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PoliticsWe Are Represent.Us, a nonpartisan anti-corruption organization. Our members supported 13 successful campaign finance, ethics and transparency laws that passed at the ballot this Election Day. Ask us anything!

Nov 11th 2016 by RepUs_Josh • 24 Questions • 810 Points

I'm a journalist who spent three years trying to solve a Rubik's Cube in under 20 seconds. Eleven years ago, I learned to solve the puzzle thanks to Toby Mao, who taught Will Smith for "The Pursuit of Happyness." I documented my quest in "Cracking The Cube: Going Slow to Go Fast and Other Unexpected Turns in the World of Competitive Rubik's Cube Solving," which was recently featured in the New York Post. The book touches on everything from my journey into speedcubing to the story of Erno Rubik, the reclusive Hungarian who invented the puzzle, and whom I had the pleasure to interview in person. Today I'm back in the Post's office to talk more about my love of The Cube and answer your questions.

Proof: http://imgur.com/8eZ4WEg

Update: Thanks for all your questions! I had a great time answering them! I'll get to any I didn't answer later! "CRACKING THE CUBE" is available everywhere books are sold--and I'll be doing more events in the future! Check out my website at www.ianscheffler.com if you want to learn more. I'm also active on twitter at @ian_scheffler, Instagram at @ian_scheffler and @thegentlemancuber, Facebook at @ianschefflerauthor and on YouTube!

Q:

Our country has become so divided and polarized. So many people just want to attack or blame the other side, not realizing that both Rs and Ds use exactly the same techniques to distract and anger each other, avoiding any mention that it's the corrupting effects of money in the system that is at the root of all problems, and that nothing gets fixed until that aspect gets fixed. What materials (like YouTube explainer videos) or techniques do you recommend to help people understand that their partisan preferences are getting in the way of seeing the bigger picture? How can we help people understand that it's not the "evilness" of the other side that is the issue, but rather the system that rewards these conflicts that is the problem?

A:

Did you read guides on how to get faster (such as the Fridrich method), or if you figure it out all by yourselves? And since the world record is around 5 seconds, do you think you'll keep trying to go faster to reach that?


Q:

I think one of the most important things is to approach the conversation about corruption with a willingness to call out your own “side.” Liberals tend to get angry about money in politics when it’s coming from conservatives, and conservatives get mad about liberal spending. But everybody is mad about the same thing – big money and special interests controlling our political system. So just saying, “You’re right, both sides need to stop taking money" can make a huge difference.

In terms of resources, this TED talk is a great place to start! https://www.ted.com/talks/jonathan_haidt_on_the_moral_mind

A:

So I've interviewed hundreds of people in the process of writing this book, and can more or less count on two hands the number of people who figured it out on their own. (Obviously Rubik, the inventor, had to!) So that's really hard, and you need some pretty high level spatial and mathematical skills.

I learned initially from a person, Toby Mao, a former world record holder, and then got faster by a mix of internet stuff (like youtube--check out badmephisto's videos on YouTube) and meeting cubers at competitions and asking for advice!

As far as the world record goes, there's no way I'll ever beat that. It's down to 4.74 seconds, which was set by Mats Valk, a really awesome cuber from Holland, just the other weekend.

but I do hope to keep getting faster--my goals next year are to get a sub-11 second single and sub-15 second average in competition!


Q:

Do you feel that the sales tax and state funds portion of the bill gave opponents something to attack? Do you feel it would be best left off of the next attempt?

That stated - I believe it was the best part of the initiative, but I worry it may have contributed to the complexity of the bill and freaked out some voters at the expense of getting the anti-corruption parts passed.

A:

How long after the cube was invented did people figure out that you could solve a cube with math?


Q:

Polling data showed that once we had a chance to explain to voters what the provisions of I-1464 were, they strongly supported all the provisions, including citizen-funded elections. So we feel confident that the real problem was the confusing ballot language. People simply didn’t know what they were voting on.

A:

So, solving a Cube is kind of like doing math, only what Margaret Wertheim, a really excellent journalist, has called "embodied mathematics." (You know, sort of like how when you throw a baseball, you're embodying principles of geometry, etc.)

As far as high-level math treating the Cube, once it got out into the world, in the early 80s, mathematicians fell in love with it; there's an early book called "Rubik's Cubic Compendium" which I think was published by Oxford University Press and deals with the math of it.

To be clear, you don't HAVE to know lots of math to solve it, but you certainly can use math to solve it.


Q:

It sounds like the State Attorney General is part of the problem that you mentioned that is going to get worse as Represent.Us gains momentum -- that the powers that be that have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo, will actively work to thwart Represent.us' mission.

A:

what's your opinion on cross on left?


Q:

It’s true that people in power will inevitably oppose what we’re trying to do, but we’ve beat tough odds before. In South Dakota, we faced $600K in opposition spending from the Koch network and had to repeatedly combat half-truths and outright lies about our initiative in TV and radio ads. But our strong ballot language in that state helped voters understand what IM-22 would really do: stop secret unlimited lobbyist gifts, empower voters by changing how elections are funded, make political spending transparent, and ramp up ethics enforcement.

We’re also more set up for success now than we’ve ever been. We’re a young organization, but we’ve made huge strides in building up our grassroots organizing operation:

Represent.Us members made almost 21,000 phone calls urging people to support democracy initiatives this election cycle. The Vancouver (Washington state) chapter alone made over 3,500 calls in support of Initiative 1464 to ensure voters a much stronger voice in government.

At the group’s local chapters, volunteers showed up for the nitty-gritty political organizing work required: attending community meetings across San Francisco in support of Proposition T (lobbying reform); holding educational forums in two Illinois counties to inform voters about Boone County Resolution 16-18 and McHenry County Resolution 5234 (anti-corruption resolutions); and in South Dakota even planning a GOTV concert called “Rock the Reform” that featured local musicians and artists supporting Initiated Measure 22, a state anti-corruption measure.

You can read more about that here: http://billmoyers.com/story/now-good-news/

A:

I have a lot of respect for folks like Philip Espinoza who do cross on left and are super fast, but it's not something I do. (And at this point, i wouldn't try, since i'm so used to cross on bottom.) So, in short, I think it's neat! One of the cool things about cubing is how many ways there are to approach the same situation, and I think this is a great example.


Q:

What's your main speed cube?

A:

At the moment, I use a Gans 356 S, but I'm thinking of switching to the Valk 3. I tried out some magnetic speedcubes recently and really liked them!


Q:

I just switched from the Gans 356s to the Valk 3. Its amazing I would recommend it for a main.

A:

I have one! It's almost too fast for me, though. It supercharges my TPS and then I lose my lookahead. :(


Q:

Be honest, how many cubes have you smashed?

A:

Hahahahahahahahahahahaha.

None (on purpose.)

But, funny story, I was on Good Day New York recently, with Greg Kelly and Rosanna Sciotto, and Greg threw one of my cubes over his shoulder and it exploded.

Inside, I was like -________________-

But I kept smiling at the camera!


Q:

You should've really milked it and made him feel really shitty about breaking your favourite cube in the whole world.

A:

He's a nice guy though! And I think he was genuinely frustrated ...


Q:

You got some footage of that? Nice niche AMA btw :)

A:

I'll try to put some up soon! And thanks!


Q:

I read your book and I would like to know whether you started going to competitions because you had the idea to write the book or vice versa.

So when did you decide to write the book? Was that before you attended US Nationals 2012 or did you have the idea there?

A:

So, I knew i wanted to write a book, or rather to write something that was long and ambitious, but didn't really have a subject--so I suppose that came first. But it also went hand in hand with going to competitions--Toby Mao, the veteran cuber who taught me to solve the puzzle years ago, basically challenged me before my first comp, in 2012, saying "How can you write about this if you don't do it?"

At the same time, I wasn't sure this would turn into a book--I didn't have a publisher or anything at the time, and figured maybe I'd write an article about this--but the more and more I went to competitions and realized there was so much to it, and it hadn't been written about with much depth, the more I thought it could be done!


Q:

-What are your thoughts on patent holders vs actual manufactures. Are they just trolls?
-what brand model do you prefer?
-what's your current 3x3 pb? -do you enjoy solving other cubes? 2x2, 4x4, etc? -What's you wca id?

A:

1) This is a really complicated issue. I try to walk a fine line in the book between explaining that without the titans of Rubik's Cube history like Tom Kremer, the founder of Seven Towns, none of us would be talking about Rubik's Cube today, and to make clear that you don't have to have a speedcube to enjoy the puzzle. But it's also true that speedcubes and the progression in puzzle design are an integral part of the world of speedcubing.

So I think my hope is that both parties can collaborate--if cubing is going to keep growing, they'll have to!

2) I like a lot of different cubes and brands, but QiYi Mofange (which makes the Valk 3, and sponsors Mats Valk) and Gans puzzle are doing great work right now. (And I'd also like to point out that, for beginners, the new Rubik's brand speedcube is a great option!)

My current main is the Gans 356 S, which is a bit old, BUT i've spent a long time breaking the cube in and lubing it, etc., so it works for me.

3) My 3x3 pbs are 11.94 lucky at home, 13.xx nl at home, and 16.xx single in competition. (My best average at home is 16.5 and in comp is 18.4)

I do enjoy solving other cubes, but don't enjoy the other cubic puzzles as much as the classic 3x3, because you're always basically turning them into 3x3s. What I really want to get into is BLD and Megaminx!

My WCA ID is 2012SCHE03


Q:

What do you think is the largest accomplishment in the cubing world?

A:

Well, I'd have to say this last weekend is up there--there are some records that are just so hard to break. So Kaijun Lin breaking all the BLD records (except multi-BLD) is pretty exceptional. Not to mention Mats Valk using his own method--VLS--to get a 4.74!

But for me, personally, the biggest accomplishment implies something more: it's not just a record, maybe, but a result, or something personal overcome.

So, here's a couple of contenders for me:

  • Yu Da-Hyung becoming the first female world record holder (she broke the Megaminx WR, for the first time in 2014)

  • Feliks Zemdegs getting that insane 7x7 single WR at the World Championship in Sao Paulo in 2015. Basically Kevin Hays got the WR, left the stage, said to Feliks I hope you don't break the WR, Feliks goes on stage, breaks the record, all the while Kevin is tearing his hair out, and Feliks was just so nonchalant about it--he told me he didn't expect the solve to be nearly that fast. (Which is always how fast solves feel!)

  • Basically Feliks's whole career, which is just nuts, and includes everything from the first sub-10 average to his 6.88-second OH WR.

  • The way so many cubers have given so much to make this hobby so lively and thriving; from taking cubes to competitors abroad, who might not have the money for the equipment, to the Gutierrez Cuba brothers in Peru busking with their puzzles at traffic intersections to make money and get to Brazil for worlds. Really, as Natan Riggenbach, the former WCA board member, once put it, we're all in this together, and our only enemies are time itself and the cube; it's amazing that we've managed to build a community that is at once so competitive and so supportive, which is my favorite accomplishment :)


Q:

Hello! Thanks for doing this AMA! I heard about this book a few weeks ago from an interview you did on NPR. Fascinating topic!

I have a few middle school students who are OBSESSED with solving Rubik's cubes. They have the traditional type, as well as ones with crazy shapes, even a panda!

Do you have any suggestions of literature for budding Cube enthusiasts?

Have a great day! :)

A:

Haha, I just got one of the Panda cubes for my gf! (It's a lot of fun, and way easier to solve than the cube!)

I would say there's a couple of options--if you want to learn about the history of the puzzle, and the world of speedcubing, I'd recommend my book, since I think that's literally the only option. (And glad your heard the NPR segment! Shoutout to Kai Ryssdal for being awesome.)

If your students want to learn more and get into solving fast, I'd recommend joining the forums at speedsolving.com, or the cubing subreddit, or any other online group devoted to cubing; there's always lots to learn from fellow cubers.

The best way to learn is probably youtube; that's what most top cubers recommend. (The videos produced by BadMephisto are especially good, since they teach you a method that is a good base for getting faster.)

There is an old book called "Rubik's Cubic Compendium," which is fun for enthusiasts (it has an essay by Mr. Rubik, the inventor!) but most books about the cube are old guides to solving it, which have mostly been superseded.

They should also check out competitions! They happen all the time, all over the world, and anyone can spectate--or compete!--and they're listed at the website of the World Cube Association. (worldcubeassociation.org)


Q:

Thank-you for the thorough answer! Best of luck with your book!

A:

Thank you!


Q:

What's your favorite non-WCA puzzle?

Do you think the popularity of speedsolving is increasing?, if so, what could be the cause?

What do you think is next for speedsolving as a competitive event as World Records get amazingly low?

A:

My favorite non-WCA puzzle? That's a hard one! Once I figure a puzzle out, I get less interested in it, but I also really enjoy many puzzles for aesthetic reasons.

I think my favorite non-WCA puzzle is the Lotus Table, designed by Kagen Sound. (http://www.kagenschaefer.com/Lotus4.html) It's a literal table, but also a puzzle! (Although it's very hard to come by--there's only about two dozen in the whole word!)

I think speedcubing is DEFINITELY increasing in popularity--it's almost impossible to register for a competition these days, since the reg list fills up so quickly!

Part of that has to do with the internet, which has made cubing so much more accessible and widespread, and part of it has to do with the undying nature of what makes Rubik's Cube interesting--which I think is becoming only more unique of a hobby in our digital age.

There are, to be frank, probably a lot of reasons cubing is getting more popular--people get excited to read about fast times, and YouTube videos of cubers, and it's actually REALLY FUN to do.

My mom is a teacher and has been seeing lots of kids solving it, even kids who don't compete; one of them recently turned to her, a 4x4 in hand, and said, enraptured, "I just LOVE it."

So, there's that. The combination of color, tactility, and combinations--it's never the same puzzle, so that keeps it interesting.

I think the question of what comes next for speedcubing is something we're all asking ourselves. Will it go pro, like chess, and have a ranking system, and big money prizes? Or will it stay sort of underground/community based?

It's sort of at the same place surfing was a couple of decades ago, where there were dedicated enthusiasts around the world, but before it had gotten really mainstream; we'll have to see what happens!


Q:

Thank you so much for your answers!

A:

My pleasure! Thanks for your questions!


Q:

do you have a favorite non-standard (3x3) cube?

A:

I like the 7x7 because the math of the permutations is so cool--I think it has about the same number of permutations (or the same order of magnitude) as there are thought to be atoms in the observable universe, like 1081 or something.


Q:

10160 as a matter of fact. If each atom in the universe was used to represent a permutation of the 7x7, we would have 1080 combinations (approx). This means that if each atom in the universe was a universe in and of itself, we would have enough atoms to represent the permutations of a 7x7.

(1080)2 = 10160

What do you think of puzzles like the square-1, curvy copter, etc?

A:

Hahahahahaha, well, never mind. But I guess it's the same point!

I haven't gotten very into the puzzles you mention but I think they're neat! One of the beautiful things about puzzles is there is never a limit on how many you can create and enjoy.


Q:

A lot of cubers like to do a lot of the various WCA events, is there any other event that you excel at?

And what do you think of some of the cubing legends like Feliks Zemdegs and Marcin Maskow Kowalczyk?

A:

Man, those guys are amazing! I think it's really incredible what Feliks and Maskow have accomplished! (Especially Feliks--and he's stayed so humble, which I think is just as cool as his times!)

I don't excel at any other events aside from writing about cubing, sadly. But I do want to get decent at BLD!


Q:

Hi Ian! I'm in the process of reading your book right now, and I'm really enjoying it. What inspired you to write this book?

A:

So I've always wanted to write, and I kind of accidentally fell into cubing. I wanted to learn more about cubing--and the articles I read were fairly topical. (A lot of cubers complained that they focused on feet solving too much, to show how "quirky" [read: "weird"] cubing was.)

In short, I wanted to read a book about cubing--I had all these questions, about where it came from, and how the Cube was invented, and who Mr. Rubik was--and so I had to make one myself!


Q:

If you could tell one thing to yourself from when you started cubing, what would it be?

A:

That's a great question! It would probably be to relax. People get WAY to stressed in competition. I would count myself among that group. I wanted so badly to get faster--to go sub-20--that I tensed up and that made it harder. But that's kind of the beauty of cubing. It's very Taoist, wu wei, do without doing, that whole thing--the harder you try, you're only hurting yourself.


Q:

Do you have a favourite colour to solve?

A:

You mean to start with? I solve on white, only because that's how I learned and i figure the benefit of going color neutral is minimal compared to learning more LL algs/practicing my cross to F2L transition.

If you mean color of plastic, I'm pretty neutral--although I think colored cubes like the halloween edition the cubicle did, with black and orange plastic!


Q:

When you try timing yourself solving the cube, do you first get to study the layout of the colors before starting the time, or does the studying happen only once the time ticks? And how does that work when they time the official record at 4+ seconds? If you get to study it before, how long does that take?

A:

Yep! According to WCA regulations, you get up to 15 seconds to inspect the puzzle. (Except for blindfold solving, where inspection is part of the overall time.)

And are you referring to Mats Valk's 4.74 second record?


Q:

Can you still take them apart like you could back when they first came out?

A:

Yep! They won't let you solve it that way in competition, but it's a great way to learn about the mechanics of the puzzle.


Q:

one hand cubing while one hand typing

A:

hahaha, i wish. i actually wore a hole in my space bar from hitting so much while writing/typing and using it to start and stop my timer.