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Wednesday, September 05, 2007

A frequency audible only to English speakers and dogs

A while back I was eating lunch at my desk and cruising a cool website for tchotchkes (gadgets and toys). 

One of the items I found there, appropriately called 'The Annoyatron', was a complete waste of time and had absolutely no redeeming value whatsoever... except as a potential irritant and practical joke.  So naturally I had to have it.


(Update: No Clouseau... it's the electronic-looking thingy. The shiny coin is just shown for scale!)

Simply put, this little wonder can be hidden just about anywhere (e.g. under the desk of they guy who has been stealing your coffee cream and munchies out of the office fridge for the past six months).  It emits an incredibly irritating, high-pitched electronic chirp at random intervals of between 3 and 5 minutes.

The high frequency and relatively long interval between chirps make it virtually impossible to locate the Annoyatron... and it is pretty much guaranteed to drive the victim into a twitching, hair-pulling lather within an hour or two.

Or so I thought.

Apparently there is a cultural factor involved that I (and the inventors of this wicked device) hadn't considered.

When I tried it out at home, my wife and kids noticed it after the very first chirp, and immediately started looking around for a malfunctioning smoke detector or other electronic device.

Even our dog, Jordan, began slinking around and glancing into corners each time the thing let off a new chirp... knowing that something was amiss without being able to identify the exact source.

So annoying was this thing that within 10 minutes I had to disable it and fess up or face a full-scale insurrection from my household.

The obvious next step (to me, anyway) was to try it out on my carpool. 

I waited until I was in the car of the British Academic with whom I've been carpooling for a few years, to give it a try.  After the very first chirp he immediately reached over to start fiddling with the car radio and cell-phone holder to see if something was amiss there.

I smirked silently and continued to stare out my window at the passing scenery.

After the second chirp a few minutes later he asked me if I'd heard something... to which I naturally replied, "like what?".

By the third chirp he was rummaging around the dashboard and rechecking the hands-free unit to see if it was charging his cellphone properly.  Finding nothing, he again asked if I'd heard some sort of electronic chirp.

I just looked at him with my best 'are you hearing voices again?' stare and then went back to watching the desert landscape.

By the fourth chirp I could tell he was ready to pull the car over, fetch his tool kit from the trunk and start taking the dashboard apart, so I let him in on the joke.  Far from being angry, the first thing he wanted to know was if he could borrow it for his office.

Ah, a kindred spirit!

The next day I asked how the 'experiment' in his office had gone and he offered a surprising answer.  Apparently, after hiding it in the work space he shared with several of his colleagues, none of them had given any indication of having heard it. 


It was then that a theory started to form in my mind, and I decided to test it out the Israeli attorney who frequently takes a turn driving our carpool.  Shortly after we were all settled in his car the next day, I set the little Annoyatron to chirping in my pocket.  I watched expectantly as our carpool mate sat quietly at the wheel for nearly 25 minutes without giving any indication of having heard the jarring noise.

When we finally asked him about it (it was starting to grate on our nerves and we knew what it was!), he gave a rather surprising answer.  It turns out he'd heard the noise from the start, but since it hadn't seemed to be bothering either of us, he'd simply ignored it. 

Very odd!!

After that I tried it out on several of my Israeli coworkers with the same result.  Nobody took any notice of it... except one guy who was originally from Canada.  He started looking around for the source after the very first chirp, and asked if I'd heard it after the second.  The Israelis, on the other hand, displayed a complete lack of curiosity about the new sound in their environment.

I'm baffled.  Is this perhaps a frequency that only annoys dogs and native English speakers?  Inquiring minds want to know.


Posted by David Bogner on September 5, 2007 | Permalink


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I don't have an answer for your question, but...BUT...I did see a very similar device [advertised as a joke on YouTube] that emits various pitched and multiple frequency fart sounds, and is small enough to fit in one's pocket. Dave, I nearly popped a 'roid from laughing so hard. Your device did bring to mind, however, the handful of times in my life I had a nose whistle and searched high and low trying to figure out what the whistling sound was, only to trace the mysterious screech back to my own proboscis.

Posted by: Erica | Sep 5, 2007 7:21:52 AM

Ever wondered why terror suspects appear in court without any bruises from interrogation rooms, yet they signed numerous detailed testimonies of hideouts and accomplice activities? Yes. That small gadget combined with tiny drops of water to the head in isolation for 5 days. :-)

Posted by: Rami | Sep 5, 2007 10:06:02 AM

It seems to me that in an earlier post I had a short discussion about gadgets and the baseball masochist. Hmmm....Wonder who that could have been.

Posted by: Jack | Sep 5, 2007 10:23:34 AM

I'd be interested to test your theory on my kids, who were born and raised here to American parents.

Posted by: mother in israel | Sep 5, 2007 12:19:40 PM

Hmm. If further controlled studies seem to substantiate this, it would be very interesting. Odd.

Posted by: matlabfreak | Sep 5, 2007 12:52:32 PM

Hmmm...I have an exception to state your cultural thesis.

We have battery driven smoke detectors plastered all over the house, which naturally come to an end every now and then and demand a battery exchange by high-pitch beeps once every two-or-so minutes...which doesn't bother me at all, but the only Sabra around.

Posted by: Account Deleted | Sep 5, 2007 1:08:58 PM

Ugh!! Sounds downright annoying. Some of my kids (2 & 4) toys make little chirps when the batteries are dying. Add to that my wife and I are hard of hearing, and the kids don't really get the "We need to find what's making that noise" concept. One time it took over an hour to find whatever was making the noise. The second time the 4 year old's doll did this (batteries seemed to have about an 8 month life) I was tempted to take a hammer to it! Fortunately it was a singing dog. If it was Barney, the purple freak would be in the landfill already. ;-)

Posted by: JDMDad | Sep 5, 2007 5:21:44 PM

hey David,
Long time no read/comment. I am sorry I have been away so long. Your blog is, as ever, highly amusing. I might have to get me one of those and see if my roommate notices. However, maybe not so close to Yom Tov, maybe I should wait til after to start getting "evil flatmate" points!

Posted by: Faye | Sep 5, 2007 5:33:24 PM

We did the very same thing here at my office!!
We were somewhat dismayed when we hid it in a fellows cube and for days got no rise out of him. He was oblivious.
But... we struck gold when we put it in Kelli's cube!
Kelli is 20 something cute and blond. And she heard it!
She spent days trouble shooting - turning her monitor off, rebooting - she finally concluded it was her own 'runners' watch. This was mostly because we would 'sometimes' move the device into a room during a meeting.
It was so much fun. Sadly one of the guys in on the prank started to get squemish when Kelli wanted to call the IT department to report the noise. (where as i will willing to get them in on the joke as well...)

Posted by: weese | Sep 5, 2007 9:51:54 PM

Why is it that the title of your post reads: "A frequency audible only to English speakers and dogs". I read that you tested the device with some Americans, Israelis and a British, so you assume that only English speaking people would react to the chirp. Is it because the chirp has an American or British accent? : )

Posted by: David S | Sep 5, 2007 9:53:37 PM

That's hilarious.

I'm a sucker for any type of noise. I seem to be extra sensitive - it's just lovely whenever I'm at a movie. I get totally sucked into the popcorn crunching, candy unwrapping, etc. I finally have to force myself to focus on the movie and not the sounds around me.

Posted by: jaime | Sep 6, 2007 1:07:46 AM

SO someone brought one of those to the ER... it became apparent that all the residents went nuts while the attending staff didnt seen to care.... we asked one of the ENT specialists who said that as you age you lose the ability to hear well at that frequency, so it bothers you less... obviously not 100% for everyone, but I was told thats the general principle

Posted by: David | Sep 6, 2007 1:45:34 AM

David! Why did you have to go and buy a stupid toy to make an annoying chirping sound? You can do that on your own!! You MUST be bored! :) love

Posted by: sarahb | Sep 6, 2007 7:37:43 AM

I sent an email to an Israeli friend asking him if he can explain the results of your informal experiment. Hopefully he'll comment here or send me a response.

Posted by: The Other Sarah B | Sep 6, 2007 10:47:15 AM

Sorry, can't help. I have tinnitus and am thankful I don't ride in your carpool. It would be instant hamster in a blender time.

Posted by: jennifer | Sep 6, 2007 12:07:22 PM

Don't know if this is related, but there was a similar device created not too long ago, called the Mosquito, which emits a sound that can generally only be heard by people under 20 years old or so. Since our ability to hear certain frequencies degrades starting around 20 years old, the device was successful in preventing teenagers from loitering around a grocery store in Newport, South Wales, without significantly affect others. Perhaps there is something in the Israeli population that hastens or increases this hearing loss?

Posted by: ilan | Sep 6, 2007 2:53:46 PM

The marketing officer in me awoke. This is good stuff for another advertising spot a la AG-7:
"Americans invested millions into developing a high-standard device that would irritate declared opponents (fade in gadget). The Chinese simply went for this: (fade in a cicada in a matchbox)."

Posted by: a. | Sep 6, 2007 2:56:32 PM

Ilan, the Mosquito/TeenBuzz story is a weird one ... I am out of that age range for ten years, and I can hear the sound clearly (but then, I even hear some dog pipes and marten repellent systems installed in vehicles...).

Posted by: a. | Sep 6, 2007 3:14:43 PM

Fascinating. I wonder - is there any sort of counter-torture training in the Israeli army? Perhaps that might explain it - although it wouldn't explain English-speakers who did army service. Very interesting. And hilarious - you continue to maintain your reputation as a practical joker par excellence. (Don't worry - I have my sources.) ;=)

Posted by: psachya | Sep 6, 2007 5:59:02 PM

I wonder how the bees would feel about it?

Posted by: Alice | Sep 6, 2007 10:14:49 PM

Obviously there's a cultural difference at work here. Could it be that Westerners are simply more aware of when synthesized noise is out of place, and thus recognize that as a signal of something amiss with an electronic device? Or perhaps Israelis focus more on people, and thus consider something wrong with a mere machine as less worrisome.

Posted by: Bob | Sep 7, 2007 5:23:12 AM

ha ha! I love the fact that you are still in touch with your inner child! It's so rare nowadays.

Posted by: miss Worldwide | Sep 7, 2007 11:15:57 AM

We once visited my in-laws, and there was a high-pitched tone coming from their TV that was so bad I went to sit in the living room. My husband came to ask why I was in there, and I asked if he couldn't hear it or what. He could not, and neither my mother-in-law nor my father-in-law reacted to it either. I think they all thought I was nuts - otoh, they probably thought that anyway.

Three days after we left, we got a phone call. Seems the power supply for the TV had finally fried itself and it was in the shop.

There is a similar story about the early days of computer monitors, where the secretaries would complain about the whine from the monitors, and the engineers they sent to investigate couldn't understand what they were talking about.

Have most of the adult males in Israel lost their high-frequency hearing due to their military service?

Posted by: Iris | Sep 10, 2007 8:54:00 PM

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