Published Monthly by Raised Dot Computing, Inc., 408 South Baldwin Street, Madison WI 53703. General phone: 608-257-9595. Technical Hotline: 608-257-8833.
Subscriptions: $18/year Print, $20/year Audio Tape, $30/year Disk. (Kindly add $20/year for postage outside N. America.)
Submissions are always welcome, especially on diskette. All are subject to editing for style and clarity. All opinions expressed are those of the author. Editor: Jesse Kaysen
Entire contents copyright 1987 by Raised Dot Computing, Inc., All Rights Reserved. Nothing may be reprinted in any medium--print, braille, audio, or electronic--without prior written permission from RDC Inc.
Table of Contents: the all-uppercase words name the disk chapters; the words after the equals sign are the actual article titles.
We've received calls from several people who did not receive their print May 1987 RDC Newsletter. Instead, they received an additional April 87 RDC Newsletter. If this has happened to you, we're very sorry. Please call us and we will rush the missing issue your way! Thanks.
As mentioned in last month's Newsletter, we have sent evaluation copies of Quick Textfile Converter (QTC) to 126 people across North America. QTC is our brand-new ProDOS utility that copies BEX chapters and DOS 3.3 textfiles to ProDOS textfiles. We're already hearing positive comments from QTC users. QTC is being distributed by the shareware method: obtain a copy, try it out for thirty days, and if you like it, send us $15 in U.S. funds.
Please remember that we are not accepting either purchase order nor charge card orders for just QTC. (Our low price for QTC is based on the reduction of paperwork necessary to ship each order.) We will accept purchase orders or charge card orders for QTC plus another of our products--an update or a Newsletter subscription, for example. Now, having made a smooth transition to the topic of Newsletter subscriptions, I would like to explain why we feel that it is so important to maintain your subscription.
As you may be aware, many companies sell their technical support on an annual basis, with prices starting at around $50. We view the RDC Newsletter as sort of a homebrew of technical support with lots of extra features thrown in. (One recent letter writer said the RAM drive article in the April '87 issue was "as good as getting a whole new update!") So, considering the benefits that the subscription price of $18 (print) or $20 (audio) offers, please remember to renew your subscription before it expires.
RDC is now shipping VersaPoint model BP1B, the latest version of the continuous-form braille embosser from Telesensory Systems, Inc. This "level B" software and hardware enhancement adds three features to an already useful embosser:
All three of these features are invoked by entering Escape codes into the text you send to the VersaPoint. This means you don't have to stop the embosser to change settings, flip switches, or rearrange embossing bars. The embossed dots retain the consistent high quality during normal, sideways, and graphics embossing.
Multiple copy embossing takes advantage of the VersaPoint's generous 30K buffer, freeing up your computer for other tasks. You enter escape codes in the beginning of your text to request any number of copies up to 99. You can send up to slightly under 30,000 characters to the VersaPoint; at 9600 baud it takes less than a minute to "load up" the embosser with text to print. Once the text is in VersaPoint's buffer, you can use your computer for other tasks as the VersaPoint chugs along. Multiple copy embossing is an efficient and low-cost alternative to thermoforming.
Sideways printing is very useful for "screen dumps" from 80-column programs. You enter the appropriate escape codes, and VersaPoint rotates its embossing 90 degrees. VersaPoint can emboss up to 160 cells per line--4 braille sheets--when printing in sideways mode. When embossing in graphics mode, the VersaPoint places dots at equal intervals horizontally and vertically, allowing the creation of dot drawings.
Best of all the VersaPoint model BP1B is available at the same price: $3550 (including shipping) with a full one year warranty. Our thanks to Dr. Jim Bliss, President of TSI, and Alan Holst, Braille Embosser Product Manager for providing information relating to these improvements and for addressing concerns of early VersaPoint purchasers.
This regular feature is aimed at transcribers using computers. Contributions are always welcome.
I have learned of an isolated error in the Grade 2 translator in BEX 2.2. The problem appears when the print original contains a space or carriage return, followed by two hyphens (making a braille dash), immediately followed by at least one letter. In this situation, the translator "skips over" the first letter. The translator does not form any contraction including the first letter. It also refuses to capitalize the first letter with a dot 6. The "dash clash" is particularly noticeable when you transcribe Spanish in grade one, because "space, hyphen, hyphen" introduces quoted material. Because of this problem, the first letter is not capitalized in braille. The same is true when translating a list where "hyphen, hyphen" introduces each item.
Use the Main Menu option H - Heading test to determine whether your BEX disk has this problem. Press H, then enter six characters:
(Space, two hyphens, and the word not) and press <CR>. When the result is:
then your disk is working fine, and you do not need to read further. However, when the result is:
then your Grade 2 translator table needs a minor change.
While the procedure I'm about to describe is quite simple, making an error while changing the translator table can destroy BEX's ability to translate into braille. If you are uneasy about making this change yourself, call me on the Technical Helpline (608-257-8833) or write for the "Dash Clash Fix Disk."
Eliminating the "dash clash" problem requires changing just one character in the chapter named ZQFOR on your BEX Main disk. You should not change your BEX disk if Heading test correctly contracts the word "not" preceded by two hyphens. Before even thinking about making the change, copy the chapter ZQFOR from your BEX disk in drive 1 to a data disk in drive 2. Here's how that dialog goes:
Enter Option: -- C
Drive number or chapter name: -- 1ZQFOR <CR>
Target chapter name: -- ZQFOR SAVE <CR>
Now, if anything goes wrong, the ZQFOR SAVE chapter is available as a backup. In the event of an error, you can restore BEX's Grade 2 translation abilities by copying ZQFOR SAVE back to 1ZQFOR on your Main disk.
Once you have made the ZQFOR SAVE backup chapter, you are ready to begin. You are about to edit the ZQFOR chapter on your BEX disk. If you have placed a write-protect tab over the notch on your BEX disk, please remove it. It is conceivable that you (or someone else using this BEX) has "locked" the three files that comprise this BEX chapter. You can't save changes to a chapter if any of its files are locked. The first step is to unlock these files, using the DOS command "UNLOCK." At the Main Menu, press Q. At the right bracket BASIC prompt, type the following, pressing <CR> at the end of each line:
Now press E for Editor, and supply the name 1ZQFOR. BEX tells you that this chapter has two pages. Press 2 and then <CR> to Edit page 2. Your cursor is now at position 0. Your task is to change the character at position 3595 from an uppercase Q to a hyphen. Enter control-A 3595 spacebar to Advance the cursor to position 3595. Your cursor now covers the Q; the next two characters are hyphens. Press hyphen to overwrite the Q with a hyphen character--you now have three hyphens in a row. Enter control-Q to save this change--and you're done.
Repeat the trial with Heading test. When you have followed these instructions to the letter, the word not is correctly contracted to the letter n. If the error is still there, call me for assistance. When you are convinced that things are fine on the BEX disk which underwent surgery, copy chapter ZQFOR from the repaired disk to any backup BEX disks you have made.
RDC has an Apple 2gs, and we are currently exploring software compatibility issues. We have discovered that the Apple 2gs keyboard is radically different from the keyboard on earlier Apples. Right now, we do not see how we can make the six-key braille keyboard mode work on the Apple 2gs. We are still researching the issue, so this is not the final word. However, if you are a transcriber who is currently considering purchasing an Apple 2gs, you should be aware that right now BEX's braille keyboard mode will not work. Any Apple program that currently supports a six-key braille keyboard on the Apple II plus, 2e, or 2c must be rewritten to also work on the Apple 2gs. We will publish more news when we have it!
As I mentioned last month, the TranscriBEX 2.1 Update was mostly marvelous. One area that improved a lot was "smart centering"--how TranscriBEX prevents clashes between centered text and page numbers on the top and bottom lines of the braille page. Unfortunately, there's one situation where I've discovered I need to "outsmart" this smart centering. While the rule books limit most centered lines to 33 cells, centered lines on a title page are allowed more room. In fact, a title page line can stretch from cell one to cell 41. But the smart centering in the new version of TranscriBEX limits centered lines on title pages to 33 cells.
I am in an excellent position to discover this problem, because the name of our transcribing group (Naperville Area Transcribing for the Blind) is 34 characters in grade 2. Imagine my dismay when I previewed existing title pages with the new version of TranscriBEX! Material that had been perfectly centered vertically no longer fit on one page. I quizzed Caryn at the NBA Convention. She said that, yes indeed, this was a conflict, but she could and did supply a work-around.
Here's where the problem lies, and how you get around it. MAKE$ and ALL$ change the TranscriBEX centering command \\c to the BEX centering command $$ve. (This command has less "look-ahead" than the BEX centering commands $$c and $$h detailed in the BEX Dox.) All three of these centering commands use smart centering. As soon as BEX's formatter encounters $$ve, $$c, or $$h, it temporarily increases both the left and right margins by an appropriate number of characters. The exact formula for that number is way too complex to describe here, but the temporary increase in margins is why the name of our transcribing group no longer fit on one line.
Fortunately, you can explicitly override the temporary margin increase, by adding $$ml0 $$mr0 after the $$ve command. The first command sets Margin Left to zero, the second command sets Margin Right to zero. While you could manually insert these $$ commands in your final files, it's much faster to create a new \\ command, \\ct for Centered Title. It's not only faster, but safer, as I learned through experience. When I manually entered $$ve $$ml0 $$mr0 in my braille chapters, I occasionally inserted an extra space. Then, when I previewed the text, sometimes my centered text still took two lines. The MAKE$ and ALL$ transformation chapters eliminate any extra spaces in your text.
You create a new \\ command by adding a transformation rule to MAKE$ and ALL$. To prepare for this task, it's a good idea to review the material on adding rules to transformation chapters (pages 8-14 through 8-16 in the TranscriBEX Manual). Before you begin, make copies of those crucial transformation chapters, MAKE$ and ALL$. Name the copies something like OLD MAKE$ and OLD ALL$ just to keep things straight.
Start a new chapter in the Editor. You're ready to type the new rule for centered titles. Enter twenty characters exactly like this:
The first four characters are your new \\ command. The terminator character in MAKE$ and ALL$$ is the vertical bar (|). So the fifth character is the terminator for the Find string. Then comes the centering command $$ve, followed by lowercase m, lowercase l, zero, lowercase m, lowercase r, zero. The crucial last character is the terminator of the Change to string. Once you've typed these characters, place them on the Clipboard by entering control-B X. Quit this new chapter.
Edit the MAKE$ chapter. When you start out, your cursor is at position zero, covering the initial vertical bar. Enter control-A 16 spacebar to move to position 16; your cursor now covers the initial backslash of \\bookformat. Enter control-B I to Insert the contents of the Clipboard. Enter control-Q and you're all done! Repeat this procedure with ALL$.
Now, when you are centering items on title pages, mark the beginning of each line with \\ct instead of \\c. Because the new \\ct command sets the left and right margins to zero, you must be very careful where you use it. If you used \\ct in tables of contents pages, for example, you'd cause havoc--the indents, runovers, and line number zones would be all wrong. It's only on title pages that smart centering is causing a problem, so you should just use \\ct in that context.
The new "center title" \\ct command works wonderfully when you're creating title pages for textbooks, that is, when you start out your chapter with \\textbookprelim. The Code requires that the bottom line of the title page should contain just the page number, in this case, "p#a". So you never encounter a conflict between a long title line and the page number. However, when you're transcribing literary works, beginning with the \\bookprelim command, you may encounter problems when you want to center a long line on line 1. (That's because smart centering's purpose is to prevent this conflict by breaking a long line into two lines.)
The literary rules require you to omit the page number on the title page, usually a Roman numeral "i". And \\bookprelim respects these rules, suppressing the "i" on the first page and printing Roman numeral page numbers on line one of subsequent pages. The problem is, even though BEX's formatter does not place the "i" on line 1 of the first page, it is still reserving the last cell on the line. With my brailler set for 40 cells, and a centered 40-cell title on line 1, I discovered that BEX eats the last character on the line. The solution is to delay entering \\bookprelim until the second literary preliminary page. To make the page numbering right, you must follow \\bookprelim with \\setnumber2. Here's how it would look:
\\ct This Long Title Line Will Still Center<CR>\\ct Next Centered Title Line<CR>\\ct Yet Another Centered Line<CR> ... \\ct Last Title Line on Line 25<CR>\\bookprelim \\setnumber2 \\hd Acknowledgements
and so forth.
In the fall of 1985, I wrote an extensive review of the VersaBraille II for National Braille Press' Add-Ons: The Ultimate Guide to Peripherals for the Blind Computer User. While that review contained much praise for some of the new machine's features, it came down rather hard on several other features. I said its limited storage capacity and its consequent inability to accommodate a significant number of files severely limited the VersaBraille II's portability. My review closed with the belief that TSI could and would take steps to correct these deficiencies.
I am therefore particularly pleased to say that my faith has been vindicated. The VersaBraille 2 Plus, TSI's latest incarnation of paperless braillers, eliminates most of the objections raised in my review and in comments made by many others. I'm not suggesting that, as a result of these changes, the unit is perfect, but it is certainly a lot closer to being so. The plus in the machine's name isn't just a gimmick designed to introduce a minor upgrade. It's real.
Certainly the most important of these changes is the inclusion of a built-in disk drive, which uses 3-1/2 inch double-sided 640K disks. Since this disk drive can operate on the VersaBraille 2 Plus's internal batteries, the unit becomes a truly portable device. It can handle as much material as you want to feed it, since the number of disks you can bring along is limited only by the size of your pockets. You can retrieve files quickly, save edited files conveniently, and transfer files back and forth with a modem or directly to a computer. TSI still supplies an AC-powered external disk drive, but you won't have to tie yourself to this drive nearly as often as in the past. You can actually get along quite well without it, unless you want to use the Duxbury translator or expect to do a lot of disk copying, still quite slow with only one drive.
A second significant improvement is the program that stores and retrieves configuration control parameters. This is great if when you interface the unit with a variety of databases, printers, or computers. Once you have settled on the appropriate parameters, you can store them and call them up as needed, without having to remember their makeup.
A third improvement, responding to many complaints, is the addition of a carrying handle on the bottom rear of the machine. This handle also props up the VersaBraille 2 Plus at a user-adjustable angle. Finally, some of the menus have been modified and expanded, and the formatter has been improved to support both braille or print formats.
While I find the improvements TSI has made truly exciting and very important, I still have a wish list that I'd like to pass along, especially now that I know TSI is willing to listen.
The excellent search and search and replace functions are now totally case dependent. This means that the search string you enter must exactly match the string in your text as far as upper and lower case letters are concerned. It isn't my wish to eliminate this feature, as it can be helpful under certain circumstances, but adding a case-insensitive search would provide a lot of convenience for those willing to sacrifice a modicum of accuracy. With the current system, you will frequently find yourself initiating two or three searches before coming up with the string you want.
Whenever a file is loaded from disk or any external source, all files currently in the machine's memory are overwritten, regardless of how small they might be. Fortunately, you are properly warned that this will happen, and you can easily save files to the internal disk drive, before destroying them. But it would be nice to retain files in RAM, particularly when they occupy only a small proportion of available memory.
My most important wish has to do with the terminal capabilities of VersaBraille 2 Plus. Now that TSI has dealt with the problems which kept VersaBraille II from being a satisfactory portable unit, it should act to overcome the limitations that hamper VersaBraille 2 Plus's performance as a terminal. It is my understanding that TSI is working to improve the unit's terminal capabilities, and, given its recently demonstrated track record on dealing with other limitations, my bet is that they'll succeed. Still, I think it's important to understand the drawbacks to the terminal function of the currently available unit.
VersaBraille 2 Plus can be used with an external computer in both an interactive and a non-interactive mode. In the interactive mode, with the VersaBraille emulator turned on, you can send commands to and receive data from the other computer. Unfortunately, while in this mode, downloading a long file requires periodically going off line, saving to disk, renaming the saved file so it won't be overwritten by the next segment, and going back on line to continue the process. This is at best a very awkward procedure. In addition, while using VersaBraille emulation, you can only move the display, not the cursor. And before trying to read or edit the file you downloaded, you'd better remember to turn the emulator off.
In the non-interactive mode, with the emulator off, downloading is much simpler: you can direct long downloaded files to the internal disk or one of your external disks. The only problem is that initiating this process under conditions which begin interactively is quite tricky, and a bug which needs fixing prevents you from carrying the procedure out in the non-interactive mode. With all this as background, my wish is that VersaBraille 2 Plus acted more like the tape-based VersaBraille as a terminal device, thus eliminating this confusion and making the whole process truly interactive. I'm looking forward to either better terminal software built into the machine or a good terminal program which can be loaded from disk.
I don't want anyone to come away from this discussion to think VersaBraille 2 Plus can't be used as a terminal. It works well with outside databases via a modem, interchanges files with the IBM, and works well with the Apple 2e, using both BEX and ProWORDS. It's just that it could and should be a better terminal, at least matching and preferably surpassing the capabilities of its tape-based ancestor.
No, I'm not going to discuss either of my teenagers. I'm referring to one of the application programs which can be purchased along with the VersaBraille 2 Plus. BRaT, new and improved, is a program which enables you to examine and read the contents of the IBM screen. It displays only twenty characters at a time but lets you move around the screen horizontally and vertically to see what's there. You can also enter data from the VersaBraille 2 Plus keyboard, although things seem to move faster when the entries are made from the PC keyboard. BRaT can be quite helpful with word processors and spreadsheets. It's not useful when a stream of data is coming from the computer to the screen, unless you are working with a program that freezes the screen so you can examine it. To deal with a data stream, you will want to use standard DOS commands to download material to the VersaBraille 2 Plus, then read what you have stored off line.
Other programs available with the VersaBraille 2 Plus are a calculator, a Forth compiler, Fastkey (which lets you remap the function keys through macros to perform several keystrokes), and the Duxbury translator which translates Grade II braille to ASCII and visa versa. These programs come at an additional cost which may seem to some rather high.
While this review has devoted considerable space to my wish list for the VersaBraille 2 Plus, I don't want to downplay what TSI has accomplished with this new version. The addition of the internal disk drive alone represents a major improvement: it totally changes the nature of the machine. The other improvements are frosting on the cake. VersaBraille 2 Plus is the wave of the future. It is an impressive piece of equipment which TSI will continue to improve but which already has a great deal to offer. But there are legitimate questions we consumers ought to ask ourselves:
Should you buy the VersaBraille 2 Plus or the tape-based VersaBraille, now known as the VersaBraille classic? If your primary interest is in a good word processor offering portability and long battery life as well as reasonably good capabilities as a terminal, this new machine is the one for you. If your primary interest is in a terminal with limited word processing capabilities and marginally acceptable battery performance in its portable mode, you might wish to consider the Classic, especially with the increasing availability of discounts which can save you several thousand dollars over the VersaBraille 2 Plus.
TSI is currently making a trade-in offer for VersaBraille II owners: the older unit plus $2500 gets a VersaBraille 2 Plus. Is it worth it? If you plan to use your machine in its portable mode a great deal of the time and need the ability to work with large or numerous files, the answer is probably yes. If you seldom use your machine in portable mode, you may want to use your $2500 in some other way. When all is said and done about the improvements represented by VersaBraille 2 Plus, the one that really counts is the addition of the internal disk drive that makes the machine truly portable.
Should owners of the VersaBraille classic take advantage of TSI's $1000 trade-in towards the purchase of a 2 Plus--an offer which expires at the end of July? Unless you can't manage to buy the VersaBraille 2 Plus without the $1000, you might do well to hold on to your tape-based machine. You might still put it to good use, and besides, someone may offer you more than $1000 for it.
I must admit that while I wasn't particularly tempted by the earlier VersaBraille II, it is only through a strong act of will power that I have kept from ordering one of these new units. I wonder how long my will power will prevail over the lure of the 2 Plus.
Few would argue with the claim that Telesensory Systems Inc.'s incorporation of a disk drive into the recently released VersaBraille 2 Plus is a significant step forward. It has, in fact, eliminated one of the weakest aspects of what was otherwise a very promising machine. Unfortunately, as is often the case with "upgrades" we seem to have taken one step forward, one step back, and mostly marched in place.
While reading TSI'S data sheets for the VB 2 Plus, I encountered the words "user friendly," a phrase which I feel is not only over used, but misused. Although I think this concept does apply to the VB 2 Plus in many instances, there are some areas where it most definitely does not. My working definition of user friendliness is any aspect of a system, either hardware or software, which facilitates the performance of the tasks for which the system was designed. Conversely, any feature of the system that inhibits performance is "user hostile."
With all the advances of the disk-based VB II over the original tape-based VersaBraille, I was taken aback to find that the "VB Emulate," or terminal mode lacked many of the features found in the original VB's terminal overlay. When I first used a disk-based VB II, I registered my protests, and was assured that there were plans to write a terminal program which would significantly improve the somewhat pedestrian terminal emulator. Almost a year has passed since I stated my case, a new machine has been released ... but no new terminal software has materialized! I still hear that something is in the works, but where is it, guys? New whizbangs such as VT-100 terminal emulation are useful, but only in addition to the features we lost.
It would, for instance, be nice to have the "-" chord function to take you to the beginning, or top, of text. It used to work this way in both the editor and in the terminal overlay. It's very frustrating to have to work your way back to the beginning of a fully loaded 10,000 character buffer by repeatedly pressing the "Backup" pad.
While we're talking about the buffer, are we ever going to see the scrolling work properly? It's very aggravating when I'm in the middle of entering a complex series of commands and I hear that odious double announcing a full buffer. The machine locks up, and I'm faced with an unpleasant solution: I must exit from the emulator, then re-enter it, leaving the buffer empty. I don't mind that the command I'm entering is gone because I can make the system reprint it for me.
I do object, however, to the loss of everything I've done up to that point. For a sighted person, this is analogous to having the screen on their terminal go completely blank--a phenomenon which no-one would tolerate for very long. Things like this never happened back in the good old days when terminal overlays worked as they should.
Another very useful feature lacking in the emulator is the ability to search for text in the buffer. This may be even more significant now because we're dealing with a substantially larger buffer than we were with the tape-based VersaBraille.
Another backward step was the change from the standard DB-25 connectors to the new DB-9 connectors for the serial port. TSI has three justifications: the cables will be less expensive (that remains to be seen), more flexible (yes, if you insist on using 25-conductor cables), and more readily available (maybe some day, but certainly not yet.) Much as I like the idea of using a less bulky I/O cable, the benefits are far outweighed by the departure from a widely accepted communications standard. I connect my VB II to a number of RS-232 devices, ranging from telephone modems to mainframe computers. All of them use DB-25 connectors, and hooking up the VB II requires cables easily obtainable from most computer stores.
The point of the RS-232 standard is to minimize the difficulties of connecting various serial I/O devices to one another, and the DB-25 connector has for years been part of this standard. In practical terms, this standardization means that I can take my VB II into just about any RS-232 environment, knowing that I can substitute it for any terminal there with a minimum of inconvenience. The non-standard I/O cable on the tape-based VersaBraille was an annoyance, and I was glad to see it abandoned in the VB II. Alas, should I decide to upgrade my present machine, I'll be forced to carry a new non-standard I/O cable again.
Of less significance to me, but of great importance to others, is the ability to locate the row and column coordinates of the cursor in a given piece of text. Fortunately, I can accomplish this fairly easily with one of the editors on our system. Those who work on IBM mainframes are just plain out of luck. Ironically for them, COBOL, a programming language often used on IBM computers, demands that certain information be placed in specific columns, and complains loudly if it doesn't have its way. Again, the "plussing" of the VB II eliminates a feature we once had.
Judging by all the whoopla about BraT, which no doubt works quite well, I should stop complaining and get myself an IBM-PC, or reasonable equivalent. But that's overkill to my mind. Why should I have to insert another piece of hardware between my VersaBraille and the computer of my choice just to obtain functionality that can, and should be built into the machine? TSI does itself a great disservice by perceiving the VB 2 Plus as an adjunct to an IBM-PC, or to any other computer, for that matter. It's sad to think that in two or three years, when IBM brings out a new computer, VersaBraille users will either have to content themselves with being bound to an outdated machine or pay for another costly upgrade just to keep pace with the new technology.
One of the most cumbersome features of the VB 2 Plus is the "Search and Replace" command. The problem here is that "Search" and "Replace" are really quite distinct functions. Combining them forces the user into an awkward and unnecessary dialogue which is slow at best, and confusing at worst. I have often resorted to manual insertions and deletions of text because I found that method to be just as fast, and often less irritating. That's unfortunate, because when these two functions are properly implemented, they are the most powerful commands in an editor.
The changes I've discussed thus far would be relatively simple to implement. What follows, unfortunately, is not. In a previous article (VersaNews, Summer 1986), I commented on the slowness of the VB II editor. At the time of that writing, I didn't realize just how slow it could be. I now know that a global change on a large file can take several hours to complete. Even a single change may take a few seconds. I've heard reports that the situation has somewhat improved with the VB 2 Plus, but things still don't work as fast as they should. Perhaps this would annoy me less if I didn't have some basis of comparison by which to judge the editor's speed. Even when our mainframe is busy with fifty users, the slowest editor on the system was able to complete a global change operation on 100 pages of text in about ten minutes. I do not pretend to know all the ins and outs of VB 2 Plus architecture, nor would it be fair for me to speculate on what causes the editor to be so slow. I suspect, however, that speeding it up will be a task of major proportions, and one which I hope TSI will undertake soon.
If the observations I've made here seem unduly harsh, let me point out that I like many features of the VB II very much. From what I've heard, there are things about the VB 2 Plus that I know I would like even better. My frustrations with the machine arise in part from knowing what computers can do, and partly from seeing what this one does, and what it almost does. Some significant improvements have been incorporated into the VB 2 Plus, the most important of which is the built-in disk drive.
Still, my prime concern is that with the passage of time, we will be forced to adhere to a set of "standards" which may not be the best, but which have arisen by default simply because they were there. Practically speaking, if significant changes are to be made, they must be made soon. Perhaps it is time for us to start composing our wish lists, and voicing our wants by writing directly to the President of TSI. Here are a few ideas which I think could make a good product even better. Hopefully, they will set you to thinking of some of the things you'd like to see this machine become.
1. Two completely independent RS-232 ports. This would make it possible, for example, to connect the VB to a modem through one of them, and to drive a video terminal through the other. If you chose, you could use the keyboard on the visual terminal, while providing both Braille and visual displays.
2. Direct access of the CCP menus from anywhere in the system, independent of any other menu selection. One should, for example, be able to change the processing of carriage returns without having to exit from the emulator. Again, this ability was a part of the tape-based VersaBraille.
3. The emulator should be a sub-option of the "Print" submenu, rather than a CCP. This would eliminate some confusion, and solve the problem that now occurs when you enter the editor, having failed to turn the emulator off.
4. There should be a way to monitor the progress of a file being downloaded to the VersaBraille, something akin to the "Locate" function on the tape-based machine. In this mode, it should also be possible to issue more than one command to a host system, thus enabling the capture of several files at once.
5. Inclusion of numeric keypad keys in keypad maps. This would afford a means of building very powerful "macros" where one keypad key could execute a sequence of commands defined in other keypad keys.
Given more time and space, I could extend this list, but for now, it will suffice. Again, I urge those of you with ideas and suggestions of your own to let them be heard. Only in that way can we make TSI to recognize what some already know, and others are rapidly discovering--that the disk-based VersaBraille is the only computer with the potential of meeting the needs of braille users. Without some improvements, though, that potential will never be realized.
I've developed a program to help people learn braille contractions and print spelling. It provides both screen and Echo output; input is possible through the regular Apple keyboard or through the same six-key braille keyboard as in BEX. (Thanks to David Holladay, who provided the code for the braille keyboard routine.)
The Audio Braille Tutorial provides ten programmed drills: short form words, one cell upper signs, lower whole words, two cell initial letter word signs, upper whole word signs, two cell final letter signs, one cell lower signs, grade 3 abbreviated words, common Nemeth signs, and "Pot Luck" for experts. The contractions are presented in four different ways. For example, the 76 short form words are presented alphabetically as contractions and in full-spelled format. They can also be presented on groups of ten random choices. Reinforcement is presented for every user input: correct answers get the user's name and one of ten positive reinforcers. Incorrect answers yield the correct response.
The software is appropriate for a broad audience: elementary students, newly blinded individuals, sighted peers, parents, classroom teachers, college students learning braille, and agency or school staff. It's been found to be especially helpful as a refresher drill for braille contractions learned at an earlier date. On screen instructions are provided where appropriate. I've paid close attention to making the program "Echo-friendly." When arrowing left and right, TEXTALKER always reads the character to the left. You can always repeat voice output by pressing the Escape key. If you make an error during braille entry, you can just press the spacebar to erase and re-enter.
The Audio Braille Tutorial contains documentation on disk as BEX chapters. At $40, it's very reasonably priced. Send check or purchase order to the address in Facts on File.
First there was Trivia Talk; then there was Fortune Talk; and now, Password Talk! Password Talk is a brand new game written by Jeff and Johnette Weiss of Apple Talk. One hundred puzzles are included on the game disk, and the program allows you to create additional game files. There can be one or two players. Each puzzle has four main clues; each clue has four hints. The quicker you can guess the puzzle, the more money you win. Password Talk runs on any Apple II series computer or Apple compatible computer and requires one of the Echo or Cricket speech synthesizers made by Street Electronics.
The cost of Password Talk is fifteen dollars. Payment in U. S. funds must accompany your order. Make your checks payable to Jeff Weiss and mail to address shown in Facts on File.
"Fido" is a commonly-used bulletin-board system (or "BBS") that runs on PC-DOS and MS-DOS computers. The BBS that FIDO creates can be accessed by users of any computer with a modem and terminal software. I'm pleased to announce that a Grade II braille manual for the Fido BBS is now available--a wonderful gift for your favorite modem user.
There are over 1400 Fido systems located in the United States and throughout the world. Fido systems are unique in that you can exchange electronic mail with other users on other Fido systems for a small fee--usually in the 25 cents-per-message range. The different BBS systems automatically call each other up every night when phone rates are low to exchange mail.
In addition, Fido systems carry a variety of "Echo" conferences. Anything you type in is carried on other Fido systems around the country who offer that Echo conference. There is a disabilities conference with members from several dozen boards participating. These conferences are a great way to get information on a specific subject and to exchange ideas with persons of similar interests from around the country.
The braille manual is available in three versions:
Unburst and unbound -- $7.50
Spiral-bound with covers -- $11.00
VersaBraille Tape -- $5.00
It's possible to produce an 18 point large print version as well--contact me for details. The braille Fido manual project was made possible by BEX. Check Facts on File for address and phone number.
The National Rehabilitation Information Center (NARIC) in Washington DC maintains two computer databases of interest to individuals as well as professionals in the fields of medicine, the law, rehabilitation, social services, or education.
REHABDATA is a listing of over 16,000 disability related documents. A REHABDATA search could provide valuable information when developing a grant, writing a research paper, or reviewing a specific body of knowledge. ABLEDATA lists over 14,000 commercially available products that are appropriate for use by people with disabilities. The products are organized by major categories that cross disability types inmost instances. A custom search of ABLEDATA allows you to compare similar products and their specifications.
NARIC also provides State Resource Guides listing disability-related contacts for each state, as well as Disability Resource Guides listing information sources, books, and some commercially available products. NARIC's information specialists are happy to provide details or assist with a custom search; contact them in writing or by phone Monday through Friday, 9 to 5 EST. ABLEDATA and REHABDATA are also publicly accessible on-line through BRS Information Technologies--contact them directly.
National Braille Press (NBP) published its first Beginner's Guide to Personal Computers for the Blind and Visually Impaired in November 1983, and they haven't let the grass grow under their feet. The Second Beginner's Guide was originally published in October of 1984; they have just extensively revised it and published a second edition. The third volume in the series, Add-Ons, The Ultimate Guide to Peripherals for the Blind User, was published in January 1986.
The fact that your editor is credited in its preface may bias my opinion, but this Second Edition is even better than the first. The Second Beginner's Guide includes detailed reviews of six talking IBM programs and six talking Apple programs, as well as talking software for the Commodore 64 and a miscellany of other products. Also included are names and addresses for everyone you could possibly want to contact. The Second Beginner's Guide is available in braille, audio cassette, and regular print; its tone is appropriate for the absolute beginner. I strongly recommend any of the three Beginner's Guides as the best starting point for someone interested in computers for the blind and visually impaired.
Besides providing a wealth of useful information, the Second Beginner's Guide is also a hoot. Diane Croft, the editor for this series, sets the general tone in the first paragraph of her Acknowledgements:
"One hundred doctors asked me if I were stranded on a deserted island with the task of revising The Second Beginner's Guide, would I prefer Advil, Tylenol, Bufferin, or Bayer Aspirin and the answer is, of course, one large bottle of each, thank you, and could you please ask Maggie Thatcher to float a bottle of her best Boodles gin in my direction just to make sure the job gets done."
Diane goes on to credit Curtis Chong and Al Gayzagian (very experienced visually impaired computer users) with rescuing her from that desert isle. All the reviews in the Second Guide are written by people truly familiar with the products. No marketing hype, just solid info. Order yours today! It's $14 postpaid in regular print; $11 for braille or audio shipped free matter; or $14 for braille or audio shipped UPS.
I'd like to sell my Ohtsuki brailler-printer, which can produce braille, print, or both at once. It's in mint condition--I'm asking $3900 or reasonable offer. I can provide .BAT files that make printing a cinch with HOT DOTS on an IBM compatible. Braille and print manuals are included. Please call me in the California time zone at:
As mentioned in the February 1987 Newsletter, Street Electronics has introduced a new member of the Echo family, the Echo IIb. It comes with a good-quality external speaker that includes a volume knob and mini-headphone jack; the speaker is angled to better direct speech to the listener. Street didn't want users of Echo IIs or Echo Pluses to feel left out, so they're now selling this speaker separately for $14.95. They also have mono headphones available for $19.95; they look very comfortable in the picture but we lack direct experience of their audio quality. Contact:
Street Electronics Corp.
1470 East Valley Road
P O Box 50220
Santa Barbara CA 93150
Does anyone have a used Echo PC or similar device for sale, rent, or loan? Would anyone like to buy, rent, or borrow a used Echo II (for the Apple)? If yes to either or both, please contact:
2142 West 30th St. - #1221
Greeley CO 80631
Telesensory Systems, Inc.
PO Box 7455
Mt. View CA 94043
87 Sanford Lane
Stamford CT 06905
P O Box 538, Allwood Station
Clifton NJ 07012-0538
3015 South Tyler Street
Little Rock, AR 72204
3355 W. Belle Plaine Ave., 3rd Floor
Chicago IL 60618
4407 Eighth St., NE
Washington DC 20017
Phones: 202-635-5826; 800-346-2742 (voice or TDD)
National Braille Press
88 St. Stephen St.
Boston MA 02115