smart spending

The beauty of numbers finally adds up

Jay MacDonald

My fingers never learned to touch-type them. I've always preferred their word form to the numeric. And like Picasso, I've always viewed the number 7 as an upside-down nose.

I can't handwrite a pleasing 5 to save my life. My 8s also suck. And I can't remember phone numbers, addresses or my gym locker combination.

I totally have NADD -- Numeric Attention Deficit Disorder.

“There's even a name for fear of the number 13: triskaidekaphobia -- which, I think, is also a former Soviet republic.”

But there may be hope, thanks to a sly new book called "Number Freak: From 1 to 200 -- The Hidden Language of Numbers Revealed" by Derrick Niederman.

Niederman has accomplished what nature and nurture could not: He has piqued my interest in numbers. Well, at least the weird histories and freaky coincidences that make them seem more human and less like some alien linguist's version of "Punk'd."

I was unaware that any numbers had personalities or histories to which I might relate, much less 200 of them. But Derrick won me over with a mixture of arcane knowledge, pop culture trivia and sheer math geek enthusiasm.

Batter up!

Take the number 27. It always seemed like the entirely forgettable sort of number that I frequently botch in my check register. Or two noses after a lopsided fistfight.

But Derrick points out that 27 is both the perfect cube -- 3 to the third power -- and the exact number of batters a pitcher would face if he pitched a perfect game.

I still see two noses, but now they're wearing batting helmets.

Or consider unlucky 13. I've never held a grudge against 13 but others have, judging by the number of high-rise buildings that lack a 13th floor. There's even a name for fear of the number 13: triskaidekaphobia -- which, I think, is also a former Soviet republic.

History's most famous triskaidekaphobe was Franklin Roosevelt. Apparently when state dinners would number 13, he would recruit his personal secretary, Missy LeHand, into service to make it a table for 14.

The French even have a word for a professional 14th guest: quatorzieme. Seriously. Please e-mail your resumes and applications directly to Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, not me.

Frankly, there's mass weirdness afoot between America and 13 that runs deeper than our flag, which once had 13 stars and still has 13 stripes representing the 13 original colonies.

Check out the back of a U.S. dollar bill. There are exactly 13 stars above the eagle, steps on the pyramid, vertical bars on the shield, horizontal stripes at the top of the shield, and fruits, arrows and leaves on the olive branch.

I've suspended personal use of dollar bills and the number 13 pending a full congressional investigation.

Pool balls to reality TV

What about 15, you ask? Well, it's the number of pool balls in a rack, the number of backgammon pieces with which you start the game, and the number of letters in "uncopyrightable," the longest English word that does not repeat any letters.

Reality TV stars take note: 15 is also the number of minutes of world fame you are allotted, according to Andy Warhol's truly prescient 1968 prediction. So, tick tock.

Gamers are familiar with 20. It's the number of possible first moves in the game of chess, the number of visible sides on the die used in Dungeons & Dragons and the number of questions in (wait, don't tell me) 20 Questions.

Did'ja know a quarter has exactly 119 grooves in its side? Or that there are 78 cards in the standard tarot deck? Or that if you alternate strikes and spares for an entire game in bowling, you will have attained what is sometimes called the Dutch 200? Or that chess champion Bobby Fischer lived to age 64, the exact number of squares on a chess board?

Yeah, me neither.

My journey into this strange landscape would not be complete without checking in on 42.

You may recall from Douglas Adams' essential "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" that when the super-computer Deep Thought was asked to calculate the "Ultimate Answer to the Great Question of Life, the Universe and Everything," it replied, "42."

Deep Thought then added, "I think the problem, to be quite honest with you, is that you've never actually known what the question is."

Kinda like me with numbers.

Veteran Bankrate contributing editor Jay MacDonald lives in Austin, Texas. If you have a comment or suggestion about this column, write to Bank Shots.

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