March 26th, 2010

krazy koati

Even the coyote can't make him change his ways

If you don't believe in progress, you aren't the only person to believe you don't believe in progress. Even the organizers of Chicago's 1933 ``Century of Progress'' World's Fair are having doubts. Of course they've spent nearly 77 years already wandering the exposition grounds, staring at complicated and dangerous-looking farm equipment seemingly identical piles of whirring body-maulers named things like ``threshers'' or ``pounders'' or ``extruders''; and their only break comes from cheese statues of State Capitols.

They keep giving out blue ribbons, almost at random, hoping they'll finish and be allowed to go home. Last week they gave a ``best in show'' ribbon to a broken traffic cone and a certificate of commendation to some little kids in the lot next door playing basketball with a volleyball. Plus Michigan's Capitol dome still looks weirdly narrow, like it was built by someone who didn't realize he lost his glasses and was wearing reverse-anamorphic lenses. I'm worried for them; they weren't looking well.

It's sobering to realize many great people --- George Washington, Catherine the Great, Ramses the Great, Ramses the Pretty Good Considering He's a Beta And Doesn't Like A Pyramid So Large, and Elizabeth I --- lived without ever hearing a ``beep''. It makes you wonder what was heard when someone touched their noses. They can't have gone ``Ow'', because who would touch Elizabeth I's nose hard enough for it to hurt? But they can't have jumped right away to ``stop that''. There's a necessary escalation first.

Still, you didn't see beeps before about 1929, or later if you weren't in on the early waves of psychoactive pharmaceuticals. But it had historic inevitability. By the late 20s radio was trendy, and the movies had learned how to talk, after a decade and a half of nervous humming and occasionally recognizing bits of the song. Now that all these media said things, they needed to sometimes not say things.

This need was most pronounced on the National Broadcasting Company's secondary or ``blue'' network, which had stuff urgently needing not being heard over almost all its programming schedule. It wasn't until 1941 that the Federal Communications Commission made clear to them the ``blue network'' was just a name for crying out loud and didn't prescribe anything about the language. That wasn't any fun, so they dropped the network two years later, which bounced a while and finally rolled to a stop in 1976 with the debut of Charlie's Angels, for which they were awarded a silver medal.

Silence was ridiculous, since if things were silent people wouldn't know when the sound equipment was broken and when it was time to fix the system again. So they needed to cover up the sound with something and the beep turned out to be a perfect fit. It was short, distinct, and could be recorded easily by using the first several seconds of a Dirac Tranciever as it simultaneously receives every hyperspace radio message from everywhere in the universe of the entire future. What more could you ask for?

Beeps were very marketable, particularly to the automobile industry, which needed the right onomatopoeia for car horns. Automobile clubs had gotten repeal in twelve states the laws requiring drivers to keep a passenger who signals hazardous conditions by screaming (and in four states plus Ontario gotten the law softened to the passenger making sarcastic comments), but what sound for the horn hadn't been settled. Making it quack was right out, and having them play the chorus of Jimmie Driftwood's The Battle Of New Orleans was impractical, as he would not write it until 1958 winning him a best-of-congeniality prize. The beep fit perfectly, though for a while it made cars more attractive to thieves who figured the sound indicated the car had a radio tuned to the Blue Network.

Today we have beeps all over the place, and in all kinds of applications, some of them probably in your desk drawer without you even suspecting. Don't look. You looked, didn't you? Oh, now, see, the Century of Progress judges want you to have this medallion for best-of-looking. I'm starting to think they aren't going to make it to 2033.

Trivia: The word ``noise'' derives ultimately from the Latin ``nausea'', referring to seasickness, through the Old French sense of a quarrel or noisy strife. Source: Webster's Dictionary of Word Origins, Editor Frederick C Mish.

Currently Reading: Malaria: The Biography Of A Killer, Leon J Warshaw, MD. Now that's just weird: a person writing in 1949 openly wondering if it's such a good idea to soak every form of life in DDT, even if it doesn't seem to hurt human beings directly.