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Welcome to my home page. I became blind at birth. I started programming computers at a young age. I also earned my general class amateur radio license, KA3TTT, a hobby to which I have returned with great joy. I practice Qigong and consider 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.

Braille Street Art Blasts Off

August 25, 2013

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!

Museum of Consciousness

August 15, 2013

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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Seeing with Sound, a Piece about Echolocation

July 27, 2013

A few months ago a woman named Meg Cramer wrote me. She had read my article about using echolocation to see sculpture and wanted to interview me for a radio piece. Of course I agreed. We met and had a great interview. She just published the piece, and calls it Seeing with Sound.

I enjoyed it. She talked to Lore Thaler, who studies echolocation. She then used me to balance the theoretical with the practical. I demonstrate a little about how echolocation works, and touch on the problem loud noises can present. I also explain how it gives a true sense of immersion.

Lore says it doesn’t give the experience of sight and that she doesn’t see visual forms. I would agree that it doesn’t give the same experience, since we get snapshots and without color, but I most definitely see visual images. Meg also talked to Dr. Chris Baker who studies radar systems, and wants to use the insights gained through studying human echolocation to improve them. Fascinating! I also think she did a good job on the audio mix. I particularly liked when she mixed me naming off images in my echolocation library underneath me talking about the process.

Again, just follow this link to hear it for yourself. If you want to learn more about echolocation, I’d recommend you start with my detailed account of my three-day intensive. If you want to try it for yourself, I’d recommend A Beginner’s GUide to Echolocation. And if you want to go for the gold, contact World Access for the Blind. I feel so excited, and thank Meg Cramer and PRX for helping bring awareness of this important skill to the masses. It should begin airing in Seattle and on other radio stations soon, so keep your ears and eyes open.

The Braille Street Art Revolution Continues

July 15, 2013

A few months ago I began a project called Braille Street Art. A friend of mine does sticker art, and I had the idea to roll one up in a braille writer. The blind don’t usually have access to this form of art. For whatever reason, sighted people have also really begun to enjoy it as well. We had a booth at the Philly Tech Week signature event. Now, Geekadelphia has just nominated me for Visual Artist of the Year at the Philly Geek Awards. What irony! I must now accept the fact that I have become an artist.

When I first started this project, I just sort of went with it. I had a fun idea and it seemed to work. Having a partner with similar political and spiritual views also helped. At first we started out doing political slogans such as “Buy silver. Crash J.P. Morgan!” and “Aaron Swartz died for you!” We also did some animal rights ones such as “Love cats. Always adopt.” As I began to get the feel of things I started wanting to expand into more artistic realms. At the Philly Tech Week event I did one that said “e=mc^2”. I really liked the direction we had started going.

For a while I forgot about braille street art, though we both fully intended to do more. Then one day last week I woke up to a Twitter mention on my iPhone congratulating me for my nomination. I checked my email and sure enough, I got an email from the Philly Geek Awards team. They had nominated me, a blind person, for visual artist of the year! The irony overtook me, and I began to laugh and laugh. I posted on Twitter that if I won it would make me laugh for a year and I meant it. It would also speak to the diversity and accessibility of the awesome Philly art/tech scene. I didn’t even consider myself an artist. I just stuck a label in a braille writer.

I knew I had to make some more stickers. I recently reread Illuminatus!, one of my favorite books. I also read the Principia Discordia, the scripture of the Discordians. These gave me a lot of great ideas. The subversive nature of street art appeals to my Discordian side. I love having the ability to confront someone with a message in an unexpected way.

And with that I made some of my new batch. “Illuminate the opposition!” “The only solution is a yin revolution.” “Freedom defined is freedom denied.” “Omnia quia sunt lumina sunt.” (All things that are are lights.) I also made a few favorite including love cats, Aaron Swartz, and Protect Snowden.

I blessed the stickers and counted them. I came up with twenty-two. Discordians consider twenty-three a sacred number. I knew I had to make one more, a very special one. I also had a strange feeling that I would have some sort of realization with it.

But what to write? I settled on “The Goddess Prevails!” a standard Discordian exclamation. I then thought about the symbols. Normally on the bottom of each sticker I put my symbol, as well as The Cat Ears for my partner. When we started out I had no idea what symbol to use, so we looked at the glyph for my Mayan birthday. We used the number eight, which in the Mayan numeral system looks like a line with three dots over it. That worked well enough and I didn’t give it any more thought, until now.

The Discordians have a symbol called the Five-Fingered Hand of Eris, which consists of two arrows converging onto a common point. I realized I should put this symbol on the bottom of this special 23rd card. Then I realized that I should also use it as my own symbol. This batch of twenty-three cards served as the final steps in a birthing process. At the end I had my symbol and with it a realization. I have become an artist.

But what next? I enjoy doing street art, but it has its own set of limitations. I want to do something big. Really big! I have no idea what, some Goddess-inspired weirdness no doubt. Now that I consider myself an artist I have already bung having some very strange ideas. Stay tuned. And send good vibes to help me win the award for visual artist of the year. I heard last year they gave away a 3-D printed robot. That sounds cool!

Motion-Accessibility

June 19, 2013

I just released my second RubyMotion gem. I call it motion-accessibility. It makes it much easier to make your applications accessible by providing Ruby-like names to Apple’s accessibility APIs. I have some great plans for the future as well. It feels great to contribute to the RubyMotion and iOS community.

It all began at the RubyMotion conference. Colin gave me a little sneak peak at what would become motion-xray. We talked about accessibility, and I had the idea to make some sort of automated accessibility test. This way developers could get an idea of the accessibility of their views, with easily understood error messages telling them exactly what to do. I first thought of it in the context of Colin’s view inspector, but quickly realized the general application. I’d love it if in a spec file someone could just write:

view.should.be.accessible

And at that point I foresaw that I would write this gem, and call it motion-accessibility, and so help elevate the collective spirit of humanity.

I didn’t start work immediately, I needed some time to wind down. Instead I released another gem, golden-sections, but I knew I would have to do this. Then while on my Asbury Park adventure, someone asked if RubyMotion made it any easier to program accessibility. “Well…no…not really…but….” I knew I had to start work.

It took me two weeks to get the first version working. I kept thinking I had finished, but would then find one more thing that needed doing. First I realized that I couldn’t just alias the methods. Apple lets you define attributes in two ways: by using a setter or by overriding a method. Using a setter wouldn’t present a problem:

alias :accessibility_label= :setAccessibilityLabel

But what if someone wanted to override the method? I asked for help, and my friend Thomas from Germany suggested the method_added method. Now I had gotten into the interesting realm of metaprogramming. And it all worked. Now you can do:

def accessibility_label

“Hello”

end

and it will also override the original accessibilityLabel method. It works both ways. Ruby rocks!

I came up with some neat solutions to some things. For example, setting accessibility traits could take a lot of writing. Now instead of

accessibilityTraits=UIAccessibilityTraitImage UIAccessibilityTraitLink

you can write

accessibility_traits=[:image, :link]

Notifications also bothered me. Let’s say you have a view controller that at some point makes a change to the screen. You should tell VoiceOver of this by posting a screen changed notification. Before you would have to do

UIAccessibilityPostNotification(UIAccessibilityScreenChangedNotification)

Ouch! How about

Accessibility.post_notification(:screen_changed)

Much easier, don’t you think?

Apple has a bunch of protocols. At one point I swore if I read the word UIAccessibility again I would go mad. I kept finding new ones and new methods and figuring out the best ways to add them. I think I got them all.

Then came a real shocker, for me at least. I thought of these attributes and methods as relating to views or accessibility elements. I realized that they actually belong to the root NSObject class. As I explained in another post, in Ruby all objects have a parent. All objects go back to Object, or NSObject in RubyMotion. You can’t get any more “baked in” than that!

Now I can proudly say that yes, RubyMotion does make it easier to program accessibility. Enjoy more Ruby-like names and ways of doing things. I hope this will encourage developers to make their apps more accessible. I know it will help me. And the future looks bright, with thoughts of automated accessibility testing.

By the way I just got accepted to speak at the Nickel City Ruby conference in Buffalo, New York. I will demo this gem there. Just think how much more awesome motion-accessibility will make my speech!

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