TalkingArch Has New Maintainers, and a Bit of History

After five years of working on TalkingArch, I’ve finally decided to hand the project to new maintainers. Frankly, I haven’t used Arch in a while. Letting this project stagnate under the direction of someone who doesn’t actually use it is unfair to both the community and me. TalkingArch is now being maintained by a team of two: Kelly Prescott and Kyle (surname unpublished). The new TalkingArch website can be found here:
I believe they’ll be adding a blog soon as well, so hopefully that will get added to Planet ArchLinux as soon as it is up. I think the project is in extremely capable hands!

On that note, it has been a lot of fun! I’m both surprised and glad that Arch really picked up a lot of momentum in the blind community. I don’t really have any statistics, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there were a hundred blind people using Arch. I’ve never really told the story of how I got started with Arch, so maybe this is a good place to do that.

Consider that when I started back in 2008, there wasn’t really a way to install Arch Linux using a screen reader. I investigated the possibility of using a statically-linked pacman binary to install from an existing environment. I was going to boot with an existing accessible CD and run pacman from a USB stick. For some reason, that didn’t work. I couldn’t find an up-to-date binary, or I couldn’t build a static binary on my host. Someone with a little more persistence could have probably done the install with pacman on the host. I gave up on that, and I decided to remaster the Arch CD.

At the time, the Speakup console screen reader for Linux was in a transitional state. Up until kernel 2.6.26, it was impossible to build it without applying a patch to the vanilla kernel. You could build it as modules, but you still had to patch the kernel. If I remember correctly, the kernel on the Arch CD at the time was 2.6.24. I didn’t want to fuck around with patching and building a kernel along with remastering a CD. So Speakup was a non-starter.

For my first stab at a talking install disk for Arch, I settled on YASR, which is a highly portable user-space screen reader for the console. It has been around for years, and it runs on all kinds of POSIX systems, including various BSDs and Solaris. It’s a great program in the Unix tradition, and I wish it had more of a following than it does. I made statically-linked builds of YASR and the eflite text-to-speech server on my host system.

Then, I unpacked the official Arch Linux ISO, unpacked the squashfs image inside it, copied my shit, re-packed the squashfs, built a new ISO, and burned it to a CD-R. Yes, I knew about the Arch ISO scripts. But remember, I wasn’t doing this on Arch, and I didn’t have pacman. Somehow, I managed to mess this up a couple times, wasting some CD-R media in the process. I invested in a pack of CD-RWs, and these days, I only boot from USB. Part of me still pines for the days of floppies. After making a couple of beautiful coasters or frisbees, I finally had something that would boot. It wasn’t quite TalkingArch yet, because once the system was up, I had to log in and start yasr. The login prompt wasn’t accessible, either. If I had thought about it, I would have added a chime to let me know that the system was up and ready for a login. But I was lazy. Nevertheless, this worked. We’ll call it TalkingArch 0.1, even though it didn’t have a name at the time. It was good enough for me to do an install.

About the time I started using Arch, kernel 2.6.26 went into [core]. I figured out how to write PKGBUILDs and use the AUR. My first PKGBUILD was for the speakup package, since it could now be built as modules without a kernel patch. Next, I wrote one for espeakup, which is the daemon that speakup uses to drive the eSpeak software text-to-speech engine. With all of this in place, it would be very easy to build an ISO image that would start a screen reader and text-to-speech as soon as it was booted. Now that I had an Arch system, I did it right, using archiso. I uploaded the first version of TalkingArch to the net, and I wrote up a page on the Arch wiki, describing the steps that one needed to take in order to do an eyes-free install of Arch.

When Speakup got started, there was a tradition in the community of people building talking boot media. Back in the day (2000 or so), it was floppies. You could go to the Speakup site, grab the boot floppy for your distro, and do the install. A modern example is Bill Acker’s Speakup Modified Fedora install ISO. Some distributions actually include Speakup on their media, and I’ll discuss that shortly. I was just continuing in the grand old tradition of supplying install media with built-in speech.

I soon contacted Aaron Griffin and others about my little project. We discussed the possibility of including Speakup in the official Arch media. It’s certainly feasible, but here’s the problem. In order for this to work, the blind user has to be willing to type some parameters at a boot prompt. That’s doable, especially if the boot loader is set up to beep at the boot prompt, and the machine has a console speaker. Yes, I mean the old PC speaker that has been with us since the dawn of time. I think my friend Karl calls it a toggle speaker. They’re invaluable if you’re blind! Unfortunately, not all new machines have them. If you’re booting from CD, you can also listen to the sound of the drive to know when you’ve reached the prompt. This is effective if there’s a long timeout at the boot prompt. Anyway, it’s certainly nicer to just have a system that comes up talking as soon as it’s booted. There’s no “blind” typing. So the long and the short of it is that we discussed folding Speakup into the official media, and I think most of us came out against it. All of that discussion is probably available in mailing list archives somewhere, since the Internet never forgets! I kept on doing TalkingArch releases.

Thus was born TalkingArch, a derivative of the Arch install media including accessibility for the blind. After my second or third release in March 2009, Alan McRae asked me if I was interested in becoming a TU. I applied, and he sponsored my application. I was a TU until October of 2012. Arch has a great community, and it was good to be part of that.

So now you know a little bit of the history behind this project. I think it has a bright future ahead, and I wish Kyle and Kelly the best of luck with it.