Monday, February 16, 2009

25 Random Things About Me

1. When I was about ten years old, I shook the hand of Hubert Humphrey at a political rally in Philadelphia. Immediately afterwards, the crowd pushed me against the platform and I was almost crushed to death.

2. I have some metal screws in my left knee, which were put in after I tore my anterior cruciate ligament playing ultimate frisbee.

3. I have one extremely odd talent: I can usually tell, just by looking at the fonts contained in a single page of a published mathematics paper, what journal the paper appeared in, and I can often estimate the year the paper appeared.

4. I almost died at a Bruce Springsteen concert in Oakland, California in the early 1980's from an asthma attack brought on by people smoking cigarettes.

5. My favorite number is 43.

6. One of my favorite songwriters is someone few people have ever heard of: Michael Peter Smith. He wrote The Dutchman, among other songs. (He is not to be confused with the insipid Christian songwriter Michael W. Smith.)

7. I really dislike jazz, mostly because I don't understand it. Nearly all jazz just sounds like random noise to me.

8. At my first talk at a mathematics conference, Paul Erdős was in the audience. He promptly fell asleep, and I felt very disappointed. Later, I was delighted to receive a request from him for a reprint.

9. I was almost shot in Chicago when I was about seven years old. My father had taken me on a business trip, and we were walking down Michigan Avenue when a man ran past me and knocked me down. When I got up, I turned around and looked into the barrel of a gun, held by a policeman who was chasing a bank robber -- the man who had knocked me down. My father pushed me up against the wall of the building and covered me with his body so I wouldn't get shot. The policeman ran past and captured the bank robber without a shot. We walked past as the robber was sprawled on the sidewalk with a bag of money spread out beside him.

10. The longest race I ever ran was the "20 km de Paris", which I ran in 1982. I finished in about two hours.

11. I broke the middle finger of my right hand playing 16-inch softball -- which is played without a mitt - in Chicago, Illinois in 1984 or so. When I caught the ball that broke my finger, I didn't feel any pain, although I did notice that my finger was bent at a funny angle. It wasn't until I tried to move it back to its normal position that it began to hurt. When I went to the emergency room, the doctor took one look at my finger and said, "Been playing 16-inch softball?" The world's expert on the mallet-finger injury lives in Chicago, where he operates daily on people with this injury. When I had my surgery, I asked the doctor if I would be able to play piano afterwards. He said, "Can you play the piano now?". I guess he had heard the joke before. I had to teach for several weeks with my middle finger in a cast, which delighted my students no end.

12. I speak with a strong Philadelphia accent. I was once walking down the street in Chicago and a car approached me, slowed down, and the driver rolled down the window and asked for directions. I said no more than about ten words, something along the lines of "You go down to the next corner, turn right, and look for the sign" -- at which point the driver said to me, "Oh, you're from Philadelphia!" I said, "Yes, how did you know?" He said, "Well, I'm a linguist."

13. One of my best friends from high school was killed in a fall while studying ayurvedic medicine in India. He would have been a great doctor. I still miss him.

14. My favorite dessert is banana cream pie.

15. I once spent the night in Penn Station in New York City, waiting for the first train from New York back to Philadelphia. There were many strange people there. One man looked at me and went "mmmmm". Then he said it again, a little louder. When I turned to look at him, he shouted "MMMMM!" at me at the top of his lungs.

16. My middle name is "Outlaw".

17. My favorite living mathematician is H. W. Lenstra, Jr. .

18. My last name means "governor" in Hebrew, but I'm not Jewish.

19. My favorite programming language is APL, and I still use it frequently.

20. I think being a university professor is one of the best jobs in the world. But not everyone would enjoy it.

21. I have taken some very long bike rides, including Paris to Bordeaux and Vienna to Warsaw.

22. Two of my favorite movies are The Great Escape and Local Hero.

23. My grandfather, a Russian immigrant, sold "notions" out of a basket on the streets of Philadelphia. He knew very few words of English, and whenever anyone asked him if he had something particular for sale (needle, thread, etc.), he would say "Look in basket!" Once a woman ran up to him and asked frantically, "Have you seen my child?" He replied, "Look in basket!"

24. My favorite animal is the moose.

25. My favorite French singers are Renaud and Georges Brassens.


Barry said...

Have you tried Art Tatum for your jazz problem? If he doesn't work, never mind -- I don't know.

Takis Konstantopoulos said...

My favorite Brassens song is the "voir le nombril de la femme d'un flic".

Anonymous said...

Nice! But I wonder how random these things really are...

Anonymous said...

Shallit is better translated as "Ruler", rather than "Governor". The word for "Governor" would be "Moshel".

Jeffrey Shallit said...


I wonder if there is a distinction in meaning between ancient and modern Hebrew. My father always told me that "shallit" meant "governor", and there seems to be some support for this here.

Jit Bose said...

5. I am curious. Why is 43 your favorite number?

7. What is your definition of Jazz? What kind of music do you like?

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Hi, Jit. 43 is my favorite number because it is the number of letters in your first and last names, reversed!

As for jazz, I mean anything that is labeled as jazz in your local record store: John Coltrane, Django Reinhardt, Herbie Hancock, Miles Davis, etc. Especially Miles Davis. I hate Miles Davis.

YAB said...

Jazz - try listening to Dave Brubeck's Take Five. If that sounds like noise to you then, yes, jazz probably isn't your thing.

(Late Mile Davis - when he went way into atonality - is very hard. )

Anonymous said...

Shallit is great, but what about Outlaw? Can you explain your middle name?

Mine is Constantine.

~~ Paul

Anonymous said...

Sorry, your favorite number is off by one. Douglas Adams will be so disappointed in you.

Deane Yang said...


Sorry but I hadn't looked at your blog in a long time. I was very happy to see "Local Hero" cited. This has always been a favorite of Alice and me. Recently, we brought our 10 year old son Nick to a special screening of the film in New York that was followed by an interview of Peter Riegert We all enjoyed it very much.

As for jazz, do Ella Fitzgerald and Diana Krall count? Another favorite of ours is Cesaria Evora, who sings Cape Verde blues. And another one of our favorite movies is "Fabulous Baker Boys".


Jeffrey Shallit said...

"Outlaw" is my mother's maiden name. It's a pretty common custom to give children their mother's maiden name, and "Outlaw" is a pretty common surname in North Carolina.