Category Archives: Reviews

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When Noise is on the Menu

A reasonable noise level at a restaurant should be about 65 decibels.  But many can top 85. Little wonder noise is the most common complaint about eateries of all sorts.

These days when the New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells writes reviews, it’s not uncommon to read about sound levels in expensive establishments that are “abusive” or “overpowering.”  That’s not always the case.  But high New York rents dictate small rooms with many tables.  And the bar culture especially in after-work watering holes nearly duplicates the sound intensity of the beachside runway on St. Maarten’s.  We have all had the experience of spending an evening with others where our time together was defined less by the food coming from the kitchen than our skill as lip-readers.

The World Health Organization notes that the normal nighttime noise level for a large city should be no more than 40 decibels.  (This measurement scale is logarithmic; every three decibel increase roughly doubles perceived sound intensity.) Continuous sound topping 55 decibels can leave a person at risk of cardiovascular disease.  That’s a considerable distance from the 120 decibels that can produce permanent hearing loss: a real risk for musicians of all sorts.

A reasonable noise level for a busy restaurant should be about 65 decibels.  But many restaurants easily top 85 in their bars and main dining areas, a fact aggravated by the tendency of well lubricated patrons to talk even louder.  Maybe the hard stuff should come with a noise warning as well as a warning to drink in moderation. Little wonder noise is the single biggest complaint leveled against eateries of all sorts.

Many eateries are also designed to reflect rather than soften noise.  And nothing is a greater problem than hard surfaces, especially glass. Glass harshly reflects sound back on us, even while it seems visually transparent.  So even a table with a beautiful view may be no better than sitting in a three sided box. In practical terms, avoid the offer of a seemingly cozy booth with a view that is also  just a few steps from the bar. If the place is busy, you are likely in for a sound circus. As I documented in The Sonic Imperative: Sound in the Age of Screens, all of that alcohol-fueled reverie a few feet away is going to come you way twice: once as the sound travels to the window, and then again when it comes back to your ears a few microseconds later.

The problem is common enough to get a separate web page from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.  Their recommendations:

  • Spare your kids the noise.
  • Eat at off times.
  • Request that music or the sound on televisions be turned down
  • Ask for a quieter corner away from loudspeakers or loud groups.

There is a curious fact about excessive noise.  Many of us don’t notice it.  We are used to moving through clamorous environments that push at the margins of comfort.  Some of us are natural stoics, bearing the burden of too much noise until it is mentioned by others.  This is one reason excessive sound volume is a contributor to stress, not to mention permanent hearing loss. As ambient sound turns into a roar it stretches the natural elasticity of our patience.  In the end, we feel drained and fatigued without exactly knowing why.

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A Question of Priorities

We should not expect much sympathy for the higher cost of feeding the beasts sitting in our driveways.

Gas prices are high.  But something is amiss in the culture if this change is ranked as the nation’s greatest challenge. The price of fuel for cars tops a recent Associated Press poll of items that Americans are “very” or “extremely concerned” about. To be sure, low-wage workers who must drive and pay for their own gas are severely squeezed.  Those folks should have a living wage that is indexed to fuel costs. But the rest of us need to reconsider the presence of elevated gas prices in the context of other world crises that should be top of mind.

The same poll shows much less concern among Americans about the European war, schools and places of worship that have become shooting galleries, the spread of fantasist misinformation, curbing human-induced climate warming, insurrectionists who are still seated as members of Congress, and the thousands across the nation who are forced to live in our streets.

Others around the world have every right to raise an eyebrow over our angst at feeding the glutinous beasts sitting in our driveways. Most of us own some version of the SUV, those “suburban assault vehicles” that clog our streets and spill over the lines of once spacious parking spots.  In fact, most would require two parking spaces in Amsterdam, and some would be wide enough to completely span the width of a street in Rome.  If the choice for some is not the standard SUV, it’s often the truck equivalent—buffed and spotless—and frequently carrying no more than one driver in an oversized seat.

At This Moment Whining About Gas Prices Makes us Look Small

Most of us love cars, but we are selling our children’s future to buy thirsty road behemoths. “Armadas,” “Sequoias”  “Annihilators,” “King Ranch models,” “Land Rovers” and “Denalis,” are common nearly everywhere. I doubt if NASA could muster enough launch power to get a three ton Infinity QX80 into space. This car is big enough to occupy two counties at the same time. I suspect it comes with mooring lines and a ground-to-cab telephone, should anyone on the street need to talk to the driver.

Our addiction for oversized low mileage cars would make sense if we were running day camps. But most of us are just hauling ourselves around in a two tons of extra metal. The Nissan Armada gets a pathetic 15 miles to the gallon. Europe’s most popular car, the Volkswagen Golf, gets about 33 and weighs a ton and a half less.

EVs are still too expensive for most drivers.  But with far less money it is possible to get new or used gas/hybrid cars with mileage from the mid-40s to much more.

We can complain about gas prices, but most of the rest of the west has figured out how to make cars more appropriate to this crowded planet. We should face the fact that our values are inverted. At this moment, whining about gas prices makes us look small.