Wednesday 31 August 2011

DIY Chopstick Box

A few months ago I bored you with a tale of buying up a strange lot of Stickman paraphernalia from the Australian Disaster Relief puzzle auction held at Puzzle Paradise.  At the time I was trying to make a point about the kindness of puzzlers – you can be the judge of whether I succeeded or not. 

This post carries on where that one left off ... but first, let’s recap a bit: the auction lot contained some sundry Stickman bits and pieces that John Devost had lying around (as one does, apparently!). There was a signed copy of Robert’s book, a pair of Stickman running gloves (you need gloves for running?!) an unnamed box (that I’ll be able to write about some time in the future...) and most of the bits to assemble a Chopstick Box, including a few prototype chopsticks. 

Robert had lined John up to design and make the chopsticks for these boxes and had shipped him a partially assembled Chopstick Box to use as a prototype. [Yes, there’s a fair amount of ‘interaction’ between box and chopsticks, so that’s important!] Having produced the required chopsticks, said box was consigned to storage and forgotten about for a while – until John went rooting around for stuff to put up for sale to raise some cash for his mate Dave Cooper who’d been hit by the latest round of flooding in Australia. 

Jump forward a month or so and I’m staring at a pile of pieces of box and three chopsticks – nae clue! 

Several emails backwards and forwards with the Stickman himself and Robert’s explained how the box works, taught me what that thin white wood is (maple veneer, numpty!), established that I need another chopstick (three of the four in the package weren’t ‘gimmicked’) and then sent me not only the required chopstick and an instruction sheet, but also two small sheets of maple veneer (more than enough!).

It takes me a while to work up the courage to do anything to the bits so they stare at me from the shelf next to the PC for quite a while before I suck up enough courage to have a go at cleaning up the various bits and pieces – some of the veneer has come adrift, so I use a single edged blade to strip the rest of it off and scrape off the remains of the glue – rough it up a bit and then glue the veneer to the top and bottom pieces, putting them between two granite tiles on the bench and piling everything heavy I can find in the garage on top of it ... and leave them alone for a few days.  
The results don’t look too bad so a little while later I’m taking my trusty Swann & Morton #23 to it in order to slice off the excess veneer and remove it from the channels for the sides to slot into. That doesn’t go too badly although I suspect that using a table saw to do that would probably be a much better idea –although I can’t really justify buying a table saw to assemble this box(!).

From there the sides need a bit of attention – particularly around the fit into those channels on the top and bottom – mainly scraping off traces of glue to make sure that they are properly seated. At this point the box can be assembled and held together with masking tape and a rubber band or two and I spend ages fiddling with the chopsticks – in and out of the box – again and again – seeing them flick into place and then pop out is really cute and puts a fat smile on my face – I realise that I’m going to have to finish this off nicely, but then I chicken out and leave it that way for a couple of months, dreading the act of gluing it together in case I mess it up. (IMHO that would be sacrilege!)

Roll forward to a holiday weekend and I take the bits out and check the fit, work out what needs to be glued where and in which order and, heartened by seeing Neil’s video of Scott Peterson’s glue-up process, I have a go ... glue the sides to the bottom, pushing them firmly into place, spread a tiny bit of glue (an important lesson from Scott in that video!) along the tops and then put the top in place, making sure that everything is carefully aligned and then clamp it in the bench overnight. 

Next morning it actually resembles a box! Take off some of the rough edges with an orbital sander using the finest grit it’s got, then spend a while removing the remaining sanding lines with some insanely fine sandpaper – once it’s all nice and smooth (really smooth!) clean up all the dust and head indoors to apply some Renaissance Wax – and that really brings the wood alive!

Get the chopsticks out and insert the first one and it gets sucked neatly into place, ditto the second. Fat smile re-emerges. Do the first move and the box spits out chopstick number one in a moderately magical manner – remove it and fiddle around a little and then the box presents chopstick number two for removal – lovely ... and I didn’t screw it up! 

On the whole I’m very  chuffed with how it turned out – I know that it’s nowhere near Robert’s standards of finishing and it’s not an official Stickman Chopstick Box, but I love it! Thanks to John for parting with the bits and to Robert for telling me what to do with them(!) and then supplying the essential extras. 

Sunday 28 August 2011

Give ‘em enough rope!

Toward the end of our last Midlands Puzzle Party, Ali announced that he’d made us all a puzzle as a gift and started hauling out wooden boards with pegs and holes in them, along with a fist-full of bits of rope with odd markings on them. 

He dished out a length of rope and a board to everyone and then explained that the aim was to thread the rope through each of the holes, touching all of the pegs, without allowing the rope to cross over itself and keeping all of the red markings on the rope hidden from view (i.e. behind the board).
One end of the rope helpfully (?!) has a knot in it giving you a handy starting point and a bunch of us started playing with them right away, merrily creating strange, messy squiggles around an apparently random set of holes and pegs – once or twice someone got close to hiding all of the red marks and asked for a ruling from the designer who just grinned and pointed out which of the rules they’d broken.

A bit of fiddling showed that Ali’d done a rather neat job of picking just the right places to put that blasted red marking to make most of the combinations of threading and looping not work. And if you came close, invariably you found yourself needing to cross over your own path. Stop. Rewind. Try again.
By the time MPP3 had well and truly wound down, nobody had solved it and everyone took their newest challenge home to work on... 

I picked it up every now and then over the next week and each time found myself coming up just short – usually because I found I needed an extra hole, but I was pretty sure that Ali wouldn’t have forgotten to drill one of the holes, and anyway, I’d heard via the inter-web that some folks had solved the puzzle already, so it must be possible – time to engage (what’s left of) the brain ... spend a little time eliminating the potential routes and then have a little brainwave (of sorts!) – he didn’t say you couldn’t  go around the edges when he explained the rules – that’ll give me my extra hole – that’s it! Wing Ali a short email to confirm that my new discovery is on the money, only to have him dash my hopes on the rocks by confirming that you aren’t allowed to sneak around the edges – only use the holes. Dagnabbit! Thought I had him there...

He did add a little bit of extra information and said that the last bit of rope past the second last red marker isn’t used – which is rather useful as it solves my problem of having one too few holes – he also added rather teasingly that I’d know when I’d solved it ... and I heard of a couple of folks telling of their “A-Ha!” moments – me, I had no clue!
With the extra bit of information, I threw myself back into solving it – and got absolutely nowhere!
A couple more sessions saw me emailing my frustrations at the designer, if only so that he’d know I was enjoying myself – not that he’d be taking any pleasure whatsoever from my suffering, surely... 

At one point in the ensuing exchange of emails, Ali suggested a change of perspective might help ... and that was the nudge I needed – I was absolutely dumbfounded at how well he’d hidden that in the subtlety of the design on the one hand and his handling and helpful demonstrations on the other – sneaky sod! 

The “A-HA!” moment is really brilliant – you immediately know that you’ve solved it and it rewards you instantaneously. Damn fine first puzzle from Ali Morris – thanks mate! That was a lot of fun!

There’s a bit more for the curious after the break, but it does contain a picture of the solution ... given the nature of the puzzle, you’re not likely to stumble across one anywhere else, but the “A-HA!” and the resultant in-joke is simply too good not to share... 

[Having said that, I’ve deliberately taken the pictures on this page to give you enough information if you want to try and make one of your own – the relative distances are more important than the absolute distances and you should be able to derive the measurements from the photos.]

Friday 26 August 2011

Some IPP31 Exchange puzzles from Puzzlewood

Bernhard Schweitzer is purveyor-in-chief at Puzzlewood and seems to be one of the central ‘fixers’ in the puzzling community, applying his extensive connections between designers, manufacturers and puzzlers to facilitate exchange puzzle production for a number of IPP attendees each year. This year was no exception and shortly after the conclusion of IPP in Berlin, Puzzlewood announced the availability of some of the exchange puzzles in limited quantities. A quick email to Bernhard confirmed availability (and very reasonable pricing!) of a couple of interesting looking items produced by the New Pelikan Workshop and a few days later they arrived in Barnt Green.

Brandenburg Gate
Marti Reis’ exchange puzzle was designed by Jos Bergmans in 2010, the completed puzzle looks a bit like the Brandenburg Gate (and helpfully it says exactly that across the top) and the aim is to “open the gate”. It was made in oak and in maple and the finish on the assembled puzzle is that good that the first move is quite well disguised even if it isn’t all that deeply hidden. 
Removing the first piece will half-open the gates in a fairly tantalising manner, but as with a number of Jos’ designs, that’s just the beginning. A bit of fiddling around will soon convince you that rotations may be required, or perhaps that the designer is having a laugh and that they have been glued together in situ. At this point there are quite a few ways of encouraging the pieces apart – some requiring more “encouragement” than others, but if you persist a little, there is a very neat solution that allows the pieces to pass by one another virtually effortlessly – as long as all three pieces are properly aligned – neat little puzzle with a satisfying solution.

Reunification (Twins)
Reunification was Rob Jones IPP31 exchange puzzle. It’s a slightly re-badged puzzle designed by Bram Cohen in 2010 under the name Twins. This is a two-piece assembly with a bit of a twist to it – this time the twist is figurative though, not literal: the pieces are identically shaped and combine to form (most of) a 4*4*4 cube. 
The two halves slide together in a satisfyingly non-linear manner over 6 moves. Really nicely made with tight tolerances, with one face of the completed cube resembling a pair of interlocking F’s.

Röver 6 Piece Burr Variation II
This great design from Andreas Röver takes six simple, identical burr pieces and then adds 3-unit L-shaped blocks to each of them in odd orientations to produce 6 unique pieces and a unique 6-move solution. 
The New Pelikan workshop have produced the pieces with the L-shaped additions in a contrasting colour – that makes for a neat little surprise when you start taking the pieces apart as the contrasting colour is all safely hidden away on the inside in the completed state.

3-Piece What’s It
George Bell designed his own exchange puzzle that was produced in Maple & Robinia by the good folks at the New Pelikan Workshop.  Even though the puzzle is made up of cubes joined at right angles, the offsets make it quite a disorienting puzzle. 
Mine arrived solved, and I suspect that if it hadn’t, I’d still be hunting for that symmetrical solution – even though it only has three pieces!! “Difficult” puzzles don’t need to be complicated.

Saturday 20 August 2011

Midlands Puzzle Party 4

...just in case there are any vaguely local puzzlers who haven't heard about this anywhere else:
...we're planning on holding the fourth Midlands Puzzle Party on Saturday the 17th of September. We haven't nailed down the venue yet, but unless the numbers suddenly mushroom, I'll probably offer my place as a venue again (southern side of Birmingham [UK, not Alabama!]) - the last three have been (extremely) casual puzzle parties, and I expect this one will be similar - a gathering of puzzlers and puzzles, puzzling ...

Here's a blog post on the last one. If you're interested, please drop me a line...

We'll be meeting from about 10:30 until 18:00 there's usually lunch, snacks and drinks-a-plenty.

Sandfields’ Salt and Pepper Shakers

The first time I read about these iconic little puzzles on the inter-web was where someone was describing the mischievous brothers Sandfield distributing their exchange puzzles in Antwerp individually, without bothering to mention to their opposite exchangers that you needed to solve them as a set: tools from one will be used on the other and so-forth. I suspect that little piece of subterfuge will have made this puzzle significantly tougher for those folks to solve, at least until word got out that you needed to combine the two to stand a chance of getting anywhere past the very first step of the solution!
[In their defence, Robert assures me that he and Norman had it all prearranged and made certain that everyone who exchanged with one of the brothers would definitely be hunted down and exchanged by the other! I suspect that added significantly to their respective workloads during the exchange session…]

These days anyone acquiring the Salt and Pepper Shakers knows that they’re an item – for those puzzle exchangers in Antwerp back in 2002, that would have been the first (of many!) “A-HA!!” moments. My set came from Robert after I dropped him a speculative email asking if he had any left for sale – at the time I fully expected to be told they’d all long gone, after all they were exchange puzzles from 10 years ago and I expect they’ve been quite popular with collectors since then – but I was delighted when Robert said he could sell me one, and a couple of circuitous financial transactions later, Robert had been paid and the puzzle was en route.

The pair of shakers arrived well packaged and in a neat black drawstring bag that also contained the customary set of instructions / solution. Game on!

First impressions are of a beautifully made pair of Salt and Pepper Shakers (no surprises there!) – made in contrasting woods (red oak and walnut) apparently joined by impossible dovetails (“Sandfield Joints”) at each end. (There are dovetails on all four sides – and if you haven’t seen one of those before on another Sandfield puzzle or, for example, on a Danzig’s Dilemma, then it’s going to worry your brain a little – how the heck can you slide them together without bending time and space?) The respective tops have holes in them just like a Salt or Pepper Shaker should, and you’re told that the goal is to find (and free) the salt and pepper. (No, upending them and shaking them doesn’t produce the required condiment, but good thinking!)
It’s always worth trying to upend a puzzle with a hole in the top and trying to shake any tools that might be hidden in there, out, although in this case, unfortunately it’s not quite that simple – although that shaking does result in some interesting noises, just not from anything that feels the urge to exit the puzzle just yet. A little tinkering will release a lock and open up one of the ends – depositing a handy tool on the desk for you – and more importantly show you how those darn dovetails at right angles really work. (By the way, show those sharp edges on the dovetails some respect or they will take a nick out of your finger!)

From there you will work you way around the remaining ends releasing each one in turn while finding some more useful tools along the way. Some of those locks are reasonably (and I use the word advisedly) straightforward, BUT there is one in the middle that is absolutely monumental! It brings together several items in an unusual way – but the action of the lock itself is so subtle that you could miss it in some orientations and lock it all up again without even realising what you were doing. It’s so well disguised that it is virtually impossible to stumble across it by accident, and it’s a swine!

Assuming you make it past that little piggy, and the next few bits, you’re rewarded when the final panel is opened with the sight of two little capsules – one filled with salt and the other filled with pepper (a very cute little treasure!) – job done!

Reassembly could have been rather tricky given the number of tools and potential for mixing them up (if they appeared in the wrong order while you were solving the puzzle, you could find yourself a little snookered!), however the designers have been very kind here and effectively prevented you from messing things up and locking yourself out – a very neat touch that I hadn’t noticed until Robert pointed it out to me.

One thing that their careful attention to the detailed design hadn’t counted on was the sustained low frequency vibration they’d be subjected to on a 10-hour transatlantic flight – on the way to Antwerp said vibration proceeded to randomly unlock certain bits of some of the puzzles, unbeknownst to their owners – more than a little bit spooky!

The shakers were designed by the Sandfield Brothers (Robert and Norman) and Perry McDaniel and then made by Perry, and these pieces certainly confirm his legendary reputation for creating precision, tricked-out dovetail joints in superb puzzles.

Thanks Robert for letting me have a set and for sharing some your stories about these great puzzles.

Sunday 14 August 2011

Stickman Illogical Puzzle Box

What a great name for a puzzle box! That name really throws down the gauntlet to any puzzler feeling up to the challenge…

Stickman Illogical Puzzle Box is Robert Yarger’s 19th Stickman puzzle box. Twenty four copies were originally made available on Cubic Dissection back in 2009 and very few of them have appeared on any of the usual puzzle auction sites since then.

While it may not look particularly menacing, this is a brute of a puzzle box! As usual for Stickman boxes, it is beautifully made in wenge, cherry and walnut. It’s surprisingly heavy for a modest sized-box – suggesting some dense materials have been secreted inside there … it resembles a squashed cube with some strange symbols on all of the visible surfaces and comes with a set of four wooden tiles with similar symbols on some of them. The tiles clearly have magnets in them (either that or they’re possessed!) and a bit of experimentation proves that there are magnets in odd places on pretty much all of the visible surfaces of the box. Placing a tile in a specific spot will either result in it sticking or being repelled – without much clue as to which of those might be the more useful.

There’s almost no give in any of the panels (one has a little bit of movement that suggests at least what you might be trying to achieve in unlocking the box – if you make a couple of mental leaps, at least) and when you start, very little indication of what those strange symbols might mean.

The puzzle’s description tells you that you are to use the magnetic keys, properly positioned over at least 13 ‘moves’ to unlock the box and hint that the key to their correct placement is given through those pesky symbols … time to play around a little …

Although there are four triangular keys, only three will fit on any given side of the box at a time – the offset squares on each face create three positions (left, centre and right) in each of two rows (upper and lower) however the upper and lower rows overlap in the middle allowing the keys to be placed either in a V-shape or an inverted V-shape, only – that narrows things down a little, at least – however each key can fit in each position in two ways (by flipping them over) – so for each of the 4 side faces there are 48 combinations (choose 3 keys from 4, place them in one of two configurations across 3 positions i.e. [4 choose 3] * 2 * 3!). That’s still quite a lot, and if, as it turns out, you need to unlock panels in succession, you could be faced with hundreds of attempts before you find your first movement – those odds aren’t good (and anyway, I think I’m allergic to brute-force approaches like that!), so it’s probably going to be (well!) worthwhile trying to work out what those symbols mean…

There seem to be a scattering of different sorts of symbols (big dots, little dots and lines) and combinations thereof on the top and on the sides of the box – similarly the keys share the same symbols, but the combinations between the keys and positions on the sides don’t quite match up … so think this through a bit – and try and work out how the top of the box fits in with all this …

While that examination / thought process is going on I spot something a bit more subtle on the sides that instantly cuts down on the number of possibilities, significantly, and wonder how I hadn’t noticed that before … [in fact, considering how the magnets might be orientated will allow you to reduce some of the possibilities a bit further, but that still leaves a shed-load to try!]

Fiddle around on a bit of paper with the symbols on the keys and the various positions around the sides – try a few experiments, all the while constantly reminding myself not to over-complicate things (I’m predisposed to doing that, and more often than not it gets me into trouble rather than helping me out!). A couple of theories ‘almost’ work and then finally one gives a unique solution for most of the sides – but the last side resists, and yet, when you test the theory on the top of the box, something special seems to happen – which all but confirms that you’re on the right track … 

OK so we’ve got a theory that works for all bar one side, so decide to leave that one until last and hope that inspiration strikes – it quickly becomes apparent that the various sides interact in a nice predictable way, and if you want to leave the difficult side until last, you can work out where to start from, and it’s really pleasing when you apply the keys to the right spots and things ‘react’ and release the side, and then the next … until you’re looking at an open panel with the usual Stickman signature staring back at you – RESULT! (… and yeah, I left out quite a lot in the middle there somewhere … gotta leave you some entertainment of your own if you stumble across one of these little guys…)

…and the neatest thing of all: close up the sides and the box instantly resets itself back to the starting position – great if you’re wanting to rest the box for the next victim  puzzler – lousy if you close a side while you’re still trying to work out how that code works … guess when I first discovered that feature!

Not a simple puzzle – but a very rewarding one … 

Puzzling Postscript: A couple of guys came around to the house to talk and play puzzles today - and they had a shot at this one. After a while I tried to nudge them in the right direction only to realise, rather embarrassingly, that I'd forgotten how to apply one particular aspect of the code - that meant the box stayed securely locked until after the guys had left - sorry guys! It does still work properly - I was just being a dork!

Friday 12 August 2011

Wil’s Bolt #3

It turns out I wasn’t the only person who’s been hassling Wil Strijbos about getting around to making some more Puzzle Bolts for sale – according to Jeff’s blog over here, he’s been doing the same thing for a while too – and it seems our collective persistence (you know who you are – pat yourselves on the back!) has paid off – Wil offered some of his Bolt #3’s for sale recently…

It’s a pretty chunky-sized bolt that’ll do a bit of damage if you accidentally drop it on something valuable, like your toe. That weight gives it an air of honesty and helps disguise its inherent duplicity – it’s a puzzle after all! 

And you know that. 

But it’s a big, solid bolt, isn’t it?

OK, so what does it look like? Looks fairly straight-forward: there’s a bolt with a nut threaded about a quarter of the way down. Said nut is apparently secured onto the bolt by means of a thin, but rather strong tube, that appears to be secured right through the nut and the bolt itself – either way, the nut can’t be moved (screwed, unscrewed or otherwise – you sneaky person you). Next up is a healthy sized washer (unbroken, but I like the fact that you’re thinking along those lines already!) and we know that the aim is to remove the washer, and return it – we know this because Wil told us – not because I made up the aim like I did for the Jugo Flower (and we all know how wrong that went!). The head of the bolt seems to have a thick spring wire ring almost all the way around it. 

… so spend a little time examining it and trying the obvious things – turns out that brute force doesn’t work after all! Spend some time examining one of the features a bit more closely and discover (lovely little A-HA! Moment) a neatly hidden little tool that’ll probably give you a big hint of what to try next – and now you’ll either get lucky and solve it, or, like I did, wonder why things don’t work the way you’re expecting them to work, retreat, scratch your head for a while – and then realise that there’s a better way, which does indeed work the way you expect it to – et voila!

Word-to-the-wise: be careful or you’ll lose a couple of the littler bits that make up the guts of the thing – that will make you sad. 

It’s a lovely little puzzle with an elegant mechanism – simple and extremely effective. Unfortunately for Wil, having acquired a Bolt #3 has just made me want to pester him to re-make more of the others even more now … anyone care to join the chorus?