For the past week or so I have been with Ariel visiting her family in the States. We’ve gotten a lot of fun stuff done (Long Beach Island and a Memorial Day barbecue to boot) but, unfortunately for me, she’s also crammed doctor and dentist appointments, a haircut, and a trip to the nail salon into her busy schedule. My choice: sit in various waiting rooms while those around me gawk at my hilarious accent or stay in the house and find another way to entertain myself while she’s gone. This is how I came across Paul Sloane’s Lateral Thinking Puzzlers, a book that has kept me, if not entertained, then at least occupied over the past few days.
The first thing that got to me was the title – what the fuck is a ‘puzzler’?
Last time I checked ‘puzzle’ was still a perfectly valid term, making ‘puzzler’ one of the most redundant words in the English American dictionary. The last book that I read was Freakonomics, which encourages the use of logic to solve problems, so I’ll admit that this ‘lateral thinking’ nonsense came as a nasty shock to my system. Here’s a relatively simple ‘puzzler’ that I failed to answer:
One night during the Second World War, an allied bomber was on a mission over Germany. The plane was in perfect condition and everything on it worked properly. When it had reached its target, the pilot ordered the bombs released. They were released. But the bombs did not fall from the plane. Why should this be so?
The plane was flying upside down.
Admittedly this answer begs the question of why any trained allied pilot might try to bomb his enemies in an upside down plane. Or even how a high-ranking official determined this lunatic capable operating an expensive and deadly military aircraft in the first place. But, ‘Hey’ Paul Sloane would say, ‘prying questions of that sort are against the spirit of lateral thinking exercises.’ Fair enough – you win this round, Sloane.
My prime concern is not this answer as such; I am more concerned by the fact that this is possibly the most sensible answer in the entire book. Sloane initially adopts four or five brain teasers that have been knocking around for decades and then proceeds to pull the remaining ninety-five or so puzzles straight out of his arse. As I go on, do bear in mind that Sloane closes his description for the book by writing, ‘Everyone will join in, to try and come up with the apparently impossible solution – and will groan when the obvious answer is revealed.’
A man entered a house. There was no one else in the house. He walked into a room, stopped, and then slowly raised his hands above his head. After a moment, he turned around, let out a laugh, and left. Why?
This one really threw me. There’s so little context and absolutely no explanation for what’s going on. At least the allied bomber was fighting in the Second World War – why is this man laughing at empty houses? Why should I care? Sloane deeply intrigued me with this one, and that’s probably why his solution made me so angry.
The man was a burglar intent on robbing the house. When he reached the library, he heard a harsh voice say ‘Hands up!’ When he looked around, he saw a parrot in a cage.
That was a pretty contentious use of the word obvious, Paul. I can think of ten solutions off the top of my head that are more obvious and make more sense than this. And say what you like about this parrot, he still managed to deter the burglar from stealing whatever it was in the room that he had his eye on. This burglar was almost as idiotic as the jolly old fly-boy who tried to drop bombs through the roof of his plane, the aerial equivalent of pointing a gun at oneself and pulling the trigger. Sloane’s protagonists seem to be, more often than not, people who are entirely inept at their chosen professions.
Those were both easy ones – the following puzzle is from the ‘moderate difficulty’ section:
A woman sat at her kitchen table with her two sons. She spoke to each of her sons and they replied to her, but the sons never spoke to each other. The boys had not fallen out and did not dislike each other. Although they conversed freely with their mother, they never addressed a word to one another. Why?
Always be suspicious of a lateral thinking puzzle where the answer is considerably longer than the question.
The mother was a Russian who was widowed during the war and who had fled to the West, leaving her first son behind with his aunt and uncle. She settled in France, married a Frenchman, and had a second son. When her first son visited her for the first time, there was a tearful reunion around the kitchen table. However, neither half-brother could speak the other’s language, so they could converse only through their mother.
What really gets me about this one was how weirdly specific the answer is: the nationalities; the heartbreak; the ‘tearful reunion around the kitchen table’ which has absolutely nothing to do with the question or the answer. After delving further into this book I realised that Sloane’s puzzles only increase in difficulty because the answers become more and more ludicrous. The answers to the simple questions are generally two or three lines in length; there is an answer to one of the hardest questions which takes up an entire page. Meanwhile the questions themselves hardly change at all. The whole thing becomes less of a thinking exercise and more of a test to see which participant has taken the most LSD.
Another hilarious thing about this book is how frequently ice presents the perfect solution. It could be the remnants of a melted snowman, the absence of a block to stand on or the disappearance of a murder weapon – in all scenarios, ice is a lateral thinker’s best friend. Ice is to lateral thinkers what breakups are to Taylor Swift.
One positive outcome of this book is that it gives me the chance to begin a new regular feature for the blog. Every week I will post a lateral thinking puzzla’, along with the answer to that of the previous week, and you can give your prospective answers in the comments section. A correct answer will win nothing whatsoever – in fact I will probably be highly suspicious of any correct answer and assume that you (a) googled the question or (b) are lucky enough to own a copy of this book yourself. [Matthew adds: “Lucky?”][Ariel says: I know I feel truly blessed that my family owns such a precious gem of a book.]
I will leave you with a puzzler from the ‘fiendishly difficult’ section of Lateral Thinking Puzzlers:
A man lies dead inside a trailer. He has shot himself. Close by him is a block of wood. It is a plain piece of wood about two feet long by one inch wide (61 cm by 2cm). The wood carries no writing or other markings and yet, it is fair to say that the sight of this piece of wood on this day caused the man to commit suicide. Why should this be so?
Just remember that Paul Sloane hates you and will do the upmost to ensure that you will never solve the riddles that are the product of his dark and twisted mind. Ciao!