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C'est la Z

Programming Problem Solving And Crosswords

I used to do the New York Times Crossword puzzle. I don't remember when I started - some time late in Eugene Maleska's tenure as the editor. I continued on a few years into Will Shortz's puzzles. I stopped when the Times wanted to charge me for both print and online. I preferred reading the physical paper but liked printing the puzzle from their online site. I was also pissed at the Times coverage of a number of issues at the time.

I picked up the puzzle again when Covid started and have only missed a few days since. I'm pretty sure the puzzle is easier these days. Way back when, I'd sometimes complete or almost complete a Saturday puzzle but more frequently I'd just fill in a smattering of words. On this run, I've completed every puzzle I started except one. I say the puzzle must be getting easier because if anything, I'm getting dumber.

I was doing the puzzle the other day and it got me thinking about the advice I give my students when I first meet them. I tell them it's one of the true secrets of success. Of course, I know it's my job as teacher to tell them these critical secrets and it's their job as student to ignore it.

I tell my students that regardless of when they do an assignment they should read over it the day they get it. It doesn't matter if the assignment isn't due for two weeks - read it and give it a bit of thought the day you get it. Even if you don't work on the assignment right then and there, your brain will start working on it in the background.

When I do the crossword, particularly Friday and Saturday, but sometimes other days as well, I start the puzzle with my first cup of coffee. Sometimes I'll get a good amount done but on those Saturday puzzles, I'll sometimes get stuck with the fewest of words. I'll look at clues and, well, have no clue and think "guess I won't be finishing this one." At some point I stop - do something else. I check my email, read some blogs in my feeds and a little later go back to the puzzle. Invariably, I'll read some clues that while opaque just a few minutes earlier are trivial now. Hitting another wall I take another break. I'll come back after breakfast and fill in some more. So far, this has just about always resulted in a solved puzzle.

This got me thinking of a few things. One, the break is giving my brain time to work in the background while focusing on something else. It also lets me look at the puzzle with fresh eyes when I pick it up again. A last little point that's neither here nor there is that it is a manner of perseverance (no, I won't use that term grit which I hate).

To me this was a really clear and concise example of exactly what I've been preaching to my kids for decades. Not only read the assignment early but also when you hit a roadblock, take a break - clear your head. Come back with fresh eyes. Work smarter not harder.

Unfortunately, I don't think this example is more relatable to my kids than the other ways I try to share this wisdom with them but I still think it's a great example.

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