The Blind Manchurian Zone (gonzo fiction, satire, parody)

By Gonz Blinko


“Skip!  Skip!”  Yelled Governor Mordecai Huckleberry.  “Skip, get in here!”  Shouted the Arkansas politician from the sofa in his suite at the Concord Sheraton.


“Who’s Skip?”  Asked a clean cut young campaign aid as he entered the room.


“You are,” responded the conservative politician.


“No, I’m Scooter.  I don’t know any people called Skip,” he drawled with his Arkansan accent.


“Well, who ever you are, I need some rest, I need a real break before all of my hair falls out and I can’t take any more coffee without puking.”


“Governor, sir,” stammered Scooter, “the primary is less than two weeks away and the only breaks we can take are our little naps on the plane.  The are listed on your daily itinerary.”


“Gosh dang it Scooter, I am the flipping candidate, I’m the governor and I say I need a day off.”


“But our polling numbers have a slight lead, we may actually win this thing.”


“And climbing over snow banks to shake a few hands in some donut shop in some miserable village in this cold and wet state will make no difference,” countered Huckleberry.  “We are taking a day off.”



“I awoke to the gentle rocking of Samhara’s house boat anchored on the lee side of one of Florida’s 10,000 islands.  “You slept like a rock Gonz,” she said as she handed me a triple shot espresso.  “You missed a phone call earlier.”


“From who?”  I asked my attorney and took the first sip of my coffee.


“Some outdoor sports guy.  He says he likes your articles and that he wants to meet you.”


What’s his name?”


“Don’t know, he said he’d call back later.”


I popped a Chesterfield King into my mouth, lit it and took a long drag.  As I exhaled, I asked, “what sort of outdoor sports?”


“He didn’t say much other than he would call back later.”


I returned to my morning stimulants of choice, slid on a pair of flip flops and walked to the porch to enjoy the serenity of a balmy December Everglades morning.



“Shit!  Fucking shit!  You’d think the fucker was the only guy in America willing to discuss religion running for the nomination,” shouted Rom Mitney, former Governor of Massachusetts, NFL commissioner and founder of Great Dane Consulting and Capital investment group.  “Huckleberry is rising in the polls like a godamned bullet and nothing we do seems to have any effect.  I can understand Iowa but fucking New Hampshire?  Massachusetts candidates always do well up here.  Even Paul Tsongas won the first primary in this snow covered fucking wasteland!”  Continued the former governor of the state immediately to the south of where he stood.


Skip, his bright, young Harvard graduate senior aid took a step back and asked, “Like a bullet?  Who talks like that anymore?”


“You fuckers are too young to remember America’s Top Forty, perhaps the greatest program in rock and roll history.  My choice of simile notwithstanding, this morning’s numbers are the worst so far and we’re sinking faster than the Titanic.  You have heard of the Titanic I will assume?”


Skip had dealt with exceptionally egotistical politicians since he volunteered on the Bush senior campaign while still in high school.  As he thought that Rom simply needed a valium, he remained silent as the candidate continued to rant and rave about the daily tracking numbers.



The offices of Great Dane Consulting sat atop CopleyCenter in Boston.  A very fashionable address with a great view of the city and a short elevator ride downstairs to some excellent restaurants and candy stores.  Since the publication of “Confessions of a Corporate Killer” Great Dane had done its best to maintain a fairly low profile in spite of their very visible office space. 


They continued to receive government contracts to perform the same kind of tasks destabilizing governments, whacking opposition candidates in so-called free and fair elections abroad and they have everyone from Hugo Chavez to the far right wing leaders of Malaysia and Indonesia on their payroll.  Great Dane was, as a company, politically neutral, they donated the same very large sums to Democrats and Republicans in US elections and the cash flowing to them never ceased to grow from year to year.


The phone on Mike Epstein’s desk rang and disturbed his day dream about the hot new assistant.  He answered on the second ring, “Epstein.”


“It’s Skip, responded the campaign functionary.  “We’ve gotta talk.”




 “About what asked the VP of International relations.”


“Can’t discuss on the phone,” answered a somewhat shaken Skip.  “We need to talk in person today.”


“This line is completely secure, we use the same encryption that we designed for The Fort , no one has deciphered it yet.”


“The boss insists, no paper, no electronic communication, just face to face so get your tired old ass in a limo and get to Manchester as quickly as possible.”


The older VP sighed and asked, “What about a helicopter?”


“Too risky, it’s snowing up here and the winds are far too strong for a chopper.”


“I’ll see you in a couple of hours,” stated the older businessman.



“Skip,” shouted Huckleberry from his seat on their presidential campaign jet, “get Ed Phelps on the horn and tell him we’re on our way and we want to do some winter white tail hunting.”


“That’s Scooter, sir,” mumbled the aid who had been rejected by Harvard and only had the confidence of a Dartmouth frat boy which can easily be shaken in the company of the truly powerful.  “Where’s his number?”


“I don’t know you flipping moron, I don’t dial my own calls you and the others handle that.  Ask Gerry, the communications guy.”


“His name is Gordon,” stammered Skip.


“Whatever his name is, find him and get Phelps on the line and tell him we plan on hunting this afternoon.”



Just as I tied a clauser minnow onto the tippet of my eight weight G. Loomis GLX fly rod, the telephone on the house boat rang.  I could hear a gruff and very southern accented voice ask Samhara, “Is Mr. Blinko up yet?”  My attorney said, “hang on and I’ll check.”


“It’s the redneck outdoors guy again, are you awake?”


“I want to get to the snooking but I’ll talk to him to listen to what he may have to say.  Maybe we can get a story out of this, BC went on silent mode for the month and I like to write every day.”


Sam quipped, “Jerking off is all you do every day but here’s the phone so you can talk to the guy.”


I hit the button to turn the phone off of mute and said, “Blinko.”


“I’m Wade DuPont from the Arkansas Disabled Outdoorsmen Association.  I’m sure you’ve heard of us, we’re pretty big.”


“If I’ve heard of you, I’ve forgotten about it.  What do you want?”  I asked a bit irritated that I wasn’t casting into mangrove roots but, rather, talking on the phone to some redneck with an undue sense of self-importance.


“Our membership, especially the blind guys, really like your writing and we want to offer you a free trip up to Arkansas to do some winter hunting.  We’re going for white tail and we should do pretty well on them.”


“I can’t guarantee that I’ll write about it,” I said looking for excuses to continue lazing in the Glades.  “Also, I only hunt ducks and geese, it’s less likely that I’ll shoot another member of our group if I’m shooting into the sky.”


DuPont, sounding excited, said, “You’ve heard of technology haven’t you?”


“Uh, sure,” I replied a bit confused. as to what this nutcase was talking about.


“Well, a group over in Texas invented a scope like thing a blind person can attach to a rifle that identifies deer and, when you hear some kind of sound, you squeeze the trigger and you are all set up with fresh venison.”


“Yeah, I think I might have heard of that, it grew out of some military project, I think.  How does it work?  Infrared, laser, pattern recognition?”


“Uh… Yes… Well maybe no, shit I don’t know a fucking thing about the egghead stuff, actually.  It works for the guy in Texas and we hoped that you could inaugurate the system we bought for our blind friends up here in Arkansas.”






“I’m in the Glades, there is no airport nearby.”


“Give us your GPS coordinates and we’ll get a Scarab to you, run it up to Miami and you’ll be all set.”


“Sure,” I added, “Why not?  It might actually be fun.  One more thing though, I have no cold weather clothing with me.”


“We’ll take care of that,” said DuPont, “I’ll meet you at the airport personally.”


“Phelps!” shouted the state’s governor.  “You’re a sight for sore eyes.  I’m a bit sick of all of the smiling, handshakes and acting like I actually care less about some schmo eating lemon pie in a roadside diner.”


“I’ve got the gear all packed and a set of Columbia hunting clothes in your size and we can get started as soon as you’re ready.”


“Let’s go now,” said Huckleberry.


“You do have your hunting license with you don’t you?”


“I’m the flipping governor, I don’t need no stinking license.”


The two hopped into Phelps truck and headed out for the woods.



“It’s like this,” said Skip to Epstein, “Every quantitative bit of data we have shows Huckleberry rising and Rude Boy and Rom are fading fast.  We can lose Iowa but New Hampshire is a must win for us.”


“And?”  Asked the Dane consultant.


“Rom believes, if provided with the appropriate data, you will figure out the appropriate solution.”


“Ok, dump the data.”


First, Huckleberry placed a call to his favorite hunting guide and will be in the Arkansas wilderness all day tomorrow.  Second, we’ve got GPS transmitters all over Phelps so it should be easy to find them in the woods.”


“So, you’re suggesting a hunting trip?  You think I need a nice outdoors vacation?”  Epstein asked knowingly.


“Something like that,” replied Skip.


“Gonz Blinko, the blind journalist will also be hunting in the same area with some other disabled sportsmen using one of those infrared scopes that lock onto the heat signature of a deer.  He’s meeting a guy named DuPont at the Little Rock airport who will bring him out to shoot some white tail.”


“Hmm…” added Epstein, “tell the boss it’s under control.”


“Skip got out of the limo and the driver got back in.  “Driver, airport, charter hanger,” ordered Epstein.



I tried to think of a song to sing as I got off the puddle jumper in Little Rock but nothing about Arkansas stands out in my mind with enough distinction to remind me of any lyric.  “Gonz Blinko,” yelled a heavily accented voice.


“Yup,” I replied.


“Fred Johnson at your service.”


“What happened to DuPont?”  I asked as I had expected someone else to gather me at the airport.


“He got caught up in some business related to his day job.  I’ll be taking you out today.”


“What did you say your name is?”


“Fred Johnson but my friends call me Ratface cause of my skinny nose.”


“Some friends,” I mumbled as I stepped up into the SUV.


“You can go in back and change clothes, Samhara told us your size so it should all fit.”


“Over the river and through the woods,” I sang as I dressed.



Phelps and Huckleberry got out of the pickup and walked into the woods.  They started looking for signs of deer to follow.  Phelps recognized something and told the governor to follow.  Both men walked as quietly as possible.


“I love everything about this place,” whispered Huckleberry.


“Me too,” added Phelps as they wandered further into the forest.



“Here is your gun, tricked out for hunting deer without vision.  As an added precaution, it also sends a video image to my iPAQ so I can double check that you are aiming at a proper target.”  Said Johnson, “By the way, this quiet fellow with us is named Billy Bob, he’s pretty shy so don’t expect him to say much.  He is also a deadly shot so, even if you miss, he’ll make sure you have venison to bring home.”


“What sort of rifle is this?”  I asked as I’m more of a handgun kind of guy and couldn’t recognize it by feel.


“Thirty ought six, answered Johnson who then added in a comical voice, “Be very quiet, we’re hunting wabbits.”



Skip sat with his candidate in their Concord headquarters.  “Any word from the field staff?”  Asked Rom Mitney.


“Nothing yet but, according to the plan, they’ll just be getting started.”



Phelps asked the governor, “Can you hear that?”


“Sounds like something is happening about 150 yards off to our right.  Let’s walk in as cautiously as we can.”




“Gonz, can you hear that?”  Asked Johnson.


“Yeah, I think so, something off to our left.”


“Let’s kneel down and see what your sensors say.”


I lifted my rifle to my shoulder and slowly moved it around to try to locate the heat signature of a deer.  Johnson watched his iPAQ intently and Billy Bob remained silent except for very short breaths.


Suddenly, I heard a constant beep from my earpiece.  “You’re on her, squeeze the trigger and you’ll have a pile of delicious venison to bring home.”


I squeezed my trigger and heard two gun shots go off almost simultaneously.  “Billy Bob got one too!”  Said Johnson excitedly.


“What do we do now?” I asked as the thought of dragging a heavy and bloody carcass out of the woods started to sink in.


“Nothing,” said Johnson, “Billy Bob will call a couple of friends with ATV and they’ll haul the quarry back into town.  Eddie the butcher will clean it all up for you, vacuum pack it, put it  in ice and then FedEX it to any place you would like.”


“Isn’t that expensive,” I asked.


“It’s all part of the package we offer Gonz.  It’s too late for you to fly back tonight so we also got you a room at the lodge.  We’ll be eating rainbow trout tonight, a specialty of the house.”


“Sounds good.”



The phone rang in the New Hampshire suite.  “Skip,” answered the aid.


“Fresh venison tonight,” answered Epstein’s voice.


“How many?”  Asked Skip.


“Two bucks.”


“Perfect.  I’ll see you in Boston tomorrow,” added Skip.



Three days after Governor Huckleberry left for his day off, Scooter paced back and forth the suite.  “Did he go mental?”  He asked no one in particular.


“heck, he said Jesus told him to run for president, maybe Jesus changed his mind,” added a no name junior aid.



The guys at the lodge prepared an amazing dinner, making me certain to want to come back.  I enjoyed the hunting, the walk in the woods,, the clean, crisp air and the venison chile the lodge served as a side.


The following morning, one of the guys brought me a pot of coffee.  One taste and I practically gagged, “fucking Maxwell House,” I muttered but continued to drink it for my fix.


I poured a second cup, lit a Chesterfield and turned on a local television news station.  The lead story said that Arkansas Governor and presidential hopeful had gone AWOL for a couple of days.  “Look for him in a gay bath house, that’s where those preacher types can usually be found,” I said to no one in particular.


The second story said that local outdoorsman Wade DuPont was found floating face down in some dirty old river with three bullet holes in the back of his head.  “Probably some corrupt real estate guy wanting to get a conservationist out of the way,” I said aloud to the empty room.




This short story is highly influenced by three books that I’ve enjoyed over the years – thus, the peculiar title.  These books, “The Manchurian Candidate” by Joseph Conrad and the excellent movie made from the book starring Frank Sinatra in a non-singing role, “The Blind Assassin” by Margaret Atwood (one of this terrific writer’s more recent books and “The Dead Zone” by Stephen King. 


Recently, I received an invitation to go deer hunting with a group of Florida sportsmen with disabilities.  These are a great bunch of guys and, using the invention from Texas, I hope to bag a doe.  Of course, I will not change the rifle’s firmware back to its military purpose of locking onto the heat signature of a human being.


— End

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Christmas List

As every other type of blog that publishes about every other type of subject releases a “Christmas List” around this time of year that suggests ideas for good gifts for their readers, I thought I should do the Blind Confidential Christmas Gifts for Hipster Blinks.  This list will include a list of items both real and those I would like to see invented in the future which probably means they won’t make Christmas 2007 but we’ll put them in anyway for future years and/or decades.


In Order of Preference:


1.        A Victor Reader Stream portable reading device from Humanware ($329 at ILA, perhaps more or less elsewhere).


On Thursday, I talked on the phone to a friend of mine who works in the AT biz and would definitely show up on anyone’s list of industry experts.  We agreed that the Victor Reader Stream is the coolest new blindness hardware product in many years.  In my opinion, it’s the coolest new device in our market sector since FS released the PAC Mate with a mainstream operating system on a blind guy ghetto hardware platform.  Including software only products, I think the Vic holds the position of coolest new product since SATOGO.  My friend and I also agreed that, at $329, the Vic breaks new ground in the price/performance ratio of products designed specifically for us blinks.


One thing I do not know about at all is how the copyright laws regarding content one plays on the Vic work in countries outside of the US.  If you live here, you can get with its more than 35,000 titles in text Daisy format which sound great with the synthesizer on the Vic and NLS with its digital voice recordings of thousands of books from its enormous catalogue that you can download and and copy onto an SD card you can then stick into your device.  I do know that Jim Fruchterman has announced Bookshare International but I don’t know any of the details surrounding it.


The Vic is not without its problems.  I recommend that if you get the device the first thing you do is install the firmware upgrade downloadable from the Humanware web site.  The new firmware will let you play books from and provides fixes for a number of bugs.  Even with the update, there are a few bugs that one may encounter but nothing of real tragic proportions.


If you do not want to use a portable book reader or add yet another device to your collection of gadgets in your backpack, there are a few software only Daisy players out there that work on laptops and at least one that works on a PAC Mate.  In the past, I’ve used Dolphin’s Daisy reader which works pretty nicely and I’m told that they now distribute it without cost so the price is certainly right.  VictorSoft, a cost free reader is not in my opinion very good so, even though the price may be real good, the software still isn’t worth it.  FS Reader from Freedom Scientific is the best of the breed and, while I do not know its price, if you plan on using such a program often, it is well worth it.

2.       2. A Windows Mobile based cellular handset and a Copy of Mobile Speak Smartphone (MSS) from Code Factory (check a CF dealer for pricing on the screen reader and look for deals from mobile service providers for prices on phones).


I’ve long been an advocate of the Code Factory line of products and very strongly suggest that you try out an MSS or MSP based solution before looking at PAC Mate, BrailleNote or any of the other very pricey solutions.  If you plan on using such a device for heavy duty notetaking, I strongly recommend getting a Blue Tooth keyboard as the thumb based devices do not permit fast enough typing to do more than jot down a note, appointment or other short item.  If you are a Braille user, MSS and MSP support a variety of Blue Tooth Braille devices which take the notion of the PAC Mate removable Braille line a step further and a bit more convenient.


While I strongly prefer this solution to portable computing, many others tell me that they still like the feel of the devices designed specifically for blind users.  I have heard a lot of good stuff about Mark Mulcahey’s new GNU/Linux based handheld and I still believe in the PAC Mate and all of the off-the-shelf software available for it over the entirely BGG solutions.


3.        A really good tutorial for using Microsoft Word 2007 with a screen reader.


I have been a loyal user of Microsoft Word since version 3.0 for DOS which I bought at a Staples in Boston in 1986 and used on my ultra-fast 8 mhz 80286 based Epson AT clone.  I have used every version for DOS and Windows since and I’ve used a few Macintosh versions when I could still see a bit.  During that entire time, many keystrokes remained identical and, after 21 years of using them, they are burned into my neural pathways.  Thus, when I hit ALT+O, I expect to land in the Format menu as that’s what it has done for as long as I can remember.  In the past, I have complained that the Window-Eyes JAWS Keyboard simulation provides just enough compatibility to confuse the hell out of users and Microsoft Word 2007, with its claim of backward compatibility for keystrokes, is far worse.  There are aspects of Office 2007, like its contextual nature, that I like a lot but learning a pile of new keyboard commands is a real drag.


When I first got Office 2007, I listened to the excellent audio presentation Brian Hartgen did with JAWS, Window-Eyes and System Access.  For those struggling with Office 2007, I suggest looking at this one first.  Others may be in the making or may be out there that I haven’t encountered yet so please post a comment or send me an email if you know of such.


4.        A subscription to the System Access Mobile Network.


The System Access screen reader is quite good and updated frequently by Monster Matt Campbell with bug fixes and new features.  The network is worth the price for the DVS movies alone.  There’s not much more that I can say but give this product/service a ride and I think you will like it.


5.        A JAWS SMA


Sooner or later most blind users need to use JAWS and will likely need to use it on Vista in the near future.  An SMA costs a lot less than an upgrade and JAWS 9.0 is well worth the bucks, especially on Vista and in various Office applications.


6.        A 3D audio user interface for a screen reader.


I am currently working on an editor that will demonstrate many of these theoretical concepts but, while it will serve its specific purpose nicely, it is not a screen reader and will not provide multi-dimensional semantic information in mainstream applications.  I hope someone can pick up my work and port it to one of the open source screen readers to advance the research and, perhaps, the expensive AT products will give it a try after a while.


7.        Cities that start planning for and including people with disabilities in their plans and actual projects.


See yesterday’s post.


Well, that’s about all I can think of right now and it’s time for the dog and I to work off a bit of fat so I’ll end here.  Please send in your ideas for cool gadgets and other technology stuff that you would like to find under the tree this year.


n  End


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Open Letter to St Pete Times



Dear Editor,


I live with my wife, our pet dog and my guide dog X-Celerator on 8th St. near 30 Ave. in St. Petersburg.  As you may have surmised by my naming a guide dog as a member of the family, I am blind.  In the most technical of terms, I live with a severe vision impairment which, translated to normal English means that I have no usable vision but can detect some light but not objects or anything useful through my eyes.


Almost every day, X-Celerator (don’t ask how he got his name as the story is too long and quite boring) and I go out for an exercise walk.  I have managed to memorize which streets in my neighborhood do and do not have sidewalks as our city planners seem to have selected randomly where such should start and stop and simply poured cement in an arbitrary pattern of parallel and perpendicular lines.  On the east side of my street for instance, the side walk starts in front of my house and runs north in front of two more houses; the most perplexing aspect of this bit of concrete is that none of these houses sit on a corner.  Thus, we have a sidewalk from our home to that of a neighbor but not to 30th or 31st Ave., the terminal spots of our block. Thus, upon leaving my house to go south, I need to walk with my guide dog across a bit of the neighbor’s lawn until we find his driveway , turn south on the street and, if we’re heading east, rejoin the sidewalk once we’ve passed his house.  To make matters more confusing, we’ve been cited by whichever governing body within the city bureaucracy handles such things for having some tall decorative plants leaning over the sidewalk that goes nowhere, hence, has no pedestrians to be disturbed by the excess foliage.


As a responsible guide dog handler, I pick up after X-Celerator when he “does his business”during our morning walks.  I gather his solid waste in a bio-degradable bag designed for this specific purpose and purchased at a pet store.  When I’ve gathered all that he left behind, I tie the bag closed and continue on our walk.  The second major problem with the sidewalks of our fair city is the complete absence of public receptacles of any kind; there are simply no trash barrels on or near any of the sidewalks on either the major or minor streets in the area.


Often, our exercise walk takes us some distance and I must admit that carrying a bag of poop for a couple of miles aggravates the carrier and severely distracts from the fashion statement made by the guide dog handler.  Simply put, where does one get shoes to match this sort of bag?


We frequently walk on Martin Luther King St. where I’ve grown friendly with a bunch of guys who work in establishments that service automobiles in some way or another.  The mechanic guys, when they spot me carrying the doggie doo-doo, almost always drop what they are doing and run out to help me find a place to throw it away.  Thus, I’ve some familiarity of the dumpsters behind businesses on one particularly busy street.  Most others just look at me and I suppose they think, “look at the poor blind guy with the pretty yellow Labrador and the bag of feces in his hand,” these people try to pass me as silently and quickly as possible.


So, I have decided to take matters of sidewalks, the foliage that overhangs them that strikes me in the face and the lack of public garbage cans into my own hands.  On streets where sidewalks do not exist, I will try to encourage x-Celerator to do his business and leave it where it lands as I will assume that the lack of a sidewalk means the presumption of no pedestrians, hence, no one to step in the poop I leave on random citizens’ lawns.  If the street does have a sidewalk, I will try to find a proper place to dispose of my plastic bag and, if I do not find one within a block or so, I will leave it on the grass abutting the sidewalk at the next intersection.


I will take a two pronged strategy toward the overhanging foliage: first, if I happen to have a bag of poop in hand, I will tie the baggie to the overhanging branch as a measure of civil disobedience and a bit of kenetic sculpture that may help raise the artistic values of our community.  Second, I will go to Sears and buy myself one of those rechargeable, battery operated hedge clipper low power chain saw things and start carrying it with me on my walks – yes boys and girls, a blind person armed with a power tool roaming the sidewalks and defending himself against the trees, bushes and such that terrorize his head and limbs as he walks by will be on the loose in our placid, seaside community.


Obviously, I wrote much of the above in gets and will not likely take all of the actions I can imagine against a town that pretends to be a city that really cares less about those of us with vision impairments and, to a large extent, disabilities of any kind.  I ask only that Mayor Baker and our city counsel take action to complete the sidewalk construction in our city and put a few trash barrels here and there to cut down on litter in general and dog poop in particular.  Finally, I ask that the city enforce regulations involving plant growth that obstructs sidewalks before I have my face or arms scraped and call the city to send someone out to deal with the objectionable growth – this can probably be accomplished by having city workers out and about for other purposes take note of such and report them at the end of each day to the individual or department responsible for enforcement of these rules.



Christian D. Hofstader



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Christmas Comes Early–Bringing New Toys!

I recently acquired some new fun tech toys, and finally found the time to get to know some of my old gadgets better as well.

First. My husband gave me a VictorReader Stream as an early Christmas present. I am really enjoying it so far, and wanted to share some of my experiences with it to hopefully save others some of the trial and error I went through when setting it up.

Upgrading the software.

For those who don’t know, HumanWare recently released a software upgrade that allows the VR Stream to work with Audible books. As a long time Audible subscriber, I was very excited about this. Here are some important things to know about installing the upgrade:

1. You need a card reader for the SD card you intend to use in the VR Stream. This is because the only way to get the upgrade onto the player is to place the file onto the SD card (via a reader) before inserting it back into the VR Stream. In other words, you can’t just connect the Stream to your computer via USB cable, and transfer the file that way.

Chris informed me that I could buy a card (with its own reader included) at my local electronics store. I did find a 4 GB card (with reader) at my neighborhood Best Buy, but was told by the sales guy that very soon the cards will no longer be packaged with readers. The reason is that the older card readers (probably like the one I have that is four years old) didn’t recognize the larger cards. Now that the newer card readers (like the kind that recognize 12 different kinds of media) are standard, they’re doing away with the bundling of cards with their own readers. This is a bit disappointing, since the card readers (on their own) are $40, and the one that came packaged with the card I bought priced out at around $5.

2. You must have the VR Stream plugged into the wall before putting the card back into it, and attempting the upgrade install.

Once those things are done, the install is very painless. It only took a matter of seconds. To verify that all was updated, I just hit the info key to hear the version of the software I was running.

Audible Books and VR Stream.

This was a bit confusing, so I’ll go over some of the things I learned here:

1. HumanWare is actually now a recognized brand of device on the Audible sight, and you can even specify that you are using a VR Stream.

2. When you go to the Software Downloads area from the Device Manager page, there are several versions of the Audible Manager to choose from. You actually need to choose the one for iPods (not intuitive, but true). Before making the selection, connect the Stream to your computer via USB, so the software can be downloaded directly onto the player.

3. During the install process, you’ll see a bunch of checkboxes that allow you to tell Audible where to put books when they get downloaded from your Audible Library. There’s one that tells Audible to dump books into your Audible Manager Library List, and onto the Stream at the same time. The books get dumped into a special folder on the SD card (set up automatically for you by VR Stream). Then, when you navigate your Stream Book Shelf later, you’ll actually hear an option for Audible Books.

4. Once the software has been downloaded, you will be prompted for your Audible username and password to activate the Stream. Then you just need to add it as a device, using the Audible Manager Devices Menu. Again, the VictorReader Stream is actually on the long list of supported devices that appears when you tell the program you want to add a new player.

5. Finally, another important thing to know is that the VR Stream only supports Audible files in format 4. It will not play any of the files in the lower quality formats (like 2 or 3). When you choose to download a file from your online Library, you’ll see a “Choose File Format” combobox directly before the “Download It” button. Make sure the value in that combobox is set to 4.

Non-Standard Audio File Formats and the VR Stream.

I took a bunch of time to transfer several files from my computer’s music library onto the SD card for my Stream. I was really pissed off when I realized that the player wouldn’t recognize any of the files I had imported onto my computer with iTunes. Can I just say that I really hate Apple. I mean. The Cd’s are *mine*! I bought them with my own money! I didn’t download them illegally, or anything like that. Who the hell is Apple to try to tell me what I’m allowed to do with my own music, and who the hell are they to restrict the types of players I can play my own music on—particularly when they can’t be bothered to make any of their own iPods accessible to blind people. Damn. That really chaps my hide!

Anyway, after hanging out with my friend Google for awhile, I discovered that there are conversion tools that allow you to convert Apple and Microsoft’s stupid proprietary formats into files that are actually usable. Here’s the catch, however. Some of the software is free (but these programs often only allow you to convert part of each track, instead of the whole thing). Some of the software can be purchased for a small fee, (but the interfaces are totally inaccessible and unintuitive). I played around with (and promptly uninstalled) demos for four of these tools, before I finally found one called Switch. Not only is this application free…it is totally accessible! I wrote the developers an email to tell them that they rock!

So now, all I have to do is put the files I want to hear on the stream into this list in the application (an accessible process, because the dialog operates like a standard Windows dialog), and then hit the “Convert” button (which, incidentally, has been correctly labeled, and doesn’t appear as some graphic with a totally meaningless number).

NLS Digital Talking Books with VR Stream.

NLS has a pilot Web site that allows people with players like the Stream to sample their ever-growing collection of downloadable digital talking books. I haven’t listened to any of the books yet, but I have managed to get a few downloaded and onto my computer. I’ll let you know how that goes, but the most complicated part about this (and it wasn’t a big deal), was that I had to visit the NLS web site
and send them a general email explaining that I was a qualified NLS subscriber, and that I wanted to participate in their pilot project.

They sent me a link to an online application, and within a day, they sent me a temporary password and username. The books on the site can be located by author, subject, or title. It’s a very simply laid out site that has been easy to use so far. Caution: don’t try to download more than one book at once. The site seems to throw up. So…other than being time consuming, it looks cool so far.

I’ll write more tomorrow about my adventures with my BlackJack and my Brailliant.

Hope all are well. For those who have been in a deep freeze like we have been here, I feel your pain. I am counting the days until ATIA.

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The Letter A

Depending upon which person, company or organization involved in disability issues publishes something regarding At, we can assume with near 100% confidence that the “T” in the abbreviation means technology.  But, what does the “A” stand for?


This morning, when on a telephone call with Mike Calvo, CEO of Serotek, authors of the increasingly popular System Access screen reader among other things, said, “Adaptive Technology.”  AIA, the new accessibility organization that claims it will harmonize standards (something difficult to impossible without Freedom Scientific, Serotek, IBM, Humanware, Mark Mulcahey, Apple or Sun involved) and ATIA, the technology industry association, use the word assistive to precede technology in their expansion of the abbreviation.  Finally, I have used and read others suggesting that the “A” stands for access as the technology can be used by an individual to access something otherwise out of their reach due to their specific disability.


Of the three, I dislike “assistive” the most and like “access” the most.  Of course, I am a word nerd and I probably spend too much time thinking about such things but contemplating semantics makes me happy so I do it a lot.  Such contemplations also help in word puzzles which I find to be a lot of fun.


Many years ago, when I first met Ted Henter, he taught me what he feels is the appropriate use of language surrounding technology targeted toward people with disabilities.  In brief, at HJ, we never used the phrase, “JAWS Helps blind people do…”  In fact, we never claimed that anything we produced “helped” anyone.  Ted’s choice of words tells more about the difference between a blind CEO and one who actually believes his work “assists” a person in any way shape or form.


AT products are tools.  Thus, one should think of a screen reader in the same manner as a Craftsman chain saw from Sears.  If I, as a person with a number of fruit trees in my yard, use the Craftsman tool to prune my grapefruit, fig and orange trees, Sears has done nothing to “help” me; they just sold me a tool at a profit and happily continued along in their business.  If I had brought home the same chain saw and left it in my shed to rust, Sears would not have hindered my gardening but, rather, they would have profitably sold me a chain saw that I elected not to use.


If a person with vision impairment buys a copy of JAWS, Window-Eyes, System Access or HAL, they have paid a company making a profit for a tool that they can use to access information on a computer that they can use for whatever purpose they like.  Some will use JAWS to perform computing tasks involved in their job; others will use Window-Eyes to send emails and enjoy instant messaging with their friends and family; another might use HAL to write reports and other tasks involved in getting an education, etc.  Another group of blind people may get a computer and any of these popular screen readers and let the machine sit in their house collecting dust.  Thus, AT companies don’t help anyone but themselves by making a profit.


Sighted people feel good when they can claim that they help we pathetic blinks accomplish something.  AT companies run by sighties use this concept of helping desperate blind people as a marketing tool (read any of their web sites (except FS) and you will find language suggesting that these companies “help” us) and will try to leverage our need for their help to sell more product.


The reality is that blind people can use a screen reader like any other tool.  They can use it to perform the tasks that will get them a good education that will then lead to a good job.  They may use the same to play games and screw around with their friends online and, in most cases, blinks will use screen readers for home work and play.  In none of these cases does the screen reader help them; they help themselves and any organization that thinks otherwise can kiss my bony white ass.


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Three New Products

In the past couple of weeks I have started using three new products that all make some aspect of living blind a little more convenient.  I thought I would share a paragraph or two about each as I think BC readers may enjoy them as well.  I’ll go in reverse price order from the most to the least expensive.


On Tuesday, I got a box from Independent Living Aids (ILA) containing my Victor Reader Stream.  First off, I’m not sure whether the product’s actual name is Victor Stream, Victor Reader or Victor Reader Stream as all three terms appear somewhere in the associated documentation.  I guess I can call it anything so, in memory of my Uncle Victor Bastek, a Navy frogman who survived the Normandy invasion as well as missions in the Korean conflict, I’ll call it Vic because that’s what we called him.


I tend to dislike “blind guy ghetto” products and Vic certainly falls into this category but having a single device that plays almost every format I can imagine, including the various dialects of Daisy, warmed me to the idea of this device.  Once it arrived and I spent some time handling it, I came to the conclusion that, aside from the cute little talking compass made in Australia,  this may be the most elegantly designed “blind guy ghetto” device I’ve ever encountered (I have never touched a Book Port but people tell me it’s very nice as well).  People comfortable with new technology products can get up and using Vic pretty quickly with a swift read of the Quick Start Guide and turning it on without having an SD card inserted which puts the device into a mode similar to keyboard help (INSERT+1) in JAWS.


I like the sound of Vic’s synthesized voice and its form factor, approximately the size of a deck of poker playing cards.  The only thing I don’t care for (thus far) is its case but I need something to complain about everything I buy.  The Victor Reader Stream is $329 at ILA but I’m told that Sendero Group and some others have it for $299 or perhaps less.


The second new item to enter my life this week is a Tassimo coffee Machine .  This product designed for a mainstream audience provides the most convenient manner of making coffee, tea and other hot beverages that a blind person will find anywhere.  The coffee grounds, tea, chocolate, etc. comes in plastic disks which one puts in the top of the machine which then reads a bar code on the disk and prepares the beverage you desire to near perfection.  I’ve owned a number of different espresso/cappuccino machines over the years and never made a single cup as good as the first one I made with this pot.


My only complaint about the Tassimo product is that it doesn’t contain a speech synthesizer.  If such could be added, the device could announce what kind of disk one had inserted before making a beverage so if a blind user wants a wide variety of different drinks, it would be helpful to be certain that one put the correct disk in the pot before brewing.


The Tassimo machine costs about $168 at various department stores but you can go to their web site and find all sorts of pointers to different discounts, packaged deals that include the machine and some beverages and, of course, lots of places from which you can order coffee, tea, chocolate, etc.


Lastly, I used the new User Centric Licensing scheme in Mobile Speak Smartphone this week.  Code Factory has come up with what is hands down the most convenient solution to software authorization, the least well liked feature of virtually all AT software products.  The UCL kicks ass and I would hope others can move to such a scheme soon.


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