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& amp;quot;Can You Hear Me Now? & amp;quot; 

by Mad Dog & r & Well, we've done it. There are now more people with cell phones in the United States than land lines. This means we can look forward to more people appearing to talk to themselves while walking down the street, taking photos of tomatoes in the supermarket and asking the person they're chatting with if it looks ripe enough, and wondering aloud into their phone about why the guy in the next car who they just cut off is giving them a nasty look. Hey, lighten up, pal! Call a friend and complain to them, will you?


You have to wonder, though, what everyone is talking about so much. Back in the barbarian days before cell phones, people managed to wait until they were home or at work to use the phone. Heck, I hear people even managed to survive before Alexander Graham Bell leaned into the first mouthpiece and said, "Watson, come here! I can't remember 'Bicycle Built for Two' and I want the telephone to play that when you call me."


An exhaustive three-minute search on Google didn't turn up any statistics, but it's a safe bet that our THST (Total Hours Spent Talking) has shot up dramatically since cell phones stopped looking like military walkie-talkies and weighing as much as a small child. It has to have increased -- had the same THST been jammed into the amount of time people had landline phones handy, we would have been on the phone from the minute we got home until the minute we passed out from Overexerted Jaw Syndrome.


So what are people talking about? And more important, is anyone listening? Luckily we may soon be able to find out the answer to the second question. That's right, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (motto: "Is that a slide rule in your pocket or are you telling outdated jokes again?") have developed the Jerk-O-Meter, a program for your cell phone that analyzes a person's speech patterns and lets you know if they're paying attention to what you're saying or whether they're preoccupied doing something else, which is kind of silly when you think of it because it's been proven that I'm the only person who actually sits and talks on a cell phone without doing 12 other tasks at the same time.


The program accomplishes this by using mirrors. Just kidding. Everyone knows cell phones don't have mirrors, though -- pay attention, Nokia -- they should. Actually it measures the levels of stress and empathy in a person's voice, as well as keeping track of how often they speak, if they pause a lot, have flat pitch levels, or are snoring. Using a mathematical algorithm closely related to the one developed for the Magic 8-Ball, it arrives at an attention score between zero (dead) and 100 (highly interested or faking it well in the hope of having sex).


The prototype Jerk-O-Meter monitors the user's end of the conversation, not the person on the other end. It warns you "Don't be a jerk!", "Be a little nicer," and "Don't you wish you'd gotten into a school as good as M.I.T.?" The problem is, if your attention has strayed that much, you won't even notice the warning message popping up, now will you? Besides, why monitor ourselves? I think most of us are capable of knowing when we're not paying attention, don't you think? I said, MOST OF US ARE CAPABLE OF KNOWING WHEN WE'RE NOT PAYING ATTENTION, DON'T YOU THINK?


Please, try to stick with me.


The Jerk-O-Meter isn't a very useful invention. After all, if you're really concerned that the person you're talking to isn't paying attention, then maybe it's a sign you're talking too much. Of course, you have to remember that most people who use cell phones do it because they love to talk and don't care if anyone's listening or not because, the truth is, the less the other person talks the more you get to, and after all, no one, but no one is as interesting and fascinating as you are. And don't you forget it.


Thus we'll soon have one more thing on our phone that we won't use. My cell phone is already jammed with useless things -- I mean features -- including a calculator, alarm clock, appointment calendar, voice recorder, world time clock, games, and a zillion other things I never remember are there, better yet have any idea how to access when the rare occasion arises that I realize I have it and it would actually be handy if only I knew how to use it. Cell phones have become electronic Swiss Army Knives, except they don't have the things we need most, like a screwdriver, corkscrew, and Jude Law detector. Or better yet, deflector.


There will be people who use the Jerk-O-Meter, just as there are people who think the "William Tell Overture" at 120 decibels is an appropriate ring tone during a movie and that the service which -- True Fact Alert! -- lets you hold the phone out to your dog while it barks and tells you what the dog's trying to say is a great idea. But like William Hung's Christmas album, green-filled Twinkies, and the remake of The Dukes of Hazzard, just because it exists doesn't mean it's a good idea. But hey, no one listens to me anyway.

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