I was in Portland, Oregon last summer on August 8th. And I was truthfully able to tell some acquaintances, "Hey, today is 8/8/08, and the last time I saw you was on 6/6/06!" No, I don't recall anything special happening on 7/7/07. And who knows what I'll be doing on October 10th next year.

I'd like to take this opportunity though to talk about numbers and people's obsession with them. Mathematics is a passion of mine, so yes, you could say I'm obsessed with numbers in some ways. But there's a difference between formally studying and being in awe of the mathematical properties of special numbers such as Pi (3.14159...), and freaking out over arithmetic that somehow equates "GEORGE W BUSH" with the number 666. Even in the 21st century, many people are still convinced by apocalyptic "calculations" like the latter. Numbers and calculations do have a way of astounding some people.

I'm sure many of you have seen "mind reading" websites that are able to guess a symbol or a card you're thinking of just after answering a few simple math questions. This is actually a branch of stage magic called *mentalism*. I learned my first mentalism trick around the age of 8, from a Disney activity coloring book. I still remember the illustrated Goofy showing how to do it. It went like this. "Pick a number. Now multiply your number by 3. Add 6 to the total, and divide the final result by 3. What do you get?" Upon hearing the person's reply, you (the magician) then immediately tell them what their original number was.

Isn't this AMAZING?!? Not really if you actually sit down to do the algebra. If x is your original number, then the calculation is (3x+6)/3 which simplifies to x+2. So the final answer is always going to be 2 more than the original number. When you hear the participant's result, you simply subtract in your head 2 from that number, and (provided they made no arithmetic mistakes) know the original number. And that was how the secret was presented in the activity book: "Secretly subtract 2 from the number they give you, and that will always be their original number!"

There are countless other ways to make "amazing" calculations like this. Just about any book on magic tricks will include a few of them. The reason they work as magic tricks, is because the magician gives the impression that the choice and result are either completely random or way too much for a normal person to calculate inside of their heads. It looks either beyond coincidental, or too complicated for a human mind to calculate at lightning speeds. The secret, of course, is that it's neither. Like most other magic tricks, it's just "smoke and mirrors". In this case, the distracting smoke is the *illusion *that the math is complicated.

Here's another mathematical magician's secret: *random numbers are not really all that random when a human picks them*. Another magic trick I had as a kid was a business card that said "PICK A NUMBER"along the top, and "1 2 3 4" listed underneath. Do that now. Pick one of those numbers.

After asking the person which number they chose, I would then flip over the card, which read "Why do all ___ people pick 3?" The blank was for inserting whatever word you liked: "stupid", "sexy", etc.

Did you pick 3? You would think that the chances of me guessing that correctly are 25%, but the reality is that when posed the question, most people (over 80% of them, I believe) will in fact pick "3". Yet if we asked a computer to randomly pick the number, it would pick 3 just as likely as it would pick 1, 2, or 4. It's because of our human bias. Picking 1 or 4 doesn't "feel" like we're picking a random number, because these are numbers that fall on the end. Or they're numbers we hear if being asked "Pick a number between 1 and 4". So we find ourselves picking something "in the middle" because it just seems like it would be a more "random" place to "hide" one's guess. 3 seems a little stranger than 2, because it's further away from the beginning and it doesn't seem as simple of a number as 1 or 2. Thus, most people end up choosing 3.

Now let's get back to what Dogbert says in the comic strip above.

In a somewhat similarly ways, there are sadly still a lot of adults in the 21st century who dupe themselves into believing the magic of numbers, in instances where it simply doesn't exist. For example:

- "The world is going to end in 2012! Really!"
- "Every time I look at my alarm clock, it says 11:11. This must MEAN something."
- "If you translate the words of the Bible in to numbers, you always get '777' for passages that reference Jesus. You also get '666' for the name of the Pope [or President, or some other politician]. It's a miracle! The Bible must be divine!"

The first one of these is easily explained by popularity and hysteria. People seem to forget that a decade ago, people were "convinced" that the world would come to an end in 2000. A further study of history shows that people were equally "convinced" that the world would end in 1000, and many dates before and after. The Jehovah's Witnesses (an apocalyptic cult, best known for ringing your doorbell on Saturday mornings to come and proselytize you) made MANY exact predictions throughout their history, only to be proven wrong again and again. Check out this partial list of failed end-of-the-world predictions.

#2 and #3 are largely due to a psychological phenomenon called the confirmation bias. I think this was beautifully summed up in one of my all-time favorite quotes, which is from the movie Pi:

*"When your mind becomes obsessed with anything, you will filter everything else out and find the thing everywhere."*

To elaborate, you tend to remember the things you're obsessed about, and forget the things that aren't so interesting. This gives the illusion that something is happening more often than it really is. Why does that clock "always" seem to say '11:11' or '3:33' when you turn to look? Why does your lucky number, say 8, "always" show up? It's because you're not placing any emotional investment in all of the times that it *doesn't* show up. You do actually look at that clock more than twice a day. But a time like "3:04" isn't all that exciting looking. It *looks *"random" because it doesn't look interesting.

As for #3, let me start by saying this. As a man who holds both a Bachelor's and Master's degree in mathematics, trust me when I say: **it's not all that hard to play around with numbers until they give you the result that you want to see**. If you want to relate a certain person or name with the number 666, you'll find some way of doing it. All it proves is how creative you are at dreaming up number game associations and doing arithmetic. This is not science. It's mysticism. Science examines data and comes up with a conclusion, whereas this sort of mysticism starts off with a conclusion and plays with the data until it fits.

I could write an entire book of how this goes wrong and how I can debunk all of the "gematria" alphabet systems out there, but instead I'll just leave you with one example. The Bible Code was a book that showed how you can take the letters of the Bible and after lining up the columns in a certain way and circling every so many letters, you could get all of these historical predictions (e.g., one column down reads "LINCOLN" and diagonally you find the letters "BOOTH" and "ASSASSINATION"). Christian zealots point to exercises like this as "proof" that the Bible (the KJV English translation, of course) is eternal and "predicted" such events. Again, it looks impressive, but it's not. It looks like the odds are astronomical, but they're not. Given the vast size of the Bible, it's very easy to "find" things like this if play around with the letters long enough.

The author said "When my critics find a message about the assassination of a prime minister encrypted in Moby Dick, I'll believe them." Well, guess what? Somebody did. So much for the Bible being a special divination device.

But I'd like to end this blog entry on a positive note. Not all number biases are harmful. We like counting down the last 10 seconds of our calendar year and throwing confetti on December 31st. We like celebrating the anniversary of our birth date or wedding, especially if the number is "Biiigg and roooound!", ending in a 0. Like I said, I'm a mathematician; I love numbers. Besides giving a way to quantify the unknown, they also add a nice spice to life. So happy 9/9/09, everybody! And happy birthday, Mom.

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