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The 11 Worst Sounds in the World

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Scientists agree that unpleasant sounds fall into two distinct categories: first, annoying sounds like incessant car alarms and snoring, because they are intrusive and disrupt our thought process (or sleep). And second, noises that trigger an immediate negative visceral reaction, like nails on a chalkboard or squeaking Styrofoam. The items below are ranked in order of “cringe-worthiness” according to an ongoing study by Professor Trevor Cox of Britain’s Salford University.

1. Vomiting

Maybe it was the additional sound effects touch of canned baked beans plopping into a bucket that made the gagging and retching sound number one on the list (skeptics have stated that in this case it’s not the actual sound, but rather the mental picture, that disgusts listeners), but I must state that I simply cannot be within earshot of a puking person, otherwise my own gag reflex involuntarily gets triggered.

(For the cast-iron stomached among you, here’s the sound clip used in the test.)

2. Microphone Feedback

As a rule, this one often is physically painful, so I’m not surprised it placed so high on the list.

3. Baby Crying

Interestingly enough, when Prof. Cox broke down the results of the responses into different demographic groups, it was the male contingent that boosted the sound of a baby’s wailing into the number three spot. That’s not to say that women aren’t equally upset by the sound—they’re just maternally conditioned not to complain about it as much.

4. Train Scraping on Tracks

Even if you don’t live in an area with regular rail transport (subway, passenger train), I’m sure the sound of metal-on-metal grinding—however it’s caused—still raises a hackle or two.

5. A Squeaky Wheel that Needs Some Grease

Whether it was a teeter-totter, a door hinge, or some other constantly moving part that is in serious need of lubrication, that constant whiny squeak sound irritated enough people to rank at number five.

6. Poorly Played Violin

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One of my favorite bands of all time, Sparks, had a great line in their song “Amateur Hour”: “It’s a lot like playing the violin, you cannot start off and be Yehudi Menuhin.” Apparently they were right—very bad scraping on the ol’ violin strings sets a lot of people’s teeth on edge.

7. Flatulence

It took us this long to get back to bodily noises? Not surprisingly, while it was men that found the sound of a crying baby irritating, women overwhelmingly voted for the sound of … gastritis (as Archie Bunker called it) as being upsetting.

8. People Arguing

Psychologists would probably trace the high placement of this sound to people’s childhoods and possibly their memories of cringing in the closet with their hands over their ears as their parents fought.

9. Mains Hum

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That annoying buzz you occasionally hear through speakers…for the audiophiles in the audience, it occurs at 50Hz in the UK and 60Hz in the US.

10. Person Chewing Food with an Open Mouth

An apple was the most-mentioned annoying open-mouthed munching sound, but I’m sure you can think of grosser sounds coming from a dining partner who inadvertently invites you to view and listen to his meal via his (or her) gaping maw. (And for the record, I have since curbed my movie theater popcorn-eating noises thanks to constructive criticism from my patient spouse.)

11. Fingernails on a Chalkboard

Perhaps it’s because so many schools now use whiteboards instead of chalkboards that this once classic example of an annoying sound ranked so low on the list. (Maybe it deserves a place in the Obsolete Sounds graveyard?) But those of us old enough to remember the hair-raising squeak of nails accidentally scraped on slate in elementary school still cringe at the memory.

These additional items are culled from other studies:

Dental Drill

Dr. Cox found that certain sounds skewed very differently according to geography. In all of the South American countries that responded to his survey, the high-pitched whine of a dentist’s drill was the number one sound that made folks shudder. When asked in an interview what sound was his personal bugaboo, Cox (who resides in Manchester, England) admitted that he was likewise squicked out by the dental drill.

Knife against Glass Bottle

Scientists at Newcastle University conducted a very precise study in 2012 concentrating on the sounds that registered in the super-sensitive sound frequency range of 2,000 to 5,000 hz. They played a variety of painful noises, including chalk squeaking on a blackboard and a fork scratching a drinking glass, but according to the MRI scans of their volunteers a knife scraping against a bottle was the most excruciating.

Squealing Bicycle Brakes

Michael Oehler and Christoph Reuter of the University of Vienna added a twist when they conducted their 2011 study. Prior to playing an assortment of unpleasant sounds to one test group, they informed the volunteers that they would be hearing portions of a performance art piece, while the second group was told the actual source of each sound. Each group was asked to rate their discomfort on a scale of one to six, and the folks who thought they were listening to avant garde music gave slightly lower marks to each sound. Squeaky bike brakes scored high on the list along with the usual suspects (nails on a chalkboard, natch).

* * *

So what sound absolutely makes you cringe? Or repulses you to the point where you can’t bear to hear it? As a kid I could always make my mom run away in horror by squeaking a piece of Styrofoam against cardboard.

Portions of this post appeared in 2012.

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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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May 23, 2017
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