An Interesting Electronic Travel Aid

A couple weeks ago, something came to my attention that, if it really lives up to what they promise, could finally be something actually innovative in electronic travel aids.

For a while now, we’ve all seen that next great new thing that will promise to reduce or even eliminate the need for a white cane or guide dog, or so the popular press surrounding such announcements would usually have it. These things always had one really glaring problem. Well, a couple of them, but one huge problem. They would detect obstacles, but that didn’t help much for things like steps, curbs, dropoffs, holes, and terrain changes, things that a cane, or a guide dog, alert to in the natural course of their use. I’ve said that whole time that if someone can crack that particular problem, I’d be interested in listening, but until then, I didn’t consider any of these supposedly helpful products terribly interesting. Especially since many of them would take up a hand, and you’re already using one of those for a cane or guide dog.

A couple weeks ago, a startup in India started following me on Twitter, and I started looking at what they were doing. Oh, look, it’s another electronic travel aid. But, wait, they claim what? That you can *run* without the need for a cane? Color me skeptical. I asked for more information, and got it yesterday. I also called and managed to have a chat with the CEO of the company, Live Braille (or Embro…I see both names, but it’s livebraille.com). Here’s what I’ve found out.

For the past year, this company has made a wearable electronic travel aid called Live Braille Mini. Very like other similar things, it uses sound to detect obstacles at up to 3.5 meters away in long range mode, or 1.5 meters in short range mode. That’s close to 12 feet and about 4.5 feet, respectively. But then, it gets interesting. First, it really is wearable, as it’s a ring you wear on your finger. I expect it’s a rather large ring, but nonetheless, a ring, massing 29 grams, or weighing just a smidge over an ounce, according to Google. Using various vibration patterns, they claim something like 117 distinct patterns, and sensing at 50 times a second, the company claims one can not only detect the distance from an above ground obstacle, but also its speed, and even what kind of obstacle it is, as you can get an idea of your environment by waving your hand. There’s apparently a video of a blind kid chasing a sighted volunteer using only the Live Braille Mini. Pretty impressive, especially for $299.

But here’s the really interesting bit. I’m told a newer product will ship in July. The Live Braille Walk Pro is also a ring. It’s smaller than the Mini, runs for two hours on a charge, but comes with a charging case that extends that by quite a lot. Like the mini, it uses vibration to indicate speed, distance, etc. Unlike the Mini, however, it uses light rather than ultrasound. This means it’s water resistant, perhaps even waterproof, and, I’m told, the performance should not degrade over time as a device using ultrasound would. It also will detect ground level obstacles like steps, holes, curbs, and the like. The cost for the new device is considerably higher, at a retail of $1499 and a preorder price of $1199, but it comes with insurance and a lifetime warranty, as well as a personal setup and orientation call. “Think of it as like buying a high end luxury car”, said Mr. CEO.

So, putting my money, literally, where my mouth is, after saying that an ETA that would detect steps and such would be worth something, I bought one at the preorder price. I’m the ninth person to order one, so this is pretty new. The company tells me that there are 10,000 or so Live Braille Minis out in the world, in the hands of blind people inIndia, the UK, and South America.

The website is clearly not designed with a thought that blind people might use it. There is, for example, a video that autoplays but has no nonvisual content that’s useful to tell what it’s showing, just music. There are unlabeled graphics. There are tables used for layout. Even so, I was able to place my order and do a bit of reading. The site is at
http://www.livebraille.com

If you’re the adventurous type and want to buy either a Mini or preorder a Walk Pro, you can, and you can even get a discount. There’s a bit of a misprint if you select to preorder a Walk Pro. It says the preorder price is $300 on the radio button to select the preorder, but it corrects in your cart to show the actual price of $1199. Payment is through Paypal, which means you can use Paypal Credit if you want to pay it off over time.

For $59 off the preorder of the Walk Pro, use this coupon code:
X59HWNMSPRLV

For $29 off the purchase of a Mini (which is in current production), use this coupon code:
X29Y86K9PRLV

If, on the other hand, you’re justifiably skeptical but are interested in what happens when it releases, I’ll definitely be sharing my experience with the Walk Pro when it gets here.

By the way, no, I’m not planning to give up my guide dog. This does, however, appear to be the year for technology, since I’m also getting Aira in June, and then there are these low cost braille displays. And also the Tap virtual keyboard. …

You can read the brochure for the Walk Pro here.

ARRL Responds

In the person of Steve Ford, WB8IMY, QST’s editor, I have received a response to my email from Thursday evening. You can see that email in the previous post.

I forwarded the email I sent originally to Mr. Ford, along with aRRL’s, president, CEO, and first and second vice presidents, and received the below response about 20 minutes ago. Well, I read it about 20 minutes ago, I received it earlier than that.

Needless to say, I am truly angered by his response. SO accessibility was merely an unfortunate casualty of a cost cutting measure? Maybe it will be accessible in the future, because HTML5 is better than flash. Which it is, but HTML5 is not inherently inaccessible. The fact is that accessibility is not, and has never been on ARRL’s radar, in spite of the fact that the issue was brought to its attention.

I’m a lifetime member, but had I not been, I would definitely have to consider keeping my membership, even at the “blind” membership level. As I said before, if I had access to QST, the full QST, when everyone else gts it, I would definitely join at the full membership level and not the “blind” one. But now that I see exactly what my membership organization feels about me, well…

Here’s Steve Ford’s response:

Buddy: We made the transition to the PageSuite platform as a cost saving measure, and also because it offers us the ability to expand and upgrade our e-newsletter offerings, something we have been very eager to do. After careful research, we determined that PageSuite was the best choice to balance cost and features.

Unfortunately, there must always be compromises in a situation such as this. Compatibility with reading software for the visually impaired is just one of them. PageSuite could no doubt create a customized package to address every shortcoming, but the cost would be such that it would eliminate any savings. Unless ARRL wishes to divert the necessary financial resources to create a customized solution, I’m afraid we must work within the capabilities of the standard PageSuite package.

Since PageSuite is based on HTML5 rather than Flash, it is possible that compatible reading software may exist. If that doesn’t prove to be the case, there is still the possibility that such software may eventually be developed. HTML5 is becoming the standard and Flash is in decline, so I suspect we will see increasing software development in this area.

73…

Steve Ford, WB8IMY
ARRL Publications Manager

Regarding Access To Digital Publications: An Open Letter To the ARRL

Several years ago, the ARRL, our country’s ham radio organization, began publishing its monthly membership magazine, QST, electronically, both on the web and in a smart phone application. Unfortunately, the web version was Flash based, and the iOS version just plain didn’t read with Voiceover. Naturally, the blind ham community was pretty disappointed, because, while we do get QST from the NLS talking book program, it’s delayed from the printed and electronic edition, and doesn’t include advertising. (It used to be even more delayed and not include a bunch of other stuff, too, so that’s improved.) Parenthetically, of course we want to see the ads. After all, it’s the best way to learn about new gear, right?

Back in 2014, my friend Rob and I had the chance to talk to QST‘s publisher, steve Ford, about this problem of their inaccessible magazine. He told us then that they would look into it more, that a publication usable by us was possible, they just had to figure out the best way to handle it, words to that effect at any rate.

A week or so ago, we got word that the electronic QST was changing formats, and since this new one was HTML 5 and not Flash, maybe i would be usable. I was pretty hopeful anyway, as HTML5 is not inherently problematic in the way Flash is.

It was not to be, however. First, we got suggestion that it should work, because it worked with this thing that I’d never heard of. Then, this evening, we got another note saying that no, it didn’t work with JAWS or Zoomtext. Sure enough, I tried the sample provided, and it didn’t work on the Mac either.

I wrote the below email a couple hours ago and sent it to the person who was in touch with another blind ham. Apparently Allison Mclellan works with Steve Ford on QST.

Anyway, here’s my reaction and what I wrote to the ARRL via Allison. Some may think I’m overreacting. That’s OK. But the fact is that the ARRL had offers of assistance. Even if they didn’t, they know who in the membership roster signs up for the blind membership and could have asked. (They didn’t have to, I know I’m not the only one who offered to help or asked about this.) So what other conclusion can I have drawn?

Hello Ms. Mclellan,

Please feel free to share my comments with whoever should see them, including the general membership if you so desire.

Thank you for corresponding with Tom Fowle and others on this issue. I was excited, if apprehensive, about the changes that are going into effect for the new digital QST. I remember talking to Steve Ford about the issue of access to the digital QST by blind hams during the 100th ARRL anniversary convention. At that time, he told me and my friend Rob, KB5UJM, in his office, that accessibility was possible, they just had to figure out with the publisher how to implement it. I was disappointed to see no real movement on this, but I understand how slowly change can be brought about.

I really must express my extreme disappointment, therefore, at how the issue of accessibility was, or rather was not, handled while implementing the changes ARRL has. While I’m pleased that you have apparently been tasked with dialoguing with our community, it seems to me that this is playing catch up, at best, and a token effort at worst. Here you have an untapped resource that is willing and able to assist you: a group of tech savvy blind members, and I know at least a few of us had volunteered our assistance directly. Untapped, yes; during these developments, was any effort made to reach out to your tech savvy blind members to ask for help, even with testing to see if the solution you had could be made to work? I was certainly never contacted, and, judging by your response, neither was anyone else.

Before I go on, you’ve hit a couple of the major accessibility tools. Voiceover on the Mac and iPhone, and the free NVDA screen reader, are a couple more. I had a quick look with Voiceover with as little success as you had with JAWS and Zoomtext. I don’t think the accessibility tool in use will make much difference.

Here’s the real question. Are we or are we not valued members of the amateur radio community in general, and the ARRL in particular? Does the League, an organization to which I have a lifetime membership, consider me fully able to contribute to the hobby, or am I just a charity case that this great hobby can only serve to be a little bright spot in my otherwise pathetic little life?

Of course we all enjoy the recorded version of QST. We’re pleased that we now have very little of the content removed now. We enjoy it several weeks after everyone else. While this has certainly improved since I first became a ham 29 years ago (now we have, say, a three-week lag instead of a six-week or more lag), even that lag sometimes leaves us scrambling to keep up with events, not to mention being left out of the conversation when all the other guys in our radio clubs are discussing the new QST that just landed on their doorsteps. I understand completely that this used to be unavoidable, and the recorded version was, and still is, a great solution. But now, with the advent of readily available (and cheaper) hardware and software that we can use, we should have options, and many of the barriers to full inclusion are becoming more and more artificial. Including access to digital publications.

Of course we’re willing to help make better access happen, but we can’t do it without the ARRL first asking for help and providing us with the ability to help. Of course we want to be full and equal members of the ham community. And, for my part, I’d happily pay full membership price, not the blind rate, for full, equal, and timely access (yes, including all the ads, we want to drool, too!) to QST.

Audio Demo: Samsung TV With Accessibility Features

Recently, several people have been talking about TV’s, set top boxes, and the like, that have accessibility features built in. So far, the only major cable company who has implemented anything like this is Comcast, and they aren’t everywhere. Supposedly, the rules for this stuff to be accessible to people with disabilities kick in at the end of the year, but it sure doesn’t seem like anyone’s exactly scrambling to make it happen.

Enter Samsung. A couple years ago, they came out with some accessibility features on some larger televisions. These were well outside what I was willing to pay for a TV, given how little TV I watch. This week, however, I got wind of a 32-inch TV from Samsung with these accessibility features built in: talking menus, talking program guide, the whole ball of wax, and for under $300.

A call to Samsung was disappointing. The guy on the phone tried to sell me a 49-inch TV, and couldn’t find one smaller. Samsung doesn’t exactly go out of their way to highlight these features, that’s for sure, but eventually, a couple folks came up with a model number. Online chat with Samsung confirmed the accessibility features, as did the manual. So, thanks to Jeff Bishop and Randy the big R for alerting and tracking down model numbers.

So on to the show. Here we go through the setup of the Samsung UN32J550AFXZA. It went fairly smoothly, and I reckon it could have been done completely independently, though that may have taken some time if I got totally stuck. Backspace doesn’t tell you what characters you delete on the on-screen keyboard. That’s probably the biggest gotcha. Another thing. If you get this TV, you may get some nice music during the setup. I did, once. The talking menus duck the music down pretty nicely though.

Anyway, there is, no doubt, more to explore, like the apps in the Hub, but this should get people started. And maybe excited, because we have an accessible TV that’s actually affordable.

Sorting Through My Feelings: Can’t I Just Be Happy?!

I have a couple of things I want to write, and that I’ve been intending to write, but this one maybe can’t wait.

Reading through twitter, I came across this article. Mind you, it’s not the first sort of article I’ve seen like it, but I had a reaction to it.

OK, I had a couple reactions to it. First, I hated the headline, because it just sounds icky and like inspiration porn may well be coming.

That really wasn’t all though. I read the article, and I thought, “I think that family’s going to be disappointed”.

Wow, I’m usually not so negative about things.

I’ve seen other articles about the next big thing that would offer some sort of sight for some kinds of blind people, and usually, I think, well now…that’s interesting. Usually, the people who benefit from these things are those who have had sight before and have lost it due to accident or to a genetic condition like RP. So what’s the deal with this one? Why the negative reaction?

Before I go on, I want to say that I hope I’m wrong. Being wrong would make me very happy, and being right would not. If these glasses are everything this family hopes they are, I will be the first (well, second maybe) to be happy for them.

There are probably several things going on here. First, I think it’s an expectations setting problem. If this kid’s sight is bad enough that he really can’t read print, I’m fairly sure that learning to do so will at least take a lot of time, at best. In any case, at least the way the story is framed, it seems they’re hoping these glasses will solve all of his blindness problems, and I’m thinking that it just isn’t so. Anyway, everything I’ve read suggests that, if you don’t learn to integrate sight when you’re very young, doing so later isn’t easy, and may even be fairly traumatic. Maybe my reaction would be less negative if this family had different expectations. I don’t know.

Anyway, I’m discussing this article with a friend who happens to be sighted, and she asks me something that I thought about just a little bit before she asked me. “Could you…perhaps….just a little bit….be jealous?”

This is indeed a possibility, and it’s a possibility I kind of hate. You see, I’m just not the brooding, bitter, jealous type, not at all. I’ve got a full life, with friends and a family. I’ve traveled, not only to many of the states, but to other countries. I’ve shared my life with amazing people, not to mention amazing animals. I’ve had fulfilling jobs. (I’ve had the soul sucking kind too. And, really, there are aspects of sight that I find, frankly, kind of frightening and overwhelming.

OK, so yes, there are things I wish I could do but can’t. I wish I could enjoy the sunsets and pictures and the silent bits in movies where everyone’s laughing uproariously and I have no clue why. I wish I could drive. I wish I could read printed things without either asking someone or relying on sometimes unreliable technology, even just to pick up any book I wanted whenever I wanted. I wish I didn’t have to work twice as hard for half the credit. But you know, these are the cards I’ve been dealt, and I’m fine with that. Usually. Most of the time.

So…Is there some jealousy there? Because this kid may have something that I likely never will? Even though it’s not necessarily something I’ve really spent a lot of time missing?

Maybe. And I hate that.

But what I hate more is that I can’t be happy for this family’s joy and hope for this new thing. And I really wish I could.

Update: oh dear. Thanks to Holly, or maybe no thanks…anyway…I read their fundraising page, and I think maybe I don’t feel so bad about feeling so bad. Actually, now I’m a little bit disgusted. Mom is saying that her son can’t, can’t can’t, can’t, can’t, unless he gets eSight glasses. Can’t use a computer, which he’ll need to do for high school. (My question is, why has he not been getting access to a computer by now? Somebody ha failed this kid.) He can’t go to college unless he gets eSight glasses. (Really? Blind people were doing that before the advent of lots of really useful technology.) And lots of other can’ts that just aren’t so. Yeah. Somebody really short changed this kid and his mother, and they apparently either don’t really know what’s possible or they’re really pulling at the heartstrings of other people who don’t know what’s possible. Sadly typical.

What To Do About HumanWare?

Back in August, I purchased a second generation Victor Reader Stream from HumanWare at a promotional price. While I thought that the included accessories were a bit stingy (a case with no belt clip and no SD card), I thought the device itself was well designed and well executed. The user interface was a worthy follow-up to the first generation. It has easy-to-use controls that are intuitive, and really, I liked mine so much that I often used it instead of other players I have around here, including ones on the iPhone.

Back in February, my Stream developed a problem. Some important controls (play, fast forward, rewind, and the sleep timer button) started acting strangely. They would either intermittently not work, or they would intermittently act as though multiple buttons were pressed at the same time, or one button was pressed multiple times. Both hoping the problem was a fluke and would clear itself up, and also because I had more important things to deal with at the time, I put the player aside. When, recently, I pulled it out again and the problem persisted, and my other irons in the fire were well into resolution, I called HumanWare tech support and sent my Stream off for repair. They received it Tuesday, and I received the following Email from them today:

Recently you sent us equipment for repair.

After evaluation,  the technician found out that the damages caused to your unit cannot be repaired.
We will have to replace the unit.
He also found out that these damages are not manufacturing issue and so cannot be covered under warranty.  We took some pictures.  If you need copy of them, please let us know.

Please find attached a copy of the quotation for a replacement unit.  As soon as we receive your purchase order or payment we will proceed the order and the unit will be sent to you.

Please take note that after receiving this quote, if you do not wish to proceed with the replacement unit, HumanWare will return the unrepaired unit and freight will be at your expense or a diagnostic fee, if applicable.  In case you do not require the unrepaired unit back, HumanWare will dispose of it for you. Failure to reply will lead to unit disposal after a period of 3 months following quote issuance.

If you have any questions please do not hesitate to contact the customer service department.

Sincerely,

Customer Service,
HumanWare Inc.

My first reaction wasn’t disappointment over my problem not being covered under warranty. (I did read the attached PDF and saw that I can get my out of warranty problem replaced for half the cost of a new unit.) No, my first reaction was to marvel at the sheer rudeness of the email. The problem wasn’t a manufacturing problem, it’s your fault, and we’ve got pictures to prove it. Rude and confrontational all on its own, but remember, this is a company whose primary audience includes people who are blind. This specific product’s main users, and buyers, are people who are blind. Those would be people who cannot see pictures, no matter how damning the evidence.

Of course, if this were merely an oversight, it might be excused, but it’s a pattern. HumanWare has put out several marketing campaigns with product teasers that were purely visual in nature. Hey, look at the picture of our new product! We won’t tell you what it is, nor will we describe the picture, but you’ll love it! Oh, by the way, it’s a braille display, we find out later. Really?

I should stress here that I don’t find fault with their conclusion necessarily. After all, I could have accidentally done something or other to break the thing. That sort of thing happens sometimes, in spite of our best intentions. My problem is with their delivery, which struck me as abysmally bad customer service. I therefore replied with the following:

Hello:

Thank you for your Email regarding my damaged Victor Reader Stream. While I appreciate your telling m that the repair is not covered under warranty, not being a manufacturing defect, I can’t say I appreciate your delivery. You have pictures and are happy to send them? Great! This would do me, as a blind person, and by the way one of your primary markets, any good, exactly how? Would it really have taken you that much more time to have explained, in plain language, what the problem was? “Unfortunately, it looks as though your Stream got splashed with water.” Or “Unfortunately, we found foreign matter in your play button.” Or perhaps, “Unfortunately, a peanut butter sandwich will not fit in the SD card slot.”? Really, an Email that says, “Sorry, it’s your problem, and we have pictures to prove it” is rude and confrontational, besides being terribly unhelpful to a blind person, who is, I may stress, part of one of your primary markets. I would suggest that this is an unacceptably poor level of customer service.

Allow me, if I may, to craft an Email that you may use in future dealings of this nature. I’ll even give this to you at absolutely no cost. Feel free to use it in full or in part. Do not, however, use the Email you sent me in future dealings of this nature.

———-Cut———-

Dear [Insert customer name here]:

We are writing to follow up with you regarding your recent repair request, with RMA #XXXXXX.

After inspecting your [product name], our technicians have determined that the damage cannot be repaired, and a full replacement of the unit will be required. We found the following problems:

* There was foreign matter dropped into the controls.
* Liquid damage from [water, coffee, etc.] is apparent.
* A peanut butter sandwich will not fit in the SD card slot. Please do not attempt to put one there.
* A crack in the control board indicates a drop from a significant height.
[And so forth]

If you wish to inspect the damage as outlined above, we can provide photos upon request.

Unfortunately, this damage is not covered under the limited manufacturer’s warranty, as it is not a manufacturing defect. Please see the full statement of warranty here:
[insert URL to limited warranty]

Since your [product] was returned to us within the warranty period, we are prepared to offer you a non-warranty replacement at half retail price plus applicable shipping and tax. Please reference [invoice number] when you phone if you would like to take advantage of this offer. For your records, we have attached an accessible PDF with full offer details. This offer is good for 90 days from today.

Alternatively, if you wish to have your damaged [product] back, we require that you pay return shipping charges. If you do not wish to take advantage of our replacement offer and do not want your damaged [product] back, we will be happy to responsibly dispose of it for you at no additional charge.

If you have any questions or concerns, please phone or Email. We are available weekdays from [range of hours], Eastern time.

We appreciate your business. Thank you for being a HumanWare customer.

Sincerely,
Joe Schmoe
HumanWare Customer Service

———-CUT———-

Let me stress here that I have no doubt that you really do have pictures of the damage. I also have no problem believing that the problem is not covered under the warranty terms, not because I know what caused the problem (I don’t), but because, let’s face it, stuff happens, sometimes stuff even happens of which one is unaware. It would, therefore, be really helpful if you could tell me, in plain language, the nature of the problem, so that I know what caused the keys to do the strange things they were doing. I would really appreciate this information.

I really love the Stream. It’s a fantastic product. It does what it does very, very well. It is well designed and easy to use, and I’ve found that I have started using it in favor of other book players I have around here, including ones on the iPhone. So, yes, it really is a great product for the tech savvy blind guy, too. I would even like to get a second one for my wife, who has just lost all of her remaining vision, has very little feeling in her fingers, and is not at all technology friendly. She has a first gen Stream and likes it a lot, and I know she’d like the new one even more. Unfortunately, due to the nature of your communication, I honestly don’t know what I want to do about either a replacement or a second unit. How can I, in good conscience, support a company with so little regard for its target audience? After all, your Email is only one of several such instances; I reference the several years of product teasers (at least one of which was for a braille display) that were purely visual in nature. Can I, indeed *should* I, support a company who, essentially, thumbs its collective nose at the population it purports to serve?

Cordially,

Whether HumanWare was right or wrong in their determination isn’t really the point. Well, I guess it kind of is, because I have no idea either way, having been given no information about it. But even if they were correct in their assessment, their handling of how I was updated on my repair status left pretty much everything to be desired. In short, their Email was a great example of how not to do customer relations. If you do customer relations this way, stop it. Please. Just don’t.

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.

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/