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The Inverted 96

We have all heard of the classic ‘two railway tracks’ riddle. The premise is simple, and its implications/variations diverse.

Two railway tracks ran in parallel. One used regularly, and the other unused for years. Children were playing on the railway tracks. The used track had five children playing on it while a lone child sat playing by itself on the unused track. A train was approaching.

Now, in this situation, if given the power to change tracks, and alter the route of the train, what would you do?

There were so many heated answers to this hypothetical scenario.

I would just let one child go and save the five other children.

Obvious, direct, immediate response to a situation. Almost a knee-jerk reaction. Commendable answer because it did not require much processing and was the first to occur. But great minds were scandalised. How could you not think of the risk factors? The scenarios that gave rise to this situation?

There is a reason why the track was left unused. If I try to save five children there is a chance that the train going on that unused track might get into an accident because the track might be closed for repairs.

This answer satisfied the thinkers and the movers. People who applied real logic to hypothetical scenarios and satisfied themselves that they had acted for the best, and the greater good.

But from then on, the scenarios shifted, and questions began.

How could you just callously discuss the destruction of children?

Why were they there in the first place?

What could you do if you were the driver and found these children playing on the tracks?

Were the children who played on the used track not wrong? Did they not know the risks?

How did their parents even allow children to play on railway tracks, used or otherwise?

From a simple, hypothetical question found in Quantitative Aptitude section of papers, this became entire (separate) discourses on anything ranging from the risks of parenting to a commentary on the human callousness in discussing the lives of children as mere objectified parameters on riddles.

And yet, strangely, very few of the raging discussions focused on the two core points.

Could the train be stopped?

Was there a way to save all of the children?

The main reason why this was not discussed is quite simple, alarmingly so.

These parameters were not debated because the ‘riddle’ directly discounted them. Those obviously unproblematic options were not the ones you should even discuss. They were prerequisites. Unchangeable. Undebatable.

It was a hypothetical scenario after all. Anything can be allowed, and forbidden.

While it was not easy to debate the other options, the presence of a prerequisite condition gave the notion of control. A clear demarcation of what can be altered, and what was fixed. It was easier then, with that base premise, to build up your case, with the agenda that suited you and with the discussion focusing on the scenarios you cared about.

Humanitarian? Well, focus on the outrage about the children.

Logician? Think of the 5 versus 1 versus the 1000 people in the train.

Stickler for rules? Stick to the universally acceptable answer.

Worrier? Think of all the things that could go wrong, and not mention the solutions.

Over-thinker? Create non-existent problems and improbable solutions.

But, of course, don’t question the premise. The prerequisite. At best, laugh at the absurdity of the riddle and pass on.

We as people are conditioned so much to accept prerequisites without question that the idea to object or alter ‘the given’ does not usually occur to us even under dire circumstances. Those who dare to deviate from this path are ridiculed in their time as dreamers and praised posthumously as great thinkers.

The box of human thinking allows for the prerequisites because it sets the base that brings some amount of order. A condition exists. And adhering to it would ensure that there is a semblance of control – at least a little bit, in what could otherwise divert into lawless chaotic directions.

And those who broke this base were ‘thinking out of the box’.

There is a reason why most adults find it hard to ‘solve’ children’s riddles, because of the inclusion of parameters, conditions, appendices, logic, emotions and the general feel of knowing more things and having causes to follow – ending up complicating the simple question with multiple options.

A child would see things as they are, offer solutions that seem ridiculously simple, and often leave us wondering why we had to include other factors that affected what must have been straightforward decisions. Not all of life’s problems can be approached without the analysis of risk factors. But most of the problems that arise out of this analysis can be avoided with ease.

While the grown, adult logicians’ minds think of all the ways in which a situation can be approached, only to leave more roads unexplored than before, some of life’s most important solutions lie in the simple trick of looking at problems as they are, with their face value, instead of thinking of all the things that could go wrong, eventually finding out ways to make them so.

Oftentimes, the shift in perspective helps clear out huge problems, for things like belief and faith (which are, for some people, eventually the solution that trumps all other options), are intuitive for the children who simply do not see other options unless taught to do so.

The problem is presented, and the solution with it, for the mind that cares enough to open up and see.

Maybe, for once, it is better to not think of all the things that have gone wrong in the past, and all the dire implications for the future. Living in the moment is underrated, underappreciated, but often a forgotten route that creates peace amidst turbulence, and ordo ab chao.

An inverted 96 is still 96, after all.

And if you just wondered about reverse-printed digits and the possibility of individually inverting digits, welcome to the over-complicated world of cautionary risk analysis and theorising based on all ‘facts’.

A fine line exists between analysing all factors to take informed decisions, and bringing out improbably abject scenarios that hold us back from taking that necessary step ahead. Finding that line requires experience. Not crossing it requires patience. But learning to shift it? Brilliance.


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