Thursday, June 27, 2013

Life in a Cube

Often hailed as the world’s most popular and most recognizable puzzle game and also the most perplexing, I doubt if there are many on this planet who haven’t heard of Rubik’s Cube. And I am sure most such people have always harvested the desire to solve one, if one could be solved. With 43 quintillion permutations (43,252,003,274,489,856,000 to be precise) this cube has long puzzled mankind leaving only very few cube crazies to be able to do it. When we look at a scrambled cube and start to unscramble using whatever little brain or logic we have, very soon we realize that we are not reaching anywhere. And after few hours we are ready to throw it out of the window out of sheer frustration. Yet when we watch a master turn and twist the abominable cubies or cubelets (the tiny cubes that make up the entire cube) and place before us a perfectly solved cube in seconds then we can only gasp and wonder at the magic of it all.

Just like any of you, I too have always known about the cube, had tried abortively to solve it when I was in my teens and then had given up completely as one of my unrealized dreams of this life. Little did I know that knocking 50 my cubing life was about to change. In November 2012, just before I left for some serious climbing, I was invited to attend a conference in Hyderabad where I met the father-son duo of John Louis and Bernett Orlando (52 and 16 yr respectively at that time). John is India’s first Memory Grand Master while Bernett is a world cubing champion. What I saw that day on the stage left my senses numb and mind spinning. Bernett solved the cube in seconds both blindfolded and eyes open while John memorized random numbers in less time than that was taken to write them. Needless to say, both John and Bernett were equally wonderstruck at my adventure stories and pictures from the edge.

Over dinner we got talking and formed a mutual admiration club. While I offered to teach climbing to John and Bernett, they offered to teach me cubing and scraping the rust away from my extremely fragile and nearly non-existent memory. That evening, around 11 pm, John showed me the basic moves and the fundamentals of solving the cube, through a process he calls the ‘beginner’s method’. My stomach was bursting due to the mammoth amount of Hyderabadi dum biriyani I had gorged all through the evening and my eyes were shutting of their own accord hence I got my first ever cubing lesson in not so perfect setting. Yet John’s enthusiasm kept me riveted. Bernett remained smiling and his very humble self as he watched my clumsy efforts to follow his father’s instructions. I didn’t have a cube so I was sure I would forget all that I learnt in less than an hour. I bid them goodnight and crashed off. Next day morning I left in the wee hours for the airport and was quite sure that I would never see John or Bernett ever again and that my cubing days would never come.

I returned to my life of drudgery doing nothing more exciting than merely galloping around the world, going to some of the remotest places and climbing some of the world’s highest and most challenging mountains and of course meeting pretty girls in between and giving talks to audiences across the continents. All very routine and nothing worth writing about! I had all but forgotten about the cube. It seemed like a distant dream and the dream was constantly receding. I still didn’t find the time or the inclination to buy a cube until one day I received a series of video mails from John that showed exactly the way he had taught me to solve the cube. This was the jolt I really needed to get me out of my stupor. If John, despite his super busy life, could take the time out to send me the instructions in such a systematic manner and be kind enough to seek nothing in return then I better get my act together. I have kind friends everywhere and one such friend promptly gifted me with two cubes, just the brand that John had recommended. And thus began a new chapter in my life that has now gripped me so deep that I am sure it would never cease as long as I live.

John had told me that the secret of learning the cube was simply the secret to mastering anything; which is, dedication, practice and determination. For all of these I needed time and I realized that I do get resting time whenever I am on a big mountain since there are resting days, bad weather days, etc. Everest was looming and I decided that this time, along with all my life saving gear, a cube must also reach the Himalaya. Just weeks before my departure, I started going through the video lessons and following John’s direction. It was painfully slow and frightfully frustrating as I would twist one cubelet and then another and then another and find that I was worst than before. But I wasn’t quitting. In my pursuit of the cube I often forgot to eat or to sleep, it possessed me either awake or asleep. The cube went everywhere with me, be it in the metro or in a bus, or even to the loo. I was just twisting and turning, flipping and flopping. My mother of course didn’t say anything as she is used to see me doing highly inexplicable things. I tried to share my enthusiasm with my friends but most didn’t show any interest when I told them that I couldn’t solve it, not yet.

And then, like magic, I solved the cube for the very first time; taking nearly an hour and half for me to get there following the video lessons sequentially. It was a pathetic performance yet I felt right on top of the cubing world. I jumped up and down in sheer joy of having solved something that till now seemed presumably impossible. I told all my friends and of course most didn’t believe me at all. And then I departed for Everest.

All through the expedition I kept working on the cube, till the algorithms became embedded in my memory as if they were there forever. I realized I was improving my time too. Very soon I could solve in around 10 minutes, then around 5, and today my best time stands at 3 minutes 43 seconds using both hands with my eyes open and a very tight 333 cube. My best time is still so slow that if I were to put my name in the list of world’s fastest cubing times ever, I would be ranked somewhere around half a million for sure. The top 1000 fastest times are all within 30 seconds, with an unbelievable current world record of 5.55 seconds set by the Dutch 17 year old cubing wizard Mats Valk in March 2013. I realized this record was set just as I was getting used to solving the cube. I have now watched the video of Mats solving the cube in 5.55 seconds perhaps 20 times but I just can’t believe what I see. He seems no less than an illusionist.

So while I am absolutely nowhere near a master, my friends still gasp in wonder and call me a magician when I solve my cube in my pathetic 4 minutes or so. I solve it first thing in the morning and last thing before I sleep. I solve it several times in a day. I toy with a cube all the time and it simply goes with me everywhere. In short, I am totally addicted to cubing and I am trying to now learn the more advanced methods of cubing and blindfolded cubing. So I guess another trip to meet John and Bernett is in the order soon.

While I have been solving the cube as if my life depended upon it, I have also been delving into its history and have found some interesting facts I would like to share.

As its inventor, Ernő Rubik of Hungary, an  architect and professor and sculptor always claimed that he in fact discovered the cube as if it was always there as a concept. He completed the first prototype in 1974, claiming that it was through the sheer pleasure of finding a good task for his students that cube came about, “Space always intrigued me, with its incredibly rich possibilities, space alteration by (architectural) objects, objects' transformation in space (sculpture, design), movement in space and in time, their correlation, their repercussion on mankind, the relation between man and space, the object and time. I think the CUBE arose from this interest, from this search for expression and for this always more increased acuteness of these thoughts...”
At that time no one had imagined that this cube would take the world of puzzles by storm and would outsell every other puzzle game discovered / invented before or after. The basic 333 cube now has many variations and there are several official and unofficial world championships held each year. There are millions of cubing sites, cubing clubs, cubing societies, cubing games, cubing museums, etc, etc. And there are now people solving cubes blindfolded, one handed, with feet, underwater, while free falling and sky diving and now this year I did it on top of the world, at the summit of Mt Everest. Believe it or not, the youngest person record is held by a Chinese kid who was 3 years 6 months and 5 days old when he solved the cube in 2:43:34 minutes at the ShenYang Open on 4 October 2011.
A cube can be solved using many methods with mindboggling names such as CFOP, Roux, ZZ, Petrus, etc. I am not yet sure which method I use though I know it is for beginner’s only. For those who wonder what a cube is all about, it simply is a cube measuring around 5.5 cm on the edges, with six faces, each of the six faces covered by nine stickers of solid colors: white, red, blue, orange, green and yellow. It has 26 smaller cubes often called cubies or cubelets which can be twisted or turned in two axes except the centre piece of each of the six faces.

It is said that a Rubik’s Cube is a not only a great source of unadulterated fun and doesn’t need electricity to work, but it also is a stress buster, energy booster, sharpens your mind and memory and keeps you young and agile. All I can say that to me Rubik’s Cube depicts a journey from complexity to simplicity. It’s an adventure upon a road that has pitfalls yet is enchanting, has deviations yet soul searching, has agony yet fulfilling.

I wish we would learn from the cube that to be born is like being a perfectly solved cube with 43 quintillion possibilities and then as the child grows, his life’s cube begins to twist and turn, scramble and churn, making it messy although very colorful as he gets a hard-hold of life. And at some point of time the now grown and miserable human realizes that it is necessary to go back to being a simple solved cube and then perhaps one day the life would be untwisted and unscramble using some very simple and easy techniques and methods of living, when we reach out to our origin and become a solved cube again. And even if we don’t reach that stage but reach the realization on our moment of mortality something has still been achieved.

If I had the power I would make Rubki’s Cube compulsory for every kid in every school and for every individual who wants to live simply. I don’t know if Mr Rubik had realized when he discovered the cube, that in doing so he was also unlocking one of the elixirs of life and living.

My sincere gratitude to Erno Rubik and to John and Bernett for bringing cube into my life and making my life a cube.


  1. Love the way you pondered over the Rubik's cube and made a geek-like object look cool, playful and even provocative! An extremely interesting read for sure and now i am waiting to learn it too ;-)

  2. You are a superman - Satyabrata Dam !!! Have a great time ahead !!!