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.
I just spoke at #inspect2014, the second annual RubyMotion developer’s conference. The first one happened in Brussels. This year’s happened in San Francisco. I gave a talk, and presented the new version of motion-accessibility, which features automated iOS accessibility testing. My brother and his wife accompanied me, and I shared a room with Mark Villacampa, one of the other speakers. We had quite a time.
As soon as they announced the conference I knew I wanted to speak. Last year during the question and answer segment, someone asked if a way existed to do automated accessibility testing. I said no, but it sounded like a good idea. Since then I worked on a text console, then I got to the problem of accessibility testing. Now developers can test their apps to see if a VoiceOver user can access them.
I submitted a proposal and they accepted it. Now I had to find a way there. I mentioned it to Colin, the community organizer, and he said that one of the other speakers wanted to share a room. I had met Mark last year and we struck up a dialog about 3-D printing. He comes from Madrid, Spain. This year he would talk about interfacing RubyMotion with hardware, and would bring some demonstrations. We began arranging it, then my brother Ari and his wife Sarah said they wanted to go also. Sarah proved invaluable navigating Expedia. I could have never booked the trip without her help. As my Mom said, back in the day you could actually get a travel agent to help you, but not now.
Things fell into place. We had everything planned. We would arrive a day before Mark, then we would do the conference while Ari and Sarah enjoyed the area. To them it would feel like a vacation, but not to us. We had work to do.
For me, a small part of this work involved preparing my music. Last year I loaded up a bunch of music on my iPad, only to have it yanked away because of the mysteries of iTunes Match. Never again! I just wanted a device to which I could copy a bunch of music without restriction. My good friend Bec recommended a Sanza Clip Plus running RockBox, an open source MP3 player firmware. We had quite a time installing it and I don’t quite know how we finally got it working, but we did and I felt happy. I used to have to bring a bag full of music and technology when traveling. My Mom reminded me of the time when we went on a family vacation and I didn’t pack any clothes, just my stuff. Ari remembered that even as recently as 2000 when we went to England we both brought tons of music. Now it fit on a chip the size of my fingernail. Amazing!
We flew on Delta. The flight there went without incident. I wished they would have fed us, but we got sandwiches on the layover. We landed at San Jose and drove to San Francisco because it cost far less money. Now we felt hungry.
We went to a restaurant called Betel nut. I don’t remembered what I ordered, but enjoyed it. Suddenly we heard a guy at the next table berating the waiter. “This mango salad is the worst mango salad in the world! You are supposed to use green mangos. They are all soft and runny. I mean come on. I’m a foodie.”
We started making fun of the guy. “It looks like you have a douche bag on your hands.” commented my brother. This set the tone for the entire trip. Every time we overheard someone making a pretentious remark, we would say “Oh here we go again with the mango salad.” After I got back my friend Nikki suggested something that hadn’t occurred to me, he could have come from out of town as well. We just assumed he came from San Francisco. Now we will never know.
The next day started off slowly. We took advantage of the hotel’s free breakfast. My friend Rachel suggested I go to the pool to relax, and maybe I would meet someone. Instead I got yelled at for smoking on a deck overlooking the pool. They didn’t even have a sign. California uber ales!
Later in the day we walked up and down some hills and found the venue for the conference. The rest of the RubyMotion group did training at a place called SOMA. I wondered what that meant. Ari suggested the drug given to the citizens in Brave New World, a book every Californian should take to heart.
We ended up at a Chicago deep dish pizza place. We don’t usually get that in Philly, so enjoyed it. Mark arrived as we ate. He had just flown something like ten hours. Now our group had all its members. After dinner Mark went to visit a friend who works for Pebble, the smart watch company, and the rest of us watched the movie Office Space. If you haven’t seen it you really should. I also requested we watch the South Park episode entitled Smug Alert, in which Kyle’s dad gets a hybrid car then moves the family to San Francisco. They got it exactly right as always.
Mark had never come to America, so the next day we walked around the city, going up and down a number of hills. We had breakfast at Happy Donuts, just a nice average diner, but Mark enjoyed the experience. He had never had hashbrowns. We walked up and down some more hills, and ended up at a combination Starbucks and Wells Fargo. I told Mark that you can’t get any more American than this. We used their crappy wifi where I got a 37.5% packet loss. We walked up and down even more hills and found ourselves at the Moscone Center, where Apple would have WWDC. Mark saw them building the Apple logo, they had the top part of the apple and the stem. I faintly smelled pot smoke on the wind.
They cancelled the speaker’s dinner, but a few of us met at a restaurant. It felt good to see Laurent again, the creator of RubyMotion. Colin arrived, as did a contingent from Australia. Unfortunately when I got back to the hotel I had lost my iPhone cord and wall adapter. Perhaps I dropped them at Starbucks, I don’t know, but it put me in a bad mood. At least it happened around the right crowd.
The conference began. We listened to some great talks. You can watch them online soon. Laurent announced that RubyMotion 3.0 would have Android support. I had to ask Mark three times if he meant it seriously. Apparently he did.
We had to juggle power cords, since I had none, and had to use my hotspot to provide wifi. I swear, every tech conference I have attended has had poor or no wifi. How else can I make sarcastic tweets? A pair of Aftershokz bone conduction headphones also broke. This bothered me, but it felt expected. I wondered if they call them Aftershokz because AFTER your fifth pair breaks you stop feeling the SHOKZ. Mark “the hardware guy” fixed them with some tape, good enough for now.
After the conference a bunch of them wanted to go to In-and-Out Burgers, a hamburger chain. I could not understand why Europeans would come all the way to America only to eat at a chain, but whatever. I knew they wouldn’t have anything vegetarian, but some other people went to Greens, which had vegetarian and vegan food and resided near the conference. I ordered a bowl of mushroom risotto and a glass of white wine. I enjoyed the food, but it cost me thirty-nine dollars! That would have cost me twenty dollars in Philly. I also realized at this point that I had not had dessert the whole time, something which would shock my family and friends. It complimented my bitter mood.
A group had organized an event for CocoaPods, a system for distributing code to help app developers. We decided to go. One girl made a sarcastic talk which I enjoyed. I also met Mark’s friend from Pebble, and excitedly told him about making it accessible to VoiceOver. He said I sold him on the idea. The event ended, making fourteen hours of tech talks in one day, very intense.
We came back to the hotel and I released motion-accessibility version 3.0. I felt proud but worn out. I had lost my iPhone charger, broken a pair of headphones, and had a blister on my toe. I missed home.
The day for us to give our talks had finally come. I woke up and immediately had an idea for how to improve my release. We went to the conference, heard an inspirational talk about teaching, then retreated to the speaker’s lounge to work. I banged out some code and released version 3.0.1, pushing the gem over my iPhone’s hotspot. That felt hardcore. Mark also finished his demonstration app which would interface with a bluetooth robot he made with his 3-D printer. Of course I tested it for accessibility, and feel proud to say that I actually drove a robot around with an iPhone app written in RubyMotion.
The talks went well. You can watch the video. Mark’s robots proved a big hit as well. We both felt a weight lift from our shoulders. We had done what we had come here to do. I felt exhausted. I always throw all my energy into my speech.
We all felt hungry but didn’t know where to go. After walking up and down some hills we found the Plant Cafe. I like this place. They had a lot of good organic food, both vegetarian and with meat, so everyone found something they liked. I had some good Chinese noodles and a banana smoothie. I missed having hemp protein. I also finally had my first and only dessert while there, a big vegan chocolate chip cookie.
After dinner we had to go to the party. We mingled and had beer from Rogue Brewery. The party ended at 11:00 and of course everyone wanted to have an after party. As a programmer this did not shock me.
We walked quite a distance. I have no idea where we ended up. The blister on my toe still hurt. My shoulder hurt from carrying a laptop around all day. My brain hurt from giving my speech. I just wanted to meditate and rest.
We finally made it to the Buena Vista cafe, the proclaimed inventor of Irish Coffee. I felt skeptical, but Wikipedia confirms it in part – they first made it in America. At the mention of Irish Coffee I knew what would happen. We entered the loud bar. Sound bounced off all the hard surfaces. I told Mark that I could not do this, seriously. He said eh just wanted to hang out a little, and that we only get to do this once a year. Of course he had a point.
I sat there, sipping water. I didn’t even feel like alcohol. A man sat down across from us. “Would you like to try my Irish Coffee?” he asked. I said sure. Why not? After a taste he offered to buy me one, so of course I said yes. When in rome… And as I predicted I drank a mixture of coffee, whiskey, and whipped cream at 12:30 AM. I knew my body would hate me the next day.
Mark began talking to the man. He said he works for Apple. This got my attention. He writes low level hardware drivers and kernel extensions. He added a processor to the Linux kernel. Clearly this guy knows his stuff. Mark later described him as looking like an old hardware hacker in his fifties, and this fit the image I had in my head.
He made an oblique comment that nobody uses AppleScript anymore. Mark and I wondered about the rumors of a new language. Of course a few days later at WWDC Apple announced Swift, a subject worthy of another post. This further boosted the man’s credibility, not that his Apple business card didn’t already.
I asked if he had come to the conference, and he said yes, both days. “So you know how I feel about Apple’s products?” I asked. He had indeed seen my talk, and told me about some of the great work done by the Apple Accessibility team. I got his email. Now I felt awake! You never know what will happen.
As I suspected my body did not appreciate the Irish Coffee later. I don’t usually drink coffee, didn’t feel like alcohol, and don’t like whipped cream unless my Mom makes it herself. Still, I did not regret my decision. Something amazing had happened last night…didn’t it? But now I felt gross.
We finally made it up and out for breakfast at 03:30 in the afternoon, feeling like true programmers. Of course we picked that day to walk up Lumbard St., the crookedest street in America. We had to stop three times to catch our breath. We almost died. We ended up back at Happy Donuts. We had a weird feeling we would. It saved our lives, and didn’t cost us a small fortune. That proved enough of an adventure, and we went back to the hotel to recover. We ate the last of the Chicago deep dish pizza, and went to a vending machine. Mark said he wanted something typical of here. “What’s a Pop-Tart?” We ate our final meal of Pop-Tarts and Vitamin Water, as American as the combination of Starbucks and Wells Fargo.
We packed and left in the morning. Mark and I said good bye. We had a great time at the conference, and had plenty to talk about. The rest of us drove back to San Jose to return the car and fly home. We had a meal in the airport cafe. I had vegetarian tacos with fresh avocado, a meal as good as any I had eaten so far. We overheard someone at the next table: “This food tastes like water.” “Here we go again with the mango salad.”
The flight back felt like torture, in contrast to the flight there. We got on the plane, and my brother safely stored my rigid cane under luggage to secure it. A stewardess reprimanded him, and suggested he hold it for the duration of the flight. Ari argued with her, and she finally put the cane on top of a pile of luggage. When we opened the door at the end of the flight, my cane promptly rolled out and bopped me on the head.
They also didn’t feed us the whole time. They gave me a piddily bag of pretzels. When I asked for a second they reacted as though I had asked for caviar on a golden plate. “Oh no sir we don’t have that.” Pathetic! Another passenger gave me theirs. How nice of them.
I will never fly Delta again. In this day and age every airline should know how to treat passengers with disabilities. Not feeding us once on two trans-coastal trips felt inhumane. Several friends who travel a lot have told me that they do not serve meals on any domestic flights, no matter the airline, but that doesn’t make it right. I hope I can find a better airline for my trip to Berlin.
In conclusion I had a great time at the conference, but I don’t think I could live in San Francisco. It has a strange climate – warm in the day, then cool in the evening. And enough with the fucking hills! Plus, a single room apartment cost $2700 per month, and my brother saw an efficiency for sale for a cool million. Insane! When people ask my friend Alex Hillman if he thinks Philadelphia will become the next Silicon Valley, he says that he does not want it to become that, and now I fully understand why.
Still, I always enjoy hanging out with RubyMotion developers, and everyone at the conferenced acted warmly and wonderfully and I look forward to next year. I suggested Philadelphia because I live there and because you can put on a conference inexpensively. I also suggested Colorado and Amsterdam for obvious reasons. I have begun warming to Mark’s suggestion of Madrid however. He already taught me one word in spanish: carajillo. It means coffee with cognac, similar to an Irish Coffee. If a stranger offers you one at 12:30 AM, say yes. You never know, he might work for Apple.
We have done some amazing things with the touch tour program at the Penn museum. I started training last August. We made it into the AP, and on WHYY. And tonight Art Reach honored us by presenting us with the Commitment to Cultural Access award. The elegant event took place in the lower Egypt gallery, home of the sixth largest sphinx, fourth largest outside of Egypt. We gave mini touch tours and I gave a speech.
We have worked with Art Reach in the past. We have given them touch tours and I have gone to one of their described theater performances. They have done a lot of good things in the city to bring art to the disabled. When we heard they would present us with this award we felt thrilled. They wanted one assistant docent to speak, and I had a feeling it would fall to me, seeing as how I just spoke at TEDxPhiladelphia. With only a two day’s notice I prepared and practiced my speech. I once again used the Loci technique and it did not fail me.
They said we had to wear cocktail dress so I wore my suit, especially because I heard the director of the museum would attend. We gathered and made it to the museum despite the unusual traffic. They had done a nice job of transforming the space, complete with food, drink, and quiet live music. Trish’s husband Andy offered me a beer. At first I thought I would just have wine, but then I realized the appropriateness. I enjoyed drinking a beer surrounded by ancient Egyptian artifacts, though I doubt they had Philadelphia Pale Ale back then. I nibbled on some flatbread and vegetables then decided to make my way over to the Sphinx.
I had spent less time with this piece, since we did the other gallery this year. I did get some recent time to familiarize myself with it and it really helped. I enjoyed doing the mini touch tours. One woman asked about a particular symbol and put my hand on an Ankh, the symbol of eternal life, one of my favorites. “I am in heaven.” I gave a tour to some girls from the Please Touch museum. They enjoyed the incredible detail of the statue.
Suddenly things began. They first recognized STAMP, an organization which gives teens free access to twelve museums around the city. I thought they would take a break after that, but they went right into the next part. Julian, the director of the museum, said a few words. I felt excited when he said that the touch tour program would expand into ancient Rome and beyond. Even though I paid attention, I couldn’t resist touching the awesome sphinx which stood behind me, grounding my anticipation into its cool stone. Trish thanked the funders. And before I knew it I found myself at the podium.
I think my speech went well enough given I had just memorized it that afternoon. Everyone really enjoyed it. Once again some told me I should start doing standup comedy. You can hear it for yourself. The gallery had a magical echo.
“Do you want to take it?” asked Layla. I thought she would hand me my cane, but instead I felt a heavy cardboard box containing the award. I passed it to Trish, feeling rather like Frodo taking the crown from Gandalf and passing it to Aragorn. She opened the box and found a heavy glass disk, which ironically we all felt afraid to touch. It felt special.
I put all my energy into the speech, but we still had a few minutes. Claudia from Please Touch got me some wine. We excitedly talked about going to her museum, and she promised me a ride on their hand-carved carrousel. Some girls from Art Reach wanted a tour. One said she wanted me specifically so I felt glad to oblige her. “Your dream has come true.”
After the tour we turned around and found they had taken everything, even the glass of wine I had left on the podium. The time had come to leave. We all went our separate ways with a good feeling about the night and the future. Thank you Art Reach, the Penn museum, and everyone on the touch tour team!
Every year Philadelphia has a week-long celebration of tech events called Philly Tech Week. Last year my friend Sonia and I had a braille street art table. This year they had around 1300 events. You could not go to everything even if you wanted to. I went on the Chevrolet Innovation Tour, participated on a panel about the aging and the disabled, and went to the inauguration of N3RD Street.
The week began with the Chevrolet Innovation Tour. I found it very funny that Chevrolet sponsored the event, and right below that the page says that transportation will not be provided. Fortunately my friend Sonia helped organize a panel so got the VIP treatment and invited me along. We started at the Comcast accessibility lab. I have come here several times because they host the Philly Accessibility Forum there. Andrew Larkin and his blind boss Tom Lwodkowski demonstrated their spoken interface. Comcast will make the first fully accessible set-top box, and as much as their customer service sucks their accessibility programmers wants to do good work. They also demonstrated eye-tracking technology. It made a great way to start the tour. I already felt inspired.
The VIP treatment meant we got transportation. We took a big comfortable SUV to the nanofabrication lab at Penn. They told us about the work they do with genetics and nanocircuitry. Sonia liked the puppy learning research they do. We then walked in this glass area which overhangs the street. You could feel the slight movements from people walking and the wind.
We decided to switch things up and take a different car this time. We chose a Volt, Chevrolet’s hybrid electric car. We enjoyed learning about it from our driver. The tour took us to Nextfab Studio, a maker space. I just thought they did 3-D printing, but they have machines for doing all kinds of things, such as wood work, metal work, textiles, even a photo room. They can fabricate anything you might need to manufacture a prototype. I felt very excited about this. For a long time I have wanted to make some kind of computer for the blind but have lacked the resources. Now we have a place that does it all right here in the city! I also met the creator of a really cool 3-D printed model of City Hall. We will talk more in the future.
We liked the Volt so much we decided to take it to the final stop on the tour, Indy Hall. It felt good to end up there. Alex talked about the space and they had free beer of course. I felt very satisfied and went home.
The next night I went to the Philly Accessibility Forum, even though it didn’t technically make up part of Philly Tech Week. It rained but I didn’t know that when I stepped outside without my umbrella. I took a cab there and a security guard escorted me to the elevator. He hit the number, then promptly stepped out, leaving me alone as the great glass elevator rocketed upward. I stepped out and heard nothing. You can’t even get to the lab without a pass. I felt around and found the panel. At least that had braille. I took the elevator back down to the lobby, musing on the irony. Someone else brought me back up and admitted me entrance to the hallway with the lab and found the lab and finally I made it to the accessibility forum.
They did a recap of CSUN, the large conference that takes place every year in San Diego. They promoted the International Association of Accessibility Professionals. They will offer certification among other things. I joined the next day. We also bagged on Google. They gave a presentation about the “accessibility” of Google Drive. “What accessibility?” I asked. Apparently they only tested it with their screen reader ChromeVox, which no one uses. This sums things up in a nutshell. They have tunnel vision, only focusing on their own product. Despite the small gathering we all felt glad we had come.
A month or so ago I met a woman whose husband heard me speak at Ignite Philly. She and a few others would do a panel at Philly Tech Week entitled Tapping into the Invisible Consumer Base. This would make part one of three events. After the panel they would have a focus group to find a few problems with technological solutions. This would culminate in the third event, an accessibility hackathon at the end of May. Yes of course I would like to participate!
Wednesday the 9th finally came and I felt excited. I took a cab to the Free Library of Philadelphia 1901 Vine st. “Can I ask you a question?” asked the cabby. “What?” “Do you believe in Jesus?” Why do these people always have to ask me this at 09:00 in the morning when going to do a very down to earth thing like speaking at a panel about technology? I said I considered him a great teacher but of course I knew what she really meant. “Do you want to go to heaven?” she asked. “Doesn’t everyone?” I didn’t feel like telling her that I worship Discordia, the primal goddess of chaos. I also didn’t feel like explaining that rather than hoping for some far off heaven that I would rather concentrate on bringing heaven to earth. She concluded with a few final Jesus-based remarks, and promptly left me at 1801 Vine st. a block off. Perfect. All hail Discordia! A woman who works as a judge helped me to the library. She said she still prefers writing while in court because it keeps her awake and helps her remember.
I showed up to the panel and did some minimal setting up. They had some wonderful food from Neapolitan Bakery. I had a cherry ginger scone and some chai. Very nice. Sonia showed up, as did my friend Meg, and she brought her Google Glass. We have begun talking about some things we can do since it has zero accessibility right now. Today we decided that she would set it on record and I would just wear it, then people could see through my eyes. I did, and several people asked me about the “funny looking glasses” I wore. You can see it for yourself.
The keynote started so we made our way to the auditorium. I went on stage and joined the others, and we had a good general discussion. I really stayed focused on accessibility, bringing things back to down-to-earth solutions. As I have said a lot recently, we have the technology now, we just have to start using it. You can hear the entire panel for yourself.
After it ended Meg asked if I wanted to go to a game demo. I said why not? We also told another guy we would go. Instead we got food at Whole Foods, and had a wonderful lunch sitting under a tree in the parkway. It felt so good and cleansing to sit in the nice weather.
Meg got me a cab and I got in. I got the same woman from earlier. She blasted Christian rock. I contemplated music made to glorify the Creator, but auto-tuned to remove the imperfections from the human voice given to the singer by that creator. I kept my mouth shut. Thankfully she dropped me off at my place without any more problems.
The next night I went to Philly Cocoa’s monthly meeting at the Apple Store. They had a pretty good turnout, and talked about Bluetooth LE, otherwise known as iBeacons. I actually got to touch a few of them. One felt like a plush rubbery polyhedron. It had a basic cubic form but with other shapes, rather hard to describe. Another felt like a key fob. A third plugged into a USB port, and just felt like a little piece of rectangular plastic, very impressive. I had heard about iBeacons for so long, but actually getting to touch one really made it mean something. This reminded me of doing touch tours.
The next day, Friday, I went to the inauguration of N3RD St! They announced it as a barbecue, but actually they had a few food trucks. One sold Mexican food. Another sold cupcakes. A third sold cheese. I met my friend Liz, and we hung out through the whole thing. Meg also showed up with her Glass, and I met many other friends. A lot of us had met on Twitter and met for the first time in real life here. This has definitely gone beyond the walls of Indy hall.
In case you don’t know, Indy Hall and a few other places reside on North 3rd St. or N 3rd St. or N3RD Street. The “3” becomes an “e” in elite-speak, hence Nerd St. We began calling it that last year. I recall Kara Lafleur calling herself the N3RD St. Chef. It just kind of grew and before we knew it everyone just started calling it N3RD Street. City officials even began using the term and finally they officially named it so.
Alex Hillman from Indy Hall and a few others drafted the N3RD Street manifesto. He said that they just added “Whereas” before each line to make it official. He therefore said he would read the manifesto, and ask us to chant “Whereas!” before each line. “This is the nerdiest thing I have ever done!” exclaimed Liz. You could really feel the n3RD in the air! A few officials gave some speeches, they showed one of the signs that just went up on 3rd and Market, and it had happened. We named a part of Philadelphia!
Everyone kept asking Liz and I if we would go to the Philly Tech Week signature event at the Comcast Center. We felt like we had gone back to high school, with all the kids asking if we would go to the big party and not really feeling like it. We almost settled on going to the after party, but still felt unsure as I went home. Instead of going I ended up watching Encounter at Farpoint for the 44389th time. I didn’t care, I had a wonderful Philly Tech Week. Next year they have to make it Philly Tech Month. How can you be in two places at once when you’re not anywhere at all?
As I noted a few weeks ago, I recorded a version of my Ignite Philly talk which would air on WHYY. It aired on friday on a program called the Pulse. It felt very surreal. A video piece and article also appeared.
I went to WHYY a on a wednesday to record the studio version of the talk. I had the idea to do it myself, and would have felt content to just record it in my apartment, but I’ll take a professional studio if offered. I sat in a soundproof room with a pair of good headphones and a microphone suspended from a wire framework. When growing up my Mom said I should go into broadcasting and now I felt what she meant. Sitting in that chair in that booth just felt so right. We did the presentation in two takes, and did some interview footage afterward. A photographer also took some shots.
Zack then offered to take me on a tour. Of course I said yes. I have known WHYY since childhood. I used to love the actual mechanisms of radio and television broadcasting. I would sometimes wake up early and turn on WHYY, channel 12 on the television, and watch the test pattern end and the opening station identification and information play. That moment of transition felt somehow magical to me, plus I enjoyed the part about the antenna’s location and power output. Touring the radio station felt like a childhood dream come true.
We walked past the studios where they record Fresh Air and Radio Times. We saw some offices. I touched a video camera and a guy from the union yelled at me. We entered a cool server room. I asked what kind of servers, but Zack didn’t know. He did find a reel-to-reel degausser, an instrument for erasing magnetic reel-to-reel tapes. They don’t use them anymore, it has all gone digital, but the piece of equipment brought back memories, especially for Zack who did that as his first job.
I left, and Zack said he would email me when he knew when the piece would air, and finally I got the date, December 20. Shortly before that, Kimberly Painter came to my condo to do a video interview. She had specific instructions to video my cat. Starseed has become a video star! She asked some questions and got some footage. I found it funny when she asked why I did it. She had worked with a blind man in the past who wanted to let everyone know that blind people could lead normal lives. I said that actually my friend Adam just came up with the idea himself, and told me about it one time when I went to Indy Hall – much less exciting.
On thursday night, Zack sent a link to an article with a studio version of my Ignite Philly speech. I felt concerned when it only came through in mono. Audiophiles have notoriously picky attitudes, so I messaged him immediately. He assured me that it would air in stereo. The article also contained Kim’s video. It provided some more in depth information about the touch tours, and I enjoyed the sound of the Bertoia sculpture.
Finally 09:00 AM came, and the radio piece aired. I sat transfixed and listened to a wonderful edit of portions from the studio presentation mixed with the interview. The moment of silence when everyone concentrated on their third eye felt magical. I’d like to think I raised Philadelphia’s vibrations a little. It has also made people more aware of echolocation, and of the one organization teaching it, World Access for the Blind.
Going to WHYY gave me a wonderful opportunity, and I thank Zack and his audio guy and everyone else affiliated with the Pulse for making it possible. Who knows, perhaps it will start a broadcasting career. I will definitely start doing a podcast if nothing else. I already have a very weird idea for my first one. Radio rules!
I just saw the musical Nerds. I loved it. Every nerd in Philadelphia should see it. It runs through the end of December. Since I haven’t read a detailed review or plot summary written by a nerd I thought I would do that now. If you don’t want to read spoilers then just go and buy a ticket.
It all started a few months ago when a group called Art Reach helped with an audio described musical called Noises Off. Trish, the woman who does the touch tours, invited me. We also went with her husband and her blind daughter Katie. We ate a homely meal at a beautiful farmhouse restaurant. We had a good time, but the musical had a fast pace, rather like an episode of Fawlty Towers, and I left feeling happy but confused.
Recently I saw another woman from Art Reach. We started talking about musicals, and I said I wished that they would make a musical about something cool, like time traveling robots or something. She said that in fact a musical about Steve Jobs and Bill Gates plays at a local theatre. This sounded right up my alley so Is tarted asking around. Trish’s husband Andy runs Awfully Nice Tours, and lent the theater company a Segway for them to use as a prop, so they comped him some tickets. Because of everyone’s generosity I got to go for free.
We arrived at the Suzanne Roberts theater early. They let us drink in the theater, so we got some wine and headed in. We sat way up high, but it didn’t matter thanks to the wonderful acoustics. Music quietly played while they got ready, and I noticed the Shire theme from the Lord of the Rings, something a nerd would recognize. Nice touch. They also had some visual gags going, loading jokes. Trish read some from the program including the scenes, so I had a bit of an idea of what to expect, and it sounded good.
It began and I felt immediately transfixed. The plot makes no attempt at historical accuracy. It makes up for this however by getting the feelings of the events, companies, and people absolutely right. It also has a serious message.
- Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak meet Bill Gates and Paul Alan at the Homebrew computer club in 1975. Of course, in real life only the two Steves went to Homebrew, but that doesn’t matter now. Gates worries about fitting in, while Jobs worries about getting some pot to roll a joint. They present their rival machines, and the Steves win the competition with their computer with a screen. They get a coupon to a pizza place and a free hamster. Every time Jobs has an acid vision of the future, the Macintosh startup sound plays. A nerdy girl wearing braces which pick up AM radio stations hits on Bill Gates with suggestive chess metaphors, but he rejects her, and tries to pick up Sally, the organizer of the club, but she in turn rejects him. Jobs then overtly hits on her and she accepts his advances.
Bill Gates sings a sad song about feeling like just a nerd and getting picked on by jocks. He’d say “Please don’t hurt me” but they did. Steve Jobs sings a psychedelic rock song about how the revolution stars with one. Not two, just one. Sally interrupts them and buys the first Apple after Jobs wows her with a presentation with the 2001 theme playing in the background. Bill Gates goes to IBM. Female employees sing a company song. The president of IBM, John Watson, fires one of them for singing “It’s the happiest place on Earth” off key, then begins his meeting with Gates. Whenever anyone says IBM the company’s menacing chords play, and Watson sings a song instructing Bill Gates how to stay one step ahead of the competition. This involves stepping on everyone then kicking them to the curb.
Jobs goes to the Paulo Alto Research Center (PARC) to date Sally, but instead falls in love with all the new ideas he sees, such as a printer, a computer network, and of course the mouse. They fall in love while going on a walk in the PARC and she tells him to steal the ideas while Woz plays the sax badly. Gates tries to sing an inspiring song with mixed metaphors. You do whatever it takes. In this case, this means buying an operating system from the perpetually wrong Tim Patterson on the cheap and reprogramming it. A coffee chain wanted to buy it, but Tim turned them down – who would want to pay four dollars for a cup of coffee?
Gates says they’d better go back to IBM to give them the operating system. “No need, we followed you.” says Watson accompanied by another menacing chord. Watson tells Gates to have a nice life and laughs. Gates retorts with a laugh and menacing chords of his own. The chords begin clashing and interfering with their conversation, but it doesn’t matter. In one of the truer bits of dialog, Gates explains that while the industry concentrates on building the best machine, he will sell the software that makes it all run. “It costs nothing! And I can charge whatever I want! It’s called software, and it’s the genius of Microsoft! Mic-ro-soft!”
Next, we go to the 1984 worldwide computer convention. Myrtle, the nerdy girl, again tries to hit on Gates and again he rejects her, even after her mention of having the Kama Sutra read by Leonard Nimoy. Jobs shows up with Sally and mistakes Gates for a valet. Sally agrees to park his car: “It’s in the handicapped zone.”
Gates and Alan present MSDOS, and sing the song that made me laugh the most. He says that the whole presentation runs on DOS, and you just have to type c:\runmusicalpresentation. As a nerd I have to nitpick and point out that MSDOS filenames could only have eight characters and no spaces. An eight-bit drum track starts playing. I remember those sounds well, so it really made it extra funny for me. The two of them start to wrap over it:
DOS is amazing, it’s one of a kind
DOS is cool, it will blow your brain
DOS is incredible, DOS is fun,
DOS can be enjoyed by everybody.
DOS is powerful, no bugs at all!
[The computer beeps and the drum track starts to stutter]
DOS can –
[The track stops with a final beep]
Error 453? I thought we debugged this? Well can we reboot it? Just give me a sec – Suddenly, an Apple sign comes down, and Steve Jobs sings a hard rock song about the Macintosh, clearly blowing away the competition. He reprises the line: Because the revolution starts with one.
Gates laments the presentation. “Steve Jobs gets the girl and we go home with our disks in our hand!” He asks: “Where are all the DOS groupies?” Alan suggests Myrtle, but Gates again rejects her, and tries to show him what cool means with an equation, something nerdy in itself. Gates says “I want to see less nerd and more action.” The two of them start yelling “Nerd action!” while slapping each other in a very gay way. This puts Gates over the top, and he realizes that he has to learn how to become cool.
The Steves go to Time Magazine, and Jobs monopolizes the interview, but “forgets” where he got the idea for the mouse. When the reporter challenges him that employees feel unhappy and say Jobs has a messianic complex, he asks “Who said that? I’ll smite them!” Jobs asks about getting on the cover or perhaps a centerfold. “Once you go Mac you never go back.”
Sally confronts Jobs about his attitude, then the two girls sing a sad song about their loves. Jobs calls Sally. “I realize I haven’t made time for you and – hold on I’ve got another call.” He goes to the other line and hears nothing, as ominous music plays. Suddenly Bill Gates appears.
Jobs worries he has come to bust him for drugs, but Gates wants his secrets, and ties Jobs to a chair. After hitting Jobs in the face, Jobs confesses everything, and tells Gates all about the graphical user interface. Gates rips it all off to make Windows. He then forces alcohol down Jobs’ throat, putting him to sleep. The next day Woz revives Jobs and feels furious when Jobs tells him what happened. Jobs decides to leave and start his own company, but Woz will not join him. “Let him have our secrets! What’s he gonna do with them anyway?” A gangster rap song then plays, proclaiming the praises of Windows. Again, they did a great job capturing the feeling of the Mac’s true coolness versus Windows fake coolness. And that ended act one.
Act two picks up twenty laters after the Homebrew Computer Club, in 1995, and everything runs Windows. Everyone feels down and out in Silicon Valley. Steve Jobs lives in a cardboard box. Woz can’t find his hamster. Sally feels worried about the state of the world. Paul Alan wants to play basketball. Myrtle has founded a startup but still hasn’t found a guy. John Watson has become a crack addict. It can’t get any worse.
Microsoft has begun converting the world to Windows by force. They inject a Mac user at the creative writing department at Swarthmore with the Microsoft virus. I loved the local reference, since I lived in Swarthmore for much of my life. A helicopter lands and they inject Steve Jobs. He feels his creative urge slipping away and decides to reach out to God by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. He asks if God has abandoned him just like his parents and by Apple. He feels he can call God “G” because they have a lot in common. He gets an immediate reply – from a mailer daemon. He curses the demon and officially signs out after closing and force quitting his open apps.
At Microsoft, Bill Gates asks for an acquisition report. They own 76% of everything. The head of Netscape arrives, and Gates prepares to take over yet another company. He feels shocked when Myrtle walks in. She has lost the headgear and become a fashionable woman. He tries to impress her by telling her to name anything. She replies that she wants a traditional Italian clown. Gates hits a buzzer and sure enough in walks a traditional Italian clown, complete with accordion. He tasers the clown. Myrtle considered the demonstration impressive and terrifying.
Myrtle tells Bill to give it to her straight, and they sing a ridiculous tango about feeling the urge to merge, with plenty of innuendo. After the song he confesses his true goal of crushing everything in his path. “Before I was a pawn, but now I’m the king and I’m inviting you to be my queen.” he says smugly. Myrtle would rather drink wine and watch Titanic. Gates says he has Celine Dion locked in a dungeon, but she starts to leave.
He threatens that if she walks out the door he will copy her browser and build it into Windows. Myrtle says that she’ll sue the pants off of him, and he promptly removes them. She leaves. “Hey, at least you took your pants off, that’s progress.” chides Paul Alan. Gates orders him to copy her browser.
Paul considers it immoral and illegal. He wants to play in the NBA, especially now that he owns a basketball team. He leaves Gates as well. In a rage, Gates orders the Paultron 3000 sent in. A robot with a discordant voice enters and they sing a duet, the song Gates sang before about doing whatever it takes. The robot’s voice locks up in the middle of the performance.
Meanwhile, Woz has to revive Jobs from the Microsoft virus. “Shutting down in 30 seconds.” “Abort, retry, fail.” Woz calls Apple tech support. A man from India answers and introduces himself as “…Derek.” A hilarious tech support dialog ensues.
“Is your friend turned on?” “I don’t think so. I hope not.” “Would you turn your friend on?” “How am I supposed to do that?” “Can you take off the front panel, blow on his motherboard, then reach around the back and flip the switch?”
Woz refuses. Derek tells him to perform a reboot by taking off his friend’s boots then putting them back on. He then admits he doesn’t know what to do. Suddenly Woz hears a crash over the phone. Microsoft has broken in and have injected him too.
As a last resort, Woz hooks up a device to Jobs’ heart in an attempt to install anti-virus software. He sees the spinning busy indicator on the screen and realizes it will take a while. Jobs has a near death experience in which he sees a ghost who looks and sounds like Sally, but who identifies herself as Oracle. She sings a inspirational song telling him to think different, and instructs him to return to where it all began – at the Homebrew Computer Club. There he will find a group of nerds uniting to stop Bill Gates. “May your life be brief and fruitful.”
At the United Nerds convention, Myrtle doesn’t know the password, and the guard challenges her with a security question and a CAPTCHA. Everyone has a different idea about what to do. Myrtle, who now uses the handle IHeartJohnnyDepp27, believes the internet will become the future. The perpetually wrong Tim Patterson believes people won’t want to search the internet, and would rather go to libraries. He turned down 50% of a search engine company called doogle or google or poogle or something.
Another girl envisions the internet as a big long tube, sort of like Ted Stevens, and sees people putting themselves online, and calls it a you-tube. Her first video shocks everyone. “Hi, I’m Tom Watson and I’m addicted to crack.” he announces, mistaking the event for a Narcotics Anonymous meeting. The traditional Italian clown talks of how Gates hurt him. “He hit me with a taser. I said hey! Don’t taser me bro!” They all fall into discord, when Steve Jobs makes his triumphant appearance.
He says that they have a common enemy blinded by greed, and he knows because he became blinded too. He admits that Woz invented the first personal computer. “You did it, Woz.” “We did it, Steve.” says Woz, and everyone says awww.
Jobs goes on and says that he misses Sally. She ended up making eco-friendly hooded burlap muumuus. He says he would apologize. A girl wearing an eco-friendly hooded burlap muumuu says she would ask how she would know he doesn’t just feed her more lies. He asks Sally to forgive him, but she says not yet. She does feel ready to fight back though, and says that they just have to think different, reminding Steve of his experience with Oracle.
Steve Jobs asks people what they like more than everything. One girl likes pictures of kittens. A guy likes the music of William Shatner. The clown would buy a tangerine-colored computer. Jobs has a vision of Angry Birds. Jobs suggests a class action lawsuit. They sing the song about how all it takes is just one, but this time each nerd brings their own talents into the mix.
The final scene takes place in the supreme court. The judge reads the charges, and Gates pleads guilty – guilty of making people’s lives easier. He offers the court a simple choice: either step into the ring with the richest man in the world, or he can just give them a bunch of money and they can all go home. The judge bangs his gavel, the closing music begins to play, and the curtain starts to come down.
Suddenly, Jobs storms in, and orders the audience to stay in their seats. He invokes the full release clause of the inventor’s constitution of 1593, meaning both parties have to release everything in their pipeline to wipe out the other from the annals of history. Thomas Edison last used it against some guy named Tesla. They then do a combination song and rap to bring the technology up to date. The iMac goes up against Windows and Internet Explorer. Jobs releases the iPod. Microsoft releases the Zune to an underwhelming response. Jobs wins that round.
Jobs has Pixar, Microsoft has the XBox. Bill Gates wins that round. Jobs releases the iPhone. He asks Siri if Bill Gates blows donkeys and she says yes. She doesn’t say that in real life, I checked. Gates introduces bing.com. Jobs releases the iPad. Jobs wins that round and apparently the contest.
Gates pulls out a plastic light saber, but has to hum to power it. He then says “I am a billionaire. You don’t think I can’t create a real light saber? Watch!” He then chops off the clown’s arm. Jobs pleads with Gates: “Please don’t hurt me.” Those words come back to Gates from his youth and from the beginning of the musical. He realizes what he has become.
Myrtle speaks to Bill, and remembers the shy kid who stood next to her at the Homebrew club. Gates replies that he is just a nerd and they fall in love. He tells Paul that he doesn’t blame hi for leaving and tells him to follow his dreams in the NBA. He sends the clown outside to a limo with a biogeneticist who can repair his arm before flying him home back to his family. He apologizes to Tim for ripping him off and offers a position at Microsoft. He gives Sally a check for eighty billion dollars and lets her run his foundation, sort of like Melinda. He gives Woz his hamster. He gives his fancy car to Charity. He asks Myrtle to go out and she says “Let’s merge all night long.”
Steve Jobs asks Sally to take him back. First she says no, then after a second she says yes. Woz clears his throat and says they should hang out. “I think that you’re a genius.” he sings. “I think that you are right.” replies Jobs, but gives Woz a new leather jacket.
And now we have come to the end. SteveJobs releases the iPhone and stock piles billions of dollars for Apple. Bill Gates leaves Microsoft and spends his money fighting malaria and polio. “Not saying one’s better than the other.” comments Gates. Steve Jobs floats into the cloud and gives God a $10 gift card to the Apple Store. Gates says that they both started off as nerds, feeling passionate about something most people didn’t understand, but we triumphed, and those that didn’t understand it saw the world change around them, and came to embrace the thing we had loved. And finally we were accepted, right guys? “Yeah?” I yelled out hesitantly. The musical ends with the entire cast singing “Yes we are not just nerds.” Beautiful! After that the cast came into the audience while singing a parody called Down and Nerdy, of course.
For me, the speeches at the end really made the musical. Despite all the silliness, they made a valid point. Nobody understood what we did before computers became popular. We did social networking twenty years ago, though we didn’t call it that. To this day I have not had as much fun with a computer as when I ran a bulletin board system. And everyone else really did see the world change around them. Now the jocks check their sports scores on their iPhones, and everyone has a stupid Facebook account. I also really enjoyed how at the beginning, Jobs sang that the revolution begins with one, largely referring to himself, but at the end each nerd had a unique skill to contribute, and all the revolutions of one united into something bigger and stronger than any of them. It reminds me of my experiences with the Philly tech scene, especially Indy Hall. Alone we can’t do much, but when we come together we can achieve all kinds of wild things!
I can not reiterate this enough. If you enjoy my blog then you have to see this musical. It stops playing in Philadelphia at the end of the month, so perhaps it will come to your city after that. It deserves to go to Broadway, or so say my theatre-going friends. It me laugh and feel inspired, and I know it will do the same for you. We are not just nerds!