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Welcome to my home page. I became blind at birth. I started programming computers at a young age. I also earned my general class amateur radio license, KA3TTT, a hobby to which I have returned with great joy. I practice Qigong, and consider it the most important thing in my life. I cook gluten-free vegan meals. I use Linux as my desktop and Android as my mobile OS. For the rest you'll have to read my blog.

Back to my Open Source Roots

August 09, 2017

So much has happened, I hardly know where to begin. I haven’t written any articles in a while and have pretty much stayed off social media, except for an occasional Frank Zappa quote or some random bit of interesting information. I decided to not comment on politics because I didn’t want to offend a portion of my readers. Suffice to say that I suspected that Trump would win as soon as he didn’t raise his hand to pledge his loyalty to the republican party. When he did win a lot of people around me freaked out but I remained mostly calm, having long suspected it. I felt really good with myself and my world view. In other words, something had to change.

Wikileaks released Vault 7, a small portion of an archive of leaked documents detailing CIA hacking tools. I remember reading about Echelon in the nineties and people called me a kook, so this news did not shock me. I began looking through the documents, and found mini tutorials about how to do basic hacking and security tasks in Linux. I have ran Linux systems for over ten years, and it all checked out. I only surveyed a small amount, but enough to convince me.

Amid these revelations, people asked an important question.

How do we know if a piece of technology spies on us?

Any Linux enthusiast already knows the answer: through the use of free open source software. It got me thinking about my own choices. This converged with something else that I could no longer ignore.

I could no longer use my Mac productively. When I rejoined the Apple family I felt so happy. I knew I had entered a walled garden, but it worked well with my newly discovered iPhone, and provided accessibility to a modern graphical desktop. I found Mac equivalents of my beloved Emacs and other open source tools and left them behind. A few years passed. I remained mostly productive and felt mostly happy, yet something didn’t feel quite right as time went on.

Looking back, it seemed apparent right from the beginning. I wrote a very popular article about getting MPD to work with AirPlay. I wanted to learn to write apps, but I wanted to use tools I already knew, so chose RubyMotion. I installed Homebrew to get Mac versions of open source programs. I always had an open Terminal window. I could never let go of my open source roots.

In case you don’t know, a blind person uses a screen reader, which makes a computer talk. Every operating system has one or several. Windows has the commercial JAWS and NVDA, an open source alternative. All of Apple’s products have versions of VoiceOver. Android has Talkback, also open source. Linux has Speakup for the console, and Orca for its graphical environments.

I had become to grow less and less impressed with the Mac’s version of VoiceOver. The audio had occasional dropouts and lags. Many disabled audio ducking because of this, but it didn’t solve everything. The Quick Nav feature had issues toggling while navigating web pages. The default voice named Alex sounded amazing, but had some annoying pronunciation issues. For example, it dropped the “s” from Philly Touch Tours, the business I co-founded, making it sound like “Philly Touch Tour”. Terminal has never had good accessibility, but since it doesn’t fall into Apple’s 90/10 rule I didn’t expect that to improve. Sadly, neither did anything else.

In the months leading up to the release of Vault 7, I had tried getting Orca working. I had used Speakup at the console for years, but wanted to explore the Linux equivalent of an environment like Mac or Windows. One weekend the pieces all came together. I think it involved battling with PulseAudio. I chose the Mate desktop, a fork of an older version of the popular Gnome desktop of which Orca makes up a part. I had tried this about ten years before and things felt kind of clunky. I prepared to feel under impressed and regard it as something done for pure hack value.

I first browsed my own site with Firefox. It loaded quickly and beautifully. I visited some common sites, including Amazon. It never crashed. It never sputtered. It worked perfectly.

I wondered if I could realistically switch back to Linux for my day to day computer use. Over the next few weeks I systematically replaced all of my Mac applications with Linux alternatives. I use Thunderbird for email and calendars. I replaced all of my Apple TV’s and AirPort expresses with Raspberry Pi’s running Snapcast, a subject which deserves its own post. I use Emacs for a lot of other things, which I do anyway. I use Evil to get superior Vim keybindings. I should especially mention Org Mode, your life in plain text!

When my MacBook Air finally died, I had a choice to make. Should I go with what I know and buy another MacBook, or try something new and go with my Linux solution? I researched my options. None of the MacBooks have particularly good reviews from professional sources. A Linux laptop from ZAReason would cost less. I had bought my awesome desktop system from them. I threw an i Ching reading. I got the hexagram of Revolution. I chose the ZAReason Linux laptop. A few sharp-eyed friends have already noticed. Now as it stands I only use my Mac for Apple things, such as writing apps, iMessage, and iCloud. I do everything else in Linux. I have never looked back.

I would like to make one thing clear however. Apple has shown us that any corporation can make all of their products accessible. They have an accessibility department which they involve in all of their other projects. The ability to use the same hardware and software as our able bodied peers has immense social and psychological value. Steve Jobs had a vision of making a computer which anyone can use and he succeeded. Tim Cook has stated that Apple cares about more than a return on investment. I wish every corporation would follow their example. My decision to use Linux has my primary desktop and my subsequent choices have nothing to do with the valuable service which Apple has done, or the outstanding treatment I have received from them. I simply cannot continue productively using my Mac with VoiceOver due to long standing bugs and a closed archetecture.

Returning to my open source roots brings up a lot of wonderful old thoughts. I have always wanted to find ways to help people with disabilities. Free software and affordable hardware seem like natural choices, and this has finally become possible. I can do all of the basic tasks I could do on my Mac in Linux, yet nobody talks about it. I feel like I have discovered this wonderful secret thing, and I strongly encourage anyone interested in accessibility to give Linux a try. You have nothing to lose - it costs nothing!

Can a Blind Person Brew Kombucha?

August 02, 2017

I love Kombucha! Ever since I first tried it at Whole Foods I had wanted to learn more. When I learned that Inspired Brews would have a brewing class, I decided to sign up. I enjoyed the class, and just finished successfully brewing my first batch.

For the uninitiated, kombucha refers to a fermented drink made with a beneficial bacteria, similar to yogurt. This bacteria, however, thrives on tea and sugar, which I find quite funny. I feel like I have more in common with it than with most humans. After brewing, flavoring makes the drink fizzy, like soda or beer. It has lots of amazing health benefits as well. Personally I believe it helps with mood support for clinical depression, as serotonin production occurs in the gut.

I started adding a few bottles to every Instacart order. One day after floating at Halcyon Floats I got into a chat with the owner. She mentioned that a local brewery called Inspired Brews made them a custom blend called Float Away. Of course I wanted a bottle or two or three. This caused me to check out their web site, which caused me to find the class.

I arrived having no idea what to expect. I didn’t even know if I found the right place, but it smelled like kombucha, so I figured so, and soon found Jessa, the owner. She introduced me to her assistant Alexandra, and others started filing in. The event had food provided by Grateful Plate, which I enjoyed. I will have to try making bi bim bop stuffed mushrooms sometime. We also got free cups of kombucha. I chose one with pineapple.

The class began and we all gave introductions. A lot of people use kombucha for stomach issues. Next we had a lecture. I learned a lot of useful information. We don’t know the exact origin of the brew, and since you need the culture to make the brew, and the brew to make the culture, we don’t quite know how the whole thing even started, like the chicken and the egg. This gives it a mystical feel for me. Kombucha also has a link to the community. She encouraged us to use local fruits and herbs as flavoring. I recalled when speaking in Belgium, that they found it weird that Americans insist on eating all foods all year round.

“Why would you want strawberries in the middle of January?”

The bacteria, which I now knew as SCOBY, standing for Symbiotic Culture of Bacteria and Yeast, continues to grow. Eventually you have to give some away, or find another way to use it. This means that in time, you can give to others without depriving yourself. It made me think of the field of bio-mimicry. What can we learn about human communities and information exchange from this humble culture?

I wondered about safety concerns. Jessa said that if left uncovered, the starter jar will attract tons of fruit flies. I thought of The Winnebago Man delivering a profane rant about flies.

She also brought up mold. If the SCOBY becomes contaminated, it will grow mold, which can make you sick. Obviously I didn’t want that. She said that I can tell from the smell, plus a sighted person can easily verify. In reality, a blind person with any sense will have a sighted helper come by their home periodically to help with cleaning and the like, so this does not present an obstacle. I felt confident that I could do this without dying.

The lecture ended and we gathered our supplies, which we would get to take home to get us started. We received a wide mouth 32 ounce jar, a SCOBY, and a swing top bottle for storing the final product. We also got a funnel and some linen. We would go through the entire brewing process.

First, we put our SCOBY into our jars. Another student described it as looking like a jellyfish. It landed in the jar with a plop. I didn’t get a chance to touch it, but would later. Next, we added cool tea. You can’t pour in boiling tea or it will kill the bacteria. After covering the jar and securing it with a lid, I had my first batch of starter.

After brewing between five and seven days, the drink enters the second stage. This involves pouring the starter into the swing top jar, and adding flavoring. The sugars in the fruits and herbs give the carbonation. They thoughtfully had starter already brewed for us to try this part without waiting. For a flavor, they selected ginger peach with rose petals, which sounded wonderful. I cut up 3/4 of a peach, minced some ginger, and crushed some dried rose petals. I added them directly to the bottle. Done.

I took everything home and waited. Jessa even sent me the printed flier in a pdf file. Three days later the time had come. After dealing with the initial carbonation which she warned me about, I had a bottle of kombucha, exactly like what I would buy in the store, but even better. I had a glass and felt ecstatic. Something about brewing it myself added some extra oomph. I could hardly believe that I had done it.

Tonight I made my next batch of starter, continuing the process. I got to feel my SCOBY, and it didn’t feel as gross as I expected. It does have a jellyfish-like shape and a slimy rubbery texture. I could also feel the new layer forming on top. I did this after washing my hands for thirty seconds under very hot water as instructed. For my first flavoring, I decided to try raspberry ginger, with a little turmeric root thrown in as well. Why not.

A few years ago I tried to enjoy alcohol, but I realized that it just gave me a headache. I stopped drinking almost three years ago and have never regretted it. Some bars have begun offering kombucha as an alternative, and I encourage this trend. I miss having something special to drink on social occasions. I also miss the seasonal local element, and kombucha brings that back in a wonderful way.

I can now brew this amazing health elixir myself. Inspired Brews has me feeling very inspired. Can a blind person brew kombucha? Absolutely!

Fake News from my Real Senses

July 28, 2017

I had a fascinating experience while floating. For those who don’t know, floating means spending time in a sensory deprivation tank, floating in water with epsom salt. I go to Halcyon Floats once a month. It helps me stay centered in our stupid always-on society.

The float started, but I felt disturbed. I had issues with the silicon earplugs, as I prefer the rubber ones. They seem to provide better soundproofing for me. This comes down to a purely personal taste.

Time passed…

Suddenly I felt a buzzing vibration and the water start to move. I realized that the filter had turned on, which happens at the end of a session. Had that much time passed already?

“Don’t worry,” I said to myself, “it’s just fake news.”

I continued relaxing but the vibration grew stronger and the movement of the water continued. I wondered exactly how long I had spent in the tank. I bolted upright and removed the earplugs, making them useless. I discovered quiet surroundings and calm water. I had hallucinated the whole thing!

Some time later, the filter came on for real. It felt totally different. This underscored the experience. I believe that I entered the vibrational state, and almost left my body. It felt like jerking awake while falling asleep, which you have likely experienced. I didn’t realize how deeply I had gotten into the float.

I believed that I had only entered a light trance, when in fact I had entered something much deeper. You really should try floating sometime.

My New Meditation Cushion

July 26, 2017

After twenty years of regular use, I finally had to get a new meditation cushion. As with my previous one, I decided to go back to Dharma Crafts. This time I got an organic one with traditional buckwheat hulls. As the description says, it feels like sitting on sand. This appealed to me because I enjoy meditating. I received it today and immediately fell in love. I have a new cushion for a new phase. Now I need to write about my new blog.

TechGirlz!

February 24, 2017

This week I volunteered to help teach a class about web accessibility for TechGirlz. This amazing nonprofit organization offers free workshops to help girls become interested in technology. I really enjoyed the experience, and hope the girls did as well. I look forward to volunteering again.

I became blind at birth, and my parents got an Apple II/e when I turned seven. Another company made a speech card and screen reader, and I quickly took an interest. One day, I didn’t know what command to type, so typed LIST. This listed the current program in memory (Eliza in this case). Instantly I understood that I could make this magic box do whatever I wanted by typing in instructions. I knew that I would become a programmer when I grew up.

I hated middle school. As the only blind kid in a public school, kids bullied me and treated me like an outcast. As a computer nerd growing up in the 80s, the school did their best, but didn’t really know what to do with any of us. They regarded us as antisocial and strange at best, and as potential hackers at worst. And from what I’ve heard, girls had it even worse.

Now, we have TechGirlz, a wonderful nonprofit organization which offers free workshops to middle school aged girls. I forget where I first heard them, at some random event most likely. I remember talking to a woman about Ruby on Rails, which I don’t even use, even though I write straight Ruby or RubyMotion constantly. I remained subscribed to their mailing list because I like what they do.

A recent email detailed some upcoming workshops, including one about web accessibility with screen readers. I felt so excited! Of course, I do this professionally, so look forward to sharing my knowledge. I also recalled an illuminating conversation I had with Leslie Birch where she likened gender issues to accessibility. Framing them that way caused me to understand them a lot more clearly. Now I had the opportunity to teach some girls about accessibility! I signed up before even reading any of the details.

First I had to pass some background checks. This just meant filling out some forms online. Quick tip: on the child abuse clearance form, their system has a bug inputting the SSN, at least with Safari. I proceeded without specifying my SSN and still got my clearance back in a few days.

We began exchanging emails. The lesson plan called for using VoiceOver, which comes on all of Apple’s devices. I use it daily, including right now to write this article. However, the woman at the library said they did not have any Apple products, but that the girls could bring their own laptops. I haven’t used Windows in years, so had to brush up on some things. I thought we would use the full featured and free screen reader NVDA, but we ended up using Narrator, which Wikipedia describes as a light duty screen reader utility. It didn’t really matter, since we would only do the basics. I also suggested headphones.

The day came for the event. The woman heading the event teaches web design at a high school here in the city, so I assumed that the event would happen there. As my centenarian grandmother would no doubt remind us: never assume anything. In fact, the event happened in a suburb forty-five minutes away. It would take more time and money than I anticipated. I ate a snack and pondered the situation. Of course I had to go for it!

I arrived just in time in true Seraphin fashion. We got right into it. The girls went around and said their names and something about themselves. The first girl said that she wants to become an astronaut and an aerospace engineer. I excitedly referenced the breaking news of NASA discovering seven new Earth-like planets. Should could easily make an equal discovery. I expect a card in twenty or thirty years when she does. Another girl acted shyly.

“Don’t worry, I’m shy too.” I said. Privately I thought that if she wants to become a programmer then she will fit right in. When people ask if I feel nervous when I give speeches, I often say that i dread attending the after party far more. Giving the speech just means following an outline with emotion.

During the introductions I also suggested saying if they knew anyone with a disability. One girl had a friend with autism. This started shifting the discussion. I got that idea from the disability sensitivity training offered by Philly Touch Tours, something any organization can benefit from. We also played a fun game where we wore cards with a woman’s name and picture, and we had to figure out her identity from clues. I totally blanked on retired supreme court justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s name, though of course I knew of her.

It amazed me that some of the girls went to a VR school. My parents had to fight with my school to let me use technology in the classroom. Things have certainly changed. Not only that, but schools now have a program called CTE, which stands for Career in Tech Education. I hope kids today take advantage. I can only wish we had programs like these growing up!

The girls got out their laptops and we got Narrator running. I felt kind of sorry that they had to jump in and navigate a site. I would have spent some time going over some screen reader basics. However, I know adult professionals who end up in that exact same situation, so it does mirror something from real life.

I forgot to share an easy way to check for basic accessibility: try navigating the site by only using your keyboard. Don’t even worry about a screen reader. This won’t show screen reader accessibility, but it will show keyboard accessibility. If you can’t access something with the keyboard, then you likely can’t access it with a screen reader either.

Things got a little cacophonous and I think the girls started getting a little bored. They took a break and we had snacks. One remarked about the amount of extra stuff she had to listen to. I’ve always wished I could convey to a sighted person the amount of clutter a blind person has to deal with constantly. If these girls walked away understanding only that then I consider this lesson a success.

We did a little more work after that. One girl noted that Narrator reads the URL, instead of the link text. They looked at various pages, including some projects they have worked on. One did a project about the Northern Lights. Another did a page about Andy Warhol. I showed off my Aftershokz bone conduction headphones. Finally, each had to summarize what accessibility meant to them. One girl said:

“Technology is only fun when it is not annoying.”

That pretty much says it all!

We said our good byes and I took a Lyft back to “the far away city” as one of the librarians referred to it. It felt really good to introduce accessibility to a young and receptive audience. I had a powerful emotional experience imagining a whole new generation introduced to the wealth of computer history and positive hacker lore. We can change the world!

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