Saturday, October 6, 2001
M I N D  G A M E S

Uncle Sam puzzles the world

IT is 1878 and something is to happen that Nostradamus has not predicted… the world is about to go mad. A messenger in the court of the Czar in Russia: "Sir, the thing that America has sent us is a devil’s equipment… it has made our great army ineffective. Soldiers say that they won’t march against the Japanese." A man in the Afghan council of tribal leaders: "This American thing is a gift from Satan… we should tell our children not to touch it." In Germany, a patient in the couch of Dr Sigmund Freud: "Doctor, it came from America and I am now having nightmares about it. Do you think it is something to do with repressed desires." In Japan, the word is out that the Emperor has not come out of his chambers ever since the visit of Americans a week ago. Europe shuts down its businesses for the first time since the invasion by Mongol king Genghis Khan.

A letter signed by the emperors of France, Japan, Russia, Egypt, Afghanistan, Iran and many other nations reaches the President of America and the messenger waits for the reply, which isn’t coming, because the "American flu" has gripped the President of America as well. Uncle Sam puzzles the world: is the headline in the New York Times. After much persuasion, the President sits down at his desk to draft a reply: "Dear leaders of the world, don’t threaten America with war. America is not going to invade you, at least not now because we are facing the same problem here. Our offices, markets and roads are empty and all this is because of one man. A nation should not be punished because of what one man has done."


"Hand him over to us," the Afghan chieftains write back. "No, he is too dear to all Americans," the President replies. "The world has branded him a criminal and a terrorist," a reply is shot back. "Hold your fire. To us, he is the world," is the American reply. "Let Allah be a witness that if ever America needs a terrorist of the world that we have, we, too, shall not hand him over to Americans," the Afghan council declares.

Now that we know when and how the seed of the present conflict between Afghans and Americans was sown, let us also know the American who terrorised the world in 1878. That year, Sam Loyd, America’s greatest puzzle-expert, "drove the whole world crazy" with his 14-15 variation of the "Puzzle of 15". This puzzle comprised 15 numbered square pieces that you could slide around in a square box that was big enough to contain 16 pieces. You were required to sort the numbers in ascending order without taking the pieces out of the box (sliding was the only option). In Sam’s 14-15 puzzle, the empty square was positioned bottom right. The pieces were numbered in order from left to right and from top to bottom; only the pieces numbered 14 and 15 were in reverse order and you had to restore the order. For the correct solution a prize of $ 1,000 was offered, but Sam kept that money in his pocket till he died. Write to me about how can this puzzle be solved or not solved. A variation of the 14-15 puzzle is "Rate your mind pal". The first person to solve these or give a "correct explanation" shall find his or her name in this column.