Puzzling Numbers

Words are my life. Numbers, not so much.

I’ve never been a math-phobe. All throughout school, I combined reading and writing with the proverbial ‘rithmetic. Set theory, quadratic equations, whatever – no problem. Then I hit what my high school called “enriched” geometry. It was the first D I had ever gotten in my school career. It soured me on math.

I didn’t feel I deserved it, either. What was “enriched” about the geometry was the fact that it required three-column proofs instead of two-column proofs. (It was later that I learned about 151 proofs.)

Three-column proofs, as I recall, required you to state which theorem or corollary you were using to solve the problem. I had a philosophical disagreement with this system. I contended that if you ever needed to know whether it was corollary C or theorem 17, you could look up the name of it. It was knowing how to use it that was important. So I never put in the third column and I got a D.

(I think this actually helped me when I went to college. At the Ivy League institution I attended, there were many students who had never received a grade lower than an A. When they suddenly had to compete at a higher level and got a C or even a B, they were devastated. But I digress.)

Later in life, I found that I did indeed understand geometry when a manager at my job was hanging pictures. “I can hang these four pictures in a square, but the hard one will be hanging the one in the center,” he said. I took two pieces of string and ran one from the nail in the lower left to the one in the upper right, and the other from the lower right to the upper left. I put the fifth nail where the two strings crossed. So much for theorems and corollaries.

But that’s not what I wanted to write about this week. That’s right, that entire section was a big digression. What I meant to talk about was puzzles.

Word puzzles are probably better known (and I’ll be writing about them next week), but there are number and math puzzles as well.

Sudoku (which means “single number” in Japanese) hit the big time in the US in 2004. It made an appearance in puzzle books earlier, in 1979, when it was called “Number Place.” But it really took off when a computer program was developed that created the puzzles.

(On first learning of Sudoku puzzles, and hearing that they were supposed to stave off senility, my husband decided to give them a try, though he had no interest in crossword puzzles. He was heard to say, “I may not be able to spell, but damn it, I can count to nine!” But I digress. Again.)

But plain sudoku didn’t satisfy me. Being something of a masochist, I soon found myself wanting something more. What I found was jigsaw sudoku. Instead of living in nice, neat square boxes, the numbers were scattered throughout shapes that looked like gerrymandered congressional districts. The rest of the rules were the same. Each shape had to be filled in with the numbers 1–9, with no duplicates in any box or row.

I stopped solving sudoku when I stopped buying the little books in the grocery store or pharmacy. Recently, though, I found a site online that offers a daily jigsaw sudoku. I had to try it. I selected the medium difficulty setting.

On my first try, I scored -520. I figure that was the equivalent of getting a D. Maybe I should go back to the NYT crossword, where at least they don’t give you a grade.

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