Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

The Man Who Loved Only Numbers

May 2, 2011

This Wednesday, May 4, I’m giving a public talk called The Man Who Loved Only Numbers at 6:30 PM at the Baruch College Conference Center (on the 14th Floor at 55 Lexington Ave. at 24th St.). Light food and refreshments will be served. I’ll be speaking about the eccentric Hungarian genius Paul Erdős, who lived out of two tattered bags for more than two decades, crisscrossing four continents and chasing mathematical problems in pursuit of lasting beauty and ultimate truth. After my talk, Joel Spencer, one of Erdős’s mathematical colleagues, will lead the audience in an interactive game—everyone will get a deck of cards—based on Erdős’s ideas. The evening is underwritten by the Simons Foundation and the Museum of Mathematics, an awesome new institution that will undoubtedly rock Manhattan when it opens late in 2012 (OK, I may be biased; I’m an adviser to the museum, which just raised $20 million and signed a lease for 20,000 square feet off Madison Park). Please spread the word about my May 4th talk to fellow geeks, and those who love them. The event is free, but you need a ticket by registering here.



January 25, 2011

Some people are scared that Google will take over the world.  They are worried about lack of privacy and potential abuse from the Internet behemoth knowing everything that they do online.  Others like author Nicholas Carr are worried that the Googlization of everything means that we’ll all stop reading and thinking.  Today I visited Google’s New York office, and I can report that Google is a gentle giant.  Life will actually be way more fun once the company achieves total world domination.  We’ll all be happier, I think, as long as Google treats us as well as it treats its employees.  Lunch will be free, as will dinner when you work late—and the food will be surprisingly varied.  (I had maki maki with bok choy and sushi rice, and shards of butternut squash from the veggie raw bar, but I didn’t have to go all healthy and could have had fried chicken and other fatty dishes instead.)  Anytime you need a break, you can retire to the Ping Pong, Fussball, billiards, and exercise-machine lounge.  Or to the sandless box filled with multi-colored plastic orbs the size of tennis balls.  Or to the expansive Lego play room.  And whenever you need to nap, you can kick back in a reclining chair with your head in a pod and watch Google TV.  Then there’s the free coffee and hot chocolate bar.  If your laptop is misbehaving, you just bring it to the repair center and a friendly IT guy will fix it on the spot.


January 17, 2011

Applications to the next freshman class at Harvard are up 15 percent over last year, a New York Times blog reported.  The blogger speculated that the increase to 35,000 was due to the college’s sweetening its financial aid packages.  But I wonder if admissions are also up because of  “The Social Network’s” glamorization of Harvard as a training ground for postpubescent billionaires.  The film may also be responsible for an increase in job applications to Silicon Valley.   There are scenes of programmers who are too distracted to code because girls are hopping around in their panties.

Black Humor

January 17, 2011

Cathie Black, the print-media executive turned New York City school chancellor, still remembers how to sell newspapers.  At one of her first public meetings with parents, she handed the tabs a grabby headline when she joked that birth control was the answer to overcrowded classrooms.

Drinking Water, Lithium, and Suicide

August 8, 2010

Over at my day job, at, a debate is brewing about whether Washington should spike our drinking water with lithium because two studies concluded that places with higher levels of naturally occurring lithium in their drinking water had significantly lower suicide rates.  The argument put forward by bioethicist Jacob Appel was interesting but spooked those who think the government has no right to alter our moods, even if 13,000 lives might be saving by doing so.  He argued that people who really objected could just opt out by buying bottled water.

Then a geneticist at Yale weighed in and argued that the studies showing the life-affirming effect of drinking-water lithium were pretty shoddy.  Then I jumped in with a wrap-up on the subject called Death by Cruise Ship, Lithium, and Suicide.

Martin Gardner (1914-2010), RIP

May 26, 2010

My first journalistic assignment straight out of college was editing Martin’s Mathematical Games column in Scientific American. He kept a file on every number. Later, when I wrote a wacky math and brain teaser column under the pseudonym Dr. Crypton, he was generous. I’d call him up and ask him to tell me about a number, say 153. He’d look in his 153 file and report back: 153 is the smallest number that’s the sum of the cube of it’s digits. It’s the number of red shoes Imelda Marcos owned. Etc.

Me at The Moth (and, oh yes, two Nobel Prizewinners)

May 18, 2009

As part of the upcoming World Science Festival, I’m telling a story at a special performance of The Moth called “Matter: Stories of Atoms and Eves” at the Players Club on the evening of Friday, June 12.  I guess I’ll have to speak slowly so that I don’t lose my fellow storytellers, Leon Lederman and Paul Nurse, both Noble laureates.

Paul Hoffman’s “Geeking Out” Video

April 18, 2009

Here’s video of a 20-minute talk I gave on my dad’s Ping-Pong hustling, my paying my Harvard tuition in cash, the 60 million Americans who broke the law in bed every night, chess obsession, and mathematical beauty.  (In the video, my talk starts just after minute 3:00 on the time stamp.)  The webzine Gelf asked me to speak at their first “Geeking Out” evening at the Jan Larsen Art Studio in DUMBO, Brooklyn.  In advance of my talk, Gelf published an interview with me called The Man Who Loved Numbers, Writing, Puzzles, and Chess.

I’m Now Rich and am Helping Poor South Africans!

March 20, 2009

Long gone is the time when my inbox was jammed with emails promising how I could be longer and stiffer and please her more.  I doubt the purveyors of male-anatomical nirvana have concluded that I do not suffer from penile dysmorphophobia.  Perhaps they’ve stopped sending out these emails because too few respondents are falling for their herbal enhancers and science-fair vacuum pumps.  Or else maybe spam filters have gotten better and are diverting their sales pitches.  I looked in my spam box to find out.  There were 868 messages that had accumulated over the past month.  I wasn’t about to read them, and so I did a word search on manhood, big, satisfy her, penis, and all the slang terms for penis I could think of.  Weeding out duplicates, I found 17 such messages.

What then were the other 851?  I scanned the subject fields and saw that the vast majority were make-big-bucks-now and get-rich-quick schemes.  The spam filters now do a good job of intercepting messages of the kind from the Bank of Ghana offering you a piece of a long dormant savings account of a deceased gazillionaire with no identifiable next of kin.

This week, though, one of these crazy bank messages slipped past Google’s spam censors and into my inbox.  Google is a greenish company, and maybe the message made it by because it appealed to their liberal sentiments: Not only had I won the South African lottery, I was helping to eradicate world poverty (although I’m not sure how).  The email is so delightful that I want to share it, despite the warning that revealing the contents could expose me to “impersonation or double claiming” of my substantial winnings.  I’ll take the risk.

Attention: Winner

This is to inform you that your email Address has been selected as one of this year winners in the 2010 SOUTH AFRICA LOTTO INTL. PROMOTION..

You have won the sum of £800.000.00 Pounds (Eight hundred thousand Great British Pounds) cash
credited to you or your company’s email address, attached to file number
EML.26EPG/0012-5526/0905.1/6/27/39/47-1-8 which falls into our European booklet.

All selected winners were selected through our Email Lottery Random System Selection (ELRSS) from
700,000,000 emails submitted from Middle East, Asia, Africa, Canada, Europe and North America and
Oceania as part of our International promotions Program.

This amount is from total prize cash of (£ Pounds) randomly distributed among ten (10)
international winners selected email address by our Email Lottery Random System Selection (ELRSS)
and your email address With the International Association of Gaming Regulators (IAGR).

This promotional lottery is the 3rd of its kind with the intension to sensitize the public. This
promotion is to enhance the standard of living and to help eradicate poverty around the world.

For further processing of the claim of your winning prize, you are to contact our Europe fiduciary claims department for more information as regards procedures to claim your prize.


Please you are advice to keep your winning information from the public and relatives to avoid
impersonation or double claiming and anybody under the age of 24 is automatically disqualified from this program.

Congratulations again from all our staff and thank you for being part of our promotional program.


Fear of 27

March 16, 2009

“Twenty-seven has long had negative connotations, as it is the age at which many popular musicians died, including Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Brian Jones, Janis Joplin and Kurt Cobain.”  So concludes an article in London’s Telegraph.

But the bad news for my younger friends is that mental powers start to deteriorate at age 27, according to new research at the University of Virginia.