Playing & Thinking: More On Sudoku & Inquiry

The Daily Cal, like many newspapers, publishes a daily Sudoku puzzle. Well: almost daily – apparently the newspaper isn’t published at all on Wednesdays.  Every other day of the week, however, I snatch a copy from the stand on Sproul (after obtaining a coffee from the Golden Bear), and proceed to (one of) my spot(s) in order to carry out my morning regimen (coffee, cigarette(s), Sudoku).

sudoku guess

As is commonly known, the difficulty level of each puzzle increases with the passing of one 24-hour period.  Thus: Monday’s puzzle is frustratingly easy, Tuesday’s is somewhat refreshingly more difficult (in light of Monday’s), Wednesdays is (presumably) a bit more difficult, and Thursday’s is, again, still a bit more difficult.  I cease the series here for the following reason: while the Monday through Thursday progression evinces a more or less logically proportional increase in terms of difficulty, the Friday puzzle invariably exhibits a marked spike: it is always more difficult, in relation to the previous puzzle, than each of the previous three increments, and this to an extreme degree.

Because of this level of difficulty, and sometimes on other days of the week, I have found it imperative to learn how to carry out the act of conceding my own self-defeat.  This last Friday, however, I refused to do so.

While playing the game there came a point – as is often the case on Fridays – where it became obvious that my ability to deduce the necessity of any one of the numbers to occupy the space of  any one of the squares was not up to the task of actually doing so.  Furthermore, I had located at least five spots on the grid that shared the status of highest probable spot where my next number should go.  Each of these spots were a set of two adjacent squares that could either be x or y, but whose determination rested on the indeterminate contingency of the remaining blank squares in either their row, column, or section.  That is: x could be y if a were b, but we can’t know what a is, etc.  And this in five separate places, or thereabouts.  I had narrowed down each spot to a definite x and/or y, but didn’t know which went where.

This has happened to me a few times before, and can mostly be described as a situation wherein my (increasingly obvious) inability to solve the puzzle is matched only by the force with which I refused to admit it.  Last Friday, as I sat at this selfsame juncture, I sat, sighed, and said to myself: desperate situations call for desperate measures; and did what any other master Sudoku strategician would’ve done: I guessed.

But I did do it with a bit of flair, if I might say so myself .  I accomplished said flair by switching pen colors, an act which carried the dual function of marking at what point I left the path of honest deduction, and introduced a single deviant guess.  This point was further demarcated by the bold outlining of the square within which I placed my guessed number: the bottom-most left hand corner square of the topmost left hand corner section, in which I placed a 6.  The row itself was in need of a 6, a 7 and a 1 (existing at the time as X24593XX8); there were two square-spaces available in the topmost right hand section of the row, and one available square in the topmost left hand section of the row; the one space in the left section was furthermore restricted in its possibilities by the fact that a 1 already existed in its corresponding column (three spaces down, in the bottom-most left hand corner square of the right hand middle section), and could therefore only be a 6 or a 7.  So I chose the 6, and continued on with my whittling down of the available spaces by simple deduction, until I had, at last – and luckily – solved the puzzle.

What bothered me, following the completion of the puzzle, was the question of whether or not I had honestly – and therefore actually – solved the puzzle.  This was not, it seemed to me, the sort of situation that a friend of mine had recently elaborated on when writing about the Kansas City football team, wherein what ultimately matters, in the end, is the win.  Instead my feelings tend to be that the completion of a puzzle like Sudoku – strangely both similar and different from a game like football – rests precisely on the full definition of “completion:” that it be carried out fully – that is: that in the end, not only should the correct numbers be in the correct spaces, but that the act of placing them there had been carried out in the correct mode – according to the logics and rules that create the puzzle – in the first place.  In (or after) the end, of course, to the one who merely scans the finished puzzle, it doesn’t make a difference.  But for he or she who has carried it out, it seems to carry a significant amount of weight.

It is an ethical question, but not – I hope you’ve guessed – a deontological one.  The purpose of this little inquiry is the search for an analog – or rather: to see if this nascent model of Sudoku ethics might be able to work as an analog for other practices, like writing, or scholarly work.  In my view of the above activity and related conundrum, the ethical imperative is not derived from the fealty to the rules (or the subjective terror at the possibility of having broken them), nor is it a utilitarian one.  The former places its ultimate significance in the subject, the latter in the object, or finished puzzle.

The problem that my Sudoku analogy raises for scholarly or creative work – any work that is concerned with giving form to something – has to do, I think, with the nature of the completed form. In the utilitarian model there is a certain teleology: it is to look a certain way, as laid down by the rules by which it is constructed.  The mode here, in comparing it to scholarly work, seems to me to be like the “argumentative” paper: that paper that posits its thesis – has decided on its finished form ahead of time – and therefore (retroactively) works to “show” its veridictional gravity.  The deontological mode (which seems to me now to be more complimentary to the utilitarian, as opposed to oppose, or adjacent) finds its analogical counterpart – triggered initially by the fear of breaking the rules – in what we might call reified practices of scholarly or writerly work, held in place by any number of weighty, obvious or clandestine control mechanisms.

If, as is in the case with Sudoku, the logics and rules of whatever it is we are engaging in – solving, form-giving, researching, etc. – are established by its final form and vice versa, what might the logics and rules of a practice that has as its end point a different form of form, or many possible forms, look like?  That, I suppose, is the question that I am hoping that playing and thinking about Sudoku might help me play and think about.