If there was one thing you wish you had known before…

One of the questions in the student evaluation of the Google Summer of Code reads:

If there was one thing you wish you had known before getting started in Summer of Code, what would it be?

It is a very typical evaluation question and we all sortof know what it means and how to answer it. However, if you insist on thinking about it – and this is very acceptable behavior in some circles – it is actually a very difficult question.
I tend to read this question as follows: if you could meet yourself in the past, what would you tell your past self?
Well, I would probably give myself the final git repository, plus an external hard disk with as much of the interesting new information on the present day Internet as possible.
What would my past self do with that information? He would probably decide to use the outcome of a couple of footy matches to make a decent living. But apart from that, he would pick another project. Not because my project is uninteresting, but I really enjoyed that part of the project that I worked on. Continuing to work on this particular code base is really interesting, but not as interesting as it was to build it in the first place.
So my conclusion is: the more advice that I give to my past self, the less intersting his project would become. This is not a real problem however, because the information would provide him with many new opportunities.
I have the same view on Sudoko puzzles. A friend of mine wrote a computer program, while he was drinking beer in the pub, that could solve a lot of these puzzles. Many fanatical puzzlers would never consider using such a program; it would take away the fun.
I completely disagree with them. Now that my friend has releaved the world of The Sudoko Problem, mankind can move on to solving new problems.
I do not understand why people take such pleasure in creating artificial problems and then solving them over and over again, when there is an astonishing abundance of problems already out there waiting to be solved.
Just to make an even bolder statement: anyone who spends even a minute a day solving problems that have already been solved, should feel really guilty about climate change, poverty, diseases, slow public transport and millions and millions of other problems. Well at least, I tend to look at my own behavior from that perspective. All that without losing the ability to enjoy live; that is the real tricky part.


  1. What would you tell a child? To stop learning to read and write, but instead solve world poverty? Puzzles like Sudoko exist for learning; they develop the mind. Maybe somebody with the logic skills garnered from solving puzzles will some day fix climate change!

  2. @Ben
    You are completely right; there is nothing wrong with using puzzles to train the mind.
    What worries me is that many (e.g.) Sudoko solvers have no intention of ever moving beyond the realm of puzzles.
    So I should rephrase my case a bit: everyone should, while developing their mind, strive to solve as many real world problems as possible.

  3. +1 to your point . If i had know what i need before the start of program , my plans would been diifferent and overall may be the project be the least interesting one .
    its our nature of constantly evolve and grow .
    but again .. theres always two ways of viewing a topic . .
    anyways nice post .

  4. Really interesting post, and I agree with it, there’s only one exception: what if you can solve the problem in a better way? Not all problems are either \solved\ or \unsolved\, lots of problems were thought to be solved but somebody came up with a better, or more general solution. However, I agree that if we would spend all our time thinking about climate change instead of Sudoko’s, the world would probably be a better place…

  5. @chris: of course, I have no objections against trying to find better solutions. I guess the 80/20 rule will apply at some point (perfectionism), but that was not where I was getting at.

  6. Well Sudoku is entertainment. Entertainment is inherently wasteful. It’s one of those things people do to burn up their “cognitive surplus” as Clay Shirky calls it. In this talk http://blip.tv/file/855937/ …he’s comparing people who watch TV with people who contribute to wikipedia
    I’m not sure whether Sudoku counts as a positive or negative force in this scheme of things. It’s probably more positive than watching TV, but you’re right, it’s an artificial problem, so a fairly non-productive waste of brainpower. People should save up their cognitive surplus to spend on building something like wikipedia or solving climate change, poverty and disease.
    Of course the really wasteful people spend weeks and weeks of their lives devising puzzles for other people to waste time try to solve 🙂

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