On the relative openness of text/document formats: .txt and .csv

My friend and research colleague Todd Fernandez writes: I know the ODF (Open Document Format) is generally the preferred format from an open documents standpoint. My question is whether you [and other Free/Libre groups] would consider .txt files in Unicode and .csv (comma-separated value) data files considered equivalently open?

First of all, I can’t answer for FSF or other groups — so what you’re getting is the Mel answer to “are .txt and .csv files open?” This email reply is getting so long that I’ll turn it into a blog post.

The Mel answer is “yes.” I consider .txt files in Unicode and .csv to be “open.” In fact, I personally prefer to use them over ODF, which I’m rarely able to open with the software pre-installed on most computers I encounter.

In the paragraphs that follow, I’ll get into more detail behind my reasoning. To define “open” and “free,” I’ll loosely use the Open Source Definition (OSD) and the Free Software Definition, noting that these were created for software and need to be adapted for a discussion on file formats.

In discussing these file formats, I’ll cover .txt first, since .csv builds on top of .txt. The file extension”.txt” can mean a lot of things, and each of those things has different levels of open-ness (from a more legal-ish open standards standpoint, see definitions above) and accessibility (from a “how many people are able to read/write them on their computers with their current software” standpoint). I personally care about both.


You asked specifically about Unicode, but “.txt” can also mean ASCII, which is/was an American-developed standard for text information. I’ll start here, since ASCII was where Unicode began (in fact, ASCII’s 128 characters are Unicode’s first 128 characters).

ANSI X3.4-1968 is the document describing this encoding. It is a standard that’s widely used and published, lots of programs can access it, and you can use it in your programs without too much effort and without licensing costs (as far as I can tell; I can’t easily find the exact legal status). Basically, if I translate the Open Source Definition from software to file formats, I can’t find evidence that ANSI X3.4-1968 itself contradicts any of its criteria. I know this is different than proving that it absolutely meets all these criteria, but this is good enough for me.


As an interesting side note: ASCII is an ANSI standard (American National Standards Institute, hence the ANSI- prefix on its standards document). ANSI’s definition of “open” is about “do stakeholders have access to the consensus decisionmaking process that forms the standards?” and “are licensing fees and getting permission to use the standard at a reasonable and not overly burdensome level?” rather than “are there no licensing fees and permissions needed at all?” The latter corresponds to part of the 4 requrements for “freedom” according to the FSF, so it’s possible for something to be “open” according to ANSI but not “free” according to the FSF.

It would be interesting to go through and do a more rigorous look on whether ASCII’s legal/licensing criteria meets the Four Freedoms. I’m not a lawyer, but I’d be interested in what a lawyer would say.


“.txt” can also mean UTF, or Unicode Transformation Format; this is what your email asked about. The “A” in ASCII stands for “American,” and “American” in this case meant “monolingual,” meaning that if you wanted to type something outside ASCII’s 128-character, heavily-biased-towards-American-English set, you were flat out of luck. Unicode took the first 128 characters of ASCII, then… kept on going. Unicode is a more internationally-savvy superset of and successor to ASCII.

UTF-8 and UTF-16 are two Unicode variants in common use. The numbers refer to the number of bits per character, which you can think of as “UTF-16 has more letters in its gigantic international meta-alphabet than UTF-8.” UTF standards are developed by the Unicode Consortium, which I keep mistakenly typing as the “Unicorn Consortium” (which would be kinda awesome).

Unicode’s copyright permissions language seem very, very similar to the 4 requirements of the FSF for freedom. Since ASCII is a subset of Unicode, this makes me even more comfortable saying that ASCII is also “open.” However, I am not a lawyer, nor am I using “open” in a legally rigorous sense here — remember, I am a non-legally-trained engineer going “yeah, I don’t see anything that contradicts the definitions made for Open and Free software, if we were to translate it to file-formats-land.”


CSV is a format that’s layered atop plaintext (ASCII, UTF, whatever). In other words, you use plaintext to write a CSV document. CSV itself is not formally specified, which means it’s a free-for-all, and… you can use it for whatever, because you’re pretty much making it up. It’s just that you’re just making it up in the same way lots of other people have made it up.

Then again, “official standards” are just a group of people who have made things up and have agreed to stamp the label of “official” on their work; it’s still a social construct that depends on how many other people agree with them. (I can make something an “official” standard according to Mel, but if nobody else agrees with me, my standard is useless.)

Anyway, I’m not sure if that qualifies CSV as “open,” but it’s certainly not “closed.” To me, CSV is just as open as whatever underlying plaintext (.txt) format it’s using. But again, I’m not a lawyer, don’t work for the FSF, etc. This is just one hacker’s opinion, and I’d love to hear what others think.

Sticky Engagements, or: how to get students to plaster walls with self-determination theory stickies

A wall of colorful sticky notes caught my eye as I walked through Olin College, so I swung in and asked my friend and colleague (and fellow Olin alum) Alex Dillon what the story was.

Turns out he was doing self-determination theory (motivation) research on engineering courses, wanted to get students more interested in it, and worried they were being turned off by big theoretical words like “internal regulation.” So, in fine Olin style, he invited everyone to cover walls with sticky notes… and this was the result.

After Alex told me the story, we drew a thing together. Content from Alex, presentation/art from Mel.

Sticky Engagements

My college ring as an adaptation for both deafness and ADHD

The hybrid CI surgery is done (a week ago today) and I’m recovering nicely. People have asked how I am, how it went, what it’s like, etc — I don’t have good words for that yet (thanks, meds!) so I shall have to write that later. Right now, I want to write about my college ring.

Olin ring and hearing aids

Image description: Close-up photo of two behind-the-ear hearing aids. They are nestled on each other atop a dark brown surface. A simple silver ring band, engraved with the Olin College logo, is looped around one of the hearing aids.

Like many people with fond memories of their alma mater, I have a fair amount of college pride, and wear my Olin College ring to show that pride.

Unlike most people, my college ring is also an adaptive artifact/device for my two documented disabilities. I’m deaf, and I have ADHD.

I often wear hearing aids. However, I generally prefer to not have sweaty ear-filling plugs and plastic chunks of computer behind my ear when I can get away with it (i.e. I’m not processing auditory input). Logical, comfort-seeking human than I am, I take them off whenever I have the chance.

And then I put them somewhere. And then I go do something else. And then the ADHD kicks in, and I forget I took them off, and I forget that they exist at all, and… well. You know. A few hours later, I’m running around the room going “WHERE ARE THEY? THESE COST THOUSANDS OF DOLLARS!” Bad things to lose.

Solution: college ring as symbol/token. The ring is small, unobtrusive, and it’s easy for me to tell whether it’s on my hand. (You’d be surprised at how easy it is to forget that hearing aids are on. Please don’t step into a shower with them; they don’t like that.)

If I am wearing my Olin ring, it means my hearing aids are somewhere on my person. Often this means they’re in my ears, but sometimes it means they are in my pocket. (Yes, audiologists, I know you didn’t want to hear that. Seriously, though. I don’t carry a padded dehumidifier case with me at all times. I just have pockets.)

When I take off my hearing aids, I take my ring off too. I link the ring onto the hearing aids, like in the picture above. This is just enough of a movement that requires time, thought, and focus — I have to take off multiple small devices from various points of my body, and thread them together — that it marks something into my memory that doesn’t get wiped out by ADHD-brain. When I look for them later, I can remember that decision and (almost always) the location where I put all three things down. Plus, in the meantime, the lack of the usual ring on my finger makes me aware that my hearing aids are not on me right now and I should probably go get them soon.

So there you go. Environmental adaptations. Usage of college ring to interact with deafness and ADHD. For the record, I wasn’t thinking “wow, look at me working on disability stuff now!” or “ooh, transgressive use of everyday materials to make statement about disclosure and identity!” or… eh, not really. I mean, sure. The personal is philosophical is political, and all that. For me — I am an engineer. I had a problem, and I had things, and I used things to solve my problem. The solution keeps on working, so I keep on using it. That’s all.

That’s all.

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!