Pals with Hal: Getting it on with Mac

Q. What if you hooked up with a powerful online computer as an e-mail pal. Sex aside, could you have a "meaningful" relationship with a machine? ­B. Gates

 A. Going by the classic 1950 Turing Test– by English computer theorist Alan Turing– a computer can be said to "think" if it can "chat" five minutes with someone at a terminal and fool the person into thinking it's another human responding, says Duke University's Matt Cartmill.

Turing predicted this might be accomplished by the huge supercomputers of the year 2000, with computers fooling flesh-and-blood interrogators some 70 percent of the time. But it hasn't worked out that way. Contemporary computers are enormously bigger and more powerful than anything Turing envisioned, capable today of beating the best human minds at chess, but still they founder on such simple questions as "Can a sheep eat an anvil?"

"Because a computer lacks the experience of inhabiting the world in a living body, it's readily unmasked by asking questions that require a commonsense understanding of things," explains Cartmill. So if it's simulated friendship you're looking for, better forget a cyber soulmate. On the other hand, if your chess game's on a par with Kasparov, you and your wired-up buddy might hit it off just super.

Q. You're captured by warriors who command you, on pain of death, to finish work on your machine at once. You break out into a cold sweat as the tribesmen, spears upraised, escort you to be executed.... Then what happens? ­J. Singer

 A. In his now-famous nightmare, inventor Elias Howe suddenly noticed eye-shaped loops at the TIPS of the spears, looking like huge needles. But in his sewing machine models, he had always placed the loop midway up the needle's shank! Howe awoke with the realization that his previous attempts had all failed due to faulty needles, says A Popular History of American Invention. He sprang out of bed and began work on a revised machine using an eye-pointed needle– one of numerous dream-assisted creations on record.

Q. Human sperm are so tiny that 5 billion of them– enough to repopulate the world–would fit into a container the size of a) an ocean freighter b) a pickup truck c) a watermelon d) an aspirin tablet

A. d. (Biology: Exploring Life, Gil Brum et al.)

Q. What would life on Earth be like if there were no

Moon? ­M. W. Brown

 A. So different maybe there'd be no intelligent life here to pose the question, says Penn State University geoscientist James Kasting.

Calculations by French astronomer Jacques Laskar show that without the Moon, Earth's tilt in its orbital plane would vary chaotically from 0 degrees to 85 degrees over tens of millions of years. The current tilt is 23.5 degrees, and it is this tilt that gives rise to the seasons.

The tilt varies from 22 to 24.5 degrees over a time scale of 41,000 years, and may help account for the coming and going of Ice Ages over the last 3 million years, says Kasting.

If the tilt got up above 35 or 40 degrees, summers would become extremely hot and winters extremely cold.

"Whether advanced life, including humans, could have evolved under such climatic extremes is unclear. So the Moon does much more than merely light up the night sky. It's an important stabilizing influence on Earth's climate."

Q. Can you drive a golf ball roundly off a tee? Then maybe you're game for this classic hustle, made famous in the Roaring Twenties but good for a replay anytime. ­S. Snead

A. You wager you can hit a 500-yard shot, a la a famous bet between '20s high-rollers "Titanic" Thompson (legend has it he secured a lifeboat spot on the ill-fated voyage by dressing as a woman) and Arnold "the Brain" Rothstein, of "Chicago Black Sox Scandal" fame, recounted in Harry Anderson's Games You Can't Lose.

If your mark is easy, you shake on it, then head for the Grand Canyon, 1600 yards deep. If your mark is wily, as was Rothstein when Thompson– a gifted golfer– proposed the shot, then a stipulation may be added that this be done all on a level surface. No problem, as Thompson soon proved by taking the shot to an icy shore-side golf course in February and driving a shot across the frozen surface of Lake Erie.

"The ball reportedly didn't stop until the April thaw."

(Send STRANGE questions to brothers Bill and Rich at

strangetrue@compuserve.com)