#Eclipse2017 : A Blind Man’s Perspective

People often ask me “do you ever wish you could see?” Mostly my response to that question is “nope, I don’t really care for it.” about the only exception to that is wishing I had some firm way to grasp astronomical phenomena, such as your every day sunrise/sunset, and the rarest of rare, total solar eclipses.

Given that everyone called this thing the “Great American Eclipse,” I wonder if it was only viewable in the US. I guess I’ve heard that people throughout North America could also see it, but I don’t know this for sure.

Technology, or more accurately the people who create this technology, continues to try and make a dent in what we as blind individuals, not to mention other disabilities of course, are able to access. To that end, a group of scientists from the Harvard Smithsonian Museum created Eclipse Soundscapes, an iOS and Android app that would allow us to “feel” and “hear” the eclipse. This is done by moving one’s finger around on the screen in what is called a Rumble Map, and noticing the change in tone and vibration that indicate features viewable in the image. These features are accompanied by text-based and verbal descriptions that help the blind “viewer” conceptualize what he or she is experiencing.

The app aims to make it possible for us to participate in all of the hype that has surrounded this day. To aid in this participation, it notifies us of beginning, peak, and end times of the eclipse in our exact location, as well as percentage. I knew, for example, that in my part of Charlotte it started at 1:12 PM and 20-someodd seconds, peaked at 97% of the total at 2:41, and was completed by 4:04 (not found). Get it? I know, I’m weird.

I decided it would be more fun to partake of this event while surrounded by people. I had heard, for instance, that people might act a little more strangely as the sun disappeared behind? under? (see, I still don’t entirely understand it) the moon. So I ventured to an area Starbucks located at a nice shopping center, and initially went inside for coffee, while attempting to complete some classwork. Only “BLEEP, BLEEP, BLEEP!, the fire alarm immediately went off! The barista dragged me out of the building, newly purchased coffee still clenched in my hand (because nobody’s taking that away apparently), and I sat at the outdoor table from 1:15 till 1:30. The truck rolled up, and they shut it down in quick order. I doubt anything serious had actually occurred, as I smelled nothing upon re-entering. That annoyance out of the way, I scampered inside and quickly did what I needed to using the WiFi so that I could head back out around 2:30.

And well, I sure hope what I then heard was just people getting “weird”. This woman started cursing someone out, the other voice I was unable to hear, saying “You acting like you wanna fight, like you all bad, then you wanna call the police? Gone head! How big and bad are you. You ain’t *beep* nothin’. Just spittin’ noise.” I subtly seized my backpack and was ready to run, if anything further popped off. I was mostly just wishing they (she) would calm down.

After that fun, Mother Nature finally decided it was time for a little fun of her own. As the event happened, I could indeed feel it cool off so substantially that what had been a sweaty stickiness quickly turned comfortable. I was not in a sunny area, but even if I had been I believe some clouds had passed through at the highest level of impact we experienced.

As far as the Soundscapes app? Well, I found the descriptions to be of help at least. I learned that there are four primary types of events during an eclipse: Baily’s Beads, which are the initial bursts of light as the Moon begins to obscure the sun, Helmet Streamers, or projections of light from the sun’s outer atmosphere, the corona, or part of the sun viewable during totality, and diamond rings, seen as the sun begins to re-emerge. To me, these felt pretty much the same when attempting to use the Rumble Map, mainly because it was difficult to work out exactly where the variations were. If I were to make a recommendation for future projects, it would be that, rather than having the tonal level simply change, it might point things out more clearly to have different tones that represent different things. Then add some kind of key, so that we would know what these sounds mean. I understand of course that this sort of thing would require more effort, but it is a thought.

In any event, I appreciate the folks who worked hard to bring us that kind of feature, and make it more possible for us to enjoy something that was all over our news, on everyone’s minds, and as someone else said, a positive experience that we could all share in contrast to so much of what happens lately. They state that this project will continue and take on new forms, and I for one am excited to see where it goes. This kind of stuff has always interested me. I guess this is the only total solar eclipse we have had since 1979 (hey that’s the year I was born!) but I seem to remember other partial eclipses when younger. My sisters wishing to get a look, and having to protect their eyes first. And speaking of that, I hope you all were able to successfully protect yours, and that enjoyment does not result in issues later. Till next time, don’t let the sun go down on me.

Meeting Sandra Brown

Again I had the opportunity to meet a well-known author, as discovered by Twitter. On what I think was her third tour stop, New York Times bestselling writer Sandra Brown came to Charlotte’s Park Road books to promote her recently released title “Seeing Red”. As it had just dropped on Tuesday, none of those in the appreciably-sized audience had yet completed it. I am not sure when I will get around to it, as my booklist is already large and growing more quickly than I can maintain it, but I have enjoyed the four other titles by her that I’ve read. These are: Envy, Mean Streak, Ricochet, and The Crush. As she is Southern, (which one can clearly hear in her accent), many of her titles take place in this storied part of the United States that I call home.

But before I attempt to recall what the meeting was like (and we all know my reliability on that score is questionable at best so I hope I am not eviscerated if slightly inaccurate) let’s look at how I got there. I am nothing if not a good planner. Not in the sense that I plan my life and know what on earth I’m doing, hey I’m working on that part but well..,. Anyway, more along the lines of figuring out how I will travel to a destination and what I will find there. Because I had errands to run at Queens University anyway, I decided I would head to that side of town and just stay over there until the time came for Brown’s presentation, which was at 7 PM.

Of course this meant I needed to find somewhere to eat. So I launched the GPS app BlindSquare to do a search for restaurants near Park Road Books and found one called the Park Road Soda Shop, only a couple doors down. I confirmed its existence with Google Maps, since sometimes BlindSquare has given me erroneous entries. The ambience and food very much reminded me of a spot I often frequented while residing in the Triangle, Suttons Drugstore on Chapel Hill’s Franklin Street. This is on purpose, as the Charlotte restaurant also bills itself as a throwback diner in the 50’s style, serving burgers, dogs, and shakes. I ordered two hot dogs all the way, fries, orangeade, and a lemon pound cake to go. All were delicious.

Upon exiting, I found a table and chairs immediately outside of the door. Probably questioning my sanity for parking there in the intense heat (but I love it hot!), a passerby woman carrying a child offered to assist me down to Park Road Books. At that time it was only 5:30 or so, but as the crowd size began to swell around 6 I was glad to have secured seating. Given my hearing issues, I should probably have sat closer to the front. It was all good though, and everyone around me was nice. One of the workers piled my plate with refreshments: cubes of cheddar cheese, crackers, and two deep sugar cookies. That actually filled me up even more.

A bit harried from a crazy day that had involved airport delays, a driver taking her to the wrong place, and a morning interview, Ms. Brown arrived pretty much on time and began to regale us. The room roared with laughter for most of it, which meant that I didn’t exactly pick up on all of the jokes. But she told us about the inspiration behind “Seeing Red” which was that her daughter was in the area where the Oklahoma City terror attack occurred in 1995, and Brown worried about her safety. She was fine, thankfully, but the city was shaken up obviously. From this arose a book in which a female journalist attempts to interview a survivor of a similar attack who had become a photographic icon, but for reasons unknown decided to disappear from the media’s eye. As with much of Brown’s work, there is suspense and sexuality, and as she told us, a deliberate conflict between the male hero and female heroine. This is what moves the story forward.

After her amusing presentation, she took a series of questions. What is her writing routine like? She rarely if ever writes at home, having established an office with a couple of employees into which she can retreat to do her work. She says this helps her separate the spheres more effectively, as people would sometimes not take her writing time seriously, and she too would allow herself to be distracted.

Does she ever write multiple books at once? Again, no, because she enjoys having a life.

“I wish I had the energy of my colleagues,” she quips, “but I don’t know how they do it. … Putting out a book a year is enough for me.”

The final question came from an individual whom I think has written her own book and is trying to decide how next to proceed with regards to publishing. Brown says she thinks the editorial filter is still needed, as it can help “protect consumers” from shaky writing. She compares it to other purchases, such as cars and appliances, which must receive inspections before being distributed to the public. While she does note this, she also states that self-publishing just wasn’t her path but if one really wants to go that route then give it a roll.

“I just feel that if it has my name on it, I want it to be as good as it can be,” she says in closing. “If an editor is asking a question, then the reader will probably ask it as well” a good reason to listen carefully to what they have to say and make revisions where necessary.

At the talk’s conclusion, we were invited to meet and shake hands with Ms. Brown. I did this quickly, welcoming her to our city (I should have said the Queen City), and thanking her for coming. I was then whisked outside, where I sat on a cushioned chair and listened to the town go by until my ride arrived.

So all in all, it was a fun night out in Charlotte. I continue to get my feet all the way under me as time goes by, and certainly being able to plan and successfully execute an evening like this is a confidence boost. Hopefully I will have some major other types of confidence boosters to report on shortly, but those will come when finalized. Till then, I’ll keep on reading.

RELATED: Meeting Carla Buckley

#FridayReads The Untold Story of the Talking Book

Whenever I type that title, I keep wanting to put “audiobook” instead. This is because I find the term “Talking book” strange. Makes it sound as if the printed pages are actually speaking, which ok I guess in a way they are.

I am reading a nonfiction piece, a result of Matthew Rubery’s research project called The Untold Story of the Talking Book. And as one who has grown up immersed in this media, I love learning about the ins and outs of how it truly came to be.

RELATED: Listen to an interview with the author couched in that Blind Bargains Podcast episode.

I have only just begun reading, but I already know it’s course. He notes Edison’s invention of the phonograph and the savvy advertising that slowly convinced people of its utility, how audiobooks really came to life as a way to service newly blinded soldiers after World War I?, their slow but continuous growth with all of its attendant controversies, and concerns over Audible, the granddaddy of audiobook companies, taking everything over. In between, there lies the content of what could be a college-level course. I am intrigued to continue grasping the main way that reading, especially initially and even counting into the smartphone era, has become accessible to me.

The funny thing I suppose is the way I am in fact consuming this book. I read the introduction via a digital audio file downloaded from BARD, the Braille and Audio Reading Download service provided by the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped. I eventually decided though that I was gaining nothing from having it narrated, and switched to a Braille copy obtained through Bookshare and consumed on the phone with my refreshable 40-cell display. (As an aside, I have noticed a spiking interest in my silly Braille post made in late 2015, so I hope you all are having fun with that!)

I have for a long time now enjoyed taking in books through multiple modalities. Each suits me at its time. Audio is great for winding down at bedtime, and when I was at the workshop, snatching a few minutes of a thriller or great memoir to fortify me during the breaks as I prepared to enter another segment of the day. Braille works best when I’m outside and wish to listen to and absorb my environment as I read, or if on a long road trip as it can make time speed by. I know too that they stimulate the brain in slightly different, but equally interesting, ways. So I would definitely say that each has its place.

Given Rubery’s primary focus on audio and the resultant transformations it has wrought though, I want to mostly stick with that vein. Let’s talk about narrators. (Readers? Voice actors? There is even disagreement about what to call them). First, I am in agreement that one who does not do this well can detract from the story. But then “doing it well” is probably subjective. As Rubery states, I have some favorites who will cause me to grab a book even if I have no idea what it is about. And there are others whom I will avoid at all costs, either finding it in Braille or locating another audio version. One of the major areas that is changing as audiobooks gain in popularity is how they are read. They are becoming a little less truer to the printed page, which coincidentally I noticed was even the case with this title as it has been rendered for BARD audiences.

The main way this plays out is in dramatic, or multicast, narration. I actually thoroughly enjoy this kind of performance for what it is, whether one can call it “real reading” or not. I will often take in these books from Audible or its competitor if it looks like something I can get into.

So as you can see with this title, there is more to an audiobook than meets the eye. (Ear? Ah, that’s too easy.) It is a fascinating topic, and one that has been addressed to a surprisingly small degree. I would recommend it to all of the audiophiles out there who, like me, look forward to putting head on pillow, setting the sleep timer, and being whisked off to a new world. After all, this thing we love started somewhere.