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Incendiary Words

Incendiary Words

The thought that pops immediately into my head when the words ‘blaze’ and ‘books’ appear together is Ray Bradbury's novel Fahrenheit 451, set in a dystopian future where firemen are officials whose job is to burn books — ‘The book's tagline explains the title: "Fahrenheit 451 – the temperature at which book paper catches fire, and burns.’ (Wiki)

‘When Montag fails to show up for work, his fire chief, Beatty, pays a visit to his house. Beatty explains that it’s normal for a fireman to go through a phase of wondering what books have to offer, and he delivers a dizzying monologue explaining how books came to be banned in the first place. According to Beatty, special-interest groups and other “minorities” objected to books that offended them. Soon, books all began to look the same, as writers tried to avoid offending anybody. This was not enough, however, and society as a whole decided to simply burn books rather than permit conflicting opinions.’ (from Sparknotes)

Booksense Meets the Blaze

Sometimes books and blazes can happily co-exist. My old book reader is a device called the Booksense, made by the firm HIMS (probably an acronym for something but I've forgotten what).

‘HIMS has been a global leader in the development and manufacturing of assistive technology for the blind and visually impaired since 1999. Our US headquarters is centrally located in Austin, Texas and is responsible for all of our North American operations including sales, support and repair of all HIMS products. We are proud to employ individuals with low vision and blindness at all levels both domestically and overseas.’ (HIMS website)

The Booksense is, sadly, now discontinued. I first heard about the Booksense whilst going through vision rehab training in Atlanta, GA, where one of the instructors had been very impressed when she saw a demo of the Booksense and that was a good-enough recommendation for me. That was around 2010 and I bought my own Booksense in 2012. My niggles with it are relatively minor — I like to listen to books while the power cord is plugged in, but the connection is very easy to dislodge and the Booksense insists on announcing this “AC adaptor disconnected, using battery power ... title ... time or percentage of book read ... weather forecast ... current £:$ exchange rate” (I might have made those last two up) and then it repeats that again 10 seconds later as the power adaptor connection apparently becomes acceptable again ... for another 20 seconds or so. I have started unplugging the power adapter when I'm listening to anything on the Booksense and charging it up overnight.

The other nuisance is when I listen to it in the bath. It is in no danger of going for a swim, being placed on the shelf at the back of the bath, but it started to get very disturbed after bath time. I presumed that the moisture in the air of the hot bathroom might be to blame, so I've started putting it into a plastic freezer bag to keep it dry, which seems to do the trick. I note in the user guide for my new book reader that it suggests not using it in places where there is a lot of moisture in the air, such as bathrooms! They probably wouldn't have thought about stating that if it hadn't been for yours truly bravely venturing into the wilder areas of the world armed only with his Swiss army book reading device ;)

I realised how much I love my old book reader in the business section of last week's The Guardian newspaper. there is a piece about Nat West bank. Regarding pressure sales tactics they respond by saying that staff are no longer incentivised to push products, adding that "We have removed all bonus or variable compensation from all our branch and telephony staff". The Booksense has a wicked sense of humour! — ... My laptop screen reader pronounces 'telephony' correctly but my Booksense reckons it should be pronounced tele-phoney which I have a hunch is probably spot-on :)

But I decided that it was time to move on. HIMS replaced the Booksense with a model called the Blaze, which does all the stuff the Booksense did but also adds a camera with optical character recognition ability, and it will connect to Wi-Fi so books can be downloaded directly from blind libraries, web radio stations can be listened to as well as regular digital radio, and the system clock can be set from an atomic clock server so that blind poets have no excuse for waking up late ;)

Talking Text

The Booksense did what it said on the tin — read books and newspapers. It would play mp3 files and read Word and PDF files so you could also download podcasts or buy PDF editions of regular print books. You'll likely remember me writing about my talking Orcam glasses, which have a small camera attached to one of the arms, which will photograph text and read it aloud. My new book reader will do that too, with a few bells and whistles! On the back of the Blaze is a camera. Much like the glasses it will produce variable results when converting text to speech, depending on what I'm asking it to read.

An activity I most often call the glasses into service for is identifying which ready meals I have in the fridge — meaning that I can avoid putting the haggis goulash with olive oil mash into the oven when I was fancying the green bean stir-fry with sesame seeds and edamame (‘a preparation of immature soybeans in the pod’ (wiki) a bit like eating children, as Jonathan Swift suggested in A Modest Proposal); for the record I've never eaten either of those dishes (or children) but I'm sure they are available in some trendy food store near you :)

”I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a young healthy child well nursed is at a year old a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled ...” (Jonathan Swift, A Modest Proposal)

The Blaze performed well when I tested it out with the cardboard sleeve of my Waitrose Butternut Squash Macaroni Cheese with Pancetta. I've not met a talking device that likes the word ‘pancetta’, the glasses and the Blaze pronounce it “pansettar” and my screen reader says, “pain setter” though if I were sufficiently bothered I could teach the screen reader a phonetic pronunciation by adding ‘pan chetta’ into its dictionary :)

Where the Blaze did seem to perform better than the glasses was in the nutritional information section of the sleeve.

That section is typically laid out as a table, with categories of carbohydrate (of which sugars) are listed per 100g and per serving, and likewise with fats (of which saturates) and energy and protein and fibre etc. The glasses and the Blaze read the list of categories first and then the number in each box. The challenge is then to keep track, usually by counting on my fingers, which category we're at, so that I don't mistake the 400g as protein when it really was sugars.

I tried the OCR out on a page from a book and that worked really well. I suppose that stands to reason — publishers usually do use fairly clean fonts and have a good knowledge of typesetting, or employ a typesetter to take care of that part. So both my glasses and the Blaze performed really well at this test. When I was being given a demo session with the glasses at Specsavers in Newport, south Wales, the sample book produced was Thomas Hardy's Far From the Madding Crowd. I harboured a suspicion that a dedicated team of experts at the manufacturer had sat down with hundreds of books and tested each one to find the book that produced the best results every time. Having lived with my glasses for 6 months now I wouldn't be so sceptical — the Orcam glasses work very well on printed books so I credit the chap demonstrating the glasses as having actually had a copy of Far From the Madding Crowd on his bookcase at home :)

Bells and Whistles

I think the bells and whistles deserve a level 1 heading all of their own, even though I usually only use that for the main title of each post.

The Colour of Money

Bells and whistles apply to both my glasses and the Blaze book reader. Something I haven't used an awful lot but would if I was living by myself and popping to the corner shop for a pint of milk and a loaf of Hovis, would be the money recognition. The glasses can identify £5, £10 and £20 (I've not tested them on denominations greater than that because poets are never in possession of such wealth and I'd hate to go into a bank to borrow a £50 note for testing and then have to give it back). I'm still waiting for an upgrade to the glasses where they can recognise those horrible new £5 notes, but their slimey texture is enough for me to tell them apart, until they make non-vegetarian versions of the ten and twenty pound notes. The Blaze didn't recognise money at all. I held up a note and photographed it from each side and also turning each side round by 180 degrees in case the note was upside down, and it didn't register anything.

The glasses have another promised update in the addition of colour recognition. I've not heard any murmurings about when that's going to be released, but it would be very useful to a blind poet wanting to pick a particular colour shirt. The Blaze is ahead of the game! It has a colour recognition utility that will attempt to tell me what colour something is when I hold it up to the camera.

Colours are even more susceptible to lighting than successful text recognition is. In reasonable mid-morning light my trousers were identified as blue whereas a sighted human thought they were black; a second sighted person described them as dark blue / navy so I went into the bathroom (with no hot bath water in the tub) and tried under the brighter fluorescent light. This time the Blaze thought they were something that was probably supposed to be charcoal, but which sounded like a mish-mash of charcoal and chartreuse. I think I'm destined to be the poet know for wearing eccentrically-paired clothing choices ;)

My favourite whistle is that the Blaze saves any photographed piece of text as both an image file and a text file of the output. Essentially that means I can re-read the resulting text without having to re-photograph whatever I wanted to read. I am looking forward to trying this feature with a poetry book called Gasoline by beat generation poet Gregory Corso, which I picked up from one of Hay on Wye's many second hand bookshops in its City Lights 1958 publication. I've been dying to read that again pretty much since the moment I could no longer see well enough to read printed texts. Obviously I could use the glasses to listen to the words in Gasoline but, as I've mentioned before, an electronic rendition will read a poem as if it were a regular paragraph of text, so where there are commas and full stops you get pauses, but line breaks without any punctuation are read without any indication that the break was there. When I use my screen reader to read some poems at my Cardiff event next Thursday I'll be using versions of the poem where I've put in commas and full stops to produce pauses that a human reader would instinctively do even if the text did not have a comma at that point; dash characters, - (dash), – (n-dash) and — (m-dash) are perfect examples of that — the screen reader does not pause at all for any of those dashes, so I've swapped them all for commas so that the audience will hear it as close as I can get it to how I'd have read the poem if I could see it. With the Blaze saving a copy of each page of Gasoline to a text file I can keep it on my computer and correct any erroneous letters (capital I being mistaken as a number 1, for example) and I can format a separate version for times when I want to listen to the poems being read rather than how the text appears on the page.

Show Me the Money

I often found with the Booksense reader that in the weekend papers I'd hear about organisations that were wasting so many Australian pounds per year. It didn't take long to figure out where this mysterious currency was materialising from ... it's the journalistic habit of writing ‘£5m a year’ rather than ‘£5 per year’. As with the dollar currency you can have American dollars, $5m USD, or the Australian dollar at $5m AUD or $5m SGD for Singaporean dollars. The Booksense, trying to be intelligent, makes the decision that £5m a year refers to the Australian pound. I'll update you in a future post once I've experience what the Blaze makes of Australian pounds :)

But the best money factor about the Blaze is that it does so much more than the glasses and yet costs about a quarter of the price. This pleases a poor poet immensely ;)

#HIMS #Bookreaders #Orcam #Farrenheit451 #Gasoline #GregoryCorso #JonathanSwift #Poetry #Blindness

Published inblindnessPoetrytechnology

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