Christmas stories

This Christmas I got (myself) a Stomachion puzzle.   The Stomachion is a 14-piece square-dissection puzzle, similar to the tangram, but whereas the tangram has a unique solution, the Stomachion has lots (e.g. in 2003, Cutler proved that there were 530 distinct possibilities).   Its construction is sometimes credited to Archimedes of Syracuse, and so it  is also called the Box of Archimedes.  Whether or not Archimedes himself devised the puzzle, the great mathematician wrote a treatise on it that only survives today in a fragmented and incomplete form, but is nevertheless recognized by many historians as the world’s earliest paper on combinatorial geometry.

Dating to  the 2nd century BC, the Stomachion is often called the world’s oldest puzzle and is notorious for its difficulty.    The version I got is called the Lokulus (Latin for “box”), and it actually  adds a level of difficulty to the puzzle: to each piece it ascribes two colors (one on the front, one on the back), and then challenges to player to create specific color-coded reconstructions.

When I showed it to the Queen B, she was immediately interested.   She is herself an avid puzzle-solver.   For example, she figured out the 3x3x3 Rubik’s cube all by herself, and made substantial headway into solving the 4x4x4 cube just a half hour after fiddling with it.   So naturally, after I showed her the Lokulus puzzle and told her some of the history of it, she wanted to play.

She quickly fell under the addictive spell of the game’s apparent simplicity, and successfully solved the first few puzzles.    Yet as she played,  a slow but steadily increasing stream of hushed profanities and curses escaped from her as the challenges became greater and greater.   After an hour or so, she was seething at the puzzle pieces and grunting in apparent psychological pain.

“What did you say this thing was really called?” she hissed.

“The Stomachion,” I informed her.

“What the hell does that mean?”

“The Stomach-turner.   I bet now you know why.”

I never quite caught the Queen B’s reply, as I was busy dodging 14 pointy puzzle pieces I suddenly found hurling through the air at me.


This Christmas my parents got us a Roomba, one of those robot vacuum cleaners.   Ours is the 550 model: sleek and black, about a foot in diameter and a few inches tall.   When the “Clean” button is pushed, it scurries around the carpet in zigzags and spirals, bonking into walls and furniture, happily vacuuming up dirt and debris as it goes.

I was initially somewhat insulted by the thing:  did my folks feel that we lived in such squalor that we required an artificial intelligence to rectify the problem?   Then again, my mother has two Roombas, and she is the kind of person who vacuums her carpets upwards of twelve times a day and would, when I was a child, threaten bodily harm to those people foolish enough to leave footprints in the carpet through her freshly laid vacuum tracks… so I think of it as her way of being “close by.”

The Roomba is actually pretty cool to watch.   It wanders around the carpet at seemingly at random, sometimes moving in straight diagonals across the room and other times circling in ever-widening spirals.   Of course, given the small dimensions of our living room, it actually spends most of its time smacking into tables and chairs, feebly feeling its way around their peripheries like Velma looking for her lost pair of glasses.   By the end of its run, the floor looks less like it was vacuumed by an efficient computerized intelligence than by  Andrew Pollack’s maid,  but  when all is said and done, it does a decent job cleaning.   For example, we’ve run it twice in one day a few hours apart and were amazed — or more appropriately, repulsed — by the amount of grime it collected.

It’s actually damned easy to anthropomorphize the thing, as its limited AI gives it the impression of a dimwitted, highly OCD little clean freak.   As a consequence, we’ve named our MO after the equally  OCD little cleaning droid from Wall-E.   Indeed, the Roomba is a bit like  having a little pet, one seemingly designed to perfectly compliment someone as hyper-allergic to everything as the Queen B.   The Ladybug herself is quite fond of the little droid, and each night as she gets ready for bed she says goodnight to MO and gives him a little pat on his back.

I have to admit that I too say goodnight to MO and give him supportive pats and praise, but this is less because I find it endearingly cute and more because I want to stay on its good side when it eventually allies itself with my Tablet PC and microwave and mutinies against the current status quo.

And Tablet PC, if you’re reading this, I love you best.

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