Sunday, May 24, 2009

Singapore – Storms, English and a Puzzle

I spent the past week in Hong Kong and Singapore on business and I thought I'd write a little bit about these trips.

Arriving in Singapore on the Sunday evening, I was dreading the tropical heat that I knew would greet me. Running around town attending 6 meetings every day in temperatures of up to 36 degrees is a challenge for a Scotsman. I politely suggested to my 部長 (director), that perhaps we could attend the meetings in the same fashion as our clients – with no jacket or tie. I got a firm rebuttal. Fortunately, I had made the wise decision of investing in a summer suit and short sleeved shirts in preparation for the similarly unpleasant heat during Tokyo’s summer.

I had anticipated the heat, but what I hadn’t anticipated were the tropical storms. We were in a meeting on the 15th floor of a central building when quite suddenly, the sky darkened and the heavens opened. We’re not talking about the typical Tokyo drizzle, we’re talking about seriously heavy rain crashing against the windows. Thunder and lightning then began their assault on our exposed position and interrupted my presentation. My listeners were completely unperturbed though and asked me to continue, saying that it would be over soon. Sure enough, after about an hour, the skies cleared. Talking to locals, I was told that these storms occur almost daily so I resolved to carry around an umbrella for the remaining two days. Of course, carrying the umbrella with my heavy bag full of presentation material ensured that the rain didn’t return.

Singapore is slowly becoming the dominant financial centre in Asia and it becomes quickly obvious that one of the main reasons for this is the prevalence of English. Although the vast majority of the population is of Chinese, Malay or Indian descent, English is the official language and is spoken by everyone. If you get in a taxi in Singapore, you can have a good conversation with the driver. If you get in a taxi in Japan or Hong Kong, you end up stabbing a map with your finger. The street signs look identical to those in the States, with white writing on a green background. It’s no wonder that so many American firms choose to set up their Asian hub in Singapore.

Singapore is similar to Japan in quite a few ways. There’s no tipping and you get great service. Everyone smiles, talks to you politely and calls you sir. It felt very safe too.

On the last evening, we were having some drinks with clients and one of them gave me a puzzle. I love puzzles and this is a good one. It took me about 20 minutes to figure it out. Continuing with the theme of Michael’s post last month, I thought I’d share it with you.

A blind man has 30 coins in front of him on a table. 18 of those coins have heads facing up. The remaining 12 have tails facing up. The blind man has to separate the coins into two groups such that the number of heads facing up is the same in both groups. How does he do it?

I can tell you that there are no trick answers to this puzzle. The coins are all perfectly smooth so the blind man can’t feel the pattern of heads or tails using his fingers. Balancing the coins on their edges doesn’t solve the problem either. It’s pretty straight forward when you’ve got the answer but figuring it out takes time.

Answers in the comments or by email!


  1. Ok, I've worked this out.. took me longer than 20mins, and I still can't believe that the solution works and that it can be done.. but it can! and yeah, it is quite straight-forward!

  2. Nice one! Here are a couple more hints for those who have yet to figure out the answer:

    1. The numbers 18 and 30 aren't special. Other numbers work too.
    2. You can flip over the coins. It doesn't have to be 9 heads in each pile.

  3. I don't really know *why* it works, but after emptying a jar of pennies and trying it a few times, I've "figured it out". I know how to do it... but I think my brain is too tired to really work out *why* it works.

  4. Argh. I don't know. Thought about it for a good 40 minutes, but not coming up with anything. I can only think of using probability and flipping all the coins, but then that wouldn't guarantee each group has the same number of heads so it can't be right.

  5. OK, one more hint before I post the solution:

    Since 18 and 30 aren't special, I thought about the situation with 6 coins where 2 of them are heads. It's much easier to think about it on a smaller scale. I just thought about what the possibilities were and by a process of elimination, the solution presented itself.

  6. I prefered to deploy some lateral thinking for this puzzle by asking the person next to me (who can see) if he would be kind enough to separate the coins into two piles with an equal number of heads in each pile. In return I gave him one of the piles of coins. Simple.

  7. Some rather good stuff in that post. I have just twittered this and I hope my friends come and visit. If others read this you should also share this with your online friends. A great way to show your gratitude.