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Radio review: The World’s Hardest Puzzle, Lent Talks, and Compline

08 March 2024


The World’s Hardest Puzzle (Stak Productions) told the story of the internet problem Cicada 3301, which has still not been solved

The World’s Hardest Puzzle (Stak Productions) told the story of the internet problem Cicada 3301, which has still not been solved

“IF YOU have got this far, you have done well.” It is not an especially reassuring message for the middle of a seven-part podcast, although the challenge to which it referred was not the effort of listening, but that posed by The World’s Hardest Puzzle (Stak Productions).

It might sound like a hatchback from an impoverished South American car manufacturer, but Cicada 3301 is, in fact, a devilishly tricksy internet problem, released back in 2012, which has still not been solved. In telling its story, the presenters Tommie Trelawny and Nicky Anderson quickly get into territory that most listeners will find utterly alien: the world of 4Chan, PGPs, and Onion sites; and, by episode three, you may well have had enough. But then it gets rather more interesting; for the story of Cicada 3301 is also the story of internet encryption, privacy, and freedom of speech.

It is said that the puzzle was designed as a tool for the recruitment of geeks with both the technical know-how and ideological sensibilities suited to a new research group or think tank dedicated to “liberty, privacy, and security”. In one statement, the puzzle-setter declares: “Tyranny and oppression must end; privacy is paramount.” The flaw in this strategy is that the puzzle was so difficult that nobody appears to have solved it. Or maybe they have, and they are keeping it private. Either way, this creates a problem for podcast-makers seeking a grand finale to their seven-parter. There is some virtue in the claim that we should simply enjoy the journey, but it cannot mask the faint whiff of disappointment.

In a world in which entire podcast series can be downloaded in a jiffy, the significance of scheduled broadcasts might appear diminished. And yet it’s got to hurt that Lent Talks (Radio 4, Mondays) has been moved from a mid-evening to a late-night slot. This is a curate’s egg of a strand, but this year has got off to a good start. The speakers perhaps feel liberated from the requirement to address an over-arching series theme.

What I’ve heard thus far of Paul Kerensa I have liked (Interview 1 December 2017). He appeared on Beyond Belief recently (Radio, 23 February) as a representative of Christian comedy, and was a writer for the TV sitcom Miranda. Happily, he didn’t feel the need to cram a lot of gags into his Lent talk, but still employed a comedic facility with words to explore the nature of faith and doubt in the era of AI. Now that images can be manipulated, “Seeing is no longer believing.” Doubting — or should we say “Sceptical”? — Thomas might be regarded as a role-model for our age. And full marks for Kerensa’s sign-off line, which I won’t spoil.

Earlier on a Monday evening, you can get in the mood by tuning in to Compline (Radio 3): beautifully rendered polyphony, with prayer and reading delivered by an uncredited minister.

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