Submitting: A Day in the Life of A Blind Writer, Essay 24 of #52essays2017

Black Static cover.Yesterday I sent off a story–a rather sick and twisted tale that has disturbed the dreams of more than one workshop companion–to a reputable UK horror magazine using Submittable. If you’re not a writer, Submittable may be new to you, but if you are a writer, you can hardly avoid it these days. Submittable is the online hub of submitting work for journals, magazines, even fellowships. I’ve used it many times and have always been so happy and grateful that it exists.

Submitting electronically makes it possible for writers who are blind to participate in the vital, if often painful, act of submitting work without sighted help.

So, while submitting “Beautiful Limbs” to Black Static yesterday, I was aghast to find that, according to my screen reader, there was no button to choose a file or browse for one. In other words, I suddenly could not attach my story. And for those non-screen reader users, buttons are usually pretty accessible. I cursed and then asked Alabaster to mouse click the damn thing for me, and took it from there–the “submit” button was still accessible.

Then, as is becoming my habit, I wrote a note to the tech support at Submittable telling them about the problem and offering to help test any changes, a typical example of how I reach out in the face of such difficulties:

Hello,

I am a blind writer and have used Submittable many times for submitting in the past (and also as a member of the editorial review board for Newtown Literary), and today is the first time I’ve not been able to attach a file. My sighted partner had to click the “choose file” button, which did not appear to my screen reader Jaws in Firefox, though the “submit” button showed up fine. Usually such buttons are no problem at all…

Please let me know if I can be of any further service, and feel free to have your developers reach out with any questions, or if they would like me to test anything out for them.

Sincerely,

Leona

Happily, Submittable is awesome and I received an email within a couple hours:

Hello Leona,

Thank you for letting us know. We’ll get this fixed asap. I’ve also let our development team know about your kind offer to help them test the system. I’ll be back in touch when I get word of a fix.

Thanks again! Best,

Laurie

Although I always offer to help developers test their systems, I’ve only received a taker once before, and that from the premiere screen writing software Final Draft, with whom I’m working as a beta tester, which is super. It’s just kind of sad that most of the time developers do not take me up on my offer. Why not? Hubris? That’s my guess until some one of them explains it otherwise….

I try really hard not to get frustrated by these encounters with lack of accessibility in the writing community, but it’s hard.

I recently filled out an extensive application for the PEN Center Emerging Voices Fellowship, where several of the menus–age, gender, race, etc.–were not accessible, another frustrating case, as combo boxes and drop-down menus are usually very accessible. So I let Submittable tech support know, and asked Alabaster to take care of these, as the deadline was strict, and there was no time to wait around for a fix.

I also had him choose “Other” in the race box, so that I could type in, “I feel it is important to state that although I am white, I experience many challenges because of my blindness.” Disability is rarely included in statements of diversity, though I think that is changing.

Because the Emerging voices Fellowship is meant to help out traditionally unheard voices, I was able to press the issue further, into the short answers. For example, to the question “Explain why you think you are locked out of the literary establishment,” I wrote:

I have a degenerative eye disease, which means that I’ve occupied pretty much every notch on the sight blindness continuum, but oddly, as my sight has decreased, the technology that gives me access to new books, journals, electronic submissions–in short all the things that are vital to a budding writing career–has flourished. Still, there’s a long way to go. even in this application, there are a few dropdown menus that are not accessible and for which I will need help before submitting. I run into such difficulties often, and I try to let web developers know, but if I picked every accessibility fight, I would hardly have time to write. Thus, in a very practical way, I have been, and often still am, locked out of the literary establishment.

Tin House cover.Up until very recently, it was virtually impossible for me to gain access in a timely fashion to contemporary literature. This is part of the reason that I stuck close to the Early Modern Period in graduate school. Through my twenties and thirties, almost nothing was available to me, and now I am surprised when I cannot get ahold of a new book. This is wonderful, but I feel I have a lot of catching up to do with regards contemporary literature.

Even now, there is snobbery in the literary community regarding eBooks, which are accessible books. Happily, more and more prestigious journals–“Tin House,” “Ploughshares,” “Granta“–are available as Kindle books, but others, such as “Glimmer Train,” are not. The point was driven home in a “Publishers Weekly” article, “Bill Henderson Marks 40 Years of the Pushcart Prize.” In it, the founding editor explains why there will not be a digital version of the acclaimed anthology. “’In the future, anyone can read it without using a battery”,'” which indicates a naïve understanding of readers and a complete disregard for accessibility. This illustrates how, even though the technology exists, there is an ideology that keeps myself and other print disabled people locked out of the literary establishment.

In a Catapult workshop I am currently in, we read “Cremains” by Sam Lipsyte, and though I enjoyed the story, my appreciation of the writing was tempered by the portrayal of Hilda, the blind character, who is fantastically stereotyped and badly drawn–I don’t know any blind people who can’t do their own dishes for example. Of course, as writers we will all be mistaken in our portrayals of the other, but until some corrective is offered in the form of blind people taking some control of their literary image, mythology, and metaphorics, not to mention the mundane bits of life that the sighted cannot know experientially, the stories will remain terribly lopsided both in terms of number and authenticity.

*This is essay 24 of #52essays2017. Read #23 “She Doesn’t Look Blind to Me” The Blind Actor Phenomenon, where I talk about challenges facing the blind actor*

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Rocky Mountain Coyote Motel, Liquor, Pawnshop, Cannabis, Essay 17 of #52essays2017

We left our friends and drove according to my awesome navigation (with a little help from my iPhone) through Rocky Mountain majesty, seeking a place to stay. Using the fully accessible Google Maps I found and wanted a cabin on Bear Creek, but we were too late for that–disappointing not only because Bear Creek provided a marvelous soundtrack of white water rushing and barbeques for grilling and was idyllically located amongst sheer cliffs, but also because it was just a mile or two down the road from Cactus Jack’s, a biker bar whose tagline is “burgers re-built for dreamers,” that called to Alabaster and I with its absurd and romantic reference to a desert landscape.

By then dusk was falling and we really wanted to avoid Motel 6, and finally looking down the list I found Coyote Motel, and was enchanted. We’d decided that we would, from now on, call before driving the few but long mountain miles, and I did and she said she had rooms and sounded sweet. I was sold and we started following the complicated directions that miraculously took us from one county road to another and through darkening valleys and even a mountain tunnel to Blackhawk–a casino town.

I love that Alabaster lets me be the navigator. I call out the instructions and he listens and it makes road trips fun and interactive for me again–God Bless the iPhone! I haven’t had so much responsibility on a road trip since the old days of travelling with my best friend Indigo and playing navigator with a giant atlas and a magnifying lens.

Godin on side of Rocky Mountain road.

Following my directions for Colorado county road this to junction that, we made our way to CO-119, and there, in the middle of nowhere, with signs advertising Liquor Store and Pawn Shop, was the Coyote Motel, and Alabaster was delighted. “This is something!” he exclaimed. “I’m not a writer, and I’ve got all kinds of stories–can you imagine the misery that’s happened in this room? Ok, fine, he waxed poetic about the gambling melodrama once we got our nips into our room, but he was pretty excited about this place from minute 1, though he admitted later he was concerned about the room, until we stepped in and found it very pleasant, with a bedframe of tree limbs, and a fridge and a microwave and tidy as one could want. But I had seen its rating on Google Maps that ranked it far and away above any motel 6, so I wasn’t worried. Anyway, I’m getting ahead of myself here.

We walked toward the Coyote Motel office and I worried that it had taken us too long and that the 3 rooms that had been vacant when I called were now occupied but, as usual, my pessimism was in vain. No, the lady with the sweet demeanor on the phone smiled at our request and directed us from the liquor store counter around the corner to the motel rental counter–not around the corner into another door but around the counter to the other register.

Later, when we returned to buy our liquor and snacks Alabaster teased that she needed a different hat for each counter, and she said she’d get confused which one to put on. On that second trip to the one-stop-shop, Alabaster, knowing my interest in essential oils and the like, noticed aloud a sign that read “Rocky Mountain Organics,” and I was duly confused and excited. “I think I know that company!”

So we walked around and all the way down to the other end of the shop where a lonely guy stood waiting for someone to pawn their wedding ring or ski boots, and we asked what the Rocky Mountain Organics was, and he sort of shrugged as if to say, “I dunno.”

Then we went and picked out our vodka and frozen chimichangas and, thanks to me, a bag of Rockies Baseball peanuts still in shell just like you get at the ball park and returned to our room and Alabaster read some highlights from the little newspaper that we found on the night table. Colorado Gambler is an upbeat rag dedicated to local gaming, recreation, and entertainment. We laughed and drank and had a grand old time playing hooky from the folks for the night.

So now we’re home and I thought to check out this Rocky Mountain Organics and right away realize that it was Rocky Mountain Oils I was thinking about, and that Rocky Mountain Organics has nothing to do with aromatherapy–at least not the kind I’m into, although things are getting confused by the fact that, according to Perfumer & Flavorist, the new flavor trend is cannabis and I personally have enjoyed Hemp Seed Oil (C. sativa) from Aromatics International on my skin and in my salad. But this Rocky Mountain Organics in Blackhawk CO does not offer that kind of aromatherapy. Rather it turns out to be a marijuana dispensary that, according to Leafly, has been in operation for seven years, since before the recreational marijuana days.

In other words, in addition to selling our electronics and buying our booze and our junk food and our night’s stay, we could have bought an eighth of organically grown sativa. But, you say, you don’t even smoke weed, and that’s true, but I have friends that do, and sometimes you have to live the story. Besides I would have liked to have seen our Coyote Motel gal put on her marijuana hat!

 

*This is #17 of #52essays2017. Read #16, “Yes, Blind People Can Appreciate (and Write About) Film & Television!” here*

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Audio Description & Sound Design in Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Back of Godin's head wearing earphones attached to personal DVD player, screen shows Star Wars opening title.Last week I enjoyed my first blockbuster movie with audio description Star Wars: The Force Awakens! Overall, despite the unbelievable ending (spoilers below) it was a great experience. Alabaster‘s dad, having worked behind the scenes in film and TV, is a movie fanatic, and has a huge collection of DVD’s. He noticed that many of the newer Blu-rays come with an audio description track, which can be turned on at the menu. (Unfortunately, on a typical Blu-ray player, the menus are not accessible, but perhaps this could be remedied on a Blu-ray equipped laptop.)

I was certainly curious to check out one of these movies, but Alabaster’s parents were actually the first to experience Star Wars: The Force Awakens with audio description. They had put it on to test it out, after we’d gone to bed and told us the next morning that they’d ended up watching the whole thing with the audio description going because it was “so cool–almost like listening to old radio shows.” When I learned this the next morning, I was both excited and jealous. “They watched it without me?” and Alabaster was like, “See, they do like you!” Right. That’s good.

The first time through Star Wars: The Force Awakens, we watched it together on a TV, and from the moment it started, I was drawn in, since the audio describer read the words as well as what was happening to the words:

“Growing ever smaller, the words continue to crawl away into infinity. … The tiny illegible shapes of the last few words finally disappear completely into the vastness of space.”

 

Not only is this a lovely and immediately recognizable image, calling to mind the first time I saw the first Star Wars in the movie theater when I was six and perfectly sighted, but it also resonates for me personally, symbolizing the progress of my degenerative eye disease.

In case you’ve not experienced an audio described movie, an article at WGBH.org about one of the major suppliers of audio description (as well as captioning), MoPix, explains: “Description conveys the key visual aspects of a film or television program by describing scenery, facial expressions, costumes during natural pauses in dialogue.”

By the way, a Justice Department amendment to the ADA requires theaters to “have and maintain the equipment necessary to provide closed movie captioning and audio description at a movie patron’s seat whenever showing a digital movie produced, distributed, or otherwise made available with these features;” and will take effect in January 2017. So all my blind buddies can look forward to having a theater near them play the next Star Wars with audio description. This will be the subject of a future article, and I look forward to speaking with a representative of Media Access Group at WGBH soon. So consider this the first in a series–the sequel is in production!

For about the first 30 minutes of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, there’s probably not more than five minutes of dialogue, so it’s a really great thing to not have to task your companion with so much information gathering. However, when there was dialogue, the mix felt wrong; the audio description voice was too loud, creating a sense of distance from the on-screen characters. The main character became very quickly, the Brit reading the audio description, rather than Rey or Fin. Kylo Ren came through quite clear, though a bit lacking in gravitas, as if he were not only talking through a mask but also stripped down to a mono track. This was less the case as I listened privately the second time through with headphones on a portable Blu-ray player lent to me for the purpose. The ideal situation would be to be able to mix the sound volumes of the audio description and soundtrack oneself.

That said, listening with headphones was a much better experience, though I think the mix could still be more balanced, as the audio description dominated the sound design. But perhaps that’s just me; I am a bit of a sound geek, as demonstrated by my soundscapes for short films and readings. If you’ve no idea what goes into sound design for a blockbuster movie like Star Wars: The Force Awakens, here’s sound designer Matthew Wood discussing the many layers of sound in an interview with The Daily Dot:

“The main elements of a soundtrack are the dialog that’s recorded on the set; the dialog that you have to re-record after the production—because of line changes or droids or helmets or technical reasons that they didn’t get recorded on set properly. That’s called ADR. So there’s the dialog, the ADR. There’s the sound effects that you take from library, which would be the classic sounds that were made for Star Wars. And then there’s the new sound design that’s created specifically for the movie, so that’s part of the sound-effects track. There’s the foley; that’s all the very specific sound effects that are really too specific to be found in a sound library. And we have performers go through the film and we spot every little moment where that might be. And they actually perform them, like an old radio play. And then we have, obviously, John Williams’s music.”

Consciously or unconsciously, a good sound design is intensely satisfying, and can be especially appreciated by blind moviegoers. As a blind person, I find that with movies I loved as a sighted, or partially sighted, person, I can enjoy the action through the sounds. A good example is Apocalypse Now! Which I’ve probably experienced more times than any other film, and my appreciation of it has only deepened in the twenty or so years since I first saw it as a visually impaired person. Its sound designer, Walter Murch, is a legend in the field and the (at the time revolutionary) surround sound effects are memorably visceral. If you really want to geek out, here’s a cool article at Filmmaker Magazine about the iconic ghost helicopter sound that opens the film.

Star Wars VII sound designer David Acord told The Daily Dot in an interview, Murch, along with original Star Wars sound designer Ben Burtt, are the “two people that come to mind as far as the people that are considered the godfathers of sound design. … Ben’s aesthetic for sound design—and I don’t want to speak for him too much—but it’s been an organic approach. It’s recording real-life sounds to be manipulated into something completely different.”

A fun example of this is how Acord turned his cat’s purring into Kylo Ren’s Force rumble:

“…he’s got this sort of chunky, almost animalistic Force rumble that he does when he’s interrogating and that kind of thing. And it’s sourced from my cat’s purr. It’s pitched and kind of slowed down, and it’s got a ton of low-end added to it. But you listen to it, it’s one of those things…it’s tough when you sort of pull back the curtain for sound effects, because then that’s all you’ll hear, is that. [laughs] But yeah, that’s Pork Chop purring.”

As I get more comfortable with a movie, the less I’m bothered by what’s going on visually. With movies I’m very familiar with, I find perfectly satisfying representations floating or zinging, as the case maybe, before my inner eye. I found this also to be the case with The Force Awakens. Granted knowing that the aesthetics of the original 1977 Star Wars influenced the making of Star Wars VII, helped with the formation of new visuals, but I was amazed how much listening to the audio description track helped my inner eye form new mental pictures for a movie never seen by my physical eyes. So much so that the third time through, I scanned backwards to listen to my favorite scenes without audio description, in order to enjoy the sound design, the dialogue, the music and sound effects with only the Force of my inner eye to guide me.

The first scene I scanned back to without the audio description was the saloon scene in Maz’s Castle–a callback to that original Star Wars cantina scene, now quite hackneyed, but still so enjoyable–to hear the strange new creatures and silly karaoke style singing. It was nice the first time through to have the audio description give some details about what’s happening and to read the subtitles (a very helpful feature), but the overwhelming feeling I had was, “SSSH, let me listen!”

I found the torture scene where Rey finds the Force and frustrates Kylo Ren’s attempts to get information from her particularly crippled by the audio description, as it is so intimate. What may be gained from knowing, for example, that Rey grits her teeth, or that Kylo sets his jaw, is not worth the feel that someone is shouting in your ear while you are trying desperately to eavesdrop on something juicy.

Here’s sound designer Acord, from his Daily Dot interview, talking about that scene:

“There’s a scene in the movie where Ren is interrogating Rey as she’s shackled to the torture chair, and they end up having this sort of Force battle, basically, where at the end Rey has the upper hand and has basically entered Kylo’s mind and releases some of his darker thoughts. That was a fun moment for us. That’s a pure sound-design scene in the purest sense. If you’re a person standing in that room with them, you don’t hear those Force sounds. All the Force sounds are meant to be feelings; that’s not a literal thing. If you were standing there, you wouldn’t hear anything, except maybe the rattle of her chair. So that was a fun moment to play with that, to play with the back-and-forth, with the Force ebbing and flowing between the two of them, and there’s…music comes in about halfway into that scene, so there’s a bit of a dance you have to do as well with the music.”

That scene is also really cool because the reveal–that Kylo is a perfectly normal human under his “leather-and-metal head appliance that looks like a domination mask by way of the grille of a 1952 Chevy” as a New York Times review put it–is both a vocal and visual one, and the shift from the digitally distorted and pitched down voice of the actor Adam Driver to his normal voice must be as startling as the visual unmasking.

This villain is not, as granddaddy Darth Vader was, forced to wear the getup because of horrible life-threatening deformities. Blind or sighted, we understand immediately that This bad guy is trying real hard, so that, as interesting as the face and voice is under the freaky prosthetics, his badness is all too human.

Here again is sound designer Wood (excerpted from The Daily Dot interview) describing the process of working directly with Driver:

“I was able to work with Adam Driver really directly and build the process for how his voice was going to sound in that mask. We built [it] in sound design and actually took it to Adam and got him to play with it. He could hear the process of his voice through the mask as he was doing it live, so we could use it like an instrument and play on it. So you could get these really creepy performances of him playing a very intimate recording right up on the mic. And yet it has this distorted, otherworldly feel through the mask, so it still keeps [dialog] intelligible. That mask’s sole function is to intimidate. It’s not keeping him alive like it [was for] Darth Vader; it’s just a mask of intimidation. We really wanted to work with that.”

And, because we at Godin Rhumb SoundWorks have our recording studio set up in the walk-in closet, I cannot resist giving a little more from Wood:

“At one point, we had to record when Adam was rehearsing for a play in New York. We set up across the street in a hotel across from his rehearsal space. And so he’d run over to us, and we’d work in a hotel room. We outfitted the closet in the hotel room as a makeshift recording room. So he’d come in and we’d work on it, [and] we’d send the files back to J.J. to see what he thought. That was some guerilla sound design, and Adam was really up for it.”

Learning about the making of a movie is helpful for anyone to geek out and appreciate it more, and this is particularly the case for blind moviegoers, so feel free to comment below–as a blind or sighted person–about the audiovisual details you found exciting in Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

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The Sea Spells, Helen Keller’s Favorite Books

“Books have been my most intimate companions,” wrote Helen Keller in a letter to a suitor in 1922.

There can be little doubt that Helen derived much pleasure from the solitary communion of reading. That much of this pleasure was escapist in the extreme, she freely admits, “More than at any other time, when I hold a beloved book in my hand my limitations fall from me, my spirit is free. Books are my compensation for the harms of fate. They give me a world for a lost world, and for mortals who have disappointed me they give me gods.”

Books supplied what Helen’s missing senses could not, but they also supplemented the world’s lack. Failure and frailty, greed and indifference could never be totally got over in this world, but in the world of books men and women could live the lives of heroes. Helen was by no means misanthropic, but neither was she a Pollyanna. She was a card-carrying Socialist and political activist. In 1913, she published a book of essays called Out of the Dark, which railed against capitalist greed and demanded social reformation. Her decidedly leftist outspokenness angered many people who saw her radical politics as abhorrent, and antithetical to their angelic ideal of her.

If her politics were radical, her literary tastes were perhaps less so, and yet…. And yet, there were so few books available to her. She did not have the luxury of electronic books or of searching vast databases. She necessarily relied heavily on others to tell her about new books and authors. Often she had to have them transcribed for her, a costly and time consuming effort. Sometimes the easiest, if least satisfactory, method was simply to have someone read a book to her by spelling into her hand. This meant she would not be able to refer back to it. Once read, it was lost. I can only wish she had more books at her disposal.

She writes in her second and less famous autobiography Midstream: My Later Life, that her most beloved book is the Bible:

“I cannot take space to name here all the books that have enriched my life, but there are a few that I cannot pass over. The one I have read most is the Bible. I have read and reread it until in many parts the pages have faded out – I mean, my fingers have rubbed off the dots, and I must supply whole verses from memory, especially the Psalms, the Prophets, and the Gospels. To the Bible I always go for confidence when waves of doubt rush over me and no voice is near to reassure me.”

Though The Bible is a singular case, she says something similar when she writes about Walt Whitman:

“He has been an inspiration to me in a very special way. I began to read his poetry years ago at a time when I was almost overwhelmed by a sense of isolation and self-doubt. It was when I read the Song of the Open Road that my spirit leaped up to meet him. For me his verses have the quality of exquisite physical sensations. They wave like flowers; they quiver like fountains, or rush on like mountain torrents. He sings unconquerable life. He is in the middle of the stream. He marches with the world’s thought, not against it.”

For Helen, the authorial voice of Whitman seems almost to take the place of a friend’s comforting voice, and her tribute apparently acknowledges Whitman as the inspiration for the title Midstream in which the quote may be found.

The degree to which she must have sometimes felt isolated is something I can only imagine, but still I completely relate to the compensatory pleasure she found in books. They offer worlds not ordinarily perceived by us. And more, they urge us to make analogies, which at their best serve to wash over the irreconcilable individuation of experience.

I will let her own beautiful words about Joseph Conrad (also found in Midstream) read us out:

“I did not really make his acquaintance until 1920 – I did not have any of his books in Braille until then. I cannot define the peculiar fascination he has for me, but he took possession of me at once. I had always loved books of the sea, and the days I have spent along the shore have been happy ones. I love the dunes and the sea weeds that drift and crawl up on the sands, the little waves that creep through shell and pebbles like fingers seeking to spell a message to me. We used to be friends when you were the beginning of a fish – do you remember? I love winds and storms and sailors, tropical dawns leaping out of the east, and billows that like mighty tusked mastodons crunch the land. It may be that I am especially alive to the spell of the sea because it is so much like darkness that is my element. The dark too, has its deep silent currents and dangerous reefs, its monsters, its creatures of beauty, its derelicts and ships. In the dark too, there is a star to steer by, and no matter how far I travel there are always before me vast oceans of experience that I have not yet explored.”

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Smelling Old Books While Reading EBooks

When I was about fourteen, my eye disease stole my central vision and left me unable to read normal print. Books handed down from parents and grandparents–Treasure Island and Jane Eyre and (my favorite when I was a kid) a collection of Poe Tales–were suddenly reduced to the physical sensations of touch and smell, traces of what I had been, a voracious sighted reader.

You may understand then, dear reader, how wonderful the ubiquity of EBooks is for me and so many other blind readers. Until recently, obtaining accessible books relied on a handful of not great alternatives–braille, talking book, scanning into a computer–all of which took a lot of time and money to produce. This meant that when and how many published books were made accessible was quite limited and created a huge disparity between sighted and blind readers. Perhaps you may also understand how difficult it is to hear backlash from readers, writers and publishers who take delight in railing against EBooks.

Last December I read a Publishers Weekly article called Bill Henderson Marks 40 Years of the Pushcart Prize in which I found his blithely naïve reason for not publishing a digital version of the acclaimed anthology: “’in the future, anyone can read it without using a battery”,'” to which I cry, “Not anyone!”

I generally don’t like to come off as a prickly blind person, so I stewed in the implications of such a statement for nearly six months. Then I had an unfortunate encounter with a Guardian opinion piece called Books are Back. Only the Technodazzled Thought They Would Go Away, which opens with this hook: “The hysterical cheerleaders of the e-book failed to account for human experience, and publishers blindly followed suit. But the novelty has worn off”

Apparently reading an e-book is somehow not part of human experience, so that, for the Guardian author, only his way of reading–holding a print book to his eyes–is real: “Virtual books, like virtual holidays or virtual relationships, are not real. People want a break from another damned screen.”

To which I say, “EBooks are accessible books; if you want to deny them reality, try poking out your eyeballs!

Just kidding. But seriously, for me, EBooks are not virtual; they are real, while bookshops with their physical books are virtual, or nearly so; they do smell nice.

If the Pushcart article had not hit me first, I likely would have dismissed the Guardian article as tawdry comment-pandering, inflammatory and beneath my notice. However, I do think the problem is systemic, particularly in the highfalutin literary fiction world (less so in genre fiction) where, for example, many of the acclaimed literary journals do not publish electronic versions. Resistance to EBooks is an easy way to maintain a rarified air.

The biggest problem I have with all this is the idea that EBooks must necessarily push out physical books, or vice versa–why can’t we all live together?

Readers of all stripes should have the choice to read however they please, and frankly it costs next to nothing for publishers to make EBooks available at the same time as they print on paper–perhaps this is really the problem. EBooks are so easy and cheap to produce that for those who cannot extricate value from cost, they must be worthless, as if putting Plato’s Republic, Ulysses, or the King James Bible into an e-book form makes them less difficult to read or less important culturally.

Though I cannot understand another’s intolerance for EBooks, which for me, and many others, revolutionized the accessibility and immediacy of countless works, I can understand the fetish for books, with the fresh cut paper and ink smell of new books and the grassy vanilla mustiness of old ones.

The sense of smell, unlike the other four senses, has a direct pathway to the part of our brain responsible for the processing of emotions and memories. As V. S. Ramachandran puts it in Phantoms of the Brain (which is strangely available as an Audible but not Kindle edition), “[Smell] is in fact directly wired to the limbic system, going straight to the amygdala (an almond-shaped structure that serves as a gateway into the limbic system). This is hardly surprising given that in lower mammals, smell is intimately linked with emotion, territorial behavior, aggression and sexuality.”

Smell then feels more primitive and embedded with our deepest emotions and beliefs. Perhaps this helps to explain the intolerance of certain book lovers when it comes to eBooks. Perhaps also, this offers us a method of reeducation…

To fill the olfactory void left by digital books, I offer you book-scented products! As the author of 30 Book-Scented Perfumes and Candles puts it, “Any of the items listed below can be a perfect gift for anyone who tasted the convenience of reading on the Kindle, Kobo, or Nook, but will never forget (and doesn’t want to) the addictive smell of the old good books from childhood.”

As I write, I’m burning Oxford Library, a candle made by Frostbeard. Though my choice was in no small part dictated by economics (some of the book Scented products on the list are pretty darn pricey), I must admit to being influenced by this charming claim: “You’ll dream of sliding ladders, spiral staircases and leather-bound books when you curl up with a novel and this seductive, earthy aroma.” According to their Etsy page, the Oxford Library scent is composed of oakmoss, amber, sandalwood and leather.

Curious to know more about the lovely smells of Oxford, I looked them up in Perfumes: The A-Z Guide, and found that oakmoss signifies, “Different species of mosses from which are extracted dry, bitter-smelling materials essential to chypre fragrances,” and amber is “A blend of fragrant resins, such as styrax, benzoin, and cistus labdanum, traditional to the Middle East,” and that sandalwood, with its long history in perfumery, provides some of the “main chemical building blocks of fragrance” and is one of a few materials “found in almost every composition,” and that the smell of leather is “characterized by bitter-smelling isoquinolines or smoky-smelling rectified birch tar, to replicate the smell of the tanning chemicals used to prepare leather.”

All these combine to create an aroma of masculine luxury, seeming to represent the dusty men as well as the dusty books of Oxford. The smell suggests at once the Platonic ideal of “Father” and a first edition of Wuthering Heights–not bad for a few bucks!

So where does the actual smell of old books come from? Perhaps it is obvious, but much of the glorious smell indicates degradation. As reported by The Telegraph in The Smell of Old Books Analyzed by Scientists, a team of scientists developed a “sniff test” for old books to determine their level of endangerment: “Matija Strlic, a chemist at University College London, and lead author of the study, and her team note that the well-known musty smell of an old book, as readers leaf through the pages, is the result of hundreds of so-called volatile organic compounds (VOCs) released into the air from the paper.”

Certain of these chemical compounds can be used as a warning sign for libraries: “The scientists identified 15 VOCs that seem good candidates as markers to track the degradation of paper in order to optimize their preservation.”

Of course, one of the simplest ways to preserve a book is to minimize handling, and the easiest way to minimize handling (without denying all access to its contents) is to digitize the books!

Yep, I’m back on my soapbox: digitized books–searchable electronic texts as well as facsimiles, help preserve the originals while simultaneously making the works available to people who may not be able to travel to the Bodleian Library at Oxford!

In other words, accessibility is not just about blind people but also about the general reading public. Take for example HathiTrust, whose tagline is, “Welcome to the Shared Digital Future,” and whose mission is to work with institutions around the world to “ensure that the cultural record is preserved and accessible long into the future.”

It may be this very accessibility that really sticks in the craw of a person like our Guardian author, as if the means of dissemination has anything to do with people taking the time to read the books in question. For those of his ilk, the physical manifestations of books are meant to be treasured and amassed: “A book is a shelf, a wall, a home,” oh my!

Wonderful as they are, a personal library does not a reader make. Spending time and energy reading, having a mind-meld with an author–perhaps across centuries–should be the primary endeavor, and the acquisition of a beautiful edition a distant second, a luxury for those with the money and space to collect such things.

Speaking of luxury, when things get a little less tight in the Astoria Bat Cave, I may have to invest in a fragrance called Paper Passion, which invokes the smell of a freshly cracked new book. Then, whenever I feel blue about a snooty publisher or author neglecting to publish an electronic version of this book or that, I will spritz myself. And, while I deliberate whether or not buying the physical book, and spending the requisite hours scanning, is worth it. I will sniff my book-scented skin and be grateful to live in the digital age, hopeful that accessibility will win out in the end.

*First published at Quail Bell Magazine for Distill My Heart, a column about all things aromatic and alcoholic*

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Accessible Coding chronicle

Last week’s ScreenReader Coding Workshop took place in a portion of a giant complex in Brooklyn called MetroTech, which is home to NYU’s Tandon School of Engineering. Within one of the several large building surrounding the square, on a floor buzzing with giant video game consoles and laptops with huge monitors and kids chatting about code and playing/creating video games, we found the Ability Lab, where we were to begin learning code as blind people.

I had rushed to the restroom (because once I’m sitting, I don’t tend to want to move) so that by the time I got to my workstation, the others were already settled. I plugged in my earbud–it is easier to hear both what’s going on around you and what your screen reader has to say with one earbud in and also, in a class with six computers chattering away, earbuds rather than speakers are vital if you don’t want to lose your mind.

But the volume was too loud so I couldn’t hear what was going on outside my computer. I went to the volume mixer to turn it down, but that proved more complicated on this laptop than the one I have at home. An assistant helped me. Finally, I was present to the sounds around me but I had already missed much of the introductions. All I can tell you is that the three instructors–Claire, Atul and Taeyoon–all do cool things involving art and accessibility and programming–stuff that’s hard to internalize when you don’t have much in the way of reference points.

I’m sorry to say that mine is the introduction that I remember best. I said that I got my PhD at NYU, but in the Humanities, so I knew nothing about coding except that a while back, when I first took over my WordPress site from my web guy, I figured out how to <a href=http://www.drmlgodin.com/>The Greatest Blog Ever</a> and was positively thrilled when the link worked. And, to those savvy coders out there who want to interrupt me right now, “You forgot the quotes.” I’ll get to that momentarily, but first we had to tie our shoes!

Or rather, in the interest of learning about algorithms, we had to write, step-by-step instructions of how to tie shoelaces. The test would be Claire tying (or failing to tie) her laces based on our precise instructions.

There was much mumbling and grunting as we worked out how to tell a pretend computer how to tie its shoelaces. Then it was time to share. Chancey, who is famous in the blind community because she put together many of our computers when she worked at the Lighthouse Guild tech center and now organizes many cool events as the Assistive Technology Coordinator at the Andrew Heiskell Library, went first. At a particular instruction, I almost cried out to say, that’s not right! But before I could, Claire said, “my shoes are tied.”

“What, really?” Gus, who was sitting across from me and with whom I hoarded the Oreos, and I were perplexed. “We don’t tie our shoelaces like that!”

I’ll spare you the messy details of a comparative analysis of the two-loop-double-fold and the single-loop-wrap-around-pull-through methods, and simply say that one very important lesson was learned: there is often more than one way to get the same job done. This is apparently true in programming as well as in shoelace tying, and really, when you think about it, in most realms of life.

My first action to beginning any computer class is to open a separate document for notetaking, but I did not realize that there was already a screen open to notepad, so that for the first half of a three-hour class I was taking notes in the sample open html document. In other words, I was taking notes in the middle of a page of code. For those of you who can see, it is very obvious, I think, how many windows and programs are running, but unless we perform a key stroke to list these things, or clumsily alt tab around in circles to get the lay of the land, you don’t really know what’s going on.

We moved on to syntax, which frankly went by very quickly–from <> to {} to tags, such as buttons and attributes, which is when I learned that you are supposed to enclose your link in quotes, but of course I was confused because it had always worked for me without the quotes. Atul explained that, for some very common syntactical constructions, there is some leniency in certain…browsers is it? Or platforms? Not sure, but the fact remains that I was doing it wrong and WordPress let me get away with it, though apparently not using the appropriate quotes might present problems down the line.

The biggest revelation of the day for me was the relationship between the Notepad++ document and the html page, and likewise one of my favorite moments was making a button to nowhere called “Nowhere Button.”

Perhaps I should pause here to explain to my sighted friends that buttons and headings and edit boxes are generally screen reader friendly. They help to organize pages for us. For example, when I’m on a new webpage, the first thing I usually do is press “h” which will move me to the first heading. On the other hand, fancy-pants websites that do not bother to delineate the HTML skeletal structure–May I blame CSS or Java for this?–are not so accessible.

Anyhoo. From what I could gather, CSS is rather the enemy of the blind, and I was dazzled by the acronym until I had a debrief with my buddy David who said it stood for cascading style sheet, which at least gives me a visual image, but it seems a very difficult thing to detect with a screen reader, and Java is apparently no cakewalk either.

Now we come to variables, which was my favorite part of the class, because we got to play a game. We were given a sack of tactile operators (<, >, ==, !=, etc.), and several tactile playing cards numbered 0 to 3. The game began as one of chance–drawing cards and placing them on either side of a random operator to see if the statement was true–but we immediately wanted some strategy, so Phil, who runs the New York City Tri-State Blind and Visually Impaired Community Facebook Group, and I developed a game in which one would draw an operator tile and then pick from his or her cards a number which would present the most difficulties for the opponent. We both realized instantly that a “0” could present a real problem if the opportunity arose, so Phil sat on his “secret weapon” until the moment struck, and he was able to hit me with a 0 is > than, for which, of course, I had nothing to make the statement correct. He and I both grew up in gambling cultures–he in Hong Kong and me in a Greek-American family where poker was played at every get together, so we were ready to throw down, but alas, it was time to move to the coding example…

There was a button named “click me repeatedly” that you clicked repeatedly until you got an alert message like, “that’s annoying” at 7 times and ” arrrgh! ” at 11. In other words, if the number of the variable is greater than 6, then you get one snarky alert, and > than 10 and you get another. The code for this, which included Java, was maybe more complicated than my brains, which were beginning to creak and grind, could handle in this first class. But as Claire said in her agenda, this was to be a “whirl-wind introduction” and therefore I accept ignorance and confusion.

At the end of the workshop, we had a lively conversation about processing, or rather how to make processing accessible. I confess my precise lack of understanding of what is meant by processing in this context. I think it refers to the output of our programming. That is to say, how can we check our work, which is typically presented visually. I offer some of the suggestions we came up with (as pilfered from Claire’s notes):

1) Artificial Intelligence for image recognition

2) Sounds

-Binaural audio (Gus mentioned the Papa Sangre video game)

-Sound fields with system of tonal output (eg. pitch changes for up and down movement)

-Do some math on the fly with coordinates and generate sounds (can’t tell if something is colliding)

3) How PowerPoint templates work in terms of accessibility

-graph or chart templates/frameworks that are manipulatable

4) P5 on a touchscreen?

 

By the way, I was very excited about the “video game without video” called Papa Sangre and downloaded it the next night, because as a sighted kid I loved video games (such as they were back in the Neolithic Period), but was quickly frustrated at my inability to master walking or orientation in the dark, and never did make it to the game. If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times, I’m really bad at being a blind person, and apparently, this extends to virtual reality. Sigh.

To finish up, thanks so much to Claire, Taeyoon and Atul for this great starter. Though the handful of us students had many dissonant opinions, we all agreed that we wanted more and can’t wait for the next one..!

Sighted and blind friends, non-coders and coders: please don’t be shy to comment below with questions and corrections…

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