Saturday, May 15, 2010

Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One

It’s lateral thinking week in Oral English class! Lateral thinking puzzles, for those of you who didn’t have to kill time on long Boy Scout backpacking trips between 1997 and 2004, are riddles where the guessers have to use yes/no questions to figure out the hidden information in a confusing situation. Sounds like my wedding night! (No, seriously, very confusing. Lots of questions from all involved.)

Do you have any examples, Jon? Sure do!

Bob and Jane are found dead in a puddle of water, surrounded by broken glass. What happened?

Before I give the answer, a thought: I like these puzzles a lot, even though they are sort of dumb — they lack a unique solution, and there’s no objective guarantee that the questioner hasn’t posed a problem with an impossibly difficult solution, or even a problem she herself doesn’t know how to solve. The only guarantee that the questioner is playing fair is the elegance of the solution: only if it’s clever, pleasing, and uses all the given information in an unexpected way can the guessers be sure that the questioner knew the answer all along. But that’s it. Playing these games requires a lot of trust. And — since no one likes looking like a fool, especially at Boy Scout camp, the least foolish place of all — huge balls.

Answer: (Do you trust me? Do you trust that I have huge balls?)

Bob and Jane are goldfish.

See, wasn’t that fun? Let’s try another!

A man leaves home, turns left three times, and comes home, where he’s stopped by a man wearing a mask. What happened?

In one class, a girl raised her hand and said, “is the man in the mask…making facial to the other man?” I think she meant “making faces at”, but, either way, the answer’s still no. Real answer at the end of the post.

My students were really good at this game. You know that old puzzle about the dad and the son in a car accident and the son goes to the hospital and the doctor says, I can’t operate on this boy; he’s my son? And then it turns out to be the boy’s mother is the doctor? (I know, crazy, right?) Yeah, they got that one right away. They were probably better at this because they are competitive and focused in ways that I was not, at their age, and also because they’re really interested in pleasing me, because they trust me, and they trust my balls. I am proud of all of them, except for one guy, and he knows exactly what he did wrong.

Some other things.

Today I found myself reading the preface to the classic Conway-Sloane monograph Sphere Packings, Lattices and Groups. (If you think this makes me sound “uncool”, don’t worry — I spent the rest of the day riding around on my dirt bike and growing mustaches, dozens and dozens of mustaches.) There’s a reference to a paper called “A proof of the dodecahedral conjecture,” written by an “S. McLaughlin.” Fun fact: this is Canadian pop legend Sarah McLaughlin! This paper was published in 1998, so it sits squarely between her immersive 1997 album Surfacing and the climactic 2003 follow-up, Afterglow. As it stands, I believe it lies among her finest works. Conway and Stone praise it for its tender, bittersweet evocation of the dodecahedron, long considered the most lesbian of the platonic solids. And I just like that smooth jazz feel.

If you’re planning on commenting to say that her name is actually spelled Sarah McLachlan, then I don’t want to hear it. It’s like when St. Vincent made fun of Lilith Fair — if you can’t say anything nice about a celebration of women in music, don’t say anything at all.

Hey, also, the security guards at my school have changed from their winter uniforms to their lighter, most comfortable summer uniforms. You know what that means! Cue the music, Ronaldo!


They’re playing baseball.

How big are your balls right now? Like melons? Mine are like melons.