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The Straight Dope 

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When you forget to dial "1" before an area code, a recorded message informs you that you "must first dial a '1' before dialing this number." If the little man in the phone can tell that the number requires a "1" in front of it, why do you first need to dial a "1"? --Reuben Gbogba, Berkeley, California

The teachers in grade school must have hated you, Reuben. You're absolutely right: if the switching computer is smart enough to figure out that the number needs a "1" in front of it (in other words, that it's a long-distance number), it's smart enough to put the call through. Same deal right after an area-code split. If you dial a no-longer-local number without putting the new area code in front of it, you get a message telling you to redial it with the area code first. But the computer is perfectly capable of figuring out what number you were trying to get and putting the call through. It just doesn't want to--or rather, the phone company geniuses who program it don't want to. On the contrary, they're trying to teach you a lesson so next time you'll do it right.

Sounds a little schoolmarmish, but the phone company doesn't have much choice. "One-plus" dialing was implemented to make more three-digit combinations available for area codes and local exchanges. (Previously the middle digit in all area codes had to be a 1 or a 0 so the switching computer would know a long-distance call was being dialed.) Now it's possible for Berkeley to have the area code 510 and for each area code in North America to have a 510 local exchange. But--this is the important part--not right away. First the phone companies have to pound the idea of one-plus dialing into the consuming public's head, so when Nick in Newark calls Berkeley long-distance information, 510-555-1212, the call doesn't wind up at Joe's Pizza, 510-5551, to the understandable consternation of Joe. Thus the annoying recorded message. Eventually of course 510 will be assigned for local use, and if you forget one-plus you won't get the recording, you'll get Joe (or whomever). The phone company just hopes that by then you'll get the idea.

SWISS ARMY FACTS

Your column is the only reason I pick up the [Los Angeles] Reader. However, I could not let the article on Swiss Army knives go unchallenged. There is no such thing as a Swiss Army. They are a neutral country and, as such, have no standing army. They do, however, have a national guard which uses their knives. From my own perspective, who cares? But as I'm sure you'd agree, the straight dope's the straight dope only if it's straight. --Jeff Birkenstein, Fountain Valley, California

People are always telling me I'm the only reason they pick up the paper. Clearly I am to the alternative press what Michael Jordan is to the NBA. Luckily it hasn't affected my personality.

Now to your complaint, worm. You should call up the Swiss and tell them what they're supposed to call their armed forces. They have the idea it's the army. There's no such thing as a Swiss national guard. (There is also no navy, for reasons that ought to be obvious but, given the state of public education, may not be. There is, however, a merchant marine. Go figure.)

While I was on the phone with the nice man from the consulate, I asked if Switzerland still had compulsory military service for males between the ages of 20 and 50. Jawohl, he said, although the upper age limit was recently dropped to 40. And are the troops still issued automatic rifles? Mais oui, he said. And do they still take their rifles home with them when not on duty? You got it, bub, he replied. So, I said, warming to the topic, in view of the fact that you've got 1.6 million men and an indeterminate number of women with an automatic rifle in the house, is Saturday night in Switzerland a bloody spectacle of drunken louts and drug dealers machine-gunning each other in the streets? Why no, said the nice man. We toast each other with hot chocolate and whittle cuckoo clocks with our Swiss Army knives. So you've been lucky, I hissed. Just wait.

Is there something you need to get straight? Cecil Adams can deliver the Straight Dope on any topic. Write Cecil Adams at the Chicago Reader, 11 E. Illinois, Chicago 60611, or E-mail him at cecil@chireader.com.

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

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