Over the last few months I’ve sunk quite a few neurons into learning to solve Rubik’s Cube. Don’t ask why; it just seemed like a useful skill to have. You know, in case I’m ever… trapped in a… stack of… interlocked shipping crates… with revolving doors. Or something.

Anyway, in the last couple of weeks I’ve gained a sort of ultra-narrow celebrity status because of it. I’ve drawn some attention on a few occasions – once when we had a guest speaker at work who’d co-written a book on the Cube; once at a friend’s place; and once in a cinema. (Yes, a cinema.) It turns out that this is one of those few instances where a mark of an uber-nerd coincides with a really cool party trick.

The technique I use to solve it is roughly the Heise method, which I settled on because it’s touted as not needing any memorisation – that is, instead of learning a bunch of algorithms of the form “if the cube looks like this, do these 14 moves”, you learn the general techniques and then apply them. That idea really appeals to me, although I did find that the shortest path to learning to actually solve the thing still involves memorising at least a couple of algorithms (in particular, a corner 3-cycle and a corner twist).

There’s a bit of a catch-22 when you’re learning a solution for the first time. The problem is that you want to be able to experiment and see what a sequence of moves does. But by far the easiest way to see what effect a sequence has is to do it on a solved cube. So you get to try exactly once, and then you have to somehow get to where you started. So you either have to (a) have a very large supply of solved cubes, (b) remember exactly what moves you’ve done and reverse them flawlessly, (c) get someone else to solve it every time you mess it up, (d) learn a different solution first, or (e) painstakingly follow the instructions for the method you’re trying to learn every time you mess it up. That last one is the most obvious, because you should be learning as you follow the method, but it’s also the most contrary to learning general principles instead of rote sequences. That’s why I ended up memorising a couple of sequences instead of fully embracing the purist path.

These days I can generally solve it in under 2 minutes if I’m paying attention and haven’t had a drink yet. There are a few places I can go from here. The Heise method has a bunch of advanced techniques that I haven’t really gotten into yet. The Petrus method is similar for the first few steps, so I’m trying to absorb some of the techniques from that, in particular some of the block-building patterns. And some of his speed tips are really cool – I’m going to practice doing a corner twist using Triggers.

Solving a cube in 16 seconds would be a really really cool party trick.

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