Weekly status update [0044/????]

Another quiet week; I’ll try to be less blather-y than last time.

  • I finally finished Ash.  It was definitely worth the read, even though I probably did permanent damage to my eyesight with that damn book.  It’s hard to recommend, though, given its length… but I’ll recommend it anyway.  Gritty, clever, and moving, it made for a superb read.  And if nothing else it’ll take you ages and feel like an accomplishment when you’re done!
  • I’m now reading The Labyrinth Index, the eighth book in the Laundry Files series.  It’s very good so far, although the setting is very, very bleak (for reasons that are pretty major spoilers for the series as a whole).  Despite it being a much quicker read than Ash–how can it not be?–I find myself putting it aside constantly to do something else.  It’s not the book’s fault; it’s that I’m pretty drained on the reading front.  I’m gonna finish it in the next day or two, though.
  • As mentioned earlier this week, the puzzle stuff I’ve been working on with Krazydad went live on his site.  We’re now working on… something else, that may or may not result in further puzzling goodness.  Further news as events warrant.
  • I’ve continued to poke my way through Tametsi, which is fantastic but also intensely brain-burning.  After uninstalling all of the free-to-play stuff on my PS4, I… basically haven’t booted it up since, other than to buy the new Williams pinball table pack for Pinball FX3.
  • I finished up a book of sudoku puzzles I had been working on off-and-on for, like, four years.  Well, mostly finished.  The last three puzzles suddenly required a bunch of advanced techniques that the other 209 didn’t; I know how to do those techniques, mind you, but I felt it was a betrayal of confidence in the structure of the magazine and called it quits.  One down, a million to go…
  • I’m not really watching anything on TV right now other than keeping up with The Good Place.  You are watching The Good Place, right?  It’s fantastic.

This weekend looks to be very ugly here, with incoming snow-storms.  I’ve prepped as much as is reasonable and am heading to bed early now just in case.  Hopefully I just end up snowed in rather than, y’know, snowed in and freezing.  We shall see!

Ripples and effects

This is just a quick note: the puzzles that I’ve been working on with Krazydad–Ripple Effects, as made not-very-famous by Nikoli–went live this evening!  You can even solve them online, no need for a printer.  The online version can be found here, and if you’re the sort that would rather print them out and solve them the old fashioned way, the PDFs are here.  I will definitely be doing a Phil’s Puzzle Primer on them soon, so stay tuned, but there are instructions in both places that will help you get started.  Enjoy!  And you may even see more collaboration the two of us in the future.  We’re currently discussing a new puzzle type of my own devising.  We’ll see what happens.

This is the first of the super-tough puzzles.  I… strongly recommend you don’t start there.

Weekly status update [0043/????]

This week was even more low-key than last week, with one major exception.  And that’s fine by me.

  • I’m still reading Ash: A Secret History.  It’s very, very good, and also very, very long; I’m on page 716 as I write this, which is almost precisely two-thirds of the way through the book.  Most days I manage somewhere between fifty and a hundred and fifty pages.  It’ll be done soon, and it’s likely the last (physical) book I read this year; I’ll jump to my Kindle, because…
  • …the power went out at my house Saturday morning at 3am and was off until around 2pm.  It was cold.  I ended up bundling under two blankets on my recliner and starting the second Wheel of Time book on my Kindle, which was half-charged.  (Thanks, battery pack I still have from my job!  You kept my phone and my Kindle going.)  Fortunately the power did come back on before I had to find somewhere else to crash for the evening.
  • Most evenings have been spent watching Twitch, and specifically NickCapricorn, a small streamer who has been playing various classic games.  I do mean small; it’s not uncommon for there to only be one or two of us active in his chat.  But he’s a nice guy and he keeps up conversation… and he’s currently playing StarTropics, one of my favorite old NES games, for the first time.  It’s been a delight watching him do so very badly at it.
  • I continued working with Krazydad on the Ripple Effect implementation, by which I mean I wrote a bit of code and did quite a lot more test solving of puzzles while he messed with a bunch of parameters.  I suspect the new puzzle type will be going up on his website relatively soon, which is pretty exciting.  They’re not quite as good as human-made ones… but I now have code to generate an infinite number of them for the rest of my life, so that seems like a reasonable trade-off.
  • I’ve also continued to solve paper puzzles during the day, mostly as a break from reading Ash.  I’m only eight puzzles away from finishing this dang Sudoku book I’ve been working on for years.  (Of course, those eight puzzles are the hardest ones, and they generally take me half an hour or so to solve, so there’s still plenty of time left in there…)
  • And on the videogame side, I was turned on to Tametsi by folks in a puzzle-related Discord.  It’s basically “extremely hard Minesweeper,” and is very very good.  Also very cheap ($3).  I’m excited to work my way through it.  (It says that it’s Windows-only, but tametsi.exe is actually a Java JAR file, so if you know the proper incantations it’s perfectly playable on both Mac and Linux “natively.”)
  • I also put a lot of time into Let It Die this week, and particularly today.  No, I still haven’t beaten it, because I know when I do I’ll stop playing, and I still really enjoy the game hundreds (and hundreds) of hours in.  But I think I’m really, truly going to push to beat the game before I head home for the holidays.
  • After being a good boy for Thanksgiving, I utterly exploded the diet on Monday with some delicious pizza.  Well, lots of delicious pizza.  I ended up fasting for the rest of the week, breaking it this morning, which will hopefully help me get back on track.  I’ve already written off the holidays–in fact, I spent time yesterday figuring out which snacks I’m going to have shipped to my Mom’s house before I get there–so the better I do before then the less catastrophic my time home will be.  And then it’ll be back to the grind come January… but isn’t that what Januaries are for?

(As a side note, I managed to finagle the right bits to go to my old job’s holiday party one last time, mostly thanks to the efforts of a friend who still works there.  I’m looking forward to it; the party itself is always pleasant, but I started a tradition of playing card games and other fun easy group games in the lobby of the hotel until the wee hours of the morning after the party, and getting to do that one last time will be nice.  That’s not for a couple of weeks, though.)

…for a week where not a lot happened, I sure wrote a lot.  Huh.  I’ll try to be more brief next week.  Maybe my fingers just wanted to type a bunch again, now that NaNo’s over?

Phil’s Puzzle Primer: Sudoku

Sudoku gets a bad rap.

On the face of it, that might seem like an absurd thing to say.  Crosswords are the only type of pencil puzzle with more widespread appeal than sudoku, and they’ve been around a hell of a lot longer.  (Word searches are certainly a thing, but most serious puzzle people don’t take them very, well, seriously, for reasons we may explore some day.)  But in the same way that I was once told by someone I otherwise respected that they had “moved on” from things like ’80s pop music to more serious auditory pursuits, it’s easy to find people who–while they may have, once, seen the appeal–find no interest in the 9×9 grid of numbers that comprise this most common of logic puzzles.

Like Mr. Too-Good-For-Depeche-Mode, they are wrong.

Anyone surprised that the first image-heavy post on my blog (and the second to ever have images at all) happens to be about puzzles doesn’t know me very well.

Sudoku looks like it’s about numbers, but it really isn’t.  I had a discussion with my mail carrier a week or so ago; I had ordered some sudoku magazines that shipped in clear plastic wrap, so you could see the cover, and she admitted to me that she had never done a sudoku, had never even tried, because “it has something to do with math?”  You know exactly the face that she was making while she said that, too.  So much of our population is genuinely intimidated by math, which is a damn shame, but that’s yet another subject.  Anyhow, I explained to her how it actually works, and she lit up.  “I understand how it works now!”  She said that with the sort of shocked pleasure usually reserved for finding a forgotten fifty-dollar bill in a jacket pocket.

So, just in case, here: To solve a sudoku, you must put the digits 1-9 in the empty cells of the grid, such that each row, each column, and each 3×3 box marked out with the thick black lines has each digit exactly once.

That’s it.  That’s all there is to sudoku.

Of course, that’s not even remotely true.  Sudoku can be trivially simple, an exercise of writing in numbers as quick as you see the missing values, or it can be extremely difficult, requiring convoluted logic (and, in the worst cases, just flat-out brute force “let’s try everything” methods) to make even the slightest bit of progress.  And that’s not counting the roughly 1.21 giga-variations of the puzzle.  Those range from the most basic (a 6×6 grid, say, or a 16×16 ones) to bewildering mashups of multiple complicated rulesets.  Interestingly, while vanilla sudoku make no use of the fact that the symbols are the digits 1 through 9, many variations actually rely on that fact… bringing math back into the whole thing.

This is far from the most complicated multi-variant sudoku I’ve ever seen, but it’s pleasantly indicative of the format.  It was also made before some terms came to dominate the language around the puzzle.  That top-right one would now be called a “jigsaw,” for example.

If there are tragedies behind the worldwide explosion in popularity of the puzzle type, they have nothing to do with the form of the puzzle itself, which can be infinitely fascinating even in its most-basic form.  The first and ultimate tragedy is that the creator of the puzzle type, a Mr. Howard Garns, passed away in 1989 before the craze became multi-national.  He would no doubt have been delighted at the proliferation of the puzzle on bookshelves and in magazines around the world.

The second tragedy is more insidious, and is part and parcel of many modern puzzle types: most of the sudoku produced in the world are computer-generated, and it shows.  They have boring solving paths, or ones that are too tightly constrained, requiring one specific deduction to make any progress at all.  And there is an enormous glut of these boring puzzles, crowding out the good ones from easy availability.  It’s always cheaper for a computer to churn out a thousand puzzles than to pay a human to make twenty, after all.

The very first sudoku (well, Number Place) puzzles, dating from 1979.  These are laughably easy if you’ve ever solved more than a couple of modern ones, but of course the format was brand new then.  Also note that even the first puzzle was actually a mild variant!

 Here’s a confession: I used to look down on sudoku.  Although I strive to be an anti-hipster in all of my tastes, I was–I say this with shame–a puzzle hipster.  Sudoku was the super-popular one; my personal favorites, like Slitherlink and Fillomino, went basically ignored.  So clearly they were superior; clearly sudoku was for weak-minded fools who couldn’t bother to learn how to do interesting puzzles.

Don’t worry.  I got better.

That said, it’s very common for people to like it and, well, no other puzzle types, really.  I personally think that that’s something of a shame–there are so many good puzzle types out there in the world–but if you’re going to pick a puzzle type to focus on, you could do much worse than sudoku.

Getting started with sudoku

If you’re totally intimidated by the format and you want a physical book, start with Djape’s Sudoku for Kids (Amazon).  They’re computer-generated, but they start out at 4×4 and get bigger from there.  There are also several variations in the book (even-odd and X, primarily), which is a good primer on some of the more common alternate sudoku types you’ll see in the wild.

Alternately, install Simon Tatham’s Portable Puzzle Collection (Google Play Store | Apple App Store | Desktop) and you can dial the puzzle difficulty however you like it, from trivial 4x4s to diabolical 16x16s.  They’re computer-generated, so will never be great, but they have the distinct benefit of being free.

Getting good sudoku

…is actually quite easy despite the enormous numbers of cookie-cutter computer generated puzzles out there in the market.

Nikoli’s Original Sudoku series is easily available in the US (Amazon) at any major book-seller.  They are the company that originally popularized the puzzle, first in their native Japan and then elsewhere, and all of their puzzles are hand-made.

If you’ve done a ton of vanilla sudoku and want to stretch out a bit, Djape’s Loco Sudoku (Amazon) and its sibling Cuckoo Sudoku are full of variety, including 5-puzzle “Samurai” grids like the one above.  I’m also particularly partial to Thomas Snyder and Wei-Hua Huang’s Tight Fit Sudoku (Amazon), which has the distinct advantage of being cheap and small enough to fit in a purse.

If you feel like you’ve tapped out the vein of regular sudoku for being too easy, well, have I got the puzzle magazine for you: 超難問ナンプレ&頭脳全開数理パズル (Amazon.co.jp), which roughly translates to “Super Difficult Sudoku & Math Puzzles.”  The first puzzle in a typical issue starts at 4-star difficulty (out of five), and they go all the way to 6.  No, don’t ask me how that works.

The best overall sudoku-focused magazine that I know of is also Japanese; it’s ナンプレファン (Amazon.co.jp), or Nanpure Fan; or reasons I don’t want to get into, sudoku is called “Nanpure” in Japan by everyone but Nikoli.  Each issue has a good mix of classic sudoku and a bunch of different variants, along with a dash of random other logic puzzles.

Weekly status update [0042/????]

Ahh, the sweet return to normalcy after the pressure that is NaNo.

  • I don’t allow myself to read while I’m writing in November; it has a habit of over-influencing what I put on the page.  So, with the novel knocked out, it’s time to dig back in, right?  Well, yes and no.  I still had an enormous stack of books from the library that I had been renewing as I wrote, and when I was in the middle of reading the second post-NaNo one I realized that I kept glancing at that stack with trepidation, and (worse) I wasn’t even enjoying the book I was reading.  Not that it was a bad book!  It just felt like an obligation rather than, you know, the pleasure that reading should be.  Ugh.  So I bit the bullet and brought almost everything back to the library, knowing that I can check them out again in the new year at a more leisurely pace.  The only one I kept is Ash: A Secret History, which is famous for being the longest single-volume fantasy novel ever written.  It’s so long that the US printing is actually four books, but one of the libraries in Cardinal has the single-volume edition.  It weighs three or four pounds, easy.  So, yeah, I’m reading, and this is still a lot of book to finish in the next three weeks, but it’s just the one.
  • I’ve also jumped back into the puzzle books full-force, which has been nice.  I’m so very close to being done with a book of sudoku that I’ve been poking at off and on for something like four years, and my goal is to knock it out before I go back home for the holidays so I can swap it out for a new one.  Hopefully it won’t take as long.
  • As mentioned earlier this week, I’ve even been doing some programming, which has been nice.  I still want to jump into the rewrite of DXV’s Dudes of Stuff and Things, but I’m going to hold off on that until the new year, since I know I’m not going to work on it when I’m back home for the holidays.
  • Oh yeah, it was Thanksgiving this week, wasn’t it?  I went to a coworker’s house for the evening and made the (very hard, given my predilections) decision to not meaningfully stray from my diet, even though there were so many delicious carbs there.  So many.  But I felt better afterwards for staying strong, and I still got to hang out with friends for a while, so it all worked out.  (We also played CrossTalk, which is a fantastic family/party game.)
  • On a meta note, it seems like most of the problems with the new Gutenberg editor in WordPress have been fixed.  That’s nice!

The time when I travel back home for the holidays rapidly approaches.  I’m looking forward to it, to be sure.  If anything, Thanksgiving made me kinda excited to go back and see family and some of my old friends.  Soon!

The preservation of collaboration

For the last two days, I’ve been working with someone on a program.

This came about because they run a rather famous puzzle website, full of puzzles of tons of different types that they generate via computer.  That site has a puzzle type that is close, but not quite, like one of my favorite Nikoli types, Ripple Effect.  And their site has a bit that says “Don’t see your favorite puzzle type?  Let me know!”

So I did.  I even sent them photos from a puzzle book I just got this past Saturday, that I’m in the middle of solving, which happens to have some Ripple Effects in it.  They said that they’d take a look at it, and honestly I thought that that would be the end of the whole deal.

Then they contacted me, asking: are you willing to transcribe some puzzles, so that they can be used as test cases for the solver?

Here’s a (puzzle) thing: I like to transcribe puzzles.  I’ve done so for the tiniest fraction of the number that I’ve solved over the years, although if I had infinite time and energy I would put every single puzzle I’ve ever solved in a computer-readable format.  That probably sounds really stupid, but I feel that puzzles are a fascinating form of entertainment, and one we treat entirely too ephemerally, tossing the magazines once we’re done with them.  I fully realize that I have a biased view here, but is it so crazy to think that in 100 years someone wouldn’t want to try and solve a full issue of, say, Nanpure Fan in the same way that I sometimes enjoy leafing through old advertisements?  It’s not like the type of puzzles I do (i.e. non-crossword-y ones) have an expiration date.  That sudoku will solve just as well in 2118 as it does here in 2018.

Anyhow, of course I said yes, and set about immediately to transcription.  Well, no.  It turned out that the format that was being suggested was actually a bit of a pain to write by hand, and I thought of a way to make it easier, so the website’s author sent me the code he was using and I ended up banging on it to suit my will.

As of today we’re sharing our work in a Github repository; I’ve mostly done transcription (of course) and some code cleanup, and he’s been working on the actual solver and friends, since this is all based on code he’s been the master of for years.

If the generated Ripple Effect puzzles actually get published, I’ll link them here, but even if not it’s been nice to work on some code for the first time since I retired.  And it’s been nice to collaborate, to bounce ideas back and forth on how to do a thing.  That’s definitely something I miss from the job.

And, if nothing else, it got me to preserve at least a few more puzzles from a couple of books I have.  Probably no one else cares, but perhaps one day they can be used to reconstruct a puzzle book, to be solved by our ancestors who may have never touched a physical magazine at all, to be experienced all over again.

Weekly status update [0041/????]

This one’s a day late, but there’s a reason for that.

  • I did it!  My sixteenth(ish) NaNovel, Ex Urbes, is done, as of about three minutes ago.  I wrote 50,214 words according to wc, and a few more than that according to the official NaNo word counter.  (They actually used to use wc as well, so it kinda bugs me that they don’t any more.)  It was an interesting experience, writing while retired, quite different from the way I’ve written NaNo before; I didn’t feel a lot of time pressure, so found it hard to do much more than 2-3K a day.  Yesterday put me at 38K, though, and I decided that I was gonna finish this weekend come Hell or high water… and when I woke up this morning I went, no, I’m finishing today, dammit.  And so I did. 12,369 words in one day is less than half of my peak, but it’s a pretty sizable chunk, roughly fifty pages or so of a typical book.  Not bad.
  • What is bad?  The novel.  It’s terribad.  But I’m glad it’s done.
  • Ways I’ve wasted time this week while not doing NaNo:
    • I continued to watch an episode of both Last Man on Earth and Brooklyn Nine-Nine each day.  I’m almost at the end of the first series and the end of the last released season of the second, so that’ll be over soon.  I… should probably watch more Sabrina, but as an hour-long show it felt like too much of an indulgence this week.
    • I also did a bunch of puzzles.  I got another order in from Japan on Monday, and it included the latest Nikoli “Penpa” magazine, a superb variety mag they put out once a year that’s always my first recommendation to anyone who says they want to branch out and try things that aren’t sudoku.  I’m doing the book in round-robin format, doing the first puzzle of each type, then circling back to the start of the book to do the second, and so forth.  It’s been a nice variety.  (I skip Numberlink, though.  I hate those puzzles.)
    • Lastly, I’ve been watching Twitch sporadically.  I no longer really watch Landail, due to some creepy sexist stuff that goes on there that I decided I couldn’t really be part of any more, but catsonurhead is still awesome, and I’ve started watching some native Spanish-speaking streamers who also manage English better than I ever will their language.  The number of watchers on their channels are low, so it’s got a nice community vibe.
  • We also had an extended game night this week at Fercott Fermentables.  We played Antike II, and I won, although for most of the game I was strictly mid-pack.  That game is absolutely fantastic, and it sang with five players.  I look forward to bringing it home for the holidays and playing it (along with Spirit Island) with my next-door neighbors.

I still have a stack of books to read, many of which are close to being unrenewable, so I’m going to get cracking on those tomorrow.  But for the rest of tonight I plan on vegging out and watching Twitch.  I think I’ve earned it.

Weekly status update [0037/????]

After several quiet weeks, this one ended up pretty much jam-packed from start to finish.

  • But first: the deluge of words doth continue.  I read my first Christopher Priest (of The Prestige fame) and enjoyed it enough to make an exception to my “no more holds before December” rule so that I could get… well… The Prestige.  John Carreyrou’s Bad Blood, about the Theranos debacle, was a sobering (and fascinating) read.
  • Most of the week, however, was spent with my cousin from Louisiana, who was visiting the area.  She stayed in Asheville through Tuesday, then headed my way Wednesday until Friday.  It was a pleasure hanging out with her, driving around to the various sights, eating a bunch of food I probably shouldn’t have had but, y’know, guest!
  • Monday I rode a horse for the first time in my life.  I wrote about it here.  We also visited downtown Asheville–yes, I made the obligatory stop at The Chocolate Fetish, although I forced myself to only get one thing there, a single dark chocolate and sea salt caramel–and I spent time going over a bunch of puzzle types with her, as she’s new to the whole paper-puzzles thing.
  • Tuesday was game night back home, but I took the opportunity to write up the horseback outing.  I decided to do something different stylistically, treating it as a story rather than the looser form of a blog entry, and inasmuch as that sort of thing “works,” well, it seemed to work; a couple of people were surprised to learn that “Along for the ride” wasn’t just a short story of my own devising.  Which, I mean, I guess it is?  Just not a fictional one.
  • Said game night was spent playing Spirit Island, which was fun and frustrating and fascinating in roughly equal measure.  We lost, although I feel we hung on considerably longer than I felt we would after a terrible start.  I’ve already decided that it’ll be making the trip back home for the holidays; I want to get more plays in.
  • Wednesday was mostly spent in and around town, starting with lunch in Hickory (Vietnamese, yum) and including a stop at a local antiques store so that my cousin could pick up some knick-knacks to bring home.  We went up into the mountains for a bit, hiking a scrap of the Green Knob Trail before the sun got too low.
  • An early start Thursday had us back up in the mountains.  We hiked Linville Falls and Mount Mitchell, which was… perhaps a bit more than we should have done, given that neither of us are at peak levels of stamina.  But it felt good exerting myself in a way that I basically hadn’t done since I retired, and my cousin was duly proud of her own efforts.  The day closed out all the way down in Charlotte at The Glow, which was fine if a bit underwhelming.  The carvings were amazing, but they had to all be at a distance behind ropes to keep kids from messing with them, which made the experience feel rather detached.  Still, it was the sort of thing I never would have done on my own, and I’m glad my cousin dragged me to it.

I slept like a rock most evenings this week thanks to high levels of physical exertion, and although I had a great time, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t looking forward to next week being a quiet one.

Weekly status update [0036/????]

This morning was the first time this fall that the temperature dropped in my house overnight below my AC settings.  I have never been so prepared for autumn.

  • The mad reads continue.  I did a rare re-read of a library book this week, The Rook by Daniel O’Malley, because I had also checked out the sequel.  To be fair, I didn’t know for sure it was a reread until the first page, when I went “this seems strangely familiar,” sending me digging through my library history.  It was worth re-reading, though; it’s basically a more comic (and less cosmic) take on the premise of The Laundry Files, which is one of my favorite series of all time.  The sequel was good, too.  That said, the real star of this week is the book I finished about twenty minutes ago, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz.  It was very, very good.  I cried a lot.
  • Quite a few puzzles, too, although the pace slowed down during the week as I realized that I have a lot of reading to do if I want to be done with the stacks before November starts.  That’s almost certainly not gonna happen, but I have to try the best I can.
  • The same goes for television; I’ve managed to watch an episode of Last Man on Earth and Brooklyn Nine-Nine most days, but it’s been a while since I watched one of Luke Cage, and I haven’t picked up another dramatic show either.  That’s fine, though; I’m never going to feel bad about minimizing my time spent watching TV.
  • The only real event this week: there was a Hallowe’en shindig at my old workplace this Friday evening, and I finagled a +1 from someone.  It was nice to see folks–particularly the kitchen staff, who I miss like hell–even if I kept getting asked when I was coming back.  I’m glad I went, though.  It gave me an opportunity to taste a cherry-flavored Hint water as well.  They’re great.

Next week will be quite eventful; I have a cousin coming into the area for vacation, and we’ll be doing touristy stuff while she’s around.  Should be fun!  And then NaNoWriMo’s right around the corner…

Baby Bear brain

I’ve recently been working on getting one of my cousins into puzzles.

It all started back in March, when I was visiting back home.  I showed her the basics of sudoku with a kids’ book I had bought for my Mom.  (Would I put money on Mom having not touched that book since I left?  Yes.  Yes, I would.)  The ones that really grabbed her, though, were Fill-Ins; she told me later that she had bought a magazine of them and regularly worked on them in the evenings.

Cue me spending something close to $100 on various magazines and books for her, covering a wide gamut of puzzle types.  What can I say?  When someone seems to share a passion of mine, I want to make the most of it.  She’s actually coming to nearby Asheville next week on vacation, and I’ll be bringing her the second wave of puzzle books in person.

Teaching someone how to do puzzles “from scratch” has been an interesting experience for me.  I’ve been doing them since I was a kid; I used to walk around with a big brown tote full of puzzle magazines when I was seven or eight, and am still pretty bitter that my Mom threw them away sometime in the early nineties.  I only managed to save a single magazine from that apocalypse, a Dell Crosswords Spectacular from 1991.  It happens to have one of my favorite puzzles of all time, one I transcribed over a decade ago.  Here it is.  (The rules: make a single, Nikoli-style loop in the puzzle through the centers of the squares.  The numbers represent how many boxes in that row or column are part of the loop.)

That puzzle used to be the hardest one I had ever solved, and it took me years as a kid.  I’ve done tougher since, but going back to basics–as is necessary when you’re teaching someone who hasn’t been steeped in puzzles for the vast majority of their life–has been enlightening.  I get to experience the “a-ha!” moment of understanding, internalizing the ways that a good puzzle design works through someone else’s eyes.

I’ve also come to realize that, if I’m being perfectly honest, I don’t really like very hard puzzles.  This was made crystal-clear by a particular puzzle that I recently worked on from a Japanese magazine called 超難問ナンプレ&頭脳全開数理パズル, which roughly translates to “Super Difficult Sudoku & Math Puzzles.”  It’s not lying.  The magazine contains a section of Slitherlinks, my favorite puzzle type, but even though I’ve solved literally hundreds of them the ones in this magazine regularly cause me to fail miserably.  You can actually play the breaking-point puzzle here, thanks to the Javascript version of Simon Tatham’s Portable Puzzle Collection and my fastidious transcription.  I don’t recommend it, though.

Put simply, the puzzle is brutally hard, and at the end requires what amounts to “guessing wildly and see what happens.”  This sort of arbitrary “what-if?” logic sets my teeth on edge in puzzles of all types.  In fact, I personally see it as a kind of failing.  If your puzzle can’t be reasoned out from first principles, then I just don’t think it’s very good.  I did eventually solve the puzzle, with some help on a couple of deductions from an online acquaintance, but it wasn’t satisfying at all.  I didn’t get to the end with a feeling of accomplishment; I got to it with a feeling of defeat.

The problem is that a lot of very hard puzzles end up making me feel that way, whether I manage to actually solve them or not.  And so: yeah, they’re just not for me.  I can accept that, although it pains me to admit that there are entire swaths of puzzles that I’ll never like or enjoy because of simply being too hard for me to enjoy.

Puzzles that are too easy have a different sort of problem: they feel rote, mechanical, like I’m doing the pencil-and-paper equivalent of writing lines.  Which, uh, I guess is just writing lines?  I still do them on occasion–most Fill-Ins are like this for me nowadays, actually–and there is some satisfaction to be gained from the process, from taking a disorganized list of words or an empty grid and putting it all together the right way based on the rules of the puzzle; we humans crave making order out of chaos, after all.  But they’re like over-sweet candy: nice every once in a while, but not really meal material.

So, like Goldilocks, I suppose I like my puzzles neither too hard nor too easy, but just right.  Fortunately for me, the majority of Nikoli’s publications fit into that spot.  They have a couple of harder-than-average puzzle types (Heyawake being the biggest outlier), but most of their stuff is eminently doable even at the highest difficulty level.

I’ll still buy my every-other-month copy of 超難問ナンプレ&頭脳全開数理パズル, but it’ll mostly be to gawk at the ridiculous puzzles.  And then I’ll turn back to Baby Bear’s books and magazines, the ones filled with not-too-easy, not-too-hard challenges, and actually enjoy myself.