Answers at your fingertips

On Friday I read about a really practical application of new technology that truly benefits the man (and woman) on the Clapham omnibus.

How many times have you boarded a double-decker bus to find there is standing-room only, when in fact there are spare seats tucked away upstairs? Tfl are trialling a system that informs the passengers down below of vacant seats on the top deck:

Many of my favourite apps also relate to public transport: Citymapper, Pubtran, Tube Traveller and Bus Countdown have all proved themselves useful in my daily commute.

But sometimes technology is put to uses that make me scratch my head in wonder at the thought processes that accompanied them. For instance, ‘Answers at your fingertips’ was the heading of an advert that caught my eye the same day, above this picture:

Seiko's Crossword Solver

Seiko’s Crossword Solver – a puzzle in itself

This gizmo holds a 250,000 word database of names, dates and facts, a spellchecker and abbreviation solver along with several other functions.

Now, I enjoy a cryptic crossword as much as anybody and have a stab at the one in my newspaper most evenings after dinner, accompanied by a mug of builder’s tea and some mellow music.

It will come as no surprise to anybody who knows me that I’m not always equal to the setter’s challenge and sometimes my biro is unsheathed entirely in vain (I comfort myself by regarding this as the setter’s fault, rather than any failing on my part). On other occasions I take satisfaction in completing the whole grid, but usually there are clues that stump me and call for recourse to reference materials.

For example, one of yesterday’s answers was Houyhnhnm (me neither) and when I looked it up in the biggest dictionary in the house, I was intrigued by a neighbouring entry for House of the People, defined as another name for Lok Sabha. Obviously, I then had to look up Lok Sabha, which, apparently, is the lower chamber of the Indian Parliament. While digesting this nugget, my eye strayed to the next column, where I learned the biological significance of Lombok, the Indonesian island marking the boundary between Asian and Australian flora and fauna. And so it goes on: serendipity.

Whether I’m consulting a dictionary, thesaurus, atlas or any other printed work of reference, the journey to find what I’m looking for becomes an end in itself. Sometimes I don’t find what I want, but you can be sure I’ll find something equally interesting. Maybe you regard this as a distraction, the object surely being to complete the crossword as quickly as possible, in which case you make a perfect customer for the Crossword Solver.

I’m no more likely to use Google’s Sudoku solver.

It seems to me that one computer sets the problem and another one solves it, so I wonder what purpose I serve in between. (BTW, truth be told, I can’t even see the point of publishing the solutions to the Sudoku – does anybody ever look at them? Why would they?)

So it’s not that I see the Crossword Solver as cheating, it’s more that it is too efficient in its pursuit of the answer, denying me the chance of serendipity, stifling my curiosity.

As in life itself, isn’t the objective the journey, rather than the destination?





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