Wednesday, February 28

An amusing but possible career for the blind

Greetings. I received the following from a coworker and thought it appropriate to put here. This is a career that I've thought of and believe could work, especially with today's technology in tow. Picture this: you're sitting at the bar, drinking your favorite brew, taking notes on your note taker, while casually listening to the conversation of the person down the bar from you, and maybe even recording it with the digital recorder in your note taker, so as to have a backup and physical evidence. Meanwhile, you're secure in the knowledge that you won't be spotted as eavesdropping because--you're blind. Read on and consider the possibilities. Enjoy.

The Herald (UK)
Tuesday, February 27, 2007

I spy an MI5 career as the blind invisible man


Am I invisible? Well, some days it appears that I am. There is a strange
phenomenon going on which either has to be exploited or investigated.
Now I'm not a scientist, but there is an extraordinary correlation
between how poor someone's sight is and how much they can be seen by the
general public. It's weird. It's like the poorer your sight becomes, the
harder it is for anyone to see you. Very slowly you fade away to
nothing. There is, perhaps, at best, just a faint outline of a person
moving through the crowd. The guide dog can be seen clearly, but the
person is invisible.

Once, I was sitting in the executive departure lounge at Glasgow Airport
(now, I'm not saying that to show off but I was put in the elite waiting
room by one of the airport staff who thought it would be helpful -
actually, I think she was just getting me out of the way) and for some
time I was alone, till one other traveller appeared.

The lounge was quiet, with only the faint crunching sound of a blind man
and his dog gorging themselves on free biscuits. (I wonder who supplied
them?) The other passenger then made a call on his mobile. "Hi, I'm at
Glasgow Airport. Yes, I'm completely alone."

I screamed, "No! no! I'm here. Ya-hoo! Yahoo!", while bouncing up and
down on my seat.

He continued. "Yes, yes, I can speak freely," he said in a booming

"No! No! You can't speak freely, I'm here - look, see," I said while
figuratively slapping him repeatedly around the face.

He then proceeded to go into great detail about what football players he
would be buying and selling for his club. "I'm thinking of buying Jo
Bloggs for around 200 thousand - um, yes, as long as he gives up the
drugs and alcohol. Obviously, it would be good if his foot would grow
back, then he'll be the player for us. Selling - well, who the hell
would buy one of ours?" It was a Scottish Premier League chairman.

He plumped himself down next to me and confessed to his life 
My instinct was to run around the room naked, falling over chairs and
tap dancing on the tables while whistling Dixie. Obviously, I didn't do
any of these. I sat quietly taking mental notes. Well, it is my job. He
was so near I could have reached out and touched him with my left hand.
What was he thinking? He was sitting only feet from a journalist. But
because I was blind he just couldn't see me. Some people just have to be
protected from themselves. No, I'm not going to embarrass him by giving
his name.

So, here's my idea. Stick with me on this one, it's good. How about the
blind spy? According to a charity for the blind, four out of five blind
people of working age are unemployed. A shocking statistic, I know, but
perhaps this could be a good way to get many of them back to work by
using our so-called natural skills. Being invisible and, of course, our
extraordinary hearing. Although I'm not so sure about my hearing.
Sometimes I become very deaf, particularly at home, for some strange
reason. "Ian, you couldn't do the dishes?" Answer: "Sorry, what was
that?" Another yell comes from the kitchen. "Ian, the bin needs
emptying." Answer: "Sorry, I didn't catch that."

We've got all the technology now. Talking mobile phones with camera,
infra-red object detector, digital recorder, colour detectors and
blind-friendly global positioning systems. We've got so much kit that
when we plug it in at night to do the charging the street lights dim.

A couple of years ago MI5 was going through a recruitment campaign
looking for more agents. It should have started looking around the blind
colleges and training centres - not Oxford and Cambridge. Apart from
being invisible, for some reason, those of the public who have the
special powers that can see us tend to be the mad, bad, criminally
insane and deranged. These types always feel the need to off-load all
their darkest secrets, as if somehow a blind person knowing them just
doesn't count.

Many years ago, I was approached by a man in a bar. He plumped himself
down uninvited and started to confess to me about his life of crime.
Armed robbery, receiving stolen goods, almost everything apart from
murder. If only I'd had a modern phone with a camera, I could have
secretly taken his photo, recorded his confession with my miniature
digital recorder and scanned the colour of his clothes using my colour
detector. Then I could have called the police, giving my GPS
co-ordinates, and maybe scooped myself a large reward. The alternative
is to try to escape. It's not easy trying to squeeze yourself and a
labrador out of the window in a disabled toilet, particularly when you
don't know where you're landing.

Even when a blind person can be seen, normal rules of security don't
apply. Before the recent tightening of security at airports, being blind
didn't appear to constitute any threat. I could walk through customs
with 10 kilos of crack cocaine under one arm, a box marked "bomb" under
the other one, and dragging a case with "swag" printed across it. But as
long as I had a white stick or a guide dog, I had some kind of blind
diplomatic immunity. If only David Blunkett were still Home Secretary he
could have implemented my army of blind spies.

Ian Hamilton reports on disability issues for BBC Scotland.

JAWS and Vista update

Greetings. For those interested, FS today released a public beta version of the JAWS compatible version for Windows Vista. If you don't want to get Vista right now, which would be a smart move since both mainstream and adaptive software/hardware companies haven't fully gotten their support for it yet, then you can use this update as a final release on Windows XP. Refer to the JAWS Headquarters What's New area for full details on what's new with XP and this new JAWS update. For those brave souls that want to try JAWS on Vista, bare in mind that this update will probably be made available in several betas before FS makes it a final release. Remember, that if you want to run JAWS on Vista when the version becomes a final release, you need to have 8.0 as well as an up to date SMA count. You also need to have an authorization key available. To check whether or not you have a key available, go to FS Activate. Finally, remember, as with any beta software, things may not work properly and there likely won't be any technical support for it. Enjoy, and feel fre to report back your findings and how JFW is working for you.

Saturday, February 3

update to a free screen reader

Greetings. Here's an announcement of another free screen reader that is open-source, so anyone can modify or suggest changes to it. Try at your own risk, but have fun. Please pardon any formatting errors. Enjoy.

Today I posted revision 315 of NonVisual Desktop Access (NVDA) to the NVDA website:

NonVisual Desktop Access is an entirely free (and open-source) screen reader for Windows XP and Windows Vista.

It does much more than Microsoft's Narator (including support for Internet Explorer 6 and 7, Mozilla Firefox, Microsoft Word, Microsoft Excel, Outlook Express, Dos console windows, and much more).

I'm sure there are still bugs, and support for some applications could be a little better, but I personally now use NVDA as my day-to-day screen reader, and I know of others who are now starting to do the same.

Of course the only way for NVDA to grow and become better is for people to use it, and report bugs and suggest new features. Also, I am always interested in help from other programmers who have skills in either the Python programming language, or skills in programming with MSAA and other accessibility APIs.

There have been many changes since revision 164 including:

*Much improved responsiveness for sapi5 synths.
*Much improved support for both Internet Explorer and Mozilla Firefox.
*The addition of easy-to use dialogs, to configure many settings such as voice, pitch, rate, key echo, mouse navigation, object presentation and more.
*A built-in quick-start guide right in the NVDA user interface.
*Massive improvements to the NVDA user interface as far as focus issues are concerned.
*Password protection by saying stars when typing in to protected edit fields.
*All objects are reviewable so you are able to check the spelling of things as you navigate around.
*NVDA can report the groupbox that the object with focus is in (example: advanced page in system dialog, control pannel).
*Beeps are now used to notify the user of changes on progress bars (such as when loading a page in Internet Explorer or Firefox, copying a large file in Windows Explorer, or checking for new email in Outlook Express etc).
*New wave sounds are now used to denote startup, errors, crashes and exit, in NVDA. Previously the PC speaker was used.
*insert+s used to turn speech on and off, but now it toggles between 3 speech modes: talk, beeps and off. Talk is just normal speech, off is off, but beeps, is an idea that came from the Dos screen reader, ASAP. This mode plays a 5ms 10000HZ tone (very high and very short) each time an item of speech is supposed to happen. It is very responsive, and it allows you to deal with the situation when you are doing something that is constantly changing the screen, as in millions of files are scrolling up a dos console, or perhaps you are running a setup program that is constantly telling you what file it is copying etc. If you switch to the beeps speech mode, you only have to wait until the flood of beeps stop and you know the task is finished. This is much faster than having to keep pressing control, or waiting for all the speech to finish.
*Reading of new text on Dos consoles has been much improved. Also NVDA no longer crashes when pressing control+c or exiting a dos console.
*Improved the reading of objects under the mouse more so that hopefully NVDA will not freeze if using the mouse to close a window.
*Improved responsiveness and memory management in some parts of NVDA. Most noticeably NVDA no longer will sometimes freeze up for a second or two when closing some applications.
*When leaving the menu bar or context menu of an application, NVDA now moves back to the correct place of focus and reports it.
*Removed the sapi4 driver because it was causing trouble on a lot of systems, plus it has to be rewritten to solve some problems to do with threading. Now NVDA only supports sapi5.
*Removed the Viavoice driver due to licencing issues.
*Added a say 'cap' before capitals option to NVDA. When on (check the checkbox in voice settings) the word 'cap' will be prepended to any single capital letter spoken. This means either when typing a capital letter with sayTypedCharacters on, or when arrowing on to a capital letter. This was added because some synthesizers may not support pitch and therefore have no way of denoting capital letters.
*Caps lock and Num lock now speak when being turned on and off.
*NVDA no longer hides its user interface on startup by default. If you want it to hide by default, check the "Hide user interface on startup" checkbox in the User Interface settings dialog on the preferences menu.
*Added an option to automatically save the current configuration on exit. (Found in the User Interface settings dialog)
*The NVDA interface now contains a navigatable text control in the main part of its window, which contains a quick-start document explaining how the User interface works, and also documents many useful NVDA key strokes.
*Added a script to report the title of the active window (insert+t). Like speak title in many other screen readers.
*The navigator where am I script (insert+numpadAdd) now starts from the object that is a parent to the current navigator object, rather than starting from the actual current navigator object. This is to make it quicker to find out where you are since you can already report the current navigator object with insert+numpad5. The script now also says the word 'in' before each object to separate the objects more clearly.
*Added a script to report the dimentions and location (in pixles)of the current navigator object (shift+insert+numpad5)