2012-12-31

Surprise is data

One of the best ways to leverage subconscious data about myself, my experiences, assumptions and otherwise, is to notice and write down what I get surprised about – especially when traveling, or in changing circumstances in any other capacity. I am fairly certain this idea comes from one of Paul Graham's essays (though I couldn't find which – if you know, do say, and I'll link it; it's a great read).

I was visiting family in Sweden over Christmas, and what surprised me the most during those ten days, was how wonderfully quiet it is in over there. In a way this is old news to me, as the reverse was by far the biggest surprise about moving to the US three years ago – everything everywhere pollutes the audio spectrum with ambient noise. It is not just the traffic, but air-conditioning, refrigerators, dish-washers, washing machines, dryers, computers, and all the senseless amounts of intentional noise that trains make, music playing everywhere in places of commerce, and so on. Being surrounded by it for so long, I have apparently become so steeped in the noise that my body equates it with an omni-present tax on human well-being. As quality of life goes, I much prefer paying Sweden's tax rate over this sensory tax.

It's a difference in engineering culture: in Sweden, low (or ideally no) noise emissions is an important and expected fitness criterion, for everything – and has been for at least two decades, probably more. Noise levels are one of the data points listed (in dB(A)), when buying a new fridge or dish-washer, the governmental institution Arbetsmilj√∂verket (loosely translated "the work agency") offers a free iPhone / Android app for measuring ambient noise, and both in the large (architecture, work place environment, city planning, et cetera) and small (tools, implements), fighting noise is not just a matter of engineering pride or regulations, but also pretty much taken for granted.

In the US, it often feels like the noise aspect is a built-in proof that something is working properly, rather than the opposite. In the eighties, you could learn to hear that your C64 basic program was operating correctly via resonance frequencies from the CPU that leaked out through the loudspeaker (due to improperly grounded circuits, I presume), and any car mechanic worth their salt can tell a lot about a car by the sounds it makes.

I am surprised so little has changed here since those days.