24 August 2006
SETI League
PriUPS Project


The Monversometer

Do you use the telephone?  I used to, and when I did I would occasionally find myself in a monversation.  The term defines itself - it's a conversation in which one person does all the talking.  Perhaps the other party (you?) would punctuate the occasional brief silence with an uh-huh or similar interjection, sort of like an ACK after a few blocks of text.  Or perhaps you were the monversator, satisfied with little more then comfort tone and perhaps a bit of audible breathing.

I am not one to deliver myself of exhortations on social intercourse.  You are welcome to have all the monversations you desire.  My goal, which I now undertake with appropriate nerd-like zeal, is to offer the world instrumentation to detect this arguably undesirable condition.  Why?  Perhaps people can benefit from it!  (Certain parental units, for example, might find themselves enlightened when they receive one as a gift.)  Perhaps someone will make money from it!  (If you want to try, I'll be happy to file a patent application for it if you pay the attorney.)  But the real reason is... If I get stuck on the telephone again, at least I'll have something entertaining to look at, and while I'm being entertained I will be less inclined to have the Instrument from Hell crushed.

How does it work?  Simplicity itself!  There are really only a few "states" of telephonic babble:  One party talking, the other party talking, both parties talking, and neither party talking*.  A "good" conversation in most cases is one during which both parties talk roughly equal amounts.  Because the telephone electronically disambiguates the talking party simply by noting the signal source**, a few digital timers, one for each talker, and one for the total call length, are sufficient to capture the statistics.  Once this information is available, the UI ("User Interface", of course) can be incredibly simple:

  Nice conversation
  You're not sharing!
  One at a time - Play Nice!

Of course, this is a little too simple for my inner nerd.  I would personally prefer a central youhermeter (or a youhimeter, but let's be realistic) with a needle that is nudged in the proper direction by the ebb and flow of the conversation.  Ancillary digital readouts could indicate the normalized energy ratio emitted by each conversant, ratio of total silence to total talk, and the exact time.  With a modicum of digital signal processing, interesting research could be done by adding recorded clicks, beeps, and subliminal voices to the con- or mon-versation at critical points while performing "voice stress analysis."  But I digress.

While you and I would never be guilty of monversation, many of the people with whom we speak are, and a difficulty arises in getting the device into the hands of those who would benefit most from being aware of their foible.  I suppose the simplest way to get one into the right hands is, during a monversation, tell the other party "I'm sending you a gift!"  That is, If you can get a word in.

*The opposite of talking isn't listening. The opposite of talking is waiting.
Thank you Fran Lebowitz

**This is a remarkably difficult problem in cases where the signals can't be separated by some obvious method.  A friend wrote a Ph.D. thesis on the subject.

Richard Factor