Archive for July, 2009

Sputnik boosted our lives!

July 19, 2009

This post is not directly in the theme of adjusting to vision loss but rather memoir-ish in the wake of the Apollo 11 moon landing and the death of Walter Cronkite. I’ve always wondered how our lives would be different if, just what if, the U.S. had been first instead of Sputnik. I’ll tell my story.

Two burning questions: Why? and What if?

How did Russia come to be first to launch
Sputnik when the space powers were roughly equal?

My knowledge of history, even in my own lifetime, is rather weak, but here’s my take on what happened. See the references below.

1957 was a time of mutual fear between and against two nuclear superpowers. The artificial satellite catalyst was in the works as part of an International Geophysical Year program with a scientific theme. Neither U.S. or Russian government leaders were enthusiastic while war-bred technical tribes were chomping to launch. Mars-minded Von Braun even rolled out a satellite-mounted Redstone missile to the launch pad but got nixed in favor of a Navy Jupiter. Meantime, a Russian technical group managed to design an ultra-simple 180 lb. beeping ball to ride replace a nose cone on monster missiles under test.

News reports shocked first the scientists in the know then informed a confused U.S. public. It was hard to imagine the engineering or purpose of a beeping ball circling the earth, even passing over the U..S. twice without notice before news announcement. With missile fear came the question of whether the satellite could attack, as warned in civil defense pamphlets and school room desk ducking. Apparently, Russian had been working on really big missiles needed for large nuclear payloads that the U.S. had superior technology to miniaturize. Nevertheless, U..S. missile rocketry was faulty and embroiled in military turb battles.

President Eisenhower seemed not to recognize the political whammy of a satellite first launch but rather was more interested in high flying planes and future satellites with reconnaissance capabilities to sort out the strengths and weaknesses of Soviet military forces. With launch of bigger dog carrying Sputnik 2, the American public grew even more scared and impatient. A rushed effort with existing U.S. rocket power failed in public but eventually got up to speed in 1958. Then came the rivalry first man in space and wild-eyed thoughts of progressing rapidly from Earth to the Moon, with Russia setting the pace.

How would our lives be different if America, not Russia, had been first?

And here come the side-effects that changed our lives to this day.

Eisenhower started an Advanced Research Project Agency to execute both catch-up and public assurance projects. Now, remember that the U.S. capability was mostly in place but the Russians made the decision first, not from superiority but rather follow-through. Was the U.S. weakness in public will, leadership, technological prowess, project management, military strategy? Eisenhower had an enormous juggling challenge: secret or public, civilian or military, scientific dominant or engineering demonstrations, private industry or government executed, etc.? Currently, we see a National Science Foundation, NASA, ARPA, and vast military industrial complex created warily during the Sputnik-stimulated space race of the 1950s.

Waves of public education concerns generate institutional opportunities in the belief that the U.S. intellectual and technological weakness had lead to the first satellite defeat and possible future losses in space races. With a sense of investment inn public education infrastructure, U.S. science and technology leaped ahead.
Now, it’s sickening to experience the loss of investment sense in schools.

But look what the whole world got for very little — the Internet, as created and fostered by military and then educational institutions for more than two decades. Would the U.S. have developed the Internet without the Sputnik loss? Who knows, but on balance this seems to have been a great battle to loose at a time when a generally good economy and scary political system forces could let such a technology bloom.

References for History of Sputnik and the Eisenhower era

  1. NBC News reporter Jay Barbree 50 years of space reporting. Good account of Sputnik politics on through the moon and downward. Informative news-eye account of space successes and tragedies. Available on Bookshare.
  2. the Heavens and the Earth: A political History of the Space Age. Dry but very informative trace of politics, personalities, and technologies.
    Available on Bookshare.

  3. Fear of Sputnik: NPR interview with Jay Barbree
  4. Online News Hour: Sputnik revisited. Political historians analyze and recall 40 year anniversary of Sputnik.
  5. The Sputnik Shock effect on education. One academic’s account.
  6. Sputnik, the satellite that inspired generations
  7. sputnik, the satellite that started it all
  8. Happy birthday, sputnik. Thanks for the Internet. Credit to DARPA hence to Sputnik for Internet development.

Personal account: sputnik Launched My career

Sputnik in the sky of teenage minds

Lions roared across the stage under the traffic light in the center of town. Ferris wheels spun in front of apartment windows in the multi-use dwellings that lined Main Street. The country kids stayed in town after the day’s parade to spend their allowances on the rides, carnival games, food booths, and raffle tickets. It was the first weekend in October, 1957, and the annual Utica Homecoming was in full swing.

My friends Sam, Russ, and Marjorie and I were enjoying bashing in fenders on a donated wrecked car. One of us asked about the sputnik news and we all scanned the skies looking for a light that might be the beeping ball that President Ike and his press people were pooh-poohing. Little did we know what it meant to be teenagers at the beginning of the space age.

It’s hard to remember, but the physics and math teachers seemed to gain respect, even rock star status, after Sputnik. However, a nasty principal turned off the TV telecast of Alan Sheppard first manned sub-orbital trip in favor of some stupid test, dampening our connection with the outside world and major events. Well, maybe we did just want to exercise student privilege to barter our way out of one more test.

Early access to computers hooks one kid

I trace my career back to sputnik’s influence on the National science education programs that began to ensure a technologically advanced populace. I attended an NSF-sponsored summer pre-college session. There I met my first computer, an
IBM 650,
which about a dozen students programmed using cards. It was love at first punch for me, I just knew programming was the most delightful intellectual activity. At that time, I had no clue how careers worked, e.g. that there was an engineering field, or what mathematicians did, or how statistical applications were applied in finance or science. coming from that small Ohio town, I was only trying to figure out what was happening at any moment with my peers, books, and opportunities that seemed to propel me ahead.

One key idea rattled around in my head, starting at that very first summer in Carbondale, Illinois. we could write programs that summed a long series of n numbers, using n =100, or n =1000, or n =1000000 if we could actually type in a million numbers to add up. In one loop we could get a total and then print it out. But how could we know it was really the correct answer?

so, I started college with one leg up, whatever that saying means.
I was hooked on computing in 1961, in a way that eliminated alternative career paths in favor of one that would be driven by my inner love of programming. while this was a technical field, my expression of programming has remained as much artistic as utilitarian. This ambiguity has offered a theme for nearly 50 years, but at the cost of many ups and downs as I followed one career opportunity after another, sometimes falling into pits or walking off cliffs.

My college choice, Ohio Wesleyan University, was sparked by an alumnus, principal of the Utica High school, decided by a nice scholarship that supplemented my accountant father’s salary and brought me into contact with a range of east coast and Midwest bred students. I majored in math in those days before computer science or software engineering were named fields. Boy, did I get lucky finding my very own personal computer, an
IBM 1620
that this liberal arts college used for both administration and teaching science and math. It seemed “personal” because it was available to me for hours on end as I taught myself more programming techniques, culminating with a compiler as a senior project.

And the right brand of math made computing interesting

More odd chances for professional development spun off from the sputnik challenge as I tutored high school teachers in the summer as they learned the “new math” and a bit of computing. I loved giving a demo of the 1620, the size of a coffin with a nearby even larger card reader/punch. I showed them games, a few computations, and how to play songs on the line printer — like anchors, Away.

This branch of math, eventually known as discrete structures, was really what I had wanted to study not that dull calculus that dealt with change qualities I didn’t relate to their science underpinnings. Rather I spent hours working out the closed formulas in the appendix of Apostle calc text, like 1+2+…N=N*(N+1)/2, isn’t that cool? as I programmed, I always faced that “is this the correct answer?” dilemma. a course in philosophy of science gave me the inklings of a response, the principle of “induction” and the realization that science wasn’t just a blend of people and ideas I couldn’t fully appreciate, but indeed there were defined concepts like theories and reasoning.

Sometimes it takes decades to know what was important

Meantime, on the political scene, the sputnik shock morphed into Kennedy’s Bay of Pigs fiasco and the Cuban Missile Crisis. One very serious politically minded upper class student forced our dorm dinner table to listen to sobering words that trickled into our closed campus world from the news on TV and radio. Now, my current reading on the space race tells of roles of cameras launched in satellites or carried on dangerous U2 missions. I really appreciate that a forty-ish aged president and his aides had the energy, wisdom,patience, and world knowledge to bypass a crisis with Russia through Cuba. However, also developing during this time was the massive military-industrial-complex warned by the much older Eisenhower who had generated so many missile,, and defense programs during his term.

My clueless ness about the political forces of the world remained through my active career as I occasionally visited these defense companies and government agencies such as NSA, all seeking the holy grail of program correctness. My innocent love of programming and curiosity about the correctness conundrum were leading to regions of worry about international competition with U.S. and Japan, and backlash against the correctness mission that several times hurt my income while also opening new professional opportunities. I still wonder how much easier programming would be today if the Japanese Fifth Generation project hadn’t succumbed to its national economic failure.

Learning computing before official computer science

Graduate school seemed on my path, but how could I exit gracefully from mathematics?
University of Michigan had a strangely titled program in communication sciences, an eclectic combination of fields that later branched into artificial intelligence, psychology, hardware design, software engineering, and, strangest of all, speech synthesis. the latter field, concentrating on modeling of the human vocal track and units of speech, is actually the technology use most today in my assistive tools.

The programming class was a triumph for me as the major exercise was similar to my undergrad senior project, a translator. In those days, a major university computer ran batches of punched card programs with an ever increasing turn around time as the semester load increased. In this project, we had two tries to get our program to run, with 4 days wait. I checked, double checked, and checked again, hand simulating my code, and indeed got a successful run.

Where would I be without Sputnik?

Who knows, but I believe I was one of those youngsters who, exposed to computing in its purest form, at just the right age, got hooked for a lifetime. The circumstances were traceable to Sputnik after-effects. However, it was my personal curiosity about mathematical induction that took me away from a probably failure as a mathematician to a contributor of some important ideas in computer science. I greatly regret that this central concept got muddled in academic, even international secrecy, squabbles and was deemed too hard for ordinary programmers.

So, that’s one personal reflection on Sputnik as a life-changing event here on earth, leading to a moon I can still pick out in the night sky, but a movie of moon steps I can sometimes amplify by video but most firmly held in my memory and hearing.

Listen to
Audio version of this post and
Sputnik beeps

Do you remember Sputnik? Tell us about it.

Visit our other
blog collecting Sputnik experiences and opinions

Amazon Kindle, Arizona State, Accessibility — What a mess!

July 6, 2009

The ACB and NFB lawsuit against ASU-Amazon textbook test program is a big deal for discrimination activism and an educational opportunity on accessibility. The detailed complaint explains difficulties of blind student textbook use at ASU and how adoption of the Amazon Kindle trial program will set a bad example.

The textbook program has caught Television public interest reports on journalism student Darrell Shandrow. Comments in Wired Campus report on the lawsuit have invoked understanding and support mixed with political outrage at ADA accommodations. Related issues on Reading Rights activism on publisher/author control over text-to-speech cloud the issues of accessibility of the Kindle device itself.

The purpose of this post is to inject my own opinion as well as link to some useful resources.
I speak as a former educator who struggled with textbook bulk and price; software engineer with spoken interface development experience;
and research manager with technology transfer background.
Although not a member of either ACB or NFB, I am a
visually impaired avid reader living hours a day with text-to-speech and affectionate owner of many assistive tools described in this blog.
Oh, yeah, also an Arizona resident with some insight into ASU programs and ambitions.

I try to untangle the arguments my own way. Based on my own ignorance of a few years ago, I suspect many sighted people and those in process of losing vision lack understanding of how audio reading works. I provide a recorded demo of myself working the menus of a device for book and news reading to show the comparable capabilities lacking in the Amazon Kindle.
By the way, I’ve never seen, fondled, or considered buying a Kindled.

Untangling the Kindle-ASU-textbook Arguments

  1. Text-to-speech (TTS) is the work horse, the engine, for assistive technology (AT) for visually impaired (VI) people. TTS reads content as well as providing a spoken interface for menus, forms, selections, and other user operations. Nothing novel, implemented in dozens of devices on the market, standard expected functionality to support accessibility.
  2. Amazon product designers included TTS presumably to provide a talking interface for mobile, hands-full users. TTS could read unlocked books, news, or documents downloaded to the Kindle, but only on Kindle software and rights management platforms. This established TTS as a mainstream commodity functionality, much like a spell checker as expected in any text processor.
  3. Book authors reacted that TTS represented a different presentation for which they could not control pricing or distribution. Amazon said, “ok, we’ll flip the default to give publishers control over enabling TTS”. Accessibility activists complained “hey, you just took away an essential attractive feature of the Kindle” and “You authors, don’t you want us to buy your books in a form we can read as immediately as on-screen readers”.
  4. More experience with the Kindle revealed that the TTS capability was not implemented to support the spoken interface familiar for VI people in commodity AT devices. See our downloadable demo and referenced tutorials to understand the critical role of spoken interfaces.
  5. Bummer. The Kindle that promised to become a main stream accessible reading device was a brick, a paperweight, a boat anchor or door jamb if it weighed enough, just an inert object to someone who could not read the buttons or see menus and other interactions. Useless, cutting off 250,000 books and every other kind of content Amazon could funnel into the Kindle. Well there’s always Victor Reader, Bookport, Icon, and a host of other devices we already own plus services like Bookshare, NFB Newsline, NLS reading services, Audible commercial audios, etc. Disappointed, a step forward missed.
  6. Now universities enter the picture with a partnership opportunity to test out the Kindle on textbooks for selected courses, an educational experiment for the next academic year. Rising complaints from students about textbook costs, often $500 per semester, plus chronic dissatisfaction with the packaged all-in-one book has lead to alternative formats, even abandonment, of textbooks in many subjects. Great opportunity here to re-examine educational benefits of a product and distribution system already familiar to tech-greedy students. But would the learning outcomes hold up? Amazon doesn’t say how rigorous this test program would be, but at least there’s be more Kindle-driven classroom feedback.
  7. Uh, oh. Those darned blind students can’t use the Kindle. Can universities block them from Kindle trial courses? or let them in, relying on the established accessible material support practices forced by A.D.A.? This messes up the trial because the total population of students unfortunately includes visually impaired and a range of other disabilities. Of course, there could be an economic winner here to reduce accessible material preparation costs, easily as much as the $500 Kindle when all staff and scanning prep time are included. Or even insights might be gained into how Kindle mitigates learning difficulties for some disabilities. Ouch, though conversely, it could be that reading on-screen amplifies learning difficulties students have overcome with print practices. Well, it’s a trial, an experiment, right? But, actually, this taxpayer and researcher asks, what are the parameters and the point of the trial program with several universities? Huh, just asking, can’t find any detail.
  8. So the well-lawyered NFB and ACB get together and back a long-time accessibility activist and now ASU student in a lawsuit injunction. Why get so huffy and legal? Outsiders don’t know in detail what mediation or requests have already been suggested and rebuffed but, just guessing, these organizations are probably long on experience and short on patience on accessibility issues and promises. There’s a history of Apple pushing onto universities IPods and ITunes when these devices and services weren’t accessible. Settling with the Massachusetts blind services, Apple finally got out an accessible ITunes. Amazon has a legal record on accessibility as does the registration website. I can well understand the reasoning that a big gorilla like Amazon won’t take time for accessibility if it can avoid doing so, for both profit and ego motives. The lawsuit simply says “Time out! Amazon, you can make the Kindle accessible just like standard practice with AT we already use.” And “ASU and other universities, don’t even think of harming VI students or taking on a tainted experiment that excludes VI students”. What’s the hurry, everybody? The textbook problem won’t be solved next year, the market will always be there, so it’s possible to have a trial that’s fair, responsible, and more informative if accessibility is counted in.
  9. Now, even local Phoenix television stations got interested in the story and, wow, what an educational moment! ASU public relations, still not recovered from their Obama honorary degree fiasco, responded with a flat “we have disability services in place. That’s enough!”. But this taxpayer thinks differently. Part of the experiment is rapid delivery of texts and other materials, perhaps challenging or disrupting disability services. And if the Kindle device itself is part of a trial, then what happens with students using alternative, perhaps even superior, technology? Trivia like different pagination in Kindle texts compared with converted texts distributed to VI students might introduce problems. Isn’t this setting up the trial for either (1) obvious bias by exclusion of VI students or (2) additional burden on VI students? Why not just wait until the device is comparable enough that harm is minimized and more is knowable in the long run about learning outcomes and economic models?
  10. But, wait, there might be a real technology barrier here. Software engineers know that the cost of repair for a missing requirement goes way up long after design, becoming deadly after deployment. Accessibility was not a requirement for the reader device although it’s a legal requirement in the university marketplace. Oops, this was a blunder. If the design of the Kindle software permits sliding in functionality like calls to the TTS engine, retrofit might not be too bad. But there’s a browser, keyboard, and lots of interactions that could get tricky. Usability is notably difficult to do well without experimentation and iteration. So, this is just one more case study relevant to the many software engineering texts in the Amazon market.
  11. Finally, as others have commented, regarding the forum, railing against A.D.A. as an intrusion on public rights, a sign of backwardness for disabled individuals, and general disregard of human rights is, well, sickening. I wish those detractors a broken leg during a health insurance lapse with a long flight of stairs to the rest room. That’s life, bozos, and we’ll all be disabled in the long run.

What is the listening experience? Hear me show you!

I use the Levelstar Icon to download books from My library is currently about 1000 books, complemented by daily doses of news feeds and newspapers. I’ve turned this situation into a demo:

download the 15 minute AYWC-reading-demo.mp3 from
You’ll hear me narrating book downloads and reading. The demo illustrates both (1) TTS reading books and news and (2) working around menus and lists of books do perform operations commonly shown ona screen. This latter capability is the crux of the Kindle accessibility disagreement.

For more information on this device and interface, the audio tutorials illustrate the standard practice of supplanting screens with voice-enabled menus. For the record, the operating environment is Linux and the designers of the Icon and its partner product APH BraillePlus are blind. Personally, I think the mainstream product capabilities have a lot to learn and gain from the AT industry it has so far excluded. Perhaps, following the Curb Cuts principle even better, universal designs will emerge from this mess.