I recently found out my library has audiobooks available on OverDrive and Libby, which are awesome apps to find and listen to audiobooks on a smartphone for the price of a library card (FREE!). In my first time scrolling through books to listen to, I stumbled upon The Way I Heard It by Mike Rowe. It was truly awesome book, and I encourage everyone to read or listen to it. Or check it out on his podcast. After listening to it, dots connected in my head, and I felt compelled to write him a letter. Apparently he gets a lot of letters, so it might be a while before he responds. I'm the meantime I figured I might as well share it with all of you. (Note: the first paragraph has a little spoiler.)
I happened upon your audiobook, “The Way I Heard It”, and learned that we have something in common. We both stutter. It is rare for me to find such an uplifting story, and I’m extremely grateful that you’ve had the opportunity to live it and narrate it so eloquently. As someone who clearly has a passion for hard work, an appreciation for winging it, and an interest in the mighty universe in which we all live, I hope the story I offer below is a fraction as interesting to you as your stories were to me.
This is my story.
It was about 11:00pm in January 2003. I was in a wet bathing suit and a wet towel, in the back of a capped pickup truck, going over Rt 200 on the Big Island of Hawaii. We had been in Kona on the west side of the island earlier that day, and we were driving back to Hilo on the east. We were more than a mile above sea level, and the temperature was nowhere close to that of the balmy beach of that afternoon. The sun was down, our altitude had changed, and it was freezing. Earlier that day I was trying, and failing, to body surf. Unfortunately I float as well as a brick, and I got caught in waves far larger than I could handle. My friend and two strangers heard me screaming for help in the brief moments between the waves that I couldn’t escape. They swam over and pulled me to a rocky jut out and then to the beach. I don’t remember much else from that day, until I was in the back of the truck, freezing. My friends were in the cab, but I drew the short straw on the return trip. As I lay in the fetal position trying to stay warm, the truck came to a sudden stop in the middle of nowhere. I couldn’t tell where we were since the cap on the truck bed blocked the view. I heard my friends get out of the truck. They quietly came to the back, opened the door of the cap, and told me to get out. I was terrified that we’d broken down. I slowly came out of my frozen fetal position, crawled out into the frigid night air, and stood up. As I looked up, for the first time in my life, I stared into a night sky full of a purple rainbow of starry colors that I had only seen in magazines and on screens. I didn’t have a camera, but it didn’t matter. If there was one thing I learned is that no picture could ever capture the beauty and scale of the Milky Way on a crystal clear moonless winter night, a mile above sea level, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. It was literally breathtaking. I could feel my lungs empty as I stared ever upward, gap mouthed. The cold didn’t matter. The near drowning a distant memory. The connection to our universe was so deep and immediate. This is the common view that all of our ancestors, particularly those who lived prior to the advent of electricity, shared as they thought about life’s greatest mysteries: who is up there? Are we alone?
I’ve felt deeply connected to the stars ever since I was a child. I’ve had a strong passion for teaching ever since I can remember. I’ve been fortunate that math came to me easily. In my younger days, I would have said that stuttering made me less fortunate. But now I can appreciate the texture and complexity it brings my life. Much like whiskey, once you get past the burn, you just might find it to be worth savoring.
I was about 12 years old when my family got our first computer. I could type, or at least spell and had fingers, which was good enough. I had stuttered for 5 years, and hadn’t ever met anyone else who did. My stutter is an interesting one. I did it all the time, unless I was talking to a speech pathologist or doctor. I had been to the school’s speech therapist, but she couldn’t do anything to help since I was fluent with her. My mom brought me to doctors and hospitals, where I had my ears checked, read notecards and books aloud, and said everything they asked of me - flawlessly. I was healthy. Lucky me. There was nothing to fix. When my mom persisted with the doctors, the familiar phrase “He might grow of it, most kids do” was often the last thing said before we walked away empty handed.
But now, I was 12. I had a computer, with a new thing called the internet. And I could type. At long last I could do research on my own. I can't say that I ever found anything to improve my fluency, but I did find the National Stuttering Foundation, which had books about people just like me. I showed my mom, and very shortly thereafter I was opening a package filled with books. As I flipped the pages, I finally read about people like me. Sir Isaac Newton. Copernicus. Aristotle. Math came easily to them too. And they also held a deep appreciation of the stars.
My parents are phenomenal. My mom has a heart big enough and strong enough to challenge Secretariat. My dad can soak up more information than a warehouse of sponges. We didn’t have much, but despite living in the northeast between Boston and Providence, we had a decent view of the night sky. My dad would periodically sit with me and my brothers pointing out constellations and planets.
I didn’t exactly know what I wanted to be when I grew up. I didn’t exactly know what options even existed. But I did know I wanted it to involve space. During my high school years, job interviews quickly made me realize something that I always thought might be true. I’d better be extremely qualified to have a fighting chance at any job.
My dad said “major in electrical engineering”. I asked what electrical engineers did. He replied “You’ll love it”. Good enough.
I started at UMass Amherst in 2001, majoring in electrical engineering. In my freshman year, I overheard a classmate mention there was going to be a math competition that night. My ears pricked up. You see, during high school I was on the math team. If I say so myself, I was pretty good. I had been a 3-time conference all-star, two-time team captain. My senior year I qualified for the state all-star team. I was lucky to have an incredible math coach, Mrs. Denise Haskins, and several like-minded friends. Mrs. Haskins would give us extra problems to solve during our other classes after we finished our class work early. Then we’d play poker against each other 4 to 6 nights a week. I always lost at poker. Stuttering is an easy tell. But worse is turning lobster red.
That math competition at UMass was a doozy. Two problems had notation I had never seen before. But each of the other problems had subtle tricks. Once you recognized the trick, the problem decomposed gracefully. I did the problems I was able to read, handed in my answers early and walked out, figuring “good try”, but I didn’t expect much with two problems untouched. As luck had it, I won second place. There was going to be an award ceremony and dinner. My academic advisor, Dr. Dennis Goeckel, who had been randomly picked for me by the university, was notified of the achievement and attended both. At dinner, he asked me if I wanted to work as a research assistant for him. His expertise? Wireless communication theory. I was thrilled, as this would both pay better than my current job, and be less crappy work. I was a janitor for the fine arts center. Few things are less enjoyable than a turd left in a toilet over a long Thanksgiving break. But more than these things, I was nearly dumbfounded by the idea of me - a stutterer - doing research in communication theory. The theory of making one machine talk to another machine, in the presence of distortion and noise that confounds the general public (and engineers for that matter). I was very familiar with these very issues. It was utter serendipity. My dad was right. I loved it.
I worked under Dr. Goeckel for three years at UMass. Then under Dr. Urbashi Mitra as USC. Then onto industry. During all of this, the stuttering that made my personal communication so difficult became my mental metaphor to simplify all the abstract theories of modern communications. Particularly error correction.
I like being punctual, as it gives me a chance to try to ground myself. As I stand outside the final doorway to wherever I’m heading, I like to have time to breath and try to calm my nerves before I have to speak. I met with my advisor, Dr. Mitra, regularly. Outside her door she had several things pinned to the wall. One was a quote from Dr. Claude Shannon - the father of information theory."We know the past but cannot control it. We control the future but cannot know it."I read that quote dozens of times as I stood outside her door.
Almost a decade later, in 2016, I was at work. We had completed a project ahead of schedule, giving us time to work off script for short time. The project manager said “Hey Nick, why don’t you try to think of a smartphone app that could go on the Google Play Store for Software Defined Radio?” In layman's terms, he meant an app for visualizing signals that are transmitted by radios, e.g. FM radio, police radios, ham radios, cell phones, satellites, etc. There were already apps that did this very thing. They worked ok. But they drove me crazy. They didn’t pause. Their plots wouldn't stay properly aligned when you tuned to a different frequency. They didn’t let me zoom in or out. Zooming in and out was the real interesting one. You see, some radio signals are really wide. The wider they are, the more bandwidth they use. Just like with your data plan, using more bandwidth requires more data. A lot more data. Trying to visualize all that data requires a lot of computation. Smartphones aren’t really equipped to do that much computation. That’s why Google has data centers.
My dad once told me “Nick, you don’t have to think of the answer. Just remember it.” And in a rare moment of clarity, I remembered Dr. Shannon outside my advisor’s door as I tried to calm my nerves telling me “You know the past AND you cannot control it”.
I can’t change radio data. I had the radio data. And so it was simple to see that I should only have to process it once. There it was. A subtle trick, leading to a series of decompositions. Like the Milky Way on a clear frozen Hawaiian night, an algorithm appeared seemingly out of nowhere. I could see every bit of it with complete clarity. But the kicker I didn’t realize immediately. The algorithm scaled. A lot. It would allow an arbitrarily wide bandwidth of data to be processed in near-real time in a scalable and efficient manner. And that arbitrarily wide bandwidth of data could be viewed on a smartphone.
Ok, I might have you lost you. That’s ok, my wife feels your pain. Let me provide some context for why this matters.
Remember, there’s a question that people have asked for millenia: who else is up there? And in the last century scientists have tried to actually listen for someone else, or something else, talking way out in space. Enormous antennas point out into the cosmos, trying to find radio signals transmitted by extraterrestrial technology. SETI.
In 2015, one year before my brainchild was conceived, Breakthrough Listen had been announced. This project would, for the very first time, provide raw SETI-related data to the public. Prior to this, SETI was accessible only to those researchers who sat near those enormous antennas. SETI datasets are massive. Too massive to travel across the internet. But with Breakthrough Listen a 1 petabyte (1 million gigabytes) dataset, broken up into more manageable 17GB chunks, would be hosted in the cloud for anyone to download. But a problem remained: how would anyone actually VIEW the data?
These SETI researchers have algorithms to process the raw data. There is so much data that no ONE person could ever look through it all. In fact, the SETI community has largely given up on the notion that people could feasibly look through enough data to find anything. Researchers have looked for decades and found nothing.
In developing the algorithm, I only used the first half of Dr. Shannon's quote. But the second half is equally important. We cannot know the future, AND WE can control it. I can't control it on my own. No ONE person can.
I’m a researcher-type person myself. My dad is one too. But not my mom. But if you gave us the task to find a gallon of milk in a refrigerator, my mom would win for sure. My dad and I might actually fail entirely. I’ve anecdotally observed that researchers like me tend to have great capability at thinking for great lengths of time to discover subtle tricks to decompose problems. But when it comes to “easier” tasks like finding literally anything in a kitchen, regardless of its proximity to our noses, those “easy” tasks can be quite challenging to us. So maybe, just maybe, SETI needs the help of some unlikely heroes. My kids are constantly identifying all the things I’m doing wrong. My wife has an extremely keen eye for seeing and fixing pictures that don't look right, which served her well doing photo retouching in Hollywood. Mechanics and technicians can identify issues sometimes just by the way it sounds. They can listen. Perhaps we need the likes of Rosie the Riveter to join the effort. Overall I think humanity has an incredible untapped resource for solving life's great mystery: the tremendous diversity of perspectives of humanity itself.
In order to have a diverse group of people do anything, it's helpful that they know how to use a common ubiquitous tool. In this case, a smartphone. The algorithm I uncovered can allow ANYONE to view the data on a phone. As many ANYONEs as are interested. This algorithm makes it possible to view SETI data and look for alien signals without requiring any expertise at all. So now when you sit on the crapper at a fine arts center before Thanksgiving, and you’re so enthralled in your phone that you forget to flush before the long weekend, you can now at least say you did so while looking for life beyond our solar system. All because some kid who stutters, who cleaned that very throne, who stood outside doors calming his nerves re-reading quotes of great minds, had a moment to sit, reflect, remember, think and create.
Today, this algorithm - Radwave - is in its infancy. It was conceived. It had a long, complex gestation. And it was born. It crawled, and now walks. I’m currently working to make it talk. And one day I hope to make it sing, and run, around the whole world. All this takes work. Work takes time and devotion. Being a single parent of a brainchild isn’t easy. As a dad of young children, and a husband with a day job, I only have a little time to devote to this brainchild.
That last paragraph sure had a lot of I's in it… We cannot know the future, but WE can control it. I continue to try my best to fully mature Radwave on my own, but I might only get so far. So if you’re interested in helping turn this brainchild into a brainadult, even indirectly, I’d love to hear from you. If not, I hope you at least enjoyed the story. I plan to add many more chapters.