Short comics about hearing aid tech

I’m finally done — well, done enough — with my first graphic essay series on hearing aid technologies that I feel like I can release them into the world.

  1. “I have things in my ears. How the heck do they work?” (hearing aids primer)
  2. “A graphic guide to hearing aid frequency lowering techniques”
  3. “A graphical guide to wireless hearing aid technologies”
  4. Combined references/credits document (only lists references I ended up explicitly using facts from; I read more than what’s listed here).

Much of this information has come through the time and patience of others who are far more expert in the field than I. Particular thanks are due to Brandon Coventry, Sara Melnick, and Sarah Sparks, and especially to Joshua Alexander who first introduced me to the fascinating engineering behind hearing aids. All errors and omissions are my own. Comics below, followed by reflections.

I have things in my ears — how the heck do they work? (draft) by Mel Chua

A graphic guide to hearing aid frequency lowering techniques (draft) by Mel Chua

A graphical guide to wireless hearing aid technologies (draft) by Mel Chua

The original plan was to create 4 comics, each approximately 4 pages and centered around one specific topic. Instead, I came up with 3 comics that are 4, 7, and 15 pages respectively –a total of 26 pages, which is substantially more than the 16 I’d originally planned. Turns out you need lots of space to communicate complex topics with any level of sophistication — and yet I still feel I’ve oversimplified too much, left out too much… and the most common reader feedback I got was “wow, some of these pages are so crowded.

Each of these pages took me between 1-2 hours to sketch and draft, and perhaps another hour to ink. That’s about 65 hours of drawing alone — not counting reading time beforehand, or revision/feedback cycles afterwards. Graphic essays take a long time, in part because they’re so integrated into themselves that they become hard to revise without redoing the whole thing — or at least the whole page. I also ran multiple pens completely out of ink during the process and started to look longingly at graphics tablets and people who knew how to wield them wisely.

Readers seemed to generally take to the humor I used to expand on difficult ideas. One technique that worked particularly well was anthropomorphizing logic and circuit components. For example, the hearing aid processor becomes a ponytail-boppin’ DJ with huge headphones. Snakelike audio signals hurtle their rumpled selves into the antialiasing filter, emerging sleek and shiny out the other side.

I also got positive feedback for my personal take on the issue, with a little cartoon Mel popping in with commentary on how I perceive or use various technologies. Even my younger self makes several appearances — for instance, sitting on the floor in speech therapy and gaily illustrating why consonant discrimination is so important to childhood language development. (Imagine learning the word “sit” without being able to distinguish between the “s” and “sh” sounds.)

If I were to do this again, I would redesign my process to make revision cycles easier. I have not yet found a good tradeoff. Graphical drafts are difficult to draw and revise, but writing out all-text “scripts” of pages lost so much of the graphical immediacy of the work that I gave up in frustration trying to prototype pages that way. A better route involved listing information I wanted to communicate, breaking it down into what data went on which individual comic pages, and doing rough thumbnail sketches of what information would be communicated in what area of the page — but that took forever (and isn’t counted in my drawing time, by the way). And all these things lived on paper, meaning that I had to slog my way to a scanner to get them out to anyone who wasn’t near me.

On the up side, it was never difficult to find reviewers; all I had to do was plonk down in front of people and begin sketching, and inevitably a small crowd would gather and begin to pass pages around. (Maybe this only works on academic campuses full of fellow geeks.)

At some point, I would like to meet more experienced artists who would let me professional artists with some degree of training and apprenticeship and learning-through-practice who would let me observe them and question them about their tools, techniques, choices… people from whom I can learn. I’m self-taught in pretty much all aspects of this work.

Loud music in the car

Awkward capture of a daily ritual I relish — thought I’d write this down before the time period where I can’t listen to loud music, due to my hybrid CI surgery coming up on Thursday. I will miss this.

One of the spaces I relish most — in both physical space and the passage of time — is driving alone in my car. It’s just the right amount of extraneous stimuli for my mind to relax but still think about other things for an extended period. I like the whooshing of motion, the vision of the world whipping by. I’ll often fall into prayer while driving, sometimes effortlessly (sometimes not). And without other people in the car, I get to turn my music on as loud as I want to play it.

My music is loud. Loud, loud loud. Probably the kind of loud that causes permanent hearing damage, except that I’m… already profoundly deaf, so that’s about as loud as it has to be for me to hear it in the first place. If others are in the car, they turn the music down so that it’s the right volume for them, and I can barely tell there’s music there at all. Sometimes I don’t even realize it’s playing.

My mind tries to follow along in auditory imagination, grasping at wraiths hidden in the thrum of the motor, working hard to fill in the gaps. And I can do it, often — I have a fantastic auditory imagination, far stronger without external cognition than my fragile capacity for visuals (if I don’t close my eyes, focus hard, and/or sketch, I lose what I’m attempting to imagine). But it strains me, and I often give up. Alone in the car, it’s my space and I can fill it with sound that I want.

Mornings and evenings when I commute, I’ll fling the volume control out to the right, usually until the screen reads MAX and the rear and side view mirrors start to shudder with the pulse of bass. I nudge my left knee out to contact the door, where the speakers are built in. Each drum kick and each low bass hum pads through my leg; sometimes I raise my voice and blend into the sound. I’m now surrounded, swimming in a signal that’s now deep enough for me to dive — in reality, not only in imagination. That’s what I miss; that’s what I want. That’s what I dance to, when I dance — I dance to blues, a form of music soaked enough with bass that I can hear at volumes approximating someone hearing.

My car audio can be heard — windows closed — from across a gas station. My headphones can be heard — with lyrics — from across the room. My phone conversations, such as they are, are audible to everyone around me long before they’re understandable to me (and barely so, without interpreting). But when I drive alone, it doesn’t matter. It’s my space to fill with sound, and so I do.

After The Rain, part II

Stumbled across an old dance class paper from about 2 years ago now. Still one of the best dance performances I’ve seen — partnering is my favorite aspect of dance, which is why I enjoy training in contact improvisation. In my primary/preferred dance form — blues — excellent partnering looks and feels like this… and “After The Rain part II” was the first time I’d seen ballet’s equivalent.

I have wanted to see this dance for a while – I’ve read about it, I’ve seen pictures of it, I’ve heard reviews of how beautiful it is – and I was not disappointed. This was my favorite piece of the evening.

My first impression was of sparse precision (synchronized dancers and canons, cool blues and a spare soundtrack) giving way to a relaxed and tender liberation; the shirtless man, the woman in a pink slip of almost nothing, the backdrop sunset-orange, the music gentle and chiming chords. It was like stepping into a warm place from the biting cold and suddenly breathing again.

I remember the partnering – how skillful it was, but how it looked organic, not artificial or over-rehearsed. Their hands were just in the right place to catch each other; their glances, their clasps – they came together just at the right moment, not pre-anticipated, but not surprising. The physics of the lifts took enormous strength in legs and core and arms and everywhere – I could see that clearly – but they made them look so natural, strong but without strain.

The program notes suggested that the piece portrayed the “evolution of a relationship,” and I did see that ebb and flow; they repeated phrases and did variations, they went apart and came together, they counterbalanced and supported one another – but I didn’t see the “relationship” in the dance change significantly (it didn’t get “better” or “worse” between the beginning or the end). One thing I do remember was the very start of the pas de deux when the man is supporting the woman, and she makes a few tentative efforts to extend her right leg upwards – and then finally, she does it… and then later in the dance, she’s able to do it alone, without his support, in a very similar way. So I could see an evolution there, in the ability of the woman to do that strong upward and outward extension. Otherwise, it was a beautiful being-together that seemed to float in timelessness.

In terms of moments that engaged me, several vivid images stick in my mind: the woman caressing the man’s face, the man picking up the woman in a backbend and gently swinging her in a circle close to the floor, the woman cantilevered out from the man’s kneeling hip (what one review called the “Cadillac moment”), the man lifting the woman, spread-eagled and outstretched, full overhead and circling across the stage with her looking like a living paper cutout doll. It was just full of lovely moments; hair flowing, sweat glistening, two highly skilled people turning the focus of that skill towards being incredibly attuned to one another.

Thematic content here was relationship – I didn’t think it needed to be a romantic one, though. A close one, certainly – a tender one. It could be brother and sister, it could be dear friends, and it could be a romantic pairing; the themes of support and constant renegotiation and care for another kept on coming through in the way they looked and gestured. There was intimacy and closeness, both in the vulnerability of their costuming and the sparseness of the stage and the warmth of the light; these people were in a quiet space with each other, whispering alone together with their bodies. There wasn’t a need to externally perform or to prove anything. It was just two people.

And that did evoke emotions in me. Loneliness and love and gratitude; tenderness and closeness, longing, quiet smiling. I’ve had those tender moments with people very dear to me; I don’t have those moments here now, and I miss them and I hope for them again. Watching this dance was a reminder of that hope, those memories. Maybe that’s why I loved it.

They stimulated thoughts of times I’ve shared and people that I’ve shared them with. Cold starry nights in high school running in the open fields behind my friends and huddling in a pile for warmth while tinny songs played on somebody’s radio. Singing outside a buddy’s dorm room window while he played guitar. Quiet mornings in college waking up in the lab after a long allnighter pulled in shifts; the liquid morning and the intimacy of a sleepy team, bound tight by months of mutual exhaustion, smiling quietly at each other over orange juice and almost-working robots. Drives through the night from a blues dance marathon in Connecticut to a 5k race in Massachusetts; quiet evenings with unexpected friends while traveling around the world, a camping trip, a river walk, long strolls and conversations after conferences, standing at the window looking out at city after city twinkling, everyone asleep.

When the performance ended, I felt wistful, but also thankful. The piece was just the right length; short, delicious, fleeting. I’d love to see it again someday. It will be different then, and I will feel and react to different things when I see it a second time, because I’ll be a different person – I don’t know how. And the dancers will probably be different dancers, and the stage probably a different stage, and… that’s one of the nice things about dance. Every performance is its own experience.

My bio blurb for tomorrow’s ASEE diversity panel is a shameless call for help on my dissertation.

It remains to be seen whether the panel chair will actually consent to read this one out loud… but I’m bad at doing the “formal bio” thing, because it’s boring. So.

Mel Chua wanted to be an art major in high school, but her parents said no, so she studied electrical and computer engineering at Olin College and became a professional hacker and technical community really-excited-person for several open-source software companies. Right now, she’s trying really hard to graduate from Purdue University. You can help! Mel is currently trying to finish her dissertation, which looks at how faculty interact and communicate during curriculum revisions. She would love to talk through her draft with anyone who’s interested, because she’s at that stage where she’s not sure what the “so what” is anymore.

Recipe cartoons from “Cooking Mondays with Mel” and our ESTEEM service dinner

This past semester, my friends Jess and Brian and I got together in the St. Tom’s kitchen for cooking lessons every Monday night. I cartooned some of the recipes we made — they’re designed to introduce basic cooking techniques that can be varied to create a whole bunch of cheap (yet healthy and nommy) grad student meals.

Cooking with Mel: Jess & Brian edition by Mel Chua

The recipe cartoons caught on, and I ended up drawing more of them for a service project this past May. A group of us from St. Tom’s helped the kids from the local urban ministry cook a St. Patrick’s Day dinner for their families. The last recipe comic features all the Purdue students who participated (yes, I actually polled people on their favorite fruits). Recipes from this sheet are from John Mohoric; I’m just the artist.

Dinner recipes from St. Tom’s ESTEEM 2014-2015 by Mel Chua

From Debbie Chachra: what I want to tell my future research students when they start

Debbie Chachra’s newsletter described what she told undergrad summer researchers in engineering education about their work today, and it struck me deep as someone who’s been an open source newbie and a perplexed undergrad researcher — and then grown into the sort of person that (terrifyingly!) is in the position to mentor both.

[Undergrad summer research] is not a job; the money they get is a stipend, not a salary. Its purpose is to carve out the space and time for them to participate in the program, not to pay them for the work they do… The reason why they get stipends and not salaries is twofold: one, because the summer is intended to be a learning experience above all, and two, because it’s basically impossible to do research to order. You can be directed to do specific research-related tasks, but actually exploring an area, being engaged, and coming up with insights is not something you can turn into a checklist, not least because if you could do that, it wouldn’t be research.

Research can pretty much only be done by people who are intrinsically motivated; that is, interested in and committed to what they’re doing, and not just doing it because they have to. Most of the students have had jobs and all of them are familiar with doing assignments for class; none of them have had an experience like this. So start by trying to get this across to the students: “You are not minions. You are not workers. You are not robots. You’re going to bring your whole heart and mind to what you do.”

This has been my failing — in both roles — many times. As a newcomer to open source and research, I showed up and expected… a job. That’s how you earned your stripes, right? That’s how you showed humility, and willingness to learn… you had to pay your dues. It’s what I had always been taught. And so I showed up in OLPC’s IRC channel and asked Jim Gettys to tell me what to do. I followed SJ Klein around the office like a puppy, beamed gratefully when Chris Ball gave me something to do. I sat in Cynthia Breazeal’s lab waiting for Cory Kidd to tell me… something. Waiting for orders.

It took a long time for me to realize that all these people were waiting for me. I didn’t know they wanted me — I thought they wanted my interchangeable labor-functionality. But no, they were waiting for an idea I didn’t know I was supposed to originate. How could I have known this was the culture, the expectation? I’d never been in a FOSS project before, never been in a lab — my family had never experienced these things. I’d never witnessed a student interacting with a hacker or a researcher. I had the “try things, make them happen!” paradigm, but only in my schools — I thought it was a thing you could do only in those special spaces like IMSA or Olin. I hadn’t been in schools like that quite long enough for that worldview to sink deeply enough into my marrow that it would transfer into all the spaces I would ever walk into.

Then I got a little older, a little more experienced. Failed a lot, learned from it — learned enough that others started seeing me as someone who could teach them. And I tried to impart this worldview shift of “you are not a robot,” but — as we often do when we are tired and under-resourced, I fell back into my habits. I would tell people what to do; I would scaffold a bit too tightly, I would… set expectations. When there’s no room to fail, there’s also no room to fly. I failed my way into becoming a better teacher, a better research supervisor, a better mentor of hackers, time and time again.

When we teachers think about the people who have taught us how to teach, we usually think about our own good teachers. I also think about the students who graciously allowed me to fail them, and stuck around long enough to keep loving me through learning how to be a better mentor to them. I am trying to make my learning worthy of the cost they had to pay for me to grow.

How and why to caption your engineering tutorial videos

My Purdue colleague Nicole Devlin started a YouTube channel called TL;DR engineering to explain first-year college engineering principles in concise but vivid ways. The videos are captioned! Here’s how she captioned them.

  1. Recorded high-quality audio.
  2. Used YouTube autocaptions (which are automatically generated).
  3. Then — and this is a crucial step, because the autocaptions were not accurate enough to learn from — she manually edited the captions for accuracy, using these instructions from Google.

…and that was it! The video is now more accessible to:

  1. International students and non-native English speakers
  2. Deaf and hard-of-hearing students and those with auditory processing disorders
  3. Students working in a library or other quiet place without headphones, or watching from their phones
  4. Students who want to scroll through the transcript to find a specific word or section
  5. Web search engines (making her videos more search-engine friendly)
  6. …and more.

If you want to go even further into caption ninjahood with very little effort, you can edit the caption breaks so they display sentence-by-sentence rather than 3-4 words at a time. This might seem trivial, but it means that you can read an entire thought at one time — which means you don’t need to hold the rest in memory. Imagine reading a book where each word was on a separate page. You’d turn the pages really, really fast (meaning you don’t get to see a word for very long), and you would have to hold each word in memory until the thought or sentence completed.

This is less complicated than it sounds. For instance, the current transcript of one video has…

Choppy text
1:00 Laminar flow is the opposite of turbulent flow,
1:03 it’s very smooth and regular like when honey flows…
1:07 every molecule has its place. If we look at the Reynolds number for honey,
1:11 the viscosity is very high and
1:15 velocity is very low, which leads to a low
1:18 Reynolds number and laminar flow.

With very little editing, this can become…

Smooth text
1:00 Laminar flow is the opposite of turbulent flow.
1:03 It’s very smooth and regular, like when honey flows. Eery molecule has its place.
1:08 If we look at the Reynolds number for honey, the viscosity is very high and velocity is very low,
1:15 which leads to a low Reynolds number and laminar flow.

And that’s it, folks. Caption your videos! It’s a small one-time job for you, and a long-term higher impact for everyone. Thanks to Nicole for being a great example and captioning hers!

Protocol draft: codesigning classes with my (future) students

As often as possible, I’d like to codesign my classes with the students who take them. Here’s my best shot at a written procedure, based on things I’ve done haphazardly in the past. I’ve never written it down and tried to deliberately improve the process, so this post is less a “done and tested, known to work” process and more a “first draft benchmark to improve from” one.

This post was inspired by recent emails on the POD mailing list by Leli Pedro and Tim Spannaus, Designing Significant Learning Experiences by Fink, Understanding by Design by Wiggins and McTighe, and Karl Smith and Ruth Streveler’s excellent class “Content, Assessment, and Pedagogy” with some memory help from Todd Fernandez.

Step 0: Prep the class to expect the process. This isn’t normal procedure, so I can’t expect students to walk in knowing what to do. I’m the type of person who thinks on my feet, but need to be sensitive to the fact that some students need advance prep time in order to think effectively. Some might want to ask classmates who’ve taken the class before, some might want to email/chat with me beforehand, and some might not do any prep at all… and these are all perfectly fine options.

I would send them a heads-up on the process we’ll be using (possibly linking to this blog post), and send brainstorm-seeding material beforehand: sample syllabi, textbook tables of contents, feedback from course alumni, etc. I’d also have this material available during the first class.

Step 1: Brainstorm learning objectives/outcomes as a class. These will come in several different shapes and sizes — lists of topics, Bloom’s Taxonomy objectives (in all 3 domains), small skills they’d like to pick up, larger concepts they should be generally familiar with, enduring understandings (“what do you want to take away 3-5 years from now?”). I don’t yet have a coherent taxonomy of learning goals that I would like to use — which is a known bug in my “codesign my class!” protocol that I would like to tackle with… whoever wants to tackle it with me. (Maybe even my first class.)

This in-class brainstorm will probably start with quiet solo writing, then gradually move into bigger (and louder) group discussion. Sticky notes will probably be involved. The variety of brainstorm formats is important. Quiet people should be able to contribute, reflective people need time to think, and I want to give people as many chances and formats and mediums as possible to have a voice, since not everyone’s voice is equally comfortable in every space.

Step 2:  Converge on learning outcomes via some collaborative process. There’ll probably be discussion via some sort of participation architecture (not “who can interrupt fastest and loudest?” because that would make my interpreter sad). If we can’t converge via discussion, we might use excellence voting to help the process along.

As the instructor, I reserve the final say on vetoing/adding things to this list, but I would expect that this power would be used rarely, if ever at all.

Step 3: Repeat steps #1 and #2 for assessments. How do you want to be graded? Who do you want to get feedback from? At this point, it’s important for us to distinguish between formative feedback (during the learning process) from summative feedback (after a particular semi-arbitrary phase in the learning process, such as the submission of a deliverable — since the learning process itself never truly ends). It’s also important to recognize that the people giving you feedback don’t need to be the same people giving you grades.

I will probably come in with some ideas for this, but I’d like to let the class bring in their own thoughts and modify mine, so we can all come up with better ideas together. Again, I get final say, but should rarely have to use it if the process is truly collaborative.

Step 4: Repeat steps #1 and #2 for pedagogy — in other words, activities to facilitate their learning process, where “facilitate” means “make you better able to successfully complete the assessments we agreed upon.” Similarly to step #3, I’ll probably come in with some ideas, but everything is open to discussion (with me having the final say).

Step 5: Reflect on the process. We will likely have taken more than one class period to do this. We may even need more than one class period for this step alone. That is perfectly okay with me.

In order to help design a class, you have to learn your way into the world the class is trying to teach you. Through the process of codesigning the class, we’ve mapped a specific trail through a territory that the students now have a broad sense of. Students who entered with no prior experience are now equipped with a big-picture view they’ve made themselves. Students who want to know the exact sequence of course events have now helped to design them. Students who didn’t know why they should care about the topic have been able to put things that they are excited about hooking the learning into.

And I have the satisfaction of knowing that…

  1. I don’t need to sweat about designing everything perfectly for unknown constraints ahead of time. (Or making sure my syllabus document is perfectly formatted ahead of time… which I use as an excuse to procrastinate far more than I’d like to admit.)
  2. The individual needs, preferences, and constraints of each student and instructor will be designed into the class by default, so it’s not about doing “special things” to make sure that the deaf professor (me) can understand, or the religious TA doesn’t have to work around a major holiday, or the student going to a conference doesn’t have to drag a massive tome of reading with her, or so forth. It’s not extra work to change a prebaked class; we’d weave that into the way things are right from the start.
  3. I will get very few questions and arguments about the syllabus, grading, points… this may sound trivial, but if you’ve ever had students clamor for higher grades– it’s not.
  4. I’ll never teach the same class twice, so I’ll never be bored.
  5. My students start the term knowing that I’m not an Almighty Deity to be placated, and they’re not “open head, insert information” buckets to be filled, but rather they are junior partners in exploring whatever topic we’re about to delve deeper into, and I’m just someone who has… improvised here longer.
  6. I get to do design thinking with my students in every class I ever teach, even if my class “isn’t a design class.” Awesome.

Ite, inflammate omnia: on Pentecost, impossible lipreading, and the wine at Cana

One of those “dang, these fragments have been crying out to be patched into a writing-thing for a long time” blog posts. I don’t know how much sense it’ll make to anyone else, but I’ll at least get it out there so that my fingers can stop itching and my mind can clear.

Pentecost is one of my favorite stories.

You might know it: a small group of stunned and grieving friends huddled inside a room. A flaming wind descending upon them, sending them forth to teach — and an international crowd stunned to find themselves able to understand. “Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language?” (Acts 2:7)

To me, this a story and a celebration of communion — and of community, and of communication, intertwined. These are the things I thirst for, and can never get enough of — communion is my heaven, isolation is my hell. There are three stories that join into the way I understand the flames of Pentecost: Babel, the summer lake, and Cana.

The first is the story of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9), the story of the scattering and splitting of humanity due to their pride. I don’t know if the tower is historically accurate, and I don’t care — I’ve felt the splinter-shards of that shattering in my own life, because I stretch between dozens of worlds that don’t talk to each other easily: Asian/American, arts/technology, deaf/hearing, femininity/male-dominated-fields, the span of generations in my family, the gap of distance that is part and parcel of a heritage of immigration, and many others.

Humanity splits itself apart in millions and millions of ways, stretching and snarling. It’s part of how the world is broken. It’s part of our job to help repair it. Pentecost reverses Babel, restoring our ability to understand the mystery of others. The connection of those two stories is nothing new or unique; they’re read together every year at Mass.

The second story is from last summer, and probably won’t make much sense to anyone who wasn’t there. I was with church friends at the end of a long day, exhausted and unable to communicate. Too much lipreading for too long will burn the brightest brain out, and mine was fried. We were by a lake, in a large circle, chatting. Or rather, my friends were chatting. Ironically, they were chatting about the Holy Spirit — the same Spirit that descended at Pentecost, bridging and understanding — and the way that Spirit had recently acted in their lives. And all the while, I was struggling in my tiny hell of isolation, straining to catch the communications that were being flung across the space, failing again. And again. And again.

Until I wasn’t. Something shifted, and the understanding became effortless. I couldn’t hear the words any better than before, but they made sense. They slipped into my brain, instantly — and I could localize the speaker with pinpoint accuracy (an ability that wearing hearing aids is supposed to destroy, and usually does) — and I could recognize their voices individually, and I could understand them. I could understand them, I couldn’t hear them any better, but I could understand –

With a start, I realized that night had fallen. I couldn’t see who was next to me, let alone lipread them. This made no sense at all; exhausted deaf person loses the ability to see and gains effortless conversational comprehension? Everything was backwards! I began to laugh, and then I tried something I’d always wished for — I flopped backwards in the grass and watched the stars. And the effortlessness continued! I’ve never been able to look at something else while listening — my eyes and neck are always riveted to track the speaker’s lips, my concentration straining — and now I could watch stars, or stretch — or even close my eyes! — and still remain connected to the conversation, sweet and easy.

The spirit of Pentecost, the spirit of communion and of understanding, had descended upon me as well. I relished this for a long moment with a sense of growing awe.

Eventually, I piped up and somehow semi-coherently explained to my friends what was happening. Then I began to shake and weep into the grass in gratitude. We were all stunned. But we were also (mostly) science majors, so of course we tested out this strange ability with small experiments to check what I could do — and yep, I could understand them with my eyes closed, point to them, couldn’t hear any more sounds than I usually could (I was definitely still profoundly deaf). Some of them jumped into the lake, swam out — I could still hear them, pinpoint their location, understand them without strain.

The next morning, I woke up, and it was gone. But I’ve carried that tiny taste of heaven with me since — what it’s like, what it could be like, to touch that understanding and connection that goes deeper than our words. To have my gnawing hunger for connection lifted, for a moment, in one way.

The third story is Cana (John 2:1-11). The version in the Scriptures is short and sparse; Jesus turns water into wine at a wedding party when the couple (ok, mostly the groom) doesn’t even realize they’re about to run out. I didn’t think much of this story until my first Ignatian retreat, when I abruptly found myself caught in the middle of it, watching a scene unfold within my mind’s eye for over two weeks every time I sat down to pray.

The wedding I saw was not the sort of wedding that my family historically has had — two people from within the same community, already known and intertwined in the same social fabric long before their birth. My grandpa’s sister married my grandma’s brother. My two grandmothers were childhood playmates; years later, my mom’s mom recognized my teenage dad by family resemblance the first time he showed up at their house to see my mom. My parents’ older (and younger) siblings and the siblings of their friends were school classmates, and a collective set of older sisters set my mom up as the prom date for my dad’s friend since kindergarten. That friend later married my mom’s 7th sister. Another of my dad’s friends since kindergarten threw the college parties where my parents started dating, and later married my mom’s 8th sister… I could go on, but yes, this is normal. Filipino-Chinese society is small and deeply intertwined. (I’ve had relatives who married outside it, more recently — and that was weird.)

But the version of Cana I saw (in my prayer — your mileage may vary)  was a patchwork of people who’d never met, and who you’d never expect to find all in one place. Apparently, the bride and groom were from — and/or had been — all over, so the people they had met along the way were a bizarre collection of “how in the world are you even in the same room?” People who’d journeyed from far-flung places, disparate social circles, mutually unintelligible languages, with clothes and foods and customs strange to one another. The groom’s schoolmates from one place, the bride’s cousins from another, the many circles of friends, family, and colleagues — wild diversity, something that should be shattered, fragmented, unable to connect –

And yet — instead, they danced their way into a mosaic. Connecting. Pointing, laughing, learning new words foreign on their tongues. Finding ways to patch themselves together. Sometimes with translation help from a few bilinguals, but often without words — children playing variants on universal games (tag!), cooks helping to prep and sample one another’s unfamiliar dishes (nom!), laughing, stretching, miming, scribbling, drawing — dancing, hugging, listening with bright, attentive eyes. Reaching out to share and thread together a great tapestry of stories from all over time and space and viewpoint — a polyphony of lives joined together by narratives that started with “so, how do you know the couple?”

This seemed to have nothing to do with anything, and I was terribly confused, and spent quite a few prayer periods going “uh, God, I… explanation, please?” Eventually, I grasped the point — or at least one of them, as best as I could. It wasn’t that this was a wedding — it could have been something else without a bride and groom. A classroom, a town hall, a cafeteria, a conference table. Ordinary human places, convened by ordinary human people.

The point was that this tapestry and this communion was knit around — and threaded through by — ordinary human people, doing ordinary human things. (Which also happen to be miracles. For instance, being born — a miracle we’ve each experienced.) And I looked upon the scene at Cana, and heard — or rather, felt — somebody tell me: hey, look! That’s your job, Small Human Mel. You’re made to weave impossible communities together.

That’s why, for me, Cana is also Pentecost.

At the end of the Pentecost story, some people make fun of the disciples. They see these ordinary people teaching a crowd they should not have been able to communicate with, and they snicker: “They have had too much wine.” (Acts 2:13)

Yep yep. They are. They’re absolutely sloshed on wedding wine — transfigured wine from Cana and the marriage supper of the Lamb. Inebriated with the spirit that has come to dwell and make a home within them (John 14:23), they embody the love that draws all people to itself (John 12:32). In other words — in software words — they merge and patch the world. Filled with fire, they patch the stories of the world together, bring people to listen to each other, teach them how to build communion and hold it together — both at the loud and joyful party full of fellowship, and within the privacy of a quiet tent. (“The second is way easier for lipreading,” my brain chimes automatically. I laugh and shake my head at deaf-environmental-scanning-habits.)

And this is why I love Pentecost. It’s communion. It’s my heaven. It’s my job. (Also, it’s fire. I like fire. Fire is shiny and fun.)

Ite, inflammate omnia.

If I were to teach 1cr/cocurriculars at Olin, what would they be?

Emily Wang recently asked me if I’d ever considered teaching a 1-credit evening course at Olin (which alumni can do, now — it’s a great idea to get multiple Olin generations interacting). Here’s the resultant brainstorm. Note that these are things I’d like to teach, not things I will teach, because of the finite amount of bandwidth humans have…

  1. A Brief Survey of Engineering Education History and Philosophy (springboarding off the Purdue graduate class for inspiration, but with some major tweaks)
  2. Radical Tansparency (applying open source philosophy to both software and non-software settings)
  3. Somatic awareness and bodywork (I will probably do this informally in the dining hall or somewhere else on a semi-regular basis anyway, because MY shoulders need it)
  4. Using Engineering Analogies to Explore Learning and Pedagogical Theories (something I’ve wanted to do again since 2007, when MetaOlin delved into it; we were the first student-run course/StuCourse at Olin)
  5. Awkward Dialogues: Techniques and Practice (the topics we’d practice on would probably be stuff like feminism, spirituality/religion, leadership/politics, sexuality, etc — the content would be “here are techniques and participation architectures that make it possible to dive deep into things without snapping into habits we may not want in the room”)
  6. A Sign Language Subset for the Olin Campus (I’d need to have a co-instructor who was actually fluent in ASL for this, but basically — I believe there’s a fairly small subset of phrases, words, etc. that would make lots of sense to add to the Olin gestural language — we already have a few Olin-specific gesture practices that we teach first-years when they come, like the thumbs-up during discussions.)