March 18th, 2006


I Once Was Blind

One of the formative experiences of my past is that I was born legally blind, or so the theory goes. I don't have a lot of clear memories from back then. All I know is that in 1968, Congress passed a law requiring all school children to be vision tested. These days, they actually have basic vision tests for infants. For most of you, it was something you don't even remember as part of the long series of medical checks and immunization before kindergarten. But for those of us who were already in school in 1968, we all have some memory of how our school handled vision-testing all of the kids at once. In our particular case, they did it by sending a nurse optometrist to every classroom, one at a time. The night before, each teacher had hung an eye chart on the wall, measured off the necessary distance, and put down a piece of tape. And one classroom at a time, the nurse optometrist went to every classroom in my grade school, and we all took turns walking up to the line and reading off the chart.

Imagine the shock and horror on my 3rd grade teacher's face when they found out that no, I wasn't kidding ... I couldn't read the first line. Imagining it is what I have to do, too, after all. Because if anything was farther than about 10" from my face, maybe 24" at the most, I couldn't see anything but a blur of shifting lights and colors. Best estimate is somewhere between 20/300 and 20/350 vision, although truthfully, once you get past 20/200, the numbers become a little arbitrary and meaningless. I had spent the first 8 years of my life navigating on no more clues than that and my own ability to imagine, analyze, and memorize 3-D spaces, and to predict movements based on what few visual cues I got. Playing catch was, as you might imagine, a particular challenge. Imagine trying to predict where a softball, or even a whiffle ball, will end up based only on the approximate speed and direction that someone's shoulder and arm can be seen against a contrasting background. And that's how I thought everybody did it. I had no idea that it was possible to see better than I did; I just assumed that everybody was smarter than me.

And when I got my first pair of glasses, it was a revelation. I knew about different levels of detail, of course, but remember that I'd never seen anything in detail if it couldn't be brought to within at most 24 inches of my face. When I found out that it was possible to see better, I was able to imagine that it would be convenient to see the details of things without having to hold them so close. But what I utterly failed to imagine was how many things had additional detail. For example, I was eight years old and I never suspected that trees actually had individual leaves. Those first couple of days with my glasses were such a shock to me that I have no clear and distinct memories of any of the surprises; they all blend together into one emotional impact of stunned shock.

This experience has been brought back to my memory because of this rebuilt computer. You see, my motherboard came with a steeply discounted weird-brand (hobbyist?) build of an Nvidia 6600 graphics card, a full generation ahead of my old Nvidia 5500. Before, I knew that City of Villains was a beautiful game, so when I got my 6600, I was expecting to be able to turn some of the graphics settings back up and to be able to see the existing effects at a greater distance, and more importantly at a high enough frame rate that it didn't feel like watching a film strip. But you see, even at film strip resolution, I had never taken the time to explore the Rogue Isles at Very High texture resolution. And for the last two days, every time I have logged in I have been almost too stunned to actually play the game, because I had no idea how many jokes, and how much storyline detail, and how many wonderful surprises were concealed in the artwork of the streetscapes. It feels almost exactly like those first couple of days with my first pair of glasses.