For the challenge of it

In a recent post I quoted mountaineer George Mallory’s famous line about why he climbed mountains: “Because it’s there.” The challenge drew him irresistibly, even to his death atop Mount Everest. While I like hiking, I’ve never been drawn to dangerous climbs. But I do respond to the challenge of a good puzzle.

My sons, especially my younger son Al, do not seem to feel the same way about challenges. I am annoyed when he helps me with a puzzle I’m working on, though I try to express appreciation because I know he means to be helpful. I do not want help, I want to solve it on my own. Some of that may be pride, but it is also because it is the challenge itself that appeals to me, and to the extent that hints reduce the difficulty of solving it, they reduce my pleasure in finding the solution.

Over the years I’ve noticed that some kinds of challenges appeal to me more than others. At one time, the idea of fiendishly difficult jigsaw puzzles appealed to me. One sort has no picture, just a solid color, and only the shape of the pieces shows how to put it together. At the opposite end of the spectrum, there is The World’s Most Difficult Jigsaw Puzzle, where every piece is exactly the same shape, and only the picture provides the solution - plus the puzzle is double-sided, with the same picture on both sides! But by the time I had money of my own to purchase such puzzles, I found I was no longer interested.

I enjoy difficult crossword puzzles, but if I spend an hour on a puzzle and have only come up with a few words, not enough to help me get any more, the puzzle is simply too hard for me. I will try even longer on an acrostic, but eventually I will give up on those also if too many clues are too obscure for me to come up with even a decent guess. I can do “cross-sums” puzzles, but I find that too often, I discover three quarters of the way through that I must have made some error in logic early on, and the only way to undo it is to start completely over. So I rarely start them at all.

One kind of puzzle I enjoy is computer programming, but never purely for the sake of the challenge itself. I like doing programming that provides a useful solution to a problem, or an entertaining game to play. I work at the application level, meaning the level where the program interacts with the user, rather than at the systems level where the program simply provides a platform for other developers to write their programs.

One kind of computer puzzle I have never found an interest in is hacking. The term hacker is often used in a pejorative sense, because some hackers have used their ability to alter hijack code for malicious purposes. But at root, hacking is simply figuring out the secrets that are coded into computers and not intended for anyone but the people who put them there to know. It’s not a challenge that appeals to me, but it has a very strong appeal to many people – at least to many young men (estimates of hacker demographics indicate that about 90% are male and median age is 25).

Some weeks ago, I read in the Wall Street Journal about people “jailbreaking” their iPhones. (I can’t find the article now, only a video about a teenage hacker trying to “go legit.”) Jailbreaking is apparently very popular, but most of the people who do it aren’t hackers themselves, they simply follow instructions in order to take advantage of apps they wouldn’t get otherwise.

Today I read about calculator hackers. I never imagined hacking a calculator, but then I’ve never used a graphing calculator. (My older son has one for use in math classes, and I have watched him use it, but I prefer the more familiar numbers-only devices.) The only way I ever learned to use a calculator for entertainment was for spelling – you turn it upside down so that a 3 looks like an E, a 4 like an h, etc., and spell out words. The possibilities are very limited, and the game loses its appeal after about five minutes.

Hackers can do a great deal more with today’s graphing calculators. An article in today’s Wall Street Journal lists a few applications some hackers have developed. How would you like to use your calculator as an Etch-a-Sketch? Or play Tetris on it? There’s a catch though – how would you like to receive a cease-and-desist letter from lawyers for Texas Instruments, ordering you to stop messing with their intellectual property?

Perhaps it’s my lack of understanding of the technology, or of Texas Instruments’ business model, but I have trouble seeing how these hackers are doing any actual harm to the company’s intellectual property. So far as I can see, the hackers aren’t making any money off their home-made apps, and as Texas Instruments isn’t in the business of selling handheld electronic games (are they?), it doesn’t seem that they’re losing any revenue by this either. (In cases where the hackers extend the calculator’s ability to do more complicated math, this argument would be harder to make. But I have to admit my sympathies still lie with those who can make their purchased devices work even better.)

Unlike the iphones apps which require jailbreaking, these calculator apps have little if any purpose other than the challenge of creating them. That’s not a criticism of them – if anything, that seems like a more acceptable motivation to me, than if the hackers were after personal gain of anything beyond the satisfaction of reaching a difficult goal. After all, crossword puzzles and jigsaw puzzles have no purpose other than the challenge of completing them, and whatever entertainment one derives from the time spent on the activity.

When I was learning to create web pages using HTML tags and the python programming language, one of the first things I did was create a page to play Yahtzee. For convenience and ease of play, my handheld electronic Yahtzee is far superior. But duplicating the logic using python and HTML proved to me that I had a good handle on the syntax – and it was certainly more entertaining than practicing with more staid business applications.

However little interest I have in exploring the inner workings of calculator brains, I can certainly understand the motivation that drives those who do. As one calculator hobbyist explains in the WSJ artice, “There’s no greater feeling than being told something can’t be done and then showing them it can.”

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