Handyman, Multiculturality, My life

Hearing, memory, attention, intelligence, and a pump switch

For the last week, my well pump has been running constantly, thanks to a worn-out pressure switch. I can hear it from anywhere in the house, even though it’s in the back yard. If I give the switch a tap, it shuts off.

My wife doesn’t usually hear it. Not because her hearing is less sharp than mine, but because she doesn’t tune in to mechanical noises. They don’t matter to her. (She also sleeps  through her phone alarm most of the time.)

Last night, besides the pump’s hum, I heard a weird chirping sound while I was getting ready for bed. I couldn’t tell where it came from; it was sharpest when I faced the front yard. Alicia thought it might be cicadas, but it sounded electronic or mechanical to me. When I went down to the garage to pop the pump circuit breaker off and on (another way to get it to switch off), the noise was piercingly loud and seemed to be coming from the wall behind the dryer.

There was an old Verizon alarm unit hanging on the wall, so I dragged a ladder over and opened it up. It had a big battery inside, which I pulled out. The noise continued. I pulled loose the cables that came down to the unit from the ceiling. Still the noise continued. I pulled the whole unit off the wall and made sure it wasn’t plugged in. No difference. The noise didn’t seem to be coming from the device in any case, although it was clearly nearby.

Then I looked at the shelf right below the alarm and discovered a smoke alarm that I had taken down so I could paint the breakfast room ceiling. It had been on a shelf in the family room, but I moved all the tools and supplies out to the garage yesterday in preparation for Christmas Eve. The dryer vents into the garage, and the hot air activated the stupid alarm. So I pulled the battery out, and behold! The noise stopped.

When I studied linguistics some 25 years ago, I discovered that I was exceptionally good at phonetics. The class required recognition and production of speech sounds from all over the world. Invariably I was at the top of the class at both transcription and production.

My hearing is not exceptional. I have some high-frequency hearing loss, which is common at my age, and am in the normal range for the rest of the frequencies. The reason I was good at phonetics transcription has more to do with discrimination than with hearing. I had the ability to give importance to miniscule differences in sound that my classmates didn’t always notice.

In my job as a translator, I have to transcribe recorded conversations. I’m very good at it, but I’ve discovered that familiarity with regional Spanish dialects makes a huge difference to the quality of my work. If I’m transcribing Mexican or Colombian conversations, I can usually capture as much detail as any of my colleagues, but if I’m assigned recordings of Puerto Ricans or Cubans or Dominicans, I miss a lot of information that a colleague from the Caribbean would catch.

In Spanish (as in English), there is a tendency to slur or drop certain sounds. For instance, when I first started working with recordings of Mexican speakers, I would hear them say “lo-lo” when giving driving directions. I had no clue what it meant, until a colleague told me they were actually saying “luego luego,” which means “immediately after.”

When I hear Cubans speaking on a recording, a lot of it sounds like “to-to-to-to” to me, because they drop or minimize the letter S and other fricatives and pronounce their vowels less clearly than Mexicans or Colombians. In addition, they use expressions that are unfamiliar to me, so I have trouble making an educated guess at what they’re saying. My transcriptions of Cuban conversations end up with a lot of portions marked [UI] (unintelligible). One of my colleagues from Cuba or Puerto Rico or Dominican Republic will review my work and, and can usually fill in most of the UIs. When I go back over the recording, looking at the notes from my colleague, I can hear most of the corrections. But the lack of familiarity is a real handicap.

I’ve often wondered what the relationship is between intelligence and memory. Outstanding students usually remember more information, but I’ve never seen memory included as a factor in intelligence tests or theories. Of course, we can’t just remember facts, we have to correlate and apply them, and outstanding students also have better analytical skills than their classmates.

Some people are naturally good at taking tests. One of my brothers-in-law is a history buff. A history degree is not particularly useful in looking for a career, so when he moved to Illinois, he took the state exam to be licensed as a social worker. He scored in the 90s. This led to a horrible career as a welfare case worker, which he was very glad to leave when offered early retirement 20 years later. But my point is, he had never taken a course in social work or psychology, but scored higher than the average Illinois social worker on the state test because of his test-taking skills and world knowledge.

So skills can trump familiarity (as in the social work exam); discrimination can trump acuity (as in hearing tests, phonetics, and a humming pump); familiarity can increase discrimination because it allows predictability (as in transcription).

But familiarity also decreases discrimination, at least in identifying language sounds. By the time we’re 9 months old, we are already assimilating English phonology and unable to differentiate some sounds that are important to other languages (which is one reason I was better at phonetics than my monolingual classmates: I grew up bilingual and had a repertoire of more sounds as a result). I’ll write about that in another post.

What I really need to do today is replace my stupid pump pressure switch. I think I can get the part at Home Depot.


28 thoughts on “Hearing, memory, attention, intelligence, and a pump switch

  1. Muy ‘fascinado’ )sp? , as I’ve come to expect. High-frequency chirps are notoriously hard to locate spatially. I had one, a dead-battery alarm on a digital scale in a cupboard, vhich drove me nuts until finally I geo-located it.
    Further, technically, the pressure-svitches sometimes stray from the 35-on/50-off (or something close) standard setting, and all that’s needed is to adjust it.
    But if a nev one still ‘short-cycles, suspect a problem in the pressure tank.
    And nov the fun part:, hearing. I have serious, I assume, hi-frequency loss, from decades in front of thousnd-vatt Marshal amps, but still, my vife, a hearing specialist, svears there is no little chirp after closing the refrigerator door, yet I hear it as plainly as a 50 pound rooster croving. Gender?
    I vas driven up the vall a fev months ago by a piece here on the radio about (-sic-) ‘Pope’ and Roke’ music. The announcer kept repeating the flaved pronunciation. Even though Hebrev has a perfectly fine ‘ah’ sound. Is the problem vis his hearing.? I almost called the station in disgust and/or amazement.
    …And the only Spanish accent I knov at all is Puerto Ricano. I’m avare of its differences, but just don’t knov much about other regionals.
    Nice meaty post, Tim.

    • Thank you. I’ve wondered about my tank, because the pump runs every single time we open a tap, even just to fill a glass. The tank looks like it’s about 150 gallons. The pump my dad installed in Medellín to get clean water to the house (we lived across the street from the water plant, so the water ran at low pressure at the bottom of our entry stairs) had a 40-gallon tank and didn’t fire up unless you ran the water for several minutes. What kind of problem can a tank develop, besides leaking or filling up with sludge?

      Pope music? Maybe Innocence Mission would fit the bill. Or Cassadee Pope. Or maybe this: http://youtu.be/RCcXXm05OcY

      • Did someone by any chance too aggressively bleed the air out of the pressure tank? That will cause too-frequent pump running every time. Typically it’s 10% to 15% headspace required, and it’s usually on the data plate riveted to the tank.

        • The Home Depot guy gave me the same advice. I put in the air from my compressor (the compressor was at 80 lbs, left over from my last carpentry job) and changed the pressure switch. It still runs longer than it should, but at least it turns off eventually. I think I’ll add more air tonight or tomorrow.

  2. I’m good at taking standardized multiple choice tests. Don’t know why. lol
    Good luck with the pressure switch. Have a well is an adventure all it’s own. I’ve lived with well water more often than I’ve lived with city water.
    You point to something that I try to teach my students. How to apply what they have learned. How to think critically. How to take what you know and combine it in interesting ways to create new ideas.

    • Teaching critical thinking is hard to do. When I taught phonetics in Costa Rica, there was one test question that required that they go beyond what we had covered in class and extrapolate (or interpolate, I can’t remember) something just beyond it. Most of the students would hunt through their books and write down something at least remotely related rather than just try to figure it out.

  3. What a great story! I’m glad you found the source of the noise!

    I think males and females are in-tuned to different sounds. I’ve known many a man who could sleep through a baby crying or a child coughing and women can hear a baby/child’s slightest move. 🙂

    You have an interesting job, Tim! I’m grateful for translators!

    I think a lot of people talk too fast. That makes it more difficult to understand them. We get lazy in our speech.

    Well, your post has stirred up lots of thoughts and stories of my own…but I don’t want my comment to be too l-o-n-g. 🙂

    Merry Christmas HUGS!!! 🙂
    PS…How many trips did you have to make to Home Depot to get the job done?

    • I only stopped by once to buy the switch, but their plumbing guy told me to add more air to the pressure tank. I think that was the bigger problem.

      Alicia doesn’t hear the pump and misdentified the chirp, but she makes sure I close the garage door behind me when I leave in the morning (she stays in bed because it’s around 6:30) and when I was on a trip last spring, the sound of raccoons shuffling through the yard sounded like footsteps to her and kept her awake.

      I woke up with my babies as much as their mother did, because I was usually the one responsible for getting up with them. (She had morning sickness for seven months of each pregnancy.) I didn’t sleep 8 hours more than a handful of timees between 1988 and 1997.

  4. digitalgranny says:

    I also have trouble filtering out noises going on around me when I am talking to someone-like clerks in the grocery store, with the music playing in the back ground and people in line behind me talking-I just want to scream shut up I can”t hear.
    I hear the sump pump underneath our apt and can tell when something is wrong with it and call the management office who come and fix it.
    You and your family have a wonderful Christmas and be blessed.

  5. I kinda dropped the ball, technical-advice-vise. Vorked intensively on this very problem during my last trip to the Untied Snakes. By draining the tank completely, pre-pressurizing the thing to about 30 lbs/sq-inch. (had to buy an electric air pump) I managed to get a bath-tub of vater before the thing recycled on. Vether it’s stayed like that these days I don’t knov.
    Hov Stuff Vorks: Pressure Tanks, is my reccmmend, or similar. Perfect for a guy like you vho insists on understanding the problem first. One final note: At our(?) age, vrite every step dovn as you do it, othervise it becomes a mental rat’s nest

    • The Home Depot plumbing guy told me it was probably waterlogged, so I added the air in my compressor’s tank as well as changing the switch. It still drops pressure too quickly and runs too long, but does eventually shut off. I think I’ll pump in more air soon. (I figured that for $20 it wasn’t a bad idea to change the switch even if it wasn’t the urgent problem.)

    • This morning my shower was hot even when the knob was turned fully to cold, as a result of the pump running all night. So I drained more water and pumped a lot more air into the tank (poor neighbors, having to listen to my compressor at 6:30 a.m.). It still ran and ran while sitting at 50 lbs. I backed off the pressure adjustment nut a turn and a half, and it finally quit. I haven’t checked with my wife to see how it’s behaving.

  6. OK, I’m back. The plot thickens, as they say. Are you suspecting that the hot ‘cold’vater vas heated by the pump’s vorking? Odd, that.
    Fine tuning a pump/pressure-tank is kinda an art. Somehov you’ve got to get to the place vhere it’s ‘happy’ (the pump ceases to run) at a reasonable tap pressure, usually about 50 psi. And in that ‘happy place’ the tank contains like, five minutes or so of a faucet running full open., until the air pressure in the tank drops dovn to the svitch-on point (typically 30 or so psi.
    Tanks fail in a number of vays. A common problem is ‘vaterlogged’ (vhere the air ‘cushion’ becomes too small)
    If your tank has a nipple, like on a tire, at the top, that’s your key for understanding its ‘pulse’, so to speak.
    I fought for a couple days vith mine in PA, draining, re-pressurizing, over and over.
    The high ‘pre-pressure’ figures you cite don’t make sense to me. It should actually vork, though vith less ‘reserve’ even after simply draining it and reconnecting the pipes (vith only atmospheric (fifteen psi) in the beast.
    As I mentioned, do document your every trial, othervise it becomes a nightmare quickly muddled and forgotten/ JS

    • Mine has a tire nipple on the side, and a plug at the top. I pumped air into it from my compressor this morning for about fifteen minutes (four cycles of the compressor set at 100 lbs) and drained out an estimated 10-20 gallons (hard to tell without measuring). I raised the pressure from about 25 lbs to about 40 with the air, then turned on the breaker again. It ran up to 50 and kept running. So I turned off the breaker and adjusted the switch’s nut, then turned the breaker on. It ran for a few seconds and cut off. I had to leave for work so I don’t know how it has done today. But I have been getting warm or hot water from all the taps for the past week that the pump has been running so much of the time. I assume it’s heating the water around it.

  7. I’m enjoying this discussion.Ve have an expression in Heb: ‘to grind vater’, meaning the talk uselessly about a dead issue. The opposite of the point here, since running vater is one of seven of life’s little necessities, no?
    As I said, the goal (so they’ll let you out of handyman gaol) is to make the pressure svitch ‘serve Mankind’ so to speak. No more, no less. You da boss. And like billions of other bosses you’d like about 50 psi as consistently as possible. In principle, that’s vhy James Vatt invented the pressure svitch. or not.
    So our problem is, vhy is the svitch not shutting off the pump after it’s done its job?
    I’ll re-advise re-reading the ‘Hov sh*t vorks’ site on the topic ‘pressure tanks. Cause all of a sudden I realized that I don’t even knov vether the svitch should be measuring air-pressure or vater-pressure.(?)
    See vat happens tonight after vork, Tim…. and for the next problem, maybe something vhich don’t use the letter ‘double-you’. ha.

    • The pump has been turning itself off, although not always as soon as I would like. I’m planning to pump in more air soon. Didn’t get to it over the weekend because it was no longer as urgent a problem. This morning I didn’t hear it start until a couple of minutes into my shower, so it’s better than it used to be.

  8. Once I asked my Puerto Rican friends why they kept repeating “E-Lah” at the end of sentences. Puzzled at first, he finally explained that they were saying “verdad”.

    If memory and intelligence are related, then I must be quite stupid.

    • It’s obvious from your posts that you’re quite intelligent.

      Someone in Reader’s Digest once wrote about learning a cool New York expression, “It cost me a nominal egg,” only to discover later that it actually was, “It cost me an arm and a leg.”

  9. I don’t know how my hearing compares to other peoples’–I expect that since I like to listen to my music extremely loud, it’s probably rather damaged, to be honest–but I DO find that I am a lot better at understanding accents then most people I know. I don’t know how much of that is discernment and how much is familiarity, though. Is it because as a multicultural kid I’ve heard a wider variety of accents then many people, especially with my history of watching TV shows from for example Japan/Korea/China? OR, is it just because I am superior to everyone else? We will never know.
    Oh, yeah, I have a wordpress blog now, by the way.

    • Yay, me Hanner’s on WordPress!

      I think your ability to understand accents is influenced by your multicultural background (including the Asian media you immersed yourself in).

      When I started my current job 13 years ago, I was given a box of tapes to transcribe that were in English… but spoken by a Nigerian! The poor monolingual secretaries had been unable to do much with them, but I had no trouble understanding him.

  10. i hate it when i’m looking around for a sound that’s annoying me. but in the end, i feel like a total superhero detective when I finally locate it.

    i wish I had good test taking skills. but truth be told, i’m at a point where I’m wondering if I lack even in application which would be a double strike against me.

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