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Finger food for thought

Posted: Sun Aug 30, 2015 1:27 am
by Phil White
Please note, the Braille symbols will not display properly if you are using the Chrome web browser.

I crave your indulgence for a little self-indulgence.

Well, i have managed it! An exciting, bewildering, bizarre, although as yet incomplete journey.

After just under 7 weeks, I have just completed the final book of my Braille course! I can now read again, albeit extremely laboriously. But what an odd experience it has been.

In this post, I shall just touch on some of the peculiarities that I have encountered, particularly from the perspective of a linguist. In another post on the main board, I shall be going into a little more detail about some of the pitfalls and problems I have had for the benefit of anyone who may be thinking of learning Braille themselves. This one is strictly for the language geeks.

A little bit of background so that you don’t get too lost:

Although there is a variant with 8 dots per cell, ordinary Braille, and in particular the new Unified English Braille, is made up of cells of six raised dots. The dots in a Braille cell are arranged in two columns of three dots, thus: ⠿. The dots are numbered 1-3 down the left column and 4-6 down the right column, so any Braille cell can be referenced by its dot numbers. Thus, (dots 2345) appears like this: ⠞ (which is the t - unless it is something else, of which more later!).

Any mathematicians and computer geeks among you may already be working it out. The Braille alphabet has 64 symbols (or 63 symbols plus the space). It uses those 64 (2^6) symbols, or cells, to represent anything and everything that can be represented in print: letters, numbers, punctuation marks, arithmetical signs, currency signs, accents, typeface, … Which means that many of the symbols have to work very hard and have different meanings depending on context and so on.

Beyond that, you should know that there are two different forms of Braille. Since the advent of Unified English Braille a couple of years ago, these have been known as uncontracted Braille and contracted Braille. Before that, they were known as Grade 1 and Grade 2 Braille. Uncontracted Braille essentially represents each letter of the alphabet, digit, punctuation mark and so on using a single Braille cell or, in some circumstances, a composite Braille cell. This form of Braille is found on medicine packages and some food packaging, on lift buttons, ATMs and so on. Anybody who can read contracted Braille can also read uncontracted Braille, but not vice versa. Very few people use uncontracted Braille for reading or communication. Most Braille readers, in particular those who learn it at a young age, read contracted Braille, as it is far faster and takes up around one third less space. All my comments below refer to contracted Braille, in particular because that is where most of the difficulties lie.

It took me around a week to learn the Braille alphabet and read simple sentences with minimal punctuation. After all, it is just a question of learning 30 or so shapes. Yes, this was my first “aha” moment: You do not recognize dots; you recognize shapes. Thus, for instance, (dots 123) ⠇- the letter “l” - feels rather like a solid vertical bar rather than three dots.

But what about these contractions? And how does Braille represent all the wealth of printed material with just 64 symbols? As I said, it makes the symbols worked very hard indeed.

Let’s take the simple example of the letter “c” ⠉ (dots 14). If you put the capital indicator ⠠ (dot 6) in front of it, it rather unsurprisingly, becomes a capital C ⠠⠉. If you put the number indicator ⠼ (dots 3456) in front of it, it becomes the digit 3 ⠼⠉. If it stands “on its own” in a phrase, it stands for the word “can”, thus: ⠠⠊⠀⠉⠀⠏⠇⠁⠽⠀⠋⠕⠕⠞⠃⠁⠇⠇⠲ ([CAP]I [CAN] play football[FULL STOP]). And there are a few other occurrences as well!

Pretty well every symbol in Braille has multiple meanings in this way. When I first started encountering them, my brain began giving me divide-by-zero errors, but I was surprised at how quickly I began to read the symbols in context.

To get the simple stuff out of the way, contracted Braille makes use of around 70 short forms, which most people would understand as abbreviations. Thus, ⠁⠃ (ab) stands for “about”, ⠁⠃⠧ (abv) stands for “above” and ⠙⠉⠧ (dcv) stands for “deceive”. All these are pretty intuitive and can only be used when they stand on their own and, occasionally, when they have letters added to them, e.g. ⠁⠉ (ac) stands for “according” and ⠁⠉⠇⠽ (acly) therefore stands for “accordingly”.

Hey, I thought, I’m getting the hang of this pretty quickly. Then came the contractions, as opposed to the single-letter short forms (c = can) and multiple-letter short forms (bc = because). Contractions are an entirely different animal. Like shorthand, Braille uses single symbols to represent clusters of letters (I choose my words with care). Thus, for example, ⠡ (dots 16) represents the cluster “ch”, as in ⠡⠥⠗⠡ ([CH]ur[CH]). So far so good. Until you come across ⠑⠡⠕ (e[CH]o). Perhaps because I am a linguist, this pains me to the bottom of my scrotum. The cell (dots 26) does not stand for the phoneme “tsch”. It stands for the letter combination “ch”. I spent ages muttering “etscho” and “stscho-ol” to myself before I sussed “echo” and “school”. But have courage, my friends. It gets worse. Far worse.

Some of these letter clusters are the ones most linguists would identify. Things like “wh” or “ou”, or “gh”, or “ing”. Indeed, on reflection, they are all pretty handy. But let’s take a look at a couple.

⠬ (dots 346) is the cluster “ing”. So we have ⠏⠇⠁⠽⠬ (play[ING]), which makes sense. But we also have ⠗⠬ (r[ING]), which is a little odd, particularly in the word ⠗⠬⠬ (r[ING][ING]). Even more odd is the appearance of the symbol in ⠞⠬⠇⠑ (t[ING]le). Slap-in-the-face-for-a-linguist number two. Not only are contractions not phonemes, they are not morphemes either.

But courage, my friends. It gets worse.

These single-cell contractions can also be short forms. Thus
⠹ (dots 1456) is the contraction “th” as in ⠹⠬ ([TH][ING]). But, standing on its own, it also means "this", hence ⠹⠀⠹⠔⠀⠹⠬ ([THIS] [TH][ IN ][TH][ING])
⠮ (dots 2346) is the contraction “the” and the short form “the”. Let’s savour that one: ⠮⠀⠇⠊⠮⠀⠮⠁⠞⠗⠑⠀⠍⠁⠝⠁⠛⠻ ([THE] li[THE] [THE]atre manag[ER]). Ouch!
A couple more just for fun:
⠺⠊⠮⠗⠬ (wi[THE]r[ING])
⠝⠑⠫⠫ (ne[ED][ED])
Yes, spell that last one out in your head as your fingers would come across the symbols: “nuh-eh-ed-ed”. The symbols are letter clusters, not phonemes or morphemes, stoopid!

And to cap it all (courage, friends), there are another bunch of contractions. They are symbols that are preceded by a composition sign. There are all sorts of rules about exactly where these contractions can be used, but here are a few just for fun. The composition signs all have one thing in common. Like the capital indicator we saw above, they only use one or more of dots 4, 5 and 6. This makes them appear to cling to the next cell, so when you begin to read at any speed, they do not really feel like separate symbols. I like to think of the composition signs as the SHIFT, CTRL and ALT keys on a keyboard. Type “c” and it means “c”. Type SHIFT+c and it means “C”. Type CTRL+c and it (usually) means “copy” and so on. The composition signs change the meaning of the next symbol. Completely. Apparently randomly until you get a few glimmerings of method in the madness.

Here are just a few examples, some straightforward, some bizarre:

⠰⠞ (dot 56 + t) = “ment” as in ⠛⠕⠧⠻⠝⠰⠞ (gov[ER]n[MENT]). This is a final contraction and can only be used at the end of a word, so⠀⠍⠢⠞⠁⠇ = “m[EN]tal”.
⠨⠙ (dots 36 + d) = "ound" as in ⠎⠨⠙ (s[[OUND])
⠐⠙ (dot 5 + d) = “day” as in⠠⠎⠁⠞⠥⠗⠐⠙ ([CAPITAL INDICATOR]satur[DAY]), but also ⠐⠙⠇⠊⠣⠞ ([DAY]li[GH]t). Dot-5 contractions are all short forms and can also be used anywhere in other words.
⠐⠎ (dot 5 + s) = “some”.⠐⠞ (dot 5 + t) = “time”. Hence ⠐⠎⠐⠞⠎ ([SOME][TIME]s).

To round off this quick tour of the vagaries of Braille and before I mention another bizarre problem I have, Here is one of the practice sentences from the last book:

8. Between you and me, I rather think his Lordship perceives us as being quite beneath his station in life.

[NUMBER INDICATOR]h[FULL STOP] [CAPITAL INDICATOR]bt y [AND] me[COMMA] [CAPITAL INDICATOR]i r [TH][ IN ]k [HIS] [CAPITAL INDICATOR][dot 5 + l = lord][SH]ip p[ER]cvs u z be[ING] q bn [HIS] [ST]a[[dots56 + n = tion] [ IN ] life[FULL STOP]
Yes, it was designed to use as many abbreviations as possible, but it gives an idea of the cognitive activity that goes on when reading contracted Braille.

But I promised you another bizarre problem.

For as long as I can remember, I have been able to read at any orientation and mirrored equally as fluently. When I see a word in isolation, I cannot say whether it is upside down or in mirror writing. At least that was so when I could see print. I have pushed glass doors that have the word “PUSH” on the other side, completely missing the word “PULL” on this side. When I was teaching, I used to sit on the teacher’s desk and read poetry from the upside-down book of the student in front of me and they all thought I knew it by heart. I was told off by my primary school teachers for reading books upside down, but I suspect that I was simply unaware. Okay, I might have been showing off. But the point remains. I seem to have an odd spatial awareness when it comes to reading.

And I now find that I have a similar problem with Braille.

Take the letters ⠙ ⠋ ⠓ ⠚ (d f h j), which are all the same shape in different orientations. I have terrible problems keeping these apart. Or the symbols ⠝ ⠵ ⠮ ⠫ (n z [THE] [ED]. They are all the same symbol, either rotated or mirrored or both. I find it really peculiar that I also seem to have a similar spatial (un)awareness with Braille as I did with print. Generally, I correct myself by context when I confuse one of these, so I guess that I will gradually get them all sorted out. But here comes the odd thing. I cannot read left-handed. Then, all the signs really are the wrong way round! Take, as a random example, the letter ⠗ (r). Reading with my right forefinger, the bar hits the inside of my finger first, followed by the dot. Reading with my left hand, the bar hits the outside of my forefinger first, followed by a dot. It appears to me as a ⠺ (w). Now that really is odd! Perhaps I can train my left hand as well. I will need it to read at any useful speed.

Which brings me to my last point (I promise). The average reading speed for printed material across the population is generally reckoned to be around 200 – 250 words per minute. People read aloud at around 150 – 180 wpm and fast readers will read at speeds of 400 wpm and more with no loss of comprehension or long-term retention.

Good Braille readers rarely exceed 200 wpm, although speeds in excess of 300 wpm have been observed. The most that most Braille readers manage only just allows them to read aloud confidently. And me? After 7 weeks. Ah, well, er… How about 30 wpm on an unseen passage and a little faster on a passage from a couple of weeks ago.

I have a long way to go!

I do hope that I haven’t bored you [SH]it[dots 46 + s = less] and that you have gained an insight into a very odd world of orthography. Nothing in Braille is spelled differently from English, whether it be UK, US, Australian or Indian. If it is spelled “color” in print, it is spelled “color” in Braille. The contractions are not phonemes, morphemes or syllables. They are letter clusters.

And in case you were wondering, the sum total of all the short forms and contractions is something in the region of a couple of hundred. Plus a whole bunch of special composite symbols for things like equals, @, ®, bold face on, bold face off, and so on. Then there is technical Braille. And music Braille…

Re: Finger food for thought

Posted: Sun Aug 30, 2015 2:52 pm
by Bobinwales
I am impressed Phil. I think I would be relying on my computer reading aloud to me.

Re: Finger food for thought

Posted: Sun Aug 30, 2015 3:05 pm
by Phil White
For most purposes, I do and will continue to do so. But even the best synthetic voices are soporific when listening to a long text, and it is difficult to navigate back and forth to re-read something. But the main reason I decided to learn brl (yes, it has its own short form, which is sweet) was to be able to take notes along to meetings where I may wish to speak or read an agenda and so on. I can't have a laptop gabbling away at me then.

And I am looking forward to reading novels again. Even the great readers of audio books, such as Derek Jacobi, overlay an interpretation on a character. And the poorer readers can truly ruin a perfectly good book.

Re: Finger food for thought

Posted: Wed Sep 02, 2015 3:04 pm
by Wizard of Oz
Phil did you consider Moon type? I expect there is not the diversity of books available in Moon.

WoZ on the Moon

Re: Finger food for thought

Posted: Wed Sep 02, 2015 8:03 pm
by Phil White
Hi folks,

Erik just pointed out to me that the Braille symbols do not show up using Chrome. Are they showing up on your machines?

WoZ, Moon has a much more acceptable learning curve, but is far less flexible than Braille. There is very little published in Moon and, most importantly, there is no way of producing it yourself. Even though they are expensive, Braille displays are available for computers, and small desktop Braille embossers allow you to "print" directly from documents on a computer. There are also manual Braillers that allow you to type material.

Moon is very good for older people with less sensitivity in their fingers, but it is very slow to read. When all is said and done, both Braille and Moon are dying, which is sad, but Moon is already almost extinct.

Re: Finger food for thought

Posted: Thu Sep 03, 2015 8:43 am
by Wizard of Oz
Hi Phil and Erik, I use the Chrome browser and the Braille dots are showing up for me. They appear as small dots positioned with the six dot cell. They are not even upside down, wow!
Phil said: "but Moon is already almost extinct."
Just wondering if anybody has told NASA so they can remove their flag. Gee I am worried because if the Moon goes then what will songwriters do when they write about lovers with spoon and tune and June and soon and even baboon??

WoZ worried

Re: Finger food for thought

Posted: Thu Sep 03, 2015 3:09 pm
by Erik_Kowal
Wizard of Oz wrote:Hi Phil and Erik, I use the Chrome browser and the Braille dots are showing up for me. They appear as small dots positioned with the six dot cell. They are not even upside down, wow!
Yet again, Woz's Chrome is shinier than mine... Sigh! :)

Re: Finger food for thought

Posted: Thu Sep 03, 2015 9:17 pm
by Phil White
Odd. I get the right display with Firefox and Internet Explorer, but not with Chrome. That's under Windows 7. Erik can see the Braille with IE, but not with Chrome, and that's under Windows 8.1. All very odd.

Re: Finger food for thought

Posted: Fri Sep 04, 2015 9:55 am
by Bobinwales
I have Chrome and Windows 10, the Braille is not showing.

Re: Finger food for thought

Posted: Fri Sep 04, 2015 6:55 pm
by tony h
Phil, absolutely fascinating.

I have always been intrigued when I found myself devoid of a sense to see how the others cope. Two occasions in particular I remember.

The first was one morning waking and not being able to see. This was as a growth that had formed on one eye completely obscuring the right eye and the left eye not having done any processing for years due to an undiagnosed stigmatism. The few hours of complete blindness, followed by the gradual acquisition of sight in the left eye gave me a changed view on life. Full sight returned after about three days.

The other incident was while undergoing tests for a medical condition. In this it was fully expected that I would lose consciousness as my heart decided to grind to a halt. Apart from being painful I decided to test the use of memory vs computation by trying to recite the times tables. As the session was recorded I was able to see how well I did or didn't do. Clearly as I got closer to unconsciousness calculation failed whilst memory survived longer. It was interesting to see that in any given table there were ones I knew eg 7x8 but 7x4 seemed to be a calculation. In a conscious state I would have thought both were just remembered.

Thank you for a fascinating insight.

Re: Finger food for thought

Posted: Fri Sep 04, 2015 8:27 pm
by Phil White
Hi Tony,

I am very fortunate in that I have quite a lot of residual sight in one eye. I can usually make out the top letter of a chart, and I have about 30 % of my field of vision left. It means that I can still make my way around without too much difficulty in areas that I know. With that, my cane and my dog, I avoid most of the worst obstacles. Crossing roads is the biggest nightmare. Most people assume that blind people have a sharpened sense of hearing, or other senses that compensate. Largely, this is untrue. As far as I am concerned, I have just learned to use my hearing more consciously. I miss far too many things if I rely on my sight, so I listen for a road to go clear before I even bother to look. And my dog has stopped me from walking in front of things before now, although she is not an assistance dog. There are blind people, usually those who have been completely blind for virtually all their lives who can pick up sound shadows and wind shadows to locate lamp posts and so on. The most I have ever noticed in that respect is that I will never try to cross a road anywhere near a big van, because I cannot "hear over" it.

And I am much more consciously aware of smells when I am out walking. It is a world that we know little of, although Sheba could undoubtedly tell me a thing or two! She reads the roads like a newspaper.

I am eagerly awaiting my first magazines and books, which should be arriving soon. It will be interesting to see how much I take in of the meaning, given the effort involved in simply reading the words!

Re: Finger food for thought

Posted: Sat Sep 05, 2015 3:03 am
by trolley
" although Sheba could undoubtedly tell me a thing or two! She reads the roads like a newspaper."

My dogs are constantly sending and receiving pee-mail when we go out walking.

Re: Finger food for thought

Posted: Sun Sep 06, 2015 8:14 am
by Wizard of Oz
I was astounded when I went to a reunion of vision impaired kids who had been boarders at the Deaf & Blind Children's Centre. It would have been over 20 years since any of them had seen me but almost without exception they heard my greeting and immediately responded with my name based solely on hearing my voice. They would have only been about 13-15 year olds when I left DBCC and had stored my voice for all those years.

At the end of the night everyone was hanging on for one last chat and the staff wanted to leave. I laughed my head off when the head honcho turned out the lights in an attempt to get people moving outside. This became quite a loud laugh when I told those near me what had happened and that they had better be careful now it was dark in the auditorium. There was a small red beacon shining from the cheeks of the man who turned out the lights.

WoZ of blind faith

Some more odd insights...

Posted: Mon Sep 07, 2015 6:02 pm
by Phil White
The eagerly anticipated first novel arrived in a huge box today. I had decided to read "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" yet again as my first novel, as I have read it so many times, I can almost quote it if I get the first few words of any sentence. And I will not get too impatient to get to the end of it, as I know it already.

But first a wee digression: In their infinite wisdom, our local council have decided to demarcate the cycle paths around here with bollard-like thingies. Grey bollard-like thingies. About waist height. Being grey, as are the pavements and the roads, they do not exactly stand out. And for me, in some lights, they are completely invisible. And they are often on corners, which means that I can easily miss them with my cane. So, a few weeks ago, the inevitable happened and I went arse over tip over one and dislocated my left shoulder in a white-hot explosion of pain, stars and expletives. I caught hold of my elbow with my right hand (I guess I was scared that my left arm would otherwise fall off) and gently lifted my arm. In a white-hot explosion of pain, stars and expletives, the shoulder clunked back into place and I was left with a mere scrotum-curling tenderness for a few days and a longer term inability to put on a shirt or jacket without wincing. More recently, over the last week or so, my right shoulder has been extremely painful and stiff. I put it down to having my dog on my right hand rather than my left to rest my left shoulder.

So back to today. I settled down to read a couple of pages and immediately started wincing as my right shoulder seemed to grate in a way it shouldn't. Then it dawned on me. I am suffering from RSI in my shoulder from reading Braille! Bollox! I have now discovered that angling the book slightly anti-clockwise allows me to read without pain, although I cannot even hope to read left-handed at that angle.

So in I plunged. I was already aware that the book was in British Braille, not the Unified English Braille that I have learned, but I had read up about the differences and expected to pick them up pretty quickly. And indeed, the old contractions (there are seven of them) that are no longer used came pretty quickly, and the old, rather nonsensical, spacing rules are gradually sinking in (a bunch of single-letter, whole-word contractions - "to", "of", "for", and a few others are written without a space tothe next word). It really did surprise me how easily this was all assimilated. Context resolves the vast majority of it.

But the thing that really blows me away is that the entire thing is written without a single capital letter. Not at the beginning of a sentence, not for proper names. Nothing. It's like reading one of WoZ's posts!

Seriously, though, for ten minutes, it really caused me difficulties. Reading the word arthur forced me to go back and read it again, as I assumed I had missed something. And I can't use the capital sign to find the beginning of a sentence if I lose the thread. Okay, it only took about ten minutes, but it is still odd to me. On the other hand, when you stop expecting it, it is fine. The reality is, we don't actually need capital letters to write English. They are a convention. Nothing more. As far as I can see, British literary Braille only uses capitals to resolve ambiguity ("the White House"/"the white house", "Will came to see me"/"will you come to see me?"). Makes sense.

One of the aims of UEB was to ensure that Braille could be transcribed to and from print with no loss, so these odd spacing rules and the capitalization conventions that were established in British Braille (and American Braille) were dropped, allowing reliable automated transcription.

Odd new world for me, though.

Re: Finger food for thought

Posted: Wed Sep 09, 2015 3:55 pm
by Wizard of Oz
Phil said:
Nothing. It's like reading one of WoZ's posts!
Phil I have been a good boy since you explained things to me and I now write boring old conventional sentences. I am only glad that it does help you to remain a vital part of WW.

WoZ the good boy