15 August 2005

Monday Menagerie XI

Confessions of a cubic rube

PyroManiac devotes Monday space to esoteric and offbeat things, in the hope that these will supply learning experiences for us all.

In the autumn of 1979, I was assistant pastor and minister of youth at Central Bible Church in St. Petersburg, FL. Darlene was in the third trimester of her first pregnancy. The Iranian hostage crisis was the lead story on the evening news every night. Rubik's Cubes were all the rage.

I don't remember who gave me my first Rubik's Cube. If I recall correctly, a Cube cost about $6.95—and in 1979, that was real money to a youth pastor about to become a parent for the first time. So I don't remember buying it for myself. It must have been a gift. If so, it was the perfect gift for me. I love tactile puzzles, and this was the greatest puzzle of all time.

The problem with a Rubik's Cube is that it's really simple to work, simple to move, simple to mess up—but not so simple to solve.

When I started playing with the Cube, I thought it might take me an evening to solve. By the end of the first evening, I knew it would take at least two full evenings. After three days, I thought perhaps the thing was unsolvable.

But I couldn't put it down.

My problem at first was that I assumed if I kept moving the Cube randomly, the pieces would eventually fall into place. After all, how many possible positions could the Cube pieces be arranged in?

Answer: about 43 quintillion. (43,252,003,274,489,856,000, to be exact.) And all of them but one are wrong.

In the end, it took me a month to solve the Cube. After I solved it once, it took me three days to do it a second time. But once I began to figure out what each complex move did, I was able to solve the Cube from any random position in five minutes or less.

That's nothing. Lots of speed-Cubers can solve any Cube in less than a minute. I once saw a guy who could solve a Cube in three minutes or less, using only his feet.

There are several different methods of solving the Cube. Most of the printed cheat-sheet instructions show you how to solve it a layer at a time, like a three-layer cake. My preferred method is to get all the corners in place first and then move the center edge pieces into place.

The center pieces on each side of the Cube are actually in a fixed relationship with their opposite counterparts. On the original 1979 Cubes, white was opposite blue, red opposite orange, and yellow opposite green. Today's cubes have the colors arranged differently. A special 25th-anniversary edition has a silver side rather than white. (I prefer white.) I've had several kinds of Cubes over the years—large, small, and really, really small. I've had globe-shaped Cubes, hexagonal Cubes, and even a Cube shaped like Homer Simpson (those aren't really "cubes," of course, but you know what I mean.)

There are now 4x4 and 5x5 Cubes. I once figured out how to solve a 4x4 Cube. I have never attempted the 5x5.

The Rubik's Cube is now more than a quarter-century old, and I read somewhere that one of every eight people in the world has attempted the puzzle. I still keep several Cubes on my desk, and I just got the 25th-anniversary edition, plus a 5x5 Cube. When I quit blogging and have time, maybe I'll learn to solve the 5x5.

Here are some links to the most interesting Cube sites on the Web:


If you've never mastered the Rubik's Cube, I dare you to try.

If you can already solve a Rubik's Cube without instructions, leave a comment and tell me your preferred method (corners first, edges first, a layer at a time, or whatever). In 25 years since I first encountered the cube, I have met only one other person who learned to solve it on his own, without reading any instructions. For me, it was a valuable exercise, because I learned something about patience, persistence, and even logic.

One of the things you quickly learn is that you can't move one piece without affecting at least one other piece. And most moves displace at least three pieces. It's a three-dimensional object lesson about the inevitability of causes and effects, as well as an effective illustration of the principle of 1 Corinthians 12:25-25: any body composed of multiple members is still one body, and whatever effects one member affects the whole body.

PS: On the way to work this morning, I was thinking about another important and rather obvious truth that is well illustrated by the Cube. With 43 quintillion possible arrangements, you are not going to solve the Cube by accident. No one ever has. If the complexity of a six-sided cube with 26 inert plastic pieces is enough to rule out an accidental ordered solution, how could any rational person imagine a scenario where the whole universe, with all its vast complexity and order, could have come into existence by accident, apart from an intelligent Designer?

Phil's signature

42 comments:

MichaelBates said...

Rubik's Cube is insufficiently egalitarian. You need a People's Cube, comrade!

andrew@stonepavement said...

The best and most rewarding method for the cube and the method with the least amount of frustration is to prize the corner off and dismantle the thing....put it back together in perfect colour and voila!..didn't need a cheat sheet.

Great puzzle worth about 3 minutes of anyones' time

James Anderson said...

I probably shouldn't admit this, but I took a Rubik's Cube on my honeymoon and figured out how to solve it myself. I can't remember how long it took, but I do recall that my procedure involved solving one layer, then the four corners opposite that layer, and finally the remaining edge pieces.

Since we've met twice in Real Life, Phil, I guess that's two people you've met who have also learned to solve the cube without instructions. Funny that the topic didn't come up in our conversations on those occasions...

Dhirendra said...

I LIKED UR BLOG VERY MUCH

Keith said...

This is the PYROs greatest piece yet, well narrated real life lesson brought to the Word for full light. Thanks! That's some of the best Christian life blog I've ever read...

Kim said...

I have never tried it. In 1979, I was in high school, and there was a certain group of very intense teenage boys who loved to sit in the cafeteria with theirs. Association with that group was lethal. I vowed I would never associate with the Cube Crowd.

In 1987, I married someone who managed to solve the cube within a week or two. How's that for irony?

Maybe if I got one of those, my 11 year old would have an alternative to chess.

Breuss Wane said...

Your 1 Corinthians 12:25-25 mention at the end made your post memorable. Great post.

Jeremy Weaver said...

Does Gene Veith have a book on how the Rubik's Cube teaches us about Christ?
If so, why didn't you list him in your resources?

Joe said...

If the Rubik's Cube teaches logic, are there any liberals who have solved it?

Shelly said...

I did use the layer method, but never got the third layer without assistance. However, I did know a number of math geeks who were able to do it on their own....

lycaphim said...

Nope. Internet and all the books I read couldn't save me from the abyss of those who twist and turn their Rubik's cube for all eternity.

Sean MacNair said...

I did the original with instructions, the 4X4 without. Can't wait to get my hands on the 5X5!

Sean MacNair said...

"If the Rubik's Cube teaches logic, are there any liberals who have solved it?"

Yeah, me. (wise guy)

Gavin said...

I got a Rubik's cube when I was about 10 years old. The best I could do was about two faces of the same colour. I could solve it with instructions. I have not used one for about 20 years - got too frustrated with it.

Steve said...

Has anyone considered that the Rubik's Cube "fad" has lasted longer than the Seeker fad and will most likely outlast the Emerging Church fad?

I was a freshman in college when those things first came out. Students would smuggle them into class and quietly twist away under their desks during class lectures.

centuri0n said...

I was in HS when the Cube was big, and I could solve it in about 90 seconds. One of my problems in breaking the 90-second barrier was that my cube had too much friction -- the layers would not slip fast enough, or they would jam. After I disassembled my cube and re-assembled it with a very healthy dose of graphite applied to the interior surfaces, I got down to 65 seconds consistently.

Then the darnedest thing happened: the cube wouldn't stay together while I was solving it. I'd lose a side piece every time.

I account the evil of the Rubik's Cube to my eventual slide into atheism. I just wanted to get the blasted thing done in 30 seconds, and if there was a God in Heaven, he would have let me do it. Or something like that.

MTG said...

I watched Susan Shanteau at Shortridge HS solve the puzzle in less than three minutes in 1970. I nearly fell over.

Gaddabout said...

I consider my inability to solve the Rubik's Cube one of my great failings in life. I was so ashamed. I hung out with the geeks, but I was really just a middling jock who was a wanna-be geek. I was an 8080/DOS kind of boy living in a Commodore world.

Broken Messenger said...

Phil,

Nice analogy in comparing the Body of Christ of 1 Corinthians 12:25 to movements of the cube. Thank you.

Brad

Timotheos said...

Now, that is just plain mean. Here I am on a Monday morning starting a busy ministry week after a Pastoral Sunday and there you go getting me thinking about playing games. What a guy!! Thanks a bunch!!

Really, I learned how to solve the cube by using a little book called the Simple Solution to Rubik's Cube and I even entered a couple of contests in High School (class of '85).

Brad said...

I learned to solve the cube as part of a class in JR. High school about reading and following instructions. It worked, but the only method I know is the layers method. Still, that trips me up occasionally when I get to the last layer (bottom row). Sometimes it takes quite a while to get it done.

Phil Johnson said...

Frank and James: I'm not surprised to learn that either of you are cubists. I would have guessed yes for both of you.

I am, however, amazed that James's wife tolerated a cube on the honeymoon.

And I am very impressed with Frank's 65-second ability. The down side to my self-taught corners-first method is that while it works, it's not that efficient. I'd love to learn your secret. Maybe when I'm in Tulsa next month, I'll drive over to Siloam Springs and let you show me. (Are you up for lunch? Is there a cafe nearby that serves cube steak?)

Fred Butler said...

One of my few claims to fame in my otherwise mundane life is the fact I could solve the RC in under 40 seconds or so. I even entered a contest one Saturday morning sponsored by Salem junior high in MO. It was a pretty easy win for a flabby asthmatic geek over a bunch of redneck jocks. I think I won 25 dollars and promptly went out to Wal-Mart that afternoon and spent it all on Star Wars stuff.

Fred
Hip and Thigh

DantheMan said...

Just stumbled on your blog, sweet graphics!
Great analogy with Creation! Can't agree with you more. Colson uses a similar anaolgy in How Now Shall We Live?" If you were to find a pocket watch washed up on a beach shore would you consider something so meticulously made to just to have happened by chance or have a creator?
BTW, I used to peel off the sticker on the center piece and unscrew it, take it apart and reassemble. I think that is the only way I ever "solved" it.

puritanicoal said...

Great post. It reminded me about all the things I enjoyed as a kid. It also reminded me of all the let-downs, too. For instance, Sea Monkeys. Mine never looked like that aquatic version of the Cleaver family no matter how well I fed them.

Now, I'm off to Amazon to order the 25th Anniversary Cube. Maybe it will arrive in time for my son to take to school when they dress up for 80's Day.

Christopher said...

Like Andrew - I "solved" the cube by taking it apart (I popped the individual cubes off) when I was a pre-teen. I then correctly reassembled it in under 30 seconds flat!

A virtual child-prodigy eh?

;-)

Chris Freeland said...

Rubiks Cubes were created to eternally frustrate ADD kids like myself. I was a sticker peeler, and not just the center one. I peeled them all and restuck them. It usually worked once per Cube before the stickers lost their sticky.

general said...

I can't solve it anymore...I can't remember the last two moves. I was HS class of '84, so it was very hot while I was in school. I couldn't immediately solve it, so I took the stickers off and lied to my parents about solving it. I was pretty sure that they saw through my lie, so my shame drove me to actually master it. I never used a book for answers, and didn't know that one existed until after I'd figured it out on my own.

I used a layer approach and got my time down to 51 seconds twice. I flunked geometry because of the cube and my rubist friends...I wonder which has more value: the cube, or the proofs I could have learned?

centuri0n said...

Phil --

I need dates for your visit. I am SO TOTALLY UP for lunch -- but I am booked the 9th thru the 15th.

However, my cube is long gone, and my cube skills are dormant. I could brush up, I guess -- but I was a system guy, not a self-taught genius. Self-taught, I would always end up with the bottom middles out of wack.

If it helps, I can get you a supersaint halo for your trouble. :)

Steve said...

CenturiOn: Doesn't your offer of a supersaint halo to Phil smack of indulgences? I thought you had to EARN those halos. :)

centuri0n said...

Steve:

If he pays for lunch, he will definitely earn a halo. =D

Phil Johnson said...

Frank: I'll pay. You gonna be there on the 1st?

Bhedr said...

ah the memories

Jeff H said...

Homer Simpson is a block head, so that's pretty close to a cube.

steve said...

I also prefer the "pry the corner off and reassemble" method

centuri0n said...

Phil:

I have cleared my calendar. If you take 412 East from Tulsa, you'll drive about 80 miles. Just before you cross the OK/AR border, there's a Cherokee Casino and a traffic light. Drive another 2 miles or so (about 4 traffic lights), and on the right is Callahan's. I'll meet you there between 11:30 and 12 Noon. You might not recognize me because I don't have awesome rays shooting out of my body most of the time.

And since you're driving, I'm paying. I can't have people saying that Phil Johnson came to Siloam Springs, AR and centuri0n forced him to pay for lunch. It would be unseemly.

Juice said...

I remember the guy that could solve it with his feet. That was on "That's Incredible".

And it was...

Char said...

I'm with Chris; reassembling was too hard, especially when you could just move the stickers to the appropriate places. It takes true unconventional genius to do it that way. :)
I think my grandma still has the one we played with.

SoccerReformer said...

You mean the object was to get all the colors TOGETHER? DOH!!!!!!!

Joe said...

Were you an artist, you would be a cubist.

John Schroeder said...

What Phil, as a theologian, may not know, is that that "puzzle" is one of the best, most concrete, examples of a branch of mathematics called Group Theory. Read all about it here.

Daniel said...

Just after the cube came out my sister was dating a fellow who could do it. He taught himself. I was just starting my teen years, and so every single time the poor fellow came over I bothered him to teach me how to do it (there were no books out on how to solve the cube at that time).

Over the course of a few weeks he gave me some guidelines - solve the bottom layer first, then the middle, then the top. The top was solved by starting with the sides then doing the corners. The method was quite efficient - as after only a couple of months I could solve the cube consistantly in under a minute (I think my best time was 23 seconds or something like that), but I was pretty consistant around the 30 to 40 second mark. Like Centurion we greased our cubes - vaseline was the lubricant of choice.

After I got good at it, I could look at the last layer, then solve the remainder of the cube behind my back! if doing the cube in under a minute didn't impress - doing the last 15 seconds or so behind my back helped to make up for it.