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The Cricket

Here's a true story from about fifteen years ago. One summer night around 2 AM I was woken up by a cricket. It wasn't a big surprise that one had managed to sneak into my apartment. I was living in New Jersey at the time, but in central New Jersey, out in the suburbs. There was a small asphalt path behind my apartment building. If I walked half a block one way I came to the main road; if I walked a block the other way I came to a perpendicular path that wound through a thin strip of trees along the bank of a marshy river. That was basically the only piece of nature left within walking distance, so it was fortunate that I lived close to it. (It wasn't fortunate that I lived within walking distance of a grocery store and an Indian buffet, that was totally planned.)

So, anyway, a cricket had managed to sneak into my apartment, and was happily chirping away. What I wanted to do was catch it and throw it out—my policy with all bugs except flying pests like mosquitoes and flies—but I couldn't figure out where it was. It wasn't chirping continuously, and the individual chirps were too fast and high-pitched to get a good fix on. So, what I had to do was run a kind of binary search. I'd pick a location, stand there and wait for the next chirp, and then try and decide whether it had come from the left or the right. Then I'd use that information to pick the next spot.

That sounds easy enough, but in fact there were many practical difficulties. I knew that if I alerted the cricket, it would stop chirping for several minutes, so I kept most of the lights off and made sure to stand totally still while I was listening. Even as it was, it only chirped like once a minute, so there was a lot of standing and waiting. The sound was troublesome, too. It was so fast and high-pitched that it was often hard to tell which side it had come from, and it echoed very well off the mostly-bare walls. As a result, I'd sometimes end up with contradictory results and have to go back to square one.

All those details don't really give you the big picture, though. It was the middle of the night, I was tired and just wanted to go to back to bed, and instead I was standing around in the dark with my eyes closed (since they weren't doing anything) being chirped at and trying not to nod off. It was excruciating, and it just went on and on.

Eventually I narrowed the search down to the kitchen. At the risk of alerting the cricket, I got my flashlight and checked under the fridge: nothing. The sound had a certain resonant quality that made me think it was coming from inside one of the cabinets, but I didn't want to open them because, again, it would alert the cricket. So, I stood here and there in the kitchen, trying to deduce which cabinet it was in, until finally a time came when I thought to myself as I waited for the next chirp, “hmm, is this delay longer than usual?”. After another minute or two I was sure something was up. I thought that I must have gotten too close and alerted the cricket; then I thought that maybe if I waited a bit more it would un-alert and I could catch it. But, after a few more minutes I was forced to give up on that idea. I went ahead and looked everywhere I could think of to look, then went back to bed.

I felt some trepidation when it came time to go to bed the next night, and that trepidation was justified. I don't remember now how long the incident lasted—three days, a week, three weeks?—but it did last. Some nights there would be chirping, some nights there wouldn't. Some nights it would start and stop and then start again, which was maddening. I couldn't sleep through it, and I couldn't read a book or concentrate on anything else; the only thing I could do was get up and look for the cricket.

It was like a bad dream that wouldn't end. But then, one fateful night, as I was standing there dazed from lack of sleep, I happened to notice the tiny LED on the smoke detector that was flashing in sync with the chirps. Yes, it was the low battery warning. Can you imagine how tremendously stupid I felt at that moment? To add insult to injury, the smoke detector wasn't even in the kitchen.

Why did the battery warning switch on and off? My best guess is that (1) the high humidity and overnight low temperature combined to make the air slightly more opaque (foggy), (2) the battery was right on the edge of being low, and (3) the detector was an optical detector that for some reason used the transmitted light to decide when the battery was low. Maybe to handle light source failure?

So, that's the story of the cricket. Although it was many years ago, the only part I'm not sure about is the sequence of events. Did I really search that systematically on the first night? (Probably, that's just the sort of thing I would have done.) Did I narrow the search to the kitchen then, or did that come later? (Probably, that would have helped keep my attention off the smoke detector.) If I really wanted the answers, I guess I could try reading through the relevant years in my journal, but I doubt I wrote about the incident in much detail. In any case, I think I've done a good job of capturing the spirit of the thing.

I have no idea how I ever imagined that the chirps were coming from a cricket. I know what crickets sound like. I know they're quiet and soothing, not loud enough to keep you awake, and I know they chirp quickly, not once a minute. I even know that you can count the chirps per minute and use that to get a good estimate of the temperature, although I forget the formula. Maybe I thought it was some kind of giant New Jersey cricket? Or maybe that first night I'd been woken up from a dream, and the sound had been integrated into the dream as a cricket?

Is there a lesson to be learned? I think there is, and I think it's well known: the mind really wants to find meaning in things. If you give it random points in space it will find patterns, and if you give it random events in time it will find cause and effect. I moved over here and the chirping stopped, therefore the chirping stopped because I moved over here. Combine that with thunder and lightning and you get gods!

That reminds me of a story from so long ago that I'm unsure of all the details but one. I was in chemistry lab (?) and I dropped (?) a pencil (?), and at the exact same moment, without my knowing it, someone else dropped a piece of glassware. The effect was quite remarkable. I was startled in a completely different way than I would have been by just the sound of breaking glass.

Several years after the cricket incident I ran across the following story in The Onion.

Area Man Looking For Whatever The Hell Is Beeping

DELMAR, NY—Craig Mitich, 27, has spent 20 minutes searching his apartment for whatever the hell is emitting a high-pitched beep every few minutes. “Okay, it's not my cell phone … it's not my microwave … or my car-alarm remote,” said Mitich, standing motionless with an ear cocked toward his entertainment center. “God, what is it? Can a power strip beep?” At press time, Mitich was on his hands and knees, unplugging his appliances one by one.

That may not have been funny to everyone, but it sure was funny to me. The part about standing motionless with an ear cocked was just perfect. It also made me happy to know I wasn't the only one who had been through that experience. I hope my little story will help others avoid it!

 

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@ July (2013)