Friday, September 14, 2007

So, you might have seen me bitching about this experiment I've been running. :) Part of the setup for the experiment involves playing some altered audio files into the room, and the base audio (which is still perfectly audible) is compiled from selected snippets of telephone conversations. The corpus that we used for this is the LDC CallHome Corpus, built from telephone conversations between people in the US and elsewhere in the world; from listening to the conversation, the most common locales for non-US participants in these conversations were located in Israel and various European countries, although there are also conversations with people in Asian and various N. African areas.

I've been working with this particular corpus for a year now, listening and reading transcripts and coding for various qualities. I've chopped up the signal, remixed for channel strength and waveform and filesize - I KNOW these snippets of conversation v. well.

And here is what I have heard:

* On a long distance phone call, almost everything is always going OK. I don't know if it's just because people are so glad to speak with people they aren't in close contact with (this largely predates the time when everybody had email, remember) or what it is, but these are almost all happy conversations.

* A bride planned her wedding using the LDC's dime pretty extensively - she's in England and there are separate conversations with her mother, brother and father. Savvy.

* In 1996, it cost 9 new Israeli sheqels to buy a Whopper at the only Burger King in Israel. The meat was kosher, and they served no cheeseburgers, but it wasn't really kosher because the store didn't observe Shabbat.

* There was an American-born jazz musician blowing his way across Europe and Asia, using phrases like, "the jet set" and "fantastic, man" and "this girl singer I met" completely without irony, and he has amazing phone charisma and incredible energy and talks WAY too much about how much money his band just spent on new music stands.

* When someone is telling you how wonderful something is, over and over and over, sometimes that is code for "omg please shut the hell up about your fabulous granddaughter and her new book."

* There is no getting out of motherhood without bearing your children's excess worry and pain. One daughter cries to her mother not because anything is wrong, but because she has too many wonderful things to choose between, and how can she ever make the decision? Another mother speaks to her daughter, living in Germany with her military husband and just recovering from surgery, and worries about Congress shutting down the federal government just before Christmas. (Update: they did, and this is when we all learned to hate Newt Gingrich.)

I do not know these people. I will never meet them, and they probably barely remember placing these phone calls, if they remember it at all. But it will be a long time before I stop wondering what happened to them. Did the marriage go OK? Is this man who is a throwback to another era still "going and blowing"? Those people who were so delighted to see American activity in Iraq in the 1990s, are they as frustrated and appalled as I am now? And it's odd, because this is how I feel when I finish a great novel, but these people are real, and they are somewhere out in the world, and 10 years later, I'm hoping that it's all still going OK.