Ice Cubes for the Christmas Tree

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A few days ago, I stumbled upon a fun little riddle which you can see here. (The answer is here but try to solve it first). When I was a kid, I used to do brain teasers, tests, and puzzles all the time, and I was pretty good at them. I stopped being a student decades ago, though, and even though this riddle was labeled “Easy”, I gave up.

The approach I took was a logical and binary one. I simply tried the direct approach of trying to figure out which switches corresponded to which light. When I found the problem unsolvable and peeked at the answer, I saw that I had totally missed another data point (I won’t allude to it here, since I don’t want to spoil the puzzle for you).

If I got back into such riddles for a few days, I bet I’d do a lot better at subsequent – – even hard – – riddles – – because anyone who has ever taken an SAT test knows that examinations have their own language, tricks, and angles. To put a cliche to it, you learn to think outside the box. When I was simply thinking of the “obvious” answer by way of which switches turned which lights on an off (literally a binary thinking approach), I was very much thinking inside the box, and I failed.

In a tiny way, this shook up my brain, because the next day I had just finished putting up our huge Christmas tree (single-handedly, as usual). It has a very high center of gravity, and as I was filling the stand with water, I became very concerned the entire thing might topple over. I was having a lot of difficulty getting the spout from my water pitcher into the stand’s water reservoir, and it was frustrating.

The “direct” solution was to try to figure out some kind of container that was flat enough to get water to where I needed it to be, but there wasn’t any. I tried to think of some kind of tubing, but the entire situation started to strike me as ridiculous. And then the answer hit me: ice cubes! I’d simply turn the ice cube maker in the fridge on (normally it’s off, since we have no need for ice), and I would just slip cubes into the “portal” of the stand.

No spilling. No mess. The cubes would just neatly melt.

I suspect I might not have happened upon my clever little solution had I not brushed the cobwebs off my brain with the riddle above. It reminded me that there’s utility in such mental exercises, even if some of us aren’t in school anymore.

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