The Many Faces of Puzzles

Much of my daily brain power is dedicated to logic puzzles.

Coding is effectively a logic puzzle and I do an awful lot of that. Many other aspects of a business are solving puzzles. Determining strategy. Trying to be effective at marketing. Measuring and charting progress. Running a business is just playing a game with higher stakes.

My entertainment time is weirdly focused on logic puzzles as well. I like watching people play strategy games, whether it’s a decades-long fascination with watching players duke it out in StarCraft II, or a more recent fascination with watching people solve difficult Sudoku puzzles (which is giving way to actually playing them myself). Watching people’s brains churn is high fun.

I’m just back from camping at a couple of music events, the first focused on old-time music, the second on bluegrass. I find my experience with old-time in particular weirdly similar to a logic puzzle. There are thousands of old-time songs (here’s a useful subset), most with subtle variations over time and region. Everyone has their set of favorites memorized in which they can lead. Crucially, they all share enough spirit that an intermediate player can pick up a new tune on the fly and play along with it. Players who have never played together before can generally produce pretty good-sounding music! Sometimes a tune will flub (and it’s often just funny) and sometimes there are real moments of musical transcendence (holy crap, we just made that song really work).

The trick in old times is figuring out the logic of the song as quickly as you can so you can get in on it. How many parts is it? How many times do the parts repeat? Is any part of it crooked? (That is, extra beats, uneven parts, parts that bleed into each other or sound like they do, etc.) What key is it in? (Usually obvious, as keys are agreed upon early and players tend to stay in a key for hours/days) What is the pace? What are the dominant notes in the melody? (Even if you don’t get the song perfectly, hitting those dominant notes will feel good and make the song work, and skipping or faking the rest isn’t terribly detrimental).

I feel lucky. I love all this stuff. It’s all fun to me, in different satisfying ways. In another aspect of self-reflection though, I would note that spending so much time in logic-town I fear limits my time in other aspects of life. Not that I neglect my life generally, I just mean that my emotional intelligence, for example, is likely not particularly well developed. Nor my fashion sense, botanical abilities, snowboarding chops, culinary prowess, or pumpkin carving technique.

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