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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 identify as 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.

Welcome to the World of the Sighted

May 15, 2012

I just had what we jokingly referred to as Echolocation Woodstock. Read that article first if you haven’t, as this one picks up where it leaves off. It discusses my introduction to echolocation, a process where a blind person can learn to see by making tongue clicks. The brain interprets the echoes and activates the visual center of the brain. The previous article ended with me seeing my cat run up a flight of stairs. I thought I had seen it all, but just wait until you read what happened after that.

Echolocation activates a region of the brain which blind people don’t normally use, the occipital region in the back of the head. I could actually feel blood flowing into new parts of my brain throughout this process. We discussed this before breakfast. Super foods and carbs sounded like the way to go. Super foods help the brain to make new pathways, and carbs provide energy. We had my famous (among friends) Happy Hacker Hash browns. We also had a powdered drink with super foods called Amazing Grass infused with cacao, as well as a traditional cacao drink with chili powder. Cacao, the raw form of chocolate, has an interesting chemical profile. Most noteably for these purposes it raises serotonin levels. Now we had prepared ourselves properly.

We started out in the hallway outside of my condo. They turned an old school into lofts, so the hallways and stairwells look and sound like a school. He had me walk down the hallway without touching the walls by using echolocation. Just to make it clear: echolocation does not normally replace the use of a cane, but for this exercise I did not use a cane. I could hear the hard surfaces, and gradually the walls came into focus. I could actually do it. The walls provided the shoreline, and I could actually see them on either side and keep in the center.

I began to understand that this required a whole new way of thinking. Justin gave constant instruction to help me learn. “Scan left. Scan right. Now scan straight ahead. You have to start thinking like a sighted person.” In deed, the muscles in the back of my neck would start to hurt because I did not need to move my head as much before. Now the direction of my gaze actually meant something.

We then journeyed to the stairwell. Now I would really begin to understand what thinking like a sighted person really meant. I scanned left, and saw a set of stairs going up like I had in my loft. I scanned right, and saw a set of stairs going down, which made sense. I scanned up, and saw something extend above and going back. What the hell? It took a minute to realize with Justin’s help that I saw the set of steps above me on another stairway. I had never experienced that kind of vivid three dimensional emersion before. My brain flipped.

After a quick break we ventured outside. I don’t mind saying I felt a little scared. Up to this point mobility has always scared me. But without long-range vision can you blame me?

We started by just walking around the area around my condo’s building. Justin found various objects and had me click at them to hear how they sounded. The brain must build these associations to do successful echolocation. I discovered that I really like the way trees look and sound. The trunks sound hard and woody, but the leaves sound cool and soft, like in Treebeard’s song. I also enjoyed seeing the different organic shapes of trees. I feel like I could just look at trees all day. Justin found that very funny.

We then worked on cars, since they occur fairly commonly. I could hear the hard metal and smooth glass. I could also begin to detect the shape of the car. Eventually I could reliably distinguish the front from the back by seeing the angle. This required more scanning, something I have to get used to doing. At firstly it honestly didn’t occur to me and Justin had to remind me. This scanning seems key to thinking like a sighted person.

I also had to learn about detecting layers. For example, a tree standing in front of a car has two distinct sounds at two different distances: the glass and metal car with the wood and leafy tree in front of it. A fence in front of a building has the harder sound from the brick, but the fence gives it a metallic wavy quality from the pattern, plus the crossbar gives something to see. This takes time. It also shows the awesome detail made possible by echolocation.

The time had now come to go on a real journey. I knew it had to happen at some point. Even though I felt nervous I figured I wanted to learn echolocation to improve my mobility, so I should just go for it and see what happens. We decided to go to Whole Foods, a healthy supermarket a few blocks away. Now I would get to experience how much my echolocation skills would help.

We started walking, with Justin evaluating my mobility. He had already convinced me to purchase a longer cane, which has worked out very well for me. This increases short-range vision. Using too short of a cane makes one falter and opens them to danger, since their stride has a greater length than the area felt by the cane. He corrected a few fine points about using the cane properly in this new way.

He then showed me how I could use echolocation to make sure I have a clear path, allowing me to increase my walking speed. For me, this sense of not knowing caused me to walk more slowly, which then made me lose my orientation, which then made it impossible to estimate how far I had travelled, which would then make me panic and the whole thing would just come apart. Now for the first time I truly understood that Echolocation provided something I couldn’t even articulate, long-range vision.

I flashed back to my childhood. My dad took me across the street to a big soccer field. He told me I could run as far and as fast as I wanted, but I just couldn’t do it. I always held myself back. How did I really know that I had no obstacles in front of me? I had no long-range vision. This caused him to get angry at me, which caused me to not want to do it anymore. Who wants to get yelled at?

Now I could use my new long-range vision to ensure that nothing lay in front of me, so could walk at a normal pace. This new way of walking felt much more exhilarating. Things seemed to flow together more smoothly, and I could indeed perceive a greater whole much more clearly, not needing to stop and examine each part. But of course I could examine things too. I could see the line of buildings on my left and the line of cars on my right. These could help me keep oriented. I no longer needed to clumsily shoreline along a bunch of uneven buildings. I could now walk more in the middle and look at them. We also saw various metal boxes for mail, recycling, and the like. Trees, poles, and signs also appeared along the landscape. It really started to happen! It also really began to hurt my brain.

By the time we got to Whole Foods the images had started becoming a little faded. Justin told me to take a deep breath and click once to reset my brain. It worked, but I could feel my brain approaching its limit. He also gave me another tip: click slowly to get better muscle control and a sharper click. He assured me the walk home would go more easily.

We explored around the store a little. I kind of wish he wouldn’t have sent away our help, but I understood why. Exploring the aisles and items felt cool. I could tell the difference between a shelf with leafy lettuce and a shelf with harder squash. I could also start to get a little bit of the layout. Eventually we did get some assistance to help actually buy some things. This included fruit salad, vegan General Tso’s Chicken, everything bagels, cookies, more cacao, and hemp seed. Now we had food.

I also purchased more of the awesome hard candy I got for that VoiceOver presentation, pomegranate this time. “I thought it would help keep our mouths moist.” I said. I had become so immersed I didn’t realize how that would sound to an observer. It seemed extra funny because we had joked about our proximity to the gay neighborhood, or gayborhood as we call it. In fact, once my GPS even reported that to me. I had to do a double take, like did it really just say what I thought it said? Seriously, the hard candy did help, and I would recommend that echolocators keep a piece in their pocket for this reason.

The walk home did go easier. It had started raining but it felt pleasant and didn’t get strong enough to drown out the echoes. As we got back to my apartment, Justin said he’d show me how to find the front door. He had me walk up to it and click. He told me to listen for a high sound, and quickly I came to hear the awning over the front entrance. I didn’t even know we had an awning. Now it seemed so clear.

We made it inside. I felt hungry and tired. Justin said I did a great job. “Welcome to the world of the sighted!”

We spent the evening eating good healthy food and just relaxing. We both needed it. Later, when I lay down, I could see the walls and ceiling of my bedroom. At first this seemed weird, but it quickly became comforting. I began to realize that I would start seeing things constantly.

I should say that two types of echolocation exist: active and passive. Most blind people know about passive echolocation, hearing a doorway in a hallway for example. Active echolocation simply introduces a cue for the brain to pick up and interpret. This means that learning active echolocation also boosts passive echolocation. This makes one feel much more engaged or plugged in to the world around them. Even now I can see my iMac sitting in front of me without even clicking.

I had completed the first day of this intensive, and my world had completely changed. Stay tuned to find out what happened next.

Cacao Drink

May 15, 2012

Cacao rules! Chili powder gives this cacao drink a spicy flavor. I drink it every day.

In a saucepan, combine a tablespoon of cacao powder, a few shakes of cinnamon, a pinch of chili powder, a pinch of good quality salt, and 1-2 tbsps of honey. Add a mug’s worth of water. Some traditions say to heat the water to just above body temperature. Others say to boil the water. This makes the drink less bitter. Stir the drink with a whisk. Pour it in a mug and maybe a little almond milk to cool it. Perfect bliss!

Happy Hacker Hash Browns

May 15, 2012

A number of friends have asked me for this recipe, so hear you go. I call these Happy Hacker Hash Browns because they go well with intense computer work, and you can have them any time of the day or night.

Start by heating water in a saucepan. It should cover the potatoes well. Meanwhile, peel and dice 1-2 potatoes per person. When the water boils, throw in the potatoes and let boil uncovered for 20 minutes.

Prepare a frying pan with olive oil, good quality salt, pepper, curry, and whatever other spices you like. Chop up three strips of vegetarian bacon per serving. Mince 2-3 cloves of garlic per serving.

When the potatoes finish boiling, strain out the water. Start the frying pan. Wait a minute and throw in half of the garlic. Stir it to make sure it doesn’t burn. Put in the vegetarian bacon. Stir it every 30 seconds or so. You want it to get crispy but not burn. Now put in the potatoes. Stir every minute or so for five minutes.

Turn off the burner. Add the juice of half a lemon per person and the rest of the garlic. A tablespoon of hempseed adds some good protein. Enjoy.

Echolocation Woodstock

May 08, 2012

About six months ago I started learning about echolocation. With a simple tongue click, a blind person can see their surroundings. The brain learns to interpret the echoes caused by a sound close to its center. This activates the very same visual pathways a sighted person uses to see, but instead of using reflected light it uses reflected sound. Recently, retinal implants have allowed some people to gain limited vision. We can do all of that and more with our own natural abilities.

To many this sounds just too far out. As usual, the establishment has ignored this most profound development. In fact, only one organization, World Access for the Blind, teaches this illuminating procedure. As soon as I watched some of their videos and reviewed some of their course material I knew I had to meet these people.

I sent in an email and struck up a dialog. A guy named Justin got back to me and we started chatting. He suggested we go on Skype to have a relatively high quality chat. He showed me some basics and we became fast friends.

He first had me make a “shsh” sound while holding a plate in front of me. He then suggested working on my tongue click and gradually move to doing that instead. Once I got this most rudimentary understanding I just started doing it everywhere, especially around my awesome condo. We had some more Skype chats and he suggested comparing items, a plate and a pillow for example. This started making sense and I began to get a few images.

I knew I wanted to do an intensive session as soon as I learned they offered them. Now that I had a small taste I knew I had to do it for real. We scheduled a three-day session. It just felt like the right thing to do. I had always felt my mobility skills lacked some key component, but I could never articulate exactly what. You can’t express something if you’ve never had it. Now I knew that echolocation provided that missing skill. Some people felt skeptical, but I had already experienced something and could sense the potential.

Justin arrived on Monday night. My Mom and her husband offered to go to the airport. Good thing, because they delayed the flight, then we couldn’t find each other. Everything worked out and we headed back to my condo. My first paradigm shift would come quickly.

“Do you use sighted guide for the comfort, or because you always do?” All blind kids learn the correct sighted guide technique, gripping the upper arm of a sighted person to have them guide you. “I don’t know, I just do it.” I said. I had never even thought to question such a piece of blind orthodoxy. Not needing sighted guide? And yet the way seemed clear through echolocation. Of course! If you could see your guide you wouldn’t need to touch them. I realized that echolocation totally shifts the whole paradigm of current orientation and mobility instruction.

I want to make something else clear. When we had this discussion I never felt criticized. A lot of blind people have had a lot of bad experiences with mobility teachers. This did not feel that way. Haven’t you always wanted a cool mobility instructor?

Once we got settled in we got down to business. We went over the different types of clicks. The volume of the click controls its distance and the frequency controls its resolution. A louder click will let you bounce sound off of distant objects, while a quieter click will let you get more detail about a closer object. Once we went over the basics we could start our first panel exercise.

He asked me to get a plate. I got him a nice thick plate with apple blossoms on it to groove on, while I fetched some cacao and tobacco. He stood behind me on the stairs and held the plate in different angles and locations. Having someone else doing it as opposed to me holding it changed the experience. Now I really had to test my echolocation. And I did it! I quickly identified the nice big cool glassy plate!

He quickly graduated to something harder. My practicing had paid off. He took out his wallet and did the same thing. I could identify it, and knew it had a smaller rectangular or square shape and made of a softer material. Once I had done that he took a credit card out of his wallet, and sure enough I could do that too! I had already made good progress.

We walked around my loft and clicked at different places. I could hear the different walls. I could tell the difference between a cinderblock wall, a regular wall, and a window which goes from floor to ceiling like a wall. I could tell the difference between a wooden cabinet and the glass panel of the microwave which I never use. I then tried clicking to hear my loft, which extends above the main floor. That really took some effort, but I did begin to hear and see something. I could actually see the loft above me in three dimensions. I started to feel really amazed, but then I got a real shocker!

He told me to stand in front of the bottom of my stairs and look up them. I started to hear the hard material. I kept clicking. Gradually they began to come into focus, and I could actually see a three dimensional image of them extending upward and moving away from me. You have to understand I became blind at birth. I had never seen this kind of 3D view of things. Then while standing there and making clicking noises, my beautiful calico cat suddenly sprinted up them. I just happened to click at the right moment and I actually caught a glimpse of a puffy round thing moving up a flight of stairs! That did it!

i had enough for the night. My brain would not let me do more. Justin warned me it would screw up my sleep schedule, because it would put my brain in a hyperactive state. I told him not to worry about it. Indeed, I do feel a rise in serotonin. It feels, for lack of a better word, trippy. It reminds me of when I first used a color identifier. This feels even more profound, since it comes from within.

Echolocation represents much more than a mobility technique or a way to ride bikes. It changes neural pathways and neurotransmitter levels. It uplifts one’s emotional attitude. It completely overhauls the current paradigm. It causes a spiritual change, a crystallization of something new and wonderful, the finding of a lost light.

We’ve only just begun this echolocation Woodstock. Justin said that spontaneously and it makes a good title for this first entry. Now continue reading to find out what happened on our first day.

Access Unlimited

April 25, 2012

I just appeared on the excellent show Access Unlimited, an award-winning show on KPFK in Las Angeles. I talked about my first experiences with computers, the first time I used an iPhone, and even text adventures. Jolie Mason, one of the show’s hosts, contacted me and we had a great chat. I knew we would have a great interview. Stella Violano from AppAdvice and Thomas Domville from Applevis also participated. I met Stella when she contact me to help her make her excellent list of apps for the blind, and her follow-up list of games for the blind. It felt good to get us all on the same program.

You can listen to it or download it. Enjoy!

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