Thursday, 13 January 2011


I was a student in a traditional wing chun school in the 1980s, although in this case ‘traditional’ referred to the mental discipline and not to the surroundings, which were merely an empty apartment in a rundown block a few minutes walk from Temple Street, a thoroughfare that has long been famous for its market but is no longer of real interest, except perhaps to tourists.

Three times a week, I used to walk down Temple Street, where in those days you could buy all sorts of rip-offs, knock-offs and fakes, most of them of appallingly shoddy quality. ‘Polex’ watches, with the hands carefully placed to conceal the subterfuge, and ‘Philirs’ cassette players were a standing joke. You could sample snake soup (delicious—trust me), watch people undergoing alfresco amateur dentistry, or listen to a traditional Chinese orchestra. In the street’s new tourist-friendly incarnation, the orchestra has probably survived, although in the old days there might be three or four, all within earshot at the same time.

And there was the man who made traditional Chinese wire puzzles, beautifully crafted out of brass wire with nothing more than a pair of pliers. He always had a crowd around, all trying various puzzles, but I suspect that he had few customers. I was one. Whenever I tried a puzzle, I was checking to see whether it was worth buying, while the crowds were merely amusing themselves. When I picked one out, the man offered to show me how to solve it. What? No way. I’m buying it because I want the pleasure of solving it myself. That ‘pleasure’ was sometimes quite prolonged: one puzzle involved hundreds of moves, which had to be made in sequence. It took me months (not continuously, I hasten to add).

I love all kinds of games, puzzles and quizzes, as long as they’re difficult enough to engage my attention in the first place. And I never want to be told the answer or shown the solution. I don’t even want hints, so I’m completely mystified by the following, from Google’s mobile blog:
Now, Goggles on Android and iPhone can recognize puzzles and provide answers to help make you faster than a Sudoku champ. So if you ever get stuck, take a clear picture of the entire puzzle with Goggles and we’ll tell you the correct solution.
What is the point? I know that a sudoku can be very frustrating, especially if you make a mistake early on and then base every subsequent deduction, directly or indirectly, on that error. I would either give up—there’s always another one—or get out the correction fluid and start again. On the other hand, I can see why someone might want to write a program to solve sudokus—it is an intellectual challenge, and, as puzzles go, quite a good one—but use of the end-product has something significant to say about the need for instant gratification that is built into modern popular attitudes towards almost everything.

There is a subtle but important point to be made here: despite the claim outlined above, this application does not provide a solution, merely an answer. In other words, it doesn’t show the sequence of deductions needed to complete the puzzle. Without understanding the method, what use is the result, except to impress your friends, who may not be aware that you obtained the answer by cheating?

Unfortunately, cheating to solve a puzzle has a long and inglorious history: the most famous puzzle cheat of all time was probably Alexander the Great, who used his sword to cut through the Gordian knot because he was either too thick or too impatient to untie it by conventional means. The irony of this episode of puzzle brigandage is that it has become a metaphor for success in a particularly difficult endeavour (“I have cut the Gordian knot”), which perpetuates the notion that cheating is acceptable, even if in modern usage that aspect of the story has been forgotten.


  1. I like doing cryptic crosswords, because they are a different level of puzzle. Even if you look at the answers, you won't necessarily know how it works. As you say, answers aren't necessarily solutions!

  2. I was going to cite cryptic crosswords as an example of a type of puzzle where a mere answer is sufficient. Once you see the answer to a cryptic clue, you can usually work out how that answer was obtained, even if you couldn't see it when you were trying to solve the puzzle in the first place.

  3. Firstly, I'd like to say that I really enjoy your posts. You've certainly got a way with words, eloquent, I'd say and very educated commentary. Frankly, I adore it.

    I know it to be ludacris, however, I've awarded you a "Blogger award", since I figure, why let the awards go to all the "teen" bloggers who don't know a thing about grammar or sentence structure? Your writing speaks to me and their's does not.

    If you care to check it out, I'm at

    Keep writing and I'll certainly keep reading,

  4. Thank you Delaney. Your comments are much appreciated, and it would be ungracious of me to decline your award, but writing is its own reward, and I won't be passing it on, which I believe is the normal practice.


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