Why is it that occasionally (about once a week) your telephone answering machine records as a message the “If you would like to make a call, please hang up and try again” recording that plays when you leave the phone off the hook? This has happened to me with various machines, telephones, and telephone numbers, as well as to friends and family, even though no one was home to knock the phone off the hook. –Mike Smith, Los Angeles

This has happened to Cecil, too, but he’s been having a helluva time trying to get it to happen again, which is always the way in the investigative journalism business. However, having consulted with a couple of phone buffs, we can offer the following tentative scenario, which applies to at least some answering machines: (1) Someone calls you, then thinks better of it and hangs up. (2) The phone continues to ring at your end for a brief time, since there’s a delay while the switching equipment processes the hang-up message and stops the ringer. (3) Your answering machine picks up the phone. But since the caller has hung up, all it gets is a dial tone. Not being bright enough to realize this, it goes ahead and plays your outgoing message. (4) Your line stays off-hook long enough to trigger the telephone company’s “please hang up and dial again” message. (5) Your outgoing message ends and the answering machine records the “please hang up” message. (6) You come home, play back the telco message, get bugged, write Cecil. (7) I provide a charming, easy-to-understand answer. (8) You gratefully mail me a big wad of cash. Tell you what. If it really bugs you, keep the cash and buy yourself an answering machine that’s less easily fooled.

Why is it that some dogs walk by moving both legs on one side of the body at the same time, while others (most?) walk by moving the front leg on one side at the same time as the rear leg on the other side? –Tim Silva, Washington, D.C.

You won’t believe this–I didn’t believe it, until I checked the files–but there is actually an answer to this question. Moving both legs on one side of the body forward at the same time is called “pacing.” Moving diagonal pairs of legs forward at the same time is called “trotting.” Cecil initially had the idea that pacing was an easier, slower gait than trotting while the latter was more efficient, since the body didn’t roll as much. But the more I talk to dog fanciers the more I realize it’s unwise to generalize about these things. All in all I’m glad I locomote on two legs rather than four, except when I’ve had a very, very bad night.


Readers breathlessly awaiting further word from this department on Harvey R. Ball’s beleaguered claim to have drawn the original smiley face in 1963 will be pleased to know that one of the smiley sweatshirts given away by WMCA radio in New York in 1962/1963 has turned up–and it’s not the canonical smiley. (We love the word canonical, incidentally, and the chance to continue using it is the principal reason we are pursuing this interminable quest.) The WMCA smiley is, however, close, having perhaps a Bill Clinton half-brotheresque relationship to the genuine article. The smiley is printed in black on yellow cloth and consists of two eye dots and a mouth curve in a circle. But it appears to have been drawn with a thick paintbrush and consequently is more irregular (and frankly has more personality) than the Ballic (Balltic? Ballistic?) smiley. I am sure the people of Worcester, Massachusetts, of which Harvey is a leading citizen, will breathe easier on hearing this.

Also . . . I am not sure what to make of this, but looking at the smiley buttons that are accumulating on my desk, I notice that the Harvey Ball smiley and the David Stern smiley . . . you remember David Stern . . . are exact duplicates, down to a minor variation in the size of the right vs left eyes. I make no accusations, but it seems clear to me that somebody has been up to something.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.