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SILVER SPRING, Md. — Some experienced professional tarot readers will sniff at the idea of using a tarot app for divination, an idea that was explored by Wild Hunt columnist last month. Caroline Kenner, one of the people behind the Fool’s Dog suite of tarot apps, understands where they are coming from. Together with her husband Jason Linhart, an experienced programmer, she has worked to provide what she describes as simply an electronic tool to complement physical cards and professional readers.Kenner is no newcomer to the Pagan communities, nor to the arts of divination. She began her studies with Andras Corban-Arthen in 1984, and has been an organizer in the Washington, D.C. area for nearly 30 years. Among her other teachers stand Janet and Stewart Farrar, Sandra Ingerman, and Dolores Ashcroft-Nowicki. Kenner estimates that she owns 400 tarot decks, which she has been reading for decades. As a public relations professional, she has also worked to ensure Pagans are represented accurately in mainstream media coverage.
Many tarot apps available on the market have “programming shortcuts to shorten the time to market,” Kenner explained. However, the Kenners’ goal of supporting the art and the reading community represents a different approach. She brought her three decades’ experience as an intuitive reader to bear on the problem, and combined it with her husband’s programming prowess, as well as a magical spell designed to meld the two.
Linhart has, according to Kenner, been programming since the age of 11 and writing code for Apple products since before the Macintosh was first rolled out in 1984. “He could tell you the number and description of any card, but he couldn’t interpret them,” she explained. “He liked them because of the patterns,” an interest which has also led him to develop a successful line of sudoku apps.
When the couple decided to build better tarot apps, each of their skills were needed, but they also went out into the community for guidance. “We went to our reader friends,” she recalled, saying that after so many years in the community, “we had a million of those, and a thousand who read professionally.”
The couple hosted open houses for readers of all skill levels, inviting them to test, poke, and prod. Artist Helena Domenic was the first to sign on and agree to allow her work to go digital. The first Fool’s Dog decks came out in 2011. Two years later, Raymond Buckland’s Romani Tarot joined the suite. To date, 60 decks have been added.The curious may download the sampler for iOS or Android, and each full deck costs anywhere from 99 cents to $4.99 to purchase. That price range is intended to serve the community, Kenner said. Creators such as Domenic and Buckland receive royalties from each purchase, but the price is not so high as to discourage someone from trying out a new deck.
“Physical decks can run upwards of $30,” she said. “That’s a commitment. When I was reading, I would sometimes buy a deck I saw, but it really didn’t click with me. This is a lower financial commitment, and people can pick the decks that really sing to them to buy physically.” A links within the app is available to do just that. These links lead directly to creators’ own websites or to Amazon, making that next step an easy one to accomplish.
Fool’s Dog has also created some decks that had very small print runs, generally when funded by a Kickstarter campaign, and were never picked up by a major publisher.
Along with flexibility of price, there are other benefits in digital deck production. Deck creators aren’t stunted by truncated descriptions, nor are readers. The full text of a deck’s instructions are available unless the creator specifically doesn’t want that to be the case. In addition, there’s space for app owners to add their own meanings instead having to rely solely on the boilerplate.
Layouts are similar: a variety of common ones are built right in, as well as any that are unique to a particular deck. For example, the Zombie Tarot brings with it the “gravestone” layout that’s detailed in the physical instructions. As with card meanings, there is a free form option for layouts, which gives more flexibility than one might anticipate from a computer.
One thing computers do very well is remember information; every reading done through these apps are automatically added to a journal, and may be emailed. Readers can manually input a physical spread to send it to a client, as well.
The Kenners have taken pains to meld tarot and technology in ways never attempted before. Linhart started with a randomizer he developed more than a decade ago, and then added further randomization based on the timing of user actions such as tapping and swiping.
“When the user actions are timed to the nanosecond, the low order bits are truly random,” Kenner said. “This seamless interface between user and tarot program is very successful at opening the door to synchronicity.” Indeed, the apps allows for two different kinds of electronic shuffling, as well as deck cuts, to increase the random factors introduced.In 2013 The Wild Hunt reported the fact that there’s a spell built into the code to help pixels and intuition work better together. Ivo Dominguez, Jr. wrote that spell as a wedding present for Kenner and Linhart. His field of expertise can be as difficult as programming code for the uninitiated to understand, but he explained it in brief:
I performed a ritual to charge and empower a sigil created from the word “divination” plotted onto the magick square of the moon that is linked to the tarot app. There is a physical world version of the sigil on paper that is being kept in a safe place on an altar so long as the app is in use.
The resulting numbers are written directly into the app code, such that users never see it.
“Top-rated programming, top-rated spell work, and a way to help Pagan elders,” summarized Kenner. That last part is close to her heart, because she’s seen that those elders tend to be “magical people who often struggle with business and money.” The paying of royalties is one way to allow for more community support of their lifelong contributions.
“I’m worried about how many of us have led unusual lives that don’t necessarily add up to retirement funds,” Kenner explained.
Who is using Fool’s Dog apps? According to Kenner, quite a few people, including those young enough that they have grown up in the light of a screen, but also more experienced and professional readers. “People often use it while in transit,” she explained, such as while commuting to work while desiring to perform a daily or self-reading. It’s ideal for that kind of compact situation, she said, while the physical deck remains at home or in one’s purse.
It’s not, however, intended to replace a reader’s intuition with boilerplate, any more than someone with no experience can be expected to read a physical deck simply by referring to the booklet. “It’s a tool of empowerment,” Kenner said, “but it can never replace that rapport. It’s just a different interface.”