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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. To comment on what you read here, visit Disboardia, my bulletin board system.

Learning Lisp, or Back from the Shadows Again

August 18, 2009

Late last night, my life changed in three hours. A kid called in to Leo Laporte and asked what language he would recommend to a young person to get them started in programming. To my delight, he recommended Lisp. He said something to the effect of: “Don’t use C or C++, use a real man’s programming language, use Lisp.” This inspired me to get back into this wonderful language. It also dovetails nicely into something else about which I wanted to rant: why I don’t want to go back to college.

I first became exposed to Lisp while taking an artificial intelligence course for two semesters. I learned it strictly in that context, only using it to solve silly academic problems, never really grasping its potential. For me, a structured learning environment seems stifling. They didn’t even mention Emacs once. This seems highly illogical, given they practically wrote the entire thing in Lisp. Of course, it does use a specialized dialect, so perhaps that explains it, but nevertheless. It probably wouldn’t have mattered, since at the time I could only access their Linux system over a non-error-correcting modem over a noisy phone line – just awful!

It seems interesting to me that learning Lisp in such a setting and in such a context prevented me from continuing to use it. For one thing, it had a negative association. I love programming, but college just makes thing seem dry and uninteresting. This ties into the other reason, the context under which I learned it. I don’t want to spend the rest of my days trying to write a function to draw a weighted graph or something, I want to rock out and do something cool that I will actually use in my day-to-day life. Why else would I want to program? Of course, “they” will tell you in their snobby way that “You have to learn that life is hard, and that you can’t always do what you want.” I reply by saying that I became blind at birth, and figured that out at about age four. Don’t patronize me!

For these reasons, I sadly relegated Lisp to the back of my mind, assigning it to the dusty corner reserved for purely boring academic matters. Once I escaped without a degree, I continued on a fairly ordinary course for a weirdo Discordian programmer. I picked up Perl, and learned a bunch of other cool things, but I always felt something missing. C gives me a headache, Java remains rather inaccessible to the blind, Python seems like a waste of time (I don’t want to spend all my time counting stupid white space), and so on. I mainly concentrated on learning Linux, since it had since become quite accessible, thanks to Speakup. I love FORTH, but sadly it doesn’t get much use. I craved something powerful and trippy. Yet, I never considered Lisp – after all, I wanted to actually do real stuff.

Now that I think about it, perhaps the universe had begun gently nudging me in this direction for some time. Goddess works in mysterious ways. First, I got into Firesign Theatre. One of their albums, We’re All Bozos on this Bus, has a computer-generated character called Dr. Memory. The fact they wrote this in the early seventies fascinated me – obviously they had access to one of the early AI labs, and this turned out true.

Next, I got into Emacs, which I linked to above. I’ve really come to enjoy it, though I still need to tweak it more. I could spend a long time doing that, and I still have a lot to learn, but feel very impressed with it. Unlike most editors that you may know, the Emacs executable file actually contains a Lisp interpreter for a specific dialect, and most of the editor actually resides in Emacs Lisp source code. This seemed really cool, since it allows infinite customization – how many editors do you know that have an adventure game, an Eliza program, and Mayan calendar routines?

These three features have a special place in my heart. I’ve always loved text adventures and text games, growing up using the first computer usable by the blind, an Apple II/E. One day at around age seven, I ran a version of Eliza, written in Apple BASIC. Eliza acts like a psychotherapist, dissecting the user’s input, parsing it, and sometimes outputting it in a modified form, often with humorous and sometimes even insightful results. It inspired Dr. Memory referenced above, and as it would turn out, it would inspire me as well. I had just ran the program, leaving it in memory. I didn’t really know any commands, so my little kid curiosity just said to start typing in things. I typed in “LIST” figuring it would list something, and in this case it listed the source code to Eliza. It clicked in my head that this told the computer what to do, and I knew right then that I had to learn how to do this too.

So this brings us back full circle to the present. After hearing the recommendation to learn Lisp, I quickly found Practical Common Lisp. It’s opening letter to the reader joyfully allayed my concerns, and convinced me that I should give Lisp a second chance. I now learn it on my own time, for my own reasons, in my own way, at my own pace, with my own pleasant associations. I value the time I spent learning it in college, but I do far better learning things on my own, and I know I will enjoy it even more. I love Lisp!

Big Boom!

August 14, 2009

I write this article under strange circumstances. On Sunday, we had a thunderstorm. It quickly escalated into a very severe storm, with wild lightning and mad thunder. With a crash, the power blinked off, and the phone went dead, and did not return. The net went with it. A hum filled the air, coming in through the open windows. A 12,000-volt power line had fallen to the ground. Sparks and arcs burst forth as the rain continued to fall, thunder and lightning continuing as well. The air resonated with the loud 60 hertz hum, and the awful sounds of the electricity sounded truly terrifying. I felt afraid to touch anything metal. From the depths of my past, Metallica’s “Ride the Lightning” played in my head. I ran around the house to try to hear more, and returned to the computer room. The brutal sounds continued. I hoped my hair wouldn’t start standing on end. Visions of electric death filled my head, and I smelled some smoke.

This continued for fifteen or so minutes. Trucks then began to arrive. The transformer went off and on momentarily, but continued. Someone yelled: “Sir! Get back in your house!” I felt glad that I decided to stay inside and avoid the urge to check it out for myself. Trucks and people began working, the fire department and electric company had come. Finally, they shut off the transformer, but power remained on. Work continued long into the night and early morning. At some point, I did indeed lose my power, before getting it back again later. I still have no phone or Internet as I write this, and will have to wait to get online to publish this article.

Whenever I lose power for an extended time, I find myself having similar thoughts. These mainly revolve around how much we depend on electricity, and wondering what people did before we had it. These thoughts then become refined, and I begin reflecting on how electricity alters our behavior patterns. I also note how good it feels to not have an electric smog surrounding me, and wonder what I can do to experience this while experiencing electricity’s benefits.

As soon as the realization hits that power probably won’t return immediately, everything changes. All the devices that seem so futuristic immediately seem like useless relics. Walking through a room with computers feels like walking through a museum of ancient dust-covered non-functioning exhibits. Having electricity transforms the present into the future. Not having it transforms the present into the past. It amazes me how much humanity accomplished without it. Imagine getting on a boat in England as my ancestors did, setting sail for a far off land never to return, and with no way of communication. I can’t!

Along a similar vein, I can’t help but wonder what exactly people did without electricity, especially once the sun went down. Did religious leaders really need to tell their flocks to be fruitful and multiply? I’d think that after sunset, they wouldn’t have much else to do! Electricity makes it possible to do things at all hours of the day. You can listen to music, watch a television show, communicate, eat, work, anything you want. It also makes it less necessary to interact with others, and they probably did a lot more of that in the past as well. Battling and babbling with Verizon’s automated customer service computer demonstrated this point. Today, when I went to the bank to get some cash, I couldn’t use the ATM, and actually had to go inside and talk to a human to get it. Weird! Perhaps having electricity messes with our heads more than not having it.

How do we bring balance? I thought of meditation techniques, EMF balancing devices, things of that like, then an answer emerged from another angle, perhaps indicative of the effect. Do things that don’t require electricity. Good luck with that.

Verizon came out the next day to fix the problem. Their automated tests claimed that they could get a dial tone on my line, and could ping my router, both of which I doubted. “Tell them to actually call your number.” suggested my Mom. Whatever, they dispatched a technician. He determined that the outside box got fried, as well as the plug to my router. I told him of the tests, and he said: “I don’t see how that’s possible.” Don’t believe Verizon’s somewhat freaky automated service. It also weirded me out how the cell phone distorted its hold music to sound like satanic industrial music, or something. Anyways, he fixed the problems, and I returned online. I meant to publish this article sooner, but have gotten immersed in learning Emacs. I’ll have much more to write

about that, for sure.

Thumbs up to Taza!

July 17, 2009

I celebrated my 32nd birthday on the 14th. My cousin gave me some Taza Chocolate. I unwrapped a hand-wrapped packet containing two elegant discs. I slowly ate a disc throughout the course of the evening, and felt quite fine – a real smooth buzz. I ordered a case upon returning home. First class!

Each disc contains organic cacao, organic cane sugar, and a particular flavor, such as chili powder, cinnamon, or salt and almonds. The disc breaks cleanly. Either break off a small piece, or grate some and combine it with hot (not boiling) water. The disc makes the most convenient form for the cacao enthusiast. Never go without.

Along with the convenience, the discs contain the highest quality cacao. Each kind of cacao has a different feel. Some have a more physical stimulation, with social overtones. Others have a more cerebral feel. Still others have a more spacey psychedelic feel, and these discs joyfully fall into this category. They will take you to Cloud Nine. I love these discs! Thumbs up to Taza!

More mysteries of the EeePC 1000HE

July 04, 2009

Like a woman, a netbook has many layers and mysteries. I have solved two more I felt worthy of documenting as I freely write from my armchair in the living room.

Firstly, the switch on the bottom simply acts as a lock for the battery. When I first got it, I feared that it might do something catastrophic if switched, maybe switching the source of power, causing it to blow up like the train set we got as a kid. My dad never reads directions, and plugged the transformer’s wires into the “DC” terminals. Even as a child I knew what would happen, which it soon did. Not pretty! Not so with this beautiful creation, it simply acts as a secondary emergency lock.

Secondly, I wondered why I couldn’t get into the boot menu. I tried and tried to hold down escape, pressing it repeatedly, holding it down, and pretty much every variation thereof. Tonight, I learned that it requires entering the BIOS by hitting F2, then going over to the “Boot” options, and turning on “Quick Boot.” Then save the configuration, and then you can hit the escape key when booting to bring up the boot menu to boot from a thumbdrive, or so say the legends. This requires sighted help, of course, so I will let you know.

This just reinforces why I would love to sell these things to the blind, working out of the box with free software and an interface to match. We mustn’t let evil prevail!

In the meantime, I installed Cygwin while sitting on my front porch. If you want to dabble in Linux while still using Windows, I would recommend this, albeit the setup interface which one uses to add and remove packages needs some accessibility work.

Netbooks: the end of Notetaker Fascism

July 02, 2009

the blind have had notetakers for years. i remember first purchasing a braille ‘n speak, a wonderful beloved device about the size of a vhs tape. it used a braille keyboard and had acceptable (imho) speech. more importantly, it just worked. you turned it on, and could immediately start writing. the thing worked – no crashes, no needing to reload the software in the middle of an important edit, etc.

as its featureset improved, though without feature-creep syndrome, and as the internet and personal computers and th eneed to network with them became more popular, it outgrew its z-180 processor. blazie engineering tried to release a new unit, but it didn’t take, and at the same time the most awful thing happened: they merged with a few other companies to form freedom scientific – the microsoft of the blind world.

words cannot express the contempt i feel for this company. they destroyed a once great company and their outstanding reputation, replacing their reliable products with crappy crap that ran a crappy operating system (windows ce) with a crappy screen reader (pocket jaws) and crappy microsoft software. this began a new and i hope the final trend in notetakers.

companies began to think that they could just bundle some standard software on a crappy piece of proprietary hardware. sadly, this even applied to the linux notetakers. the trend continued even recently.

i remember purchasing an elba braillex, a linux-based notetaker. they designed a wonderful, though expensive, piece of hardware. they tried to put their own menuing system on it, but it still ran text-based software. normally i would not have a problem with this, i use most of the very same software on my desktop, and this led me to believe that i would enjoy this notetaker. unfortunately, their screen reading just did not cut the mustard. the insane price of the unit coupled with complete apathy on the part of the developers relegated that product to a prominent spot under a shelf. “what, what do you want?” one employee shouted at me during a phone call. “i want the sourcecode. i want support.” they promised they would release the code, but never did. i lost interest. when i received it, as i brought it inside, the simpsons played in the background. “what a waste of talent!” said principal skinner as i hauled the box through the door. that says it all.

meanwhile, back in the freedom scientific world, the world most knew, and the option indiscriminately pushed by most companies in the field, the madness continued. they continued pushing the pac mate, the previously described chincy piece of hardware running equally chincy software. people pay extortionate prices for this. i would love to smash one on video sometime, and if anyone would like to donate one for this purpose then contact me. to my knowledge this continues, despite ever falling sales due to an ever worsening economy.

i sincerely hope that the netbook will put an end to these profitiering gluttons, these parasites upon the blind community, preying upon the suffering of the disabled. like microsoft, they consider themselves the best because they have the biggest market force and legal team. this does not make it so! a blind person needs no longer to spend $2500 plus to get the same or better features of a netbook. of course, many will still feel they have to purchase their awful screen reader, jaws for windows. at least some compeditors exist, including gw micro’s window eyes, system access, and the free and open-source ndva, which i have previously referenced, and wish nothing but success. i also have good feelings towards gw micro, since they started back in the day, on the apple ii/e, and do their work for the right reasons. i think they have a notetaker, but i haven’t heard much about it. humanware, another oldschool company, sells a notetaker for $4500, very expensive as well. they made the keynote, the very first laptop adapted for the blind, a toshiba t1000 with msdos 2.1.1 in the rom! i had good experiences with them back in 1988, but don’t know how they have fared. a friend described their notetaker, the braillnote, as an amish brailler, due to its clunky sound. hah!

i primarily direct my rage and this rant at freedom scientific. may they soon fall from their false glory. may the netbook deliver the final death blow to a bloated parasite, long past its usefulness.

I must also say that in a very important way, GNU/Linux has become more accessible, not just in terms of usability, but in economic terms as well, something of increasing importance. I know those evil scum at Freedom Scientific want to find a way to profit from this Netbook mania, and will probably try selling one bundled with JAWS for a hefty price tag. I will dedicate myself to working to defeat them using free software. Won’t you join me? Give me Linux or give me death! I smell roses as I write this outside on my new Netbook. I feel calmer now.

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