A Mathematical Musician

Zach Lattin’s office is deceptively sparse. Closed boxes filled with Braille math textbooks sit on his desk, the floor and on a nearby chair. A picture of him and his girlfriend smiles at visitors from in between his computer monitors, though he himself cannot see it. In one corner of the room rests a device that appears upon first glance to be an archaic fax machine, but is in fact a scanner Lattin uses to convert entire textbooks to digital text files that students with blindness can read using their computers.

As he demonstrates the use of a text-to-speech program on his computer, his free hand intermittently fidgets with a fist-sized abacus. Lattin has a degree in math from the University of Washington, a venture he pursued after he found computer science too boring.

“My friends and I would sit and eat pizza until three in the morning talking about group theory, topological spaces and Gödel’s incompleteness theorems,” he said.

“It’s so far out there that you don’t even need drugs or anything!”

Lattin, “born blind in 1984 in Reno, Nevada,” is an information technology specialist with Clark’s Disability Support Services. He works primarily with assistive technology, which DSS program specialist Brenda Wierschin defines as “any kind of technology that helps a student access… their materials in a classroom setting.”

Lattin said that his job is to make sure all the technology Clark invests in functions properly, and is truly accessible to everyone. He also introduces students to options for using assistive technology, such as braille textbooks and different text-to-speech programs.

Students with disabilities make up 6 percent of the Clark student population this Spring quarter, according to Planning and Effectiveness.

Lattin said his experience with blindness brings him closer to some of the other Clark students with disabilities, stressing his inability to fully understand the experiences that come with every disability.

“There are more people with visual impairments at Clark than other community colleges, since we’re so close to the Washington State School for the Blind,” he said.

Lattin is a relatively recent addition to DSS. According to Wierschin, he took over for the previous IT specialist in “January or February” after being initially hired as a temporary worker.

Lattin also said he is trilingual, speaking English, Spanish and Quechua. He plays the charango, an Andean stringed instrument, in a 25-member Peruvian band called “The Latitudes.”

Lattin said the music a Peruvian band plays will be totally unfamiliar to a Western audience, as it does not use a “verse-chorus-bridge-solo” structure, and “the idea of a solo does not exist” in Peruvian music. This owes to the more collective nature of music-making in such a band.

“Traditionally, there is no emphasis on the individual. It’s more about what you can accomplish as a group. I think there’s a good lesson there, because a lot of rock is about getting up with your electric guitar and shredding with your band backing you, and I think that’s the cause of a lot of band breakups – fights over solos.”

Lattin joined the band about a year ago, he says, after meeting them on a trip to the Vancouver farmer’s market, when his girlfriend spotted them and their Andean instruments. “Next thing I know, I’ve been playing with these guys for an hour,” he said.

The Latitudes will play at Clark on May 20.

Jorge Cháirez, one of Lattin’s bandmates, said that Lattin has a “perfect ear,” and was impressed by his ability to identify musical notes simply by listening.

Cháirez said when Lattin was hired at Clark, “he told us, ‘I am very happy with this job. I could be here for the next 30 years!’”


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