Jan 042018
 

Today is the birthday (1809) of Louis Braille, inventor of a system of reading and writing for use by the blind or visually impaired. His system remains virtually unchanged to this day, and is known worldwide simply as braille. The immense personal legacy of Louis Braille was described in a 1952 essay by T.S. Eliot:

Perhaps the most enduring honor to the memory of Louis Braille is the half-conscious honor we pay him by applying his name to the script he invented – and, in this country [England], adapting the pronunciation of his name to our own language. We honor Braille when we speak of braille. His memory has in this way a security greater than that of the memories of many men more famous in their day.

To honor Louis Braille’s achievement, today is celebrated as World Braille Day.

Louis Braille was born in Coupvray, a small town about twenty miles east of Paris. He and his three elder siblings – Monique Catherine (b. 1793), Louis-Simon (b. 1795), and Marie Céline (b. 1797) – lived with their parents, Simon-René and Monique, on three hectares of land and vineyards in the countryside. Simon-René maintained a successful enterprise as a leather maker and manufacturer of horse tack. As soon as he could walk, Braille spent time playing in his father’s workshop. At the age of 3, he was playing with some of the tools, trying to make holes in a piece of leather with an awl. Squinting closely at the surface, he pressed down hard to drive the point in, and the awl glanced across the tough leather and struck him in one of his eyes. A local physician bound and patched the affected eye and even arranged for Braille to be met the next day in Paris by a surgeon, but no treatment could save the damaged eye. In agony, he suffered for weeks as the wound became severely infected. The infection then spread to his other eye, likely due to sympathetic ophthalmia.

Braille survived the torment of the infection but by the age of 5 he was completely blind in both eyes. Braille did not realize at first that he had lost his sight, and often asked why it was always dark. His parents made many efforts to raise Braille in as normal a fashion as possible. He learned to navigate the village and country paths with canes his father made him, and he grew up seemingly at peace with his blindness.

Braille went to school in Coupvray until the age of 10. Then he attended one of the first schools for blind children in the world, the Institut National des Jeunes Aveugles (National Institute for Blind Youth), in Paris. At the time the Institute was underfunded, but it provided a relatively stable environment for blind children to learn and associate together. The children were taught how to read by a system devised by the school’s founder, Valentin Haüy, who was not blind himself, but was a philanthropist who devoted his life to helping the blind. He designed and manufactured a small library of books for the children using a technique of embossing heavy paper with the raised imprints of Latin letters. Readers would trace their fingers over the text, comprehending slowly.

Braille was helped by the Haüy books, but he also despaired over their lack of depth: the amount of information kept in such books was necessarily small. Because the raised letters were made in a complex artisanal process using wet paper pressed against copper wire, the children could not hope to write in this manner by themselves. So that Braille could send letters back home, Simon-René provided him with an alphabet made from bits of thick leather. It was a slow and cumbersome process, but he could at least trace the letters’ outlines and write his first sentences.

The handcrafted Haüy books all came in uncomfortable sizes and weights for children. They were laboriously constructed, very fragile, and expensive to obtain: when Haüy’s school first opened, it had a total of three books. Nonetheless, Haüy promoted their use enthusiastically. To him, the books presented a system which would be readily approved by educators and they seemed – to the sighted – to offer the best achievable results. Braille and his schoolmates, however, could detect all too well the books’ crushing limitations. Haüy’s efforts still provided a breakthrough achievement – the recognition of the sense of touch as a workable strategy for sightless reading.

Braille read the Haüy books repeatedly, and he was equally attentive to the oral instruction offered by the school. He proved to be a highly proficient student and, after he had exhausted the school’s curriculum, he was immediately asked to remain as a teacher’s aide. By 1833, he was elevated to full teacher status. For much of the rest of his life, Braille stayed at the Institute where he taught history, geometry, and algebra. Braille’s ear for music also enabled him to become an accomplished cellist and organist through classes taught by Jean-Nicolas Marrigues at the school. Later in life, he played the organ for churches all over France. Braille was a devout Catholic, and held the position of organist in Paris at the Church of Saint-Nicolas-des-Champs from 1834 to 1839 (where Marrigues had played on a famous Clicquot organ), and later at the Church of Saint-Vincent-de-Paul.

Braille was determined to invent a system of reading and writing that could bridge the gap in communication between the sighted and the blind. In his own words:

Access to communication in the widest sense is access to knowledge, and that is vitally important for us if we [the blind] are not to go on being despised or patronized by condescending sighted people. We do not need pity, nor do we need to be reminded we are vulnerable. We must be treated as equals – and communication is the way this can be brought about.

In 1821, Braille learned of a communication system devised by Captain Charles Barbier of the French Army. Some sources depict Braille learning about it from a newspaper account read to him by a friend, while others say the officer, aware of its potential, made a special visit to the school. In either case, Barbier willingly shared his invention called “night writing” which was a code of dots and dashes impressed into thick paper. These impressions could be interpreted entirely by the fingers, letting soldiers share information on the battlefield without having light or needing to speak. The captain’s code turned out to be too complex to use in its original military form, but it inspired Braille to develop a system of his own.

Braille largely completed his system by 1824, when he was 15 years old. From Barbier’s night writing, he innovated by simplifying its form and maximizing its efficiency. He made uniform columns for each letter, and he reduced the twelve raised dots to six. He published his system in 1829, and by the second edition in 1837 he had discarded the dashes because they were too difficult to read. Crucially, Braille’s smaller cells were capable of being recognized as letters with a single touch of one finger.

Braille created his own raised-dot system by using an awl, (ironically, the same implement which had blinded him). In the process of designing his system, he also designed an ergonomic interface for using it, based on Barbier’s own slate and stylus tools. By soldering two metal strips across the slate, he created a secure area for the stylus which would keep the lines straight and readable. “It bears the stamp of genius” wrote Dr. Richard Slating French, former director of the California School for the Blind, “like the Roman alphabet itself.”

The system was soon extended to include braille musical notation. Braille was passionate about his own music, and wanted a musical notation system for the blind that would be “flexible enough to meet the unique requirements of any instrument.” His first book, published in 1829, Method of Writing Words, Music, and Plain Songs by Means of Dots, for Use by the Blind and Arranged for Them, included music notation along with standard writing. By a strange twist of fate, this book was first printed by using the raised letter method of the Haüy system.

Although Braille was admired and respected by his students, his writing system was not taught at the Institute during his lifetime. The successors of Valentin Haüy, who had died in 1822, showed no interest in altering the established methods of the school, and, in fact, they were actively hostile to the use of braille. Dr. Alexandre François-René Pignier, headmaster at the school, was dismissed from his post after he had a history book translated into braille.

Braille had always been a sickly child, and his condition worsened in adulthood. A persistent respiratory illness, long believed to be tuberculosis, dogged him, and by the age of 40, he was forced to relinquish his position as a teacher. Despite the lack of a cure at the time, Braille lived with the illness for 16 years. When his condition reached the terminal stage, he was admitted to the infirmary at the Royal Institution, where he died in 1852, two days after his 43rd birthday.

Through the overwhelming insistence of the blind pupils, Braille’s system was finally adopted by the Institute in 1854, two years after his death. The system spread throughout the French-speaking world, but was slower to expand in other places. However, by the time of the first all-European conference of teachers of the blind in 1873, the cause of braille was championed by Dr. Thomas Rhodes Armitage and thereafter its international use increased rapidly. By 1882, Dr. Armitage was able to report that “There is now probably no institution in the civilized world where braille is not used except in some of those in North America.” Eventually even these holdouts relented: braille was officially adopted by schools for the blind in the United States in 1916, and a universal braille code for English was formalized in 1932.

I am not a great fan of television, and I especially dislike so-called “reality” shows, which are clearly manipulated (sometimes even scripted). I used to watch chef competitions once in a while, however, not because I was interested in the competitors, but because I got inspiration from the dishes they prepared once in a while. By chance I came across a blind competitor, Christine Hà (Vietnamese: “Hà Huyền Trân) on Masterchef in 2012 when I was flipping channels one evening. I especially despise Masterchef, and really cannot watch it. Gordon Ramsay is a (carefully crafted) self-important prick, and it’s abundantly clear that his “reality” cooking shows are staged. I expect Masterchef predetermines the winner for the sake of entertaining television. The fact that Hà won seems like a no-brainer in crafting a following and good ratings. Nonetheless, her dishes are worth a look.  This was her audition to see if she would get an apron in able to be a competitor in the 3rd series.

If you are not convinced it is fake, take note of the judges’ votes. The first is enthusiastic, the second says no. So it is up to Ramsay (big drama !!!) to cast the deciding vote. I’m sure she is a good cook, and she is certainly comfortable in the kitchen. The fact that she had no rice to accompany the soup in her first dish was a major mistake. In SE Asia in general, soup is always accompanied by rice. There is no recipe given, or even shown, on the Masterchef clip, but canh chua (catfish soup) is a well-known Vietnamese dish.  Here’s a recipe for you to try.

Canh Chua

Ingredients

½ lb catfish steaks (on the bone)
2 tbsp fish sauce
8 cups chicken stock
5 tbsp granulated sugar (or to taste)
2 tbsp tamarind powder
1 tsp salt (or to taste)
1 medium size taro stem (sliced thin)
2 cups bean sprouts
4 large tomatoes, quartered
1 Thai pepper, sliced thin.
2 cloves garlic, peeled and sliced thin
2 tbsp vegetable oil
1 tbsp fresh Thai Basil, sliced in thin strips

Instructions

Douse the catfish with fish sauce, and let it sit for at least 30 minutes (preferably refrigerated overnight).

Bring the chicken stock to a boil in a large pan. Add the catfish, with its juices, and simmer for 15 minutes. Skim any scum that rises as the fish cooks.

Heat the vegetable oil in a skillet and sauté the garlic until it is pale golden. Remove with a slotted spoon and dry with paper towels. Mix with the chile and basil, and set aside.

Add the tomatoes, taro stems, sugar, tamarind, and salt to the soup, and cook for 3 minutes. Add the bean sprouts and immediately remove from the heat.

Serve the soup in bowls with the garlic, chile, and basil mix as a garnish. Serve plain boiled rice separately.

 

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