Aya my old friend

I’m sharing some music I’ve been making during quarantine, it’s very different from my usual shares. In a way, it’s a cycle closing or restarting, and technically still bagpipes.

It might not be news that I’ve tried many different psychoactive substances over the years. What might be news is that I credit an Ayahuasca (Aya) experience with very significant life changing event. That episode is one of a few that have sliced my life into separate sections. I can clearly inhabit my mind before and after, with my after mind being a much healthier and relaxed version of my before mind. The critical change, in my case, was a new capacity to accept and welcome things that are beyond my control, and things that don’t match my idealisations.

When I was living at SPCC, my mind became increasingly busy with the distance between an idealised community in my head and the realised community I lived in, and it caused me significant emotional pain. While in most aspects of life I’ve always had significant resilience, I wasn’t, until my Aya trip, very resilient to things not being the way I wanted them, or wanted them to be. I would blame myself and punish myself internally, while developing toxic relationships with others around me. This toxicity came from a constant presence of the ideal next to lived experiences, and constant comparison between my idealised relationships and each actual relationship. I also projected and demanded from others things that weren’t communicated, and were attached to these idealisations. I wasn’t aware of any of this, but my overall emotional life suffered from it to the point where my own life was at risk, and made me question whether my life was worth anything at all.

It was a hopeless low point, but my practical guardian angels stepped in. I decided to order Aya from an online shop and brewed it myself, along with my own synthesis of DMT (it’s very easy to synthesise). I fasted and took enzyme inhibitors along with the brew, and had someone checking on me while it happened.

My version of the brew was absolutely horrible in taste. I went through a very intense purge, with lots of vomiting and a very full bucket in the end. I passed out after, and while I had no visions, I had lots of varying sensations in my body, and fell asleep. After coming back, I entered a weird state (that now I understand is called integration). I was somewhere else for about a week. During that time, my appetite completely changed—I stopped being able to eat any meat. Some people in the community said I still looked high. I probably still was. But what came from this first practical visit was an incredible peace, voiced internally as ‘everything will be okay’. An acceptance of what we were building and how it was not necessarily what I wanted it to be. That by giving up the control I obsessed so much about, things would still work out, and it was okay that they didn’t match what I wanted in the first place. My role in this process shouldn’t be tied to my own existence and self-worth either. This was a new thought entirely, having grown up putting all my worth into everything I built and how perfectly I could do it. Over time this helped me heal those internal processes that made me miserable. Unfortunately for my personal relationships, it took much longer, but my toxicity also decreased over time, which tied with being more accepting and tolerant with my partners.

Fast forward to the beginning of 2020, and maybe 12 years after my first Aya experience. The pandemic had hit, festivals got cancelled, gigs got cancelled. Several impacting things were hitting my life in succession, but by now my acceptance to change was high and I was shielded by an autonomy built over the years. It wasn’t the first big change I faced, and all my loved ones were okay. Things would be okay. One thought during this time bubbled up: I should do Aya again. I suppose coming from a moment of intense change, with whole cycles ending, was bringing back thoughts of other times I experienced intense change.

It was by accident in conversation during these first few months of the year that I mentioned to a friend of a friend that I was thinking of doing it again. He had contacts and put me in touch with local shamans. While it’s easy to frame things as happening for a reason, my general outlook is that things are always happening, we just pay attention when we are looking for them (see inattentional blindness or the invisible gorilla test). While the rationalisations are different, both require action: if you are given an opportunity to do something you’ve been thinking of doing, it’s generally a good idea to take any opportunity you can get. It’s your choice whether you see it as fate, god or luck.

The last time I did Aya I didn’t have a shaman, and overall resisted the idea, since my belief (or lack of belief) system generally resists a lot of the language these spiritual guides usually employ. Since this was a new year and the only opportunity to access something that is illegal in Australia, I decided to do it with as much of an open mind as I could. It was a retreat in the mountains, and I went there with that friend, camping outside a nice country house surrounded by bush.

We arrived early, and people trickled in. There was no particular welcoming or introduction done to me, which I found interesting. Usually intentional communities and events have a host, or a guide, that would be welcoming people. Instead it seemed like everyone knew each other, and I had to walk around introducing myself to others. I’m not particularly outgoing in these settings, so I didn’t do much and just sat around listening and chatting to various people. One thing that stood out to me was that a lot of them had particular language and expressions they used that seemed to be shared. These are expressions that involve general new age terms, or spirituality, and articulate a lot of what goes on socially as ‘energy’ or ‘sacred’ or ‘divine’, and of course, ‘mother’, ‘grandmother’ or ‘medicine’ for Aya. Another thing I noticed was how mono-cultural it was. Attendees were mainly Australian white-passing. There were no South Americans at the event, and only maybe 4 out of 20 attendees not being white-passing (3 middle-eastern and myself). Usually for me this is a huge red flag when it comes to sacred indigenous events, since sacred knowledge is often co-opted and capitalised on by coloniser-background people. This process of co-opting is often done unconsciously—the impulse to acknowledge and respect indigenous ownership isn’t part of a coloniser-background’s upbringing. I know that in my case it took me a while to develop that sense of respect and acknowledgement.

Despite the introduction and my scepticism, I was impressed that backgrounds were not policed at all. Usually in all-white environments there is policing and questioning. In this case, everyone was locked in their own personal development processes and were not interested in anyone else in particular. I suppose that’s a natural side-effect of psychedelics, since they are intrinsically motivated, and while promoting feelings of connectedness to others and the world, they are fundamentally internal.

Among the things I found myself instinctively rejecting was the use of instruments that aren’t from white Australia, such as nylon stringed instruments, didgeridoo (which I find absolutely disrespectful but there was an acknowledgement of that), and a mix of new age and South American spiritual music.

Everyone had a bucket, lots of blankets and pillows, and was ready for lift-off. In the group, there were all kinds of reasons to do a visit, and overall it wouldn’t be appropriate of me to share any but my own.

I went to the gathering with several basic questions around my current life, my relationships, my past, my potential futures. But at the same time I went in open to whatever came from it, since this was a new way of doing Aya, and the setting itself was new to me. I accepted the idea that this confluence of factors leading me to being there was enough to let things unfold.

We all sat in a circle, and each walked up to an altar full of shaman trinkets, said ‘cheers’ in Quechua, then drank. My first cup was fantastic. The brew tasted was so much better than the one I did, and with an almost 2 day long fast, it landed in my stomach with lots of comfort. I felt some effects straight away, but they were mild, and I curled up and relaxed wrapped up in my blankets. When time came to have another cup, I went to the altar. My second cup hit strongly and I went into total dissolution and began experiencing visions. The sessions are guided by music, and music here plays a very strong role in guiding the trip but also in grounding what can quickly turn into very painful experiences.

In my case, some songs in Spanish guided me deeply to visions with lots of colours, visions of celebration and dancing. Some songs, especially in English, brought me back to the room, and overall, my trip was peaceful, with no questions or answers. I also felt very intense photo-sensitivity, slow motion, and travel from and to the ‘spirit’ world. Spirit world for me is really just the generative space inside our mind when it loops itself back into perception. I lucid dream, and find it easy to generate colour images in my head, so visions feel not only natural but an extension of that process. In a way I think I didn’t approach the trip with any preconception or intent, which then let me to aimless psychedelic visions. Once the ceremony was over I felt great, as new, with a beautiful trip and not much to tell apart from what I had seen.

The next day in the morning I had diarrhoea which is a side effect of not puking the previous night. I had had spasms but decided to sleep on it. It had to come out some way. Aya purges are absolutely disgusting in what they bring, since they carry residue from the digestive tract along. Despite that, I had a cruisy day, did short bush walks and rested in the sun for hours. I had no particular desire to share what I had seen. I think overall having a critical mind is a barrier to a lot of psychedelics. It makes a lot of the hallucinations harder to access, especially when compared to what some attendees were describing. Once the evening came, I was excited to visit the realm again, no fear and complete openness. I went for a cup and the shaman gave me a lot of brew, a lot more than before. Once it hit I immediately went into a hole, with tremendous muscle pain all over my body, and and absolutely horrible experience. Songs and music would take me to very painful places, and I had no visions at all, just the constant feeling of being beat up for no reason. I had no photo-sensitivity either, and when the session ended I wasn’t ready at all. I stayed between worlds for hours after, but had no pain. I also puked this time, an ooze that wasn’t what went in, again due to the brew dragging other things along. By the end there was food and I had dinner, and the pain had disappeared. I went to sleep confused, with no answers and feeling like I had been punished for something I didn’t know I had done.

The next morning we all had breakfast and began ‘integration’. This is when ideas received from the spirit world are slowly matched with the real world, by talking or doing activities. The group did a very long breathing exercise that causes hallucinations due to over-oxygenation of the body. While the technique worked on me, I experienced mild effects, but it did help in processing the evenings, and some words arrived in my mind to explain what had happened: duty, purpose, responsibility.

Anyone that knows me would know these words are already something I’ve had in me for a long time. Why would a brew cause me to arrive at those words? I articulated it in the group session as a realignment of my sense of duty, as a punishment by Aya for not fulfilling my duties as a friend, partner, son, community member. In practise the understanding I got is still ongoing, but relates to (I think) a trend I found in myself the last few years of pretending I’m more a victim than I am, since having become part of a society (Australian society) that not only values victimhood, but also has a threshold for trauma and suffering that’s much lower than the one I experienced growing up. In a way I let these ideas shape me into believing not only that I had trauma more serious than I do, but that my attitude towards my own burdens had become ridiculous and weak, considering the general strength I’ve always had to face adversity. My duty then was to acknowledge that that strength exists, and understand it as a motivator for action in the world I live in.

I saw so much pain in other people this weekend, a lot stemming from what I’d call minds needing calibration. A stable functioning psyche is hard to arrive at, a mind free of triggers and meme-viral infections. Keeping all those complex systems in order is so hard that for many people it is a daily struggle. Intense childhood trauma, violent or obsessive thoughts, insecurities. I understood that Aya was telling me I had been commiserating. Pretending I was in the same boat as other people in incredibly difficult and unstable places mentally, with no other way of regaining control other than psychedelics and spirituality. My duty then became apparent, that having a stable mind that’s well anchored to the real world, but that can travel to the spirit world as well is a helpful thing to offer to anyone in these situations, and that being present, listening, offering help with no judgement, and creating spaces of peace and acknowledgement, were indeed things I ought to be doing, and had instead given in to self-aggrandising victimisation.

I was so terrified I made sure my friends knew where I was going in case I never came back from this trip, but I’m glad I came back as myself, as more myself in fact. It’s not clear yet if this is the only realisation, if there are others, or if I might change my opinion entirely on what happened. Integration takes time for me. It’s however clear that Aya is a great teacher, and that of all the psychedelics it has been the one that has caused the biggest transformations and realisations in me.

While for me the spirit world is contained inside our own neuron jelly and isn’t a separate dimension in a physical sense, it can’t be denied that it is vast, and visiting it is a beautiful and blissful experience that is often overlooked by science-minded folk. One of the great things about the spirit world is that if you are a godless being, the gods of creation you meet in the spirit world are nothing but nature itself, ancestors, and expressions of the incredible regularity of our world, and the mysteries at the edges of our knowledge. In the spirit world we can visit every concept as an experience in itself. Visit our own cells, talk to stars and dead relatives. These are powerful tools to unpack the real world, and open a dialog with our own biases, preconceptions, insecurities, fears. They also reveal the structures upon which our own subjectivity is built, and often in dialogue, how the differences between individual subjective experiences, while distant, have some universal common grounds. And having access to all these via a vomit-inducing tea is well worth it.

Healing cultural loss through music at Ethno Australia

I first learned about Ethno at age thirty, via a trad musician from Ireland I was learning tunes from. Looking it up was disappointing—the age limit was thirty. For another three years I wrote it off and a missed opportunity. It was only after a young Australian musician encouraged me that I decided to apply anyway.

If you haven’t heard of Ethno, it varies considerably from country to country, but the basic idea is gathering musicians in a camp for a week and come up with music together. Each musician shares music from their culture, then music gets arranged and in some cases performed.

My first Australian Ethno was in 2017 and the process was way easier than I expected. I sent them a few video links of my playing, and bought the (moderately pricey) ticket. That was the process in Australia, and since I’ve only done Ethno in Australia, I can’t do any comparative analysis.

For both I brought my gaitas and offered a few tunes. In both, after playing both Galega and Sanabresa, everyone loved the sound of Sanabresa, so I ended up doing music with those pipes both times. In a lot of ways bringing such a controversial instrument to Ethno is interesting in itself. By presenting different gaitas to people from all over the world that had never heard them, they had no cultural bias whatsoever, and picked the Bb gaita Sanabresa sound (my chanter is actually from Torres Vedras, and is a contemporary instrument).

My experience in 2017 was mixed. I was there with a partner and we spent a lot of time together, which subtracted from time with other people. There were a lot of musicians from the Pacific (Rotuma / Solomon Islands) along with a few first nations Australian people. Among the foreigners there were Swedes, myself, and a few Israeli. The general workflow was early breakfast, rehearse and share tunes all day, then have dinner and camp. There is a big emphasis on first nations culture and it was a great experience for me to learn about local peoples, and learn a bit of language. We did a lot of original songs (more on that later) and very few tunes. This was mainly because we had a lot more percussion, guitars and singers than we had melody players. In my case, I offered a few different tunes from both Portugal and Spain, and everyone decided to work on ‘Fandango Asturiano’. Again, ironically, not a Portuguese tune, and on a contemporary chanter.

After rehearsing for one whole week, we went on to perform at Mullum Festival. Performing was great fun, and we played for packed audiences and got amazing feedback. One of the shows, one old man an his daughter came over to ask about my instrument—turns out he was basque. Small world. I think my first ethno was a big shock in a lot of ways. In learning about other cultures directly, by spending time together making music. It also came at a time I was feeling insecure about my musical progress. By then I’d been playing gaita in Australia mostly by myself. Being in a supportive environment where people enjoyed what I play and wanted to do something with it was great for me. It also helped me understand the processes and tools of songwriting and arranging a lot better, which was a blind spot in most of my music training.

I came back with a lot more energy and motivation, and started pushing harder towards having successful musical projects. I started The Last Aurochs, and joined Celtic Tones. Considering both projects have grown considerably in two years, I’d say Ethno 2017 was one of the catalysts for taking music a bit more seriously in my life.

Fast forward to this year, and I joined Ethno again. I applied through the same process, but this time already knew some organisers. I booked Ethno while still with the same partner, but we broke up a month before Ethno started. I was at an emotional low point, but luckily my other partner took good care of me, and being at Ethno by myself was a completely different experience.

The first thing I noticed was that this year’s group was slightly more organised, and full of young and talented song writers. One of the things that has to be understood about doing something like Ethno in Australia, is that Australia has had genocide of its first nations consistently for 200 years, and even the past century cultures were still being decimated. This means some of the young indigenous artists at Ethno have limited knowledge of their own culture because it was wiped out. This means they can’t share songs easily, and often have to write their own while they reconnect and heal their connection to the land, their language, and with the country that oppressed them for generations. The songs I learn from a Kamilaroi singer, a Bundjalung singer, or a Kabi-Kabi singer are contemporary. Reinvented, often original, meant to be heard and shared with the world in traditional language, but for less traditional ears. You might hear reggae, blues, pop, folk. You might hear lyrics about Jesus, about love or about slavery, but always meant for modern ears. This is very unusual for an Ethno event, but also what makes Ethno Australia such a healing event for those involved.

Traditional music is an interesting medium in itself. We are used to playing tunes that are passed on to us for no particular reason other than being part of some kind of tradition. But the idea of tradition is in itself already meaningless, and often completely fabricated along with ideas stolen from Nationalism, Stalinism, Essentialism or even crazy theories around genetics. Take my own music for example, a modern chanter with no historical precedent, made in Torres Vedras, a bagpipe I got from my grandpa that didn’t make any sound, music from a region of Spain I never lived in. Yet we reinvented our piping tradition to keep it alive, and that means completely ignoring its historical context (which effectively killed it), and replacing it with an aspirational version of our past, usually to validate our own identity (aspirational or not). A historical pastiche, optimised to survive in modern environments by appealing to nostalgia and historical fable. Calling bagpipes Celtic has no historical relevance, yet they are absolutely part of Celtic identity. It becomes pretty obvious we aren’t talking about tradition in the sense of a historical lineage that is unbroken and a snapshot of the past. Most tradition happening at Ethno is exactly the same kind of pastiche and nostalgia. It’s identity building via music, and with it, solidifying boundaries between peoples according to where they were born.

There’s no way the past can be revisited. We have to recount it in the present, and having aspirational versions of our own culture allows us to believe we can be better than we were, that better worlds can be built. It’s especially useful if personal challenges exist. Culture is always there to give anyone a set of values and beliefs, and that is incredibly helpful when we feel lost. Even myself, despite spending my life abroad, travelling and mixing with other cultures, will go to the ‘Portuguese culture’ well for water. Language, music, values, ideas. I find myself shaped by them a lot more when I have to define myself in relation to others. Ethno is exactly that, with simultaneously demanding everyone to define themselves geographically and culturally, while also demanding one single, unified music production as the final result. And yet, somehow, it works. One of the reasons might be because approaching others from a place of rooted belonging (‘I am from this place, and I speak this language’) means everyone has to start from geography and approach everyone as a traveller going into a foreign land. When we are in that mindset, curiosity, exploration, respect, they all come naturally. Another reason might be that the idea in itself will only attract specific kinds of world musicians—those that aren’t completely absorbed by their own culture and want to interact and learn from other cultures.

This year my song choice was again not exactly something we’d call ‘Portuguese’. I brought ‘Alvorada Sanabresa’, which, like the name indicates, probably comes from Sanabria, which isn’t in Portugal at all. But again, if after offering many different tunes, that’s the one that resonated with the group, why not. And why not turn it into a mad circus-like arrangement like we did? Tradition is evolution (so said the chanter makers). It’s still worth it to do weird things with forgotten instruments, than it is letting them disappear.

Overall, I found my second ethno incredibly healing because these ideas around identity deepened. I had been trying to find fresh ways to look at my music, and had been playing the same music over and over again. Ethno gave me new genres, new languages and new music to learn, and with it, I came back to my own music with a renewed look.

I also understood that music has a role in healing us from genocide, violence, aggression. Not in that it has cures, but that is has in it the tools for self discovery and acceptance of oneself, by interacting purely within our own emotions and feelings. Somewhere in the boundary between body and spirit, making us move, telling us things we can’t put into words but understand. Things about our own self love, our own identity and relationship to our roots. And, of course, the tremendous fun of being in the moment.

New theme and writing again

It’s been a while since I updated this site, for several different reasons.

Mainly, I’m posting again because I adjusted the template so it works on my phone (long overdue). I’m also looking to write more, but who knows.

Since my last post I’ve become self-employed (and my business is doing will so far), received my shodan (black belt) in Yoshinkan Aikido, started running a trad session in Sydney, and played several events as a musician.

The slow but steady increase in music playing has led me to a split schedule of programming and playing music regularly. In a week I’m now at two or three sessions, and the odd festival.

I’ve also taken up the concert flute (simple system, some times called Irish flute) and have been taking lessons. While I still play the pipes, the flute is much handier at a session is when I’m travelling.

My life has gotten significantly happier, with a steady but sparse stream of guests, love in all ways possible (and impossible), and I’ve become fully debt free. My move here has been a long trek uphill, but now I’m getting rewarded for my perseverance (or foolishness, hard to say).

I look forward to some easier, perhaps more lyrical posts, while I face this new way of living out my life.

Today’s tune is my homework. I’m fortunate enough to have caught great trad mentors lately.

4 years in Oz

I moved to Oz back in October 2011. That means I’ve been here for almost four years.

Much has happened in four years, so let’s start from the beginning.

Let’s begin with the why I moved here in the first place. After we moved to Alcântara, our lives became too monotonous. It was even more intense considering where we had come from. Going from off the grid awesomeness to a heteronauseating couple life started to grind on us. Over time, it eroded the good and we decided to move. By then the GFC had hit and the right wing party was about to get elected. That was my wake up call. I did some financial forecasting on our big white board wall. I was about to get effectively poorer every year. Being in my late twenties with no possessions or responsibilities, I felt there had to be more out there for me.

My first thought was academia and robotics, one of my great passions. I contacted my masters advisor and he suggested Tohoku uni in Sendai. I started an intensive Japanese course and was absolutely determined to go. Meanwhile, T started planning her trip to Berlin and learning German. We were always a good team, and even when we were about to go our separate ways, we supported and helped each other.

Within my first month of learning Japanese, the big tsunami hit Sendai, the big nuclear accident happened and I began to question whether it was a good idea to go. I had consulted with my advisor on studying Japan, but now I had to figure out what to do. I went through my options. Being the shallow and practical person that I am, I prioritised money and weather. Australia came up top, especially with A being there to help me if I needed. This became my backup plan. I shifted my job hunting/course hunting to Australia. I also set my departure to 6 months from then. Either I’d get a job or go on a holiday, but the flight was booked—with or without visa.

Job-wise, I started with academia. I sent dozens of emails to professors all over Australia with different project ideas that I had. These emails may have been a bit overly creative, since in about 20 emails sent to 4 or 5 universities I only got one (negative) response. That settled my chances in uni. I moved on to trying to work at universities anyway, as a technical assistant or lab aide. That didn’t work either, my few applications all got denied. My last resort was to try to find a job in the industry I was already in—IT. I went on seek and started applying. I applied to jobs every day, some days one or two, some days up to ten. Meanwhile, I started doing my IELTS certificate and medicals so I could get a visa in Oz. Most of this was paid on my credit card. My credit card would become the greatest enabler of my Australian adventure, which is kind of ironic coming from an anarchist like myself.

It quickly became clear that despite my skill Oz companies weren’t exactly welcoming. I always sent customised cover letters with each application, but in about 50 applications only 3 companies replied and only one asked for a remote interview. I logged into Skype early in the morning with my dreads tied back and had a great interview with the company I work for at the moment. They worked in education and travelling—two things I absolutely love. They were also a step up in terms of technology versus where I was. At least that’s what I thought. I was also impressed by the test they sent me—it was quite deep and extensive. I got something like a 6 out of 10 with compliments to my skill. Great—a place where I can learn the trade better. I taught myself the needed frameworks and prepared to join a mature company doing cutting edge technology in one of the highest rolling business cities in the world. They offered to sponsor me, but had me pay half of the visa. My credit card was there for me, yet again. By now, expenses had gone over $3000.

As soon as I landed, A and E picked me up. It was all too familiar. Sydney looked like a dirty and sunny version of the UK, and the place I moved to was pretty much another anarchist open space. Some things changed, but not that many. I had my first ever aussie meal at the Vic down the road—a t-bone steak. I had seen them in cartoons but they are so disappointing in reality—even with the neat little bit of bone in them.

I’d be lying if I said I moved here only for the money. I moved here to escape what felt like a slow decay into routine, a right wing government promising austerity, and perhaps in a way to chase a time when I was living creatively and freely as well, and my emails with A reinforced that. I found a bit of that life again at the warehouse project she was starting with a few other artists. I accidentally stumbled into the cool lefty bit of Sydney and it kept me sane. I experienced street parties, warehouse parties, got to meet incredible musicians and host people again. My personal life was good. Celibate, but good.

At the office, I realised how incredibly good my education had been. I also realised how advanced our tech was at my former company. I distinctly remember coming in and being taught the basics of our product. My manager, a lovely guy from the UK on a 457 visa as myself, opened a browser window and all I saw was a blank screen with colourful tabs. Nothing. The big cloud company I joined was smoke and mirrors. The app was barely started and the version I was shown as the ‘mock-up’ was a mishmash of plug-ins put together most likely to secure funding. One of the lead developers was already on his way out. This, I thought, is what it’s like when you have lots of money and start a business. You can afford to be inefficient. The lead developer, also on a 457, was an older, very talented guy supremely passionate about programming. I consider him one of my great mentors in my trajectory as a developer. At first, I loved that the company was incredibly multicultural. Pakistan, China, Germany, France, UK, Bhutan and now Portugal. What I didn’t realise is that most of them were also on a 457 visa.

By now you must’ve begun to wonder why I keep mentioning the visa number. It was when I realised what this visa actually meant that my understanding of my own working conditions shifted dramatically. It was the beginning of my emancipation as a migrant worker, and my first experience of loss of privilege ever in my life. A 457 visa is an agreement between employer and migrant that states the migrant can only work for them and if they decide to change jobs, they automatically lose eligibility to work and have 3 months to leave the country. Since a new 457 visa takes at least 3 months, it creates a situation where the migrant will have to be illegal if they want to find a new job. Companies offering 457 visas will quite often offer lower wages to migrants with the bait that they get access to the local job market. In practise, companies save big money by hiring migrants that accept lower wages than other workers. In that company alone there were 5 engineers on a 457. Considering that an engineer in those conditions will make some ~$20000 less that the equivalent Australian worker, the company I joined was effectively saving some $100000 by hiring migrants. While this is a natural process of opening borders and migrant workers, there is another, perhaps more pernicious aspect of being on a 457 visa. Everyone on a 457 lives with the constant fear of being fired. If you are fired, you have to pack up and go. For someone who never worked as a migrant, this might not seem like a big deal. But we have to remember migrants change countries for a reason, and it is probably not because they want to go back to their home countries. Working in constant fear of being fired and sent back home means it is very hard to have healthy work relationships. The power differential between employer and employee becomes too big.

This might sound fictional, but I witnessed 3 situations of migrant injustice in this very company. The first, and perhaps most dramatic, was that of my manager. He had come to Oz on a working holiday like many Brits do. While travelling and doing farm work, he fell in love with a German girl and decided to stick around. He found this sponsorship and became the company’s project manager. They lived a comfortable life in a nice suburb and had twins. But in his job things weren’t as easy. Imagine having to make tough decisions and put your foot down with company execs while fearing having to be sent home. That’s exactly what happened. Managing projects on a low salary is bad—especially when you start realising your value in Sydney’s tech industry. One meeting, he went to the execs for financial aid and they said no. He broke down and said he was struggling and had even thought of going back. The CEO turned to him and said “why don’t you go back to the UK?” Him, his wife and two daughters now had 3 months to leave the country. Things aren’t as black and white, but to me there is a clear narrative of power and exploitation.

The two other situations were similar—both employees wanted to become residents. One thing that is expected when you’re in a 457 is that your company will at some point nominate you for a residency. The problem here is that, unless the company has good ethics, there is little incentive to nominate in the first place—from then on your employees can quit straight away. Both of them pressured the execs for a residency and ended up quitting. Luckily, in their case, they found sponsors again. Little did any of them know the company couldn’t actually offer a nomination for residency anyway. They didn’t even have the paperwork done for it. They had been playing all these workers when they could never have offered a residency in the first place.

In my case, being the mercenary that I’ve always been when it comes to business, I started working on my residency plans without telling my employers. Once I saw what happened to my manager, I knew there was no chance this company would make my 457 turn into a residency. My visa still had 2 years in it, so I contacted a visa agent and began the process of residency independently. The whole lot of paperwork meant another $7500, which put together with my 457 visa costs put the total price of my little adventure in Oz at over $10000. That is a lot of money for someone that in Europe barely made that in a year. Needless to say, credit cards to the rescue and I finally got my residency last year.

I thought once I’d get my residency I’d insta-quit. Truth is once I got to talk to my employers about my visa status, their attitudes changed. I started being upfront about what was going on with the project and instead of getting fired, I got promoted. In a twist of fate, I was given a systems architect job plus a lead developer job plus a 10% raise. Unfortunately, raising 10% on a salary that is 70% of what it should be isn’t much of a raise. I still make more than most friends I have here, so I’m doing pretty well for someone who landed with nothing but a bag and bagpipes. This professional adventure is still going, but I’m in a totally different game now. Whether that lasts is a different story, but I’ve effectively become much more than a developer, and it shows. I get job offers every week. Seems like I moved here in the right moment.

But work wasn’t the only thing that happened during these four years. Another two, perhaps even more important to me, were my introduction into Aikido and Irish music.

I was already into Aikido in Lisboa. It was something that drew me in mainly because of its aesthetics and non-violent philosophy. Unfortunately, in Lisboa my life was far too chaotic to join any martial arts club. After witnessing so much violence in my every day life while squatting, plus my pathetic encounter with the two neo-nazis, I felt it was time to learn how to defend myself. I had no interest in knowing how to attack, but I thought protecting myself was very important. ‘Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face’ said Mike Tyson, and I got punched in the face and realised I did, in fact, have no plan either.

After a few months in Australia I realised the environment was much more violent that in Lisbon. People drank in similar quantities but instead of being happy they ended up in a violent stupor. Considering most Australians are bigger than me, I felt it was time. I had the money and the time so I searched for clubs around my area. The club near the warehouse ended up being run by instructors that worked in Japan, so I thought it was a good sign. I didn’t really know it was Yoshinkan, or that I’d end up in a martial environment just like my days of kayak-polo.

My instructors were strict but kind. I’ve always dealt well with strictness and found the whole martial environment to be quite soothing. Bowing, mantras, meditating. The absolute structure of grades, belts, sequencing, steps. Even the techniques themselves were broken down into kata, basic movements that are like an alphabet. This is a distinct aspect of Yoshinkan versus other Aikido families. In Yoshinkan, you must first learn the basic movements and endure years of kata pratice before you can start doing full techniques. I’m all the way up to 2nd kyu and have only really began doing Aikido now.

Perhaps the best moment I had in Aikido was this past year, and it was then that I realised I really loved doing it. When we train, we always train with a partner and switch between uke and shite, the one who attacks (and is therefore defeated) and the one who defends (the one who is applying the technique). At seminars I’d hear that you were meant to make your uke feel happy. For me, it was always a struggle. I hate hurting other people and for a long time my technique was harsh and painful. But some time last year, along with my residency and weight off my shoulders, came a much lighter Aikido. I started throwing my _uke_s hard but they would pop back up smiling. I was stunned. I was making people happy while defending myself from their attack. That’s when I knew I wanted to keep training. Nowadays I train around five times a week. I made many friends and overall, I’d say Aikido has made me a much happier and stronger person. I also like to think it has made me a better person, but it’s hard to be the judge of that. I do know my self control, posture and attitude in any situation is completely different. I stand straight, look people in the eye and preserve my dignity in every moment. Something that I had lost over the years to a bohemian and often self-debilitating lifestyle.

I still feel my journey in Aikido is just starting, but it has given me much more than I could imagine.

One of the most pathetic experiences I had in Oz was that of auditioning for a local Portuguese folk group. While I was living in the warehouse, I tried find musicians everywhere. I had my pipes with me and thought there’d be some kind of folk music group in Sydney, especially considering the Portuguese neighbourhood was right around the corner. I emailed them, got a reply and dropped by for some tunes.

The place itself is a football oval with some barbecues and a big dance hall and restaurant. I had been there before with A and E for a thank you dinner. This time, I showed up and the first thing they said to me was that I had to cut my hair. Strike 1. Then they told me they didn’t know the instrument and had to google it. What. The main Portuguese folk group in Sydney didn’t know gaita. Then I played a couple of tunes and they were horrified. They couldn’t hear their accordeons! Kids were laughing and the only person in that whole group that said anything sane was an old man who remembered the pipers back in his day. Needless to say I walked out and have never gone back.

This was heartbreaking for me. I had spent a lot of time learning traditional music and was hoping to continue to learn it in Sydney. What I found instead was a conservative community that knew little of what had been done in folk since the 50s. I kept searching in other places. Festivals, online communities. Until one day I decided to try an Irish session at Kelly’s, a local pub. I knew maybe one or two session tunes, but at least there they had to know the pipes.

I went in on a Sunday around 8pm and no one was there. I asked the bartender and he said maybe another hour and they’d come. I went and grabbed myself dinner on King street across the road at a Chinese place. Once I came back, I bought myself a pint and sat near the musicians just to hear the music. Surprisingly, one of them said immediately ‘What’s in the bag?’ ‘Bagpipes’, I said. They invited me to sit with them and welcomed me to the session. Kind, honest and straightforward musicians who, above all else, just want to hear good music. I played a few tunes and they played along. It was absolutely amazing for me. It was like I had been sinking deeper and deeper into a lifeless (or music-less) pit but now I had come up for air. My lungs were full again. I decided this was where musical inclusivity was at, and set the goal of learning more Irish music. I went online and bought myself a low whistle, since my high whisle was far too annoying.

One day, at home with a friend, S, we were after things to do on a Sunday. I googled and found that there was a Session on for beginners. I called them and they said I could join, so I did. I’ve been going ever since, for at least three years now. I went from having maybe two session tunes to about a hundred, went from playing slowly once a week to playing at speed twice a week with professional musicians. I still go to slow sessions, and I’m far from what you’d call a standard level session musician, but I can lead a tune or a set, and most importantly, have found a community that welcomed me. It’s unfortunate that it had to be another migrant community instead of my own, but then again I’m not a fan of nationality anyway.

My dedication solidified a few months ago when I bought my first Irish flute. A cheap 70 quid Dixon, but still quite playable. I play every day now. Music has always been a big part of my life, but now I play in public every week, some times for a crowd. I never thought the music I’d end up revelling in would be Irish music, but there it is. My reward for paying off all my debt for staying, once I finally do it, will be a decent flute. At least that’s what present me is saying.

In an attempt to avoid complete social collapse, as soon as I moved here I tried many scenes before finding the music scene I love. Warehouse parties, game shops, philosophy meet ups. If some say the Internet has made us more lonely, I’d add to that that it has also given us the tools to explore all kinds of social circles we’d never hear about. I’ve always loved visiting small scenes and seeing how different they can be even within the same city. I think in a way it has always been my novelty-seeking drive. Be it travelling or people I am constantly in a state of wanderlust. Even romantically, the process is the same. It is no surprise, therefore, that I ended up using the Internet for that as well.

For the first two years I lived here I was absolutely celibate. I didn’t understand what was going on or why people were so rude to each other. It was only after I started dating online that I realised in Oz flirting and intimacy work the other way around. They are rude to the people they like and are intimate with, and polite with people they hate. This was very hard to navigate, and it still is, which means my relationships here haven’t lasted long. Maybe English is just too different for me and I’m still adjusting, but I find it hard to get used to insults being equivalent to flirtation. Sydney is a very romantic city full of unromantic people. It can be quite disheartening. Even if you are a feminist and a leftist, it doesn’t mean romance is all bad.

Luckily, now that I’ve had enough time to adjust to the inflections and sarcasm, things have been going a bit better. I still date online once every now and then, once the trauma from all the bad previous dates wears off. I’ve come to realise I actually enjoy dating. It makes things easier. If a date goes well, you either end up with a friend or a lover, but from the get go you both know you are both looking. That is a huge difference from the nearly impossible maze of ambiguities I grew up with. While in most cases I don’t like the Anglo pragmatism, this is one situation where I thing it’s useful. There is nothing better than everyone being clear about what they want and what they don’t want. I’ve gotten many rejection messages, but they make my life easier in finding non-rejections. Overall, though, I think my relationships so far have been incredibly positive and generous, and the one I’m presently in has been great.

I can’t really talk about the future but I can talk about the present. I came here to have a sense that I was in some kind of ascension towards a better me and every day I feel like that is happening. I think that is a good sign, even if winging is as Aussie as being a migrant. But for me the real question remains—would have I not have found the same feelings of ascension and self-improvement back home? It’s hard to say. One thing that makes a lot of difference is how little I work versus how much I get paid. I arrive home every day at 5.30pm and get paid about four times what I used to get paid. I can fly around the planet every year and experience much more. All of this has been enabled by money—money that is a consequence of my education and upbringing, but money nonetheless. I think some times it’s easy to forget how much financial independence makes room for the spirit—we no longer live under the permanent threat of housing insecurity, health insecurity or food insecurity. Obviously, in a healthy social state these fears wouldn’t exist in the first place, but that isn’t the world I live in.

Free time has allowed me to finally put down my thoughts in writing. I think that has been invaluable—I had always wanted to do it, but on a tighter schedule it’s much harder to do it.

Living in the lefty part of town has also taught me a lot about my privilege and head start. The easiest change in privilege levels happens on the plane here. I hop in in Lisboa as a white and land as an olive-skin, or as they say in police reports, Mediterranean appearance. My skin doesn’t change colour, obviously, but my race changes. I was brought up believing that I was white in opposition to all the migrant peoples in Portugal. But as soon as I encountered Anglo society, I realised I wasn’t. I’m not white enough in Australia for some places. Luckily, I’m white enough that it doesn’t lead to any loss of opportunity. Yes, I hear casual racism at times, but that is a small price to pay for my living standards.

Moving here also made me realise how much of my upbringing and education gave me a head start. I got my visa quickly, aced my English tests and saw nothing but open doors. Most of my migrant friends, either because they are darker than me or in non-scientific fields, end up having to do much more. But being a white-ish male has made my experience much easier.

But that also means I’ve become the much hated figure of the left—the well off white-ish male. Every date I go to is another guaranteed hour of privilege calibration. It no longer matters where I come from or how well off I may have been in the past. Here, I must always speak last and not say anything out of place. I had to learn how to speak without being sexist or dismissive. As I learned how to navigate the feminist sphere I began to realise how sexist my culture really was. This was another form of privilege I didn’t realise I had. For my whole life I had been shutting off people from the conversation. Being a much better feminist has also fixed a lot of misconceptions I had about gender, sexual orientation and race. It has been an incredible shift for me. I live a much happier life now—I saw the lens I was seeing my world through and managed to polish it up a bit.

In all fairness, I don’t think this is exclusively Australian, but it’s definitely a strong force in my social circles. Internationally, these pockets do end up being the same. But feminism also introduced me to the best form of hosting I ever was able to provide: safe-space hosting.

For a long time as a host, I inadvertently used my power as a host to be heard, and at rare occasions, to attract a guest. I didn’t really realise this was going on, but my understanding of power at the time ended at institutional and ideological power. Nothing about individual power had hit me. As a host, that power expressed itself in many different ways, and one of the problematic ways is developing romantic relationships with people that rely on you for their accommodation. This is absolutely not a good thing and I only realised it once I got deeper into feminist thinking. But once I did and analysed my hosting behaviour, I realised it was easy to fix that and provide a safe space without any problematic power imbalances.

I started by limiting the total number of people I host per month. This is exclusively for my own well-being. It is much easier to be present and kind when I’m rested. From there, it also means I can explain the power imbalance from the start, which makes my guests feel safe. I also started drawing an absolute line about dating anyone who is a guest. While this might sound a bit strange, hosting leads to a lot of situations where a guest will harass you. This is not mentioned that much in most hospex reviews because they are mostly written by guests. But speaking very frankly about my experience, when someone grabs your genitals it is very clear they are after something more than a bed. In the past, I was much more relaxed about the situation, framing it as people feeling free. Now, I am much more serious about boundaries, personal space and active consent. Active consent, it turns out, isn’t only to be practised by the host. Guests, too, should practise it. In every day hosting, I constantly have to remind my guests that it’s better to ask before grabbing my genitals or using my washer or painting on my wall. In the past, I let these things happen without realising how much they were affecting me. The experience of having the space around you shifting constantly is exciting, but it is also draining, especially when it relates to property damage or sexual assault. I’ve witnessed enough of it to know active consent is probably the best ethical technology I’ve used as a host.

My hosting habits haven’t changed much apart from that—I think being an actively feminist host has had very good results for me. My experiences have been much more humane—even if some of the people contacting me wanted to date me along with staying with me.

This is the past, so how about the future? I often get asked how long I’ll be staying. My answer used to be the end of my visa—that was my deadline to find an answer. My current answer is: I don’t have to answer that question any more. Being a resident has lifted that weight off my shoulders. I can stop worrying about geography and continue my happy and eudaimonic trajectory—least resistance and most enjoyment.

the wondrous story of S

This week I cycled to the smokestacks of Sydney Park and spilled a beer for S, whom I lost to the health hazards of crust punk hedonism. The bit of life I shared with him was so full of unexpected events I had to write some down. I can’t remember exactly when I met him, but I do remember where.

I think I was about 16 when I first plugged in to IRC. My awkward monochromatic choice for clothing colours made me gravitate towards goth, punk, industrial and anarchist chats from the get go. It was through connections I made in these chat rooms that I found where to hang out. Over the years one of the other big IRC clusters, the one revolving around punk, would gather outside whichever was the unofficial punk bar of the day. As many other bohemian quarters of big cities, that might mean one bar one week and another the next.

When the punk hang out was Boca do Inferno, which curiously had also been a neo-nazi hangout at times, I’d often sit outside drinking cheap beer and have long winded conversations with whoever would be there at the time. The crowd was a mix of computer literate punk identifying youths from punk IRC channels and crust punks. There was little segregation—all of them just wanted a few drinks, some tunes and the occasional bar fight. It was during those times that I met S.

The events are scattered along many years since at all times our interactions happened under severe or less severe intoxication. Whichever the drink of the day, S would be there, with a big smile and twinkly eyes, bumming around and chatting to randoms. It didn’t get aggro ever, we were all just hanging out doing nothing, which is good in itself. Quite often me and S would have weird conversations. He wasn’t like any other of the street punks around. He was crazy. Like, mentally disturbed crazy.

Quite commonly the crust and street punks revert to the basics: alcoholism, heroin, crack, abusive relationships, squatting, busking, begging and stealing. Nothing new there. But one of the things I always loved about the hedonism and immediacy of the lifestyle is how brilliant a lot of them were. Most of the street punks I interacted with were incredibly smart people that lived through violent and abusive situations from a young age. I always enjoyed a good chat with whoever was around and S was always up for a chat, a hug or a sip of my beer. But he had the most insane stories of anyone hanging out there. His insanity would drop by late in the night, when the alcohol hit his diabetic threshold. He would tell me about how he didn’t have a cellphone because aliens were listening. He would tell me about government mind control rays. He would tell me about his past in Brazil bashing up cops and living the ‘No Future’ life. His loving and warm gaze would shift into a paranoid glare and his stare would go right through me. I think to this day, he struggled with mental health but kept it mostly to himself, since the crust punk scene isn’t really known for deep conversations that might reveal paranoid delusions like his.

For me, a sheltered privileged white engineering student, his mental states were fun and intriguing, but didn’t really affect me too much. His diabetic driven collapses after getting wasted didn’t either. He was pretty much the coolest crust punk I knew precisely because he was so past beyond fucked up and owning it so well.

We would see each other over the years and share a beer here and there. It wasn’t until I started escotilha that our lives became irreparably interwoven. Part of this story is already in the book, so I won’t dig too deep on that bit.

One of the guys that hung out at my place heard S and L had been evicted from where they were squatting and I offered them a space. S came in and I recognised him instantly. We got along great, and if there was one thing S had was the capacity to express his gratitude for anything nice done for him.

Over the time he stuck around, I fed him and he got healthier. Don’t get me wrong. S was a crackhead ever since I first met him, and any spare change he’d make on the streets would turn into crack and more paranoia. But once we started sharing meals and time together, he grew a bit more meat on his bones and started telling me more about his past. Instead of paranoid delusions about mind control, he started telling me about his youth in Brazil.

Turns out S had a troubled past. His dad was a cop and he was a punk bashing up cops. One day he ended up in jail after severely bashing one. The big irony is that his dad bailed him out of a big prison sentence. I never figured out whether he did time. I did figure out, however, he also had a family he abandoned. I can’t exactly remember if it was just one son or more. I do know he cried on my shoulder a lot, usually after a good meal, about how his son hated him and didn’t want to see him. Truth was S abandoned his family to live the punk lifestyle. His son was brought up by S’s dad, and had serious contempt for him. S would often tell me that his son was training to be a cop because of him, and that broke his heart.

I never really knew what to say to this. S would cry and show all this psychological pain, but he also lacked the tools to do anything about it. Instead, he’d just continue deeper into the drug and alcohol cycle.

Living with us had its benefits, and besides getting pudgier, he also started smoking less crack. At times he’d pull me aside in the kitchen and say that he was so happy he didn’t need as much crack. It made me think he could really get better if he wanted.

A lot of this improvement was thanks to L. L, a lovely artsy young lady from Austria, was squatting with S when they got evicted. She took great care of him even though they had little vocabulary in common. If there’s one thing S had in excess it was charm, particularly with blonde blue eyed German speaking women. Even without much of a common language, S and L had an incredible relationship, full of love, good times, playfulness and the occasional fight. I think L always knew a different side of him, perhaps a bit less dark than what I knew. In L’s own words, she loved bad boys. S was definitely bad—the old school kind of bad. A past of delinquency and irresponsibility and a heart of gold.

E, who kindly let me know of his passing, also met S at escotilha. E, S and L became inseparable in a strangely conventional emotional triangle. I mean, for street punks, they were surprisingly heteronormative. Maybe because S was definitely old school. I remember him commenting that ‘he’d love to, but L wouldn’t let it happen’. Maybe it did. I wasn’t really in the loop in those days—I was just providing the space. S lived in pure delight thanks to the attention of these two beautiful young women, especially since he’d be past his mid thirties at this time (if my estimate is correct).

The life of bumming around had the upside of keeping us going out and exploring the derelict corners of the city. That’s how we eventually found a place to squat. S moved in and we lived together for a while. He’s all over the documentary as well.

During this time, his exotic good looks, tattoos and piercings were the delight of travellers staying with us. After all, what is a squat without the quintessential street punk hunk? S delivered this masterfully with his beautiful smile, warm and kind spirit, and talent for hedonism.

Once eviction hit us, S had to move on. I didn’t see him for quite a while, especially since the new squat most of the punks had moved to was basically a crack and heroin den. I visited that place once and ran out within the first couple of minutes.

My life in Lisbon became quite mundane after the squat days. I’d commute on train and metro for hours carrying my folding bike around. One afternoon, coming out of the metro in Cais do Sodré, I heard a loud, angry scream ‘ACORDEM! ESTÃO TODOS MORTOS!’ (‘WAKE UP! YOU ARE ALL DEAD!’). I knew that voice—it was S, delirious and angry, shouting at everyone around him. He was staggering around in despair, shouting at all the commuters going by him. They paced and looked away, trying to avoid hearing his harsh truth. I walked toward him faster, pulling my folding bike behind me, and screamed ‘S!’, touching his shoulder as if preparing for a hug.

His dazed paranoid glare fixated me for a couple of seconds. His eyes were twinkling as if they had hardened to shiny dull porcelain. His angry wrinkled face slowly softened, his angry look morphing into helplessness and love. ‘João?’ His eyes slowly lost the glaze and deepened again. He was here with me now. ‘Is that your chair?’ He thought my folded bike was a wheelchair. It did look like one, and given his past, he definitely was more acquainted with those. ‘Nah, it’s my bike, look!’ I unfolded the bike then folded it again. We laughed. Then his despair came back, this time with slumped shoulders and teary eyes. He collapsed on the floor, crying, sitting against one of the metro tunnel walls. I sat beside him and hugged him. I asked about how he was doing, he said he wasn’t doing well. No surprise, he hadn’t found a nice group of people to hang out with and was back on his vice loop. ‘Tens trocos para uma cerveja?’ (‘Got change for a beer?’) he asked me. I gave him some spare change. ‘Tu és gente boa João’ (‘You’re a good guy João’) he said. We hugged and off I went to my bagpipe class. I could still hear him scream at a distance. Screams of surprising sanity during a rush hour that seems far more inhuman than the things S was going through. I didn’t know, but this would be the last time I saw S.

His story, however, did not end here. After I moved to Sydney, I got the news from Lisbon punks that S had been deported. S had averted deportations for years so this was quite surprising. He was sent back to his home town in Brazil. Brazil has cheap crack, so he fell deeper and deeper into his bad habits.

I shared the first place I lived in down under with a few other people, including E, my former guest that met S and L in Lisboa. E and L were planning a big adventure in South America to find S wherever he might be. They started a social media campaign, printed t-shirts, got in touch with many people and through it, they eventually found him. Their dedication for S was incredible, especially when you think most of us will never even elicit one transcontinental flight from a friend, never mind two.

Once they found him, the harsh truths of hedonism hit E and L in the face. S was a wreck. His diabetes and drug habits had made his foot deteriorate badly and his mental health and spirit had decayed past recognition. E and L made an effort to fix him by getting in touch with his family and getting one of his relatives to let S move in with them. S did move in, but instead of looking for treatment he robbed their place clean and spent the money on crack. E and L saw their hopeful and beautiful campaign collapse right in front of their eyes. S stole from them and they left. S’s loving soul was gone, eaten away by drugs, alcohol and disease. E and L scattered through the planet again with the realisation that the S they loved dearly was gone and all that was left was decaying vessel enslaved by substance abuse.

E messaged me yesterday—S had died during surgery on his foot. His heart stopped during an induced coma. We were all sad, but we weren’t shocked. We had lost S a long time ago, but for me, his wonderful story remains. How a street punk from Brazil met an Austrian and an Australian in my home town, how they weaved their life lines through my own, and built a friendship that spanned continents and language barriers.

May S rest in peace in Crust Punk heaven, in Love and Anarchy.

Me and S

one day coding binge: OpenCV, Tesseract and MtG

The Dingle Berries by Lúnasa on Grooveshark

Last weekend I got to see these guys. They were incredible.

I’ve been wanting to try OpenCV for a while. I did some Computer Vision work back in Uni and had a great time at it, and recently realised I had a cool fun project I could do to save me some time.

If you ever played TCGs (Trading Card Games), you know collections quickly become unmanageable, taking hours on end of inventory tracking if you’re serious about it. In my case, when I was playing TCGs here in Sydney (mostly MtG), I had the discipline to type in every new card, but every now and then at a big tournament I’d lose track of what was in. As the new cards piled up, the time it takes to type them in increased so much I gave up. I also stopped playing a while back, but that box is still there, rotting away.

One of the uses for that big box I have in my closet is that it can be sold—most of the cards I own are worth money. But if I am to sell them off, I need an inventory first. Hence this project.

Typing in a card name takes me about half a minute, but the strain is the worst. Typing is exhausting. So instead I coded a detector in python that grabs the card name and puts it in the clipboard or an output file while making a rewarding ‘beep’ sound (kid you not, I love that feature so much it’s on by default). Here is the detector running in clipboard mode. As it is now, it takes about 12s to detect a card, the minimum I’ve seen was about 3s and there is no maximum (it can sit there until it figures it out).

The principle is simple: instead of trying to find out where the card is, it shows the user where it is looking. Once the user puts the card in the right place, it will attempt to figure out which card it is.

I tried other OCR ideas, like training Tesseract with the MtG font and card names. After all that, I decided to keep it simple and go with the default Tesseract detector with only a-zA-Z characters. This way card names are just a single word with no spaces. From there, I use the Hunspell spell checker with a custom dictionary to spell check these ‘words’ and give me the most likely candidate. Once the system is confident enough that it found a match, it will output data in whichever format was selected.

The results are incredibly good (and fast) considering my rig is a $10 Kmart cam, a jar, some wire and a white sheet of paper. One of the cool things I’ll be looking into is how to make a nicer rig that has a ‘place’ for the card, so I can drop it straight in and it will be properly lit and in the right detection place. Maybe once my Peachy Printer arrives I can add some OpenSCAD to the project.

photo of the test rig

My scanning setup

The GPLv3 source code is up on my GitHub. It is true, I finally gave up and joined GitHub until I can run my own git server (which, depending on my budget, may or may not be soon). This is my first ‘official’ public open source project!

Experiments with a 3Doodler, technopipes and a portable speaker

Generally I’m not too keen on putting commercial products on this page, but in this case I thought it would be fun.

For a while now I’ve been playing with the idea of using 3D printing tech to make instruments. My 3D printer is still being built (I supported the peachy printer), but I also supported the 3Doodler, which I finally got in the mail.

For a start, it isn’t an easy thing to use. It will take me a while to figure it out. I realised the reason why everything looks so ‘doodly’ is because the plastic coming out of the pen twists itself, which means the output is hard to control. Either way, I decided to have a go at something useful.

For a while now I’ve been playing my Technopipes with headphones or the occasional PA, but one of the things I miss is having the feeling of an acoustic instrument—it makes it easier for me to pick up tunes by ear while they’re playing. I tried having only one headphone on and I couldn’t do it as well. So I decided to buy a cheap portable speaker (the pink one was on special at KMart, cost me $5 so I bought 3 and played around with them).

Once that was sorted, I doodled a nice stand, so check the video out! It’s a pretty hilarious instrument. Good fun to carry on trips.

While we’re on the topic of 3D, just for fun—here is an experiment on making a parametric model of a wind instrument. I made it based on Linsey Pollak’s foonki. The UI is just OpenSCAD and GVim. Once the printer is in, I might have these projects up more often. Here is a copy of that .scad file.

Screenshot of the dev environment for SCAD