First notes from learning audio engineering

It’s kind of fun to visually learn about audio engineering (at a very, very basic level). Thanks to David, I started learning about various connectors, transducers, and polar patterns this afternoon, got a load of vocabulary, and started feeling my way around asking questions about microphones. There’s a whole world of fun out there.

Neither of us is fluent in ASL, but between a hearing audio engineer and a deaf electrical engineer, it turns out that you can get pretty far. We ended up with him explaining things to me in mostly sign-supported English with some diagrams, and then me attempting to render it back to him more spatially to see if I had understood the concepts correctly. This quickly flagged several places where I really need to upgrade my classifier usage (my rendering of ribbon, condenser, and dynamic transducers would be better if I had a third hand) and but also some places where I realized that maybe I’m not as bad at this as I thought (using European vs. modern-US vs. old-US house wiring setups to explain what “hot” and “neutral” and “floating” meant).

Unsurprisingly, neither of us is aware of (or could find) ASL vocabulary for some audio engineering concepts… which doesn’t mean they’re not out there already. I’ll have to ask around. Right now, we’re signing (for instance) “translator” for “transducer” (I mean, it does translate between electrical and mechanical signals…) and attempting “stereo” as something akin to “sound that comes from both directions.”

Vocab so far, for future reference and in case anyone knows signs. There was a lot more there that these rough notes don’t cover, and it was great watching someone who really knows their stuff just look at various microphones and go “oh, this is that sort of thing… this has this setup… this is what’s going on in there.”

  1. Balanced vs. unbalanced setups (neutral/ground/earth/zero as a central point, as opposed to “floating” above neutral)
  2. What it means for a signal to be “hot” — basically, it means it’s not zero.
  3. Transducer setups: ribbon, condenser, and dynamic (in decreasing order of sensitivity/cost; you usually use dynamic mics for everything except studio recording because you can drop dynamic mics without killing them)
  4. A3F (audio 3-wire female) and A3M (same, but male) connectors
  5. TRS (tip-ring-sleeve) connectors , also known as phone or 1/4″ connectors (also the mini-phone variant, which is 1/8″). The tip carries audio 1 hot, the ring carries audio 2 hot, and the sleeve is ground/earth.
  6. Connectors related to TRS — TS (no ring, otherwise same as above — which means it’s unbalanced audio); also the variant that has two rings, where the second ring is “transmit” (for headsets, where that second ring carries headset microphone data in the opposite direction; my earbuds with speakers work this way)
  7. “midside stereophony,” the mic arrangement of the Zoom H5 (two microphones set at right angles to each other).
  8. Beating, when two signals don’t cancel each other out perfectly and you get distortion.
  9. Polar patterns: bi-directional, omni-directional, shotgun, and cardioid (this is so easy to explain with classifiers).
  10. Capsule and body (parts of the mic). Transducer is in the capsule; all transducer types can be all polar pattern types, and vice versa.
  11. Throw distance (for shotgun mics) – the distance between the mic and the speaker that doesn’t get recorded; this was super-cool, and learning that the shotgun mic capsule was in the back and that the large front part was all the body was a nice “aha” moment that threw a number of concepts into relief for me.

Curricular principle: being as well as knowing

This is the first post of a series on Olin’s curricular culture principles (draft versions!) which is my attempt to bring transparency into the work I’m doing with Tess Edmonds (‘11) and others. The short backstory is that Olin gets a lot of visitors from other institutions — mostly faculty — who want to learn how to do “what we do.” This requires us to articulate “how we do things around here” — in other words, our curricular culture — to talk about not just the surface-level features of our practice (“students work on teams!”) but the underlying principles that manifest in those surface-level formats. You can find all the posts in this series here.

A note before beginning: I’m writing this for an audience of fellow Oliners, and while I’ve tried to unpack acronyms and terms, I may be missing some. Let me know in the comments if there are things I need to unpack more, and I’ll edit accordingly.

The first principle I’m going to unpack is: learning is about being a practitioner, not just knowing about practice. As Rick Miller has said, Olin students learn to become engineers rather than learning about engineering.

This might seem obvious, but it isn’t. In the engineering education research world, we talk a lot about engineering epistemologies[1], which is the fancy word for “the study of engineering knowledge.” What is engineering knowledge, who decides what this knowledge is, how do we help people obtain it, and so forth? Similarly, when engineering faculty sit down to teach a course, they often talk about what students need to know, what they already know, how to help them acquire this new knowledge; it’s focused on the things students will learn about.

Without this principle, we end up talking a lot about the things students know, but not a lot about the people students are, except perhaps in a diversity-and-inclusion context. Even then, it’s usually in the context of how who they are affects the way they come to know — comments like “well, students from low-income communities tend to come in with less exposure to programming” or “how can we help women become more confident while learning how to use the machine shop?” However, we can’t separate knowledge and being/reality — it’s impossible to know something without there being a reality to know, and without being someone in that reality who can know[2].

This principle of “being as well as knowing” is not well developed throughout most of the engineering education world — including Olin (we don’t always do this perfectly). A lot of engineering educators focus on assessing and developing what students know about engineering. In order to adopt this principle, we also need to pay attention to how students are engineers — what it means for each of them to be their own particular kind of engineer.

To take two Olin faculty members as examples: by “their own particular kind of engineer,” I don’t just mean that Aaron is a MechE and Alisha is a BioE. I also mean that the ways in which Aaron and Alisha are engineers — the ways they embody engineering, the things it means for them specifically to be an engineer — include the things they know about engineering, but also include so much more than that. It’s important that Alisha is deeply invested in the design process and bringing it into non-engineering contexts and spent last semester working at a hospital; it’s important that Aaron has a minimalist aesthetic and works on transforming campus architecture and likes bikes. They know about things, and they also are many things (designers, bikers, people interested in medical work, etc). When Olin practices this principle well, it acknowledges and values these aspects of being (and more), and values how these aspects of being are expressed and developed — and crucially, sees this development and expression as part of engineering, not something separate from it.

This sentiment of also valuing the being of a person as an engineer similarly extends to the context of course design. Here, this looks like Olin faculty talking about what students should know, but also aspects of being they want students to have. For instance, QEA (Quantitative Engineering Analysis) faculty talk about how they want students to be engineers who enjoy doing quantitative analysis — which is related to, but separate from, their knowledge of quantitative techniques and their ability to apply them.

This aspect of Olin’s curricular culture affects the ways Olin community members work to help each other and ourselves grow as individuals[3]. Whether we’re students, faculty, staff, or alumni, we don’t just focus on developing what Oliners know; we focus on developing who they are.

Remember, these principles are drafts — I’m putting them out here for more commentary, feedback, etc. I’d love stories from Oliners (and non-Oliners) about their Olin experiences and how they do/don’t match this principle, and how this resonates with you, and especially how it does not (because that’s how I’ll learn to edit it). Post in the comments or contact me via whatever other means you have, and we’ll talk. And stay tuned for the next post, which I think will probably be on attention ownership (we’ll see!)

[1] Engineering epistemology (what engineering knowledge is and what it means to know about engineering) is one of the 5 key areas of engineering education research set forth in the 2006 paper that is still used to classify a lot of work in the field — see National Engineering Education Research Colloquies. (2006). The Research Agenda for the New Discipline of Engineering Education. Journal of Engineering Education, 95(4), 259–261. There is no mention of engineering ontology (or what it means to be an engineer) in that document, or in later iterations of an engineering education research taxonomy (current version at I’m… working on that.

[2] The philosophical terminology for this is ontology (the study of being/reality) and epistemology (the study of knowledge). Engineering education has a well-developed practice of talking about epistemology, but we are not used to discussing ontology. (Reality is just… real, right? And things just are. What’s there to talk about? Turns out there’s a lot.)

[3] The phenomenon of other fields looking at the ontologies of their disciplines and education practices is very recent, and is known as the “ontological turn” that is sweeping across the disciplines. Engineering education hasn’t quite entered it yet, but part of my work is attempting to bring it there. For an example of the ontological turn from medical education, see Dall’Alba, G. (2009). Learning to be professionals. Dordrecht ; New York: Springer.

Silliness: how one might possibly set fire to the rain (as per song lyrics)

From a completely silly but entirely deadpan debate about how, exactly, one would go about setting fire to the rain as described in the Adele song.

The rain obviously needs to contain or consist of some type of flammable liquid, and yet not be so volatile, and not disperse so much in vaporized form that an open flame would cause a chain reaction explosion. That would just explode the rain generating apparatus, and I argue that the song assumes a continuous event of fire setting and not a one-time incident.

The alternative option is that one sets fire to the rain after it has fallen, as one sets alight newspaper drenched in lighter fluid on the grill. However, I find this unlikely as well because the next line refers to the rain touching the singer’s face in ways that grammatically hint at an ongoing action.

Now, rain could refer metaphorically not to the fall of liquid, but to a cascade of many small falling flaming objects. Or rather, small falling flammable objects, as setting fire implies a state transition caused by the singer – that is, one only sets fire to objects not yet aflame. This seems to me to be the most acceptable interpretation. Additionally, credence is given to the falling objects theory by the additional attribute that it is screaming out the addressee’s name.

Here’s my best theory. The rain refers poetically to a shower of small audio recording and playback devices upon which the singer has recorded the addressee’s name. They have a thermally sensitive trigger. The electronics are well sealed. In particular, the battery is relatively well protected from the heat.

The insulated, nonflammable casing is wrapped in a wicking material and then doused in kerosene or similar. The singer places a large quantity of these soaked playback devices in a crane or other sturdy overhead construction apparatus, places the addressee nearby, lights the pile via a remote starter, touches the addressee’s face, and then triggers the crane dump. The fire activates the thermal trigger. Devices playback the addressee’s name. The singer hears it and cries on cue.

For added visual bonus, the casing only protects the electronics for so long, but eventually the battery overheats and explodes, which seems to match the drama of the piece.

I am unsure if this utilizes similar techniques as one might employ to set fire to the third bar, but if so, that would be an additional source to consider. That one is easy, though: enter two bars, do not set fire to them. Enter third bar, evacuate the third bar, put on appropriate personal protective equipment, set fire to the third bar.

Is the author of the rain song referencing the bar? We don’t know! There are no details on where they acquired their methodology. This is why citations are important.

Thoughts on Matthew Guterl’s piece on “surviving graduate school”

Via Steph Daza: a post by Matthew Pratt Guterl on surviving graduate school. Here are some parts that stood out to me.

From #8: Search for something that appeals to you and that connects with bigger issues. So choose wisely and be excited. This echoes Ruth Streveler’s advice: “The shiny thing can definitely detract from productivity. So I’ve tried to learn how to find the shiniest thing, and really get clear about what the shiniest thing is, and let myself ignore the less shiny.”

13. Learn how to craft and control the narrative of your career, from the presentation of your CV to web pages to wardrobes to public performances. This means learning how to distinguish between the truly impressive and the superficial. I still struggle to do this; the narratives I’m trying to write feel so strange in so many ways that they’re often seen (including by myself!) as fundamentally incompatible ones. But hrgh, it’s… possible…

18. Know this: there is really only one question at job talks and conferences and grad student get-togethers: “Your work is interesting. How does it relate to mine?” So do your homework. Know what people care about. I miss these gatherings; I miss professional socialization; I feel like I’ve been in a hole under a bucket for the last few years (probably a massive overexaggeration, but…) and that I desperately want to work on excellent teams again.

20. People will treat you like crap all the time. They will ignore you, or try to hurt you, or even try to ruin you. If what they are doing is illegal, don’t be silent. Do what must be done. If what they are doing is merely cruel, just remember, and don’t be that person. And mobilize for a better world. Basically. I will say that it is hard — I don’t know about “harder” because this is the only experience I’ve lived — but it is hard to be at the intersection of a bunch of marginalizations; if one thing isn’t slapping you in the face, another thing is, and I cherish the spaces where I can exhale and feel safe being myself. It’s one of the reasons I want to build sanctuaries for others wherever I go.

23. Learn how to tell the difference between those faculty who will help you get things within the context of your department/your university, and those faculty who will help you do the same thing while also teaching you how to get these things on your own. Still need to learn this. Since I literally don’t overhear things, accidental learning in my field only exists for me in text formats (which largely means it doesn’t exist). I have to be very, very deliberate about seeking to learn academic-cultural things I don’t yet know that I don’t know.

And finally, I appreciate the last point from… a number of different perspectives.

30. Finally, write your own list. Don’t just copy this down. Edit it. Disagree with it. Improve it. Print it up. Put it on the fridge. Argue about it. The point of any such list isn’t to give you a pathway; it is to help you find your own.

On writing: a glove that fits

It’s been a long time since I simply wrote here — just wrote out thoughts, without more formal content to share, or having this be a draft of something else I was officially working on, or something of that sort. I used to need to write here as an outlet, a place where the thoughts inside me could erupt into the world, unsure of what I was becoming. I wanted a place to mark things down, to leave a trace.

I’m not sure that I need that any more — clearly, as the last year and a half (or two? it’s been a while) have shown, I can live (and live well!) without it; continue to learn and grow and meet people and do hard things and fall down and make mistakes and keep becoming more and more a Mel with every day, discovering what that means. But there are times where writing like this is a valuable exercise in and of itself; it fights my tendency towards perfectionism, makes me put something down with the full knowledge that my older self will read this someday and hear my inexperience, and… that’s okay.

I’m a better person when I write. I don’t know why this is, other than it’s probably the way that I was made. Some people were made to draw, and some to dance, and some to play music, and some to do math, and I was made to do those things as well and find deep joy in them. But writing also draws me back, and words, and language, and how I can type them out so fluently sometimes that I don’t recognize where eloquence is birthed from. Because some of these thoughts must be beyond me, and yet there they are, glinting softly in the rumpled folds of awkward sentences I recognize as much more mine. Surely my thoughts and words must be all smudgy charcoal and feet falling over themselves, so where do these tiny flights come from, peeping once, twice, and then — small soft feathered bodies zipping away as the folds of my inarticulate dust roll off them? Someone has breathed a life into my dust.

That’s probably why it’s been so hard, the past few years. Writing has never been hard for me before; words have always been my friends, sometimes my only ones. I’ve never really grappled with things on a printed page; they’ve always been smooth draughts amidst a world of blurry lips and muffled bassy sounds. I could drink them in and pour them out; even my undergrad humanities thesis, even my early grad school papers, they pulled at the familiar feeling inside my mind of thoughts crystallizing into a whole as they poured out into my hands and into type.

I never really edited, except maybe for minor typos once in a while, or a sentence or two out of place. Never rewrote. Never outlined, never structured. Never had to do more than lay out all of the books in front of me, in larger and larger piles and rings as I progressed from high school into college into the PhD — lay them all out in front of me, and then start writing. It was a vast landscape of thought before me that I could easily fly across, dip into, pull threads into the form I was weaving. And yes, sometimes that was hard, but it was always just hard in the moment, and I could make it work — I could always make written English work. And maybe sometimes what came out wasn’t particularly gorgeous — as I went farther in my studies, it became increasingly cobbled-together, as my writing spilled beyond the ways that I could naturally structure it and signpost it for others. But it was good enough; it held, my patching held, I never had to learn to sew.

Text was my home, my first language, my primary way to think and be and show my skills and my potential. And so I was completely unprepared when I started to run off the frayed edges of where my natural talent could take me. My raw ability had unspooled so, so much further beyond the other people I had seen, peeling off to gasp along the wayside when the text outpaced them; floods of reading, floods of writing, larger and larger structures that they needed tools to grasp.

And I took a certain sort of pride in running down that road barefoot and untrained, grasping at things with open hands and swinging through thickets of meaning like I was born to it. Because this was the jungle that had raised me; with so much of the human world around me closed to me without a fight, I learned to think from books, how to express myself from books, how to piece together dialogues from writers who spoke back and forth of one another through the years.

So it felt like betrayal when I stumbled, felt like words had turned against me; felt like I was cast out of my home, stripped of one of my greatest talents. I hadn’t been, of course. I could reach just as far as before, but now I was reaching for things that were farther. And I couldn’t get to them without unwinding, backing up, trying to figure out how I had done things I had never thought about. Learning the sorts of things most people learn in grade school. How to outline. What arguments were, how to structure them. How to revise and how to edit; how to accept a first draft being far from final, how to aim towards done. How to read — something I never thought I’d need to think about. How to read.

It’s like relearning your first language. Which, for me, it literally was. And is. I’m still learning, and I still miss that untrained innocence of sorts that I kept for a long, long time. But in the end, it’s a decision about the value and the choice of craft, and whether I love to write more than I love the writing being easy, and deciding that day after day.

There is a part I love, right at the end of The Amber Spyglass, where the heroine Lyra realizes that her natural childhood gift of reading the alethiometer (a device for revealing truth) has vanished. Previously, she had reveled in being able to easily wield a skill that highly trained adults struggled with, but now she has become one of those adults — with no training, since she had ridden entirely on her natural gifts so far. And now she has a choice of what to do.

“Why – ” Lyra began, and found her voice weak and trembling – ”why can’t I read the alethiometer anymore? Why can’t I even do that? That was the one thing I could do really well, and it’s just not there anymore – it just vanished as if it had never come…”

“You read it by grace,” said Xaphania, looking at her, “and you can regain it by work.”

“How long will that take?”

“A lifetime.”

“That long…”

“But your reading will be even better then, after a lifetime of thought and effort, because it will come from conscious understanding. Grace attained like that is deeper and fuller than grace that comes freely, and furthermore, once you’ve gained it, it will never leave you.”

“You mean a full lifetime, don’t you?” Lyra whispered. “A whole long life? Not… not just… a few years…”

“Yes, I do,” said the angel.

So do you spurn a lifetime of hard work because it should be natural, like it had been when you were younger, and walk away from a craft you now need to earn with sweat and blood like everybody else? Or do you ride the remnants of that childhood gift forever, only doing easy things — things that you know are probably hard for a lot of other people, but which aren’t the things you could achieve if you decided to stretch out of your plateau?

Or do you decide the craft is greater than the cost, and that slow progress that you cannot see is worth the journey, and that you love the doing of the work more than the rewards that seem to shimmer at the end, and do you pick it up and read the primers over and over again, and falter through the basics you wish you could just dismiss, and keep going even though you leave hard trails of imperfection in your wake, and don’t know where you’re going, and often feel alone?

A few years ago, when the threads of my base talent were starting to unravel beyond their limits, I complained to my classmate Julia and our department head, Dr. Radcliffe, that it felt like reaching through a thick rubber wall; the harder I pushed, the more it pushed back, so why keep trying to grasp what lay on the other side? What would I gain from it?

And Julia answered something like this, although I am rephrasing it a lot: you keep pushing to stretch the rubber wall farther out to get to where you want to go. You complain that none — or very little — of the academic writing that you see is in a voice that you can accept as someday being yours; you say that scholarship is something that doesn’t fit you, and that you can’t pretend to put on something that doesn’t fit just for the sake of getting through. And that’s all right. But here is what you’re doing — you’re stretching the wall until it flexes to fit you. It becomes a glove that fits. And then you’ll have a voice that is both yours and a scholar’s, because you’ll be a scholar.

I want a glove that fits more than I want work that is easy.

And so I will wake up in the mornings and continue to write and learn to be a scholar, even if it is hard.

Comic: Products and Practitioners: how a visibility of developmental processes aids in practitioner formation

The one-page comic below was created as a quick reference for faculty and students at Olin College, where learners can see the development of both products and processes in the domain they are learning in (whether that’s engineering, education, or something else).

The text after the comic is also in the Scribd document description and functions as an accessible image description of the one-page comic.

Products and Processes: how a visibility of developmental processes aids in practitioner formation by Mel Chua on Scribd

Another theory comic: image description follows. (Heavily influenced by Community of Practice, Situated Cognition, and Cognitive Apprenticeship theories.)

Text at the top of the page: When learners are engaged in an authentic, situated, & communal practice context, they see the development of two kinds of things over and over again in their environment:

Title text: Products & Practitioners (of their practice).

The middle of the page is divided into two columns. The left column is under the portion of the title that says “Products,” and shows three people getting clay from a big lump labeled “raw materials.” Below that, the same three people are shown starting to form pots from the clay; one person drops their pot and cries “oh, no!” Below that, the same three people are shown continuing to work on their pots; the middle person is now saying “oh, cool!” as they piece the pottery shards back together, and one of the other potters looks at them and thinks “I see how you adapted that!” Below that are drawings of the three final pots, all different; one is a squat, short pot with squiggly decorations, another is the broken pot pieced artistically back together, and the third is a tall vase made out of coils. All together, the left column shows the development process of a variety of pottery “products” from start to finish.

The right column is under the portion of the title that says “practitioners.” At the top is a group of three small children labeled “novices,” in the middle is a group of three teens labeled “juniors,” and at the bottom is a group of three adults labeled “masters.” The novices are making small simple pots; one cries out “my first pot!” while raising their fist in excitement. One teen is looking at the excited small child and thinking “I remember that time.” Another teen is being gazed at by a small child thinking “someday, I’m going to do that,” and is in turn looking at an adult practitioner and thinking the same thing. One of the teens has made a mistake on their pot; an adult is watching them and saying “I remember that time.” All together, the right column shows the developmental spectrum of potters from novice to master, with younger practitioners looking towards the older ones in anticipation of what they will do, and older ones looking back at the younger ones in remembrance of where they once were.

Below these two images is text that reads: one thing seeing these developmental cycles constantly reinforces is the sheer diversity of ways to engage with the profession/practice and the world. Each product and practitioner is fashioned from a different mold. The question becomes not “how do I fit the norm,” but rather…

“What might I make?” and “Who might I become?” (in a thought bubble coming from a person at the bottom center, head cradled thoughtfully in hands, with a variety of ceramic pieces surrounding them at either side)

At the bottom of the page is the copyright/authorship notice: Copyright 2016 CC-BY-SA Mel Chua.

Comic: 7 Techniques Adapted From Cognitive Apprenticeship Theory

The one-page comic below was created as a quick reference for faculty and students at Olin College, where students and faculty frequently have spontaneous, complex learning interactions in seemingly chaotic studio/project environments. Cognitive apprenticeship theory provides one of many ways to make sense of the sorts of implicitly taught and culturally engrained deep teaching and learning skills that might otherwise be lost in overwhelming chaos.

The text after the comic is also in the Scribd document description and functions as an accessible image description of the one-page comic.

7 Techniques Adapted From Cognitive Apprenticeship: “Making Thinking Visible” in spontaneous, complex learn… by Mel Chua on Scribd

Header: Cognitive Apprenticeship – 7 techniques for making thinking visible (studio version)

This comic is a one-page visual description of 5 Cognitive Apprenticeship techniques developed in the 80′s by Collins, Brown, Newman, and Duguid, plus two additions adapted by the author for adult learners (denoted with an *).

The techniques are:


  • scaffolding (faculty directs attention — a faculty member frames part of a complex problem, asking a student to “please focus your work here first”)
  • bounding* (student directs attention — a student frames part of a complex problem, asking a faculty member to “please focus your feedback here first”)
  • modeling (faculty does, faculty explains — a faculty member works with a complex problem, explaining what “I am trying to…” do)
  • coaching (student does, faculty explains — a student works with a complex problem while a faculty member coaches them on what “you might try to…” do)
  • narrating* (faculty does, student explains — a faculty member works with a complex problem while a student explains what they think “you are trying to…” do)
  • articulating (student does, student explains — a student works with a complex problem, explaining what “I am trying to…” do)
  • reflecting (comparing faculty/expert practice with student/novice practice)


These seven techniques are displayed in a thought bubble being pondered by a cartoon character who has lifted off the top of their head, pointing to the gears turning inside; this is a metaphor for “making thinking visible.”

Beside that character are two ways the 7 techniques can be used:

  • used to describe spontaneous, complex learning interactions (a faculty and student interacting over a complex problem, their illegible speech bubbles overwritten by a label saying “what is happening here? Bounding.”) A note at the bottom says that the technique “switches rapidly every 1-2 sentences.”
  • used to request spontaneous, complex learning interactions (a faculty and student interacting over a complex problem; the student says “could you please Model this for me?” and the faculty replies “sure!”)

The text at bottom left (cut off by the scan): *denotes new code adapted for adult learners. Comic CC-BY-SA Mel Chua 2016.

Oral deaf audio MacGyver: identifying speakers

Being oral deaf is like being MacGyver with audio data, except that the constant MacGyvering is normal since you do it for every interaction of every day. Posting because this seems interesting/useful to other people, although I’m personally still in the “wait, why are people so amused/surprised by this… does not everyone do this, is this not perfectly logical?”

I was explaining how I use my residual hearing to sort-of identify speakers, using faculty meetings as an example. The very short version is that it’s like constructing and doing logic grid puzzles constantly. Logic grid puzzles are ones where you get clues like…

  1. There are five houses.
  2. The Englishman lives in the red house.
  3. The Spaniard owns the dog.
  4. Coffee is drunk in the green house.
  5. The Ukrainian drinks tea.
  6. The green house is immediately to the right of the ivory house.

…and so forth, and have to figure out what’s going on from making a grid and figuring out that the Ukranian can’t possibly live in the green house because they drink tea and the green house person drinks coffee, and so forth.

Now the long explanation, in the context of being oral deaf. Some background: I’m profoundly deaf, with some low-frequency hearing; I use hearing aids and a hybrid CI (typically the CI plus one hearing aid). Generally speaking, I can’t actually hear enough to identify people through voice alone — but I can say some things about some attributes of their voice. For instance, I can tell (to some approximation) if a singer is in-tune, in-rhythm, and in control of their voice, and I can tell the difference between a low bass and a first soprano… but I wouldn’t be able to listen to a strange song and go “oh, that’s Michael Buble!” (My hearing friends assure me that his voice is quite distinctive.)

However! When I know people and have heard their voice (along with lipreading and context) for a while, I do know that their voices do and don’t have certain attributes I can perceive. And even if I’m not using my residual hearing/audio-related gadgetry to get semantic information (i.e. the words someone is saying) because I have better alternatives in that context (interpretation, captioning) I will still want audio…

…and I will pause for a short sidebar right now, because it might seem, to hearing people, that this is the only logical course of action — that hearing more is always good for understanding more. It isn’t. Extra information is only information if it’s worth the mental effort tradeoff to turn it into useful data; otherwise, it’s noise. It’s the same reason you would probably be happy if the background noise in a loud bar went away while you were talking to your friend. That background noise is “extra data,” but it’s not informative to you and just takes more effort to process it away.

In my case — and the case of my deaf friends who prefer to not use residual hearing when there’s another access option available — we’re patching across multiple languages/modalities on a time delay, and that triggers two competing thought streams. If you want to know what that feels like, try to fluently type a letter to one friend while speaking to another on a different topic. Physically, you can do it — your eyeballs and hands are on the written letter, your ears and mouth are in the spoken conversation — but your brain will struggle. Don’t switch back and forth between them (which is what most people will immediately start to do) — actually do both tasks in parallel. It’s very, very hard. In our case, one stream is lossy auditory English as the speaker utters something, and the other is clear written English or clear ASL visuals some seconds behind it. (Assuming your provider is good. Sometimes this data stream is… less clear and accurate than one might like.) Merging/reconciling the two streams is one heck of a mental load… and since we *can* shut off the lossy auditory English as “noise” rather than “signal,” sometimes we do.

Anyway, back to the main point. Sometimes I don’t want the audio data for semantic purposes — but I want it for some other purposes, so I’ll leave my devices on. Oftentimes, this reason is “I’d like to identify who’s speaking.” Knowing who said what is often just as important as what’s being said, and this is often not information available through that other, more accessible data stream — for instance, a random local interpreter who shows up at your out-of-state conference will have no idea who your long-time cross-institutional colleagues are, so you’ll get something like “MAN OVER THERE [is saying these things]” and then “WOMAN OVER THERE [is saying these things]” and then try to look in that direction yourself for a split-second to see which WOMAN OVER THERE is actually talking.

This is where the auditory data sometimes comes in. I can sometimes logic out some things about speaker identity using my fuzzy auditory sense along with other visually-based data, both in-the-moment and short-term-memorized.

By “fuzzy sense,” I mean that auditorily — sometimes, in good listening conditions — I can tell things like “it’s a man’s voice, almost certainly… or rather, it is probably not a high soprano woman.” By in-the-moment visual data, I mean things like “the person speaking is not in my line of sight right now” and “the interpreter / the few people who are in my line of sight right now are looking, generally, in this direction.” By short-term-memorized visual data, I mean things like “I memorized roughly who was sitting where during the few seconds when I was walking into the room, but not in great detail because I was also waving to a colleague and grabbing coffee at the same time… nevertheless, I have a rough idea of some aspects of who might be where.”

So then I think — automatically — something like this. “Oh, it’s a man now, and not in my line of sight right now, and that has two possibilities because I’ve quasi-memorized where everyone is sitting when I walked into the room, so using the process of elimination…”

Again, the auditory part is mostly about gross differences like bass voices vs sopranos in no background noise. Sometimes it’s not about what I can identify about voice attributes, but also about what I can’t — “I don’t know if this is a man or a woman, but this person is not a high soprano… also, they are not speaking super fast based on the rhythm I can catch. Must not be persons X or Y.”

For instance, at work, I have colleagues whose patterns are…

  1. Slow sounds, many pauses, not a soprano
  2. Super fast, not a bass, no pauses, machine gun syllable patterns
  3. Incredibly variant prosody, probably not a woman but not obviously a bass
  4. Slower cadence and more rolling prosody with pauses that feel like completions of thoughts rather than mid-thought processing (clear dips and stresses at the ends of sentences)
  5. Almost identical to the above, but with sentences that have often not ended, but pauses are occurring and prosodic patterns are repeating and halting and repeating

These are all distinctive fingerprints, to me — combined with knowing where they’re sitting, and I have decently high confidence in most of my guesses. And then there are people who won’t speak unless I’m actually looking at them or the interpreter or the captioning, and that’s data too. (“Why is it quiet? Oh! Person A is going to talk, and is waiting for me to be ready for them to speak.”)

There’s more to this. Sometimes I’ll look away and guess at what they’re saying because I know their personalities, their interests, what they’re likely to say and talk about, opinions they’re likely to hold… I build Markov models for their sentence structures and vocabularies, and I’m pretty good at prediction… there’s a lot more here, but this is a breakdown of one specific aspect of the constant logic puzzles I solve in my head as a deaf person.

In terms of my pure-tone audiogram, I shouldn’t be able to do what I do — and it’s true, I can’t from in-the-moment audio alone. But combined with a lot of other things, including a tolerance of extreme cognitive fatigue? Maybe. In the “zebra puzzle,” where I drew the example logic puzzle clues from at the beginning, there are a series of clues that go on and on… and then the questions at the end are “who drinks water?” and “who owns the zebra?” Neither water nor zebra are mentioned in any of the clues above, so the first response might be “what the… you never said anything about… what zebra?” But you can figure it out with logic. Lots of logic. And you have the advantage of knowing that the puzzle is a logic puzzle and that it ought to be solvable, meaning that with logic, you can figure out who owns the zebra. In the real world… nobody tells you something could become a logic puzzle, and you never know if they are solvable. But I try them anyway.

Starter back and shoulder workouts

For accountability and later amusement purposes, here are my current strength workouts. Right now I’m cycling between back workout days, shoulder workout days, and rest days. 


  1. Alternating jog/sprints for 5 min.
  2. Foam roll quads (vastus lateralis/side, and front)

Bodyweight circuit: 3 rounds of…

  1. Jump squats, 30 sec (exhale on jump, watch left ankle)
  2. Hollow body hold, 30 sec
  3. Plank to down dog, 1×12 (exhale on the transition to down dog)
  4. Plyo high-knee skips, 30 sec
  5. Flutter kicks, 30 sec
  6. Side planks, 30 sec per side
  7. Side lunge to balance, 10 per side (not alternating; the leg stretched out is the one that goes up)
  8. Transverse toe touches, 10 per side

Back workout:

Always do a warmup set with the empty bar or a light weight before beginning. When two weights are listed, start with the higher weight and progress incrementally down to the lower weight when form starts to fail. Alternating movmeents need both sides to complete before a rep is counted.

  1. Deadlift 105lb / one-arm bent-over row (not alternating), 30-25lb, 3×10
  2. Cable lat pulldown 27.5lb-20lb / alternating transverse crunches, 3×10

Shoulder workout:

Note: my shoulder mobility and muscle awareness is currently kind of crap, and they’re imbalanced and funky in interesting ways, so pay close attention to core engagement and movement awareness/quality and muscle engagement here.

  1. Clean hang press 50lb / bench leg extensions, 3×10-12
  2. Shoulder press 20-15lb / inverse pike on incline bench, 3×10
  3. Superset 3×10 (do all three back to back before resting and repeating) of:
    1. Upright rows 7-5lb (start with dumbell handles horizontal, keep dumbells together, peel shoulders back and keep them down)
    2. Alternating lateral raises (keep shoulders back and down; bend knees and tighten core)
    3. Standing flys (start with dumbell handles vertical, keep elbows in)

Some thoughts that I don’t want to have, regarding people getting shot

This post could be written by a lot of people who belong to a lot of groups. This post has been written by a lot of people who belong to a lot of groups, and you should find and read those things too. This just happens to be the post that I can write, about a group that I belong to also.

Trigger warnings: audism, racism, discussions of police-related violence/shooting, probably some other stuff.

A number of (hearing) friends from a bunch of my (different) social circles recently sent me — almost simultaneously — links to news stories about Deaf people getting killed by cops who couldn’t communicate with them.

This is nothing new. It’s been happening for ages. Someone with a gun gets scared and pulls the trigger, and someone else is dead. Maybe that person is Deaf. Maybe that person is Black. In any case, that person is now dead, and that’s not okay. (Maybe that person is both Deaf and Black, and we mention the second part but not the first. That’s disability erasure that, statistically, correlates highly with race; that’s also not okay.)

I’ve been deaf as long as I can remember, and I’ve known these stories happened for a long, long time. But this is the first time I’ve watched them from inside the conversations of a Deaf community — for some definition of “inside” that includes confused mainstreamed-oral youngsters like me who are struggling to learn ASL and figure out where they fit.

I’m a geek, a scholar, and an academic. My last long string of blog posts is part of a draft chapter on postmodernist philosophy as a theoretical language for describing maker/hacker/open-source culture within engineering education, and honestly… that’s what I’d rather write about. That’s what I’d rather think about. That’s what I’d rather sign about. Not people getting shot. A large portion of my Deaf friends are also geeks and scholars — older and more experienced than me, with tips on how to request ASL interpreting for doctoral defenses and faculty meetings, how to use FM units to teach class, how to navigate accessibility negotiations when your book wins awards and you get international speaking invitations. They are kind and brilliant and passionate and wonderful I love them and I want to be one of them when I grow up.

And we are geeks when we talk about these deaths, too. Kind and brilliant and passionate and wonderful. And my heart bursts with gratitude that I know these people, because it’s such a thoughtful and complex discussion, from so many perspectives, drawing on so many historical, theoretical, personal, etc. threads… the narratives I love, the sorts of tricky complexity that brought me back to graduate school and sent me hurtling down years of studying intricate threads of thought so I could better appreciate the mysteries that people and their stories are.

And I can’t stop thinking that any of us — any of these kind and brilliant and passionate and wonderful geeks in the middle of these great and rather hopeful discussions about complex societal dynamics and how to improve them — we could be taken out by a single bullet from a cop who doesn’t know.

I’ve learned a lot of things about being a deaf woman of color in the past year. I’m lucky; I look like a “good” minority, a white-skinned Asian who can play to stereotypes of quiet submission — but even then. And I know lots of people who can’t. And one of the first things I learned was how to stop pretending to be hearing all the time — especially in any interaction involving someone with a badge or guns (airports, traffic stops, anything). This isn’t just because it’s exhausting to lipread, but because it can be dangerous to piss off someone who thinks you’re ignoring them out of malice or attitude rather than the truth that you simply didn’t hear them shouting.

I first learned this sort of thing in undergrad, when some of my engineering college friends were horrified by stories of some other student from some other engineering college arrested by panicky cops for carrying around an electronics project. I thought they were upset for the same reasons I was — because it was a stupendous overreaction on the part of the cops and the school. And it was. But they were also worried because — what if that had been me? And the cops had shouted stop, and turn around, and put down the device — and I didn’t hear them?

“It’s fine. I mean, I’m deaf, but I can talk — I would explain things. I would figure it out,” I told them at the time. “I’m smart, you know.” As if that would protect me, as if I could compensate that way — because I’d compensated that way for so much, for all my life.

But being smart doesn’t make you more hearing — to hear shouts from people pointing guns at you — or less dead, once they fire them. And being smart doesn’t spare you from assumptions people make because of how you’re navigating tradeoffs. If you’re a PhD who decides to go voice-off while getting through airport security because it means you’re less likely to get shot, you’re going to get treated like a very small and stupid child. Maybe not every time, and not by everyone, but enough that swallowing your pride becomes a normal part of flying. No written note, no typed message, no outward display of intelligence that I’ve been able to figure out has made someone recognize the intellectual identity I’m trying to communicate when they’ve already assumed it isn’t there.

And being smart doesn’t mean you can think your way out of other people’s assumptions and their ignorance and their inability to see who you are. And being smart isn’t what gives your life its value; being human does. (Being smart doesn’t make you more special than people who don’t rank as high on whatever flawed metric of smartness you or the world decide to use.) And being kind and brilliant and passionate and wonderful does not exempt you from being heartbroken when the world is broken, and afraid because it hurts you, and your friends, and people like you, and people like your friends, for a lot of different reasons that shouldn’t matter in the world, but do.

I wish I were more eloquent, but I can’t think about this too much and still do things like finish my doctoral dissertation this week. I wish I could speak to how this isn’t just about violence against Deaf and disabled people, how I’m not just speaking up right now because I happen to belong to those groups too — this breaks my heart when it’s Black people and queer people and Christian people and female people and trans people and… people. It’s mostly that I can speak a little bit more readily from inside groups I’m in, and that I have a little bit of time to vent this out right now, between writing a section on “postmodern narrative sensemaking as plural” and another on “narrative accruals as co-constructing communities of practice.”

Back to the world, I guess. Back to writing my stories of the gorgeousness and complexity and hope that always lives inside the world that wins my heart and breaks it all at the same time.