Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Doing the Impossible

I never thought I would be able to solve a Rubik's cube. I don't remember how long ago I bought my cube, but I know I've had it for at least three years. It came with written (and illustrated) instructions, but I just could not make substantial headway. Eventually, I gave up, resigning to the fact that it was simply impossible and that I would never figure it out.

Solving a Rubik's cube isn't impossible, but you have to ignore some things. For example, the cube can be arranged in 43,252,003,274,489,856,000 different ways, and only one of these ways has only one color on each side. That's a little daunting, isn't it? Focusing on this number isn't going to make it any easier for you to solve the cube. If anything, it'll put you in a poor mindset and you'll be LESS likely to ever solve the cube.

I don't know what hit me, but a week or so ago, I was looking at my Rubik's cube and suddenly decided "No. This is doable. I am going to conquer this thing." But I didn't simply will my cube into a solution through the power of positive thinking - I needed a plan.

In the past, I tried following written instructions. This is somewhat important because I'm generally not good at learning complex things by reading from a book. I'm more of a learn by doing person. There's an app on my iPod touch that, if you plug in how your cube is positioned, it will give you turn-by-turn directions to solve your cube in 25 moves or less. It's considered "cheating" to use this program, but I figure that's only if you do it once. I thought that if I did it 100 times, I would learn through repetition to reverse engineer the solution process. So I would scramble the cube, plug it into my iPod, and then watch the solution unfold in my hands. I would note how many moves it took and record any observations. Then I'd set a timer for 20 minutes (not exactly Pomodoro, but at least it was spaced repetition), do something completely different, and when the timer was up, do the cube again. Ten solutions later, I had made some observations, but my progress wasn't substantial. On the other hand, at least some progress had been made. This test may not have been as effective as I had hoped, but that's what testing and experimenting are for.

Between solutions, I resisted the urge to look anything up on the internet about the cube or how to solve it without cheating, but after I felt my progress had stalled, I searched Google for answers. Again, learning from previous experience, I wasn't looking for my long lost written instructions because they had not been helpful in the past. Instead, I found this:

This video was published in 2007, and Dan has since put out this one which is much easier to follow.

Following his directions, I solved my own cube without any cheating. So I was looking at a cube that I had solved with my own hands. But I couldn't solve it from memory... yet.

There are less than ten steps to solve the Rubik's cube, and because I had learned a few of them from watching the videos and writing down my own notes, I committed one step to memory per day. In less than a full week, I could solve it from memory.

This isn't a how-to video, it's just proof that it can be done (no audio):

I thought you had to be Rainman or some kind of math genius to solve a Rubik's cube. For me, I thought it was impossible. I thought this day would never come when I would be one of those people.

But I was wrong.

Solving the Rubik's cube was on my "impossible list." What's on yours?