Monday, October 7, 2013

How puzzling influenced me

My ghost of internet past

Dear readers, what was your first introduction to the internet?

I'm part of the "millenial" generation, which means I grew up with the internet.  Well, sort of--I didn't actually pay the internet any attention until high school.  The point is, I had internet at such a time that it was important to the development of my identity.

But my introduction to the internet was not through blogs or forums or anything like that.  My introduction was through a small puzzle website called Perplexus.  Surprisingly, the website is still alive after 10 years, with not much changed. Perplexus publishes daily word problems, much like the puzzles that I occasionally publish on this blog (no coincidence there).  The content is user-submitted, and also selected by higher-ranking members.  I wrote over seventy puzzles over the course of three or four years.

I think I've mentioned Perplexus a few times in the past, but never by name or in detail.  I think I've been embarrassed, as I always feel embarrassed by old internet activity.  What an awkward dork past-me was!  I probably said such stupid things!  Not that I remember anything stupid in particular.

But I do remember things.  I remember learning a bit of html code, because some parts of the site require it to make links or line breaks.  I remember learning about combinatorics, the mathematics of counting.  I remember learning modular arithmetic.  I remember arguing about the urn problem, the 1.99999... = 2 problem, and the envelope paradox.  I remember learning about Raymond Smullyan and Martin Gardner.

Some of my memories also demonstrate how Perplexus dominated my internet world.  I learned all the ins and outs of the ranking system, and the complicated queue system for submitted puzzles.  The queue itself seemed like a puzzle to me.  I dug through the forum archives once, because I was interested in the social history of the site.  I read about a kid who was once caught sockpuppeting, on a puzzle website of all places.  That fascinated me, though I did not think it strange.

I looked at the webpages of regulars who had them.  There was a guy who it seemed could solve every puzzle very quickly, and who frequently irritated other members by solving it with a computer.  I respected him a lot.  His personal webpage had a series of essays about why he left Catholicism.  Some time later, I left Catholicism, though I think that's something I would have done anyway.

I do this for fun

At the time I had this philosophy.  Doing puzzles was a thing I did for fun.  Because it was an intellectual activity, I knew that some people might think of it as a useful, virtuous activity, like exercising.  But I rejected that idea, and insisted I was doing it for fun, not to learn things.

Did my philosophy stand the test of time?  Did solving puzzles impact my later life?  I often doubt that it had much effect.  Some stuff I learned was just useless.  Like Polya theory, what's that good for?  Or the method to solve lines-through-points puzzles?  Or coin-weighing puzzles?

But when I describe my life, it seems obvious that puzzles did have an impact.  I still have a fondness for shapes, as you might have noticed.  I still like to joke about set theory.  And it affected my career too.  Because of my problem-solving skills, I always had an easy time in math and physics courses.  I used to joke that I majored in physics because it was the easiest subject, and that was really true for me.  After undergraduate, problems are much more open-ended and un-puzzle-like.  But the skills still transfer over.

On this blog, I also consider issues that are more open-ended and un-puzzle-like.  And yet my approach tends to be the same approach I have to puzzles, if that makes any sense.  A puzzle is not about the answer;  If it were about the answer, then you could just look up the answer and be satisfied.  A puzzle is about the process.  It's about the challenge.  It's about the little mathematical tidbits we learn along the way.

Most importantly, it's about fun.