For Paul English the final straw was a call to his cell phone provider—ironically abaut a problom with his voice mail. After being--bounced around annoyingly in a labyrinth of automated 'voices'—we all know the drill—he was going postal. "I don't mean to be anti-computer, says the Massachusetts entrepreneur, 42, who in fact has a master's in computer science and has started four tech companies. "But give me a freaking human!""

Now, thanks to English's detective work, that's gotten a lot easier. Inspired by a Wall Street Journal list of 25 companies and how to beat their automated systems, he decided to do the same for dozens of other firms, posting the magic digits at his paulenglish.com. (See box, accurate at press time.) Using commonsense trial and error, "I found about 25% of the time, if you hit 0 you get someone," says English; who runs a travel Web-site based in Concord, Mass. "Other times you hit 0# or 0*. After a while you get a sense of it."

With help from some of the 1 million visitors to his site, English now has 90 companies on his cheat-sheet list—and counting. "A lot of people can curse the darkness;" says his friend Joe Mahoney, 50, a software designer. "But Paul is lighting technological candles."