So did that app let you hear the eclipse, then?

August 23, 20176 CommentsPosted in blindness, Blogroll, Mike Knezovich, radio, technology for people who are blind

That's me at Printer's Row Park on Monday,listening in on the app.WBEZ (Chicago Public Radio) had me come to the studio yesterday morning to talk about using the Eclipse Soundscapes app to experience Monday’s solar eclipse. If you missed it, you can listen to the 12-minute interview online here. I was relieved when host Tony Sarabia opened the interview saying he’d tried the app himself and found it cumbersome.

It was.

I didn’t want to have to say that, though, and Tony’s opening let me off the hook. “It’s a work in progress,” I explained, pointing out how cool it is that the likes of NASA and the Smithsonian and the National Park Service are working together on something like this, making things more accessible to people with disabilities. “I’m kind of flattered they’re even trying.”

The app was a success in one very important way. It got me outside Monday to be with other umbraphiles (a word I learned from someone in the green room before my 12 minutes of fame). Can’t you just picture me alongside strangers in sunglasses and neighbors using DIY pinhole eclipse cameras made from cereal boxes?

As the eclipse neared it’s 87% high mark for Chicago, the delivery guy from SRO, our downstairs take-out joint, offered to lend his special sunglasses to Mike to take a look. Mike could say “Yes!” without feeling obliged to dote on me and describe the goings-on around us: while he was trying out the special sunglasses, I was busy swiping my iPhone. That, or putting it up to my ear to listen — as I told radio host Tony Sarabia, “Some people must have thought I was an idiot, talking on my iPhone while they all were looking up to the skies!”

The Harvard Solar Astrophysicist behind eclipse soundscapes is Henry “Trae” Winter, described as a scientist with a penchant for scientific engagement projects. He was building a solar wall exhibit for museums when he first noticed that the only thing some of the so-called accessible exhibits included was the item’s name in Braille. Other exhibits — including his own — had no accessibility component at all.

“Winter began to brainstorm an astrophysics project that would use a multisensory approach to engage a larger percentage of the population, including the visually impaired community,” the app says.  “The ‘Great American Eclipse’ of August 2017 seemed like the perfect opportunity.”

As the eclipse progressed Monday, I sensed the air feeling a bit cooler. The wind seemed to pick up a bit as well. The app advertised a “rumble map” that was supposed to vibrate and shake to let me feel different features of the eclipse, but I was never able to get that feature working. The sound on the eclipse soundscapes app did work, though, and any time I ran my pointer finger over the screen I’d hear a whir that sounded like a low-pitched kitchen blender. When the blender ran faster, the pitch would go up, indicating the light was really bright there. When my finger slid over the moon, the kitchen blender turned itself off — completely dark.

The app narrated the eclipse’s progression in real time, too, and during my WBEZ interview Tony Sarabia read a snippet of an eclipse soundscapes description out loud in his own voice:

Projections of light from the sun’s outer atmosphere called helmet streamers extend in all directions from behind the moon. In contrast to the black, featureless moon, the pale, wispy streamers appear as delicate as lace. The largest streamers have a tapered shape that resemble flower petals.

Notice how it’s written using things we can touch, like lace and flower petals? On air I pointed out that the description he read was “poetic.”

Mike and I were out there Monday for about a half hour. I took iPhone breaks from time to time to eavesdrop on the people next to me discussing where they’d looked for their special sunglasses, how long the line at the Adler Planetarium was that morning, what they’d found on the NASA site, and what they were seeing through the sunglasses they eventually managed to get their hands on.

It was all pretty cool, until a TV news helicopter decided to perch overhead. My little eclipse soundscapes app didn’t stand a chance. With all that real-time whirring going on above us, I couldn’t hear a dang thing!

Have no idea what I’m talking about here with this eclipse soundscapes thing? I don’t blame you! Link here for part one of my explanation of the app.

Mondays with Mike: Settle in for some good reads

August 21, 20174 CommentsPosted in Mike Knezovich, politics

When I moved to the D.C. area in the late 1970s, I was flabbergasted to routinely run across vestiges and glorifications of various Civil War figures. I mean, a guy from the Land of Lincoln can be uncomfortable driving on Jefferson Davis Highway. That’s when my naïveté about what the Civil War had accomplished—and how far we had come—began to crumble.

There are still people who will argue that the monuments are about history, blah, blah. And you may have found yourself on the fence about Confederate monuments out of a vague sense of wanting to be fair or nice or wanting to pick your fights.

Read this piece, Southern Comfort, and then we can talk again. Note: It’s from the NY Review of Books, and it was written in 2001. And it’s as timely today as ever. (H/T The Beachwood Reporter.) It isn’t short—but it’s well written, well researched, and well reasoned. So I hope you’ll settle in and give it a read.

Speaking of the unreconciled aftermath of the Civil War, here’s another piece I ran across at Christianity Today about how one, as a Christian American, should confront the awful history of lynching and moreover, the terror tactics to enforce white supremacy during Jim Crow. It, too, requires an investment in time that I found worthwhile.

Photo of Bryan Stephenson of EJI.

Bryan Stephenson managed not to get shot by the police.

There’s also this piece that begins with a terrifying first-person account of nearly being shot by the police–Presumption of Guilt was written by Bryan Stephenson, the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative. He builds on his harrowing personal experience and writes about the complexity of the forces that came together to put him in that spot. It isn’t preachy—no matter how you think about these matters, I think you’ll learn something. Give it a read.

Finally, I’ve mentioned Roger Wallenstein’s weekly White Sox Report at the Beachwood Reporter. This week’s column isn’t about baseball. Roger is Jewish, and he reflects on feeling something different and unwelcome about being Jewish, something he’d never felt in his 70+ years until watching what happened in Charlottesville. It’s called The Plot Against America – And Me.

In the aftermath of Charlottesville—and in response to this sense of being in a constant state of national emergency the last several months—I get caught up in the pithy social media memes, and the echo chamber that I and like-minded people can get caught up in. I get enraged, feel self-righteous, and then return to sort of an empty and pessimistic state.

And then I bump into people—like the people who wrote these articles—who are wrestling with things the way a lot of us are. They give me comfort in knowing I’m not alone, in reminding me that memes are not knowledge or reasoned arguments, and that it’s incumbent on all of us to start at the start: Read. Think hard about what you really believe—and be honest about it. And then express it, respectfully, even if it takes more than 140 characters.


C’mon, can a person who can’t see really appreciate tomorrow’s eclipse?

August 20, 20178 CommentsPosted in blindness, Blogroll, careers/jobs for people who are blind, radio, technology for people who are blind

A show called The World aired a story on Public Radio International (PRI) last week about an app called eclipse soundscapes made especially for people who are blind or have visual impairments.

I could see fine when I was a kid, and I watched the total eclipse of the sun on March 7, 1970 using a pinhole camera our school teachers taught us to make out of cardboard shoeboxes. I didn’t look at the sun directly, and I didn’t lose my sight back then! My blindness came 15 years later, due to a totally unrelated eye disease called retinopathy.

When I heard the PRI story was titled “Helping the Blind See the Solar Eclipse” I almost turned the radio show off. Hearing things touted as allowing “the blind to see” like that usually leaves me feeling sad. As cool as this new eclipse app might be for people who are blind, I knew it wouldn’t allow us to watch the eclipse.

But something about this thing being created for “NASA’s Heliophysics Education Consortium” and the Smithsonian Astrophysicalogical Observatory with an astrophysicist from Harvard and co-sponsored by the National Park Service, well, gee whiz, it caught my attention!

The PRI story included a link to a web site for more information about the eclipse, and the wording about the soundscapes app< there is just right. It says that for people "who are unable to see the eclipse with their own eyes, the Eclipse Soundscapes Project delivers a multisensory experience of this exciting celestial event.” Not a word about us seeing the eclipse. They acknowledge we can’t see.

I was so taken by the way this site describes what it will do for those of us who are blind that I’m going to give it a try tomorrow. The site explains that the app includes a narration of the eclipse’s progression in real time and a rumble map that will let us use our sense of touch to “geolocate the user and start the narration to align with the planetary movements as they occur.” What does that mean? I sure don’t know. But maybe I’ll be able to tell you tomorrow.

What rules were you supposed to obey as a kid?

August 18, 20176 CommentsPosted in careers/jobs for people who are blind, guest blog, memoir writing

During the presentations I’ve been doing about Writing Out Loud I am often asked where I come up with the prompts I use in our memoir-writing classes. My answer? “All over the place!” Here’s an example. After Sam Shepherd died a few weeks ago I listened to a 1998 interview Terry Gross did with him on Fresh Air. One question she asked the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and actor in that interview was, “What rules were you supposed to obey as a kid?” What a great question to ask the writers in my class!

photo of Melinda Mitchell

Melinda remembers well the rules of her childhood. (Photo courtesy Darlene Schweitzer.)

And so, I did, and today I’m going to share some of the rules Melinda Mitchell read aloud to us in class Wednesday. You might remember Melinda — I wrote about her here back in 2014 in a post called Waking Up in a Strange Room.

Some sixty-plus years ago, the girl who was supposed to be Melinda’s roommate showed up with her mother to meet Melinda at their Kalamazoo College dorm. The girl’s mother took one look at Melinda, stormed off to school authorities and insisted her daughter “not room with a Negress.”

Melinda was moved to a room by herself in the building’s attic. She transferred to Howard University shortly afterwards. Melinda has retired now after a long career teaching in Chicago Public Schools. Her lists of rules are both nostalgic and thought-provoking — let’s start with her early childhood:

  • Don’t come into mama’s kitchen wearing bedclothes.
  • Don’t eat with your fingers, or put your elbows on the table.
  • Don’t walk around barefoot in the kitchen.
  • Don’t talk with food in your mouth.
  • Don’t interrupt when adults are talking.
  • Don’t waste food.
  • Don’t run in the house or run down the hall.
  • Don’t holler out the front window to playmates on the porch below.
  • Don’t play in the street and dodge cars.
  • Don’t go into other kid’s homes without permission.

The list Melinda wrote from her teen years gives readers a hint of how things were changing – and have changed:

  • Don’t watch TV after 8 pm.
  • Don’t leave your room messy.
  • Don’t stay in the bathroom primping all day.
  • Don’t stay on the phone yakking and yakking with girlfriends.
  • Don’t talk back, complain, or whine.
  • Don’t make noise after bedtime bumping and thumping around the place.
  • Don’t sleep late.
  • Don’t let your friends turn the lights out when you have your parties in the living room.
  • Don’t go out, or anywhere, if you’re not properly dressed.

On that last restriction, Melinda asked, “May I offer the quaint guidelines adhered to by the women in the family during the 1950s?”

To go to the Loop on the #3 bus

  • Don’t go barelegged, or without a little girdle.
  • Don’t wear shorts or pants.
  • Do have lunch with the girls at “The Circle,” the only welcoming department store restaurant.
  • Do wear your Easter hat.
  • Do wear your white gloves.
  • Do wear stockings.
  • Do carry a purse with a handle and a hankie.
  • Do bring a coin purse and enough dollars to pay.
  • Do wear a dress with a belt, sleeves and buttons up to the neck.
  • Do remember your manners.
  • Do enjoy yourself, young lady.

When Melinda was finished reading, fellow writer Janie piped up. “I think I know the answer to this, but what did you mean when you said ‘the only welcoming’ department store?”

Melinda shrugged and said, “We were African American.” Others in class knew exactly the restaurant and the department store she was talking about: Charles A. Stevens.

A little research revealed that Stevens was one of several, now defunct, department stores along State Street. I couldn’t find any reference to its forward thinking policies regarding Black people, but I’m glad one store had the good sense to welcome Melinda and her friends.

Mondays with Mike: Here’s to Bobbie

August 14, 201717 CommentsPosted in Mike Knezovich, Mondays with Mike

Last week Beth and Whitney and I traveled to South Carolina to attend the church service for Beth’s sister Barbara (we call her Bobbie), who died the week prior at the age of 78.

Photo of Bobbie with Beth and Mike's newborn son.

Bobbie, holding our then newborn Gus, with Bobbie’s granddaughter Jamie.

Bobbie was a lovely woman. She did not want for material things, but she never lost touch with what mattered even more to her—simple day-to-day gestures of kindness, and her spiritual life. She had a superb sense of design and color, which was on display in her home and in her wardrobe—and at our wedding, which she and her husband hosted in their glorious back yard back in 1984. (“Yard” really doesn’t do it justice. It was a small botanical garden.) She had a generosity of spirit that helped keep us afloat when Beth stayed with Bobbie when she was out of the hospital, between eye surgeries, while I went back to work in Urbana during the week. Bobbie was the oldest of the Finke siblings; she and Beth were bookends separated by 20 years, and pals to the end. I’m so lucky to have known her, and I already miss her.

It was good to be together with everyone, and as happens during these things, as conversations played out, everybody learned something new about their siblings and parents—who did what, when, etc. The collective memory is a lot better than one’s own.

And Whitney? Well, let’s just say that we convened at a lakeside house with a pier and a box that held a tennis ball. Whitney helped keep us all entertained.

During our stay in South Carolina, I avoided the news pretty successfully. We got home Friday night, and Saturday I made the mistake of checking the news as I gradually re-entered my routine.

Let’s just say the news didn’t cheer me up. I’m at a kind of loss in every way. There’s no way to reconcile the loss of a beautiful soul like Bobbie’s and that ugliness. Except remember that Bobbie did everything she could to make life a little better, so I’ll try to do what I can do, in my way, in her honor.

I’m going to start by doubling down on support for the Southern Poverty Law Center, and by leaving you with a post I wrote awhile back about hearing SPLC’s Morris Dees and Richard Cohen speak.