Category Archives: Visual disability

Oyez! Oyez!

Charles_Green10

(This post has been recorded as an AudioBlog. See bottom of page.)

By popular demand, here’s a summary of my experience with using Text-to-Speech (TTS) technology to record an audiobook edition of Irish Firebrands.

As a person with multiple disabilities, I’m acutely aware of the limited options for people like me. In addition, I wanted to make an audible copy of my first novel for my mother, who had gone blind while I was writing it.

My mother was an avid, eclectic reader, who amassed an enormous personal library, read to me from my infancy, and taught me to read. Cataract surgery restored enough of her sight for her to enjoy the landscapes visible from her windows, and  to watch television, but because of eye damage from other causes, she can see only parts of pictures. Her brain makes Gestalts to fill in what’s missing, although a related disadvantage of that, is she also developed Charles Bonnet syndrome (visual hallucinations that can afflict sighted persons who become blind).

IrishFirebrandscoverartIt’s also impossible for my mother to read large-print books or even magnified characters on screens, so for many years she’s had to rely on talking books from the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, at The Library of Congress. When I published Irish Firebrands, all she could do was hold a paper copy in her hands and admire the cover art.

BalabolkaThere are many TTS software packages, most of which use a combination of operating system voices and proprietary voices from other sources. They cost a fraction of what hiring voice talent would cost, but even so, the programs are still too pricey for my nonexistent Indie budget. So I downloaded Balabolka, free software that uses a computer’s built in SAPI 4 or SAPI 5 voices. It reads text in 16 formats (including DOC, DOCX, EPUB, HTML, MOBI, PDF, and RTF), and records in formats with these filename extensions: .wav, .mp3, .mp4, .ogg, .wma, .m4a, .m4b, and .awb.

For the basic document, you choose one voice and set its rate, pitch and volume, but you can record different sections separately and combine them, and the software will also combine different recording formats into one audio file. You need to know how to nest HTML commands (for temporary changes to rate, pitch, and volume), but no other programming ability is necessary. Balabolka is supposed to be able to accept changes to its pronunciation database, and to add emphasis, but I haven’t been able to get those things to work, although that may be a limitation of the voices instead of the software.

pdf_logoSimilar problems exist with Adobe Acrobat’s Read Out Loud utility, which uses only whatever built-in voices are available. This characteristic makes Read Out Loud of limited utility as an audiobook option, because the changes you make to the text to fix pronunciation problems for one computer voice, don’t necessarily work when the document is read by another person’s computer. It also has the annoying habit of reading everything on the page, including headers and footers, and it will pause at page breaks and the end of every line that terminates with a hard return. And depending on the PDF conversion settings, it may read aloud the punctuation, along with the text.

For best results in Read Out Loud, you have to strip out page breaks, headers, footers and apostrophes; then convert the file to PDF, using Standard formatting (no conversion alterations). When you listen to the PDF, take note of any additional pronunciation problems, fix them in your source document, and re-format. Anybody else who listens to the document must use the same voice preference settings you used.

recorded at fromtexttospeechFrom Text To Speech is a free online service, and you can save the files you record. It offers a selection of proprietary voices in American and UK English, as well as pronunciation for other major languages. The proprietary UK male and female voices that they use both sound good, with fewer mispronunciation problems, and the best ability to automatically add emphasis and interrogatory inflection. The drawbacks of the website include a limited number of voice adjustment options, it may be set up to periodically block the ISPs of frequent users, and the length of time it takes to generate an MP3 means it’s appropriate only for short reading selections.

After replacing the computer that I used to write Irish Firebrands, I discovered that the Windows 8 OS came with 3 new SAPI 5 voices: David and Zira (American English) and Hazel (UK English). Hazel is the only one of the three that automatically pronounces “Celtic” properly, with a hard C – but, oddly enough, she can’t say the name of my female main character, Lana. Although they’re afflicted with the same limitations of most other computer-generated voices (they don’t automatically elide, nor can they express emphasis and questions without help), their otherwise lifelike timbre made them a vast improvement over the SAPI 4 generation of voices.

Aside from difficulties due to hearing loss, I find most SAPI 4 voices impossible to listen to for any length of time, although some Sci-Fi writers may like to use them for their hollow, “robotic” qualities. In the Olden Days of cinematic and television sci-fi, it was assumed that robots would express themselves in flat, unfeeling tones – until the advent of the shouting, gesticulating robot in Lost in Space (“Warning! Danger, Will Robinson!”), who struggled with his emotions.

 

120px-HAL9000.svgHe was followed by the frankly psychotic HAL9000 (“I’m sorry, Dave…”). Eventually Droids came out of the closet with their feelings: in Star Wars, a machine sounds like a man (C3PO and his many emotional meltdowns), while a man sounds like a machine (James Earl Jones’s sinister inflection, helped out with a SCUBA respirator, as Darth Vader). R2D2 still “speaks” only with beeps and boops, but his whistles and squeals are distinctly anthropomorphic.

Before starting on the recording, I had to learn how to use the voices at my disposal. To do this, I recorded a book trailer with a voice-over track. I used all three of the new voices, and MovieMaker software. The work took about a week.

On the basis of this virtual audition, and about six months of additional testing, I decided that I liked Hazel, the UK voice. To me, the enunciation of most British actors naturally sounds more clipped than that of Americans (who elide, or drop, most of their gerund Gs and many middle Ts, and soften lots of terminal Ds). Hazel uses non-rhotic Received Pronunciation (dropping Rs, or, paradoxically, inserting them where they don’t exist, such as between a word that ends with a vowel, and one that begins with one), but I was willing to trade the necessity of creating David and/or Zira’s endless elisions, for Hazel’s non-rhotic-English habits. 

map_cm_eng_infoSince then, I’ve figured out how to trick Hazel into pronouncing some Rs, which has improved the clarity of a few words, but she definitely doesn’t sound Irish, because like most varieties of American English, Hiberno-English is rhotic: The Irish pronounce their Rs. But Hazel has learned a little bit of Gaeilge, with the help of the synthesizer at abair.ie.

I’ve learned to correct the multitude of bizarre mispronunciations that crop up unexpectedly, by creatively misspelling words, hyphenating syllables, running words together, changing pitch and speed, dropping terminal punctuation – and adding a few elisions. Unfortunately, there are very few changes that can be made with Balabolka’s global find-and-replace function: most of Hazel’s mispronunciations are dependent on syntax.

Many people dislike computer-generated voices, on principle: The owner of an audiobook hosting service refused to accept my recording, when it came out that I was doing it with TTS technology, even though many of the human-read stories on the site are badly performed or ill-recorded (e.g., sloppy diction, uneven volume, background noise, etc.). It’s also been difficult to recruit and retain beta readers, so I’m very grateful to those who have stuck with the project. Their feedback has been invaluable, while I’ve worked to whip the narration into shape. When it’s “as clean as humanly (and robotically) possible,” the Irish Firebrands audiobook will be available for distribution to the visually-impaired … beginning with Mama.

Readers and writers who decide to try Balabolka are welcome to ask me questions (in comments here, or via the Guestbook page on the Feedback menu) about specific pronunciation problems they’re encountering. I may have already found a tweaking trick that will work for you, too. And anyone out there who has some favorite fixes, please share them with us? No sense in all of us reinventing the wheel! Eyes – ears – even sanity – may be at stake! Thanks!

This blog post was recorded in Microsoft Hazel United Kingdom English, edited for rate, pitch, and pronunciation, using Balabolka text-to-speech converter. How many pronunciation edits can you find?

audiobook logoSeeking Visually Disabled Beta Readers for Irish Firebrands text-to-speech (TTS) audiobook testing. Click HERE for Details.

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Filed under Audiobooks, Reading, Visual disability

G’day, Gutenberg! ’Allo, Aldo!

Contrary to popular belief (fostered by a fight between A Major Online Retailer and A Traditional Publisher), the pocket-sized paperback was not a mid-20th-Century innovation. It was invented in 15th Century Italy by Aldo Manuzio, alias Aldus Manutius the Elder (1449-1515).*

Connections

Here’s what a favorite non-fiction writer had to say about it:



By 1482 the printing capital of the world was Venice, and the busiest printer there was a man called Aldus Manutius who used to have a sign outside his shop saying ‘If you would speak to Aldus, hurry – time presses’. He had good reason. No single printer did more to spread the printed word than he. Aldus knew that his market, and the market of all printers, lay not in the production of expensive, commissioned editions of the Bible or the Psalms, but in an inexpensive format that could easily be carried in a man’s saddlebag wherever he went. So Aldus made his books small, and cheap. The Aldine Editions, as his new format was called, were the world’s first pocket books, and they sold faster than he could produce them.

Aldine Editions were treasured by their owners, and thousands of them still exist in collections around the world. There are more than 500 in Brigham Young University’s Harold B. Lee Library, alone.

There’s a lot of speculation about the demise of traditional bookstores and the disappearance of printed books. I hope I don’t live to see that day, but a mail-order book-pusher that I used to patronize for several years seemed to feel the pinch. Their mailings shrank from being thick newsprint tabloids that I could hardly get through browsing before the next one came, to standard magazine-size catalogs, and then to skimpy 6×10 1/2-inch booklets.

I don’t get out much any more, except to visit the doctor, so after attending an appointment that involves two dozen injections into my back, while the anesthetic lingers it’s a treat to visit a brick-and-mortar chain bookstore in one of the shopping malls of our nearest big city. Thankfully, it still seems to be as well-stocked as ever, and to go inside and breathe deeply the aroma of soy ink is as good as catnip is to my Kitty. (Do bookstores have aerosol “new book smell” with which they spray the carpet after hours, the way that car dealers use cans of “new car smell”?)

Erasmus. Photo by Frank Versteegen, Rotterdam

When I get a little money, I buy books; and if any is left, I buy food and clothes. – Erasmus

But frequently, I find myself leaving the store empty-handed: there don’t seem to be as many compellingly written books, anymore. I pick up a half-dozen volumes gleaned from the wide variety of genres that I read, and after leafing through them, I end up leaving them behind. The stories that are being shopped by today’s agents and purchased by traditional publishers rarely match my taste, and the quality of editing has deteriorated to a dismally off-putting low standard.

I’ve begun to do more buying from second-hand bookshops, both in person and online, looking for replacements for the books I inherited when my mother divested herself of her library, after she began to lose her sight, and which I have re-read until they’ve fallen to pieces. The second-hand dealers also supply me with my own copies of the few decent books I manage to unearth each year from my city’s public library, by virtue of a long-term, e-mail association with a local book club that I can no longer attend in person.

And despite my best intentions to materially support Indie Authors through my purchase of their Art, I’ve had to turn away from several listings at A Major Online Retailer, because they are offered only as e-books. I don’t own an e-reader, for reasons explored in Here’s Your Brain, on Books. In addition, the visual impairments I cope with make it exhausting to read from screens, no matter what adaptations I can make to the display, as detailed in Breaking Out of The Bubble.

I’ve found that I need to reserve most of my virtual-page-reading time for my own writing, or else I end up too tired to get any work done. I’ve already begun to send favorite blogs through a text-to-speech converter, to save on eyestrain.

bDoes anybody here recall that scene in the 1960 motion picture adaptation of The Time Machine, of the Time Traveller’s rage when he picked up a book from the Eloi library and it crumbled to dust in his hands? There was no mention of e-books, although the Eloi did have electronic archives that spoke, but the technology didn’t seem to have done them any good: the people’s intellect, energy and motivation had all withered away.

And despite all the nagging to “go paperless,” I fail to see how doing away with paper bills and paper books does anything beneficial for the environment, when, in order to access your e-banking, e-pay all your bills, and then read your e-book, you end up using enough electricity to run a refrigerator.** Trees are a renewable resource: after harvesting them for pulp, just plant new ones, and they’ll gladly keep sucking up all that carbon dioxide, over which the environmentalists are losing sleep. And plant an extra tree for me, in honor of the next mechanically printed book I buy, because when I “go,” they’ll have to pry a paper book from my cold, dead hands.

When I published Irish Firebrands, I formatted it first for hard copy by a POD. I had to reverse-engineer the formatting, to put it on Nook, and then on Smashwords. That was more of a pain in the drain than I like to deal with, but both projects went without a hitch, and yielded decently formatted e-books (it helps that I’ve been computing since before the parents of the latest generation of users were gleams in their daddies’ eyes).

Going in the other direction (from e-book to paper) would be faster and easier: just set up margins, gutter and paper dimensions for your desired trim size; paste the text into the resulting page template; format and embed fonts; hyphenate and fully justify; adjust widow and orphan control; add pagination and running heads to headers and/or footers; and if necessary, tweak line spacing and illustrations or other special effects. Add a spine and back cover to the cover file, send everything to a POD, enable an e-store page – and there’s another market cornered for your magnum opus.

hb_34.30(5)

A 16th-Century printing shop.

A fellow Author who had recently published a title in e-book, upon learning of my disappointment that I wouldn’t be able to enjoy it in that format, graciously gifted me a copy of the manuscript, so that I could run it through my text-to-speech converter and make an audible copy. I don’t expect everyone to offer such generous disability accommodation, but I will make this appeal to other Indies: Please don’t say “Goodbye, Gutenberg!” and “Adios, Aldo!” Publish on paper, too. We Luddites will love you for it.

* We can also blame Aldus for commas, semicolons and italics.

** Running a desktop computer ($36/year) with a wireless modem/router ($10/year), uses more energy than a refrigerator does ($42/year). And while some try to make a case for laptops ($8/year), they’re not adding the electricity for a modem/router, nor are they figuring in the cost of running a fan pad ($ unknown/year) to cool the computer, which is necessary because laptops lack the space inside the case for an adequate heat sink and fan (it’s undissipated heat that makes laptops break down before desktops do, causing higher and more frequent repair and replacement costs). Finally, don’t forget the ISP to connect the modem/router the Internet, so that’s another cost layer. (Source of electricity consumption figures: http://www.forbes.com)

Burke, J. (1978). Connections. Boston, MA: Little, Brown and Company.

Erasmus statue: photo by Frank Versteegen, Rotterdam

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Filed under Indie Authors, Reading, Visual disability, Writing

Breaking Out of The Bubble.

Yellow_Submarine_(1968)_avi_-_00008Many of you have honored these pages with your visits, comments and likes. I’m grateful for your support, and hope that my efforts will continue to merit your attention, as I strive to publish content of value. This blog has been slowly accumulating followers, and as far as I can tell, attrition has been very small; about one percent over nearly two years.

In the coming months, I hope to publish several more blogs, each with a different focus. It’s difficult to work out the right balance between blogging, developing my first novel in various editions, and maintaining the momentum of writing my second novel. I welcome your patience, as I diversify my writing portfolio.

I’m also following about 100 blogs, which I think is my limit. When I follow a blog, it means I like to pay personal page visits, to read additional essays by the blogger, join conversations, follow interesting external links, and explore other past content (“back issues,” so to speak). So, it can take me a month or more to work my way through my list.

There are some difficulties with the way the system is presently constituted. Our blog host offers a great many attractive formatting themes, but not all of them are reader-friendly. For example, some backgrounds don’t provide enough contrast, and a while a black background can make a dramatic presentation, especially for photos, that’s not necessarily true for text, especially if the font is small and sans-serif (lacking those little flourishes at the tips of the letters).

Sans-serif fonts can be difficult to read, because the serifs are what help the brain identify individual characters. This can be a problem for persons with some kinds of visual impairments, such as astigmatism, which can range from difficult to impossible to correct with eyeglasses and/or contact lenses. For this reason, sans-serif fonts are best presented in much larger sizes.

Unfortunately, blog themes do not always permit changes to fonts or background colors. Browsers usually allow accessibility adjustments that can override page specifications, but changing a browser’s permanent setting to improve the readability of one web page, can make other pages worse to read. Using the temporary zoom in the browser can help, but only if the theme layout is relatively simple.

Whenever possible, I like to pay a personal visit to a blog, but if the theme’s font, color and contrast combinations are hard on the eyes, I stay in the Reader, because it automatically enlarges the font and does away with difficult backgrounds.

An associated problem is that visits via the Reader don’t count in the statistics the same way that page visits do, so some blogs are set up to force a personal visit. I’ve sadly had to forgo reading some interesting posts because I knew it would take heroic measures to read the page comfortably.

Finally, the extra “Like” link at the top of the page is a two-edged sword. It’s close enough to the “Follow” link, that it’s easy to unintentionally “unfollow” a blog by mistake, and when my browser is at high magnification, the “Like” link disappears. If I’ve zoomed in, and I’ve forgotten to hit the button at the bottom of a post, I may not have that final reminder before leaving that blog.

I’ve no idea how widespread the blog theme readability problem is, but there are a great many of us with age-related and other visual disabilities. We may not be as bad off as Hubert’s Grandma, but a less-than-visually-friendly theme could be one reason why a blog may seem to struggle with maintaining readership. We really do like your blog better than a bathtub toy.

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Filed under Blogging, Reading, Visual disability, Writing