New area code, 410, is just one more set of digits to remember


October 24, 1991|By Jean Marbella

What's in a number? An area code by any other number does not dial as sweet, many Marylanders no doubt will discover on Nov. 1 when their familiar 301 turns into the alien 410.

"It feels like slicing off a part of you," said Robert Kanigel, a Baltimore writer. "There are emotional associations with numbers. I grew up at 1396 East 51st Street in Brooklyn, and even now when I see the numbers 1-3-9-6 somewhere, I get a little thrill."

Mr. Kanigel might have a greater affinity for numbers than the average person -- his most recent book, "The Man Who Knew Infinity," is about a mathematics genius from India -- but even if you're not sentimental about the numbers of your personal past, getting a new area code still can prove problematic.

For one thing, it's yet another number to add to those cluttering up your brain. Think about it: How many different numbers do you have to pull from memory to get through the average day?

Need cash from the money machine? That takes a four-digit number. Need to phone someone? A seven-digit (local) or 10-digit (long-distance) number -- or more, if you may have to try home, office and car phone numbers before connecting. Need to fax (seven or 10 digits), beep (seven, usually) or Federal Express (nine) the person instead? Make a call from a pay phone with your calling card? Seven or 10 digits for the number you're calling; 14 digits to charge it to your own phone. Get into your security-alarmed home, change the program on the StairMaster at the gym, retrieve your messages from the answering machine at home or the voice mail at the office?

Aiieeeeee! Number overload!

Not only are individuals fast approaching number overload, so, too, is the telephone industry -- that is why Maryland is being split into two area codes after sharing a single one since the dawn of the area code era. Too many people have too many phone lines, fax machines, cellular phones and pagers, and the phone company is running out of numbers for all of them.

While it would seem that there are infinite combinations of numbers that could be used for three-digit area codes and seven-digit telephone numbers, the number quickly starts shrinking when you consider all these limitations:

* Due to current telephone technology, area codes have to have 0 or 1 as their second number. That technology is scheduled to change in 1995, but we have to deal with used-up area codes in the meantime.

* The number of possible seven-digit phone numbers is limited by the fact that the first digit can't be 0 or 1 because that would give you the operator or signal the system that you're about to dial long-distance instead of locally. Additionally, the first three numbers can't very well be 411 or 911 because you'd get directory assistance or the emergency assistance system instead.

* When you move and free up your phone number, the phone company doesn't assign that number to some one else for at least six months so that the new people don't keep getting your calls. Some numbers are permanently resigned -- who would want, for example, the police department's old phone number?

The phone system, then, has true boundaries on the number of numbers it can handle. But what about the rest of us? Is there such a thing as too many numbers? At what point does your number-memory system break down and cause you to use your locker combination to retrieve your phone messages, or your calling card number to get money from the money machine?

"In general, nobody knows the limit to human memory," said Tom Landauer, director of the cognitive science research group at Bellcore, the research arm of the telephone industry. "People's vocabularies keep growing throughout life as long as they remain healthy . . . but the question is, are numbers like words?"

In a word, no.

"Numbers are a little more confusable with each other because they come from a smaller 'alphabet,' " Mr. Landauer said. "So it's more of an effort to learn more of them."

And, adding more and more numbers to your "vocabulary" can have a downside, he said.

"The more things you have in your head, the more you have to forget," Mr. Landauer said. "It's like a bucket of water -- the fuller it gets, the faster it leaks."

Which is why some people try to use the same number for as many different codes as they can -- the theory being, the less to remember, the better.

But from a security standpoint, that could be dangerous -- someone could untap all your mysteries in a single stroke.

"You can confuse yourself or confuse the enemy," said Mr. Landauer.

People tend to overstate the difficulty of memorizing numbers; it's really not that hard, he said.

"There's a false belief that you don't remember something because you don't remember it the first time you try," he said.

People often make the mistake of repeating a new number over and over when they're trying to remember a new one, Mr. Landauer said. What they should do instead is space out the memorization process, he said.

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