The Power of Silence, Part 2

With only a few days remaining until Election Day in the United States, things are likely to get really loud, as if they weren't already loud enough. If you're like me, occasionally you need to turn down the volume and embrace the silence. I'm hesitant to talk or write about silence since these very words interrupt it. And I'm hesitant to read about it for the same reason. That said, I do find inspiration from others who share an appreciation for it. For example:

In One Square Inch of Silence, Gordon Hempton says "When we listen to silence, we hear not absence, but presence." I believe this wholeheartedly. When we pause all the noise that we humans are constantly making, we discover a rich spectrum of natural sounds. They were there all along, but we couldn't hear them. And when we finally hear them, it's wonderful to stop and listen.

Hempton has traveled the world seeking silent places, and has identified a particular special silent spot in the Hoh Rainforest in Olympic National Park that he's declared his "one square inch of silence." If we can preserve the silence of that tiny spot, the effect will expand outward far beyond its center. And in this era of constant human noise, there's a compelling need to preserve the few remaining silent places. On Earth Day 2005, Hempton placed a small red stone on a mossy log to mark his spot. In late September 2020, having grown increasingly weary of society's crescendo, I shouldered my backpack and hiked solo into the Hoh Rainforest on a pilgrimage to find that one square inch.

It isn't hard to find. Hempton's website includes Directions to One Square Inch (in PDF), although the published coordinates seem to be a little off. I found it at N 47.86576°, W 123.87009° (link opens in Google Maps). There is not just one red stone, but several, evidence of others who have been on this same pilgrimage. The spot is surrounded by trees — Sitka Spruce, Western Red Cedar, Douglas Fir, Western Hemlock — in various stages of life and death. The landscape is blanketed in thick moss and ferns. I sit for a while, and listen. It is very still, but not silent. The Hoh River hums softly in the distance. Flies buzz by, and tiny birds flit in the surrounding trees. A distant crow calls. An elk bugles.

A pile of small red stones on a mossy log

I take a decibel reading with my iPhone: 29 decibels average over five minutes, among my quietest readings in over three years of collecting data, though not the quietest (see below for my table of decibel readings for comparison).

I turn my attention to the Hoh River. Over the next few days I travel most of its length, from its origins at the Hoh Glacier on Mount Olympus to its terminus at the Pacific Ocean. I camp along the river bank, where historically the Hoh Tribe lived, fished, and foraged. For several days, I'm immersed in silence, which grows increasingly powerful. I take some additional decibel readings along the way, and capture a few moments from my journey on video.

I've taken some time over the last couple of weeks to fine-tune the video. All footage was captured on my iPhone, and the audio required some EQ finesse in order to filter out wind noise. I mixed the video in iMovie, and exported the audio track to Logic Pro where I adjusted volumes and EQ, then imported it back into iMovie. I also created an audio described version for people who are unable to see the video, taking care in the described version to find the right balance between being informative and respecting the silence. You can toggle between the described and non-described versions via the Description button on the media player. The media player is Able Player (it's free, open source, and the most accessible media player on the planet).

I recommend watching the video with a good pair of headphones, and the audio cranked. Silence is best appreciated when it's loud.

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The Power of Silence, Part 1

The 2020-21 NFL season kicked off this week. I write this having just watched the Seattle Seahawks beat the Atlanta Falcons in an empty stadium. The TV broadcast included fake crowd noises that were somewhat effective for manufacturing a sense of excitement, but a little off in their cadence and authenticity.

The kickoff event of the season was earlier this week on Thursday night, when the Kansas City Chiefs played the Houston Texans in Arrowhead Stadium in KC. No fake audience track was needed for that game. Kansas City is one of only six teams in the NFL that is allowing a limited number of fans to attend their games, at least at the start of the season (the others are Cleveland, Dallas, Indianapolis, Jacksonville, and Miami).

At Kansas City, there were reportedly 17,000 people at the game, which is 22% of their 76,000-fan capacity. Despite the relatively small crowd size, they sounded incredibly loud on the TV broadcast, seemingly as loud as a fully packed stadium, and loud enough to disrupt the Texans’ offense on a few occasions. This led me to wonder: How many fans are necessary for attaining nearly maximum volume, after which adding no amount of additional fans has a significant effect?

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Pulling the Plug on Peakware.com

The idea for Peakware was spawned in 1994 on the summit of Mount Elbert, the highest mountain in Colorado and the second highest in the lower 48 states. This was was my first fourteener (mountains higher than 14,000 feet), and I was hooked. I loved the physical challenge of hiking more than 10 miles and climbing nearly 4,500 vertical feet in increasingly thin air. And the view from the summit was truly awesome. The entire Western United States seemed to be spread out before and below me in all directions.

I stood on the summit, taking in the views and wondering which mountains I would climb next. On this particular trip, I knew that I'd be climbing Mount Massive (Colorado's second highest) tomorrow, and La Plata Peak (fifth highest) the day after that. But then what? How much higher could I climb with the skills I had? And what were my best options for climbing in say, Mexico? And where could I climb in Winter when most of North America's high peaks were snowed in and no longer accessible?

In Summer 1994, these were difficult questions to answer. Hundreds of guidebooks had been published covering mountain ranges all over the world, but there was no single reference tool that consolidated all their information and made it easy to search. I had the need for a tool like this, and then and there, on the summit of Mount Elbert, I decided to create this tool.

I returned to my home in Lawrence, Kansas and immediately created a database to house the information I planned to collect. Not long after, I returned to Colorado and spent two weeks in Golden at the American Alpine Club Library, collecting and entering data about the world's highest peaks. I arrived when they opened each morning, and stayed until they closed each evening. Each evening, I would grab my daypack and go for an evening hike in the surrounding mountains. After collecting the core data, I mailed letters to national parks and tourism bureaus all over the world seeking royalty-free mountain photos, and my requests were met with an overwhelming response. In early 1997, Peakware World Mountain CD was released. It included profiles of the world's most famous mountains, with maps and photos, and most importantly - a search interface that enabled users to search for peaks that met their climbing or hiking preferences. I ran ads in Backpacker and Summit magazines. And I sold a few copies.

Cover, Peakware World CD; includes instructions for installing in Windows 3.1 and Windows 95

But I had a bigger vision. Spending two weeks in the AAC Library did not make me an expert. The experts were the people around the world who lived near these mountains, or the people who had already climbed them. I needed to tap into that collective community expertise. These were the early days of the World Wide Web, and I had already been building HTML web pages and contributing to conversations that were happening within the World Wide Consortium related to web accessibility. I knew what I had to do. I needed to publish Peakware to the Web, make it freely available to everyone, and invite users to contribute their knowledge and experience.

Peakware.com launched in June 1998. Its primary function, just like on the CD, was search. And this was three months before Larry Page and Sergey Brin launched Google on Stanford University's web servers (google.stanford.edu). Another key feature of Peakware was the ability for users to contribute content: They could add new peaks, edit data for existing peaks, submit trip reports, and upload photographs. And this was 2.5 years before Wikipedia. I earned revenue through commissions on the sale of guidebooks, initially as an affiliate of Adventurous Traveler Bookstore, and later as an affiliate of a new online bookstore called Amazon.com. I also earned revenue by selling ad space directly to outdoor recreation companies, but this required too much time for too little return. By then Google had moved beyond search into other areas, including advertising, so I signed on early to using Google Ads for most — and eventually all — of Peakware's advertising.

Once word got out, the community of active users grew rapidly, and by 1999 there were hundreds of users, and new content was being added daily. I spent hours each day reviewing user-submitted content, fixing bugs, adding new features, and communicating by email with users. There were dedicated users throughout North America, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the UK, plus other users from around the world. I had particularly memorable exchanges with many users in Europe, a member of the Maasai people in Kenya about mountains in his region, and a scientist stationed in Antarctica about the high peaks there. I loved being part of this global community of people who shared a love for mountains.

But I also had a full time job, was attending graduate school at the University of Kansas, and was a new first-time father. I was so sleep deprived I could take a 5-minute power nap and have vivid dreams before my alarm dragged me back to the waking world. In December 1999, overcommitted and utterly exhausted, I exchanged emails with Marshall Hall, President of Interactive Outdoors Inc. They were a small company of avid outdoor enthusiasts in Aspen, Colorado, who — like me — had been collecting big data about outdoor recreation for their flagship website, Wildernet.com. They were impressed by the dedication of the Peakware user community, and were interested in acquiring my website. The timing was perfect, we negotiated a deal, and I bid farewell to the site I had created.

For the next 20 years, Interactive Outdoors continued to own and control Peakware.com. We stayed in touch, and they hired me as an independent contractor to do most of the design and development work. Peakware continued to be a leading online resource for information about the world's mountains. Over the years, 10,000 users contributed content, including over 4,000 peaks, 8,000 photos, and 16,000 trip reports. Peakware became such a reputable source for mountain data that a "Peakware ID" field was added to mountain records in Wikidata, the data engine that drives Wikipedia.

But Peakware wasn't alone. Another site, Peakbagger.com, had been around about as long as Peakware had, and in fact shared a similar history to Peakware's. Both of these sites faced stiff competition from SummitPost throughout the 2000s, then from Peakery in the 2010s. Climbers were also turning to local and regional sites such as the ones I'm most familiar with in the Pacific Northwest: Cascade Climbers, The Mountaineers, and Washington Trails Association. And more recently, users have turned to dedicated mountaineering and climbing groups on Facebook and other social networking platforms.

Maintaining a popular website and keeping it relevant amid such competition is no small task. Traffic gradually decreased over the years, and advertising revenue decreased in proportion. In January 2019, Interactive Outdoors dissolved and Marshall returned Peakware to me. I kept it afloat for over a year, fixing bugs and adding features. Most notably, I did a massive data sync with Wikidata, bringing Peakware's database to 16,893 peaks, which I believe to be nearly every mountain in the world.

However, the bulk of my time in later years was consumed in seemingly endless battles with spammers. And with Google.

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Only one Terrill Thompson

Ok, there are actually two Terrill Thompsons, but that's another story.

This particular Terrill (me) has a short bio that reads "Terrill Thompson is technology accessibility specialist with the University of Washington, web developer, musician, writer, outdoor adventurer, and seeker of truth."

These are a lot of things that I Am. Historically I've kept some of them separate. For example, this blog primarily has focused on web accessibility, whereas I've maintained a separate blog dedicated to my music.

I've always felt some resistance though to compartmentalizing my various interests. Terrill Thompson the technology accessibility specialist, Terrill Thompson the musician, Terrill Thompson the writer, etc. are all the same Terrill Thompson.

Therefore, today I'm combining all of my interests into a single blog/website. About halfway down the right sidebar you'll now find a heading "Categories", which enables you to hone in on posts that pertain either to accessibility (A11y), music, or life, depending on your interests. Maybe there will be additional categories someday.

All the old stuff is still here: There are posts dating back to 2008. It should be easy to find stuff via the main navigation menu, sidebar, or search feature.

Having one blog will be easier to maintain, so I'm more likely to keep up with bug fixes,  adding new features, and maybe even posting new content. In fact, I think I may post a new entry today, which will make two in one day. I think that's the first time that's happened in my  eleven years of blogging!

Feeling inspired.

office 2016 satın al

Optimizing my Home Office

I work in a variety of places. I share an office with Doug at the Seattle campus of the University of Washington. I share an office with David, Carly, Stephanie, and Nigel at Western Washington University in Bellingham, with Max a short shout away. I share an office with anyone else who happens to be working at Woods Coffee on any particular day. But sometimes I just want to be alone, working in a quiet place where I can focus on the tasks at hand without distraction. Hands down, the best place to do the latter is my home office. All this week, I've had no choice but to work every day in my home office as outside my front door, I've been knee-deep in snow.

Outdoor furniture buried under mountains of snow, prayer flags and snow-covered trees in the background 14 inches of snow piled high on Terrill's deck

After a week of being snowed in, I'm still loving it, partly because I'm a huge fan of snow; but also because I recently upgraded my home office so it's extremely comfortable and helps me to achieve maximum work efficiency. Some of my equipment travels with me from office to office, but a few things remain at home. So when I arrive back home in my safe, warm den I can plug in my computers and continue to be productive.

Because I'm here, and because I love it, I thought I would share a bit about my setup. First, I'll describe some of the problems I was experiencing before upgrading.

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