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By Joel Klebanoff

Buzz Off

I've joked in a few previous tirades about my age. I'm, by more than 10 years, not as old as Paul McCartney, but I am old enough to find tremendous sad irony in the fact that, just shortly before recently turning 64, he separated from his second wife. (His first wife, and reportedly his great love, died of cancer in 1998.) I may find his separation before his 64th birthday to be ironic, but I also find it depressing to realize that, while I'm easily old enough to recognize the irony myself, many of my readers are not. If you're one of those readers, ask your parents about the writer of and the lyrics to the song "When I'm 64." Or, if you want to get all 21st century on me, look it up on the Web.

None of that has anything to do with what I'm going to write about in this week's column, but it does serve as a convenient segue to the following preface. One of the memory problems that some old people have is that they forget who they've told what to, so they end up repeating the same stories to the same people over and over again. This isn't a problem when they're talking to other old people, as the listeners probably forgot the story shortly after hearing it anyway, so it's always fresh to them, but it can be infuriating for younger listeners. With this in mind, allow me to admit that I can't remember if I wrote this in a previous tirade, and I'm far too lazy to try to check that out by searching for every possible phrase I might have used to relate it, so please excuse me if I've mentioned this here before, but I'm convinced that every technology that can be used as some kind of weapon and/or instrument of deception, will be used as such.

For some time now, companies have been selling gadgets that supposedly repel mosquitoes by using high-frequency tones that people can't hear. Some firms advertise that their gizmos work by emitting a noise that is very annoying to mosquitoes and, therefore, drives them away. Other companies say that their gadgets imitate the sound of a male mosquito, which chases away female mosquitoes. Apparently, females are the ones that do most of the biting. Keep in mind that I'm not making a social comment here. I'm just reciting what I read in some advertising copy.

Why the sound of a male mosquito should chase away female mosquitoes is beyond my ability to comprehend. I find it to be 180 degrees counterintuitive in a survival-of-the-species sense. Then again, I'm sure that, if I thought long enough and hard enough about it, this male-sounds-repelling-females concept could provide some important insights that would help me to better understand my own love life, or, more accurately, the lack thereof.

Before you run out and buy these devices, I should warn you that a great many knowledgeable people think they're hoaxes that don't do anything other than make a lot of money for the people who shill them. If these gizmos do work, I have no moral objection to them. Mosquitoes are disease-spreading pests. Not only do I want to chase them away but, despite my belief in the need to protect biodiversity, I would not protest too loudly if someone were to try to eradicate them from the planet.

What's the "weapon of some sort" I mentioned earlier? An enterprising individual or two got the idea that, if it works against mosquitoes, maybe a variation on that theme can be made to work against some people too. My, my but entrepreneurs can be so clever when it comes to thinking up bothersome uses for technology. According to a June 12, 2006, New York Times article, in 2005 a Welsh security company developed a tone that could be heard by, and would be annoying to, teenagers, but which could not be heard by people over 40. The company marketed it as the Mosquito. My, my but entrepreneurs can be so imaginative when it comes to thinking up new product names.

The Mosquito takes advantage of the fact that as people age they usually fall prey to a condition known as presbycusis or "aging ear," which results in the inability to hear high-frequency sounds. It can start earlier, but by the time they are 40 or 50, almost everyone suffers the symptoms of this condition.

So what possible purpose can be made of a device that generates such sounds? The Welsh security company decided (correctly) that it could sell these high-frequency sound generators to shopkeepers who wanted to disperse teenagers loitering in front of their stores, without bothering their adult customers.

Wait a minute. What's wrong with this picture? Most people don't develop presbycusis until they're at least 30, and often not until they're past 40. I can understand why a shopkeeper would want to chase away a group of loitering teenagers, but between the teenage years and 40 there's a lot of potential disposable income that the retailer may be driving mad or just driving away. That doesn't sound like a particularly great idea to me. Then again, maybe somebody once told me why it's a terrific strategy, but they spoke in too high a voice for me to hear—either that or I heard them but forgot.

Not only do I think it's a bad idea, but I also think there's a much better way to repel teenagers that would be significantly more age-specific. Rather than high-pitched tones, play a loop of an adult's recorded voice repeating such things as, "You're not leaving this house until you clean your room, young man," "No, you cannot get your nipples pierced, not while you're still living under my roof," and "Turn down that music before you go deaf!" Considering the near-universal incidence of presbycusis after the age of 40 or 50, that last one may be a case of trying to encourage kids to learn from their parents' mistakes rather than learning the hard way themselves.

A word of warning: Be careful about what technologies you use against teenagers because they might be clever enough to turn them against you. A case in point: Some teenagers have figured out how to employ these high-frequency sounds as an instrument of deception that they've used against adults. Most schools don't allow children to use cell phones in class. That makes sense to me, but it doesn't make sense to some kids. So the problem (at least, it's a problem in the teenagers' minds) is, how can they leave their cell phones on in class—cell phones that might ring—without their teacher hearing it if it does?

Most adults would just switch their phone to vibrate mode in such a situation, so maybe some of these kids aren't that clever after all. They had to do it the hard way. The solution a few teenagers came up with was to download the high-frequency sound that can't be heard by older people and turn it into a ring tone for their phones. They then took their phones into class, confident that the teacher wouldn't be able to hear them.

Maybe I'm too much of an old fogy to get it, but I don't see how that buys them all that much. If they receive voice calls, their teacher is going to hear them when they answer their phones. If it's an incoming text message, they're going to spend so much time keying in the response that the teacher is bound to notice even if they keep their phones under their desks.

Here's further proof that some of these kids aren't the geniuses their parents might think they are. According to the article, a freshman attending a high school honors math class took a phone with a high-pitched ring tone into class. The phone rang and the whole class, including the 28-year-old teacher, heard it. Someone should have told these kids that old age usually waits until well past 28 to set in. Then again, in my vague recollections of my school days, I seem to recall making two fundamental assumptions. First, all teachers were over 30, even though I now realize that was far from universally true. And, second, the instant you stepped over the 30-year age barrier you had one foot or, more likely, one whole leg and a good portion of the other one into the grave. Needless to say, I don't believe that one anymore either, not by a long shot.

This article originally appeared as part of a weekly series of "Tech Tirades" in MC TNT from MC Press Online. The first year's worth of Tech Tirades does not appear here. Instead, you can find them in BYTE-ing Satire.



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