Thursday, July 01, 2010

Establishing A New Orbit

The countdown over the last 10 days was leding up to something. And here it is!

Greetings and salutations Serotekiens!

I'm super awesome thrilled to be here and I am looking forward to meeting many members of the community. Wait a second, that is the end bit. I got a little ahead of myself. Must remember, introductions first. My name is Joe Steinkamp, however, many of you reading this might know me by another name. A particular call sign on a little old blog called The Ranger Station. Ranger1138 is my alter ego of the past 15 years. Now he and I are one thanks to the fine people at Serotek.

But if you haven't read my blog, followed me on Twitter or noticed that I haven't updated Facebook in an extremely long while, let me give you some pertinent information as to the "who" behind the "why" I'm coming aboard one of the most exciting places to be in the Assistive Technology Industry.

At 7 years old I dreamed of being in radio. Those dreams came true in college. However, I found that I craved to have more interaction with people beyond the spinning of today's top hits. So, I got into sales. Really expensive home theater sales. that became more retail driven and I found myself working as a Corporate Trainer for a large retail chain. When that came to a crashing end, I moved into the cubes of technical support for what was then [and is no longer] a major computer manufacturer.

None of that on face value sounds like much I know. Here are the more relevant parts of my history. For the last 10 years I've worked in Vocational Rehabilitation and Rehab Engineering for the State of Texas. For 5 of those years I was lucky enough to work in a room with more than $250,000 worth of new and currently available Assistive Technology. Video Magnifiers, Screen Readers, OCR solutions, Screen Magnification programs, Braille Displays, portable note takers, book readers and tons more. Chances are if it beeped, flashed, talked or if it was generally to expensive to own I may have worked with it during my time in this amazing room full of toys.

As much as I loved helping Blind folks find the right product to fit their needs for their job, I longed for the ability to delve into specific technologies and subjects outside my four walls. Fantastic platforms like the Serotalk podcasts and Tech Chats have really widened my thoughts on many portions of the technology landscape. I mentioned this to a few at Serotek, a tranquilizer dart was fired and I woke up here typing on this blog in a font that isn't mine. Or, I was offered the opportunity to participate in the company's vision and I readily jumped at the chance to share in that grand adventure.

Okay, now that I've filled in some of the blanks, I'm now hoping to get to know all of you better. I am ecstatic to be able to come on board and be a part of the Serotek Community. And I'm looking forward to talking about an array of subjects that we as a Blind Community face in our daily lives. Just one thing before I start, I want to thank several of the Serotek staff for giving me a padded cell instead of the generic government issued cube to live in during my stay with the company. So far it is very luxurious and comfy.


It is no secret that I’m a huge fan of Doctor Who. I was 7 when I first saw Tom Baker, the 4th Doctor, on the screen of KPRC-TV Channel 2 in Houston. Channel 2 was awesome for Sci Fi. They ran Space 1999, The Prisoner and other British shows including Monty Python right after Saturday Night Live. Doctor Who, however, was my favorite of the lot.

It wasn’t Star Trek, which I also loved because I was in the city that saved Trek thanks to Bjo Tremble, and it wasn’t Star Wars. The Doctor was just something new to a small kid like me sitting in Houston. And the sound of the TARDIS is as familiar to me as the sound of a doorbell. Instinct kicks in and I look around for where that noise is coming from.

My cousins, who lived in New Orleans, were luckier than I as they had a PBS station that showed more than Doctor number 4. They had episodes of both the 5th and the 6th Doctor in the 80’s. I was forced to trade precious items on a borrowing plan in order to secure their videotape collections one faithful summer. And it was so worth it!

Growing up legally Blind in a small Texas town, we moved from Houston when I was a little older, meant that you fit into three distinct areas. Ag, Jock or Stoner. I was none of these things. In fact, I was worse off. I was a Dungen and Dragons Chess playing geek whose parents had him listen to classical music growing up. I rebeled and turned to the Electric Light Orchestra for some sort of change. Still, I watched a lot of PBS because the Doctor had moved to share airtime with  “Blake’s 7” on Channel 8 [the public station KUHT]. And I would follow him anywhere.

Conversations on the school grounds about Daleks, Cybermen and other assorted monsters were generally frowned upon. Although I did manage to get a steady D&D group together around 8th grade. I couldn’t get anyone into Doctor Who no matter how much I tried.

“Its too slow” they said. “They talk weird” which was something even my parents would say when trying to figure out the various regional dialects of the UK. My father, however, would point out the wobbly sets and cheap effects as a reason why he didn’t find the show appealing. me? I thought it added charm. The copious amounts of speech to convey the lack of visuals thrilled me to no end. It was like “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea” or “Lost in Space”. both sported the same issues, yet others adored those shows.

It was then that I realized that visuals didn’t really matter to me when it came to enjoying any form of media. Mostly because I didn’t really see them very well, but also I learned to appreciate the substance of the story over flashy style. Okay, I admit to being a Knight Rider fan as well. So I’m not all about the heady bits.

The thing was I grew older and fewer stations were carying the Doctor on their airwaves. By my college years I had totally moved on to big budget blockbusters and “movie of the week” events. I was an Entertainment Reporter for my college radio station and it fueled my fire for such things. I didn’t catch up with the Doctor again until the not so hot FOX 1996 movie. We’ll just move on ahead 9 years instead of discussing that for now.

In 2005 the BBC comissioned a new Doctor Who series with Russell T. Davies at the helm. I was ecstatic. Except, and this was a big problem, it was airing in the UK first. This forced me to discover the, er um, alternate means for viewing things on the internet. While I was doing so, I found out tons of history about one of my childhood heroes.

For instance, several of the early stories of the 1st and 2nd Doctor have been lost due to the BBC throwing them away. The older shows were stored on large bulky tapes. And to be fair, the BBC had no idea that the show would become what it is today some 46 years later.

The amazing thing is that geeks, back in the day, recorded the audio tracks from the television. Funny enough, I did the same with Battlestar Galactica, the original version, and it served to be just fine until we got our initial VCR.   

The guys who recorded the audios didn’t know about the other guys who took pictures of the show for their collections. These pictures, called Telesnaps, are some of the only remaining visual records of some of the lost 2nd Doctor stories.

Amazingly enough, the BBC has created some reconstructions of these lost episodes by combining the amateur home audio recordings with the amateur photography still collections. Moreover, the BBC have brought back some of the actors from those stories to read stage direction from the scripts. This narration ends up having a Descriptive Video Service effect. And it makes the show even more Blind friendly as a byproduct of the process of these restorations.

Going back over episodes I never knew, while waiting for the new series to start, was a real blast since there was so much audio content available. Many of the Target Books, a range of books that retold the television stories [like James Blish did for Star Trek], were also available on audio. And, as many have already read, there are the Big Finish radio plays that feature the original actors from the show reprising their roles in all new adventures. In short, I have 500 hours of Doctor Who audio in various forms. All of this audio content makes Doctor Who a wonderful Sci Fi series for the Blind.

Beyond all of this, there are many other reasons why I enjoy the show. 11 actors, in the main series, have played the role of the Doctor. You see many years ago the show had a problem with the 1st Doctor, William Hartnell, growing too old to play the lead character any longer. Rather than retire the series, the BBC decided to recast the role. And since the Doctor was an alien, why not have the new actor take over for the older Doctor? So began the first of the Time Lord’s “regenerations".

The idea is simple. The Doctor, in order to avoid death, would regenerate into someone else. yet he would still be the same character with all his memories from his previous lives. In this way the character can continue his journey but the next actor brings something new to the role as well. It keeps the show fresh. Unlike James Bond, there is direct continuity from the 1st to the 11th Doctor. Long time fans of the show are often rewarded with call backs to events and stories of the past. Which, by all rights, plays into the geeky nature of the show too.

The thought of Regeneration has been on my mind a lot lately. I’ve been looking back at my many vocations in my adult life and I could think of them as variations of a theme. Each job building upon the last to add to the greater whole sort of thing. Radio to sales to Corporate Trainer and so on throughout my career. Each job a new regeneration of the same guy. A cycle that culminates in a rebirth into something all together familiar but unique. Not an ending per say, but a new begining. That is the way I view the debut of a new Doctor.

Recently David Tenant, the 10th Doctor, ended his time on the show in a series of specials that aired during 2009. David was the Doctor at a time where the show saw unparalleled levels of success.  His final moments were heartbreaking, however in the last 20 minutes on screen, he saved many of his friends before he moved on to becoming the 11th Doctor. A few critics found it to be overly sentimental  and too self serving. I found it to be wonderful that one could get a curtain call before they said farewell. 

Tenant is credited for being a big part of the show’s popularity in the last four years. Yet, he left the role because he felt it was time to give someone else a chance. Well, that and he said he would continue to do it to a point where it wouldn’t be fun anymore. He didn’t want to come to a script reading and say “Argh, the Sontarans again? REally?”. Therefore, he made plans to leave at the same time when others on the creative team decided that they too would leave the show.

Tenant’s departure was very moving and it happened to coincide with many things I was experiencing in my offline exploits. Not to be overdramatic, or asking for the need for therapy for making comparisons of reality versus fantasy,  but I too have been facing some tough choices on what was best for me in what I do for a living.

I have been extremely lucky enough to work daily in a large room with close to $250,000 of the latest Assistive Technology. More than 50 current Video Magnifiers, 6 shiny new Braille Display models, all kinds of OCR solutions, Speech Recognition, every Screen Reader and Screen Magnifier on the market. And the note takers. All of them as well. You name it, I had a chance to play with it over the last five years.

Beyond the AT, I’ve also been blessed to work with one of the best teams of people anywhere in State Government. We all specialized in a particular field and together we were a fine Assistive Technology machine.

Like David Tenant though, I was starting to reach a point where .. as awesome as it was .. I was starting to not have as much fun with things. Every job has its own politics. And eventually a candy store, as delicious as it sounds, can become a drudgery if you spend enough time there.

Today I said good-bye to co-workers, team mates and friends as I announced my resignation of my position some two weeks ago. While I was sad to leave the people I’ve worked with over the last ten years, I was also happy to begin my life as a newly regenerated Ranger.

I’m thrilled to have the opportunity to do something new but still be in the field of Assistive Technology. Helping others with vision loss has become a passion that I don’t intend to lose no matter the situation. So I could hardly believe that I would get a chance to do something even more exciting than what I had done previously.

EAch Doctor has their ups and downs. And some are more popular than others. I hope those of you who have read this blog over the last five years will find this new Ranger someone worth listening to in the future. And I also hope to see many of you on my travels in my new position.

I’ll link to the clip of David Tenant regenerating into Matt Smith as it sums up my longwinded points on endings and beginnings fairly well.

As always, thank you for reading. . and .. Geronimo!!!!!