’72.”  Thus, it was no homage to Nixon to hang in Thompson’s home.

I chose the photo of Chairman Mao to replace Nixon because Mao, unlike Tricky Dick, had no redeeming qualities.  Thus, the fear and loathing factor would increase due to presence of the picture and autograph.  I also chose Mao because he and Nixon share a moment in history and one can hardly think of one without the other.

So, Mal, I think you’re a funny dude with some cool stuff to say but please don’t take pride in an association with Mao.  A number of years ago, back when I lived in Cambridge, my friend Tom and I thought of publishing a collection of genocidal maniac, mass murderer and serial killer trading cards.  Like the baseball cards we enjoyed as kids, we planned on putting the stats of each monster from Andrew Jackson to Stalin to Idi Amin to Saddam on the back of their card.  The Chairman Mao would be to genocidal maniac collectables what the Babe Ruth or Henry Aaron is to baseball.  Mao’s stats make Stalin, a man who once said, “kill one person, it’s a tragedy; kill a million, it’s a statistic,” puke.  Hitler and Pol Pot, even in their darkest hours, never planned on killing anywhere the number of people as did Mao and his gang of four.  The former Chinese dictator may have actually been the single most evil human ever.

Years ago, a really smart dude on the New York punk rock scene named Michael Bored (probably a pseudonym) had a couple of bands in succession.  The first, called Art, featured the only punk tuba player and did their best to taunt a crowd of pretentious art school types and other hipsters who believed we had achieved cool because we had hair in colors that do not exist in nature and generally fell pretty far outside the white, upper middle class families and neighborhoods from which we emerged.  When he had run the course with Art, he started his second act, called Artless.  

The second band didn’t have the subtlety of the first as Michael realized that our crowd had grown so intensely self-congratulatory.  The message he presented in Art, according to the CBGB gang, described posers and other “part time” or “soft” punks but didn’t include those of us who were “hardcore.”  With Artless, Bored took off the velvet gloves and came directly at us.  He attacked our politics and our naïve calls for an anarchist future.  Michael would get up on stage and taunt us about our stereo systems, our comfortable childhood homes and our misplaced anger.  One night, at Great Gildersleeves, when Artless opened up for some other act, I sat upstairs with some of the super hip who had permission to go up to the balcony area rather than just mingle with random riff raff from the suburbs.  Bored started off the set with, “This song is dedicated to all of you left wing, anarchist, communist punk rockers, it’s called ‘How Much Punk Rock Do You Hear In Russia?!?”

At that point in my life, I thought about the super coolness of my friends and the scene of which I was an active member.  I thought the dream of anarcho-syndicalism could be achieved in my lifetime.  Then, Jell-O Biafra really drove the message of our naiveté home when he said, “If anarchism were imposed today, every redneck with a pick-up truck and shotgun would be playing king of the neighborhood.”  Biafra and Bored were correct; we were in an ideological cloud that had no basis in reality.  

Thus, the title of today’s article, addressed to my friend Chairman Mal, “How Much Thompson Do They Read In China?”

[Author’s Note: While on a trip to Amsterdam in the early eighties, I actually met a hardcore punk band from the then still active Soviet Union.  They played at some club we hung out at and stayed in the same youth hostile as my crew.  I don’t, however, think they planned on returning home for a long time.]

The second comment came this morning from Leon Gilbert, the man behind the Blind News email service.  He writes, “In relation to one thing you’ve said here, I would like to point out, that the blind news mailing list does not re-publish
any articles – whether from newspapers magazines or blogs. It’s simply a ‘news-by-mail in plain text’ delivery service.” I apologize for misstating the concept behind Blind News, a service I rely on, read daily and enjoy very much.  I also apologize to Leon if he thought I understated his efforts.  Anyone who subscribes to Blind News can tell that assembling the daily mailings is far from a simple task.  Leon has raised the action of finding news articles of interest to our community to a high art.  I would have heard about the WebBraille controversy, I still read the Village Voice and New York Times so I would probably have stumbled across the Granny stories and, because, in spite of my refugee status, I still hear most of the gossip from within the AT biz, I would probably hear stories about screen readers and such anyway.  I would not, however, ever read an article (unless some other person sent it to me) from publications in Nepal, Thousand Oaks California, the Poconos, Salem, Manila or any of the vast array of sources Leon includes in Blind News.

Leon Gilbert, through his efforts in BN, has been an invaluable member of the BC team since the day I subscribed and I will speak for both myself and our readers by saying that we are grateful for the time and effort he puts in to make BN such a great and comprehensive service.  I would also like to commend Leon on having the good taste to include Blind Confidential as often as he does in the Blind News mailings (modesty will get me everywhere…).

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The Mosen Explosion and Advocacy Tactics

Blind Confidential readers know that Jonathon Mosen takes a lot of teasing in the articles posted here.  As he serves as one of the world’s leading commentators on issues regarding blindness his celebrity as an activist, journalist, product manager, talk show host and, most recently, love song webcaster, has caused our community to accept Jonathon as one of its leaders, a role in which he serves well.  So, my cynical world view, exaggerated in the Gonz Blinko persona, enjoys satirizing Jonathon and his work but, personally, I hold him in high regard and have done so for many years.  Jonathon is also a terrific sport as he will let the teasing go on without making the sort of ad hominem statements that I and others can fall into from time to time.

I don’t read Jonathon’s blog, The Mosen Explosion (link above) on a regular basis.  He often writes about his personal life in a very honest and extraordinarily tender manner and I sometimes feel a bit like a voyeur when reading his items.  I do make sure to check into Jonathon’s work when Leon Gilbert and our friends at Blind News pick up one of his stories as their editorial filter works nicely to remove stories like those by Gonz on this blog and only reprints Jonathon’s writings when they are of consequence to the community.  BC and Mosen Explosion fans who want to read everything can visit our respective pages every day or sign up for our RSS feeds if they enjoy the whole tamale.

Yesterday, Jonathon posted an excellent item entitled, “Axioms on Advocacy to Blindness Service providers,” which you can read in full at the Mosen Explosion web site at the link above.  Coincidentally, Blind News also republished an article called, “Sensitivity, insight needed in encounters with the blind,” from the California based, Thousand Oaks Acorn.  I found both items interesting especially in juxtaposition with each other as Jonathon’s piece comes from a writer who lives with blindness on “our side of the fence” and the second item takes the position of a sightie wondering how to deal with the rare encounters they might have with a living blink.

The two articles start with the same topic, the size of the blind population, but have distinctly different thoughts on the matter.  The Thousand Oaks article begins, “Blindness affects one in every 30 Americans, meaning that chances are you’re going to encounter someone who has impaired vision.”  Meanwhile, Jonathon asserts, “Blind people are an extremely low incidence population. Most people can go
through life without ever having spoken to a blind person.”  I don’t doubt the veracity of either statement but wonder why the sighted author assumes that everyone will encounter a blink and that the blind writer assumes otherwise.  If, indeed, one in thirty Americans are effected by “blindness” this would set the population of blinks in the US at around 10 million people.  This roughly equals the populations of metropolitan New York or Los Angeles and I think we can agree that most Americans will encounter a New Yorker or Southern Californian at some point in their lives.  If, however, we separate the groups of those who fall under the legal definition of blindness into various constituent groups, one will find that those who fit the categories of “profoundly” or “totally” vision impaired represent roughly 1.5 million Americans or one in two hundred people, a number that one is less likely to encounter.  Thus, both articles are correct in their numerical content but remain entirely contradictory.

The two articles, after their opening statistics, really don’t have much in common as the newspaper item describes a number of bullet points about how a sightie should interact with us blinks, a list provided to them by an organization of blind veterans and Jonathon discusses advocacy tactics and how he thinks we should approach issues surrounding blindness.  

I think someone should reprint the list of bullet items in the Thousand Oaks article on index cards and distribute them to blind people so we can politely hand them to ignorant sighted people.  The list includes items like “waitress invisibility” that we discussed here a few articles ago which drew a very interesting comment from one of the women who read this blog that I had never previously considered on the combined problems that might face one who has a disability and struggles with stereotypes surrounding gender.  It also lists a bunch of items that seem obvious to blinks but, like, “Blind people are not mentally deficient, uneducated or deaf. That means they can understand adult explanations at a normal volume,” this statement is of course true but I know some very slow witted blinks for whom I must alter my vocabulary from “adult” to something more akin to the way I address my 6 year old nephew.  So, as is the case for sighties, perhaps this should be rephrased, “blind people are no stupider than the rest of you yahoos so don’t treat us like your cousin Bubba who still needs to remove his pants to play blackjack.”

Another very true statement in the Thousand Oaks article, “Don’t leave a door ajar, which could be dangerous; the door should either be fully open or fully closed,” falls into the category of things I wish my sighted wife, to whom I have been married for 18 years, 11 months and 20 days, would learn.  Along with doors, I think someone should expand this statement to include drawers, especially those at the height of my testicles, shin high objects with hard pointed corners should not be moved around one’s house and, for all of our sake, please trim your hedges that lean out over sidewalks so, when dressed for summer, I don’t get a ton of scrapes and scratches when my cane goes beneath your foliage.  For the rest of the list, click on the link above.

Jonathon’s article describes how we blinks, as a community and as individuals should address big topics like advocacy for our rights, relationships between agencies that serve our community and how we should approach the ignorant sighted world in order to attain the greatest efficacy.  I cannot do Jonathon’s thorough analysis justice in this article so I urge everyone to read it on their own.  I will, however, make a few comments on some of Mosen’s statements as I think they are very important and should be discussed broadly throughout our community.

“When we come across a web site that is inaccessible to us, or some other service designed for the general public that we cannot access, I think the first appropriate reaction is to assume ignorance, and to educate. This can be extremely time consuming, not to mention wearying and even a bit soul destroying after a while, but it’s one of the burdens, challenges, and I would even suggest responsibilities of being blind. Eventually, we have a range of measures open to us, from legal action all the way through to the very effective and well worded Google Word Verification petition organized by Darrell Shandro,” states Jonathon near the top of his article.  

I mostly agree with this statement and I have a stock letter on the computers I use for web browsing that I alter slightly and send to people with web sites that perform poorly versus the WAI guidelines (I will put this letter someplace for others to download and use if they like).  I also agree that this process can be “soul destroying after a while,” which tends to cause me to range into anger and to take the sledgehammer approach that Jonathon decries.  In the little back and forth between Matt May and I a few articles ago, I could feel the soul destruction in Matt’s comments, in my response thereto and in the comments left by Ian from Dolphin.  Including Jonathon, we’ve all fought the “document accessibility” battles for a long time and, as the RNIB published recently; fewer than 10% of all English language web sites conform to web accessibility standards or guidelines.  I have probably sent out my little form letter over a thousand times, it even includes an offer to help a site’s author with accessibility testing and to help find volunteers to beta test there work.  Less than 50 web authors have responded to my letters and even fewer have taken the steps to actually make their sites usable by a moderately strong AT user.

The document accessibility battles go beyond web content and include PDF, Flash (on or off the web), Microsoft Word documents, Excel spreadsheets and, most recently, ODF has joined the long list of items where accessibility remains in the hands of a largely ignorant population of authors.  I love writing, whether expository, like this article in which I want to deliver my thoughts on a matter or creatively, like the Gonz Blinko articles, in which I want to have fun and explore writing techniques used by other authors.  I, however, find the task of writing about document accessibility almost exhausting.  I agree with Jonathon’s assertion that it is my duty as a member of our community to continue sending my letters to the untrained masses and to try to spread the word as politely as possible but, where I disagree with the soft approach and believe the sledgehammer is the right tool, is among organizations, businesses, agencies, etc. who really should know better.

Jonathon suggests that organizations that serve people with vision impairments should be held to a higher standard.  I agree but also think that the collection of corporations who should reach a higher standard for accessibility is broader than advocates and blindness membership organizations.  For one, if a single WAI guideline is skipped on any web site published by an AT company that expects to sell products to blind people, they should pay hell for it.  I’ll add that any AT vendor who does not provide all materials within their organization in an accessible format to their employees, when possible, should also pay the price of public exposure as, if such companies suggest that their products work with accessible document formats at other work places, they should certainly rise to the standard of the software or device they sell to others.  

Next, I will include all companies who have a Voluntary Product Accessibility Template (VPAT) somewhere on their web site.  If the company knows it needs a VPAT to meet 508 guidelines and profit by accepting our tax dollars as payment for their products, they cannot fall into the same bin as a truly uneducated web developer who has no clue about standards and guidelines.  These companies, which include everyone from Microsoft to Red Hat, from Adobe to Apple, from IBM to Sun Microsystems and many, many more have VPAT sections on their web sites but, also, will have portions of their web presences that do not conform to the guidelines and, even if “usable” with a screen reader, are noisy and sometimes difficult to navigate.  The companies I mention here all have a fully accessible portion of their web site, usually the part that discusses their accessibility efforts, their VPAT documents and other disability related information.  After that, these sites can seem fairly random where accessibility is concerned, all have numerous unlabeled graphics and some use really poorly crafted and, therefore, inaccessible Flash or QuickTime presentations.

Finally, all government funded web sites should follow the guidelines to the letter.  My tax dollars pay some portion of the cost of developing these web sites and I expect “equal treatment under the law.”  No one would accept a “whites only” sign on a government building so a “sighties only” web site is equally unacceptable.

Another statement Jonathon makes which I agree with mostly is, ” Any truly rights conscious blind person who wants to achieve constructive change will ultimately find themselves drawn to a consumer organization.”  I feel strongly that power in numbers will prove more successful than a random collection of lone gunmen and that we “shall hang together or definitely hang separately,” but, as in the incident Jonathon cites about google, it took our friend Mr. Chandro to take the individual initiative to organize a petition which has shown tremendous success.  Google today has an advertisement running for blind professionals to join their team in the US and has added roughly 20 blinks to their staff in Hydro bad to ensure accessibility worldwide.  If Darrell hadn’t stepped up, would any of the consumer organizations have done so?

“Time and energy has to be spent fighting fires with the very people
the provider of services is there to serve. Often, this can be incredibly soul destroying for the people working at such agencies,” writes Jonathon.  To this I agree whole heartedly.  I will add that such counter productive bickering and assaults on one agency by those who favor another might be the greatest hinderance to progress on issues regarding disability we face today.  Even if we disagree with a particular agency or organizations specific approach to a problem, we should agree in a civil manner that we share the fundamental goals of said organization and not waste our time fighting among ourselves.  There are too few of us to expect that we be both effective without cooperation.  Sectarianism is how the man keeps minorities down and, believe it or not, we blinks be minorities.  If “the man” can keep poor blacks fighting with poor whites with poor Latinos with poor people from whatever culture, all with populations and wealth far beyond the 1.5 million profoundly or totally vision impaired people, how can we, as a specific class of the citizenry expect to succeed without some kind of unification movement?

In what I think may be the single most powerful statement I’ve read from people around the blindness world lately, Mosen adds, “Blind
People must not be afraid. They must have sufficient respect for their own place in society to not fear advocacy for quality service lest the service be taken away or there be some other reprisals. They must not be considered whiners for insisting on the creation of a society that facilitates their ability to participate in that society to the best of their ability, unimpeded by unnecessary barriers. They must feel empowered to insist on services being provided in the manner that best meets their needs.”  I thought a bit about Malcolm when I read this and wondered if we might start calling Jonathon, Mosen X?

Jonathon concludes by describing the back room process used by NLS and some consumer organizations to handle the WebBraille controversy this past week.  Once again, I agree with Mosen’s assertion that this level of dialogue, which to succeed had to be handled discreetly and in which NLS issued a daily statement for public consumption was done very well.  WebBraille is back online and we blinks have access to this excellent service once again.

I would like to disagree slightly with the entire premise behind taking WebBraille offline though.  As I have read US copyright law as it applies to people with vision and other impairments that prevent them from reading textual material it says, in my amateur opinion, that copyright law does not apply when providing materials in a format that makes them accessible to people like us.  I do not remember reading a clause in this part of the law that suggests that a publisher of materials for people with “print impairments” is also responsible for protecting the copyright of the author.  There is a fundamental question here; does the clause that says that copyright law does not apply to materials prepared for people with vision impairments have primacy over whether or not a library or other content service must also protect the copyright of the author or original publisher?

I would also like to know which publishers or government agency chose to target WebBraille as a powerful entity in the battle over intellectual property rights?  Only a few weeks ago, President Hu, the leader of the most populace dictatorship in the history of humanity enjoyed fancy wine and fine foods at Bill Gates’ house, spoke to an audience of our best and brightest students at Yale University and then sat with the President of the United States in a position of respect at the white house.  China is home to the largest collection of businesses that, without intending to provide books to those with print impairments under the exception in US copyright law, make their entire income by copying and reselling unauthorized electronic editions of books, music, movies, software, video games and anything else that one can duplicate.  Any book with the remote possibility of commercial success can typically be found in an electronic format somewhere on the Internet within 24 hours of its initial publication in the US or Europe.

Why crack down on WebBraille but only wag a finger at big bad China?  

What threat does WebBraille present that publishers fear so greatly that isn’t much worse elsewhere?

I don’t have the answers, just the questions today.  I suggest that everyone read Jonathon’s piece as it is a great reminder of good advocacy and organizational fundamentals.  While I sometimes fall into the sledgehammer, “take no prisoners” approach to change, I agree that, in general, a more diplomatic approach will be more effective.  


I’ve written about product labels a few times in BC.  The other day, I realized that some voluntary restrictions accepted by the music industry makes finding a product confusing for sighted people as well as us blinks.  My wife and I went into a consumer electronics store so I could purchase the CD, “Disturbing the Peace,” by the rapper Ludacris.  I like rap and make no apologies for including it in the wide array of musical styles I have in my collection.  I think that rappers, far more so than rockers ever did, study the English language and, in many cases, use linguistic constructs like simile, metaphor, rhyme, meter and vocabulary in manners far more like a poet than a lyricist and they provide the “folk poetry” of our times.  A lot of rap is crap, a lot of all popular music is crap, in fact, most music composed since a caveman found it pleasing to pound out a rhythm on a stump, is crap but the best of the artist in any of the styles over the millennia have produced treasures.  

Some people don’t care about the language and find rap annoying.  Some people hate punk rock, others find it difficult to find value in heavy metal, some scream when they hear opera and others can’t stand bluegrass.  I like most forms and, where it comes to the poetry of our times, look to the rappers as some of them write incredible things.

Ok, discussion of the artistic value of my recent purchase aside, we learned to our annoyance, that the unedited versions of music is sold with a warning label telling us it is for adults only and the highly edited version has no label that says it was dumbed down for white suburban moms who, a generation ago, blasted out Sex Pistols recordings but punk came from white people and, somehow, is less scary than profanity from urban Americans.  Thus, we bought the wrong (edited) version of the CD.  Why don’t they label the censored versions for the aid of the sighted people?  Why does an Eminem CD need to have a “clean” version and an uncensored one but rock acts with similar themes don’t?  What about the famous “Give me an F!” cheer from Country Joe on the legendary Woodstock recordings, does it fall beneath the censors label as it has some kind of historic value?  When Arlo sang about sneaking past the customs man with a load of drugs and falling off of Big Sur on his motorcycle and squishing a police man, no one put a warning label on his CD so why did the public practically crucify Ice Tea for similar statements?

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PPO Fundraising, Help Needed in New York State

I didn’t feel like typing, writing or thinking creatively this morning.  My hands have hurt all week so I’ve minimized time at the keyboard in exchange for conference calls, meetings and things I could do easily with dictation.  Writing computer programs, in whatever language you like, is really hard with dictation software.  Brian Hartgin’s J-Say plug-in for JAWS does make dictation in most other programs work nicely but a computer program will have its own vocabulary and, thus, words which the nice people at what was once Dragon but is now Nuance couldn’t have predicted.

Lately, I’ve spent a lot of my programming time working with the GPS API for Windows Mobile 5.  I’m using it to work on software for Project Paddle Odyssey and enjoying myself quite a bit.  The MS folks did a very nice job and communicating with GPS hardware, whether built in as on an HP 6515 or Blue Tooth as on the el cheapo knock off I got for $70 from some web site, my program can get all the information it needs from a unit without any special coding for every separate brand.  Unfortunately, words like “pLatLongInfo” are not an easy one to teach Dragon.  I know of at least one blind person who codes using dictation so maybe I’ll write to him for some advice.

In the meantime, I urge all of you to go to the PPO web site (link above) and make a contribution so we can continue our efforts to open up independent kayaking for people with vision impairments.  Recently, PPO has started a charitable auction on the non-profit section of ebay.  The contributions from our friends at AI^2 have brought in the most dollars and we thank Ben and the gang for taking the top spot in contributions during 2006.

Other friends of PPO throughout the AT community have sent us contributions which we cannot seem to be able to sell on ebay.  These products probably don’t reach the level of traffic entered into the ebay search facility as does ZoomText, one of the most widely known names in products for people with vision impairments.  So, if you are looking for a copy of the Dolphin Daisy book reader (I think it retails for about $30) or a set of tutorial tapes for learning to play the piano, please drop me an email with an offer and we can arrange to get it to you (if you are looking for descriptions of either of these products, please follow the links to Dolphin and the music lessons from the PPO web site).  Finally, the good people at Dolphin donated a copy of their Daisy authoring tool.  This product is by far the best of its kind and retails for about $4000; if you are interested in buying a professional Daisy authoring tool, please contact me with an offer no less than $1500.

For those of you in or near Tampa Bay or if you are planning a Florida vacation, we have had some guided fishing trips donated by people like Chuck Wright, Geoffrey Paige and Merrily Dunn.  If you follow salt water tournament fishing or read outdoor magazines, these names should be pretty familiar to you.  Chuck is well known as one of the very best guides in the Everglades region and has been featured on the cover of virtually all publications about salt water angling.  This time of year, after May 1, when the tourists leave, Glades fishing reaches its best.  I will concede that, during the summer months, the Everglades gets extraordinarily hot, humid and infested by mosquitoes but one can dress (in a mosquito suit) for the weather, stay healthy by guzzling Gatorade and fresh bottles of cold water and stay in an air conditioned motel so your sleep is comfortable.  What you cannot do without visiting the Glades during the “off” season is participate in one of the greatest quests known to anglers in North America – specifically, the Everglades “Super Slam.”

Getting a “Super Slam” requires that, in a single 24 hour period, an angler catches at least one tarpon, snook, permit, bone fish, redfish, speckled sea trout and a fresh water large mouth bass.  To my knowledge, the Glades in the summer is the only place on Earth where this many different prized game species can actually be caught in a single day.  It doesn’t happen often but, if you’re the sort of angler who wants to go for all of the highly targeted species, the Glades is a must on your world tour.  Having read some reports from down there, I can say that the fishing has been grand, good friends have reported seeing and catching a bunch of really big (over 40 inch) snook, the tarpon are running on the beaches and lots of large mouth bass in the 8 pound range have been caught.

If you don’t feel up to the extreme Everglades style of fishing, Geoffrey Paige, whose ugly mug has graced the cover of nearly every fishing magazine in the Gulf region and a favorite on the professional redfishing tour, has also donated a trip.  A couple of years ago, I went with Geoff for tarpon along the beaches north of Boca Grande and neither I nor the friend I was with had ever seen so many free jumping silver kings in a single spot.  For those of you who are members of the PAC Mate mailing list or if you know David Engebretson from elsewhere, you can ask him about the miserable, cold, windy December day that he and I spent with Geoff in a highly guarded location somewhere south of the Skyway Bridge catching so many snook, redfish and trout that we lost count of our fish before lunch.

Last, but by no means least, is Merrily Dunn, who, along with her fishing partner Lisa Fitzgerald, is regularly featured on ESPN II, OLN and other outdoor programming that covers the salt.  The pair finished in the top twenty in the 2005 Redfish Tour and Redfish Cup and clearly know how to find fish.  Sue and I have fished with Merrily numerous times and have always had a great experience.  I will never forget the day she put my father-in-law onto his first redfish and the fun he had as his drag screamed and the animal fought him all the way to the dinner table.

Finally, for those of you and or near Tampa Bay, we have a “like new” tandem kayak for sale.  It was donated by PPO board member Rick Roberts and has seen little use since he got it new.  Tandem boats aren’t the greatest fishing vessels as, unlike a canoe, the seats are relatively close together and some paddle fishing people call them, “divorce machines” because of the number of tangles two people fishing can have in a tandem kayak.  Others enjoy fishing from a tandem and many fishing couples like a tandem to use as a mother ship for wade fishing – they will paddle to a flat, get out and fish the area, using the kayak for storage but fishing from the water itself.  This boat is perfect for touring and paddling for exercise.  

Minimum bids on any of the guided fishing trips is $250 and the minimum bid on the kayak is $750 plus transportation.  Donations to PPO, a 501©3 charity, are tax deductible.

On a completely unrelated note, our friend Steve, beep baseball enthusiast and blogger, sent out an email to a list of his contacts around the blindness community asking for support on a bill before the New York State Legislature.  Rather than paraphrase, I’ll conclude today’s BC post with Steve’s note in its entirety:

Good morning–
It is not very often I send an email regarding legislation or political content, but the below information is very near and dear to me.  The possibility that this service will not continue past this coming October is not only scary, but disappointing.
This is not an endorsement for the National Federation of the Blind or any of its affiliates, but a program that has allowed myself and others independence and the ability to read newspapers when we want and how we want.
The National Federation of the Blind implemented a service that you may or may not have heard about.
It enables to individuals who are either totally blind or who have low vision, to read local, state and national newspapers and magazines with the use of the telephone.
The newspapers and magazines are read in a synthetic voice much like my computer that you may or may not have heard before.
The individuals reading can skip through articles and sections of the periodical they are reading, speed up or slow down the voice that is reading the material to them, and if need be have it spell out words and/or web sites so they can visit later or just see how something is spelled.
Well, the service to all its thousands of subscribers is free.
But of course in order to provide the content, it costs money.
Money which is provided by New York State Senate and assembly.
This coming October, if the below legislation is not voted on in the next week by both the Assembly and Senate, funding for this service will run out, causing all of its New York subscribers to be without the chance to read newspapers and magazines regularly.
Independence has always been very important to me, and as all of you know from knowing me, without doing what I wanted to do and when I wanted to do it, I would not be the Steve you all know.
So, I ask you to take 15 minutes, to read the below legislation, and take the opportunity as a friend, professional and resident of New York State, to call or write an email to your Assembly Person or Senator, asking for their position or for them to vote in the positive for the Bills listed below.
If you do not know who either your assembly Person or Senator is, I have provided you links to locate who they are with their contact info.
Search for your Assembly person:
Bill in the Assembly: A10172
NY State Senator Search:
The Bill in the NY Senate is:
I ask you to pass this along far and wide to all within the State of NY, and hope you realize that this program is very special and useful.
Thanks for a moment of your precious time, and if you have any questions, please reply to this email and I will be glad to help out in any way.
Stephen Guerra
“A guy who cares!”

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Strategic Partners: Love, Guns and Texas (Fiction)

By Gonz Blinko

“One love, one heart, let’s get together and feel alright,” I sang along with the Bob Marley playing on my stereo.  I packed a bowl with some of hydroponic chronic and, just as my lighter approached the pipe; the telephone alerted me that someone wanted to interrupt my personal memorial to the great man on the twenty-fifth anniversary of his death.  I paused and listened for the talking caller ID.  That asshole editor of Blind Confidential wanted something.  I let the call go to voice mail and burned my one-hitter.

“Buffalo soldier…” I sang as I wondered if anyone but me ever noticed the similarities between the Wailers song and the theme to the sixties Saturday morning show called “The Banana Splits.”  “One banana, two banana, la, la, la, Buffalo Soldier…” I sang out as the phone rang again.  This time I prepared for the call, when the phone announced the call came from Blind Christian’s cell phone, I lifted the Mossberg and pumped twelve gauges of lead shot into my phone table.  The damned annoying Panasonic phone shut up immediately and I think I might have killed my fax machine and a couple of other  collateral items as the entire piece of furniture seemed to explode.  I smoked another one hitter, put on another Marley record and let myself drift away into memories of tropical islands, tropical drinks made with real Cuban rum, tropical women tropical sunshine and reggae, pure reggae…


I don’t know how much time past but I did observe a gaping hole in the plaster in one of my walls where my autographed photo of President Nixon once hung.  I wondered why I shot Nixon and started toward the kitchen to make coffee when a pounding started.  “Is this pounding in my head?”  I asked.  The pounding continued, “No, it seems to come from the living room,” I answered my question, grabbed my 12 gauge and started heading toward the blasted noise.

As I approached as stealthfully as I could, I heard a familiar voice shouting to accompany the relentless pounding.  “Gonz, I know you’re in there,” shouted my attorney, “Open the door you paranoid bastard, it’s hot out here.”

“Samhara?”  I asked myself as I reached for the PDA based user agent clipped to my buckle.  I pressed the talk button and ordered my device, “Monitor front door.”  It made its happy beep suggesting that my command executed successfully.  The digital camera and sensor software near the door to my living room kicked into action.  My user agent told me, “One human within 35 meters of entrance, has weapon, weighs 60 kg, has rang bell,” and then started onto giving me the weather report, “I have to get the verbosity options on this thing fixed,” I thought as I commanded the user agent, “open intercom.”

“Ms Akuba?”  I asked trying to sound somewhat polite.

“Yes, Gonz, open the door.”

“Put your thumb in the scanner.”

“Gonz, do we have to go through this every time I come here?  No one else knows where you live?”

“Just put your thumb in the scanner,” I felt fairly certain that Samhara Akuba, my long term attorney, stood at my front door but, in these days of strange mergers and dangerous acquisitions, who knows what lengths they’ll go to get my secrets and to prevent me from writing them down.

The tone played announcing that, indeed, it recognized Samhara’s thumb print, I issued the “open front door” command to my user agent and my highly peeved lawyer walked in.  “Why didn’t you answer my calls?”  She asked and, after looking around a little, she asked, in a more soothing tone, “Who messed up your place?  Who shot Nixon?”


Samhara fired up the espresso machine as I went in to take a shower.  She met me back in my bedroom where I stood wet and naked, trying to towel myself off.  “Can’t you cover that up?”  She asked as she handed me a huge mug filled with strong coffee and steamed milk.  “Can’t stand a bit of manhood babe?”  I quipped.

I then felt the tip of Mr. Happy scream loudly in pain as I heard a towel snap.  “Evil dyke bitch!” I yelled as I heard her accent deepen to that of the guy who used to do the “Uncola” advertisements, followed by deep belly laughs from my lawyer.  A second or two later, I felt something cloth hit my head, I reached up and retrieved a pair of silk boxers and dutifully put them on.

“Sorry,” I muttered as Samhara continued her laughter.

“You little white boys seem so protective of your gear,” she managed out between gasps and guffaws.  I continued dressing.


We sat on my deck (ok, I call it a deck, technically, an architect might call it a fire escape but why quibble?) drinking coffee.  My attorney stood up and leaned over the rail, “If you stretch far enough and twist south, you can actually catch a glimpse of the river and a bit of Hoboken from here.”

“So what?”  I asked.

“So, if you ever plan on selling this dump, we can legally claim a river view and charge more.”

“Sure, if I sell the place to an amazon attorney with gymnastic skills.”

“As your attorney, it’s my job to look out for your interests and increasing the value of your building falls into that category.”

I sipped my coffee and asked the obvious question, “Why exactly are you here?  It’s May, shouldn’t you be on Fire Island or in P-Town?”

“BC called me when he couldn’t get hold of you.  Then, when you didn’t answer my calls…”

“I shot the phone again,” I said somewhat embarrassed.

“You also shot Nixon, your fax machine, a laptop and a Willy Nelson CD.”

“Willy Nelson?”  I asked surprised.

“We really have to figure out some way to keep you from your weapons when you fall into your paranoid spells.  I’m also taking your pot away.”

“My hydroponic chronic?”  I asked in a pleading tone.

“All of it.”

“So, you came all the way from some summertime get away with a lovely girlfriend or two so you can provide me mental health counseling and talk to me about my guns again?”

“No, I came because BC called me because he couldn’t find you.”

“Yeah, right, I shot the phone.”

“We’ve been over that part.”

“What did he want?”

“He wants to know how Humidware could do a major distribution contract with Load Hacktory without him hearing about it.  He wants to know where the advance money he sent you for the latest Freeman Scientology story went and he wants to know when you will complete the interview with Joltin’ Joe.”

“Shit,” I mumbled.  “How far behind schedule?”

“Well, Humidware people have already starting posting to the Load Hacktory mailing lists with their usual gloat and the Freeman Scientologists claim to have another religious product that they feel might take down the evil empire.”

“Freeman Scientology?  Weapon?  They make religious products.”

“This one is for Islamists.”

“Which evil empire?”

“The advanced information seems to suggest that it will bring down the empire of your choice.”

“What do they call such a thing?”

“It’s the Suicide Backpack Mate and comes complete with points of interest in Israel, Baghdad, New York and offers maps of major European Capitals for an extra few bucks.”

“You gotta credit that Gore Glendon and Dave Bradley, they do innovate.”

“It’s their response to Moes Jonathonsen’s idea for a SoulMate based on Windows Mobile 5 that comes with a two gigabyte SD card loaded with MP3 files of love songs.”

“Boy, I love capitalism,” I grunted as I walked back to my bathroom to start packing.


We hailed a cab and told the driver to take us to LaGuardia.  I shouted directions as I didn’t want Osama to take the scenic route.  I asked, “Where are we going?”

The driver piped in, “The airport.”

“I wasn’t talking to you, just shut up and drive.”

“Temper, temper,” admonished Samhara, “We’re flying to Texas.  We got an exclusive with Moes and Tristessa.”

“Who the hell is Tristessa?”

“The soul mate.”

“His new product?”

“No, his new fiancé,” she remarked, “Don’t you read Moes Erosion?”

“His blog?”


“I try to ignore the personal stuff.  I’m not a voyeur.”

“Then why did you leave your PC logged into”

“Shut up.”

Samhara, as she knew to do, reached into her bag, retrieved a handful of Valiums and started popping them into my awaiting mouth.


I didn’t remember much else until Samhara handed me a triple shot laté and we drove out of the parking lot of an airport somewhere in Texas.  I recognized the smooth ride and blaring air conditioning of a Lincoln Town Car and, pleased, I started to sing, “Down in that old west Texas town of la, la la, I fell in love with a Mexican girl, la, la, la…”

My attorney shoved a 50 Cent album into the CD player, pumped up the volume and hit the gas.

“Shouldn’t we have brought love songs to prepare for this interview?”  I tried to yell over Eminem’s backing rap.

“What?”  She shouted.

“Love songs!”  I shouted.

“Shut up or I’ll kill you.”


The music abruptly stopped as Samhara slammed on the breaks and the stereo power button simultaneously.  “Would you take a look at that?”  She asked in what sounded like near total amazement.

“Look at what?”  I asked, subtly reminding someone who has known me for most of my adult life that I am still blind.

“It’s the Moes Jonathon estate.”

“So, what’s so special about it?”

“Well, to start with, it’s just about the largest ranch that has ever been painted in all Valentine’s Day colors, pinks, reds and shit.  Each window shudder has a cupid upon it and the gate has a huge, red “M” formed into the shape of a heart over it.”

“Sam?”  I asked.

“Yes Gonz.”

“Tell me it’s a lie, tell me you’re making this up.”

“Sorry white boy, this is all for real.  The place looks like Liberace built it while on acid.”

She gave the car a little gas and we rolled up to the guard tower.  A small man in a pink uniform came out to greet us.  “Pretty impressive ain’t she?”  Asked the guard.

“Uh…”  Stumbled Samhara.

“Yeah, it really leaves you speechless,” said the guard.

“I’d say,” shuddered my attorney.

“Moes is expecting you,” said the guard as he waved to the tower to let us in.  “Drive around back and the boss will meet you on the patio.”

We did as instructed and found ourselves a nice shady spot to sit near the pool.  Samhara whistled as a servant in a French maid’s outfit came out with a silver tray loaded with strong coffee.  “Merci beaucoup,” uttered Samhara and I knew she had fallen in love again.

Just as Samhara found a business card to give the maid Moes and his betrothed arrived at the table.  My attorney giggled.  “What’s so funny?”  I whispered as Moes and his fiancé talked to the maid.  “There’s two of them,” she mumbled trying to avoid a burst of laughter, “and they’re wearing identical Hawaiian shirts tucked into their pants.”

“He’s a Kiwi…” I started as Moes sat down.

“Sorry for keeping you waiting,” he said politely.  “I don’t think you’ve met Tristessa, my soul mate.”

“Pleased to meet you,” I said as my hand, reaching to shake hers missed and landed on her right breast.  “Sorry about that,,” I said.

“Never worry, it happens all the time.”

We sat around chit chatting about the AT business, all of the changes, Moes beautiful ranch/mansion and made small talk.

Finally, I said, “We didn’t come all the way to the land of whackos and Waco to BS; tell me about the Load Hacktory deal.”

“What do you want to know,” Moes asked coyly.

“Why does Humidware, a company with the Mputer, BrailleBloat, Virtuoso, Trecker and Bloated GPS want with another Windows CE product?”

Moes grew serious, “Didn’t you notice that Load Hacktory has products called MSqueak, MSqueak Pocket, MBignifier, MWeather Recognizer?”

“Yes, I’m aware of their product line.”

“Didn’t you also notice that their beautiful and brilliant technical support/beta manager probably needs a soul mate?”

“I think she can do fine on her own.”

“Well, I disagree.  I wanted all of those “M” products to fill into the line of items that mean Moes something and I certainly wanted to get Ms Butterfly…”

“It’s Bumblebee,” I interrupted.

“Whatever,” said Moes, “I just want to get her on our team.”

Just then, we heard an explosion from the front gate.  “Get to the bunker,” yelled Moes as he grabbed his quiet fiancé.

“Screw the bunker,” yelled Samhara as I pulled my Glock 9 from the back of my pants.  “To the Lincoln!”  She shouted and we ducked and ran toward the car.

The last thing I heard Moes yell was, “Damn those Suicide Backpack Mates…”

We heard gunshots from all around as we both crawled into the car through the driver’s side door.  Samhara, still ducking, started the car as I started shooting at sounds through the closed windows.  We screeched out of Moes’ parking lot and headed in whatever direction that seemed to have the fewest bullets flying from it.  I continued shooting the Glock until my banana clip was spent.  We hit the highway unscathed and floored it for the airport.


When the kid at Avis saw the car covered with switch grass juice, with the bullet holes here and there and the shot out windows, he said, “Well, did you have a good time in Texas?”

I wondered what that question meant.  Usually when we return a car this messed up the rental guy required a long explanation but, because we always took the maximum insurance, they rarely caused us much trouble.  This guy seemed to act like a car shot full of holes was typical.

As we boarded the little bus to bring us to the terminal, Samhara commented, “It is normal for Texas.”  She continued, before I give you your sedatives, you need to know that we’re not going home.

“Why not?”  I gasped.

“We’re going to Spain to meet Sancho Eduards, CEO of Load Hacktory.”

“No we’re not,” I proclaimed.

“It’s part of the story.”

“I called their office from the car; he’s gone into hiding somewhere down on a Greek Island.  They think he took a hostage.”

“How will you finish the story?”

“It’s BC, I’ll just make something up.  Hell, we’ve already been bombed and shot at for this gig.  I need to get my place fixed too.  Do you know where I can get another autographed Nixon photo?”

“No but, because your birthday is coming soon, I’ll give you the autograph of Chairman Mao that I had framed for you.”

“You do love me,” I sighed as Samhara started pumping sedatives into my mouth.

“Shit, I think Moes got to you a bit white boy,” she laughed as our bus stopped at the terminal.

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The Quagmire of Web Accessibility

The other day, a comment posted to BC pointed out that I had side stepped a question about automated testing tools that could simulate a specific screen reader.  This caused me to think about automated test tools and the problem of screen readers in general.

Matt May, one of the world’s top document accessibility experts corrected me in a comment that said, “Sorry, Chris, but with respect to developer costs, I don’t think you really addressed my comment at all. What I wrote was not a defense of discounted versions of ATs, but a call for AT simulators designed for developers.”

I apologize for misinterpreting the question the first time.  I agree that an automated AT test tool that a developer, web or application, could use to check their work against a screen reader or other AT product would be a terrific idea.

A screen reader like JAWS or ORCA which are based on built in scripting languages could probably be modified to create a testing tool as the sorts of techniques that a screen reader employs to send data to its users are actually pretty similar to the techniques in programs like RoboTest and other generic testing tools.

As the source code to Orca is available to the world, one might be able to find grant money to develop a test tool based on it for checking gnome applications, Internet and media accessibility.  The overhead necessary to write a proper test harness and the requirement to remain faithful to it might cause a problem for small time developers though.  To write an automated test script for a web site would require a lot of, “the AT should say when it encounters .”  If the tests written into the script come up as failing, you will then need to determine if the problem lies in your web document, your test script or the automated testing tool as a bug might exist anywhere.

If we can get past the effort to build an extensive test script, which will either require a ton of typing or a really, really smart testing tool, we then need to worry about remaining faithful to it.  In the case of web tests, one would need to update the test script every time they changed the web page, for an application, they could either build in “invasive” test code that can “talk” to external testing tools or write an external script but, either way, the programmers will need to remain faithful to the test framework to ensure the integrity of its output.

Someone could probably write a really ugly JAWS script today that, using the functions designed to work in its virtual buffer could walk through a web site and dump out the text it would say to a file.  As only one person (Ben Key from FS) has, to my knowledge, ever got the JAWS scripting language to support recursion and he did this to prove he could do it, I’m not sure if it has ever seen practical use and writing a tool that would hit all of the possibilities on a web site would be really hard without recursion.

Other issues of remaining “faithful” to an automated test tool that simulates a particular AT would require that the AT manufacturer and the team who builds the test tool work pretty closely together.  In the case of using the script based screen readers, the AT hacker would need to communicate any change to a scripting function (subtle or profound) to the tool developer who would then need to make appropriate changes.  Also, internal changes to said AT may have unexpected outcomes which could fool a testing tool pretty easily.  In fact, a bug fix in a screen reader could break a work-around employed in a test tool or screen reader script as one may have written their tool in a fashion that depended on a specific bug.

Back in the wild days of DOS, Borland released Turbo Assembler (TASM) to compete with Microsoft’s MASM.  One of the cool TASM features let one set a flag to “simulate MASM bugs” and served the valuable purpose of letting those of us hackers who exploited MASM bugs to make our programs do cool things.  Microsoft programmers, in one of the MS DOS releases, fixed a bug that many of us who wrote device drivers for oddball hardware used to make some tasks more convenient and, hence, broke our software.  People like me who used Ray Duncan’s “Advanced MS-DOS” and “Undocumented DOS” as hacking bibles, found that such “bug fixes” annoyed us as often the proper way to do things took more instructions and, back in the days when we still counted bits and bytes, every instruction counted.

Also from modern hacking history, Philippe Kahn and another hacker in the early days of Borland, discovered the terminate and stay resident (TSR) interrupt which MS had included in early versions of DOS without documentation so their programmers could perform some debugging tasks.  PK and his gang released Sidekick, one of the most popular DOS programs ever which forced Microsoft to document the TSR functionality so it wouldn’t break the increasingly large number of TSR programs that hit the market all at once.

A few old timers will, of course, remember that Vocal-Eyes, JAWS for DOS and the other DOS screen readers all used the TSR hook to simulate multitasking on a single thread operating system.  Both MS Word and WordPerfect for DOS (up through release 5.5 of each) actually included special “screen reader” interrupts that would only work while they were running.  I learned of these hooks long before I found my way into the AT biz when I wrote a TSR for “Right Writer,” a DOS grammar checker, that with a single keystroke, would figure out which word processor you were using, force it to save the document with a slightly different name, run it through the grammar checker and then load the marked up version of the document back into the word processor.  In many ways, I used techniques identical to a DOS screen reader in this TSR but have never actually looked at a single line of DOS screen reader code.

Returning to the topic at hand, how can we create a screen reader simulator or, more aptly, a suite thereof that web and other developers can use to learn how specific AT products will work with a particular task?

Matt continued, “In any case, though, simply reading and following web standards is not sufficient, as developers who have experience doing that know that the ATs don’t
adequately support web standards.”  I know FS has (or had) a document called “The HTML Challenge” on its web site which includes as many html possibilities we could think of coded to the WAI guidelines that a person can download and try out with JAWS and other web access utilities.  I can’t remember the person’s name (he is Canadian if I remember correctly) who distributed a spreadsheet of web guidelines versus various versions of JAWS, Window-Eyes and HPR at some recent CSUN conferences.  I probably still have a copy of one of these reports (2004 maybe) which showed that JAWS and HPR came pretty close to meeting or exceeding 90% of the tests he ran for his research.  Window-Eyes, in the last of these reports that I read, fell behind IBM and FS but they have made many improvements since and, to my knowledge, no one has done a side by side test that includes JAWS 7.0, WE 5.5 and the most recent HPR.  As far as I know, all of these tests used Internet Explorer and a Windows OS which would leave out any of the GNU/Linux or Macintosh solutions.

I agree with Matt’s assertion that pushing AT and web developers alike toward the standards has felt a bit like offering root canals as party favors.  Coming from the AT side, I can attest to the fact that the JAWS team, including Glen, Eric and me, always pushed people toward WAI guidelines when we received questions about how to make their web sites accessible with JAWS.  We did our best to comply with the guidelines and, if you refer to the reports published at CSUN (by the author whose name escapes me this morning) you will find that JAWS and HPR, in each subsequent release, came closer to meeting 100% of the test.

While at FS, I would often receive phone calls from a random web developer asking what they needed to do to work with JAWS.  I would send them to the guidelines.  Inevitably, they would call back asking if we could do something as a work around because they didn’t want to take on the cost of recoding to the guidelines.  In some of these cases, depending upon the popularity of the web site and the perceived value to our users, we might throw in some exception code to handle their issue.  I know we did a lot of coding to work around all kinds of broken html that would cause things to crash otherwise.  So, the web standards and guidelines battle hasn’t been a walk in the park for the AT people either.

So, where does this leave us?

The problem as stated by Matt May and others is that different AT products will support the guidelines in different ways and may or may not support the entire collection of them.  A solution to this problem is far more elusive than anyone involved in the document accessibility wars over the past decade ever expected.  A solution needs to account for at least five screen access tools (JAWS, HPR, Window-Eyes, HAL, ORCA, VoiceOver), at least three browsers (IE, Firefox and Safari) and at least three operating environments (Windows, gnome, Macintosh).  For each screen access tool, a test needs to be aware of its unique user interface as, often, the UI causes one to choose one tool over another.  Finally, it needs to be aware of how each of these user interfaces will expose any given object described in the guidelines.

Even with the source code to ORCA, making it run “silently” in a scripted test mode is a non-trivial task.  Without the source code to a screen reader, I don’t think this project would be possible or, if it is, it will require software convolutions and far more time to perform than would ever be cost effective.

Thus, for the Macintosh and Windows based screen readers, their authors would need to take their base products and create testing versions of them.  They would need to agree on a common test vocabulary so people who want to test against any of these different variations will only need to write a single test script to be run against the different reference platforms.  One would also need to build a method for the test versions to properly communicate with the various web browsers in a batch system.  Finally, to meet all of Matt’s requirements, all of these will need to be packaged up as web objects which a developer can lease time on.

Certainly, one would need to find a large funding source to make all of this happen and one would need to find someone or some group (ATIA?) to coordinate the effort to ensure the aforementioned compatibility between the flavors of the test tool.  As getting AT companies to cooperate on anything is a lot like herding cats, the chairman of such a project would need to have the patience of Job and the win at all cost attitude of General Patton.  While possible and something I would love to see happen, I doubt this will occur in the recent future.

Avoiding pessimism entirely, I do think that, with the gnome accessibility API or the upcoming User Interface Automation from MS, one can write a killer web test tool that could access the browser on a system and generate a report of the information that screen readers have available to them and, in the event that a particular screen reader misses something, the canonical information report can point to where their bug exists.  Thus, the onus for guideline adherence can split between the AT developer and the web author and this tool can act as the referee.  This tool, if crafted properly, could contain a UI description table for each AT product so the tests can be performed employing the same sequence of actions that a user might follow which could add more realism to the entire process.  If the Windows screen reader vendors embed UIA in their products so they can better automate their testing, one might be able to also use the screen readers themselves in “test mode” to test the web document.  If I knew more about the ORCA scripting language, I could venture a bet as whether or not it can be scripted for use as a testing tool or not but, alas, I haven’t done all of the reading I should have by now.

One frustration I have felt while working at FS that Matt probably doesn’t share would happen every time I pointed to the report that showed how JAWS and HPR did work properly with the guidelines (mostly).  This would come from people who would say that, even though Fs and IBM spent the time and development dollars to try to comply with the guidelines, one had to consider the users of other AT products that had yet to catch up.  When one has busted his own ass to help the product he works on comply with standards or guidelines and then is told that the efforts his team and his friends at IBM went through to achieve this goal didn’t matter because other AT products who chose to spend their time on other tasks they deemed more important had to receive the same consideration as the good citizens who did our best to do the right thing would infuriate me.  Thus, jumping on the standards and guidelines bandwagon let us boast a bit but we still had to accept that people who used MSAA based or open source text browsers hadn’t
I share the rest of Matt’s frustrations about standards, guidelines, AT and mainstream developers and the whole system of finger pointing that has emerged from the ideals that caused the WAI to get started in the first place.  As an AT vendor, I would point to the web developer who would point to the DOM who would point to the accessibility who would point back to the AT.  As a community, we can remain in this circle jerk or take steps to fix the problem.

How do we move forward?

I don’t know.  I would like to say that we just jump up and down and insist that people follow the guidelines when making their web sites and AT vendors either fix their support for the guidelines or suffer the consequences of providing a substandard solution to their users.  If the browser doesn’t expose the DOM properly, then fix the browser.  If it’s an open source browser, you can fix it yourself.  If it’s open source AT you can fix it yourself.

The more I think about the document accessibility wars, the more I start to cringe in horror.  The entire accessibility world seems to have sweat bullets to get the Internet into something of an accessible form and, according to RNIB, more than 90% of all English language web sites do not comply.  On top of that, how many PDF documents are authored to the accessibility standards?  I think I’ve seen a grand total of about two dozen (out of thousands) accessible Flash objects.  Now, we have the emergence of ODF and its accessibility guidelines.  There’s also SMILE and Daisy and all sorts of other standards kicking around that leave full compliance up to the author.  

Part of the beauty of the Internet is the wild west like anarchist state that it is.  No one can enforce compliance to any standard on anyone.  This has led to a ton of really creative ideas and cool technologies; it has also led to a very chaotic state for people in the accessibility biz.  I really don’t see a clear plan for finding our way out of this mess either.

I apologize for being so gloomy on this subject.  I admit I still carry some resentments regarding the fact that JAWS and HPR got out way ahead of everyone else on standards compliance but had to hear the “what about the people using some other screen reader that ignored the guidelines,” so many times that I thought I would puke.  I understand the economic burden of switching screen readers both in terms of dollars to purchase a new product and in terms of time to learn a new UI but I also understand that the vendors of AT products that didn’t comply with guidelines did so by choosing not to and, instead, invested their development time and money in other features.  Why do we reward the vendors who ignored a published set of guidelines for so many years by working to suit their needs rather than insisting on sticking to a set of guidelines and letting those who choose to walk their own path wander as they may and try to sell product that falls further away from supporting web sites that do comply?  Isn’t this how a free market should work?

Needless to say, I’ve rambled and ranted enough today.  I really don’t have any good answers to these problems.  I share Matt’s frustrations that making a web site accessible to a broad range of AT products is too expensive and time consuming.  Maybe the idea of a live team of testers with access to all of the AT might be the only answer.  So Matt, give me a call if you want to start a non-profit company that can be supported by member dues and “by the hour” fees that can do such testing.

Also, if anyone else has an answer or even an idea on how to address this problem, please chime in with a comment.  I know and have been relatively friendly with a lot of people involved in the web standards and guidelines effort.  I will take the liberty of speaking for this entire community drawn from AT companies, IT companies, technology companies, academia, standards and government experts and all the others who participated in some manner by saying that I think we are all somewhere between somewhat and very frustrated with the overall lack of progress toward a truly accessible web.  There is enough blame for all of us to take our share home but we should listen very closely when people like Matt, Judy and others who put years of full time effort into the WAI speak up with their frustrations.  These people had to deal with a lot of big egos and a lot of smart people with good but conflicting ideas to come up with a set of guidelines that too many “accessibility” professionals choose to ignore entirely or in part.  The only way to standardize things well enough is to follow standards and, unfortunately, I don’t have the influence to get all of the AT companies to take notice and get with the program.

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The Invisibility of Disability

This morning, I read the comment Gabe left on Thursday’s post and enjoyed it very much.  The overt discrimination we people with vision impairments must face can lead to rage in even the calmest of personalities and trigger explosive anger in others.  I do not believe that “the big bad sighted world” is out to get us but I do believe that we, as people with disabilities, must tolerate far greater humiliations than virtually any other class of people in our culture.

Gabe talks about an amusement park requesting that anyone with a disability sign a special waiver to enjoy the rides and a day in the park.  He further describes having the agreement handed to one of his companions with the statement, “Please help him fill this out.”  Gabe says he grabbed the paperwork and demanded to talk to a manager.  I completely respect this act of civil disobedience and understand clearly the anger that can cause a blind person to react to being treated as though he was invisible.

One day I went shopping with my friend Ben, a developer at FS.  We went to Circuit City to get some CDs and, possibly some other stuff too.  As I stood at the check out, the cash register guy, after accepting my credit card, asked Ben the question, “Can he sign for himself?”

As the anger swelled within me, Ben, who is married to a blind woman, reacted with calm, poise and provided the checker with the right answer, “Why don’t you ask him, he ain’t deaf?”  Ben has a special sort of acceptance of life and understands people with disabilities tremendously as his father runs a business that does everything from selling JAWS and MAGic to installing wheelchair ramps and ride in showers.  Ben, therefore, has grown up emerged in a culture where people with disabilities are a fact of life and understands that we should be treated like humans.

I wonder, given the poor literacy rate here in Florida, what the reaction would have been if the checker asked the companion to a different customer, “Can your African-American friend read and write for himself?”  Or, of the same customer, “Are you sure this credit card isn’t stolen?”  

The legendary classical violinist, Itzhak Perlman has a mobility impairment and travels in a wheelchair.  He, as possibly the most famous musician with a disability, took a tour of a newly renovated concert hall.  His hosts, the people who run the facility (I can’t remember which concert hall but I’m sure if one cares to search around for the anecdote they can find it somewhere on the Internet) made a special point of showing the virtuoso all of the special accommodations they made for people with disabilities.  Then, Perlman asked, “These ramps are very nice but how do I get to the stage?”

Embarrassed, Perlman’s hosts got very quiet.  While they had made accommodations for concert attendees with various disabilities, they completely neglected to consider the accessibility needs of the performer.  Perlman described that, in order to perform that night, instead of entering from the luxury accommodations designed for prima dona classical soloists, he had to return to the parking lot, enter through the loading dock and, “as if I was a piano,” rode the freight elevator to the stage.

Perlman stated that, as of the interview in which I heard these comments, he only had direct access via ramp or “human elevator” to the stages at, “Boston Symphony Hall, tanglewood, Metropolitan Opera House, New York City Opera, Avery Fisher Hall and quite a few venues in Europe and Israel.”  He then described various incidents in which stage hands had to carry him onto the platform, places where he had to crab walk backwards up a flight of stairs and one incident, I believe in Las Vegas, where the stage manager, obviously more accustom to topless shows who didn’t recognize Perlman, tried to refuse him access to the performance area for fear that he would roll off and hurt himself.  Perlman in great detail describes the feelings of humiliation and anger that one can feel when treated as a subhuman.

Most of my friends, when asked, “Would he like a Braille menu?”  Know to answer, why don’t you ask him?”  Recently, at a local barber shop, the woman who would be cutting my hair asked, “How would he like is hair?”  I responded, “Anyway my wife would like it.”  She had the good sense and humor to recognize her faux pas and we’ve laughed our way through quite a few haircuts since then.

I have met a number of blinks who work for various security and intelligence agencies for the Federal Government.  These jobs, for a blink with the appropriate aptitude and education, represent some of the highest paying positions available to a person with a vision impairment.  They pay very well, come with great benefits and, unless you are married to a government whistle blower, your identity is kept secret.  I’ve often thought that, if they don’t already do so, our spy agencies should train blinks to go into field service.

I, an opaque human, find that people treat me like I was invisible.  Isn’t this just about the greatest attribute a spy could have?  Sure, the ostentatious James Bond makes great movie fare but a blind person, especially outside of the US, Canada and the EU, receives the treatment of an object.  While staying at one of the finest hotels in New Delhi, the employees there, when I left my room alone, would almost attempt to carry me to a place to sit, plop me down and ignore me.  I’ve experienced this same treatment at airports around the world, many of which will put me in the first class lounge so I can wait more comfortably for a flight.  I have, in these situations, overheard really detailed and probably highly confidential conversations between business people, government types and half of all sorts of conversations on mobile phones.  The invisibility attribute that we blinks take on in public places could be useful.  “The old poison dart in the white cane trick…”

Margaret Atwood, an excellent novelist, recently published a book called “The Blind Assassin.”  I haven’t read it yet but I do plan to when I get the chance.  I kind of like the thought of a blind spy, hiding in plain sight and recording the conversation of some very bad guys and, expert in the language, able to report back to headquarters on the nefarious dealings of some real bad guys and save the world for democracy.


After visiting Joe Clark’s shrine to anything I may have said or written that displeases him, I must say that I feel privileged that he spends so much time and effort tracking my actions and, whenever he disapproves of something I’ve said or done, carefully documenting it.  It kind of makes me feel like the president or some other big time celebrity to whom one would pay such detailed attention.  I hope anyone who reads Joes selection of statements taken out of context that I’ve made in Blind Confidential comes back here to read them in their original context as they make more sense that way.  

When it comes to broad stroke ideas about accessibility, Joe and I are on the same team.  We may disagree on how best to achieve some of the goals but the goals themselves are pretty much the same.  Our conflict reminds me of an anecdote I heard on NPR when William Kunstler, the great civil rights lawyer and attorney of last resort for many left wing activists, died a few years ago.  The story was told by a Republican lawyer.  The GOP attorney reflected on the one time he exchanged words with Kunstler.  They were walking in opposite directions down a side street in Manhattan.  The storyteller recognized Kunstler and, with a wave and a smile, yelled, “Kunstler, you are an asshole!”  Without batting an eye, Kunstler responded, also with a big smile and a wave, “So are you!”

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