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Speaking of Mathematics

Brian Hayes

The Making of Tools

The name AsTeR stands for Audio System for Technical Readings, but it is no coincidence that Raman has a guide dog named Aster, "a big, friendly black Labrador." The typographical treatment of the term AsTeR is modeled on that of TeX and LaTeX, but how is it rendered audibly? How does AsTeR say AsTeR? By speaking the word with a dog's bark in the background. Raman adds a disclaimer: "The bark is that of a generic dog. Aster is too well trained to bark, and could not therefore be recorded."

There is a demonstration of AsTeR on the World Wide Web, where mathematical expressions are rendered graphically as well as in TeX and in sound files that reproduce AsTeR's output. Another Web site also supplies copies of Raman'srecent papers and talks. And the dissertation is also distributed by Recordings for the Blind in a version read by AsTeR itself—the first computer-spoken book to be made available in this way.

The dissertation includes a biographical sketch. "T. V. Raman was born and raised in Pune, India. He was partially sighted (sufficient to be able to read and write) until he was 14. Thereafter, he learned with the help of his brother, who spent a great deal of time as his first reader/tutor . . . . Raman received his B.A. in Mathematics at Nowrosjee Wadia College in Pune and his Masters in Math and Computer Science at the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay. For his final-year project, he developed CONGRATS, a program that allowed the user to visualize curves by listening to them . . . ."

Raman entered the doctoral program in applied mathematics at Cornell in 1989 and received his Ph.D. in 1994. His dissertation, supervised by David Gries, won the Distinguished Doctoral Dissertation Award of the Association for Computing Machinery that year. After taking his degree, he held a research position at the Digital Equipment Corporation and is now with Adobe Systems.

Raman's primary motive for developing AsTeR was to facilitate his own reading, particularly for his studies at Cornell. Various textbooks and course notes were available as TeX or LaTeX documents, and Raman needed a tool to read them with. He decided to build his own, starting with a simpler program called TeXTaLK, then going on to AsTeR. It is interesting to note that TeX also began as a project meant purely to satisfy the author's own needs. Knuth was frustrated with the cumbersome process of typesetting for his magnum opus, the multivolume Art of Computer Programming, and so he took a decade off to do something about it.

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