911: Defective by Design?

Taking courses in Industrial Design implies that one begins to critically analyze every object, concept or even principle that one encounters. In this post, we compare and contrast various choices of emergency telephone numbers. The well known 911, vs the 100/101/102 native to us, vs what I think is a far better choice: 787.

So, the starting point is purpose: The number should be chosen so that it can be dialed as quickly and easily as possible, by the maximum number of people, including the elderly, children, and the differently abled. For example, the blind. And this is where both 911 and 100 disappoint, 100 in particular. The distance between the ‘9’ and the ‘1’ on a mobile, is comparable to that between adjacent keys on an old-fashioned landline handset. So, thinking from a blind person’s perspective, he has to pres the “9”, and then feel around for a distance of 2 keys to locate the 1. The thing becomes even worse with 100, where, even accepting the fact that the “0” is uniformly placed at the same location for all phones, it is still located right at the bottom, i.e. a taxi-cab distance of 4 from the “1”.. not desirable.

Also, both 911 and 100 have the repeated digit.. horrible, because then, one has to wait for a fraction of a second before jabbing it again, else the second jab won’t register as separate, maybe, on some handsets. And then, there is a chance of accidentally double-pressing the key when dialing some other number, say I was dialing 9123456789, and I am an old fellow who held the “1” in too long, or pressed it unsteadily, and it registered a second time. Bad.
The result of the above analysis: keys should be adjacent, but no consecutive repeated digits.

And the last point to be considered: Consider that you are stuck in a corner of a room, under a heap of rubble due to an earthquake, you can’t move, but your hand can barely make it to the pay phone on the wall. How exasperating it would be, if you can’t dial 911 because the “1” is too far up in the top row, out of reach! Or connsider a small, short child who can barely make it to the buttons by jumping, but can reach only the bottom row.  Conclusion: The keys used should preferably be on the bottom row. Both 911 and 100 fail to satisfy this.

So, keeping these points in mind, the number 787 seems good. It has adjacent keys, so no feeling around needed. No consecutive double pressing involved, and only the bottom row is used. (Of course, using 789 is silly because little children might just press it in that order for fun’s sake.. 3 buttons in a row is tempting, even to some grownups :))

There is this (funny) consideration: children are taught to count gradually from one onwards, the use of “larger” digits like 7 and 8 is bad if, for example, the child knows only the first 5 digits till now. Still, that doesn’t make 100 a better choice than 787, because ideally, the child shouldn’t know “0” either. Or atleast, the full beauty and appreciation for the need to know zero is not apparent until we really need to start writing numbers beyond 9. But of course, this consideration is more for the purposes of humour.. To “trade off” a tiny child who knows all the digits, but is not tall enough to reach to the “1”, in exchange for a child who can reach out to the digits, but cannot count beyond 5, is silly.

The reader might be thinking that all the above are marginal considerations, and don’t deserve so much a drastic action as adding an emergency line. But in a world where A/B testing makes companies pay others and share valuable sales data just to know what colour the Buy button should be, I think any zero-cost measure that saves even one extra life, deserves thought.


The experiment

This is to all the readers of my yesterday’s post: Congratulations! You were a part of a psychological experiment. The reason that you didn’t know that it was an experiment was simply because the outcome wouldn’t have been the same (and unbiased), if you did.

The experiment was simple: unlike previous posts, I did not specifically add a postscript begging you to rate the post. And indeed, nobody rated the post (in particular, you didn’t). Among other things, this dispelled the doubts I had about whether my writing that postscript really makes any difference at all. So apparently, it does. (The standard cause-correlation error, maybe. But it doesn’t matter. Not to you, anyway)

And now that you are reading this post, you probably know now that even this post is now a psychological experiment. Because I am not going to add a postscript to even this post. But now that you know this a psychological experiment, you’ll behave differently. Which means you’ll be very, very eager to rate this one.

Or on the other hand, you won’t like to think that I somehow put you in a position where I am cleverly dictating your actions, and forcing what you do (i.e. rate posts), and so, you won’t rate this one, after all. But even in that case, I have forced you to do something (i.e. not rate posts), and you won’t like that, either.

Either way, there is no escaping the fact that you concede that I controlled your action. Do what you want.

(UPDATE: Now I see that someone did rate the previous post. That too, after I posted this one. Looks like somebody’s desperate attempt to show how I don’t control them. Well.. I just did)


This post is about nothing. Literally, or at least as far as we can stretch that concept. (Think Seinfeld, if it hasn’t struck you yet)

BTW I saw the first Google Ads appear on the blog. \m/ Don’t bother clicking, I haven’t bothered to configure Adsense. Yet, a good thing, for some reason.

An interesting incident happened today: I was playing some music in iTunes, and a largish download from the iTunes Store was in progress simultaneously.. for some reason, the download stopped and hanged iTunes; but I did not realize that for a long time, because the music did not stop playing, thanks to multithreaded programming. And now I have to wait again while the download is under way. The conclusion is that in rare cases, inventions like multithreaded programming do backfire.

Both JEE and GRE are nasty exams. But these days, I have begun to appreciate GRE more. Among other things, the computer-adaptive nature means that virtually nobody in the world would be doing the exact same questions in that order, as you are. Hence, improvement can be defined only in terms of doing better than ourselves (since there is nobody else to compare to). In contrast, the process of improving in JEE, is about doing better than more and more other people. This fundamental psychological difference translates into this interesting observation: Raising one’s performance in JEE from mediocre to a double-digit rank offers far less new things to learn, than does raising one’s performance in GRE from mediocre to say, 1550+.

And I saw Raagini MMS. In a single word: disappointment. Since a good part of the theme was straight off a combination of The Blaire Witch Project/Paranormal Activity, I was hoping good things. And what was with the weird Marathi ghost, who had a pretty limited number of things to say? After the second or third time she said the same three-four sentences, I could only think of Pi (the movie): Restate my assumptions: 1. Mee chetkin naahi aahe. 2. He ghar maajha aahe. 3. Mee ithun jaanar nahi. etc.

Intelligence Decentralized

(Meta: Some people had warned me about the possibility of the blog “dying” over time.. I am rescuing it with great difficulty, now that I have less free time than when the semester was on.)

(Meta: This post is slightly technical in nature. For one, it is the about the only thing currently on my mind)

It was one of those magical moments in research, when one is trying to solve a problem, and a completely different branch of concepts, sheds insight..

The research problem I am working on, lead me to study what is called Particle Swarm Optimization(PSO). Basically, the solution space is filled with some hypothetical “particles”. In each iteration, we calculate the cost function at the particles’ current positions, and then all particles move some distance towards the one particle which has the least value. It is hoped (but not guaranteed) that along the way, the “swarm” will crawl through most parts of the solution space, and hence, even though the swarm might initially be trying to converge to a local minimum, eventually it will find a global minimum.

The advantage of this technique is that it does not assume any model for the problem or the cost function we are trying to optimize for (In particular, it does not even rely on knowing the analytical expression or form of the cost function). The disadvantage, of course, is that it does not guarantee a solution.

There is a way to trade off part of the advantage to improve chances of a sure solution: Supposing we knew, for instance, that the density of the inflexion points of the cost function (in other words, the sizes of the “valleys”) was less than a certain value.. then we can flood the space with more particles than the necessary threshold, to hope that no local minimum is missed, and hence, the global minimum is not missed, either. (And in fact, really fast convergence becomes possible)

But there is a very different approach, that works by.. change of variables.

By and large, most of us have used change of variables in JEE integration, but only to conveniently change the form of an objective function. Another aspect that we always overlooked, was that it also changes the geometry of the space. And with the right choices, we could get the geometry to be anything we want..

For instance, if we could change the geometry of the solution space from a sphere to a thin torus, we have made it almost a 1D problem, and we have reduced the number of “directions of approach” to the optimum point. now the swarm can actually crawl the whole length of the torus(a wire like object), which was not possible for a sphere (a voluminous object)

A key thing to note, though, is that from within the space, the particles do not know if it’s a torus or a sphere… they just go about hunting the optimal point. Exactly the way we ourselves feel about our universe, I think.

P.S. I had meant this to be a post on swarm intelligence, and had written the title accordingly. But when I started typing, it became something else altogether.

P.P.S. Rate this!