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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 it the most important thing in my life. I cook gluten-free vegan meals. I use Linux as my desktop and Android as my mobile OS. For the rest you'll have to read my blog.

Earthquake!

August 23, 2011

A5.8 magnitude earthquake occurred today at 01:53 PM with its epicenter in the Virginia area. I felt it here in Philadelphia. My experience doesn’t really differ from others, but since local news stations had random people on all day I figured I should at least write an entry.

I sat in my home office talking on the phone. Suddenly, I noticed that everything started slightly shaking, as if vibrated from a powerful source. I figured they had started doing more construction and didn’t think much for a moment, but even then something felt wrong, different somehow. The vibrations didn’t stop, they increased, and everything started shaking. It felt like waves on the ocean, a very strange sensation. The once stable ground had become more like a liquid. It also felt like waves as if from a powerful subwoofer. Even at this low magnitude (around 3 here) I could sense this. I wondered if we had an earthquake. I’ve never experienced one before. I felt a little freaked out, and my friend in the city also felt it.

It past about thirty seconds later and I went outside, not knowing what else to do. I felt kind of stunned and disoriented. I don’t know if the ground continued shaking slightly or if I just felt on edge. When I came outside my neighbor asked if I felt something. Sure enough, the news began reporting the earthquake. No real damage, some windows blown out in high-rises, but no fatalities.

Now I feel totally freaked out about earthquakes. It just happened all of a sudden, without any warning. My Mom remembers one happening when she grew up, and this one tied with the record for this area set 67 years ago. I felt slightly shaken for a little afterward. It felt very weird to experience. I never want to again. Now I know why the Maya have lots of myths about earthquakes. Some even believe this age will end in an earthquake. Though small in intensity, it changed me forever. Now I can say I lived through one.

How to Make a Million Dollars with an iPhone

August 18, 2011

Sorry for the spammy title. I wanted to get your attention, plus I figure it will draw a bunch of traffic from search engines. This article actually discusses ways a blind person can use an iPhone to aide them in their trading and investing.

I turned eighteen in 1995. Of course, at that age I had other things on my mind than my long-term financial planning, if you catch my meaning. By 1999 the dotcom bomb had begun, and I realized I had better start paying attention. I noticed my account going down because of large positions in tech stocks. I warned my bankers to get out. I didn’t need a degree in economics to know that AOL sucked! Continuing questioning just resulted in boring talk, mindless consolations, and a cookie. They did nothing and I suffered for it.

After extricating myself, I didn’t know what to do, so had various people manage my money. They met with varying levels of success. Still, I had my own ideas which proved correct as time went on. For example, I wanted to buy gold at $280 per ounce. Most laughed and called me a kook, accusing me of paranoia over Y2K and suggesting I get some “real” friends. As I write this gold currently sits at $1824.60 per ounce, a 651% increase. Not bad. Eventually I realized that, like so many things in life, if I wanted to do something right I had to do it myself. But how?

In the autumn of 2009 my Dad gave me a few thousand dollars to play with, so I could start learning about trading stocks. A long-time friend of the family became my mentor and we embarked on my quest. At first, it felt like entering a strange new universe. I could perceive the exchange of information but it lacked context, like a bunch of alien robots gibbering away. Over a few months things began to cohere and I started figuring out the pieces of information I needed to make successful trades. Sighted people rely on a lot of graphs and charts to derive useful information. I had to find ways to compensate. I have a good mind for numbers so that came naturally, but I still needed ways to see trends.

When I heard a stock chart while standing in the AT&T store, I knew I had to have an iPhone, and that it would help give me the financial freedom I needed. The iPhone allows me to keep track of all the information I need. I can execute trades from anywhere I can get a signal. As with other areas of life, this constant connection increases confidence and security. When it came time to declare my intentions to take more control of my money, I wrote that having this on my iPhone means I literally have the situation in my pocket at all times.

Now I have a brokerage account with Fidelity. I particularly like their iPad app. I find it much easier to navigate than their web site. It allows for the kind of rapid scanning and execution one needs when computing with the elites and their electronic trading. A lot of people think that buying a stock involves an arcane process of talking to a man who uses a computer to relay orders to anonymous men on a cocaine-fueled floor. Actually it requires only slightly more skill than buying or selling something on Amazon.

While the act of buying or selling doesn’t take much effort, knowing what to buy or sell does. You need information, and lots of it. The web has lots of free information. You might like to familiarize yourself with some of these sites, such as Seeking Alpha, Investopedia, and of course our old friend Yahoo! Finance. An endless amount of experts exist, ready to give you advice to support any point of view you may have. Find sources which you can understand, and which have a proven track record. Many offer paid newsletters and other services which can help. I like Investech, the Trends Research Institute, Solari, the Trading Doctor, and a tip of the hat to Ron Paul.

A collection of apps also help. The core Stocks app provides good basics, and I hear that this will improve in iOS5. The Fidelity app provides news as well. I also like Bloomberg and Gold Live for tracking different things. You can even find apps to recommend trades, such as Stock Genie.

On the Mac side I’ve used two programs. I really like MPortfolio. It has a very accessible layout, but it has had some problems with Yahoo! Finance. It bothers me that so many programs just use Yahoo! Finance as their data source. Give me real-time! I’ve recently begun using Portfolio mobile. The developer has become very open to accessibility, and we have worked together to make the next version quite usable and cool. It also has the ability to sync between my Macs, a feature I need. Unfortunately the iOS version still needs accessibility work, but we will tackle that after we get the Mac version straight. I also love an awesome program called Soulver. It lets you do calculations using variables, and stock symbols can themselves become variables. So let’s say you have Apple (AAPL) configured and you want to know how many shares to buy to spend $5000, just do $5000/aapl.

So can you really make a million dollars from the information in this article? I’d like to think so, but who can tell? Past performance does not guarantee future results. Imposition of order = escalation of chaos. God is a crazy woman!

In the Star Trek the Next Generation episode In Theory, the Enterprise needs to maneuver through a dangerous section of space . They decide to send a shuttle ahead of the ship and relay the guidance information. Picard says he will pilot the shuttle and Riker objects, reasoning that the Captain’s life has too much value to risk on this mission. Picard says: “I believe our best chance of escaping this situation is for me to pilot the shuttle. I’ve got to do this. It’s my ship Will.” Even though Riker may have an advantage, Picard has the most interest. I feel the same way. Now I control my ship with an iPad, a device straight out of Star Trek. Make it so!

Object Oriented God

August 08, 2011

Ask a programmer to explain object oriented programming, and they will say something like: “Well, everything is an object.” Ask them to explain an object, and they will say: “An object is an object.” Or so goes a common joke or misconception.

Of course, we can define an object. An object has fields like a data structure. For example, an address book would have a name, phone number, address, etc. Along with fields for storing data, objects also have functions (methods) attached to them. For example, you’d want to enter data on a card in the address book, print the card, load and save it, etc. Objects belong to a class, and the class can also have methods. For example, the address book class would have a method to search the entire database of cards. This system gives a way of reasonably representing things in the real world…for some. Others find object oriented programming confusing, preferring a more functional approach. Different strokes for different folks. If you want to learn object oriented programming, I’d recommend Ruby.

Humans have always sought some kind of model to explain creation at all levels. According to some ancient religions, the Earth rests on the back of a turtle. The Mayan day sign Imix symbolizes this. If you ask a believer what the turtle rests on, they will simply say another turtle. This might sound strange to some, but turtles and objects both serve as metaphors for the way our mind actually puts the world together.

Comparing these two metaphors brings another paradox to mind. Programming objects have very tangible results, yet software has an intangible existence. The turtle metaphor has intangible results, but a turtle tangibly exists. Perhaps the two explain the same paradox from different angles, and have more in common with each other than it may initially seem.

So what does this hypothetical class look like? Does the class represent the Creator, creation, or both? How would an object of this class behave? What variables and methods would it contain? I don’t know for sure, but it makes a fun and interesting mental exercise. Perhaps we will never really know. Or perhaps someone will figure it out and post some pseudo-code in the comments.

The next time a religious fanatic pesters you, just think of tangible programming objects, or intangible Mayan turtles. They all make sense in their own way. Pick the metaphor that makes sense for you and use it. Just don’t confuse the map with the territory.

How to Share Files between Mac and Linux the Easy Way

August 07, 2011

When I upgraded to Mac OS X Lion, I discovered that Apple unceremoniously removed FTP as a file sharing option. I understood why – FTP has little (if any) security. Still, it annoyed me, because I had ftp set up locally for convenience. Whatever, I wanted to get SAMBA working anyway, so it didn’t bother me. Accessing Linux from Mac proved straight-forward, but going the other way didn’t work out so well. After hours of battling with SAMBA I took a break and thought about ssh, and then I remembered SSHFS. Beautiful!

We’ll start with the hopefully easy part: accessing Linux from Mac. On Linux, set up SAMBA as normal. For the easiest time, set your security level to Shared. Only do this if you use a router or know how to configure a firewall. Now hopefully you will see your Linux machine in Finder and can go from there. If you opt for user level security, you can connect in the Finder. Hit Command-K and enter “smb://username@” Make sure you have your Linux machine set to use a static IP. Plenty of good tutorials exist on how to do these things if you need help.

Now we move on to the fun part: accessing Mac from Linux. You can try to get SAMBA working, but I had no luck with it. Instead, install SSHFS according to your distribution. Arch Linux would use “packman -S sshfs”, Debian and Ubuntu would use “apt-get install sshfs”, and Redhat/CentOS would use “yum install sshfs”. It’ll also install fuse. Remember to make sure the kernel loads the fuse module, using modprobe if necessary.

You now have to make a few changes on your Mac. Your Mac needs to use a static IP for this to work. To do this, open system preferences and go to the networking pane. Select your primary network interface, probably already done. Go to “Configure IPV4” and select “Using DHCP with Manual Address”. Enter in a suitable IP address, one which falls within your network. Now go to the Sharing preference pane and make sure you have Remote Login checked. Note the ssh information in the text box.

Close that an go to Linux. Add your Mac’s address to /etc/hosts to make things easier. We will call this host “mac” in this example. Create a directory with appropriate permissions to use as your mount point. We will use /mnt/mac for this example.

The time has finally come for some action. If you have a user named “apple” and you want to mount their home directory, you’d just type “sshfs apple@mac /mnt/mac” Enter your password. Easy as that! To unmount the directory, just use “fusermount -u /mnt/mac”.

To automate this, you will have to use an SSH key. You can then put an entry like this in your /etc/fstab:

sshfs#apple@mac:/users/apple /mnt/mac fuse defaults 0 0

Enjoy your lightning fast transfers. And if anyone really does know how to get SAMBA working with a mac, feel free to comment. Meanwhile, I feel content with this solution. I hope it helps someone.

Ben King: Dead or Alive?

June 30, 2011

A friend of mine named Ben King died on June 28th, 1996. Every year I do a memorial for him. Recently, a guy named Andrew emailed me who had lost track of a friend named Ben king, and wanted to know a little more to make sure that his friend still lived.

I felt intrigued. I told him my friend lived in Pleasanton, California. He had a younger brother and his parents divorced. Andrew said his friend Ben King has a younger sister, his parents stayed together, and he moved to the Carolinas or something. It fascinated us both that two people named Ben King would have similar interests (programming and Esperanto) that someone would confuse his friend with mine. Could this have to do with numerology?

Andrew also pointed out that Ben King’s seem to have a gift for technology, such as Ben King, the Chief Technical Officer of Voalte. They write health care solutions on the iPhone. Add another synchronicity. Ben would have loved the iPhone!

Every year I do a memorial, which usually entails playing Weird Al and other weird music very loudly. Ben always said that you had to play music loudly to get all the little details. They pronounced him dead at 05:50 A.M., so the ritual has to last until at least then. When we went to the Esperanto convention, we would wake up at 5:55, five minutes earlier than everyone else. Since Discordians consider five a sacred number, we considered this a good sign. I wonder what he would have thought about the time of his death.

I began by playing his trilogy of songs. He made them in an S3M tracker, the first easy way to make sample-based music on a PC. I have converted them to FLAC, a format which didn’t even exist then. Ben would have approved. I also gave them long filenames, which he would have also liked. You can find them here.

I then started playing some weird music he enjoyed. I really started getting into the vibe. Suddenly, everything stopped! Silent! Dead! The FLAC decoder must have crashed or something, because Liquidsoap just would not play these files, resulting in an ALSA error. But it plays everything else fine. So somewhere between the decoding and outputting my radio station and the memorial crashed. That did it. That put it totally over the top. I freaked out! The logical programmer part of me tried to understand, but…but…why right then at that moment? Ben? Goddess?

I restored things and decided to move on, hoping the error wouldn’t happen again. I played a bunch of Weird Al, leading up to the new album. In retrospect I should have done the new album first, then other more familiar things to just relax to, but whatever! All hail Discordia! We have a saying: When in doubt, fuck it. When not in doubt…get in doubt!

The new album came on at 05:23 A.M. Discordians consider five and twenty-three sacred numbers, so clearly that meant something. And I could not have arranged it, remember that the system crashed. I even rebooted just in case the kernel upgrade did something. As Bilbo would say: “Quiet. Magic is afoot.”

Let me first say that I grew up on Weird Al, as did a lot of people in my generation. If you think that Weird Al just makes kids music, it means that you have not listened to him as an adult. Trust me! If you only remember him from childhood, do yourself a favor and listen to these songs again as an adult. Imagine someone giving you a “cool piece of metal” to hang onto, then years later as an adult discovering that you had an ounce of gold all this time and just never knew. It feels like that.

I read some reviews on Amazon about the new album, called Alpocalypse. One reviewer hit the nail on the head: Weird Al is good, the music is bad. It got me thinking along those lines. In concert, he plays a clip of Emenem talking about his parody. “It’s stupid. It’s repetitive and annoying.” Al responds: “Well, don’t blame me, I can only change the words, not the music.”

The album starts with Perform This Way, a parody of a Lady Gaga song which parodies the artist herself. I confess I hadn’t heard of this Lady Gaga, but people consider her very popular, and she does shocking things like many performance artists. Her name makes me nervous. I enjoyed the song and its content, but already I knew the reviewer had gotten it right. Poor Weird Al, having to parody this crap!

Next we have CNR, another pop culture reference I didn’t get, but I had already heard that song on the Internet Leaks album so it didn’t bother me. Track 3: TMZ parodies a Taylor Swift song. I only know of her because we chanced to hear one of her songs at the ski resort. At least Taylor Swift can sing, so the song has a recognizable singable melody. Good.

Next another favorite from Internet Leaks, Skipper Dan tells the story of a guy who studied acting but ended up working as a tour guide. I’ve enjoyed this song since I heard it for the first time in concert. Polka Face continues the theme: great talent, awful modern pop. Still, you’ve gotta give it to Weird Al! Craig’s List comes next, a style parody of the Doors and another from Internet Leaks.

Now we come to my favorite track on the album: Party in the CIA. It parodies a Miley Cyrus song, who I only know because of her father, who Weird Al also parodied. I heard the original just to appreciate how well Al copies a song. I think a lot of people think parodying just takes mindless work and don’t realize the excruciating detail Al puts into these songs. To faithfully duplicate the backing and style of a song takes real talent, and Weird Al has it. The original became popular again on May 1st, when America killed Qadaffi ’s grandsons. Party in the CIA indeed! The original tells of a girl going to Hollywood and feeling lost, but cheering up when she hears her favorite music. Al turns this into a story of someone who works for the CIA and enjoys going on secret missions with all their cool gear. He even references the controversial practice of water boarding. A perfect song all the way through, it really made the album for me.

Next we have Ringtone, another from Internet Leaks. I must say, it took me a few listens but I like this song now. Of course, it has an iPhone reference, so how could I not? The end would make a funny meta-ring tone of sorts.

Now we have Another Tattoo. Back to the theme. I enjoy the words and the funny premise of writing about a guy who gets tons of tattoos, but this modern pop music just bothers me. The song does have a little treat for adults of you turn it up at the end.

Next comes If That Isn’t Love, a style parody of Hanson. Once I read that it made sense and I enjoyed the song more, even though I only know of one Hanson song and only because of my sisters. Whatever You Like also came out previously, and I absolutely love this song, it summarizes the economy perfectly and how people feel, many just trying to get by but still loving each other. Weird Al has such a gift for capturing the feeling of our culture.

And finally we have the touching song Stop Forwarding That Crap To Me! It reminds me of Don’t Download This Song, which finished his last album. It has a similar style and theme. This time, he sings about email forwards and the people who forward them. Trust me, you will want to save this one to forward in response. The song starts with the lyrics:

Oh the sand keeps falling through the hourglass
And there’s no way you’re going to slow it down
You say we gotta treasure each moment
Who knows how long we’re gonna be around</p>

Yeah you keep on telling me life is short
And its hard to disagree with what you say
But if time is so precious why ya wasting mine
‘Cause I’m always reading, always deleting
Every useless piece of garbage that you send my way.
</span>
I felt speechless. Perfect.

All and all I enjoyed the album. Rating it seems somewhat difficult, since I had already heard four of the twelve songs. It just bothers me that Al has to parody music that I don’t enjoy. At least he makes it palatable. I think I will give it five stars though, since I really like Party in the CIA. I only hope no one mistakes me for a Miley Cyrus fan if I start whistling the melody.

Though I enjoyed the album, it also made me sad. Pop music has changed, and having Weird Al as a reference just made that all too clear. The world has changed. It has become harder. Some might say that everyone feels this way as they grow older, but I think this feeling has some objectivity.

Just look at the headlines. In the nineties, we worried about Bill Clinton groping women. Now, we worry about TSA workers groping women. I don’t like that. The world in which I grew up and in which I feel comfortable has, like listenable pop music, begun fading into the past, like the Elven trees of Lorien in their winter.

A lot has changed since 1996. I have gotten older. We all have. Ben hasn’t.

At this point I can imagine Ben saying: “Whoa dude! You can’t just end the article like that! Tell them one of our funny stories.” We had gone to an Esperanto convention in 1995 and 1996, our reason for meeting in person. On the last night of the 1995 convention they had a loud party in the large room adjacent to our bedroom. Neither of us introverts felt like going, choosing instead to just greet the people who walked by who we actually wanted to talk to. The next day we finished packing. I had to catch a plane. We wandered into the room and saw leftovers from the night before. A quick bite wouldn’t hurt, especially before traveling.

We snacked on some food and poured ourselves cups of punch. We noticed the bunch tasted a little weird, but figured it had just gone a little stale from sitting out overnight. We milled around and continued snacking and talking, enjoying our time together. Suddenly, I had a funny feeling. “Umm man? I think I know why that punch tastes weird.” “Why?!” “Uh, do you feel kind of lightheaded?” He felt it. “Yeah!” We both started cracking up. Of course, we should have figured they spiked the punch. We didn’t even know. I had just finished my second cup.

We went back to our room laughing stupidly. We couldn’t believe it. I lay on my bed, bemoaning the fact I had to catch a plane. “Vi estas ebria.” said Ben. By that point another esperantist had joined us, probably attracted by our loud behavior. We all left together. Everything worked out.

And so it is that we, as men, do not exist until we do; and then it is that we play with our world of existent things, and order and disorder them, and so it shall be that non-existence shall take us back from existence and that nameless spirituality shall return to Void, like a tired child home from a very wild circus.
– Principia Discordia

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