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.

Taking a Byte of the Raspberry Pi

July 06, 2012

I became excited about the Raspberry Pi as soon as I heard about it. I had no idea if a blind person could even put one together, but I ordered one anyway. I received it, ordered some other parts, and to my delight I got it working. I feel like a kid playing with my Apple.

The Pi comes as a circuit board with the components soldered on it. As of now you don’t even get a case. The board has 2 USB ports, ethernet, audio and video out, a Micro USB for power, and a SD slot for a SD card to hold the root filesystem. It has 256 MB of RAM and runs at 700 MHZ. Think of it as a computer with the spirit of the eighties, the power of the nineties, and the vision of the twenty-first century. Delicately holding the board in my hands I thought of the movie Pi: “This suitcase isn’t filled with money, or gold, or jewels… just silicon.”

I do not consider myself a hardware person. How many programmers does it take to change a lightbulb? None, that’s a hardware problem! Siri told the same joke at WWDC. Great minds think alike.

I felt a little freaked out at the idea of buying other components and hooking them up to a circuit board. The official store only had European power supplies, and I live in the States. I put out the call on Twitter for the best power supply, and a guy named Andy wrote back. We settled on the Amazon Basics Wall Charger. It has a 2.1 Amp output, more than adequate. I added a Micro USB cable. It arrived right around the same time as the Pi.

I now had all the pieces. I had the Pi, the wall charger, the cable, and an SD card. They have a number of images for downloaded. They recommend Debian, but since I have a rebellious nature I chose Arch Linux. It doesn’t have a GUI installed, perfect for my needs. Plus I already run it on my desktop so know it well. Its minimalist philosophy lends itself well to this project. I followed the instructions for Mac OS and soon had it ready. The moment of truth had come.

I gently inserted the chip into the horizontal slot. I gently plugged in the Micro USB connecter. I gently plugged in the ethernet. I attached the USB end of the cable to the charger, said a quick prayer to Goddess, and plugged it in. I had a horrible feeling the whole thing would go up in smoke with a loud bang and funny smell, but no explosion came.

After my heart calmed down I decided to take the next step. I had already loaded up my router’s DHCP table, and saw the aIP address register. I used SSH and sure enough I connected as root! I had done it! I played around, updated and installed some packages, and compiled a small test program. THis felt so cool!

The building project had not ended, however. The next weekend a friend brought over some legos, and we made a sweet little lego case for it. It measures 13×9 and has little holes for the ports. Legos have their own nature, and it felt very much in the spirit of the project to play with them. I had to think about layering them, reinforcing, the proper dimensions of the ports, and other very real design considerations. In an artistic touch I added a pyramid on the top. The board actually sits atop the legos very snugly. It worked very well.

I felt pleasantly surprised at how smoothly the whole process went. It also gave me a sense of accomplishment and reminded me of the feeling I had growing up. I started with an Apple II/e and an Echo II speech synthesizer. Apple became the first personal computer accessible to the blind. I have fond memories of it, and still have it in a box.

The Apple had AppleSoft BASIC integrated into the machine. In other words, it had a programming language built into it, and it intertwined with the operating system. When I first got it I only knew how to RUN a program or get a CATALOG of files on the disc. One day I had the bright idea to type LIST. I figured it would list something, and I figured correctly. It listed the source code to the program I had just run, the legendary Eliza. In a flash I realized that computers just followed instructions like this, and understood what programming a computer really meant. I knew then I wanted to do this all my life.

Now almost thirty years later the Raspberry Pi wants to revolutionize things for children in a similar way. They recommend kids learn Python. I’ve never played with Python because whitespace infuriates me, and the concept of it having significance makes me feel somewhat nutty. I imagine having an argument with the interpreter much like the guy in the argument sketch. “Is this the right room for an argument?” “I told you once.”

But that doesn’t really matter. Everyone has unique tastes, and different languages suit different people. Whatever language kids choose, I hope this project will help. It has already helped me get more comfortable with hardware. If you want to learn more about computers in a very hands-on way, then take a byte of the Raspberry Pi! And by the way, to my blind readers, they spell it P-i, like the Greek letter or the awesome movie referenced above.

A Light to Guide You in Dark Places

May 23, 2012

This article will conclude the series detailing my three-day intensive to learn echolocation. By making a tongue click, a blind person can learn to retrain their brain to activate the visual center through reflected sound. This gives the equivalent of long-range vision. If you haven’t already, you should read about the beginning of what we called Echolocation Woodstock, and what happened the next day. That will bring you up to speed. The last article ended with me lying in my bed, seeing the ceiling above me without even clicking and realizing that I had unlocked something much greater.

Before I continue I wanted to answer some questions. People ask exactly what I mean by seeing objects. I do not mean just hearing a sound, though it starts from that point. I do not mean visualizing something in the mind’s eye, though no doubt it plays a part. When I see something with echolocation, I actually see a dark form like a mannequin positioned around me in space. Echolocation shows an object’s size, mass, material, spacial position, everything sight gives minus color and finer detail. It feels like the most amazing thing to actually see the world around me in this new way. These articles have taken longer to write because I have had to come up with ways of explaining this amazing ability.

Some people have wanted to know how to start learning echolocation. This includes some curious sighted people. In fact, they might have an easier time in some ways, because their brains already have the pathways to process visual information. Start as I did, with the panel exercises I talked about in the first part. Get a plate and hold it in front of your face. Make a “shsh” sound while moving your head around as though looking at the object. Listen for the center and edges. Trace the edges. Find the object’s position in space. Reach out and touch it. Build on that. Then move on to other objects, comparing and contrasting them. At the same time, work on developing your click, and gradually transition from the constant sound to the click. That will give you a good sample. As I wrote before though, you can learn how to look, but you need an intensive to learn how to see. Everyone has unique challenges, and you need the real-time feedback.

Now back to the action. We woke up the next day and had almond croissants and Goddess Cups. We also had our super foods, of course. We discussed what we wanted to do for the day. By chance I mentioned that this building has an awesome roof deck. That seemed like a good idea, so we decided to do some object identification there. After that Justin wanted to go to a department store. I didn’t know how that would go down, but figured we’d cross that bridge when we came to it.

We headed up to the roof deck and started clicking at objects. I suddenly realized that I had done the click slightly incorrectly all this time. First, make a “chch” sound. Keep the tip of your tongue in that exact place. Now quickly bring the center of your tongue down, making a sharp clicking sound. A higher frequency gives more resolution, and this proper tongue position allows for a louder click which broadcasts over a longer distance. In a flash I realized that this complimented my meditation. An energy circuit runs up the spine and down the front of the body, and touching the tip of your tongue to this spot completes that circuit. It all clicked together, if you’ll pardon the pun.

Something else happened in this flash. Justin had me click across the street at a church. He could identify it by its shape. I tried, and had the realization I just described. When I clicked properly, I distinctly heard a longer echo come back from farther away. My brain translated it and flipped! I physically felt my brain reel. When it recovered sure enough I could see something farther away. I couldn’t identify it as well as Justin, but I definitely saw a building-like object across the street with a tree in front of it. I went nuts! I had just seen an object at a distance. Hearing that longer echo did something.

After I recovered myself, we walked around the roof deck finding other things to click at. I liked how Justin never considered any of my guesses as wrong. Rather, he would say “No, but I understand why you’d think that.” This understanding really helped. The brain perceives things correctly, you just have to learn how to interpret the perceptions correctly. We found a power box, and other random things. While looking across the wide railing, Justin told me that when sighted people want to see along something, they have to look up. What? Look up? This didn’t make sense to me, but I tried it and it worked, I could see along the railing. Eventually I found a table and some chairs and we sat down. I needed tobacco. We talked about the next step, and decided to get a cab to Macy’s, a nearby department store. I had no idea what to expect, but I put my faith in Justin and of course in Goddess.

This building started out as a department store called Wanamaker’s, the first department store in Philadelphia and one of the first in America. Anyone who has lived in this area for a long time remembers Wanamaker’s. Unfortunately it no longer exists. Now it has become a Macy’s. I had some idea of the intensity to expect, but had never actually gone there. Justin felt impressed and maybe even a little overwhelmed. Sighted people feel this way too. Nevertheless, we plunged forward.

The whole thing felt like a fun adventure. I learned how to use echolocation to maneuver through paths. This skill comes in handy all the time. We went around all kinds of crazy paths. I also learned how to find my way through paths to a goal, such as an entrance.

The main lobby tripped us out. It has a very high ceiling, large stone columns, and balconies. This provided all kinds of cool sounds and images. We really had fun figuring this out. I could appreciate this in a whole new way.

We started on the first floor by some dresses and handbags. No doubt we looked very weird clicking and tromping around but definitely focused on something. We found our way to the amazing lobby and went upstairs. We saw more stuff and walked around aisles. We ended up on the third floor by beds and cookware. Justin mentioned that Mother’s Day would come up on Sunday, and I had the idea to buy my Mom a gift. We hailed a woman and she helped me pick out a white all-purpose baking dish.

We found our way outside and I called for a cab. They could not come for an hour. We wondered what to do. I eventually decided to go back in to the madness and buy a new wallet. Everything went wonderfully and I felt glad I did it. I would have never just travelled to a department store by myself. Echolocation opens doors.

We finally got a cab home. We had a cabby named Victor who wanted to know more about echolocation. “Are you bullshitting me?” “No we’re serious!” “He’s teaching me how to do it.” We blew his mind. This has happened a number of times since.

I have to tell a quick aside. Every once in a while one or both of my parents would freak out and want me to get a guide dog. I’ve never had any interest. I just can’t turn my will over to an animal. Justin pointed out that you really can’t compare cane and guide dog users, because a guide dog user still has a sighted guide, no criticism intended.

Anyway, people would go on and on about how independent guide dog users look. They would also tell me that a guide dog makes a good conversation starter. “And you know, girls love dogs.” I considered that totally vain. I would not just get a guide dog for that. Now I felt glad that I had found an even better conversation starter!

While walking back to my apartment, something else interesting happened. When walking I would usually hold one arm up a little, as a natural defense. Most blind people do, and with good reason. “Hey, are you holding your arm up?” asked Justin. I said yes, starting to realize something. “Um, yeah, you don’t need to do that anymore.” And I saw what he meant. Now that I had echolocation I could easily tell if an obstacle lay in front of me. As promised, it had improved my pose.

We got home and ate some pizza my mom picked up for us from a local shop. We had talked about the Lord of the Rings, and Justin said that he had never seen the Return of the King. As any fan knows, the extended version rules! If we wanted to watch it we would have to on this last night. I put it on, but Justin quickly fell asleep next to a big salt lamp. I watched it anyway, and as usual had some powerful insights.

Watching that amazing scene with Gandalf and Saruman made me think back to earlier to the roof deck. While walking around, Justin told me to take Gandalf steps. I asked what he meant. “If I were training a six-year-old, I would tell them to walk like a seven-year-old. How do you think Gandalf walks?” We had a quick discussion and decided on stately, with purpose. Walking in this way helps maintain orientation. I had experienced that on the previous day and wrote about it then, how walking quickly helped keep me oriented.

Then the scene with Frodo and Shelob came on. Frodo holds up the Phial of Galadriel and it flashes back to the Fellowship of the Ring. Galadriel says: “May it be a light for you in dark places, when all other lights go out.” It all hit me at once. Echolocation does exactly that! A light to guide you in dark places! And now I finally understood the name World Access for the Blind, the only organization teaching this technique. Before I thought it just meant that they train blind people around the world. Now I knew that it really meant that they give blind people access to the world. I felt illuminated.

The next day I had to rest a little. We wanted to start earlier since we didn’t have much time, but my poor brain just wouldn’t allow it. I pulled myself together and prepared myself for my final ordeal so to speak. Once again we walked to Whole Foods. The route felt more familiar, but I need to work on my street crossings. Justin explained that those blind from Retinopathy of Prematurity tend to not do well at street crossings, because they can often become easily disoriented by loud sounds and sound tracking. True enough. He helped me clean up my cane technique a little and showed me how to get better oriented using echolocation. We made six crossings and I did four of them well. I still have work to do, but feel a lot better off. Justin assured me that things would make more sense once my brain had time to put it all together, and sure enough a few hours later it started to. He left right after that and I felt changed forever.

When we first started chatting I felt amazed that someone could learn this in three days. I asked him multiple times and he promised me that he could teach me the basics, enough to get me on my way. I got more than I could have ever hoped for. I thought I would just learn something cool to help my mobility skills. Instead I learned how to see.

To find out more about echolocation, contact World Access for the Blind. They work on a donation basis. Amounts generally range from $500 to $1500 per day of training. You can pay in one or several sums, or with a monthly subscription. Not a bad deal, considering what you get. I believe every blind person should learn this skill. Don’t wait fifty years for the establishment to catch up. Do it now!

Goddess Cups

May 21, 2012

With 5/23 coming up I figured I’d share a fun recipe straight from Goddess herself. It uses cacao and fruit.

Start out by making a normal fruit cup. Take some chopped fruit and put it in a little cup. Berries and other smaller fruits work well for this. You might also want to add a little raw sugar to balance the taste.

Now for the fun part. Add 1-2 tsp of cacao powder. This powder contains the raw form of chocolate with the fats removed. This adds an exotic flavor. Cacao also has many interesting health effects.

If you have time, put it in the fridge for a few hours. I like to make them before bed to have them ready for breakfast the next day. This lets everything blend together.

After you eat the fruit, you will find a little gift from Goddess in the form of the sweet nectar in the bottom of the cup. Now you know why I call them Goddess Cups. All hail Discordia!

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!

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