A.J. Jacobs on Solving Life's Puzzles
Jun 27 2022

The-Puzzler-199x300.jpg How much of life can be solved by algorithms, and how much just can't be solved? Listen as A.J. Jacobs, author of The Puzzler, talks with EconTalk host Russ Roberts about the lessons he learned from solving every kind of puzzle imaginable, including the biggest stumper of all: what it really means to be a human being.

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A.J. Jacobs on Thanks a Thousand
Journalist and author A. J. Jacobs talks about his book, Thanks a Thousand, with EconTalk host Russ Roberts. Jacobs thanked a thousand different people who contributed to his morning cup of coffee. In this conversation, Jacobs talks about the power...
Explore audio transcript, further reading that will help you delve deeper into this week’s episode, and vigorous conversations in the form of our comments section below.


Matt Carr
Jun 27 2022 at 11:20pm

I just got through the part about anger, and I think refining your position would make it more accurate. I agree that acting in anger is almost universally a mistake, but feeling anger is both natural and sometimes helpful.

This is in focus for me because I almost quit working with a client this morning who provides more than half my income. I received an email about a situation in which an agreement with me was breached and other people were put in to do work in my place. I almost emailed my boss telling them what I thought of the situation and quitting. Thankfully, I instead went to talk to someone who advised me to at least cool off.

I didn’t do anything, but while I was enraged it did clarify a few things for me while I thought about my path forward. Being invested in the outcome of that client is a mistake, expecting decency and competence from the people I interact with on that job is only going to lead to disappointment. I’ll make a reasonable effort to my part and call it a day. Second, I need to study more to make absolutely sure I get into graduate school next year.

After being unable to focus a couple hours later because of how angry I was, I went for a run, set a personal record, and went about my day feeling better. I’m now glad my boss sent that email and that it pissed me off.

Shalom Freedman
Jun 28 2022 at 4:44am

This conversation is rich in valuable insights, and also highly enjoyable.  A.J. Jacobs has a certain lightness of being that complements well Russ Roberts highly affable nature. They talk about Puzzles, crosswords, jigsaws, chess, and relate it to larger issues, including the meaning of life. Jacobs answer at the end of the conversation that the search for the meaning of life is an answer to the meaning of life, fits well the exaltation of Curiosity as primary virtue.

As an occasional crossword-puzzle solver working at a far lower level of competence than those in conversation here, I was surprised at how they could find serious life lessons in what I always regarded as  light amusement and guiltily done waste of time.

Ben Meek
Jul 5 2022 at 10:59am

I enjoyed the brief discussion of ways to artificially increase the difficulty of a given puzzle (e.g. working only the acrosses without the downs). Any time I’m confronted with a too-easy puzzle (Mon-Wed crosswords), the obvious difficulty-enhancer is to time yourself. Since discovering that trick, my enjoyment of very easy puzzles has gone way up.

In interactions with my kids, I often encourage them to locate the “margin of interest” where they will become engaged with a task. Across four kids, there is a twelve year gap in ages from oldest to youngest, so we frequently find ourselves at the park doing something interesting to the youngest and boring to the oldest. So the challenge becomes “how to make this playground equipment interesting to the oldest?” Frequently this takes the form of some physical challenge, like traversing the playground without touching the platform or introducing a timer.

As we often say to the kids, “if you’re bored, you’re boring.”

Jul 5 2022 at 9:31pm

ON ANGER: I think there is a spectrum between letting visceral responses completely take over vs. channeling anger consciously into a physical tool. In many situations, BESIDES just physical danger, I think anger is useful and helpful, albeit related to physicality. Think of the Tennis players who slam their racket on the ground; angry at themselves for missing a shot, but then use that visceral energy to come back in the next set. The competitive video gamer who breaks their controller, only to come in clutch in the next round by channeling that anger into a heightened performance. The sport of boxing is replete with analogous examples. To discount such utility outright demonstrates a misunderstanding of humanity’s innate psychological control over these baser urges. I also think there is room for a sort of “Righteous Anger”; when one experiences or witnesses an injustice so severe, the only avenue available is to take justice into one’s own hands (I am thinking specifically if someone were to harm or kill someone I care about, I would not rest until I found that person and made them pay).

MY TAKE: As a kid, I grew up doing newspaper puzzles with my grandpa. He got me a subscription to Highlights (kids magazine) which was filled with fun puzzles like “spot the difference” (I would have shot someone if I’d been sent the identical spot the difference mentioned in this episode lol) . He would buy these ‘Chinese Puzzles’ (apologies if that offends anyone…), things like twisted together nails you had to turn just the right way to take apart. Or a ring intertwined in some rope on a pedestal you had to remove. In High School, I remember feeling great if I could get most of Wednesday’s NYT Crossword. Got into chess around then, subsequently got out of chess after the domination of computers over humans. I instead began mastering Go (Asian game with black and white stones), assuming it would be a considerable time before computers could dominate humans in a game with such exponential complexity compared to chess. That assumption was proven wrong a few years later, lol. Since then I still play Go occasionally but most of my puzzling occurs through video games.

I know many in Russ’ generation discount video games as a complete waste of time, but the amount of puzzle solving that goes on in a modern video game is equal to if not greater than the backpage of most newspapers. One of my favorite puzzle video games of all time, SpaceChem (a sort of visual programming language simulator which I have embarrassingly spent over 500 hours playing…), publishes the analytics of player performances throughout the game (and also ranks player solutions by efficiency, simplicity, and temporal excellence). Doing so provides a heightened level of feedback to puzzlers, something impossible to ascertain for your average crossworder. Amazingly, the curve of player completion of the game slopes down at almost exactly 45 degrees, meaning the game designers’ difficulty increase per level is almost perfect from a puzzle design perspective.

I can’t remember if any of the Angela Duckworth episodes touch on this, but the importance of *incrementally* increasing difficulty in mastering any particular discipline CANNOT be overstated. It’s true with any skill, and can translates to economically viable skills as well. The KEY is prioritizing economically viable skills and keeping puzzles and brainteasers as the hobby. That being said, maybe doing puzzles is just a big waste of time, but at the end of the day it’s MY time, my life has been enriched by their futility, and the small measure of accomplishment I’ve experienced ALSO cannot be overstated. I hope this episode makes the top 10 of 2022, it’s definitely my favorite so far this year.

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TimePodcast Episode Highlights

Intro. [Recording date: May 16, 2022.]

Russ Roberts: Today is May 16th, 2022, and my guest is author, A.J. Jacobs. He was last here in November of 2018, talking about his book, Thanks a Thousand. His latest book is The Puzzler: One Man's Quest to Solve the Most Baffling Puzzles Ever, from Crosswords to Jigsaws to the Meaning of Life.

A.J., welcome to EconTalk.

A.J. Jacobs: I am delighted to be back.


Russ Roberts: Now, early in the book, you talk about crossword puzzles, which is a puzzle a lot of us have had some access to. Do you do the New York Times puzzle every day?

A.J. Jacobs: I do. I do. I'm a fan.

Russ Roberts: Even Monday?

A.J. Jacobs: Okay. You got me.

Russ Roberts: Liar, liar, pants on fire.

A.J. Jacobs: I don't do Monday and Tuesday, Wednesday. I didn't want to sound pretentious by saying it's too easy, but I do. So, you got me. I do Thursday, Friday, and Saturday.

Russ Roberts: I've always liked you, A.J., and now we have something even more powerful in common. When I had the New York Times Crossword Puzzle App on my phone, I also only did Thursday, Friday, and Saturday.

Now, I know someone who on Sunday--and maybe on Saturday--does all the acrosses before doing any of the downs.

A.J. Jacobs: I like that.

Russ Roberts: And, I think maybe just sticks with that. I don't know if he views it as cheating to use the downs to help him. Do you ever do that?

A.J. Jacobs: I've never done it, but I think that's a great strategy. It's like doing a jigsaw puzzle without looking at the box cover.

Russ Roberts: Yeah, a little bit. Or using Google on a crossword puzzle--which I think you claim you do not do. Is that true?

A.J. Jacobs: That claim is true, unlike my previous one. Yeah, I don't consider it cheating. I am very open-minded, but I myself do not use it. In fact, I'm very strict with myself. I do it on my computer, but if it's a clue such as 'the key above caps lock on your keyboard' and it's a three letter word, I will not look down. I will force myself to keep looking at the screen. So, I'm very proud of myself for that.

Russ Roberts: I think you're a weirdo. But I have my own--I'm going to make up a confession here and I'm a little ashamed of it, but this is where I ask you, A.J., as well as anyone listening--don't tell anybody about this. It's a little personal. And, I can't understand that actually when I confront it analytically. When I used to do the New York Times crossword puzzle on my phone and I would get a clue about something obscure, something I felt I should not be expected to know, I would look it up on Google.

A.J. Jacobs: Interesting.

Russ Roberts: But, I wouldn't ask for a hint, because you can, quote, "cheat" and get help on the app. But I didn't want the app to know. This is the embarrassing thing. I can't explain this, but I didn't want the app to know that I had cheated. So, I would just go to Google and do it; and then it wouldn't know.

A.J. Jacobs: Of course, it's hilarious.

Russ Roberts: It's a little weird. I can't fully explain it.

A.J. Jacobs: Yeah, you're the weirdo.

And, by the way, if I could just back up for one second and thank you. You know I'm big into gratitude. I want to thank you that you are partially responsible for this book, because as you know, we talk occasionally outside of the show about our projects. And, I was working on a project about the epistemic crisis, about truth, and the idea of fact-checking my life. How do I know what I know? How do I know that the world is round? How do I know to trust the New York Times more than Newsmax? How do I know my wife loves me? She says she loves me. How do I know?

And, I still think it's a fascinating topic, but you correctly said--I was three months into it and I was miserable. And, you said, 'A.J., I'm worried about you. This is possibly biting off more than you can chew.' And, you were right. I was miserable. So, I pivoted and I said, 'What do I love? What's my passion?' And, it was puzzles. And, I thought, 'Why not spend two and a half years exploring what I love instead of being miserable?' And, I leave you to deal with the epistemic crisis in your book, which is wonderful. So, thank you for taking care of that.

Russ Roberts: Well, my favorite line in your book, of course, is not your reference to me--which you kindly have one in there--but it's the line where you say, referring to some social science research about, say, the value of puzzles on reducing illness or brain fatigue or helping you live longer or sleep better. You say, 'Well, it's a social science research that hasn't been replicated and it has to be taken with a grain of salt.' And, I thought, 'This is a man who has listened to EconTalk at least once.' So, that was a comfort to me.

A.J. Jacobs: Absolutely.


Russ Roberts: Now, while we're on crossword puzzles for a minute, there's a chapter of the book on British crossword puzzles. And, British crossword puzzles are what are called 'cryptics'--they have this absurd word play. And there are American versions of them. You can find them on the web. They've been in a few magazines. And I always find them--often--just past my sweet spot. In other words, they're a little too hard. They're more frustrating than exhilarating when you get to the punchline.

And, I've always thought, 'If I just put a little more time into it, I bet I could get good at them, and then I'd really love them,' but I've never been able to get to that level. And, I'm curious where you are on cryptics and I want any speculation you might have on why it's a British thing. You make the observation in the book, but you don't spend much time talking--maybe a sentence--about why American puzzles are more straightforward.

A.J. Jacobs: Right. Well, I will say in defense of America that we have made our crosswords much more about word play and homophones and trickiness over the last 10 years. So, we are sort of approaching the Brits in that.

I am--and I don't mean to sound jingoistic--I like American cryptics better than British cryptics. British cryptics are over my head. They have incredibly obscure references that just don't come to my mind. But I am a fan of American cryptics because I love the wordplay. And, I analyzed, 'Why do I like wordplay?' Because, you could say it's a little silly and puns are sometimes seen as the lowest form of humor, but I have a little section in my book in defense of word play, in defense of puns.

And, I think that you would agree with me--maybe not--that what wordplay does is it helps train my mind to look at all of the different meanings of words. So, if I see the word 'trunk' in a crossword puzzle, I say to myself, 'Well, it could be the luggage trunk. It could be the trunk of an elephant. It could be the trunk of a torso.' And, what this does is it really sensitizes me to how slippery the English language is and how words can be used. And, I think I read the news differently because of this. I'm much more aware of a word like 'freedom' or a word like 'virtue.' All these big words can be sliced and diced in a hundred different ways.

Russ Roberts: Oh, we like to say on this show that they're what are someone called 'suitcase words'--which is ironic, given that you mentioned trunks. There are words you can stuff lots of different things in and what one person stuffs in there isn't the same as another person.

And, it really gets at this issue, which I think is I'm increasingly intrigued by, partly as a new immigrant to a country where I don't speak the language, but just in general, sensitizing myself to the fact that almost all language is a form of translation.

And, 'trunk' is just the most obvious example, but when you start talking about freedom or virtue, you start to realize, 'Hmm, it's not just trunk and it's not just ice or whatever is your word that you realize has so many meanings.' And, then you come to a foreign language and you think, 'Come on. It's so unfair. They have two words that sound almost exactly alike and they mean nothing the same.' I'm thinking, 'Not like English. Oh, just like English. Okay.'


Russ Roberts: Let's talk about jigsaw puzzles. Now, you--again, very similar attitude: I've always looked down on jigsaw puzzles. You claim you've got a new respect for them. So, explain.

A.J. Jacobs: Yes, that is not a lie. I am a convert. Like you, I was a bit of a jigsaw snob. I saw them as a little broad and not too challenging. And, I have made a 180. I am a convert and I'll give you the reasons why. First, I believe they do provide a different pleasure, which is a meditative pleasure. So, you go on these six-day silent retreats. I've never done that. So, jigsaws sort of are a replacement for me. They're very meditative. You get into the zone. You get into the flow state.

I also think that that's one advantage, but there are also jigsaws that are incredibly challenging--that don't put you in the meditative state--that are super tricky. I did some jigsaw puzzles that made me laugh out loud, which is bizarre. You're putting together a bunch of pieces and you chuckle. But these were wood-cut jigsaw puzzles, these artisanal puzzles. It's a company called Stave, and they're super-expensive. Bill Gates is a big fan because he can afford them. And, they lent them to me because I'm writing the book; and they're just so unexpected. What looks like an edge piece is not an edge piece. There are pieces that don't belong in the puzzle at all. There are holes in the middle of the puzzle. So, I love that challenge.

And I also--I have a little section on life lessons that I learned from jigsaws. And, one that I think you'll agree with is: when I interviewed one of these experts on jigsaws and she said, 'When you are faced with that blue sky, that expansive blue sky, and you want to throw up your hands, just remember that most puzzles, the sky is not all the same color. You've got different shades of blue.' And, so, I took that as sort of a metaphor for life: that nothing is black and white. Nothing is all blue. You've got different shades.

So, the idea of nuance and shades of gray: everything is gray. Very few things are black and white.

Russ Roberts: And, one of the fun things about your books is that actually, I think you would've written this book, even if it wouldn't sell and didn't turn out well, just so you get a lot of free puzzles and be able to talk to puzzle makers, which is a really good gig if you can get it.

But, at one point, you entered--either out of genuine curiosity or for the writing of the book--a jigsaw competition, which most of us would be surprised to learn exist, where you were one of the four representatives of the United States in a world jigsaw competition. Which isn't quite the full story, is it?

A.J. Jacobs: Right. Well, I love this, because part of the book are adventures I go on around the world to meet some of these great eccentric puzzlers. Part is the history and psychology of puzzles and part is puzzles itself. I have hundreds of puzzles, old and original. But yes, I was researching puzzles and I did a Google search, and it came out that there was a World Jigsaw Puzzle Championship. And, like you, I did not know it existed, but it was fascinating because there were 40 countries signed up--New Zealand, Mexico, you name it. No USA. So I thought, on a whim, I would fill out the application and reference it--I would be weeded out, of course.

But the next day, I get an email, 'Welcome. Congratulations. You are Team USA in the World Jigsaw Puzzle Championship.' So, I am thrilled and terrified because I'm not a great jigsaw puzzler; but I recruited my family, my wife and two of my sons, teenage sons. And, we went to Spain and we competed. And we were an embarrassment. I apologize to all Americans on behalf of me, because we came in second to last. Not last--so, that's something. But I will say it was a joy to see people at the height of their skill. Even if you think this skill is kind of silly, to see the LeBron James of any pastime and any endeavor, to see someone at the height of their talent, I think, is a wonderful and fascinating endeavor.

Russ Roberts: And, one of the few moments of economics that may slip into this conversation--there may be more--but one of them is that the winning team, if I remember correctly, was the Russian team. They used the division of labor. They did not just have four people around a table looking for a match. What did they do? Not like the Jacobs team unfortunately, representing the United States of America, but okay, whatever. What did the Russian team do?

A.J. Jacobs: Right. They divided the labor. So, they had one person who was sorting colors, another person who was sorting edges; but they had one person who was an expert in the monochromatic expanses--the sky, etc. And, what's interesting is, I think, like with every endeavor, there are different strategies that I didn't know about. So, when you're faced with something, you can sort by color or you can sort by shape. So, a lot of these people at the height of the jigsaw ladder, they will create a line of here are pieces with two outies and two innies; here are pieces with three outies and one innie. And that makes it go faster. So, there's always strategies that you don't expect. 'Don't always go with the default strategy' was a takeaway.

Russ Roberts: Yeah, I'm going to try something a little bit crazy. You did not discuss this in the book, but you touch on it in various places in different ways. So, this was a competition and you might think, 'Well, competing at what? Almost everyone finished.' They gave you four puzzles. They were all the same. It's a little bit like contract bridge, and that should level the playing fields in theory. Of course, not everyone realized that you should specialize, but okay, that's the way it turned out. And, you finished 85th out 86, but that happens.

But you could argue that there's something kind of--you just gave me this beautiful meditative, Zen-ny thing about puzzles and jigsaws. And, here, all of a sudden, you're in this world where it's, 'Time, time, time, come on, come on, get it quick, hurry, hurry, hurry.' And, you've taken this contemplative art and you turned into a little bit of a sport. In fact, you could argue it should have been a contact sport: You could come over and distract the other teams. You could devote one of your team members to confusing them.

But, anyway, my point is that you could have an idea of starting a jigsaw puzzle from the center. Most people start on the edges because it's little bit easier, but say you just want to start from the center and let it blossom out toward the edges and fill out that image. As you said earlier, you might not even know what it's going to turn into. And, yet all of a sudden, you've taken this beautiful, contemplative thing and turned it into this frantic, stress-filled thing of timing. What do you think about that?

A.J. Jacobs: Well, I think--puzzles contain multitudes, so there are different ways to enjoy puzzles as there are ways to enjoy life.

So, there is, as you say, the meditative joy; but I do think there is something fun to competition. Capitalism is based on competition--to throw in a little economics. So, I think you can enjoy both. They're not mutually exclusive.

I went to the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament a couple of months ago. And, again, I did not do spectacularly. I did okay, but my excuse was: I'm a savorer. I like to savor the crossword puzzles and I prefer that to the speed. I mean, just watching some of these people fill in the crossword puzzle like they're filling in a form with their name and birthdate is just astounding. It's amazing. And, speed and efficiency are interesting to me, but also savor. So, I think they can coexist.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. If you've ever seen a serious world class speed chess player, it's extraordinary. I mean, it's a different thing. It's just a totally different experience.


Russ Roberts: Let's talk about Rubik's Cube, which has a lot of interesting things in it. I have never gotten the idea of it. I've never seen the appeal of it, but I'm clearly in a minority. I think you said there are 450 million have been sold in all kinds of different variations. And, the world record is under four seconds. That blows my mind. Is that really possible? Have you seen that? That sounds like a lie, like a sham, a hoax. Come on. Four seconds?

A.J. Jacobs: It is crazy. I think it is four and a half seconds. So, not under, but yeah, it's crazy. It was a teenager, because I think their minds and fingers work faster, but it is astounding. And, it is on YouTube. You can watch them. People doing it blindfolded, underwater, you name it.

It is a fascinating phenomenon. It was, again, not my favorite type of puzzle, but I did learn to respect it. And, I start that chapter by talking about something that I know that you're interested in--the fact that a Rubik's Cube has 43 quintillion different combinations and only one correct arrangement. So, that is just an astounding number. And, I think it's important for a couple of reasons.

One, I love being reminded of huge numbers, because our brains are not evolved to grapple with huge numbers, more than the grains of sand and the universe, I mean, on Earth, this Rubik's Cube. But, we need to start grappling with big numbers because they have effect on our lives. The pandemic--I think we didn't understand how exponentially fast it could grow.

So, I love the idea of 43 quintillion combinations. And, I love the idea that some kid can take that, and in three and a half seconds, solve it. The smallest needle in the biggest haystack, they're able to find that solution. So, it's inspiring. It's optimistic. It makes me think there are sometimes solutions--as we know not always, but there are sometimes.

Russ Roberts: But if I--let's say I bought a Rubik's Cube, a brand new one, and I spent a week just fiddling with it, not attempting to solve it. And, I gave it to that kid. Could he solve it in four seconds from whatever position it starts in?

A.J. Jacobs: Oh, yeah. I mean, these speed cubing competitions, which are hilarious. I mean, they are like a sport, so they have their equipment and they have their--

Russ Roberts: Grease--

A.J. Jacobs: their special grease that helps--and magnets inside the cube. Yeah, they're totally randomized when they're given to these kids and then they solve it. So, yeah, he could absolutely do it.

Russ Roberts: And, it was invented by, strangely enough--

A.J. Jacobs: A Hungarian architecture professor named Rubik who it took one month to solve. And, it's interesting because you talk to these OGs[?], the original Rubik's Cube solvers, and they are actually skeptical of the new kids.

And this gets into something you're interested in: algorithms. Because originally, you had to figure it out yourself. You were like an explorer, a scientist. You had to come up with a solution. Now, you can go on YouTube and there are these hundreds of algorithms. So, it's more about memorizing and figuring out the right algorithm; but it's all presented there like a recipe. So, that has its pros and cons, as you know.

Russ Roberts: Well, the first person who did it--let's take the first 1,000 people who bought one; and there were no YouTube. They had no idea what they're doing. They fiddled around and they got it to come out after some enormous amount of time, like a month or more probably. Could they do it a second time? Did they learn anything? Did they have to take notes? How does that work?

A.J. Jacobs: Yeah. Well, I talked to one of the original--the guy who holds the world record--the first world record, which was something like 45 seconds, which is nothing compared to now. That is years. But, he was very meticulous in writing down the algorithms and the formula. So, he was able to replicate it.

And, what's interesting is, and I think, I want to talk to you about this, because he sees the whole world as a Rubik's Cube. Everything has an algorithm. Whether it's love or work, everything can be broken down into little parts. And, he actually did apply that to his current job, which is pizza maker.

He owns a chain of pizzerias in Atlanta, and he spent years perfecting the algorithm for the perfect pizza. Which is hilarious. He said it was the result of--he had to buy 200 types of oregano and try them all. He blew up several ovens doing it. So, I applaud the experimentation; and in a sense, I love that.

But, as you point out in your upcoming delightful book: How much of life can be solved by algorithms and how much cannot? It is something I think about a lot. So, how much is the Rubik's Cube a good metaphor for life?


Russ Roberts: Yeah, I mentioned it in passing in my new book, because I got that from you. I salute the pizza maker, although I would suggest that he's probably a little weak on what we would call an economics interaction effect. So, trying 200 types of oregano, seriatum--in a row--and finding which one's the best with the other stuff held constant give you one answer. Versus--there's a lot of combinations. The universe probably doesn't have enough life left in it or ever to try all the combinations of pizza, cheese, oven, etc. To me, what's interesting about the Rubik's Cube, which is that 43 quintillion.

Now, I'm going to pick on a little bit, A.J., and to bring out an econ point I think you're going to get a kick out of. It's 43 quintillion possibilities, which is 43 with, I think, 18 zeros. Is that right?

A.J. Jacobs: I think that's right.

Russ Roberts: I think it's 18. See, in my book, not my book we're talking about, I meant the metaphorical book. In my view of the world, the number of stars in the universe is approximately equal to the number of grains of sand and that's 10 to the 22nd.

Now, what's funny about that--this is such an absurd and delightful example--is this is not an answerable question, either of them. The Rubik's Cube is an answerable question, I think.

I think there's an actual number. But we have no idea precisely how many grains of sand there are on the earth and we have no idea precisely how many stars there are in the heavens. It's an estimate, right? It's got some issues, because what's a grain of sand and what do you call a beach? And, does that include my backyard? It's a little sandy. But, usually, they make some crude, back-of-the-envelope calculation, and they get to 10 to the 22nd. So, it turns out, pretty much, it isn't even close. But that's okay. I take it as hyperbole. I'm going to cut you slack on this one.

A.J. Jacobs: Well, thank you. Yeah. I actually did have a fact checker on the book. Yes. So, I may in the book not have used the grains of sand.

Russ Roberts: I don't think you did. I think you got sloppy here on the program.

A.J. Jacobs: Okay. There you go. See, thank you for being my fact checker on the program. I know I used something to try to convey.

Yeah. I do enjoy the challenge of trying to convey huge numbers. What metaphors can we use? So, I used the wrong one.

Russ Roberts: No, you didn't[?]. It's all definitely in the ballpark.

I want to ask one more question about jigsaws before we leave. As we know, a bad jigsaw-puzzle person or a person on the verge of a breakdown can push two pieces together that don't really go together. And, you point out in the book, the way to find out if you've done that and if you've forced something that doesn't really go is to hold it up to the light and see if there's any gap--any glint--from the light passing through the imperfect meshing of the pieces. But, how do they cut those pieces? How do you cut a puzzle?

I could understand, 'Hey, cut a puzzle where every piece is the same shape.' And, that would be a really unpleasant--or some would find it exhilarating, but, that's a very--most puzzles aren't like that. You say: there's two innies, three outies. But even the two innies, three outies in a jigsaw puzzle, they're all different. How do they do that?

A.J. Jacobs: Well, yeah, it is fascinating. They have people who design the puzzles, but they make sure that no piece is the same as any other piece. And, then they create sort of a massive cookie cutter and they slam it down on the cardboard. But they test them. I mean, that is someone's job. Not just one person, but many people at these big companies, their whole job is to test. So, they play with jigsaws at all day long, trying to find if there are two pieces that are exactly alike. And, if there is, then they redesign it. Yeah, it is a fascinating industry.

Russ Roberts: So, let's say I'm a jigsaw puzzle company. And, I'm going to have a scene at the Rockies, and I'm going to have a scene of great monuments in cities, and I'm going to have one that's an ocean/lake shore scene, etc. Do they use the same thing dropping down on the image each time? So, in other words--

A.J. Jacobs: Yes.

Russ Roberts: it's true that within a puzzle, all the pieces are different, but are all their puzzles roughly then the same shapes, just different pictures on them?

A.J. Jacobs: Not all. They have several different stencils that they use, but it is funny because sometimes they'll use the same stencil for totally different pictures, which has created a little cottage industry of artists who combine the puzzles. And, I have in my book a picture of a--he calls his work of art 'The Iron Horse,' because the back half is a horse and the front half is a train--because they use the exact same stencil. Which is: part of what I love about puzzles is the creativity that it inspires in puzzle lovers.

And you see this in Wordle. Like, that's one of my favorite things about Wordle, the thousands of Wordle spinoffs--

Russ Roberts: Isn't[?] it incredible--

A.J. Jacobs: Yeah, the Yiddish;--the Lewdle where they have naughty words--

Russ Roberts: Quordle--

A.J. Jacobs: Quordle, right.

Russ Roberts: Four word at the time. I'm a Quordle guy.

A.J. Jacobs: Are you?

Russ Roberts: Yeah, I do Quordle almost every day. It's a little weird. It's a compulsion.


Russ Roberts: You know, you talk about this in the book a lot. A lot of our puzzle doing is compulsive. It's a need to get to an answer. And, along the way, a little bit of suffering redeemed by a little bit of comfort at the end, right?

A.J. Jacobs: Exactly. And, actually, one of my favorite descriptions of puzzles was by this Japanese puzzle maker, Maki Kaji, and he's called the Godfather of Sudoku because he popularized Sudoku. And, he describes it in three symbols. So, it's the question mark, the forward arrow, and the exclamation point. So, that represents all a puzzle--that is the bafflement; the forward arrow is the struggle, trying different strategies; and then the exclamation point is the solution--yes, the aha! moment.

Now, what I love about him, which varies in, is that he says, 'The key to puzzles and the key to life is to embrace that forward arrow. Because, you may never get to the exclamation point. You've got to enjoy the struggle. You've got to love the testing out, the failure, and the exploration.'

So, that was a nice takeaway, I think, from my year--is that, it can't all be about the exclamation point, because you may never get there.


Russ Roberts: Yeah. I'm going to--let's get a little philosophical for a minute, and you talk about this quite a bit in the book--I think for a lot of people, puzzle making is a haven. It's a solace. It's a place where there's that exclamation point waiting and you don't have to deal with the--most of life, it's: question mark, forward arrow, question mark. Or: question mark, forward arrow, question mark, exclamation point, at-sign. Like, come on!

And, I find this fascinating, because you and I have talked about this off the air. I'm very interested in our demand--our need--for certainty. And puzzles fulfill that in a very powerful way. And I think--I don't know if you want to share any of your personal experiences, talking to all these people--many of whom are eccentric.

And it comes through kind of dramatically in the book. They're not, quote, "just like most people." And, I think it draws a certain kind of person. And we all have--most of us have--some of this in us in various amounts: a need for that certainty and the answer.

And, you have a couple of examples where--there's very rarely but occasionally, there's a typo or there's a brain teaser that deliberately didn't have an answer, like kind of like a Hegel[?] lecture when he was a professor I'm told.

Those kind of things--that's not just like, 'Oh, that's fun. It didn't have an answer,' or 'It didn't quite all fit together.' Like, that drives people insane. Literally, sometimes. It's a form of cruelty. So, talk about that.

A.J. Jacobs: Yeah. Well, one of my favorite puzzles was in the Baltimore Sun last year and it was a 'Spot the Difference Puzzle,' where you have two images and you have to spot the difference. And, there was a boy brushing his teeth. 'Spot 10 differences between these two pictures.' The next day, they had to print a correction--deeply apologetic--'We are so sorry. These two images were actually identical.' And, it just broke my heart, the hundreds of hours of people looking for these differences.

And, again, you can say that that had its upside because you have to get used to frustration. That's a big life lesson. But yes: I think the need for closure and certainty is dangerous. As you know. That was sort of the thesis of my book that I abandoned and that I'm hoping your book answers.

But, I think that if you really get into puzzles, then you do learn that it's okay not to solve everything.

And, the book ends with a puzzle that cannot be solved, that I co-created--a mechanical puzzle that is so complicated, it will take until the end of the universe to solve.

And, I love that as a metaphor, because it is about embracing the journey as opposed to--but I do think: yes, the danger of puzzles is that you will think that everything has a black-and-white answer in life. Which it doesn't.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. You go back and forth on this in the book ; obviously you can make a case for either side. But for me, it's just this haven idea. It's a form of solace. It's: Here's a place where I know things are going to turn out okay. And, I find it very difficult to walk away from an unfinished puzzle in that way.

Like, you have the Spelling Bee. Spelling Bee is, as you point out, somewhat cruel, New York Times puzzle of seven letters arranged in the shape of a beehive with one letter in the middle and you have to come up with as many words as possible using those seven letters.

And, same thing happened to me that happened to you. At one point--if you're doing it on your phone, as opposed to the Sunday version in print--if you're doing it on your phone, at some point, you find enough words that you get a Genius rating. And, I had a friend who said, 'Yeah, it's so hard to get all the words.' And, second time I found out about that there was this app for it, I thought, 'Oh, boy.' I felt sorry for my friend. It's not hard at all. I got to Genius every day for a week. And, then I learned that Genius is not all the words. And, in fact, I never got all the words. And that was really hard for me. I find that very difficult, because knowing that there are words that I could not find, I have a little trouble with that forward arrow, I have to confess, A.J. It's not easy for me.

A.J. Jacobs: Right. Well, yes. In the Spelling Bee, if you get all of the possible words, then you get Queen Bee; and I had to really resist the temptation to get Queen Bee. I think it's a good exercise in restraint.

But it is funny because, throughout puzzles' history, there's been this tension between, 'Is this an amazing tool for sharpening people's minds and teaching them how to think? Or is it a vice?' I mean, the hilarious part is: crosswords were invented in 1913 in the New York World, the yellow journalism paper, and they became a phenomenon. People were obsessed with them. But, one paper refused to print them: the New York Times. They thought they were a waste of time. They called them a pestilence, I believe.

If you look at the coverage in the 1920s and 1930s of the New York Times covering crossword puzzles, you'll think it was like the crack cocaine of the day. They talk about people being murdered over crossword puzzles, divorces, eyesight--this is all true--it hurts our eyesight; and prison riots literally. So, it is hilarious. In 1942, during World War II, they decided to do it because people needed a distraction. And, then of course, they became the paragon of puzzles. And, now, when you think of puzzles, the New York Times is the top shelf.

But, I love this tension and it happens with every puzzle. And, of course, it happens with everything. When the novel first came out, 'Oh, my God, we're going to--.' When writing first came out, 'Oh, we're going to have no memory.' So, it is a fascinating tension.


Russ Roberts: And, we recently had Ian Leslie on the program talking about his book, Curious. And, I realized, A.J., when I was reading your book--I've read, I think, two of your other books--your trademark is curiosity. You take a topic that you know a little bit about and then you learn a lot about it. And, it's a beautiful thing. It makes for a really great read. Obviously, you're an incredibly funny person. You have an extraordinarily excellent sense of humor.

But what's interesting--and we've sort of touched on this in our conversation so far--is that Ian Leslie makes a distinction--and you do too as well in your book--between a puzzle and a mystery. And, we've been talking about puzzles that are hard to solve, but a mystery is a little different.

A mystery is a puzzle that often can't be solved. And, I think maybe people differ in their character, their personality, and how they approach these different challenges. I think for some people, they like mysteries. They're okay with the fact that it can't be solved; and puzzles are weird. They're too easy or they're too pat. And, for other people, I think puzzles are a source of comfort and mysteries are creepy and macabre and sinister and awful and they want to live in a different kind of world. Do you think that's an interesting distinction between people?

A.J. Jacobs: Yeah, I like that a lot. And, I think--my hope is that I'm fluid between mystery and puzzles: that, I think it's nice to embrace both, to love, to look for solutions when there are solutions, because we need that. We need much more of a solution-oriented mindset when we are faced with social problems. But also, to acknowledge that there are problems that maybe don't have a solution and to embrace that and to live with that uncertainty. So, to have those two sides of our minds and embrace them.

By the way, curiosity, since you bring it up, I mean, that's part of why I love your show, is 'Conversations for the Curious.' And, I think my two favorite human emotions are gratitude and curiosity; and this book is a bit of an ode to the power of curiosity.

And, I talk about in my book, I heard a phrase from a child psychologist. In the middle of the pandemic, I went to a webinar by a child psychologist and he said, 'When dealing with the frustration of kids during the pandemic, don't get furious. Get curious.' So, when they throw a tantrum, don't be angry. Try to ask questions. Why are they throwing the tantrum? What can we do to change it in the future?' And, I loved that little phrase. It rhymes, not that makes it true, but it's catchy. And, I thought, 'Why just apply it to child psychology? I think you can apply it to a wide variety of puzzles in life.

And, when I am talking to someone from the other side of the political spectrum, I could see it in two different lenses. I could see it as a war of words and I'm going to try to beat them over the head with my facts; and that rarely results in anything productive. In fact, it's probably counterproductive. Or I could treat it as a puzzle. Why do they believe what they believe? Why do I believe what I believe? Is there any evidence that can change it? Maybe not. Maybe. Where do we go from here? How do we move forward? Is there any common ground that we can agree on?

So, I find that a sanity-saving strategy, because it's so easy to get furious, especially now with so many people with their entrenched positions. And, the only way that I've retained my sanity is to be able to treat the world as a puzzle and try to figure out solutions. And, sometimes it's a mystery and there are no solutions, but it's worth trying.

Russ Roberts: Well, the economist in me like to say: No solutions, only trade-offs. But, the point you're making, which I think is really beautiful, is that something that's different, whether it's someone who disagrees with you or something you see out in the world that seems to be a break from the patterns you've seen in the past, is an educational opportunity, not a chance to get angry.

And, I think that's hard for us. We live in a very tribal times, but I really love that: 'Don't get furious. Get curious.' Or, 'More curious, less furious,' is another way you say it. It reminds me of my favorite bumper sticker, 'Wag more, bark less.' It's roughly the same idea.

Russ Roberts: What was fun for me in reading that is that you have two Spelling Bees, these hive-like patterns of seven letters. One of them, I got pretty quickly, because this thing we didn't talk about: it's not just the number of words you can create out of the seven letters. It's also a word of at least seven letters that can be made and sometimes more than one that use all seven. And, you have two to print in there. One of them, yeah, I got it within 30 seconds. The other one, not sure I have it. We'll talk off the air later. I don't want to spoil it. I have a word, I'm very dissatisfied with it. It's like, 'Are you kidding me? Is that really their seven letter word?' I'm hoping they won't take that. But, if that's true, I don't have it yet. And that's an irksome thing. I don't get furious about it.

But, you talk about puzzles that are so maddening that they make you furious. My grandfather, who did not finish high school--I'm not sure he even went to high school. I think he dropped out in sixth grade. He liked to do the New York Times crossword puzzle, but he would curse at the puzzle. And, you have moments like that in your book, where out of frustration, because an obscure river in Latvia that is like A-A-S-A, the poor crossword puzzle constructor was stuck and then tried to find a clue that would fit it. And my grandfather would curse him out. He would've called them bad names. And, I think that that, too, was a source of satisfaction for him. But you're counseling a different approach.

A.J. Jacobs: Right. And, I definitely have gotten very angry, many times, during this two and a half years of puzzles. I've thrown these Rubik's Cube-like puzzles across the room. I've cursed, you know, rent my clothing. But, I do think that is counterproductive to solving any problems; and we are both skeptical of unreplicated social science research. So, I say this with caution, but I have read studies that you are worse at solving puzzle and problems when you are angry. It gives you tunnel vision.

A lot of the best thinking and solutions and ideas are when we are able to make leaps between wildly different topics and put them together. And, that's very hard, I think, when you're angry. And, I don't want to get into pop neuropsychology, but it does seem that you are most creative when you are not angry, when you are in a good mood, and you're able to make these cognitive leaps. So, yeah, that's why I try not to--it's hard--I try not to get angry.


Russ Roberts: Now, I've made the argument on the program--not everybody agrees with me--that anger is never a good emotion, unless you're in physical danger. If you're in physical danger, anger could save your life. It's not a bad thing. But, outside of that, I think it's a mistake. Passion, different thing. Passion is good: feeling strongly about certain things or caring deeply about certain things or being deeply curious about certain things. Anger--basically, to me, what anger means is I am cutting loose. I'm going to ignore my conscious mind and let my visceral responses take over. And, again, if your life is in danger, that could save your life. Other than that, I think it's a mistake. Where do you stand on that?

A.J. Jacobs: I am in your camp and I know that we are the minority. And, I'm sure anger, like everything, it's got its pros and cons. It can be extremely effective in social change. Like, a lot of the recent social movements have been anger-based and outrage-based and they have made change. And, so, that maybe that's good. I want to be epistemically humble and say that it does have--but I also worry that these changes, since they're based on outrage, just generate more outrage from the other side and that it's just going to continue to spiral. And, instead of creating a lasting solution, it's going to have some long term problems.

So, I find that curiosity is a better spark for me than anger. So, even when seeing something that's a huge anger-inducing, possibly anger-inducing problem, I do try to avoid it because I just think that in the long run, anger is not going to help the world.

Russ Roberts: Yeah, I agree with you, but I appreciate the epistemically humility. As you know--

A.J. Jacobs: We could be wrong.

Russ Roberts: We could be wrong about being wrong.


Russ Roberts: I want to talk about chess for a minute. So, one of the chapters in the book--I mean more than one--but you have a few chapters on chess problems, which are things like mate in three, or mate in one, or what's your best move in this situation. I play--as I've confessed on the program before, I play a reasonably large amount of chess on my phone at chess.com, which is an incredible app. I just think it's incredible achievement. By the way, I think I'm playing against other human beings. It's really entertaining. There's no way knowing if that's true.

And, I have this sneaky suspicion that chess.com, since they know all my openings--they have a full record of all my opening moves--they occasionally match me with people who are really easy for me to win against because they know that their opening moves are not very good. And, so, my score starts to rise and I get all excited; and then they go, 'Okay, we'll show him.' And, then they match me against who know all my moves.

And, I also wonder whether these social trends that this particular opening--people start to get the hang of it and it spreads. They realize they need to defeat it. Anyway, it's a very interesting thing. I don't know if anyone's looked at it with any systematic way.

But what fascinates me about it is an insight into myself. I don't think it's made me smarter. I don't think it makes me better at looking ahead or thinking more clearly. It has allowed me to apply more chess metaphors to things I've been doing. I really don't know if that's helpful, but it's interesting.

But, what I find utterly fascinating about it: if I'm having a tough day--I've got a lot going on and my head's a little swirling or I've got a lot of decisions to make or things haven't been going well and I think I need an escape--I'm going to play some chess. And, I start playing. And, after about five moves in, I give away my queen. And, so, I say, 'Well, that's horrible. I gave away my queen and it was such a bad move. I'll play again.'

And, what I find is that playing chess online, presumably against other human beings, instead of teaching me something about how to make decisions or look ahead, it teaches me about my current mental state. One of my sons who plays says, 'If you lose two in a row or three in a row, you should probably stop playing, because you're just not in the right place.' And, I find myself often--I know that. So, he's right.

But, I keep lying often; and I'll play--I'll lose seven, eight in a row, again with horrible moves where I've given away the game--unforced errors. And, then I'll get in a moment of focus and clarity and I can win seven or eight in a row. And, I think, 'I've mastered this. This is easy.' And, then back they go. But I think that's them jerking me around. I'm worried about that. But, anyway, what are your thoughts on chess?

Chess Set, carved bone, Mexico, c. 1964. Challenge: Can you spot the one piece with a mismatched circular collar pattern?

A.J. Jacobs: That is fascinating. It's interesting because there is a long history of people using chess as a metaphor for life. Ben Franklin wrote about the virtues of chess, and one of them is long-term thinking and not giving up when you are in a losing position. And, Garry Kasparov, who I interviewed for the book, who was delightful and hilarious and a little condescending--

Russ Roberts: About your chess set? He said you have a cheap chess set.

A.J. Jacobs: Yes, he was not impressed. Which is true. It was a little plastic thing I got off Amazon. And, he's like, 'You can't afford a better chess set?' I'm sorry, Garry. But, yeah, he wrote a whole book on chess as a way to think about life. It's a lot about what you talk about on the show, about pros and cons and everything. There's no solution. There's just benefits--

Russ Roberts: Trade-offs. Yeah.

A.J. Jacobs: Trade-offs. So, it is interesting that some people see it.

I love what you say about it being a window into your current mood, because I have noticed this in other types of puzzles.

One of the clearest proofs that multi-tasking does not work--the clearest proof for me--is that I will be doing a hard crossword puzzle with the TV in the background. And, I think, 'It's not really bothering me. I'm okay. I can do this.' And, I'll struggle and struggle. The moment the TV turns off, I'm able to whip through the crossword puzzle. It is fascinating. It's such a clear--and, few things are black and white, Russ, as you know--but this was a black and white proof that multitasking does dampen your cognitive ability.

Russ Roberts: Well, you might want to get a few more data points. It could just be a coincidence. But, I suspect you've seen that phenomenon in action.

With me, I'll be playing chess on my bus ride home, and my bus ride home when I'm taking the bus is about nine minutes. I play a six-minute chess game, three minutes for each player. So, I'm playing along and I'm kind of keeping an eye on when my stop is coming. I play horribly on the bus. I mean, if I get a win on the bus, it's an enormous triumph. Because, even though--you know, my opening is pretty standard each time. Because, I'm kind of, 'Oh, I know what I'm doing,'--you're right. When I'm distracted in the slightest amount, my game goes down badly. It's fascinating, actually.

A.J. Jacobs: Right, it really is. Yeah. I mean, focus is huge.

Russ Roberts: Can we talk about Garry Kasparov?

A.J. Jacobs: Oh, sure.

Russ Roberts: So, Garry Kasparov is famous for a lot of things. He has a lot to say about the world. He's been an important voice for human rights, and he is, you could argue, most famously the man who lost to IBM's [International Business Machine's] Deep Blue the first time, right? He's the first person, I think, first Grand Master to lose to a computer. He, like Tyler Cowen on this program, argues--in your book--that human beings plus machines are the way to go. They're not going to replace us, which is comforting. He's a very smart man. It should make you feel a little bit better.

But, what I'm really curious about is: How'd you get him to come to your house? If you don't want to talk about it, we'll edit this all out.

But, to get Garry Kasparov to come to your house, that's pretty cool. I mean, it's one thing to say, 'Hey, Garry. I'm writing a book. Could you come by? I mean, I'm a horrible chess player, but I'd really appreciate it.' Anything interesting there? And, how long did you spend with the man?

A.J. Jacobs: Well, yes, I will tell you that. Well, let me just say though, I loved when I was asking him about the dangers of AI [Artificial Intelligence] and he said, 'Listen, I am the first-knowledge worker whose job was threatened by AI,' which I thought was a great way to look at it. And, he says, 'I'm not worried. I think we can work together.' So, as you say, that made me feel a bit better.

Well, it was funny, because I emailed him very early on in the research of my book and I never heard back. So, then I emailed him one more time. I thought that wasn't rude and I didn't hear back again. And, then finally, months later, he said, 'Hi, this is Garry. I'm willing to come over.'

There were a couple of things, I don't know how interesting they are, that helped. One is we have a mutual friend, and I had met him at this friend's podcast, and a guy named James Altucher who is very into chess. And, also, it happened to be that CBS [Columbia Broadcasting System] Sunday Morning was following me around and they wanted to film my chess lesson with Garry. So, I may just be a writer, but if you throw in CBS Sunday Morning, then that helps.

Russ Roberts: That's so cool. I will encourage listeners. We'll try to put a link up to this. There is a clip of Bobby Fischer from the Dick Cavett Show. Dick Cavett was a talk show host in the 1970s, I think? I can't remember now. I used to love to watch him. And, that Bobby Fischer clip is amazing. By the way, he talks about this focus thing. Chess at the highest level is clearly a sport of unbelievable stamina, physically and mentally, to stay focused for that length of time. You can't just say, 'Oh, I'll just make a move that looks pretty good right now,' and then you lose. That clip or some of those clips of him on the Dick Cavett Show, it's amazing.

A.J. Jacobs: Well, I think I'm thinking of a different clip. Tell me about yours and then I'll tell you the one I had.

Russ Roberts: There's a bunch of fun things about it. One is Bobby Fischer trying to appear somewhat modest, which does not come easily to him. This is before, I think, he went into some very strange places. But, at one point--and you could assume that this was set up, but I don't think it was--Cavett asked him some question, and of course, Bobby Fischer recreates from memory, a famous position, either from his match--I think it was his match against, what's his name? Spassky. Boris Spassky. And, for those of you who were young, I think was 1972 or so. I was 18. It was very vivid for me. It was the only time in my life until The Queen's Gambit, the mini-series, where chess was, like, glamorous.

And, PBS [Public Broadcasting Service] broadcast this chess match as if it was the World Cup. And, of course, it was: the World Cup for chess. But most people don't care about chess. But, this ignited a lot of interest in chess. And, so, at some point, in the Cavett conversation, Cavett says, 'In that game, what did you do?' 'Oh, I think it looked like this,' and he lays all the pieces out, shows the move, shows why he did what he did. It's a really beautiful little lesson. That's my clip.

A.J. Jacobs: I love that. And, my clip, I was thinking he went on Johnny Carson's Tonight Show. Do you know what I'm talking about?

Russ Roberts: No, but go ahead. Sorry. [More to come, 58:23]

A.J. Jacobs: Well, there's another puzzle called the 15 Puzzle and you've probably seen it. It's the little square with tiles and there are 16 spaces, but 15 tiles. And, you have to rearrange it so that it goes sequentially 1 to 15. And, this was actually a huge--this was the Rubik's Cube of the 1880s. People went nuts. And, again, the New York Times wrote outraged editorials about it. But anyway, Bobby Fischer claimed that he was the best 15 solver in the world, the fastest. And, he went on Johnny Carson to prove it. So, that is another fascinating Bobby Fischer clip.

Russ Roberts: Complicated man.


Russ Roberts: But, anyway, chess is a cool thing; and you're not a chess aficionado. If you had to pick your favorite type of puzzle, if I said to you--I guess, two different questions. You're going to be on a deserted island. You can only have one kind of puzzle. What would you take? Because, that's what's going to sustain your interest for a long period of time. And, then the second question, I guess, would be: I'm only going to let you do one puzzle and that's it. Never going to let you do another puzzle after that. You could just choose one. What would you choose?

A.J. Jacobs: I am a word nerd at heart. And so, I loved exploring the logic puzzles and the mechanical puzzles, but yeah, I still think that my first love is my true love. So, crosswords. I might choose a cryptic on the desert island because it takes so much longer.

Russ Roberts: That's true.

A.J. Jacobs: I mean, the crosswords, I'm able to do in a reasonable amount of time, but the cryptics will just occupy me. Hopefully, I'll still have time to forage for food. But yeah, it would keep me busy.

Russ Roberts: Do you read Rex Parker?

A.J. Jacobs: You know what's funny, is sometimes--

Russ Roberts: I don't think you said in the book.

A.J. Jacobs: No. And, for those who don't know him, he writes a daily column about the New York Times crossword, and is very funny but very snarky. He has very high standards and he does not like a lot of them.

So, it's funny because a friend of mine told me his favorite thing to do is--he doesn't read Rex Parker regularly. But, when he loves a puzzle in the New York Times, he will go to Rex Parker to see why it's terrible, to see why Rex Parker hates it so much. So, he is kind of a hate solver. So, I did consider putting him in because he is funny, but I felt I had enough anti-crossword voices, especially with the New York Times early editorials.

Russ Roberts: Well, you call him snarky. I think he's a little bit cranky. So, I'll do a Sunday New York Times, which we now get in Israel. I think we get them through the Jerusalem Post. I can't remember where. I think that's where we got them. And, I have to mention your book opens--actually, let's digress for one second. Tell us how your book opens, 1 Down.

A.J. Jacobs: Well, my book opens, because a few years ago, about seven years ago now, I was the answer to a clue in the New York Times crossword puzzle. It was 'Author, A.J. ______,' and the answer was 'Jacobs'. It was 1 Down. And I was ecstatic, of course. As a word nerd, this was the highlight of my life. My wedding was pretty good, but this was the holy grail.

And, then my brother-in-law emailed me and he did congratulate me. So, I want to get that out there. But, he also pointed out that this was the Saturday New York Times crossword. And, as we mentioned, that is the hardest of the week, harder than Sunday. And, all of the answers are totally obscure. You're not supposed to know them.

So, his point was: 'This is not a compliment. This is proof in black and white that you're a nobody, that no one knows who you are.' And, so, I was crushed and went on a little emotional roller coaster.

And, the happy ending though is that I told that story on a podcast and it happened that one of the New York Times crossword makers was listening and decided to save me and put me in a Tuesday puzzle--which is not a Monday, but I will certainly take a Tuesday because I don't belong there and he was very clear that I did not really belong there. He had to make the crossing clues incredibly easy to compensate, because that's where Biden or Lady Gaga, that's where they are in, the Tuesday, not me. But, that was truly the highlight of my life.

So, I start the book with that anecdote.

Russ Roberts: So, I mentioned that partly because my wife and I just did a Sunday puzzle. I don't know when it actually came out. I don't pay any attention to whether the Jerusalem Post runs them sooner or later. But, it had a clue where the answer was 'Economist Emily _____'. And, that's Emily Oster, past EconTalk guest. So, now, at least two EconTalk guests--maybe more--have been featured in the New York Times. And I hate to tell you this, A.J.: it was a Sunday, which is a pretty good place to be. Maybe someday, with this book, you'll get to that level. But, when I do a Sunday that I find intellectually offensive because the theme is not up to what I consider the standards of the New York Times Sunday crossword puzzle, I go to Rex Parker and he always backs me up. God bless him.

A.J. Jacobs: Do you remember one in particular?

Russ Roberts: I'm not going to say it. I will not repeat it. But his view--the reason I say he is a little bit cranky is that I've noticed that in recent years, he's increasingly dissatisfied. Now, it could be they're just not as good as they used to be or Will Shortz--the editor you featured in the book, which is fabulous, because we all want to know something about Will Shortz, if you care about crossword puzzles or puzzles generally--he's gotten either sloppy or careless or whatever and maybe he's under pressure. Who knows? But, anyway, Rex Parker is not happy with the quality of the Sunday.

A.J. Jacobs: I have not noticed a decline in quality, but I do notice that the quality varies from day to day and that's because it is an art form.

Russ Roberts: Yeah, true.

A.J. Jacobs: I really gained respect for the crossword makers. And, some of the themes are so clever and some are sort of phoned[?] in. But, again, it is an art form; and that is why originally I was going to write puzzles for the book. I was going to write 20 original puzzles, but I realized I was so out of my depth that if I really wanted high-quality puzzles, I couldn't just do it from scratch. I had to collaborate with someone who had been doing it for years.; and I found this great puzzle maker, Greg Pliska. So, that was one of the big lessons, was just how much respect I gained for the art of making puzzles.

Russ Roberts: So, I want to close with another harsh judgment on my part. Before I do, I have to mention: when you mentioned chess as a metaphor for life, of course, Adam Smith in The Theory of Moral Sentiments describes the 'man of system' as one who would move the pieces of society around as if they were pieces on a chess board without a motion of their own. And, I think that Smithian metaphor is a very, very powerful way to think about public policy that goes against what is natural to us. I love that paragraph.

I just butchered it more or less, but you get the idea and we'll put a link up to it.

But, to continue to this brutal cross-examination which I'm putting you through, A.J., your book, it's entitled--let's get this right--The Puzzler: One Man's Quest to Solve the Most Baffling Puzzles Ever, from Crosswords to Jigsaws to the Meaning of Life. I think you're really thin on the meaning of life. I think a lot of people are going to pick up that book and go like, 'It shouldn't just get a chapter. It should get a large section. It's a big issue.' What do you got for me there?

A.J. Jacobs: Well, I do think I addressed the meaning of life. And, I think--and this may sound flippant--but I actually do believe it deeply, which is that: the meaning of life is partly in the search for the meaning of life. It's about curiosity. And, as you know, you're a fan of curiosity. I'm a fan of curiosity. But that to me--we may never find the meaning of life. And, in fact, I don't think we will. I think it's one of those impossible puzzles or mysteries as you refer to them. But, for me, the joy, the meaning, what gives my life meaning is trying and searching. So, again, that arrow in between the question mark and the exclamation point. Now I feel like it's a spoiler; no one's going to buy the book. But, that to me is the partly what the meaning of life is.

Russ Roberts: My guest today has been A.J. Jacobs. His book is The Puzzler. A.J., thanks for being part of EconTalk.

A.J. Jacobs: My pleasure. Thank you.