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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 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.

Skiing for the Second Time, Howard Johnson for the Last Time

January 30, 2011

Before we begin, this piece has several companion files. You can see a picture of me and one of my instructors. You can hear for yourself how it sounds to ski. If you have Google Earth, you can download my .kmz file which contains all the GPS data, including the photograph. Please don’t take this as an endorsement of Google. I still consider them evil. Now with that out of the way we may begin this awesome journey.

Last year, I went skiing for the first time. As soon as I did, I knew I would go again the next year. And now I have.

Originally, another blind friend and I both wanted to go. We called and schedule parallel lessons. Unfortunately, her grandmother passed away, and she had to attend the memorial so could not go with us. I went ahead with my plans. My brother would take me again of course, and this time he got a bunch of his rowdy friends to join us. I say that somewhat jokingly of course, but when you get nine people together who all want to have a good time, unexpectedly funny situations always present themselves. This time proved no exception. Our group included me, my sister Audrey, my brother Ari, his wife Sarah, Mike and Kristy, Steve and Cat, and Jean. We all headed up in various ways and converged at Camelback.

We headed up the morning of the lesson. This time I had gotten one in the afternoon time slot, so we decided to stay that night rather than go up the previous day as we had done last year. Little annoying setbacks seemed to happen, but we overcame them. First, I stupidly left my wool socks and long underwear in the car. I also didn’t know who would do what or go where, and didn’t know wear and when I would get the opportunity to change. Of course, I should have known that they have places to change. Fortunately, they also have places to buy wool socks and long underwear.

That solved, we continued to register all of us. I had preregistered online, as had Mike, who I found out really knew how to ski. He ended up getting the most time out of all of us. He wanted to get started as quickly as possible, because his girlfriend had a lesson, and he figured that wouldn’t give him much time to ski down the more dangerous trails. She didn’t really go for it, so I have a feeling he got his chance. We encountered a little computer snafu. I don’t quite understand what happened, but they said they didn’t have us in the system, but they stamped mine from last year for some reason, and said that at the end it would say over due but that wouldn’t matter. I had no idea, so just agreed and stuck the ticket in my pocket.

Next, we got a locker, since my sister didn’t want to leave her purse anywhere. It requires inserting a quarter every time you open the thing. My sister put one in and the god damn thing promptly jammed. We had to get maintenance, who freed the quarter and fixed the locker. We apprehensively put our things in. I had put on my ski boots, so put my nice new snow boots into the locker of doom.

We then headed over to the cafeteria to eat and converge with more of the group and get lunch. It even smelled like an elementary school cafeteria. I got the classic ski resort combo – pizza and french fries. My pizza felt cooler in the middle which made me slightly nervous, but since it didn’t have any meat I at least felt a little better. And those fries sucked too. Whatever. I ate half and gave the rest away. It would have to do. Elementary school food indeed.

I showed up to the adaptive sports building at one o’clock on the dot. I felt glad to reacquaint myself with my skiing friends from the Pennsylvania Center for Adaptive Sports, and with Isabel, who heads the program. I saw Peter and Pat, my instructors from last year. I would get different ones this time. I soon met Loretta and Rich. Of course as soon as I heard the name Loretta, I thought of Monty Python’s Life of Brian: “From now on, I want you all to call me Loretta.” That made me laugh inwardly and boost my mood even more, washing away the morning’s annoyances.

The three of us went outside, weirdly walking in our ski boots. I fired up Ski Tracks. We got into our skis and shuffled to the beginning of the trail. We reviewed some basics. You have to keep your feet directly under your shoulders. The beginner’s slope meant we had to shuffle some, but we began gliding and practicing stopping. I began to remember.

We started out without any special equipment. Loretta skied backwards in front of me and squeezed a hand to signal a turn. She decided to put on the bungee. This would hold the tips of my skis closer together, which helps get the right configuration. Rich connected it, and I met Loretta’s cute kid Rebecca. After a little more skiing, Loretta decided that she wanted to switch from hand signals to a tether. Holding onto her hands would alter my body’s position, and a tether allows freer movement while still giving the instructor control. A rope connects to each ski, and the instructor skis behind and holds onto the ends. This gives the instructor the ability to control and stop the student. By the way, sighted skiers use this same equipment.

At first I felt scared to ski without holding on to any support, but I quickly took to it and my nervousness past. I did some awesome turns. Both instructors felt impressed. Loretta likes the tether for this reason. It does take building a certain level of trust, but once you get over that it works well.

Rich had never instructed a blind student before, so we had to give him a little lesson. We talked about the best system for audio cues. For a beginner, something like “Weight your right foot to turn left.” works very well, but that can become confusing for the instructor who has to ski backwards. I would then recommend starting with “Weight your right foot.” then transitioning to “Turn left.” After getting this straight we proceeded to the lift.

As we approached the lift, Loretta and I made an amazing discovery. Since the area in front of the lift just has straight ground, you have to maneuver your skis a lot more. This means having to manually move them. She used the (we thought) familiar analogy of hands on a clock. The blind use this to describe a lot of things, for example food on a plate. I have always loved clocks and time machines since childhood, so always felt at home with that analogy. She felt impressed that I moved my skis to 2:00 then to 1:00. She said that she tried to explain that to a blind kid a few weeks ago, and the kid didn’t understand what she meant. It occurred to me that kids today probably don’t have analogue clocks! Why would they? They probably use talking clocks, or those STUPID crappy uncouth talking watches. They’ve never felt a clock or a watch with hands they can move with their hands! As a kid I had a nice braille pocket watch. Now I have an iPhone. Amazing. Blind kids: do yourself a favor and get a braille clock if only for reference. An abacus wouldn’t hurt either, but I digress. Instructors: have a braille clock on hand for demonstrative purposes. You need to now. Oh my heart.

“Some people are freaked out by lifts, but I think they’re kind of cool.” These words would come back on me later. Loretta and I rode up in one lift, and Rich rode up in another with the equipment. I need to remember to get some ski pants. Last time we skied during the last week of the season, with temperatures in the 50s. This time we skied with temperatures in the high 20s. Snow fell, and I could especially feel it falling down while moving up in the lift. It felt somehow fitting.

I now must make a comment about the music. Last time, they played a mix of primarily eighties pop. I can live with that. It reminds me of childhood. This time, we noticed a lot more pop music from the nineties and later in the mix. Too bad. I long for a skiing place that plays crazy psytrance.

We did the second run. Rich skied backwards in front of me giving me directions, and Loretta skied behind me with the tether. Before I knew it I had gone down the steepest part of the trail. I began doing some turns in succession. Then Loretta said what Peter said last year, and what I love to hear. “You have absolute balance.” It comes from meditation. I do have to learn not to pitch my body when going off balance. Press the shins into the front or inside of the boot. It all fits together. I really got into it, and made a nice big C turn.         I then made a few in a row. “Those turns were so nice I forgot you were blind.” said Rich. Wonderful.

Rich went up with me on the lift for the second time. Loretta went up in another with her daughters and the equipment. We reviewed the protocol for entering and exiting a lift. The instructor should say “3-2-1-sit” or “3-2-1-stand.” Ideally, this provides a smooth transition from the lift onto the small slope where you land. Life, however, does not always behave ideally. Something very freaky happened on this lift.

We rode up on the lift and discussed how to get off properly, since he hadn’t done it with a blind person before. We talked about landing with your skis straight or a little wedge, then going into the bigger stopping wedge. “If you go down I’ll pick you up. If I go down you pick me up.” Rich joked. That joke almost became true.

After all our talk, Rich forgot to give the countdown. As I stepped off, I felt the ground rapidly falling away. I panicked slightly, and just went for it and stepped off. I fell I don’t know how far and landed on my skis. I didn’t fall. I brought myself to a stop, holding onto Rich. “What the fuck happened?” I blurted out, my adrenalin pumping. “Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t give you the right command. Sorry.” I felt a little shaken, and I bumped my elbow, but I quickly recovered and felt fine. Loretta quickly joined us. “Well! That was interesting.” she said. “That was all my fault. We didn’t get off quickly enough.” I felt kind of bad for the guy, but not too bad – self-preservation comes first. At least I learned not to regard lifts with such a carefree attitude. A skiing buddy said that more people get hurt on the lifts than on the mountain and I believe it.

The time had come for a special Taza Chocolate break. I got this great cacao tin from Trader Joe’s. After going through the chocolate covered nibs in the tin, I replaced them with Taza’s. This makes an absolutely fabulous way to carry cacao on the go, while skiing for instance. Just pop open the top and pour some nibs into your hand and enjoy. No fuss, no muss. Yes, after that little freakout I needed some raw cacao. I explained it to both my instructors. It’s unrefined.

Loretta decided to start down with me using hand signals, and Rich would catch up. She had dropped a C-clamp, and I met her Black Diamond girl, who volunteered to go look for it. How cute. Loretta asked what had happened on the lift, and said it looked like I stepped off too late. She said that I have some skills to have righted myself like that. The fall had loosened a boot, which she fixed. We then took off. Rich caught up to us and we did more turns. We also worked on controlling my speed. It felt good knowing that Loretta could control my movement at any time, and that let me let myself go a little and improve. Rich continued giving me audio directions as well. It made a good combination. At one point, I alternated weighting my skis, so instead of stopping I made several nice turns. It looked pretty, but I didn’t stop. It worked out well though on the beginner trail. At the end of the run, Loretta and Rich switched roles, so Loretta skied backwards in front of me and Rich controlled the tether. I learned more about digging the edges of the skis into the snow, instead of just widening my stance. Bringing your knees together will make your skis go up on their sides. Not ideal, but it works in an emergency. “Textbook turns.” said Rich.

We reached the bottom once again. I checked out the progress of Ski Tracks. Loretta felt amazed that it could tell me that we go on a twelve degree slope. Note that since updating the app it now reports four degrees. She explained what a twelve degree slope meant to her kid. I disabled VoiceOver and screen curtain and let her daughter Jamie check it out. She quickly figured out how to take the picture featured in this article. That done, we continued to the lift. Loretta and I talked about how ten-year-olds can use technology better than their parents. She wouldn’t have known how to take that picture with my iPhone, but her daughter did. I joked about the sesame street song. It excites me to see kids getting into this technology.

We went down again with Loretta in front and Rich tethering again. I made some more nice turns. Loretta gave me a high five. I sometimes have to wait longer and not panic and just let the turn work. I also have to work on my left turn. We worked to a less steep part, and that started to sound good, as my knees had begun to tire. It had gotten to 03:15, and my lesson ended at 04:00. I figured I should at least get one last run in. We saw the guy who runs the sailing program. I went once, but forgot to write about it, because we got rained out. I’ll try again in the summer.

Loretta and I went up. “Rich is the equipment manager for the day, because the time he left me in control I lost part of it… But then again, he almost lost you, so… We don’t let things like that slide, we’ll tease him about that for a long time.” Now it belongs to the ages. Poor guy. We also talked of the expo she wants to set up in the West Chester area for adaptive sports. I’ll keep you all posted.

Unfortunately, my recording ran out at this point. I found it an extremely valuable aide to record my lesson, and would very highly recommend it to instructors and students alike. You can really go over things that you may have missed in all the excitement. I don’t really remember anything eventful happening in the last run, as I began to tire. We made it down and decided to call it a day. By the time we made it back up the lift and back to the adaptive center, it had gotten to 03:56, good enough. I switched off Ski Tracks and there you go.

  • Maximum Speed 6.2 MPH
  • Ski Distance 1.1 mi.
  • Ski Vertical 458 ft
  • Slope 4°
  • Duration 02:15:09

I took off my skis, but my boots resided in that stupid locker. I said farewell to my new skiing buddies, and my brother exited the building. We returned the equipment and I showed them the precious pass that indeed came up overdo, but it didn’t matter.

I felt good. Skiing reminds me of meditation. You have to maintain balance no matter what happens in your mind or on the slopes. And, like transmuting energy, you have to stand tall! If you don’t it will weigh you down and you will fall to your lower nature or to gravity.

Last year’s lesson felt like a good initial experience. We all held onto the pole for the most part, which let me have fun experiencing the exhilaration. This time had more of the feel of a real lesson. We spent the whole time pretty much working on turning and stopping, two essential and related skills. It just made me want to come back for more as soon as possible. My mind reflected the gently falling snow, and I enjoyed the tranquility. Too bad it wouldn’t last.

the Thirsty Camel did not seem like the ideal place to gather, but gather we did. Camelback… Thirsty Camel… get it? Neither did we. My senses felt overwhelmed in a sea of obnoxiously loud music from an obnoxiously loud band. I do not know if a sighted person can fully appreciate how this feels for a blind person. It causes a complete loss of orientation, and a lack of ability to identify anything. It basically makes it completely impossible to think or function. I know sighted people feel this way to some degree, but I think the blind experience something even more dreadful. Imagine the sensation of having a blaring fire alarm in a building. Imagine the panicked disorientation from that sustained loud noise. Imagine that happening for an hour after a peaceful afternoon. It felt kind of like that.

At least everyone agreed about the music. “This band is terrible.” “What a shitty cover band.” Seriously, I don’t get cover bands. In my mind, if a piece of art doesn’t produce a sense of wonder and novelty, then it just seems like crap to me.

I felt distressed. My head ached from the music, and my heart ached from having my tranquility blotted out by yet another cover of Brown-Eyed Girl. At least my headphones shut out things enough for me to use my iPhone to post a tweet to that effect. At some point during the cacophony, I got my boots back. After an hour, we headed out. Finally!

Some of us headed for a bus back to our car, and others remained to ski a little longer. The driver asked where everyone wanted to go. “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.” he said decisively. Of course I caught the reference to Star Trek III: the Search for Spock. Then, we met a real wise guy. When my sister moved to give his kid her seat, he said: “‘Ey! Never take a seat from a lady.” “I’m not a lady, i’m a woman.” my sister retorted, but the father would have none of it. Poor kid. His brother couldn’t make it today. Everyone in my family understood. I told him that I came up here to do the adaptive skiing program. “That’s good. That’s real good. When you come up here, take lessons first. It’s like counting 1-2-3. Don’t listen to these schmucks!” What a character. We thought about his kid’s fate for some time. We came to the conclusion that he will end up beating his girlfriend. How savage. We got off at our stop. “Live long and prosper.” I said to the driver. We then found our cars. I relieved myself in the parking lot, partially as a primitive male act of revenge against the loud bar. We then drove to the hotel where we would all converge to have dinner at Chilis.

When we entered the Howard Johnson in Bartonsville, Pennsylvania, we noticed that they had a little party going on. DJ Swift (I hope I linked to the right one) had organized some sort of birthday celebration. A sign promised music and comedy. It seemed like a private affair and we had other business. Still, it had peaked our curiosity. Something would happen soon.

After taking a breather in one of our hotel rooms, we all converged and ran across the somewhat busy street to Chilis. I can only wonder what an alien observer would think of us. “It’s terrible.” “The food has this weird greasy property.” “It makes you feel so gross.” “All right! Let’s go!” I guess it had become a tradition of sorts by this point. I got exactly what I got last year, and everyone seemed to think I got the best thing then: the something-Bacher black bean barbecue burger without cheese and with jalapenos on the side. And yes fries, to hopefully make up for those horrible fries from earlier. “They should call this place Burgers.” someone commented. I actually took it pretty well, they say that hunger makes the best condiment, and I felt truly hungry. It did feel like a brick later on, but I survived.

We had to get back in time for people to go in the Safari-themed Heated Pool. My brother went on and on about it to his friends, getting them into the idea. Hotel pools kind of freak me out, so I never really had an interest. I confess that having an in-ground pool while growing up biased my view. You really can’t beat that as far as pools go. Anyways, the pool closed at 10:00, and they wanted to get back in time.

As we entered the foyer, we noticed that the party had started! We heard loud hip-hop music. Not only did they have a door closed to outsiders, but they also had a second closed door with a chair in front of it. We definitely did not feel welcome. More loud booming noise.

We took a break in a hotel room for everyone to digest their food and prepare to go downstairs. Ari took a power nap. Those things really work. We had some fun conversation. I have a feeling some of the alcohol had begun to take effect in those who imbibe. We made fun of creationists. Some believe that humans and dinosaurs lived together on the Earth six thousand years ago. An idea for a movie formed: Jesus vs. the Lizard! Cat informed us that she had explored all the vending machines in the hotel, and said the best one resides on the second floor by the main lobby. We laughed at her attempt to microwave a poptart on a piece of cardboard. No thanks! At around 09:30 or so we began to get ready to go. Most took off to go swimming, while a few of stayed behind for a moment, as we didn’t really care to go. At around 09:45, we decided to catch up to them and at least hang out in the pool room.

Mike noticed the hotel has an arcade. He said he always likes checking them out, just to see what they have to offer. Some “game rooms” just have a soda machine. As we reentered the foyer, we noticed that the comedy portion of the show had started. The comedian’s voice blared loudly. “Bedbugs! Have you seen these nothafuckas?” “Woo! Telling bedbug jokes in a hotel.” I commented sarcastically. “Man! This guy doesn’t care WHO’s toes he steps on! He’s like Bill Hicks!” retorted Steve. We could hardly contain ourselves. This scene just kept getting weirder.

We entered the pool room to find the others standing around in their swim suits and towels. Apparently, they didn’t turn the heater on, and nobody wanted to swim in freezing water. Some had also brought drinks for the heated pool, which they now held. I imagine we must have looked quite comical tromping into the arcade at closing time.

To our delight, the arcade actually had video games. They had a pinball game, a shooter kind of game, and one or two others. The group broke up into several conversations. I found myself by some pamphlets. The others looked through them and read them aloud so I could join in the fun. Paws and Claws: a depressing zoo. A snake and animal farm. Then the one that got our attention: a shooting range. Shoot four kinds of guns: an AR15, an Israeli Uzi, Clint Eastwood’s .44, or an AK47. I think some members seriously considered going to the range the next day. I wondered if they’d actually let a blind person shoot. Ari figured they’d feel proud of it and put it on their web site. Guns freak me out, but it would make a hell of an article. . At some point the security guard came over to tell us that they would close, but we ignored him.

I noticed nobody playing the games, and asked if they had shut them down. “No, we don’t have any quarters.” a number of voices resounded. “What? I have tons of quarters!” I got out my wallet. I soon had everyone around me, offering me $5 per quarter in jest. I excitedly handed out a few. “I want to play pinball!” I said enthusiastically. Of course I thought of the song by the Who. I also really did play it as a kid during summer vacations at the shore. As I said this, the security guard came up again. We clearly had to leave. “Don’t worry, Austin… There’s always next year.” said my brother. He played it absolutely perfectly, saying it with the exact right twinge of sadness to make it really seem like this doofus had shattered a blind kid’s dreams of playing pinball forever. From all accounts, the guy’s face fell. “You can come back tomorrow morning at 09:00.” We left, and as soon as we reached the other side of the door started laughing uncontrollably. We had all had enough, and went upstairs back to the hotel room. Some people needed to change, and we all needed to relax for a minute after that hilarious scene.

We had one last promised attraction on this trip: the Safari themed bar. By this point I really didn’t feel like dealing with any more bars and loudness. I wanted to reflect on the day and gather my thoughts. I feel glad I recorded the day’s lesson in retrospect. I figured I’d go for a little just for the fun of it though.

We ended up there, others talking and most drinking. I had cranberry and pineapple juice, pretty much the only thing someone who doesn’t drink can get in a place like that. We think the weird bartender wanted to hit on the girls there. The private party had switched back to more music. Loud bass drums boomed through the walls, shattering the fake Safari theme all the more.

I found out how others had enjoyed their day. Mike, Steve, and Cat all went skiing and enjoyed it. Kristy did not. Ari and Sarah went snowboarding and had a good time, even if they got a little bruised. Rich said he started out snowboarding. “The first time I went, my pads went flying everywhere.” “Oh, yeah, pads. That would have been smart.” said my brother. Now he knows for next time.

Audrey and Jean went snow tubing. I guess you just ride a big tube down the mountain. The web site promised an adrenalin rush, but “The web site promises a lot of things.” Apparently they didn’t really get that rush us crazy skiers crave. They went very slowly, and you don’t really control anything, just sort of go down. I don’t know that they really dug it. I told them to go skiing instead!

We started talking about marriage and relationships. Yes maybe I would like to get married one day, and yes sure I’d love to have a friend for life, but I really can’t think right now. I meant it literally. I really could not think. I had to rest and I could not deal with any more loud noise.

I went upstairs to one of the rooms where we watched some TV and just chilled. I listened to some stuff on my iPhone and went to bed. I tried not to think about who had slept in this bed previously. I wanted to try to get some meditation in, but it just didn’t happen. I fell asleep with the day’s many events and thoughts running through my head, and I attempted to order things in some sense for writing this article.

The next day we woke up, and I played a little on my MacBook Air. I had no trouble connecting to their network or to their proxy, which I now have even more mixed feelings about. We all met again in the hotel restaurant where we had a crappy breakfast and got the bum’s rush by the waiters. I got a ride home with Mike and Kristy, and made it back at around 02:30 in the afternoon. Not bad at all. Skiing rules!

Epilogue: A few days later, my brother Ari called to see how I enjoyed the trip. “I was thinking. That food sucked, and those waiters at breakfast were dicks. You know? We could get a cabin if a bunch of us go. We could all pitch in and rent it for the weekend. Remember my bachelor party? It would be like that but with snow.” So I think that settled that. Next year, we will rent a cabin and have even more fun. We might still drop by the Howard Johnson for a game of pinball though. I guess for now I’ll have to content myself wit the Jungle Style table from Pinball HD. Close enough.

A Trip to the Mac App Store

January 06, 2011

Today, Apple released Mac OS 10.6.6, which adds the Mac App Store. I wanted to give a sneak peak, especially from an accessibility point of view. I also wanted to share some thoughts on the matter.

Before I got my iPhone, I wondered why everyone kept talking about apps. For those who don’t know, an app refers to a software application, and up to now it meant software running on a mobile platform such as an iPhone. That has now changed. An app also usually has a very affordable price, anywhere from free to $5.99 seems to cover most. Despite their affordable price, if you ask most long-term iPhone users how much they’ve spent on apps, they will grudgingly tell you that they would rather not know. Apple made a very smart move offering software at such affordable prices, but will this clash with the established industry and its price points?

The Mac App Store behaves as advertised. It acts just like the app store on an iDevice. It has a toolbar with categories and a search field, then the main html area with the content. Within the content area, you will either see groups or links. For VoiceOver users, just interact with a group and you will see the link for more information, and the button to purchase the app. Activate the link, then go past it and you will see the information. For links, just activate them and a new page will come up, just as it would in Safari. I feel glad to report that I found the Mac App Store a fully accessible experience, and as satisfying as my sighted counterparts. Apps install immediately, just as they do on an iDevice. I indeed found it very enjoyable. Almost too enjoyable.

For some time, I felt confused as to what exactly the Mac app store would offer. At first, it seemed like they offer the same programs you could download and buy from traditional channels. I saw software with both traditional software prices and lower app-like prices. It seemed like a good mix. The app store knows if you already have something from iWork and iLife installed. It also correctly identified TextWrangler and Yojimbo. I had already installed these myself in the standard way one installs third party software. I started to get confused again. While reading Bare Bones Software’s Mac App Store FAQ, they said that the app store versions of two of their products did not include command line utilities to comply with Apple’s app submission policies. And here we go. This blurs the distinction between third-party software and apps.

Apple sells the software in iWork and iLife as individual pieces of software. I kind of wish I would have known this, as I recently purchased iWork and iLife. From iWork I wanted Pages and Numbers, and from iLife I just wanted GarageBand. Purchasing iWork and iLife cost around $120 for the complete suites. Pages and Numbers cost $19.99, and GarageBand costs $14.99. That would have saved me a considerable amount of money.

Apple has done something very interesting here. Users will love the influx of affordable software and effortless one-click install. It may even lead to Mac increasing its market share, something I would certainly welcome, especially among the blind. A lot of developers will see their programs exposed to a much greater distribution and potential market. Apple will most certainly make a killing!

But what about the traditional software developers? This article got me thinking last night. It paints a pretty grim picture for traditional Mac developers, seeing them overrun by a new world of cheap apps. We will now see the merging of two different cultures. One group, the traditional developers, work in a very established environment dating back to the eighties when the first Macs came out. They can charge $20-$40 for a utility, $50 for a game, and more for specialty programs. They also feel very loyal towards their Macs!

The other group, app developers, come from a much newer market and culture. The mobile app market feels much more like the wild west. Authorities don’t even know how to regulate it. Apps come and go, as do the most brutal reviews, and the apps that endure can become legendary. Before today, apps exclusively ran on mobile platforms, meaning they couldn’t do as much due to hardware limitations. Developers have managed to do some pretty amazing things, but most apps will handle a very specific thing. They also cost far less than traditional software, at just a few dollars for most. And therein lies the problem.

Will someone still pay $40 for a quality piece of software? Can these companies continue to sell their software at standard prices, or has Apple lowered the guillotine upon the succulent necks of their most devout group: Mac developers? I don’t think so. Hopefully, Apple knows better than to piss off the group of people who stuck with them through the turbulent nineties, and without whom they would not exist today and enjoy their current status as industry kings. They’ve done so much good for the blind. The MacBook Air looks so beautiful. And that apple logo feels so cool!

Still, something feels uneasy to me, like a character from a Vincent Price movie. I think of Wikileaks, how the establishment hates freedom, and how they want to regulate the Internet. What better way to do that than by regulating the very software allowed on a machine? Will this lead to a trend where Apple, Microsoft, and Google become gatekeepers, regulating the programs which can run on their operating systems? Will we eventually have to jailbreak all our computers? If we see them reach for the tired excuse of national security, we should immediately drop everything and run to GNU/Linux. I really hope that doesn’t happen. A lot of people love their Apples! I feel glad I’ve learned to love both. I also feel glad knowing that humans always find ways to adapt, programmers especially. It’ll work itself out. The Goddess prevails!

Green or Gone

January 04, 2011

I thought I’d start the new year off with a little humor. In a blog post, Jason Scott said that for him, the combination of green text on a black background invokes a feeling of nostalgic calm. This may relate to the joke below.

Recently, a friend and I had a conversation, and as we sometimes do, we began reminiscing about our old computers. He had an Apple II/+ and I had an Apple II/E. This would have happened around 1983-1984. They both still work! What great machines.

We both taught ourselves to program in APplesoft BASIC because we enjoyed it, and because we had to. Back then, if you wanted to make your computer do something new, you probably had to write it yourself. I can still recall my “Ah-ha” moment when I realized I could make the computer do whatever I wanted by programming it with instructions. I knew right then I would have to learn to do it, and what I wanted to do when I grew up.

These computers had more limited configurations. We laughed about this in our conversation. My II/E had 64K of RAM, which I had upgraded to 128K and felt like the king of the world. Now my arithmetic would have twice the precision!

My friend then brought up another point. “And they only had those monochrome monitors – green or gone. I remember hooking the computer up to my parent’s color television so I could play games in color.” I then had a sudden very funny realization. “Now wait a minute. I learned how to program graphics – switching modes, plotting pixels, changing color, etc. The code looked right and I could see it in my head, but sighted people never seemed impressed. You mean to tell me that the whole time, it just came out all green?” “Yes, unless you had it hooked up to a color television. Green or gone!” I laughed and laughed.

I wrote this code which I imagined produced some pretty cool graphics – curtains of deep ocean blues and vibrant organic greens, weird waving lines of magenta and cyan, showers of red and yellow sparks like stars, just all kinds of cool stuff. Nobody cared. It looked better in my head. Green or gone!

The Death of John Lennon

December 09, 2010

I have always loved music. My dad had a great stereo system and tons of vinyl. I remember listening to a lot of bands, seeing the Moody Blues in concert, and eventually discovering the Beatles.

Something about the Beatles always intrigued me. I couldn’t put my finger on it then and don’t know if I can now. I just know that I listened to a LOT of Beatles. I remember at one point comparing everything else I heard to the Beatles, and my Dad saying: “Stop thinking Beatles.” But I didn’t want to.

I heard about the mystery surrounding the Paul is Dead rumors, and that if you played songs backwards you would hear things. I already knew about playing things backwards and hearing things from playing with my American Printing House for the Blind four-track tape recorder, the big metal one, people blind since the eighties will know exactly the machine I mean. I worried that people would consider it “devil music,” and thought that I had to take care, so clandestinely recorded Magical Mystery Tour onto a cassette for further experimentation. This just made me even more curious about the Beatles.

I have always loved the song Revolution Number Nine. I remember recording the White Album onto cassette some time later. I guess I didn’t worry about people finding out, or perhaps I figured I’d just do it with Mom there so nobody else would know. Anyways, I left to go do something, and the record got stuck in a groove during the song. The needle kept skipping back over a short segment in the already surreal collage, probably driving my Mom crazy. When I came back, she had stopped the recording. I eventually got it on a crappy tape and thought I had obtained a precious jewel. That song sounds novel even now.

A year or two later, I discovered that a lot of people must like the Beatles, because two radio stations had weekend shows dedicated to them. One, Ticket to Ride, played Beatles music for hours. The other, the Beatles: the Days in their Lives, chronicled their entire career through their music and interviews. This got my attention and I listened faithfully, now completely drawn in, and finally getting some context. This probably happened around age nine.

I felt sad when the Beatles broke up, but the series continued chronicling each of the members’ solo careers. I figured out that John Lennon didn’t like violence and wanted peace. After all, he sang that song, Give Peace a Chance. That made sense to my young mind. I didn’t think the story would ever end, you don’t think about that when young, but it did. The series ended with John Lennon’s assassination.

I remember feeling stunned. I couldn’t understand how someone who loved peace could get killed in a violent act. Even then I understood the gross contradiction. I felt sad the whole day. Not only did John Lennon get murdered, but a favorite radio series which had run for months had come to an end. I think a part of my childhood did as well. I called my friend Tony to tell him the horrible news about John Lennon. “He must have been a good man.” he replied.

It probably seemed cute to some that a kid would feel so profoundly moved upon hearing of the death of John Lennon, but it didn’t feel cute to me, and on the thirtieth anniversary of his death I can still recall that day for me very clearly. Of course I don’t remember the actual day, that would have made me around three, but I know others do. I can’t even imagine.

We would probably have a lot more to talk about had Lennon survived. He would have certainly had something to say about the Wikileaks controversy. Power to the people! I also wonder what he would have thought about digital music. Would he have clung to an outdated model, or would he have embraced this new model? Would he have cared that someone can download a ten album discography of his in a half an hour? What creative ways would he have thought of to use the Internet? Would he have left America and gone back to England by now, fearing the increasing police state? What would he have done in response to the wars going on now? How would he have affected our collective spirit? We will never know. We only know that he continues to move us thirty years later. People will know the name John Lennon for hundreds of years, unless of course we undergo a massive solar catastrophe and lose all our records of this age. I wonder what he would think about that. Turn me on, dead man!

The Seven Macaw Horror Picture Show

November 08, 2010

At midnight on Halloween, I watched the Rocky Horror Picture Show. I have enjoyed it for years, and like many have made it a tradition to watch it at this time. The next night, I celebrated four Ahau, the date in the Mayan calendar on which the long count begins and ends, the one that has become misinterpreted and which has people wrongly freaking out about 2012. As part of this celebration, I listened to a session of lectures given by John Major Jenkins talking about the mythic and calendrical mysteries behind 2012. These two celebrations in proximity finally led me to discover the elusive meaning behind Rocky Horror, and deepened my understanding of the Mayan mysteries.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show parodies sci-fi and midnight B movies. It tells the story of an engaged couple, Brad and Janet. They go for a drive on a rainy night, get a flat tire, and end up taking refuge in a strange castle. Frank-N-Furter, a “sweet transvestite from Transexual, Transylvania” leads the group of unconventional conventionalists. He creates a muscle man sort of like Frankenstein so that he can have a perfect lover, but the experiment goes wrong. Eventually, Frank traps his servants, Brad, Janet, and their friend Dr. Scott. He puts them under mind control and makes them give themselves over to pleasure, swimming around in a pool. Dr. Scott resists, and two of the servants revolt, killing a servant, Rocky, and Frank. The humans go free, and the castle returns to its home planet.

The Hero Twins make up one of the most important myths in the Mayan religion. At one point, they must defeat a god named Seven Macaw. This false god claims to have ruled over the sun and moon in the twilight of the previous age. He has the form of a bird, but with jewels for eyes and teeth, to say nothing of his fabulous crown or other wealth. The Hero Twins use Seven Macaw’s vanity against him. They bring in two other gods disguised as poor villagers. The two gods tell Seven Macaw that they just work as a humble dentist and doctor. Seven Macaw, upon hearing this, requests that they fix his eyes and teeth. Instead of healing him, the gods remove the precious jewels, and Seven Macaw dies of shame.

Both Frank-N-Furter and Seven Macaw preside over a self-centered creation. They eventually become lost in it, and their vanity finally does them in. Clearly, this represents a core archetype or story. It shows us the danger of succumbing to our ego and its base desires. By falling, they show us how we might succeed.

A number of years ago, I found myself in a Rocky Horror chat room. I ended up talking to its owner who knew the whole movie line for line, and who could type it in real time, rather impressive really. We got to talking about the deeper meaning of the movie. He said that once, he went to a live showing while on acid. “When you watch it on acid, you learn that it doesn’t make sense, just like life.” This seemed like a satisfactory enough explanation to the story’s continuing appeal, and the friend who first got me into Rocky Horror said something similar. “Austin, you’re trying to find a deeper meaning to Rocky Horror, and it can’t be done.” Even though I accepted this, I still felt that something deeper must exist, something which has kept the cult phenomenon going for such a long time. I believe I have finally found it.

If I had to sum up the message of Rocky Horror, I would say that it has the same message as the Seven Macaw myth: Don’t become lost in your own self-centered creation.

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