The View from Entropy Hall (Online Archive) - From Ed Meskys - RR2 Box 63 - 322 Whitter Hwy - Center Harbor NH 03226
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Issue #5

The View From Entropy Hall #5 for APA-Q 397, 27 July 1996, from Ed Meskys, RR #2 Box 63, Center Harbor NH 03226-9708, [email protected], 603-253-6207.


Today is July 20 (happy space day). I am just getting started and have not had the last disty read to me yet. I am doing a quick one-sheet zine just so that John won't hold the disty wondering whether my contribution is late. I will try to do another before I leave for California and the Worldcon on the 19th. Sandy & I are vacationing for ten days before the con, then going on to Phoenix for 4 days to visit NIEKAS associate Anne Braude. We will be home Saturday Sept 7.

I understand that John and Perdita are taking a vacation to western Canada in August and wonder whether that will effect the August Disty. @@ I just spent 8 nights in the Anaheim Hilton from June 28 to July 6 for the NFB National Convention and am well oriented for staying in the same hotel for worldcon. The blind convention had a total at-the-door registration of 2708 (we do not have advance registration) so the whole con fit in the Hilton. Worldcon will be another story.

This is a working convention and I was busy every day from 9 to 5 with committee meetings almost every evening. The progress of technology in the huckster room was a joy. Kurzweil came out with the first reading machine in 1977 for $50,000 based on a PDP...10 or 11, I don't remember. Today you can get a stand-alone machine for about $5500 or if you already have a talking 386 or better can get an OCR board, scanner, and adaptive software for as little as $1200. Aside from Kurzweil there were reading machines from Arkenstone (the one I have), Robotronics (from Australia), Telesensory Systems, and I think one other. Ten years ago the Blazie Engineering Co. introduced the Braille N Speak, a palmtop notetaker the size of a trade paperback book. It had only seven keys, like a Braille typewriter, and only a speaker, no screen. You write on it as you would on a Brailler and it converts the grade 2 Braille, including 200 contractions and abbreviations, into standard ASCII and will read it back in English. (Models are available in a score of other languages.) For the equivalent of "control" or function keys you hit simultaniously the space bar and the symbol for a Braille character. You can transfer what you wrote on the road to your desktop with a serial cable, and even use it as a speech synthesizer for your desktop. Now there must be a dozen different palmtop notetakers and even full computers (the Mynah from Technology For Independence is a 486 with speech built in and loaded with production software.) I saw one notetaker that was only 4 x 4 x .5 inches!

Simple synthetic speech, like that achievable with a Soundblaster card under Windows or on a Macintosh is not enough, for these read indiscriminately. You need "screen reading software" which allows you to hear selectively different parts of the screen, by the paragraph, line, word, or letter, or even by "able baker charlie dog...." for retrieving information from databases or spreadsheets, or editing text in a word processor. The palmtops have this navigation built in.

Windows is a pain in the butt for blind computer users for how will we "point at the pretty picture" with the mouse or trackball? Also the monitor is bitmapped rather than having text sent to it, so the standard speech synthesizer which catches the characters on the way to a DOS screen will not work. The problems are being solved and seven different screen readers for Windows 3.1 were on sale, and there were two beta versions of Windows 95 screen readers. Still, I do not want to invest $700-1000 and the time to learn a totally new operating system. Many blind workers are having to make the transition because their whole office is going to Windows but I am chickening out. Up until a year ago I was still using my original XT but went to a used 386 in order to have a reading machine.

But the most fun in the huckster room were "Strider" and a virtual reality setup. Arkenstone is now marketing a total map of the US on 4 CD ROM disks with special talking software to make it useful. "Atlas Speaks" has every minor road in the US in its database. I found "Jennifer's Path," a quarter-mile long dirt road with 20 homes on it, which is a few hundred feet from my house. There are some errors. The 10 mile long "Moultonboro Neck Road" on the other side of my house is badly misspelled in the database so that I could not search for it. Route 25 is in as "Old Ossippee Road," a name I never would have thought of using. But I located myself on Jennifer's Path facing Route 25. I was told I could go 90 degrees left or right on Old Ossippee Road, and I chose right and hit enter. I was told that in .2 miles I came to the corner of (misspelled) Moultonboro Neck Road, could turn 100 degrees to the right on MNR or turn 15 degrees left and continue on OOR. Taking the 15 degree left path and hitting enter brought me to the corner of Ames Road 100 feet later, etc. If I remember correctly it also gave compas headings. But Arkenstone also showed a prototype of "Strider" which put all this in a backpack with a global satellite positioning receiver, a pocket control, and an earphone. It will be marketed later this year for only $1200 which I find croggling. While it would be handy for finding my way in unfamiliar cities I still could not see myself lugging this backpack on every trip when I am already loaded down with briefcase and recorder, or taking it on a trip when I also have luggage to manage. I wonder how many they will sell.

I didn't get to explore fully the tactile "virtual reality." At first they were giving everyone a 15 minute demo but lines were so long that they had cut it to two minutes by when I got there. They had a little cup at the end of a servo arm hooked up to a Pentium computer. You put your fingertip in the cup and moved it around. The arm responded to your motion but resisted going certain places where "virtual" obsticles were in the way. I got to feel a hemisphere in the bottom of a box and a parabolic band floating in the air, feeling the top and bottom surfaces and the near edge (about .25 inches thick). The band was about 2 inches wide and I didn't think of exploring its back side. The person doing the demo said it could indicate textures and was useful for teaching graphical math or for engineers doing CAD. How far away can "the feelies" be?

On the last day of the con Harry Andruschak came out to visit. The huckster room was only open that day during the 12-2 PM break and he came in time to explore it. When the convention ended at 5 PM he joined me and several of my friends for dinner. He maintains computerized bar code machines for the post office and has Thursday and Friday off instead of weekends, and will only make those two days of LACon. He is at the bottom of the list for choosing vacation times and it will be many years before he can make Worldcon or Westercon.


The weekend of July 12 Sandy & I went to Readercon in Westboro MA. There were many excellent panels and a wonderful huckster room with NOTHING but books! As a result of a panel discussion I picked up Broderik's SEA'S FURTHEST END published only in Australia as a trade paperback. It is supposed to be a gimmick novel every aspect of which corresponds to a part of an opera. I am quite interested in reading it.

Till next time....

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