Thoughts On Technology and Artificial Sight

Today, in reading through one of the far too many Email lists I’m on, I saw this article posted. I read it with some interest. I mean, it’s technology. It’s electronic. The future is now. Right? We’re living science fiction today. OK, you get the idea. Then, I read this one-line response to the article. It said, and this is a direct quote, “No thanks.”

No thanks?

No elaboration?

OK, we’re all entitled to an opinion, and, like myself, I’m sure the poster of this particular opinion is an expert on her opinion. But the inevitable question, in my mind anyway, is “Why not?” To flesh that out a bit more, I’d ask, and in fact, did ask, this way:

Why not? I think it’s possible that such sensory substitution could be useful some day. I also feel fairly confident that such sensory substitution won’t replace sight or turn blind people into sighted people. If such technology could be developed and implemented such that adjustment to it would be fairly straightforward and take relatively little time from our otherwise productive and busy lives, what objection do you have?

Hearing none, apart from “Everything else works fine”, this time paraphrasing, plus another pointing out that such a lot of noise or music for everything we “saw” would be distracting and bothersome, I asked:

By way of playing devil’s advocate, no one says that it has to be sound substitution that’s used in some eventually useful device, as opposed to something that’s merely a proof of concept. For instance, there’s the thing that projects images onto the tongue. This would not be my preferred medium, as I flap my gums too much to want anything to interfere with that. Still, nothing says that the sensory substitution has to be sound, or for that matter, has to be in any way connected to the ears. It could be sound via bone conduction like the Aftershokz headphones, for instance. Maybe someone will do something useful with the Flanagan Neurophone. What do I know? I’m just saying I think it’s a mistake to dismiss any such developments out of hand. Besides, nothing says one would have to use something like this all the time, nor that alternative techniques of blindness will overnight become obsolete or lose their effectiveness. But if at some later date such a technology could be implemented such that it is useful in whatever circumstance, and could be trained with a minimum of interruption to our already busy lives, what’s the objection? Especially f it could be turned off when it is either not useful or distracting in some situation?

People ask me occasionally, as I’m sure someone asks most blind people at least occasionally, if I wouldn’t like to be able to see. When I was a kid, I never gave it much thought, but adults seemed to want this thing for me, so I guess I thought it would be all right, but it was never something I just yearned to have. As I grew up (or grew older, anyway), I had more occasion to think about this and understand what it means. C’mon, let’s face it, when you’re a kid, someone asks you something like that, do you really know what it means? I don’t think I did. The conclusion I came to was, no, I didn’t really have this burning desire or need to be able to see. I now lead a full and productive life. I have a family, a job, fulfilling hobbies, more fulfilling relationships and friendships, in short, all the best things that life has to offer, all the things that really matter. How would sight change these things for me, or make them better? Besides, I’d have all sorts of adjustments to make; no one knows how to see, it’s something you learn as a baby, as a toddler, and as you grow up and integrate this thing into your life. I’d have to learn, not only what things look like, but how to do pretty much everything, from reading to cooking to walking around and not being scared that something is going to hit me. Sure, sometimes being blind is a pain in the ass, but in reality, the only thing that I really wish were different is that it’s a pain not to be able to drive a car. And that’s mostly because driving is so necessary to society. Don’t get me started on what people seem to feel is their God-given right to be out on the road, or on how horribly inadequate public transportation is, or any number of things. But I digress. Anyway, if I were to suddenly get eyesight, this wouldn’t change for me.

When I express such a view to people, I get one of two reactions. Shock that I wouldn’t want such a monumentally wonderful thing as eyesight, or else understanding. Maybe it’s pretend understanding but shock in reality, that might be the third reaction.

So, in a way, I see what the “no thanks” people are saying. But in another way? A couple dozen hours isn’t that much time. So, if some method for some sensory substitution were developed that would minimally impact my life, requiring a minimum of training, and would be actually useful, would I do it? Maybe, I’d have to weigh the benefits versus the cost in time and so on, and also the potential gain in opportunity, knowledge, freedom, and so forth. I certainly wouldn’t dismiss it out of hand, though, because every step leads to other things. Maybe some day we’ll have Geordie’s Star Trek visor, which wouldn’t be a bad thing.

If some such technology became widely available, and useful, and if I could turn it off when it got annoying, I’d probably do it. Heck, I’d probably participate in a research study for such a technology, if only because it would be interesting, and again, if I could turn it off.

Two things that would provide some food for thought if you haven’t read them. One is a factual account, the other is science fiction, and i bring it up only because its portrayal of what adjustment to sight might be like seems unrealistic on several levels. First, the speed at which the adjustment occurs, second, the fixation on Helen Keller and the things the blind character couldn’t do blind but then was expected to pick up sighted. But besides that, they’re really good books.

I’m not going to link to all three books in the trilogy, but if you like the first one, you have to finish the other two also.

Would love your thoughts on this, so keep those cards and letters coming.

Who would I be if I wasn’t blind?

Below, slightly edited, is a response to a post on a listserv for Seeing Eye graduates. The discussion started in relation to an article, written by the sighted wife of a blind university professor. Some said the article was an accurate representation of what blindness is really like. Others said the article was more a reflection of the sighted person’s view of blindness and didn’t accurately reflect blindness at all, but rather was more a statement on common misconceptions, issues taken to their extremes, and so forth. Some felt the author had some resentment, while others said she was fair and accurately portrayed the issues that our sighted friends and family face surrounding our blindness. Eventually, someone asked what her life would look like, and what sort of person would she be, what would she do, were she sighted and not blind. Again, some people had some opinion on that; here’s mine.

First, in regard to the previous discussion on how, or even if, blindness has an impact on those around us, whether we spill things more often, generally require extra care and handling, and so on, I only have this to say.

Perception is reality.

Here’s a case in point.

A couple years ago, a bunch of us were out and having lunch. Three of us were blind, two had guide dogs, and we had a sighted guy along. Token sighted guy? I dunno, doesn’t matter. Anyway, this one guy, the other guide dog user as it happens, spilled his glass of water. He said something to the effect that this was to be expected, that being blind, he spilled things regularly, and it wasn’t a big deal, just part of his life.

From his point of view, this was part and parcel of being blind. From my perspective as someone who rarely spills things, and even more rarely does so in public, it was not, and I really felt that he was really selling himself, and the rest of us, short by attributing his clumsiness merely to his blindness.

I observe that many of the problems I face, and many of the challenges I need to overcome, have far less to do with my actual blindness than they have to do with what I, and those around me, think and believe about that blindness. What I think about blindness and feel about it in my innermost being is certainly not immune from the perceptions of others, and it would be a lie to say that such views held by society at large don’t shape my own views, even in some small measure. It is, therefore, an active and conscious effort that I need to sometimes make to remind myself that my blindness isn’t the problem, and that my limitations are not solely determined by it. Many of those limitations are down to a lack of creativity in finding better solutions to problems that I encounter, or to doubts others have about my capabilities, my own doubts about my capabilities, all manner of things, but rarely are these problems caused by the actual blindness.

Moreover, I’d say that all of us, whether sighted or blind, have to accommodate other people in some way or another, and I see blindness, and my guide dog, as no different. Someone who drives a Suburban will necessarily have a harder time finding a parking spot than someone driving a Corvette. Likewise, someone driving a Corvette will have a harder time moving a sofa. So, sometimes other people have to take into account that I have a guide dog. I have to take into account that my dear friend Melanie, who is different from my wife Melanie, doesn’t like seafood if we decide to have dinner somewhere. We always, and all of us, make accommodations for other people’s needs, none of us being an island. How others perceive such a need when it comes to my blindness, I think, says much more about them than it does about me or my blindness.

Now as to the question in the subject. Who would i be if i weren’t blind? This is a null question, IMO. For one thing, I am blind. I’m not sighted, and in my case, “what if”s are a fairly useless exercise. FOr one thing, the “what if” is not. For another, how do I know? Blindness has been a part of my life for my whole life. Not having another experience, I don’t have any valid data to make such a determination with any degree of accuracy.

Besides, the bigger question is, “Why is blindness stopping you?”

OK, you can’t be a race car driver or a commercial airline pilot. Not yet, anyway. But in most cases, I maintain that our only limitation is ourselves and the attitudes of others who won’t let us give it a go. Also our own attitudes. An, in most cases, it isn’t the blindness so much as our lack of techniques or creativity or what have you.

I already know some will say I’m delusional, and that’s OK. My delusional world is full of possibilities. And please don’t misunderstand. I have days where I’m as pissed off as anyone. I have times when I have my doubts and think it would be better not to be blind. Undoubtedly, there are advantages to having sight. There are also advantages to being tall, but I am neither sighted nor tall. I am who I am, and I’m not only content, I am fulfilled.


Of Analogies, Politically Correct Language, Freedom, and Inaccurate Metaphor

Today, the following brief conversation came across on Twitter. While the first comment was disturbing to me, the follow-up reply really has me bothered on a couple of levels. I don’t think 140 characters (or several lines of 140 characters) are enough to really address my feelings on this, so I’ll take this space to do so instead.

Laura: I think every #Obama supporter should be given a wheelchair since they are #deaf #blind #dem (dem is the new dumb).
Buddy: @thatquirkylaura Wow. I don’t even know how to react to this. Esp as a PWD.
Laura: @bbrannan “PC” lies in Cultural Marxism. I believe in free speech, creative thought & if ur overly sensitive, u shouldn’t follow me.
“Betsy Ross”: . @thatquirkylaura @bbrannan political correctness is leftist censorship – tyrannical systems demand it #tcot

This probably shouldn’t bug me nearly as much as it does, but people are funny like that, I guess.

So let’s start at the beginning.

Every Obama supporter should be given a wheelchair since they are deaf, blind, and den (den is the new dumb).


Last I checked, wheelchairs went to people whose legs didn’t work. Last I knew, there was no connection between ears, eyes, and speech centers, and legs. Moreover, “dumb” only meant “stupid” in recent years, where its original meaning was more like an inability to speak. “Deaf and dumb” meant someone could not hear nor could that person speak. I’m not quite sure how this morphed into a loss of mental faculties, but it did. In any case, to equate disability with inability or lack of intelligence or discernment is so last century, besides being inaccurate. Such comparisons have always bugged me; as a blind person, having my blindness equated with mental slowness has always bugged me. I’m certain that deaf people who cannot speak feel this even more acutely. Even putting that aside, how did wheelchairs get into this anyway? It’s just a very bad metaphor, and in no ways accurate.

Now to the replies. Those probably bothered me even more than the original post. Oh, sure, I have real problems with the original very flawed metaphor. Were the politician a different one, the flawed metaphor would have been equally offensive. That’s OK though, this is America, and here, we absolutely have a right to be boorish, offensive, bigoted, and, above all, we have an absolute right to make idiots of ourselves. I’d be the last person to take that right from anyone. But the veiled (or perhaps, not so veiled) accusation that I was attempting to abridge anyone’s right to free speech isn’t what I take issue with, and it isn’t what really bothers me about the replies. OK, it bothers me a little, but it isn’t the biggest problem I have here.

In the main, I agree with the sentiment. Political correctness has perhaps built more walls between us than it has torn down. While I don’t believe that “words are just words and don’t mean anything”, neither do I believe that saying the right words will change what is in somebody’s heart. Yes, words mean things, and the right words, or the wrong ones, can be very destructive, but not saying something for fear of being offensive where no offense is meant can be equally harmful. Both ways can lead to misunderstanding and to a place where a meeting of minds cannot possibly occur.

So then, what’s my problem, beyond the use of a flawed and inaccurate metaphor? Do I really want to silence speech that I find disagreeable?

To the contrary, I believe that freedom of speech is vital to a growing, hanging, thriving, and vibrant society. Like Voltaire, I may not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it. Whether I think that flawed metaphors that call into question the intelligence of a whole class of people is “creative” is irrelevant, though for the record, I really don’t think it is very creative at all. Having seen other work from Laura, I know she is capable of much more creative thought. That isn’t the point though. What bothers me about these responses is that the thinking here appears to be that freedom of speech also means freedom from criticism. It does not. Freedom of speech works both ways. If you are free to say a thing, I am free to refute it, to be offended by it, to disagree with it, or to call you out on it. I am also free to agree with it, praise it, or expound upon its virtues if I so choose. You are free to react to my reaction. It’s a wonderful thing. By such a free exchange of thought, perhaps we all grow and change and become better human beings. But to suppose that freedom of speech also means freedom from the consequences of that speech is pure folly. All freedoms, and all rights, come with equal responsibilities attached to those freedoms. Remember that freedom of speech also means freedom of speech that you don’t happen to like, or for that matter, that I don’t happen to like. But it also means that ifI don’t like some speech, I am free to express that opinion and what I find disagreeable about it. Does it mean you’ll agree? Of course it doesn’t.

Laura, all I said was that I didn’t know how to react to your statement. Rather than asking what I meant, you automatically assumed I wished you to be silenced. I do not. I think I understand what you were going for, but it just didn’t work. It really didn’t. You are capable of so much more. Equating one disability with several other unrelated ones really doesn’t take a lot of creativity or time. What ever happened to Eight Storms Brewing, anyway? I really enjoyed that, although I think I enjoyed it in its first eight brother and sister daemons incarnation a bit more. (I understand how that’d be hard to pull off though.)

OMG! Dinner Out

So, no podcast with this one. I had a nice recording that I thought I made for posting, but unfortunately, it didn’t save. A shame, but such is life.


I just had an amazing dinner at a little restaurant near the UPMC Prebyterian hospital in Pittsburgh:


Fuel And Fuddle

212 Oakland Ave.

Pittsburgh, PA 15213


It’s noisy and popular, judging by the more than a few diners on a Sunday during the summer.


I’d been there before, but it’s been a couple years; last time was during Alena’s surgeries a couple years ago. It’s still fantastic.


I started out with a fire-roasted brea. Now how can you fire roast a soft cheese like that, you might ask? I did. Basically, it’s some brea, wrapped up in a flaky pastry crust, with a little powdered sugar sprinkled on top, then fire baked, then served on a plate with honey and a couple thin slices of apple. It was absolutely amazing. I can’t describe it any other way. When my waitress told me it was one of her favorite things, I could well understand why.


The main event was alligator stew, and there’s a story here. It’s served in a bowl with a big pile of mashed potatoes. It’s definitely got a kick to it. There’s some chicken, alligator tail of course, and sausage, along with a little squash and I don’t know what, in a creamy broth that has a definite bite to it. Absolutelyfantastic, and just perfect flavor. And, you definitely needed the mashed potatoes, because there was a lot of that delicious stew gravy to eat up.


It’s amazing what you can get when you state something with just the right amount of awe and appreciation. When the waitress (Thanks, name withheld, I know it but won’t incriminate her), asked me how I liked the stew, I told her it was fantastic. “I wonder,” I said, “what’s in the broth.” She said she’d ask the cook. “Bet he won’t tell you,” I replied, to which she responded that they have a book, and she’d see what she could find out. Just a few minutes later, she returned to my table. “I did something,” she said. “Well, they wouldn’t let me have the recipe, but I did copy down the list of ingredients.” Whereupon, she handed me a folded slip of paper. I have this folded piece of paper in my pocket, and, well, it would appear I may have some kitchen experimentation in my future, although I will have to tone it down quite a bit for the girls if I ever do figure the right proportions.


For dessert, I just couldn’t pass up a slice of peanut butter pie. Couldn’t do it. It, like everything else, was delicious. I am now stuffed, but very, very happy.


So. Yes. Definitely go to Fuel And Fuddle if you want a good meal and don’t mind a bit of noise.