Tag Archive: The Atlantic

As protests grow, will Trump’s threatened military force include NextGen sonic weapons?

LRADs deployed in Ferguson, Missouri, Aug. 2014 | Photo credit: Loavesofbread licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

by David M. Sykes, Vice Chair, The Quiet Coalition

Weaponized sound is not new to police and military commanders, as this research paper from the journal Science and Global Security points out. There are good examples of weaponized sound going back many centuries, though they’re generally considered to be “non-lethal weapons.” Not harmless, but not deadly. And they’ve being used against protesters in the U.S., as shown in the photo from Ferguson, Missouri, shown above.

Eric Niiler, writing for History.com, provides a good historical summary of the subject, and includes a photo of a long range acoustic device, or sound cannon, deployed by police during a Trump rally in 2017 in Anaheim, California to deter potential mob action. But we’re much more likely to read about tear gas and pepper spray and water cannons and rubber bullets than this kind of high tech gear.

The article also reaches all the way back to the Israelites blaring trumpets at the walls of Jericho.

Do sonic weapons get used often? Yes. Niiler writes about recent appearances with which we’re all familiar:

Police units used LRAD devices at an Occupy Wall Street rally in 2011 and in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014. They are currently deployed on naval ships to deter smaller boats from approaching. More than 20 countries are now using the LRAD. Israeli Defense Forces have used it to break up Palestinian protests, Japanese whaling ships have repelled environmental groups and several cruise ships have used it to fight off pirates in places like the Horn of Africa or Indian Ocean. Most recently, mysterious attacks on the US Embassy in Cuba appeared to be sonic in nature though no publicly available reports have disclosed understanding of what actually happened there.

And where there is weaponized sound, there are health concerns. This 2017 post by James Hamblin in The Atlantic is a very interesting overview on the health aspects of sonic weapons.

David Sykes chairs several professional organizations in acoustical science: QCI Healthcare Acoustics Project, ANSI Committee S12-WG44, the Rothschild Foundation Task Force on Acoustics, and the FGI Acoustics Committee. He is lead author of “Sound & Vibration 2.0” (Springer, 2012), a contributor to the NAE’s “Technology for a Quieter America” and the GSA’s “Sound Matters,” and co-founded the Laboratory for Advanced Research in Acoustics at Rensselaer Polytech. A graduate of UC-Berkeley with advanced degrees from Cornell, he is a frequent organizer of professional conferences in the U.S., Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

The virus’ unintended consequence–the air is cleaner, quieter

Photo credit: Flora Westbrook from Pexels

by Arline L. Bronzaft, Ph.D., Board of Directors, GrowNYC, and Co-founder, The Quiet Coalition

In my earlier writing, I had suggested that studies would be forthcoming that would focus on the impacts of reduced sound levels brought about by reactions to the coronavirus pandemic. What is obvious to many of us, especially those of us living in urban centers, not just researchers who are tuned in to environmental sounds, is that surrounding sound levels have now been reduced. Fewer cars on the road, fewer nearby train sounds, and fewer overhead aircraft have resulted in less noise intruding into the lives of residents who are disturbed daily by the loud sounds of cars, trains, and aircraft. In New York City, with so many people confined to their homes, the hustle and bustle of pedestrians on major thoroughfares is gone.

Marina Koren’s article in the Atlantic this week is entitled “The Pandemic is Turning the Natural World Upside Down.” Ms. Koren writes that there has been a significant decrease in air pollutants as measured by earth-orbiting satellites. She adds that there is also “significantly less noise from cars, buses, trains and other transportation.” In her piece, she writes about Dr. Erica Walker, a researcher in Boston, who has studied and written about the acoustic environment. Dr Walker has recently taken her decibel meter to measure the sound levels in her community. And since she has written about noise pollution in her city for several years, she can make comparisons of sound levels before and after the Coronavirus. Dr. Walker now reports, using actual sound measurements, that her city has become much quieter.

With less urban noise, city dwellers are now hearing more bird singing, Koren notes. She writes that oceans are quieter today and reports the finding that “whales in the bay experienced a drop in their stress-level hormones.” No surprise, as cruise ships and other maritime vessels bring about an increase in sound levels in the ocean and these higher levels of sound “can increase stress-hormone levels in marine creatures, which can affect their reproductive success.”

As a long-time researcher and writer on the adverse effects of noise on our health and well-being, I never hypothesized about a world with less noise resulting from strict limitations on those human behaviors that have made our planet a noisier one. Nor did I envision that these limitations would come about because of a virus—a microscopic organism that needs host organisms to replicate.

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.

(Re)learning to run without headphones

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

In this delightful essay in The Atlantic, writer Talmon Joseph Smith describes what happened one day when he was out on a run and his smartphone, the source of the almost constant soundtrack accompaniment to his daily life, died. He titled his essay “Learning to Run Without Headphones,” but my guess is that he knew how to run before he discovered headphones. But he certainly rediscovered the joys of listening to the world around him and thinking his own thoughts without being distracted by a constant soundtrack.

The World Health Organization calls a music player and associated headphones or earbuds a “personal audio system.” A 2017 Nielsen survey reported in Forbes Magazine found that the average American listens to a PAS for 4.5 hours a day, up sharply from 3.8 hours daily in 2016 and only 3.3 hours daily in 2015. And a 2017 report is already out of date.

I can’t access the report myself, so I don’t know if they only surveyed PAS users or the entire population. If the survey group included the entire population, including people like me who never listen to a PAS, the number of hours PAS users listen to their devices is much greater than 4.5 hours daily.

PAS use has already been shown to cause hearing loss and tinnitus (ringing in the ears) in children as young as 11. It’s probably doing the same to adult ears, too.

The tag line on a popular credit card advertisement asks, “What’s in your wallet?” Concerning PAS use, I would ask, “What’s in your ears?” If you’re turning up the volume loud enough to drown out the rumble in the subway car, or other conversations in the bus, on your daily commute, or traffic noise when running or walking, you’re probably damaging your hearing.

And just as important, you’re missing out on important time with your own thoughts, as well as the sounds of nature if you’re outdoors.

Dr. Daniel Fink is a leading noise activist based in the Los Angeles area. He 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. Dr Fink also is the interim chair of Quiet Communities’ Health Advisory Council, and he served on the board of the American Tinnitus Association from 2015-2018.

Why is the world so loud?

Photo credit: Sumaira Abdulali licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

This wonderful article in The Atlantic discusses a specific noise issue in Arizona as well as noise pollution generally. In the piece, we are introduced to Karthic Thallikar, an Arizonan who became aware of a low hum in his neighborhood and went on a two-year quest to discover the source. The approach in The Atlantic article is a bit different from that in a recent article in The New Yorker on noise pollution, but both articles are worth reading.

Recently, with the help of several noise colleagues, I recently developed a new definition of noise: noise is unwanted and/or harmful sound. Specific noise levels adversely affecting human health and function can be found in my article in the Fall 2019 issue of Acoustics Today, “Ambient Noise is the New Second-hand Smoke.”

I am encouraged that the mainstream media are examing noise pollution and its adverse effect on health, as there can be no rational doubt that noise is a public health problem. I hope you will join me in working towards making our world a quieter place that is better for all living things.

Dr. Daniel Fink is a leading noise activist based in the Los Angeles area. He 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. Dr Fink also is the interim chair of Quiet Communities’ Health Advisory Council, and he served on the board of the American Tinnitus Association from 2015-2018.

“Health attacks” by inaudible sonic waves are real

Photo credit: Tess Watson licensed under CC BY 2.0

James Hamblin, The Atlantic, writes about the attacks on American and Canadian diplomats in Cuba in his article, “What Are Sound Weapons?” Hamblin starts his piece by describing the incidents which caused several Havana-based diplomats to suffer headaches, balance issues, and even severe hearing loss. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Hamblin notes, refered the to incidents as “health attacks.” And the AP reported that “U.S. officials concluded that the diplomats had been attacked with an advanced sonic weapon that operated outside the range of audible sound and had been deployed either inside or outside their residences.”

The weaponization of “energy waves with frequencies outside the range that the human ear can detect” is not new, writes Hamblin, and the health effects from exposure to inaudible sonic waves are real. Hamblin shares the story of residents of Kokomo, Indiana, who in 2001 experienced “annoyance, sleep disturbance, headaches, and nausea.” The U.S. National Institutes of Health investigated the matter but “couldn’t pin down the cause of the Indiana residents’ symptoms as infrasound.” The report, however, “did confirm that infrasound can cause fatigue, apathy, hearing loss, confusion, and disorientation.”

In the end, U.S. officials don’t know if Cuba is responsible or some third party, with the suggestion offered that the actor could have been “Russia, China, North Korea, Venezuela, or Iran.” But Hamblin adds that the attack is hardly sophisticated, as “[n]oise-induced hearing loss affects around one in four people,” although the source of noise is more mundane for most of us: loud concerts, shooting guns, and everyday failures to protect our hearing. Says Hamblin, “fascination with this sort of attack can be a reminder that it is worth arming ourselves in daily life against the more quotidian forms of sonic weaponry.”

Is man-made noise making desert insects disappear?

Photo credit: Ferran Pestaña licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Veronique Greenwood, The Atlantic, writes about the gas compressors in the San Juan Basin of New Mexico and the effect they are having on desert insects. The San Juan Basin is “the nation’s second-largest natural gas field, [where] for miles in every direction, gas compressors are running more or less constantly, filling the desert with their eerie, broadband roar.” When compressors are near people, Greenwood reports, efforts are made to dampen the sound, but not so when the only thing that can hear them are the creatures that live in the desert.

What do the compressors sound like? Greenwood says that they “create a curiously oppressive noise, with both high and low frequencies at very high volume, running 24 hours a day, seven days a week, nearly 52 weeks a year.” Sounds hellish. And apparently desert insects agree, as ecologists have discovered that many insect groups are disturbed by the compressors “and by high decibel levels of noise in general.” How disturbed? Although some insects groups showed no change, “[t]here were 24-percent fewer grasshoppers in compressor plots, 52-percent fewer froghoppers, and a whopping 95-percent fewer cave, camel, and spider crickets.”

The long-term effects aren’t exactly known–one researcher noted that the study was “is just the very tip of the iceberg”–but as insects avoid the sound of man-made noise, their altered behavior will likely affect the bats and birds that eat them.

Click the link above to read the entire piece.



The Best Music for Productivity?

Silence.  Olga Khazan, writing for The Atlantic, wonders whether wearing headphones and listening to music to avoid the noise in an open plan office is “just replacing one distracting noise with another.”  And her research, unsurprisingly, leads her to the inescapable conclusion that music interferes with concentration.  Khazan notes that the more engaging the music is, the worst it is for concentration, adding that “[m]usic with lyrics is dreadful for verbal tasks.”

So the next time your boss tells you to don a pair of headphones to drown out the noise of your fellow open plan toilers, send him or her the link to Ms. Khazan’s article along with a request for an office.

Thanks to @QuietEdinburgh for the link.

The scourge that is car alarms

In “The Alarming Truth,” Ilana E. Strauss, The Atlantic, looks at the confusing ubiquity of car alarms.  “Car alarms don’t deter criminals, and they’re a public nuisance,” she notes, so “[w]hy are they still so common?  Why indeed.

Car alarms “do very little of what they’re intended to do,” says Strauss, adding that ,”[i]f two analyses done in the 1990s still hold, 95 to 99 percent of all car-alarm triggerings are literally false alarms.”  And then there are the very real costs.  Strauss writes:

Worse, car alarms may be affecting the health of the people around them when they go off. A report from Transportation Alternatives, a bicycle-advocacy organization, estimated that New York’s car alarms lead to about $400 to $500 million per year in “public-health costs, lost productivity, decreased property value, and diminished quality of life.” An estimate from an organization whose stated goal is “to reclaim New York City’s streets from the automobile” should be taken with a grain of salt, but the point still stands that car-alarm sounds are stress-inducing and sleep-interrupting.

As anyone awoken at 4:00 a.m. by a yowling alarm that will not stop knows, once the alarm is finally stopped–usually after a minute that feels like much more–returning to sleep is near impossible.  And for what?  According the Strauss, the answer is “nothing.”  The good news? Very few news cars come with alarms, but some owners still buy them in the after market.  Click the link above to read the whole thing.

Thank to @jeaninebotta for the link.

An audiologist explains why noise is much more than a mere annoyance.

In “Why City Noise Is a Serious Health Hazard,” Eric Jaffe writes about noise in New York City.  His piece extensively quotes Craig Kasper, chief audiologist at New York Hearing Doctors, who notes how persistent noise complaints have been, citing a 1905 headline in the Times claiming New York to be “the noisiest city on earth.”  Kasper also discusses all of the ways in which noise adversely affects health and wellbeing (e.g., loss of sleep, anxiety, cardiovascular difficulties, etc.), adding that his patients “complain of loud restaurants the most.”  Oddly, this otherwise thoughtful piece concludes with Kasper stating that “noise adds to the charm of New York—and, really, any big city.”  It’s hard to accept that something as potentially damaging as noise can be described as charming.  Still, this short piece is worth a read.