From Musicboarding to Phoneboarding

A few months ago, I described how a certain airline has devised a fiendish way to torment its passengers. That is, a type of torment beyond the usual run-of-the-mill torture of flying on any airplane. In a letter to the editor, alert reader Douglas Mandel commiserated with me but pointed out that I was overlooking another kind of torture that is much, much worse.

In my post I described waterboarding, an interrogation technique that makes a person feel like they are drowning. After about five minutes, you’ll tell them all about that time you told your wife you were going jogging, but instead, you met some buddies and stopped into a bar and drank beer. Cold beer. Draft beer. Really good beer.

I also described a kind of audio torture called musicboarding. This is where an airline locks you in a long and narrow tube and plays excruciating sounds such as Adult Contemporary Easy Listening Music. After about three minutes, you figure that pulling that red lever on the emergency exit door is a really good option. Note: I’ve tried that. I need to find a better option.

In his letter, Mr. Mandel pointed out an even more horrific kind of audio torture. I’m breaking into a panic-sweat even as I think about it. It is when you are on your cell phone, and they put you on hold, and then they play music. This is, of course, phoneboarding. After listening to that unholy pandemonium for about one minute, you simply lose the will to live.

Let’s think about this. For starters, you are on hold. We are not immortal. Our time is finite. And minute by minute, they are taking away that time. While. You. Are. On. Hold. And as if to celebrate the fact that they are literally sucking your life into the void, they play music. As news reporter Herbert Morrison, voice trembling, exclaimed as he witnessed the Hindenburg crashing and burning: “Oh, the humanity!”

On-hold music is the aural equivalent of barbed wire. I am being charitable when I diagnose it as “Screams of the Damned: Underwater Edition.”

This on-hold music is the aural equivalent of barbed wire. I am being charitable when I diagnose it as “Screams of the Damned: Underwater Edition.” Alternatively, some on-hold systems play bizarre sounds. Mr. Mandel describes them as “rhythmic, non-musical, computer-generated, whisper-like sounds.” They might have better survivability than actual music when played over the phone, but in either case, the end result is to leach out your brain cells.

The Problem in Technical Terms
From an engineering standpoint, we can clearly identify the problem. Some forms of communication channels such as analog and pulse code modulation are agnostic about the sounds they convey. Their aim is to capture an audio waveform and then reproduce it as accurately as possible. Ideally, the output signal should measure and sound like the input signal. Even though the ideal is never achieved, crucially, it doesn’t make any difference what the transmitted waveform — music or voice, for example — conveys.

Other kinds of channels are more limiting. For example, some data-reduction systems use psychoacoustic coding with models of human hearing to convey sounds that objectively measure poorly, but sound just fine to our ears. In particular, to save bits, they might omit some parts of the audio signal or allow noise and distortion to rise, but the mechanism used to perceive the output signal — the human ear — might not perceive the infractions. Even with the psychoacoustics, the channel doesn’t particularly care if the signal is music or voice.

The single-minded aim of telephone channels is to convey voice waveforms with the fewest bits possible. You might argue that in their zeal to economize data, they don’t do a particularly good job with voice. But when you try to convey music, it is a complete disaster. That is because far from being agnostic, the channel is exclusively optimized to convey the human voice. When music is input, the channel essentially tries to code the sound of music as if it was someone talking. Not good. It’s like driving a car down a railroad track. It kind of works. But not really.

Of course, engineering mumbo jumbo such as this fails to explain the nefarious intent of the vast left- and right-wing conspiracy behind all this. Clearly, phoneboarding is a form of mind control. How many times has this happened to you — the person on the phone puts you on hold “for just a minute,” the mind-control music starts to play, then about a minute later the person comes back on the line. But then you glance at your watch and see that four hours have gone by. Ladies and gentlemen, I rest my case. And so you see, Mr. Mandel — oh, hang on — I have another call. Let me put you on hold for just a minute.

Ken C. Pohlmann is an electrical engineer specializing in audio topics as a consultant and writer. He is Professor Emeritus at the University of Miami.

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