Monday, May 30, 2005

Do the math, people

If, like me and countless others, you’re getting addicted to Sudoku, you might want to read this article from the Financial Times. Steven Pincock writes:

"...the odd thing is that newspapers make a point of saying that the puzzles require no mathematics. This is perhaps unsurprising given the number of people who get scared off the subject in high school, but it is wrong... mathematicians don’t spend their days working through page after page of mind-numbing arithmetic. Rather, they bend their minds to finding ways to solve problems that are often deeply conceptual. They approach those challenges using the kind of strategic thinking you need to employ in tackling Sudoku puzzles."

But enough about Sudoku, let’s talk about me.

Pincock’s column was of interest to me because I was always pretty good at Maths in school, and more to the point I have something of a number fetish. I tend to be very clued in to people’s years of birth for instance (and not just people I know well) and enjoy thinking about number permutations and combinations in general. At times it gets very intense - even when I’m driving and see a car number plate I play around with the arrangements in my mind and more often than not succeed in relating them to something else. So I was somewhat bemused by all this talk about Suduko "having nothing to do with Maths". Oh well, glad to see someone agrees.

For anyone who hasn’t got in on the Sudoku craze yet and has access to the Hindustan Times, the puzzle now appears there daily. Started last week. It’s a bit silly the way they’ve gone about it - the first two puzzles were Difficulty Level 1, but then in the next three days they rapidly moved up to levels 2, 3 and 4. This is hardly a very user-friendly approach; the latest one took me more than half an hour to solve and it’s probably much worse for people who are scared of numbers to begin with.

Sudoku basics here.


  1. Im not sure about the protocol in commenting here..yesterdays thread should be continued in the same post or in the latest one.. heres it on the latest one hoping you read it w/o trouble..
    yes..i saw the size..of the book 'Shantaram' I mean .. which deterred me first...but what do you call the phenomenon where you come to know about a book and then get onslaught by its reference wherever you see ?? Is it haunting me ? and I think reading it is the only way to appease the book-ghost !

  2. Hi Dips,
    you can comment with the original post, no problem there since all comments come to my mail ID anyway. So I won't miss one if it's with an earlier post.

    Would like to know what that phenomenon is called myself. Happens with me all the time...naturally it tends to be much worse when you're on the books beat professionally. One keeps hearing about great stuff but only has time to read a very small percentage of it.

  3. Solving a Sudoko puzzle is a bit like creating an algorithm suitable to solve a puzzle. The only Math involved is algebra. Though I doubt, if anyone solves it by creating one.

  4. Yeah...must be a pain...but I do wonder..since you appear to be a cool is that you are professionally into books..
    I always dream of owning a library.. *sigh*

  5. The entertainment value palls once you've written an algorithm for creating the puzzles.
    If you're a silly bugger, that's what you'll go ahead and do.
    Then after you've plugged in the numbers a few times and watched the wheels go around and patted yourself on the back for being such a clever boy, yawn.

  6. I too think that Sudoku is interesting. (I had a recent post about it). But the game has nothing to do with numbers or arithmetic. You can play the game with any nine distinct symbols, right? That way most newspaper reports are right about Sudoku. Pincock is right that mathematics is deeply conceptual. But that's precisely the reason why Sudoku has nothing to do with maths. There's nothing really conceptual about Sudoku.

  7. Hey Anand,
    didn’t realise you were Anand of Locana (the last time I clicked on your name in “Comments”, it said Blogger profile not available). I did see your post earlier.
    Read the FT piece again (though you might not be able to now, it’s gone subscription!); his whole point is that Maths isn’t only about numbers or arithmetic. You’re right, Sudoku can be played with any nine distinct symbols, not just the numbers 1 to 9. But the point of the article is that even if it was played with any other set of symbols, the method involved in solving it would be mathematical - as Pincock says, “the decisions you make while solving a Sudoku fall into the category of heuristics, the discipline of solving problems using intelligent choices when applying a formula is impossible”.

  8. Thanks Jai. Yeah I can't read the FT article. I quoted Pincock from your quote. True, it's mathematical to the extent that "intelligent choices" are applied. Making sense out of a complicated floor plan in a huge mall, and reaching the destination via the easiest route would be "mathematical" by the same standards. I don't have a problem with that. But Pincock was being very naive here: "[Mathematicians] approach [those] challenges using the kind of strategic thinking you need to employ in tackling Sudoku puzzles". As I said in my earlier comment, I don't see anything really conceptual about Sudoku.

    Anyway, a very interesting game (mathematical or not!). I like it mainly because no knowledge is assumed, unlike, say, crosswords.

  9. I suspect that HT was inspired by the Guardian in making its sudoku more difficult through the week. Except that the Guardian has learnt from its mistake and now sets a "medium-difficult" Sudoku every day. HT's turn?

  10. The difficult Sudoku puzzles I've tried (on the software version of teh game) are impossible.

    The craze hasn't caught on in the newspapers here yet -- no Sudoku in the New York Times. It's cool that the HT is so quick to catch on to the trend!

    I do think it's math, or at least something like "analytic logic."

    Has anyone written a formula for designing a Sudoku puzzle?

  11. As a mathematician and a computer programmer, the most interesting part of the problem is in developing the algorithms to solve any puzzle. May extend this for non-standard n x n squares too.

    I've done this up to a point where the software solves most problems and will provide you with the option of filling a square to make a guess when it can't (still developing that thread).

    A more interesting question is what is the fewest number of cells that must be complete in order for there to be only one solution?


  12. Oops... email (remember to proof read everything!).