Thursday, June 2, 2005

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Run away!! run away!!!

Throughout my life there have been activities that I have shied away from, not because I disliked them but because I feared liking them so intensely that they'd impinge on the rest of my life. This was why I never played Dungeons & Dragons as a kid. My brain starts sounding like a Monty Python voice yelling, "Run away!! Run away!!!"

Occasionally, despite my mental efforts, one of these addictive activities sneaks its way through my defenses. I'm convinced that had I not gotten hooked on Sid Meier's Civilization II game, I'd have another article somewhere on my cv. Thankfully, I kicked that habit five years ago -- all that's left is a non-functional icon on my desktop.

[What about blogging?--ed. A more complex answer -- I'd probably have another article or two, but on the other hand the articles on outsourcing and blogging would not be there either.]

Which brings me to (if, as you're reading this, you know what I'm talking about and don't want to be hooked into another diversion, just click away now)...... sudoku!!!


What you see above you is a sample game of sudoku in an Economist article I stumbled onto while traveling last week. The rules of the game are very simple:

On a board of nine-by-nine squares, most of them empty, players must fill in each square with a number so that each row (left to right), column (top to bottom) and block (in bold lines) contains 1 to 9.

Click here for the solution to the above puzzle.

The Economist thinks this is the Next Big Thing in puzzles -- apparently the broadsheets in Great Britain are falling all over themselves to create the winning New-York-Times-crossword-style brand.

Seth Stevenson, in Slate, fessus up to his addition:

When Slate asked me to write about "sudoku"—the number puzzle that's taken Britain by storm (and seems poised to conquer the United States, too)—I thought it might be a pleasant little assignment. After all, I like puzzles. I'm always up for trying a new one.

And now it's 2 a.m., my deadline is looming, and (as you can see) I'm only on my second paragraph. All because, damn it, I can't stop playing sudoku. I'm a full-on sudoku addict. Thanks, Slate....

It takes just a moment to feel the rush and become addicted (sort of like crack). Also (again, like crack), sudoku is cheap to obtain and widely available.

Stevenson goes on to analyze whether sudoku will be just as addictive as the NYT's crossword. His conclusion:

I guess the most basic difference is that sudoku is a puzzle of logic—not a puzzle of esoteric knowledge and literate playfulness. Logic is less my bag. And I'd rather interact with someone's precious, painstaking creation than with a set of numbers spat out by a computer program.

Proceed to the London Times sudoku page at your own risk.

posted by Dan on 06.02.05 at 05:49 PM


Yeah I read the same Economist article on sudoku and tried the puzzle. It was quite easy but at the same time enjoyable.

I also tried one of the hard puzzles and I admit it take me quite a while to do it: more than an hour. Perhaps I missed something simpler but the final chain of reasoning that allowed me to solve it was quite elaborate: about three separate strands of what-if analysis coming together. Very satisfying.

I think the charm of the game is that unlike a crossword you can't really get stuck but at the same time solving it is hard enough to give you some real satisfaction.

Incidentally Sudoku is an interesting example of global pop culture. The puzzle was first published in the US in the 70's , refined, popularized and given its name in Japan in the 80's and brought to Britain by a New Zealander last year. No doubt the Internet will help it spread like wildfire from Britain back to the US and the rest of the world.
Check out the wikipedia page with some nice links at the end examining the phenomenon.

posted by: Strategist on 06.02.05 at 05:49 PM [permalink]

Well Dan, being a little more conservative then you, I had been concerned ever since you started flirting with the whole Kerry thing, but finding out that you are also addicted to Civ. Well, that covers a multitude of ...frusterations.

In any event that's cool, I'm glad to find that (at least some) academics have the opportunity to enjoy such fun games.

posted by: Joel B. on 06.02.05 at 05:49 PM [permalink]

Science-fiction writer Jerry Pournelle said that Civ cost him a book.

posted by: Tom Holsinger on 06.02.05 at 05:49 PM [permalink]

The versions of this puzzle that appear in Games magazine also use the two principal diagonals.

posted by: linsee on 06.02.05 at 05:49 PM [permalink]

That's interesting, I know at least two other IR scholars who are Civ3 addicts. Would be interesting to know whether Civ playing is especially widespread in academia (and IR in particular)...

I myself was hooked on Civ2 some years ago. But now I'm awaiting the release of Civ4 later this year. Oh, boy, will my academic career suffer!

posted by: ab on 06.02.05 at 05:49 PM [permalink]

The Economist thinks this is the Next Big Thing in puzzles -- apparently the broadsheets in Great Britain are falling all over themselves to create the winning New-York-Times-crossword-style brand.

New York Times crossword-style brand? Ha! The piece de resistance has always been (and will be forever) the crosswords in the Times (of London). Your American versions are an abomination and the examples in the New York Times and LA Times, in particular, have nothing to do with real crosswords.

posted by: davidoff on 06.02.05 at 05:49 PM [permalink]

I would have loved to have created a Java or PHP version as a way to generate some traffic. However, I see thousands of hits for sudoko java, and likewise with php. There are even versions for handhelds.

Could someone alert me to the Next Big Thing before it already becomes somewhat big?

Me, I'm thinking it's going to be Reverse Jeopardy: saying the answers to Jeopardy backwards.

posted by: The Lonewacko Blog on 06.02.05 at 05:49 PM [permalink]


when you have a chance,would you be so kind as to go to (the premier Civ site on the internet) and read my column "Civ2's Hegelian Tech Tree" and tell me what you think?

posted by: lord of the mark on 06.02.05 at 05:49 PM [permalink]

Holy cow. I've been horribly hooked on these for a few days now.

It's so easy to reach a flow state while playing it! You start off slow and then eventually you're fitting stuff right in. No wonder everyone seems to love sudoku.

posted by: perianwyr on 06.02.05 at 05:49 PM [permalink]

This puzzle and the NY Times crossword puzzle bore me. Addictive is the last word I'd associate with them. But that's just me.

posted by: Dave on 06.02.05 at 05:49 PM [permalink]

If you think sudoku's addictive, pick up a World of Puzzles (or possibly a Games, some have them, some don't), and check out Paint By Numbers. You can kill hours on the big ones.

posted by: Devin McCullen on 06.02.05 at 05:49 PM [permalink]

Heck, that's just Number Place. They've been in Dell puzzle mags for years. I do them on my way to the Cross Sums, which are far more addictive. *twitch*

posted by: Achillea on 06.02.05 at 05:49 PM [permalink]

.... while I turn to the Cross Sums once I've used up the Trigons, which are most addictive of all.

posted by: Paul Zrimsek on 06.02.05 at 05:49 PM [permalink]

I noticed the walk back there on Civ Dan. Don't worry it's all good!

posted by: Joel B. on 06.02.05 at 05:49 PM [permalink]

Ed von der Burg has written a three line perl program that solves sudoku puzzles in a fraction of a second:

Do you still think them challenging? Or worth attention?

posted by: jim on 06.02.05 at 05:49 PM [permalink]

Oh man, you've just solved a big cultural puzzle for me. I'm visiting in UK and I've been wondering what the hell these Brits at the pub were doing over their pints. First I thought it was crosswords. But that was obviously wrong. Now I know...

posted by: radek on 06.02.05 at 05:49 PM [permalink]

If you liked the Civ line, check out Paradox Games' line (Europe Universalis, Victoria, etc). IMO they've addressed most of the really irritating limitations of Civ & have a much richer diplomatic model to boot.
OTOH, maybe that wouldn't be doing your career any favors... :)

posted by: Carleton Wu on 06.02.05 at 05:49 PM [permalink]

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