The piezo-electric buzzer salesman is one of the most successful businessman of his time. Perhaps not economically, but he certainly got his product into more devices around the world than I personally would ever have wished for.
The buzzer is a simple device – a piece of flexible crystal which flexes itself when an electrical current is applied. Turn the current on and off in rapid succession, and you get a frequency. You attach that frequency to a spasming piece of metal or plastic, and you get movement of air. You move air, and you get a blaring obnoxious noise entering your ear, waking you up at 6:30 in the morning as a construction worker decided to put his vehicle in reverse not too far from your bedroom window.
Is that really necessary? I wonder to myself, head covered in a pillow – trying to fall back to sleep. Why on earth would some engineer decide it was a good idea to make a truck beep when it is moving backwards? Safety seems to be the first reason to come to mind, but what exactly are we worried about? Isn’t the truck moving in reverse indicated by the fact that the truck is, well, moving in reverse? A moving truck is a moving truck is a moving truck.
Imagine any vehicle beeping on and off, once per second, blaring down the highway – driving forwards. Warning everybody in the vicinity “Hey, I could hit you. Hey, I could hit you. Oh, and you over there, I could hit you too!” This would be considered obnoxiously unacceptable, so why do we accept it when the truck is moving backwards?
Trucks aren’t the only machines that we use that make unnecessary noise. A simple digital watch, for instance, can be even more obnoxious. Why was it decided that a beep was a good way to let me that I have hit a button on the side of my watch? Perhaps to let me know… to be honest, I have no idea what it is trying to communicate to me. “Hey, you who pushed the button. Just wanted to let you know that when you changed the mode to stopwatch, it was ‘cuz you pushed a button. In case you didn’t know thats how modes change on the watch”.
Or maybe it’s trying to say “hey, the guy who programmed this wristwatch was too lazy to fix a bug where he accidentally tied the buttons to the piezo-electric. That’s why I only cost $10”.
Or could it be “Hey, yeah you, fumble fingers. You hit a button. Maybe you didn’t want to do that. Do you know how serious this was? You are now in (gasp) stopwatch mode. I just thought I’d warn ya in case you didn’t mean to do it on purpose, to prevent you any grave danger because of your clumsiness”.
I’m really worried about possibly hitting a button accidentally, especially when the airplane passenger in the seat next to me is trying to sleep while I turn off a running stopwatch. Thank you, watch, I now know that when I pushed the button that it was really pushed, and so do the 6 people surrounding me. You know, the only time it would be useful to be warned with a beep is when I accidentally hold the “set time” button down for too long, possibly altering the time and making me late for a very important appointment. Naturally, my watch is silent during this (and only this) transition.
Even my alarm clock beeps. Not when you’d expect it to. It beeps when I’m trying to wind down and go to sleep. It beeps when I set the alarm from “off” to “on”. I suppose the well-drawn little light with a bell symbolizing “alarm 1 has been set” is apparently not enough to get the point across. Nope, it needs to beep at full volume at me, irritating me in my sleepy state. The affect is even worsened if somebody is on the floor next to the bed in a sleeping bag, already asleep. Then they get to wake up by the alarm clock’s announcement “Hey, yeah you already asleep on the floor, I just wanted to let you know that I’m gonna wake you up again in 6 hours. In case you were worried you might get a good night’s rest.”
The only time an alarm clock should beep is if it is trying to raise me from the dead of 7am.
Ah yes, and then there is the computer beep. At some point in the early days of the Unix OS, some brilliant computer programmer discovered a most brilliant way to utilize that little piezo-electric buzzer that the salesman sold the motherboard manufacturer of his computer. “Sure, its a good idea to have a buzzer” said the salesman, “there are plenty of useful things that could be communicated through sound in a computer”.
Trying to delete a non-existent character is not one of them.
I’m at a unix console, and I realize that I started typing a filename incorrectly. I hit backspace, holding it down until all of the characters are gone. But, to my surprise, I get chastised and scoffed at by the PC when there are no more characters left to delete.
BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP…
What? What did I break? Is the computer going to melt down? Is it dying? Is it erasing all of my files? Oh, no, its simply and harshly trying to tell me that when I hit backspace and no more characters disappear from under the cursor that there are no more characters to delete. Because that wasn’t obvious by the visual display that there are no more characters.
Let’s extend this feature to a text editor, please. I really want an entire classroom of focused students to know every single time I hit the delete key one too many times. Because that’s really, really, really important for everybody to know. I like everybody in my surroundings to be annoyed with my completely average butterfingers.
I don’t mind if a computer beeps to tell me “Hey, moron, you forgot to install a processor in me”. “You are about to delete the entire contents of your hard drive, as well as blow the face of Alaska off the planet.” is a pretty good time to beep. Maybe even twice, for that second part. Even “Hey, I’m rebooting because Windows is a piece of garbage and crashed” is acceptable. But please, don’t beep at me to tell me something which is otherwise mundane and obvious.
Hell for the programmer who made this initial decision and standardized it for years to come should be placement in a black room with nothing but a white “>” prompt. The only hope of entertainment of any sort or escape from this room is, in fact, the only object in the room, which is a backspace key. The backspace key only makes a beeping sound and causes the cursor to blink. Take eternity in that, sadistic programmer.
The piezo-electric salesman may have had his way with our electronics, but there is no need to continue this way. With a small amount of engineering effort and prototype testing, life with machines could be so much more tranquil if they are designed to yell at us at only the most appropriately important times.