Friday, May 2, 2008

Book Review: On Beauty, By Zadie Smith

It's hard to understand why Zadie Smith's brilliant 2005 novel "On Beauty" would be categorized by the librarians of congress as "romance". But then wikipedia in its article about this literary prizewinner at:
classifies it as "hysterical realism" which to me at least seems equally misdirected.
"On Beauty" is literature at its most contemporary: the story of two feuding families, the clash between liberal and conservative
values, the tension between white and black races , religious vs.. atheist outlook plus the cultural differences between the U.S. and the U.K. The comedy in nearly every scene is what prevents any kind of moralizing tone from creeping in to the 446 pages of this tale.
Unlike a typical thriller, which sucks you in with buckets of suspense, Smith's story captivates because she never tells when she can show. Each character has a unique voice, and only a few lines of dialogue clue the reader in to who is speaking. Each scene speaks to you on different levels, often making you laugh at the absurdity of modern society. And each scene overflows with a symbolic irony which  is bound to cause you to view nearly everything through a different lens.
Smith is forever poking fun at academia, politics, pop culture, bureaucracy and the superficiality of most encounters. But this is not an intellectual book. Always laughing at fatuous high-brow culture, the plot is grounded and fully believable.  The story is also gripping enough that you want to keep reading to find out what's going to happen next.
Smith was a great admirer of E.M. Forester, and this novel is loosely based on "Howard's End". Whereas Forester satirized upper-crust turn-of-the-century Englishmen, Smith is more at home in the fictional exclusive liberal-arts college she creates just outside Boston, or the gritty street culture of rap music and gangs. Just as Forester satirized  the milleu of his readers, Smith knows her contemporary audience suffers from attention deficit and shifting loyalties.
Much of this novel revolves around the teenagers in the family and their growing-up struggles. Unlike one-dimensional coming-of-age fiction, which covers one person and spotlights the character facing a single conflict,  in "On Beauty" we actually see these young people at various stages of maturity and watch as they become different than they were just a year before. "On Beauty" never devolves in to a sweeping panorama, instead it highlights the passing years with individual moments in time, captured adroitly and microscopically examined through the omniscient point of view. The characters are real because they are us, and we, the readers are inside their heads.
Another large part of the novel is about  English white liberal art historian Howard Belsey, who despite his doctorate is pretty empty-headed and pitiful. Perhaps it is his attempts to reconcile with his African-American wife, after he ends a disastrous affair, that caused the librarians of congress to label this book as a romance. But its literary talent shines in every sentence; it's miles away from any love story you could pick up in the paperback aisle at your supermarket.
"On Beauty" is available on cassette and digital download from NLS where it is 17 hours and 53 minutes long. It is also available from bookshare. It is a popular reading selection for book clubs and is slowly becoming required reading for many college-level contemporary literature courses.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Is there a right way to teach access technology?

I should start by saying I'm not an access technology trainer. Nor have I ever considered myself one.
In the 1980s, I did a lot of technology training, frequently, but not exclusively, to blind and visually impaired people. But that's because I was young, inexperienced and needed income. Also, at the time I was trying to sell my screen reader, and people needed computer training in order to use a screen access program.
I don't actually think I've got the temperament to be a technology trainer. I'm too impatient and too introverted, and when I do a long bout of training, I get a serious headache.
So I've never attempted to find work as an access technology trainer since the middle eighties and I've never tried to sell myself as one.
But one thing I definitely am is a power user. If I want to figure out how to make something work, I usually can.
In reality, this means  that when another user gets stuck, I'm often asked to bail them out. I was employed in tech support for ten years, and I loved the challenge of figuring out why something failed to work as expected and then explaining to the user what was needed to get success.
Repeatedly, customers told me they appreciated my detailed, lucid explanations. It was often suggested that I become a trainer.
The same thing happens to me regularly today. Whether I'm explaining to my sighted co-worker how to locate her lost power-point presentation or helping a low-vision student change his font size, I'm often told I should have become an access technology trainer.
I bring this up, because I have a rant about trainers, and I feel ambivalent about whether I'm qualified to rant about a profession I have no desire to enter.
But this being my blog, I'm gonna go ahead and rant my little heart out!

Part 1: Cathy Ann Murtha is Right


Cathy Ann, the maven of Access Technology Institute has often extolled us as blind consumers to demand excellence in our technology trainers. I was recently listening to a presentation where she protests against the "litany of keystrokes" that often substitute for concepts in modern technology training. Gosh, is she ever spot on!
At the community college where I work, we have an access technology lab. It doesn't have a full-time proprietor, budgets being what they are, but we do have three so-called part-time technology training faculty people who assist students with disabilities.
These teachers are well-meaning and helpful. They are really nice people. But they aren't really techies either. Two of them didn't know how to burn a CD when they were hired. All three of them know Korowai 300, Dragon, Inspiration, WordSmith, TextAloud and JAWS. At least that's the claim.
I don't know how to use most of this software, except of course for K3000 and JAWS.
But if their knowledge of JAWS is representative of their other knowledge, it makes me want to shudder.
In all fairness, because they are not disabled, I assume they know some packages better than others, and that JAWS, which most sighted people find obscure and confusing, is certainly not a program they really feel comfortable with. Also, in fairness, we don't have many blind students. If we're lucky, we get one or two each year. Asking our access technology guys to really master JAWS would be kind of impractical with few blind students around.
But unfortunately, when we do get a blind student who knows little or nothing about computers, sticking them in this lab is like throwing them to wolves. Our current student, let's call her Mellissa, is forever whining to me "I can't get JAWS to do what I want."
I go over to the lab and help out a bit and I feel totally overwhelmed. Mellissa doesn't know how to read the title bar. She doesn't know how to alt-tab. She doesn't know how to save her work. MS Word is set up incorrectly for the JAWS user, and Mellissa's textbook and assignments are visually oriented. For example, she was expected to read a FAX and retype it in to Word, replicating all its formatting.
Part of this problem is caused by our lab's training phillosophy. Instead of teaching access technology, the goal is to teach students mainstream applications, and have them learn access technology as they go along. The idea is to teach everyone Microsoft Word say, and there's a special Word class that's only open to students with disabilities. And in this class, they learn Word, and when an access technology is needed, just enough of it is taught so that the student can succeed with Word. The idea is to make the training as mainstream as possible, and in theory it's a good philosophy. Teach people productive skills right away rather than wasting a lot of time on the obscure details of a specific access technology.
This works pretty well for the sighted crowd, who mostly click on icons. It works pretty well for users of Dragon, who must memorize keystrokes to access Word but whose time commitment is biggest up front as they create a personal training file. (Dragon doesn't accurately recognize your voice without a good training file.)
But it does not seem to work for our blind students. They struggle to do even very simple things in word. And when they ask "How can I make JAWS read this" the instructor pages through that endless list of JAWS keyboard commands.
Melissa can arrow around her document by character, word or line, and fix simple typos. But that's about all. She isn't a very good typist, so often hits the wrong key and ends up in a menu, or in a different window altogether.
Yet, it seems to me that it would be wrong to suggest that unlike the other disabled students, who usually breeze through this simple course, Melissa should spend time first with a typing tutor, then with a JAWS tutor and eventually earn the privilege of taking a class in Microsoft Word. By "tutor" I mean software, or training lessons; we don't have a budget to actually get a real human being to sit with Melissa. I help out sometimes often on my lunch hour, but after rescuing Mellissa from one glitch after another, I feel that dreaded access technology headache behind my eyes. It seems unfair somehow that she should need more training yet even my sighted students with severe learning disabilities are passing her by.

Part 2: But Mellissa is also to Blame


Mellissa is typical of the blind people we most frequently see. She's late forties, blinded ten years ago. Doesn't know Braille. Uses Paratransit to go everywhere. Uses our shuttle for disabled students which drives her around campus to her classes and back to wait for paratransit. Her sighted friends think she's amazing because she lives in her own home alone. 
But somehow, Mellissa has overcome some of the challenges of her disability and just kind of stopped. She carries a cassette recorder everywhere for note taking but ends up with tapes and tapes full of class lectures, and people reading things aloud to her, all very linear and difficult to access efficiently. She just kind of accepts this as a fact of blindness.
Maybe I'm being kind of harsh. Not all of us can be gadget freaks. Because I am one, I have lots of tools. I have digital recorders, a Braille 'N' Speak, microcassette recorders, slate and stylus, computers, my cellphone, my VR Stream, Mp3 players, a GPS --you name it, I've investigated it! I'm also not on fixed income, but once I was.
In the late seventies, I remember when our county library got its first Kurzweil Reading machine. I had never used a computer, but I was a kid and a bit of a B.S. artist. Since the machine was so expensive, the library wasn't letting just anyone use it. I told them that I had experience with one, and got access to it. Locked in the little study room with the machine, I rapidly read its manual and quickly worked to become an expert in its operation, not wanting to be discovered for a fraud.
After a couple of weeks, I knew how to use it, and three times a week, would load all my mail, a microcassette recorder and a selection of books in to my backpack for the hour-long bus ride to the library to read with the Kurzweil. I was on a fixed income and this was the easiest way to get a lot of stuff read aloud.
Still on fixed income in the early eighties, I talked quadraplegic computer science students in to hiring me as their typist. I was a lot better than a mouthstick, and so I'd perch on their wheelchair foot pedals typing into the terminals that fed the minicomputers in the bowels of Evans hall. I couldn't afford a screen access program, a speech synthesizer or a PC, but by typing in a lot of Fortran and borrowing computer books from RFB&D, I gradually climbed the ladder to computer literacy. As far as I know, I'm the only person who actually got paid minimum wage to take computer science classes at U.C. Berkeley.
I know many amazing blind people. I know a woman who got a college degree in the early fifties without benefit of rehab. She cleaned houses in the morning and spent those earnings hiring readers, and her tuition was paid by scholarships. I know a man who got tired of living in America, and with his wite cane in hand and a single suitcase took a one-way flight to Europe, just to see what it was like. He ended up making his home there, and started out washing dishes in restaurants, ended up being a translator. I love stories of blind people like these.
But today's blind people seem to have somehow lost their gumption and moxie. Is it the ADA? Or am I just an old duffer who thinks you have to walk two miles to school each day through the snow to show you are truly a pioneer? And I've sometimes been told that gadgets are easy for me because I'm so smart.
people who suggest this are copping out. I didn't always find technology easy. I did always find it fascinating. I was willing to struggle to understand the early eighties speech synthesizers that sounded like a martian in a tin can. I taught myself WordStar, by asking a friend to read me the help screens on tape and then transcribing all the text back in to WordStar. It was super boring and tedious, but the idea was that writing it down would help me remember, and I still know about a hundred useless WordStar commands.
Recently, I taught myself clicker training when I started to feel that leash corrections weren't working and my dog and I didn't like them anyway. I have always believed that you don't need to wait for someone else to train you -- that if you want to learn something, it's possible to acquire the skill if you try. So I guess I've finally meandered over to my point, and yeah, I know many of my rants are pretty pointless. It seems to me that in addition to computer basics, access technology training needs to somehow impart people with that desire to go out and explore on their own and to think out of the box. How do you teach people the skills of thinking out of the box? I do it automatically, but I can't teach it. And I think that's why trying to even pinch-hit as an access technology trainer gives me a migraine! There, spread out  before the student, lies a world full of possibilities and I feel like I can never show them how to jump on that board and catch that wave!

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Making The Future More Fun

My husband collects and restores old computers from Digital Equipment corporation. He likes to make them
look factory new-- shiny with all the little medallions and nameplates in place. Of course, they also
work, with real, running operating systems on their hard drives -- sometimes installed by yours truly.
And he's forever seeking after the little bits that get discarded when the computer became obsolete --
chassis slides, faceplate covers, special-purpose cables and the like. It's much easier to find
processor or memory boards than it is to find some of those little metal parts that make a PDP-11
look factory-new.
When we first met, it harkened for me back to when I was in high school and old-time radio revival became
popular. People shoveled through thirty years worth of accumulated junk in attics and basements for old
reel tapes of shows they'd recorded when it was they, who were in high school.
Today, collectors scrounge around for all sorts of stuff from yester-year, and at the risk of
encouraging those unwanted pack-rat tendencies, I'd urge you to think twice about throwing something
"useless" away.
Today's commonplace items will be tomorrow's gold mine; it's just so hard to predict what items will
have value in years to come.
For example, on eBay, I recently purchased a Braille Lite. The surplus distributor knows nothing about
it -- a frequent situation since government surplus items often pass through many hands before
being auctioned to average consumers.
This unit is missing cables, power supply, software and case. And the blazie site we accessed for so
many years, appears to no longer be active.
When I bought a similar Braille 'N Speak several years ago, I archived everything from the Blazie site I
thought might be useful. But I didn't copy the Braille Lite flash updates -- now I wish I had.
It's all well for the efficiency experts to tell you that if you haven't used it in a year you should
throw it out. Clearly, they've bought in to the Brave New World mind-set that ending is better than
mending. (If you haven't read Brave New World, do so. What it says about even today's society is ever so
One day we're going to slip out of our excessive consumerism and find pleasure in things that don't
cause us to max out our credit cards. If fuel prices rise even higher, we're going to be living in the
days of "The Long Emergency" just as James kunstler predicts.
But Okay, Okay enough of the survivalist rant. Right now, I'm only saying that you, and not the
efficiency expert will be the best judge of whether to toss or keep something.
Back to my Braille Lite. We can imagine that it broke and that it's owner tossed its now useless wall
transformer. That's not the really sad part. The unfortunate thing here is that neither this device's
user, nor Blazie themselves bothered to archive the specifications. What are this transformer's voltage
and parity? Blazies manuals blithely tell you to be sure and use the correct power supply -- in fact you
are warned multiple times not to confuse it with the wall wart from another device. But like most
companies, Blazie thought they'd be in existence forever, so if your power supply broke you'd just order
a new one from them. In fact, they actively discouraged you from running over to your local electronics
shop to buy a replacement power supply by *NOT* publishing the specs!

So now I'm hunting all over the net and calling my friends, trying to track this information down. Even
if I did want the convenience of spending inflated prices from access technology companies for
accessories, Freedom Scientific no longer sells this power supply. It's gone, and information about it
is gone as well.
So I urge you; if you have information like this about a product you develop or support, write it down.
Even if you can't publish it today, because your company wants to make money on the edge that consumers
can't readily get this information -- please, if you know product details that aren't readily available,
document, then archive them now.
Today's brand-new Braille Sense, for example, will be on ebay in 2018. Will all the people who
know anything about it at GW Micro be retired, or have moved on to other companies? And perhaps GW micro
won't be around or like the blindness products division of Telesensory, morphed in to something else,
and eventually died altogether.
I had a rewarding experience while working at Caere. I was trying to troubleshoot a problem with my PC
and ran across a community maintained internet database of startup programs. (Today there are several of
these.) It gave the names of programs I could see with task manager, as well as details about what those
programs were.  I was able to find and remove the offending task after learning that it was some
configuration software for a video card that used to reside in that PC when it belonged to a graphic
Since Caere's products cluttered up the system tray with lots of extras, and because I was a tech
support lead, I decided to contribute anonymously to that database. I documented every task that all of
our products at the time installed (an amazing resource hogging number of them!) so folks could locate
and remove any they didn't want. I was elated to see that all the info I'd supplied was published.
Years later, when I was laid low by a bad malware infection, I revisited the database, and found my own
entries still there.  I'm glad any users who encountered these tasks, long after Caere vanished in to
the ScanSoft maw,  can learn about their details still. They'll know which tasks they need, and which Caere product the task belongs to. For example, PageKeeper, which tended to make the system unstable,  was installed by default even if the user had no desire to constantly archive everything they scanned. and
best of all, users who encounter the data I posted about these tasks can be relieved that all this stuff isn't more spyware!
A decade ago, my husband and  I both worked at Telesensory; he as software engineering manager, me in
technical support. When Blazie bought our division, and a few days before it was slated to close
forever, a few interesting things happened.
For one thing, I archived everything useful on our network. Old manuals, old tech support tips, old
inside information. I was secretive, I snuck the CD out of the building, not because I intended to use
it for any financial gain, or use it against Telesensory. I was just afraid I'd get in to trouble and that with Blazie technically owning the data that what I was doing wasn't legal.
I was a loyal worker who really loved the company and its product line and worried the information would be lost forever.
I've hidden it somewhere, being so paranoid, and  now I have no idea where it is. Not thrown away, but
stashed in some storage box somewhere no doubt. If I find it, I'll need to see what can legally be posted. I
hate the idea that information disappears when a company goes away. And so few people seem to care.
A couple of years ago someone at the Carroll Center blogged about this also. He was trying to find a
cable for a Dec Express. The cable he's looking for has a DB-9-to MMJ adapter on it and it's the PC DB9.
The Vax family also occasionally used DB9 cables too but their pin-outs were different than the PC. The MMJ connector superficially resembles a Rj-45, but though it feels like a network or telephone jack, it's used mostly for serial RS-232 connections.
Anyway, while rummaging through a bin at Weird stuff, a favorite Silicon valley surplus haunt, I found
a ton of MMJ cables. Just a couple bucks apiece. I bought some extras and scoured the net, but our
mysterious Carrol tech blogger had disappeared, just like the information he was seeking. If he reads
this blog and still needs an MMJ cable for his Dec Express, he should submit a comment. I saved one for
So to close this, I'll say it again. Today's shiny new toy is tomorrow's ebay item, and thirty-forty
years in the future it might even be highly sought. If you don't have an attic or basement, or you
aren't a pack-rat, at least preserve the crucial information needed to make this product useful for the
next generation!

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Using Jaws with Linux through terminal emulation

I'm posting this mainly because I see this question come up a lot on the linux lists. I feel particularly sorry for the blind student who is trying to take
some sort of Unix course, and not only has to figure out this new OS but needs to figure out how to access it while simultaneously using the college's
Windows computers. Usually the access technology specialists don't have a clue, or the information on the net is outdated and/or inaccurate.  
First, grab yourself a copy of the latest UTF-8 TeraTerm Pro 4.57.  
other urls contain dated versions.  
Install the program and say No to all the extra little tray applets.  They don't do any harm but who wants resource hogs that aren't needed. If you get
one by mistake, standard techniques, like using msconfig can make it go bye-bye.  
Next, if you have JAWS, a version later than 5, create this script:  
<br>Include "HJConst.jsh" 
<br>Void Function SayNonHighlightedText (handle hwnd, string buffer) 
<br>string TheClass 
<br>let TheClass=GetWindowClass(hWnd) 
<br>If GetScreenEcho () > ECHO_NONE && TheClass == "VTWin32" Then 
You will find several, far more elaborate scripts out there. You don't need them. Many were for older versions of Tera Term, and older versions of JAWS.
One old script disables my semicolon key, and another of these outdated scripts makes my Braille display constantly jump around. A very similar script
was originally on  the blog of Saqib Shaikh, which seems to be no longer on the net. I'd like to give him credit for the idea, and I only plagarize because
I can't find his blog to tell you about it. 
Anyway, this code is simply what gets executed in a Win32 console window (what used to be called a DOS box)  when the user chooses to have highlighted text
spoken but actually wants to have new text read as it comes onscreen. It's part of the JAWS default script. 
The situation for a terminal user is similar to a DOS box user; they don't actually want highlighted text, they want all new text, but not to hear old text
read more than once. In other words, when the text scrolls, causing new text to be written and old text to be rewritten as part of the scroll operation,
the JAWS user wants to only hear anything new, and not a repeat of the old text. 
For DOS screen access, this was easy. These programs simply read video memory when users were not working with scrolling applications. When they were, the
DOS screen reader filtered calls to the PC BIOS. The BIOS handled the scrolling so the user never heard old text repeated. In DOS, the screen reader watched
the text that was sent to the BIOS screen services, so it knew about everything sent to the screen through the BIOS. Video memory only had to be consulted
if a program wrote directly to the screen.  
But I digress. With a real tutorial you can't go off on tangents; that's why blogging is so fun! 
Anyway, with Windows, lots of behind-the-scenes magic goes in to building the off-screen model: the screen reader's best guess about what's onscreen now.
I only half understand all that magic. 
I do understand that often it's hard to tell the difference between old text, that's simply scrolling and new text that's just arriving. 
But this script does a great job in console windows and works fine in TeraTerm most of the time. You do have to adjust some TeraTerm settings. You must
disable the scroll buffer, verify that there are only 24 lines of text onscreen, and set the cursor shape to horizontal line.  
The blind access journal has a good tutorial on adjusting your settings at:     
It also suggests you download some scripts that didn't work for me. They were the ones that disabled my semicolon key! I'm pretty sure they used to work
and that something's changed with JAWS that makes them unnecessary.  
Anyway, the above script works fine.  
There will be times you won't want everything read aloud. For example, this happens when using most editors. You can just use Insert-S to set JAWS for no
automatic speech, and go back to saying highlighted text when you want scrolling text to be automatically read again.  
There's one additional issue with TeraTerm. Occasionally something in Ncurses causes TeraTerm to display euro and other garbled symbols, instead of line
drawing characters. It's a problem for sighted users just as much as screen access users. I've reported it on the TeraTerm support forum, and you can read
that forum at: 
Several sighted people have confirmed that indeed, this  is a problem. It happens only when ncurses applications are running on the host, for example, a
program that uses a cursor and highlighting and sometimes reverse video and multiple pseudo-windows to simulate the look of a graphical application. The
Ubuntu/Debian aptitude is a good example. I encounter it most when using dpkg-configure.  
When I do have to work with a ncurses app that's behaving badly with Teraterm, I've used putty (another free terminal emulator and ssh client) that I'll
discuss in another blog entry. 
A nice thing about Teraterm is that all it's settings are storred in a text-based .ini file, which it's easy to go in and change. For example in some situations
where line-drawing characters weren't displaying properly, I partially solved the problem by setting Teraterm to emulate a VT220 by editing the .ini file.
And then I set Linux to believe that a Vt220 was logging in.  
As an ssh client, teraterm can be completely automatic. It does take some know-how and setup. I have a desktop shortcut that automatically logs me in to
my server, and that works everywhere me and my laptop happen to be. To do this, you'll need to create a separate settings file for your host, and have
your host use public-key logins. Once it's all set up though, you needn't type a user name or password; just click on the shortcut and you're all logged
The command line for my shortcut is:     
"C:\Program Files\teraterm\ttermpro.exe" /f=ssh2server.ini  
A couple more tips: if TeraTerm's screen updates are being missed by JAWS, maximize the window, switch focus away from it and then back, and do Insert- 
Escape to refresh the jaws off-screen model.  
Remember that TeraTerm can also use a serial port, so you can cable your PC directly to a system running any Unix. I'll have more to say about that in future
posts, but if you want to learn more Unix, getting an old computer -- doesn't have to be a PC -- and installing some freely-available Unix-like OS through
the serial port can be a whole lot of fun. And though serial ports are disappearing from modern PCS, old computers you can pick up surplus, almost always
have serial ports. I've used Alphas, Vaxen and ancient PC laptops. People use Sun Sparc workstations and many old computers I know next to nothing about.  
Well time to get back to work, and clean up this post later.  

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Unable to Access Google from Cisco

Cisco Systems is a business park complex in itself, a sprawling multiplicity of buildings on Tasman avenue. 

It's also on my paratransit route home; we frequently pick up workers in wheelchairs there.

It's my afternoon commute, and here I am in a Cisco parking lot waiting for my driver to locate our next passenger, load him and strap his scooter down. 

And would you believe it; there are forty-nine -- count em, forty-nine active wi-fi access points. Most of course are locked, but a few have an SSID of
"Welcome Guest" or something similar. 

Being an enforced guest on the Cisco campus rather regularly, there DHCP servers have seen my little laptop before. But today, the famous router company
seems to be blocking all access to google. Is this an April fools thing I wonder! 

The Beta Version of My Ebay

Tonight, when trying to pay for a won item, I noticed that Ebay has a beta version of My Ebay, which is only marginally accessible. When I selected the "Buy Now" link, nothing happened that JAWS could discern. I was able to "opt out" of the beta version, and as soon as ebay reverted back to the original My Ebay screen, the Buy Now link worked as expected.
Paypal was behaving a little funky as well. It insisted that I add a new funding source, and when I provided details for my old, tried-and-true credit card, it kept complaining that I needed to use the "update" button instead of the choice to add a new card. But it only offered the choice to add a new card.
At this point, I summoned my sighted husband, who verified that there was no update button. He didn't even get grumppy about me spending over $100 on a Braille Lite -- wht a sweet guy!

Access Technology in the Ivory Tower

When I was younger, computing used to be a whole lot more fun. Of course, when you have a job, with deadlines, bosses and responsibilities, the fun quotient goes down significantly.
So why is it that today's modern access technology products often don't play nice with each other? It's especially unexcusable when the gladiators are from the same company.
I got two new computers last week. I'd been waiting for seven years for new computers -- college budgets being what they are nowadays -- and I can't tell you happy I was to get these core 2 duo babies. They're identical with 150GB hard drives and 2GB of RAM.
I produce alternate media and serve around 80 students per quarter. That's quarter, not semester! I'm a one-woman department, and when I get a student's book, I have to boogey to scan, OCR, format, and burn the thing to CD. I do have a high-speed scanner to help; it can gobble 90 pages per minute according to its specs.
I produce Braille, MP3, Daisy, Kurzweil, PDF and text files. I also do various versions of Office, MS Works, even OpenBook Ruby. I'm proud to be able to handle most any format a student requests.
But since my old computer had recently crashed, I'd been running around campus like a headless chicken trying to catch up on my work using lab computers that disabled students normally use. Tired of setting the LSHOSTS environment variable, not to mention hauling a backpack full of books around, I was glad enough to have my shiny new Dell machines installed in my office.
After I got JAWS working, and updated Windows (which takes forteen forevers itself!) I had a line of students eager for me to make their request first. So I had to install K1000. Got that working and patched and registered and happy. Scanned a few books, got a few MP3 texts finished, and I realized I was going to need K3000.
I like K3000 primarily for its automator. K1000 has an automator as well, but it's less convenient for me to operate because I have to create a special no-speech settings file for K1000. Also sometimes a student complains that the image isn't right if I OCR a book in K1000, even though their formats are supposed to be compatible. Being kind of in a rush, I figured I'd quickly install K3000, run a pile of tiffs through the automator and try my best to get caught up before students started complaining to my boss about my inefficiency!
And now, of course, neither product is working. I get a C++ runtime library crash with Version 10 of K3000, and I get a "fine objects unhandled internal error" crash with Ver 11 of k1000. I vaguely remember something about you needing to install the latest Kurzweil product last, and I probably should've done it.
But wait, isn't this a more enlightened age. Don't both K3000 and K1000 belong to the same company? Can't these programmers all meet together and get this compatibility thing figured out once and for all?
What peeves me is that these companies, and Kesi isn't the only one for sure, are so busy adding features and improvements that they never go back to fix that which has been broken for a long long time. Don't they realize that people who work with access technology use several products? Don't they realize that learning disabled instructors might teach blind students and that visually impaired students might be receiving services from a blind staffer? It seems to me that making your product play nice with a variety of other AT products, and a variety of versions of those products should be high on the priority list for all designers of access technology!
So now, I'm more behind than even before. Why am I wasting time ranting to this blog? Because I'm virus scanning and malware scanning before I re-install anything, and also I want to schmooze with Nick in tech support whose line is busy at the moment. Being hyper-efficient, I of course installed and registered K3000 on both machines, meaning I probably have to uninstall both products twice, re-install, re-register, and re-patch! No wonder my students think I spend my day goofing off!

Sunday, March 30, 2008

M3U Musings

One of my job's pleasures is the balance of high and low concentration work. (One of its disappointments is there's no work that ever gets me in to "flow" but that's another subject.) Anyway, when I have to concentrate, I try to minimize the distractions. When I don't have to, I actually want distractions or I get so borred I start snacking. And one of my favorite, zero calorie distractions is ACB Radio.
For some reason, known only to the guys who configure our routers, I can't listen to its live streams at work, but the On Demand stuff plays just fine. The problem with On Demand, is that sometimes I can be happily listening to a stream, when suddenly my attention is requested. Perhaps my phone rang, my boss walked in, a student stopped byor the computer is displaying an error message I have to contend with.
So suddenly I have to concentrate and turn off the internet radio. In Winamp, I press the spacebar to pause the stream.
but later when I return, Winamp plays the remainder of its buffer and then proceeds forwards to the next file in the M3u. (If anyone knows how to stop this annoying behavior of Winamp, I'd love you to share the secret!)
Techie note: an M3u file is what gets downloaded when you listen to some streams and certainly those on ACB Radio's On demand section. It's just a little text file listing the URLS, one to each line of an MP3 file to stream. You could easily download the file and listen to it offline. So for example, if I wanted to hear the third ACB Interactive Birthday bash, the file I'd be downloading when I selected the On demand Birthday bash link is acbribirthday2003.m3u. Internet Explorer would open this automatically in Winamp, because that's how my system is set up. Winamp would know how to handle this M3u. It would open it and fine the line
This would tell Winamp to get the file from the ACB Radio server and start playing it while it was still being copied from the server to my PC.
I could also manually rename the .m3u file to a .txt file, open it in notepad, learn the name of each MP3 file it referenced, FTP to the ACB radio server, log in anonymously and download the acbribirthday2003.mp3file myself.
And I used to do this too, if I thought I might get interrupted and want to resume listening later in the middle of a stream.
Then I realized that wget, a little tool that gets handier every day would do the trick for me. From a command line, I could just type wget -i acbribirthday2003.m3u and wget, whose speciality is noninteractive downloading of http and ftp content, would automagically get all the MP3 files listed in the m3u.
So I created a m3u folder and now I download the M3u files to it. Then I execute wget on that folder once in a while, and my streams are ready for me to listen without being connected to the internet.
Because my version of wget at least doesn't appear to process wildcards, I had to write this little batch file wrapper to force wget to run through all the m3u files in the current directory:
-----Cut Here-----
@echo off
Rem M3uGet, batch file to download all MP3s referenced in a group of M3U files
Rem Requires wget from gnuwin32
Rem and that the current directory will contain the results.
if %1X == X goto Help
if not exist %1 goto Error
Echo About to process the contents of the files listed below:
FOR %%A in (%1.m3u) do echo %%A
FOR %%A in (%1.m3u) do wget -i %%A
Echo Finished processing %1.m3u
goto Done
Echo M3UGet: download MP3 files referenced in an M3U file.
Echo Specify a filename or by wildcards, a group of files.
Echo Don't include an extension; the .M3U is appended automatically.
echo For example, type "M3UGet *" to process all M3u files in the current directory
echo or "M3UGet MM*" to process all M3U files that start with the letters "MM".
echo Or even "M3uGet c:\downloads\streamns\O*" to process all M3u files beginning
echo with the letter O located in your c:\downloads\streams path.
echo ---
goto Done
Echo Sorry, cannot find %1.M3U
Echo M3uGet: finished running.
-----Cut here ------
So yeah, this works, and I'm a happy camper.

More on happy camping

I recently read "Accidents of Nature", a young adult novel by famed disability rights activist Harriet McBryde Johnson. What to say about this novel! It's simply wonderful. I've never read anything that captures the disability experience better.
It's basically a simnple story about Jean, a teen with C.P. who spends two weeks at the mythical, but all too real summer camp courage. There she pals around with a group of other disabled teens, whose
ringleader, Sarah is the author's alter-ego. Sarah by contrast is a troublemaker, who speaks out
against the conventional wisdom of treating disabled people as brave cripples who we must only pretend can contribute to society. Like many comming-of-age characters, Jean must confront herself, realizing that up until now she's been the crip that Sarah decries. Jean has always gone to school with non-disabled kids, pretending that she isn't any different. Confronting her own differences at the end of the novel, she knows she has to forge a unique path towards her adulthood.
If you like fiction about disabled people, this is a must read. There is no politics, no lecturing, no
strident voices or grating tone. The characters are so breathtakingly real you will feel like you went to camp with them too when the novel is over.
"Accidents of Nature" is available from NLS and can be downloaded from Web-Braille.