Wednesday, 26 December 2012

Puzzles, Piotr, and Pussy Cats

Ever since I was young, I loved playing games of skill and solving puzzles. The former was manifested by becoming a serious chess player (master level) and competing in bridge and backgammon tournaments. I still play games today, but mostly for social reasons (i.e., non competitive).

I greatly enjoy solving puzzles. I never was interested in Rubik’s Cube, except as a challenge for a computer program. Today I love to try my hand at crossword puzzles (I suck at the weekend New York Times puzzles), Sudoko (I can usually solve the most difficult level, if I am careful), and Ken-Ken (not as popular but still entertaining). I have a collection of physical puzzles that I like to use to challenge myself. A couple of them I have not yet solved, something that really irks me.

Many years ago I read an article that competitive game players (and presumably the same for puzzle solvers) had a much lower rate of mind diseases such as Alzheimer’s. The argument that was made, roughly speaking, was that games (and puzzles) were like exercise for the mind. Just like the body, exercise was a useful way of keeping in fit form and building strength against disease. Today, the jury is still out but there is evidence that mental activity can be beneficial for your long-term health (for example, the American Academy of Neurology). So, I go on long runs to strengthen my body and solve puzzles to sharpen my mind.

In November, members of the University of Alberta community were saddened by the unexpected passing of Professor Piotr Rudnicki. I knew Piotr for over 25 years. Although we had not interacted much in recent years, we had worked together on courses (CMPUT 415: Compiler Construction), served on committees together, and pushed each other at squash (Piotr was the much better player).

Piotr Rudnicki (from his home page)
In 1996, I was invited to MIT to give a talk. Afterwards, I was walking on a street nearby and found a games store. Inside I was intrigued by a puzzle that I had not seen before. It was a bottle with a ball in it: the ball was on the bottom of the bottle and the challenge was to get the ball to the top, touching the cork. In between was an obstacle that prevented all the obvious solutions. I solved the puzzle later that day, but was not happy with how long it took me to find what was, with hindsight, an “obvious” solution.

About a year later, I had this puzzle in my office when Piotr came by. He latched on to it and tried all the instinctive ways to solve it. Nothing worked, so he asked to borrow it. The next day he returned the puzzle with a story.

Piotr was able to solve it only after his cat solved it.

Piotr told me he had been working on the puzzle, got frustrated, left the puzzle on a table, went off to make dinner, returned some time later, and discovered that the puzzle had been solved! Since the only other living entity in the house during this time was his cat, Piotr surmised that he had been out-smarted by a cat. I won’t give the solution here, but all you have to do is imagine what a cat might do with a bottle.

Piotr often challenged people by asking them: “Are you as smart as a cat?”

Visiting Tokyo (part 2)

I wrote about my impressions of Tokyo in an October 4 posting. Last month my wife, Steph, went to visit our daughter, Rebecca, a full-time student at Waseda University in Tokyo. Steph brought back many stories of her travels, but three seemed to fit in nicely with my earlier post.

Automation (part 2) 
The following picture shows automation gone amok. The toilet seat, installed in a lady’s rest room, has numerous push-button controls, including a bidet/spray setting, water pressure adjustment, water temperature customization, heated seats, deodorizer, music controls, and so on. I never saw such “convenience” in the men’s bathrooms that I visited. Possibly a case of sex discrimination.

The deluxe toilet seat
Think of the business opportunity! The Edmonton clientele eagerly awaiting this marvel of human ingenuity.

Of course, if the above was not to your liking (is that even possible?), then some places gave you a choice. You could squat over a hole in the ground. At least these facilities had an automatic flush and toilet paper (unlike such bathrooms in India).

Cat Café
Need a break from the hustle and bustle that is Tokyo? Need some relief from the stress of your job? Or, in Steph’s case, need a cat fix because you miss your pets from home? The answer is to go to one of the numerous cat cafés in the city. Here you get to spend quality time with friendly felines. Can you spot the five cats in the following picture? 

Five furry friends for fun
The cost of the café that Steph visited was 600 yen (roughly $8) for one entry. You could stay for as long as you liked, but the lack of food, drink, or bathrooms effectively imposed a limit.

Air Canada (part 2)
Steph flew from Edmonton to Chicago (Air Canada) and from Chicago to Tokyo (United, Air Canada's major partner). The flight to Chicago departed and then the economy passengers discovered that the toilets weren’t working. The crew told passengers that if someone was desperate then access to the first-class bathroom could be arranged. Two choices were presented to the travelers: set down the plane to fix the problem or speedup and get to Chicago sooner. The plane arrived 30 minutes ahead of schedule.

The flight to Tokyo is very long: over 13 hours. Once the flight was well under way, the cabin lights were dimmed allowing passengers to sleep (if so desired). Steph (and others) wanted to read, and so they attempted to turn on their reading light. Surprise! A light turned on, but it was random. Steph could control the reading light of the passenger two rows behind, but never did find out whose switch controlled her light. She did all of her reading to the glow of her iPad.