For the challenge of it

November 16, 2009

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).

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