Archive for the 'Anecdotes' Category

Walter Oi, 1929 – 2013

A long time ago, when I had just started teaching at the University of Rochester, a blind man marched into my office, adopted a commanding stance, and announced in a booming voice that “it takes 150 condoms to prevent one birth in India”. Then he turned on his heels and marched out, leaving me to wonder what he had divided into what to get that number.

That’s what it was like working with Walter Oi, who died peacefully in his sleep on Christmas Eve after a long illness. Walter loved odd facts, and he loved to share them. It was Walter who told me that when all frozen pies had 12 inch diameters, apple was the most popular flavor — but when 7 inch pies came on the market, apple immediately fell to something like fifth place. His explanation: When you’re buying a 12 inch pie, the whole family has to agree on a flavor, and apple wins because it’s everyone’s second choice. With 7 inch pies, family members each get their pick, and almost nobody chooses apple.

Walter loved facts so much that he sometimes invented new ones, because the world could always use more. One day he walked into the department coffee room and announced that “A one hundred pound man and a three hundred pound man have exactly the same quantity of blood.” When this was met with considerable skepticism, Walter responded as he always responded to skepticism — by repeating himself more forcefully: “A one hundred pound man and a three hundred pound man have EXACTLY the same quantity of blood”.

In those pre-Internet days, some of us owned a device called an “encyclopedia”, which was sort of like a hardcopy printout of Wikipedia, but with fewer Simpsons references. A couple of my more enterprising colleagues went home and checked their encyclopedias that night, and came back the next morning to report that according to authoritative sources, a man’s blood volume is roughly proportional to his body weight. Walter’s response: “Nope. A one hundred pound man and a three hundred pound man have EXACTLY the same quantity of blood.”

If you watched carefully and didn’t blink, you might have caught him suppressing a smile.

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The Ballmer Legacy

I just tried to log into my Hotmail account and got a message saying that for security reasons, I have to enter a code, which will be sent to the mobile number or email address of my choice. So I typed in one of my other email addresses, they sent me a code, I entered the code, and I logged into Hotmail.

We all see the problem here, right?

I think maybe all the smart people left Microsoft in embarrassment over MSWord.

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A Sip of Monstrous Moonshine


You and a stranger have been instructed to meet up sometime tomorrow, somewhere in New York City. You (and the stranger) can decide for yourselves when and where to look for each other. But there can be no advance communication. Where do you go?

Me, I’d be at the front entrance to the Empire State Building at noon, possibly missing my counterpart, who might be under the clock at Grand Central Station. But, because there are only a small number of points in New York City that stand out as “extra-special”, we’ve at least got a chance to find each other.

A Schelling point is something that stands out from the background so sharply that we can expect people to coordinate around it. Schelling points are on my mind this week, because I’ve just heard David Friedman give a fascinating talk about the evolution of property rights, and Schelling points play a big role in his story. But that story is not the topic of this post.

Instead, I’m curious about the Schelling points that say, two mathematicians, or two economists, or two philosophers, or two poets, or two street hustlers might converge on. Suppose, for example, that you asked two mathematicians each to separately pick a number between 200 and 300, with a prize if their answers coincide. I’m guessing they both go for 256, the only power of two within range.

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So That’s Why It’s Called Graphic Design

A few years back, the British Office of Government Commerce wanted a new logo for etching on (among other things) mousepads and pens, and paid a graphic design firm over $20,000 to come up with this:

Apparently it never occurred to anyone that mousepads and pens are frequently turned on their sides.

Et voila:

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Chain Reaction


If you study economics, or statistics, or chemistry, or mathematical biology, or thermodynamics, you’re sure to encounter the notion of a Markov chain — a random process whose future depends probabilistically on the present, but not on the past. If you travel through New York City, randomly turning left or right at each corner, then you’re following a Markov process, because the probability that you’ll end up at Carnegie Hall depends on where you are now, not on how you got there.

But even if you work with Markov processes every day, you’re probably unaware of their origins in a dispute about free will, Christianity, and the Law of Large Numbers.

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Loose Ends

I’m eager to summarize the (largely excellent) discussion of last week’s nightmares and to talk about what it all means. I’ll surely get to that in the next few days. But meanwhile, we have another loose end to tie up.

I recently asked what comes next in the following series:

The answer, of course, is

Please raise your hand if you found this intuitively obvious.

In case your hand didn’t go up, consider the following sequence:

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Touched by Greatness

Roger Godement, 1970I continue to be bowled over daily by the high quality of the discussion at MathOverflow, and the prominence of many of the frequent participants. But this one was special:

A newbie poster asked for a pointer to a proof of the “de Rham-Weil” theorem. There’s a bit of ambiguity about what theorem this might refer to, but I had a pretty good of what the poster meant, so I responded that the earliest reference I know of is in Grothendieck‘s 1957 Tohoku paper — which led another poster to ask if this meant de Rham and Weil had had nothing to do with it.

This triggered an appearance from the legendary Roger Godement (had he been lurking all this time?), now aged 91 and one of the last survivors of the extraordinary circle of French mathematicians who rewrote the foundations of topology and geometry in the mid-20th century and changed the look, feel and content of mathematics forever. I tend to think of them as gods and demigods. Godement’s indispensable Theorie des Faisceaux was my constant companion in late graduate school. And now he has emerged from retirement for the express purpose of chastising me:

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Relatively Speaking

With a hat tip to our occasional commenter Ron….

Remember those faster-than-light neutrinos? The ones that threatened to overturn relativity, and along with it everything we think we know about how the universe works?

Well, it turns out that maybe they weren’t faster than light after all — they might have only appeared to be faster than light because their arrival time was mismeasured. The mismeasurement was (it seems) caused by the researchers’ failure to account for the effects of ….. relativity!

I hear an echo of the great ongoing debate between Einstein and Bohr on the foundations of quantum mechanics. Continue reading ‘Relatively Speaking’

The Noble Savage

savageLeonard Jimmie Savage was a pioneer in modern decision theory and a disciple of Frank Plumpton Ramsey, whose story occupies the final chapter of The Big Questions.

In 1954, Savage wrote a lovely and highly influential little book called The Foundations of Statistics, which starts with six simple axioms about human preferences — one of which says that if you prefer a dog to a cat, then you’ll prefer an 11% chance of a dog to an 11% chance of a cat (and likewise for any other percentage). From these axioms, he drew deep and surprising conclusions about human behavior. This work underlies much of modern game theory, decision theory and economics in general.

According to legend (and I have reason to suspect this legend is actually true), Professor Savage was giving a talk one day when he was interrupted by the French econometrician (and then-future Nobel Prize winner) Maurice Allais, who asked Savage if he’d be willing to answer two questions about his own preferences. Savage said sure. These were the questions:

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How to Get Rich

monopolymanA few years ago, billionaire David Koch donated $25 million to his alma mater, Deerfield Academy. From his presentation speech:

You might ask: How does David Koch happen to have the wealth to be so generous? Well, let me tell you a story. It all started when I was a little boy. One day, my father gave me an apple. I soon sold it for five dollars and bought two apples and sold them for ten. Then I bought four apples and sold them for twenty. Well, this went on day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year, until my father died and left me three hundred million dollars.

Now on the one hand I love this story. But wouldn’t it have been more plausible if he’d sold the first apple for, say, a nickel?

Well, maybe not much more plausible. Doubling your money every day, it takes just a little over a month to grow a nickel into three hundred million dollars.

I still like the story though.

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