Monday, September 29, 2014

That Bleepin’ Beepin’


Please listen to this sound and see if you can identify it. Or, if your mouse finger is exhausted, just imagine it: four brief, electronic beeps. You hear them constantly.

If you guessed it’s the sound of my microwave letting me know my chocolate is hot, you’re right! Nice going.

But maybe you figured it’s the sound of our washing machine letting us know the cycle is finished and we can move the wet clothes to the dryer. Or maybe you thought it is the sound of the dryer telling us that the current load is dry and the clothes can be taken out to make room for the next load from the washing machine, which will make the same sound when it’s done. And you’d be right! And right!

Or maybe you thought the oven is telling us it has preheated, or that the self-cleaning is done, and you know what? You’d be right!

You’re really good at this.

When I hear that sound, I have no idea what it is. You know what makes a sound I can identify? Our cell phones. Because cell phones have let you customize sounds since way back before my wife’s current phone was engineered.

(My wife hates new phones. She likes the one she’s used to. She has a clamshell from about 1996 that still does what she wants to do with a phone – talk on it – perfectly well. It makes sounds that are unlike any other sounds my phone our our home or our cars make. We never have to ask, “What was that?” when her phone rings. Of course, the downside is that every time she pulls the thing out of her purse even complete strangers look at me like I’m Michael Vick or Ray Rice and ask, “Why won’t you let your wife have a modern phone?”)

I’m sorry, where was I?

When I get a voice call on my iPhone, it plays the lead riff from Stairway to Heaven. I like it so much that I often let Jimmy finish before I answer. Hate to interrupt a masterpiece. 

No matter how hard I try, I cannot convince our microwave oven to play Led Zeppelin when it’s done. Heck, I can’t even get our microwave oven to play Meatloaf.

Instead, it beeps. Precisely like the oven and the clothes dryer. And the message waiting indicator on the answering machine. Same pitch, same number of beeps at the same frequency.

Maybe you guessed the answering machine. Yep, you win.

Today I drove my wife’s Prius for the first time in a long while. When I put it in reverse, I knew instantly that I was backing up because it started beeping. You see, studies show that Prius drivers can’t tell when they’re moving backward, so Toyota had to add that beeper to warn them. Apparently, they don’t notice that things in front of them are getting farther away instead of closer, I don’t know.

It wasn’t a big deal for Toyota to add the beeper, because apparently every product manufacturer on the face of the earth uses the same beeper component from a factory in China because they can get them for like, ten for a nickel.

Now, when the Prius beeped, I was pretty sure that it wasn’t the clothes dryer, though it might’ve been a warning that I left the lights on. It sounds exactly the same. This beep, when in a car, means that there is something you should be aware of, but you really have no clue what that might be or how urgent it might be. Maybe you’re backing up or maybe the engine just fell out of the car. 

Same sound.

The problem I had with the Prius beep is that my Lexus beeps in exactly the same way, but not when I am merely backing up. (Apparently, Lexus Hybrid drivers can tell when they’re moving backward.) The Lexus does beep, however, when someone is approaching perpendicular to me as I back up, in an effort to warn me that I am about to back out in front of someone. So, when I’m driving one of our cars in reverse, the beeping either lets me know that “reverse” means “backwards”, or that I am about to be struck by an approaching vehicle or pedestrian in one of the rear quarter panels, depending on which car I'm in.

Same sound.

Our European-brand dishwasher beeps in exactly the same way when it finishes. I don’t know why.

Europeans aren’t into the “dry the dishes” thing, it not being eco-friendly, so the beep doesn’t signal the dishes are dry. It means, “I’m through washing the dishes but they are still too hot to handle and besides, they’re still pretty wet so don’t do anything for a while. Oh, you might want to turn off this meaningless beeper, because I will keep beeping until I drive you insane if you don’t.”

Good to know.

So, if you guessed that sound was a backing Prius, endangered Lexus or meaningless message from a European dishwasher, you’d be right!

Except that it might have also been the smoke detectors. Smoke detectors are easily distinguishable by their volume, even though they make the same damned beep, but there are usually more than one and finding the one that’s beeping can be a challenge.  They say, “There may be a fire somewhere in the house. Just try and find it.”

Smoke detector manufacturers created an insidious version of the ubiquitous, "generic product beep" to indicate when the battery is dying. It’s loud enough to be heard, but just barely. And it’s beep is so brief that it is nearly impossible to find. We finally settled on the strategy of standing by each smoke alarm for several minutes until we hear the beep, like a hiding ghost, from somewhere else in the house. Then we mark this one off the list.

We have maybe 6 or 8 smoke alarms. I can change the batteries in all of them in less time than it takes to find the one that’s beeping because it actually needs a new battery.

The beeps are generally helpful, I suppose. Anytime I hear one, I know that it is not a cell phone and therefore it must be a smoke alarm, oven, dishwasher, clothes washer, clothes dryer, computer, iPad, answering machine, Prius in reverse, Lexus in harm’s way or microwave oven. And I know that it is signaling either something totally meaningless or something deadly urgent.

There is something, I should add, somewhere in our home that beeps from time to time and that we have never been able to identify. Then it just stops. For days. Hope it’s not important.

What I’m asking of manufacturers of any kind of product, I suppose, is would it freakin’ kill you to use a beeper that’s a little different than every other one on the planet?

Gotta run now. Something’s beeping somewhere.

Could be important. Maybe not.

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Dirk Cotton is a retired executive of a Fortune 500 technology company. Since retiring in 2005, he has researched and published papers on retirement finance, spoken at retirement industry conferences and events, and regularly posted on retirement finance issues at his blog, The Retirement Cafe. He is currently a Thought Leader at APViewpoint, Advisor Perspectives' online community of  investment advisors and financial planners. He provides retirement planning advice as a fee-only financial planner.

Mr. Cotton holds an undergraduate degree in computer science from the University of Kentucky, an MBA from Marymount University, and a certificate in financial planning from Boston University.

He and his family currently reside in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. He loves to spend time with his family, fly fish, shoot sporting clays, attend college baseball games, sail, follow the Wildcats, and write.

Dirk holds a bachelor's degree in computer science from the University of Kentucky, an MBA from Marymount University, and a certificate in financial planning from Boston University.  He attended high school in Elizabethtown, Kentucky.

email: JDCPlanning@gmail.com