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I have a habit -- no, compulsion -- to run stop signs in mall parking lots, strip malls, and other private property locations. When it's safe, of course. Could I be ticketed by the local constabulary if they observe my flagrant disregard for these octagonal inconveniences, while they are on a donut run in the same mini-mall parking lot? Or do I have a free reign of the lot?

-- PAZ, out shopping

The law and common sense. How rarely they meet. You're right, a mall lot is private property. Cops' ticket-writing hands are tied. The mall posts big red stop signs, hoping (a) we'll assume the signs carry the force of law, and (b) like Pavlov's dogs, we'll see "Stop" and automatically stop through force of habit -- well, if Pavlov's dogs had driver's licenses, anyway. So, blow all the signs at Fashion Valley. Why you are compelled to do it is between you and your shrink.

Grandma Alice would rather drive in Hillcrest at 5:30 than in the general free-for-all of a mall parking lot. Like bumper cars at Boomer's, with real cars and real bumpers. Throw into the mix unenforceable speed limits, vague or absent lane markers, and free-range pedestrians, and it's a nightmare. Warcraft XII: The Mall of Threesia.

According to an obliging officer in the traffic division of the SDPD, what they can do is ticket for red zone and handicapped parking violations. The most flagrant vehicular cowboys can be nabbed for reckless driving -- reckless, given the crowded, pedestrian-filled environment. So, no donuts in the parking structure. That reckless driving could be a felony hit (book 'em, Danno), depending on the circumstances.

But the law aside, can't you imagine a situation where you zip through a stop, feeling all bad and smug, when a little kid, eager to get to the food court, charges from behind his mom's parked car? That kinda stuff keeps Grandma Alice awake at night. But, of course, we all know Grandma is a big wuss. And if you didn't blow past the signs so fast, you'd realize they're hexagonal inconveniences. A small point. (The stadium lot is city property, where cops rule. Not a small point.)

Hello, Matthew:

My daughter, a Girl Scout, wants to know why we say "Brownie points." Anything to do with Brownie Scouts?

-- Mom, San Diego

Mebby. Mebby not. The usual phrasewizard answer. It's American, in common speech no later than the early 1940s. Railroaders used to talk about Brownie points, a scornful reference to demerits you could get if you broke a rule in the George B. Brown points system of employee discipline. It's a reverse meaning from today's BPs, but at least the phrase was known. Another guess: a WWII military term, referring to the petty jobs swabbies and grunts have to do, likening the military to a Brownie troop earning merit badges. Especially since "brown-noser" was already popular military slang, but your daughter doesn't need to know about that.

Hey, Matt:

My favorite OCD ever was the correct time. In fact, the phone number 853-1212 was a programmed speed dial on my cell phone. Anyway, to my horror, I found out today (actually,

3 minutes, 42 seconds ago) that the service has been discontinued. Although the computer-generated female voice (I nicknamed her Gail) sounded sincere about the loss of this service, I am/was devastated. A man needs a compass, does he not? Any help welcome.

-- Jay, via e-mail

Gail left us September 19. Well, Gail left ATT that day. Other carriers might have their own Gails. We're just talking ATT here. In truth, Gail was kicked out. Dropped like a hot rock. Or an expensive customer service. The majikal telephone has provided time checks and other info since the 1920s. Back then it was live operators, of course. ("Hi, Gail. What's the time? I gotta meet Elmer at the sody fountain at noon." "Ya got 15 minutes, Bea. Have fun!") In the 1930s, Gail was automated by companies that sold her services to the phone industry. The system still works that way, and soon you might have to listen to commercials before Gail finally gives it up.

The classic time-phone-answering gear was developed by Bell Labs in the 1960s. It's a big electromechanical system that geared itself up every time someone called the Time Lady number, then switched off. Way, way too expensive to maintain, sez ATT, in these days of instant digital gratification, when you can have the date and hour, to atomic-clock accuracy, constantly displayed on your cell phone or computer. Gail's been reduced to a costly anachronism. It also frees up the 853 prefix for new phone numbers. No matter what digits you punched after the 853, you would have gotten Gail -- 853-GAIL would have worked as well. She had the whole prefix to herself.

One pre-1960s Gail was named Mary. She's the one who overenunciated things like fi-yuv and ni-yun and gave Lily Tomlin one of her classic characters. Your lamented Gail was named Joanne. If it's any consolation, Nevada is now the only state left with a universal Time Lady. Reprogram that cell.

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