## Monday, March 2, 2009

### Jesus Shaves ... With Occam's Razor

I got an email the other day containing a mathematical brain teaser (Ooh! Ooh! Spoiler alert!) in which you were given a series of numbers, and the task is to figure out what the next number is. The answer is the password to a spreadsheet, and you put your name on the list and forward it. Everyone after you sends you a dollar and you’re automatically enrolled in MENSA and you get invited to secret meetings of the Carlyle Group to set global zinc prices and your dog stops biting you. All kinds of cool stuff, just for figuring out the puzzle!

So the numerical series is this:

1, 2, 6, 42, 1806 …

As an added incentive, there was a list of elapsed times that it takes for members of various professions to solve it. Mathematicians: 2 minutes, engineers: 4 minutes, lawyers: never, etc. I’m sure these times are well-researched and quite factual, seeing as how they’re cited in an email and all.

Anyway, I came up with the solution in about 20 seconds, which isn’t so much a result of anything resembling intelligence, it’s just that I like doing that kind of stuff and those types of puzzles are all pretty similar, so they get easier over time.

Imagine my shock, then, when the spreadsheet wouldn’t open. I was thinking I was all that and a can of spam, and was ready to start working on solving the Gaza crisis (which I figured would only take 2-3 hours, tops, because after all, I must be some sort of Super Genius on the level of Wile E. Coyote, right?), and the goddamned spreadsheet wouldn’t open. Talk about having your life ripped apart at the seams – I mean, the wind was literally knocked out of me. It was as if my whole cheerleader life had been a lie.

So I go back over my solution, which was simply that each successive number is the previous number multiplied by the next highest prime number:

1*2=2
2*3=6
6*7=42
42*43=1,806
1,806*1,811=3,270,666

Simple enough. Simple enough and fucking wrong.

Turns out the sequence is such that each successive number is the previous number multiplied by the next integer, disirregardless of its primacy, so the next number would be 1,806*1,807=3,263,442.

I have no idea why I tend to make things more complex than they are. It's the same with everything - math puzzles, relationships, whatever. Why can’t I grasp that sometimes things are just what they seem, and it’s pointless at best and potentially harmful to see things that aren’t there? Why must I try to inject some hidden meaning into everything, to chase those nonexistent ghosts around my head like so many mythical leprechauns?

Probably because I’m fairly stupid.

I was totally gonna solve that Gaza thing, too.