Posts that are hearing-ish

Grandparent communications


From the category of “thoughts that won’t leave your mind until you write them down, sovaldi sale ” I’m taking a brief writing break from my thesis to get some thoughts out, erectile and then… back to it.

When I was little, my grandparents were largely Phones To Shout Into. They lived in the Philippines (later, my mom’s parents moved to Seattle). I was growing up in Chicago. We called each other on special occasions — Christmas, New Year’s, maybe birthdays — and it was always short, because long distance calls were pricey.

There’s no way to lipread on a phone call, so my general impression of my grandparents came from my bewildered looks at nearby parents to explain the blurry audio and prompt me for the proper answer.

“Hello, merry Christmas! (Mom: “They’re asking how is school.”) Uh, school is good! Uh, yeah! I love you too. Here’s mom! Bye!”

Not much in the way of conversation. More like hoping I could guess the right phrase to say into the phone, successfully enough and long enough that they would let me go. I knew they loved me, and they knew I loved them, but it’s hard to get to know someone like that.

Fast forward ten years later. It was my last semester of college, and it had been a good day. After spending hours volunteering at the tech nonprofit that would later become my first job after college, I had reluctantly logged out of an office flooded with rapid-fire English text conversations — computing discussions, made accessible to me for the first time by a distributed international group of contributors who happened to choose text chat as their collaboration medium. Warmed by the unfamiliar fuzzy feeling of full-throttle, large-scale communication, I was walking to the train on rain-slicked Boston cobblestones. It was a warm night.

My phone rang. I recognized my cousin’s name and was momentarily disgruntled at my family. “They know I don’t do phone calls, I can’t hear them.” And then: “Oh crap, I don’t do phone calls. Maybe something is wrong.”

“Hello?”

My cousin said something on the other side. I knew he would be speaking English, but the words didn’t make…

“What did you say?”

He said something again. He sounded serious — his prosody was far slower and more somber than I was used to.

“I’m sorry, I don’t…”

This time, I thought he might have said our grandfather — our Chinese dialect’s word for grandfather. I wasn’t sure. I said the word, hoping I’d guessed correctly. He repeated… something that was also probably that word. I thought.

I don’t know how many times I made my cousin repeat it over and over: our grandfather was dead. (“What?”) Our grandfather had died. (“I didn’t catch that last…”) He had a massive heart attack. (“Something about our grandfather?”) It was sudden and unexpected. (“Can you repeat…”) There was nothing anyone could do even once the ambulance arrived. (“Hang on, can you back up? Are we talking about our grandfather?”)

We gave up, hung up, and I made the long transit trek back to my suburban college dorm, wondering if our grandfather was dead, hoping I’d parsed the phone audio incorrectly, deciding whether I wanted to email my parents and ask if he was alive and risk looking like an idiot.

Eventually, I found my parents over email. He had died. I was to fly home for his funeral and sit while people mourned around me in languages I didn’t understand. Sometimes it was in English, but it’s hard to lipread people when they’re crying.

Fast forward a decade later. My grandmothers both live in the Philippines again. This time, we have Skype. I’m sitting beside my youngest cousin, and she’s the one relaying phrases, prompting my answers.

“Hello! (Cousin: “She’s asking how is school.”) Uh, school is good! Uh, yeah! I love you too.”

This time, I could be more eloquent about school; at the age of thirty, far more so than at the age of ten, I’ve learned to use my hyper-fluency in spoken English to cover for my inability to hear it. But our grandmother is not a native English speaker, and that language has grown harder for her over time — so I need to dial my language to a different setting than when I am sparring verbally in academia — and the awkward 10-year-old comes out.

I’m the canary in the coal mine for my family’s intergenerational communications, or at least that’s what it often feels like. When my grandmother’s English grammar started to slip due to the mental vagaries of age, I started straining more and more to understand her — without clear sentence structures to guess at, the clues I could glean from lipreading ceased to make sense, and at some point a wall slammed shut before me. In contrast, my cousins and my aunts and mother, brother, father, uncles… they get her words, unscramble them so slightly and so fast they barely noticed it at first. There are conversations I can’t be in anymore; there are thickets I cannot, with all my intellect and skill with language, force my way through.

They say she’s still quite clear in our Chinese dialect, her native language, and I believe them. But I can’t lipread that. I’m only oral deaf in English, and in German, and a little bit in Mandarin and Spanish… languages with books, languages with grammars and phonologies I can learn in clear text first, and the fuzzy, lossy mouths of speakers second. And my family is made of people, not of books.

Sometimes — often — I can’t speak to my grandparents. But I can write — and so I write. Not so much to them now, but sometimes for them.

Hello! School… school is hard now. Hard in ways I never thought it would be hard. ButI know how much it means to you that someone in the family will get a Ph.D. You might not understand the words I’m writing, but you do understand that part of why I’m writing them is in appreciation of the generations worth of sacrifice and planning that it took to get us here.

I wish that there was more that I could say to you directly. I wish there was more of your world that I could understand, and vice versa. I wish it didn’t cost so much for me to try with spoken language, but it does, so I will do it indirectly with a written one.

Uh, yeah! I love you too. So yeah, here’s… back to my dissertation.

Bye.


Reading the labels of canned beans


My friend Sheila recently shared this article about two (hypothetical) deaf kids of hearing families at the dinner table. It’s absolutely worth a read. Both children in the story are about 8 years old, sovaldi and go to a school where they’re taught in ASL; both are bilingual in spoken English and ASL, and both have hearing parents who care for them greatly and want only what will give their children a better life. There are no bad guys here.

In this fictional story, the parents of “Sophia” sign, and use ASL with her at the dinner table; family mealtimes are full of learning and interaction for her, active participation, question-asking, learning more about the world, about her parents’ lives, telling them about hers. The parents of “Caleb” don’t, because they think it’s important that he learn to interact with the hearing world. Caleb learns to keep his CI on to keep his parents happy, even if he doesn’t understand. He learns how to pretend. He loves them. He knows they love him. It’s not a bad childhood, honestly.

And yet.

“Over time, Caleb has learned that it’s best to pretend to understand more than he does, so he will annoy them less… [at dinner, when his parents smile,] Caleb smiles as well, because he likes to see his parents happy, even if he knows nothing about what they’re saying. He has not learned anything from this dinnertime, but he doesn’t usually, so he does not think anything of it…  Caleb clears his plate and leaves the room to brush and ready himself for bed. He is not unhappy, and is in fact mostly fine, but there is a subtle quietness in his heart that he doesn’t completely understand. He can’t identify it yet.”

I grew up closer to Caleb, without the CI, other d/Deaf/HoH kids around, ASL exposure, and with a family that regularly creamed-up English sentences into a creole’d rush of Southeast Asian languages. I know Caleb is a fictional character, but his experience hits close to mine in many ways, though I exhibited no visible academic delays (plenty of social ones, though — and although I was always at the top of my classes as a kid, I wonder what sort of learner I might have been with full access to the world… but that’s a complex experiment that can’t be re-run in any case, and I could have turned into a hypersocial party girl who thought studying was boring, too).

When I was a kid, one of the running family jokes was that I would read anything, anytime. Literally. Anything. I’d grab a can of beans out of the pantry and read the nutritional labels, and I honestly would find it fascinating (“whoa, ascorbic acid is in everything!”). Everybody found it weird and hilarious and cute; I thought it was pretty funny, too. I didn’t know why I kept wanting to read at dinner — and really, all the time — but I just did. It felt like I always had to, like the books were food and I was always starving.

The joke’s still funny, but now it’s also sad — looking at that family joke now, the books were food, and I was always starving. I look back now and see a little kid so ravenous for information that she scavenged the best of what was available to her, which was… ingredient labels. On canned beans. In hindsight, I understand this as tiny-Mel’s attempt to make family mealtime (and all times, for that matter) an information acquisition opportunity, since most of the discussion was… not entirely a closed book, but a heavily blacked-out, liquid-smeared, highly effortful one to read. In many ways, I made my own learning experiences at dinner, got my own content to the table when I was allowed or was able to sneak it.

Sometimes that content was a book I’d try to hide under the table and read until my parents scolded me for not “being present with the family” at dinner, which I could only do through lipreading. Lipreading is exhausting and inaccurate — I say this now as an adult with advanced degrees and a high degree of metalinguistic fluency and topical knowledge with which to guess, so it was probably even worse for a small child who was still developing language skills and vocabulary, and had less knowledge of the world to guess with.

Books are hard to hide under the edges of the table, so it wasn’t usually books. It was typically ingredients. Cereal boxes. The aforementioned cans of beans. Or advertising catalogues that had arrived in the mail. (I became hyper-aware of what I’d now call a typology of the rhetoric of bulk mailings.) This was the information about the world that I could make sense of as a child.

This is not too different from the information I can usually make sense of during hearing dinners now… the difference is that I have more coping strategies and use my speaking privilege like a powerfully wielded machete to get myself into discussions, I have more capacity to moderate and strategize my use of energy and brainpower to focus on important cues and topics, and I have a far richer mental model of the world and all of the ideas in it that I can use to make sense of the spots of information I am able to extract. The information, though… it’s still a crawl, a drip, a broken stream.

I remember this past fall when I was invited to the house of a Deaf family I’ve come to know in town, along with a bunch of other Deaf folks who were mutual friends of ours from church. My ASL receptive skills, at that point, were enough to make sense of most conversation — not to understand it perfectly, but it had surpassed lipreading in terms of cost/benefit (energy expenditure vs accuracy) tradeoff. I wasn’t really signing much myself, yet. I was a linguistic toddler.

I remember sitting in their kitchen and just watching… people… talk. About… local restaurants. Their jobs. Their kids. The snacks. Picking up their kids from school. Job hunting. Whether a kid was allowed to have another piece of chocolate. Topics shifted, nothing was particularly important, nothing was… it was… the most insignificant conversational content ever. And I sat there, wide-eyed, thinking: oh, this is how it is — this is a type of conversation I have never seen — this is what people talk about after meals, this is…

This is the rhetoric of everyday life, the stuff I kept on getting error pages for during my childhood attempts to access it — the “oh, it’s not important” response, or the classic of “I’ll tell you later” with a later that never came. This is the experience of an ethnographer plunged into a foreign culture, but the culture I was plunged into was actually… my own, except with (partial) access to the language for the first time.

“Making the familiar strange” is a common phrase used in training qualitative research students, but I think I might always live inside a world that’s somehow strange to me — as do we all, but I am very much aware of this particular way in which the world is strange to me because of how I grew up with communication.

That’s all I’ve got for now.


Notes from a DeafSpace talk by Hansel Bauman, plus going voice-off


I went to Hansel Bauman’s talk on DeafSpace in Boston last Wednesday. Here are a few of my notes, public health lightly edited.

First, I was struck by Bauman’s presentation/interaction choices; they were good reminders that the medium is so inextricably part of the message. He started his presentation in ASL, directly addressing the deaf folks in the audience and letting us know that he would be voicing most of the presentation, then switched modalities. After the talk and Q&A (all interpreted), he came out to the cluster of signers that had formed at that point, and joined us in conversation. It saddens me that this is so rare as to be delightfully surprising, but it was nice to be acknowledged in a non-othering way.

I also enjoyed their starting question (which I paraphrase here since I didn’t catch the exact wording): If there were no people on Gallaudet’s campus, how would we tell that it was a Deaf Space just by walking around? (Starting answer: “Huh. We couldn’t.”) This came after some discussion on how taking up space is the first proof of existence (that’s a quote from someone whose name I didn’t catch), and having to constantly adapt the world is a material dialogue of “you’re not supposed to be here.”

On this note, I also appreciated the subtlety of observations the architects made about usage of space, backed in obvious, concrete ways with film data. For instance, they showed how people shuffled tables/chairs into a circle, dealt with chairs with arms, looked at each other while walking down a street engaged in conversation, shifted out of direct lighting, and so on. They were largely things that are so commonplace an adaptation that one might not think to address it; it’s just what we do when we’re used to worlds never quite fitting us. Their effective use of film made me think about my intermittent hopes to use video to back up my own research-related observations; lightweight documentary filmmaking may be a skill to develop more later.

There are two things ongoing in DeafSpace work that I’d love to keep an eye open for. First is the pedagogy used to bootstrap the d/Deaf/HoH users from Gallaudet into engagement with the design process, which feeds into my interest in teaching human-centered design in general. The second is the pattern language they’re developing from the DeafSpace projects that have gone up and are going up. (Plus: using the term “pattern language” correctly already earns bonus points in my book — but these are architects, so they would use that term correctly, if anyone would.)

As a side note, this event was also one of my first experiences choosing to stay voice-off in a mixed group of signers and non-signers, instead of simcomming, asynchronously translating myself into voice, or some other English-dominant modality that refuses the possibility of another person voicing me. I’m used to speaking my own English, and I’m not (yet?) a fluent signer, so even the thought of someone else voicing me is unnerving and distracting. Plus, if I’m in a conversation that is fundamentally in English… I’m going to be in English too, because that is my native language, and… why wouldn’t I?

But this time, the signed conversation was way more interesting to me than the spoken one — which is a rarity for me. And I could join it directly, just as I usually join English conversations as directly as I can. So… I did. I threw my CI and hearing aid in my pockets, threw my attention as far away from auditory channels as possible, and dove into the conversation with Bauman. I was vaguely aware that, at times, different people intermittently and spontaneously voiced me as needed for non-signing hearing people to understand the conversation (which I was pretty quiet for, because the other signers had far more interesting things to say). I had to very, very actively try not to look at them to lipread how they were voicing me (I can tell when people are talking, but not what they’re saying). It was a good experience; it was also a growth experience, but it was uncomfortable discomfort because of the dynamics and who was around (a few other Deaf people I already knew).

Turning my voice on again afterwards took… a surprising amount of effort, which is an effect that still makes me pause and ponder. The different kinds of effort that it takes to be in different ways of being is… intriguing. I will use the word intriguing here, for now.


Thoughts on my family’s language


A recent Facebook thread had me thinking about my relationship with the languages spoken by my family. Almost all my relatives speak English to some degree, orthopedist with the native/fluent proportion increasing with later generations, tadalafil as immigrant generations tend to go. But we have others, story including the regional Chinese-Filipino dialect I would identify as “my family’s language.”

My family’s language, but not mine. Probably never mine. In some ways, I have a heritage language I may never speak. I still can’t successfully lipread my family’s language, and can only speak a few childish words of it — brush your teeth, time to eat, go to bed. English had far more resources to learn with: libraries full of books I could read, drills on vocabulary and grammar so I had patterns I could guess at, speech therapists trained for the phonemes of that tongue. And so that was my language.

I’m used to being surrounded by that dialect when I’m home sometimes, and even more so when we’re in the Philippines. What I’m used to is not being able to understand it. That’s… just my experience with it. It’s ours, but it’s mine in a different way than it is theirs.

But if you asked what my family’s language is, I would still point to our dialect. And I want to see it preserved, and I want my own children (who are likely to be hearing) to someday learn it from my parents, aunts, uncles, brother, and cousins, even if I myself may never speak it. Many parents want to give their kids something they didn’t have themselves, and this is one of mine.


If I post this thought I’ve been avoiding, can I start focusing again?


Another “get these thoughts out so I can focus again” writing run. In the midst of reading “Scholarship Assessed” by Charles E. Glassick, Mary Taylor Huber, and Gene I. Maeroff, I started thinking about how I wanted to be assessed — which led to thinking about what I wanted to be assessed on — or in other words, “what might I want to work on next?”

I suspect that one of my secret terrors with finishing the dissertation is that I kinda know what I want to work on next, and I really do not want… to want… to work on that. (Thanks to Julia Thompson for poking me on this topic.) Heck, I can barely bring myself to explore it in the (comparatively) safe confines of my private/personal life. I’m having trouble even typing it into this blog post. Which. Seriously, Mel.

Rationally, this makes no sense. I have a primary project to work on next; it’s my postdoc investigation of Olin’s impact on engineering education (which is a really really cool project that I am super-stoked about). That makes it worse; it means that I’m terrified to even think about this as a potential side project. Or even a potential side interest that has nothing to do with research/work/anything except… me being interested in it.

Oh man. I’m… afraid of even being interested in something. What the heck is wrong with me?

You can probably figure out the topic from omission: it’s Deaf culture and sign language and… all the… deafness… stuff. Stuff. Things. Vague noun phrases make things safer to talk about, right? Yes, I know I’ve pumped out blog posts and comics about hearing aids and cochlear implants  – that was hard intellectual work, but almost no emotional work. It feels entirely different. I’m an engineer, and I know how to write about technology and how it works. But this isn’t technology; it’s more identity. And I don’t know how to deal with that. Because technology is not-me, and this… could be. (I don’t want to say “is” just yet.)

Almost all my family and friends have wanted me to blog about… that stuff. For people who haven’t stepped inside that space with me (which includes most of my family), it’s usually a “so, how is the cochlear implant?” query, as if it were The Biggest Thing. (I’ll admit that it Has Been A Thing, yes.) But the people who have stepped inside that space with me and listened to me talk, noticed what has caught me and what scares me and compels me — it’s always language, culture, something in that space — identity and relationship and things that are Not Surgery. I talk through terror I’ve thought through enough to share a little, and they listen, and they tell me: my gosh, that was… powerful. You… really ought to write that down. Please write that down. Please do. Please do that work.

I can’t. I can’t yet, I can’t. It’s too raw and new and painful still and I don’t want to set it down in any place that might be permanent or… linked to me, or… nope. I use the word “yet” in an attempt to open a small crack in the door, but dang, that door is huge. And made of steel. And guarded by Cerberus. Just so you know. (Cerberus is my hearing dog. It goes RARF RARF RARF Mel someone is at the door asking about the d-word shall I make them go away for you? and I say yes, good dog, please do.)

Right now, “all this stuff” is waaaaaay on the “completely optional, just for fun” side of the line. I’m simultaneously terrified and fascinated, and want to be able to drop and run at any time. I want to study engineering education. Faculty. Electrical engineering? Software? Maker culture! Philosophy of higher ed! I don’t care! Anything but this!

Aaaaand yet. And yet and yet. Working with Sara Hendren’s class was one of the best things I did last semester (my Minions team… amazing. Awesome awesome awesome). The things I want to read are starting to accumulate in drifts that pile around Deaf and disability studies. I’m reading faculty development because that is my current work; I love it, it compels me — and yet… so does this. It’s scary, because it’s happened before. It’s always how something becomes my Next Thing.

And every time I converse with colleagues in a way that plays with this as a potential research topic (for instance, Ian and I geeked out repeatedly about the cospeech gestures of engineering students through the lens of ASL linguistics), it feels like… fire. And I could choose — again, when I am done with the dissertation and in the clear for other projects — to start pursuing it as an Actual Research Topic — and that is both a terrible and an excellent possibility.

Yes, I realize that this is an arbitrary line; the activities I’m doing and the questions I am asking might not change at all, but the labels and the framing would, and… those matter. Glassick et al note that activities done by scholars aren’t automatically scholarly (I cook dinner and make my bed, but that’s not “scholarship”). “To be considered scholarship, service activities must be tied directly to one’s special field of knowledge and relate to, and flow directly out of, this professional activity” (p. 12).

But there is overlap. I’m infuriated and energized by the lack of support for disabled faculty in higher ed culture (and America does a comparatively good job; I don’t even want to think about what would happen if I went somewhere on a Fulbright now). I’m intrigued by the pedagogical hacks of other mainstreamed engineering oral deaf kids; we independently invented so many of the same strategies, share so much empathy that it feels like a culture even if we’ve never met. Stephanie and Margaret’s idea of “disabled research methods” fits perfectly with my usage of CART for realtime transcription during research interviews. I can’t put the “classifiers for engineering cospeech gestures” ideas down; that’s haunted me for months even before Ian and I talked about it.

And yet my own ability to use classifiers is… primitive, at best. And… okay. Yeah. I pretty much outright refuse to sign outside of clearly marked “This Space Is An ASL Space” boundaries (my Deaf parish, Eric’s ASL class at MIT, the tiny weeklong microresidency bubble at Olin when Ian and Sarah came). I speak in complex English sentences while shoving my hands in my pockets, cutting out my normal tendency to gesture. I used to perform being hearing — and now that I’m not doing that, I perform fitting-into-hearing-culture. And I perform it hard, with the dial slammed past 11. And I usually know exactly what I’m doing. It’s… all right, fine, I’ll call myself deaf now, even in public. But don’t you make assumptions about what that means. Because I don’t even know myself, yet. And in the meantime, here’s the way I know best how to be.

It’s exactly the sort of terror research is good for. It’s exactly the sort of thing that the academy is missing. It’s the kind of thrust towards community (both in the academic and the Deaf world, and their overlap) that I think might help me grow. I don’t know. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe my next project will be looking at… nature-based approaches… to teaching… statics… to 2nd graders. Or… creating a rock opera score for a computer architecture musical (actually, that would be kinda cool). But maybe it will be this. Maybe.

I’m glad there’s lots of room inside that maybe.

There. That’s out. I’ll post the other stream of thoughts that have been distracting me, and then I think I can grit back into the “faculty as learners” section I’ve been struggling with since last month.


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, treat how it went, here what it’s like, herbal 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, health 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, buy cialis 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.


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!


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.