Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Dialtone Soundboard

My phone works again. Minutes ago the bald man with a hipster beard finished re-provisioning my modem, and now all the second-hand phones I have connected to a hidden system of wires in my house have sprung to life; meaning they now produce a hum called a “dial tone” if I lift the handset from the receiver(s) and put it to my ear. I am ready for the huge influx of calls, but the ringers remain silent.

The phone has actually been out for months. I stopped giving out my home phone to people as a way of contacting me before that. The batteries in the cordless handsets that were not on a charger silently lost charge. The remote answering service filled up and then purged its neglected contents as they aged.  I just downloaded this app that tells me the last couple dozen people who tried to call, and it looks like everyone on it was a robo-dialer or the like. I had, apparently, unknowingly transitioned to using the cellphone as my only phone. That replacement is supposed, by some, to be a milestone of modernizing one's communication system.

Sometime around 1950 the “dial tone” was a sign of a modern communication system. The world was transitioning from a system where you picked up the handset of the phone and told a person on the other side who you wanted to talk to. The switchboard operator on the other side would physically connect a wire from your phone line to the phone line of the person you wanted to talk to. When those human operators were replaced with robotic switchboards people needed to use the newfangled rotary dialing mechanisms on their phones to contact anyone, and the dial tone was installed as a way of reminding them that their was nobody on the other side of the line to hear their pleas for connection.

So the dial tone is the sign of a human-less emptiness. Some people consider it somewhat comforting as it used to signify that one's phone was at least connected to the greater void as opposed to the wires simply sparking away as a severed connection buried in an unlit communications closet under a spaghetti tangle of identical black wires. Today my dial tone is actually generated by the modem sitting in my basement, and so it does not even tell me if I an even connected to a greater void. My iPhone apparently has a feature where I can tell it who I want to call and it will act much the same way as the old switchboard operators whose absence was the dial-tone was created to announce.

“The” dial tone in the USA is actually a combination of two tones. One at 350Hz, which is the note F(4), and the other at 440 Hz, which is an A(4). In Europe the dial tone is a single tone at 425 Hz, which is an A(4) flat. Canada uses the same tonal setup as the USA. I know because I listened to one there, but I had nobody to call that I could not reach with my cellphone, so I just put the handset back on the receiver without dialing.

Connection is important. All ideas should have a “sounding board” with which to parse out the best way of developing and expressing them. Communication is not the responsibility of the physical system on which it is conducted, but there are enough parallels between the two that useful metaphors for the human activities in communication can be teased out of the details of communication infrastructure.

“A true thing, poorly expressed, is a lie” – Stephen Fry

With the introduction of such post-modern communications strategies as ghosting and alternative facts communication-infrastructure-derived metaphors could be of great use. Think of what great use the idea of a dial tone could be put to in describing the motivations schwhirling about America's current political climate.

While in Canada I went to two churches. That is twice as many as I have entered in the five years preceding my trip there. While in that second church (The Basilique Notre-Dame de MontrĂ©al) I learned that the metaphorical communications-infrastructure-derived term “sounding board” predated the dial-tone, and, for that matter, predated the telephone.

In the Basilica there was a wonderfully ornate pulpit off to the left side (looking towards the altar) of the pews. The off-to-the-side pulpit is a feature of pre-Vatican II Catholic houses of worship.  One of the great liberalizing features of the Vatican II announcements was that priests were now allowed to face their congregations, and even address them, form the altar at the front of the church. 

Locating a pulpit at the side of the collection of pews also allowed the sound from the sermon to more easily reach the entire congregation.  A priest speaking from the front of a huge cathedral would need to have his voice carry a long way to reach those seated at the back; locate the pulpit about half way and the sound only needs to travel half the distance to reach them.  Not only would this shortening of the distance the word of god had to travel mean the priest did not have to yell it would also limit confusing acoustical interferences and competing echoes. 

The mid-church pulpit is engineered to provide the most acoustical impact possible for an unpowered public address system.  Most of them that still exist have several common features.  The most obvious of which is that they are raised so as to allow the priest's voice to rain down on the congregation instead of being partially muffled as it skipped out across the pews filled with sound-deadening believers.  They also have a little roof.  The ceiling of the pulpit's little roof is a -usually wooden- feature called a "sounding board".  In some cases the "sounding board" is carefully planed into a parabolic shape to deliver the reflected sermon to the gathered devotees in the most efficient way possible. 

The sounding board in the Basilique Notre-Dame de MontrĂ©al was held aloft by cerebrums and had a few Hebrew characters embossed on a gilded triangle floating on a cloud in the center of it from which gilded rays of wood emanated; I believe they can now rely on modern sound systems to deliver their message instead of the old sounding board. 

At the end of the cavernous Basilica opposite the altar was a balcony that was home to a huge pipe organ.  I did not hear it operating while I visited, but I imagine big air pumps pushing sound out its multitude of pipes.  This sound would smash down on the huddled masses of worshipers, it would bounce and echo around the chamber, and that sheer volume of moving air must create nuances of sound in that complex space that are not possible to produce with the simple vibrating cones of electric speakers.  I have heard pipe organs before, and, even though I am not a huge fan, they are always impressive.  With some one can hear a strange annoying whine as the pumps release air in between the volume demanding earth-shaking notes. I suppose this lets the operator know that his vast machine is connected to the utilities needed to make it produce the desired message; kinda like a dial tone.

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