1999

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A trove of notes from the summer of 1999 – the past, while so well-illuminated feels like a part of a long and long ago night.

Summer begins, and I’m traveling around in Hawaii (Maui) and then all over Europe, accompanied by what appears to have been everything Nadine Gordimer had published at that time. The sounds of the Red Hot Chili Peppers followed/haunted me everywhere in the world I went. A Spanish guy who spoke no English tried to seduce me in Prague; an Australian tour guide named ‘Mat’ kept referring to every few-hours-stop in one city (without an overnight stay) as a “city lick”, which struck me as obscene; Budapest was enveloped in a massive thunder and lightning storm; Munich was unimpressive; I remember very little of Vienna other than the oppressive heat and a seemingly bipolar Australian girl; my hatred for Italy was born, as I lost my wallet and subsisted on the bits of various currency I had on hand for the various destinations (pre-euro days) I hit after Italy, although my time in Rome was made softer by meeting an American airline crew stuck there overnight; Luzern, my only stop in Switzerland, was civilized and orderly, as you would expect; I told a man in Nice that he had a piece of paper stuck in his hair; on a sweltering Friday night in Barcelona, John F Kennedy Jr’s private plane went missing; hellish times with hellish people in Madrid; a man came up to me in Tours and started saying something, which startled me, which caused him to ask if I understood French, to which I replied “un peu” – in English, he continued, “You are the most beautiful woman I have ever seen.” I said, “Thank you.” He replied, “No, thank you” as he placed his hand to heart dramatically and kept walking. Hahahaha. So French of him.

There are other bits that I noted nothing about, which I found less than impressive – London, Amsterdam, Monaco. But I fell in love with Berlin then but still have nothing to say about it.

After all of this I ended in Iceland, where I spent several weeks and knew I wanted to stay there. At the time, I thought forever. But it only ended up being about 8-9 years. Only. En route to and from Reykjavik I had to stop at Oslo Gardermoen, which was then new, and seemed so strange. Now it’s my “airport of choice”, like it or not, but back then I could never have imagined. By the time I got to Iceland, I had exhausted my Gordimer supply and bought new books (my new credit card had been sent to my friend’s house, so I once again had money) – Jose Saramago, Bohumil Hrabal, Haruki Murakami.

I never wanted to leave. Unfortunately, I did not listen to my instinct and did leave, and found that leaving had been a huge mistake. I should have stayed. At least I returned as soon as I could.

Photo (c) Paul Costanich.

User accessibility

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When I read Jose Saramago’s alarmingly disturbing novel, Blindness, a number of years ago (oh, and please do not bother with the film version) – its vividness opened up a whole door to the world that I, as a sighted person, had never considered. Saramago provided an insight into the vast difference between being blind in a sighted world versus a whole world of blindness. How much do the “able” take for granted – whether it is vision, hearing, the ability to have unimpeded access to buildings or public transportation?

Having worked on and off in technology since the late 1990s, I have also been to conferences and events, where there always seems to be one or two people who yell longest and loudest about accessibility. It occurred to me, especially then – before technology was that convenient for everyone – that these activists had to yell that loud to be heard and considered.

While these concerns have been tangential to me, related thoughts about how accessibility affects everyone still come to mind. A close friend in Germany has visual impairments and has often written to me about the modifications and combinations of technology she requires to make her way through the world – but she lives a complete and full life. Most recently, as a part of her career, she has had to travel alone to new cities in different countries, so she is not only faced by the same hurdles of being in a foreign country that all newcomers to new places are, she has to navigate them with impaired sight. Technological advances have made this so much easier. Her recent travels to Stockholm, in fact, were particularly aided and enhanced by modern mapping technology, which she could – like all of us – access from her mobile phone. But many of the accessibility features that are convenient to us are essential to her.

Wired.co.uk’s junior writer, Katie Collins, discussed these very same issues in a recent article on navigating the London Underground with visual impairments:

“The London Underground can be a hostile environment at the best of times. If you have a visual impairment, though, it can be even more brutal.”

The article highlights the Wayfindr app, which of course is just one solution/aid for the visually impaired. Collins experienced traveling through London with a simulated visual impairment. Her article, in addition to pointing out vital aspects of the journey that travelers might otherwise take for granted given the use of all of their senses, explains how this app works (or can potentially work when and if it expands) to give the visually impaired traveler a sense of security and independence. As Collins rode the tube to the Ustwo design office (Ustwo created the Wayfindr app), she had people surrounding her – and stated that she would not have felt comfortable without them. Did the Wayfindr app give her the independence she hoped it would?

There’s a long way to go and so much potential – both for this and other apps like it. I complain a lot about the intrusiveness of technology, but in many cases, like this, it is tangibly improving people’s lives and increasing their mobility.

With the app delivering audio instructions and vibrating signals in this trial run, Collins did achieve greater independence – it was, she reported, the first time in the day’s journey that she felt comfortable on her own.