Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s nickname for my father: ‘Maestro’

One of the things that I reflected upon after Papa died was a series of coincidences that preceded his death. In November 2018, I wrote the following (emphasis mine):

I’m not one to assign meanings to coincidences, but the timing of particular events before my father’s death was uncanny. In no particular order:

⦿ My father completed the manuscript for his first (and ultimately only) book, which will be published in 2019.

⦿ My daughter awoke two days before he died, thinking that Dedushka Shurik was with her in the apartment. My wife explained that it was a dream, and she tried calling my father in America so that our little girl could speak with her grandfather, but he had already gone to bed. Learning of this, my father glowed with love and pride for what turned out be his final two days in this world, telling everybody that he spoke with that his granddaughter had dreamed of him.

⦿ My brother, who had been living away from home that summer, returned to live with my parents due to problems with campus housing. He was present at the hospital when our father passed away.

⦿ On the night before he passed away, my father, usually averse to crowds and parties, decided to go with my brother and mother to a friend’s home on the shore to watch a brilliant, beautiful fireworks display. It was the last thing he would see before waking up with shortness of breath the following morning.

⦿ Several days before my father died, and after three years of soulful struggling with being unable to pray, I had begun praying again privately in my home. I had no inkling that I would soon be reciting kaddish every day for my father, but my gates of prayer had already been unbolted when the time came; I didn’t feel forced into prayer by kaddish.


Well, it is now nearly 2021, almost 2½ years after Papa died, and his book has finally been published. I am very proud of my father for completing this intensive project and very thankful to all of the brilliant people who took his work all the way to publication following his death.

Papa’s first and only book

Foremost among those who I am thankful for is my father’s friend Nassim Nicholas Taleb, of Black Swan fame. It was he who encouraged my father to write a book, and it was he who suggested a subject. Dr. Taleb was very fond of my father, and he offered to write a foreword for the book, which, ultimately, he penned after Papa had died.

Dr. Taleb posted his foreword (really: tribute) online, and I was moved to tears upon reading it last night, for he managed to capture Papa’s spirit beautifully. Below, I’d like to share his words with you –


Maestro Bogomolny

Foreword for Cut the Knot: Probability Riddles by Alexander B.

How do you learn a language? There are two routes; the first is to memorize imperfect verbs, grammatical rules, future vs. past tenses, recite boring context-free sentences, and pass an exam. The second approach consists in going to a bar, struggling a little bit and, out of the need to blend-in and integrate with a fun group of people, then suddenly find yourself able to communicate. In other words, by playing, by being alive as a human being. I personally have never seen anyone learn to speak a language properly by the first route. Also, I have never seen anyone fail to do so by the second one.

It is a not well-known fact that mathematics can also be learned by playing –just watch the private correspondence, discussions and pranks of the members of the august Bourbaki circle. Some of us (and it includes this author) do not perform well on tasks via “cold” approaches, unable to muster the motivation to do boring things. But, somehow we upregulate when stimulated or when there is play (or money) involved. This may disturb many people married to cookie-cutter pedagogical methods that require things to be drab, boring, and bureaucratic for them to be effective –but that’s reality.

It is thanks to Maestro Alexander B. that numerous people have learned mathematics by the second route, by playing, just for the sake of entertainment. He helped many to make it their hobby. His mathematical website cut-the-knot has trained a generation –many seemingly approached the problem as hobbyists then got stuck with it. For, if you liked mathematics just a little bit, Maestro Bogomolny made it impossible for you to not love it. Mathematics was turned into a frolic.

I discovered his riddles on social media. (Alexander B. does not like the word “problems”. I now understand why.)

* * *

Social media brings out the best and the worst in people. He was rigorous yet open-minded, allowing people like me (who did some mathematical economics and finance) to cheat with inequalities by using the various canned methods for finding minima and maxima. He even tolerated computerized mathematics, provided of course there was some rigor in the process. I initially knew nothing about him but could observe rare attributes: an extraordinary amount of patience and a remarkable sense of humor. One summer, as he was in Israel, I informed him that I was vacationing in Lebanon. His answer: “Walking distance”. He always had a short comment that makes you smile, not laugh, which is a social art.

Alexander B. created a vibrant community around his Twitter account. He would pose a question, collect answers and patiently explain to people where they were wrong.

I, for myself, started almost every day with a puzzle, with the excitement of unpredictability, as it took from 5 minutes to 4 hours to complete –and it was usually impossible to tell from the outset. For a couple of years, it was the first thing I looked at with the morning coffee. There was some mild competition, mild enough to be entertaining but not too intense to resemble an academic rat race. Once someone got a proof, we had to look for another approach so it paid to wake up early and beat those with a time zone advantage.

In the two years since he left us there has been no Saturday morning –104 of them –that I did not solve a riddle randomly selected on the web in his memory. But, without him, it is not the same.

* * *

How did Alexander Bogomolny get there?

I met him in an Italian restaurant in New Jersey. I was surprised to see a mathematician who looked much more like a maturing actor than someone in a technical specialty: tall, athletic, jovial, and with a charismatic presence. But, as he had warned me, he had a severe hearing problem, the result of a medical treatment for the flu.

This explained to me his veering away from an academic career to get involved in computer pedagogy. His hearing was worsening with time. It is hard to imagine being a professor with reduced auditory function in one ear (in spite of a hearing aid) and none in the other.

There was something fresh and entertaining about him. He was happy. One could talk and laugh with him without much communication.

He was neither interested in money nor rank –something refreshing as I was only exposed to academics who whether they admit it or not, are obsessed with both. When I asked him about commercializing his website cut-the-knot his answer was “I have two pensions. Next year I turn seventy”. He wasn’t interested in poisoning his life for more money.

Why did I start nicknaming him Maestro? Because it was pretty much literal: he played math like a master would with a musical instrument –and mostly to himself. He was physically bothered by a sloppy derivation or an error, as if he heard a jarring note in the middle of a sonata. It was a joy to see someone so much in sync with his subject matter –and totally uncorrupted by the academic system.

* * *

Now, probability. In one conversation, I mentioned to him that probability riddles would be very useful for people who want to get into the most scientifically applicable scientific subject in the world (my very, very biased opinion). What I said earlier about play is even more applicable to probability, a field that really started with gamblers, used by traders and adventurers, and perfected by finance and insurance mathematicians. Probability applies to all empirical fields: gambling, finance, medicine, engineering, social science, risk, linguistics, genetics, car accidents. Let’s play with it by adding to his feed some probability riddles.

His eyes lit up. Hence this book.

* * *

I thank Marcos Careira, Amit Itagi, Mike Lawler, Salil Mehta, and numerous others who supported us in this project.

And a special gratitude to Stephen Wolfram, Jeremy Sykes and Mads Bahrami for ensuring that Cut-the-Knot stays alive and that this book sees the day. Additional thanks to Paige Bremmer, Glenn Schloebo, and other members of Wolfram Media for editing the manuscript.

Cut the Knot: Probability Riddles, by Alexander Bogomolny, published by Wolfram Research in collaboration with STEM Academic Press, $19.95. On Amazon.

45 thoughts on “Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s nickname for my father: ‘Maestro’”

  1. Fascinating the similarities and likeness which people feel or experience before the departure of a loved one before they leave the earth. I’m not one who is filled with premonition but i have a deep respect for people who live with these feelings of anticipation and anxiety. I always asked God the blessing to be there for my dad when he became ill and to care for him moreso because of my mom who left before i could recover from returning home. Well you speak about coincidences I’m reflecting on premonition but somehow in the aftermath we put two and two together so it can be written, recorded and remember. This is the wonder and beauty of divinity or divinely inspired texts.

    Your dad is an interesting and fascinating man an advanced digital student of his time including his fun and keen interest in mathematics.
    Wishing the book makes a windfall out there. The foreword made for a good read.

    1. Thank you for sharing your reflections, Abi. My Papa simply loved mathematics and teaching – he was a loving, giving man; and we hope that his book will continue that legacy of his.

      1. You welcome, I fed off the main menu. I sincerely hope that his legacy is widely read.

    1. Thanks, Hobbo. It was very important for us too, and luckily there were some wonderful people who took the time and effort to make that happen.

  2. Wow, I love how you carry on the legacy of your father even though he has passed on. Congratulations on this major achievement by your father. He did leave us another major trophy – YOU. 😊❤️💐

  3. That is so wonderful! Men like your father make such a difference by choosing playfulness and community building over financial gain and academic honours. The best way to honour them is to follow in their example I think.

    1. Yes, Mel – playfulness and community building are ideals to strive for… although… my daughter might tell you off the bat that I’m TOO playful 😉

      1. I can empathize with her on that. There is a difference between childish and child-like. It’s tough when you have to raise your dad, lol.

  4. Amazing coincidences (although you already know me well enough to know that I don’t believe they were coincidences 🙂 ). I’m sure God will bless you for honouring your father so lovingly.

    How wonderful that your father wrote a book as well.

    I’m going to return to this post and read the tribute properly, there’s so much here and I want to take it all in properly.

    Love and blessings, friend ❤️🙏🏻

  5. A wonderful tribute to your father! Also, since I’m learning a language via the first route, it would appear that I’m doomed to failure. Thankfully, by following your blog and this post especially, I now have options! Thank you, Ben, and your father too!

    1. It really is quite wonderful – I was so greatly touched when I read it.

      I like Dr. Taleb’s comparison… the truth is, I intuitively always preferred the second way of acquiring languages – it always felt more natural to me. 🤷

      Thanks for your support, Ashley – I deeply appreciate it.

  6. It is really very difficult to make a subject like mathematics so palatable so easily. Hats off to your father! My humble tribute to him🙏

  7. Beautifully written about your father-Maestro.amazing book written by him.i admire him and pray -God give peace his soul in heaven.🙏

  8. Wow!!! What a beautiful forward/tribute. I was in love from the first word. Thank you Ben, for sharing this. I appreciate the short list of coincidences you included. Somehow I much have need to read them for my own healing. It is funny how that happens sometimes. I came here because you had liked a comment I left on someone else’s blog. I honestly, just wanted to thank you for the like. I did not know I was coming for my own soul’s healing. I look forward to reading much more of your work. Thank You again.

  9. Your dad was a genius , creative and thoughtful wisdom that you seem to have imbibed so well. Now I see why you are the way you are. More like Papa. He would be proud of you now. Something very gentle about your demeanour, Ben. I see those same gentle eyes your papa has .. that is the reason for the poetry that you write. Your way of giving back to the universe and someone up there 👆 is smiling down at you. You carry on a good legacy. Be proud of that. Bless you 😊

  10. David, so beautiful, especially the list of coincidences which are all joyful… it sounds like your father lived such a meaningful life, and also had such a good death, in that there was a feeling of awareness and love energy surrounding it, as well as an air of satisfaction and/or completion. You carry on his legacy so beautifully and it’s lovely to learn more about you… I love your personal notes on prayer. It’s enlivening to carry or return to a sense of faith, even or especially if one tends toward skepticism. Thanks for sharing this with us. 💛

  11. First, Ben, may you be comforted among the mourners of Zion, and clearly your father’s memory is a great blessing to many, may it continue to be so.
    Second, wonderful that you got his wonderful book published!
    I wholeheartedly agree with both his methods and his comments on teaching mathematics. As a student teacher I was quite discouraged by veteran teachers who preferred cookie-cutter teaching. I was attempting to teach through realia and ‘play,’ as his book suggests, so thank you for that validation, and thank you for your encouragement in my efforts to provide lesson-material that will be of use to others.
    Stay well,
    Shira

  12. Such an interesting personality. I’m glad the book finally got published. No wonder you’re proud about him, I guess he would have been happy to know where you are now. Take care 🖤

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