When you answer the phone and can't figure out who called whom

A conference call prank

Dear Matthew Alice: A while ago I was at home when, as I strolled by the phone, it rang. I picked it up and said, “Hello?” Almost instantaneously, a female voice at the other end also said, “Hello?” After a few seconds of this single-word back and forth, I said, '“You called?” To which she said, “No, you called.” To make a long story somewhat shorter (too late), it turns out that both of our phones rang simultaneously and were connected to each other. The really odd part about this is that the female caller turns out to be a friend whom I had called earlier in the day. I do have last-number redial on my phone, but I had made several calls since then. What gives? Please help. — [email protected]

If you were trying to stump the experts, seems you’ve done it. But we have a range of non-answers for you to choose from. Pacific Bell technicians can only shrug and say phone switching systems are complex and so well used (240,000,000 calls placed daily in California) that a tweak in the network, however rare, is bound to happen. It’s probably not chance that you were connected to someone you had called earlier. When pinned down and slapped silly, the phone folks guess the odd occurrence could be related to your redial feature or to the new last-number callback capability. How? Impossible to know.

One M.A. pal who’s also telephonically well informed agrees, saying, “It’s electronic, it’s processor controlled, once in a while weird things happen.” But pressed for the real story, he says he’s convinced your aura set things in motion. As proof he points out that American scientists are busily studying the ability of electrical signals from the human mind to control everything from flashing lights to computer cursors to fighter jets. It’s called direct-brain interface, and it’s coming soon to an appliance near you. My friend suspects some kind of psychic love connection between you and the lady that you might want to explore. Why not pick up the phone and give her a call?

My theory? I’d blame Lynne’s cellar spiders. One crawled inside the smoke detector in the luxurious Matthew Alice offices a while ago, interrupted the detector’s light beam, and triggered the alarm. A real case of bugs in the system.

March 28 update


The dual-ringing-phones puzzler is solved. To catch you up if you missed it, we had an inquiry from someone who claimed his phone rang, he picked it up and said hello, and on the other end was a friend of his whose phone had also rung at the same time. The two were left saying hello to one another and denying that they had placed the call. I set the intrepid research elves off with fresh bus passes, a Thermos of cocoa, and plenty of determination to get to the bottom of this one. But we never really did. As it turns out, we spent way too much time talking to engineers and other serious people, when all along I should have been following little kids home from school. Once the question and the non-answer hit print, we received the following notes from two folks who were obviously evil little children once upon a time.

From Jennifer: “Heather and Jennifer are talking on the phone. We each have three-way calling. I flip over and call Mark. Heather flips over and calls Craig at the same time. When we return to the original line, Mark’s phone and Craig’s phone are both ringing, while Heather and I push ‘mute.’ Both Craig and Mark answer the phone wondering who called who. Got it? We used to do this all the time as kids.”

One gentleman, requesting anonymity, suggests a variation that requires fewer players. “I want to point out the obvious answer — conference calling. Most people I talk to who have had this [phone feature] have played this little game. Call one person on one line, call another on a second, hook them together, and put the whole thing on speaker phone and listen in, A friend of mine and I did this in our younger high school days to strangers we picked randomly from the phone book and to people we knew (and who knew the person they ‘called’).”

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