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Upcoming Appearances 2014


This spring and summer is lining up to have a wildly eclectic set of public appearances for me! So far, I have things scheduled all across my areas of expertise: book signings, a TED talk about captioning, and a tea blogger’s panel at World Tea Expo.

Upcoming Appearances Header

TEDxBozeman

TEDxBozeman logo

Join me at TEDxBozeman on Friday, March 21 for a day of celebrating Pioneer Spirit with an amazing lineup of speakers. My talk is entitled “Does Closed Captioning Still Serve Deaf People?” I’ll be exploring the history and roots of closed captioning and look at the progress it has made, the pitfalls it has encountered, and where it might be going. As of this writing, tickets are still available, but they’ve sold out pretty quickly the last few years, so if you want to be at the talks in Bozeman, Montana, you’ll want to snag those tickets quickly. It will, of course, be streamed as well, and the talks will be available as individual videos on the TED website.

I wrote a while ago on this blog about my talk and included links to some of my favorite TED talks. I’ll add a link here when I post more details about the talk.


Tea Bloggers Roundtable @ World Tea Expo

Tea Bloggers Roundtable

If you have any interest in tea, head for Long Beach on Friday, May 30. I will be joining a group of other tea bloggers for a panel discussion about the world of tea. There is more detail on my other blog, Tea With Gary.


Book Signings in Yellowstone

Who Pooped? Yellowstone

I will be signing “Who Pooped in the Park?” books at Yellowstone Stage (the Old Faithful Inn in Yellowstone National Park) Sunday July 6 from 1:00 to 6:00 and Monday July 7 from 11:00 to 6:00.

Captioning at Disneyland


This article was originally published in September 1998 as a “Gary Robson on Captioning” column for a magazine called Newswaves for Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing People, which is no longer in publication.


A recent vacation with the family turned into a research project when I took a look at the Disneyland park map and saw “CC” and “RC” (reflective captioning) notations for some of the attractions.

Many of Disneyland’s attractions (such as Pirates of the Caribbean and Roger Rabbit’s Car Toon Spin) don’t need captioning. Other attractions are almost pointless for deaf people without them.

Two rides (Space Mountain and Star Tours) and one show have CC, but not the NASA movie in the Mars exhibit, the slide show at the Indiana Jones ride, or the many other places that could really benefit.

When I approached one of the people working “Honey, I Shrunk the Audience” about the captioning, she had no idea what I was talking about. A second worker told me that I had to go to City Hall for a remote. A third said “Don’t bother, it’s broken today.”

I went to City Hall anyway, and they provided me with a remote control for a $20 deposit, which was returned at the end of the day. They also provided a second set of batteries, just in case.

Next stop: Star Tours. In line, none of the numerous screens and “mini-shows” have any captioning. Some text appears below the big screen, but it is sporadic and doesn’t match what they’re saying. At the front of the line, there are several monitors above the doors. It took a few tries pushing the remote’s button (and eventually changing the batteries), but I did get captions. They were traditional except that they were in upper- and lower-case rather than all caps.

Star Tours is a simulated ride with a big screen in front. The ride itself has no captioning at all. Personally, I think captioning would have been far more valuable during the ride (or in the one-hour line) than during the two-minute preview video!

Reflective Captioning

Unlike CC, reflective captioning (RC) is offered in the show itself. The guide lists it for the Country Bear Playhouse, Honey I Shrunk the Audience, and Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln.

We set off to the Country Bear Playhouse for the next phase of our research.

The RC system uses a large display in the back of the room that shows the captions reversed with bright green letters. If you request RC, they give you a floor stand with a piece of glass on a flexible neck. You place the stand in front of you and adjust the glass so that the caption text is reflected in it for you; nobody else sees the reflection. I set mine so the captions appeared right under the stage, and it worked pretty well.

There are eight reflector stands for the two “Country Bear” theaters. If you have a large group, let them know in advance so that they can get extra stands from another attraction. Sharing is difficult unless you’re with someone about your height and you don’t mind cuddling with your heads close together. Otherwise, it’s almost impossible to adjust so that you both see the caption text.

The captioning was well done, with speaker identification so that we knew who is talking (or singing). Unfortunately, the live speaking, like the “Exit to your left and check for your belongings” at the end, is not captioned.

Overall, the few Disney people who understood captioning were very helpful. Most of the staff had no idea what captioning is, and the amount of captioning could best be described as a “good start.” Next time you go to Disneyland, don’t forget to tell them about the importance of captioning. Hopefully, we’ll see a lot more of it there soon.

One for the bucket list: Giving a TED talk


My bucket list is an eclectic — and rather lengthy — collection of things. I’ve crossed some cool stuff off of that list: competing in a rodeo, being profiled in Forbes magazine, playing guitar at a wedding, giving a guest lecture at U.C. Berkeley, getting a U.S. Patent (two, actually), getting a teaching credential. I have a few “almosts” as well. I haven’t given a commencement address at a university, but I gave one at a high school. I haven’t ridden an elephant, but I’ve ridden a camel.

Recently, I got a “close enough.” One of the items on my list is to perform standup comedy in front of a live audience. Last week, I was master of ceremonies for a comedy show raising money for a local veterans’ center. As emcee, I performed a bit between comedians. I’m crossing that one off.

In a few months, I will be achieving one of the most exciting “almosts” of my life. Giving a TED talk is on my bucket list. I will be giving a TEDx talk in March.

TEDxBozeman logo

What the heck is a TED talk?

TED started out almost 30 years ago in 1984 as a conference bringing together people to talk about Technology, Entertainment, and Design. The current format for TED talks coalesced in 2006, when the first six talks were presented. Between their website and other venues like podcasts and YouTube, TED is on the cusp of its one billionth view. TED’s current tagline is “Ideas Worth Spreading,” and it lives up to that promise very well.

TED talks are highly polished and well-produced. Each talk is limited to a maximum of 18 minutes. Some are only a few minutes long. I download TED talks to my iPad and watch them at the gym and on plane rides. I watch them on my computer. Sometimes I run them through the AppleTV so I can watch them on the big living room TV set. I’ve watched a lot of TED talks on an amazing variety of subjects — they’ve moved far beyond the original scope of tech, entertainment, and design. If you’re unfamiliar with TED, here are a few of my favorites you might like watching to get a feel for how it works:

These five videos represent things that appeal to me. They carry themes that represent big parts of my life: books, storytelling, public speaking, science, nature, technology. There are thousands more. Scan through the available TED talks and you’ll find subjects that appeal to you. I can almost guarantee it.

Look through the list of presenters, and you’ll find an impressive roster of recognizable names: Malcolm Gladwell, Arianna Huffington, Bill Gates, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Peter Gabriel, Tim Berners-Lee, Vint Cerf, Temple Grandin, David Pogue, Annie Lennox, Adam Savage, Thomas Dolby, Jeff Bezos, Tony Robbins, Al Gore, Bono. Some of these people have changed the world! Can you see why my bucket list would include walking out on the stage where they’ve spoken?

The dream begins to form

Last month, I went to work and found a message waiting for me from a gentleman named Ken Fichtler. He is a co-founder of TEDxBozeman, and dropped in to ask if I’d submit a proposal for a TEDx talk. Let me back up for a moment and explain TEDx.

TED is all about ideas worth spreading. There are far more of those ideas than can possibly be covered in the main TED events. The TED people decided that they needed to give more people an opportunity to participate, so they created TEDx, where the “x” means “Independently Organized TED Event.” On March 23, 2009, the first TEDx event was held at the University of Southern California. Since then, there have been over than 5,000 TEDx events in 148 countries and 50 languages!

If you visit the TED website, their catalog of 1,500 TED talk videos is augmented by an astonishing 30,000 TEDx videos from conferences around the world.

And Ken Fichtler was inviting me to participate. Well, to apply to participate.

I contacted him and asked if there was something in particular that led him to approach me. Was it my poop books? My work with tea? My recent talks about censorship and book banning? As it turns out, he was familiar with my work in closed captioning for deaf and hard-of-hearing people, and that’s what he had in mind.

Being the cheeky fellow that I am, I went ahead and submitted two applications. One was what I’ve been speaking about lately, and I entitled it “Does Book Banning Work?” The other, more along the lines of what he was looking for, I titled “Does Closed Captioning Still Serve Deaf People?” I sent in the applications, and I waited. For three interminably long weeks, I waited.

The decision

Three days ago, I got word that the committee had met and made a selection. It has been confirmed. They picked the captioning application.

I will be presenting a talk at TEDxBozeman on Friday, March 21, 2014.

I am hyped. I am thrilled. I am humbled. I’ve spoken to some pretty big audiences before — 650 people is my current record — but this will be the highest-profile talk I’ve ever given.

Soon, I’ll post some more about my talk, although I’m not going to give away any details. You’re going to have to either attend TEDxBozeman or catch the video online if you want the whole story.

The Start of Online Captioning (realtime text transmission)


The Court Reporter's Guide to CyberspaceClosed captioning has been a part of television broadcasting for several decades. For pre-recorded shows, the captions can be added in a studio, carefully typed, proofed, and formatted. In the U.S., this is known as “offline” captioning. For a live show, someone has to type that text as it is spoken, known as “online” or “realtime” captioning. It is traditionally been performed using a stenotype keyboard like court reporters use, and the person typing at breakneck speeds of over 200 wpm is called a stenocaptioner (this is what my wife, Kathy, does for a living).

Realtime captioning technology was first used on a live broadcast during the Academy Awards in 1982, performed by my friend Martin Block. A decade later, it still hadn’t found its way into cyberspace, except in limited private chats. The company my wife and I started (Cheetah Systems) had been playing with the concept of streaming realtime text, but hadn’t had a chance to use it online. The following is an excerpt from my first book (The Court Reporter’s Guide to Cyberspace), with a wee bit of editing to bring it up-to-date and change the writing to first person.


The big unveiling of realtime into cyberspace occurred in November of 1994. California State Senator Barbara Boxer set up a conference in Washington, D.C., for California business leaders. One of the guests was Vice President Al Gore, speaking on the subject of “Building the Information Superhighway.” When I saw the Vice President’s name on my conference invitation, it seemed like the ideal opportunity to use this technology. At the time, there were some issues with fast text streaming on the Internet, but CompuServe had chat forums that were working well for the purpose. I called Vice President Gore’s office and suggested live streaming of the speech.

Barbara Boxer is not a large woman. At 6'5" tall, I ended up looking like the Jolly Green Giant in this photo with her.

Barbara Boxer is not a large woman. At 6’5″ tall, I ended up looking like the Jolly Green Giant in this photo with her.

At first, the Vice President’s office resisted the idea of realtiming the speech onto CompuServe. They felt that if it wasn’t being broadcast on television or radio, it shouldn’t be broadcast on CompuServe, either. In actuality, politicians speaking to special interest groups rarely want their words shared with general audiences. Eventually, though, both Senator Boxer and Vice President Gore agreed to have their speeches realtimed.  

Realtime reporter Jack Boenau from Sarasota, Florida, agreed to handle the realtiming. He and I flew to Washington. Richard Sherman (my co-author of The Court Reporter’s Guide to Cyberspace) reserved a virtual conference room in CompuServe’s “CRForum” (the forum for court reporters and captioners).

On the morning of the speech, Jack Boenau and I were present at the Russell Building in Washington, D.C., and the world was at their computers and logged into CRForum’s Conference Room 2, renamed “V.P. Gore Conference” for this historic event. Everybody anxiously awaited the scheduled 12 noon, EST, commencement.

At the last minute, we found that we couldn’t get a modem to connect using an outside line from the Russell Building because all of the building’s phone systems were digital. I ended up — much to the dismay of the Vice President’s security detail — stringing my modem lines behind the stage to be used by Senator Boxer and V.P. Gore, and into a little phone booth in the kitchen. I had to take apart the phone booth and jack in to the phone. The Senate techs weren’t overly enthused about my ad-hoc phone phreaking, either.

Once the hookup was complete, Jack provided entertaining and informative narration to online participants, describing the scene in Washington, the security clearances, the snarling dogs trained to lunge for the jugular at the sound of an unfolding tripod. I had an interesting encounter with one of the bomb-sniffing dogs, but I’ll save that story for another time.

And the speech in Washington was read on computer screens across America as it happened. Here is the beginning of Senator Boxer’s introduction of the Vice President (taken directly from the transcript):  

SENATOR BOXER: One thing I wanted to mention to you, which is terrific, today’s speech by Vice President Al Gore is about building the information superhighway, but the Vice President isn’t just talking, however. The speech, part of the seminar put on by yours truly, is being transmitted live onto CompuServe, one of the information services that make up the prototypical information superhighway. So as we sit here right now, because of these terrific people, with about a two-minute lag, they will be receiving the speech. Oh, I’m sorry, a two-second interval. They will be receiving the speech. See, I have to catch up. You’re so far ahead.

The last comment was directed at Jack and I, as we gave a thumbs-up for the correction on delay time. How fitting it was that the first major national “broadcast” of this type was on the subject of the information superhighway! In the words of the Vice President himself during this address:

The changes that are now underway within our society and within our civilization as a result of new information technologies is very difficult to overstate. These changes are of the same order of magnitude as those changes which accompanied the invention of the printing press, except that these changes will not be strung out over centuries. Instead, the impact will be telescoped into only a few years.

Jack Boenau (on the right) and I hoping that our power suits and 90s haircuts will keep that cutting-edge technology working. The tea and apple pie was to keep us working.

Jack Boenau (on the right) and I hoping that our power suits and 90s haircuts will keep that cutting-edge technology working. The tea and apple pie was to keep us working.

From around the country and the world, reporters and lay persons witnessed a remarkable event. Sitting thousands of miles away, everyone could participate in an event otherwise accessible only by those in attendance. Those online could watch the words of the Vice President scroll across computer monitors, and although no questions were entertained from the general public during this session, individuals sitting at computer keyboards had the capability to ask questions, offer input, or cast votes in an election situation, if permitted to do so.

Everything worked beautifully and an entirely new arena opened up for realtime reporters through the melding of two technologies: online communications technology and this latest breakthrough in reporting technology.


Today, this kind of event is taken for granted. In 1994, it was groundbreaking. In fact, it became the backbone of an Internet broadcasting company (Cheetah Broadcasting) that my brother and I ran for several years, performing live transcription of events onto CompuServe, America Online, Internet chat rooms, and eventually dedicated web applications.

Oh, boy! My book is a textbook! That’s good news, right?


Closed Captioning HandbookWhen I wrote about this in 2011, I talked about rights reversion and what that means in an age of ebooks. Today, I’m having more of an issue with the whole way textbooks work. With two kids in college, I’m seeing my share of textbooks selling for hundreds of dollars, but the price increase on my own book was still a shock a few years back when it was picked up as a college text.

My editor was adamant when I was writing the book in 2003: keep it under 400 pages or the price of paper will make the book just too expensive. Their target price was $49.95. The final page count was 404 (snicker), and it did indeed release (in paperback) at that price. I still don’t buy the paper cost argument. My bookstore sells plenty of paperback books with far more than 400 pages for far less than $50.00, but the world of low-volume, highly specialized books is different. I get that.

Prices go up over time, so I wasn’t surprised to see the price go up to $54.95 a couple of years later. But when three colleges adopted The Closed Captioning Handbook as a textbook, I didn’t expect the immediate jump to $71.95. Now, it’s up to $74.95, and it has the dreaded word “NET” in the Ingram distribution database.

Net? What’s net?

In the retail book trade, there are a lot of publishers to deal with, and keeping track of everything would be an insurmountable task for small bookstores. That’s why we have big distributors like Ingram Books and Baker & Taylor. Stores like mine buy the majority of our books from a couple of sources because it’s easy and it consolidates shipping and billing.

Discounts are pretty standard in the book trade. For the most part, retailers get the same discount on every book at the big distributors. Sometimes, though, books are “short-discounted.” Publishers may not offer the standard discount to the distributor, or may have very high minimum purchase quantities. It’s common for print-on-demand books to be offered at only half the normal discount to stores, which is why many bookstores refuse to stock them.

But every now and then, that discount field in the database displays as “NET.” That means that the bookseller pays full list price for the book. If you go into a bookstore and order a copy of The Closed Captioning Handbook, that $74.95 isn’t what you pay, it’s what they pay. This isn’t going to be true for bookstores (especially campus bookstores) that order directly from the publisher, but few stores deal directly with technical and specialty publishers like Focal Press. Also, there are many textbook publishers that simply don’t want to deal with what’s called a “general bookstore.” They only offer trade terms to college bookstores.

Obviously, this is a big turnoff to readers. Stores can’t stay in business without a profit, but nobody wants to pay higher than retail. So what’s an author to do? We can beg readers to buy directly from us (here is The Closed Captioning Handbook on my store’s website). We can find out what stores or websites stock our books at a reasonable price (as much as I hate sending people to Amazon, they do have my book available at a discount right now) and send people to them. We can beg our publishers to offer standard discounting to distributors.

And we can ask our readers: if you’re quoted a really high price on one of our books, please don’t give up on us. Take a few moments to check another source or two. We don’t have the luxury of setting our own prices or terms. Thank you!

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