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Tuesday, April 19, 2016

The sound of freedom

Technological sounds are drowning out the quiet music of nature.


E verybody thought I was being facetious when I wrote a while back that irony is the substance of the universe. But I was serious. There is irony everywhere, even in Newton's equations of motion. When you run, the earth moves in the opposite direction. Of course it is much heavier, so it only moves a small amount—just enough to make sure that, overall, no net motion really occurs.

The three laws of thermodynamics have been summed up as: (1) you can't win, (2) you can't break even, and (3) you can't get out of the game. And there is nothing if not irony in the fact that our inability to change the past is the price we pay for a world that is real. Irony is a fundamental principle of nature.

Fourier transform of bird calls
Fourier transform sonogram of bird calls

I got irony up the wazoo last week when I got a headache after buying one of those little portable sound recorders. Knowing that APC can cause chronic daily headache, I decided to give aspirin another try. But I soon discovered that aspirin, at doses above five or six tablets per day, causes hearing loss.

Fortunately it was reversible, but it's remarkable that even 119 years after it was first synthesized we still don't understand what aspirin really does.

We know that aspirin acts by inhibiting COX-2, thereby lowering the amounts of oxidized lipid molecules (eicosanoids and prostaglandins), some of which transduce pain signals. These same molecules, produced by COX-1, also trigger platelets to start coagulating your blood, which is why aspirin is sometimes given to heart patients.

But for reasons not fully understood, it also paralyzes the cells in your cochlea that produce what are called spontaneous otoacoustic emissions (SAEs). Amazingly enough, your ear actually produces sounds which can be recorded with a microphone. These sounds are not related to tinnitus, which is neurological in origin. The purpose of SAEs is to amplify the sound coming from outside, and aspirin can wipe them out. One study found that in patients taking three 325 mg tablets every six hours for 3.75 days their spontaneous acoustic emissions were completely abolished. Cats are especially susceptible to aspirin since they cannot metabolize salicylate.

Sound recorders are a lot simpler and more sensitive than the human ear. Unlike the old reel-to-reel tape recorders, the response in digital sound recorders is measured in kbps; 192 kbps, which lets you record sounds up to 96kHz, is enough to record bat calls. Microphones capable of picking them up are very expensive, but even standard microphones can reach 40 kHz, albeit a few decibels down, easily enough to record cicada sounds for the upcoming 2016 cicada season and even bat sounds.

But even on the stillest winter night there were no bats. The meter was pegged by the whining of trucks from the Interstate three miles away. My neighbor's little water fountain half a mile a way, which runs 24/7 in a futile attempt to remove algae from their fake pond, sounded like a continuous raging rainstorm. During the daytime the tweeting of birds was a mere detail, barely audible above the thunderous roar of ventilation fans and passing cars, which sounded like locomotives and jet aircraft in the headphones.

I always tell young people, when I can trick them into listening, to look at the stars while they still can. Listen to the baby frogs croaking in a rural pond while such things still exist outside of nature preserves. There is no price you can put on seeing Andromeda and hearing a flock of geese in real life, and no better way to convince you the universe is real.

But people think the real world is what they see on their big-screen TVs, so they watch pictures of people pretending to talk to each other. When that fails, some move on to the phoniness of drug-induced delirium. And they wonder why life seems to have no meaning.

I also tell them to enjoy what little freedom we still have left before it too is gone. Just as the tweeting of birds gets more drowned out by cars each year, it is only a matter of time before our remaining freedom is drowned out by the hundreds of thousands of rules and regulations that pollute our world.

We worry about chemical pollutants in the environment, but those regulations produce a psychological poison that is far worse because it pollutes our minds. Whether it comes from our entertainment or from the rules that restrict us, the effect is the same: to cut us off from the real world.

We complain about big government and this or that policy, but what we really care about is our freedom. It is priceless, and we're losing it.

This is the bitter lesson of experience, so of course they don't listen. They think everything is getting better. They don't believe we're losing freedom, or that we ever really had it, any more than they believe the Helix Nebula, which covers more of the sky than the full moon, is any more than a pretty picture. Is that real, they ask, or did you paint it on the computer?

And so, despite the universe's manifest conspiracy of silence plainly evident by my misadventure with aspirin, I took my own advice and took up the challenge of recording ambient sounds, starting with bird calls.

I used to laugh at how bad those Nature Sounds CDs were. On one, the dinging sound of somebody's SUV door-open-alarm was clearly audible throughout the entire recording, as if it was such a common sound the recordist never noticed it. Common sounds are so ubiquitous we don't hear them until they're wrenched from their normal context and blasted into our eardrums, thereby forcing themselves through our defenses, which is probably the purpose of loud rock music.

Early one morning I went to a local park, which is little more than a path through the woods with metal plaques affixed here and there showing the species name so people can hop back in their car and go to the local Lowe's and buy one if they so desire. The park is circumscribed by stern warnings: POSTED NO TRESPASSING NO HUNTING NO FISHING to remind us, if it wasn't already obvious, that nature is no longer free.

And there, two miles from the nearest human, I was finally able to get some sounds of nature.

But later when I played them back I discovered that the honking of geese in the file was not completely natural, but was triggered by a pickup truck revving its engine in the distance. The other bird sounds were mixed with what sounded like a pack of rabid dogs from somebody's back yard. In the background was the clanging of somebody far away banging on metal. And beneath it all was the whining from the Interstate, now five miles away.

But that all stopped at one minute past eight when a bulldozer started up with its diesel engine and started grinding its steel gears.

Well, I got it all on tape: a record of what the world sounded like in the before-time. And to me there was nothing ironic about the fact that even the intermittent beeping of the bulldozer as it backed through the mud, squashing the occasional careless squirrel, and the rustling and cracking of trees as they were crushed beneath its steel blade, had a certain techno-music appeal. That is what our children will be accustomed to. But the old-fashioned music that preceded it was so much better.

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