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Two recent posts noted that many people confuse different types of puzzles that they are asked to solve and do not recognize how these differences can affect the types of solutions to be considered.

I just returned from a week in the U.K. and was reading The Mail. It had an 8 page (tabloid size) pull out section with various “tight” puzzles like crosswords and Sudoku. It also offered a surprising variety of puzzles for people who think that ordinary crosswords and Sudoku are too easy.

While flying, I also saw The Imitation Game. As you may recall, this movie focuses on Alan Turing who helped to break the Enigma code during WWII (and, later, killed himself after being convicted and treated for being a homosexual).

This story is relevant since the early part of the film focuses on the tension between traditional code-breakers and Turing’s new approach to solving problems. The traditional approach to solving a code is treat it like previous codes and to look for patterns (which the Enigma machine was designed to hide). Turing’s approach was to invent a computer and, in order to make it work, he needed to work out the ideas associated with this new class of problems. Initially, the progress was slow, which creates the tension in the plot.

Everybody has experienced this distinction. Children first learn arithmetic in order to find the answer to problems like 3+ 4=?. As they grow, people learn how to work with a class of problems which share some features, such as a+ b= ?.  A sample problem in this class is a= 3 and b= 4, but there are lots of similar problems and it is important to know if the method of solution needs to change is a is not equal to 3. Similarly, children learn to spell and add to their vocabulary in order to express simple ideas accurately. As they grow, people learn different styles of writing and whether those styles need to be adapted to the content of the message and to the audience.

The real estate industry has lots of puzzles which need to be solved, since the old ways are not very good. To apply a familiar metaphor: lots of people know how to use a hammer and it has (mostly) been successful in the past. Since we want to our graduates to add value, we teach our students to distinguish a nail from a screw.