Posts Tagged 'noise pollution'

Music for pigeons: A taxonomy of noise pollution.

Years back I wrote a blog post called “Noise pollution and negative externalities” where I made the point that noise is unlike other pollutants: many noise polluters actually enjoy their noise; which makes it harder to shame them into curtailing their pollution.

But I had an experience the other day that reminded me that there are at least three different types of noise pollution, each of which must be combatted differently.


Nearly every day I walk to one of the handful of coffeeshops in my neighbourhood to read the paper and do the crossword. A few years back a new place opened up and I added it to the rotation. It’s spacious and tastefully appointed, with glass on two sides looking out on a busy intersection. Due to all the windows and its south-facing orientation it gets ridiculously warm when the sun is shining, but on rainy days it’s comfortably cool and flooded with grey Vancouver light.

How this place stays in business, I don’t know; maybe it’s a money-laundering operation. Most of the time when I drop in I’m the only customer there. It’s run by a Chinese immigrant family; when I walk in the teenage daughter, who’ll be sitting at one of the tables doing her homework, will hop up to man the counter. When the daughter is absent I’ll find the shop completely empty, and half a minute will pass before her middle-aged mother emerges from an office at the back.

What I like best about the place is that there’s no pop music. Sometimes elevator-style classical music will be playing quietly. Other times, nothing at all. I’ll order my $2.75 Americano – they don’t have drip coffee, I suppose because there are too few customers to make it worthwhile – and sit by the window skimming the news, watching the umbrellas bob by.

On this occasion I found the place empty and silent, and as usual I had to wait a moment before the mother appeared. She knows me: “Americano?” she said. Things get a bit sloppy when the daughter isn’t around: the mother had to dig in a supply closet when I pointed out that only low-calorie sweetener packets were left in the sugar basket. Then she had to double back to the fridge to retrieve the cream, which the daughter knows to bring out when I appear.

Daughter and mother are both friendly and accommodating, but I feel a bit guilty making them bustle around to serve me; as though I’m interrupting their real business – homework in the daughter’s case; in the mother’s, whatever she gets up to in the back office. My occasional $2.75 can’t be making much of a dent in their operating costs.

It was this feeling of guilt, plus my natural slow-wittedness, that made me hesitate when the mother, after restocking the sugar supply and plopping the cream carton on the counter, hit the button to turn on the stereo. The silence was marred by a plinky, PlaySkool-mobile instrumental version of “We Wish You A Merry Christmas”. After a moment’s consideration, she upped the volume by a couple notches, and vanished back into her office before I had a chance to raise an objection. I imagine she thought she’d done me a favour: white people love Christmas music, don’t they? Luckily she didn’t have to sit out there and listen to it.

If she’d set off a stink bomb it wouldn’t have done more to wreck my visit. “We Wish You A Merry Christmas” was succeeded by “Jingle Bells” then “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”. I soon gave up trying to concentrate on my paper. Somewhere in the middle of “All I Want For Christmas Is You” I slurped down the last of my coffee and fled. I’d been there barely twenty minutes; hardly worth the walk.

Now, I realize that people expect different things from coffeeshops. Some lead busy lives and need to get their caffeine fix on the go. I can make perfectly good coffee at home, at a price far more reasonable than $2.75 per cup. What my apartment lacks is a cozy chair by a window where I can watch pretty girls and funnily-dressed dogs go by.

I’ve tried out a lot of coffeeshops over the years – I’ve explored all over Metro Vancouver – and among all those businesses I’ve found only this one where the stereo wasn’t constantly playing. I don’t know why music is considered a necessary accompaniment to coffee drinking, dining, shopping, bowling, everything, but I’ve come to accept that I’m a bit of a weirdo on this subject.

I’ve learned from experience which places play musical genres that are less likely to annoy me, and can be relied on to keep the volume at a reasonable level. I look forward to spring, when once again I can sit on patios where there’s no music at all – though such refuges are becoming rarer and rarer. Often on cool summer days I’ll walk by empty patios blasting pop music for an audience of pigeons and crows.


But the title of this post promised a taxonomy of noise pollution. As I see it, there are three categories.

First there is what you might call extrinsic noise pollution. This is the type that best fits our stereotypical idea of pollution. Think of smog, toxic waste, microplastics: accidental byproducts of modern convenience. No-one is excited about spewing poison or scattering garbage, but stopping it would cost us money or effort.

Traffic noise, power tools, and construction all fall under the category of extrinsic noise pollution. Everyone, including the polluters, would agree that these noises should be reduced: the challenge is that no-one is willing to put themselves to any trouble to do it.

The second category is the opposite of the first: intrinsic noise pollution, where making noise is the whole point. Loud motorcycles, obnoxious car stereos, and teenagers whooping it up outside your window at night would all fall into this category.

With intrinsic noise pollution, the challenge is that citizens disagree about what constitutes an acceptable level of noise. One person’s unbearable racket is another’s harmless high spirits. Even if you can get a bylaw passed that sets out noise limits, cops will often shrug off violations; they’re as likely to see the complainer, and not the polluter, as the nuisance.

The third category I’ll call unconscious noise pollution, as exemplified by the stereo blasting on an empty restaurant patio. The polluters in this case aren’t making noise for fun: they’re either literally unable to hear it – because they’re not physically present – or they’re so inured to the noise that it doesn’t even register.

Much of the music we hear in public falls into this category: business owners who click on the stereo out of pure habit.

Unconscious noise pollution is annoying, but it actually offers the easiest target in the battle against excessive noise: the polluters are unaware that they’re polluting, and it would be very little trouble for them to curtail their pollution.

All I had to do the other afternoon was work up the nerve to ask the coffeeshop proprietor to shut off the Christmas music. It would’ve cost her nothing while gaining her the goodwill of at least one customer.

Of course, it’s often hard to tell the difference between intrinsic and unconscious noise pollution. The restaurant proprietor may sincerely believe that blasting music onto an empty patio draws in more customers; this would be difficult for an outsider to disprove.

But the first step, for those of us bothered by the noise, is to say something about it. We may be suffering unnecessarily.


Speaking of unconscious noise pollution, a lot of people seem to think it’s acceptable to watch videos on their phone, in public, without headphones. If we don’t complain, how will they ever know better?

Mid-election afterthoughts.

Rushing to get my Trump reflections on the record before tonight’s U.S. election result made them redundant, I declined to pursue a number of digressions as they occurred to me. But I have nothing else going on today, so I guess I’ll work them up into their own post.


Not long ago I was reminiscing to a friend about the time Howard Stern ran for governor of New York. Stern promised to unsnarl New York City’s traffic jams by moving all road construction work to the middle of the night. That was it. Once he’d accomplished that, he said, he would resign.

My friend and I had been talking about how politics doesn’t really offer a mechanism for solving ubiquitous but small irritants. She mentioned crosswalk signals that count down the seconds until the light turns amber – you scurry to get across, the countdown reaches zero – and the light doesn’t turn amber! What is the purpose of those misleading timers? Or of those crosswalk signals that are activated by a button, but if the light is already green when you push it, you’re confronted with a steady red hand. You wait, thinking maybe the light is about to change…and wait…and wait…while there was plenty of time for you to have crossed safely, if the signal had been more intelligently designed. But how do you democratically register your vexation over poor crosswalk signals?

What would be my platform, my friend asked, if I ran a single-issue Stern-style campaign? I said it would probably have something to do with noise pollution. Banning leaf blowers, for instance, which aggravate whole city blocks while barely improving on the efficiency of rakes and brooms. Or getting rid of truck backup beepers, which avert a knowable number of deaths per year at the cost of an unknowable amount of life-shortening stress from the cumulative effect of urban noisiness.


Having confessed in the previous post to my deplorable lack of outrage over the offenses of Donald Trump, maybe I ought to spell out, for the benefit of bemused readers, what issues I am passionate about.

It’s a pretty short list. It looks something like this:

1) Free speech (pro).
2) Suburban sprawl, auto dependency (anti), public transit (pro).
3) Democracy (pro).

I’m not saying those are the most important issues. Clearly nuclear proliferation, environmental degradation, third world overpopulation – threats that, badly managed, could actually end all life on earth – are far more important. But I have no ready answer for those existential threats, let alone for more parochial questions like how integrated the United Kingdom should be with the European Union, or how the United States should tweak its health insurance system, or whether the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal is on balance good for Canada.

Whereas I am strongly, and probably unalterably, in favour of a more expansive definition of free speech. Not because speech is in itself wonderful – the freer it is, the more of it will consist of horrible hateful ranting, which is unfortunate given the ease with which horrible hateful rants can now reach an audience. But giving governments and institutions the power to suppress “wrong” speech presumes that “wrongness” can be definitively known, and that the powerful can be trusted not to skew the definition to cow their political enemies and perpetuate their own rule. Horrible hateful rants can be endured.

But no party is all that vocal about the free speech issue – besides the Libertarians, whose positions on almost everything else I find dubious. There just aren’t many voters who care.

My concerns about sprawl and auto dependency are generally shared by parties on the left – but those same parties are usually hostile to dense urban development, while being committed to ever-greater levels of immigration – making it impossible for them to devise policies that effectively contain exurban growth. So this issue, like free speech, tends not to drive my voting that much.

Democracy, as I define it, rarely comes up. I know the Democratic Party in the States thinks Republican “voter suppression” tactics are anti-small-“d”-democratic, but as I’ve argued before, there is no God-given system under which elections would be perfectly fair. The Democratic coalition takes in the young, the transient, the frequently-incarcerated – it makes sense for Democrats to oppose rules that create barriers to voting, such as having to show your ID, or not be a felon. The Republican coalition, meanwhile, is older, more suburban, more likely to be married and settled. Barriers are easier for them to overcome. The most Democrat-friendly rules would permit anyone to show up at any polling station and vote with no questions asked. Republican-friendly rules would demand that you bring along two pieces of photo ID, plus proof you’ve resided in the district for ten years, and also the poll supervisor recognizes you from his bowling league.

That reminds me of something I came across on Mark Steyn’s website today. (I love and revere Steyn, largely for his corny and erudite celebrations of old-fashioned American songcraft – but he is of course a highly partisan conservative, so skepticism must be calibrated accordingly.) In his election eve post he embeds a video of President Obama being interviewed by the website Mitú – the self-proclaimed “Voice of Young Latinos”. In response to a somewhat muddled question from Gina Rodriguez, the president – well, to quote the title of the video, he seemingly “encourages illegal aliens to vote.” As Steyn parses the exchange:

[T]he question is perfectly clear – the interviewer is brazenly advocating mass lawbreaking of the defining act of representative government – and the principal representative of that government is most certainly not clear in slapping such a provocation down.

Is the question really that clear? For a less adversarial take, Steyn sportingly links to the writer and legal expert Jonathan Turley, who says:

[T]he President clearly states that “when you vote, you are a citizen yourself.” The confusion is over the use [by Rodriguez] of “undocumented citizen” to refer to illegal immigrants.

This flap seems pretty characteristic of the current U.S. political scene. Each side attributes the worst intentions to the other, leaping to the least forgiving reading of any ambiguous or unpolished comment. Republicans, fearful of cheating Democrats bussing in illegal ringers to tip the election, push for stricter voting requirements. Democrats, assuming Republican fears are a put-on, accuse Republicans of racistly disenfranchising minorities. Speaking as an outsider, it all just makes me sort of tired.


I put “democracy” on my issues list because it actually influenced my decision in the last Canadian federal election. My ideal outcome for that contest was a minority government for either the Conservatives or NDP, with the Liberals humiliatingly crushed and Justin Trudeau chased out of politics forever. Not because I have anything particularly against Trudeau, who seems like a nice enough guy, in that grating progressive confident-he’s-on-the-right-side-of-history way. But the monarchical principle should be resisted in democracy whenever it arises. (I excuse actual constitutional monarchs as harmless tourist attractions.) The point of democracy isn’t that it provides good government, but that it guarantees regular, non-violent opportunities for self-correction. Dashing looks and famous names throw off the electorate’s judgement and delay necessary electoral corrections – so that the reaction, when it finally comes, is more extreme than it need have been. Which is why Peripheral Bushes and Lesser Kennedys and, yes, Distaff Clintons should be held to a stricter standard, not a laxer one, than those who rose to prominence under unstoried names.

Not that anyone really cares what I think. Happy Election Night, America. Try to stay chill.


Noise pollution and negative externalities.

On a train journey across Austria this spring, seated in the “quiet car”, I found myself across from what I can only describe as the world’s gayest Chinese boy. Dressed in pink capris, with shiny waxed legs, he occupied a four-seater with his mother and sister and began unwinding an endless soliloquy in high-pitched Mandarin. His family sat nodding and smiling in an encouraging way as he piped his spiel throughout the carriage. After a few minutes I moved a few seats away, but his sing-songing voice continued to irritate me. I put in earplugs but they still didn’t muffle him. Finally I removed myself to the far end of the carriage where, with earplugs in, his chatter was muted enough that I could almost forget he was there.

It got me thinking about negative externalities. That’s the name economists have given to the costs of activities that are borne not by the people engaging in them, but by innocent bystanders.

The classic example is pollution. A guy builds a factory that pumps acrid smoke into the air. He enjoys the profits from the factory, but the costs of living with the pollution are borne by the people living downwind.

Another example occurred in the years running up to the 2008 financial meltdown, in which investment bankers trading in risky and poorly-understood securities enjoyed huge profits, while the costs of the resulting economic crisis were borne by taxpayers.

The thing about these kinds of negative externalities – pollution and financial risk – is that they are not entirely external. They’re shared, at least to some degree, by the people who generate them. Those people are therefore sensitive to suasion by moral or governmental authority.

The guy with the factory might not care about the people downwind from him, but he’s not enthusiastic about toxic clouds per se. They’re an unfortunate side effect of the profit he seeks. He might be convinced to sacrifice a part of his profit in order to create a cleaner atmosphere which he and his family can breathe along with everyone else.

Nor is the banker with his profitable but risky securities keen on destabilizing the whole economy. He doesn’t want vagrants throwing rocks at his BMW as he drives to work through streets lined with derelict shops. Nor does he desire the higher taxes that must eventually be implemented to pay for the bank bailouts his actions necessitated. He might be convinced to give up some profit now in order that in the future he and his children can walk the streets without fear of being mugged.

But then there’s the negative externality of noise pollution, as exemplified by that Chinese kid on the train.

The thing about noisy people is that they don’t regard noise as an unpleasant but unavoidable side effect of doing something else they enjoy. The noise is what they enjoy. They’re not just unsympathetic to the argument that their noise makes bystanders unhappy, but uncomprehending. To them it seems paradoxical. If the sound of my chattering voice is so pleasant to me, that Chinese boy would argue, how can it be unpleasant to everyone else?

If the sound of my motorcycle engine echoing down a city street gives me such a thrill, thinks the biker, mustn’t it give a similar thrill to that lady sipping tea on her balcony?

If the sound of my shrieking children fills my breast with maternal contentment, thinks the mother, mustn’t it have an equivalently heartwarming effect on everyone else in the restaurant?

If the sound of Blink 182’s Greatest Hits help me to concentrate on my homework, thinks the college student, mustn’t my stereo’s muffled reverberations be just as soothing to the folks in the apartment downstairs?

We can’t suggest, “Let’s all enjoy the silence together,” because silence is not something they would enjoy.

In the absence of arguments that appeal to their sense of rational self-interest, our only options are to wheedle or threaten the noisemakers. Naturally they’re resentful, and ignore or flout the rules whenever they can.

It’s therefore not surprising that in the last hundred years, while we’ve enjoyed considerable success at reducing pollution, and moderate success at regulating finance, the world has gotten noisier and noisier. I see no prospect of reversing the trend. As so often happens, the loudest voice wins.


John Howard Griffin and other people’s music.

Midway through John Howard Griffin’s Black Like Me, the author finds himself in a rundown boarding room in the black quarter of Hattiesburg, Mississippi.

john howard griffin black like me

It’s 1959. Griffin has used drugs and dye to darken his white skin in order to experience firsthand life as a black man in the south. After a week in cosmopolitan New Orleans, enduring segregation, discrimination, and the “hate stares” of random whites, Griffin deems himself ready to explore the racist heartland of Mississippi.

Hattiesburg is tense. Not long before, a white mob lynched a black prisoner in neighbouring Poplarville. The grand jury refused to return indictments against the mob. Within minutes of Griffin’s arrival, some white punks in a passing car throw a tangerine at him. When another car roars down the road, he notices that everyone retreats indoors. He learns that in the last few days several blacks have been beaten by hooligans or framed by police.

Safe in his room, Griffin looks into the mirror and sees “tears slick on his cheeks in the yellow light.” He attempts to write a letter to his wife, but he’s brought up short by the incongruity of a black man writing a tender letter to a white woman. He goes outside and buys a barbecued meat sandwich. As he is handed his food, he imagines he can read the thoughts of the black woman at the barbecue stand: “Her eyes said with unmistakable clarity, ‘God…isn’t it awful?'”

Griffin sits down on the steps of his building to eat. “I felt disaster,” he writes. “Somewhere in the night’s future the tensions would explode into violence.”

Finally, for the first time in his adventure, he gives in. He calls some white friends in Hattiesburg and asks to be rescued. “I’m scared to death,” he says into the phone. The friends pick him up and take him to a comfortable house in the white section of town.

Griffin’s outrage and frustration are understandable, and yet he seems carried away by his imagination. Why not just hide out in his room? Why not strike up a conversation with the woman at the barbecue stand, or one of the several friendly blacks he’s talked to since arriving in Hattiesburg?

I think I know why Griffin really broke down. It was the music.

“Canned jazz blar[ing] through the street with a monstrous high-strutting rhythm that pulled at the viscera,” audible through the walls of his room.

“Music from the jukebox, a grinding rhythm,” which he transcribes as, “Harangity hangity hangity hangity oomp oomp oomp.”

“The music consumed in its blatant rhythm all other rhythms, even that of the heartbeat,” he writes. Hearing the “hoots and shouts” from the taverns of the black quarter, he speculates:

I wondered how all of this would look to the casual observer, or the whites in their homes. “The Niggers are whooping it up over on Mobile Street tonight,” they might say. “They’re happy.” Or, as one scholar put it, “Despite their lowly status, they are capable of living jubilantly.” Would they see the immense melancholy that hung over the quarter, so oppressive that men had to dull their sensibilities in noise or wine or sex or gluttony in order to escape it? The laughter had to be gross or it would turn to sobs, and to sob would be to realize, and to realize would be to despair. So the noise poured out like a jazzed-up fugue, louder and louder to cover the whisper in every man’s soul. “You are black. You are condemned.” This is what the white man mistook for “jubilant living” and called “whooping it up.” This is how the white man can say, “They live like dogs,” never realizing why they must, to save themselves, shout, get drunk, shake the hip, pour pleasures into bellies deprived of happiness. Otherwise, the sounds from the quarter would lose order and rhythm and become wails.

This is condescension – not the condescension of a white man to blacks, but of a quiet man to the loud. As Griffin sees it, when blacks listen to music that irritates him, it can only be to cover the whispers in their soul. If their conditions were a little better, their souls wouldn’t have to whisper so loudly, and they’d listen to something less irritating – a little Beethoven, maybe.

That’s not how it turned out. Fifty years later, if they’re to be judged by the music they listen to, black people’s souls are whispering more loudly than ever. How would Griffin react to the news that the first black president has Jay-Z on his iPod?

I know how antagonizing other people’s music can be. I remember living in a bachelor apartment in Vancouver, depressed and unemployed, moaning in anguish whenever the upstairs neighbour turned on her stereo. I would put in earplugs, and put headphones over the earplugs, and watch inane sitcoms that I had no interest in watching, just to escape the music. I would put off eating because in order to make food I would have to remove the headphones and hear the music.

As I worked on this blog post, a white kid pulled his car into the parking lot beneath my window and sat there for five minutes pumping hip hop, which I felt as a steady pulsing in my sternum. I typed out Griffin’s sentence, The music consumed in its blatant rhythm all other rhythms, even the heartbeat. I sat here grinding my teeth, wishing death on the young, until the car pulled away.

That’s how it goes nowadays. In place of music we have beats. And in place of jukeboxes we have kids with 5000-watt subwoofers in their cars.

But the kids don’t install those subwoofers because they’re consumed with melancholy. They do it because they have shitty taste in music. Their shitty music isn’t a reaction to racism or poverty or poor living conditions, and neither was the music that John Howard Griffin heard in the black quarter of Hattiesburg in 1959.

But it makes sense that this was the only night of his experiment where Griffin chickened out. He was suffering under a double dose of oppression – the oppression of racism amplified by the oppression of other people’s music.


Update, July 27, 2020: Added cover image and linked to Bibliography page.

Michael A. Charles is a writer, animator, and musician currently living in the Vancouver area. He used to be the singer and guitarist for the band known as Sea Water Bliss.

You can find a selection of his cartoons, music videos, and ads on the Gallery page.

Michael isn't on LinkedIn or Facebook or Twitter and won't be on whatever comes along next. If you need to reach him here's his contact info.

Garson Hampfield, Crossword Inker