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.

My New Cane

December 13, 2011

I have begun a dialog with World Access for the Blind. They teach a skill called echolocation, where a blind person can train their brain to synthesize images through reflected sound instead of reflected light. This opens up a lot of doors and I will have more to say about that in future entries. As soon as I read about it I contacted them. A trainer named Justin wrote me back and we met on Skype. Along with giving me some basic exercises to practice this incredible skill, he also told me to use a longer cane. I figured these people have cutting edge information, so gave it a try.

I became blind at birth, so began learning mobility at a young age. This included getting my first cane which happened in first or second grade. I learned the standard way to hold a cane. This involves bending your elbow down and in front, placing your forearm parallel to your abdomen. This feels rather uncomfortable and a lot of kids naturally resisted, preferring to keep their elbow at their side. They probably got yelled at for their defiance, but it turns out most of my blind friends prefer this as adults. I stuck with the traditional program and shorter cane.

Justin at World Access corrected me on the issue. For kids, a shorter length works fine, but an adult has a longer stride. This means one of two things can happen. You can walk faster than your cane can cover, causing you to miss things and contributing to a general sense of disorientation. The cane could hit a bump, causing the elbow to painfully jab you right in the gut. Ouch! Using a slightly longer cane and keeping the elbow by the hip fixes both of these problems.

His argument made sense, so I headed over to Ambutech and proceeded through their delightful form to make a custom cane. My mobility teachers always taught me that the cane should come to the breastbone, which comes to 52 inches for me. Justin said to give it abut six extra inches, putting it at the height of the chin. I ordered a 58 inch rigid cane and it fit perfectly. Rigid? Yes rigid. I have always used folding canes and made fun of rigid cane users for carrying such an unwieldy instrument, but they do give better tactile feedback. He also recommended a ceramic tip. I hadn’t heard of them before and neither had my friends. “Oh, they’re like the best things ever! You can land a helicopter on one.” Justin enthused. I used a marshmallow tip before, but this sounded cool. We did agree on one thing: we both like graphite for the material of the cane. I also ordered an extra one made of heavier illumine for karate. I bent my cane during the last demo.

It felt weird to place an order for a cane which had pretty much the exact opposite configuration from the one I had used forever. My old one measured 52 inches, folded, and had a marshmallow roller tip. This new one measures 58 inches, does not fold, and has a ceramic tip. I thought I knew the best thing to do, and according to common advice I did, but now I found myself totally revising my views on an issue. Sometimes that happens in life. Unfortunately, since Ambutech resides in Canada, the package had to go through a long process of import scanning. I waited and wondered and practiced echolocation.

My new cane finally arrived in a long box after ten days, and I tried it immediately. What a difference! Indeed, the longer length gave me more time to react to things around me. It felt more liberating to have an expanded sphere of awareness. This enabled me to travel more smoothly and quickly. The rigid length does give more feedback, though it does still get stuck in cracks sometimes. At least it doesn’t get stuck in my gut. Ouch! The light material and tip also make it easier to skip over cracks and get back on track. I made two street crossings perfectly. Even if I missed a little, the longer length again came in handy, helping me reorient more quickly. I felt very impressed.

I haven’t gotten a chance to use my karate cane yet. I brought it to class, but I think Sensei Chris felt scared of it. I don’t blame him. The rigidity should give it a nice whipping motion, and that tip at the end will hurt!

In conclusion, World Access for the Blind has cutting edge information about mobility which the blind establishment ignores to their disadvantage. Even something as simple as having a longer cane makes a big difference. If someone blind since birth needs more mobility training, say after a move, they won’t really learn anything new as far as techniques go. They will learn new routes, but they will not learn new ways to navigate and orient themselves to their environment. What they learned at age twelve will still hold true. It therefore feels very refreshing to hear a new voice with new knowledge and techniques. Just wait until I master echolocation!

My First Karate Demo

November 15, 2011

On Sunday I participated in a demonstration of karate put on by Empty Hands Karate and the West Chester YMCA. It went well. I feel proud to announce that for the first time, we have video! My Mom shot it on my iPhone 4S. Forty-five minutes took up eight gigabytes. Unfortunately I forgot to unlock the iPhone’s orientation. Fortunately my friend, the lovely a.minor knows how to edit video. Thanks everyone for pulling together and making a great presentation.

It began with Sensei Ken giving an introduction. He introduced Sensei Chris, and asked that we give him a round of applause now, because he will get beaten up later. I joined in the applause, since I had a good idea of at least part of what he meant. The world has become less safe, and martial arts help a disabled person defend themselves should the need arise. Additionally, martial arts have a therapeutic value. They help someone become more aware of their particular apparatus, a cane in my case. Chris spoke a little about his involvement with a camp for disabled children, and the benefits to all.

After the introduction, Ken had us stand in a line. THis included me, a student in a wheelchair named Gina, and Chris at the end. He had us all take a training stance, and showed the difference between a fully able-bodied individual, someone in a wheelchair, and someone with no ambulatory issues but who can’t see anyone. Gina and another teacher named Stephanie demonstrated some blocks she had learned. I know she did a fine job, but I knew I would come next, and felt so focused that I don’t even fully know what exactly she did. And sure enough my turn came next.

He called me up, and asked Loretta to join us. She acted as my ski instructor, and hosted the expo where I met Ken and Chris for the first time. “Be nice to me.” she said half jokingly. “Nice to see you.” I said. Ken said that I have the challenge of knowing my location and the location of my attacker, since I can’t see. He demonstrated an exercise we have begun doing where he and Loretta move around me in a circle, he in his wheelchair and her on foot. They would not say a word. Chris would say “Stop” and I would point to Ken and Loretta, and estimate their distance from me. Loretta said she should have worn her clicky shoes, but Ken dismissed that, pointing out that she would not in the real world. This builds something called passive echolocation, and I will have much more to say about echolocation very shortly. Even though I find this somewhat difficult, Ken assured me beforehand that this would really draw some wows, and it did. If I hear someone close to me, it means that I should increase my awareness should something happen. Cultivating this skill not only helps survive an attack, it also helps in day to day mobility. This perfectly shows how martial arts skills transfer to real life, a reoccurring theme. I welcomed the applause and we moved onto the stances and blocks.

Ken had me get into a training horse stance, with knees slightly bent, feet comfortably apart, arms parallel to the ground at the level of my heart, fists with palms turned upward, ready to throw a punch or launch into a sequence. He had me do an inward block with my left hand, bringing my fist up to the level of my ear then forcefully moving my upper arm out past my center line and ending farther out and to the right, my arm at an angle. He then had me do an inward block with my right hand, in which I held my cane. I made the same motion, but with a cane this becomes far more potent, with blocks becoming strikes. He had me do some more inward blocks. “Power, speed, quickness, accuracy, outstanding.” We then switched to outward blocks. This involves bringing the fist or cane to the center line, but instead of continuing out on that diagonal, shifting back out and ending on the other corner. Again, a cane made this more potent, but I have to learn to do it with and without a cane. Ken pointed out how the cane allows for greater protection of the center line, a key point.

“Remember I told you that we’d better give Sensei Chris his applause now? You’re about to see why. Chris lay out a mat. I think Loretta may have started getting a little nervous. We began with Delayed Sword. This technique has two applications: defending against a grab or a punch. Sensei Chris faced me and grabbed me with his right hand. I stepped back with my left foot and did an inward block with my cane, hitting his arm. Next, I did a kick to his groin, and while he bent over I landed and chopped at the back of his neck, again with the cane. I used this to hold his neck down while I gave him two knees to the head. I ended the technique with an elbow, and with the cane this becomes a cool forward strike. Then I stepped to my left and struck him with the cane going across. Finally I turned to the left while arching my cane and striking him across the back of the legs, causing him to fall. “Oh Jesus!” someone gasped. The crowd applauded. This felt awesome!

Next, we did a similar technique called Sword of Destruction. In this case, destruction actually means that it attacks the left side of the body. Sensei Chris grabbed me with his left hand. Instead of doing an inward block, I did an outward block. I then did exactly what I have just described for Delayed Sword, with the same result. I walked away whistling Singing in the Rain, a reference to A Clockwork Orange, a movie which should convince anyone to learn martial arts!

Ken set up the scenario for the final technique. “And See, Sensei Chris doesn’t have the good sense to stay away from Austin. This time he figures I’ve got both, I’m gonna really control him. This is called Aggressive Twins. Go!” Sensei Chris grabbed me with both hands. I stepped back with my left foot and did an inward block, followed by a kick to the groin, just like Delayed Sword. However now I did another kick with my back leg. I then spun around and did a backward kick with my right leg. Or at least I tried. I missed and tried again and missed. I tried a third time and connected, though had lost some balance and power. “Finish!” commanded Ken, so I did. I spun to the left while swinging my cane down and behind me to the right, the counter-rotation giving the strike power. “I hate to do this to you Sensei Chris, but I’d like to see that done again.” So did I. I wanted to do it right. Sensei Ken let me do it on my command and I pulled it off! I tried whistling my song again, but couldn’t. Everyone laughed. “You’re running out of breath for the whistling.” joked Loretta. I said: “That’s all right. That’s good.”

Since Loretta had seen me at the first expo, Ken asked her how I had done. “Unbelievable.” she said. “Again, I’d like everyone here to challenge what their belief is about what people with disabilities can do, what the reality is. Understanding that Austin and Gina both took the self-defense course in the summer, and Gina just rejoined us for the belt ranking course, but Austin has been here the whole time through the belt ranking course. In that period he has learned three techniques. I would not be surprised if we tested him within the next few months for a full yellow. He’s showing incredible understanding.” This felt great to hear from my Sensei, and I look forward to getting my yellow belt. Ken then let me say a few words.

I told the story of how I went from attending a demo to participating in one. I took karate as a kid. Two Christmases ago, my brother got me an adaptive skiing lesson as a gift. I didn’t know if I’d like it, and neither did he, but we figured why not. I enjoyed it and knew we would go back the next year. While skiing for the second time, I had Loretta as one of my instructors. She told me I should come to her adaptive sports expo. I did and met Ken and Chris. I then took the self-defense course, and wanted more. After a break, I began taking the belt ranking course. And now I write this article. Compare it with past articles and note the clearer descriptions of the moves. Things have begun systematizing.

I repeated the point that skills learned in martial arts transfer to real life. For example, when I strike someone with my cane it also conveys information, in exactly the same way a cane conveys information while walking. The increased sense of spacial awareness has a similar benefit. These just represent examples from a blind person, the people at Empty hands Karate really adapt the art to your unique disability. It also makes a great way to get in shape, something more than a monotonous exercise routine. Now I work out for an hour a day. I’ve heard rumors that girls like that sort of thing. Taking martial arts will benefit you no matter what, and with the reduced prices offered by the YMCA you really can’t lose.

I concluded my little speech with a demonstration of the universe’s sense of humor, what I would call Goddess at work. When I learned Aggressive Twins, they asked me if I knew what the aggressive twins meant. They actually refer to the two hands of the attacker, but I had another idea. “Yeah, I do, my twin sisters. If one uses the other’s hairbrush or something then you will have your aggressive twins.” And as it happened, they celebrated their birthday on the day I performed this technique in front of a crowd for the first time. Happy birthday, Girls!

After that, Ken demonstrated some kicks, and Chris demonstrated a kata. Unfortunately I cannot comment on them, since they far exceed my level of understanding, but I will understand and comment one day. They then opened it up to questions, and in the course of them Ken had me do Delayed Sword to show what an inward block would become. I asked if I should do it with empty hands or with the cane. “It did seem slightly ironic that I didn’t do any techniques with empty hands while demonstrating for Open Hands Karate. Good point.” said Ken and took my cane. Chris thanked me. Later, while answering a question, I interjected the phrase natural moves. I knew Ken would love this, and of course he elaborated. “There is a limited number of ways in which the human body can move. The big deal is what is your intent with those moves.”

And that ended it. I hope anyone who attended enjoyed it as much as I enjoyed participating. I hope it encourages others to take martial arts. I hope to participate in many more of these demos and write about them. Remember to check out the high definition video. See you next time. For more information, visit Empty Hands karate or call 215-884-0699.

Karate Demo

November 07, 2011

In late June, I completed an adaptive eight-week self defense course. I concluded the piece with the sentences: So even though I didn’t get a belt, I did get a cool t-shirt. The belt will follow. It has. Now I have a white belt, and to my amazement I will participate in a demonstration this Sunday at the West Chester YMCA.

From the web site: November 13, 3:00 – 5:00 pm Martial Arts Demo 605 Airport Road, West Chester Sponsored by the CerebralPalsy Association and Empty Hands Karate, an afternoon of fun and entertainment has been planned. A demonstration of martial arts will kick off the afternoon and light refreshments will follow. Come learn to use your disability to your advantage and find out more about the YMCA’s Adapted Sports Initiative. This event is FREE. RSVP for this event with Jess Honig at 610-524-5850 or jhonig@ccdisability.org.

When the self-defense course ended, a number of us wanted it to continue as a belt ranking course. That began around the autumnal equinox, and I’ve gone every sunday. Last week I formally received my white belt. It may not seem like much to some, since you get it for participating, but to me it means a lot.

The belt ranking course has a more rigorous feel, including a physical fitness portion. In class this often consists of lifting heavy exercise balls and doing push-ups. At home it now consists of lifting weights for an hour and doing push-ups. I can hardly believe that I’ve started working out for an hour every day, but since I try to spend comparable amount of time in meditation it feels like a good balance. The intense effort and change in lifestyle gives me the right to wear this belt.

After the workout, we get down to the martial arts portion. We have concentrated on three techniques which I will demonstrate. I will wait until the event to go over the juicy details, but suffice to say that all three defend against grabs, and one of them has a bunch of cool kicks. You will also love the ending, a real capper! These techniques will also demonstrate the use of a cane as a weapon, which feels very empowering since I always have one while in public.

Learning karate doesn’t just show you how to beat someone up. Learning karate teaches you a new kind of spacial and muscular awareness. I’ve taken an eight week course, plus this course has lasted for six or so weeks. In this time I have gained a finer sense of where people reside in relation to me in space. My muscles have started growing bigger and with it a better sense of their positions and functions. It continually amazes me how skills taught in class apply to normal life. Blind people will have learned the upper and lower protective positions, which translate over to blocks. A cane conveys all types of information. Women like guys who work out. I have already learned a lot in this class.

I feel honored to demonstrate these skills to the public. I’ve never done this before, but anticipate a smooth showing. Practice takes away pressure, as Sensei Ken reminded me. I even have a few jokes ready. If you live in the area I hope you can come and say hi. If not, I will have full coverage on my blog. This will include commentary, audio from my POV, and if someone can figure out how to hold my iPhone properly, video. See you on Sunday!

The Death of Steve Jobs

October 05, 2011

Steve Jobs has died at age 56. Family said he passed peacefully in his sleep. This has sent shockwaves around the net, and I thought I’d throw in my own little tribute.

I became blind at birth. I always loved technology and done well with math. My parents used computers for their business, and could see their potential. They wanted me to have an advantage, so got an Apple II/e as soon as they learned that a blind person could use one. I think this happened while in the second grade, which would have made me seven years old.

Mom still remembers our trip to the Apple store. They hadn’t even unpacked yet. I remember the smell of boxes and new computers. I’ve always loved the smell of new computers, Apple products especially. I also remember some of the computers had puffy paper apples on top of them. I wanted to buy the computer with the paper apple just because I liked it. I also remembered feeling glad that the computers didn’t make any noise, something Steve Jobs insisted upon.

We took the thing home. I remember the family trying the discs which came with the computer, something called Apple Presents. I think it came with some games too. My brother and I enjoyed playing the simple games. But it couldn’t talk yet.

One Saturday, Mom and our friend Kristen put in the card. This meant opening up the computer, inserting a card, plugging in a speaker, probably connecting some jumpers, and who knows what else. They also had some beer, which seems to go well with hardware work. I didn’t know what to do, so just kept encouraging them. By the end of the day they had done it! They felt exhausted and I felt ecstatic. I knew something awesome had just happened! I could use a computer!

At first, I only knew a few commands. CATALOG gave a catalog of files on the disc. RUN would run a file with an A in front of it. I learned that stood for Applesoft BASIC. BRUN would run a file with a B in front of it, meaning binary, machine language. And with that I began my journey.

For a while I had fun running programs on the games discs, trying various demos, and I may have tried to use a word processor. I remember one or two games would not work. I couldn’t understand why. I thought computers just did things. My parents explained to me that computers don’t actually think, they just follow instructions, a program. I thought I understood, but didn’t know how to fix the problems, so felt frustrated. I wanted to play the games. Why won’t they work?

One day, I remember playing the classic Eliza program. This program has existed for years, and simulates a conversation with a psychiatrist. It does very primitive textual analysis to try to come up with the proper response, and sometimes it does quite well. Other times it doesn’t. Still it intrigued me.

Afterward, I sat and thought. I wondered about commands I might not know. I felt something more. I have no idea where this thought came from, or why I thought of it, but I thought to type the command LIST. I remember thinking it must list something, maybe a short list of files, or who knows. But I figured since computers deal with lists maybe it will do something. Sure enough it did.

The LIST command lists the code of the currently loaded program, Eliza in this case. I saw line numbers and print statements. Suddenly I understood perfectly. You type in these instructions and the computer follows them. I knew then and there exactly what I wanted to do when I grew up.

Since then, I have always loved computers, programming, anything like that. It all started with that moment. I remember feeling so proud when I fixed a problem in one of the games. I wrote tons of little programs of my own. I had endless hours of fun with that machine.

Time passed. The PC became popular and I reluctantly moved over. I felt very sad to say good bye to my Apples, but also excited about the future. Still I will always treasure those first days. MSDOS came and gave way to Windows. I just couldn’t take it so switched to Linux. I loved its open nature. You can explore anything and learn so much. The text shell makes a natural interface for a blind user. Still, I always had to find ways to do the things sighted users enjoyed. I got by as best I could, and had a nicely tweaked netbook as a notetaker.

Then last June I got an iPhone and my universe changed forever. It can do so many things, thanks to the endless selection of apps. I can identify currency and household items, check news, stocks, the weather, Twitter, even listen to the changing colors of a sunset. I cannot imagine life without my iPhone. I upgraded to the iPhone 4 when it came out, and loved the combination of glass and metal. Just so cool! After falling in love, I heard the call of the Apple family once again. I knew I had to get a Mac.

I went to the Apple store and had an exciting adventure. It certainly had changed since the first time we had gone. Now it had become a bustling marketplace. I told everyone there I wanted to buy a Mac, that I started on a II/e (which they probably didn’t understand), and that I felt overjoyed to rejoin the Apple family. The manager of the store told me that the accessibility didn’t start until Steve Jobs had returned. I thanked Steve silently.

I got my iMac last September, just in time for something amazing. My iPhone article went viral. I receive so much awesome feedback and attention from it. My Mac quickly proved itself, functioning beautifully within this chaos. It seemed so stable. Plus, it runs on top of a flavor of BSD, so I consider it two computers for the price of one. I just could not believe this new experience, a graphical user interface I could actually use. For the first time I could actually use a trackpad, something the sighted have enjoyed for years. I knew that Apple had created the cutting edge accessibility experience.

I felt very impressed. So impressed that I bought a MacBook Air as soon as they came out. I love my MacBook Air so much. It makes a perfect notetaker. I cannot recommend it highly enough. Plus, it has a tactile glowing Apple on the back! Sometimes I find myself just feeling the apple and admiring the form of the machine. The same holds true for the stunningly beautiful iPad 2.

Yesterday Apple announced the iPhone 4S. It will have the Siri assistant. As I wrote, this introduces the next paradigm of the artificially intelligent smartphone. Very soon, people will have conversations with their computers, just like on Star Trek! Apple has helped bring that perfect future closer.

Now I sit here surrounded by all of this incredible Apple technology. It amazes me that one man could help bring all this about. I feel especially appreciative. Steve had a vision of a computer which anyone could use. Apple Building accessibility into all of their devices means that a blind person can purchase a device from a store and use it immediately. We have never had this before. For the first time we can use the same devices as our sighted friends, family, and coworkers. Apple’s line of accessibility technology has opened the world up to the blind. No other corporation has done what Apple has done.

Thank you Steve. You have changed my world forever. You have changed the world of the blind forever. You have changed the world forever. May you live forever through your works.

What Today’s Apple Event Means to the Blind

October 04, 2011

Today, Apple had their “Let’s Talk iPhone” announcement. As usual no one knew what to expect. Many hoped for a redesigned iPhone with a curved surface, much like the beautiful iPad 2. Apple also previewed iOS 5 at their developer’s conference in June, so we knew a lot of the cool software features to expect. I looked forward to the notification center and Twitter integration. We also learned of Apple’s acquisition of Siri, and their plans to integrate voice navigation with the iPhone. As today drew near the rumor sites said that we would not see a new iPhone, but rather an upgraded iPhone 4. I felt a little disappointed. I wanted the sleek and sexy iPhone 5, and I had only used iPhone’s voice navigation by accident once when something else in my pocket pressed the on button for a few seconds. Still, I got psyched for this real life sporting event.

It started with them talking about how the Mac does very well, something I enjoyed hearing. I love my Macs. Then they started talking about greeting cards, and a Find My Friends app. Something about cameras or photographs. They refreshed the iPod Nano. Video games. More with the greeting cards. Everyone felt bored. Then it came to talk iPhone. The whole net suddenly seemed effected. All the major sites went down. So we all sat, gathering what information we could. A blind iPhone friend called me for parts of it as well, reading to me from a live blog. Eventually we pieced it together.

The rumor sites got it right. Apple announced the iPhone 4S with an A5 processor, twice as fast as the one in the iPhone 4. It also has a better camera, an improved antenna system, and for the first time it comes in a 64 GB model. Hopefully the better camera will mean better OCR and image recognition, two things which the blind need. Apple devoted the end of their event to talk all about Siri, demonstrating its impressive voice navigation. It actually lets you have a conversation with your iPhone. It definitely looked cool. Then the event ended and Apple’s stock dipped. Apparently other people wanted the sleek and sexy iPhone 5 as well. I relaxed and thought.

When the iPhone 3 came out, the blind had no interest in it. After all, we couldn’t use it. We had to wait for the upgraded version, the 3GS, with a powerful enough processor that would run VoiceOver, the software which enables the blind to use the iPhone. For us, this upgrade made a world of difference. The same holds true in this case.

Apple has unveiled the new paradigm of conversing with an artificially intelligent computer. The Siri Assistant gives us the type of interface we see on Star Trek, the one we’ve always wanted. You never see them bumbling around their computers unless something goes seriously wrong. They just tell the computer what they want it to do and it does it. I put on an episode of Star Trek and began to get excited. If all goes well, the masses will have this kind of technology in a few weeks!

Accessibility helps everyone. Apple has made it mainstream. The blind have enjoyed text to speech for years. Now the sighted can enjoy eyes-free operation as well. Voice recognition and a wealth of data complete a perfect picture of universal accessibility.

In 1987 I had turned ten. I entered the fifth grade, and got my first PC, sadly saying good bye to my beloved Apple II way of life. Meanwhile, Apple made this video. It presents their concept for Knowledge Navigator, and shows a professor talking to his tablet computer and getting back intelligent responses. Weirdly, his calendar displays the date September 16th, and he references a five-year-old paper written in 2006, making the year 2011.

On October 4, 2011, Apple released the new iPhone with the Siri Assistant. The page features a video. It ends with a blind woman hearing a text message and dictating a reply. Meanwhile, Amazon has released their totally inaccessible Kindle Fire. What a difference! Thank you Apple! We love you!

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