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Thursday, September 11, 2003

'Cuber' ranks 2nd in world

BU professor invents method to solve puzzle in 17 seconds

BY GEORGE BASLER
Press & Sun-Bulletin

[ photo ]
Jessica Fridrich, an electrical engineering research professor at Binghamton University, finished in second place at the World Rubik's Games Championships. She has developed a method of algorithms for solving the puzzle that is used by "speed cubers" from all over the world, including the winner, who beat her time by less than a half a second.
Photos by CHUCK HAUPT / Press & Sun-Bulletin

[ photo ]
Jessica Fridrich's best time for solving the Rubik's Cube is 17.12 seconds. Fridrich competed in her first championship in 1982.


VESTAL -- When Jessica Fridrich is feeling a little nervous or tense from her high-pressure job at Binghamton University, she has a surefire way to relax.

The 39-year-old electrical engineering research professor takes a Rubik's Cube out of her desk and begins twisting and turning the colorful plastic puzzle.

She knows some people find working on the cube an infuriating exercise in futility. Not her. She finds it therapeutic and relaxing.

"It's a silent challenge to your intellectual abilities," she said.

The Binghamton University faculty member recently put her expertise to the test at the World Rubik's Games Championship in Toronto, Canada. And she passed the test with flying colors, finishing second in the contest.

A total of 83 "speed cubers" from more than 20 countries competed in the Toronto event -- the first worldwide tournament in more than two decades.

The Rubik's Cube was invented in 1974 by Erno Rubik, a Hungarian professor who wanted a teaching aid for his design students. To solve the puzzle, a person moves a jumble of colors around the cube's axis until each side is a solid color.

Fridrich first picked up Rubik's Cube 22 years ago in her native Czechoslovakia and was hooked immediately. She competed in the first international championship back in 1982 at the height of the Rubik's Cube fad, finishing 10th.

In the world of speed cubers, it's seconds, not minutes, that count.

Fridrich posted the two fastest times in the finals, solving the puzzle in 17.12 and 17.33 seconds respectively.

But she placed second because the average of three of her five scores -- judges threw out the fastest and slowest time for each of the eight finalists placed her behind Dan Knights, a San Francisco software engineer.

Fridrich's average was 20.48 seconds, compared to Knights' 20 seconds.

The competition was rewarding, not only because of her second-place finish, but also because Knights, who has called Fridrich his mentor, used a method the Binghamton University professor developed as the basis for solving the puzzle.

Fridrich posted her system, which involves a complex series of algorithms, on the Web in 1997.

"I didn't think anybody in their right mind would learn all the algorithms," she said with a laugh.

But it's caught on in the world of cubing.

Six of the eight finalists, including the top five finishers, used it in Toronto, she said.

While the Rubik's Cube fad ended in the mid-1980s, word of mouth and the Internet have given it new life in recent years.

Whether it's hot, or not, Fridrich is a cuber for life.

"I think it's a fascinating puzzle," she said. "It's very simple, yet so incredibly complex."

Speed cubers need to know more than a system, she emphasized. They have to recognize instantly what they need to do to solve a particular scramble, and they need the physical dexterity to do it.

Equally important, they have to battle nerves and be relaxed as they deal with the sound of clicking cubes and the pressure of doing something so incredibly complex so incredibly fast.

Some of the "young guys" at the world championships practiced long hours, Fridrich said. Knights, the winner, hired a hypnotherapist to keep him relaxed, she said.

Fridrich took a more low-key approach.

"With my busy schedule and family, I didn't have too much time to prepare," she said. "I worked more on becoming relaxed."

At Binghamton University, Fridrich works on developing mathematical theory and appropriate equipment to hide information communications. She also works on ways to crack secret communication schemes.

Fridrich and her research team, using a $1.1 million grant from the Air Force Research Laboratory in Rome, N.Y., are working on developing and refining algorithms to detect hidden information in digital images.

The Rubik's Cube will always be a hobby, Fridrich said. Meanwhile, organizers are planning the next World Rubik's Games Championship for 2005.

Fridrich hopes to be there.

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