January 6th, 2011


Why I don't like sudoku

So let's talk about why I don't like sudoku puzzles. Here's the puzzle that ran in the Wisconsin State Journal on January 1, 2011. Daily sudoku puzzles, like many daily crossword puzzles, get progressively harder as the week goes on, so I anticipated this one would be very difficult:

6   3 4 7  
  7  1  9  
7 3      16
 9       5 
24      8 9
  2  8  4  
  9 1 3   8

A brief aside for anyone who doesn't know how sudoku puzzles work: the goal, according to the instructions that accompanied this particular puzzle, is to "complete the grid so that every row, column, and 3x3 box contains every digit from 1 to 9 exclusively." in other words, the 6 in the first 3x3 box will appear nowhere else in the first column, second row, or top left 3x3 box. Supposedly, every square can be filled by applying simple logic. For example, there has to be a 9 somewhere in the top left 3x3 box. You can't put it in either of the squares in the third row of that box, because there's already a 9 in the third row of the top right box. Likewise, you can't put it in any of the squares in the second and third columns of the box, because there are already 9s in those columns, in the left middle and left bottom boxes respectively. So the only place to put a 9 in the top left box is the topmost, leftmost square. Using similar logic, I was able to get to this point:

9     7    
6   394 7  
  7  1  9  
783 459 216
196  7  354
245 631 879
 12 98  4 7
 79 1 3   8
 6  7    9 

OK, now what? Logically, the square immediately to the right of the 9 in the top left box had to be a 2. Or a 3. Or a 5. So, forget that one. The next square, it had to be a 1, or a 4, or an 8. The one next to that: 2, 5, or 8. Working my way through the rest of the puzzle, I determined that none of the remaining squares could be proved through logic to contain any specific number. In some cases, I could narrow it down to as few as two possibilities; in a couple of cases, it could have been any of five.

So finally I just guessed. In the seventh row, there were only two possibilities each for the three blank squares, so I decided arbitrarily to place a 6 in the top middle square of the bottom left box. Having made that decision, I was able to resume a logic-based approach, and I solved the puzzle:

954 827 631
621 394 785
837 516 942
783 459 216
196 278 354
245 631 879
312 985 467
479 163 528
568 742 193

On the one hand, I finished. Yay! On the other, so what? I only finished because I made a lucky guess. And that's the main reason I don't like sudoku: it purports to be a logic puzzle, but frequently they can't be solved by logic. It's not a problem you run into with every sudoku puzzle--the easy and medium difficulty ones are usually (but not always) solvable with logic--but I've yet to encounter a hard one that didn't at some point during the solving of it require you to guess. There's nothing wrong with puzzles that require the solver to make an educated guess, like cryptoquotes, but the point of sudoku is that it's supposed to be a logic puzzle, and it often isn't.

My other problem is that sudoku puzzles are boring. Every puzzle is exactly the same. Sure, each one has a different solution, but in the end they're all just 81 numbers arranged in a grid. And there's no craft! They're all churned out by computers. But even if they were all made by hand, how could you tell? There's no room for any creativity or cleverness.

My appreciation of creativity and cleverness are why I prefer crossword puzzles. Sure, a crossword can be made by a computer too, and sometimes a crossword with computer-generated fill can be superior to one filled by a human constructor. But crossword puzzles are as much about the clues as the fill (if not more so), and no computer-clued puzzle is anywhere near as good as one clued by a human. (Computers are also bad at coming up with themes, though not all crossword puzzles are themed, and the hardest ones rarely if ever are.)

Crosswords are more flexible in terms of format as well. There are rebus puzzles, which require you to put more than one letter in a square. They can employ wordplay, both in the clues ([Not leave on the line?] for TUMBLE DRY) and, in certain types of themed puzzles, the fill (as in a puzzle that added an extra S at the end of common phrases, resulting in [Nice touch by Roger Daltry and Pete Townshend?] cluing WHO CARESS). I did one a few weeks back where the themed answers were too long to fit in the grid, which was hinted at by the final theme answer, THANKSGIVING LEFTOVERS. I've done a couple with multiple solutions, such as the famous 1996 New York Times puzzle in which the clue [Tomorrow's headline] could be filled either with CLINTON WINS or BOB DOLE WINS. The down answers worked either way: [Halloween animal] could be CAT or BAT; [French 101 word], LUI or OUI; and so on. The only limit is on the imagination of the constructor, which is what makes them challenging.

There are other, more intangible things to appreciate about crosswords: grids with a very small number of black spaces are widely admired (the record is 18, in a 15x15 puzzle); some people get excited by pangrammatic puzzles, i.e. puzzles that contain every letter in the alphabet at least once among the fill; I have a fondness for themed puzzles in which every down answer crosses at least one of the themed answers. But there's almost always something to admire in a crossword puzzle.

Christmas, Advent

Advent Art: The Adoration of the Magi (middle panel)

Pieter Aertsen (1508–1575)
The Adoration of the Magi (middle panel), c. 1560
Oil on panel
The Adoration of the Magi (middle panel)
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Strictly speaking, this is the adoration of a magus. Specifically, Melchior, by tradition the oldest of the three magi. (A tradition I didn't mention yesterday is that the three kings represented the three ages of man. Exactly what differentiates these kind of made-up details from fanfic, I couldn't say. Hundreds of years, I guess.) Like it says up there, this was originally part of a triptych. The left panel shows Gaspar; the right, presumably, showed Balthasar, but that panel has been lost.

This is January 6, the Feast of the Epiphany, which celebrates the visit of the Magi. Why is it celebrated after the Feast of the Holy Innocents, which commemorates something that happened after the Magi's visit? Who knows. It just is, OK? Epiphany is the twelfth day of Christmas, so many people view it as the end of the Christmas season. Others see Candlemas, commemorating the Presentation at the Temple (which, as I'm sure you recall, I talked about back on December 26), as the end of the Christmas season. Liturgically speaking, the official end of the Christmas season is this coming Sunday, the Feast of the Baptism of Christ. But when I started doing an annual Advent project back in 2003, I decided to make January 6 the end of my project, and I see no need to change that now. So thanks for looking at my art, everyone! Hope you enjoyed it.

Previous Advent posts:

2004: We Three Kings
2005: Los Reyes Magos
2006: Three wee kings
2007: Twelfth Night
2008: Columba Altarpiece
2009: Sleigh Ride
2010: As With Gladness Men of Old