6 Jan 2013

Problem solving

When I was a kid we got a rubix cube for Christmas, as did probably every other family in the country at some point in the 80's. No one in the house could do it. No one I knew in school could do it either and in the pre-internet era of my childhood no one could google the technique. There were books published to help the rubix-impaired but the one my dad brought home for us didn't have enough pictures to be helpful, and to this day the cube has remained a mystery to me.

However, there was also another puzzle in our family. I can't remember which Christmas it first appeared- someone in the house got it from someone else in the house and it was always just there from that Christmas day on. It's spherical and made up of sections which rotate at 90 degrees to the tram lines of coloured beads which circle it. The premise is to get all the coloured beads in rows of the same colour- thusly.

From this image of perfection, it takes just a few random moves to cock it up completely and have none of the coloured beads in any sense of order at all. Like this.

For the first 20 minutes of Christmas day, the ball looked as it does in Fig 1. We took it in turns to click the ball round once or twice, shunt the beads round a little, then immediately reverse the process, replacing the beads on their correct layer and keeping the lines complete. But gradually the shunting around became more and more adventurous as the ball was passed between family members until (horror!) the previous action was not successfully reversed and the puzzle was mixed up. The ball was snatched back by it's original recipient (whoever that was) then by someone else, then someone else, each attempting to repair the damage- but the ball got more and more disordered and pretty soon my dad was the only one fiddling with it, muttering away under his breath in frustration as we continued to open presents and eat chocolate.

The puzzle ball remained undone for 8 or 9 years after that first Christmas morning when it was first opened. Oh we spent time with it alright- clicking it and shunting its beads and cajoling it and occasionally throwing it, before abandoning it in frustration, lying that we would never attempt to solve it ever again. But it would patiently lie there on the floor or at the bottom of the magazine rack, taunting whoever came near with its fig2-ishness until the next person idly picked it up while watching telly and started click-clicking awayThe lure of the sphere always won.

The main problem was that there were no breathing spaces. The beads touched each other in one big long traffic-jam of nose to tail plastic at every point on the track. So each move made by the solver impacted on something else in at least 3 other places. While you worked on fixing the greens on the lower level, the reds snuck out of position when you weren't looking then laughed at you.

One day I was sat idly playing with the cryptic sphere for the ten zillionth time when I made the smallest of tiniest discoveries: Click the ball round by 2 positions from the concentric-hoop position and you ended up with 2 independantly moving tracks. A flicker of hope rose inside me. All this time I'd been wrestling with the fact that every time you moved a bead by even one place there was a chain reaction which cocked up something else on the other side of the world, but NO- here we have the possibility of changing one thing without inadvertently dislodging something else.

I began to breathe a bit faster and my hands shook a bit as I tested this new discovery. Actually there were 8 clicky positions where the tracks could intersect with each other and at TWO of these positions, there were independent loops of tailgating beads, eternally circling each other. Great- work with that. Knowledge is power... The theory developed and slow progress was made, eventually resulting in the greens becoming reunited after 8 1/2 long years. 

Good, good... Now it's your turn reds... But hold it right there! No no no. In reuniting the last red with it's kind a green one has sodding well jumped back up to the top! Aargh. So near and yet so far... OK, don't panic- repeat last move for red and have green at this junction here instead of wherever-it-was and... both slot in together during the same clickety-click! Yes- we are 50% there. Half way. Keep your head together soldier and BREATHE... Remember what you have learned. Apply the same strategy to the colours at the ends now... Keep calm though, don't let it know you think you've beaten it cause it's a crafty beggar this one- it may still have some way of getting out of this one... but NOOOOOO! It's all over for you cryptic sphere! You are SOLVED baby! You have no power over me now oh Ball of Ridicule. Your mystery is unravelled and your spell is broken!  IN. YOUR. FACE. Bwah-ha-ha!!!!!!

I was rather smug in my household that day. But I willingly shared the sphere's secret with all who would listen -  after all, one person should never have that much power. Plus it was reassuring to repeat the solution again and again, to prove it wasn't a blip and the sphere really had been defeated.

Looking at it now it's plainly ridiculous that it took so long to beat. (What was I doing for 8 or 9 years of my childhood? We only had 4 tv channels). I've just counted the beads now. There are 56 of them. There are 4 different colours in a track with 8 different configurations. Some mathematical whizz could work out the total maximum number of Fig2nesses there could ever be. Ultimately it's just a plastic ball that fits in the palm of your hand. 

But just say there was a bigger ball. 
With more tracks. 
And even more beads. 
In 5 or 10 or 50 different colours.

Or just say there was a gihumungous ball that transcends time with a bead which represents every person ever- not just those of us on the planet now, but all those who have lived and died already AND all people not even born yet. 

Just say... every person is like a bead on a massive cosmic puzzle ball that is intrinsically connected to all other beads. When just one of them moves it has an impact, not just on those immediately around it, but sometimes (depending on the position of the other tracks) on the other side of the world too- or on beads which exist only as echoes of the past or on beads which haven't yet appeared? 

Just say... just say the ball contains the whole of humanity and God has got to jiggle and move all the beads around to make the best possible pattern out of the puzzle at that particular point in time while the beads are moving around on their own accord. Could all the beads be reconciled to the completed puzzle when each has their own agenda and destination?

Impossible. Noooooo way. There are just far too many variables. In Bruce Almighty Jim Carrey gave up and resigned as God after only a few days of prayer-answering and he only had the people in Buffalo to look after.

I believe prayer works. I really do. But I don't know how it works or why God sometimes appears to ignore or refuse some perfectly reasonable requests. I just need to remind myself who designed the puzzle ball in the first place and be thankful that he can multitask- unlike Bruce Nolan.