Some Memories of Fred Noesner

I am sad to report of the recent death of Fred Noesner, who passed away on May 30. Many visually impaired consumers in Philadelphia may have remembered Fred as he worked for Associated Services for the Blind for many, many years. I believe he provided Optacon training in the 1970s and was known for starting Sense-Sations, a store located within the first floor of the agency selling both high-tech as well as lots of low-tech equipment. Fred was later transferred to many other departments within the agency and, for about a year was my supervisor when I first started at ASB’s computer technology center. Most of my memories of Fred, however, were when I wanted to buy adaptive products at the store, such as Braille paper, talking clocks or a replacement cane. Fred knew how to repair canes as well and this was always a welcome service, as all of us have had the experience of having our canes bent or otherwise damaged as a result of regular travel. He also wrote a book, a work of fiction called Fortunate Son, which I admit I have not yet read but it is available through NLS. Years after leaving ASB he worked for a while at an adaptive equipment store in Delaware and was a member of the Delaware Council of the Blind. He contributed years of service to the blindness community and I know that he will be greatly missed.
Here is a link to his obituary.


The Benefits of Assistive Technology Merging With Mainstream Technology

I am the moderator of the Philadelphia Computer Users’ Group for the Blind and Visually Impaired. On our mailing list I regularly post articles covering assistive technology. Not surprisingly, some of the articles that I post come from sites which specialize in this topic, such as news releases from producers of assistive technology hardware and software. However, many of these articles are being published by sources who, until recently, were known for covering the mainstream technology landscape. Articles like this bring out the fact that accessibility isn’t just limited to specialized or esoteric Web sites dealing with that particular topic. Several years ago, I found an article covering the accessibility features of the iPhone. I realized that this article came from IMore, which primarily reports on software and hardware from Apple. It was a weird feeling when I realized that this mainstream Web site was writing a piece covering accessibility and I eventually realized that accessibility was now being reported and documented on regular, mainstream sites which you wouldn’t have thought would cover this subject. Back in the day you had to access a specialized Web site, mailing list  or bulletin board group dealing with adaptive equipment if you had questions about how to use your screen reader or screen magnifier. Nowadays, manufacturers of computers and mobile devices are providing their own built-in assistive software, such as screen readers, screen magnifiers, support for switch devices, Bluetooth hearing aids, eye control devices, etc. The obvious benefit of this is that a user with a disability can purchase a smartphone and tablet and know that it will be accessible as soon as they take it out of the box. That’s not exactly news to us in the blindness community. However, there is another benefit to this in that it has allowed more users, including software developers and technology reporters, to become more aware of these tools since they are included in the product. This causes them, as well as their users and their readers, to become far more aware and knowledgeable when it comes to accessibility, thereby increasing the likelihood that more apps and services will become more accessible to us. Even if we find that a particular app presents accessibility challenges, we can write to the app developer, knowing that we probably won’t receive a response, such as “screen reader? What’s that?” since developers will already have some level of awareness about VoiceOver, Talkback or Narrator. It’s just one reason why having universal accessibility benefits everyone.

Opinion: Could the Amazon Echo Be Our Next Reading Machine?

With Amazon Echo devices which have a camera, such as the Echo Look or the Echo Show, there’s a capability which I think needs to be pursued which I’ve not heard anybody else mention. I’m talking about OCR. In plain English, this is the capability where you place a printed page on a scanner or in front of a camera and run a piece of software which is able to convert that picture of text into actual text which anybody can read or edit, including users who rely on screen readers. In Windows, we use programs such as OpenBook, Kurzweil 1000 or FineReader to perform these tasks for us. We’ve had these capabilities for decades. Recent advances with smartphones and tablets have given us the same capability with a more portable package, using apps such as KNFB Reader or the free Seeing AI app from Microsoft. Amazon is promoting their new Echo Look product as a sort of electronic fashion adviser. If this is all you’ll be able to do with the Echo Look’s camera then I feel we’ve missed a great opportunity to turn the Echo devices into the next print reading machine. Imagine if we had skills for the Echo devices, such as KNFB Reader, Seeing AI and other OCR apps. You could hold out a sheet of paper in front of your Echo’s camera and issue a command, such as “Alexa, ask KNFB Reader to read this for me.” The camera would take a picture and, within less than a minute, Alexa would read the page for you. Specially made stands, like the Fopito, could be manufactured and sold to allow a blind person to conveniently read one page after another of a book or magazine. True, you wouldn’t be able to edit the document on your Echo device but it would give blind people a quick and convenient way to at least hear the information on the page. If you had an Echo Show, Alexa could then allow that particular device to display that document on its screen, allowing you to review it using the built-in VoiceView screen reader. Additionally, you could issue commands to export that document to another location, such as being able to say “Alexa, send this to my OneDrive” or “Send this to my Dropbox”, allowing you to use your PC, phone or tablet to open and/or edit that file.

There are other scenarios which should also be possible, such as currency identification. Imagine how cool it would be to take a bill out of your wallet and say, “Alexa, identify this currency” or “Alexa, ask Seeing AI to identify my money.” The camera would snap a picture and Alexa would respond, “This is a five-dollar bill.”

I can also envision skills used to help us to identify objects. Imagine being able to hold a can of some unknown food items to your Echo’s camera and saying something like, “Alexa, ask TapTapSee about this object.”

Don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against having an Alexa device being used to take pictures of the various outfits which might be hanging up in your closet. However, it strikes me that a voice assistant with a camera could be used for so much more than that, which would tremendously serve both blind and sighted users alike. I would like to encourage software developers to consider writing such a skill, which so many people would benefit from.

How to Install the Google Play Store On An Amazon Fire Tablet

As my wife recently bought an Amazon HD 10, I have now acquired her sixth-generation HD 8. These are nice tablets, but Amazon does not, by default, have the Google Play store installed, instead preferring users to download apps directly from their own app store. This would be fine, except that Amazon’s app store doesn’t offer all of the apps available from the Google Play store, which I find annoying. There are a few methods for installing the Google Play store on a Fire tablet but I’ve found a rather simple method for doing this, which just involves a tiny bit of preparation beforehand on the tablet. What follows is a message I posted to the Visually Impaired Kindle discussion list about how to do this.
First, a few warnings. Amazon offers no support for any of this. Don’t think about calling them if you run into any issues or if you have questions. There is no guarantee that all apps from the Google Play Store will function properly on your Fire tablet, although most of them should. Finally, it’s possible that doing this could void your tablet’s warranty.

There are a few methods for installing the Google Play Store on a Fire tablet. The way that I’ve done this in the past was to run a file which, essentially, installs all 4 files at once, without the user needing to download and install each file one at a time. This tool has worked for me in the past but it did not work reliably on my HD 8 with Fire OS However, after doing some searching I found a similar tool from the same source, which worked.
First, here’s the instructions for how to do this.

Although the article advises that you extract the zip file into a specific folder, this is not necessary for just installing the Play Store.
The only preparation you need to do for your tablet is to enable a few settings in Developer Options within Settings/Device Options. However, if you go into Device Options you’ll see that Developer Options is not shown, as it’s hidden, by default.
To unhide Developer Options, go into Settings/Device Options.
Look for the serial number.
You’re supposed to tap it 7 times, which means that VoiceView users need to double-tap it seven times.
Once you do this, you should see a new tenth option called Developer Options.
If this still isn’t showing and if you only see nine options in Device Options, try double-tapping Serial Number 7 or more times again. Eventually, you’ll see Developer Options.
Double-tap Developer Options and look for the option USB Computer Connection. Double-tap this and set this for Camera, ptp.
Go back to the previous screen.
Next, look for Enable ADB, which will be off, by default. Double-tap to turn it on.
Next, run the tool. Here’s a direct link to it.

Extract the zip file to a place where you can easily find it.
Open the folder containing the files and you will see two folders.
The first folder is for the Mac, which you can ignore if you’re using Windows.
The second folder is the Supertool folder, which is what you want to open. Even though it has the phrase "fifth gen" in the title, I can tell you this worked on my sixth generation tablet.
Within this folder, look for the file called 1-Amazon-Fire-5th-gen.bat, which is what you want to run. Make sure the tablet is connected to your PC before you run this file.
Choose option 2 by pressing the number 2, followed by enter, which should, if all goes well, install the Google Play Store.
During the installation process, you may hear VoiceView say "Google Play Services error" several times but just ignore this.
Once the files are installed, it is recommended that you completely power off your tablet.
Once it’s powered back on, Google Play Store should appear in what is called the app grid (the list of apps) on your home screen.
At some point while downloading your first app, you will likely be prompted to update your Google Play Services, which you can safely do.
At this point, I would go back to Settings/Device Options/Developer Options and turn off ADB Debugging.
I would also recommend going into Developer Options and setting the USB connection to Media Device.

I hope this method will be of some help.

November 10/How to Stay Safe and Secure While Shopping Online: Next Phone Meeting for the Philadelphia Computer Users’ Group for the Blind and Visually Impaired

Shopping for products is one of those activities which we all need to do and which we pretty much take for granted, as it’s such a necessary activity, whether it’s purchasing food for our sustenance, items for our homes or gifts for others. During this time of year, many of us purchase gifts, either for ourselves or for friends and family. The computer has made shopping so much easier and convenient and provides many advantages for those of us who are visually impaired. With mobile devices such as smart phones, tablets and even iPods, shopping is even more convenient. We can now pull our phone from out of our pocket or unlock our iPad, fire up an app and browse a store’s virtual shelves from practically anywhere. However, there’s a dark side to this amazing level of convenience. Computers can be hacked and we’ve all heard horror stories about how this occurs, both with well-known corporations, as well as with individual consumers. Just one virus can not only cripple a computer by corrupting and deleting files but account credentials, such as your credit card information and account passwords, can be stolen. We’re also now hearing about a newer type of malware known as ransomware, which makes all of the files on your computer totally inaccessible unless you pay a specific amount of money to cybercriminals.
With all of these threats, it’s no wonder that some people may be very afraid to perform an activity as simple as purchasing a product online. Is it safe to engage in these activities? Is there anything we can do to protect ourselves against these form of attacks?
The good news is that we can do quite a lot to protect ourselves. This is the topic of the next phone meeting for the Philadelphia Computer Users’ Group for the Blind and Visually Impaired. Computer security expert Jackie Mcbride of Brighter Vision Technologies will talk about the topic of online security and how to stay safe and prevent being a victim of a cyber attack. Even if you don’t engage in online shopping, this topic is relevant to any of us who use computers or mobile devices to go online. Jackie will also take your questions about this important topic. In her own words, here’s a bit of information about our next guest speaker.

From Jackie Mcbride …
I’m a veteran in the security trenches for 25 years. My first exposure to computer security took place in 1992, when a boot sector virus took out a blind children’s services computer, & I couldn’t fix it. I vowed I’d never be in that position ever again. I’m trained in computer forensics & am a certified Cisco Networking Academy instructor. I’ve primarily worked on PC’s till 2010, when I switched my emphasis to websites. Since that time I’ve hosted, developed, & repaired websites, including those that have been compromised. I still clean malware from PC’s when the need arises. But I try very hard to prevent people from becoming victims, as opposed to having to clean up the mess once a compromise has occurred. The holiday season is the most wonderful time of the year for the cyber thugs, & I’d like to try to keep folks from being victimized, if possible.
I recently finished my book entitled “My Site’s Been Hacked, Now What?” & I hold a support contributor badge on the forums.
On a personal level, I’m a mom, a grandmom, & a pastor’s wife. Hobbies include singer/songwriter/musician & creative writing, w/an emphasis on trying to make biblical times & characters real to modern readers. In that context, I’m the technical heavy lifter for an online creative writing group.

Date: Friday, November 10
Time: 8:00 PM Eastern time

To participate, the number to call is
(712) 432-3900
When prompted for an access code, enter
391477, followed by the pound key.