All Posts By

Logan T. Miles M.S.ISA, CISSP, HCISPP

Building a Custom Voice Assistant: Part 1

It’s kind of an open secret that I love Amazon Alexa, my friends know it, my girlfriend knows it, hell even my two roommates who I scare the shit out of when I drop in via Alexa to randomly say hello in the kitchen know it. This is all due to the fact that over the past six months, I’ve been slowly offloading small tasks to Alexa. Turning on the lights, setting timers, playing music, etc. I’ve started experimenting with “scenes”, automated actions such as turning lights on an air conditioner on or off. for when I come home or when I leave for work(turning off lights) It’s surprising how much small these small automations have altered how I operate now day to day. Looking forward, I hope to utilize them even more so, but there’s a problem. See, to put it lightly, I’m not really a fan of Jeff Bezos’ piggy bank listening to everything I say. The problem doesn’t lie only with Amazon though. Every single voice assistant operating via the cloud offered by Google, Facebook, and anyone else cannot be trusted to protect your privacy.

So in an effort to minimize my data footprint, I’m gonna build a private voice assistant myself. I’ve seen numerous guides on building your own Amazon Alexa in a custom piece of hardware such a raspberry pi, but those still send queries to Amazon. I want to build a private voice assistant that can replace Amazon Alexa’s functions for me, but can ensure that my privacy is protected at the same time.

To make a long story about decentralization and privacy by design short(er), all of these companies’ business models operate by mining your data and then selling it. Amazon isn’t offering these Echo Dots and Echo Spots at such an insanely cheap discounts for no reason, Amazon intends to milk it for all it’s worth. There’s even a new Echo Auto that’s only $25 that connects to your phone that you can use in the car. Knowing that the Amazon Alexa app requires location permissions on the phone app, I’ll bet my Grandma’s lucky silver dollar that it’ll continuously send that data to Amazon. It’ll send anything it can store, because some have estimated that Amazon will hit $10 billion in Alexa related sales in 2020 alone. Amazon knows exactly what it’s doing and Alexa is going to be the main point of contact between Amazon and their customers in the next decade going forward, so this pull into the internet of things is only going to ramp up going forward.

Every single time I state an action, my words are translated to text, that text is then parsed, categorized, and then stored. I know because I can open my Alexa phone app and see in the history that the other day, my roommates 30 miles away asked the Alexa in the kitchen if she likes handjobs. She didn’t respond, shes always so coy, but anyway, I digress.

A lot of people are guilty of obfuscation when it comes to the cloud by making it seem far more complicated than it is. The cloud is just someone else’s computer, really. It’s also heavily insinuated that these complex voice assistants that are often branded as an “AI” require processing in the cloud, this is argued because it requires too much processing power to computer these commands.

That is not true. It is perfectly possible to process these sort of commands locally on the device.

This is how we’re told Amazon Alexa operates. Requests are processed through Amazon’s API at their servers and then routed through a device’s manufacturer’s network, and then that’s pushed to the device. For example, the RGB led lights in my living room are from a company called Magic Home that requires their own account and sign up process. This opens a can of worms and begs the question, how much info is being shared between Amazon and Magic Home? Is Amazon allowing Magic Home access to a lot more data than they should? Is even my Alexa connected coffee pot also sending private information somewhere?

The way to resolve this is by processing everything locally on the device. Allow my very shitty diagram to illustrate. I have been looking at a number of different solutions and I think I’m going to try out Snips.ai first. Snips seems to be trying to do exactly what I had in mind. Local processing of queries all done in an open source environment so I can guarantee that my information isn’t sent anywhere I don’t want. I also could even unplug my router and ensure it still operates regularly unlike Alexa who has a stroke when you do that.

I know through the Magic Home app that the modules can be manipulated over a local network via an app, the devices themselves broadcast their own tiny wifi network that phones can use to connect to. If for some reason I can’t go that route and I have to include Magic Home’s servers in this process, I will at least have reviewed the messages myself and would implement any sort of compensating control if possible, but I’ll cross that if necessary. If worse comes to worse and I can’t use the small Magic Home LED module with an led strip (found here), I can directly wire the leds manually with a mosfet.

So how much is this gonna cost anyway?

Actually, not that much.

 

Step 1: Hardware

1.) Raspberry Pi 3 Kit with Clear Case and 2.5A Power Supply – $49.99

I found a decent kit that includes most of everything on Amazon here, but damn, we’re already going over our budget. Just tell yourself you’re saving money in the long run by not paying with your data. Amazon is probably Echo Dots at huge losses anyway and there’s no way to financially compete. I went with the pi 3 because I don’t want to have to worry about any performance bottlenecks. I’m not even putting thought into older Raspberry pis. If we can try this config with older pis, we can do that later and perhaps find cheaper kits to use.

 

 

 

2.) 3.5mm Mini Portable Stereo Speaker for iPod

I bought this 3.5mm speaker, but I didn’t realize it required a battery. Don’t buy that one, buy this one. That has a usb that can keep the speaker powered. Also, don’t buy things on Amazon in a flurry.

 

 

 

 

 

3.) TONOR PC Microphone USB Computer Condenser Studio Mic

Looking for something that’s omni directional. I imagine tweaking the microphone setup to find the sweet spot of sensitivity is going to be a chore. I’ve even seen in other guides of people using a microphone array.

This’ll do.

 

 

 

4.) USB Memory Stick

I already have one of these laying around. You should be able to find a microsd online for less than $10. If you don’t have a microSD, you can boot from a usb stick only after you’ve already booted from a microSD. Just get a microSD you cheap bastard..

 

 

 

 

 

Step 2: Software

Take that microusb and install NOOBS on it here….. right after you realize you don’t have a card reader and quickly bought one. Also, now that we’re realizing we’re missing some basic stuff, make sure you have a keyboard and mouse too.

I’m running Debian (found here), in a virtual machine in Oracle VM VirtualBox (found here) on my PC (found in my apartment). If you’re running linux or Mac, you don’t need the virtual machine and can run the commands straight from terminal. After you have the pi booted and running, make sure you enable SSH on it (how to here) and be sure to harden it (guide here) so it doesn’t spontaneously learn mandarin.

Installing Curl, Node, NPM, and Snips

Open up terminal on the virtual machine (or in terminal on Mac or linux) and run the following

curl -sL http://deb.nodesource.com/setup_8.x | sudo bash -

After that, run the following to make sure node.js (at least v7.5,0) and npm are installed.

sudo apt-get install nodejs

Verify installs on both by running node -v and npm -v

Now run the following to install snips and sam.

npm install -g snips-sam

 

Connecting to the pi

Now, in the virtual Debian on my PC I should be able to connect to the pi by running the following command.

sam devices

Ordinarily, sam will list all the devices it detects and you should be able to connect directly to it by running sam connect raspberrypi.local however, in this scenario it wouldn’t detect my pi. Running ifconfig on the pi will display the ip address. Take that ip and run sam connect <ip address of raspberry pi>

sam connect <ip address of pi>
Enter username for the device: pi
Enter password for the device: 
Connected to <ip address of pi>

Login via your pi username and password and viola, you’re connected and logged in on the pi. Anything run on this command line will be executed in the pi. It’s actually downhill from here once you run the following.

sam init

Watch the command line go to work. It’ll take a few minutes so go make a shirley temple in the meantime. Or if you have friends that are easily impressed, you can let them watch and watch them then assume you’re practically Lisbeth Salander. Woah buddy, big league hacker shit here.

 

Configure Snips Hardware

After the install is complete, run the following to get a status on everything.

sam status

You should get something like this

sam status
​
Connected to device raspberrypi.local
​
OS version ................... Raspbian GNU/Linux 9 (stretch)
Installed assistant .......... Not installed
Status ....................... Installed, not running
​
Service status:
​
snips-analytics .............. 0.55.2 (not running)
snips-asr .................... 0.55.2 (not running)
snips-audio-server ........... 0.55.2 (running)
snips-dialogue ............... 0.55.2 (not running)
snips-hotword ................ 0.55.2 (not running)
snips-nlu .................... 0.55.2 (not running)
snips-skill-server ........... 0.55.2 (not running)
snips-tts .................... 0.55.2 (running)

Lets quickly run through the main pieces and ensure everything is working. Runsam test speaker

With you speaker connected, you should hear a voice. I have an HDMI cord running from my pi and I heard the audio through the TV. So the output from the device is working. Let’s move on to the microphone and plug it in.

After plugging that bad boy in, run sam setup audio

This will allow you to select the microphone.

sam setup audio
Starting microphone setup...
What microphone do you use?
[1] Generic USB
...

After it’s selected, run sam test microphone

sam test microphone
Testing microphone
Say something in the microphone, then press Enter...
...

Try recording a quick joke (and press enter) to hear it back and realize just how unfunny you are.

Then run sam sound-feedback on

This adds the “ding’ when you make a command.

 

Install Demo

We’re almost to the end, run sam install demo

This should install and turn on the snips service and load it with a basic test app. The default test app just translates your speech into text via the STT (speech to text) API and then repeats it back with the TTS(Text to Speech) API. Once it’s done installing, Snips is ready to be operated via speech by speaking “Hey Snips, <say phrase to be repeated>” You can probably ascertain it’s not perfect, but its usable to improve upon and Any custom commands and tweaks including my own lighting setup and automations. I’ll document in part 2.

 

For now, you can say, “Hey Snips, the colossus of clout!” and you can marvel that you’ve made a digital Tommy “Repeat” Timmons from The Sandlot.

 

 

Years (2005-2018)

Since I have moved to Long Beach, I’ve tried to familiarize myself with the city and the communities that reside within it.  That includes many artists who call Long Beach home and my girlfriend recently informed me of the passing of Laura Aguilar, a Latino LGBT photographer who had an impact within Chicana feminism. Much of her work showcases many from marginalized communities.  Some of her work highlights the intersection of the various identities she has that reside within these communities. My girlfriend is Mexican and her identity is also complex and multifaceted. I’ve made a conscious effort to familiarize myself with the various communities, histories, and cultures that my girlfriend finds herself in order to be a better partner for her in the long run.

Aguilar’s work has many of her photos of herself as subject.  That made me think about myself and what kind of photos I have saved, I’ve always tried to avoid being in front of the lens for the majority of my life, but I still have some of myself through the years.  Most of these haven’t seen the light of day.  I have a 6TB raid that stores every photo i’ve ever taken, personal cell phone, SLR, senior photos, prom pics.  I saved everything.  It’s about 100,000 images and about 800GB in size. This past weekend I felt like going through my library and picking a single photo of myself from a year and openly talk about it, how the photo makes me view myself, think about my life, notice the changes in my face, etc.

 

So allow me to present the following,  a collection of photos of myself over the years.

Continue Reading

The Parable of the Hollow Tree

When I was a kid, I used to love climbing trees, it was one of my favorite things to do. On one particular afternoon when I was about 11, I was down the street from my house hiking in a wooded area with a bunch of trees and tall grass. I remember there was this one specific tree with a low branch that looked easy enough to jump up, grab, and climb. However, when I ended up grabbing the branch in mid jump, I was greeted with the loud crack like thunder as the branch snapped and completely ripped a large side off of the tree. Both the branch and myself hit the ground with a significant force as the air was violently sucked out of my lungs. I was lucky the branch fell in front of me and not on top of me because it was extremely heavy and I was alone out there. I could have found myself in my very own rendition of 127 hours.

As I slowly got up off the ground with a groan, I was shocked to see that the tree was almost completely hollow. It wasn’t dead…yet. It still has some leaves on all of the branches, but it was barely strong enough to sustain its own weight. All it took was about 135lbs of my weight at the time to completely deface the tree. It seemed pretty obvious that this tree was on its last leg. It was probably termites or something, but at the time I had no idea how it happened or how such a thing was even possible. I remember the confusion I had as I brushed the dirt off of my cargo shorts. How on earth did this tree get completely hollowed out?

So a little backstory is required here. A couple years ago, I used to be in a Facebook forum with a decent number of other Protestant Christian ministers of varying different denominations and belief systems. From fundamentalists to universalists, the diversity was noticeable. There were times of rabid disagreement, blow ups, and the occasional troublemaker that would be removed from the group, but for the most part, everyone was united by this core belief in Christ and this desire to make his love known to the world. There were many beautiful moments where people found a common ground with each other despite gigantic disagreements elsewhere theologically. Calvinists, Armenians, Preterists, Post-Tribs, and occasionally there would be an emergent guy asking the “Rob Bell questions” that would often stir the pot. The forum was a journey for everyone and eventually it settled down and activity ceased. Everyone reached what appeared to be their destination of belief and there are only so many times you can discuss if baptism is necessary for salvation before you start to desire to pull your hair out. Eventually, the discussions there ceased completely

On Sunday, I stumbled upon a thread where many of these very same Christians were discussing James Fields, the man accused of driving his car into a crowd of protesters that ended up injuring 19 and killing 1. It was a discussion regarding the guilt of the driver, explanations for how, and, or why he wasn’t at fault. A link was eventually posted to an Allen West page pushing a 4Chan /pol/ theory alleging that the driver was driving slow until a protester hit the car with a bat which caused the driver to fear for his life. Of course, the video attached is edited to mute the sound of the screeching tires and engine accelerating as found in the raw video. I read on another post somewhere, but i didn’t manage to get a screenshot, “If you don’t want to get hit, get out of the road”, despite the fact that the road was closed the next block up prior to the protest. The sheer moral disconnect on display sent chills down my spine. I was reminded that a few months ago, I’ve seen memes of cars driving through protests on highways were met with laughter in the comments like “They better not be in front of me ha”. Fox News and The Daily Caller used to have articles advocating for cars to violently drive through protesters. As you would expect after this weekend, both of those posts were removed after the death of Heather Heyer.

This gave me pause, and it made me question myself. I’m not one to stand in the courtyard and cry for crucifixion. I believe in our justice system and long for justice for all, I believe James Fields deserves a fair trial trial by a jury of his peers. Now it is one thing to try and remain neutral, but to try and justify the act is another far more disgusting thing entirely. Eventually, the conversations I found myself in on Facebook began to widen in scope to include the Charlottesville protest as a whole. Who’s responsible for this whole thing? Franklin Graham, who has over 5 million followers and has a significant influence over American Evangelicalism decided to weigh in.

Franklin offers a bold suggestion, blame should instead be assigned to the city council, city politicians, mayor, or even governor. Really? I can think of no easier time of knowing who to assign blame than the swastika flag waving Nazis that are marching in the street starting the protest.

Franklin touched on how long the statue has been there, clearly a subtle endorsement that the confederate memorial should stay there, thus leading into yet another conversation with people about its justification.  The response I received was quite harsh. “Erasing history”, “ISIS does the same”, Orwellian”, “un-American”, and “similar to destroying Mt. Rushmore”, are just some of the lines thrown at me. Any conversation about the confederacy will naturally lead back to the Civil War. I’m a little ashamed to admit it, but I spent a few hours on Tuesday butting heads with people who were not just defending the memorial, but the confederacy itself. Just a couple of the arguments I heard are,

“The vast majority of confederates were not slave owners.”

“These monuments aren’t connected to racism or white supremacy.”

“African Americans fought for the confederacy too.”

“The Civil War wasn’t over slavery, but state rights.”

And don’t forget the most repugnant, reprehensible one.

“Black people were better off as slaves in America rather than back in Africa.”

I’m not going to debunk these myths here, that’ll be another post for another time. However, it was at this moment that I felt like I was on my back again staring back up at that hollow tree. How on earth did this happen? How did we get to a point where almost unlimited excuses are given for the perpetrator, but no one even considers the victims? It seems I have found myself in a culture that I clearly don’t fit in.  It seems to everyone around me that the least of these only considered when it fits their politics, every…single…time.  Does the blood of Heather Heyer not cry out like Abel’s did? Does the blood of millions killed under the Nazi flags waved in history not cry out? Does the blood of those lynched in the name of White Supremacy not cry out like Abel’s did?

Instead, more devotion is given to defend an inanimate statue of concrete and iron, more time is spent sanitizing the confederacy which was quite clearly founded upon slavery, and more work is put in to defend a President clearly comfortable with the support of those reprehensible people.

I’m reminded time and time again over the last couple years when others’ blood would cry out. Philando Castile, Eric Garner, 12 year old Tamir Rice, and so many others. The average response from these people was always the same…bumbling justification or just crickets and shrugs. It still blows my mind that many of these Christians are willing to paint the entire Black Lives Matter movement with a broad brush…but somehow white supremacists and people literally waving swastika flags are given the benefit of nuance. Perhaps this is what Moses felt like when he came down from the Mount Sinai and found everyone worshiping a golden calf. As of this writing, 7 CEOs have now resigned from Trump’s Manufacturing Council due to his comments on Charlottesville, but not a single pastor has resigned from his Evangelical Advisory Council.

Like the tree I tried to climb as a kid, much of American Christianity appeared full of life at first, but at the core, it’s dead and rotten. Now I know that American Christianity is not a monolith. There are much smaller organizations and denominations that have separated themselves from this larger group for these very reasons.  But for the mainstream evangelicals, the termites of politics has burrowed in and now there is no going back. In my opinion, such a reform is impossible. If a pastor tries to correct course, those corrupted people will just leave and go to the church down the street that agrees with them. Greg Boyd lost about a thousand people in his church when he preached a sermon series with the intent of freeing the church from the claws of partisan politics. Now if that church down the street tries to correct course too, well then those same rotten people will start their own church. I know this because some of the racist arguments I heard over the past few days were from people who did just that.

It’s only a matter of time until the the leaves fall, the rest of the tree collapses, and the wood of mainstream American Evangelicalism fully disintegrates into the soil. One can only hope that in the future, something better will eventually grow in its place.

The Tree of 100 Dead Faces

The night was a cool 61 degrees, much more comfortable than the 95 plus of the daytime. Liam was at his campsite in rural southeastern Utah, about 100 miles east of St. George. He started a campfire, cooked some corn, and then found himself in the comfort of his tent as he stares directly overhead to the stars above. Earlier that day, Liam hiked 3 miles up and back from the top of Angels Landing, a popular vista at Zion National park. There’s this achiness that one feels after a long strenuous day of hiking. Legs begin to give off this minuscule, subtle, vibration. Liam was at that point zipped up in his sleeping bag, the fire was already out and the red glow was almost completely faded from the coals. The stars felt closer, they felt as if you could almost see the tips of the flames fluttering outward, even through the fine mesh of the tent roof.

“This is such a starkly different way of experiencing the world.” Liam uttered to himself in a soft, whispery voice. “Out here, you can’t hear the constant hiss of the highway traffic off in the distance, the occasional hot rod ripping it down main street, you can’t see the orange glaze covering the blackness of the sky.”

The moon was in a new phase and that almost removed the last of the light pollution. The stars were bring enough that you could just barely make out the milky way. This silver smokey clouds swirling beyond the stars drove home a feeling of insignificance unlike any other. In almost any direction upward, those burning lights are trillions and trillions of miles away. As the milky way slowly rose over the side of the red canyon, now as black as the edges of a movie theater, Liam felt his reference point change. Instead of watching the stars rising, he felt as if he could feel the earth turning.

As a child, Liam often rode the UFO at the county fair where he grew up. The UFO was setup with seats all around in a circle, where you laid down on an incline of a large disk that everyone sat around and the disk spun fast enough to cause the riders to lose the feeling of gravity. There’s this confusion in the beginning as the body attempts to reconcile the visuals the eyes are seeing and the feeling the inner ear gives as the forces shift. Often times this is what causes seasickness, stationary surroundings with shifting directions of gravity. However, Liam was doing ok. Instead of standing against a wall with a pad, his brain quickly felt as if he was laying on his back. There were these moments in the ride when the light from the outside of the ride would would bleed in through cracks and would break the illusion. Liam could then make out the speed that they were spinning and then orient himself directionally. In that brief moment, Liam’s senses felt as if it were moving to a truer form of reality, one beyond the edges of his current enclosure. The only thing he could make out was direction, but it was enough to break the illusion of the ride. In the same way as a he spun on the UFO ride and as as if he was walking out of plato’s cave, Liam felt as if the stars in the sky were just enough to break the illusion of the ride, to give him the feeling that something was beyond his newer, more vast enclosure. The meetings on data retention policies, change management procedures, and risk data flow diagrams that bugged Liam in the previous week suddenly felt idiotically meaningless. This felt like the few and far between moments of gasping for air above water if you found yourself living your whole life below it.

A few weeks ago, Liam got the idea from camping in the desert from his father John.
“You see…things in the desert.” John said, faintly suggesting in the supernatural sense. “Things visit you, and sometimes, you end up meeting yourself.”
But it was never about seeing other things, it was enough to just experience more of just what was there. Little did Liam know that sometimes those things are sometimes both one and the same, but when you can’t tell, does it even matter?

It was in that moment that as Liam stared off through almost infinite distances to the twinkling fireballs beyond, that the twinkles of a couple stars looked less like fluttering, and more like jiggling. After a few moments of squinting, jiggling became a word not fit to describe them, swaying more now. Liam questioned if perhaps a slight breeze is pushing on the fine net at the top of his tent, partially distorting his view. Despite lowering temperatures, his sleeping bag kept him warm enough to sleep with the entire tent top off, except for the mosquito net and support rods. As his view adjusted to asses the entire sky, he quickly remembered that he was in the floor of a canyon, and the tips of the trees were as still as glass. The single star in question wasn’t the only thing swaying slowly in the sky. Now, most of the stars were swaying slowly back and forth. Enough to where Liam couldn’t orient the spinning of the world anymore. Like the tips of foam on each tiny break in the water to make up a giant wave sloshing back and forth, were the stars now almost all moving in unison back and forth, but not perfectly. Still giving each star a little variance to break any sort of uniformity.

The stars were now swaying in differing directions, up and down, back and forth, against each other and apart, taking up almost all of Liam’s field of view. Occasionally, a couple or a few would appear to be locked and moving in unison for a brief moment. This gave off the appearance of negative shapes or a plane, as if all the stars are just small reference points of a much larger picture or shape. Suddenly, the stars in the middle of the sky appeared to lock in place as the rest continued to move. The shape produced was a rectangle with a wider bottom than top. One by one more stars began to freeze and naturally grew the lines created by the frozen dots of light.

“A bridge.” Liam confusedly uttered under his breath. “A city? A bridge toward a city!” Liam gasped as he could finally make out the image.

The stars were all frozen in place and in the negative space was a bridge starting at him ending directly straight up in the sky toward a city. Liam was on his back, but the picture in the stars made him feel as if he was standing upright. As his eyes wandered, he could make out the large spires, buildings it seems. The twinkle of their edges were all made up of stars. The buildings didn’t look futuristic or ridged, but as if they were natural crystalline formations giving off an ambient jade green light. All building from the outward in, grow in height sporadically to a central point at the center of a city. The white stars somehow made it seems like the city was a mountain of intricate green glass. One that was overwhelmingly busy, teeming with life.

Liam was able to make out the railings of the bridge, accented swirls of metal around each intersection. Borderline elvishly Tolkien in its aesthetic going on for a few miles directly toward the city. Just as he pondered if he could step out on the bridge, the stars instantly all broke apart, completely dissolving the image of the city. As if the stars were a school of fish suddenly spooked by a predator, suddenly shifting and swirling around in the sky in a uniform contour.

Before he even had the time to ask himself what he just saw, Liam began to watch the swirling stars and felt an odd, but deep connection to them. As if they were a hive mind of fireflies connected to some much larger, sentient being. A being that is reaching outward from itself down deep into Liam. He could feel as if a new plane of communication opened up that made his voice and ears obsolete. It was similar to still having a landline, but all communication is done over the internet, Liam felt like he could communicate over feelings. Nothing lost in translation, completely perfect 1:1 transportation of thought.

“God?” Liam asks in his head, “Is that you?”

Liam has been disillusioned by religion over the past few years, but at the very core of his being, there was still something there. Spiritually, he felt like a political refugee, unable to go back and unable to go anywhere else. The continuous waves crashing against the ship of his own spirituality over the distance he’s traveled has made him feel far more mentally exhausted rather than spiritually rewarded. It wasn’t till about a year ago that he let everything go completely, only to wait and see if something ever returned to him, but nothing ever did.

It felt to Liam as though the stars responded to his silent call, bouncing from their movement into a new and different direction. Aligning to slowly create the shape of a triangle, then slowly clarifying, but also complicating and expounding the shape into a face. Lips, eyebrows, cheeks, all coming into view. No irises or pupils in the eyes, all empty space filled with only the furthest, faintest background of the smokey universe.

The face was feminine, the angled cheeks combined with the eyes and lips were all giving the face features of an African woman. The stars above the face were either braids of hair or a doek or duku, a traditional African headscarf many women wear. Liam stared upwards in silent awe as his entire field of view was filled with this giant face.

“Is it you?” Liam felt.

Suddenly, the stars giving the contours of the lips started to move and stretch, the face now was smiling, but still completely silent. Liam felt like an infant, swaddled in a crib with his mothe, god’s warm love emanating downward. Everything that Liam saw before him, what he felt, was a fly in the eye of everything he thought he knew, but only a foolish man would stand in the rain and claim that he read somewhere that it wasn’t.

The face was gone, the stars were now swirling in a symmetrical, kaleidoscopic pattern. The stars slowly morphed into small, wiggling, bioluminescent fish. They were swimming around in symmetrical patterns as bigger fish followed each one individually, swallowing each one up, one by one. The even bigger fish appeared, followed, and swallowed the next fish so on and so forth. Liam felt a little dizzy, his eyes were following so many things morphing so fast that his mind didn’t have the opportunity to catch up. So he turned his head and looked to the left, out of his tent when his eyes spot a tree only a few feet from the side of his tent.

The tree next to his tent was a single-leaf pinyon, a type of pine tree, but it didn’t resemble a tighter pine that many are more familiar with at Christmas time. This pine had more traditional tree branches that spread much wider at its base and reached upward, making the shape of a tree almost like a wide egg. The tree wasn’t densely packed either, you could easily see through the tree if one was so inclined. However, this tree was odd because scattered throughout, from the top to the bottom were all various types of human faces. Liam immediately recognized that these faces all belonged to people who are dead.

Men, women, children, of all various expressions, each as distinct as a personality. Liam didn’t recognize the people, but he could tell what most of them were. Some faces, however were disfigured, bloodied, and a some even had torturous expressions that conveyed excruciating pain. Not only from their appearance, but over feeling, Liam could feel them all as dead, but nonetheless all staring at him as if they were all standing next to his tent.

Liam immediately closed his eyes as he felt as if Ice water coursed through his veins. His mind thought about jumping out of his sleeping bag and running as fast as he could in the opposite direction, but some odd feeling kept him right there. His heart felt like it was was beating a hundred miles an hour as he opened his eyes back to the faces in silence. Breathing heavily, his eyes wandered to each one, examining them all a little closer. He was disturbed when he came across one that appeared to be completely missing skin. He wondered if these faces are how they all appeared when all these people died. If so, then this face was a person who was tortured to death.

People die, painful and excruciating deaths all the time, but rarely do any of us ever find ourselves in the situation of staring at it in the eyes. The fear that Liam had began to be replaced by sorrow.

“There is so much unknown pain.” Liam spoke verbally in a soft tone to all of the faces on the tree. “So many people die, die painful deaths and their voice is nothing more than a distant echo. Their suffering, their story is nothing but a drop in an ocean, rippling off to nothing. So many people are forgotten.”

Based on his statement, some of the faces changed their expression. Some of the more sad or angry faces shifted into a more pleased ones.

“Sometimes, the only thing people seek is just a little acknowledgment. A glace, a wave, a nod, I’m here, and so are you.” Liam uttered. “You’re here all the time.”

Liam felt like the world peeled back and there was only a film of saran wrap separating the himself from what was beyond. This felt like a grandiose version of placing your hand against a glass pane and letting someone align their hands with yours. Seeing all the subtle differences between each other, this is my hand, and that is yours. The faces never spoke, but Liam could feel them, and right now he could feel that these faces and so many others are always present, but in a different way. This caused him to think of something a little humorous.

“So does everyone see me when I’m in the shower or jerking off?” Liam asked with a grin. “It’s an honest question.”

Many of the faces turned to smile and what appears to be laughter as Liam could feel their response. It doesn’t exactly work like surveillance, but the present nature of the dead was one more along the lines of solidarity of being. Like when you’re driving in a snowstorm when there’s snow fully covering the road and you see you’re following another single set of tracks. Or when you walk into a room that someone just left and you can just barely feel the warmth their body heat brought to the room. Like hearing coyotes howl to the moon in the distance, you then know that something else is here, and something else is there. This caused Liam to think of another question.

“Am I doing what’s right? Liam pleaded “I’m always worried that I’m headed into the completely wrong direction in life. I’m scared i’m not living up to my potential. I’m a dud when everyone else is exploding beautifully.”

Everything is fine, Liam felt as a mental weight falls off of his shoulders. He was always worried that there was a moment earlier in his life where the universe fell off kilter and he was like an astronaut thrown from a ship in deep space. Hurling aimlessly, helplessly into the dark, never being able to get back to the ship. Everything he thought, didn’t match up with how he felt, because felt good. He felt like he was being told, everything is ok.

With tears in his eyes Liam asks, “I’m talking to this girl.” As he cracks a smile. “Should I move forward with her or take a hike?”

Liam was honest and did what he felt anyone would do if given the opportunity to consult omnipresent wisdom, indulge a little. There was a face that caught his eye, one accented by wrinkles. It looks like it’s an older woman, 70s or 80s perhaps. For a minute Liam felt like it could have been his late grandmother, but it wasn’t. Although based on her face, he felt as if she were equally as warm. Liam missed his grandmother, she and many grandmothers have this unique warmth about them. It’s a feeling easy to miss until they’re gone. A baking brownies on a summer day and her letting you lick the spoon kind of feeling. Like the hugs that felt like nothing could ever bad happen kind of feeling. The times she calls you sugar kind of feeling. A reminder that the story you are a part of goes back a lot further than you remember kind of feeling. Liam hasn’t felt it since, but he feels it now. Her face changed, it was in response to his question.

She gave him this big warm smile, but the feeling. The feeling was one of a thousand words and a million moments of possibilities swirled into a vortex and fired out of a fire hose. If emotions all have a temperature equivalent ranging from hot to cold, this felt more like a texture. Something completely different, smooth, course, fluffy, or even sticky. So much more information condensed into a flash of light. Like experiencing an infinite number of lifetimes in a single moment.

“Thank you…For everything.” Liam says.

Liam didn’t realize that it’s been a few hours and it won’t be long now until the sun comes up. With one final nod that’s returned by many in the tree of 100 dead faces, Liam rolls over and begins to drift off asleep knowing full well who’s always there, and in some unique way, that kept him feeling warm.

 

 

Selling My Soul To Football

There’s a popular movie trope where someone sells their soul to the devil for some immediate benefit. Good looks, guitar playing skills, it could be anything. Whatever they gain isn’t really the point, the point is that eventually the devil will make his due and those chickens will come home to roost. In a way, I feel like that’s what I and many of my friends did with football. I’m a product of football, so much of my character was formed from the grit of football. The lessons I’ve learned about hard work, determination, dedication, camaraderie, teamwork, and so many others I’ve tried to apply to my life. And looking back, I think they’ve all added something positive to me. But I and I know a lot of others never knew the true cost that would come back years later.

The Journal of American Medicine Association released a report on Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) study that studied the brains of former NFL, college, and high school football players. After studying over 100 brains of deceased players of various levels, 99% of the NFL players tested positive for the degenerative brain disease, 87% of the players of other levels did as well. I played football for…a while, so then the math starts off in my head.

As a center, I played in approximately 50 plays every game, that’s roughly 50 hits to the head. I don’t think there were ever many plays where I didn’t at least make contact, maybe a hail mary in the 4th quarter and that was a rare circumstance. Every week, we practiced in full pads and full contact 3 days, we would run through about 20-30 plays in practice, plus the drills where we would always go full speed. So let’s ballpark it as 60 hits. So 60 times 3, plus 50 on gameday is 230. That’s 230 hits to my head in a week. Multiply that by 10 games is 2300 hits to my head a year, not including camp. Assuming I took the same amount of hits a year means that I probably took well over 20,000 hits over my whole life. I never had a concussion before, or at least diagnosed, but it still makes you wonder if that matters.

Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t naive, I always knew there were risks in football. Torn ACLs, labrums, broken bones, but luckily I never found myself getting any of those. In 2010, when Eric LeGrand from Rutgers became paralyzed from the neck down after getting hit on a kickoff return, there was this spooky feeling in the air at the gym the next couple days. Other than that, there were never times where we all really tried to take into account all of the long term risks. The only thing I expected to pay was the time spent doing it and the alternatives I missed out on. Maybe a couple more hours training in the gym a week, first two weeks in august, some weekends when we traveled, but never this. The cost of playing football might be a few decades more of time than any of us originally considered.

It’s at this point that my mind starts racing a hundred miles an hour and attempts to at least ask all of the paranoid questions my brain can naturally come up with. Am I going to go crazy eventually? The other day when I was a little scatterbrained, was it because I was tired or is it early onset CTE? Am I a ticking time bomb of sadness and pain for my partner in life? Will I become unrecognizable to myself?

It’s at the point of bargaining when you want to look deeper into the study to see if they missed something. The New York Times had an article shedding some more light on the study.

The set of players posthumously tested by Dr. McKee is far from a random sample of N.F.L. retirees. “There’s a tremendous selection bias,” she has cautioned, noting that many families have donated brains specifically because the former player showed symptoms of C.T.E.

But 110 positives remain significant scientific evidence of an N.F.L. player’s risk of developing C.T.E., which can be diagnosed only after death. About 1,300 former players have died since the B.U. group began examining brains. So even if every one of the other 1,200 players would have tested negative — which even the heartiest skeptics would agree could not possibly be the case — the minimum C.T.E. prevalence would be close to 9 percent, vastly higher than in the general population.

So it’s not exactly a set in stone guarantee, but the chance still exists and it varies for everyone. We will only know more the more we study CTE. However, at 9% it still exists enough to the point where at least 1 person has it on the field at any given time.

Nothing prepares you for the idea that your own path in life might become seriously disrupted 20-30 years sooner than you expect. That’s just an overwhelming emotional mountain to stare at. How does one even attempt to climb it? This is the kind of thing that causes you to reevaluate lifelong plans, investments, retirement. Will this cause people to walk away? What will happen when I get older? Perhaps maybe I’ll just pull a “Benjamin Button” and run off to India when I get into my 40s and not allow myself to become a weight to anyone here.

There’s no blood test yet and currently CTE is only able to be diagnosed after death. Ironically, letting this out of my mind is practically impossible. It’ll always be this raincloud following me around for the rest of my life. Every single time I forget where my keys are, I’ll ask, “Is…it why?” I’ve had a couple conversations with close football friends. Some have mentioned to me the memory problems they feel like they’re starting to have, everyone is thinking about it. So I think the question to ask is not whether or not I have CTE, the question is what I would do if I do indeed have it, because I might as well live as though I do.

It’s strangely convenient my last blog post was also a little related to confronting one’s mortality. I’ve been chewing on these thoughts for a couple days anyway, but I’m again reminded that I should never allow anything or anyone get in the way of me living my life to the fullest, ever. So often we let others steal our happiness away. Never let people take advantage of you, but always try and treat others how you want to be treated. Wipe away the tears of other eyes. Never let the sun set on my anger, fix things when I can and treat all goodbyes as if they could very well be the last. Let people know when they mean something to you or have impacted your life for the better. Appreciate the temporary things, because in the end, it all is. Appreciate all of the moments, the ups and the downs, because eventually that’s all that’s going to be left. Appreciation is like turning the saturation knob up on life. The world fills with so much color. Food is more delicious, music sounds better, intimacy is priceless.

In the end, I could walk outside and get hit by a city bus. My heart could pop in my chest in the middle of sets at the gym. I know too many people younger than me already in the ground. Taking all that including the idea of my mind slipping away, the worst thing I could possibly do is let another day go to waste.