My Email to Phil Schiller at Apple Regarding The Current Situation With Flicktype

Some of you may be aware of the current situation regarding the Flicktype app and how the author of this app has chosen to discontinue development due to a series of unhelpful responses from Apple regarding its reasons for not approving a Flicktype update. This has sadly led to a communications breakdown. Apple’s heavy-handed approval process nearly caused the end of the Blindfold Games apps several years ago and has now likely resulted in the elimination of a truly unique accessibility solution for blind users. For details on this situation you can read the transcript of episode 144 of the Mosen at Large Podcast. Jonathan Mosen provides an excellent explanation of the events that have recently transpired between Apple and the developer of Flicktype.

Apple claims that they have a commitment to accessibility. If this is true it means more than just releasing products that are accessible to people with disabilities. It also means supporting the community of developers who are also releasing apps to enhance accessibility. Clearly, Apple has demonstrated that they are not always willing to keep to this commitment.

I believe that blind Apple users of this app need to make their voices clearly heard about this and I don’t mean complaining about the situation to one another as that will accomplish nothing.

What follows is an email which I have sent to Phil Schiller. To quote this page from Apple’s Web site:

“Phil Schiller is an Apple Fellow, responsible for leading the App Store and Apple Events.Phil has helped guide Apple’s products and marketing for 30 years, most recently as the senior vice president of Worldwide Marketing. Over the course of his tenure, Phil has helped the company create the best computers in the world with the Mac, lead the digital music revolution with iPod and iTunes, reinvent mobile phones with iPhone and the App Store, and define the future of mobile computing with iPad.”

I would encourage all who are affected by what is happening with the Flicktype app to email Mr. Schiller by using the address schiller @apple.com. (The extra space has been added to eliminate spam.)

Here is the email which I have sent.

Dear Mr. Schiller,

I am visually impaired and have been using the iPhone with VoiceOver since 2014. As someone who has also been working in the assistive technology field for over three decades I have had many opportunities to provide training to other blind iPhone users and have recommended Apple as a company that should be seriously considered due to what I once believed was their strong commitment to accessibility. However, this latest situation with Apple not allowing updates to Flicktype to be accepted into their app store has caused me to seriously reevaluate this position. Flicktype is truly a unique accessibility solution and there is truly no other app of its kind. It permits people, blind or sighted, to effortlessly and accurately type text onto their touch screen without the need to focus as to whether or not the correct keys are being pressed. For Apple to not allow this update to be released into the App Store for totally invalid reasons is a complete disgrace and only hurts customers by eliminating yet one more important and unique accessibility option. I used to always choose Apple over Android devices due to Apple’s unique and robust accessibility options along with the fact that Apple’s accessibility solutions seemed to be way ahead of Android. However, this is becoming no longer the case as Android is now catching up and offering equally robust and efficient choices for customers who require accessibility solutions. If this situation is not resolved promptly I will be switching to Android for my next phone upgrade and will be informing those in the blindness community about my decision and why I have made it.

David Goldfield,

Blindness Assistive Technology Specialist

JAWS Certified, 2019

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My Thoughts on The Pearl Scanning And Reading Camera From Freedom Scientific

Introduction

During the month of July Freedom Scientific offered some generous discounts on some of its products as specials to celebrate the blindness conventions which were taking place at that time. One of the products being offered at a discounted price was the Pearl camera for scanning and reading text. I hadn’t needed to use a scanner in decades, aside from the occasional reading of computer screens that I sometimes do using apps on my phone such as Envision AI. We are very blessed to live in a time when the majority of books that we might want to read are already available in accessible formats from sources such as BARD, Bookshare, Learning Ally and the Kindle store. Don’t forget we also have other sites offering books and other accessible documents such as Project Gutenberg, Librivox, the Online Books Page and the massive collection from the Internet Archive.

While nearly everything that I want to read is available in an accessible format there are some out of print books which I do want to read and they are not currently available in an electronic format. This means that if I want them to be made accessible I can either pay someone to make them accessible, put in a request to Bookshare or scan them myself. Since my very old HP 3P scanner is not compatible with my modern laptop I had been thinking for some time about purchasing a new scanner. One of the things that I wanted in a scanner was very fast speed in scanning. The OpticBook 4800 from Plustek would have met my needs quite nicely but I couldn’t justify paying around $800.00 for that scanner when I might only be using it to scan a dozen or so books. I had seen some videos demonstrating the Pearl and one thing that impressed me was its speed. I still preferred using a flatbed scanner over a camera but the Pearl had the speed that I wanted with a price I could more easily live with, especially when it was being sold at a discount. After a lot of thinking I went for it, ordering the Pearl camera, a product maintenance agreement to extend the warranty by another year along with upgrading my older OpenBook license to version 9.0 so that I could run it on my modern Windows 10 laptop.

Placing My Order

I initially tried placing my order online but as I was attempting to enter my address I received an error message indicating that the company could not ship to my state. This was odd as I am in the United States and Freedom Scientific has been shipping CDs to me since they began operation when JAWS upgrades were shipped on physical media. I called the company to place my order by phone. I spoke with a very nice, super-professional woman named Elizabeth who was not able to explain the error message I had received. She did complete my order with no issues, however, and I wish to thank her for her kindness, clarity and for her superb customer service.

Installing OpenBook

Shortly after placing my order I received my authorization code for my new license. I downloaded the latest 9.0 release from Freedom Scientific’s Web site, installed the software, copied and pasted the authorization code into the appropriate edit field and the program was authorized with no issues. OpenBook was ready to use!

The one thing that Freedom Scientific could do to make activation a bit easier is to not have an extra space on the same line following the authorization code that you receive in the email that they send you. This would allow the user to just highlight or select the entire line that contains your authorization code, copy that line of text to the clipboard and then paste it into the appropriate edit field where OpenBook expects you to enter your authorization code. Since having that extra space produces an error you must select the line and then deselect that last space before copying the code to the clipboard. A minor quibble, perhaps, but a small change like this could speed up this process just a bit. Frankly, what FS should consider is producing an executable activator as they do for the JAWS home annual licenses since all the user would need to do is run the activator and it would then automatically activate their instance of OpenBook and download it if it isn’t already installed.

I was excited to install, configure and begin putting OpenBook 9.0 to good use. I hadn’t used OpenBook since my last role in 2016. While I remembered the most important aspects of the software I needed to reorient myself with several features.

After setting up Eloquence to my liking I downloaded the Tom Realspeak Solo Direct voice and began modifying the workflow settings to meet my needs.

Pros And Cons of The Pearl Camera

What follows is a list of what I consider both positives and negatives regarding the Pearl Camera, at least from my perspective.

Positives

  • I was pleasantly surprised at how compact and light the device is when it’s folded and in its carrying case. If I were traveling I could easily transport it without it being a burden to carry. For people who may need to do a lot of traveling and want to scan text wherever they happen to be this is a definite plus.
  • On that subject I really do like the carrying case that was supplied with the Pearl. It seems durable and I was pleased to see that the product was shipped folded in the case.
  • The Pearl is definitely fast. When the lighting is set appropriately it takes five or six seconds from the moment that I initiate the scan until I start hearing the results of what I scanned. Speed was definitely something that I wanted and the Pearl delivers when it comes to its fast recognition.
  • I was very pleasantly surprised to see a Braille quick start guide contained in the package. It explained how to set up the camera and provided some keyboard commands for those using the Pearl with OpenBook. Being a Braille user I was absolutely delighted to have this. JAWS used to ship with a Braille quick start guide and I believe that OpenBook did as well but this is no longer the case since Freedom Scientific no longer ships their software on physical media, such as on a CD or a DVD. I don’t know if a new JAWS or OpenBook purchaser is entitled to receiving a Braille quick start guide at no cost but if they’re not they really should be. In fact, before Freedom Scientific came into existence you could contact Arkenstone to request a complete OpenBook Braille manual at no cost.
  • If you’re using the Pearl with either JAWS or OpenBook it’s about as plug and play as you can get. You plug the camera into your computer’s USB port and JAWS is generally ready to work with it. My instance of OpenBook was configured to work with it as well but I can’t remember if I already configured OpenBook to use the Pearl before I set it up.
  • The USB cable that comes with the Pearl is of a very generous length. I really appreciated this as the Pearl is on a shelf above my laptop and I was initially concerned that the supplied cable would not be long enough.

Negatives

  • On a couple of occasions using the convenient OCR feature JAWS did not actually see the Pearl and I had to ensure that it was the selected scanner in the list.
  • As others have told me lighting is a very important factor when it comes to ensuring accurate scans. The Pearl has an option to enable its own lighting and this helps but I get the best scans when a nearby lamp on my desk is enabled. I will need to continue to experiment with this to determine the best combination as far as the lighting in my environment as opposed to enabling the light on the Pearl. I welcome feedback from Pearl users who no doubt will have more experience and knowledge about this.
  • A couple of times a scan wouldn’t even initiate if the Pearl believed that there was insufficient lighting.
  • I’m still learning the best positioning to ensure that a page is accurately scanned. In particular, I’m attempting to scan a hardback book which is a bit larger than a typical paperback and the Pearl can’t seem to accurately read both pages, no matter how I position the book. I’ve decided to just take the book apart and scan one page at a time.
  • As fast as the Pearl is the camera shutter sound that you hear as it takes a picture still takes a few seconds to sound. Assuming that the Pearl is powered up I wish it could snap the picture a tad faster.
  • The KNFB Reader app would not work with the Pearl even though it acknowledged the scanner, calling it “Pearl Proxy.” I did install Freedom Scientific’s third party Pearl driver software. However, I suspect that this is more the fault of the KNFB Reader app than the Pearl. Every time I would try to access the app’s settings KNFB Reader would consistently crash. At one point the KNFB Reader didn’t even have the Pearl camera listed in its pull-down menu of possible scanning sources. I bought the app when it was temporarily being sold for $10.00 and I’m very glad I didn’t pay full price for it. I decided to uninstall it. I may reinstall it and give it a try later on but for now I’m happy occasionally using JAWS for a few scans and OpenBook as my primary program for scanning.
  • While this has nothing to do with the Pearl the convenient OCR feature in JAWS isn’t exactly the most convenient as it takes four keystrokes to scan a page. I have to press insert-space, O for OCR, A for acquire and enter to actually initiate the scan. Compare this to OpenBook where I just need to press the space bar to scan and read and you understand how and why I’ve gotten so spoiled. As I’m a user of Leasey I wrote to Brian Hartgen to ask if he’d consider adding a feature to scan within JAWS with just two or even one keystroke. He indicated on the Leasey discussion list that he would try to add this capability for the next release.
  • I wish that the camera itself could move, allowing me to position it to better cover the location of the page that I want to scan without the need to move the entire device. .

In spite of the negatives I’m glad that I purchased the Pearl. A flatbed scanner would definitely have been more straightforward to use but it might not have given me the speed that I was looking for. The Plustek’s OpticBook 4800 would have offered similar speeds but at a cost of approximately $800.00, which I could not justify. I am therefore happy with the Pearl for what it does and I’m looking forward to using it even more.

Some Thoughts on OpenBook: Past and Present

I’d like to slightly switch gears and conclude with my thoughts on the OpenBook software. As this will be my go-to source for scanning material from the Pearl camera I feel that I can’t write a review of the Pearl camera without ending with some commentary on the main software that many people will be using with the Pearl.

By today’s standards OpenBook from Freedom Scientific is an expensive and clunky piece of software. Back in the 1990s we were living in a very different time where we had to rely on a few specialized sources to obtain books in accessible formats. It was a bit more justifiable to have to pay a thousand dollars for an intuitive and fully featured scanning and reading solution. Nowadays, we have many different sources for obtaining accessible versions of books, only some of which I’ve referenced in the introductory section of this post. We also have very inexpensive and even free OCR solutions available on our smart phones for scanning those shorter documents. Considering this the thought of paying nearly a thousand dollars for a Windows-based scanning and reading solution might be a bit difficult for some of us to justify. It’s also regrettable that Freedom Scientific has pretty much stopped development of OpenBook. The last update to version 9.0 was released during February of 2018. The previous update to version 9.0 was released in December of 2016. To be fair the initial release of version 9.0 did add a ton of new features to the software, although I felt that renaming the scanning settings to workflow settings added an unnecessary level of complexity to a program that could be all things to all people with a very simple and intuitive user interface. The company also explained during a recent webinar that continuing to modify the code was challenging as it’s quite old. They are very correct. I began using version 2.0 of OpenBook in 1998 which needed to be installed with a light version of Windows to run the program, a necessary feature since many users were still running DOS at that time and hadn’t made the switch to Windows. Version 4.0 was a welcome and major release. This version, which Arkenstone called the Ruby Edition, gave OpenBook the modernization it desperately needed with a real menu bar interface and faster as well as more accurate recognition. Subsequent versions continued to add and improve features but OpenBook continued to offer those very odd pre-Windows 95 conventions and keyboard commands. When Freedom Scientific purchased Arkenstone they continued to release new OpenBook updates, ending with version 9.0. This latest version works nicely on Windows 10 but still has that odd interface that continues to make it feel like ancient software, such as those odd navigation commands in its read-only mode and the fact that it can only install RealSpeak Solo Direct voices and not the newer, more modern Vocalizer voices. I smiled when I saw its Notetaker settings to configure it for old Blazie notetakers with the Pac Mate being the newest item on the list. Still, OpenBook is comforting to use, an odd mixture of the far distant past along with a slightly more modern Windows-style interface. It’s like that old shoe that’s well-worn but one that you don’t have a desire to throw away because it works and does what you need it to do. Its anachronistic features being made available on my Windows 10 laptop make OpenBook quite charming and unlike any other piece of software I’m currently running. Still, I do believe that if Freedom Scientific feels that they can no longer continue to develop OpenBook they really should stop selling it at its current price and lower the cost as they did with the Pearl camera.

Finally, while I understand that updating OpenBook’s software might be somewhat challenging I can’t help but think that Microsoft Office, which was also designed to run on Windows 3.1, was modernized and updated to run efficiently on computers running Windows 10. I would argue that if Freedom Scientific is going to continue to sell OpenBook at its current price then the company should invest in modernizing the software with features such as support for the newer Vocalizer voices and updating the scanning engines.

Jesus Feeding The Five Thousand With Five Loaves And Two Fish? A True Miracle

During this evening’s Vigil Mass the Gospel reading was from John 6:1-15. In it we hear of just one of the miracles of the loaves and fishes where our Lord feeds five thousand people with only five barley loaves and two fish. After all of the people finish eating enough fragments are gathered to fill twelve baskets. The people then say that Jesus is the prophet (mentioned in Deuteronomy) and want to make him a king.

I’ve heard that there are some who believe that this event wasn’t really a miracle. Some people believe that the crowd just happened to have food that they were already carrying and began sharing it with one another. They say that perhaps there is some other explanation to explain how five thousand people were fed.

As I read this passage there is no indication that it was anything else but a miracle. It says that a large crowd followed him due to the signs he was performing. To me this is important as it shows that they were already aware that he was responsible for genuine miracles which they were clearly seeing.

Next, after he receives this small amount of food he gives thanks and distributes them among these five thousand people. After this enough fragments remained to fill twelve baskets. There is no indication in any of these accounts that some other food sources became known and were utilized. In fact, if there was a natural explanation for this surplus of food it surely would have been documented in at least one of the accounts of these events. Had there been a natural explanation for the extra food the people would not have wanted to make him a king. They wanted to do this as they recognized him as the prophet foretold in Deuteronomy 18:15-18 and they believed this as they associated the miracle they had just witnessed with the miracle of the manna. They sincerely believed that the distribution of the manna was a true miracle and not something that could be explained as a natural phenomenon. If Jesus and his disciples had found other resources for food the crowd would hardly have made the connection with this distribution of food to the miracle of the manna. If their food had been distributed from other natural, ordinary sources they would not have believed that he was a prophet and would not have wanted to make him a king. Jesus is the new Moses and they definitely understood this. I would also add that the Eucharist is even a greater miracle as our Lord continues this miracle by distributing his own body and blood to countless numbers of people under the appearances of bread and wine. If we even suggest that the miracle of the loaves and fishes is anything but a true miracle I believe that it undermines not only the miracle of the manna in the Old Testament but the miracle of the Eucharist as well.

Many thanks to Steve Ray for writing his excellent article “Loaves And Fishes” which gave me many of the ideas for this post and gave me a clearer understanding of this issue.

 

Quick Tip: How to More Easily Access ACB Media Streams On An Alexa Device

Hello. Normally, if you want to play streams from ACB Media on an Alexa device you first need to open the ACB Media skill. Think of a skill being similar to an app on your smart phone or tablet. Because the name of the skill is ACB Media you would normally say, “Open ACB Media.” Alexa will verify that the ACB Media skill has been opened and will then ask you to choose a stream from 1 through 10. Once you specify a stream number, such as ACB Media 2, the stream starts. However, once you stop the stream you have to go through the same process all over again to play an ACB Media stream.

There is a way to slightly speed up this process. You can just ask Alexa to ask ACB Media to play a specific stream. For example, you could say, “ask ACB Media to play ACB Media 3.” You can shorten this even further by just asking for the number, such as “ask ACB Media to play 4.”

I hope this helps. Happy streaming.

Youtube Video From The American Printing House For The Blind: What Is an Optacon?

The American Printing House For The Blind uploaded a video to Youtube describing and demonstrating the Optacon. This video was uploaded to Youtube three weeks ago as of this writing. The video can be accessed via the above link.

Many subscribers to this list likely have fond memories of this device and some of you may well still own and use them. I have many memories of my own learning and using one starting when I was probably in the fourth or fifth grade. I eventually was given one to use at home and I often used them to read song lyrics on record covers, which I found fascinating. One of my fondest memories was when my father bought me a Sony ICF-2002 shortwave receiver when I had started college, possibly a bit earlier. The radio was supplied with a print booklet introducing the user to shortwave radio with a list of SW bands and their frequencies. I remember reading that booklet out loud using an Optacon and recording my reading onto a cassette. Following that I slowly transcribed that book into Braille by listening to my reading of it and manually typing it onto a Perkins Brailler using Thermoform paper in order to make the Braille last longer and give it what I thought was a more professional feel. Compared to how quickly I could have performed this task today using Bookshare, Duxbury and a Braille embosser It was time-intensive but I didn’t care. I wound up with the only Braille copy of this otherwise inaccessible booklet and I remember how proud I was that I transcribed it into Braille without any sighted assistance.

I am well aware that there are people today who still miss the Optacon and some who continue to use them. In spite of the advances we have made with OCR technology there has never been anything quite like the Optacon before it or since Telesensory stopped selling them. While OCR technology does an impressive job at interpreting printed material the Optacon was unique in that we, the users, were the ones who did the interpreting. It gave us access to just about anything with print on it whether it was a newspaper or a can of soup. It’s possible that the Optacon generation became more familiar with the concept of fonts and the visual layout of a page more so than today’s generation who learn to use screen readers during kindergarten classes. In our day those of us who used the Optacon were truly the first screen readers.

While I admit that today’s OCR solutions can read printed material faster than the Optacon ever could and even though we can save the text of a novel very quickly to a computer I have always felt that it was regrettable that the Optacon never returned as I sincerely believe that it still might have a place in our modern, twenty-first century world.

Do you have memories of the Optacon that you’d like to share? Do you still own a working Optacon? Do you still use one and, if so, how do you use it today? Why is it of value to you in spite of other solutions which are available today? Feel free to leave your thoughts and memories in the comments.

Enjoy the video.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1OzrjtAfl3Y