Afternoon Inquisition

Afternoon Inquisition 1.29

I’m not the smartest or the most industrious guy in the world, which makes me wonder why I’m often compelled to try to solve various problems that spring up in my everyday life. I’m sure somewhere deep inside, I’d much rather be looking at porn, or eating cheese, or doing anything besides toiling over a problem. Yet present me with a dilemma of some sort, and I’m on it like glitter on a teen vampire.

And the problems come in many forms; a personnel management issue at work, a logistical problem with a social gathering, a mechanical/computer issue, or even a crossword puzzle or logic problem on the web. Anything of the sort can draw me in.

Now, I’m not suggesting I’m great at solving things, but sometimes I find myself unable to easily walk away from a problem or puzzle, even when it looks as though there is no solution, and even when others have long since given up on it.

But what about you?

Where do you fall on the “I-Must-Solve-This-Or-I-Will-Never-Be-Happy-Again” scale? What complex problem are you most proud to say you solved? Have you ever just given up on a problem?

While you’re thinking about your answer, try your hand at this puzzle (it’s embedded in an Excel file). Internet legend says it’s an exercise for 2nd graders, so it should be easy.

Sam Ogden

Sam Ogden is a writer, beach bum, and songwriter living in Houston, Texas, but he may be found scratching himself at many points across the globe. Follow him on Twitter @SamOgden

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35 Comments

  1. When I want to solve something, I almost never give up, and think about it for weeks, and I even thought of a question for years before it was solved. I don’t get really desperate too solve them, but I do try and maintain persistence.

  2. It the problem doesn’t effect me (ie, it’s not something that NEEDS to be solved to live or work or something), I don’t really care unless I’m bored. Or it’s a video game. And even then I’m far too easily distracted, so I don’t really play video games. I’d rather read a book (or a blog!), anyway.

  3. I’m quite happy to mull things over for a long time until I understand them. More often than not, on the really tough puzzles even having the answer isn’t enough as unless you figured it out you don’t know how they got the answer itself.

    e.g. The answer to MHP is “you pick the other door” which is meaningless unless you understand why you should.

    Possibly the daddy of all such problems is the four colour problem (“any map can be coloured using no more than four colours, such that no two countries that share a border are the same colour”) a child can understand it, but I reckon I’ve spent the better part of ten years thinking about this on and off try to get my head around the proof to a point where I’m happy I think I understand it. http://www.ams.org/notices/200811/tx081101382p.pdf

    The same with the calculus, grasping it to the point of being able to follow-the-method, use it, apply-it-to-situations takes a term or two of school and uni, but getting a handle on the infinitesimal (a quantity big enough to be divided by but small enough that 0 + d = 0) is something I doubt I’ll ever really be able to do, even after going through all the Set Theory stuff I could find.

    I would say I’m in the “happy to think about something in my downtime as long as it takes for me to understand it, but not going to fret about things I don’t understand yet” group.

    ps. I couldn’t solve the frogs in 2 min

  4. Hit and miss for me. Sometimes I’ll obsess over a problem, staying up late, ignoring other tasks. Other times, I’ll set a problem aside for long stretches of time until the mood strikes me. And sometimes, it’s the same problem.

  5. @russellsugden:

    Possibly the daddy of all such problems is the four colour problem (”any map can be coloured using no more than four colours, such that no two countries that share a border are the same colour”) a child can understand it, but I reckon I’ve spent the better part of ten years thinking about this on and off try to get my head around the proof to a point where I’m happy I think I understand it.

    About a hundred years ago when I took the LSAT (Law school aptitude test), there was a section loaded with problems like this.

    I did fairly well; well enough to get into law school in fact. But I realized I wasn’t oily enough to be a lawyer, so I became a writer instead.

  6. This week, I’ve been working on a JavaScript program that can play Clue. The first step, making the most of all suspicion data to narrow down possibilities, is done and tested successfully. Next step is having the program suggest which missing pieces of data to ask for to optimize its own chances at learning something while minimizing opponents’ information.

  7. Well, I just completely set aside my data analysis I’m working on in lab, in order to get that frog game right. (I would have also been satisfied with proving that it was impossible, which I was expecting since you called it an “internet legend,” but I got it.) Now that I’m done, I can return to MATLAB. That’s probably more illustrative than any number I could give you, but if it’s 1-10, I’d say maybe an 8.

  8. @MyNameIsTim: if the “I-Must-Solve-This-Or-I-Will-Never-Be-Happy-Again” scale goes up to 10, I am an 11.

    Me, too. Not merely being content with solving a puzzle I must assure myself that I have reached some sort of optimal solution, or if optimal is hard to measure, elegant. I must have played some Command and Conquer levels hundreds of times trying to do it without losing a man, or by not defeating the opponent but take over all his bases, or, or… There is always a better way and I must find it.

    World of Goo sets certain criteria to finish a level, but there is a higher standard called OCD which is much harder. They must have seen me coming.

    I think this trait is pretty common in engineers, however. In good ones it’s nearly universal. More than math skills or love of gadgets, show me a person who must solve a problem, kill it, cook it, grind it’s bones, and sprinkle the dust on their breakfast, and I’ll show you a good engineer.

  9. @Steve:

    Don’t know. Maybe that’ll be my Inquisition for next week.

    Actually, I have no idea of the leapfrog puzzle’s origin. Someone sent it to me.

    But that’s a good example of what I described in the OP. As I cursed the idiot for sending me a 2nd grader’s puzzle, I still stopped everything to solve it. Fortunately, it take me very long.

  10. I’m a geocacher. I’ve spent over an hour going back and forth around a 20m radius in the woods looking for a film canister. I have spent enough time at several urban geocaches, leaving only when I was threatened with arrest. I went slogging through knee deep snow to find a matchstick container earlier today. So, I guess there is one thing I am obsessed enough with to the point of persistence.

  11. I will, on occasion, become obsessed by certain problems and determine to solve them. And this applies to a very loose definition of “problem,” too.

    For instance, a few weeks ago my stepmother asked for some help creating a schedule for a 16 team Setback league (with certain restrictions) and, despite initial resistance, I wasn’t able to let it go until I got it.

    But things like alphabetizing collections, or performing tasks in a video game, or even finding the appropriate way to do something in a photo editing program, are equally likely to grab me.

    Then, sometimes, I just don’t care about things. I guess it’s got something to do with the quality of the challenge posed and my perceived ability to meet the challenge. If it seems too hard and frustrating, I might not do it. But if it seems feasible but elusive or intellectually stimulating… then I’m game, and there’s no telling how long I’ll spend getting it done.

  12. I obsess on my activities of pleasure and interest in a different way than I do with work problems. I do investigations professionally and have been quite pleased when my hard work and diligence has led to solving a complicated or confusing case. Sometimes there is no way to get to the truth of a situation and you just have to walk away.

    If a book really seems to be trash after a few chapters I’ll drop it and pick up something else (When I read Neil Stephenson novels I finish them!). I work quite hard on my golf game but have a number of projects around the house I’ve started with considerable enthusiasm and planning which I’ll finish… eventually. I taught my self how to install and finish hard wood floors and I’m quite pleased with the finished product, but I’ll never do it again however. As others have said a tough question or problem needs to be important or interesting to me to put a lot of effort into. I have lots of things I enjoy filling my time with so I‘d need some motivation to invest much time and energy in solving a big problem.

  13. @mxracer652:
    Crossword puzzles are not just memory tests (although they are largely that). Easier ones can be, but the more sophisticated ones have quite a bit of wordplay in the clues (like any clue ending with a ? or a “, perhaps”) and the relationship to the puzzle’s theme, etc.

  14. The only time I’m ever really obsessive over a problem is if it’s math or physics related. There’s been plenty of times where, on an assignment or something, I will spend hours and hours trying to figure it out. If I can’t get it right away, I’ll try again the next day and then the next… sometimes for weeks – even when the duedate has passed, I’ll still work on it just to prove I can.

  15. I spent 6 hours last weekend working on a particularly nasty mathematical proof involving Cauchy-Schwartz inequalities. When it was finally finished I wrote in big letters across the page “OMGWTFQED!!!”

  16. This happens to me all the time. I don’t like it when it happens because I dedicate too much time on the problem and forget about my other homework, but I do really like the feeling when a problem gets solved. It’s… exhilarating.

  17. My obsessiveness depends on the problem: The more interesting, the harder I try. A policy problem will gnaw away at me until I can develop a fix, or convince myself the problem is intractable. Other problems, I tend to try, give up for a while, then come back later.

  18. I’m a big believer in diminishing returns when it comes to solving problems. I’ll work on a problem until finding the solution is more expensive than saying “Screw it, I have better things to do with my time.”

    I put more effort into work-related problems than ‘fun’ ones, in general. I do finish most crossword puzzles, but I come and go from them.

  19. As opposed to having a burning desire to solve things by myself I’m someone who “needs to know how…”, if someone can show me then I’m perfectly happy with that. Conversely, I’m not very good at asking people about problems which isn’t very useful.

  20. Frog game – 4th attempt, a little over a minute I think.

    I’d say I’m pretty obsessive when it comes to solving problems, resolving arguments, getting to the bottom of things. Unfortunately that can come across as a little dogmatic and know-it-all-y, but I don’t really think those are particularly offensive crimes.

  21. Frog game – if you are having trouble, think of these two things: 1) each move leaves you with a finite number of subsequent moves, once you eliminate a path as untenable, don’t take it again; 2) two frogs of the same color next to one another is an end-of-game, as is (of course), a move which leaves you unable to move again.

    So I guess my OCD is I have to understand how a problem is solved, rather than just solving it.

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