The other day I called Verizon directory assistance and, just for a lark, asked for the number for Verizon directory assistance. All oral communication was handled by computer. I never spoke to a human being. It was like magic! Within 30 seconds, Verizon gave me a number that turned out to be Merchant's Tire in Bethesda.

I have never liked directory assistance, and not just because the number it gives you seems to be wrong about 20 percent of the time, a failure rate approaching what one would expect with origami condoms. I dislike directory assistance because it is unnecessary and expensive -- opportunistically preying on the weak, the lazy and the stupid. I use it all the time.

A phone book is free, as is, a Web site that gets you your number in a fraction of the time it takes you to negotiate the half-human, half-machine cyborg that is directory assistance. Directory assistance, however, is convenient -- right there at your fingertips the instant you want to use it, for which it charges 39 cents per local number, plus $1.25 for each long-distance number, plus an extra 30 cents if you want them TO DIAL THE CALL FOR YOU, a feature inexcusable for all but the blind. Yes, I have used that, too.

Mostly, however, I dislike directory assistance because over the years it has become harder and harder to get actual, genuine help:

Cheerful recorded voice: City and state, please?

You: Washington, D.C.

Cheerful recorded voice: What listing?

You: Children's Hospital, but I don't really need the number, I just need the address, fast because my kid is blee --

Cheerful recorded voice: That number is . . .

Despite the apparent automation, you know that somewhere in there, a human is listening, impersonally looking up numbers, impersonally punching out answers and impersonally screwing things up. After a while, you figure out that there is a way to restore some personal accountability to this system. If you hit the "O" button after your call goes through and before you engage a computer voice, you can bypass the computer and get an actual human. This often doesn't help, because the actual humans at directory assistance tend not to want to talk very long to other actual humans.

Actual human: How may I help you?

You: In Washington, I need Children's Hospital, but I really only need --

Cheerful recorded voice: That number is . . .

So to get past this, you have to plan your call carefully, altering normal English syntax, reversing subject and object, and -- for purposes of absolute clarity -- talking like a cross between a stereotypical 1950s TV Indian and a parody of a waiter at a Chinese restaurant.

Actual human: How may I help you?

You: Not want phone number. No number! Just address, no number! Heap big bleeding. Children's Hospital. In Washington. Address, not phone number, kindly please.

Actual human: I'll connect you to a supervisor.

You: NO!

But it is too late.

Anyway, just yesterday I called directory assistance, and discovered that it has almost completely eliminated the human component from the system. It now operates almost entirely on a computerized voice-recognition system. My first thought was that, perversely, this might be better, since voice recognition technology is not only now highly advanced, weapons-grade technology, but is immune to getting bored and hostile and grumpy and sullen and wrong.

Here is a verbatim transcript of my first attempt to use the new system:

Pleasant recorded voice: City and state, please.

Me: Washington, D.C.

Pleasant recorded voice: Sorry, I didn't get that.

Me: Washington, D.C.

Pleasant recorded voice: Was that Iowa City, Iowa?

Remember when telephones were made of bowling-ball rubber, and directory assistance was a metallic-voiced woman named Mildred who pronounced numbers "FIE-uv" and "NIE-un" and adopted a pose so cold and unapproachable you dared not actually engage her in conversation? Actually, when you think about it, Mildred was imitating a robot. Whereas the new robot-voices are doing their best to imitate humans, down to the occasional "um."

One day, maybe, we'll get it right. Humans imitating humans.

Gene Weingarten's e-mail address is Chat with him online Tuesdays at noon at