Monday, January 27, 2014

Remembering the 80's: Volume Three: The Rubik's Cube

In my entire life I have never successfully solved a Rubik’s Cube. Even when I had instructions in front of me on how to precisely solve it the algorithm was absolutely worthless to me. Given that the Rubik’s Cube made it to the states in 1980 and became a huge phenomenon the fact that the precocious, mop headed, math genius version of eight year old me was unable to figure this out was kind of inexplicable. All of my siblings figured it out quickly, including my younger brother Kevin who was five at the time. I never did as I just am unable to do three dimensional geometry in this form. Anyone who has seen me try to pack a car will know that this is still the case.

We talk about how things were simpler back in the 80’s. I grew up in a world without cable television and where our Atari was top of the line entertainment. So while this is simpler than what we deal with today but at the time we had no idea. I grew up with the assumption that there would be a nuclear war with the Russians by the time I turned eighteen. We were still dealing with the after effects of disco. Life was stressful and dangerous, which makes the fact that the entire world was mesmerized by a cube.

And we are talking mesmerized here. There have been 350 million Rubik’s Cubes sold worldwide. There was a Saturday morning cartoon series. I am not making that up. Rubik was voiced by Ron Palilo, better known as Horshack from Welcome Back, Kotter. The story just gets stranger and strange. The Hungarians built a giant, rotating Cube as the centerpiece of their exhibit at the World’s Fair in Knoxville. Yes, in the 80’s when people thought of where to hold a World’s Fair they thought Knoxville. Did I mention that cocaine was also prevalent in the 80’s? Given that the Rubik’s Cube was simply that, a cube with multi-colored stickers, you had all of the knockoffs. There was a pyramid, or a cylinder or some vague snake like thing. But every kid had one and every kid tried to solve it.

What is interesting, especially when you think of problem solving, is that there are three different methods of solving the Rubik’s Cube. The first is what people consider to be the proper solution. You move the various rows over and over again until all of the colors match up. This is the mathematical solution where people have written algorithms and determined that any cube could be solved in no more than twenty moves. Then there is the “lazy kid in your grade school class who wants to look smart” solution where you simply take off all the stickers and reapply them so that you have a solved cube. You can rightly look at them with disdain.

But the most interesting solution, and the one as a kid I wish I had tried, is the one where you completely break the rules by grabbing a screwdriver, prying the cubes apart and reconstruct the cube in a solved state. You end up with exactly the same answer as the people who use the “approved method” but you do it by working in a completely out of the box manner. It’s incredibly clever in a way I didn’t realize as a kid but now I look for ways where you can win a game by changing the rules.

Anyway, this is the 80’s in a nutshell. A Hungarian builds a cube and three decades later people will still talk about the thing. Between this and Tetris you could say that the main export from the Iron Curtain were extremely addictive puzzle games. 

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