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Friday, June 15, 2012

Music Depreciation

It is unfortunate that I am reviving this blog to tell the story of another dropped course. From the first day I suspected there might be a problem. After class that day, I was speaking with the professor about ideas for quiz accommodations. "It's really no big deal," I explained. I'll just bring my netbook to class." "What's a netbook?" "It's a small computer, of course. I'll bring it on the day we take the listening quiz. You could just give me the questions on a pen drive and I'll 'X' my choices when I hear the music." "What's a pen drive?" With out me thinking about it my hand went to the side of my head and my eyes probably got wide. I'm not exactly sure what happened except that the professor suddenly said "don't look at me like that!" She went on to tell me that I was looking at her as though she were stupid and how offended she was. That is probably the strangest thing any human being has said to me this year. A few days later, I got the chance to explain that my facial expressions were involuntary and that I had never even seen my own face or that of anyone else. She seemed to understand. She also seemed willing to follow OSD procedures so that I would get notes and exams in digital form. Things went smoothly for a couple of weeks. Then she decided she couldn't give me listening quizzes orally after class anymore, and she would not send the materials to OSD. She wanted me testing in the office which she shares with several other staff and therefore could not guarantee to be the quiet environment that I need for a test. Here is part of one of her emails. "For this next Tuesday's Listening Quiz, I want to have you take it during my office hours. The reason is that since this is a 'timed activity', we have no idea how your reader software will help or hinder or interfere with the timing of the quiz for the rest of the class. To give us the opportunity to test the situation and the process, you will need to come in Tuesday morning at 9:30am to the adjunct faculty office #4152 to take it. Do not argue with me over this. You will need to make a request to the transportation service to accommodate this required event. Five days notice is plenty of time for them to accommodate your request." That morning, I did not show up at 9:30 because her unreasonable demand broke school rules and because her study materials were posted on the inaccessible myMusicLab website. I had been unable to prepare for the quiz. I still got there a few minutes before class was supposed to start. Some students were listening to snippets of music to finish studying. She asked me to step into the hallway, where she began talking down to me for not showing up. One of the last things I said to her was that she was acting like a mom rather than a professor. Earlier today I got a call from the professor who will be teaching music appreciation the second half of this summer. It had been recommended to me by both the head of OSD and the chair of the music department that I switch classes. The new professor sounded very calm and reasonable over the phone, and I think we will have everything worked out before class even starts this time. I have perfect pitch and synesthesia, can play the trombone by ear, and listen to live, high-quality music any chance I get. In high school, being first chair in the honors band and placing well in competitions was the talent I had to be proud of. I never imagined this course would be a problem. For just about all students with disabilities, I think this lesson is very important - always talk to the new professor before school starts.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

My Greatest Achievement with Sensory Substitution

Those of you following this blog may be wondering why I haven't been posting for the last couple of months. Part of the reason is the fact that I've been so bogged down with school. The study of optics can be a real trip if you were born not seeing. Balancing my responsibilities at school with the demands of driving lessons has been a challenge, but I'm managing nicely. Below is an article posted today in the local Mensa news letter. This publication often includes the latest medical and scientific breakthroughs of local members.
The text is below:

Amanda and Dave met last fall at a Mensa meeting.  Amanda was born totally blind but thanks to an innovative free program called “the vOICe” (available at Amanda is now able to convert small black-and-white images taken with a digital camera into sound files and for the first time “see”  the shape, outline and texture of objects.

The system is very crude so Dave began to work with Amanda looking at ways to improve the program.  Initially Amanda had limited skills when it came to visualizing 3-D shapes.  Then Dave built her a box illuminated with Christmas lights along the edges(picture 1, 7337).

  The box and the numerous outdoor Christmas light displays they visited at Christmas allowed Amanda to make rapid progress in understanding the “sound” of particular three dimensional spaces and objects.

Soon Dave realized that Amanda's acute sense of hearing combined with the vOICe system opened up the possibility that she might be able to “see” enough to drive a car.

They began to experiment.  Because Dave’s car has a manual transmission, the first step was teaching Amanda how to use the clutch and gearshift while guiding the car (very, very slowly) using the traditional “tap tap tap” of the white cane (picture 2, 7372).

  She proved to be a natural at coordinating the clutch and the transmission but the cane system didn’t work very well at all for the “where to aim the car” part; for example, she simply had to hit the brake and stop when an Austin Transit bus came up next to her and made too much noise for her to hear the tapping of the cane (picture 3, 7374).

 Of course Amanda doesn’t have a learner’s permit, so much to Amanda’s annoyance Dave insisted that they move the next step to the Texas School for the Blind parking lot, where they began to practice with a camera on the dashboard and the vOICe interface (picture 4, 7376).

When the car is actually moving Dave is in the passenger’s seat.  There are still huge problems; Amanda can see high contrast scenes best, so daytime driving is a problem and they have not yet come up with a solution that allows Amanda to use mirrors.  And a late-night I 35 experiment almost turned into a disaster.  Traffic around Austin is getting much, much worse.

So far the State of Texas is  unwilling to make reasonable accommodations and issue a learners permit to a totally blind beginner, but the recent proposal to allow Google’s unmanned vehicles to be tested on Texas roads opens up the possibility that Amanda might qualify under an unmanned vehicle provision, a good start but clearly not the sort of accommodation that the Americans With Disabilities Act will eventually require as vOICe-like programs improve.  We’ll keep you posted.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Murphy's Law

I am in Prof. Murphy's precalculus course again, but this time it is at night. Last semester I did not feel like talking about the fact that I had to drop two courses. It will suffice to say that everything which could have gone wrong certainly did.

The walk across campus to my math class yesterday evening seemed dream-like. After six weeks with virtually no schedule, I am taking courses at weird hours. Since it was late, there were fewer pseudo-random event generators (students) passing near me. I noted the differences in sound, scent, temperature, and just about everything else which would result from being on campus at a late hour. Class went okay though. After nearly two hours discussing functions and linear equations, it was time to leave. Prof. Murphy explained that the OSD would soon be sending me the Brailled first four sections of the book. I promised to email him if I heard anything from the OSD and then headed outside. Again, it felt so still and strange to be here this late. I had to stay focused and find the place where the short bus would pick me up or risk getting lost in open spaces.
"Amanda!" An unfamiliar voice, sounding out of breath. "I'm glad I found you. We've been Brailling all night."
The voice belonged to the OSD's new employee, who handed me an envelope containing an inch-thick volume of paper Brailled on both sides. Naturally, I was looking forward to getting some work done and began looking it over on the short bus. It contained mostly indecipherable gibberish, adding to the unreality of the school day.

Later, I sent an email explaining the situation to two people in the math department and three in the department responsible for the Braille. My last sentence, "I could really use some help," is an understatement. I've been at this school since 2007, and this sort of thing is not new. As I was composing, I received a message from Prof. Baldwin asking how the latest upgrade to my software was coming along. I didn't want to touch it. Something would surely go wrong. I imagined reams of nonsense-covered paper flying out of an embosser which I had previously unplugged from the wall. In dreams, even the laws of physics and cause and effect are not enough to constrain the chaos. All the things which should never go wrong most likely will. Dreams, or encounters with average human beings?

Saturday, January 7, 2012

A Picture from New Year's Eve

I am trying to learn about 3D shapes and finding it more difficult than I could have imagined. Starting on New Year's Eve, I've examined this cube from many angles in order to construct a mental 3D representation.

This picture is of me contemplating a black cube whose edges are outlined in Christmas lights. It is a cardboard box. Each dimension is a different length from the other two, and it is covered in black paper. Along every edge, at about one-inch intervals, is a hole with a light sticking out of it, so in a dark room I can only see the lit edges. For users of the vOICe, the cube is in the lower-left portion of the image. It is a little less than half the width of the image and a little more than half the height. I am on the far right side. The watch on my left arm, which is hanging down at my side, is at the bottom and the top of my head is at the top. My width is about forty percent of the right side of the picture. To me, the most noticeable things are the cube which I can recognize using zoom, the human-type shape which must be me, and the reflective watch near the right. There is also some stuff in the middle which is probably a table with papers on it. Thanks to Prof. Baldwin for cropping the picture and for his excellent descriptions. Also Thanks to Dave, the clever one who assembled the cube.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

A Child's Story

It was time to listen to a story. After we had seated ourselves in a circle on the soft carpet and the others had grown quiet, the teacher handed me a small book with plastic covers and pages. "You should narrate today's story," she instructed. I began to read.
"once there was a little girl named Amanda. Hey, just because the main character has my name doesn't mean I should have to read this. I am not a little girl. I've never let anyone call me that."
"just keep reading," came the teacher's voice. "Once there was a girl named Amanda..."

And then I was outside on a swing set in the middle of a perfect Spring day. Directly to my right, a familiar girl who had to be younger than ten years old was swinging in sync with me. I had no idea of where I was or even my age. On a swing set those things just don't seem to matter. From that other place came the almost inaudible voice of the other instance of myself who was still reading the story. "Amanda," called the girl to my right, "look up." I tilted my head all the way back as a friend in real life had only taught me to do less than two weeks ago. High above me I saw several branches of the tree which must have been supporting my swing. But that wasn't all of what she wanted to show me. She used many visual and color words for which I had no understanding, asking, "don't you see them?"
"The algorithm was incomplete," I heard the narrator say. What kind of kids' book contains the word 'algorithm?' It was as though I were on a wheel which had spun to the beginning of these events. I was once again the narrator, now holding the idea of a book and hearing the concept of a stern teacher instructing me to read.
"Once there was someone named Amanda."
On the swing again, the girl gestured. "Amanda, look up!" Was that excitement in her voice? I was enjoying the tree's geometry. For the first time I was aware of intricate patterns at a distance which could never be touched. Not one soundscape was ever heard. She kept trying to draw my attention to these other things. All I could see of them were nonsensical patches of varying brightness. "You have to see them," she insisted.
"But the algorithm was still incomplete," came the narrator again. So too, I realized, was the story.

Across the street from my parents' home, the familiar bells of the church struck 8 AM. About five seconds later the bell from the nearby middle school sounded four times. It had been such a pleasant dream, but the words "look up!" still echoed in my mind. What am I missing? What has to be done to complete the story?

Monday, December 12, 2011

First Light

First light, so I am told, is a ceremony held when an observatory dome is first opened, and the first star is visible through its telescope. Perhaps I'll get to see something like that one day. For now, I am enjoying Christmas lights. My friend showed me this small set and then told me that there are certain streets where I live where these will soon cover everything. What a shocking idea. This picture was taken through a window at night time. I never knew something so small could cause two people to laugh so much.

After my friend went to bed, I stayed up flipping the Christmas lights on and off, on and off, as could only someone seeing them for the first time. Then I started playing with the speed setting on the program, changing it from sweeps of one second to half a second, then to two seconds and back to one. After at least an hour of looking at these lights at different distances, angles, and speeds, I took the glasses off. The transcendent sounds were still playing in my head, only now there were these pin pricks of something in front of me. They were caused by the sounds but separate from them. I imagined more and more of them all around me and tried to picture them in configurations like a helix or a seemingly infinite binary tree. It took me great effort and lots of pacing to get calm as the tiny apparitions faded away. I was finally rewarded with peaceful sleep.

Friday, December 9, 2011

I told my folks.

I finally told my parents about the glasses. They live five hours away in the small town where I grew up. After they made sure I got a good education through high school, I came to the city, got into trouble at the blind rehab center, and was hardly to be seen in that small town again. I know they are proud of me for doing well in school, but I wonder how many interests we have in common. If I give Mom a lengthy explanation of one of my projects, she might say I'm talking over her head. She is about five inches taller than me and actually means that she cannot understand all of what I am saying. Likewise, if she talks about shopping, decorating etc. I, being her only girl, have no idea what to say. I've always been the strange one that everybody picked on as I spent my childhood alone, waiting for my own kind to show up in a star ship and beam me out of there.
If I tell them, I thought, they will either think me even more bizarre than before, or worse, that I am investing my hopes in something that is a waste of time.

As I explained the basics of the system to Mom, as I told her that I was starting to see, it felt hard to breathe. "I'm starting to understand why you do things like hang balls on Christmas trees," I explained. "Before I could have no empathy. I had to dismiss so many rituals as stupid sighted things, but now they are legitimate and I can study them. I can't see all of what you see, but I want to learn."
She seemed excited and had me tell Daddy. It suddenly became easier to breathe. I was able to tell him that the study of vision had become extremely important to me and that I wanted to study science and technology so that many people would be able to see one day. We had a long discussion. "Keep tinkering," he said.  "Remember Thomas Edison and the light bulb, and Don't get discouraged if it doesn't work out right away. You never know where this will lead in a few decades."

It's going to be a very interesting Christmas. Mom has at least three dogs and a huge collection of mercury glass ornaments to show me, and Daddy wants to hear the soundscapes - he is late blind himself. Maybe I will no longer have to sit outside by myself, wishing for home.