Braille Monitor                                                    November 2009

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Big Brother

by Barbara Loos

Brad and Barbara LoosFrom the Editor: Barbara Loos is a longtime leader in the National Federation of the Blind. For two years she worked as an AmeriCorps member in Nebraska. Here is another of her quarterly reports to AmeriCorps about what she did:

I first read George Orwell’s book 1984 when that year was far enough in the future that much of its message seemed not only fantastic but also distant. Now that both my reading of the book and the year of its title are decades in the past, the lasting impression I retain is its protagonist, the fictitious but believable Big Brother. He was the personification of a dictator who exerted total control over people using telescreens for surveillance. The reminder in the book, “Big Brother is watching you,” still gives me the creeps. So it was disconcerting to get a call from what appeared to be one of his people, even though I was totally innocent and this particular encounter ended well for all concerned. Here’s how it happened.

Since September of 2006 I have been serving as an AmeriCorps member, primarily teaching and testing adaptive computer-related equipment and software for the blind, and mentoring blind youth. During an informal mentoring session toward the end of my first AmeriCorps term, a mentee mentioned some speech output software called System Access to Go that was being beta tested. I contacted Serotek, the provider, and got a trial version for the National Federation of the Blind of Nebraska (NFBN), my AmeriCorps host site, which worked well on NFBN’s new laptop. The company wanted any and all who would to test the software on their personal computers. When I tried to access it on mine, I couldn’t get past the initial prompts. The computer said the program wouldn’t work unless Internet Explorer was running. Since I couldn’t have reached it at all without being online, that was a mystery to me. When talking to others, I found that some were having the same problem. Thus began my correspondence with Serotek.

In September of 2007, shortly after my second AmeriCorps term began, I finally reached someone in the company who understood that I was not expecting support for a beta system as an individual but was corresponding as an instructor wanting to encourage others to participate.

At that point I was asked to try running the software with my anti-virus turned off and call back with the results. There was no change in the message I got. After reporting this, I received a call requesting my computer’s make, operating system, Internet access tools, etc., all of which I provided. The caller said he would try to reproduce those specifications and call me back if he needed further information.

That call came the following day, September 14, 2007. When he asked me to put a program on my computer so he could operate it remotely, I felt uneasy. If things went badly for me, I would have to admit that I had, in fact, installed the program myself. But I wanted the problem solved, so I complied. Then, without so much as a “By your leave,” he turned off JAWS (Job Access With Speech), the software that allows my computer to read out loud what is on the screen. That was when I first suspected that he might be Big Brother. But he sounded like such a kid. Kid Brother, perhaps?

From time to time he would comment on a specific file or program. Mostly it was quiet, except for the squeak of his chair and a whirring sound through the phone.

He said I’d hear the System Access prompt. I did.

“Don’t do anything,” he ordered.

“Ok,” I said obediently, wondering why I wasn’t asking more questions, feeling as if I shouldn’t. More clicking, whirring, bonging, JAWS beginning its start-up, being instantly silenced, bells ringing….

“I’m disconnected,” Kid Brother finally announced. “I’ll contact you again when I have a solution for you to test.”

“Just a second,” I thought, rousing myself from thoughts of both Big and Kid Brother. “Are you just going to do whatever this guy says, no questions asked?”

“I’m curious to know what you did,” I said aloud, guessing at once that this might not be the best approach. Controllers don’t generally much like curiosity.

While his response was abrupt, it was somewhat informative as well. He said he had taken a couple snapshots of my Internet Explorer window for technical details of what that is like in my configuration. He also took a listing of executables and .dlls running and information about my system setup. He hadn’t explained it step by step because he wasn’t sure how much of it I would understand. That sounded a bit condescending, but it was most likely true. As I’ve often said myself, “I’m a teacher, not a techie.”

Whatever the case, it felt like the surveillance was complete and he had the goods on me. Grateful that he hadn’t just remotely taken my computer hostage without my knowledge, I initiated wrap-up conversation, and we went on our way.

Not long afterward, I received a message on my voicemail from Mike Calvo, the head of the company, letting me know that they had created a patch and that I should try the software again and call him with results. It did work for me and for others too. He was glad for my persistence, saying that the beauty of the Internet is that, when a solution is found for one, it is available to all, just like that.

His enthusiasm was contagious. And in that instant I forgave Kid Brother his seeming arrogance and reveled in the sheer pleasure of having played a small part in making headway in speech output software. When I in Nebraska connected with Brian at a switchboard in Minnesota, a network that ultimately included Mike Calvo in Florida, Matt Campbell (Kid Brother to me) in Kansas, and others who had experienced both the glitch and the fix briefly came into being. Together we helped to bring equal access to information one step closer for blind people nationwide. Outcomes like this are what make my AmeriCorps job so much fun.


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