crosswords or scrabble? what kind of puzzle-solver are you?

CrosswordWhich do you prefer, crossword puzzles or scrabble?

Your answer might say more about you than you think.

What if understanding what kind of puzzle-solver you were could help you break out of a rut, find a creative solution to a vexing problem, or make a really difficult decision a lot easier?

Me, I’m a crossword puzzler.  I like words — but more than that, I like thinking about the meanings of words. I love wrestling with a tough bunch of clues attached to a frighteningly blank grid of black-and-white squares.  I especially love sparring with my opponent — the puzzle designer — whose goal is to try to deceive me, baffle me, or at least temporarily confuse me, by the carefully selected and cryptic clues at the bottom of the page.

Now, lots of friends of mine are addicted to Scrabble. That is, they are addicted to the wildly popular online versions of a Scrabble-like game that is no longer called Scrabbulous. They know how much I love crosswords, so they wonder why I do not join in.  It’s the same thing, right? Placing letters onto a grid to form intersecting words? Only instead of competing against an unseen puzzle writer, I’d be competing against other people!

I used to wonder why I didn’t care for Scrabble, too. I mean, it’s okay. I think I own a copy of the game, somewhere. But I’ll tell ya, I don’t keep a game of Scrabble in the bathroom, and I don’t keep a set of letter tiles next to the bed. That’s where the crosswords live, in my world.

Well, it turns out that there is a difference — a big difference — between crosswords and Scrabble.

It occurred to me the other day, while I was reading something for school.

In a crossword puzzle, there is always an answer. Crossword puzzles don’t get published unless they obey a number of very strict, sometimes really esoteric rules.

In Scrabble, you are given a handful of random letter tiles, out of which you may or may not be able to form a word (in combination with a letter or letters already on the gameboard).

In crossword puzzles, you know a solution exists.

In Scrabble, you don’t know if a solution exists or not.

I like crosswords for the same reason that I always liked geometry — and disliked algebra — when I was in high school.  When you are solving a geometry proof, you know that the lines and angles need to obey certain rules, and that they have certain properties that you can trust. You can rely on a right angle to always be 90 degrees, you can rely on the angles that make up a line to equal 180 degrees… and parallel lines will never, ever touch.

I loved solving proofs in geometry and knowing the answer was there, somewhere, if I only looked at it in just the right way, if I just had enough time, and could focus, and knew all the rules.

(By the way, even though I am generally a fan of algebra, I didn’t like algebra once I was introduced to equations in which more than one answer was possible. Although when that happened once in a crossword puzzle in the New York Times, I have to admit it was pretty cool.)

Scrabble skeeves me out.  Scrabble is random. Scrabble does not guarantee a solution. Scrabble introduces more uncertainty into an already uncertain world. Scrabble is an unreliable narrator, and it’s for people who are much more comfortable with existentialism than I am.

So what does this have to do with anything?

Well, I’ve been wrestling with a number of intractable puzzles myself lately.  Writing projects that require creative ideas and persuasive arguments that I don’t currently have on hand. Interpersonal relationships that require sensitivity and tact that can occasionally be difficult to summon. Plans for the future that require nimble moves and rapid adjustments, when fear and doubt might instead turn my mental muscles slack and my intrepidity… anemic. (I told you I liked words.)

And the other day, when I remembered why I love crossword problems, I realized that I might be able to apply the same logic to my own problems.

Just assume that there is a solution.

Then find it.

See, when I fear that there might not be a solution, that’s when I panic, and my puzzle-solving synapses fizzle and sputter.  But if I just pretend… if I just act as if there is definitely a viable solution, then everything calms down and I can think.

So I tried it. And, for three consecutive mornings, I woke up with the answer — the solution — to each of my most pressing puzzles just sitting there, fully formed, in my head.

What if you’re a Scrabbler? Can you play a similar mind game on yourself? I’m not sure; I don’t know the mind of the Scrabbler as well as I know my own. But I would love to find out. Are you a Scrabbler? Can you play a similar trick on yourself, to force yourself to find the solution you crave?

Puzzles are, in the entirely standard meaning here employed, that special category of problems that can serve to test ingenuity or skill in solution.  Dictionary illustrations are ‘jigsaw puzzle’ and ‘crossword puzzle,’ Consider the jigsaw puzzle whose pieces are selected at random from each of two different puzzle boxes.  Since that problem is likely to defy … even the most ingenious of men, it cannot serve as a test of skill in solution. In any usual sense it is not a puzzle at all. Though intrinsic value is no criterion (of goodness) for a puzzle, the assured existence of a solution is.”  (Kuhn, 1962)

Kuhn, T.S. (1962). The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. The University of Chicago Press: Chicago, IL.


being there

Malyszko/Mount Holyoke PhotoA good friend of mine has this daughter, see. And this daughter is just insanely bright and accomplished. And a senior in high school.  So she’s been spending this spring wondering where she will spend the next four years of her life.  Fun times.

As it turns out, although she was admitted to several really excellent, top-notch schools, she was waitlisted at the college that she really wanted to go to — a phenomenally good school, one of the very best — and they found out today that she made it off the waitlist and has been accepted into full admission.

I know how I felt when I visited Mount Holyoke as a prospective student all those years ago.  How I had my interview in the admissions office across the street from campus, and then joined a group of applicants on a tour around the school.  When we walked across the street, and I set foot on the MHC campus proper, I swear to you that I felt the ground move.  No lie.

It sort of… throbbed under my feet. And I didn’t wonder anymore where it was that I needed to go to college.  The connection was immediate, real, and unquestionable.  And MHC continues to have a powerful effect on me, fifteen years later.

(As a side note, when I attended my 15-year reunion last spring, I taught a class as part of the Back To The Classroom series.  Coincidentally, my class was scheduled in the same building as the first class I ever taught, as a geology TA.  It was as a TA at MHC that I realized how much I wanted to teach, and when I taught in that building again last year, I remembered. Vividly. And then I went back to school that fall.)

I’ve had many friends over the years who never felt that sort of vital, visceral connection to their school.  Some eventually dropped out, or transferred from one school to another, over and over, never finding the right fit.  I really do believe that it’s all about the right fit (even if that is a cliche), and that you have to keep looking around, and physically set foot on each campus, to find the right one for you.  Brochures and websites won’t do it.  No marketing materials on earth can tell you if you have that visceral connection to a school (or any organization, as I later learned).  You have to be there.

So I’m thrilled for my friend’s daughter, who will now get that chance.  Yes, it’s a phenomenal school.  Yes, she is clever enough to have done well anywhere.  But the fact of the matter is, it’s the right school for her.

I know that I’m in the right school for me now, getting my MBA at Simmons.  And I’m glad that I know that this sort of connection is possible, and that I know that I need to insist on it for myself wherever I end up next, because, well, because school is hard.  Fun, exhilarating, challenging, sure, but sometimes it is nothing but hard, hard, hard work. And when the chips are down, you really need to feel like you’re in the right place in the first place — like you belong in a some meaningful way.  Like you have a right to be there.

So that the illigitimi don’t carborundum, as it were.

This summer, I’m concentrating a bit more on being here, on Cape Cod.  As a commuter student to a school in Boston over an hour away, I’ve lost touch with some of my closest friends, and missed the chance to establish new friendships with some pretty great people.  And as I begin the application process this summer to doctoral programs, I realize that this might be my last summer to just be on the Cape for some time.

So while I have a fair bit of work to do this summer (several related and overlapping research projects that are sort of insanely exciting to me), I’m planning on taking it a little slow this summer in my daily life. Get the bike tuned up.  Drive less, ride more. Go for long, rambling walks. Have lunch with friends. A lot.

I might suggest to my friend’s daughter that she do the same, even though I am sure all she can think about right now is SEPTEMBER SEPTEMBER SEPTEMBER. Believe me, I know that siren song very well.  It is one of my very favorite songs.

Because when you’re peering impatiently over the fence of your immediate future, you might be missing out on some really great stuff in the immediate now.

the streets of new york

I love New York:

Little Known Fact

This semester, I started a weekly speaker series at school called Little Known Fact.  Each week, a current MBA student at the Simmons School of Management gives a brief, informal presentation on some topic that she is passionate about — something that wouldn’t come up in everyday classroom conversation.

It’s a chance for us all to get together, blow off some steam, and learn more about what we do in the off-hours.  There is usually a strong component of audience participation to Little Known Fact, Powerpoint slides are strictly prohibited, and cookies, chips, and other snacks and treats are plentiful. That’s right, it’s that always magical combination: graduate students and free food!

This week, Little Known Fact featured my good friend Ashley Lucas, who played rugby in college, and who more recently played on a pretty darn successful women’s rugby team in the Boston area.  She managed to teach us a lot about the game in a short period of time, got us moving around (and wearing funny clothes), showed us how to do a “line-out” and a “scrum” — all of which I managed to capture on video for posterity.

So here you go… a little taste of what a little precious, rare downtime is like at the Simmons School of Management.

Many thanks to the Simmons School of Management for their generous support of Little Known Fact, to Tara Healey for providing the cookies and other refreshments each week, to all the other speakers this semester, and to Ashley Lucas, for a phenomenal introduction to rugby.  Music in the video is podsafe music; Sugar Rush by Beau Hall.

Little Known Fact happens every Wednesday afternoon from 4:00 pm to 5:00 pm on the second floor of the Simmons School of Management building at Simmons College in Boston, Massachusetts.  All are welcome, and attendance is free.

what does Twitter look like from where you sit?

My Twitter Map

My Twitter Map

Well this is a rather amazing tool.

Marshall Kirkpatrick’s recent piece on ReadWriteWeb about The Inner Circle of 10 Geek Heroes listed me as a person with whom the remarkable Beth Kanter interacts often on Twitter.  Which surprised me a bit, only because I have been totally submerged in school for the last seven months getting an MBA at Simmons in Boston, and have radically curtailed my twitter usage (and bloggage) as a result of the intense and all-consuming workload of an accelerated MBA program.  So I thought I was pretty well out of the loop — things move fast on Twitter, and seem to have been moving even faster of late.

I love the visualization of my network that this tool provides — you can tweak it in all sorts of ways, too, to find out who lives where (if your network is particularly complex geographically, as mine is), what they talk about, and what their network maps look like.

One of the most common things I hear in conversation with other Twitterers is Well, do you know so-and-so? And the answer is no, more often than you might think.  Because Twitter provides you with a personalized view of a very broad and multi-layered conversation, it is easy to allow yourself to believe that your view is at all similar to the view of others… just because you share a few connections.

It’s pretty worthwhile, I think, to take a moment and click on some of your friends’ links within your network map — see what Twitter looks like from where they sit, and maybe see what angles you’ve been missing.

nano nano

What can I say? I am a sucker for the intoxicating combination of academics (read: geeks), song and dance, and, yes, muppets. OK, puppets. But with the spirit of Henson very much alive, alive-oh.

things that are awesome

If you’re not dancing, you’re doing it wrong.