The Budcast: Fopydo Scanning Stand

It’s been a long, long time since I’ve posted anything like a podcast. True, this isn’t much like much of anything, but I wanted to get it out as soon as possible, without a lot of fuss. So, in my usual, casual, unedited and sloppy style, here it is.

The folks at Fopydo have developed some low-cost stands for general photo taking and document digitizing with an iPhone, tablet, or digital camera. After expressing some interest in these, I was able to test some of their offerings. The latest is a stand that Fopydo has designed specifically with the needs of blind and visually impaired OCR users in mind. At a projected selling price of $10, this is going to be a hard one to beat. In this latest Budcast, I describe the stand and put it briefly through its paces.

If you’re interested in finding out more about the stand, or about a projected availability date, drop Fopydo an Email as directed on their web site. Tomek is definitely interested in our needs and in making a product that will be of benefit to us.

One thing I forgot to mention in the recording is that there are holes in the back of the stand to assist with raising the stand to capture larger documents. These guide holes help to ensure that both sides of the stand are level and the height is predictable. The guide holes are on both sides where the L-shaped base wires fit in the back of the stand.

Has the promise of the Internet been broken?

Yesterday morning over breakfast, I read this article. It was probably not the best thing to read pretty much first thing in the morning, but there it was, and it gnawed at me all day. And kept on, even today. It disturbed me. No, I wasn’t surprised by it, hardly anything people do surprises me much anymore, especially if it’s bizarre and doesn’t make any sense. It did, however, deeply, deeply sadden me. Here’s what I wrote in the comments immediately after reading.

This makes me unbelievably sad. Just a couple thoughts. I’ve been on the Internet for 22+ years, a thing that scares me a little if I think about it. From those beginnings, when the Internet really was all text, limited to mostly educational and government users (along with some tech companies and very savvy folks–commercial ISP’s were pretty rare), it was, mostly, a free exchange of ideas. It was “the great equalizer”, where all you were in that space was what you said and how you expressed yourself. It was exciting. It was amazing. I had great optimism for this new medium, not because I could be whoever I wanted to be, but because I could be myself. Disability wasn’t a stigma. Nobody had to care that I was blind, only that I was (umm…OK, stretching a point) intelligent. To see this thing with so much potential for bringing very different kinds of people together being turned into, well, a playground for small minds and intolerance makes me despair anew. I, for one, am sorry. I also always read bios, because I think people are pretty interesting. I don’t know you. I’ve never seen you before, never read your tweets, know nothing more than this post from you. I, for one, am looking forward to changing that.

This leads me to a question. Has the promise of the Internet been broken?

Oh, sure. The Internet promised lots of things. It promised instant access to information and entertainment. Eventually, it promised easy and convenient shopping. It delivered on all that. (Of course, it also delivered lots of other things, like spam, but we’re not here to talk about that…or maybe we are, sort of.) The Internet has, indeed, delivered on all of that. I have access to more books than I could read in a lifetime, and better, at the same time as everyone else has them. I can do my own shopping and never have to hear some store employee who’d really rather be doing anything than help me say that “We ain’t got that”, even if it’s sitting right in front of his nose. I can write posts like this and have them read by total strangers, and I can be the total stranger who reads someone else’s opinions as well, and comment on them in real time. I can get news as it happens, unfiltered and immediate, which may not necessarily be a good thing, because I can also get all the rumors, misdirections, unconfirmed speculations, and contradictions from everyone needing to get the story first.

But what I can’t get, what Jamie can’t get, is that thing that was so liberating back when I discovered the Internet for the first time. I can’t think of the word for it. Respect? Equal treatment? It’s one of those things that you know when you see it.

Back when our online existence was limited to 25 lines by 80 characters, give or take, all anyone knew about yu was what you posted, and for everyone, that was text. Your thoughts, your opinions, defined you. It was a “level playing field”, and everyone had the same tools of expression. Oh, sure, there were the guys in their basements who never saw a woman before who would call for “gender check” on IRC and would virtually hit on any woman there, but for the most part, our exchanges were exchanges of ideas. I remember thinking that this was really how it should be. We should be able to get to know each other without prejudice, and, in doing so, maybe we’d all be better for it. That I was blind, or so and so was black, or a woman, or short, or didn’t speak well, or any number of things that would isolate someone, weren’t issues here. This one comic I remember summed it up well with its tag line: “On the Internet, nobody knows that you’re a dog.”

Except, now, they do.

That glorious time when our Internet persona was nothing more nor less than how you expressed yourself is gone. Commonplace, very fast connections have made it possible to have graphics, photos, and full motion video and sound. Now, all of those things that didn’t matter before have moved into this space as well. Now, the Internet is just an extension of all the ills of “out there”, but it’s even worse. Because there’s that distance still. People can still hide behind a keyboard and say things they’d never dream of saying to your face, because they aren’t. After all, there’s no one real on the other end. I once had some random person tell me, when my wife was recovering from a very serious heart operation, that we should consider euthanasia for her. OK, remember when I said very little shocks me anymore? That did. So all the prejudice, bigotry, venom, and invective that’s out there is amped up another notch in here, a place that used to be safe, a place where we discussed things as one human being to another.

No, of course it wasn’t all roses and candy way back when. There was alt.flame, after all. But still, things were a lot more civil, and the signal to noise ratio was much, much higher. On today’s Internet, I can’t read the comments often, because they make me too angry.

Maybe the Internet didn’t intend to promise that we’d evolve as human beings and we’d be able to take our level playing field of ideas to the wider world. Maybe it didn’t promise that to anyone but me. Maybe it didn’t promise anything at all, but I just assumed that it did. I wish I knew. I wish we would grow up as a race, as one race (that being human), and value each other for who we are individually. That was the promise I saw back in 1992. Instead, we are divided, we tear each other down, screw the next guy so long as I get mine, you have no value because you’re different from me, and there are no consequences for my being a complete ass, because this is the Internet and no one knows who I am.

I’m not really sure where I’m going with this. I wasn’t so sure when I started, only that I needed to sort out my feelings about it. I don’t have answers. I don’t know why we can’t just leave our bigotry and prejudice at the door. I understand and accept that as human beings, we all have prejudice. If someone tells you that he does not, he is lying, either to you or to himself. It’s an unfortunate part of the human condition. One of the really great things about being human, however, is that we have reason. Well, we’re supposed to have reason anyway. So can we not use that reason to acknowledge that, yes, I have a prejudice, or such and such kinds of people make me uncomfortable. Recognize this, then resolve to go beyond it. Simple to say, harder to do, but an we please start by veing polite and listening respectfully to other people’s ideas and viewpoints? Maybe if we can see something from the other guy’s point of view, we can all get along better. Maybe we can then find the things that bring us together rather than the ones that will tear us apart. It’s a start, anyway.

Well, I guess i didn’t really answer the question, and I also didn’t really clear this up in my own mind. I’m not really feeling any better about it either. Zero for three this time. Sorry. Better luck next time.

I gotta pay how much to use Facebook?!

Today, GW Micro announced a new product called SocialEyes. This is a piece of software that is meant to give blind Windows users a more accessible, consistent interface to Facebook and all of its features. As you can imagine, discussion of this new offering on the GW-Info Email list was quite heated, both for and against. Some people said that it was ridiculous to charge for access to Facebook, and it would be well to just include better Web support in Window-Eyes to begin with, while others said that those guys should be grateful for the work that GW is doing and quit their gritching. This is a somewhat simplified accounting of the discussion, but it’s the usual sort of thing. Find below my contribution to the discussion.

Hi,

My comments about product naming aside, I guess for better or worse, I’m weighing in, too.

OK, GW Micro asks what people want to see better access to. Consumers (you and me, except I didn’t) respond. GW listens. This is excellent, actually, since GW Micro listened to the needs and wants of their users and put something together to accommodate.

But it’s too expensive! Sighted people don’t have to pay $50 to use Facebook.

Neither do you. What you do have the option to pay for is something to make using Facebook more convenient. You can choose to have that convenience, or not. Yes, convenience. You know those little stores on the corner? Like 7-11, Circle K, Diamond Scamrock, places like that? They’re called “Convenience stores”, and their prices are generally higher than similar or identical goods in a big box store or grocery store. Why? You’re paying for the convenience of not having to go all the way to a grocery store, search the shelves, and get what you want. You’re paying for the convenience of a short drive and a quick nip into the store for a gallon of bread and a loaf of milk. In similar fashion, subscribing to this app, or the Socializer in SAMNet, or GW Connect, can be viewed in a similar way.

Beyond that though, full disclosure. It’s no secret that I work for another AT company, I’m fairly sure that most people probably know which one. Even so, I’m a Window-Eyes user. I’m also an NVDA user. And, of course, a System Access user. And a Mac user. And an iPhone user. And to a limited extent, a Chromebook user. Yep. Fingers in lots of pies. Anyway, all that to say, I have some idea of what goes into making some of this stuff go, especially as concerns things like keeping up with the ever-changing landscape of things like Facebook, things that change on seemingly nothing more than a whim. Keepin up with that takes people. People gotta eat. In our current system of doing things, this means money, and that’s got to come from somewhere. If this was a do once and forget it kind of deal, that would be fantastic, but it’s not. Anyone who’s ever looked at the Facebook site from month to month, even week to week, knows that. So if the product is needed, and enough people see the value in it, it will get bought and maintained and succeed. If not, it will fail, and the developers will go off and do something else for a while. Pretty simple. TANSTAAFL and all that.

Someone, or someones, mentioned NVDA. NVDA is fantastic. It’s well done, it’s matured nicely, it does lots of great things, and it’s free. Let’s be clear though, NVDA is free software in the GNU definition of free. This means that you have the freedom to redistribute it, to modify it, to share your modifications. It also happens to be no cost, or “free as in beer”, but it doesn’t have to be in order to be “free software”. But I digress somewhat.

You’ll note that development of NVDA, even though it’s free, takes money as well. Some of this money is had through grants from big companies. These grants, to some extent, likely also drive the direction it goes (i.e. it will have better support for Adobe Reader because Adobe threw money at them). Some of this money comes from you, the end user, which is why you are asked to donate every time you update. You can choose to, or not, but understand that someone, somewhere, has to pay something. Even if no on pays anything, the developers pay in cost of their time, which could be spent doing something that did pay them. TANSTAAFL, again.

Would I like everything to be free and work for us without any extra effort? Damn skippy I would. In my ideal world, we wouldn’t need companies like GW Micro, Serotek, Freedom Giantific, and the rest, because access would be built in, would not be an afterthought, and would work 100% of the time for all populations who need it. Unfortunately, this isn’t the reality, and it likely will never be the reality. Sure, it’s a lot better now. The fact that we’re even entertaining this discussion, that we can even think about expecting such access, would have been unheard of five years ago. It will likely get even better in the future, and a day when universal access is the norm rather than the exception seems likely to me. (This will present its own set of problems, but this post is long enough already.) And anyway, that day isn’t here yet.

So, yeah. Buy it if it’s useful and convenient for you. Don’t if it isn’t. It’s really pretty simple. Even though I have the Socializer, and even though I use lots of other things, it is likely that I’ll buy it myself, if for no other reason than to have another option, because it’s convenient.

A Note of Thanks to Amazon

I just sent the following note to Amazon, and hopefully it goes to the right place. Last time I sent a note to them about Kindle, it was a lot less happy than this one.

You can send your own feedback to kindle-feedback@amazon.com . Please do, actually. Here’s mine.

Hi,

It’s been a week, and I’ve been remiss.

I’ve been remiss in expressing my sincere thanks for the accessibility improvements for blind readers that have been made in the latest version of the Kindle app for iOS. I’m sure that you’ve seen the excitement surrounding this, and I hope you’ve gotten many notes of appreciation and thanks.

Since I connected to the Internet for the first time 22 years ago (yes, really), I have seen that the Internet could,and would, afford more access to more information to people with print disabilities than we’ve ever had. This has been true, in spite of many artificial barriers that we’ve had to conquer from time to time. But even with as much access to information, not to mention pleasure reading, that we’ve had due to having open and ubiquitous access to the Internet, we knew that there was still much that was off limits to us. Now, with ebooks surpassing print books in popularity, this is a new world. The Amazon Kindle app becoming usable for print disabled iPhone users, it is safe to say without any danger of hyperbole, truly is the beginning of our information age. This is to us a bit like Gutenberg’s printing press, where we have books available to us on a scale that was absolutely unheard of two weeks ago. Even better, it is technologically possible for us to have these books in braille or synthesized speech or large print, as our needs dictate. (The high cost of braille displays is another matter that needs addressed, but I won’t address that here.)

It’s true that we want, and need, access to hardware Kindle devices, not to mention Kindle on other supported platforms, for the field to be truly level. With this recent release, I feel confident that Amazon will indeed deliver on this need. Had you asked me two weeks ago, I wouldn’t have been so confident, but I’m glad that you guys took the time to do it right, instead of hurrying to do it right now. Here’s hoping for more in this vein, although hopefully in a shorter time. I, for one, would love to whip out a Kindle full of books, although, I must admit, I’m very content with a phone full of Kindle.

If you’d like to read my thoughts on the NFB press release about the release (obviously, I have some, and they don’t seem to agree with it by much), you can do so here:
http://buddy.brannan.name/blog/2013/05/amazon-kindle-accessibility-what/

Amazon Kindle Accessibility: What?!

This week, the blind and visually impaired community got a surprise, one that we’ve been waiting for for a long time, and one that, it’s safe to say, most of us weren’t expecting. (This would be why it was a surprise, right?) Amazon announced that its Kindle app for iOS now had new accessibility features, thus making the app usable by blind and visually impaired iPhone users. They also promise improvements to accessibility on their other platforms. You can read about it at this link. I downloaded the app, with a great deal of excitement and anticipation I might add, and it appears to be everything they say it is, with access to not only the reading of books, but also highlighting, Emailing excerpts, notes, looking up words in the dictionary, and searches. In short, this app seems to have done it right, rather than doing it fast.

The day after Amazon’s announcement, I got an Email from this press release. I thought I was responding to an Email list–it was early still, and I was still waking up, but I instead seem to have Emailed instead to either the NFB’s other PR person or to the guy that runs iBooks and the Nook reader from Barnes and Noble. I think, though haven’t looked in a while, that it may well be better than KNFB’s own Blio, which should probably embarrass somebody. So, specifically, what improvements would we suggest?

In this Email, I neglected to mention Kobo or Google Play books, both of which have at least some access features, or at least, work to some extent with commending of a far inferior implementation in 2009, this current press release almost sounds angry that Amazon did anything about the problem.

I’ve played a bit with this newly accessible Kindle app, and it’s good. It was done right. Where’s the acknowledgement of that? Why commend a half-baked effort that is unsuitable for more than the most casual reading on one hand, but practically spit at a stellar example of what can be done on the other? Could it be because Amazon did it without asking for the NFB’s blessing or input first? In fact, it looks like they may not have asked for anyone’s input, as this came as a real bombshell of an announcement with no leaks.

Really, those of y’all in the national office, would a “Good work, guys, thanks” and virtual pat on the back really be that difficult? Would it hurt you so much? It would certainly do a lot to raise your PR standing in the community. Absolutely do not back away from the stance that access to Kindle on other platforms is necessary, even vital. Please don’t. Such access is critical, and we should not rest until we have it. I have no quarrel with that. But would some recognition of a good effort in which you did not have a hand really be so bad?

By way of full disclosure, I am an active member of the National Federation of the Blind. I have been one for over 20 years. Until a more effective membership organization that mirrors my own philosophy of blindness comes along, I expect to continue to be thus affiliated. That said, I fully expect that this post will not make me very popular among the leadership.

Update: The NFB’s technology center has published a review of the Kindle app, which you can read on the center’s blog. I think that the justifications for grading are fair, and I also believe the criticisms are equally fair. As I haven’t tested all these features myself, I have no reason to argue with their findings. I may well have weighted things differently, and I might have been a bit more forgiving for this being their first run at it. I may not, too. At any rate, I have no quarrel with the review, and if Amazon endeavors to improve the accessibility features they’ve implemented, we’ll all be better for it. Watch this space, I guess.

Even so, I stand by my opinion that the tone of the press release could have been more positive and supportive of these initial efforts on the iOS platform, long time in coming though they are.

Update #2: 05/07/2013:

Here’s a link to a different take on how Amazon did with implementing accessibility features. This review is much more positive, and it doesn’t seem to have run into the same problems that the NFB technology center did in their review. While some might say I’m waffling, I also have no quarrel with this review, think its points are also valid, and believe that it was conducted in good faith and as objectively as possible, excitement over access to over a million titles notwithstanding. It’s certainly possible that the reading experience differs between iPad and iPhone, where bugs may exist in one and not the other, and there may also be problems with braille display driver implementations or conflicts. I think all of us will be interested to see how more hardware combinations do with the new Kindle app.

The Budcast: Chromebook Accessibility

I haven’t done one of these in a while, so I figured it was about time.

In this episode of the Budcast, which is un-numbered because I can’t count that high, we look at the initial setup of the Chromebook and the state of its accessibility. Google has asked several people in the blind/VI community to assist with accessibility testing, and I was lucky enough to be one of those.

While there are a couple rough edges, and a show stopper or two (which we don’t get to in this episode), Google has a great start on making the Chromebook accessible. We do see a couple of those “rough edges” in this podcast, and I’m sure we’ll find more. Hopefully though, as time goes on and more of us have our hands on this stuff, things will improve.

As ever, you can contact me via Email or Twitter with any comments or questions.

Enjoy!

Budcast #8: Introducing The Pogoplug

There are three kinds of people in the world: those who can count, and those who can’t.

I accidentally called this #7 originally. Oops. It’s really #8.

In Budcast #8, we introduce you to the Pogoplug from Cloud Engines. One correction: apparently the default settings for MP3 on the Zoom H1 are 128KBps, not 48 KBps. Sorry. Find out more about the Pogoplug at http://www.pogoplug.com

Budcast #3: Random Musings And A Walk To Harbor Freight

In BudCast #3, take a walk with me to Harbor Freight to exchange an air pump. On the way (and on the way home), we meet neighbors and friends, stop in at Radio Shack, and of course, exchange the air pump. Today, we discuss lots of things in brief:

Also, it’s out! The new album from Those Who Dig, “Little Bitty Barley House”, recorded live this past fall, is out. Go andget your Mitochondria fix now, and tell ’em I sent you. OK?

SMA, RIP: Significant To the AT Industry, Not a Huge Change For Serotek

Today at the ATIA Conference, Mike Calvo, CEO of Serotek, announced that, as of today, “the Software Maintenance Agreement (SMA) is dead.” Apparently, Serotek had tombstones at their exhibit to mark their passing.

So what’s the big deal, you ask?

For years, the major players in the AT space–the people who make the screen readers for, generally, Windows-based computers, have sold “software maintenance agreements” (SMA’s), to their customers who wish to keep their screen readers up to date with the latest updates, features, and operating system and software application changes. These agreements differ somewhat in how they’re constructed, whether lasting for a year or a certain number of major version upgrades, and they cost somewhere between $150 and $350. Users are encouraged to buy a new agreement shortly before the old one expires, and not doing so usually means one has to pay for all the intervening upgrades from the one he owns to the current one. This could cost several hundreds of dollars. In any case, the SMA has been a pain in the ass for many a user of assistive technology.

So, Serotek’s announcement that they have dropped their SMA is significant, if only symbolically significant. More on that in a minute. Mike Calvo stated in an interview on their new Internet radio station that other companies may see the SMA as their bread and butter, but Serotek does not. Serotek seeks to add value in other ways, in ways that they believe their users will find relevant, useful, or at least enough fun to keep paying for (my words, not his, but, generally, his idea as I understand it).

Had Serotek done this a year or two ago, it may not have had the impact that I believe it will have now. Serotek is doing innovative things an really catching up and in some cases surpassing the more established players. System Access worked on 64-bit Windows before the “big guns” did. And let’s not even talk about the free web-based version of System Access, System Access To Go.

Now, they’ve laid down the gauntlet. They’ve issued the challenge. What will the other players in this space do? Will they drop their SMA’s and seek to keep their customers’ loyalty (and buying dollars) in other ways? Or will they continue to do what they are doing now?

I said earlier this was a significant statement, if only a symbolic one. While it’s true that Serotek had a software maintenance fee ($60/year, if memory serves), it’s also true that owners of the System Access software got their upgrades free as long as they were also members of the System Access Mobile Network, a $129/year subscription. Also, the software as a service offerings included software upgrades at no additional cost (not to mention access to the network). So there were a couple ways to not pay a software maintenance fee, and I suspect the number of people who just owned the software and not the network was a very small number. So in real terms, I doubt the SMA was a very small issue in Serotek’s real world dealings. Taking it away completely was, I suspect, no huge loss to them. As they said, the SMA isn’t (and wasn’t) their bread and butter. Rather, offering compelling reasons to use their other offerings and pay for them is what keeps them going. It’s what we in the rest of the world call capitalism. And clearly, they’re offering compelling products and services: easy remote control of your home PC’s, a completely portable and non-disruptive screen reader that does what most people want to do with their computers, an easy service with all the stuff you want right at your fingertips (great for the computer neophite), and all pretty inexpensively. I find it noteworthy that there are Web sites that don’t work with the big name screen readers, yet they work fine with System Access. That’s worth something in itself.

I’ll say it again. The AT space is changing rapidly. It’s changing for the better, as far as the average blind consumer is concerned. New companies are doing interesting, innovative things, and the prices are falling. You can now get a fully functioning machine, with a screen reader that will do most of what most people want to do (Email, surf the web, talk to their friends, write a letter, and so on), for under $500 if you look hard, under $600 if you don’t but are OK with putting all the software in yourself (or know someone who is), or under $800 if you want it to just work when you turn it on. Considering that the big boys charge more just for the software, this is even more significant than the death of the SMA, and it’s been a reality now for a little bit longer. Sure, you could get Linux running with Orca, let’s say, using Ubuntu, or Windows with NVDA, but you’d better be pretty comfortable with computers already. The price breakthrough is as significant, in its way, as Voiceover making any Mac not only usable, but eyes-free installable, without modification. This is the kind of development that’s changing this space, and the established players had better stay on their toes.

Building a Wifi Radio Out of a Cheap Router

For a long time, I’ve been interested in those Internet radios. You know, looks like a radio, tunes stations from the Internet using your wifi Internet connection, acts like a radio, ostensibly to allow one to listen to streaming content without tying up/sitting in front of a computer. There were only two real problems I had: 1) they cost more than I really wanted to pay, and 2) even if I did want to pay the freight ($150 to $300) for one, rumblings are that the things are fairly inaccessible. Well, that’s a shame, since many of them, such as the ones based on Reciva’s platform, are GNU/Linux underneath with proprietary bits added. So it’s conceivable that it could be made accessible if someone wanted to bother, though not easily owing to the aforementioned proprietary bits. But then, there’s the Sharpfin project. Great idea, but it’s moving slowly, due to lack of smart programmer types interested in the project. I’m interested, just not smart. And besides, I want to spend less. Or at least, feel like I have.

So I did some more searching and found two similar projects. This one is very detailed, detailed enough for me to follow it even, so that’s where I started. Although, I found this one first. I expect I’ll borrow from it as well.

But there’s one little thing. Being blind, and, more pressing, all thumbs, I wasn’t about to tackle adding a serial port to my Asus WL-520GU router. Not only do I not need or want an LCD, I’m sure I’d toast something, and I didn’t have anyone nearby that would like to tackle it either, I’m sure. So, I’ll have an uglier box with more junk on the USB connection. No matter.

So, I didn’t tackle the hardware mods, nor did I do anything about the LCD display. Which meant I had to telnet in and do everything over the network. When I goofed up the channel assignment, that set me back a little bit, but not for long. Thank god for spare ethernet cables. So, a couple of speedbumps later, I actually have something that plays music! It isn’t pretty, but if I add things to the playlist, they play. Ultimately, here’s what I want to do:

  • Control the player from a USB numeric keypad
  • Have a speech synthesizer announce the current stream or song when asked (via the numeric keypad, using espeak
  • Possibly use vlc or mplayer with no output (just the bits that play the audio) in order to get Windows Media streams as well as MP3/ogg/etc.

Obviously, this will all take some time, and I’m sure I have a lot to learn to make it work, but it should be a fun diversion. Anyone wanna play with this with me?