Friday, April 28

Saturday, April 22

New Portable Reading Machine Coming Soon

Greetings. Here's an article that has made it rounds of the email lists in recent days, and I thought I'd post it here. It talks about the upcoming Kurzweil NFB Reader, a portable reading machine you can carry in your pocket. The NFB plans to debut it this summer in Dallas at their annual convention, and hopefully, they'll have a few for people to buy. I've seen a demonstration of this device and it looks very promising and very cool. Enjoy, and as always, please excuse any formatting errors.

Kurzweil-NFB Reader: Device provides words to live by
By Frank D. Roylance
Baltimore Sun, April 14, 2006

Hand-held reader that can convert text into synthesized speech may increase
independence for the visually impaired

Not long ago, James Gashel was on Capitol Hill, waiting for a meeting to
start, when he realized that he needed some numbers from a chart he was
That was a problem. Gashel is blind, and so was his companion. And the chart
was not in Braille. Gashel was reaching for his cell phone to call someone
at his office to retrieve the numbers, when his colleague stopped him. "Why
don't you try the reader?" he asked.
Of course.
Gashel, an executive at the National Federation for the Blind in Baltimore,
was carrying the world's first hand-held reading machine for the blind -
just developed by NFB in collaboration with Kurzweil Technologies Inc. of
Wellesley, Mass.
Combining a 5-megapixel digital camera with a personal digital assistant, or
PDA, the 13-ounce Kurzweil-NFB Reader converts digital images of text into
synthesized speech.
Gashel pulled out his reader, snapped a picture of the chart, "and within a
minute I had the numbers I wanted," he said. And he didn't have to bother
anyone else to get them.
Now in final field tests before its release for sale by Kurzweil this
summer, the device was officially unveiled last week at ceremonies at NFB
headquarters in South Baltimore. Thanks to the new reader, Gashel and 75
other blind product testers across the country are sorting through their own
mail, reading restaurant menus, identifying packages in the freezer by the
labels and discovering many other tasks they can now do without assistance.
It's liberating, Gashel said. "You start to think about your capabilities
In addition to many of the nation's 1.3 million blind people, he also
predicts a demand from older people with failing eyesight, and young people
with dyslexia or learning disabilities.
The NFB's collaboration with Kurzweil began more than 30 years ago, when
founder Ray Kurzweil, a pioneer of character recognition and text-to-speech
devices, came to the federation's offices, then in Washington.
He had developed the first Kurzweil Reading Machine. The size of an office
copier, it could scan a document and read it in a synthetic human voice.
"That was very revolutionary," Gashel said. Until then, blind people were
pretty much limited to live readers, or the limited number of publications
available on tape or records, or transcribed into Braille.
The Kurzweil reader was big and expensive - $50,000 each, Gashel said. It
couldn't read photocopied matter and it had problems with pages crowded with
pictures. But it was clearly a breakthrough. So the NFB bought six, and
began working with Kurzweil to improve them. "This was the first time an
inventor of a product had ever come directly to us," seeking input from the
blind in the development of an "access" machine, Gashel said.
Eventually, Kurzweil began to sell improved versions to schools, libraries
and rehabilitation agencies. But even though prices fell over the years, the
reader remained too costly for individuals.
Just as importantly, "There was always a need for something portable,"
Gashel said. By the mid-1990s, the advent of desktop computers and scanners
enabled Kurzweil to develop a PC-based reader - the Kurzweil 1000.
Character-recognition software was improving, too. And laptops made the
hardware required smaller. But one problem remained: "You would have to have
a scanner - it would be quite a bit of paraphernalia to carry about," Gashel
Digital photography provided the needed breakthrough; that, and the
miniaturization of computer power in the PDA - the hand-held computer that
millions use to organize their lives. The Kurzweil-NFB Reader, which is
expected to cost less than $3,000, marries a small, 5-megapixel Canon camera
to an ASUS A730 PDA. They are wired together and held by a vinyl case about
6 inches by 3 inches by 2 1/2 inches. It's all operated with just nine
buttons, with voice prompts from a small speaker or through earphones.
Holding the device about 16 inches above a sheet of paper lying on a table,
Gashel lines up the shot. He is guided by a sort of audio viewfinder:
"Right, bottom edges are visible ... two degrees counterclockwise relative
to page."
The camera speaks in an oddly Eastern European male voice, but it's one
that's familiar and comfortable for people who use electronic readers.
Gashel pushes a button and the shutter clicks. A few seconds later, the
device is reading the release aloud, flawlessly.
Tests on a business card and an ATM receipt are rougher. The device misses
some lines of type, and mistakes some characters for others. But it does
better on a second try, "learning" as it goes along.
Had it been his own ATM slip, Gashel said, "I would have known what I
withdrew, and I'd know most of the information, even if it didn't hit it
Many times, he said, "you're not going for perfect; you're going for 'What
is this?'"
Jim McCarthy, 39, director of governmental affairs at the federation, has
also been testing one of the readers. A new office arrangement has left him
without a nearby assistant, so something as simple as sorting through papers
on his desk becomes an issue.
"I'm probably 25 feet from the closest person," he said. It's not a big deal
to walk around the corner and ask someone to identify a piece of paper, "but
it seems like a waste of time."
The reader "allows people to sort pertinent documents in a way a lot of us
aren't accustomed to. That is pretty liberating," he said.
Lou Ann Blake, 46, a visually impaired research specialist at the
federation, has also been a test-driver. "I read the cooking directions on a
bag of pasta," she said. "It was plastic and I kinda had to flatten it out.
But it did quite well."
Videotape labels, bills, letters, 401(k) statements - it read them all.
"Some of the pronunciations it doesn't get quite right - legal terms, Latin
terms," she said. But "it's amazingly easy to use. I have a harder time
using the copy machine here sometimes."
But the key advance is the new device's portability, said John Pare, 47,
director of sponsored technical programs at the NFB, who started to lose his
sight at 35. "No matter where you are, you're constantly being handed
printed material," he said. "It's the way the world works. In restaurants,
the airport, hotels, at a conference."
The Kurzweil reader enables the blind to grab an image quickly, anywhere -
even in the dark - and "read" it themselves instead of relying on friends or
strangers to read the documents aloud.
"It's been very gratifying," Kurzweil said. "When we started this project
about four years ago, we weren't ... entirely sure to what extent we could
compensate for distortion in the images that would occur using a hand-held
Where a scanner provides a flat, uniform image and perfect lighting, the
hand-held digital camera would tilt and rotate relative to the page - then
the user would move and the lighting would be uneven. Worse, the pages of an
open book are curved, with portions at different distances from the camera.
"So we developed image enhancing software that takes this image and modifies
it to get rid of all those distortions," Kurzweil said. "And we had to fit
all this software [along with the character recognition program] into this
little computer."
But it worked. "We have 75 in the field, and hundreds very soon," he said.
"And the feedback from blind users is that it's having tremendous success."
If it does well, the federation could eventually profit. Gashel said the NFB
owns 40 percent of the rights to the technology. In the meantime, the
software will continue to be improved so that the device can read more
varied and complex material.
Kurzweil also predicts a time when a blind person will be able to enter a
room, snap a picture, and have the reader identify the types and locations
of lamps, tables, people and other items in the room.
Also, devices "will continue to get smaller over time," he said. Gashel
expects the gadget will be crammed into a cell phone some day. But Kurzweil
is thinking even smaller. "In five to seven years, the camera will pin on
your lapel and take pictures as you walk around," describing the scene as
you go, he said.
NFB chef and teacher Marie A. Cobb, 59, of Catonsville, who is visually
impaired, has been using the reader since January. She has her own hopes.
"What I'm looking for is the day when I can take it into a mall and have it
tell me the name of the stores, and the locations on those big directories.
I would love that," she said.

Saturday Cleaning

Greetings. Saturday has typically been the day that we (or most people anyway) clean our houses or places of living. So, here's a "clean up" of things that have happened from the past week, or thoughts I've missed in recent weeks.

Frequent shopper's cards. Many stores these days have the frequent shopper's cards, where they say it saves you money on things you buy every day. At some stores, you really do save money on things you buy often, however others you don't. I've got about 5 different cards like these on my keychain. Funny thing though, only about 2 or 3 of them are actually for stores in the Austin area. Well, yesterday I went to the neighborhood CVS Pharmacy to pick up my prescriptions. When I finally made it up to the pharmacy area, I had a few other items and was ready to pay for those along with the medications. The clerk asked if I had a CVS card, and I promptly pulled out my keychain, held it out to her with the cards spread out in a fan-fold fashion, and said, "Pick a card." She took the card, scanned it, and gave it back to me. She then gave me the updated total for money I owed her. Strangely, the second total I got was exactly the same, minus a few pennies, as the first total, before she scanned my card. As I was leaving with a friend, we chuckled about how these frequent shopper's cards don't seem to really save you any money anymore.

Overly helpful people. In recounting the story of paying my own taxes, I forgot to mention someone that tried to be helful to me. When I was walking up to the H&R Block place along the strip shopping center, a woman came running over to me. She was so intent on helping me that she tripped over my cane and took a spill on the sidewalk. I worried for a moment that my cane would break, since it got caught between her legs, but I then turned my attention to the woman on the ground. Our conversation went something like this:

Me: "Are you all right?"
Her: "Oooh, ah, ooh. Ouch, I'm not sure. My side hurts."
Me again: "Are you ok?"
Her: "No, well, ... I was coming over to help you. Are you ok?"
Me, standing and grinning at her: "Yes, I'm fine. Are you ok?"
Her: "Oooh, I'll be ok, ... I think."

I walked away, waited a few minutes to put distance between us, and then burst out laughing.

Throwing darts. There's a dart board in the cubicle area at work. This has been the subject of stress releaving activity, as well as down right fun. I know that blind people throw darts, I've done it before myself, but never with other blind people. So far, in my experience with this particular dart board, no one has gotten hit by flying darts, but I suppose its possible. The funniest thing is when one or two totally blind guy sstand off to the side, and critique a certain person's dart throwing skills and where the dart landed, just by the sound. One day, I thought my sides would split from laughing so hard. Well, the dart board has taken on new menaing, since while I was in training this past week, it was put to a new use: argument decider. I learned later that a couple of instructors got into an argument about who was going to teach a particular class, and they ultimately threw darts to decide the winner. The person who first hit the board would get the choice of classes. The day after this worthy competition happened, I talked with the winner about it, asking him how many darts he had to throw to hit the board, and he answered, "Two." Another funny incident with the dart board was when another instructor climbed up on top of the table behind the board, peeked over the top, and called out to the person throwing, "I'm over here. I'm above the board; now I'm below the board; now I'm above the board." I never thought that I would come across blind people with darts after I left college. There were a couple of guys down the hall from me in the dorm who had a board and darts. They weren't blind, but that didn't stop us from having hours of fun. In conclusion, I suppose darts can be used for: fun, stress releaving, and deciding arguments. Hmm, if I get good enough, I might put my dart throwing abilities on my resume, ..., or maybe not, :)

The Rapture. For those interested in the Left Behind series, you can listen to an interview with Jerry Jenkins about the upcoming book, "The Rapture." The book will be released on 06/06/06, and is the third in the pre-quel miniseries, about life before the rapture. This book focuses on the time leading up to, and the moment of, the rapture itself. It features many of the characters from the main series of 12 Left Behind books. If you want another sneak peek, you can read the first chapter or read more about the other books in the series at the Left Behind website.

That's about all for now. I'll write in a separate post about my training this past week and some observations and realizations. Until then.

Thursday, April 20

Whipping up food, fun, awareness for the blind

Greetings. Here's an article that appeared in the Austin American Statesman about a cooking competition that took place at the Criss Cole Rehabilitation Center, the state training center I work at, entitled, Whipping up food, fun, awareness for the blind. Though I didn't get to sample the food myself, since my lunch hour was shortened by the week long training, I've heard that the food was very good and the contestants did a great job. In fact, the two students that headed up the competition were featured on a local news program yesterday morning, as well as on the public radio station here in town. I'd say that's a good dayss work if you get coverage on three different media outlets. Granted not all of the media sources covered the story in the same way, but its still a good thing.

Wednesday, April 19

Mid Week Training Update

Greetings. Just a quick note to tell a little about my training this week. First off, the training is here in Austin among the massive complex of state government buildings. For my part, someone who is local and going to the training, verses coming in from out of town and staying in a motel all week, its been weird taking the bus to and from training, just like I do when working normally. It seems like two different worlds, going from putting my stuff in my cubical, checking email and voicemail, and then gathering the materials and going to the training location. Then, at the end of the day, returning to my cubical, leaving my materials, catching up on any missed messages, and then going home like I always do. I haven't thus far had to come in from out of town to training, even before my employment with the state, except on one occasion at a technology workshop last year. That truly felt like I was coming from out of town, since I was (driving with coworkers down from Dallas). This time though, and I suppose most of any further training I get, I'm commuting back and forth. Anyway, the whole thing is interesting. In addition, the fact that I come home to my own apartment and bed, instead of the sometimes good motel living space, is a bonus for me.

On another topic, the training itself is going well. Since it is training with the state, I had the option of requesting my materials in Braille, which I did. After I got the three big Braille volumes though on Monday, I found myself wanting the electronic version instead, since its much more portable than those three volumes. This morning, I did acquire the electronic version of much of the materials, which I loaded onto my Pac Mate note taker. Today, we were told to review some of the various laws affecting the blind and vision impaired. Instead of lugging those big volumes home to read for a few hours, I brought my notes and materials home on my note taker, which was much better. I've since changed my preference of media to electronic for future training classes.

Tomorrow should be interesting, since for the afternoon, we'll be going to a local mall and will navigate around. I say this will be interesting since most of my fellow trainees will be wearing blindfolds and using canes to get around. They had introductory lessons yesterday on cane use. But the first time lessons are different from going through a mall. Its probably mean to say, but this will be one of those times that I think to myself, "Ha ha, now you get to see how the other half lives."

I'm off to bed. I'll write more this weekend about the week's worth of training, or at least the highlights. Until then.

Saturday, April 15

Long Awaited Entry

Greetings. Well, this has probably been the longest amount of time between the last few entries, especially from April 1 to April 10. I hope to not have that lapse in time happen again, then again, going into this month, I had no idea that I'd only have done 3 entries by this point.

Anyway, a lot has happened in the last two weeks, which I'll attempt to summarize here.

First, a personal notable thing, I did my own taxes! Last year, I had a friend help me file, but this year, that wasn't an option since I'm in a new city and don't know that many people, or not well enough to ask for tax filing help. So, I went down to the H&R Block office near my complex and filed my taxes on my own. I'm not real tax or financially for that matter, oriented. So I was quite happy to just answer questions while the tax person filed them for me. And, as it happened, I walked away with a bigger refund this time around than I got last year, keeping in mind that last year I was still working part time. I'm guessing that the big refunds might disappear when tax time comes around again next year. Then again, you never know I suppose. Anyway, I had a great sense of satisfaction and pride when I left H&R, and the tax professional said to me, "Have a great year. See you next year."

Next, though many people might find this hard to believe, especially considering my lifestyle up until now, I've started exercising with a coworker of mine, where we get on his eliptical trainer on what we hope is a daily basis. We're still working some of the kinks out in this program. However, I am exercising more often than not during a week's time, and I can already tell a bit of a difference, in that my legs and feet don't hurt as quickly when I walk on some of my longer trips. Keeping in mind that since I haven't typically walked long distances; what's long to me might not be long to you. I don't have all of the "exercise" lifestyle figured out yet, but I'm working on it. I'm of the belief that when you start to exercise, you don't just change all of your habbits (including eating) over night and shed the pounds immediately. These things take time, and I'm not just talking about the exercise. So there's something that I never thought I'd write about, :)

After the exercise, we have typically sat around and talked for an hour or more. That has been neat as well, to get to know and exchange ideas and thoughts with a colleague and frowing friend.

I have another "cool feeling" report to offer. I went to downtown Austin today to the NFB chapter meeting. Afterward, I went to lunch with a group of people. After lunch, a student from the training center and I were walking to a nearby bus stop to catch the bus for the ride home. The cool feeling happened while we were walking to the stop. I must say here that I haven't been the best thus far at getting out and exploring Austin. What I know comes largely from where I was sent to and places I walked through while in blindfold training when I started. One of those areas happened to be the area I walked through with the student today. Anyway, she was asking me where we were going, exploring her surroundings with her cane, and telling me that she didn't know a lot about Austin and wasn't as experienced as I was in getting around. I grinned when she said this, since, well, read my last statement. Anyway, that was cool to be showing her the way to go to get back to the bus stop. I also took the opportunity to tell her interesting tidbits, such as the movie theater we passed by on our way down the block. On a previous trip down there, I had passed by that theater. I knew what it was since when I walked, or attempted to walk by, the theater, I found a long line of people waiting to get in, and several people told me what it was. I tried to ask them what they were waiting to see, but they didn't understand, or they were too worried about where I was going, which happens with sighted people, :)

I've been spending the past few hours looking at the various reward levels for my new bank credit card and calculating what I need to do in order to get a certain reward. That has been tedious, but fun, since until now, I haven't had a large enough income to qualify for many of these types of rewards. And, before anyone asks, I'm not going to overspend and get myself in trouble; I'm not that kind of person. Anyway, this is one more thing on the list of benefits of full time work: you can build up and obtain credit card rewards.

Looking ahead slightly, I have another round of Center, or perhaps its organizational, training coming up next week. I'm looking forward to that, since I'm mainly curious what its about. Also since I will be getting a whole volume, or two, of Braille materials. That will be neat, to actually get workshop materials in a medium I can read, instead of adding to my stack of hardly-read print stuff. Looking further ahead, it also looks like, from all indications, I'll be going to the NFB national convention this summer in Dallas. I'm looking forward to that as well, mainly since I didn't think I'd be able to go with my new job. However, since my employer has basically told us, "If you want to go, you can," I've answered with an enthusiastic, "Yes!" Kind of ironic that after several years, the NFB convention finally makes it back to Dallas, but I'm not living there anymore, grin.

Well, that's about all for now. I'll write again when I think of it or when I can, whatever comes first. Until then, ...

Tuesday, April 11

Want a Google Account?

Greetings. Though Google says that a workable solution to the visual/word verification problem they have won't be out until ate April, now you have the option of Signing up for a Google account on this secure web page. Note that there is now an option to listen to the characters in the verification graphic. Also note that this solution may not be completely full proof yet, since they're not officially supposed to have it ready until the end of the month. Case in point, I tried to play the audio clip and had problems. However, I know of another blind person that was able to successfully create their Google account. The good news is that Google is definitely working on a solution to their long standing issue. My only complaint is: why didn't they do it sooner? Then again, that's in the past. Hopefully, Google will now be a leader, instead of a follower, in accessibility issues.

Saturday, April 1

Article on NFB Newsline and Book Share

Greetings. The following article arrived in my Inbox a few days ago and I thought I'd share it here. For those interested, in the coming weeks and months, the Associated Press, the Austin American Statesman, and the Dallas Morning News will all be added to the Newsline collection of newspapers and also made available through Book Share. The Associated Press materials will be organized by state, and unlike the daily papers, it will be updated hourly! Read more to find out about this exciting service. Now you don't have any excuse for not reading a newspaper, since you can get it over the phone or online. I'm personally looking forward to reading the Dallas Morning News, since that's a paper that I've been wanting to read for some time now. The fact that I no longer live in the paper's city is irrelevant. Of course, it will be cool to read news about Austin as well. Enjoy.

Ascribe Newswire
Wednesday, March 29, 2006
Accessible Newspapers, Magazines Available Daily From NFB-NEWSLINE and

PALO ALTO, Calif., March 29 (AScribe Newswire) -- For the print-disabled, a copy of the local newspaper delivered to one's doorstep is not accessible.
Fortunately, the National Federation of the Blind (NFB), the nation's largest organization of blind people, and, the largest online digital
library specifically for the print-disabled, have teamed up to make local and national newspapers and magazines available and accessible online to this
underserved community.
Jim Fruchterman, CEO of Benetech, Bookshare's parent company, announced his organization's full commitment to the new partnership with the NFB, saying:
"As soon as we started offering NFB-NEWSLINE titles through, many of our users instantly made it a part of their morning routine to
log on to our site to download their favorite daily newspapers before heading out the door. Our subscribers are now more informed and aware of what's happening
in their local communities, in their state, and across the country. We feel we're already lowering the barrier to accessible daily news each and every
day. Our agreement with NFB-NEWSLINE will allow us to make this a rich and ongoing aspect of"
Dr. Marc Maurer, President of the National Federation of the Blind, which created and operates NFB-NEWSLINE, agreed, saying:
"Lifetime learning, including detailed awareness of current events, is part of what makes a good citizen, a successful employee or employer, and
a valuable participant in community life. This partnership with gives blind and disabled individuals another way to gain access to crucial
information, so that they may compete on equal footing with everyone else in the world."
Using a synthetic speech engine, NFB-NEWSLINE has been delivering national and local newspapers over the phone to subscribers for a number of years.
Content is acquired electronically via a direct feed from the newspaper, and it is accessible twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, through a local
or toll-free telephone number.
The new partnership with takes this model a step farther. In 2004, began making a limited number of NFB-NEWSLINE titles
available through its online digital library on a trial basis, expanding the availability of accessible periodicals to those who are not able to benefit
from telephone-based access, such as the deaf-blind and individuals with organically based learning disabilities or other disabilities which prevent the
reading of print due to a physical cause. made the periodicals available daily for download from the site in either DAISY (a digital audio
file format, which can be read aloud with synthesized speech by screen-reading software, or desktop and portable devices) or BRF (a digital Braille format,
which can be used with highly-portable refreshable Braille devices).
"I do a lot of traveling around Northern California, and the Braille newspapers from allow me to make good use of my time by reading
the New York Times and other papers," said Brian Bashin, a management consultant from the San Francisco Bay area. "Without this partnership of
and NFB-NEWSLINE, blind people would have no access to newspapers in places where there's no cell phone service - whether that be in a subway tunnel or
on a camping trip."
"This is a crucial service for those of us who cannot access newspapers either in print or over the telephone," said Lydia Roth, a deaf-blind individual
from Ellicott City, Maryland. "Now, thanks to Bookshare, NFB-NEWSLINE is available to those who require Braille access. I like to choose a newspaper at
random, just to see what's going on in other parts of the country."
Aside from large circulation national and metropolitan newspapers like the New York Times, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Wall Street Journal and Los
Angeles Times,'s NFB-NEWSLINE offerings include newspapers with smaller circulations such as the Billings Gazette, Ukiah Daily Journal, and
Paducah Sun. Spanish-language dailies La Opinion from Los Angeles and El Nuevo Herald from Miami are available for download, along with nationally prominent
magazines, such as The Economist, The New Yorker, and AARP The Magazine.
Access to NFB-NEWSLINE periodicals, either through NFB's toll-free telephone service or through, is limited to residents who provide
documented proof of a qualifying print disability and live in a state that funds the service. To download newspapers, the qualified reader joins
by paying its annual subscription fee for unlimited access to all the titles in its collection.
A complete list of the more than 125 NFB-NEWSLINE periodicals currently available through, as well as information concerning qualifications,
is available at

Additional information concerning the NFB-NEWSLINE service can be found at

About the National Federation of the Blind:
With more than 50,000 members, the National Federation of the Blind is the largest and most influential membership organization of blind people in the United States. The NFB improves blind people's lives through advocacy, education, research, technology, and programs encouraging independence and self-confidence. It is the leading force in the blindness field today and the voice of the nation's blind. The NFB headquarters has been located in Baltimore, Md., since
1978. In January 2004, the NFB opened the NFB Jernigan Institute, a $20 million, 188,000 square foot research and training facility adjacent to its headquarters.

About and Benetech: is one of the literacy programs of Benetech, a nonprofit organization based in Palo Alto, California, that develops sustainable, technology-based solutions to address pressing social challenges in areas such as human rights, disability, education, and literacy. is a subscription-based digital library that provides instant, independent access to over 26,000 books and periodicals - opening up a whole new world of reading for people with print disabilities.