How Tech Helps the Blind

August 27th, 2015

Years ago, I remember when the Sault Public Library got a Kurzweil reading machine for use by the blind. It cost about $50,000. Now, your smartphone can do the same thing. Assistive tech for the blind and visually impaired is advancing rapidly and there are exciting new development. This CitiLab article is a good overview of the subject.

Many features of a standard iPhone become immediately accessible to visually impaired users who turn on the VoiceOver option—which speaks text on the screen. Users can also choose from a list of potential speaking speeds and pitches. (Speeds, as shown in the screenshot at left, range from “tortoise” to “hare.”)

Hovering over display text reads it aloud. Chalkias uses this function to hear summaries of the salacious young adult novels that he devours via the Audible app. “I’m very big on escapist reading, like YA or paranormal books,” he says. “I don’t like to interact with reality any more than I have to.”

Another app, the KNFB reader, scans printed material—magazine articles, or even receipts or invoices—and reads it back. “Most of us who are blind are used to synthesized speech, so we can crank it up really fast,” says Danielsen. “You wouldn’t be able to understand it if you started today, but you could work your way up there.”

A True Visionary

August 26th, 2015

Fifty years ago Ted Nelson coined the term “hypertext”. In the modern Internet era, that may not seem like much, but remember that when he wrote his seminal paper there was no Internaet, there were no personal computers or smartphones with touch screens, and computer terminals used 80 character wide green text displays. In many respects, his vision of 50 years ago is still to be realized.

Gigaom has a long interview with Nelson. It’s a must read for anyone interested in the history of modern technology – the words of a true visionary.

So this epiphany was in 1960?

Yep. For the ensuing five years I was thinking and designing how computer screens should interact.

What kind of reaction did you get from others?

No one, absolutely no one that I met, could imagine interactive computer screens. Whereas I could see them with my eyes closed, practically touch them and make them respond. It was very sensual.

And all during the 1960s and 1970s I was trying to tell people what interactive screens would be like, in my writings and my talks. But no one got it.

My great-grandfather, for example, who was a very smart man, a science teacher—he couldn’t understand what I was talking about. No one could imagine what an interactive screen would be. No one I talked to could imagine what an interactive screen would be, whereas I saw and felt them sensually in my mind and at my fingertips. Yet to me this was an extension of literature as we had always known it.

200 Years Ago a Volcano Changed the World

August 25th, 2015

Two hundred years ago, in April 2015, the Indonesian volcano Tambora erupted with a force 100 times greater than Mount St. Helens, ten times more than Pinatubo – the largest modern eruption. The eruption created a cloud of ash and volcanic aerosols that disrupted the world’s climate leading to famine and outbreaks of disease across Asia, Europe, and North America. All of this is documented in detail in Tambora: The Eruption that Changed the World, by Gillen D’Arcy Wood, a book that I’ve just finished reading and can recommend highly. The New York Times reviews the book and describes the eruption and its consequences, one of which was the creation of Frankentein by Mary Shelley.

By 1816, Switzerland, landlocked and famously rugged, was beginning to reel from the bad weather and failed crops. Starving mobs stormed bakeries after bread prices soared. The book recounts a priest’s distress: “It is terrifying to see these walking skeletons devour the most repulsive foods with such avidity.”

That June, the cold and stormy weather sent the English tourists inside a lakeside villa to warm themselves by a fire and exchange ghost stories. Mary Shelley, then 18, was part of a literary coterie that included Percy Shelley, her future husband, as well as Lord Byron. Wine flowed, as did laudanum, a form of opium. Candles flickered.

In this moody atmosphere, Mary Shelley came up with her lurid tale of Frankenstein, which she published two years later. And Lord Byron hit on the outline of the modern vampire tale, published later by a compatriot as “The Vampyre.” The freakish weather also inspired Byron’s apocalyptic poem “Darkness.”

27 Science Feeds to Follow

August 24th, 2015

It’s hard keeping up with developments in science. Not only is there so much going on that no one person could possibly follow everything, but it’s hard to separate the wheat from the chaff – the Internet’s signal to noise ratio is pretty low.  The folks at Wired have helped by putting together a list of 27 feeds (web sites and blogs, podcasts, and Twitter) that covers wide areas of science. There are names you will recognize (Chris Hadfield, Neal DeGrasse Tyson) and many you probably won’t, but all look worthwhile.

The 2015 Hugo Awards

August 23rd, 2015

The 2015 Hugo Awards were announced last night at Sasquan, the 73rd World Science Fiction Convention. As I expected, No Award featured prominently in this year’s awards. These are the fiction awards:

  • Best Novel: Three Body Problem by Cixin Liu, translation by Ken Liu (Tor Books).
  • Best Novella: No Award
  • Best Novellette: “The Day The World Turned Upside Down” by Thomas Olde Heuvelt, translation by Lia Belt in Lightspeed Magazine, April 2014
  • Best Short Story: No Award

Mike Glyer at File 770 has published a short article about the awards and the ceremony.  For some analysis of the voting, including what would have been on the ballot had the Puppies not shat in the bowl, see articles by Tobias Bucknell and Brandon Kampner.

The ceremony was webcast on UStream. It’s not currently up but I assume it will get posted there soon as the nomination announcement is there.

Update: Wired has published the best article I’ve seen about the Hugo results, the controversy over the nominations, and what it might mean for next year. As I write this the World Science Fiction Society underway and it looks like at least one proposal to adjust the nomination process to reduce the effect of slate voting will go forward to next year’s WorldCon for ratification. Nothing that gets decided at Sasquan will have any effect on next year’s awards, so we could be in for more of the same next year.

The Zine Artists

August 22nd, 2015

SF fanzines have been around for years, pretty much as long as SF magazines, going back to the 1930s. And art has been an important part of the fanzine experience. Now there’s a site that has galleries of many SF fanzine artists. From Taral Wayne’s introduction to The Zine Artists:

When I was asked to write an introduction for this site, I considered two important issues:  did I have anything of value to say about the subject, and what sort of nonsense would someone else have to say about it if I refused?  I’ll let the reader decide whether I chose correctly.

To begin with, it has to be understood that while early fanzines had precedents in the realm of amateur publications in the 19th century, they were nevertheless a direct imitation of the professional science fiction and fantasy magazines published in the 1920s and 1930s. They shared all the same features as Amazing, Astounding and other “pro mags” – an editorial, stories, features and a letter column.  And, again like the pro mags, they were illustrated.  Imitation is almost certainly why there is fanart.  For the purposes of this archive, it is still what we mean by fanart – art created solely for amateur publications.  For the first few decades of fandom’s history, there was scarcely anywhere else that fanart could have been seen.
Art created with commercial intent was not fanart, even though the subject matter might be much the same.  There was no mistaking a drawing of a spacecraft in a mimeographed fanzine for a painting by Chesley Bonestell on an issue of Fantastic, or a Virgil Finlay drawing on the dust jacket of a novel.  Today, the issue has been badly muddied by the emergence of other media.  We see SF and fantasy art on the program books of vast, commercial conventions, on Internet fiction sites and on semi-professional magazines.  It is still my belief, however, that these represent commercial art.  It is not work done solely for the artist’s own satisfaction, or out of his or her sense of involvement in the fan community. But I concede that the distinctions between fanart and commercial art are no longer so black and white.
For the purpose of this archive, though, we are sticking to the old, ad-hoc definition.  Fanart may be largely a state of mind, and it is our own state of mind that will make the decision what to include in the genre.