Friday, October 10, 2014

Rome Wasn't Built In A Day, And Neither Was My Studio

Back in 2011, I built myself a humble studio, and after having painstakingly labored to get the acoustics to my satisfaction (see here), I recently did something crazy: I changed everything.

This was not a case of me having a sickness.  Nor do I particularly enjoy torturing myself, as “tuning” a room can be very tedious and frustrating work.  No, this was about the never-ending quest for superior acoustics.  You see, I wanted to get new speakers and a 2nd subwoofer, but the problem was that I would not be able to integrate them into the existing setup.  So I had a choice to make: either maintain the status quo, or uproot my existing setup.  Well, to hell with the status quo!

Let’s proceed like a movie that shows you the ending first, and then jumps back to the beginning.  This is the new studio:


This is the old studio:


In comparing the before and after you will notice, A) the orientation within the room has changed, B) a window has magically appeared, and C) there’s less acoustic treatment in the room (about half as much).  The change in orientation was mainly a practical one - with larger speakers, and more of them, changing the orientation better accommodated all the pieces of the puzzle.  As for the window, it was always there but previously it was boarded up with a custom-made panel in order to create a continuous and uniform wall surface (and it was completely obscured by acoustic treatment).  In the old setup the room measured better with the panel in the window, but in the new orientation it measured better without it.  Wonderful...now I get to be exposed to actual daylight during the day!  

For those unfamiliar with this topic, when I refer to measuring a room, I’m talking about measuring the frequency response of the room - i.e., how sound propagates throughout the space and collects at the listening position.  This is achieved by setting up a microphone to record the dispersement of sound emitted from the speakers - then that recording gets analyzed by acoustic software and presented as a set of data, which can be used to make comparisons.

You might be wondering, how could I possibly achieve equal acoustic results using half the amount of acoustic treatment?  The truth is, I don’t have equal results…I have better results.  This miraculous feat was achieved through a combination of factors.

To start with, much of the acoustic battle can be waged with strategic placement of the speakers and listener.  As you change the position of the speakers, you change the way the room is excited and the way in which sound reflects off the walls, which affects the resulting sonics at the listening position.  And as you change the listening position, the amalgamation of those reflections that reach the listener are altered.

In the old room, the speakers were on console shelves.  This meant that the main speakers and the listener could only be moved together as a single unit, thus limiting the potential acoustic progress you can make using positioning alone.  With the new speakers on dedicated stands, now the speakers and listener could be independently moved, allowing more progress to be made.  In addition, adding a 2nd subwoofer into the equation provides further flexibility, as there are more placement possibilities with two subs compared to one (as well as other acoustic benefits), thus allowing even more progress to be made.

So the first thing that needed to be done was to remove all of the existing room treatment, which resulted in a room that looked like this:


And a garage that looked like this:


Swap out the old speakers for the new speakers, bring in the additional sub, and let the games begin.  In the end, with more possibilities for speaker / listener placement in the new studio, more acoustic issues were able to be addressed with calculated positioning, which meant there was less heavy lifting that needed to be done using acoustic treatment.  But make no mistake, there was still lifting to be done.  Enter Modex Plates.

Modex plates are pressure-based traps that get flush mounted to a wall surface.  I had never used such treatment before, but based on its reported effectiveness, I decided to take a chance and buy a few.  These plates are gargantuan in size (roughly 3’ by 5’) and quite cumbersome to maneuver singlehandedly - two of the plates I purchased weighed 65 pounds each, and the other two plates I purchased weighed 80 pounds each (FYI, I did actually weigh them).  This posed a significant challenge when it came to measuring their acoustic effect in the room, since I didn’t want to permanently mount them until I knew where they would yield the best results.  However, if not mounted or physically held against a wall by a human being, they would topple onto the floor.  But having people hold the Modex in place during a measurement would skew the frequency response, making it difficult to isolate the effect of the treatment from the effect of the bodies in the room.  I needed the room to be vacant, but I also didn’t want to have to put a ton of holes into my walls while experimenting with where these plates should go.  So I put my thinking cap on.  And then I got out the chop saw.

The plan was to lay a couple of boards on the floor in order to raise the plate above the floor trim, thus allowing it to be pressed evenly flush against the wall.  Then to prevent the plate from tipping over, I’d use non-slip pads and pieces of 2 x 4 with the ends cut at a 45 degree angle to hold the Modex in place, and they would in turn be held in place by dumbbells.  The plates were said to be most effective where boundary surfaces intersect (e.g. room corners), so I focused my efforts in the rear corners, as features of the room made that the only viable option for symmetrical positioning of these behemoths.



Success!  I tested each plate type accordingly.  Then I realized I also needed to measure all 4 plates together, in order to assess their collective influence.


Great.  But I also needed to measure how the plates would perform when placed closer to the ceiling.



And of course, all 4 plates near the ceiling at one time.


Brilliant!  I was now ready to commit to placements for 2 of the plates.  As for the others, the jury was still out.  What if I tried putting them on the actual ceiling?  How could I accomplish that without actually permanently mounting them?  Hmmmm.  I’ll place speaker stands on top of plant stands that have an adjustable height via a rotating top.  The speaker stands have a wider base than the plant stands, so I’ll use a sheet of plywood as a medium between the two.  Then with the help of an assistant, we’ll rotate the top of the plant stand until the Modex is firmly wedged into the ceiling.

  
Boom baby!  I admit that was rather unsafe.  Definitely do not try this at home - one error in judgement, and 80lbs will fall right on top of you - it will not be pretty.  But if you’re as psychotic as me, you’ll realize that the only way to get the answers you need is to proceed accordingly (and cautiously).  Ultimately, a comparison of all the various measurements showed the best results came from this arrangement:


The Modex Plates are sitting on custom-made wood platforms, and the top of the plates are held flush against the wall by 1" L brackets that I installed into the ceiling joists.  This was an easier method of mounting than that suggested by the manufacturer, and it allowed me to position the plates right up against the ceiling / wall boundary (which would not have been possible using the mounting brackets that came with the plates).  The other side of the room has a baseboard radiator, so at my wife’s suggestion we installed a permanent shelf into that wall.


That’s pretty sexy.  Now on to testing my other acoustic treatment.  This absorption and diffusion functions by engaging sound as it is in motion, a design that requires an air gap between the treatment and the surface behind it.  As you change the size of the air gap, you change how the treatment performs.  Similarly, as you change the thickness of a panel, you change its effective range.  So I did an extensive trial of testing, using 6’ columns, 4’ columns, and 2’ columns at every given location, with air gaps between 0” and 5”.  I also tested panel thicknesses between 2" and 6", and compared different types of absorption and diffusion.  And I tested the treatment free-standing directly on the floor, and at various distances off the floor using wood platforms.  If you can think of it, I probably tried it.

With myriad measurements in hand, I eventually settled on the following configuration for the rear side walls:


When it came to the front corners of the room where the subs are located, I concocted a framework of platforms that allowed me to stand treatment on top of the subwoofers.


Then I tested various configurations before making a final decision.  Here are some examples that didn't make the cut:






Ultimately, a diffusion panel 2” from the front wall and 4” from the side wall yielded the best results (as to why those specific distances were best, or why diffusion instead of absorption, I have no idea…all I know is it measured best this way).


In the old room, I had many layers of this treatment (made by Real Traps), which collectively consumed a great deal of the available free space.  In the new room, the independent positioning of the speakers / subs / listener along with the utilization of the Modex Plates (which are less invasive due to their flush mounting), resulted in needing to use a little less than half of the prior acoustic treatment.  Which means, I have more space in the room now.  Which means, it’s time to dance.


For those wondering, the black and white panels depicted in these images do different things.  The black panels absorb low to high frequencies, and the white panels absorb low frequencies only.  I had them colored this way when I bought them so that I would be able to easily distinguish each type.  Any perceived color coding of the room is completely accidental - things just happened to work out in the way that they did.

As for the ceiling, the two panels above the speakers (and those to the left and right on the side wall / window) are absorbing the 1st reflection points between the main speakers and listener.  Another 2 panels on the rear ceiling took care of a ringing that would have interfered with recording a vocal or instrument in the room.  Then I placed some small diffusor squares around, which had a subtle but positive effect on the room's high frequency response.  FYI, the blue lines in the following image are chalk markings - left to right indicates the location of ceiling joists, and front to back frames the center of the ceiling.


The last step was to dial in some corrective parametric EQ for the icing on the cake.  For the audio novices among us, EQ is short for equalization, which is a process that is used to modify the sonic characteristics of an audio recording.  With respect to room acoustics, the sonic characteristics of a speaker can be adjusted using EQ, so as to offset certain features of the room - for example, if the room is creating excessive energy at 70Hz, EQ can be applied to reduce the amount of 70Hz before the sound comes out of the speaker in order to compensate for the room’s effect, thereby creating a balanced sound at the listening position.  One of the beautiful things about Genelec’s digital line of speakers (in this case, a pair of 8260s and a pair of 7270s) is that each speaker individually contains a comprehensive set of EQ filters that can be independently adjusted and fine tuned with precision.  Such corrective EQ can be quite beneficial, particularly when dealing with smaller rooms where it can be impractical or impossible to address certain anomalies any other way.  Indeed, if acoustic treatment is a butcher’s knife, EQ is a scalpel.

You might be wondering though, if we can just EQ the speakers to compensate for the room, then why was this entire acoustic treatment fiasco even necessary?  The answer is that EQ by itself is insufficient for the task: A) it cannot compensate for nulls in the frequency response, which is where sound reflections cancel each other out, therein creating a void or “hole” in the audio, and B) in an untreated room, the frequency response can vary greatly as you move within the room, thus rendering any EQ adjustments only relevant to a narrow listening position.  So you need to address as much as possible using acoustic treatment first, before moving on to consider corrective EQ measures.

With everything said and done, and around 250 measurements later, the new room sounds phenomenal.  A couple of tissues taped to the ceiling to diffuse the light, and this studio is officially a wrap.  Yes, it was all worth the effort.  And now that the studio is finally finished, I can begin making some music again.  Well, at least until the next studio escapade!!!!

Thursday, August 28, 2014

The Hospital Circus

My daughter Scarlet was just 4 days old when a routine pediatric visit detected an elevated heart rate over 200.  There were no discernible symptoms, so we were all surprised.  The pediatrician explained, "there is a range of normal and this exceeds that range, and if left untreated her heart will start to enlarge and you don’t want that”.  Off to the children’s emergency room we go.

Upon entering the ER, an entourage of personnel appear, each asking various questions and each commenting “she looks a little jaundiced”…”yeah, she does”…”hmmm”.  They confirm a heart rate of 230, and hook her up to an EKG to get a more detailed analysis.  A cardiac specialist arrives and tells us that this sort of thing occasionally happens, for reasons unknown, but that it has nothing to do with the labor or pregnancy.  After reviewing the EKG readout, he states that it’s most likely something called SVT, which is easily fixed using a medication called adenosine that gets administered through an IV.  As they hook up the IV, he explains that this will work immediately but that Scarlet will need to continue receiving treatment over the course of a year, at which time we would reassess things.  They administer the dose - heart rate drops to normal levels, everyone sighs, then it shoots right back up.  Let’s try it again with a higher dose.  Same result.  Ok, let’s get another EKG printout.  

The specialist goes to work analyzing the printouts and begins making some kind of calculation.  He then concludes confidently that the proper diagnosis is actually something called atrial flutter - essentially, instead of blood flowing directly from the upper chambers to the lower chambers of the heart, it’s looping around the upper chambers first.  This is good news, he explains, because it will not involve any ongoing medication.  We simply correct the rhythm, and then we’re done forever.  Sounds great to me.  There are two treatment solutions: 1) chemical, via oral medication called propranolol 2) electrical, via shocking the heart.  While he prefers the 2nd method due to it’s greater efficacy, he suggests we start with option # 1 because at this time of day (roughly 8 PM) we will need to stay overnight in the PICU for constant monitoring no matter what, so we might as well try the less invasive method first.  The PICU sounds like a nice relaxing place to not get any sleep…can’t wait.

The plan is simple: give her one dose now, followed by a second dose 6 hours later, and a third 6 hours after that.  If by noon tomorrow the tachycardia has not corrected, we will then proceed with shocking the heart.  How long will the propranolol take to work?  No way to know, he explains…”maybe it takes only one dose, maybe all 3, maybe it doesn’t work at all…the heart rate will be under constant supervision so we’ll just have to see how things develop…make sure you don't feed Scarlet after 8 AM, because if we need to shock her heart we want her to be on an empty stomach”.  Roger that.

The first dose is given, and we wait in the ER room while our PICU suite is being prepared.  1 to 2 hours later, they set up a portable monitor and start transporting us.  I notice the monitor shows a heart rate of 135, so I ask the nurse if that's an accurate reading of her heart rate.  “Yes”, she replies.  Wow, it looks like it already worked!!!

Into the PICU we go.  A new cast of characters is now in the mix.  Two nurses are getting things situated while discussing the plan with the chief of the floor.  One nurse comments, “she looks a little jaundiced”.  The other nurse responds, “yeah, she does”.  I ask if the 2nd dose of medication will even be necessary, given her heart rate has already stabilized.  The chief replies, “you’re going to need all 3 doses, otherwise the heart rate is just going to climb back up”.  I guess he knows something the specialist doesn’t.  The chief then says, “no feeding after 7 AM”, to which a nurse replies “oh, I was going to say 6 AM”.  I inform them the specialist instructed 8 AM and the chief says “well, you can go up to 7:20”.  Fine.

They do a general inspection of Scarlet, ask the same background questions the ER staff did, and put her on IV fluids.  A nurse then comes in hourly to assess things, mentioning at one point, “my daughter was jaundiced too and had to be under a light for 3 days”.  Thank you for sharing that.  

Around 1 AM a new woman enters the room and explains she is the resident nurse tonight, and that if we have any questions or concerns to just ask her.  Then she takes a look at Scarlet and comments, “she looks a little jaundiced…has anyone told you anything about her being jaundiced?”  Only the fools within this hospital.  I explain her bilirubin tests were fine 2 days ago, and that earlier that day she was examined by the pediatrician who said nothing of jaundice.  “Hmmm, she’s looking jaundiced, and it can start creeping up around this time…we’re gonna need to do a bilirubin test”.  If you say so.  As I look around the room, I’m struck by the seeming absurdity of attempting a visual assessment of jaundice in a room with yellow walls and yellow lighting.  But I’m no doctor, I suppose.  The resident nurse then tells me, “no feeding after 8 AM”.  Got it.

Fast forward to 3 AM.  Scarlet’s heart is still holding between 115 and 130 on average.  I let a nurse know that it’s time for Scarlet to receive a 2nd dose of the propranolol.  “Yeah, the pharmacy doesn’t have it ready yet, I just called - they’re making one up now”.  Got it, no worries, it’s just my newborn’s heart rate we’re talking about here…it can wait.  3:30.  4:00.  4:30, the 2nd dose is administered.

Fast forward to 7:30 AM.  I find the resident nurse and ask if the 3rd does will be pushed back, since the 2nd dose was given 1.5 hours late.  “The 2nd dose wasn’t given at 3 AM?” she asks.  No.  “Why not?”  How the fuck should I know?  I explain that pharmacy apparently didn’t have it ready, for whatever reason.  She looks to the other nurse, “why wasn’t I told about this?”  Silence.  She takes about 1 second to ponder my revelation, and says, “we’ll still give her the 3rd does at 9 AM as planned”.  Ok.

9 AM arrives - no one comes in with the 3rd dose.  Her heart rate is still exactly where it had been since transporting to the PICU.  Now there’s a big head honcho on the floor, who I’m told by a nurse is “the boss”, presumably of the entire hospital, and he’s walking with a bunch of student doctors and nurses from room to room discussing each case.  At 10 AM they get to my room, and the cardiologist on call joins them (the cardiac specialist from last night is no longer on site).  They begin discussing Scarlet’s situation right outside the room, in plain view and earshot.  I’m not sure if I should act normal, stay extremely still, or throw feces at them.  The resident nurse from earlier is in the pack, and she starts giving a play by play: “heart rate elevated, they initially tried adenosine, then switched to propranolol, she’s had glucose checked every 4 hours, and she looks jaundiced so I ordered bilirubin tests” _ (side note: it took 3 bilirubin tests for them to finally let go of their jaundice fixation).

Bossman then asks the same series of background questions.  Is she peeing and pooping?  Yes.  Any history of heart problems?  No.  Etc, etc.  I hear him say something about the specialist wanting to given another dose of adenosine, so I insert myself into the conversation, explaining the specialist had initially considered doing so, but ultimately decided against it upon confirming his analysis of atrial flutter.  Bossman asks if anyone knows what the heart rate was during labor, and I inform them that it was between 140 and 160 for the duration of the labor.  Bossman turns to me, “how was the baby delivered”?  Vaginally.  “Was it a normal delivery?”  Yes, the baby came out of the vagina and not the anus.  He turns back to the huddle, “well if she’s peeing and pooping and breast feeding, I’m not that concerned given how great these heart rate numbers are looking”.  

As the huddle begins to disband, I ask the obvious: “so is Scarlet still going to get a 3rd dose?”  The cardiologist responds “yes, we’re going to give her the 3rd does…she’s going to be on this medication for a while, about 9 months, so we’ll be giving you medicine to administer at home as well”.  I calmly explain that my understanding from the specialist was that once the issue was resolved by this afternoon, there would be no further medication required.  She looks at me like I have two heads, and asks if perhaps I misunderstood the specialist.  No, definitely didn’t misunderstand anything.  In fact, come to think of it, I’m the only person here who actually had a face to face conversation with the man.  She says “well, I’m going to check in with him, so I’ll see what he says…hey, I’d love to be wrong about this”.  She walks out with her associate, and eventually comes back in to report that we don’t need the 3rd dose after all, and there will be no further medication required - we just need to do a final EKG and Echocardiogram for definitive confirmation.  Great!  

2 hours later, someone comes in to do the EKG and Echo.  I’m told the results are being sent to the cardiology floor for analysis.  1 hour later, the cardiologist appears to say everything looks great and we can go home - we just need to wait for a nurse to prepare discharge papers.  Shortly after, the cardiologist’s colleague from earlier comes into the room to give us a script for the propranolol medication that Scarlet will be receiving at home.  Uhhhh, what?  I explain that the specialist informed the cardiologist that such was not necessary.  The colleague says “oh, I spoke to the cardiologist earlier and she told me this would be necessary”.  “Right, well it would seem that the cardiologist spoke to the specialist after speaking with you, but neglected to follow up with you”.  She says, “oh, ok, well then I’ll just confirm that with her, but it sounds like we won’t be needing this after all”.  Another 2 hours later we have discharge papers.  Get me the fuck out of here.  

The moral of the story is, while hospital staff are tremendously skilled and caring people, the environment in which they work is often frenzied and the communication therein can be highly dysfunctional.  And while it may be tempting to assume that this all must have occurred in some dilapidated institution with substandard personnel, rest assured the facility in question was very well regarded.  So never assume that anyone knows what is actually going on…this is not to say don’t trust your doctor, but rather, don’t assume that your doctor has been fully informed.  It is imperative that you attentively listen to everything that is said in your presence, ask whatever questions you may have, be highly observant, and not be too grief stricken or exhausted to monitor what is happening, or too intimidated to politely inform of any contradictions in procedure.  

In addition, it has never become clearer to me that if left to their own devices, hospital personnel would eventually start transporting patients to underground bunkers.  They are accustomed to encountering horrific situations and are therefore extremely paranoid about everything…this is entirely understandable, but it’s important to concede that this approach inevitably brings risk of unnecessary testing and treatment.  So patients and families need to provide a balance, when necessary, in order to make sure things don’t snowball out of control.  In the end, if I had not been as watchful during the above 24 hour saga, Scarlet would have received medication that she didn’t actually require…potentially 9 months worth!  So let this be a cautionary tale.  And please, conduct a thorough inspection of your children, because they're looking a little jaundiced from here.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Birth Lessons

In the months prior to conceiving, my wife began “preparing her vessel” as she liked to put it.  She was regimenting her diet, working out regularly, and seeing an acupuncturist.  It was important to her that she have an unmedicated natural delivery, and after much careful thought, we agreed that birthing at home was the most appropriate setting.  Home birth requires a high degree of preparation mentally and physically, and we were both fully committed to the cause, devouring as much reading material as possible, taking birth classes, watching birth videos and lectures, doing birth specific exercises, eating organic and being nutritionally mindful, etc.  So by the time labor was upon us, we were ready.

The first initial contractions began late evening on August 14th.  They were inconsistent and intermittent, so I figured real labor wouldn’t begin until the following afternoon.  I was in the middle of re-formatting my studio, a process that had been underway for weeks, and I had been working the entire day - now knowing that labor was around the corner, I decided to put in some extra work that night to cover a little more ground before the birth put everything on hiatus.  Close to midnight, labor started picking up and by 3 AM it was in full swing.  With only 2 hours of sleep under my belt, I woke up and started timing the contractions over the next hour…they averaged 57 seconds long, every 4:30.  It’s going down, folks.

Lesson #1:  Whatever work related projects, fitness routine, family drama, or other activities that you’ve got going on, none of it deserves your attention once the initial labor contractions begin.  If contractions could talk, their onset would translate to: “hey asshole, drop your bullshit, get focused, and get some rest…you’re gonna need it”.

At around 6AM the doula arrived.  I feed the cats, make breakfast, and set up a birth pool that we had rented.  We then proceed to work like seasoned masseuses, utilizing various massage techniques during and in between contractions, along with frequent words of encouragement, while Heather is vocalizing with every contraction and attaining full-body relaxation.  At 11:45 AM, the midwives arrive and do an internal exam to establish where things are.  My wife requests that they not tell her how dilated she is, and I agree - what’s the point in knowing - let’s just keep working.  

1 PM brings a surprise power outage to the neighborhood, something that hasn’t happened since Superstorm Sandy in 2012 (at least on this particular day it was cool and sunny).  As we’re all scratching our heads trying to figure out how to heat up water with no electricity, my wife blurts out in between contractions “hook up the new propane tank and boil water on the grill”.  Ingenious!

By 3 PM the power was back online - yes!  4:10 PM, the midwives do another internal evaluation and simply report “you’re making progress”.  The work continues…in the pool, on the bed, on the toilet, in the shower, lying down, sitting up…drinking, snacking, peeing regularly.  

8:25 PM, another internal evaluation.  “You’re at the same place you were last check”.  Really?  Whatever, back to work.  Labor outside, labor inside, from this position to that position.  Soon my wife starts reaching a point where she expresses doubt about whether or not she can really do this, an expected signpost during Stage 1 of labor - this is encouraging, and we in turn continue to encourage her.  She eventually vomits (twice), and while ostensibly a terrible occurrence, in truth it is another good indication of progress.  

10:15 PM, another evaluation…no change.  The mood now shifts considerably, and the midwives raise the prospect of transporting to the hospital.  I’m completely blindsided by this.  Ok, what’s the story here, where are we at?  “She was 4 cm at noon, and she’s been 7 cm since 4 PM, and the baby has not dropped at all”.

They breakdown the situation further, explaining the holdup is resulting from the position of the baby.  Although head down, it’s not the traditional vertex position…it’s occiput posterior (OP).  Normally at around 7 cm the baby’s head will have made contact with the cervix, and the resulting pressure, in conjunction with the contractions themselves, dilate the cervix the rest of the way.  In our case, the OP presentation was preventing the baby’s head from being able to engage the cervix, thereby stalling progress, and the all-forward nature of how Heather was carrying (you couldn’t tell she was pregnant from behind) was not helping matters.

Lesson # 2:  Some things are simply out of your control.  In the case of birth, nothing can mandate the presentation of a baby - you can take steps during pregnancy to encourage optimal positioning (which we did), but you cannot guarantee what the presentation will be the day labor begins.  All you can do is play the cards you’re dealt as best you can.  Such is life.

The midwives decide to administer IV fluids in order to help boost her energy levels (she wasn’t able to eat by this point), and they communicate in no uncertain terms that we’re approaching a crossroads - it’s time to dig deep or transport.  My wife rises to the occasion.  We work for another 4 hours, utilizing specific positions and rebozo techniques to counteract the OP presentation, along with aroma therapy, acupressure points, nipple stimulation, and herbal remedies that had been exploited on and off throughout labor.  A caravan develops as Heather walks throughout the house, with the doula in front of her, me behind her, and the midwife’s assistant holding up the IV fluids on a broom stick leading the parade - surely a peculiar sight to see out of context - when a contraction came, we all paused and Heather would lean back onto my lap as a midwife deftly placed a chair under my legs.  

Her “shelf” was dropping (the high point of the baby in the abdomen) and amniotic fluid had released (suggestive of a break high in the amniotic sac, as opposed to a traditional rupture)…both very encouraging.  Her vocalizations took on a new caliber of intensity, as her contractions got even longer and harder - she was deep in the labor zone, as were we all.  She began reciting affirmations, along with everyone else.  “I can do this”  /  “You can do this”  /  “Welcome it”  /  “I welcome it”  /  “You’re body won’t give you anything you can’t handle”  /  “My body and baby know how to birth”  /  “The pain will lead you to the baby”  /  “Follow the pain to the baby”.  Whatever heights were reached before, we were now in uncharted terrain.  My wife got to a place she didn’t think she could get to, and she continued charging ahead.  The atmosphere was electric, and we all felt that we had turned the corner.

At 2 AM, the midwives do another evaluation….7 cm, no change.  The devastation and disappointment was palpable.  I can tell from everyone’s facial expressions that it’s game over, but I can’t accept it.  I insist Heather can still do this, but my wife is protesting.  They clear the room, and I tell Heather, “I don’t care that you’re still 7 cm - no woman dilates on a set schedule - you could be at 10 cm in the next 30 minutes for all we know - and we have been seeing other indications of progress - you are so close, you can do this”.  “Zack, you don’t understand, I can’t do this anymore”.  “Yes, you can”.  

The midwives return and explain that Heather’s degree of exhaustion has gone too far, that her uterus has become too fatigued, and that in their medical opinion it is time to transport.  I recognize that I’m the only one who thinks continuing is an option, and it angers me - I’m angry that they are giving up on her, I’m angry that I am failing my wife in not being able to convince everyone (including her) that she can still do this, and I’m angry that on some level I too know it’s time to transport.  Of course, contractions are still coming, and as I’m anxiously trying to figure out some way to salvage this, my wife’s vocalizations take on yet another caliber of intensity, only this time the sound she’s making is of a very different nature, and it goes right through me.  Some vocalizations signify working your body to the brink of its capacity, and some vocalizations signify working your body beyond the brink of its capacity.  In that instant, it became clear to me that my wife was no longer laboring, she was being tortured.  

“Ok, we’re going” I declare.

Lesson # 3:  There’s what you want your birth to be, and there’s how it actually goes.  Unfortunately these two things don’t always match.  It’s imperative to never let one’s attachments and desires, however important and cherished they may be, get in the way of making objective assessments.

Now, there are 2 hospitals we can transport to.  One is 20 minutes away, and the other 40 minutes, but the further hospital is the preferred choice of the midwives in a non-emergency.  There is no fetal distress whatsoever, so it’s up to Heather.  She opts for the preferred hospital 40 minutes away.  The midwives call in advance, and begin packing their stuff.  I’m secretly hoping that by the time we get Heather into the car or to the hospital, she will have completed transition and we’ll birth this baby in the car.  Heather begins apologizing to me and everyone, for which we all admonish her, while I mask my grief that this is really happening…I don’t want her to know how upset I am, because as the midwives explain, there’s still a lot of work ahead - this baby still needs to be born, and the top priority now is having a vaginal birth at the hospital.  Off we go.

Driving at 3 AM through winding country roads while your wife is laboring in the backseat is not something I recommend doing while sleep deprived and exhausted…but with adrenaline pumping, you’d be surprised at how efficiently you can accomplish this.  Oh, hello deer - hitting you is the last thing I need right now.  My wife was miraculously silent during the entire drive, apparently summoning the will from not wanting to cause me to panic, while I too was miraculously silent for not wanting to cause my wife any additional distress…if we’d been in separate vehicles, I would have been weeping.

It’s close to 4 AM as we arrive at the hospital.  Quick pee outside in front of the ER entrance (my wife, not me) and we proceed inside.  Heather continues to apologize to everyone, and a nurse tells her reassuringly “hey, you got to 7 cm all on your own, you should be proud of yourself”.  All I’m thinking is “fuck you, lady”.  The hospital midwife on call assesses dilation at 8 cm.  The anesthesiologist eventually arrives around 5 AM to administer an epidural just as Heather vomits for a 3rd time, at which point they also start her on a conservative drip of Pitocin.  Basically, although her uterus was still contracting regularly, it was now so fatigued that the contractions were believed to be too ineffective to dilate her cervix the rest of the way…so the plan was for the epidural to allow her to go to sleep in order for her body to rest, while the Pitocin beefed up the contractions in the meantime without her being aware of them.  The birth team disperses, and Heather and I try to get some sleep.

Lesson #  4:  The amount of routine unnecessary medication and intervention during labor is disturbing - from induction to epidurals to episiotomy to cesarian - such measures should always be a last resort, yet too often they are utilized out of convenience, ignorance, habit, or paranoia.  However, when there is a true medicinal purpose, intervention can be a truly beautiful thing.  Never stubbornly refuse an intervention for the sake of principle alone - if you genuinely need help, accept it.

A couple of hours later, the hospital midwife checks her dilation.  No change.  “We’re gonna up the Pitocin a little bit and give it another hour”.  One hour later, no change.  “We’re gonna up it a little more and give it more time”.  Another hour later, no change.  My wife is starting to panic, but I remind her that the baby isn’t in any distress, and it’s simply a question of giving her body the time it needs, to which the hospital midwife responds “well I don’t want to say we have all the time in the world - this is a really protracted labor, and if we don’t see progress relatively soon, we’re going to have to start having a very different conversation”.  You’ve gotta be fucking kidding me.  “But we’re gonna up the Pitocin a little bit more and see what happens”.

30 minutes later, our birth team walks back into the room like knights in shining armor.  At the next check, Heather was 9.5 cm _ [cue angelic choir] _ and before we knew it she was feeling the urge to push (by which point the epidural had worn off).  And push she did, with a fervor and intensity that belied she had been laboring for over 30 hours.  After another gauntlet of birthing postures to facilitate the baby’s positioning, finally at 11:24 AM on August 16th, Scarlet Sage Hemsey was born.  The sense of triumph that pervaded all of our spirits in this moment was extraordinary…it felt like snatching victory from the jaws of defeat.

Lesson # 5:  Throughout our stay at the hospital, I was thinking about all the time and energy that we had put into birthing at home, all of our efforts during the last 9 months of pregnancy (and prior), and the 30 hours of laboring we had just completed before transporting - this tremendous investment, and it was all for nothing.  But the truth is that our investment had in fact paid off, just not in the way we had expected it to.  The hospital was on the verge of doing a cesarian section when Heather finally dilated to 10 cm, so if Heather had not already been birthing at home for those 30 hours, or if she had decided to birth at the hospital from the outset, C-section would have been a certainty.  In the end, home birth is what made vaginal birth possible.

Lesson # 6:  The more learning and preparation you do in advance of labor, the more confident you will be when it’s underway.  However, there is a potential pitfall for expecting parents who know all the intricacies of birth, what to expect, and have a clear vision of what lies ahead…and that is if / when labor strays from how it was imagined to be, it can be extremely scary and disconcerting, and very difficult to let go of prior expectations and accept what you’re presented with.  You can do all the reading in the world, but none of it will allow you to truly anticipate what labor will feel like or how your particular labor will unfold.  So know what to expect, but don’t have any expectations.

Lesson # 7:  Hindsight is not always 20/20.  If I could go back in time, there are a variety of things I would try in an effort to change the outcome…maybe if we had spent more time in these birthing positions instead of those, Heather would have progressed faster…maybe if Heather listened to music, she could have focused or relaxed more…maybe if I had made more fresh fruit juice (perhaps 6 glasses instead of the 2 that I did), she would have had more energy…maybe if I called her acupuncturist for a home visit during labor, she would have been able to do something to affect the baby’s position and/or Heather’s stamina…or maybe we could have driven over bumpy roads and bounced that stubborn baby downwards.  But the reality is there’s no way to know if any such alterations would have affected the outcome (and if they did, whether for better or worse).  In navigating labor, all you can do is make your best on-the-fly judgement each step along the way.

Lesson # 8:  Initially looking back, I thought maybe I was wrong to have championed my wife onwards at 10PM when the prospect of transport was first raised.  Perhaps she endured 4 more hours of pain unnecessarily.  However, in truth, I think it would have been a disservice to her to have done otherwise.  Even though our rallying ultimately did not affect the outcome with respect to transporting, I believe it was extremely valuable to my wife’s psyche  to have been able to summon the willpower and determination that she did during those last hours at home, and I truly feel that her birth experience would have been diminished without it.  While we should absolutely seek to protect the well being of our loved ones, we should never doubt their resolve.  I believed in my wife then, and I still believe in her now.

I remember thinking to myself at one point during labor, “who would ever want to be a midwife or a doula?  This is so exhausting”.  But when it was all said and done, I understood.  My deepest gratitude to Susan Schmidt, Cathy Gallagher, Nancy McDaid, and Julie Hartman.  I am forever in your debt.




Tuesday, May 20, 2014

In Defense Of Free Will

Honest discussions of free will are bound to become unsettling, if one is brave enough to go the distance.  After reading Free Will by Sam Harris, one is definitely left unsettled.  We all have the feeling of free will - that we choose what we do or don't do, and that we have control over our thoughts and actions.  The beating of our hearts may be involuntary, but we definitely decide whether or not to drink that glass of water.  The idea that this could be an illusion flies in the face of our intuition and subjective experience.  Yet, Harris makes a very compelling case that our sense of free will is exactly that - an illusion.  This is not to say that a choice wasn't made to pick up that glass of water…it's to say that it wasn't you who made it.  The experience of that action tricks you into believing you were the cause, when in fact you weren’t.  As to who or what is doing the choosing, if not you, the decision to drink that water presumably resulted from brain states, neuronal patterns, and/or prior chains of events, all of which you have absolutely no control over.

Most people (including me) find such a prospect depressing.  We'd like to think that we can take pride in our accomplishments and bear the responsibility for our actions - that our decision to run into that burning building to save those puppies was not the result of neurons that just happened to fire, but rather that those neurons fired because of a meaningful choice that we made.  We'd also like to think that the serial killers and rapists of the world are responsible for their actions too, and not victims of their brain states and neurophysiology.  Of course, the way that each person is neurologically and biochemically wired is certainly relevant to our actions and behavior, but we’d like to think such wiring does not encompass the entirety of why we do what we do.

Now it should be pointed out that whether or not you have free will is inconsequential from the standpoint of your personal experience - you feel like you have control over your thoughts and actions, regardless of whether you actually do or don't.  So in one sense, free will's truth or falsity is completely irrelevant, practically speaking.  However, for the inquisitive among us, we'd still like to know what's really going on under the hood.

It should also be pointed out that a lack of free will would not mean your experiences aren't genuine - they absolutely are - it would just mean that you are a helpless puppet along for a ride in a car that you are not driving.  Similarly, it would not mean that you don't possess genuine knowledge, weigh career options, waver between dinner choices, plan out vacations, ponder your existence, react to the behavior of others, learn, problem solve, etc - you would still be doing all of these things, just not in the sense that matters - it would mean your biological system is doing them, while the consciously self-aware you (the real you) is merely experiencing the process.

So I've been attempting to make sense of this issue for quite a while now, because I abhor the idea that we are merely selves helplessly trapped in bodies, and that life is nothing but a bunch of billiard balls set into motion on a cosmic pool table in which all of our future paths and interactions are entirely pre-determined or otherwise predictable from principles of physics and mathematics.  But as much as I don’t want this to be the case, one can't (or shouldn't) ignore evidence just because it's inconvenient or displeasing, and the fact of the matter is that Harris makes a very compelling case that free will does not exist.  The stakes are high, my friends.  

Fortunately, after long and careful consideration, I suspect there may still be hope after all.  What follows is my defense of free will, for the good of the land - because who better to reconcile Harris's anti-free will arguments than someone with no significant philosophical accomplishments or PhDs to his name?  Yes, it must be me.  Besides, as an undergraduate I got a minor in philosophy, so step off, bitches.  Now if my efforts should miserably fail, then I suppose it won't really be me failing, since as it would turn out I would not have actually chosen (in the meaningful sense) to write this in the first place…a realization that should hopefully remove any potential embarrassment in the event someone comes along and utterly destroys this defense.

Additionally, just to be clear, although I'm claiming that free will does exist, I'm not suggesting that we are in control of 100% of ourselves - just that we exert meaningful control to some degree.  Free will doesn't require that we are in control of every influence, impulse, and desire, but rather that we have the ability to resist, adhere, and add to that tapestry with consciously intended behavior.  Obviously things like our nervous system are on autopilot, and I fully concede that other aspects seem to be as well, such as various emotional triggers and behavioral / facial knee-jerk reactions (see Paul Ekman's Emotions Revealed for an interesting discussion to that end).  I acknowledge the autonomy of such mechanisms, concede the relevance of our genetic and chemical predispositions, etc, but I maintain that there is still more to the story … more pieces to the puzzle … more cushion for the pushin' (well, maybe not that last one).

Harris essentially makes two main arguments against free will, which when taken together are quite formidable.  I will summarize each and then bring the hellfire, but I encourage you to read Harris's full manuscript, as the author naturally goes into greater depth and explores other areas in addition to these.

Argument 1

Experiments in neuroscience have shown that people do not become aware of the decisions they make until after those decisions are already made.  If one is not aware of their decision until after the decision is made, one cannot be said to have made the decision in the first place.

Argument 2

Our thoughts and feelings drive our behavior.  Introspection makes it clear that we do not choose our thoughts and feelings, but instead, simply experience them as they pop into our awareness.  If we have no control over what we think and feel, then we have no control over our actions and behavior, and thus, no causal agency with respect to our lives at all.  Since this is precisely the situation we find ourselves in, it follows that we do not possess free will.

Scary shit, folks.

Response to Argument 1

One would expect that our awareness of a decision would occur in conjunction with it's formation.  However, a variety of experiments involving EEG and fMRI monitoring of a subject’s brain have demonstrated that a subject's decision to move can apparently be anticipated prior to the subject consciously choosing to move (from 300 ms to as much as 10 seconds beforehand).  The predicted movements in question are general in nature, such as the case of pressing a button.  Note the predictive accuracy is not 100%, and scientists are not able to predict how a subject will press that button (e.g. with her index finger or her elbow), but this is arguably due to the infancy of the field.  

These findings are very intriguing and quite startling.  However, it is important to realize that the duration of the time-lapse between subjects’ awareness of their choice, and the neuronal data that lead to successful predictions of that choice, is inconsequential.  This is to say, whether those neuronal precursors occur 5 nanoseconds or 5 minutes before you feel like you’ve made the choice, both constitute a time-lapse.  A greater time lag may very well be more shocking from a psychological standpoint, but philosophically speaking there is no reason why one duration should be more alarming than another.  So it’s the time-lapse in and of itself that constitutes the real peculiarity - not the specific duration therein.

Also, keep in mind that there is no brain scan technology that can tell us what you are thinking or aware of, so any assessment as to when a person consciously chooses to move can only be inferred, either from the subject’s behavior or from the subject’s first-person report.  For example, your reaction to the smell of something rancid is what informs us that you've had such an experience - e.g. making a disgusting face, or stating "it smells like shit”.  Of course, analyzing brain function can clue us in to the fact that you are thinking / experiencing in general, and seeing activity in the regions associated with our olfactory system can perhaps be indicative of the nature of that experience, but such activity will not tell us what specifically you are experiencing or thinking…we cannot conclude from a brain scan, "she's smelling petunias and thinking about streaking”.  Maybe the future of neuroscience will one day be able to decode and translate the entirety of your brain, inclusive of the specific contents of your thoughts, but until that day comes we should tread carefully in reaching firm conclusions.

The problem with indirectly deducing one’s awareness is that it leads to a great deal of uncertainty, and a person’s subjective self-assessment as to when they were conscious of a given thing is not precise enough for scientific standards.  So attempts to study volition in the laboratory entail an unavoidably flawed protocol, wherein we cannot isolate a subject’s thoughts / intentions / awareness - only the totality of a person’s brain activity is accessible.  The fact that a subject may feel as if he chooses to press a button at 1:15 PM, while a scientist is able to accurately predict that choice at 1:14 PM, is ambiguous in its implications: it could mean the subject did not cause the action (i.e. he has no free will), or it could mean there is some kind of disconnect between the subject’s awareness and his ability to integrate and report that awareness, or it could mean there is a confounding factor involved (e.g. the subject thought about the prospect of pressing the button without actually pressing it, which tipped off the neuroscientist). Furthermore, we can't determine if a movement, such as pressing a button, is encapsulated within one single choice, or is the product of multiple choices chained together (e.g. a decision to move, followed by a decision to move a finger, followed by a decision to commence the movement now); and if the latter, which decision in the chain is the true correlate of the EEG / fMRI readout and which decision correlates to the awareness being reported by the subject?

So we find ourselves in muddy waters.  Of course, we expect that we should be able to precisely pinpoint the inception of a choice in time.  However, it’s interesting to speculate whether this expectation might actually be misguided - what if we are not sufficiently equipped, on a neurobiological level, to determine the precise moment of a choice?  It seems to me that to accurately report when I make a choice, two things are required: 1) that I am capable of actually perceiving when the choice is made, and 2) that I am capable of remembering that information.  Regarding the first requirement, there are countless stimuli that occur too fast for our senses to perceive (e.g. movement of light photons), and perhaps thoughts are simply too fast for our awareness to pin down in time.  But even if I can perceive this, I still have to store the temporal information associated with my choice into some kind of memory, in order to be able to reference and communicate that information to you.  So is it possible that the time-lapse demonstrated within these experiments is suggestive of a deficiency in our capacity to remember when we make the decisions we make?  After all, our memories are certainly limited in a variety of other ways - you can’t remember what you were doing at 7:39 PM last July 2nd, and I can’t remember your name even though you told me five times.  From an evolutionary standpoint, there certainly doesn’t seem to be any advantage to knowing the specific point in time that you decided to eat a berry, for example…only the choice itself and the consequences that follow would be important (e.g. I ate those berries and got sick).  Perhaps our internal assessments as to when we make given choices really are just retroactive educated guesses, not because we don’t actually make choices in the first place, but because we simply can’t remember when we make them.  Maybe our brains do not possess the necessary circuitry to be able to process or retain this type of information, and human beings have some kind of permanent choice-amnesia.  Maybe our heads would explode otherwise.  And just ask yourself, how many people look at their watches and then have to look back a second time because they don’t remember what they just saw a moment ago?  Think about it (but not too hard).

Response to Argument 2  _  (you forgot what Argument 2 was, didn’t you? See what I’m saying? Well go back and reread it, you forgetful bastard)

I agree with Harris that simple introspection makes it obvious that we cannot account for the source of our thoughts and choices. Indeed, it appears as if thoughts come to us, as opposed to from us. Perhaps this explains the origin of phrases such as, “It just occurred to me that your stepson is an asshole”, or “the solution to the equation came to me last night in a dream”, or “It dawned on me this afternoon that I never looked underneath the mattress for her diary”. Regardless, the following line of inquiry is puzzling:  

Why did I do what I did?  Because I chose to do it.  Why did I choose it?  I don’t know - I guess because I chose to choose it..(?)  Why did I choose to choose it?  Etc, etc.  Final answer: I have no idea.

We are woefully inadequate in answering this inquiry, because we have absolutely no idea why we think what we think. But on closer inspection, the fact that we don’t choose our thoughts may not be cause for alarm. After all, what would it mean to choose a thought? It would seem to involve having another thought! Argument 2 is framed in a way that assumes our thoughts need explaining, but in my opinion this is a mental / linguistic parlor trick. Moreover, our perplexity doesn’t go away in abandoning free will, and we could alter the inquiry accordingly:

Why did I do what I did?  Because of neurons firing in the brain.  Why did those neurons fire?  Because of other chemical / biological processes.  Why did those processes occur?  Because of yet other physical states and processes.  And what caused those physical states and processes?  Etc, etc.  Final answer: The Big Bang.  And what caused the Big Bang? … I have no idea.

To the extent one investigates cause and effect, one will always encounter an infinite regress, or some amount of magic will enter the equation - either something must mysteriously arise from nothing without a cause, or there is a mysterious First Cause (wherein that First Cause has no cause or somehow causes itself), or something mysteriously just always is or was.  At a fundamental level, cause and effect is baffling, and there are roadblocks at every turn.

Although scientists don’t know how or why Existence came to be, we all agree that Existence exists nevertheless…in the same way, although we can't account for how or why we make the choices we make, we're making them nonetheless.  We don't need to understand how or why something is, in order for that something to be the case.  Of course, this is not a license to resort to wishful thinking, and it’s important to concede that Harris is not attempting to explain the metaphysics of choice - he's simply saying that whatever its nature, it's not us doing the choosing.  However, this does not resolve the enigma at hand, but simply moves it to a different arena wherein the enigma persists, and without providing an intelligible explanation as to the fundamental source of our thoughts, Argument 2 essentially just amounts to an acknowledgement that we are completely in the dark about the matter. We didn’t know what was going on before Argument 2, and we still don’t know what’s going on after Argument 2. It may be tempting for some to suggest that the Big Bang being responsible for our thoughts and choices is somehow less mysterious compared to that of free will, but pushing a mystery back billions of years doesn’t make it any less of a mystery - it just keeps it out of sight.  It’s smoke and mirrors.

Perhaps this bafflement is the result of asking what in truth are meaningless questions.  Philosopher Alan Watts (along with various Eastern worldviews) would suggest that this discussion of cause and effect and free will assumes that we are independent minds acting on the world, when in fact we are not (see The Book).  Watts would argue that the real illusion is that there are separate things at all; that through your narrowed consciousness you appear to be a separate thing, but in truth, you and every thing that you think is not you are all part of one process of being, as the wave is one with the ocean.  From this perspective, no one is choosing and no one is not choosing - We / I / You / It are just being.

Interestingly enough, consider this: I identify myself as the summation of my mental happenings…I am what I think and feel.  If all of my thoughts and feelings stem from a nebulous source outside of me, then wouldn’t this just mean that my sense of “me” is illusory, and not my autonomy?  In other words, if I am that which thinks and feels, but something else is doing the thinking and feeling, then aren’t I whatever that something else is?  And if that something else is bound within an infinitely regressing causal chain of events, then aren’t I the entirety of that chain?  And if you and everyone else are similarly such things, and we all originate from a single point at the beginning of Time amidst a mystical explosion of something from nothing, then … that would mean We / I / You / It are simply Being.


With or without free will, we can’t account for why we think what we think.  So it comes down to the following: either we are arbiters of our own destiny, making legitimate decisions about what we do and don't do, along with real choices as to how we act and behave…or we are captives, trapped within a body, aware of ourselves but without causal agency, at the complete mercy of thoughts and feelings that are not our own.  Like the Highlanders that came before us, there can only be one.  So which one is it?  You decide (to the degree that you can).