The stupidest story I ever wrote (it was a long flight)

All the legal maneuvers, the decades of recriminations, came down in the end to two ambiguous syllables.  No one knew why old man Memeson had named his two kids “Laurel” and “Yanny,” or why his late wife had gone along with it.  Not Laura, not Lauren, but Laurel—like, the leaves that the complacent rest on?  Poor girl.  And yet she lucked out compared to her younger brother. “Yanny”? Rhymes with fanny, seriously?  If you got picked on in school half as much as Yanny did, you too might grow up angry enough to spend half your life locked in an inheritance fight.

But people mostly tolerated the old man’s eccentricities, because he clearly knew something. All through the 1930s, Memeson Audio was building the highest-end radios and record players that money could buy.  And long after he’d outdone the competition, Memeson continued to outdo himself. At the 1939 New York World’s Fair, he proudly unveiled a prototype of his finest record player yet, the one he’d been tinkering with in his personal workshop for a decade: the Unmistakable.  Interviewed about it later, people who attended the demo swore that you couldn’t mishear a single syllable that came out of the thing if you were 99% deaf. No one had ever heard a machine like it—or would, perhaps, until the advent of digital audio.  On Internet forums, audiophiles still debate how exactly Memeson managed to do it with the technology of the time.  Alas, just like the other Memeson debate—about which more shortly—this one might continue indefinitely, since only one Unmistakable was ever built, and that World’s Fair was the last time anyone heard it.

The day after the triumphant demonstration, a crowd cheered as Memeson boarded a train in Grand Central Station to return to his factory near Chicago, there to supervise the mass production of Unmistakables. Meanwhile Laurel and Yanny, now both in their thirties and helping to run the family firm, stood on the platform and beamed. It hadn’t been easy to grow up with such a singleminded father, one who seemed to love his radios a million times more than them, but at a moment like this, it almost felt worth it.  When Laurel and Yanny returned to the Fair to continue overseeing the Memeson Audio exhibition, they’d be the highest-ranking representatives of the company, and would bask in their old man’s reflected glory.

In biographies, Memeson is described as a pathological recluse, who’d hole himself up in his workshop for days at a time, with strict orders not to be disturbed by anyone.  But on this one occasion—as it turned out, the last time he’d ever be seen in public—Memeson was as hammy as could be.  As the train pulled out of Grand Central, he leaned out of an open window in his private car and grinned for the cameras, waving with one arm and holding up the Unmistakable with the other.

Every schoolchild knows what happened next: the train derailed an hour later.  Along with twenty other passengers, Memeson was killed, while all that remained of his Unmistakable was a mess of wires and splintered wood.

Famously, there was one last exchange. As the train began moving, a journalist waved his hat at Memeson and called out “safe travels, sir!”

Memeson smiled and tipped his hat.

Then, noticing Laurel and Yanny on the platform, the journalist yelled to Memeson, in jest (or so he thought): “if something happens, which of these two is next in line to run the business?”

The old man had never been known for his sense of humor, and seemed from his facial expression (or so witnesses would later say) to treat the question with utmost seriousness. As the train receded into the distance, he shouted—well, everyone agrees that it was two syllables. But which? With no written will to consult—one of Memeson’s many idiosyncrasies was his defiance of legal advice—it all came down to what people heard, or believed, or believed they heard.

On the one hand, it would of course be extremely unusual back then for a woman to lead a major technology firm. And Memeson had never shown the slightest interest in social causes: not women’s suffrage, not the New Deal, nothing. In court, Yanny’s lawyers would press these points, arguing that the old man couldn’t possibly have intended to pass on his empire to a daughter.

On the other hand, Laurel was his first-born child.  And some people said that, if Memeson had ever had a human connection with anyone, it was with her.  There were even employees who swore that, once in a while, Laurel was seen entering and leaving her dad’s workshop—a privilege the old man never extended to Yanny or anyone else. Years later, Laurel would go so far as to claim that, during these visits, she’d contributed crucial ideas to the design of the Unmistakable. Most commentators dismiss this claim as bluster: why would she wait to drop such a bombshell until she and Yanny had severed their last ties, until both siblings’ only passion in life was to destroy the other, to make the world unable to hear the other’s name?

At any rate, neither Laurel nor anyone else was ever able to build another Unmistakable, or to give a comprehensible account of how it worked.  But Laurel certainly has die-hard defenders to this day—and while I’ve tried to be evenhanded in this account, I confess to being one of them.

In the end, who people believed about this affair seemed to come down to where they stood—literally. Among the passengers in the train cars adjoining Memeson’s, the ones who heard him are generally adamant that they heard “Laurel”; while most who stood on the platform are equally insistent about “Yanny.”  Today, some Memeson scholars theorize that this discrepancy is due to a Doppler effect.  People on the platform would’ve heard a lower pitch than people comoving with Memeson, and modern reconstructions raise the possibility, however farfetched, that this alone could “morph” one name to the other.  If we accept this, then it suggests that Memeson himself would have intended “Laurel”—but pitch changing a word?  Really?

Today, Laurel and Yanny are both gone, like their father and his company, but their dispute is carried on by their children and grandchildren, with several claims still winding their way through the courts.

Are there any recordings from the platform?  There is one, which was lost for generations before it unexpectedly turned up again. Alas, any hopes that this recording would definitively resolve the matter were … well, just listen to the thing.  Maybe the audio quality isn’t good enough.  Maybe an Unmistakable recording, had it existed, would’ve revealed the observer-independent truth, given us a unique map from the sensory world to the world of meaning.

13 Responses to “The stupidest story I ever wrote (it was a long flight)”

  1. lewikee Says:

    I thought that the story would climax with the playing of the Unmistakable in court. Like having Memeson say “I hereby give all my possessions to _______” into the Unmistakable before his death. And then we would discover that even the Unmistakable could lead to differing interpretations of what name was said.

  2. Peter Morgan Says:

    1939. Was Wigner there? A time-frequency distribution seems just the thing for the lawyers’ expert witnesses to fight over.

  3. Jay Says:

    Not bad!

  4. fred Says:

    “Bar” or “Far”? (McGurk effect)

  5. RandomOracle Says:

    But did Memeson actually die when the train derailed? The disfigured and unrecognizable body that was found and claimed to be that of Memeson, was wearing a black and blue suit. But many people that were inquired about the incident were positive that Memeson was wearing a white and gold suit. I guess we will never know for sure…

  6. Bob Strauss Says:

    This meme has spread so fast that it must have been optimized by an AI. I mean, really, one day no one was aware of it, and the next day literally everyone was talking about it, on the street and during dinner and on Facebook and on CNN. Is anyone else even the slightest bit worried about this? What if Laurel and Yanny are the Arcturan equivalent of Kang and Kodos?

  7. tt Says:

    Come on, you’re just being modest, that’s not the stupidest you wrote.

  8. Scott Says:

    tt #7: OK, maybe stupidest I wrote and then actually made public. Mostly I just felt like posting something that was unlikely to make anyone angry. I could’ve achieved the same effect by posting a favorite recipe, except I don’t have one.

  9. Mitchell Porter Says:

    I have become aware that there is a meme about “Laurel and Yanny”, and that’s all I know about it. When I saw those names in this post, I immediately skipped it. I am endeavoring to not find out what Laurel and Yanny are, for as long as possible. Incidentally, the last time I felt like this, it was about something called “Rick and Morty”. I know that’s a TV show, so even harder to avoid than a meme.

  10. Travis Says:

    but could they agree on what color dress Memeson wore?

  11. Rafael Says:

    I thought the story written here was real until I found out about the meme. Then I came back to read it again and discovered precious things like ‘Memeson’ and so on… How clever!

  12. Luka Says:

    I was so sure that this was a reference to Gödel-Escher-Bach (what with 1930s, unmistakable record players and different levels of being/viewing a system), I was trying too hard to decode what could “Laurel” and “Yanny” mean, before seeing the last paragraph.

    (If this really was a reference to GEB – did the train derail because the name wasn’t actually exclaimed by Memeson, but instead played by the record player, and since the effect this action had contradicted its unmistakeability, it broke the universe?)

  13. Mitchell Porter Says:

    Meme-avoidance progress report: I have been aware for a few weeks that “Laurel and Yanny” has something to do with a sound which, when played at different speeds, sounds different; but I have yet to hear the sound.