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Ultrasonic 'Mosquito' device in Chinatown

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Theresa Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 1, 2010; 1:00 PM

Gallery Place business owners met with District officials a few weeks ago to voice their concern that loitering teenagers who sometimes get into fights in one of the city's busiest retail and entertainment strips were costing them customers. The result of that session premiered this week: a device that emits a high-pitched, headache-inducing sound that only young ears can hear.

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The Mosquito, as the $1,000 device is called, hung outside the Chinatown entrance to the Gallery Place Metro station Tuesday, annoying its intended targets and then some. The young and a few not-so-young could hear the piercing, constant beeeeep, beeeeep, beeeeep.

Washington Post staff writer Theresa Vargas was online Wednesday, Sept. 1, at 1 p.m. ET to discuss the Mosquito and reaction to its use.

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Theresa Vargas: Hi Everyone. Theresa Vargas here to answer your questions about the Mosquito that is creating much buzz (sorry, had to) around Gallery Place.

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Questioning Mosquito's Effectiveness: Aren't a lot of the young ears the mosquito is designed to target so damaged by listening to headphones at too high a volume to make this device effective? I think it will end up just annoying the rest of us with normal hearing who are just walking by.

Theresa Vargas: Great question. I spoke to several teenagers who could barely hear the Mosquito and might not have noticed it was there if I hadn't pointed it out. At the same time, my not so young 32-year-old years could hear it.

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Theresa Vargas: I mean 32-year-old ears...

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Washington, D.C.: How has MPD responded to this? The mosquito is not just a reaction to unruly, trouble-making teens, it's obviously a reaction to the police officers not being able to control the situation! What is so challenging about patrolling sidewalks?

Theresa Vargas: In the 2 hours I was there yesterday I did see police officers walking around that area. But the department has not said if it plans to up its patrol of that area.

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Annandale, Va.: When I first heard they were going to do this I thought "What a GREAT idea". That was until I saw a news segment on Fox 5 last night. You see I am 40 years old and have mild hearing difficulty but heard the beeping of the device clearly. My 47-year-old husband with perfect hearing couldn't hear it. If I can hear it how many other "older" people can hear it too? This will keep me away from shopping in the area. Have other complaints like mine been made?

Theresa Vargas: I spoke to people across all age groups and it seems to be an imperfect science. An 8-year-old told me he could hear it loudly (right before asking me to make it stops) but his grandfather heard nothing. The oldest person I met who could hear it was 38.

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Falls Church, Va.: Maybe it would be better to concentrate on the "supply side" of this equation -- the kids' behavior. Teaching them (and getting them to internalize) that respect and empathy for others is an integral part of success as an adult would solve a host of problems. Maybe the adults in these kids' lives also need to learn that lesson.

Theresa Vargas: I think a lot of people would agree there is a bigger issue here. As a sidenote, one 18-year-old I spoke to said if there was a rec center (although he added "where there were cute girls") he'd hang out there.

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Theresa Vargas: Back to the question about age. Here's one creative solution several people suggested and which this reader's comment summed up nicely: "Why not just play music by Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Rosemary Clooney, Peggy Lee, etc. at moderate volume? I would bet it would repel teenagers much more effectively, and entertain Metro's older patrons at the same time." Another wrote: " Just play anything by Josh Groban."

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washingtonpost.com: Does Gallery Place's new audio teen-repellent work? Try it out.

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Bethesda, Md.: Regardless of how you feel about the mosquito, you have to admit it's a pretty amazing technology. Just the fact that it can target people within a 5-year range is amazing. Wish it could be used in a more useful way other than shooing away teenagers.

Theresa Vargas: I agree, use aside, it is fascinating technology. And I can tell you that several Post employees were gathered around my desk yesterday checking their own ability to hear it. If you haven't tried yet, go here: http://blog.washingtonpost.com/story-lab/2010/08/skeeter.html

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Rockville, Md.: I like the idea of hte mosquito. Anything to keep kids from loitering is fine with me.

Falls Church, Va., said "Maybe the adults in these kids' lives also need to learn that lesson."

Problem is, many disruptive kids have only one adult in their lives and that adult is often too busy working to spend time with the kid.

Theresa Vargas: It seems many people agree with you...at least according to an online poll we posted on StoryLab. (You can reach it through that same link above). Asked if putting it up at Gallery Place was a good idea, 44 percent said: "Yes. It might be the only way to keep teens from loitering." Comparatively, 21 percent said "no" and 21 percent said "maybe."

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Washington, D.C.: The problem with the argument that many are making about how older people can hear it too, is that adults are getting off the metro and walking to a destination, or going to the metro, etc. The troublemakers in the area are standing around and, well, looking for trouble. They are standing for long periods of time. After a while the noise will begin to get to them. That's the purpose of this device. Most adults aren't standing on a streetcorner for hours. That's the difference.

That being said, the classical music idea , plus new D.C. loitering/harrassment laws are probably the better way to go.

Theresa Vargas: Good point. People that walked through that area didn't seem bothered at all, and truthfully, I probably wouldn't have noticed if I was just jumping from store to metro. But after standing under if for 2 hours, I definitely heard/felt its intended effect.

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Boulder, Colo.: As you noted, Theresa, it's an imperfect science, and so the noise (which is cringe- inducing, at best, to my 30-year-old ears) has the potential to negatively affect people outside of the targeted age range. Classism and ageism, indeed.

I do understand employing it to discourage loitering, although -- as others have pointed out, responding to the loiterers in person is a much more humane response to the problem. I can guarantee all business owners that if I ever encounter a store where The Mosquito is being used, you can bet that I won't ever be returning to shop there. Plenty of places will take my business without inducing a headache.

Theresa Vargas: It was on a wall outside the stores and from what I could tell -- remember I have old ears -- it could only be heard slightly when the doors opened at nearby businesses.

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Rockville, Md.: Thanks for the link for testing the sounds. I'm almost 40 (few months left) and I could sort-of hear the 35 and under sound.

Interesting thing is if you play multiple together, you can hear them "better".

Theresa Vargas: Not sure I want to play them all together...or that my colleagues sitting nearby will let me.

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Washington, D.C.: I'm 26 and my hearing is rather sharp, and sounds of this type actually can cause me physical discomfort and illness. I get horrible headaches and stomach aches from certain frequencies, and the mosquito devices fall right in the level of those frequencies. I think this is a terrible idea.

Theresa Vargas: I left with a headache. But I was there for hours.

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Interesting approach: Interesting approach, if not a solution, to the GP problem. Where else is this technology employed and to what success?

Theresa Vargas: The company that makes it told us it's sold mainly to schools, which activate it at night to scare away vandals. Also used at playgrounds...tennis courts...and skateboard parks.

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Motown Sound: The simple answer is Mozart. Play it 24/7 and the teen punks will run. Note: they do the same thing in Clarendon and it works just as well.

Theresa Vargas: Where in Clarendon? Tell us more. Any of you know of other places it's used in the area?

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Age targets for "Mosquito": Can small children and infants hear it?

Theresa Vargas: As I say above, an 8-year-old told me heard it (even cupped his ears). But it is designed to be heard by 13 to 25 year olds.

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Washington, D.C.: "Problem is, many disruptive kids have only one adult in their lives and that adult is often too busy working to spend time with the kid."

It takes a village. A parent isn't the only adult in a kid's life -- teachers are also there, as well as neighbors. I wouldn't mind a community center, or a greater Boys and Girls Club presence, or something like that. Heck, I'd even spend money for those things. The Mosquito device will just move the unruly teens from one place to another, while punishing law-abiding teens as well as parents who just want to bring their kids out somewhere. It does nothing to get to the root problem.

Theresa Vargas: Several teens I talked to said it wasn't going to stop them from hanging out in the area. And honestly, as the gentleman at the end of my story points out, they would only have to walk a few yards away before the beeping is drowned out by other sounds.

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teaching them (and getting them to internalize) that respect and empathy for others is an integral part of success as an adult would solve a host of problems: Sure, but since their parents did not do that, I have the right to keep people off my property if they are disturbing others. It's a market decision. If the mall owner wants to risk annnoying a few elders with exceptional hearing at the cost of getting rid of a bunch of hooligans, it's his right.

Theresa Vargas: It's an interesting debate mainly because the device sits right where private property meets public space.

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washingtonpost.com: Does Gallery Place's new audio teen-repellent work? Try it out.

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I get horrible headaches and stomach aches from certain frequencies, and the mosquito devices fall right in the level of those frequencies: Then don't go there. No one's making you go to the mall and spend money. If you don't like that privately owned mall, vote with your feet and shop elsewhere. Or save your money.

Theresa Vargas: It will be interesting to see if this helps business or hurts it.

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Wish it could be used in a more useful way other than shooing away teenagers.: Can they fine tune it to keep my boss from coming down my aisle?

Theresa Vargas: If only...

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I prefer quiet neighbors: too bad I can't aim it out my window so the house next door would only rent to those over 30!

Theresa Vargas: First bosses...now neighbors.

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Motown Sound: Clarendon: the shopping area with the Apple Store in it has speakers playing easy listening music embedded in the flower beds.

They also do the same thing at Leesburg Corner Outlet Mall.

Theresa Vargas: Interesting. If any of you all know of other spots let me know at vargast@washpost.com. First I heard of the Gallery Place one was here: http://www.princeofpetworth.com/2010/08/dear-pop-noise-intimidation-outside-chinatown-metro-station/

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Gulfport, Fla.: Who's to say all the teens there are up to something? I don't like that as soon as some one sees a teenager they think that they're going to commit some crime. We're not all bad, some of us do have some bit of logic. And it is pretty difficult to keep the streets under control. I am in a program with the police department down here and the perspective really changes once you see what the police have to do. It is very difficult to make people behave. Both of these stereotypes are illogical and insulting.

Oh and, There's an app for that

Theresa Vargas: Posting because its an interesting perspective. One issue that came up with many of the teens I talk to was the difference between percieved fears and real fears.

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Rockville, Md.: There is some sort of problem with the lights inside Rockville Metro station that cause them to emit a high-pitched whine. I sometimes have to cover my ears just to walk through the station (which I have to do every day), because the sound is so painful.

So for those who say that people just passing by at Gallery Place will just ignore it, I'm making a mental note to avoid the place. Why subject myself to a headache if I don'to have to?

Theresa Vargas: But if you have to go, might be worth keeping in mind what a spokesperson for Metro pointed out to me yesterday: there are other exist at that metro station.

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Theresa Vargas: Thank you all for the great chat! One thing I'm surprised no one asked: How long will Mosquito be up before someone tries to take a swat at it?

Have a good afternoon.

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Theresa Vargas: Thank you all for the great chat! One thing I'm surprised no one asked: How long will Mosquito be up before someone tries to take a swat at it?

Have a good afternoon.

Theresa Vargas: Thank you all for the great chat! One thing I'm surprised no one asked: How long will Mosquito be up before someone tries to take a swat at it?

Have a good afternoon.

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.



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