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.
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.
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.
Some time ago I detailed a simple hack for making MPD work with AirPlay. I considered it just that, a simple hack. I wanted something better even then, and my recent revelation that MP3 sucks just made it all the more necessary. I also hated having to use iTunes for my special music. So at last I now present the best way I’ve found to make MPD work with AirPlay on the Mac.</p>
This solution won’t suit everyone. The command line client works best, in other words you do things by typing commands instead of navigating through menus. They do make an unmaintained Mac client but I haven’t played with that yet. You can also get clients for your iPhone, iPod, or iPad. It’ll also cost you $25. That said, it works beautifully.
First, you need to install MPD. If you haven’t already, install XCode and MacPorts. Once installed, go to the terminal and type “sudo port install mpd mpc”. Enter your administrator password and it will install the daemon and a command line utility called mpc which comes in handy if you need to debug this, which you will.
Now, create MPD’s configuration file. It comes with one in /opt/local/etc/mpd.conf, but I had to alter a few things. Either back that one up and overwrite it or just create a file called ~/.mpdconf. Put in the following contents:
name “My Mac Device”
Now create your user’s mpd directory by typing “mkdir ~/.mpd”. This should complete MPD’s setup.
This configuration file has some interesting features. It indexes your Music directory. Imagine iTunes without the mess of iTunes. It also uses the AO audio output. Once again xiph.org comes to the rescue with their cross-platform audio library. The default Mac audio output jittered.
You should test your setup at this point. Type “mpd” at a terminal prompt and the daemon should start. It will index your music the first time you run it. Type “mpc” to see the status. Hopefully you will see something like this:
Updating DB (#1) …
volume: 100% repeat: off random: off single: off consume: off
If it can’t connect then something went wrong. Check that you’ve done everything properly so far.
You may want to have a look at MPD’s and MPC’s manual pages. Just type “man mpd” for the daemon and “man mpc” for the client. You will want to learn the client’s commands. Feel free to try adding some music or a radio stream with “mpc add” and playing it with “mpc play”. “mpc stop” stops playback. To kill the MPD process, just type “mpd –kill”. You should do this before moving on.
Assuming that worked, we can now move on to getting it working with AirPlay. You will need to download and purchase AirFoil. This awesome little program will pipe any audio over AirPlay. As a bonus, it will select the audio output to use. I love it!
Once you get it going you will want to tell it to launch MPD. This part tripped me up. I emailed their excellent tech support and they suggested using option-click and selecting MPD’s process. This works, but unfortunately VoiceOver doesn’t handle option-clicking very well. I had to find another solution.
I decided I had to get AirFoil to run MPD. I tried launching MPD directly but it wouldn’t work. Then I got the idea to make a wrapper script to launch MPD. I whipped one up but that wouldn’t work either. It turns out I had to turn the shell script into an application bundle. Fortunately, this awesome little utility called Appify does just that.
I used that program to convert my shell script to an application bundle and it works like a charm. Simply download this file and unzip it into your /Applications directory. Now choose MPD Launcher from AirFoil and there you go!
If you’ve followed everything then you should having a working MPD setup streaming its audio over AirPlay and over your chosen sound card. What a bargain! This really does provide the best of both worlds for those who like the command line but who also want AirPlay. You can also get mPoD for the iPhone/iPod and mPaD for the iPad, which will let you control this awesome setup from your iDevice. This gives a truly luxurious touch. You just can’t lose!
This equinox I had a profound revelation. MP3 sucks! I know others have stated this, but the full realization has really hit me. Now I feel obsessed with preserving my audio in a lossless format. Why won’t Apple play along?
At the start of each season I like to take a few days off and watch the Lord of the Rings. Since I don’t need the video, and since I use AirPlay, I figured I would just play it on my computer and enjoy it throughout the condo. I had a high quality MP3 rip of the DVD’s made at 320 KBPS. It sounded good when listening casually, but I had never done a while viewing this way.
It started out fine. I thought everything sounded fine. As things went on, however, I realized they didn’t. The levels sounded all wrong. The spacial component of the audio sounded less defined. The warm organic sounds of the movie sounded too electrical, too digitized, and not at all in the spirit of Middle Earth. The ringing of swords sounded muted, the firing of an arrow sounded like a phaser, and something just felt off.
As time went on I realized that last point more and more. Something just felt off. By the Return of the King I knew something had gone wrong when I didn’t feel impressed. Normally that movie transfixes me from beginning to end, but now I just didn’t feel it. SOmething had to change.
I did some quick hacking and whipped up a way to play FLAC on the Mac. I had a FLAC version of the movies. This would offer a perfect reproduction of the DVD’s audio. The next day I put my setup to the test and it worked.
I noticed the difference right away. The analog warmth returned. Sting sounded spectacular. The arrows sounded like arrows. The level of the music seemed proper. Everything felt right again. And most importantly my emotions had returned to expected levels. I had discovered something important, something others before me had also discovered, and now I understood. MP3 sucks!
Once you go FLAC you can never go back! Now that I knew, I also knew that I had to begin re-ripping my CD’s. I started ripping CD’s a long time ago, and still had many of my favorites in horrible 128K mp3 versions. This had to change.
I set up a temporary directory on my Linux machine and started using the excellent ABCDE. It does take some configuring and some shell scripting knowledge doesn’t hurt either, but once you get it working it works like a champ. Now I sit here feeding CD after CD into a Plextor CD/DVD burner and just let it go to town. I have tons of CD’s, and my recent move has made this even more apparent. It feels like the right time to do this. I call it Operation FLAC.
As I continued, I noticed that a pattern had evolved. I wondered if I should keep the old MP3 versions for any reason. Then I realized that I had copied all of my favorites to my iTunes library to put on my iPhone and iPad. This pattern has become undeniable: rip the FLAC, if I want the crappy MP3 copy move it to my Mac, then delete the MP3 and no going back!
While ripping CD’s, I enjoy comparing the MP3 version to the FLAC version. On some things it really shines, for instance with the works of Terry Riley. No matter what, FLAC preserves something lost to MP3. It preserves the feeling of the music.
We entered a dark age of audio about ten or so years ago when the MP3 standard became popular. All lossy compression sucks, but MP3 really sucks. If you must use a lossy compression, use OGG/Vorbis. Unfortunately, many devices do not support either OGG/VORBIS or FLAC. This includes all of Apple’s products if used with out of the box software.
Apple loves music! It says so in the Steve Jobs biography. He totally redefined the way we listen to music. Portability has come at a price. You could only have a thousand songs in your pocket if you compress the music, removing elements of the audio to shrink its size.
Apple has helped the AAC standard become mainstream, which does offer superior sound to MP3. They have also introduced their own lossless audio format and made it open source. In the lossy compression war, MP3 dominates, AAC contends, but many still feel that OGG/Vorbis sounds best. In the world of lossless compression however, FLAC has become the dominant standard. Would it really hurt Apple that much to include these standards natively? If they love music and they love open source standards so much, then why don’t they love open source standards for better sounding music?
You can already get OGG and FLAC working in some circumstances. A XIPH QUickTime component and a program called Fluke have brought support to the Mac in the past, but Apple keeps breaking them and they do not work with my current setup. VLC also includes these formats, but the program only has a small group of maintainers and it has bugs. I have also recently begun playing with AirFoil. It runs under Mac and Windows, and pipes any program’s audio through AirPlay. It also lets you select which audio output you want to use. iTunes does not have this essential feature. To play these formats on the iPhone or iPod Touch you can try oPlayer. No doubt jailbreaking also offers plenty of ways. Those who don’t feel an allegiance to APple should also investigate RockBox
What have we lost by using lossless compression? I can’t believe I’ve spent the last ten years listen to muted lifeless versions of my favorite CD’s. When I play a FLAC version, I can almost hear the CD saying: “Hi. Remember me? I’m a CD. This is how I should sound. Remember? You used to play me all the time.” Perhaps I anthropomorphize, but it has happened over and over again. Nietzsche said that without music life would be a mistake, and lossy compression removes that intangible thing that makes the statement true.
If this article strikes a cord, then you should start an Operation FLAC of your own. Just get into a rhythm and you can rip a surprising number of CD’s. Think of it as preserving the beautiful music which has changed your life in a lossless format. Hard drives have become cheap enough, and you can even rig up a system which automatically backs up your perfect priceless collection. Don’t you owe it to your music? It feels so good to replace an old lossy rip with a shiny new lossless version of a great CD. Don’t worry, you can always move the crappy MP3 version to your iTunes library.
I lived in Swarthmore pretty much all of my life. Now I have left the peaceful shire to move into the city of Philadelphia. I can hardly believe I have lived here for two months. My life has totally changed and I love it.
Things have come full circle in a way. I don’t remember my birth, which also happened in Philadelphia, but by all accounts it involved a lot of activity, given that it happened two and a half months prematurely. After surviving that, my parents moved around a little. I have a vague memory of making an alarm clock radio make a loud squealing noise in Georgia, but not much else. After that, my parents moved to a suburb of Pennsylvania called Balacynwyd. I have some pretty clear memories of that, but couldn’t tell you the layout of the house. I did get my first computer there, an Apple II/e, which I still have and which still works. Around my eighth birthday we moved into a big house in Swarthmore, and I definitely remember that.
We lived in that big house for many years. We all loved it, especially growing up and not having to take care of maintenance and other more adult concerns. One day, my brother and I woke up to discover bulldozers in our backyard. “We’re getting a pool.” our Dad informed us. That pool provided us with many fond memories, and by pool I often mean the Jacuzzi which adjoined it. We practically lived in it during the summer and still miss it to this day. That house saw us through our childhood, the birth of my twin sisters, and our growth through adolescence and the turbulent high school time. It also saw us through my parents’ painful divorce. We all loved that house, but it did take a lot of work to maintain.
I moved out when I turned twenty-three into a crappy apartment. Even though by all measurable accounts it sucked when compared to the big and beautiful house, it still gave me my first taste of living on my own and I still enjoyed it for that reason.
Within a year I began to feel cramped in my tiny apartment, and decided to start looking for options. I also began to realize that having real estate makes a good tangible investment. In the summer of 2002 I found a house also in Swarthmore that fit the bill. I planned to live in it, get it fixed up, then sell it for a profit. It seemed like a lot of house for one person, but I stuck to my plan.
The house definitely needed some work. My brother does carpentry and other such work, and we went through it. The kitchen looked old, but then we walked into the mud room in back. “Please let me take this down! This piece of shit is ready to fall apart. Oh please!” my brother begged. He and I both have the engineering instinct to just rip something out and start from scratch so I agreed. I also agreed to let him rip out a crappy wall in my crappy bathroom. He put up a sheet of plastic in its place.
Mom’s friend designs kitchens, so we had her design a beautiful new kitchen and my brother built it. It took months of agonizing on and off work. I had to use cardboard for a countertop and watch where I step. One day, my brother said: “The sound you are about to hear is us moving a wall of your house.” On and on it went. Finally they had done it, I had a beautiful modern kitchen.
He also did some other work at that time. He built a back deck which I called the tobacco deck because we all smoked tobacco in the sweltering heat. I really enjoyed that deck, though it did get direct sun. He built a shed sort of thing. We planned to put screens around it to make a nice screened area, but that never happened. And after falling down the basement stairs he built a solid new set. That seemed like enough work for the time, and I enjoyed the next few years with my new kitchen and deck. All of this happened by the summer of 2003.
I knew at some point I would have to downsize. In the interim I did what I could to maintain the place and live my life in peace. I had gotten into the Lord of the Rings, and realized that Swarthmore reminds me a lot of the Shire, the peaceful idyllic region in MIddle Earth in which hobbits live. That felt just fine for me.
My brother had moved into the city to fix up a house of his own, a project he could really throw himself into. He told me of some new condos going up across the street and suggested I give them a look, but I brushed it off. Why the hell would I want to move into the smelly city with all that negativity? Mom and I continued looking for new places to live around Swarthmore.
As the economy worsened I knew that I could not sustain myself in that big house. Just keeping it clean and maintained cost a lot of money. The same held true for my Mom, who had also downsized. It cost a lot to live in Swarthmore. Things had begun to change.
In 2010 I knew I had to start preparing this place to sell. It wouldn’t happen immediately, but I had to do what I could to raise its value. First, I got my living room repainted. It didn’t look any different to me, but it did make the walls feel smoother, and everyone praised it.
Then, my upstairs bathroom needed replacing. The sheet of plastic still hung instead of a wall. It had become known as the ugliest bathroom in Swarthmore. So in May of that year we rebuilt it. My brother and some of his friends worked for a few weeks, and at the end I had a shiny new bathroom. We also fixed up the downstairs bathroom to have everything ready.
In september of 2011, my Mom’s stepsister Mimi, who also works as a realtor had a strange experience. One of her friends wanted to find a place to live. She expressed the same need. She also had all of us in mind. “Oh, I know the perfect place for you guys.” Her friend told her of these nice condos in the city, and pulled up right in front of my brother’s house. She showed her the very condos my brother told me to look at all that time ago. We could hardly believe it.
I admit that at first I didn’t really like the sound of living in a condo in the city, despite the amazing synchronicity. That all changed as soon as I saw it. I fell in love with it immediately. My crappy apartment felt too small, my house felt too big, but this felt just right. I knew I would live there. Mom and Mimi felt the same about the condos they had picked out for themselves. Now my whole family would move from the suburbs and live in the city.
Mimi also acted as my real estate agent. She told me a real estate saying: Buyers are liars. They don’t know what they want. They will say they will never live in a certain place then end up buying a house there. It happens all the time apparently and it happened with all of us.
Once I had made the decision, I had to prepare myself for the agonizing process of selling the house, packing, and moving. Packing and moving I had done before so had a pretty good idea of what to expect, but I had never sold a house. The process basically consists of having showings, where you let complete strangers and groups of strangers go through your house. They also like it if you leave the house, or at least keep out of the way. I did not enjoy this, but Mimi made things as bearable as possible. Fortunately, the process went as smoothly as it could have, and one day while watching an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000, my house sold. We had done it! We had sold three houses in the worst real estate market Mimi can remember. She really deserves the credit here. I could never have done this myself. I even made a profit, a difficult thing to do with any investment right now. My plan had worked!
We schedule settlement for the end of January. Mimi had already sold her house. Mom had sold her house, and her settlement would happen a week before mine. It would get pretty nutty, we all knew that. Still as nutty things go I think it went as well as it could have.
We threw out so much crap in my house. I’ve collected technology since childhood, and as any tech person knows, you hold onto things because, you know, you might, like, need them some day. You might need an original 8-bit Soundblaster. You might need an IDE hard drive cable. You might need a thirteen-year-old laptop with a broken CD drive slot and a 56K modem as its only method of connecting to the outside world. Sure.
While going through all this stuff, several things became apparent. Cassettes have become ridiculously antiquated, though my buddy Jason Scott might not agree. Optical media like cd’s and dvd’s will soon become similarly antiquated before long. Old technology weighs a lot. I found an old portable printer I used to lug around during high school, and it still felt heavy and unwieldy as an adult. Technology goes out of date fast, but adaptive technology goes really out of date really fast. I threw out pretty much everything outdated, except for my old Braille ’n Speak. I just did not have the heart to.
Bags and bags of crap went out to the curb. Mom went to Good Will every day between our two houses. We accumulate so much stuff over time. It actually felt good to get rid of it. Some of it even had some bad energy. Get it all out!
The day got close and it felt like we still had a lot to do. We had a few terrible days but by the night before we had done it. I still had my computer and stereo to pack, but I could do that myself. I buckled down and did that, and found myself standing alone in a quiet house. It felt weird.
I thought about all the things that went on in this house, and all the packed stuff that went along with the memories. In the living room, I thought about all the great times I had listening to music and watching DVD’s. I lay down on my cool couch for the last time, since it would not fit in the condo. I went into the dining room, taking in the ambience. I had my tobacco cabinet here.
I walked into the kitchen, a real highlight of the house. I had many good meals here. It has an island and barstools, giving the whole thing a relaxed feel. The corion made for easy cleanup. It also has a gas stove, which sadly I would have to say good bye to. The condo only has electric. I felt a little sad about that.
I also felt sad about about a girl I loved who broke my heart, then broke my dishwasher. I know how to fix my emotions, but I don’t know the first thing about dishwashers. I got a repairman to fix it as best as he could, but it never quite closed properly again. I also thought about the Frigidaire refrigerator. I had a lot of problems with it. I even got a custom made braille sign that says: Frigidaire Sucks Balls! I wanted it to say something else that started with the letter F, but figured they’d never allow that so I compromised. Despite these imperfections, the kitchen has a joyful vibe.
I went upstairs and stood in my office. At least the people who bought my house would have a sweet FiOS connection wired for ethernet. I also did some work to clean up the power a little, since the house had a lot of old wiring and poor grounding. If you have never had to deal with a ground hum then you just can’t understand. Now the machines had fallen silent like a museum. Nothing hummed. I walked into the new upstairs bathroom and made sure I had packed all my toiletries. I knew the new owners would enjoy the new bathroom.
I walked into my quiet bedroom. I had just packed an overnight bag, a good idea when moving. I then took a breath, and walked into my meditation room. I loved this room. My friends loved this room. Steve Jobs loved his meditation rooms, as his biography pointed out. I knew i would really miss it, but the meditation technique I developed here gave me the internal tools to deal with this and know that something else would arise. Meditation comes from within, and a meditation space just mirrors this internal relationship.
After that jolt I lay down for a few hours sleep and then the most insane day ever began. I woke up at six o’clock or something. I quickly ate and the movers came right on time. They did not waste any time, and just kicked ass. While that happened, I went to my settlement. For a few hours I had no home. As we finalized things, we saw the moving truck going down the street. I had definitely moved.
We headed into the city. It felt weird. I arrived at my new condo and found the movers moving things in and putting my desk together. We made some decisions about arranging the furniture, and the unpacking continued. I felt so tired and things felt like a dream. Finally they had finished and left. We ate our first dinner together at Hawthorne’s Cafe, a good local place. I lay down in my new bedroom and prepared myself for my battle with Verizon.
While freaking out about moving, I talked to my awesome new friend Rachel. I told her that Swarthmore reminds me a lot of the Shire. She said: “I’ll bet you won’t go back to the shire. Frodo didn’t go back.” I could hardly speak. I knew she spoke the truth.
Having lived here a little while, I can already say that I love living in the city! It rules! It has so much authentic stuff. For example, we get real Italian restaurants instead of chain ones. I have a few health food stores within walking distance of me. I can get tons of vegetarian food either with a short walk, cab ride, or delivered. It really opens things up. Plus, the grid layout of Philadelphia makes navigation a lot easier. GPS comes in even more handy. I know I made the right move.
Interestingly, my cat loves it here too. I thought she’d feel scared, but she took right to it. Before she would just kind of hide out in my bedroom. Now she acts friendlier and more playful. She enjoys sitting in the loft, getting sun and overseeing the place. We both feel the same way.