This Week in Sound: The Science of Calling a Cat

Plus: sound gadgets for infants, onomatopoeia ingenuity, and more

These sound-studies highlights of the week originally appeared in the May 9, 2023, issue of the weekly email newsletter, This Week in Sound.

JUST KIDDING: There is a Kickstarter (I have no association with it) for a “smart pacifier.” The little device, which seems to combine a harmonica and a binky, is designed to “activate the creative mind at an early age, making passive listeners into musicians before they can say their first words.” … And separately, news about a nursery device that turns “patented auditory sequences into soothing melodic and other background tracks to help the infant brain do its job of paying attention to environmental sound changes.” It’s the Smarter Sleep Sound Soother from RAPT Ventures.

WHISKER WHISPERERS: “Scientists in France might have just found the most effective way to catcall an unfamiliar cat. The team discovered that cats living at a cat cafe responded most quickly to a human stranger when the stranger used both vocal and visual cues to get their attention. The cats also appeared to be more stressed out when the human ignored them completely,” writes Ed Cara at Gizmodo. Here’s a helpful diagram of how the experiment, by Charlotte de Mouzon and Gérard Leboucher at Paris Nanterre University’s Laboratory of Compared Ethology and Cognition, was undertaken:

THE THIX OF IT: “Irish inventors Rhona Togher and Eimear O’Carroll created an advanced acoustic material that reduces noise and can be used with household appliances, as well as in the automotive, construction, and aerospace industries.” The material is called SoundBounce, and it “has a cellular structure that works in tandem with a thixotropic gel placed inside the cells that allow sound to be dampened, reducing noise transmission from one space to another.” FYI, “thixotropic” means “Becoming a fluid when agitated but solid or semi-solid when allowed to stand.” Togher and O’Carroll are currently in the running for a European Inventor Award 2023.

CROSSTOWN TRAFFIC: The ecommerce/delivery reality is making life louder: “With millions of Americans now living in close proximity to a warehouse, it’s time to start treating these drab, feature-less buildings like pollution hotspots, says a recent report by the Environmental Defense Fund. Warehouses are quickly popping up all over the US, bringing truck traffic and tailpipe emissions with them. And yet there is no federal database to see where current or proposed warehouses are located, unlike other major sources of pollution like oil and gas facilities. … [T]here’s significantly more traffic, air pollution, and noise in census tracts with warehouses compared to those without them, another study based in California found last year.”

QUICK NOTES: Rim Shot: Netflix has a news desk (I don’t know how new it is) and it’s called “Tudum” — i.e., onomatopoeia for the network’s sonic brand logo — and that is sorta genius ( ▰ Bank Teller: Voice biometrics was the focus of a letter sent by Senator Sherrod Brown, chairman of the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee, reportedly to JP Morgan Chase, Bank of America, Wells Fargo, Morgan Stanley, Charles Schwab and TD Bank. ▰ Moon Man: Austin Kleon did a new blackout poem inspired by comments I madein recent issue of This Week in Sound. ▰ Bull Market: The Shriek of the Weekwas the bullfinch, “adept mimics” that “can be taught to whistle a human tune like a parrot.” ▰ Mo’ Mojang: There’s new ambient music in Minecraft (update 1.20) and Rohan Jaiswal knows where to find it. ▰ Street Scene: Check out this microtonal composition based on data related to Krasnodar Public Transport in Russia. (Thanks, Glenn Sogge!) ▰ Blue Jay Way: Soundfly, which offers courses for musicians and connects them to mentors, has a story about bird song — I love the idea of musicians having an avian tutor.

Sound Ledger¹: noise, ASMR, privacy

Audio culture by the numbers

42: Percent of rickshaw drivers in Dhaka, Bangladesh, reporting hearing loss

15: Percent rise in brand awareness after a hair salon franchise employed ASMR to promote itself

300,000: Settlement paid by Whole Foods under Illinois’s Biometric Information Privacy Act (BIPA) for allegedly using “voice recognition system without properly obtaining consent” of its workers

. . .


Rickshaw: ASMR: Whole Foods:

Polaroids from the Singularity: The Concept of “Hidden”

Ongoing exploits with the DALL·E 2 Algorithm

I’m fascinated when DALL·E 2 ( falls short — why, for example, the concept of “hidden” seems unfamiliar to it.

The prompt: “photograph of a tape cassette with a microphone hidden inside”

The Waveforms of War

Interceptions from the front lines

The horizontal waveform has become a ubiquitous visual signifier of audio. It was popularized in particular by SoundCloud, but existed long before that in various digital audio tools, and can be tracked back further to the height of the multi-band stereo-system equalizer in the 1970s. The waveform’s deployment in a New York Times feature story this week (about intercepted phone calls home from Russian military personnel carrying out the campaign in Ukraine) turns the now generic symbol into an urgent harbinger — part surveillance sigil, part ethereal lifeline, part literal cry for help. The source of the recordings is Ukrainian law enforcement agencies, which “obtained recordings of thousands of calls that were made throughout March.” The audio is all in Russian, so the Times superimposed English translations for a broader audience. Watching the sound wave pulse has the sense of a nervous heartbeat as we read what is being spoken, such as “I didn’t know this was going to happen. They said we were going for training.” And: “I don’t want to kill any more people, especially the ones I will have to look in the eyes.”

It occurred to me after I included this in my latest issue of the This Week in Sound email newsletter that I would have loved if the Times had hired Scanner to render these with backing music.


Sound Ledger¹ (Privacy, Insulation, Birds)

Audio culture by the numbers

1262: The specific California Assembly bill (AB-1262) addressing privacy in regard to voice recognition

6.2: The value, in billions of U.S. dollars, estimated for the global building acoustic insulation market by 2028

35: The percent decrease in number of species of birds sighted at the Okhla Sanctuary in India, due in part to noise pollution

▰ ▰ ▰

¹Footnotes: Privacy: Insulation: Birds:

Originally published in the January 10, 2022, edition of the This Week in Sound email newsletter (