Design

Sometimes it pays to be a Luddite

Photo credit: Nick Amoscato licensed under CC BY 2.0

And Nicole Kobie, New Scientist, tells us why in her article on how “Siri and Alexa can be turned against you by ultrasound whispers.” Kobie tells us that hackers have successfully “hijacked” voice assistants by “using sounds above the range of human hearing.” Ok, so someone can annoy you by hijacking your voice assistant and have it play death metal rock without end. Not fun, but no big deal, right? Wrong. For reasons we cannot understand, some people apparently connect their voice assistants to sensitive services, like their smart thermostats or even their internet bank (what??). Suddenly someone breaching Alexa or Siri via secret voice commands is no laughing matter.

So what can we do? We at Silencity suggest you not use Alexa or Siri or whatever to manage your household or your bank account. And really, is it necessary? Is it too much of a bother to program a thermostat or type your password at your banking site rather than imploring a hunk of metal and motherboards to do it for you?

Tavish Vaidya, a PhD candidate at Georgetown University studying computer security, disagrees, saying that “[w]e should focus on protecting against unauthorised commands rather than limiting what assistants can do.”

Our response is this: just because a robot can do a task doesn’t mean that it should. And since there will always be people who are looking for vulnerabilities to exploit, maybe we should continue to master our thermostats and manage our finances the (somewhat) old-fashioned way. Adding that security breach aside, we aren’t sure if we’re more concerned about the future skills our robot assistants will acquire or the current skills that humans are losing.

Link via Institute of Acoustics UK.

Who is to blame for noisy restaurants?

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

Noisy restaurants seem to be in the news these days. Almost every week, The Quiet Coalition comes across another article or television report about them. This piece from the Daily Mail is one of the few that provides names and numbers–the names of the restaurants and actual decibel readings from a sound level meter–and the sound levels they reported were loud enough to damage hearing.

What can you do to protect yourself? You don’t need a sound meter to know if it’s too loud (although we encourage everyone to install one on a smart phone–very accurate ones are available). The auditory injury threshold is only 75-78 A-weighted decibels (dBA). If you have to strain to speak or to hear while trying to have a normal conversation at 3-to-4 feet distance–the usual social distance for speaking or dining in the U.S.–the ambient noise is above 75 dBA, and your hearing is being damaged.

And once it’s gone, the only remedy is hearing aids.

So who is to blame for noisy restaurants? This report from Australia doesn’t blame anyone in particular, but suggests the culprit is minimalist design trends. We would add that crowded dining areas, low ceilings, and, of course, background music turned up to rock concert levels do not help.

Before the mass adoption of the industrial look in restaurant design, restaurants used to be carpeted, with drapery covering the windows, upholstered banquettes lining the walls, and white tablecloths covering every table. One went to a restaurant to dine and to converse. It is obvious that design trends have changed dramatically over the last two decades or so. Newer restaurant designs with open kitchens that allow the clanging of pots and pans to be heard in the dining area and hard floor and wall surfaces (e.g., glass, metal, polished cement, and tile) that reflect rather than absorb sound are certainly part of the problem.

As a result, restaurant noise is now the leading complaint of diners in many cities, according to the 2016 Zagat annual survey, and just barely in second place nationally, slightly behind bad service. As the twelve-step programs might say: First, you have to accept that you have a problem.

The important thing is that the problem of restaurant noise is finally being recognized, and now that we know that restaurant noise is a problem, we can start doing something about it. Some have suggested avoiding noisy restaurants or walking out if the restaurant is too noisy. But that isn’t a realistic choice in most cities. If one did that, one would never go to a restaurant. Instead, ask the manager to turn down the volume of amplified music, and if he or she refuses, tell them that you are leaving and will never return, and that you will tell everyone you know to avoid the place. Tell your city council and mayor that you want quieter restaurants. And post accurate and detailed reviews on Yelp, Open Table, and social media. Let the restaurant owner or manager, and those who read restaurant reviews on social media, know that “the food was excellent, but the place was so loud that we are never going back.”

If enough of us complain and demand quieter spaces, then restaurateurs will have to respond. Or they can ignore us at their peril.

Dr. Daniel Fink is a leading noise activist based in the Los Angeles area. He serves on the board of the American Tinnitus Association, is the interim chair of Quiet Communities’s Health Advisory Council, and is the founding chair of The Quiet Coalition, an organization of science, health, and legal professionals concerned about the impacts of noise on health, environment, learning, productivity, and quality of life in America.

London’s poised to do something about noise

Photo credit: Majophotography licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 ES

By Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

In the U.S., noise is widely considered “just a nuisance,” but in Europe noise pollution is recognized as a major health hazard. In the current political climate, and with the current administration and Environmental Protection Agency administrator, we don’t expect anything to be done about noise here–just as climate change is viewed in Washington as a Chinese hoax–but other countries and regions accept the science.

The World Health Organization’s Global Burden of Disease report quantified the numbers of productive years of life lost due to noise. The European Noise Directive tells governments what to do about environmental noise. And now London is proposing a comprehensive environmental strategy, which includes very strong actions to deal with environmental noise.

We think London’s comprehensive environmental strategy is a wonderful model for cities and states in the U.S. to follow.

Please share this link with your state and local representatives or your governor.

Dr. Daniel Fink is a leading noise activist based in the Los Angeles area. He serves on the board of the American Tinnitus Association, is the interim chair of Quiet Communities’s Health Advisory Council, and is the founding chair of The Quiet Coalition, an organization of science, health, and legal professionals concerned about the impacts of noise on health, environment, learning, productivity, and quality of life in America.

Noise still a problem at U.S. Open

Photo credit: Malcolm Murdoch licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

By Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

Last year, a new retractable roof installed over the Arthur Ashe Stadium at the site of the U.S. Open tennis tournament was roundly criticized for increasing the noise to unpleasant levels.The New York Times reports that before this year’s tournament began that changes were made to make the stadium quieter.

But still not enough for tennis star Rafael Nadal, who complained that the noise level interfered with his play, even as he won. At the highest levels of play, the sound of the ball coming off the racket imparts important information about velocity and spin, and when it’s too noisy, that sound can’t be heard. Nadal noted that other covered tennis stadiums–in Wimbledon and Australia–are quieter. Other players, however, were not as bothered as Nadal.

But noise in sport arenas is a problem for other sports, football in particular, where the fans make noise to interfere with play-calling. And, of course, it’s a health hazard, too.

With football season starting again, maybe this year the NCAA and NFL will join their tennis colleagues to do something about noise.

Dr. Daniel Fink is a leading noise activist based in the Los Angeles area. He serves on the board of the American Tinnitus Association, is the interim chair of Quiet Communities’s Health Advisory Council, and is the founding chair of The Quiet Coalition, an organization of science, health, and legal professionals concerned about the impacts of noise on health, environment, learning, productivity, and quality of life in America.

Originally posted at The Quiet Coalition.

NYC’s DEP launches sound and noise education program

Photo credit: Arline Bronzaft, PhD

By Arline Bronzaft, PhD, Board of Directors, GrowNYC, and Co-founder, The Quiet Coalition (introduction by G.M. Briggs, Editor)

The educational arm of New York City’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) has recently launched a sound and noise education module.The module consists of:

Interactive, multi-disciplinary, STEM lessons and activities [that] introduce students and teachers to the study of the New York City sound environment, New York City’s Noise Code, and the public health issues, both mental and physical, associated with noise.

One element of the elementary lesson plan is the book “Listen to the Raindrops,” by Dr. Arline Bronzaft, noted noise activist, GrowNYC board member, and a co-founder of The Quiet Coalition. Dr. Bronzaft writes about her involvement in the DEP’s groundbreaking noise education efforts:

For years I have conducted research and written on the adverse effects of noise on mental and physical health, including the impacts of noise on children’s learning. One day discussing noise with a children’s book writer, she suggested that I take a stab at writing a book to teach children about the dangers of noise. My first response was that I was not suited for the task, but she said, “if not you, who?” When I left her apartment, I took pencil to paper and during the hour trip back to my home I completed the book “Listen to the Raindrops.” The book, which was written in rhyme, aimed to teach children about the beauty of the good sounds around them and the dangers of noise, especially to their ears.

A children’s book requires illustrations, of course, and I was fortunate that Steve Parton, an illustrator, and the father of a daughter who had received one of the first cochlear implants, agreed to provide the illustrations. After reading the book to a number of classes and listening to the children’s comments, it was clear that Steve’s illustrations beguiled the children.

For years I have worked closely with DEP in our joint efforts to bring the decibel level down in this city. Much still needs to be done, but I was delighted when the DEP’s educational arm added a sound/noise component to its website and asked to include “Listen to the Raindrops” to its curriculum.

The DEP has recently launched its sound and noise curriculum–it is online and all are invited to go to the site to see it. Now we need you to spread the word about the curriculum. Noise is not just a New York City problem. Cities and towns worldwide can include noise education in their school curricula. The federal Environmental Protection Agency also has materials on its website that educate elementary school children about the harmful effects of noise ( e.g., Listen Up!), but at one time the agency made a greater effort than today to reach out to schools nationwide about teaching children about the dangers of noise.

Let us alert public officials, educators, and all citizens to the importance of teaching children early on that noise will harm their ears, their learning ability, and their overall health. Promoting these educational materials will also inform the general public about the deleterious impacts of noise, as the children will undoubtedly bring home the sound and noise information they learn at school and become spokespersons for quieting our surroundings. And the children shall lead!

Dr. Arline Bronzaft is a researcher, writer, and consultant on the adverse effects of noise on mental and physical health. She is co-author of “Why Noise Matters,” author of “Listen to the Raindrops” (children’s book illustrated by Steven Parton), and has written extensively about noise in books, encyclopedias, academic journals, and the popular press.  In addition, she is a Professor Emerita of the City University of New York and Board member of GrowNYC.

Noisy restaurants in the news again

Photo credit: Matt Biddulph licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

By Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

Two reports this week, one from the United Kingdom and one from Baton Rouge, again highlight the problem of noisy restaurants.

Restaurateurs say that a quiet restaurant is a dead or dying one. They want their places to be lively. But there’s a difference between a lively restaurant with spirited conversations going on among the diners, and one that is deafeningly loud, making it impossible to converse with one’s dining companions.

Yesterday, while looking for another piece of information in the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) classic 1974 “Noise Levels Report” Information on Levels of Environmental Noise Requisite to Protect Public Health and Welfare with an Adequate Margin of Safety (EPA, 1974). I came across Table D-10, which I had missed on an earlier reading.

EPA Recommended Acceptable Noise Levels for Restaurants  (Click to enlarge)

It turns out that the EPA recommends that restaurants be very quiet, only about 50-60 decibels. These days, that’s almost “library quiet”. In fact, some months ago I measured the sound level to be approximately 45 dBA in the main circulation room of my local library!

So concern about appropriate restaurant noise levels is not a new concern. It’s decades old.

Some have suggested that diners should walk out of noisy restaurants, or boycott them. But in many cities, if we did that, we would never eat in a restaurant. There just aren’t any quiet ones. And as long as the restaurants are full, there is no incentive for them to become quieter.

I don’t know about the UK, but in the U.S., lawsuits under disability rights laws may be the only way restaurants will become quieter.

Dr. Daniel Fink is a leading noise activist based in the Los Angeles area. He serves on the board of the American Tinnitus Association, is the interim chair of Quiet Communities’s Health Advisory Council, and is the founding chair of The Quiet Coalition, an organization of science, health, and legal professionals concerned about the impacts of noise on health, environment, learning, productivity, and quality of life in America.

Au revoir to noisy vacuum cleaners?

Photo credit: Robert Scarth licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

By Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

The answer is yes! Well, at least in the European Union (EU), that is. Some folks like to mock the EU and its many regulations as “the Nanny State,” but we think that regulations protecting the public from harm–be it financial harm, damage to the environment, or harm to their health–are a good thing. So new EU regulations governing vacuum cleaner noise and power consumption are good for those living in Europe and likely will have an impact on this side of the Atlantic Ocean, too.

Noise is a ubiquitous health hazard, causing hearing loss, tinnitus, and hyperacusis. Research shows that most Americans get too much noise every day and certainly appliance noise contributes to the total daily noise dose. Excessive noise exposure accounts for the recently reported high rate of noise-induced hearing loss in American adults. Quieter vacuum cleaners will help reduce the total daily noise dose.

We know that the Trump administration and Republican politicians believe in the free market, not in regulation. They like to use the pejorative phrase “job-killing regulations.” But it’s clear from past experience that regulations that benefit consumers and the environment will lead to increased sales, and increased jobs, in the United States and worldwide.

American companies ignore international regulations and international standards at their own peril. In the appliance market, this already happened with dishwashers, where over the last several years Bosch and other European manufacturers have a foothold in the American market which they gained by manufacturing and marketing quieter dishwashers. It’s happening with airplanes, where Airbus has stolen market share from once-predominant Boeing by producing quieter and more efficient planes. It happened with air conditioners, where Mitsubishi has taken the technological leadership away from Carrier, the inventor of air conditioning equipment.

We don’t think most people will rush out to buy quieter vacuum cleaners to replace their machine if it is working well, but when it comes time to replace it anyone wanting quiet–and particularly those with pets, autistic children, or elderly people at home–will choose a quieter and more energy-efficient European vacuum cleaner over its American-branded competitors.

Dr. Daniel Fink is a leading noise activist based in the Los Angeles area. He serves on the board of the American Tinnitus Association, is the interim chair of Quiet Communities’s Health Advisory Council, and is the founding chair of The Quiet Coalition, an organization of science, health, and legal professionals concerned about the impacts of noise on health, environment, learning, productivity, and quality of life in America.

Noisy restaurants redux

Photo credit: James Palinsad licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

By Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

Both my parents served in the U.S. Army in World War II, met while in the service, and married shortly after the war ended. I was born a few years later. So I am a “baby boomer,” but I’m not a regular reader of BOOMER Magazine. That said, this article in BOOMER Magazine about noisy restaurants clearly defines the issue, even as it fails to deliver the right solutions.

The article talks about the heartbeat of a restaurant, i.e., the unique ambience. Unfortunately, in many restaurants that heartbeat is far too loud. The problem is that many baby boomers have significant (25-40 decibel) hearing loss, which makes it impossible to understand speech in a noisy environment. And in many cases, noise levels in restaurants and bars are loud enough to cause further hearing loss, discomfort, and even pain.

Many of us boomers are in our mid to late 60s. We may think of ourselves as “forever young,” but the reality is that (with graying and/or thinning hair, thickening middles, and bifocals) we are not the “demographic” that marketers and retailers want, even if many of us have a lot more money and a lot more time in which to spend it that younger people do. For many baby boomers our mortgages are paid off, the kids are done with college, and we’ve funded our retirements. And members of this demographic are looking for restaurants in which we can enjoy a meal AND a conversation with family and friends. But as long as the restaurants are busy–and they sure were in west Los Angeles last night–the restaurateurs and barkeeps have no reason to make things quieter.

This December I will be speaking on the disability rights aspects of ambient noise at the meeting of the Acoustical Society of America in New Orleans. It’s my position that the answer to excessive restaurant noise isn’t eating earlier, or choosing a quieter restaurant (a near impossibility in many cities, including mine), or grinning and bearing it, as BOOMER Magazine suggests, it’s making restaurants quieter. In many cases, this doesn’t cost anything: just turn down–or turn off–the music!

I’m a doctor with tinnitus and hyperacusis, not a lawyer. But it seems to me that those of us with partial hearing loss, tinnitus, and hyperacusis meet the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) definition of having a disability. The ADA defines an individual with a disability as “a person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, a person who has a history or record of such an impairment, or a person who is perceived by others as having such an impairment.” If I’m correct, ADA regulations should require “places of public accommodation”–including restaurants and bars–to be quiet enough to allow those with auditory disorders to converse while enjoying a meal or a drink. That is, people with partial hearing loss, tinnitus, and/or hyperacusis should be protected under the ADA.

For those concerned that indoor quiet laws will hurt business, I turn to the example of no-smoking laws that were imposed on restaurants and bars. Restaurant proprietors and especially bar owners foresaw calamity, but a multitude of studies showed no impact on revenues. My guess is that if some smokers chose not to go to restaurants or bars, they were replaced by those who didn’t want a side order of secondhand smoke with their steak frites. Or the smokers learned to smoke before or after dinner, or to step outside if they wanted to smoke. And that’s what I predict will happen when indoor quiet laws are passed: diners will still go to restaurants, maybe even more of them.

Until reason prevails and restaurants are required to meet reasonable decibel limits, we must ask restaurant owners and managers to turn down the volume.  And if they want our business, they will do it. But what if our requests fall on deaf ears? The next step may be pursuing legal remedies under the ADA to require restaurants to provide a soundscape that protects everyone’s ears.

Dr. Daniel Fink is a leading noise activist based in the Los Angeles area. He serves on the board of the American Tinnitus Association, is the interim chair of Quiet Communities’s Health Advisory Council, and is the founding chair of The Quiet Coalition, an organization of science, health, and legal professionals concerned about the impacts of noise on health, environment, learning, productivity, and quality of life in America.

Will electric vehicles contribute significantly to a quieter world?

Photo credit: cytech licensed under CC BY 2.0

Jeanine Botta, of Silence the Horns, expresses some doubts in her post, “Marketing quiet while adding to noise pollution.” Botta writes about a recent post on Huffington Post that discusses the health effects of traffic noise.  She notes that the piece, which “tells us that ‘EVs are bringing the quiet’ and concludes that ‘…you could say we’re about to enter a golden age of silence,'” was promoted by Nissan, with “Brought to you by ELECTRIFY THE WORLD – A NISSAN INTELLIGENT MOBILITY INITIATIVE” appearing next to the Huffington Post banner.  “Welcome to the world of advertorial marketing,” she says. 

What follows is Botta’s thoughtful analysis of why electric cars may not be “bringing the quiet” any time soon.  More importantly, if concern about vehicle noise is more than a marketing ploy, manufacturers should look at Botta’s suggestions on how they can “substantially reduce vehicle noise pollution” right now in both electric vehicles and in internal combustion engine cars by simply phasing out audible alarms and signals.

Click the first link above to read Botta’s entire piece.  It is well worth your time.

Scientists discover that eardrums move in sync with eyes

By Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

Aylin Woodward, New Scientist, reports on new research that shows that our eardrums appear to move to shift our hearing in the same direction that our eyes are looking. Jennifer Groh, the lead researcher, believes “that before actual eye movement occurs, the brain sends a signal to the ear to say ‘I have commanded the eyes to move 12 degrees to the right’.” Why? She opines that “[t]he eardrum movements that follow the change in focus may prepare our ears to hear sounds from a particular direction,” noting that one reason why the eyes and ears move together may be to help “the brain make sense of what we see and hear.”

My guess is that for our primate ancestors, and then for primitive humans, there was a survival advantage to hearing sound from something that had been seen. Friend or foe? Food or predator? It will be interesting to see where this research leads, particularly as Woodward writes that the study might help develop better hearing aids, “which must locate where sounds are coming from to work well.”

Research is always good. That’s how we learn about how the world works. But we don’t need any more research to know that noise is a health and public health hazard, and that we need to press our elected officials to make the world quieter now.

Because no matter how good the technology becomes, preserved normal hearing is far better than any hearing aid. And far cheaper, too.

Dr. Daniel Fink is a leading noise activist based in the Los Angeles area. He serves on the board of the American Tinnitus Association, is the interim chair of Quiet Communities’s Health Advisory Council, and is the founding chair of The Quiet Coalition, an organization of science, health, and legal professionals concerned about the impacts of noise on health, environment, learning, productivity, and quality of life in America.