Tag Archives: listening

Giving Our Ears Their Due

Having spent the better part of the last two years writing about hearing and our sense of sound, here are a few takeaways about how we hear that may come as a surprise.

A key premise of The Sonic Imperative to be published in a few weeks is that sound is our newest sense. The widespread use of radio in the 1920s and magnetic tape recording a little later means that our modern comprehension of sound is only about 100 years old. Radio and recording made listening a prime preoccupation. Records added an additional level by making this, the most ephemeral of sense data, something that could be packaged and sold. Though streaming is the preferred way to access music today, for many of us it still matters to hold a copy of a performance in the form of a vinyl record or CD.

Here’s a few random but surprising facts about how we process sound.

  • People often say that they are “visual learners” or thinkers. We do learn from what we see. But sight is predicated on light, and we are not natural light emitters. But we were born to emit and receive sounds. It’s good to keep that in mind when we reflexively think of sight as the dominant sense. We surely need the advantages of seeing, but our basic social nature is predicated on hearing and learning spoken language.
  • Sound is created almost as much by the space it is in as by the source. Open spaces and rooms are major shapers of auditory content, with important effects. Even an expensive stereo system is going to sound crummy in a small room, or one with hard surfaces. In fact, a rooms designed to have no acoustic impact known as anechoic chambers would slowly drive most of us crazy in just a few hours.
  • A lot of music listeners have trained themselves to settle for inauthentic bass sound. They probably have listened for too long to bad audio that tends to create “one note bass.” This form of low frequency sound is a wad of noise that may be just “good enough” for a boom box or dance track. You can actually hear true bass when you can detect a distinct pitch and it’s overtones produced by a bass guitar, piano, or an organ pedal note. A low frequency bass note of 40 Hz, for example, is 28 feet long. A room shorter than that will force all of that high-energy sound to distort into indistinct one-note bass.
  • One way convenience stores disperse teens who want to hang out nearby is to employ a “Mosquito,” a proprietary “sonic canon” that emits a high-pitched sound that can only be heard by young ears. Some owners have also had success with baroque music.
  • Most Americans are careless in protecting their hearing. It is useful to remember that sound is created by zephyrs of moving air that can often only sensed by our ears. It is incredibly easy to overwhelm the tissue and tiny bones that receive those feint sound waves and send them to the nerves of the inner ear. You are probably ruining you hearing if you listen to music with tight earbuds, cutting the grass without ear protection, or using earplugs at a pop music concert. Results unfortunately include many musicians and subway workers who eventually end up legally deaf.
  • There are 1400 loudspeakers in Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia, mostly because baseball requires a big audio assist to keep it exciting.
  • Listening is the one sense that never rests. Indeed, we are even listening to our mothers in the womb, starting in the third trimester at about 30 weeks.

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The Software Shuffle

There’s an art to setting up online forms that are responsive and adaptable.

Anyone that works or does business with an organization—pretty much all of us—face an almost daily task that would have been unknown a generation ago. Not only do we use computers, and often depend on them for the payment of bills and the submission of forms and applications. We also no get the flip-side effects of messages we no longer control.  The requirement to use a group’s proprietary software in order to complete even the simplest transaction is so common we hardly notice. But sometimes the smaller the business, the more the software has you wandering into the weeds.

There’s an art to setting up online forms that are responsive and adaptable. Bad software is typically written to meet the needs of the makers rather than those on the receiving end.  Good software works on the principle of convenience.  Ever notice how easy it is to buy something on Amazon?

Software is the last to know when it’s stupid.

I am now regularly invited to meetings via an official looking Google form that lets me state my intention with a “Yes,” “No”, or “Maybe.” You probably get them as well.  My frustration is that there’s no space to communicate anything more meaningful.  Just this morning I was sent such a form announcing the cancellation of a meeting, but still inviting me to respond “Yes,” “No,” or “Maybe.”  I pushed the green “Yes” button, but didn’t know what I was actually “saying.” Was it: “Yes! do cancel the damn meeting for sure; I’m glad to have the time back?” Or: “Yes, thank God someone came to their senses.” But what would a “No” mean?  Perhaps “I’m going anyway, just to soak up the silence in the otherwise empty room?”  Or, “No, and that was a career-busting mistake to call it off?”  Then there’s the middle option: “‘Maybe’ I’ll think about not going to the cancelled meeting.”  These responses pose quandaries inside of quandaries worthy of a diagram that looks like a ballpark pretzel.

Software “for interfacing with consumers” is designed with closed-ended options. Most of it converts the human experience into a set of comparative numbers, making all of us less aware and savvy. This is the result of a general overreach for quantification. Results of a questionnaire or an application for services seem to require simple responses so that the organizational chain never has to deal with the natural variability of human understanding.  Put simply, open ended questions don’t “code well.”  They require a listener/reader on the other end: a bigger stretch than some organizations want to make.