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The Blind Panther Party?

April 15, 2006 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

Interesting article from Chris at Blind Confidential. Thoughts?

Earlier this week, I received an email from an anonymous auto-forwarding program which I could not trace to its originator.  I asked some friends who have much stronger Internet and IT skills than me and they couldn’t tell me anything more than it came via an email forwarding system that sat on a server somewhere in Europe.

The message announced the formation of the Blind Panther Party.  As it came from an anonymous sender, I don’t know if the author intended to make an actual political statement or if he took a few extra measures to hide his identity to make a pretty funny gag look all the more real.  Thus, I don’t know if the Blind Panthers truly exist or if the author is performing an elaborate hoax.

The author signed the message Kropotkin, presumably after the legendary 19th century Russian anarchist Peter Kropotkin.  The author must know me as he (I call the author “heâ€ï¿½ as he used a male signature; if he chose Emma Goldman or some other famous female radical, I’d use the pronoun “sheâ€ï¿½) as he included a number of facts about my life which I have never published and have revealed to a very small number of people.  Thus, Kropotkin has created a very clever system, whether real or for fun.

Frankly, I kind of wish I had written this letter to myself as it includes some phrases that really made me laugh.  The slogan, “Blinks of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but your canes!â€ï¿½ Still makes me chuckle after reading the message a dozen times or so.  

Kropotkin makes references to historical figures similar to ones I might make in any Blind Confidential article or in my more serious writing.  He mentions Michael Collins and Ben Gurion, their tactical collaboration and how they both succeeded in defeating the British (Collins early in the 20th century having won the independence of the Republic of Ireland and Ben Gurion, after the Second World War, getting England to give up a section of Palestine now called Israel).  Like I often do, he did not include a reminder as to who the two revolutionaries were but, rather, assumed the reader (in this case me) would know his history well enough.  Anyone who knows me personally would also know that I would definitely know of these two as they would know that I’ve read a lot about the history of revolution and those who won change through such activities.

So, real or not, Kropotkin described the Blind Panther Party and suggested I write an article about them lest I pay the consequences of having some hardcore hackers, “perform some ultra-nonviolence on your various web presences.â€ï¿½  Unlike the government, I do cave into threats as I haven’t the time nor desire to fix a mess that some hackers can certainly make.  Also, I liked the reference to “A Clockwork Orangeâ€ï¿½ (one of my all time favorite movies) embedded in the threat.

Kropotkin says that, “within three weeks, you will receive our manifesto, currently a work in progress,â€ï¿½ but this letter of introduction intended to prepare me for “things to come.â€ï¿½  The author explained that, like the Black Panther Party, the Blind Panther Party (BPP), “does not claim to represent all blinks but, rather, serve as a vanguard based on radical ideals in order to affect change.â€ï¿½  He continues, “Huey Newton and Angela Davis never believed that all blacks would buy into his radical notions of dialectic materialism and the political economic theories of Karl Marx but their party would bring about revolution that would benefit everyone by destroying the hegemony of white European oppressors.â€ï¿½  I could only scratch my head and think, the government successfully crushed the Black Panthers and, now, the remnants of the organization sell a hot sauce called “Burn, Baby Burnâ€ï¿½ – hardly a revolutionary act.  I also cannot remember if Angela joined the Black Panthers or if she had been more of a soloist in the movement.

Kropotkin said he chose Blind Confidential, “because it seems to be the only regularly issued blindness related rag that isn’t beholden to any business, organization or governmental body.â€ï¿½  I’m happy that our readers see BC as so nicely impartial and trustworthy that they will announce the kick-off to their revolution here.  At the same time, I kind of identify with Jimmy Breslin during the summer of Sam when David Berkowitz, first known as the .44 caliber killer and, later as Son of Sam, chose him as the journalist in whom he would confide.  Breslin has one of the greatest journalistic voices in American history and I’m just a hacker who writes for fun but, today, I can pretend I’m Jimmy, maybe next month I’ll make it all the way up to Studds.

Referring to the song by Steve Earle, “The Revolution Starts Now,â€ï¿½ Kropotkin then started into the goals of the BPP and some of the tenets of their manifesto which they will publish soon.  He starts with a somewhat disorganized preamble to the manifesto that claims that the blindness population has neither representation nor a vanguard to represent its true needs.  He claims that the “so-called advocacy organizationsâ€ï¿½ have been “co-opted by the profit mongering technology companies (AT, operating system and application) pay them off with annual tributes to prevent them from doing anything too useful, from stating anything too critical and by making major statements about total non-issues to keep their membership smiling like morons.â€ï¿½

He continues, “The Blind Panther Party will lead legions of blinks to freedom and parity.â€ï¿½  And, “the BPP will use any tactics or strategies necessary to defeat the triumvirate of AT, IT and government that conspire to keep blind people from success.â€ï¿½  The rhetoric sounds like people from the GNU/Linux world with terms like manifesto and vanguard but the zealotry expressed leads me to believe that Kropotkin might actually come from the tremendously religious world of the Macintosh.  Many of the anarchist references also reminds me of the days when Project GNU lived in MIT’s AI lab as we had a subnet of computers all named for famous anarchists.

After the preamble, Kropotkin lists a few of the BPP beliefs and accepted “truths.â€ï¿½  Their first “truthâ€ï¿½ states that blinks have no true representation and none emerging in the near future.  He quotes a bunch of employment figures from around the world and states the “truthâ€ï¿½ that this is the result of the lack of representation.  He lists a few other “truthsâ€ï¿½ that seem to mostly repeat the first two but worded differently, leading one to think that the authors wrote this in a committee or was in a real hurry to bang something out.

Then, he moves onto the “demandsâ€ï¿½ of the BPP.  The first, one that I think we can all agree with, is that the government start enforcing ADA, 508, 255 and various other laws around the world.  Then, he starts getting into areas that I doubt will come any time soon.  He “demandsâ€ï¿½ that all AT companies immediately appoint a blind person to serve as a sort of “inspector generalâ€ï¿½ to keep the organization focused on the users rather than just on profits.  

Next, he suggests that, “like Sun and IBM, Microsoft and Apple should provide Narrator and VoiceOver as open source projects.â€ï¿½  He rightly asserts that, “neither Neither Apple nor Microsoft makes any money on the screen readers or magnifiers and maybe if they let them out as open source various segments of the community can band together and hack our way to successful, free, open source screen readers that don’t suck.â€ï¿½  An interesting idea that I’ve heard floating around the blindness world a bit lately but without anyone seemingly working with MS or Apple to negotiate such a deal.

Kropotkin lists a few more demands but all seem too far fetched to warrant copying into this piece and moves onto “tactics and strategies.â€ï¿½  He states that, “The BPP is dedicated to non-violence and will not intentionally bring harm to any person or will we threaten anyone.â€ï¿½  A good idea as blinks with bombs would go far beyond anarchism and way into chaos.  He continues, “The BPP has only one cause, to advance the rights and freedoms and to improve the lives of blind people worldwide.â€ï¿½  I can buy into that but I think it should be in the beliefs and truths section rather than strategy but who am I to judge a manifesto in progress?

After that, Kropotkin starts making statements that sound threatening and potentially very nasty.  He claims, “The BPP will use any act of â€ï¿½information anarchism’ [Editor’s Note: Richard Stallman coined the phrase “information anarchyâ€ï¿½ years ago to define the difference between the definition of free, “as in freedom,â€ï¿½ versus “without cost.â€ï¿½] Including publishing propaganda and spreading rumors about businesses, organizations and government agencies under their own name or by falsifying email addresses to disguise the source.â€ï¿½  Anyone who has been around the blindness biz for a while knows it is fraught with nearly random rumors so I doubt this tactic will gain too much success, especially if “officialâ€ï¿½ sources fact check articles before publishing them.

The next tactic comes with a bit of a disclaimer, “The BPP takes no position on technological vandalism nor does it have an opinion on liberating software that is copy protected.â€ï¿½  As I suggest in my article about Antigua, suddenly cutting off the revenue to the AT businesses would potentially bring disaster upon the quality of screen reading products as it is the revenue stream that fuels innovation and, without such, none of the commercial screen readers can afford to continue in any kind of consistent manner.  So, this tactic may buy them some support from people who either cannot afford a screen reader or just prefer stealing things no matter the downstream consequences.  I can imagine some very funny defacings of web sites but I do not condone, in any way, shape or form, such vandalism and decry any so-called hacker who would use such tactics.

Kropotkin then mentions a few of his favorite Blind Confidential articles and signs the letter, “Happy Hacking,â€ï¿½ another phrase popular among GNU hackers.  So, I don’t know where these guys come from, where they are located, if they are more than one guy pulling a pretty imaginative joke on me and the BC readers, if they should be taken seriously or if we can laugh it off entirely.  I think Kropotkin made some points with which I agree, like taking a strong stance against violence and doing more to publicize the difficulties we blinks have in the employment world.  I think the idea of MS and Apple releasing their screen readers as open source is pretty interesting as I know a lot of people would enjoy hacking their source for fun, for research or to expand their capabilities.  Finally, I disagree with the lack of position on property crime, I don’t believe that defeating copy protection or vandalizing a web site is without harm to our community and, very possibly, such actions can have a tremendous backlash that could damage our cause.

Blind people around the world do seem to be taking some more radical positions and actions though.  A group of blind hackers in India are working on an open source screen reader project of their own which definitely shows initiative, if nothing else, on the part of blind people in leadership roles.  If people in India cannot afford a major screen reader, making their own makes sense.  Last week, in Nepal, a huge crowd of blind people (about which I will write a separate article soon) gathered in the government district in Katmandu to protest for greater rights – a hundred of whom were arrested in what turned into something of a violent blink uprising.  Blinks around the world express discontent but show little action and I’m not sure which tactics would work for such a small minority.


The AT community took a step backward last week when Sharon Spenser, the seven year VP of Sales with HJ and Freedom Scientific chose to leave the company for personal reasons.  Since her departure, I’ve heard from competitors who went head-to-head up against Sharon in various bidding processes and all described her as professional, very tough and one who plays to win.  Those of us who have the privilege of knowing her personally, though, also see her as a warm, loving and very honest friend.  As a co-worker, Sharon pushed us engineering types to constantly improve quality and could often be seen in her office well into the night working as hard as anyone else in the industry.

Sharon had also been president of ATIA, an organization which she helped grow and get moving forward better than ever before.  I don’t know if she will continue in her role with ATIA.

Needless to say, one of my very favorite people in the industry has elected to move on so I will miss the hug I always get at conferences and will hopefully be able to see her socially soon.


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Post Cornea Transplant Disappointment

April 14, 2006 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

On November 1, 2004, I had the fourth cornea transplant performed on my right eye. All the sight in my left eye has been absent since age 3 and there is no hope of any recovery there. In addition to this fourth cornea, a lens was implanted to replace the kateract removed at an early age. In the couple of months after this fourth transplant, I enjoyed more sight than I could remember since at least age 10 or 11. I could count fingers several feet away and even read the numbers on some digital displays! Sadly, this didn’t last long. Over the past year, the new cornea has been clouding in the same way as the three before it. This past Wednesday, my cornea transplant surgeon told me that the process of corneal scarring is accelerating and becoming more noticeable. I have gone from counting fingers at a distance of two or three feet to seeing only hand motion at one to two feet. Given the current state of the art, there is no medication or anything else that can be done to reverse this disappointing process. I now have less eye sight than I had before this last cornea transplant! I am hopeful that emerging technologies, such as artificial corneas and stem cell transplantation, will someday result in a significant increase in my sight.

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Good News on Google Accessibility, iRiver Blues, Edirol commentary and the Wedding Preparations Continue

April 13, 2006 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker


We used the internal microphones in the Edirol R-1 this time as Karen and I were both in the kitchen while recording this podcast. I talk shop about how things are going, Google’s initial accessibility commitment, more woes with the iRiver IFP 899, the upcoming new Edirol digital audio recorder and we chat about shopping for wedding rings. Enjoy.

Download and Listen

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Google Begins to Roll Out Audio CAPTCHA!

April 12, 2006 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

Google has begun to implement an audio alternative to their visual verification scheme. It is now possible to sign up for GMail, Google Accounts and Google Groups. Password recovery for existing accounts has also been opened to blind users. We thank Google for seeing the light on this issue. Thanks also go especially to everyone inside and outside the blind community who signed the Google Word Verification Accessibility Petition and took other positive actions to lend their support to this important advocacy effort.

Additional work remains. The audio CAPTCHA has not yet been extended to Blogger and, ultimately, the deaf-blind remain largely shut out. Google has promised implementation of audio CAPTCHA by the end of this month. They are coming in ahead of schedule for most of their services. We trust that Bloggers visual verification will also be made accessible by the end of the month.

There is much work to be done in areas of Google accessibility going far beyond visual verification. The hiring of two software engineers focusing on accessibility represents another positive step forward on Google’s part. Please stay tuned for further developments.

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The iPod and Apple’s Barriers to Accessibility

April 8, 2006 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

From Blind Confidential:

Yesterday, I engaged in an email conversation with an old buddy from the blindness community with whom I hadn’t communicated in well over a year.  We got a bit into the old Windows v. GNU/Linux/Macintosh discussion and which may emerge as the next accessibility leader.

We agreed that, today, with an excellent collection of AT products in all categories, Windows had a substantial lead.  We then commiserated over the recent announcement that UI Automation (UIA) would not make it into the first Vista release and that AT products must continue to rely on MSAA.  As new applications will use various Vista enhancements for which there will be no MSAA, the first year after the Vista release could be pretty rocky for those of us who depend upon AT to do our jobs, get an education or just enjoy computing.

The GNU/Linux discussion went a bit differently.  We agreed that the gnome accessibility API certainly could provide an excellent amount of information to an AT product but as few applications exist to really exercise the framework, how will we know if it is usable – another chicken and egg problem.  We also questioned why it seems that, at every CSUN, the open source people have a few new demos of AT for gnome but never seem to release anything beyond an alpha test version.

This year, both IBM and Sun showed off new alpha test screen readers for the GNU/Linux platform.  Sun has ORCA and IBM has a program described by three initials which I can’t recall at the moment.  Neither talked about gnopernicus so I guess that project died on the vine.  This leaves me with the question, “Because both programs are open source and both are targeting the same platform, why do we have two alphas and zero betas?â€ï¿½  Why can’t we all just get along?  How many more years until we hear something described as a “releasedâ€ï¿½ screen reader for the gnome desktop must we wait?  How many roads must a man walk down before they call him a man?

The open source world seems to have more screen readers than users.

Finally, we get to Apple.  I really like some of the people working on their screen reader very much and don’t want to trash it as I don’t want to continue to stamp on the toes of old friends.  I will just suggest that anyone interested in it read Jay Leventhal’s article in Access World (I think it appeared in the December edition) and try to give it a whirl at an Apple salon shop at your local mall before committing to using it.

Thus, the recent future seems pretty murky.  Personally, I’ll stick with JAWS on Windows because it will not require me to learn a whole new platform and the idiosyncrasies associated with it.  I know which applications I can use and I know who I can call if I’m in a bind.

The discussion of the major platforms led us to talking about handhelds and, specifically, the “no blind person need applyâ€ï¿½ iPod.  With a variety of different accessible portables ranging from talking cell phones to the iPAQ to PAC Mate, BrailleNote and some others with accessible interfaces that can play most, if not all, multi-media formats, why does Apple remain so completely bigoted against us blinks?  Don’t the hipster blind kids have the right to destroy their hearing by playing 50 Cent at an ear shattering volume?

So, why is the iPod Inaccessible?

Let’s start by looking at some of the highlights of Apple’s history.  In 1984, Steve Jobs walked out onto the stage at a Boston Computer Society (BCS) meeting.  He placed an original, 64K, single floppy disk Macintosh on a table, clicked a few things and then stood back.  Although I lived in Boston at the time, I did not attend this event but I’ve seen it on video many times.

“Hello, I am Macintosh,â€ï¿½ said the robotic speech synthesizer inside this oversized lunchbox with a screen.  The Macintosh, through what we later learned was the MacTalk synthesizer, continued to describe itself as Jobs stood proudly on the stage next to his baby at its first public performance.

The attendees at this general meeting of the BCS sat silently, awed by a computer who could describe itself.  Jobs went on to show the audience a WYSIWYG word processor, a paint package and a few other little doo dads that he could launch by swapping a few floppies and clicking his mouse.  The 1984 audience found his performance vexing and, by the following day, the buzz about Jobs’ new miracle machine had conquered the entire Boston/Cambridge nerd scene and the gossip grew louder each day until a few people got their hands on actual first run Macs.

To those of us with an interest in accessibility, Steve Jobs’ performance at the BCS meeting had an entirely separate impression.  The Macintosh that Steve showed the world that night included the first standard issue software speech synthesizer.  This, we thought, would rock the world.  The earthquake of excitement slowly dwindled to a mild vibration and then to silence.  While the Mac had a major screen reader component built in, it exposed so little information as to render the synthesizer useless for most real blindness applications.  I know, outspoken for the Mac came along but the screen reader later to be acquired by Alva and, more recently, permitted to die a lonely death, felt like using JAWS with only the JAWS cursor or Window-Eyes with its mouse cursor.  

Later on, as my vision deteriorated, I didn’t know about programs like JAWS and the accessibility on Windows but I did remember that Macintosh had a built in magnifier (CloseView) and a synthesizer.  So, with the help of a Mac hacker friend of mine, I set out to create my own screen reader-like utility that, with CloseView running at 10-16X magnification, I could actually use (very inefficiently) the Internet, WordPerfect and Eudora.  My utility wouldn’t win any technology awards as it simply copied selected text to the clipboard and then spouted it out through the synthesizer.  This solution, crufty as it may seem, provided me with good enough computer access to take creative writing classes at Harvard University and to keep in touch with friends and family via email.

Then, a friend of my family who also lost his vision to RP, told my dad about JAWS, Window-Eyes and the Windows solutions.  Bob (my dad) bought me a Gateway laptop, a copy of Window-Eyes and sent it up to our house in Cambridge.  My wife struggled, with the excellent assistance of Mike Lollar on the telephone, for about three hours to get Dec Talk Access 32 installed without bothering the pre-installed virus protection too badly.  I thought I had found heaven.  Within six months, it was bye-bye Harvard and hello Henter-Joyce and my full time pursuit of access technology.

So what happened to Apple between the time it showed off the first computer to ship with a standard speech synthesizer and the release of its iPod?

If you have followed the business side of the computer industry, you probably have noticed that Steve Jobs got fired and replaced by that guy from Pepsi.  The soda guy got fired and was replaced by Gil who, in turn, got fired and replaced by Steve Jobs.  Throughout all of this, Apple would create some really innovative concepts and then kill them before letting them hit the market.  They built things like the Newton about a decade before the technology had matured to a point it could be commercially viable and they floundered listlessly without a real leader at the heart of the organization.  Thus, the return of Steve meant joy in Macville, ding dong the corporate witch was dead and the dreamer had returned.  The rainbow colored Macintosh logo glowed brightly once again.

Steve Jobs, though, had learned a lot about business while in exile at NeXT Corporation and other disasters.  He had learned about saving money, cost cutting and not going too far from the path to relatively certain dollars.

One of the first moves Steve made upon his return furloughed the speech team.  Some of the most talented people in speech technology lost their jobs (none had trouble finding employment elsewhere) because, according to an official statement issued by Apple on that day, “Speech technology is superfluous to our mission.â€ï¿½  I remember reading this article and feeling my heart fall into my stomach.

More recently, in a move typical of Apple, they reversed direction and started a reconstituted speech team and the synthesizer and voice command control in OSX is really quite good.

Why, then, can’t an iPod talk?

Because Apple doesn’t want it to.

Why doesn’t Apple want the iPod to talk?

Ask Steve.

Is it technically feasible for an iPod to talk?

At last, the crux of the biscuit, from the very first iPod released a few years ago to the fanciest one out there today, all had more than enough compute power and storage (with zillions of bytes left over) to run a speech synthesizer.  Having walked through the iPod interface with a sighted guide, I can also state quite clearly, that offering the interface as a self voicing application would not challenge the talented Apple engineers to much.  Including a full talking interface, would definitely add to the “cool factorâ€ï¿½ of the device as sighted and blind users alike could keep the iPod in their pocket and navigate to their Led Zeppelin or Pink Floyd folder quickly and easily without diverting their mind numbed, 120 decibel charged gaze away from whatever they had been staring at.

Effectively, the iPod has no accessibility features because Apple thinks of accessibility well after anything else they design into their products.  Speech in an iPod would have been relatively cheap and easy but Apple thinks of “coolâ€ï¿½ first and nerdy ideas like universal design just isn’t cool.

So, I cringe every time I hear the term “Pod castâ€ï¿½ on a blind person’s web site.  Well before the iPod, an Apple trademark, we blinks enjoyed all kinds of streaming audio on the Microsoft platform using Windows Media Player, Real Player, WinAmp and other programs.  Today, we have the PAC Mate, Braille Note, iPAQ, a whole pile of cell phones on which screen readers run and probably other products I’m forgetting to use to listen to music, books and other information while out and about.  Why then do we insist on giving Apple a free advertisement for a product that might as well have a sign saying, “No Blacks, No Dogs, No Irishâ€ï¿½ hanging on it as far as we blinks are concerned.

I’m also dubious of anything containing the word “podâ€ï¿½ that doesn’t refer directly to food.  This comes from the classic Sci-Fi thriller, “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,â€ï¿½ not the remake but the 1950s original.  In the movie, the townspeople disappeared one at a time to be replaced by replicants (who had that zoned out look of an iPod user on their faces) who, perhaps not coincidentally, grew out of giant pea pods.  Are Steve Jobs and Apple snatching the portable music lovers of the world and replacing them with mindless servants of their corporate goals?  Am I one of the last townspeople left running around to spread the information that Apple employees come from outer space and intend to conquer our planet?


Sorry for the fairly lame posts the past two days.  I had little time to write so I depended heavily on material I could draw from other news items.  I do think both items described important events but I didn’t do much to add any color or useful commentary to improve on their value.


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Feeder RSS Creation Software Improves Feed Accessibility

April 8, 2006 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

We thank Steve Harris of Reinvented Software for adding an accessibility enhancement to Feeder reminding creators of RSS feeds to include descriptive alt tags when images are incorporated. Feeder runs on MAC OS X 10.3.9 or later. Is this among the applications that work with Apple’s integrated screen reader? VoiceOver users, please comment on your ability to use this software. Thanks go to Allison for the positive advocacy.

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