How can I frustrate my friends?
April 29, 2005 11:19 PM   Subscribe

I have an English final coming up, and I need to make a presentation on Franz Kafka. As a reinforcement activity, I would like to give my class a puzzle of some sort that is either impossible to solve, or at least very difficult. My goal is to frustrate everyone in order to make a point about Kafka's life, as well as his writing style.

It's important the puzzle look solvable, so that there is no one who wants to give up being starting . While there seem to be a lot of tricky math related puzzles, I'd like to use either an actual physical task or some sort of word problem.

The class I'm presenting is a high school AP English Literature class, and all the students are seniors.
The activity would need to last for around 10-15 minutes.
posted by Amanda B to Grab Bag (16 answers total)
two words: rubix. cube.
posted by radioamy at 12:08 AM on April 30, 2005

You may want it to initially look solvable, but it's important that they quickly realize it is both impossible and required. The trick is not letting them stop, even after they realize they can't do it.
posted by alms at 12:17 AM on April 30, 2005 [1 favorite]

Anagrams, maybe? Give them a list of words to solve, throw in one or two that are true anagrams and make the rest unsolveable gibberish. Kids in AP English would expect to be able to solve anagrams rather easily, and if they can solve a couple of them it might take them longer to twig to the fact that they're being fucked with.
posted by stefanie at 12:28 AM on April 30, 2005

Swapping the first two squares of a "15 puzzle" is a way of rendering it unsolvable. Get your hands on a dozen of those inexpensive plastic versions; tweak, scramble and distribute: confusion guaranteed! You should try it out first on a couple of people of the target age first, might be this trick is well-known.
posted by koenie at 12:29 AM on April 30, 2005

Are you sure this is a good idea? You may well just turn your listeners off both your talk and Kafka. I have been a teacher-trainer, and if one of my trainees were to have suggested doing something like this, I would probably have tried to talk them out of it. Rule 3 : don't ask learners to solve riddles to which there are no solutions - unless you're a Zen master maybe.
posted by TimothyMason at 12:46 AM on April 30, 2005

Another great riddle is "Daughter's Ages". It's only requires elementary arithmetic to solve. The hard part is seeing through the paradoxical formulation of the problem. Browse Wu's Riddles for more brainteasers.
posted by koenie at 12:48 AM on April 30, 2005

A physically task, eh? Wish I remembered the title of the book, but there is the PERFECT book out there for this that talks about physically impossible tasks which look doable.
Here's one: Have a person stand flat against a wall and lay a dollar about a foot in front of them. Tell them they if they can get the dollar without bending their knees and keep butt against the wall and getting back up, they get it (akin to touching your toes, only going forward). It is physically impossible to do this without a person loosing their balance.
Another one: Have the strongest person in the class hold a broom stick straight out. Now, challenge them to hold it straight out while someone tries to knock it to the side. The weaker person will always win.
These are just off the top of my head, but the book is full of nifty examples like this.
posted by jmd82 at 12:55 AM on April 30, 2005

Not sure if it's appropriate or simple enough, but Newcomb's Problem is infinitely frustrating, and you can parlay the puzzle into a little talk about the existential anguish of being in the room and having to decide what box(es) to take. That might be relatable to what you're saying about Kafka. It's also a real, unsolved problem, so instead of feeling cheated students might still be talking about it after class.

(You usually have to inspire the frustration, though. Most people think that there's an obvious answer when they first hear the problem.)
posted by painquale at 1:06 AM on April 30, 2005

wow....thanks for that painquale - I've been off in the ether for an hour or so, thinking intently, solving nothing and progressing to a more confused state than from whence I began.
[not necessarily too dissimilar from a visit to the blue]
That slate article also mentioned Zeno's paradoxes which are twisted conundrums that parted my hair as they went zipping by.
posted by peacay at 4:32 AM on April 30, 2005

As someone who taught Kafka in AP English, let me caution you against looking at math-type puzzles that are basically difficult, but solvable. Anything that's "winnable"--even if hard--is contrary to the exact point that he's trying to express.

The underlying message of the challenges described in all of Kafka's stories is the inevitable futility of our mortality. Not to be too simplistic, but the basic point--it seems to me, at least--is that life is a game that none of us will win, no matter how hard we struggle. Kafka was morbidly obsessed with that fact, and explored it endlessly. (I'm not complaining--I think he's awesome--but still. Moooorrrr-bid.)

The most appropriate exercise, then, would be something like the parable of the gatekeeper ("Before the Law"), where there simply isn't a correct answer. (Something like "Guess a number between 1 and 100", but you never say "That's it", or a random sequence of numbers, where you ask them to figure out the underlying pattern, but there isn't one.)

That being said, I'm not totally convinced this is a great idea--the basic problem with it is that anyone who "gets" Kafka in the class is going to realize pretty quickly what you're doing, and 10-15 minutes is a _really_ long time to try to keep something like this going once someone says, "Pfft. There _is_ no answer."

If you really want them to get a handle on the underlying futility, I'd look for something where they look for similar challenges in their own world, or in other works they've read. From Sisyphus to Job through maybe people in their own lives, there are a lot of examples of folks who have struggled through essentially unwinnable situations. Getting people to connect those specific examples with the larger struggle of our existence was really Kafka's agenda, in a lot of ways.
posted by LairBob at 8:41 AM on April 30, 2005 [1 favorite]

let me caution you against looking at math-type puzzles that are basically difficult, but solvable. Anything that's "winnable"--even if hard--is contrary to the exact point that he's trying to express.

The Rubik's Cube suggestion would be an example of this, just in case you were considering it. There will probably be someone in the class who can easily solve it, thus pulling the rug out from under your point. When I was a kid I could solve any cube in less than a minute, and usually in about 45 seconds. Not today, though, I've forgotten the more complex move sequences.
posted by intermod at 9:07 AM on April 30, 2005

Although it's easy to make a Rubik's Cube unsolvable -- just flip one of the edge pieces. Edge pieces must have even parity. Of course, you may get a smart-ass who knows that, but if it is revealed that the puzzle is unsolvable, you can use that as a jumping-off point as well, probably.
posted by kindall at 11:21 AM on April 30, 2005

(And, yeah, I still remember how to solve a regular Cube and can generally do so in a few minutes. And I can solve the 4x4x4 and 5x5x5 varietes too, though they take much longer.)
posted by kindall at 11:24 AM on April 30, 2005

I'd second 'Before the Law'. If you're teaching Kafka, best base the puzzle around his writing.
posted by highrise at 12:00 PM on April 30, 2005

it's weird that radioamy suggested the rubik's cube & then linked to a page that explains how to solve it and confirms that 'any cube can be solved in 29 moves or less.' It's a great toy, but like most math exercises, it really is a one-trick pony; i.e., once you "get" it, it doesn't seem hard anymore.

That's pretty much the opposite of the 'meaning of life' type questions that plague writers like Kafka. I wouldn't go with philosophical paradoxes, either. Xeno is basically refuted in Aristotle's Physics (Xeno's error is ignoring Time) or if you want a more mathematic refutation, see the calculus (which is basically the incorporation of time, or movement, into math). Some people find stuff like Newcomb's problem or the surprise execution or similar dilemmas interesting, but to many minds they are simply not fundamentally incomprehensible in the same way that "the meaning of life" is. Some people will find a deep and interesting insight in those paradoxes, but others will think of them as silly word-games (the truth is, it's both.)

I think your intuition toward doing something physical is a good one, since the goal becomes less abstract and dismissable, and the frustration much more real, if the conflict is between what's physically possible, and what mentally seems like it ought to be possible. However, again, some people might just get that it's not possible, and not find it frustrating. What's the one women can do but men can't? bend over a chair leaning your head against a wall, and then pick up the chair, and then stand up? But because men have a higher centre of gravity, they lose their balance in trying to do it... but if the men in the room know that, they won't be frustrated.

But then, perhaps all of this is assuming a more jaded population than you're actually facing. I guess the point is, in trying to illuminate this conflict metaphorically, you may decrease the actual strength of the conflict for some portion of your audience.
posted by mdn at 12:45 PM on April 30, 2005

I'll agree that the surprise execution paradox is just a silly little word game, but I find Newcomb's problem to bring out some pretty important "meaning of life" questions. I think it's deeply Sartrean. I can understand why some people are unmoved, though. In a lot of ways, the problem's really contrived. If you're not willing or able to imagine what it would be like to be in the room and to consider divesting your rationality, then it dissolves into something more akin to Xeno's paradox.
posted by painquale at 1:30 AM on May 1, 2005

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