And then I waited too long…

..and the backlog of words waiting to be written backed up and I EXPLODED!

Okay, not really, but I’ve worked myself into that awful spot where updates are long overdue, but I can’t tell you about THAT because first I have to tell you about THIS, but it’s dependent on this OTHER thing for context, and I wanna talk about THIS but it needs to be a video but I really need to vlog about the cruise first, and then the wake…

And so for weeks I’ve posted nothing at all. Which is DUMB. So let me sum up some things, and then when I feel like I wanna say something, I can do that, and then fill in the back story as I can. The Cliff Notes version:

Clinic Days: Progressing as normal. Last time my breathing capacity was down a little, but it was still a strong normal. My hands continue to degrade. I made an appointment with Deb the Wicked Awesome PT who made me a Wolverine glove to hold my fingers up. I now have a wheelchair at home to get pushed around in.

Home search: Nothing. Despair.

Support Network: Lizzie is amazing and helps clean my place and I am VERY much enjoying the strengthened friendship that’s resulted out of the hangouts. She’s keen. Puce has become a freakin’ CHAMP-EE-UNNN in my life, to the point where he pushes me in my walker from the car to my desk every day. He’s amazing. Every dang day I am grateful for the people in my life who just kinda stepped into the roles I need, and I’m not at all sure what I did to deserve any of it.

Cruise: So much fun. You should do a cruise if you can.

Awake Wake: I literally don’t have the words. So many people, and so much love, and so much good food, and creativity, and hardly ANY crying, and SO MANY PEEPS OH MY GOD. My favorite part was sitting in the corner, watching all of my friends greet other mutual friends they haven’t seen in too long. It was the most uplifting thing I’ve ever experienced, and I’m so freaking grateful to everyone who came.

Vitamin shots: Don’t seem to be doing anything except make me pee pink, but I’m continuing them until next clinic day anyway.

Radicava: cautiously optimistic, but holy HELL is that expensive and complicated and..yeah. Every time I hear about it I think of Rikki-tikki-tavi.

Politics: Don’t even get me started. He wants to completely defund the ALS registry, which is the single most important tool we have to finding a cause and therefore a cure. I get angrier and more depressed with all of it every day, so I spend my days actively avoiding all of the news. It seeps in through my friends feed anyway, and I try to not be hateful and bitter. The world seems like a very ugly place right now, and I actively work to remain ignorant so that I can remain sane and functional. Bleh.

ALS Sucks: Someone else I knew with ALS died recently. I know his wife better than I knew him, and she’s an amazing person (seriously, caregivers are the unsung, underappreciated heroes of all time), but it brings the total number of people I know with ALS to….one. This is why I avoid the hell out of ALS forums. They’re seemingly all “EVERYTHING SUCKS” or “RIP So-andSo, who lost the fight with ALS today…” Meh. There’s only one cure for this disease, and it sucks.

Settling Affairs: Yeah, speaking of which I still need to finish that all up. It’s hard. I’m glad I don’t actually own anything of value.

Voice banking: Done! I have my digital voice and it is some serious Uncanny Valley stuff and I can’t wait to show it to you.

Work: I still have a job, I’m working from home two days a week now because it’s hard to do much of anything, and even getting out of bed and putting civilian clothes on and wrestling with myself to get in to work is a freakin’ challenge. But I still have to keep doing this because see: Home search.

So, that’s the quick (!) update. A lot. Realllllly need to post more. Soz. Soon. <3 I hope you're doing excellent things today.

Attention Developers!

So, you can now totally play with Stephen Hawking’s voice software:

You Can Now Use Stephen Hawking’s Speech Software for Free

I really, really hope the world takes this and does amazing things. The best and brightest technology always finds its best use in the hands of public developers, so many amazing things created that were not even THOUGHT of by the device creators. If you couldn’t tell, I’m a huge fan of open source, and I’m an ardent worshipper of public projects. Someone out there has something brilliant to make, someone can take this software and make it do something so far advanced we never even CONSIDERED that it was possible. Someone is going to take this tool kit and make ALS so much easier to deal with we’re going to wonder how we did without it in the first place, and I’m waiting.

Let’s make something cool.

Tom Waits for No One

A vast number of things have prevented me from completing my voice banking. Changing acoustics in my office due to the move being the primary, but various other things have factored in, like the time my hard drive died and I lost the existing in progress file. I finally had it occur to me that work has phone booths, private little sound-muffled rooms. So I have brought my headset in to work, and finally – FINALLY! – started the process over.

And then this.

tom waits for no one 1

IT EXISTS.

Maybe you don’t know Tom Waits, and don’t care. That’s okay! You should go YouTube something of his and then imagine a digital voice like that. I said that I should make a tumblr for Tom Waits poetry inspired by the ModelTalker software prompts. It would be awesome. And then read that poetry with the Tom Waits digital voice, and the world would cease to be, because it’s just too cool for words. And voices.

I might continue to bug you guys with examples of the ModelTalker reading prompts though. They’re delightfully bizarre.

“The wolves surged to meet him.”

“He had rides in the wheelbarrow.”

“The grizzled old fellow could only see on one side.”

Oh, and the original line was “There’s another way you can get a tooth out.”

Talking the Talk

I had the second talk today, for Intel employees. I mentioned the talks briefly before, but lemme recap.

The leader of the Veterans’ Resource Group here where I work contacted me to see if I’d be willing to help. Veterans are twice as likely to get ALS and we don’t know why yet, so they’ve dedicated this quarter to raising awareness. Part of that awareness campaign was two scheduled events where they brought out the technology available to assist ALS patients, tried to drum up support for the Walk to Defeat ALS, and talked about ALS in general. He asked if I’d be willing to just give a short talk about my diagnosis, how it came to be, and how technology has come into play. I came to his attention because of the news story on voice banking, and he thought that was a wonderful way to introduce ALS to Intel folks – apparently I am the only Intel employee currently working, who has ALS. He asked if I’d share my story. Of course I said yes, no big deal.

I thought a lot about what to say. I didn’t want to just stand up there and talk about my diagnosis. I didn’t even really want to talk about myself much, except to say, this is what ALS is, and if you have any questions at all about what it’s like, or how you get diagnosed, or anything, please ask, because I want people to know this stuff. There’s a lot of misinformation out there, and most of the information that is correct is cold and clinical, hard to put a face on. And I didn’t want to be a Sally Struthers pity party campaign of DON’T YOU FEEL AWFUL LOOK AT THIS HORRIBLE STUFF YOU SHOULD GIVE US MONEY AND FEEL BAD.

And so instead I talked about the tech. Both times, I didn’t manage to stay on script, but this is more or less what I said. And I wanted to share it here, because it’s valid and important to me.

After a 6 month chase including MRIs, a spinal tap, a biopsy, and several impressions of an electric voodoo doll, I was finally diagnosed with ALS. (As it was stated) ALS is also called Lou Gehrig’s disease, after a then-famous baseball player gave a speech telling America that he considered himself the luckiest man alive.

That April 1st, as I sat in the neurologists office and tried to process the news, the first thought in my head was not that I felt particularly lucky. The first thought was actually, “I have to wait until tomorrow to tell people, because NO ONE is going to believe me when I call them on April Fools’ Day to tell them I have a terminal disease.” And my second thought was, “Ok, now what.”

Some people interpret this as courage; I think it’s actually closer to pragmatism. If anything, working here has honed my natural ability to deal with crises with grace. I *can’t* panic; I’ve suddenly lost the luxury of time, and in less than a year I went from perfectly healthy to planning advance directives and making decisions about feeding tubes and ventilators. And it’s become a full time job figuring out how the heck am I going to AFFORD all of this. Dying of ALS is a very expensive endeavor in the States. There’s all of the mobility equipment I’m going to eventually need, there’s the two story house I had bought a handful of months before I was diagnosed that now has to be sold because stairs are becoming impossible. There’s going to be hospice care, and figuring out who I can rely on to get me to medical appointments.

And even more stressful that figuring out money, I have to tell a lot of people about my diagnosis. When a coworker asks if I’m limping because I’ve hurt myself, I have to tell them why I’m limping, and I find more often than not that it usually entails an explanation of what ALS even IS. When I told people of my diagnosis, while their first reaction is always “I’m sorry” – which feels lame to you? But it helps, it really, truly does – the SECOND thing out of everyone’s mouth is always some variant of: “What can I do to help.” I have never realized how many amazing people are in my life. When I was diagnosed, I knew I’d need someone to lead my care team when I couldn’t, and when I looked up, my best friend had her bags already packed and checklists in hand. When I realized that it’s become so much more difficult to do the simplest things like go to the store, I have a plethora of people offering to take me. My little brother moved his entire family from California to be here for me. Casual acquaintances have become friends. And my coworkers have become my invaluable allies.

I have the very good fortune to be working here at Intel. Our benefits are actually really good, especially when you compare them to the nightmare that is Medicaid. And most importantly? The people I work with are an incredible asset. You have two things we really need if we’re going to defeat this stupid disease. First? I’ll be honest, …we need your money. Research takes money to fund, and did I mention how expensive having ALS is? But second, and probably most importantly, you have intelligence and innovation. If you look at the tech available to make living with ALS easier, and compare it to what is POSSIBLE, you’ll see an almost comical shortfall. Eye gaze tech allows ALS patients to use a computer after their ability to move has gone, but it costs thousands and thousands of dollars, and the best stuff isn’t covered under insurance. There is good technology available, and there’s AMAZING technology POSSIBLE. And you’re just the people to help us push this tech to the next generation and make it available to everyone that needs it, not just those that can afford it.

Ever since that April diagnosis I have been shown time and again that I am completely surrounded by people who are willing and able to make this disease suck less – for myself and every other person with ALS.

And because of that, I realize that I am actually very, very lucky.

The Interview

I’m very, very glad I took the whole day off. Social anxiety is exhausting!

The reporter was scheduled to come at 9. Shana, the Assistive Technology Services Coordinator for my local chapter of ALSA, showed up early so we could devise our battle plan. I really like Shana – she’s good people. We met for lunch Tuesday, and I liked her instantly. The reporter ended up being late, due to “breaking news” (there was an officer involved shooting that morning), so we just hung out for awhile while my nephew’s cat Brobee whored himself alllllllllllllllll over her. Seriously, that cat is ridiculous. Luckily, Shana is also cat owned, so she was nice about it.

The reporter and Camera Guy Pete arrived around 9:30, and they…were both really nice people, actually. I was kind of expecting someone plasticky and false, but she was very nice, and won me over when she not only said hi to Brobee, but pulled up a picture of HER cat on her phone. Cats. They bring people together. Hehe. They set up the camera at my dining table, and then the interview was…very quick and informal and I hope to GOD I was half articulate. She asked how old I was, when I was diagnosed, and was surprised when I said just this last April. She asked several questions about voice banking, and I hope I came across as passionate and not stupidnerdy about the whole thing. And then she asked how ALS has affected me so far, because she’s not seeing it.

“Well there’s these,” I said, swinging my legs around. I wore a knee length skirt that morning, with purple houndstooth knee socks, so the braces were not in your face, but not hidden either.

“Oh, I didn’t even realize that’s what they were. I thought maybe they were..a goth thing?” hahahhaha what.

“Well I’m going to replace the velcro with leather, so it will seem even more intentional then, ” I told her.

They interviewed Shana on my couch, next, and she was very passionate and bubbly and full of hope and information. Awesome. They filmed me walking up the stairs, and then we set up in my office. Shana sat next to me while I did the thing, and I showed them around the very simple ModelTalker software. I recorded a couple of simple phrases, demonstrating how I could play it back. Marilyn (by the way, the reporter’s name is Marilyn. Probably shoulda said. It’s the same name as my mom, so that was weird.) asked me about banking custom phrases, and Shana explained that’s not really ModelTalker, that’s just something separate that you can do; make a recording of your own phrases and then put them along with the Artificial You on your soundboard so you can just hit a button to say “WORD UP HOME SKILLETS” or whatever. She asked if I could do some of that, so I pulled up Adobe Audition and recorded “Seriously? …SERIOUSLY.” for her, and played it back, and showed how I could crop the file to just include the phrase. She asked me to record “I love you” so I did that, and then, with Shana’s giggling prompting, I recorded, “You are getting on what might actually be my last nerve.”

It was glorious.

And then I looked over at my doorway and the reporter was stifling a laugh so I felt a lot better about the whole thing.

Pete filmed me walking down the stairs, and then filmed me in my kitchen pretending to bake something. Well I was actually baking, but mostly it was waiting for eggs to become meringue for macarons. (Which didn’t even turn out in the end because I was super distracted and not doing it properly, but they still tasted okay.) They packed up, then, and all said their goodbyes and headed off to talk to the other woman involved in this story, who is much further along her progression and uses ModelTalker. She’s apparently on a vent, so the idea of us all meeting at my house was laughable.

It was around 11 then, so I played around with Sims3 for about an hour and then took a nap for four.

Overall, I think it went okay. Hopefully I was semi-articulate, and was able to convey some of the awesome energy I feel about the ModelTalker option. BECAUSE VOICE BANKING IS AMAZING. They assured me I did alright. Marilyn said that the story isn’t likely to run next week, but the week after; but she’d email us to tell us when.

And when I know, I’ll let YOU know.

Making Video about Audio

I’ma geek out for a minute about voice banking. Ready? Here we go.

Voice banking is one of the most amazing things to happen for people with ALS, or any kind of degenerative disease that robs someone of their voice. Model Talker allows you to record your own voice, from which they’ll make a synthetic version for use with a text-to-speech program. It effectively lets you “talk” with your own voice, after the disease takes away your ability to speak.

It’s amazing and important and I’m SO GRATEFUL that it exists and that I’m allowed to participate in it. It’s currently in beta, and anyone can apply to be a part of it. ModelTalker is a program you install on your computer, and then you record yourself saying prompted phrases by speaking into a USB microphone headset. It’s best to bank before the disease hits your voice, so that your computer generated voice is as true to your natural voice as possible; so the sooner people with ALS know about it, the sooner they can start banking. It’s a fairly sizable time commitment – I understand there’s about 1600 phrases to record before they have enough sounds to create your voice from. The sentences I’ve seen so far include lines from The Wizard of Oz, and the phrase “There’s more than one way to remove a tooth.” I’ve only just started; I recorded the calibrations and the first ten sentences last night. They’ll listen to the samples, and suggest changes, and then I’ll record the next set. I will be sitting at my desk and recording goofy sentences for hoooouuuuuuuuurs.

But it will be TOTALLY WORTH IT, when my computer generated version of me calls someone a fuckwit for the first time.

This technology is SO IMPORTANT. It’s completely dehumanizing, being unable to properly communicate with others, and that idea frankly scares me. The fact that speech synthesis exists at all is fantastic, don’t get me wrong, but we need to take it a step further. Just look at Dr. Hawking, his voice..it’s become a joke, how robotic his communication is. To have to rely on a robotic voice to tell someone you love them? To try to explain to your loved one why you’re crying with this…fake, cold, not-really-a-voice? That is the worst thing, and I can’t even imagine the stress that adds to an already horrible situation. ModelTalker gives you back some semblance of who you were, to continue to be who you are. It gives you back a little bit of what this stupid fucking disease takes away from you.

I was contacted some weeks ago by my local chapter of the ALS Association wondering if I would like to be part of a local news story about voice banking.

I said yes, please.

They’re going to come to my house next Thursday and film me doing some recording, and then interview me about it. I’m really happy to have the opportunity to evangelize about this technology, to let people know it exists, and it’s out there for free. Technology is solace for people with ALS. It helps us travel when we can no longer walk. It helps us communicate when we’ve lost the ability to speak.

It helps us continue to be human, for just a little bit longer.