Visit to the SF Lighthouse

As part of the CripTech symposium I went along on a tour of the Lighthouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired a couple of weeks ago. Chris Downey, an architect who is on their Board of Directors, kindly gave us the tour and the benefit of his insight into the architectural design of the space.

The lobby was designed to feel welcoming to people who might be coming to the Lighthouse for the first time, or really for anyone. It’s a spacious central space in the complex, connecting through a large, open, glass walled stairwell to the floors above and below. It’s possible to hear people talking or laughing from other areas so you are aware of social activity nearby in the space. I was really impressed with the auditory environment, as I really could feel the warmth of “other people are here” without it being distracting or echoing in any way. The walls were lined in some kind of sound baffle type of felt (I think) with a design of wooden slats overlaid that affect the acoustics of the space and are also quite beautiful.

After being there all morning, the street and then the food court we had lunch in were noticeably inhospitable in their acoustics. I realized I felt more relaxed and able to focus while we were on the tour of the building.

There is plenty of natural light, and also bright but not overwhelming overhead lights in long strips going north to south for extra orientation cues for partially sighted people. There were also interesting “light walls” with big glowing panels, and sliding controls which anyone can adjust to play with the color of the light.

stairwell with wall of windows

The flooring is set up so that there are navigable edges for shorelining through the hallways. Travel paths are polished concrete, and seating or other areas are carpeted with metal edges to give more information to cane users about navigating the space. The stairs have distinctive kinds of wood (I think different at the landings so that there is a different sound from a cane tap) and bright but not overly reflective metal edges for high contrast (again, good for people with partial vision).

One especially beautiful touch – the handrails around the stairwell were the softest, silkiest wood with an unusual and nice-feeling shape, slightly concave on the side facing the travel path, and then curved in a slightly irregular way – not a half-circle or half-oval but a more organic feeling shape to fit a hand. If you visit, don’t miss feeling the handrails.

Here’s a picture of Chris demonstrating another thoughtful and elegant touch: the reception area countertops have subtle niches in the edge of the counter to allow a white cane to rest there without slipping to the floor. The photo also shows the wooden acoustic slats that line the wall and the thin metal boundary between concrete travel pathway and carpeted reception area.

Chris Downey

We saw the event rooms, training kitchen, science lab which I think is for making things and doing electronics or computer workshops, and a little maker space with large braille embossing printers and 3-D printers. The art all around the space was really neat, a lot of it from the collection of Donald Sirkin, the guy who left over 100 million dollars to the Lighthouse in his will. There was also a memorial wall talking about Sirkin and his life. (On my to-do list: write a Wikipedia page for Sirkin.)

As a wheelchair user I also noticed the spacious design, since there were several wheelchair users along on the tour we would get into a few narrow hallways, but each time that happened and there was a sort of bottleneck, I was able to go around the circumference of that section of the building and circle back to the “front” of the tour. There were points at each end and at the middle of the building on each floor where the hallways opened up to wider spaces so there were opportunities to regroup and the space didn’t feel claustrophobic. I appreciate not feeling trapped and being able to move freely around a space!

A few years ago I wrote a short text adventure for an unconference space, along with obtaining a tactile map of the interior of the building. It was a simple hack job to give the layout of the rooms. I started thinking through ways to make a much better one for the Lighthouse. So, a textual game where you can walk through a space and develop a feel for its geography and layout. To be done well, this should integrate a holistic impression of the different spaces and how they can be traversed or explored, rather than some straight “visual description” information it would need to include the ways that a space can be experienced by someone blind or with partial vision.

Playing with similar ideas a bit in Inform7, in writing “room” descriptions from the point of view of a wheelchair user, which for me, includes not just an awareness of slopes but of the feel of surfaces and whether they are pleasant (marble is amazing) or jarring (literally). One or two words can indicate that “you” the reader are wheeled. I think that can have an interesting effect on game play. For the Lighthouse, I might try just describing the lobby and a couple of connected rooms as an experiment. Since I am not blind or vision impaired I would need to pair up with someone or do lots of interviewing folks to do this project well if I did it for real! My 4-room experiment of being in a sort of fantasy world game setting, on wheels, gave me a little shiver of recognition to play through, even though I had just written it myself and it was not a surprise be in a garden and then to see the words “You roll into the gazebo.” Yet it was still a surprise, a pleasantly non-alienating one. Is there a word for de-alienating in a healing way, that makes you realize the ways you are alienated (from yourself or from participation or acknowledgement) in default representations? It made me think that representing “you” the player of interactive fiction as disabled along different axes (as living and experiencing reality in particular ways) could be a really powerful game.

Thanks again to Chris and to the Lighthouse and to Karen Nakamura who invited me to CripTech! I particularly enjoyed the tour and am still thinking hard about aesthetics and universal design & how our concept of whose experiences are important affect design & engineering decisions. A beautiful example of technology in action to make a pleasant and functional environment. If we do get a San Francisco Disability Cultural Center someday, I hope it will take the example of the Lighthouse and follow their lead!

Messing with Inform7 today

Thinking about this because I started showing Inform7 to my son. Inform7 is very elegant game programming language and interactive development environment. I recommend it! I think he will be teaching me some Unity in return…

Years ago I did a lot of coding for a MUD, a text based multiplayer interactive fiction game. After playing lots of MUDs, MUSHes and MOOs through the 90s I am not quite sure when I started coding but seems like late 90s, mostly for a MUD called Arcane Nites. It was fun being an “immortal”, helping new players and acting as a game moderator to resolve disputes and stop abusive or spammy behavior, often along with another immortal, an enormous macho giant named Stomp, who I only later realized was a woman older than me, old enough to be a grandma. Also later I heard from players who were like, 12 year olds at the time (which explains the frequent need for moderation). (Hi, y’all!)
In fact, I wrote a lot of code while pregnant or while actually wearing my son in a front carrier. Gaming is truly in his blood!
I remember working on some kind of in-game messaging or bulletin board system; little projects like expanding the “socials”, actions you could take in game, and having great time writing them to look properly grammatical depending on whether you were doing the action, seeing the action, or experiencing the action on yourself. I wrote code to made liquid containers behave properly with different liquids, and I think I got obsessed for a while with adding other physical properties to objects but don’t remember much of that.
But, the main fun of MUDs for me was writing new areas of the game. I’ve talked about this before but I wrote one based on the Chinese classic, Hong Lou Meng, translated a few different ways, “Story of the Stone” or “Dream of the Red Chamber” or “Dream of Red Mansions”. I had three different translations of it, drawing up elaborate character lists, geneologies, and so on to keep track of the different names of characters across the translations. In my version, you could walk around a small part of the town and the two houses of the Jia (or Chia) clan and the extensive gardens behind the houses. There were supernatural elements – you could end up in realm of the Stone itself, and there was also a dreamlike, kind of racy cave sequence where you traveled in time, or something, and ended up finding Hsi-men Ching and Golden Lotus from Jin Ping Mei.

Anyway, today I went looking for these files and started converting my version of the Battle of Kurukshetra from the Mahabharata into Inform7. I don’t have a good key to the old game data files so I am having to figure out a lot of weird data! It’s fun. If I can do this successfully then I’ll put the areas up as standalone playable interactive fiction. Since in the MUDs they were written for, the “point” was not just to explore, but to kill everything and loot its corpse, taking equipment and wearing it, and so on, I will have to either figure out some different experience (perhaps a more wholesome one of puzzle or mystery solving) or write a battle system for Inform7. Or, I may just release them as areas to wander and explore. Most of the point was absorbing the atmosphere, really.

Fiction about kids who write poetry

Found this in my old drafts folder from …. well, more than 10 years ago! I clearly meant to expand on these thoughts with examples from the books but never got it together. Fun anyway though!

>>>>>

I re-read The Boyhood of Grace Jones the other day and loved it for its mid 20th century genderqueer “tomboy” protagonist, but most of all for her surety that she could choose and make herself. All the kids and adults around her were clueless, insisting that there was a binary choice between heredity and environment – every aspect of a person was controlled by those factors. Grace Jones insisted there was another thing everyone had inside that let them create themselves how they wanted to be! I loved that.

I owe several posts on ETech and SXSWi and SexTech, but I’m going to write about this first!

Grace Jones goes through a lot, but her most intense realization comes when she writes a couple of poems and then doesn’t know what to do next. She is stunned by the realization that these big ideas were in her and she was able to put them out. Then what! Children don’t have much outlet for big ideas or poetry. I found myself contrasting Grace’s, and Anastasia Krupnik’s, fictional-character poems with the ones from girls’ books from earlier generations, like Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm’s poem she gives to Mr. Ladd (Spoiler: she grows up and marries him.) It is very twee and is sort of about God, and she breathlessly awaits his judgment of whether she could be a “real writer” someday. That happens a lot in girls’ books, doesn’t it?

Note from 2018: Not sure I was remembering this correctly – Rebecca shows her poem to Miss Maxwell first –

This ingenuous remark confirmed Miss Maxwell’s opinion of Rebecca as a girl who could hear the truth and profit by it.

“Well, my child,” she said smilingly, “your friends were wrong and you were right; judged by the proper tests, they are pretty bad.”

“Then I must give up all hope of ever being a writer!” sighed Rebecca, who was tasting the bitterness of hemlock and wondering if she could keep the tears back until the interview was over.

“Don’t go so fast,” interrupted Miss Maxwell. “Though they don’t amount to anything as poetry, they show a good deal of promise in certain directions. You almost never make a mistake in rhyme or metre, and this shows you have a natural sense of what is right; a ‘sense of form,’ poets would call it. When you grow older, have a little more experience,—in fact, when you have something to say, I think you may write very good verses. Poetry needs knowledge and vision, experience and imagination, Rebecca. You have not the first three yet, but I rather think you have a touch of the last.”

“Must I never try any more poetry, not even to amuse myself?”

“Certainly you may; it will only help you to write better prose.

I could only find this bit of Rebecca’s poem:

Then come what will of weal or woe
(Since all gold hath alloy),
Thou ‘lt bloom unwithered in this heart,
My Rose of Joy!

Maybe the scene with Mr. Ladd is in the sequel, which I also remember being mostly about Rebecca agonizing about whether she could ever be a “real writer”.

Laura Ingalls’ poem, on a more frivolous note, but one that shows Laura’s realization of the dangers of verse composition for a popular audience:

Going to school is lots of fun,
From laughing we have gained a ton,
We laugh until we have a pain,
At Lazy, Lousy, Lizy Jane.

I don’t have Grace Jones’s poems handy but remember her reciting Kubla Khan to herself.

Remembering Louise Fitzhugh’s wonderful character, Harriet the Spy’s poem experience as she goes through every letter of the alphabet trying to find words to rhyme with “pain”. Her thought process during this poem was just amazing to me (when I was a kid who thought similarly) and I love her.

And finally, Anastasia Krupnik’s poem. (Which I also don’t have handy but which I recall being in all lower case and about undersea creatures and just a little embarrassing, but good)

Anastasia notably falls off the top of the rope climbing thing in gym class & breaks her arm while triumphantly reciting a poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay. (O world! I could not hold thee close enough!) Her dad is a poet and professor and a kind of cool, dorky dude. We get an updated version of the old scene of a nervous girl clutching sheaf of poems to her chest as she hands them to the newspaper editor. Anastasia explains to him in outrage how she practiced her poem and read it very fancily to her class and teacher, who didn’t get it. He’s supportive and proud! But the best thing about the scene is that Anastasia is already sure that she did something amazing.

I think it is interesting to consider poetics, and writing, as an important point of resistance to patriarchy, especially for young girls and women. There are just a zillion other examples of women writing about young girls and young women who are trying out being a writer, and what other people tell them, and how they react…. Surely there are also a ton of academic papers about this!

New book & a nice day

New book, The Founding by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles (cool name!), the first in a truly enormous series of historical novels starting during the Wars of the Roses. I was sold on the intro which is a huge bibliography of sources for her historical research.

Today, very intense work day again, but then I went out and bought a tiny Christmas tree, back at work again, then out to work at a cafe with visiting friends, more errands (post office, to mail my contribution to an APAzine, etc), more work, wrapping christmas presents (still a huge mess all over the living room floor) and out to sushi, which was excellent. (Ichi Sushi, best in San Francisco!) You should definitely have the ocean trout. We bought beers for the sushi chefs and toasted them, it was so amazing. Also nice, other friends just kept seeing us through the window and then coming in to hug us. !!! Now that’s living.

It’s fun to be in an APAzine – I’ve always thought it sounded so neat and old school. I want to do it better justice than a sort of diary entry so I will be thinking about that for the next go-round.

After all this I am too tired to say anything super meaningful. I’m so happy to have this enormous book series to read over the holidays!

The ultra-unreal

Enjoying this essay a lot: Modern China is So Crazy It Needs a New Literary GenreOn Living Through the “Ultra-Unreal,” and Writing About It

Many of China’s “ultra-unreal” phenomena are written about on the internet immediately after they occur. Reality is a text to begin with, and now that the internet can show us “ultra-unreal” phenomena that we otherwise would not know about, we end up with a sort of doubled “ultra-unreal.” This has created a huge challenge for fiction. Fiction can no longer just tell straightforward stories about single topics following single narrative arcs; reality is providing us with all sorts of rich possibilities for experiments in fictional form. To some degree, the more true to reality fiction is these days, the more avant-garde it will seem. The way we look at things determines the way we write about them. Reality is mutable.

There are some interesting statements about the nature of “magical realism”.

I need to read this author’s books. This sounds glorious & ridiculous. I lost the thread just reading a single paragraph of the synopsis of PART of the book.

There are three layers to my novel. The first is the story of a man who has been infatuated with libraries since childhood. He is the narrator of the novel. His dream is to live in a library, and in his apartment he has a lot of books and a lot of mirrors. Because of the infinite regress effect of the reflection of the books in the mirrors, he is able to approximate his childhood dream of living inside a library. He has no disability, but he likes to do his reading while sitting in a wheelchair. He likes to wheel himself around among his books and mirrors. He becomes a volunteer companion to inmates on death row, and he moves into the prison for a while. He talks to the inmates the way a priest would. He thinks of the prison as another sort of library.

Cat dreams

Last night I dreamed that I compiled the cat. There were quite a few error messages. As they scrolled past I was trying to remember important ones and note them, sometimes highlighting them in Terminal to stop the scrolling for a few seconds so I could read the errors more closely, then letting go again to watch the messages fly past. The only one I remember now said OUCH!!!! in a strange, different font, much bigger than the rest of the stream of output.

I was worried in the dream about having to debug the cat’s code in front of all the people who were watching.

The last time something like this happened was many years ago and very silly – I had been trying out emacs (for work, after many years of vi) and I configured the cats with something like this: set-cats:no-meow.

It is commonly said that you can’t read and write in dreams, but I’ve always been able to, sometimes reading whole stories or books, or writing poetry or stories that I remember parts of when I wake up. I used to write down the bits of text I composed or read in dreams. At times I get the “scrambled text” effect (like the numbers on the digital clock in the movie Waking Life) and then realize I’m in a dream. Maybe writing and reading in dreams is part of being able to lucid-dream, or just part of being a person who is very focused on textualities.

Unfortunately, the cats did not successfully set to no-meow years ago, and my current cat still woke me up with its real life error messages such as MEOW MEOW MEOW IT’S 6AM AND MY BREAKFAST IS MISSING MEOW I AM STARVING.

cat with flowers

Specificity in poems and songs

Rambling a bit about songs. The other day someone giggled when I referred to a “mix tape” and I barely even meant “mix CD”, I believe it was a constructed playlist that I’d made. But in my mind and language a personally edited collection of music will always be a mix tape, probably made clunkily from breathless moments trying to catch the beginning of a song from the radio to cassette tape (on a modern gramophone or victrola) without getting a DJ talking, and maybe going from that tape to a second tape for even worse quality sound.

I was thinking about how it is disconcerting in songs when there is a very specific reference clearly personal to the singer. I’ll be happily singing along, or adding the song to a MIX TAPE meant to convey a mood, and then I get jarred by the singer’s reference to their friends or girlfriend or some private joke of the band’s. Sometimes I just edit it out mentally, bracketing the specifics that I will never know about and trying to see it as a charming instance of the mood of the song.

It is a bit like the iconic quality of comics or images that Scott McCloud describes in Understanding Comics. The more generic the image of a person, the easier it is for us to imagine ourselves into that artwork, in some ways. We might encounter the specifics as alienating or difficult as readers or listeners.

Sometimes I like the specifics and sometimes I edit them out when reading or listening. Or when writing.

Other times these details are the entire point especially if that point is the unknowability of the details of another person’s experience. Or, if part of the point is to make you wonder and work to figure those details out, to find them out.

This year I am aiming to put my old poetry books and anthologies from 10-20 years ago up as ebooks or reprint them in paperback. A few of them are up already. The one that led me down this path of thought is Woodbird Jazzophone, which is basically me from 2003 or so rambling in a notebook about lying in a forest meadow watching the birds at a sort of poets’ retreat in a beautiful redwood cabin somewhere probably in Marin. I re-printed it without re-reading it closely, but it does have some obscure specifics that will never merit footnotes – about the history of the cabin that one of the neighbors in the woods explained. Even when I can’t remember those details, I remember the mood of that time.

Echoes in the poem that would not be immediately apparent – I spent long hours wrapped up in blankets on the front porch, in a lot of pain, watching the fog come off the redwoods in the Santa Cruz mountains some years before that, and watching acorn woodpeckers fly around putting acorns into holes in the trees. They share their caches of acorns, pretty cool cooperative birds. I couldn’t get around very well, and the sound of the neighborhood, birds waking up in the grey morning, people in cars leaving for school and commute, acorns and jays and hawks doing their thing, then cars coming back as people came home. It was an entertaining part of the day, a soundscape to go with the lightscape. I was thinking of those times and the good but bitter memories that can come from physical impairments and pain. Another echo from the woodpeckers goes back to my happy years in cooperative housing. I don’t think any of that would be apparent in the poem, which comes off like someone rambling free form about an afternoon in the woods.

The song earworming me as I write this is Always Give Your Love Away by Twang Twang Shock-a-Boom, an Austin band from the late 80s/early 90s that does that specificity trick pretty well. Though I think that song stays general.