7.7db

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.


  1. 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.

  2. 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.

In My Head

Since I started working from home full time a year ago, I’ve become much more “in my head” than before. When I go outside it’s generally with the same two people or Nozomi. When I’m on my own I tend to walk to the same park to sit in isolation in a semi-secluded spot on a hill. When I’m at the computer, the words people use to communicate are given voices as the text is being read. A surprising lack of communication with people in the real world means that I spend a great deal of time in my head, and I wonder if this is contributing to my hearing problems.

The other day I wrote about “noise” and how it generally affects me. As is likely true with most people1, I generally cannot be in a noisy place for more than a couple of hours. A ceaseless acoustic assault will make me feel trapped and claustrophobic, which results in rising stress levels. Depending on the volume, this might result in some temporary deafness as the mind begins to shut out the world in order to better manage the overload of information. When I’ve tried to explain this to people, the assumption is always that deafness is quiet. For me, it’s anything but.

When one or both of my ears begins to deafen, I generally hear what is best described as 100 or more people talking simultaneously at the same, loud level. When this happens in one ear, I can generally deal with it by keeping my head turned towards the people I want or need to listen to. When both ears have given up, the world is essentially shut out and I’m walled in a garden of incoherence for most of the rest of the day. But why?

This hearing problem has been with me for years, but it does seem to be getting worse as I continue the march towards 50. For years I’ve wondered what it’s like to be deaf. From most accounts, it’s quiet. If my ears ever do completely give out it will be interesting to see if this is true. The one thing I do worry about, though, is spending too much time in my head while the rest of the world goes by.

Should I find myself in this predicament, it would likely make sense to buy a bunch of decent pens so that I can continue to communicate with the world in a more controlled environment.


  1. I’m assuming most people have certain tolerances for noise.