Ever since I was young, I loved playing games of skill and solving puzzles. The former was manifested by becoming a serious chess player (master level) and competing in bridge and backgammon tournaments. I still play games today, but mostly for social reasons (i.e., non competitive).
I greatly enjoy solving puzzles. I never was interested in Rubik’s Cube, except as a challenge for a computer program. Today I love to try my hand at crossword puzzles (I suck at the weekend New York Times puzzles), Sudoko (I can usually solve the most difficult level, if I am careful), and Ken-Ken (not as popular but still entertaining). I have a collection of physical puzzles that I like to use to challenge myself. A couple of them I have not yet solved, something that really irks me.
Many years ago I read an article that competitive game players (and presumably the same for puzzle solvers) had a much lower rate of mind diseases such as Alzheimer’s. The argument that was made, roughly speaking, was that games (and puzzles) were like exercise for the mind. Just like the body, exercise was a useful way of keeping in fit form and building strength against disease. Today, the jury is still out but there is evidence that mental activity can be beneficial for your long-term health (for example, the American Academy of Neurology). So, I go on long runs to strengthen my body and solve puzzles to sharpen my mind.
In November, members of the University of Alberta community were saddened by the unexpected passing of Professor Piotr Rudnicki. I knew Piotr for over 25 years. Although we had not interacted much in recent years, we had worked together on courses (CMPUT 415: Compiler Construction), served on committees together, and pushed each other at squash (Piotr was the much better player).
|Piotr Rudnicki (from his home page)|
In 1996, I was invited to MIT to give a talk. Afterwards, I was walking on a street nearby and found a games store. Inside I was intrigued by a puzzle that I had not seen before. It was a bottle with a ball in it: the ball was on the bottom of the bottle and the challenge was to get the ball to the top, touching the cork. In between was an obstacle that prevented all the obvious solutions. I solved the puzzle later that day, but was not happy with how long it took me to find what was, with hindsight, an “obvious” solution.
About a year later, I had this puzzle in my office when Piotr came by. He latched on to it and tried all the instinctive ways to solve it. Nothing worked, so he asked to borrow it. The next day he returned the puzzle with a story.
Piotr was able to solve it only after his cat solved it.
Piotr told me he had been working on the puzzle, got frustrated, left the puzzle on a table, went off to make dinner, returned some time later, and discovered that the puzzle had been solved! Since the only other living entity in the house during this time was his cat, Piotr surmised that he had been out-smarted by a cat. I won’t give the solution here, but all you have to do is imagine what a cat might do with a bottle.
Piotr often challenged people by asking them: “Are you as smart as a cat?”