23 January, 2023

My Cubing Journey (So Far)

or, An Introduction to Cubing

About five years ago, I was rummaging through the attic, and I found a Rubik's cube from my childhood. I picked it up and turned it over in my hands. I thought to myself, it must feel great being among that hallowed minority of the population that can accomplish the seemingly impossible. So I vowed to finally learn how to solve a Rubik's cube.


The first thing I did was buy a new cube. I mean, come on, this cube was over twenty years old; you could barely twist it! Cube mechanics have advanced a lot over the years. Solving a decades-old Rubik's brand cube would be a feat of strength, and a trying test of one's patience. Never mind trying to speed-solve it.

The next step was to look up the solution. But wait, isn't that cheating? I thought so, too, and it took me a while to overcome my pride. But when I did, I discovered that rather than giving up, looking up the solution isn't the end of the game - it's just the beginning! The real accomplishment is learning to apply the solution, memorizing the steps, and practicing to get better.

In fact, there's more than one way to solve a Rubik's cube. The first solution I learned is called, appropriately, the Beginner's Method. It's not the most efficient way to solve a cube, but it utilizes a relatively small number of algorithms (in cubing terminology, this means a particular sequence of twists that accomplishes a desired result), so it's great for beginners.


Most people think you have to be a supergenius in order to solve a Rubik's cube. And while deriving a solution yourself would indeed be an impressive accomplishment, very few people have the ability (or the patience) to do that. For most people, cubing is a skill that is deliberately learned and practiced, not a spontaneous demonstration of superhuman intellect, as it's often portrayed in popular culture.

I'm not saying it's easy to learn how to solve a Rubik's cube, but it's also not as hard as you'd think. All you need is basic hand-eye coordination, a little bit of memorization, and a lot of practice. Now solving it quickly and efficiently? That's another story. The upper echelon of speedcubers can solve the puzzle in mere seconds!

An Aside: Beginning to Solve the Cube

Have you ever tried to solve a Rubik's cube? How far did you get? Did you manage to solve one face of the cube? If so, what was your next step? Chances are, you tried to solve a second face. This is actually not a very good way to solve the cube. Instead of thinking of the puzzle as six faces joined at the edges, think of it as three layers stacked on top of each other. Now envision solving the cube not face-by-face, but layer-by-layer.


The next step after solving one face should be to solve the whole layer. This can be done intuitively (meaning, without learning any algorithms), and isn't too difficult - you just have to think about which piece of that face goes in which slot. Give it a try the next time you pick up a Rubik's cube!

Taking the Next Step

My initial goal was to get to the point where I could pick up a scrambled cube and solve it - without referring to the solution - in a reasonable amount of time (say, under five minutes). I knew I'd reached that goal when I walked into a puzzle and game shop the following summer, spotted a Rubik's cube sitting out on the shelf, picked it up, and solved it on the fly. Nobody saw me do it, but I was proud of myself just the same.

And for a while, I was content. Until this past year, when I decided to take the next step and become a speedcuber. Bit by bit, I learned the most popular speedcubing method - a solution that is faster than the Beginner's Method, but requires more practice and more memorization. It's called the Fridrich method, though cubers commonly refer to it as CFOP ("see-fop"), after the four steps involved:

1. (C)ross - solving the white* cross
2. (F)2L, or First 2 Layers


3. (O)LL, or Orientation of the Last Layer
4. (P)LL, or Permutation of the Last Layer


*White has been chosen arbitrarily as the starting color. In truth, the solution will be just as effective no matter what color you start with. Color neutrality - the ability to solve a cube starting with any color - can even yield a small but meaningful advantage to advanced speedcubers.

Choosing a Speedcube

As of the beginning of this year, I have committed CFOP to memory. Granted, it's the beginner's version, with full intuitive F2L and 4LLL (4 Look Last Layer - i.e., 2-Look OLL followed by 2-Look PLL). There are more advanced versions for more advanced cubers (requiring more algorithms to be memorized). In other words, I'm far from the end of my cubing journey. Now, I probably should have done this when I started learning a speedcubing method, but I figured this was an appropriate milestone to mark the purchase of my first speedcube (edit: or four, as it turned out).

Yes, that's right. I learned CFOP on a regular, Rubik's brand cube. What's the advantage of a speedcube, you ask? Well, they're designed for speed. They turn much faster and much smoother than regular cubes. They can be lubed up, tightened or loosened to your preference, and often employ magnets to improve the accuracy of your turns. Apply the right finger tricks (serious cubers turn the cube with their fingers, not with their wrists) to your favorite algorithm, and you'll feel like a speedcuber in no time. Seriously, it's so much fun, I have a hard time putting it down!

A False Dichotomy

There are a lot of speedcubes on the market, and I can't tell you how to choose one; I can only tell you how I chose mine. Rubik's brand is not high on the list of any serious speedcuber (which may or may not surprise you), but for now, as a beginner speedcuber, I find Rubik's brand speedcube to be ideal. I'm sure an experienced speedcuber would find it as hard to twist as I find my decades-old cube, but I don't think I'm ready for a faster speedcube yet, and in comparison to the non-speedcube I've been using, it's a joy. But there's another important reason I chose this cube.


When choosing a cube, most speedcubers are faced with the option: stickered, or stickerless? The original Rubik's cube utilized a stickered design. More modern cubes are stickerless, where the color is embedded into the cube. This yields a smoother surface, and reduces the effects of wear-and-tear. However, I much prefer the classic look of the Rubik's cube, with the original colors, and the black borders around the edges of each square. Believe it or not, Rubik's modern version of the cube embodies the best of both worlds - it is a tiled model with the tactile advantages of a stickerless cube, but with the classic, stickered look. Unfortunately, this design does not seem to be very popular in the speedcubing world. I only hope that will change with time.

An Example Solve

And with that, I think I've said enough about solving the Rubik's cube. I am amazed by how much depth exists within this clever, handheld puzzle. There's always more to learn; even after years of working at it, I'm still having fun. I'd call myself an intermediate cuber overall, but I have lots of room to improve. To finish, I'm including a video of one of my recent solves. Such a demonstration might be considered "bragging", but let's be honest: part of the thrill of learning to solve a Rubik's cube is showing off that you can do it. If you put in the work, you deserve the reward. After all, I'm only asking for about a minute of your time. :-p


04 December, 2022

Precipice

To live is to stand on the edge of a precipice. All it takes is one slip, and down into eternal darkness we fall. So we cling to the ledge with all our might. But the longer we hold on, the weaker we get. And eventually, inevitably, our strength gives out.

Faced with this stark reality, it's no wonder that man invented a loving God. "I give to you life, as a gift and a test. Struggle, and thrive, and then join me when it is done. What you see as eternal darkness is merely the veil that obscures paradise from your vision. For if you were to see it in its full glory now, you would not commit yourself fully to the life I have given you."

But this is a child's fantasy. No argument in favor of its psychological utility (no matter how alluring) can change that fact. And some of us are incapable of such profound self-delusion. What of them? Poor, wretched souls are they? Or do their stars shine brighter for knowing the true limits of their existence?

It's true that religion can offer man acceptance of the inevitable. And even draw comfort from fear. But these things are not out of grasp for the irreligious. One must accept the inevitable regardless of whether it be light, or dark. And an end to joy is also an end to suffering.

But fear can be a great motivator, too. And who is to say what is truly inevitable? For someday, we may discover an end to death, and learn to light a candle in the eternal darkness ourselves. No delusion of acceptance will ever accomplish this for us.

"That is not dead which can eternal lie,
And with strange aeons even death may die."

17 May, 2022

Cat Demons

I'm glad I'm not superstitious, because there's nothing quite like waking up in the middle of the night to the sound of cats in heat to convince you that demons are real and they stalk the earth looking for victims to torment and devour while most people are asleep.

They sound like children screaming in pain, yet... wrong, like a Cronenberg'ed facsimile. I swear one of them was repeatedly making a noise that sounded like a subhuman bastardization of the words "I love you", almost like it was using it as a lure - although who in their right mind would fall for that?

I'm pretty sure I wasn't dreaming or hallucinating, because I remember deliberately kicking the wall next to my bed, hoping the sound would cause them to disburse. And I think it worked, because the sound got further away before it stopped altogether. Or, maybe they were just pulled back to Hell.

Sometimes, religious people think others are tortured by demons because they're not religious. But what if the reason they're not religious is because they're tortured by demons? Nobody is born damned. But how many times do your prayers have to go unanswered before you give up? The truth is, there is no God, and those who are able to believe in one are privileged (which is not to say that they don't know suffering) - and it makes it impossible for them to understand somebody in a different position.

Ironically, the existence of demons doesn't make me believe in God. It only convinces me that there is no God. Because here are the demons, but where is God? That's why people who believe are privileged. They're loved by God. But they're also deluded, because they think everyone is loved the same as they are. But they're not. (In reality, it's just the luck of the draw).

"Happy people are incorrigible. Destiny does not punish them for their sins, and they consequently think themselves innocent."

27 April, 2022

Self-Worth

Pride has thus far prevented me from internalizing my own self-identity as a person who is mentally handicapped. But I wonder if I wouldn't feel so much better about what I have, and less worse about what I don't, if I started thinking of myself as a high-functioning handicapped person, instead of a failure of a human being. I didn't fail at life - in fact I've done pretty well within my limitations, even if it's not up to the standards I've set for myself - I just came out broken, that's all.

And every point I have in my favor - my intelligence, my appearance, my upbringing - undermines my ability to visualize myself as disadvantaged. Yet, the fact that I've had so much going for me, and yet still struggle to perform some of the most basic tasks - even when I want desperately to perform them (which is to say that I am not simply lazy) - is more evidence that there is truly something seriously broken within me.

I've admitted that fact, to myself and to others - which was itself a long process. But I think that I still need to come to terms with it, to truly accept it. I lament that I didn't get help when I was younger, and I realize that that's a way for me to displace my fear of getting help even now. Because the only thing more terrifying to me than the thought of living the rest of my life the way I am, is the thought of what I'll have to do to get better. Especially doubtful as I am that the effort would even bear fruit. Why torture myself for a shot in the dark? But that rationalization is part of my illness, too.

09 February, 2021

Subtraction by Addition

I know affirmation has real psychological value, but I'm a realist, and it's really just a well-intentioned form of lying to one's self. I've never believed the adage, "what doesn't kill you makes you stronger." I appreciate the sentiment behind it (wisdom DOES often come from experience - although there are wise children and idiot adults), and maybe people's bodies are different. But I'm not a saiyajin, and the way I see it, life is collecting scars until your body eventually shuts down from organ failure. What doesn't kill me makes me weaker, because it takes one more piece out of me. In terms of physical fitness, somehow the belief was instilled in me that the way to get stronger was to push yourself past your limits. The only thing that's ever happened to me when I've pushed myself past my limits is that I've gotten hurt. One time it even landed me in the hospital. And no, the experience doesn't make me stronger, because now I have the added anxiety of possibly having a heart condition that might (I know this is hypothetical, but it still weighs on my mind) lead me to a premature death via stroke (or so a doctor once so considerately warned me). And all the concerns are just going to grow as I continue to get older, and my body continues to get weaker. I'm not whining because life is tough - I understand that part. What annoys me is the way people try and sell you platitudes that are outright lies. "Listen to your body" is much better advice than "no pain, no gain."

20 December, 2020

Anxiety Mosquitos

Growing up, I was the quiet kid. Still am, in fact. I've learned how to express myself when I feel sufficiently motivated only after decades of life experience. But I'm still more likely to do it in the impersonal forum of social media than in real life. And although I overanalyze my words before posting them, I am always racked with shame and self-doubt after the fact. And I still can't decide whether my fears are founded - that maybe I have a rude and argumentative personality, and that I'm better off keeping my mouth shut, and that maybe that's why God cursed me with anxiety in the first place - or if it's just my social anxiety talking. Because I know the value of speaking up, from years of experience not being able to. And I want my voice to be counted among the others (many of which are not half as worthwhile as mine would be even if my worst fears were founded, yet nothing shuts them up because they don't have anxiety or very much self-awareness). I know it deserves to be. I try not to be rude, but I am sensitive - far more than I like. And if I'm argumentative, it's because I see the many ways this world is designed to cause people to suffer, and I want it to change, and sometimes it's the people themselves that are contributing to the propagation of their own suffering (or carelessly hurting others to make themselves feel better). I can't just happily kill time talking about the things I like in the world, because I'm constantly thinking about obstacles in the way of my happiness. I want to believe I'm a good person. But it's hard when a voice inside my head is constantly telling me that I suck. And as much as I wish I could just write it off, there's that other voice behind that one warning me that it might just be my conscience, and that if I shut it off, I would certainly become the bad person I'm trying so hard not to be. And so the cycle continues.

01 November, 2020

Pandemic Blues

I don't look at it in terms of, "how much normality can be preserved?" but more, "how much normality am I able to sacrifice?" And I don't understand why we're so attached to celebrating a holiday in a certain way, that we can't give that up, even just for one year out of our whole lives. You could probably go out trick-or-treating, wearing a mask, and socially distancing, and be okay. That's just not the issue, the way I look at it. The issue is, is this something we have to do? And if we do it, are we taking risks that we don't need to be taking? Masks and social distancing are measures we use to reduce risk - when we otherwise have to go out and be around other people. Limiting social interactions and staying at home are other things we can do. Just because we have masks, and stay 6 ft apart (which is really not necessarily far enough in all cases), doesn't mean that everything else can just go back to normal. Those are measures you use when you have to go out - like to work, or to buy groceries. And I'm not saying you can't get fresh air, either. But you go to a park that's not crowded, on a normal day. The very idea of an activity that involves massive portions of the population all going out within the same hour on the same day and crossing paths and knocking on doors, in the midst of a pandemic? This is exactly the sort of thing we need to be sacrificing, for the common good - like conventions and concerts and spectator sports.

COVID-19 isn't a terrorist. It's not a sentient human being. You can't fight it by going out and living a normal life and showing it that you're not afraid. That just reeks of entitlement to me. I've lived my entire life with debilitating social anxiety. I know what it's like to miss out. I feel like I've missed out on most of life - hanging out with friends growing up, going to parties, girlfriends, and then getting a normal job, raising kids. I've been extremely lucky to have a little bit of all of that (well, most of it), and I've learned to (mostly) be content with that, because it's as much as I can expect from life. But I've spent too many days of my life depressed at home, alone, thinking about everything I'm missing out on. And now we're in a pandemic, where that skill of being able to stay home, isolated, and miss out on things, is exactly what people need, what society needs. And yet I look around and see all these people who have always gotten everything they wanted out of life, spoiled and entitled and unable to make the sort of sacrifices I've had to make all my life, for just maybe one year - hell, they couldn't even do it much longer than a month!

I suppose I should be sympathetic, because it's not an easy thing to do, and I have an unfair advantage for once. But it seems like people aren't even trying. And I feel alone, not in the way we're supposed to right now, but in the way that it's almost like I'm the only one having to endure this pandemic right now, while everybody else around me just goes on with their lives, humoring me because I'm a germophobe or something. I don't want people to be miserable, and to miss out on everything. I just want the feeling of solidarity, like I'm not in this alone, and that I'm not being crazy because I'm going too far. From the beginning, I've honored the idea that in a pandemic, if you're doing all the right things, in hindsight it'll look like you're doing too much, but if you're not, it'll only ever be not enough. And I look at the state of the world right now, and particularly the country, and I can't believe people think things are okay the way we're going. It hasn't gotten better since March. It's just kept getting steadily worse. Once there's a vaccine, and numbers actually start going down, then I won't resent people insisting on being able to crowd into bars to drink on the weekends (because they've earned it). But we're not quite there yet, and I want to see us working together to weather this storm until we are, not resenting every little sacrifice we're asked to make, and then turning it into some political squabble or conspiracy theory.