Derrick Niederman has a Phd in mathematics and was an economist for a few decades. He now makes puzzles for companies, as well as writing some of the New York Times crossword puzzles. Which all on its own is impressive but not nearly as interesting as this little gem of a book.
While I've read many different opinions about puzzles and have attempted to solve many more this book was different from other puzzle books Some of the puzzles I may have solved before or failed at (for instance the infamous Monty Hall problem) but the way Niederman explains opened up insights for me that I'd missed - although I'm not sure he explains the Monty Hall problem particularly well, but he does explain why so many people get it wrong. In essence this book is not just a puzzle solver's aide but rather is a look at the psychology, the mathematics and the history of puzzles. It therefore has some real life applications.
The way the book is set up is brilliant. Niederman breaks everything down into different topics per chapter. To provide a brief oversight of the novel I'll list the chapters and what they focus on.1. In the Beginning
This chapter focused briefly on one ancient conundrum and was a basic introduction to the enigma of puzzles. It was an entertaining but less informative chapter that set the tone for the rest of the book.2. Kangaroo Puzzles
Explored the nature of 'Kangaroo Puzzles' or puzzles that provide you the answer in the clue or question. For instance crycptic clues like: conta
e where the answer is taint. Or even a question like 'See that bloke? Can you guess how old he is?' The answer is in the clue in a way because you instantly are informed that the individual is likely older than expected.3. The Human Element
A kind of interlude which discussed human behavior, strategy stealing and how they interact with conundrums and logic.4. Try Lateral Thinking
As the name suggests this chapter was about lateral thinking. It was less interesting than pure lateral thinking books alone but it did challenge the idea of applying lateral thinking to everyday life to solve problems.5. Keeping it Simple
Focused on the idea of Occam's Razor, using this idea in relation to puzzle solving to say that the simplest solution is the solution that should be looked at first. However the catch is that this is not always the case.6. Parabolic Parables
This was a chapter that confused my brain in varying degrees. Because I am not very good at adjusting to complex mathematical principles I found the information challenging. However as the name suggests it was a chapter about parabolas and puzzle solving applications.7. Little Big Jump
A chapter about the substitution of ideas in order to allow for better puzzle solving. It was also about breaking things down into smaller 'jumps' in order to complete one larger 'jump'. In other words break puzzles down into smaller steps to complete the overall puzzle.8. It Can't Be Done
This was all about the unsolvable puzzles that exist or even the puzzles that seem like they cannot be solved but can.9. Solved According to Doyle
Puzzle solving using the Sherlock Holmes' principle of elimination. Also discussed the curious effect known as learned helplessness
. If you learn you cannot solve something earlier then you will believe you cannot solve it later even if you can unless told otherwise by someone intervening.10. When Induction Goes Bad
Again this was a mathematics section that focused on induction which I somewhat get. It's possible to induce the answer based on observable patterns. However things become complicated when paradoxes are introduced which is another component that was introduced.11. You Are Here: The Search for a Fixed Point
This was a very interesting chapter. It talked about puzzle solving in relation to the idea of a fixed point which is basically a point of reference. Apparently humans rely upon various fixed points as references for how to live life in order to help accomplish tasks properly. If you've seen the film Bug's Life
where a leaf interrupts the movement of ants that's what interruption to these fixed points can do to people. Fixed points are also the reason why individuals find it so difficult to solve problems like: attach a candle to a wall with thumbtacks in a box and matches. The solution being to thumbtack the box to a wall and then set up the candle. But due to fixed points we find ourselves unable to think of the box as anything but a thumbtack holder. (Fixed points also allow for magicians and assassins (who poison drinks with sleight of hand) to trick us right before our very eyes. We really are 'creatures of habit' when it comes to puzzling ideas.12. The Full Monty Hall
To finish the famous Month Hall problem was discussed along with probability and similar circumstances where choices and probability interact. The author briefly discussed why errors occur with individuals and probability so often.
There were elements of this book that I simply understood straight away. There were elements that went over my head. There were elements that taught me something new - yes I admit that I don't know everything (not yet anyway) and actually learnt from a book! In the end this was a book that was comfortable to read due to the author's style and approach to using tangents and anecdotes to break everything down at times into layman's terms. I must say however that this is not a book for casual reading necessarily, it is a book of puzzles after all, but that it is an accessible book when time can be spared. Very recommended for anyone interested in puzzle solving or psychological ideas.