As many of you are aware by now, Raised Dot Computing is moving to Madison, Wisconsin. Cindy and I just came back from a quick trip to Madison. I was there to look for commercial property. She came along to drive the truck (as of this writing, I cannot drive a stick shift).
We found a building recently placed on the market which would make an ideal headquarters for Raised Dot Computing. It is the steelworker's union hall. The steelworker's local is disbanding since the last employer of steelworkers has either left Madison or gone out of business. In any event, the building has 2 levels and a basement with total usable space of 3,000 square feet. The top level has 5 large offices (one quite large which can be the "central nerve center"). The ground level has a large open space for meetings, classes, or literature. The basement has a full bar. The basement can also be used for storage of braille paper and Cranmer Braillers. I am confident that this new facility would meet the needs of Raised Dot Computing for a long time to come.
Caryn and I have just made an offer for the building. If the offer is refused, or if the deal cannot go through, then we will be operating out of leased space until we can locate permanent quarters.
Only those who have toured our present cramped location can really understand the significance of these improved facilities. We need space for more people and more equipment. These new facilities will directly translate into better service and better programs.
As of July 1st, the price of the Cranmer Brailler will be $2,950. This is the new price set by Maryland Computer Services, the manufacturer of the Cranmer Brailler.
If you or your organization is planning to buy a Cranmer soon, get the orders in by July 1st. If you cannot get the paper work in by July 1st, then send me an official letter asking for a price quote. I will send copies of all written bids to MCS on July 1st. If MCS has a copy of a written bid, then I can sell at the old price until September 30th. Starting on October 1st, all sales must be at the new price.
I know that I always make these things sound so complicated. Let me try again. If you or your organization wants to buy a Cranmer Brailler, then you should write for an official written quote. I need your letter and a copy of my reply to justify selling to you at the old price of $2,700 until September 30th.
Raised Dot Computing and MCS will be selling the Cranmer Brailler for the same price of $2,950. At least there will not be an official price difference. Raised Dot Computing will be offering a discount on BRAILLE-EDIT with the purchase of a Cranmer Brailler at the higher price.
If you have any questions about the price increase, do not hesitate to write or call without delay.
MCS has found out that the way they have been marketing the Cranmer Brailler has been too expensive. MCS simply cannot afford to send members of their sales force to give demonstrations for sales of individual Cranmers. MCS will be referring individual Cranmer sales to one of their distributors.
Raised Dot Computing has the best track record selling Cranmers for MCS. Raised Dot Computing has sold over 20% of the Cranmers made by MCS. MCS is turning to Raised Dot Computing to provide much of the direct marketing of the Cranmer. Raised Dot Computing is eager to take on a stronger role in the sales of the Cranmer Brailler. RDC would like to make a bargain with the readership of this publication.
If you assist RDC in generating Cranmer sales (i.e. refer sales leads to us), we will plow the bulk of the proceeds into better equipment, better facilities, better research, and better service. It would be very handy to have an optical scanner in house so we could fill disks for BRAILLE-EDIT customers at a fraction of the prices charged by other vendors. It would be handy if we could have a tape duplicator that could reliably duplicate VersaBraille tapes. It would be very handy if we could put our customer records and documentation on hard disk. It would be handy if we had the staff to work on all those special production projects without tying up the programming staff.
Currently, our track record speaks volumes. We have not taken the money from BRAILLE-EDIT sales and blown it on high living. Even though the Thiel Brailler cost as much as a BMW, we bought the high speed brailler instead of replacing our ten year old Dodge Dart. I have been known to sleep on the floor of other's hotel rooms to save money at conventions. I know how to run a low budget operation. But at some points, you cannot skimp. We really need some expensive facilities and equipment to push to the next level. Your support of the Raised Dot Computing marketing plan will make that possible. Right now we are selling 8 braillers a month at $2,700 each. I hope to push that to at least 15 a month by late fall.
Our sales plan has seven elements. Raised Dot Computing will: 1) Place more ads in more publications to let schools and institutions know we exist. 2) Provide incentives for any BRAILLE-EDIT customer who is responsible for a Cranmer sale. 3) Maintain goodwill with the existing customer base by linking better service, facilities, and support with a high level of Cranmer sales. 4) Provide attractive package deals of hardware, software, and instructional material. 5) Improve BRAILLE-EDIT so any klutz can produce braille textbooks with their Cran-Apple system. 6) Write our own manual for the Cranmer Brailler so a human being can really understand how to work the machine fully. 7) Set up a customer support staff that can answer your questions.
Together we can move mountains and change the face of the sensory aids field. I am willing to bet the farm that customer support is the heart and sole of the sensory aids field.
I went out and bought one of the new Apple 2c portable computers. They are really kind of cute.
BRAILLE-EDIT works on the Apple 2c. Even the braille keyboard works on the 2c. The catch is that the 2c is definitely different than the 2e. Your ability to interface the computer to other devices is quite diminished. There are no slots on the 2c. There are two built in serial ports. You cannot use the Echo II in the 2c. You cannot use a Super Serial Card in the 2c. The built-in ports are similar but not identical to the Super Serial Card.
I have a wiring diagram for the connection between the 2c and the Echo GP. It is free for anyone that wants it.
For the record, here are the steps that have to be taken the make BRAILLE-EDIT fully compatible with the 2c: 1) Find a source for 5 pin DIN to RS-232 cables. 2) Modify the VersaBraille and Input from Slot programs to deal with the new kind of serial port in the 2c. 3) Modify data entry and other parts of BRAILLE-EDIT to be friendly to non-Echo II voice output devices (such as the Echo GP).
As I mentioned in the last newsletter, I hope to have a displayable system ready for the ACB convention at the end of June. Again, I ask that readers refrain from calling me up and asking for details that I have not written up in this newsletter. Thank you.
Currently, Raised Dot Computing has four manuals available in paper braille. These are the BRAILLE-EDIT manual, the interface guide, the Echo II manual, and the Cranmer Brailler Manual. All are $20 each. The Cranmer Brailler manual was written by Fred Gisoni of the Kentucky Bureau for the Blind. It is not the same text distributed by Maryland Computer Services. Soon, I will have the Apple IIe owner's manual available in paper braille. It will cost $30 (it is longer than the others).
I am anxious to sell many copies of these braille manuals as I can in the next few weeks. I bought 20 boxes of braille paper (26,000 sheets) recently and I do not want to have to ship any unused boxes to Madison.
Recently, I have received a number of phone calls asking why Raised Dot Computing is relocating to Madison, Wisconsin. I would like to tackle that question here.
First, Raised Dot Computing has gotten to be too large an enterprise to run from a small town. Buying 500 envelopes of a particular size can clean out the whole town. Most supplies must be shipped in, which is both expensive and time consuming. It is difficult to get access to the right equipment, facilities, and people in Lewisburg.
Since Caryn is leaving her teaching position in the mathematics department at Bucknell University, we are no longer tied to any specific location. Caryn and I lived in Madison for six years while she was getting her Phd. We are very familiar with the terrain. We are familiar with many of the people, places, institutions, shops, and possibilities of Madison.
Madison already has a number of well-regarded organizations working on ways to use computers to enrich the lives of disabled persons. The TRACE center (a world center for communication aids for the non-vocal), John Boyer's organization Computers to Help People, and the manufacturer of the Superphone (advanced telecommunications equipment for the deaf) are all located in Madison.
Madison is well served by a very efficient bus system. Madison is more tolerant of persons of different political beliefs, different sexual orientations, and different physical abilities. One can get around town easily on a bicycle. It is a regular stop on the women's music circuit. Madison has the highest per capita book purchasing rate of any city in the country. We will have a chance to re-use the street directory of Madison on VersaBraille tape that I prepared. And Caryn and I already have winter clothing appropriate for Madison weather. Nuff said.
All my efforts are currently directed to supporting version 2.45 of BRAILLE-EDIT. Users of the earlier versions (zero through 2.44A) should realize that I have no intention of improving anything but version 2.45.
For example, part of the reworking of the program allowed me to more than double the room for the translation tables. Due to this and the considerable efforts of Graham Stoodley, the version 2.45 translators are much better than in the old versions. If you find fault with the earlier translators, please don't complain until you upgrade.
In virtually every area, the new version is better than the older version. If you have the old version and are satisfied with it, fine. You should be aware that the only way to improve the use and the performance of the software is to get the new version.
Earlier this month, I spent a day being coached by Conchita Gilbertson and Bettye Krolick on proper braille textbook format. I now realize the modifications that are necessary to implement textbook format in BRAILLE-EDIT. I have in my mind's eye a way to allow typists unskilled in braille or braille format to follow some relatively simple instructions and end up with a virtually perfect braille textbook off of an Apple-Cranmer system. The same file could also be used to generate a nice VersaBraille tape copy as well. We hope to have all the programming and documentation ready by this fall.
First, I will need to make some minor changes in the Print Option to allow it to handle running heads and print page numbers properly. Second, I will have to set up a series of transformation chapters, PAPER, VERSA, and PROOF. Finally, I will have to write a separate manual on how to use this new braille production system. For example, the instructions might call for the user to enter ^^pp45 at the beginning of print page 45. The double carets (^^) would be a prefix for braille formatting, and the pp would stand for "print page number". To proofread the text, the transcriber would run the global replace using transformation chapter PROOF onto another disk. The proof chapter would be sent to an inkprint printer. The sequence ^^pp45 would be expanded into "<carriage return> print page 45".
After proofreading, the original text could be run through the grade two translator. Then either transformation chapter PAPER or VERSA would be used depending on whether the transcriber wanted to make a paper braille copy or a VersaBraille copy.
If a paper copy is desired, then the ^^pp45 would be expanded into some new word processing commands that would have the effect of putting in the full line of dots 3-6, changing the next top line, and automatically producing correct textbook format.
If a VersaBraille copy would be desired, the same master braille copy could be transformed into a disk formatted for VersaBraille using the VERSA chapter. For VersaBraille, the ^^pp45 would become `#45. During the transfer to the VersaBraille, this sequence causes the system to put in print page indicators at the start of each VersaBraille page.
Don't worry if you did not follow all that. The idea that I am trying to get across is that the same master copy can make a well formatted paper braille copy and a well formatted VersaBraille tape. Once we have the textbook format problems dealt with, the next projects are a line oriented editor and a program to translate into Nemeth code.
Steve Speicher and I are actively coordinating the editing of the braille documentation for the Source and CompuServe. One of the major problems with this project is that even as we work on it, the documentation changes. Thank God for word processing. The material should be ready by the middle of June.
I have available VersaBraille cassettes of IBM's Lotus 1-2-3 (a powerful spreadsheet program with some word processing capabilities), VisiCalc manual, and 80-Column Text Card Manual. I will soon have the PRODOS User's Manual and Supplement available. These have been copied and edited with the Kurzweil Reading Machine and the VersaBraille. I have used a sighted reader to check for errors in formulas and other examples. This documentation was originally transcribed for my own use but does not have any customized notes. It can be used by anyone interested in spreadsheet programs.
Although I do not feel well-versed enough in BRAILLE-EDIT at this time to be a consultant (I have only been working with it since Dec. 1983), I do feel that I am an expert in demonstrating the equipment. I also feel that I am an expert in the KRM, even the latest version of their software, 2400K. This new software has made great improvements from the previous model. It has automatic scanning and can therefore quickly adjust itself to a wide variety of print. It reads italicized print much better than before, can read columnar information more accurately, and can quickly scan over pictures and readjust itself to reading normally. It has a feature that tells you where you are on a page, how many inches from the top or bottom. You can set it to start at a particular point on a page rather than having to go to the top of the page all the time.
The error rate with this new version is also much lower than before. All this makes it much more useful than ever in combination with the VersaBraille and Apple, as I use it. A hint to users is to set the translator at computer braille to eliminate all extra control characters. One thing I do is type a chord dot 4 on the VersaBraille anytime I want a new paragraph marker. Even though the KRM is reading and the VB is on automatic transfer you can still type on the VB keyboard. Pause KRM and type a chord dot 4 or any other notation you wish on the VB without having to do a chord/Z. Simply hit resume on the KRM to continue.
If the KRM starts to mess up and you hear it immediately, pause the machine, do clear special command 45 and hit resume. This will let the KRM go through the garbage without putting it on the VB. As soon as the print clears up, pause KRM, go back a line or two and hit special command 45 again. Then press resume on KRM. This method, although it may seem complicated, goes very fast and saves a lot of time later when you're trying to clean up the VB copy. I have some more tricks which I will probably write up for another article. If anyone wants to reach me, my home address is: Olga Epinola, 763 Grafton St. Apt. 2, Worcester, MA 01604.
I was recently asked to demonstrate an interface between the Apple, VersaBraille, and Kurzweil Reading Machine (KRM). The purpose of the workshop was to teach KRM trainers and users new and creative ways of utilizing the reading machine by interfacing it with other computerized devices. I am pleased to report that the workshop was a success; the interface worked perfectly.
As most readers of this newsletter probably already know, the KRM can be used as an optical scanning device, sending whatever it reads to an Apple, or a VersaBraille. With BRAILLE-EDIT, the text can then be edited, translated into grade two braille, or simply stored on a disk for later use. If an Apple is not convenient, a VersaBraille can store the text on a cassette tape. The text can later be sent to the BRAILLE-EDIT program for editing, or braille translation.
When the Apple, KRM, and VersaBraille are interfaced, a very powerful system is created. For example, in a matter of minutes you can go from print, on the KRM, to Braille on the VersaBraille. Since the heart of the system is the BRAILLE-EDIT program, you can use all of the editing, translation, and reformatting features that reside in BRAILLE-EDIT. The ability to go from print to braille is a very exciting application of this system. I will describe this process in some detail.
The equipment that is needed is as follows: a KRM, an Apple with BRAILLE-EDIT, a VersaBraille or Cranmer Brailler, and the proper cables, adapters, and serial cards. (You will need two serial cards, one for the KRM, and one for the VersaBraille. Make sure the switches are set correctly.) Connect the Apple to the KRM using the lower interface port on the KRM. Connect the VersaBraille to the Apple. Set Special Command 45 on the KRM, and use the input from Slot Command in BRAILLE-EDIT. When the Apple prompts, "Start device", press the page key on the KRM. If you are reading more than one page on the KRM, you will have to hit a "p" on the Apple keyboard; this will cause the disk to advance to a new Apple page. When you are finished with the transfer, hit a "q" on the Apple keyboard. This will save the data and put you back in the main menu of BRAILLE-EDIT. You can then translate the text into grade two braille and transfer it to the VersaBraille.
If you are using a VersaBraille only, plug it directly into the lower port of the KRM. You should use the same commands as listed above on the KRM, and an chord/R T on the VersaBraille. No overlay is needed on the VersaBraille. However, the CCP's must match the parameters of the KRM.
During my demonstration, I used the editor in BRAILLE-EDIT to clean up some of the characters that the KRM did not correctly recognize. My audience seemed impressed with this application of BRAILLE-EDIT. There was also a lot of excitement over the quality of the grade two translator! When I used the large print and jumbo braille features of BRAILLE-EDIT (version 2.45), to display what the KRM had just read the audience commented on the significance of these features for people with low vision. In addition, Kurzweil has just released some new software that allows the KRM to automatically set the proper contrast. If this works well, the KRM'S character recognition should be improved, and the machine's accuracy as an optical scanner should be enhanced.
In short, using these devices together, as a system, is a very exciting application of this technology. I have attempted to outline the basics of the interface in this article. Please contact me if you have further ideas or questions on these and other applications. My address is: Robert Carter, 1426 S.W. 25th Place, Gainesville, Florida 32608, (904) 371-8323.
I came across a reverse translation a few days ago that I found interesting. As you know, the "com" sign must be used only at the beginning of a word. However, this rule can often be broken without generating confusion, and the rule is often broken by the run of the mill braille writer, who is not as fastidious as the vigilant monitors of good practice at the printing houses. A common example of this infraction is the word "income", which can, and often is incorrectly contracted as "in" sign, "com" sign, "e". I used BRAILLE-EDIT's reverse translator to decompose some grade two braille containing this incorrectly contracted word. The translator spotted this outrageous infraction, would have none of it, refused to go along with this foul deed, and retaliated by translating the abomination as "in-every". It took me a few seconds to figure out what was going on. I think you can safely add to your list of accomplishments the claim that your reverse translator rides herd on those conscienceless opportunists who would gladly, and with psychopathic composure, contract outside of the law.
Most of us think that the VersaBraille, KRM, etc. are pieces of specialized equipment to be used by blind persons. This doesn't have to be that way.
With careful planning, I have been able to write out a protocol which permits by sighted legal assistant to utilize the VersaBraille and KRM independently to transcribe materials into braille when I am not available. Never send an assistant out unless you have worked with the interface yourself. You have to verify the baud rate and other critical parameters when you set up the overlay. For those of you who are interested, the protocol goes something like this.
Step 1. Use a cassette with its only VB chapter being the KRM overlay. Have the sighted person insert the cassette, label side up, and turn on the VersaBraille. Tap the "braille key" which will result in the name of the overlay appearing on the display.
Step 2. Load the KRM master cassette. Tap the advance bar to load the overlay chapter. For a sighted person to make sure that it loaded, a good test is to repeat this again and wait for the VB to beep.
Step 3. Connect the VersaBraille I/O cable to the KRM.
Step 4. Press "set" "special command" 45 on the KRM. The KRM should say "text output mode".
Step 5. Hit the VersaBraille new chapter button, enter a random chapter name (this can be changed later), followed by the advance bar.
Step 6. Enter chord/R R (for remote) chord/R T (automatic tape load) on the VersaBraille.
Step 7. Start the KRM reading.
Step 8. As a check on the whole process, have the assistant hit the "locate" button and watch whether the display changes (or listen for the VersaBraille page change). These are good indications that the process is working.
Of course there is little a sighted person can do to evaluate the quality of braille. Nevertheless, this process with well-formatted and good print quality can be a real time saver.
I was recently hired by the Internal Revenue Service to work as an attorney in the estate tax division. I was given a large training manual, (approximately 1,000 pages of single-spaced type), and advised that I would have six weeks or so to read it, (although they were not sure that a reader could be provided until a month or two after I was hired). When I showed it to my wife and asked if she would have time to read it onto tape, she almost fainted.
I noticed that the manual was printed to be torn apart and inserted in a three ring binder. Further, it appeared that the bulk of the manual had been printed with a letter quality printer. After my secretary compared the typefont with other fonts produced by letter quality printers, we concluded that we would probably be able to translate the text using the DEST optical character recognition device. To confirm this, I sent a sample page of the manual to a local dealer of the DEST unit who determined that in fact the unit would read the text nicely. I was thus able to use the DEST unit and my Apple II plus computer to obtain a grade two braille copy of the manual for my VersaBraille.
The DEST unit works very well on either typewritten material or material that has been printer on a letter quality printer. The unit will also work well on a Xeroxed copy of such material provided that you have a clear copy. However, the DEST did not work on several portions of the training manual that were in proportionally-spaced type, (the kind of typeset text that is used in books).
I ended up renting the use of a DEST for about two days. I decided to rent the machine at the dealer's facility so he could help me with any interfacing problems. It took a little bit of time to work out all of the bugs. The final cost of the translation project came to $500. However, had I known what I know now, I could have accomplished the work a good deal faster.
I ended up renting the machine they normally use for demo purposes. It can read a page in 15 seconds and can recognize eight type fonts. This unit normally costs about $15,000.
To get the material into the Apple, I used the "Input from Slot" part of BRAILLE-EDIT. I set up my Super Serial Card for 9600 baud, and one stop bit. I had a cable made up in advance by my local computer dealer.
During the translation process, I had my secretary feed pages into the hopper of the DEST unit one page at a time. She would then press the read button on the unit to begin the process. Then machine scanned the text and transmitted it to the Apple via my Super Serial Card. Since the manual was printed on both sides, my secretary had to flip each page before moving onto the next sheet.
I set up a configuration for BRAILLE-EDIT using voice output so I could control the Apple. After each page was read into the Apple, I hit the "P" key to force a new Apple page. We did this for two reasons. First, we couldn't get the DEST unit to respond to the control/S, control/Q automatically sent by the Apple to control the flow of the text. Since the DEST did not respond to the handshakes, we would lose text unless I forced new Apple pages. Secondly, it turned out to be convenient to have a BRAILLE-EDIT page for each printed page. It allowed me to put in special markers that ended up labeling each VersaBraille page with the corresponding print page number.
Since the pages were single spaced, there was a lot of text on each page. We ran into a problem of BRAILLE-EDIT starting to save to disk when it had about 3,000 characters in its buffer. I needed a way of increasing this trigger point. I ended up calling David Holladay and getting instructions on patching the program myself. While it is possible to add the print page indicators during the reading process (using the "T" command), I do not recommend it if you are paying for the machine by the hour. I put my indicators in later.
Keep close track of your disk space. As you may know, you get an indication of how much disk space is left each time you do a full catalog on any BRAILLE-EDIT disk distributed since the beginning of the year. You can also use FID in earlier versions of BRAILLE-EDIT. You should leave about 100 free sectors on each disk to facilitate translation and editing the text later. I used a single hole punch to cut a slot on the opposite side of each disk so I could use both sides to save data. You have to be very careful not to cut into the disk when you do this. If you can initialize the back side, then it will work for storing data. Although this is not recommended by the disk manufacturers, I have not had a single disk fail as of this writing.
I made a backup copy of each disk after I finished loading it with text. This gives you protection in the event you inadvertently wipe out a disk during editing or translation. In my case, I would have lost a whole disk if I had not made backup copies.
After a bit of experimentation, I set up a series of transformation chapters that stripped out the linefeed characters, put in paragraph markers, and put in the braille legal section mark. Then I ran the grade two translator and transmitted the finished product to my VersaBraille.
Having gone through this process, I have a good feel for how to better automate this procedure. First, I should have combined all the transformation chapters that I used into one. Second, if my text was printed on one side of each page, then it would have been possible to load the pages into a hopper. Third, it would help if we can figure out how to get the DEST to respond to soft handshaking. Things would get even better if the software was refined to work closely with the DEST. It would be great if the program could put in the print page numbers automatically and could move to the next Apple page at the conclusion of each printed page. In fact, if a hard disk and a page embosser was involved, it would be possible for the entire system to run without human intervention. I expect that Mr. Holladay will set up a facility like that if we all ask him to. [editor's note: this equipment is expensive. If sales of BRAILLE-EDIT hold up to their current 30 to 40 a month, this will be possible within a year].
Robert Stepp wrote a program for the Apple to help braille transcribers. The program allows a transcriber to enter and edit braille. There is no translation facility in this program. One disturbing aspect of this program is the difficulty in dealing with the documentation. There are many important details which are not mentioned in the manual at all. I have obtained a copy of a supplement written be a transcriber designed to help someone over the rough spots. I know this material is of no interest to 98% of the readership of this publication. But that last 2% may be desperate for help. I will send a free copy (in print) to anyone who asks. If I run out of material for this newsletter, I will be forced to run it in full.
The Carroll Center for the Blind is running a day camp for blind school children on computers. Housing may be available with some local families. The camp will be held July 16-27. The cost is $100. For more information, contact Richard Connors at the Carroll Center (617) 969-6200. The Carroll Center is also running two college courses on Computer Technology for the Visually Impaired. One session is from July 2-13, the other is from July 30-August 10.
Pete Rossi has put together an Apple disk containing a series of games to teach braille contractions to blind children. The disk uses the Echo II synthesizer. For more information, contact Pete Rossi, PO Box 538, Allwood Station, Clifton, NJ 07012. The disk costs $30.
Ken Ingham of Jupiter Technology is looking for a used page embosser. (A Cranmer Brailler does not count as a page embosser since the sheets must be fed by hand). If you know of such a beast, call Ken at (617) 965-8877
ARTS Computer Products announces two new products, PC ORATOR makes the IBM PC talk. The cursor can be moved horizontally or vertically. Also available is PC LENS, which magnifies portions of the screen for the partially sighted.
Both programs are designed as DOS device drivers. They work well with all line oriented applications software using the monochrome adapter card for speech output. The cost of each program (without synthesizer) is $495 plus $5 for shipping. For more information, contact ARTS Computer Products, Inc. 145 Tremont Street, Suite 407, Boston, MA 02111, (617) 482-8248. The editor of this newsletter recommends that you get a list of customers from a potential vendor so you can verify product claims.
The Prose and Cons Braille Unit in Lincoln Nebraska has announced that they are selling reconditioned Talking Book Machines to individuals for $12.50. They will also service and repair existing machines inexpensively. They will also repair stem-wind braille watches for a basic charge of $5.00 plus parts at cost.
The Prose and Cons Braille Unit is a nationally known transcribing group. They have several computers and a SAGEM brailler. They welcome correspondence from readers. Please let them know you heard about them through this newsletter. Their address is: Prose & Cons Braille Unit, P.O. Box 2500, Lincoln, NE 68502, (402) 471-3161 ext. 373.
There are probably almost as many ways to carry a VersaBraille and its assorted paraphanalia as there are VersaBraille units out there. As someone who travels with the machine all over the country, let me make a few suggestions.
There are basically three carrying options available. The first involves an unpadded suitcase, either compartmentalized or not. I don't recommend this, both because of the lack of protection afforded to the machine and also, because a suitcase usually does not provide an ideal set-up for organizing cables, tapes, charger, and other associated equipment.
The second option is a soft-sided, padded case of the type usually used for carrying cameras or video equipment. These cases generally come with two types of internal padding. One type involves blocks of foam which can be configured to fit the needs of the traveler. The second involves pre-formed compartments with non-moveable padding. In general, the second type costs less. The major drawback is that individual needs for what goes along with the VersaBraille vary greatly. Some people go to the other extreme, there are those of use like myself who carry cables, a modem, documentation, etc.
Having made a fairly exhaustive informal study of available cases, my carrier of choice in terms of both cost and features is one sold by Sears as a camera case. While I don't have the current catalog number, the case is easily recognizable. It has 7 compartments in an amazingly compact design. The middle full-with compartment of the case is a perfect fit for the VersaBraille with its handle facing upward. On one side of this compartment, there are two additional full-width compartments. I happen to use one of them for the charger, cables and adapters and the other for my modem and its charger. Additionally, each is large enough to accommodate a small supply of documentation, a small 4-track recorder, etc. On the other side of the main compartment, there are two small compartments, each cassette size, another convenience. The case has a wrap-around handle and a shoulder strap. The padding is 3/4 inch foam on each side of each compartment, and while not bullet-proof, has saved my VersaBraille on several occasions of dropsy. For $39.95, this is a bargain for my money. I believe Sears refers to this as a utility camera case. Buy one, its worth it.
Many computer users get compulsive about one thing or another. My compulsion for the last several months has centered around finding a reliable, truly portable printer with good print quality to interface with the VersaBraille. As an attorney and management consultant, I travel frequently, sometimes across the country, but sometimes just to a client's office across town. The problem is that many times, I want to write something while on-site as would a similarly situated sighted person. Many businesses have printers, but even when you feel like an interfacing pro, the problems of doing so can tie you up for longer than its worth. Plus, there's the problem of knowing what particular null modem is required for the VersaBraille and probably having to change your client's printer parameters to match your overlays.
If you don't think this can be a headache, just try doing it several times with several different printers within a week or so and you will agree with me.
In any event, I have been searching for some time to find a compatible printer mate for the VersaBraille which I can carry with me and have properly configured as needed. This process has been a frustrating one. There are a number of small printers on the market, but most are designed for specific computers utilizing parallel interfaces. In addition, the print quality is usually less than adequate, OK for scratch notes, not OK for memos.
Finally, most of the really inexpensive printers of this type are thermal printers, that is, they use heat to "burn" the letter impressions on paper. These printers require special and costly paper, which has a tendency to fade over time.
Recently, I discovered one immediate solution t this problem and even better one in the offing. MPI of Salt Lake City has introduced a 15 pound portable printer (dot matrix 9 by 11) known as the Sprinter. It is comparable in size and appearance to a hard-shell attache case, and according to reports in Byte Magazine, can be tossed in an airline baggage compartment.
This sounded too good to be true and in two senses it was. First, the front panel membrane switches are just about impossible for a blind person to independently use. Secondly, the print quality is not all that good, especially when we're talking $700.
The real good news, however is that within 4 to 6 months, it appears that NEC will have an extremely high quality (just about letter quality in fact) thermal printer available for $700 also. Unlike all other thermals, this one will use regular paper and be capable of producing VERY GOOD copy. Don't bug NEC about this one yet: the machine is in prototype and won't be here till at last early fall. I have had a conversation with one highly placed NEC executive about this, and he assures me that this printer is tailor made to the needs of a traveling VersaBraille user. In fact, the membrane switches have been designed with indentations under the panel so they are feelable. I will keep you up to date on the saga of the Promised Portable Printer.
Bob Dunn is a man of many titles, among others, Permissions Editor and Special Projects Coordinator for InfoWorld Magazine. Blind folks, and others working with blind people, should address any concerns or issues relating to access to computers by the blind to Mr. Dunn. The goal is to show one of the most prestigious computer publications in the nation that we blind folks count as an active, viable section of the computer market. Bring up all issues, including our wish to access magnetic media--publications on disks which can be immediately brailled or voiced, etc. If you want more hardware and software documentation in braille or on audio tape, let Mr. Dunn know. Shower him with letters so that he can pass on to the powers that be in the computer industry the message that we really count and should be listened to. The address: Robert Dunn, InfoWorld, 1060 Marsh Road, Suite C200, Menlo Park, CA 94025, (415) 328-4602.
Another important task for all interested blind computer users is to send letters to the editor to InfoWorld and other computer publications regarding any gripe, suggestion or idea about computer access as a blind person. Manufacturers don't care about us, so we have to make them care about us We can no longer afford to remain silent and docile. We've got to strut our stuff and let them know that charity isn't our game. We're people who demand and deserve their products and services, and we resent being ignored.
I am trying to establish a computerized braille production facility. Anyone interested in this project should contact me at: Daveed Mandell, 2056 Emerson Street, Berkeley, CA 94703, (415) 644-3180. You can also try to reach me at work. Write in paper braille or on audio tape, please, addressing letters to: KPFA Radio, 2207 Shattuck Avenue, Berkeley, CA 94704, (415) 848-6767.
I have contacted United Software, marketers of the popular terminal program for the Apple, ASCII Express, the Professional. I'd like them to consider producing a talking version to be used with the Echo II Speech Synthesizer. If you're interested in this program (which many prefer over Transend), contact: Bill Blue, United Software, 8624 Cuyamaca, Santee, CA 92071, (619) 562-9111.
Having worked with several people who are just starting to work with computers and learn the BRAILLE-EDIT program, I have found that they seem to be afraid of the computer. They are also convinced that they cannot learn how to use the computer. Their approach is with extreme hesitation, as though the computer will byte.
We are told that it is normal to be apprehensive when we first venture into an unfamiliar area, this may be a good portion of the beginner's hesitation, but there is more to it. A part of this hesitation on one's part is the rumor about how difficult it is to learn computer programming. First of all, most of us are not computer programmers, so we do not have to worry about those difficulties. Secondly, is the preciseness that is required in order to use the computer. This requirement is no more strenuous to a blind person than his or her every day life style. When we do practically anything, we have to do it with some degree of consistency. For example; when travelling down the sidewalk you should use your cane in a consistent manner for your own protection. Your commands to the computer must have this same consistency. We have a degree of organization about us and this has to be applied to the computer in order to enjoy the use of it.
As for not being able to use the computer, we realize that we know how to type on a typewriter. The computer keyboard is not that much different, a few more keys, some commands (both editing and formatting) and it is silent (you no longer have to listen to the typewriter printing each letter). As for the commands, these are no more difficult than giving a guide dog its instructions. We have to give the dog commands, just as we have to give a computer commands. A guide dog can be a blind persons' best friend, so can the computer.
When we approach the computer with the frame of mind that it is going to do exactly what you tell it to, you will be in complete control. The computer with out good programming and accurate commands will do nothing on its own. The BRAILLE-EDIT program is the best word processing available for personal computers. It simplifies the commands on the personal computer (PC) just like the word processing program for the large computers. This enables the blind PC users to do a multitude of tasks independently.
David's program has good documentation and is really easy to learn. A computer can be a blind person's most helpful tool. There is nothing to be afraid of in dealing with computers. It can actually be a good friend.
You are quietly minding your own business one day in the Hall of the Guild of Adventurers on a planet near the sun called Eamon. You are suddenly approached by a sorcerer who offers you a drink which causes you to disappear to another part of the planet. In another scenario of the same game, you are elected by the others to rescue a lady who has been kidnapped and taken to Treasure Island. In still another scenario, you must escape from the Devil's Tomb getting through iron doors that won't open, gambling for your soul on a magic wheel of fortune and killing a host of monsters and demons along the way.
All of this may sound a little puerile but, take my word for it, these games are neither easy to win nor anything less than addictive. You travel to these strange adventures in the guise of a character. If he succeeds at an adventure, he gets wealthy and his expertise with the various weapons that he uses in battle and his ability to cast spells increase. If he fails to return, he is dead and you must start a new character from scratch. There are currently something over forty different scenarios available for Eamon and there is a large club of Eamon players all over the country. Three dealers in Jacksonville have Eamon disks available for one of your disks and the Apple Avocational Alliance has all of them available at a cost of two dollars and fifty cents to three dollars each depending on the size of your order and whether or not there is a sale on. The basic framework of Eamon was devised by Donald Brown and the scenarios have been written by many different people. All of the programs are public domain and copying is encouraged. Because these programs were written by amateurs in search of fun, there are occasional glitches in the programs but these are minor annoyances as compared to the hours of fun. As if the challenge of the game itself were not enough, Mr. Brown has designed Eamon as a series of textfile modules and has written utility disk programs designed to enable you to make your own adventures. Basically, you need very little knowledge of programming to design a game of your own since the programs have already been written. You design the route that people must take, the hazards they will meet along the way, the monsters they must contend with and the rewards they will receive. If none of this intrigues you, skip the rest of this article.
It is necessary to always start with the Eamon Master Disk. If you were sighted, you would simply boot it and away you would go. As things stand now, you have two options. If you are willing to take the time and trouble that it will take, write a HELLO program that will load speech and do all of the other things that the existing HELLO program does. Obviously, you could just as easily write the PR and IN commands into this program to send control to a Versabraille into your HELLO program. I take the easy way out, however. I boot the system, set it for speech or Versabraille and then insert the Eamon Master Disk. Instead of rebooting, I type RUN THE WONDERFUL WORLD OF EAMON and that is that. Even though you must change disks to get to an adventure, the system will usually not knock speech out or disable the Versabraille. I have tried over twenty scenarios and there is only one that creates problems for the Versabraille and this is because there is a command that explicitly reissues PR commands in order to allow the use of the hi-res screen for the presentation of old-english script in the preamble to the adventure.
Eamon is just one of a whole family of games called "adventure" games. Included in this family are such games as Adventure, the progenitor of the race, developed at MIT soon after the Micros began to exist and currently available on Compuserve and the Source. It is worth noting that this is also available in disk form from AAA at the same price as the Eamon disks. Some of the Adventure programs are written in Integer and will need to be handled like other integer programs. As with Eamon you should not boot these but should instead RUN ADVENTURE HELLO or its equivalent.
These public domain games can be listed, altered and made to work. The most popular of the adventure games yet devised, cannot be handled so easily. Even though "Zork" I, II, and III are completely text-oriented and can be played perfectly by a blind person, they can neither be listed nor altered and must be booted. These games are made by Infocom and sell for around thirty dollars each. They are elaborate adventure of increasing complexity which take place in the underground empire of Zork. The computer understands a vocabulary of over six hundred words and it takes a good deal of logical thinking to survive long. As was mentioned last column, you can get the output from these games onto a Versabraille or into an outboard synthesizer if you are prepared to place it slot one. As soon as the system is booted and brings up the first entry, type script and you are off. You will probably have to do your inputting from the keyboard of your Apple, but at least you can play.
These examples of the adventure genre only scratch the surface of what is available commercially. Unfortunately, most of the other games make extensive use of graphics and combine a need for arcade skills with the need to be logical and observant. A fun game is "Escape from Rungistan" where you are held prisoner in an African republic's jail and must not only figure out how to get out of there but must also figure our how to flee the country. This game uses graphics, music, text and arcade skills to succeed. You must ski down a mountain dodging trees to escape. There is no way that a blind person can play this by himself but it is no end of fun if the whole family gets involved in the effort to avoid the many forms of death that await you.
Perhaps the best of all of the adventure games that I have found for sheer design brilliance cannot, easily, be played by the visually impaired person. This is a series of three scenarios called "Wizardry" whose programmers I admire no end. It is a fairly close approximation on computer to Dungeons and Dragons. A party of one to six people explore a maze that is ten levels deep and is based on a twenty by twenty grid on each level. You can choose from among five races and eight classes of characters, can buy and sell weapons, acquire experience points and treasures and are frequently required to fight up to three groups of varying monsters. The program is written in pascal and the maze is presented from the perspective of the people walking in it. You must turn right to see what they would see when they turn right. Only when you have tried this game, can you acquire an understanding of the mastery and subtlety of the programming that is involved. Monsters are presented graphically when you meet them and it is not at all easy to progress deeper into the maze. As you may have gathered, this game cannot be played by the visually impaired as it stands and, even if it were possible to get the text to speak, the maze would be hard to map. I am working on this and will report any progress. I suppose that the purpose of raising the three wizardry scenarios was to indicate just how sophisticated some of the newer computer adventure games are becoming.
Just before closing this column, I should point out to any owners of the TRS 80 model three that Bedlam, Pyramid, Haunted House and Raakatu all work fine as taped games and may work as disk games as well. Next month we will begin to explore some of the many non-adventure, public domain games that do work on the Apple.