One of the things that frustrate me to no end is the continual existence of dumb, ambiguous riddles. The ones that appear deceptively easy, prompting you to throw out handfuls of plausible solutions, all of which are rejected one by one, until finally out of a mixture of exasperation and impatience you give in. The ones which conclude with the riddler gleefully presenting his own witty solution waiting you congratulate him (sarcastically I hope) for being so ‘clever’. But they’re not really clever at all. They’re just stupid, and number of people who don’t seem to get that really grinds my gears.
Take, for example, the classic ‘Midget in an Elevator’ riddle:
There was a guy who did the same thing every day. He lived on the 18th floor of an apartment building. Every morning he would get in the elevator and push the first floor, get out and go to work. But when he got home he would go to the same elevator and push the 12th floor, get out and walk up 6 floors to get to his apartment. Why?
If you’ve heard of this riddle then you’ve probably heard of the solution: the guy is a midget and he can’t reach the 18th floor’s button. At a glance the solution seems logical, but then you think about it some more and the whole thing starts to break down. I remember the 5th or 6th time I was quizzed on this exact riddle by a new acquaintance, I decided to be cheeky and suggest some alternative solutions:
“The guy had an prescribed exercise routine from his personal trainer that included 6 flights of stairs everyday.”
“The elevator’s buttons for the 13th-18th floors stopped working when the building was struck by lightning one stormy night.”
“There was a hobo who lived on the 13th floor stairwell and he went to give him some change. It would look embarrassing if it looked like he went out of his way to do it so he made it look like he climbed stairs everyday and was just passing by.”
Every time I would received a resolute “No,” to my proposed solutions. “Why?” I would then ask. And therein ends the train of thought. You see, as preposterous as some of my responses were, there’s no reason why they couldn’t have been the solution. There was no explicit clarification that the guy did not exercise, that the elevator buttons were not broken, or that there was not actually a hobo living in the 13th floor stairwell. Since the fact that the guy was a midget is not stated (that would obviously give away the solution), the riddle relies on providing incomplete information to feign complexity. The only reason my solutions were wrong was because they were not his solution; the same level of intellectual challenge could be achieved if the riddler thought of a number between 1 and 50 and asked me to guess which one it was.
I guess that’s my problem with these kinds of riddles. They’re not exercises in problem solving at all, they’re just self congratulatory jokes where the solution is the punchline.