Cubic Ruminations

The following essay was originally published in the increasingly aptly named All The Rage in November 2007. Read on, then pay them a visit.

It is impossible for me to think of the Rubik’s Cube without a mental image of a schoolboy scuttling along a polished stone corridor with his hands in his blazer pockets: an odd but appropriately nerdy mode of travel. The boy in question is not me, but a much nerdier friend, possibly the same one that used to build little radio transmitters which would then transmit the jaunty-cum-irritating jingle from my new digital watch. Other than the fact that one of those pockets was very likely, at this time, to have also contained a Cube, I don’t know why this image particularly comes to mind. But it is clearly synaptically linked, twinned even, with the feel of the Cube in my own blazer pocket, the sharp corners pressing against my thigh, and its weight creating a disconcerting asymmetry. An uneven distribution, perhaps, which could best be mitigated by a hand firmly wedged in each pocket as you half-ran along the green-grey corridors of another, too long and yet not long enough lunchtime.

Apparently the Cube is more popular now than ever. (Although it might be more accurate to say that it is more popular now than it has been since 1980-82, when it reputedly sold over one hundred million units.) Teen maths geeks from all over the world are competing to return a scrambled cube to its primary state faster than anyone else, the world record being under 10 seconds. They should have a competition (in America), a sort of geek-jock challenge. A geek has to complete the Cube before a sprinter can run 100m. An obvious comedic alternative to this would involve the geek having to run 100m before the sprinter can complete the Cube. A pretty fair fight in both cases, I would have thought. (It always frustrated me that children who were encouraged to exploit their academic success by attending Cambridge University at the age of 14 were invariably admitted to study Mathematics[1]. Why were there never any child prodigy geographers? And why, given that any respect for their social well-being or chance of happiness in life has long since been sacrificed on the alter of their genius, have they not in the intervening time solved all the problems in the Universe?)

And so, a list, in numerical, but otherwise no particular, order:

1. The feel of the Cube in your blazer pocket.

2. The image of a schoolboy half running and half sliding along a corridor in Manchester with his hands in his blazer pockets.

3. The Cube consists of 21 pieces: a rotating core with six central squares, and 20 individual edge and corner blocks.

4. These pieces can be, and often were (sometimes by uncles) taken apart, in order to “solve” the puzzle. This was generally regarded as cheating. And the adjacent trick of removing all of the stickers and reapplying them in the correct configuration: also considered cheating. Both of these cheats had an incrementally detrimental effect on the physical condition of the Cube, and, congruently, on ones own sense of self-worth.

5. The acquisition of photocopied pages from a book which detailed the various “algorithms” that you could learn in order to solve the Cube without taking it apart.

6. The curious way in which the use of these instructions was considered by some to also in some respect count as cheating, as if the memorization and application of the algorithms was not enough, and the point of the puzzle was actually to work out those algorithms for yourself.

7. The even curiouser way in which the acquisition of these pages did indeed feel illicit, as if on some subconscious level I concurred with the puzzle fundamentalists and family members who regarded such documentation as inauthentic, as samizdat[2], and its possession and use as shameful.

8. And how this illicit distribution and consumption might be seen as an analogue for another such furtive exchange of literature that would shortly replace it, how the innocent pre-pubescent craze could be viewed from this clever distance as somehow foreshadowing the guilty excitement that our hormonal destinies and those with access to the areas underneath older family members’ beds would combine to induce.

9. And yet, however hard I try, that analogy fails to resonate, and I am forced to conclude that, reassuringly, the desire to solve the Cube, to take something fractured and to make it whole, was innocent, and pure, and good[3].

10. The cost of the genuine branded Rubik’s Cube was prohibitive (around £5 as I recall, about the same price as a three bedroomed terraced house in Northenden at that time). Consequently there was a wide assortment of False Cubes, market knock-offs that, though presumably manufactured using the same clever and patented internal mechanism, were nevertheless aesthetically and kinetically inferior.

11. I learnt the necessary algorithms, and managed to “Do The Cube” in a respectable time, generally between three to six minutes, depending on the starting state of the Cube, and other environmental factors such as the television and grandparents. Naturally I was working with a False Cube, and my times were no doubt affected by the stiffness and occasional jamming and misalignment that were standard features on the cheaper product.

12. The Cube spawned a motley array of spin-offs, both from Professor Rubik himself and others. Significantly less pandemic snakes, barrels and pyramids followed, all in the multicoloured, rotating-block idiom. Not content with the complexity of the original Rubik’s Cube, more complicated iterations of the original have been developed, and a 5 * 5 * 5 version is available, marketed as the Professor’s Cube (so named, no doubt, with a nod to another evocative Eighties icon, Jimmy Saville).

13. As if the original Cube wasn’t difficult enough. As if it wasn’t invented as a self-evidently impossible puzzle, an esoteric exercise in Engineering and Mathematics, a curiosity and conversation piece, a dinner party “Get a load of this Derek”. As if it wasn’t intended as a Pure Maths Masquerade, whose solution was only hypothetical, and its eventual finder afforded some fleeting notoriety: a few minutes on Nationwide perhaps, along with some moderate financial reward in the form of a Heineken advert and a guest appearance on Little and Large.

14. And so, in honour of the willfully obtuse puzzle, I offer you one of my own. It is a Wordsearch. A Wordsearch of names of types of puzzle. A Wordsearch of names of types of puzzle wherein all of the puzzle names have been jumbled. It is, therefore, a puzzle puzzle puzzle, or, if you prefer, a puzzle cubed. There are ten puzzles to be found and unjumbled. A clue, and possibly even a solution of sorts, will be posted on later this month.

S   B   N   E   M   J   U   B   L   F   P   S
N   L   I   D   R   E   D   V   E   S   D   V
A   C   S   L   O   W   O   S   R   U   W   S
S   M   C   R   E   W   S   A   R   S   N   E
O   G   A   J   L   E   U   E   R   T   T   R
A   T   R   G   R   H   K   O   L   S   E   A
F   V   F   C   N   B   E   W   A   E   X   M
C   A   D   O   I   R   P   W   T   R   R   A
D   O   E   B   H   T   J   J   E   E   C   G
W   R   S   D   S   C   O   R   O   W   P   N
H   U   C   Z   E   L   M   M   S   N   Y   A
E   A   A   F   S   G   A   S   W   I   J   A

[1] The only exception to this being Music, though this is hardly a distinction, given that the study of music at an institution of higher education is essentially Mathematics for people with ears.

[2] A word I first encountered in Infinite Jest

[3] Equally, I would reject any suggestion that the manual exertion required to produce the repeated movements described in the documentation might in any way be regarded as ideal conditioning of the tendons in the fingers and wrist, thereby proving useful to precisely the same teenage algorithm fans once all the faces of Cube had been correctly ordered for the final time that evening, and the object returned to its resting place on the bedside table.