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 myself a Taoist. I use Linux as my desktop and Android as my mobile OS. I eat gluten-free vegan meals. For the rest you'll have to read my blog. To comment on what you read here, visit Disboardia, my bulletin board system.
I’ve had so much going on, I finally had time to write an article about the speech I gave at Ignite Philly. Adam Teterus, one of the organizers of the event and point man at Indy Hall, first came up with the idea of doing a talk about how a blind person experiences Philly. We recorded some audio and I edited together a five-minute soundscape in Audacity. Adam also had the idea that people should close their eyes for the whole five minutes, so I made some sarcastic slides. The whole thing went very well, and since then I have recorded a studio version which will appear on WHYY.
We made the whole thing over two or so weeks. I recorded a few hours of audio around my home and at Indy Hall. Adam and I also walked around the block, recording any random city sounds. It gave me a lot to work with and I finally had a five minute piece.
I made a recording of the audio. It has more of the banter, and me downing an entire bottle of water. Zack Seward made a high quality recording taken directly from the mixing board. For those who must see the video, you can watch it on YouTube, but it has horrible audio. Technically Philly also wrote a great article.
I came up with the slides over a weekend. Of course I had to have some generic jokes chiding the viewer for looking. I threw in some plugs for Indy Hall and Philly. I also put in a few quotes from the Secret of the Golden Flower, and various Discordian texts! For the curious, they read as follows.
Close your eyes!
If you can read this you’re cheating.
It’s better with your eyes closed.
This text is a distraction.
If a screen displays a message that you do not see does it still exist?
Nothing to see here.
Imagine if you couldn’t read this.
Accessibility helps everyone.
Visit Indy Hall! www.indyhall.com
I love Philadelphia!
Philadelphia had the first computer.
Philadelphia: great tech, great beer.
Make a medicine out of the illness.
Use action to attain non-action.
Omnia quia sunt lumina sunt. All things that are are light.
Did you know that you have a lopsided pineal gland?
Sit upright in a comfortable position, make your breath silent, and put your attention between your eyes.
Turn on your inner vision.
Austin Seraphin www.austinseraphin.com
Last Wednesday, Zack invited me to WHYY and I got to live a childhood dream. Sitting in the broadcasting booth felt so right. We recorded a wonderful studio version of the talk, as well as some interview footage. My radio debute will happen in a few weeks and I feel very excited. I would never have thought of this if not for Adam, who came up with the idea. Score another for Indy Hall and for Discordia!
I sit here in my home away from home.
I sit on a chair and listen to the loud crowd and louder music.
I sit in wonder as poets take the stage.
Usually I come here to work or play.
Today I come here to listen.
A woman reads about the pain of autism and I think of technology.
A man reads about life and the city and some other funny things I half forget.
A woman reads a meditation on mercy and I want some wine.
I can smell it in the air, mixed with perfume and rain,
And the rain continues as it has for the past two days.
It rains on cars passing by the open door.
It rains on friends in conversation about something I can’t hear.
It rains on an empty street in the old city.
It rains as voices ebb and flow like water.
It rains and I hear the sound of poetry and the poetry of nature.
Now let us dance and find release.
Now let us eat heavy macaroons and drink light wine .
Now let us discuss heavy topics in the light rain.
Now let us network and exchange business cards.
Now let us go and come again.
I wrote this poem after attending the first Red Sofa Salon poetry readings at Indy Hall. Rather than write a blog article I figured I’d try my hand at writing a poem. I did it as sort of a respectful parody of the style I heard that night. At first I didn’t know what I thought of it, but I let it sit for a few days and I actually think it turned out well. I accomplished what I set out to do, so feel good about that. I hope you enjoyed it. I have also made a recording of me reading it. Can a poem have a hyperlink?
Recently, I attended the Nickel City Ruby conference, in Buffalo, New York. I went with Alex Kaplan of Neomind Labs. We gave speeches, had Buffalo wings, saw Niagara falls, and went to a concert. I also released a new version of motion-accessibility, opening up iOS development to the blind. We had a great time.
When we got back to the States I followed him on Twitter so knew he had started planning a Ruby conference. I half paid attention, but didn’t know if I should go. Eventually he asked if I would consider speaking and I quickly submitted a proposal. It got accepted and I began thinking about the logistics, like exactly how I would get there and go everywhere I needed to. I had no idea what to do.
Indy Hall had their Fourth of July barbecue. I tweeted that people should come down. Alex responded and said he’d come by. I met him when his company, Neomind Labs, had a barbecue of their own. He showed up and we started talking. I told him I had just gotten accepted to speak at Nickel City Ruby. He excitedly asked if he could go, and just like that everything effortlessly worked out. I had my ride! Instead of taking a crappy plane flight I would drive up with a friend. Wonderful!
Now I had to actually prepare my speech. I realized that the event would happen right before the Equinox. I had spent the summer working on the motion-accessibility console, a text-based way for a blind iOS developer to interact with a running application. I got this great idea that on the Equinox I would release this wonderful new thing that would make things equal in a sense, and I would present it at Nickel City Ruby. It seemed pretty grand, but would I pull it off?
I worked on the code. iOS 7 came out and caused a few wrinkles. I kept working. I also restructured the speech to feature a demonstration of the console. I had things mostly ready to give a preview at the Philly Accessibility Forum. It went over well, which encouraged me. I finished the code the night before I left, but still had no documentation. I felt very satisfied with it though.
We started our journey at 09:30 A.M. on Thursday the 19th. We stopped at Whole Foods to pick up some healthy food. We had no idea if we could get anything good there. It turned out we didn’t have to worry.
Along the way we stopped and had lunch in a peaceful park. We enjoyed this little calm break. Later we had to stop for 45 minutes when we encountered an accident. Finally we arrived at the Budget Inn, our incredibly cramped home for the next four days. We immediately started making jokes and references to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. “We can’t stop here! This is bat country!” Despite the no smoking sign, it clearly smelled of cigarette smoke. At least I didn’t need to worry about going outside for a pipe. I logged onto the wifi, but had some problems. “Yeah well, the password is budget.” said Alex.
We had to make it by 06:30 for the speaker’s dinner. We made it just in time. We sat at the table with Nick and chatted. I had two glasses of wine. Unfortunately I failed to take into account the fact that they gave me big full glasses of wine, as opposed to the little glasses which I fill about 2/3 of the way.
We moved on to Ignite Buffalo, an event where speakers give five-minute talks. We have them here in Philly. We missed the talks, but made it for the after party. I tried a local beer called Roosevelt Red. It tasted sweet. They like the sweeter beers up there such as red and brown ales. We realized that they go better with the cold. I got into a conversation about numbers stations, the subject of a talk.
Finally the time came to go. I had things to do! I felt pretty intoxicated as we got back to the room, and I still had code to document! Somehow I did it, and six or so hours before I had to get up and speak about it I had published version 2.0 of motion-accessibility. Fear and Loathing! I meditated and went to sleep, praying to Goddess to get me through this.
I woke up. I had such a headache. I showered and put on my suit. The word hangover entered my mind like a whisper. Had something happened last night? Oh dear, the big glasses of wine and that sweet beer. And oh yes, I had released some code or something.
We made it to the conference and registered. Suddenly Nick got on the microphone and yelled “HHHHEEEEEELLLLLLLLLLOOOOOOOOOO Buffalo!!!!!!” The burst of feedback which accompanied his voice sent a beam of pain through my head. I had to get out. I needed breakfast.
Someone said we should go upstairs to the cafe, which sounded easy, but they didn’t have any breakfast food. A local recommended a diner. I thanked him profusely and we headed off. Buffalo does not make a good city to have a hangover, not that any city does. I heard some loud jackhammers and construction noises. Finally we arrived. We ate American food in an American diner while listening to American eighties music. It felt very zen. I began to feel better. French toast and home fries made a good choice.
We made it back in time to hear a talk about RubyGems. RubyGems rocks. I had used it the previous night in fact. Then came a heavy talk about developers and depression. Greg made a great point that the software industry seeks out people with these traits – a weird sleeping schedule, thoughts of grandiosity, and social isolation. He read the text of Apple’s Think Different ad. He pointed to Aaron Swartz and Alan Turin as examples, both of whom committed suicide. Heavy.
Later I came up with a good metaphor to explain depression to programmers. Have you ever had a bug in your debugging code? It will drive you mad! You will go over the logic again and again, and it seems sound. Then with a shock you realize that the code works, but the code which displays its output doesn’t. Depression works just like that. The brain gives you fault information. Fix the underlying problem and it goes away.
They broke for lunch. This worked out well, since we had just eaten. We went to Sue’s Delhi and I got some good vegetarian food. We ate in the park and relaxed. I would give my speech next.
We got back and I talked to Nick. I had totally forgotten about the slides. My friend Adriano had made them for my Belgium speech, but a lot of it still worked. Nick agreed to run them and just work with them. I felt so grateful it had worked out at the last minute.
I gave the speech and it went well. You can listen to it here. You can watch the video on Confreaks or on Youtube. I had worked so hard and the code behaved as it should. I felt so happy the live demonstration went well. I had done it!
I zoned out for the remaining talks. Someone gave one on apprenticeship. A girl talked about the impostor syndrome. Some programmers consistently underrate their abilities. They say things like “I was just lucky.” “I’m not that smart.” or “I’m not a good programmer.” In reality they do just fine. Programming involves regular failure. She contrasted it with the opposite, people who overrate their abilities. They think of themselves as hot shit. We’ve all known people like that. She said to focus on your successes, build a community, and to avoid hostile geniuses. Fake it till you make it! “The secret of life is to pretend to know what you are doing.”
I contrasted this conference with the RubyMotion conference. That one had pure tech material. This one had some “softer” topics. I found this interesting to thin about. A lot of people must have these issues. In talking to people later, a lot of them found these talks the most valuable.
A talk about Ruby and science followed. He talked about some open genome projects. Next came a more technical talk about GIT and Github, another thing I love and had used the night before. I took some good notes about merge strategies and some other useful features. Very good. Finally came the keynote.
We felt hungry and wanted a good meal. I had asked Nick for some places to get vegan wings. He suggested a restaurant called Merge and a bar ominously called Duke’s Bohemian Grove Bar. Someone said Merge had a more posh feel and Duke’s felt more like a bar. Posh sounded good. Why someone would want to name their bar after the Bohemian Grove ceremony would have to wait. We had a great meal of spiced squash soup, spring rolls, and Korean grilled portobello.
We talked over dinner. Alex had started thinking about giving a lightning talk the next day about marketing technology. I didn’t know this before we left, but Alex doesn’t program, he works in sales. He hasn’t even read Pickaxe! I found this rather funny.
We talked about the way developers think. We will work for weeks doing things which make a difference but with no visible change and nobody will notice. Then we will make some stupid change, updating an image for example, and users will go nuts over it and thank us for this great thing we have done. If a client asks a developer if they can guarantee that a certain error will never happen again we will say no, because we honestly can’t. Developers deal with unknowns.
The time to order dessert had come. Alex asked how much I wanted. I said I didn’t know, it depends on the size of the dessert. I’ve had brownie sundaes that barely feel like enough and ones that could easily feed three people. He said a developer would say just that. As it turned out the sundae had a small size and the cobbler a large size, proving my point.
After our amazing meal we headed to the after party, sponsored by Github. they had also sponsored the RubyMotion after party. I talked to a bunch of people, including some cool girls from New York, and a guy from India. He goes to the same talk my Indian friends I met in Belgium go to, and assured me if I submitted a talk it would get approved. He described Goa as like Hawaii but with Indian food. That sounds just about right! A girl told me about a RubyMotion conference in New York City at the end of the month. Greg and I also talked about our respective speeches. He said: “I just have to say, you are by far the best dressed person at this conference.” I felt good.
Eventually we headed back to the crappy hotel. Alex worked on his talk. I turned on Beavis and Butt-head. “Clients are just like Beavis and Butt-head. They’re like, huhhuhh that was cool.” I observed. We felt tired and good.
We woke up and considered our options. The diner we went to didn’t open on Saturdays, so we had to find another place. We read reviews while sitting in our hotel room. One diner had a comment: I had the single worst dining experience of my life here. Another, the Lake Effect Cafe, had great reviews. Sites like Yelp have become a real problem for businesses. They have no control over them.
We had a wonderful meal. I had an omelet and home fries. They also had freshly squeezed orange juice and I enjoyed some Earl Grey.
We rolled in to the conference around 11:00, just in time for a talk called Smash the Monolith. I could relate to this, talking about maintaining legacy applications. All applications proceed to a point of unusability. They become rigid – changing one thing breaks other things. Methods attract more methods like black clothes attract cat hair. As a human owned by a cat I appreciated this analogy. He related it to the concept of entropy from physics. You have to rebuild your mental model, which crumbles over time. The word legacy means a gift from one generation to the next, and he suggested thinking about how archeologists work. Since I had recently become an assistant docent at an archeological museum this also resonated. An archeologist preserves the context around something.
Zach followed this with a talk about some of the Ruby core libraries. We had talked the night before about improving the accessibility of rdoc, something I still intend to do. He talked about Distributed Ruby, or drb, which allows Ruby programs to communicate across TCP connections and processes. Very cool! He also touched on rss, rdoc, and curses. I found this useful and will investigate these gems further. After this we had lunch, but since we had just had a good meal we just nibbled, enjoying our warped schedule.
Next came a talk about reinventing the wheel. We use a lot of frameworks, but that can cause problems. You will use a tool more if you don’t understand it. We have become maintenance people and need to write more. Instead of using someone else’s tool, why not write it yourself? You will learn more. He also gave some good general design tips: use a full-width header, rounded corners, and wood grain always looks artistic.
After this came the cutest talk I have ever seen. An eleven-year-old girl gave a talk about her journey learning Ruby as a kid. She used kidsruby.org which has a turtle program. It sort of reminded me of Logo, something popular way before her time. She made the funniest joke. When discussing writing a simple Hello World type program she said: “You can make it say hello,but it only prints it on your computer, so you’re really only saying hello to yourself.” Later I learned that she had ad-libbed that joke. What a natural! And what a cutie!
The time had come for the lightning talks. I enjoyed them. First someone talked about active-support. RubyMotion now has motion-support so I found this very interesting. RSPEC Search and Destroy sounds cool. Programing and music theory also interested me. In high school when we learned about fractals I wrote a program mapping the equations to music notes. It sounded a lot like jazz. Sun Ra said “There is a universal language, and it is jazz.” The speaker writes a gem called jazz_model. Someone talked about bcrypt-ruby. And Alex gave his talk. Finally came the keynote. A guy talked about becoming a programmer while living in a bad neighborhood in Chicago. I have one line of notes: Purpose over profit. And with that we walked out into the Buffalo air.
We didn’t know where we would eat. We wondered about Duke’s Bohemian Grove bar. The name made me nervous, and FourSquare listed it as a dive bar. Alex saw it and said: “If this is the place I think it is, it definitely fits in with our trip.” “Your first dive bar!” proclaimed FourSquare as I checked in. I hoped it didn’t just broadcast that to Facebook. I wondered if I would end up tied to an altar. With these strange thoughts we went in…
And we feel so glad we did! They had a live jazz band playing. We sat and had wings. I ordered the eggplant wings and they tasted exquisite. They breaded and fried eggplant, then added the sauce. I also had truffle fries. You can pick two sauces, I picked lemon-basil and homemade barbecue. Fantastic! And of course we had more sweet Buffalo beer.
At the end the owner came over. “Did you try the eggplant wings?” he asked. I said I had. “I have to ask: who is Duke and why did you name your bar after the Bohemian Grove ceremony?” He explained that Duke refers to his family name, and to his older brother who had passed on. I told him that we had quoted Fear and Loathing the whole time, so Duke meant something to us as well. Then he started describing the bar, since I got the reference. It had owls, all-seeing eyes, skulls and bones, Masonic aprons, and different themed tables such as the UFO table and the mind control table. “My wife is a big Infowars fan.” he explained. I loved connecting with some awake people, and promised a good review on my blog. He said they serve food until 01:00 A.M. and stay open 365 days a year. “We’re always here for you.” We left feeling ecstatic. He gave us some stickers with subliminal content.
We could have stayed all night, but had to go to the other after party. We talked and eventually said our good byes. We came back to our crappy hotel room and prepared for the final day of our journey while trying to ignore the telltale sounds coming through the paper-thin wall. We would see Niagara falls, go to a concert, and somehow make it home around midnight.
We got up and packed. We had enough of the cramped room – they forgot to give us more weird packets of shampoo. They had had enough of us as well – they yelled at me for emptying my tobacco pipe in the toilet. We shouted our farewells and left. We decided to snack on some food in the car and see Niagara Falls first, then go to breakfast at the Lake Effect Diner since it had treated us well and we probably wouldn’t find something better. Twenty or so minutes later we began to draw close to the falls.
Alex could see the mist in the air. He said it looked like smoke from a fire in the city. We pondered the amazing physics required for this to happen. We got out of the car and as I began walking I felt a tremendous vibration in the ground and heard a low rumbling. I wondered if a plane flew overhead, then suddenly realized it came from the waterfall!
We walked down a path to the American side. We decided not to try to cross to Canada because Alex forgot his passport and I only had a copy of mine. First we came to a 200-foot cliff with a railing. The power felt serene. I could hear the water flowing and splashing on the rocks. I made a recording, and listening to it still makes me feel peaceful. I enjoyed leaning over the railing and putting the recorder as far out as I could for the closeup. We laughed in amazement at the people below us getting wet.
After spending a few minutes listening to the water and the languages around us we proceeded to Horseshoe Falls. The waterfall bends around like a horseshoe, hence its name. People in boats rode in the horseshoe and got absolutely soaked. It also impressed us and I made another recording. After a half hour or so we had seen enough. We felt very glad we went.
We headed to Lake Effect and had another great meal. I had excellent blueberry pancakes. After that we said our good byes to Buffalo and headed out. We stopped at a farmer’s market and got some amazing grapes, apples, and peaches. Now we had to make it to some random ball room venue in northern New Jersey for the concert. We ate at Chipotle and entered the concert hall just in time. It had all worked out! All hail Discordia!
Alex wanted to see a band called Cake. I had never heard of them (I haven’t listened to the radio since 1992) so didn’t know what to expect, but figured why not go to a concert? I expressed concern at the volume levels and Alex thoughtfully bought me some earplugs, and I feel so glad he did. As soon as it started I put them in and could hear everything just fine. In fact I think I could appreciate the music more. And at the end I could walk out with unblemished hearing. I can’t afford to damage it just because some insane humans listen to music at dangerously loud levels. I use my hearing to see.
The concert ended and Alex felt awesome. We had listened to the Beatles a lot that day so continued the trend, and listened to the first disc of the White Album. Finally at around 01:00 A.M. we had made it back to Philadelphia. We had done everything we had wanted to do!
The Nickel City had treated us well. We met some friendly people, ate well, and had a great time. Hopefully this will become an annual conference, and we will see you next year. Now that we know, we will have to bring a whole Philadelphia contingent!
Braille street art has blasted off. Two things happened last week. On thursday we made the front page of the City Paper. Then, on Saturday we won best visual artist at the Philly Geek Awards. Not only that, but we got to meet Joel Hodgson of Mystery Science Theater 3000. Sonia and I feel shocked and amazed, and have already begun discussing the future.
After getting the nomination, Sonia and I received an email from Paulina Reso of the Philly city paper. We have a fondness for this paper. They give it out for free, and their boxes make good targets for street art. Paulina asked if we wanted to do an interview and of course we said yes. We all met at my place and had a wonderful time. It made me think of how this project really requires a special partnership between a sighted and blind person both of whom can use their medium artistically. I also found it funny to answer serious questions about Discordianism. We even came up with a new sticker: Wikileaks, not Wikipedia.
We needed pictures for the article. We got our good friend Kara LaFleur to take them. She cooks a meal every wednesday for Indy Hall night owls, and also does photography. Sonia and I had a great time with her. It really turned into kind of a performance piece – balancing the braille writer on a city paper box while Kara scrambled around to get the best view. Photographers get crazy! The paper also sent a photographer named Neil Santos. He came to my place and we also had fun throwing around stickers.
Everything came together and they published the article. It had a wonderful reception. Lots of my friends, family, and neighbors saw it, and I got a lot of messages. Meanwhile we had to get ready for the awards two days later. When we learned that Joel Hodgson would present one of the awards, we went nuts. Meeting him would serve as an award in itself.
Saturday came and we felt nervous. We agree to meet at the event, and our friend Ahava would also join us and bring her goddess energy. We couldn’t eat. We just hung out and talked to some people. I got to pet a live alligator. Finally they announced that the ceremony would begin soon.
We gulped down some wine and toasted our nomination. We agreed that if we won we would just wing it. Sonia would thank some people. As she said: “When in doubt, thank Indy Hall.” I could not escape the irony of a blind person becoming jointly nominated for best visual artist. This gave me a good idea for a joke. We felt as prepared as possible.
We also kept an eye out for Joel. We had made him some custom stickers. Sonia’s said “We love MST3K!” Mine said “Torgo lives!” a reference to Manos: the Hands of Fate.
The ceremony started and we took our seats. I don’t think either of us really realized what we had gotten ourselves into until that moment. Two hundred people gathered in an auditorium. We watched the opening presentation with mounting excitement. Our award would come up fifth.
Kyle Cassidy gave a funny meandering speech about the visual artist’s role in society, referring to us as termites and criminals. We loved it, especially given the political bent of some of our stickers. He introduced the nominees. Of Hawk Krall he said: “If he doesn’t win I hope they make another award next year for coolest name.” He talked about Sean Martorana’s excellent work as an artist and at Indy Hall. We have birthdays a day apart. Then he introduced braille street art, and we felt glad they changed the nomination to reflect the partnership. “And the winner is…” (he struggled with the envelope) “Braille street art!” The crowd erupted in cheers.
We felt stunned I remember jumping to my feet. Sonia still sat. I grabbed her hand and said: “Come on. Let’s go.” We made our way to the stage and I found the microphone. The time had come to speak.
Sonia praised our fellow nominees. We really did think Sean would win. Then she turned it over to me. “I actually have a confession to make. I’m not actually a visual artist.” The crowd went nuts! The Philly Post named it the top highlight of the ceremony. When the laughter and applause died down Sonia and I thanked Indy Hall, Technically Philly, and some others who have supported us. Sonia told people to love our whistle blowers, love animals, and love your visual artist. We thanked everyone, and I ended with “All hail Discordia!” And thank you Chris Barrett for recording everything with Google Glass.
They presented us with a 3-D printed robot that lights up. The robot just has a flat feel like a stencil. It sits on top of a round base with a light and battery. It definitely fit the occasion. It will fit even more after Sonia finishes making some alterations, such as eye-liner, cat ears, and something representing my symbol.
We went back to our seats buzzing. I really had to go to the bathroom. We went out into the hall and I immediately texted my mom as a reporter we met documented. We also hadn’t forgotten about meeting Joel. He would present last.
I went into the bathroom and heard Sonia talking outside. Suddenly I realized that the other voice sounded a LOT like Joel. I came out of the bathroom and passed someone going in. “You’ll never guess who that was! That was Joel!” said Sonia. I knew it!
We waited for him then said hi. We told him how much we love MST3K. I said how my Mom wanted to tell him that our whole family enjoyed it. He thanked us. Sonia had left her purse in the auditorium so did not have the stickers. He promised he would catch up with us later.
We went back to finish the rest of the ceremony. We enjoyed watching the awards but our minds felt active. Finally Joel came on and gave a great performance. He made fun of the black tie event, saying he didn’t believe it and had to rent a tuxedo most likely used by a high school boy going to the prom. He also showed one of those virtual drinking apps and said “I know you’d like that because you’re geeks and you write apps and stuff.” He presented the award, the organizers gave a farewell speech, and finally it ended and we stepped out into the night air.
I smoked my pipe and got grounded. Suddenly Joel came up to us. We said hi again and this time Sonia had the stickers. It felt so awesome to give to him. We love MST3K! Torgo Lives! He asked if we would go to the after-party and we said yes. “Well, save me a dance.” We laughed.
Sonia’s boyfriend Ian came by with their van. We had joked about needing a getaway driver in case of any high weirdness. Now that joke almost came true in a good way. Everyone had started heading to the North Bowl Lounge, a combination bar and bowling alley, and we felt glad to have a ride. We excitedly discussed the future of braille street art. Clearly we had tapped into something. We felt too excited to discuss anything serious but we all understood.
We arrived and I felt hungry. Several people assured me they had good food. I planned to have some food and drink then maybe try my hand at bowling. Discordians consider bowling alleys as sacred. Unfortunately this did not happen. As we waited in line at the tater tot bar, word came down the line that they ran out of food and drinks. In other words they ran out of everything.
We got our tater-tots, and Ian snagged some beers. “I guess we can consider this our post-awards feast.” I said to Sonia. We didn’t stay for too long. Joel did congratulate us one last time, as did many other people.
It had gotten late and I had enough of crowds for a month or so. We drove back to my place and talked excitedly about the night and what it meant for the future. We have a lot of ideas. I have begun doing some tactile drawing. We’ve also talked about 3-D printers. And my recent work at the museum has opened up some possibilities. One thing seems clear: braille street art has blasted off!
For the past few weeks I have traveled back in time over 3000 years to ancient Egypt. I have not gained access to a time machine. I have begun training to become a volunteer assistant docent at the University of Pennsylvania’s Museum of Archeology and Anthropology
In June I helped organize an audio described sunset sail on the Delaware river. While there I met a woman named Patricia “Trish” Maunder. She has an English accent. When I pulled out my pipe and started smoking an English blend she became interested and we started talking. She organizes the touch tours at the museum. Synchronistically enough, the next day I would have my interview for the piece about echolocation. I really wanted to get into a museum, but we just didn’t have enough notice. Trish promised me that we could go soon enough.
A few weeks later we arranged a time. We actually picked a very auspicious day, July 22nd. Not only did this happen on a full moon, it also happened a day before the star Sirius would rise before the sun, infusing it with energy and starting the Egyptian new year. Clearly Goddess had approved this venture.
We arrived and went up to the floor with the gallery. I immediately smelled the stately scent of many old books. I began to feel very excited as we proceeded into the gallery itself. They didn’t have fans on that day, so it really did feel similar to ancient Egypt. Most museums will not let you touch anything, or will make you wear gloves, which mutes the sensations. To compromise, we must use hand wipes before touching each statue. The museum has really done a wonderful thing allowing access to these monuments. Trish has had to walk the line several times already, and I hope the success of this program will encourage other museums to rethink their views.
Intellectually I knew what I would find, but nothing could have prepared me for the full spiritual experience. I first touched a statue of Ramesses II seated on a throne from around 1500 BC, 3500 years ago. I could feel the age of the hard quartzite stone. The statue weighs four tons, and stands eight feet tall. This massive thing would not go anywhere any time soon. After I touched what I could I stood back and used echolocation to sense the whole structure. THis gave me a holistic appreciation. I could see the height and mass of the statue before me.
I started feeling in more detail. The statue shows the amazing insight the Egyptians had in the form and musculature of the body, portraying youth and power. His kilt has pleats and a bull’s tail which would hang down in the back, but hangs between his legs here. His hands rest palms down on his thighs. He has large hands and feet. The top part of the pedestal has an area for leaving offerings.
I explored the base, or throne, of the statue. Suddenly I felt hieroglyphs. I had to stop. This overloaded my brain. It reminded me of braille, but more like a symbolic form of braille. The carvings had a tactile component, and the stone provided an organic medium. The cool feel of the living stone made it feel less like reading braille and more like seeing pictures. I appreciated how the glyphs had an abstract nature but still conveyed meaning.
I quickly learned to identify a few. A basket thing with two lines under it means Lord of the Two Lands, a title for the king. A basket with a mushroom thing on top of it with three vertical bars to the right means the Lord of Appearances, another title. The three bars signify repetition. Horus the falcon has a head with two crowns. And of course the sun symbol feels like a circle with a concave middle. Amazing!
The statue has imperfections as well. For one thing, the arm breaks off above the forearm. Another king had actually had the statue built, but Ramesses had it converted, thus the head has a disproportionately small size. And perhaps most glaring of all, a duck begins facing the wrong way, then the builder corrects the image, resulting in a two-headed duck. I hypothesize that the builder probably drank too much beer or smoked too much hashish and made a mistake. Some things never change.
I could have spent hours just at this one statue, but we had to move on. Next I came to a statue of the goddess Sekhmet. I worship Discordia, so appreciate goddess-related art, though you should handle this goddess with care. She can cure the plague, but also has a deadly breath of fire which creates the desert wind. She has the main and whiskers of a lion. Her hands rest palms down on her legs, her left one clutching an ankh, the symbol of eternal life. An ankh looks like a cross but with a circle instead of the top vertical part. Over her head sits the solar disk, a one-foot circle.
This stone, diorite, had a smooth polished feel, completely impressive in a different way. It complimented the goddess-nature of the statue. After all, you wouldn’t want her to have breasts made out of rough stone! The statue had restorations using plaster. Interestingly, these areas had a warmer temperature, and you can feel this with a light discerning touch.
They have two of these statues, one taller than the other, similar but different. The Egyptians may have had three-hundred-sixty-five of them, one for each day of the year. They built them to protect against the plague. Before we moved on I sat on a bench and had my picture taken while posing as the goddess, complete with ankh.
Now we came to an amazing sarcophagus lid made of limestone, a rougher stone. This dated from around 350 BC, so around 2350 years old, and it stands at a height of six feet. This belonged to an important official named Pedibast. The front of the lid has the face of a man wearing a wig. The lid also had more amazing hieroglyphs. They quoted spells from the Book of the Dead, more properly translated as the Book of Coming Forth by Day. These spells would protect the soul in the afterlife. The etchings had a very shallow depth, so they didn’t stand out like the ones on the Ramesses statue, but they still impressed me. I recognized Re (or Ra) depicted as the sun.
Since the lid stands on a pedestal, you can walk around to the back. It has a relief of the goddess Nut (pronounced like newt), who ruled the sky. The relief shows her naked, with her arms raised above her head. She has a fully carved face, round breasts, stomach, and triangular pubic area. The Egyptians believed that she swallowed the sun at night and gave birth to it in the morning. Here she symbolizes the idea that the dead will also become reborn. We can debate whether or not this has happened, but in a certain undebatable way Pedibast has achieved a form of immortality. We still know his name and a little about his life and family.
Lastly I came to another sarcophagus lid, this one lying flat on a base. It belonged to Pedimahes, a general and commander of the troops. This stone, called basalt, has a smooth feel. It has some restorations, and again you can discern the temperature change with a light touch. It has the face of a man and hieroglyphs, though you can’t feel them very well. The lid has a break line across it under the face, perhaps made on purpose to transport it. You can also tell by its design that he had big feet.
By this time over two hours had passed. I could not contain my enthusiasm as we ate at a local sandwich place. Trish asked if I would like to begin training as an assistant docent. Before today I didn’t even know what the word docent meant. I agreed on the spot. When she told me that our group may represent the first group of blind assistant docents that just clinched it for me.
Since then I have done two sessions, and we have several more. I train with two older blind women. Eventually we will train with the other docents and staff. Finally the show will open.
Along with the pieces in the museum we will also do a classroom segment. This will allow people to feel replicas of the things used in the mummification process. First they used a brain hook to mush up the brain and let it drain out. Gross! I keep thinking of the movie Pi. Next they put the stomach, intestines, liver, and lungs into jars, each with the appropriate head. Next, they put oils on the body. Next they wrapped the body in linen, and we actually have authentic linen you can touch. It has an incredibly fine weaving, an amazing thing to consider. The wrapping would contain charms, such as the scarab, or dung beetle, symbolizing regeneration. They would put one on the heart to protect it in the afterlife. They would also incorporate papyrus with more spells from the Book of the Dead, and we have some real papyrus you can touch. Finally we have a small mummy in a sarcophagus with removable lid. And by the time we do the show, an artist will have created a life-sized reproduction.
The show will run from October to December. Anyone can come and go on the regular tour, but only the blind can go on the touch tour.I have an amazing experience every time I get to go, and treasure the opportunity.
By the way, I took the title of this article from Shpongle’s new album. I recommend it if you like good ambient music, especially the track The Epiphany of Mrs Kugla. Statues also remind me of the incredibly silly song The Statue Got Me High, by They Might be Giants.
And now it is your turn,
Your turn to hear the sound and then your turn to burn,
The stone it calls to you,
You can’t refuse to do the things it tells you to,
And as the screaming fire engine siren fills the air,
The evidence will vanish from your charred and smoking chair,
And what they found was just a statue standing where the statue got me high,
And what they’ll find is just a statue standing where the statue got you high.