Astounding Science: Smart Phones Know Some Surprising Things

It started innocently enough. We were sitting at breakfast, my wife and I and my wife’s sister Stephanie, and I was telling them of my idea for a Saturday Night Live sketch that would involve two men in glass booths.

“Years ago there was a TV show called The $64,000 Question,” I said. “Two men were sitting at tables inside separate glass booths. A narrator would ask some obscure question, such as ‘Who had the highest batting average in the American League in 1937?’ and the men would rack their brains to come up with an answer while a band played music, with a clock ticking to show time passing and suspense.

“Finally one man, nervous and sweating, would ring a bell, and everyone would turn to him for the answer. He’d speak the answer through a microphone to a speaker outside the booth, because the booth was soundproof glass so nobody could give him the answer—and the audience, hearing his answer, would either cheer or groan.

“My idea is to have one of the men a genius and the other a regular guy with a cellphone. It would be Google against the Brain. Who could get there first. Like this.”

I took out my cellphone and went to Google and began typing in.

“Just ask Siri,” Stef said. “That would be even faster.”

She took out her cellphone and asked.

“I’m sorry, my knowledge of sports is fairly limited,” Siri told Stef.

“But wait,” Stef said. “It’s looked up stuff on Google. Here it is, printed out. Beat you. The man with the highest batting average in the American league in 1937 was Charlie Gehringer, who batted .371. And he had a lifetime average of .320”

“I’ve never heard of him,” I said.

“How many years did he play?” my wife asked.

“From 1924 to 1942,” Stef said.

“That’s a long time,” I said. “And with that batting average, you’d think we’d know of him.”

“Ask Siri something else,” my wife said.

“Ask Siri where you live,” Stef said, looking at me and my cellphone. Of course, we were sitting where we live.

I held down the button on my phone and asked Siri.

“You have two addresses,” Siri said. “Choose one.”

Both addresses were for this house in East Hampton, but there was a slight difference between the two. The name of the street is Three Mile Harbor Hog Creek Road. One address had that all spelled out. The other had it Three Mile Harbor HC Road, a way of writing it that still works but is shorter so it fits better on some computer forms.

For good measure, as a courtesy, Siri had, on the upper half of the screen, also offered up a map with a dot on it to show where this was. But there was not just one dot. There were two. And they were labeled. One dot said START. The other said DESTINATION. Up top there was the distance between the two: 40 FEET, it read.

I showed all this around.

“You’re not here yet,” Stef opined.

“Look at the small print under the 40 FEET,” my wife said. Under the 40 feet was a tiny man walking and, next to it, in small print, the words “1 minute.”

At this point, the three of us got on one side of the kitchen table and huddled over my cellphone. There was a lot to learn here, it seemed. Here we were, somewhere in this universe in the Milky Way, on the third planet from the sun in our solar system, and where we were was up for grabs.

Indeed, the two dots were different. One of them was a red pushpin. That would be our destination. The other was a blue dot that pulsated, which was where we were now. Not quite home.

The three of us talked about what options might now be available.

“There’s a way we could reverse things,” I said. “We could make the start the destination, and the destination the start.”

“We could also find out how long it would take driving or taking a bus,” my wife said.

We all knew the way to do that. You could change the little man to a bus. You could change the bus to a car.

“Well,” I said, “with all the doors opening and closing and getting the key in the ignition and starting it up, it might take longer than one minute.”

“And you’d have to wait for the bus,” my wife said.

“Then see what happens if you reverse start and destination,” Stef said.

I did that.

60 FEET it now said up top.

It was longer by 20 feet to go from here to there than it was from there to here. That would be a further half-minute of walking.

We turned and looked out the window to the northwest, which is where we would head to make it 40 feet to the throbbing blue dot. There was a tree by the side of the road; 60 feet was across the street where there was a sign reading GARDINER’S MARINA.

We could walk to the tree to get here, or, going the other way, we could walk from the marina sign to the tree. I think that was it.

“But we ARE here,” my wife said.

“There is a rift in the universe,” I said.

“A black hole,” Stef said. “I think we ought to stay right where we are for a while.”

“Don’t move,” I said.

We stared out to the marina and the boats and the water beyond. It was a dicey moment.

And what came to my mind was the “Who’s on First” routine Abbott and Costello did about baseball.

Abbott: Strange as it may seem, they give ball players nowadays very peculiar names.

Costello: Funny names?

Abbott: Nicknames, nicknames. Now, on the St. Louis team we have Who’s on first, What’s on second, I Don’t Know is on third—

Costello: That’s what I want to find out. I want you to tell me the names of the fellows on the St. Louis team.

Abbott: I’m telling you. Who’s on first, What’s on second, I Don’t Know is on third—

Costello: You know the fellows’ names?

Abbott: Yes.

Costello: Well, then who’s playing first?

Abbott: Yes.

Costello: I mean the fellow’s name on first base.

Abbott: Who.

Costello: The fellow playin’ first base.

Abbott: Who.

Costello: The guy on first base.

Abbott: Who is on first.

Costello: Well, what are you askin’ me for?

Abbott: I’m not asking you—I’m telling you. Who is on first.

Costello: I’m asking you—who’s on first?

Abbott: That’s the man’s name.

Costello: That’s who’s name?

Abbott: Yes.

* * *

Costello: When you pay off the first baseman every month, who gets the money?

Abbott: Every dollar of it. And why not, the man’s entitled to it.

Costello: Who is?

Abbott: Yes.

Costello: So who gets it?

Abbott: Why shouldn’t he? Sometimes his wife comes down and collects it.

Costello: Who’s wife?

Abbott: Yes. After all, the man earns it.

And then it goes on for four more minutes. The routine was first done in 1937. You could look it up.

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