insights puzzle

The Fabulously Fair Feast

For this month’s puzzle, design a Sudoku square to figure out the likes and dislikes of four finicky friends.

This month’s Insights puzzle arises out of a peculiar weekly bonding ritual of four fair-minded friends. Amar, Bob, Ching and Danica are math graduate students who share a house. Their living room has a fabulous rug that they call the “magic carpet,” shown above, around which they gather every weekend for a feast. The four have strong likes and dislikes, so they have instituted rules to ensure that everyone enjoys the get-togethers and can bond with each other member of the group. At every feast they have four “featured items” for the evening related to food, drink, activity or entertainment. The rules are:

  1. Each person must like at least half of the featured items.
  2. For exactly half of the items, each pair of friends must share either a like or dislike for those items.

As Bob entered the living room for a recent get-together, he wondered what the items would be. They were going to have a rice entrée, ice cream for dessert, followed by coffee and a game of Sudoku. “Had Amar decided the items for today?” Bob wondered. “It had to be him: He likes all this stuff.” As he took his place around the mat, rice soup in hand, Bob thought, “I guess I can suffer rice for an evening.” After all, it was mathematically guaranteed to be a pleasant evening, as Amar had followed the rules. Each one of them had at least two items that they liked. Each pair of friends had a couple of items for which their like or dislike coincided and over which they could enthuse or commiserate. The pairwise bonding situation was neat and balanced. Just like Sudoku.

Question 1:

Can you figure out the likes and dislikes of each friend? Write them out as a Sudoku square with the friends’ names alphabetically along the rows, and the items, in the order given, along the columns. (Update: The solution is now available here.)

Question 2:

On a special occasion, the four friends decided to invite two of their colleagues from next door, Emma and Fred. But try as they might, they found they could not find a way to make their rules fit six people. They soon realized, however, that if they invited two more friends, Gary and Hannah, they could make things work in exactly the same way. The eight of them had a great evening, adding jazz, pizza, movie talk and liqueur to their four previous items. At this grand get-together, each pair of people had some items for which their likes or dislikes coincided and the total number of such items was exactly four. Can you make a Sudoku square for this situation, as you did for Question 1?

This puzzle was suggested by the mathematician Terence Tao, who was featured in Erica Klarreich’s article A Magical Answer to an 80-Year-Old Puzzle. But it is more closely related to a puzzle described in her article A Design Dilemma Solved, Minus Designs.

Question 3:

For those of you who love word puzzles, here’s a treat for you: The answers to this month’s puzzles are examples of mathematical structures that are known by a two-word name. The letters spelling out these two words are embedded in the text of today’s column. Can you find them?

Finally, we have to solve the mystery of the magic carpet.

Question 4:

What do you think the fabulous rug represents?

Related Articles:

A Design Dilemma Solved, Minus Designs
A 150-year-old conundrum about how to group people has been solved, but many puzzles remain.

The Nine Schoolgirls Challenge
Solve a variation of Thomas Kirkman’s puzzle by arranging nine girls in walking groups. And think fast — the clock is ticking.

Happy puzzling, and may the insight strike you!

Editor’s notes: The reader who submits the most interesting, creative or insightful solution (as judged by the columnist) in the comments section will receive a Quanta Magazine T-shirt. (Update: The solution is now available here.)

If you’d like to suggest a favorite puzzle for a future Insights column, submit it as a comment below, clearly marked “NEW PUZZLE SUGGESTION” (it will not appear online, so solutions to the puzzle questions above should be submitted separately).

Note that we will hold comments for the first day to allow for independent contributions.

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