Tribulations of a Bionic Librarian

Before I get into this entry, I must ask you to go away…and read this article:

Go on. I’ll wait.

(Man baseball is slow compared to playoff hockey. The game is slow enough and this joker throws a pitch and then meanders around the mound? What’s up with that? I mean…)Oh, you’re back. Good.

Quite the article isn’t it? The lass is a wee bit further down the deafness curve than your friendly neighborhood bionic librarian. But I still found myself shouting YES! as I read it. I can relate to just about everything she said. Her words struck a cord so strongly that I felt the need to pay her homage and throw down some experiences of my own.

So without further ado:

I Don’t Look the Part But Don’t Think I’m Lying

I’m 6’2″ and exercise regularly. While I don’t claim to be an Adonis, I’m in fairly good shape. So when I meet someone new, they are often taken aback by my inability to catch everything they say. I tend to get an interesting mix of people being apologetic and people being affronted. I don’t want either response, I just want you to be aware of my limitation and face me when you speak. When I got these bionic ears, I purposefully bought the grey casings and not the brown. I did so in hopes that folks would notice them and so wouldn’t be surprised when I asked them to repeat something. Now if my hair would stop turning grey…

Don’t Get Angry When I Hear the Wrong Thing

This happens in meetings more then anything else. Everyone is busy and no one wants to be in meetings, I get it. I do. But just because I’m answering a question you didn’t ask doesn’t mean I’m making fun of you. So there’s no need to get offended. The first time I encountered this, I was stunned. I’m a shy guy and don’t like to speak up unless I have to. So pissing someone off is not on the top of my list of things to do. What I haven’t decided, tough, is if I like making someone mad or making someone laugh better. Getting laughed at because I said the wrong thing isn’t too pleasant either. Well, I guess amusement beats scorn. Y’know like rock beats scissors (or Spock beats rock).

Don’t Whistle to Get My Attention

This only happened to me a couple of times. I felt like a dog. The first time, I joined in the laughter. I think it was because it was so unexpected. However, the times after that it got insulting. Luckily, it hasn’t happened in a good long while. When people want my attention, they usually wave. My peripheral vision is pretty good so it tends to work quite nicely.

Movies/TV Shows Need Closed Captions

This is my plea to all the TV and movie companies out there: step up the closed captioning will ya? Back when the Dark Knight Rises came out, I had my first run in with the lack of CC. I’d been watching TV with CC for years and my ears got either lazy or worse because those threatening whispers Batman and his villains like to use fell on deaf ears (sorry). Then the explosions were so loud I had to turn down my bionic ears. Then the whispers began and I had to turn them up. It was exhausting. Since then I’ve always thought twice before going to a movie.

Even staying home isn’t a sure bet. I bought a collection of Mythbusters shows on DVD and wouldn’t you know it, no closed captions. Even though when I watched the episodes on TV they were there. For shame Discovery Channel, for shame! And I won’t even get started on the debacle that is closed captions for live sporting events. When they do manage to keep the pace, they’re often wrong or covering up some interesting stats. I understand that it’s not easy to put captions on a live event, but couldn’t that 7-second delay be used for something? I mean just because something’s hard doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be done. Hmph. Ok, I guess I did get started. Moving on.

The Double-edged Sword of Technology

For the last part of the entry, I’d like to get into describing the nuances of wearing bionic ears.

The hearing aids have helped me hear folks speaking to me, but they also introduced me to the background noises that I hadn’t heard for years, if ever. While that may seem obvious, what is a little more irksome is the fact that my brain isn’t used to having to filter out background noise. So while it’s nice to hear the waves lapping the shore, it’s not so nice to hear the traffic outside my front door. But fear not, those technological magicians were on top of that. My wondrous bionic ears are constantly filtering out that background noise. I think it has something to do with narrowing the band so that only things closer to me are picked up. But I could be wrong. It’s a pretty nifty development, most of the time. An unavoidable consequence is the wind. When I’m outside talking with someone, if the wind picks up my bionic ears start a-filtering and I can’t hear a damned thing. Wind is meddlesome but rain, rain has become the bane of my existence. I already wrote all about one that. (See here)

Whether I’m outside or inside, I’m battery powered! And batteries are most definitely not included. The batteries last me a little over a week and more than once, I’ve been caught without a spare one. Oh, they are kind enough to give me a warning beep (usually) but that doesn’t mean that I can always do anything about it. When I’m left with a dead ear everything seems to be coming from one side of the world. It’s quite disorienting. That’s to say nothing of those times when they practice synchronized dying. At times like those, it’s like a blanket has been tossed over everything. When they’re off, they act as gratuitous earplugs. So I usually take them out. At times this is a blessing because having things stuck in your ears all time time can make them quite sore. Of course, without them on my tinnitus gets louder. But that’s a while different story.

Closed Captions for Meetings?

I have trouble hearing in big meetings. Sitting close and microphones only do so much. Nor do I know enough ASL to benefit from interpreters. I was mulling this over one day while watching some TV. As the words marched their way across the bottom of the screen it hit me that a Closed Caption system for meetings would be a godsend! So I started looking at Dragon.

I got in touch with a representative from Nuance and she quickly squashed my idea. Her main reason was that you must train the software to recognize your accent. So unless each person presenting in a meeting has time to train Dragon, it just wouldn’t work. But I didn’t see that as a reason not to try. If the training was short and painless, then it may be worth a shot. So I was able to procure a copy and so I started playing around. It didn’t take me long to see the training issue was the least of the obstacles.

Below we see what I had in mind. A slide from a presentation is augmented with the DragonPad open in the corner. It captures my speech and creates a closed caption for my fellow hard-of-hearing folks.


Unfortunately, not all is as it appears. Let’s take a closer look at the DragonPad


Here’s what normal hearing-folk would have heard:

The next step in the technology ladder is the pilot period new line the pilot is when we take a technology and put it to work at partners period new line the hardware is purchased in the appropriate groups brought in to lend a hand period new line together comma with the assistance from the vendor functionality of the technology is fully explored period

Conversely, if I spoke normally, the Slide and DragonPad team would yield the following result.



But this morning on the T, I was standing next to a lady with headphones turned up so loud that I could damn near make out the words to the song. It’s events like these that reaffirm my belief that it won’t be long before the majority of people have bionic ears just like mine. Once that happens, the demand for such services as I describe here will rise and I think that technological advances will rise to meet the demand.

Bionic Ears and The Crowded Room Din

Our hero is surrounded. There’s an energy in the air that runs through his body and makes him feel like a live wire. He knew it was a trap as soon as he walked through that cold metal door frame. He knew that he was in for the fight of his life as soon as he trod over the first patch of carpet with the ineffable design. He knew he was in trouble as soon as he was assaulted by the harsh flickering fluorescent lights. As the crowd closed in around him, that nefarious villain struck.

One of My Bionic Ears

One of My Bionic Ears

The problem with hearing aids is that they make everything louder. Before you laugh derisively, allow me to explain. I lived the first 23 years of my life not knowing what I was missing. Oh, I knew some of what I was missing, like misunderstanding someone speaking to me, but I didn’t know what I didn’t know…if that makes sense. Then I got my first set of bionic ears and it was like being thrown into a whole new world. Even after all these years, I can still remember sitting alone in the office waiting for the audiologist to return when I shuffled my feet. The faint whisper my feet kicked up from the carpet brought a smile to my face. Then I heard the padded footfalls from the other side of the closed door and my smile widened. I can hear through walls, I thought proudly.

That was introduction into the world of background noise. As my old roomies can attest to, this new world proved comical to navigate. The creaking of the old stairs in that slanted house sounded like branches snapping and I was afraid it was loud enough to wake them up. Beyond the walls, vehicles smaller than trucks suddenly made their presence known to me. Birds chirping, children laughing, raindrops falling, and so many other new sounds made my tilt my head in an impression of a confused puppy as I tried to figure out what on earth that sound was.

But it wasn’t all songs and laughter. It didn’t take long for me to meet with that cantankerous ne’er-do-well: The Crowded Room Din! I’d spent many years battling that rogue’s older brother, The Hushed Tone, but little did I know that many of those matches were handicapped matches. When I was in a bar or a crowded restaurant and had trouble hearing the person with whom I was speaking, I just thought it was The Hushed Tone’s doing. Now, with the mummer of background voices turned up, I recognized skills of the stealthy younger brother.

And so with this rogue revealed and lording over even professional arenas such as large meetings, I realized I must do something. Until I can arm myself with the sword and buckler of American Sign Language, I think it’s time to turn to a dragon for an assist. Taking a page from WGBH’s playbook, I’m currently looking into creating closed captions for meetings. Dragon Naturally Speaking (from Nuance) may be able to give me a lift. I hope to leverage the transforming talk to type and create some captions on those ever-present slides that loom over meetings. That dragon is proving a bellicose beast, but I didn’t expect to tame him easily. After all, the lady from Nuance told me it’s not meant to do closed captions. But as I think back to my last few run-ins with The Crowded Room Din, I think my fight is a worthy one.

He finds himself sitting nodding and smiling without any knowledge of what was just said. The pause between garbled sentences confirms his fears; his response was inappropriate. He fumbles an apology stating the obvious and asking her to repeat herself. She does but he still doesn’t get it. He prays that she excuse him and try one more time. Before she even starts, the Diabolical Din turns up the volume and he knows three times will not be a charm.