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Listening to art. Playing with audio. Sounding out technology. Composing in code. Rewinding the soundscape.

tag: this week in sound

This Week in Sound: A Camera That Runs on Sound Waves

A lightly annotated clipping service

These sound-studies highlights of the week originally appeared in the October 4, 2022, issue of the free Disquiet.com weekly email newsletter This Week in Sound: tinyletter.com/disquiet.

What the Peck: From New Scientist: “To a woodpecker’s brain, drumming against a tree is a lot like birdsong. The findings reveal substantial similarities in the brain circuitry behind hearing and executing these two major acoustic activities in birds, meaning that they may be modifications of a shared evolutionary template.” It takes a moment for this revelation to sink in: it isn’t just that the woodpecker’s pecking registers as singing; it’s that the bird is using an external object, the tree, to accomplish that singing. “Woodpeckers don’t just use their beaks to drill for grubs inside tree trunks. They hammer against trees to make specific sound patterns that communicate territorial information with other woodpeckers.” Ironically, the classic “Woody Woodpecker Song” made the point of saying the cartoon character’s laugh was its song (“Oh, that’s the Woody Woodpecker’s tune … Makes the other woodpeckers swoon”). Turns out, the pecking was itself the song all along. ➔ newscientist.com

Jet Set: “As Emerson Collins, a film producer and nonprofit director, boarded his American Airlines flight from Los Angeles to Dallas on Sept. 6, a bizarre noise from the plane’s intercom system flooded the cabin: a loud groan — or was it a moan? — laced with pain — or was it pleasure?” Read about what is definitely not the source of the Havana Syndrome, but is still quite a story about sounds of unclear origins. (Weirder still, someone says the same thing happened to them back in July, also on an American Airlines flight.) ➔ latimes.com (Thanks, Philip Sherburne!)

Cop Out: “The days of eavesdropping on the New York Police Department may be coming to an end,” according to reporting by Gizmodo: “The NYPD says it wants to reimagine its current police communication system and transition to encrypted messages by 2024. … New York joins a growing list of cities considering encrypting radio communications. Denver, Baltimore, Virginia Beach, Sioux City, Iowa, and Racine, Wisconsin have all moved to implement the technology in recent years.” ➔ gizmodo.com

Lost in Translation: The local newspaper from Hamilton (Ontario, Canada) reports on how “closed-captioning goofs make for bizarre reading at city council meetings.” A city spokesperson confirmed for the reporter that the broadcasts “use a voice recognition program for automated closed captioning.” ➔ thespec.com

Life of Brian: Brian Eno spoke at the Woodbridge Ambient Music Festival, held in his birthplace of Suffolk. He talked a bit about how life in this town, which apparently had about 4,000 inhabitants in his youth, influenced the development of ambient music: “I remember I used to take walks towards Kyson Point [overlooking the River Deben estuary] and I used to imagine what would it be like if you could make music like a painting,” he told the BBC. ➔ bbc.com, woodbridgeambientmusicfestival.com

In Sea: “What if you could photograph the deepest depths of the sea using a camera powered only by the ocean’s soundscape?” MIT scientists have devised a camera that “runs on sound waves,” apparently. “They say it can take colour photos in dark environments, and is 100,000 times more energy-efficient than other undersea cameras. … The prototype underwater camera is made up of two domes and a cylinder. One dome houses the image sensor, and the other houses the flash. … The cylinder is covered in a specialized material that allows the camera to harness sound waves and convert them into electrical energy, which it uses to power up.” Bonus out-of-this-world quote: “We’ve also been in discussions with NASA for future space missions where they want to use them to search for life in extraterrestrial oceans.” ➔ cbc.ca (Thanks, Michael Fitzgerald!)

Beyond Blipverts: I hope to revisit this topic, but for the moment I’m just sharing a tweet: “A company is asking the @FEC for permission to program your phone to listen for sounds embedded in political ads that are ‘imperceptible to humans,’ and when your phone hears the sound, it’ll prompt you to make a campaign donation.” (Found via Adav Noti of the Campaign Legal Center, via the Sounding Out! blog) ➔ twitter.com, fec.gov

Super Freak: Stephen Dubner uploaded an episode of the Freakonomics podcast dedicated to matters of noise, covering such topics as how recorded complaints of noise pollution date at least as far back as Roman philosopher Seneca (who “moved out of Rome to the Roman suburbs because he couldn’t stand the noise anymore”), how 19th-century philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer complained about the noise of cracking whips (“paralyzes the brain … and murders thought”), about early research on the impact of environmental sound on education, and the sometimes limited reinforcement of noise-abatement laws (“There are even prohibitions against ice-cream trucks playing their jingle once they’re parked at the curb. But, of course, there’s a big difference between having a noise code and enforcing it”). (Full disclosure: I read the transcript. I have no idea how people have enough time in their lives to listen to podcasts. More power to them.) ➔ freakonomics.com (Thanks, Rich Pettus!)

Phoney Baloney: The war on robocalls proceeds. Press 1 for more information. Press 2 to donate to the cause. “State and federal officials are teaming up to collaborate on investigations to stop robocall scams. The Wisconsin Department of Justice revealed a partnership Tuesday that it’s taking part in with the Federal Communications Center, which establishes a formal sharing and cooperation structure to investigate spoofing and scam calls. ➔ weau.com

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This Week in Sound: Audio Deepfakes vs. Basso Profondo Fakes

A lightly annotated clipping service

These sound-studies highlights of the week originally appeared in the September 27, 2022, issue of the free Disquiet.com weekly email newsletter This Week in Sound: tinyletter.com/disquiet.

NPR profiles Jim Metzner, who “spent nearly five decades documenting and sharing the sounds of the world, from immersive portraits of American cities to indelible moments with people and wildlife in places as varied as Alaska, Australia, Japan, Greece, Cuba, Nepal and Morocco.” A collection of his work from the 1970s to 2019, amounting to roughly 28,000 items, has been added to the Library of Congress: “Sometimes you hear people say, ‘You know, I captured this sound’ and ‘I captured that sound,’ ” he adds. “Right from the get-go, I never felt that I was capturing anything. I felt like these things were gifts. You receive something extraordinary, the first thing you want to do is say, ‘Oh my God, listen to this! Let me share this with somebody!'” ➔ npr.org, newsroom.loc.gov

The fight against computer-produced audio deepfakes is taking place on computers. One question is whether this is a solution, or another phase in an arms race: “To detect audio deepfakes, we and our research colleagues at the University of Florida have developed a technique that measures the acoustic and fluid dynamic differences between voice samples created organically by human speakers and those generated synthetically by computers.” ➔ analyticsinsight.net

There’s audio deepfakes — and then there’s basso profondo fakes: “After 45 years of voicing one of the most iconic characters in cinema history, James Earl Jones has said goodbye to Darth Vader. At 91, the legendary actor recently told Disney he was ‘looking into winding down this particular character.’ That forced the company to ask itself how do you even replace Jones? The answer Disney eventually settled on, with the actor’s consent, involved an AI program.” ➔ engadget.com

“One of the unique safety features built into Apple Watch Ultra is an 86-decibel siren. It uses two different sound patterns to attract help with the alert being heard up to 600 feet away.” ➔ 9to5mac.com

Why, historically, have the stages at Nashville’s Louder Than Life stage “faced toward the city instead of away from it”? Because the event occurs on the site of a demolished hotel, and until this year, “dirt took up space where concert stages and crowds would be.” ➔ courier-journal.com

“Even the sound of the engine changes the way food tastes. Exposure to the background noise of an aeroplane, which can reach 80-85dB, dulls your sensitivity to salty and sugary flavours, while enhancing your perception of the proteinous fifth taste, umami. This explains the enduring love affair between air passengers and tomato juice, which is ordered as much as beer in flight. If you drink it in the sky, it will taste richer, more savoury, and less acidic.” Note the dissenting voices in the replies to the Twitter thread that helped popularize this particular article. ➔ ft.com, twitter.com/PickardJE (Thanks, George Kelly!)

“Welcome to the cult of brown noise, a sometimes hazily-defined category of neutral, dense sound that contains every frequency our ears can detect. Brown noise is like white noise but has a lower, deeper quality. It gained a fervent following over the summer, picking up speed in online A.D.H.D. communities, where people made videos of their reactions to hearing it for the first time.” ➔ nytimes.com

Sensors and microphones are being deployed off San Francisco to deter “oceanic roadkill” by steering ships away from whales: “Whale Safe uses three data streams: the buoy listens for and identifies the songs of blue, fin and humpback whales with an algorithm and beams its findings to a satellite; a mathematical model informed by present and past oceanographic and biological data predicts where blue whales are most likely to be; and citizen scientists and trained observers report whale sightings via an app called Whale Alert.” ➔ nytimes.com

It’s intriguing when voice AIs add a feature that allows you to access the service without the use of your voice. A new update for Amazon’s Alexa means you “can not only control the assistant exclusively using touch, but pair with a supporting Bluetooth switch or use text-to-speech to have commands spoken for you.” There’s an Apple feature along these lines called Type to Siri. ➔ engadget.com, macrumors.com

Per earlier reporting, Spotify has launched an audiobook service. “It also wants to ‘innovate the format’ so that listeners, authors and publishers benefit more from what the format can offer.” ➔ engadget.com

Bucharest, Romania, fights noise pollution by banning “the nighttime circulation of cars and motorcycles that produce noise above 95 decibels.” I’d like this to happen in my neighborhood. ➔ romania-insider.com

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This Week in Sound: Nanoscience + Whale Socialization

A lightly annotated clipping service

These sound-studies highlights of the week originally appeared in the September 20, 2022, issue of the free Disquiet.com weekly email newsletter This Week in Sound: tinyletter.com/disquiet.

A study on four rising stars in nanoscience includes Sabina Caneva. Her research in “protein fingerprinting” involves “using sound waves to guide the proteins to their target. Given that the wave lengths are bigger than the proteins, she’s figuring out how to attach larger beads to the proteins, which are more likely to be caught by the sound waves.” ➔ nature.com

Introducing Sanas: a “startup that’s building real-time voice-altering technology that aims to help call center workers around the world sound like westerners.” As writer Wilfred Chan notes, it brings to mind the comedy Sorry to Bother You, “in which Cassius, a Black man hired to be a telemarketer, is advised by an older colleague to ‘use your white voice.’” Sociologist A. Aneesh (author of Neutral Accent: How Language, Labor and Life Become Global) has mixed feelings on the topic, expressing concerns about “indifference to difference.” Says Aneesh, “It allows us to avoid social reality, which is that you are two human beings on the same planet, that you have obligations to each other. It’s pointing to a lonelier future.” ➔ theguardian.com

Researchers are suggesting that the clicking of sperm whales amounts to “symbolic marking,” along the lines of how humans distinguish themselves with their hair, wardrobe, etc. “Otherwise used to echolocate prey, these sounds can take the form of emitted morse code-like sequences that the scientists call ‘identity codas’. When different clans of whales come together, they appear to use these codas to identify themselves. They are saying: this is us.” ➔ theguardian.com

Is there life after foghorns? It’s been less than a month since the New York Times commented on how much San Franciscans actually like our summer fog. So, of course, the newspaper had to go ahead and rip the fog right out from over us, by charting its reported decline. This is an anxiety-provoking article, to be sure, with some lovely descriptive material throughout:

There is little precision or pageantry to the use of the bridge’s foghorns. When the electrician on duty notes that it is too foggy to see across the mile-wide channel of the Golden Gate, the foghorns are turned on with a click of a computer mouse.

Inside a room on the south end of the bridge, Del West, an electrical superintendent, decided it was time. He warned workers all over the bridge by walkie-talkie, warned them again, then once more.

The bellow of a foghorn can be deafening, or even more dangerous, to people nearby. “It can interrupt your heartbeat,” Mr. Rosenkild said. It didn’t sound like a joke.

Mr. West clicked an icon on the computer screen that read “fog horns.” A moment later, bass tones bellowed from the belly of the bridge.

Read it in full ➔ nytimes.com

Noise pollution is cited as a key concern as e-commerce warehouses proliferate in New York City: “The Last-Mile Coalition, named for the final step of the direct-to-door delivery chain the warehouses sustain, submitted a proposed amendment to the city’s zoning rules Wednesday that would ramp up regulations for such facilities totaling at least 50,000 square feet. The proposal would also bar warehouses within 1,000 feet of schools, parks, nursing homes, public housing buildings, or any other such warehouses.” ➔ gothamist.com

Debate continues in Austin about the local police department’s acquisition of LRADs, or long-range acoustic devices, the volume of which can hit 160 decibels. ➔ austinmonitor.com

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Sonic Verbs (68)

What are your favorites?

Each issue of This Week in Sound (tinyletter.com/disquiet), I close the introduction with a different sonic verb. Last night it was “bawl.” Here’s the list for the past 68 issues:

babble, bawl, bay, blow, bombinate, burble, burr, buzz, cantillate, cheep, chirr, chirrup, churr, clang, coo, crackle, croon, drone, echo, echolocate, fissle, gasp, groan, gurgle, harmonize, hiss, howl, hum, intone, keen, mewl, moan, mumble, murmur, mutter, nasalize, oscillate, psithurate, purr, resound, ring, roar, rumble, rustle, scream, screech, shout, shriek, sibilate, sigh, sign, snore, sough, squall, squeal, susurrate, swish, thrum, thwack, trill, vibrate, wail, whimper, whine, whir, whisper, yell, yelp

Do you have a favorite sonic verb that’s not on this list?

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Skills We’ve Developed

The deaf community and electric vehicles

This is a letter to The New Yorker from Madan Vasishta of Ellicott City, Maryland, writing in response to John Seabrook’s recent article about sounds for electric vehicles. The key issue is the matter of the “skills” developed by the hearing impaired. The ability of the deaf to safely navigate streets is not a refutation of the importance of car sounds; it’s an affirmation of the fact that being a pedestrian isn’t a neutral state. It requires effort, attention, and experience. This letter appeared in the magazine’s September 12, 2022, issue.

I read with great interest John Seabrook’s article about making sounds for electric vehicles, or E.V.s (“On Alert,” August 8th). Although I learned much about how these soundscapes are made, I was disappointed that Seabrook did not mention the deaf and hard-of-hearing communities. The million deaf people in the U.S. typically cannot hear internal-combustion-engine vehicles, or even their horns — yet we manage to survive! Silent E.V.s put the public in the same precarious situation that deaf people have been in since the automobile was invented. Perhaps our perspectives, and the skills we’ve developed to protect our lives, could usefully inform the work of those thinking about the future of E.V.s — as well as heighten the awareness of anyone encountering these cars.

Originally published in a special, experimental September 16, 2022, edition of the This Week in Sound email newsletter. Get it in your inbox via tinyletter.com/disquiet.

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