When I stay up late to complete "just one more thing" before bed, I tend to find myself sitting at the work desk until half past one in the morning. This time of the day is unique in that I am, for all intents and purposes, the only person in a neighbourhood with 144 houses who isn't asleep. I like to go outside at this time of night, gazing up at the sky and seeing more stars than I thought was possible from this part of the country. Constellations are clearly visible, as are any planets that might be bright enough for the naked eye. Occasionally a thin, bright light will streak across the sky. The neighbourhood is absolutely lovely when all of the street lights go dark after midnight.
Inside the house is just as peaceful. Reiko, the boy, and Nozomi are sleeping soundly by this time, making it possible for me to really focus on a complex problem as much as an exhausted brain is capable of. The solitude is nice … but I wish it were more quiet.
In my home at any given time there are three fans that I can perceive as running while sitting at the work desk, which is in a walled-off corner at the southwestern corner of the house. There's the refrigerator fan, which seems to run even when the compressor does not. There's the shower room fan, which runs 24/7 to reduce the risk of mold building up, and then there's the wall fan next to the stairs that lead to the second floor, which is located at the northeastern corner of the house. The living room door, which separates the southwestern and northeastern corners, is very much closed.
Being an audio geek, I took out my good microphone and measured the number of decibels produced by these fans and found that when all three are on, the workspace is subjected to 13 decibels. If Nozomi, who sleeps under my desk, is snoring, then the number shoots up to 27. When the fridge is not running, the other two fans register just 9 decibels; which works out to about 1.5 decibels quieter than my breathing1. The sound is forever present, like the sound of processor fans and hard drives in a server room, only far less soothing2. Circulating fans have their purpose, but the hum they produce is little more than a preventable byproduct of their ultimate purpose.
How quiet is the house when those fans are off, though?
The question is certainly worth answering. After flipping the switches and returning to my work desk, I held my breath and measured the number of decibels. The meter read between 7.4 and 7.7db; the same volume as very light breathing from a sleeping puppy three metres from the microphone.
For most of my life I have lived in loud places. If it wasn't the neighbourhood that produced the noise, then it was family members. After moving to Vancouver the volume dropped a bit, but it was still possible to hear planes and distant highway traffic regardless the time of day. When I arrived in Japan the volume of everything was overwhelming — even in the rural countryside. Cars, trains, distant pachinko parlours, and the like would generate an endless background hum that a person just learned to ignore. This house in this neighbourhood, though, is different.
At 1:30 in the morning, when the fans are shut off and I'm just listening to the sound of a breathing dog, I can stop for a couple of minutes to just embrace the absence of noise.
I would love to find an objective way to measure the volume of the high-pitched sound that the mind "hears" when the environment is quite enough. Silence can sometimes be quite deafening.
Yes, I find the sound of servers and workstations very comforting to listen to. I like to listen for certain repeating patterns in the hardware, then try to match the sounds to what sort of computational task is being performed.