The Dean and The Cube

Like most people of my generation, one of my favorite shows growing up was The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. One of my favorite episodes featured the indomitably spirited Will Smith interviewing for a spot in the Princeton freshman class with a comically dour Dean. I’m going to assume you’re familiar with the show, so it won’t be hard for you to imagine what happened – Dean is originally put off by Will’s brash and jocular demeanor, but eventually comes around and practically begs Will to attend. In this particular interaction, the turning point was when Will proved his intelligence by completing an unsolved Rubik’s cube sitting on the Dean’s desk. Immediate. Intellectual. Credibility.

Interesting fact – Will Smith repeated this performance almost exactly in his role as rags to riches businessman Chris Gardner in The Pursuit of Happyness, with the “Dean” being a partner at investment firm… Dean Witter (weird, right?).

Another interesting fact – it takes no special level of intelligence to solve a Rubik’s cube. Well, not now that it’s already been solved, that is. What was one of the greatest mysteries of the 1980’s has been reduced to a totally predictable algorithm for transposing specified cubes in certain ways. The best cubers now measure their solves not in hours or even minutes, but in seconds. The set of moves I’ve memorized is not so robust. I can generally solve the cube in about 3 minutes.

Like most people, I didn’t know solving a cube was possible for anyone but the uber-gifted, until a young uber-gifted mathematician showed me how it was done. It took me about a week before I had solved it for the first time, and I slowly honed my skills from there. I would estimate I spent about 60 hours of time to get to where I am now, and have stayed. In my old age (I turned 30 last month), I have become a lot more discriminating about how I invest my time. Long gone are the days of 5 hour video game sessions. I am not quite at the point where I put “personal time” into my Outlook calendar, but I can see it happening soon.

I guess the best thing I can say about the time I wasted, is that at least I wasn’t doing something worse. I try not to torture myself by over-analyzing sunk costs. I have been able to impress people with my cube solving abilities a small handful of times. A wave of smugness washes over me when I see an unsolved cube on someone’s desk or bookshelf. I always make a show of it. I start by asking politely if I can take a try. I look at it curiously for a while, like I’ve never actually held one before. After some time, I give a nod of understanding, like I’ve just figured it out. Then I spend the next 3 minutes sliding the pieces around as quickly as possible, making as much eye contact with my audience as I can without losing my position.

I haven’t met my “Dean” yet, but I think one day I will. It’s going to be one hell of a show.

I might even show him how it’s done.