Sunday, November 18, 2007

ChatterBlocker: A Great Idea if this was 1978

I read blogs like Lifehacker and others of their ilk, chock full of their Hints from Heloise, Bottom Line Personal hints for the not-yet-elderly.

I profoundly, deeply, viscerally hate the sound of workplace chatter. In Indianapolis, when I was outside at lunch or the beginning/ends of days, sometimes I'd hear a train braking, and it made an extended whining sound that it seemed would never end, and I'd think 'this is actually much better and more interesting than listening to my cube-neighbor on the phone with a salesweasel'. The biggest laugh from 'Office Space' for me: "CORPorate accounts payable, Nina speaking. JUST a MOment... CORPorate accounts payable, Nina speaking...etc" Workplace chatter may yet drive me to a Kaczynski Kabin in Montana.

So when I heard about ChatterBlocker, I was eager to give it a whirl. The idea behind ChatterBlocker is that it reduces the sound of workplace conversations using various forms of preferred noise: flowing water, chimes, bells, jumbled up voices.

Some companies make white-noise generators which are hardware solutions to the problem. There are also the noise-canceling headphones from Bose. I have a set, and they suck because they DON'T cancel out the sounds of people talking.

I downloaded it, and it sat on my computer for a couple weeks (I fail G'ing T's D). I finally tried it yesterday, first trying a pre-set involving water flowing. Instead of being relaxed, it made me tense, and it was hard to stay in my seat because I felt like a nearby toilet needed to have its handle jiggled.

Other presets featured male or female voices, saying random things. This one was disturbing because I have eavesdropping tendencies, which is part of the reason workplace chatter vexes me so. Hearing this jumbled, sliced and diced chatter, I couldn't help but try to extract meaning from it, only to fail and be frustrated.

Finally, an 'advanced' mode is like ACID: the early 90's ambient edition. The user can choose various soothing instruments and sounds (some plucked string instrument, bells, blocks clacking together, etc) and mix them together in search of the magic recipe for relaxation. It's a lot of work, going through all the permutations. Fortunately, a lot of people have been working on this problem going back at least to 1978, the year Brian Eno released Ambient One: Music for Airports. That airports are still profoundly miserable, noisy places (even the 'Admiral Lounge' areas can get overly crowded to the point where it takes a lot of complementary booze to cancel out a room-full of Junior Achievers on cell phones, and children failing to be entertained by the big-screen TV) is a testimonial to the ambition and audacity Eno must have had to have even taken on the project.

While I was conducting these experiments, my wife was in the other room, and she made some remark along the lines of 'WTF is that noise?'. On hearing what the fuck it was, she agreed that it somehow managed to create rather than relieve tension.

At this point I remembered actually I do have Aphex Twin's 'Selected Ambient Works Vol 2' on my iPod, along with several albums by The Orb (there's a new, 'deluxe' version of U.F. Orb out there now btw). So apparently what I need to do is group these tracks together as a playlist w/ iTunes, then listen to my iPod on the failing-to-cancel noise headphones (earbuds fail blocking out outside noise).

If an iPod and 90's ambient music is not at your disposal, you can always call in sick and work from home when the noise gets to be too much. Maybe a plumber can help you hack your toilet into a nice ambient noise generator. Good luck submitting that expense report.

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