originally published December 28, 2013

Presbycusis.

Not a word one hears often in polite conversation, in fact it’s not a word that the good folks at Microsoft felt necessary to plop into their default dictionary, according to the squiggly red snake of shame underneath what I just typed. But among those who have devoted their lives to fighting crime – and here we’re talking about the manufacturers of theft-deterrents, not Batman – it’s a word that has led to a technological breakthrough that can save shop-owners from untold amounts of stress.

The technological side of crime prevention is not simply alarm systems, security cameras and high-power laser-scoped potato guns. There’s a vast catalog of ideas out there, aiming to shut down crime before it happens. Store managers and even civilians are encouraged to dig around and find the solution that works best for them. My personal approach to avoiding theft is simply to not own anything worth stealing. Also, if I’m ever mugged I find that spontaneously ranting about Corey Feldman whilst drooling profusely will encourage most street thugs to retreat quietly back into the shadows.

But I’ll always applaud more creative and practical solutions.

Back in the days when leeches were more common a medical remedy than aspirin, doctors knew disturbingly little about what keeps the great mechanism a-tickin’ in our innards. We can thank the pioneers of anatomical study for advancing our collective knowledge and teaching us that our sicknesses are more likely to be caused by the squishy pink stuff  under our skin than a poorly-aligned spate of bad humors. But to learn about our inner anatomy, doctors and medical students needed to poke around the mushy bits of our deceased brethren. And deceased brethren were not always easy to come by.

Enter the resurrectionists. These were contracted grave-robbers, hired by medical schools to stir up some fleshy textbooks for their academic community to jab with sticks. Traditionally, bodies were supplied by the state, and they consisted mainly of the recently executed. But as dastardly and vicious as the United Kingdom may have been in the 18th century, there was still a deficit of ready bodies to dig through. The resurrectionists would saunter into local graveyards and look around for fresh dirt, dig up the bodies and sell them to a local school.

It was a way to make a living.

The authorities weren’t putting in a big effort to sideline the resurrectionists, since the end result of their crime was an increase in medical education. But the average Joe and Jane Schlub weren’t crazy about the idea of their beloved Auntie Irene getting scooped out of her eternal resting place and sliced apart like a sushi roll. Particularly in Scotland where it was widely believed that the dead could not rise to the next plane if they weren’t intact. Poor people would scatter pebbles or flowers around the grave to detect a disturbance, but that didn’t do a lot of good, since it would only indicate that a crime has already taken place. But around 1816, some savvy soul came up with the idea for the mortsafe.

The mortsafe is a massive, heavy chunk of iron and stone that sits on top of graves and prevents unlawful entry. Sometimes they would be elaborate contraptions with padlocks and criss-crossing iron bars, sometimes they’d just be heavy and unmovable. They weren’t cheap, but societies of folks would charge membership dues and share the mortsafes among their members. They were really only necessary for about six weeks, after which time the bodies in the graves would be sufficiently decomposed to render them useless to aspiring doctors.

The mortsafe was a clever way to deter a strange breed of criminal. But let’s get back to where we started – let’s get back to presbycusis.

As much as I’d like to believe my auditory wisdom has only increased over my 39 years (I hardly ever listen to my 45 of Eddie Murphy singing “Party All The Time” anymore), in actuality the physical caliber of my ear-holes has deteriorated. The process known as presbycusis is the gradual deterioration of one’s ability to recognize high-frequency sound, and it starts to kick in around the surprisingly fresh age of 18. This is natural and cross-cultural, and has nothing to do with working around jackhammers or cranking up the bass on your Grandmaster Flash. It’s just how the body works.

This led an astute South Wales inventor named Howard Stapleton to come up with The Mosquito, an alarm system with a high frequency tone that can only be heard by ears that are not yet old enough to vote. The device has been installed outside a number of shops in the UK, discouraging loitering and generally driving young ne’er-do-wells (a term I don’t get to use often enough) away from the area, while providing no visible effect on the adults who are clearly only coming by to purchase stodgy old newspapers and pipe tobacco.

This is the epitome of creative crime deterrence.

Groups like the National Youth Agency and the Children’s Commissioner For England tried to push for a ban on the Mosquito, but the government wouldn’t climb on board. The real question is whether or not the thing poses a health risk. The German Federal Institute for Occupational Safety and Health called it safe. Schools have used it after hours, and not a single study has popped up claiming the device to be dangerous to anyone.

Still, I have to wonder. A mother that heads to the store with a baby in tow might have no idea why their little one is flipping out like a Skittles addict down to his last green apple sour, while she can hear nothing but the street traffic. Sure, it’s every store-owner’s right to protect his or her business, and a Mosquito speaker is a more palatable solution than a sawed-off shotgun behind the counter, but is it right to demonize every kid?

Kids hate deception, unless of course they’re the ones pulling the strings. That’s why the technology behind the Mosquito high-frequency tone has been ported into children’s hands. The Teen Buzz ringtone uses the same sound to signal an incoming call, which comes in handy in a classroom, since the teacher will be the only person who won’t hear it. It’s quite brilliant, really. At least until the kid answers the phone, at which time the ruse would be quashed.

Compound Security, the company that developed the Mosquito box, has also worked the ultrasonic frequencies into a dance song. The song “Buzzin’” (and there are too many insipid songs by that name on Youtube for me to figure out which one is which) features a melody for us old people to groove to, plus a complementary ultrasonic melody that can only be heard by young, capable ears.

That still won’t desensitize anyone to the Mosquito’s whiny wrath. This is crime-fighting at its weirdest.

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