Departments: The Waiting Room
Cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter has loved track and field all his life—and humorous mental games. When he and his friends the Jones brothers got together, they competed in “virtual track and field” around a table. Here are three Hofstadter/Jones Mental Olympic Games for two or more people.
You need a penny, a pencil, and an empty table. Place the penny so it hangs over the edge of the table in front of you. With one finger, flick the penny so that it slides as close to the far edge of the table as possible without falling off. Mark where the penny stops. Then let the next player take a turn flicking the penny. When all players have taken three turns, the winner is the player who got their penny closest to the far edge without it falling off.
Paper High Jump
You need a pencil and a blank sheet of paper. Draw a dot about four inches below the top edge of the paper, centered between the left and right edges. This is the bar. Now place your pencil on the paper at the bottom left corner and close your eyes. Keeping your eyes closed, move the pencil up and (hopefully) over the bar, then bring it back down and finish up your “jump” by landing in the “pit” at the bottom edge of the paper. If the curve you've traced goes below the bar or off the top or side edge of the paper, then that “jump” is a miss. Each player has three chances to clear each height. If at the end of a round, two or more players have successfully cleared the bar, raise the bar by drawing a new dot closer to the top edge of the paper, then go again. The winner is the person who clears the highest bar.
Each player needs a stopwatch. Hold your stopwatches so you can stop and start them but can't see the numbers. One player says, “On your mark, get set, go!” On “go,” everyone starts their stopwatch and begins silently counting seconds in their head. Every five mental seconds, call out the number of the imaginary hurdle you are crossing: “one” at five seconds, “two” at 10 seconds—up to “ten” at 50 seconds. At 60 mental seconds, call out “Done!” and stop your stopwatch. Look at the time. The winner is the player with the fastest time that is not below 60 seconds. If your time is below 60 seconds, you are disqualified for being too fast. You are allowed to trick other players by calling out hurdles at the wrong times.
Douglas Hofstadter, Ph.D., is a professor at Indiana University, author of Gödel, Escher, Bach, and co-author (with Emmanuel Sander) of Surfaces and Essences. The Jones brothers are Peter, Steve, and Brian.