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No. 223:

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Rescued from a corrupted hard drive by: burning

The author writes:

People who know that I like logic puzzles often make the mistake of thinking I enjoy so-called lateral thinking puzzles. Wrong, wrong, so totally and completely wrong. I loathe them. The people who come up with them need to die like cows in hell.

First off, they're supposed to foster "creative thinking." In reality, they're just used to show off the creativity of the person who came up with the puzzle. The only solution that counts is the one that the person who's posing the problem has in mind. You could come up with an incredibly creative solution that fits all the data you've been give, but if it's not the "right" one you generally won't get any credit for your answer.

Now at this point you might be protesting, "Logic problems only have one right answer, and you don't mind that." Well, logic problems give you all the information you need to find the right answer. You can't come up with two different answers which are mutually exclusive and yet still both be consistent with the information given in the problem.

The next objection I usually hear when I embark on this particular rant is "For a real world situation, there's only one correct answer." Swell, except these puzzles don't really resemble real world situations. In these puzzles you're given an arbitrary subset of the information you would start out with if you came across the situation in real life. A lot of the questions you ask go toward just discovering that background information. In the real world you don't have facts completely without context and then have to figure out the context by trial and error.

The other problem I have is that too often the "correct" answer makes absolutely no damn sense. Take for example the Lighthouse problem. (Yes, I'm going to spoil the puzzle for you. If this bothers you, there's something wrong with you). You get told in the beginning "A man walks out of his house, looks at the headline in the newspaper and kills himself." The solution is that the house is a lighthouse (oops I spoiled that bit already!) and the headline is about a shipwreck that was caused because the lighthouse keeper turned off the light by mistake the previous night before going to bed.


OK, I'm not an expert on the Light House Service in any country, but I'm going to go out on a couple of limbs here. (A) They don't wire up light houses so the light is hooked to a domestic wall switch in an interior room of the house. (B) Even if we assume a light house would only have a staff of one (which sounds like a bad idea to me) wouldn't you want the keeper's work shift to be, oh I don't know, during the night when the light is supposed to be on? The likelihood, granting all other necessary assumptions, of the keeper first learning about a shipwreck from the morning paper is left as an exercise to the alert reader.

Really, lateral thinking puzzles are just a glorified variation on Twenty Questions. I don't really like Twenty Questions either, but at least no one ever tries to tell me I'm being creative when I discover that the mystery word is tarmac.