Friday 28 September 2018

HalesLock 5 – Firestarter

I’m rather lucky. I have some very ingenious friends. Sometimes that leaves me rather puzzled. And that’s a really good thing.

Shane is one of my more devious friends. He rather enjoys bashing locks into submission and then teasing us into trying to open them… he’s done this more than a few times already, he produced a couple earlier this year that served as exchange puzzles at IPP38 in San Diego, and most recently has applied his considerable talents to bringing us the Firestarter

At first blush, you have a cylindrical padlock with a ring captured on the locking shaft and a push-fit plastic cap protecting the keyhole from the elements, and puzzlers. 

You’re given a key - flipping open the plastic cap and trying the obvious, you find that the key won’t go into the keyhole. Great start!

OK, step back up for a sec and read the instructions: Open the padlock and remove the ring, and then find Hales’ signature.

Right, we’re definitely going to have to find a way of getting the key in there – or it’s a fabulous bit of crimson fish. Sticking with it for a while, and experimenting with various things, I found I could occasionally get the key inserted a bit, sometimes even fully – and I was reasonably happy with my approach and even mentioned my technique to the tormentor-in-chief – only to be roundly chided for not paying enough attention to the puzzle’s name and finding the far more elegant method required. There is. And it is. And that gets you past the very first step in the process… only to be confronted by the next: great, so you have the key inserted – now it won’t turn… and so it continues! 

Shane lets you forward one tiny little step at a time, squarely blocking your progress as soon as you make the slightest progress… he’s a lovely man, really! 

Even when you think you’ve finally solved this lock, he slams the door in your face – the lock is clearly unlocked at one point, but still you’re unable to release the ring… he demands more. 

When you finally remove the ring and find the signature you’ve definitely earned your reward… it’s a great multi-stage puzzle that keeps you guessing several times along the eventual path to the solution… another worthy challenge under the HalesLock brand – Thanks Shane!

Sunday 23 September 2018

Rochester Puzzle Picnic 2018


…is another day with some travelling in it – starting with a drive to the airport via picturesque Salem. From BOS we head to ROC in a tiny little Embraer that feels like flying in the equivalent of a sports car. We collect a rental car at ROC and head for Jeff’s place faithfully following the sat-nag’s every direction. 

We get the warmest possible welcome when we get to Jeff’s place. We manage to help him move the last couple of bits of furniture into their weekend positions and we’re even allowed to help a little with some the food prep, but Jeff clearly already has everything very well under control. 

Over the next few hours the gang starts arriving for the annual Rochester Puzzle Picnic, the indoor tables get progressively heavier and heavier laden with puzzles, there’s animated conversations happening all over the place and there’s a wonderfully positive vibe among the whole bunch – this really is a bunch of good friends getting together for fun and fellowship, and some puzzles. 

Our first meal is some fantastic BBQ chicken with all the trimmings, followed by plenty of cake.

Shane’s latest locks are getting played with quite a lot and Endo-san’s KOPA box is a firm favourite among those who haven’t seen it yet. Several people enjoy playing with a copy of Spring Camera and most find both compartments, but generally admit they wouldn’t have found the second one if they hadn’t been nudged to keep going… Ken’s new puzzle with plenty of rotations has people scratching their heads. 

In between the puzzling I spend some quality time chatting to Rob and hearing about 9/11 from his perspective – and it’s hard not to get emotional listening to his story – even for someone like me who was living in Cape Town when it all happened. Evy and I get to chat about how different our respective roles as actuaries are in our insurance companies and later Jeff and I have time to talk about leadership and M&A activities and even wander into the forbidden territory of Brexit. 

Some time after midnight I crash while the hard core of the puzzlers are still going strong in the living room. 


By the time we get up Jeff’s already been out to the bakery and returned with fresh bagels for us (apparently, he pretty much cleaned them out) – this is a really civilised way to start a day’s puzzling!

The girls (for there are seven or eight of them) head out to explore the neighbourhood – read: find some craft, fabric and fibre shops – they find lots of interesting places and leave us to puzzle and banter at Jeff’s. 

Twice during the day, I find myself being asked to explain the whole tongue depressor / Chico Banan thing, and each time there are guffaws and tears of laughter.

Jeff produces an awesome lunch on the BBQ again, having sous vide’d (if that’s even a word?) all the meat and then added some colour over the coals on his Weber. 

More puzzling ensues, including a group solving of Pavel’s Punana Split puzzle… everything went reasonably well all the way through the solve with John not needing to intervene much along the way to help us back onto the straight and narrow, but we did get caught up on the final step and needed to shoot Pavel a quick message for some help… and when the nudge came back we knocked off the final step quite quickly – rather pleased with ourselves! 

The Strayer’s played a major role in providing dinner that night and the sausage display ended up looking suitably mathematical and required photographic evidence for the sharing.

After dinner, and before most of the gang began departing – although we’d already lost Jesse to the long drive home – we posed for a couple of group photographs, before putting the world to rights and having some really serious discussions on Design Competition Room etiquette.

We said some sad goodbyes, but at least some of the folks we said goodbye to are planning to visit us at MPP later in the year so we have some return visits to look forward to…


For some reason we all seem to be waking up later this morning – nothing to do with lack of sleep, I’m sure!  By the time I get up, Jeff already has a pot of coffee running and we’re soon into breakfast bagels and some gentle puzzling, trying hard not to break the "no puzzling and food in the same room" rule. 

Gradually the remaining gang begins to disperse, with quite a few folks leaving soon after lunch (Jeff’s food is worth hanging around for!!) – and soon we’ve gone from having almost 30 people there to just about five of us by early afternoon when we head back off to ROC for a flight to BOS. 

…after dinner we head back to Downriver for some more ice cream… it’s best not to fight it. :-)

Monday mainly involves some packing and saying goodbye to Saul and Paulette who’ve treated us royally for the past week in Beverley… we’re really lucky to have such wonderfully generous friends – thanks guys! 

…and that, dear reader, is the end of my epic two-and-a-half-week puzzle pilgrimage.

Friday 14 September 2018

...the Boston bits...


Bloggin' at 30,000 feet.
…is a travel day – we’re scheduled to fly from SAN to BOS, via JFK, but it becomes a bit more adventurous: just after we wake up, Paulette calls to say that the first leg of our journey has been delayed due to bad weather somewhere – which puts the second leg in danger. This also rather puts our plan of a leisurely breakfast before heading across to the airport in jeopardy and we find ourselves meeting downstairs for a shuttle to the airport an hour earlier than originally planned. 

It turns out that American Airlines have a brilliant self-service system and we manage to rebook on an earlier flight via Dallas… which then gets delayed so we end up leaving after our first flight was due to leave… stay with me here. We encounter some of this weather en route and end up flying in circles for a while before we’re allowed to try and land in Dallas… about half an hour before our (already delayed) connecting flight is due to depart. Thankfully it gets delayed even further and we arrive at our DFW departure gate literally as they call our boarding group and we walk straight onto the plane. 

In spite of all said weather, the flight is reasonably calm and we arrive in BOS just after midnight, and then crash at the Bobroffs’ somewhere around 3am – feels like it’s been a long day. 


We have a late start in spite of the local jackhammer gang’s best attempts to wake us up at 7:30 – we surface about 2 hours later and grab breakfast before Saul and I head across town to see Jane and John Kostick. 

Saul’s sat-nav gets us close to Jane’s place, but he hasn’t got the house number so we find ourselves cruising gently up the road until I spot an instantly recognisable parabolic pergola in front of a house – that HAS to be it. 

While we’re sorting ourselves out in the car, Jane magically appears and we end up having a long conversation on the kerb-side before heading down into the basement to see how the Kostick Stars are made. Jane gives us a quick demo of the polishing process before showing us how they get welded together. 

From there we head upstairs where I’m shown how to thread the wires for a six-axis star… turns out I’m pretty slow and manage to make two errors on my first attempt, but Jane’s a very patient teacher and I manage to get one produced properly at least. 

Lunch is called and we head into the kitchen for some of John’s pea soup and pesto bruschetta. Jane shows me around upstairs where I get to admire her reclaimed cabinets containing all manner of little treasures that I recognise from their website. We chat about life, the universe and MOMATH while Jane gently reassembles a 3-foot Tetraxis Toy on the floor in proper colour symmetric form. 

Next on the grand tour is the wood shop out back – Saul’s excited to get in there again. Jane shows me a wonderfully enticing little magnetic sculpture that she and a friend are using to chat to young children about shapes and their interactions. 

She then proceeds to walk me through the entire process of creating one of these little assemblies from cutting the shapes through to drilling the holes for the magnets, bevelling the edges and inserting the magnets – I get to try my hand at some of the less lethal bits and she commandeers my camera so she can record the evidence of me actually creating a little sawdust in her workshop. I manage to mess up two of the pieces by getting the magnets’ polarity wrong and she effortlessly whips up a couple more pieces to take their place in less time than it’s taken me to ruin them. 

Seeing the process in action leaves me with even more respect for the amount of work entailed in producing some of the stunning wooden creations I have of hers that I’ve managed to acquire over the past few years… there’s a lot of thought and precision in every single step of the process – nothing is left to chance. 

We finish off the assemblies with a little gel to lift out the grain a little before heading back down into the basement to collect a couple of folding stars that I need to take home – one for Michel and the rest to serve as Christmas decorations in the Walker-household later this year. I collect a couple of puzzles that Jane’s specially made for me for my 50th birthday before we say our hurried goodbyes and head off to meet the girls at the Cheesecake Factory for dinner – my choice!

We manage to get to bed early for the first time in ages…


We arise a little earlier than yesterday and head out toward Lexington to Stewart Coffin’s place. After some quick hellos the girls leave us and head out in search of some fibre shops ,and the boys settle down in the lounge to chat about life, the universe and occasionally even about puzzles. 

Stewart tells us about his latest hobby – he’s decided that he hasn’t been contributing enough to his local community so he’s taken on responsibility for rehabilitating an acre of woodland, he’s bought a chainsaw and has been removing some pests that have been hampering some of the older trees in the little parcel of land. He proudly shows us the results of his handiwork and it looks great… he’s planning on adopting another acre in the near future.

At 86 it’s clear that this wonderful gent has tremendous love for life itself and doesn’t show any signs of slowing down – his bike parked in the corner of the lounge is clearly still in very regular use, whereas mine has been unused in the garage for the past 8 years – I do feel a little ashamed. 

There are a few new puzzle designs he’s been working on lined up on his table next to the PC and I’m invited to have a bash at one of them… I find a familiar sliding axis and slide two halves apart and return them again, afraid it’s all going to come apart in my paws and I’ll be left with bits I can’t reassemble. 

During the course of some further conversation I get a bit braver and end up with one of the halves disassembled in my lap thinking  to myself “I’ve got this covered…” only for mild panic to overtake that calm a few minutes later when I realise that the odd geometry is messing with my head rather well and I’m struggling to put just the three pieces back together in a way that will allow me to once again slide the two halves together again… massive sign of relief when I finally get it back together and gently replace it on the table. 

I admire the lovely black and white prints of stunning nature scenes dotted around the living room – all Stewart’s own photography, mostly from canoeing trips out in the wilderness… he’s lived a very full life – and written about some of it in the three books he’s already published on bits of his life. 

He tells us the story of a recent chance meeting with an old family friend, bringing a tear to his eye as he recounts the moment he realises the lady helping him replace a watch strap is a dear friend he hasn’t seen in twenty years.

He gives us a quick tour upstairs, showing us his neat boxes of a virtually complete collection of his designs as well as a few boxes of his designs that others have made, and the little photographic set-up to take the pictures he’s using in his latest version of Ap-Art – he gives Saul and I each a copy of his very latest draft – dated the day before. 

He shows me a copy of his Emperor Butterfly sliding tile puzzle and we find ourselves chatting about the plastic laminating that he’s used on the puzzle and how he’s finished off the various bits. 

Next we head down to the basement where he had a custom tarpaulin made up to cover the existing carpet down there, keen not to damage it with any of his woodworking activities down there. One corner has an area approximately 3m * 3m cordoned off with plastic sheeting and a clever self-sealing door flap to contain all his woodworking activities… “But the dust still gets out!” he complains. Inside there’s a wonderfully compact little workshop that Stewart has been using to produce his designs. He’s obviously got some ridiculously good jigs and fixtures that make it possible to produce these horribly unforgiving designs on a tiny table saw with a repurposed electric planer serving as a thicknesser using a cunning little self-fabricated attachment. He shows us a really clever little glueing jig made of four simple little pieces of square aluminium tubing – perfect for aligning bits of Triumph and Vega and others using that geometry.

I leave a copy of my exchange puzzle with Stewart safe in the knowledge that he’ll be giving it to someone who’ll enjoy it…

Stewart drives us to Wegmans to meet Gill & Paulette for lunch and we end up discussing Brexit and its likely impact on the value of European equities. We find the girls already there and have a wonderful lunch of fresh salads and cold meats – we’re eating light because we know we’re going out for a big dinner this evening. 

We get a pic of the boys together at Wegmans before we say goodbye to Stewart, who asks Gill “Are we on hugging terms yet?” – “Of course!” and she gets a big bear hug from the puzzling god. 

We grab some lovely ice creams (bit of a theme going on here with the Bobroffs!) before heading back toward town. We stop to browse at some stunning art at Mobilia – we’re just browsing! The bank balance doesn’t entertain thoughts of purchasing any of the high art on exhibition, but we’re with Saul and Paulette and we’re treated like returning friends. Saul and I puzzle on a bench in the sidewalk while the girls hit a yarn shop nearby – I’m still failing to solve the Cast Arrows Teddy’s given me.

From Cambridge we head to Brookline to visit David at Eureka. He has a super selection of games, jigsaws and puzzles and whenever there’s a lull in the conversation he’s enthusiastically showing us something he’s thinks is fun or cool… several of said items find their way into my shopping basket – his enthusiasm is infectious. 

Chris Morgan finds us at Eureka and David gives us a tour of the basement – LOTS of stock! And several sets of puzzle activity sets for parties – a new line in entertainment for Bar Mitzvahs and birthdays… 

We head into town (via another yarn shop) and meet David and Chris at Aquitaine for a lovely dinner, followed by a quick session of close-up magic from Chris and a long chat about Lennart Green and his magic. 

Gill and I manage to spend a little time with an old friend from Cape Town who’s now living in Boston, at a coffee shop across the road from Aquitaine before heading home via a seemingly endless array of road-works and road closures on the way home – well done Saul for actually getting us home that same night!


…is Saul’s birthday – Happy Birthday Saul! – and we’re having brunch with the Bobroffs’ neighbours and a visiting friend from New York at the local diner in town. I get some super pancakes for breakfast and on the walk back home I have nice chat with Bill about forensic accounting, due diligence and Paul Manafort – all totally unrelated of course! 

We wander the block and a half down to the beach and enjoy the breeze for a while because it is HOT! 

Saul and I puzzle for a while - I finally have an epiphany on the Cast Arrows when I think of the right question to ask myself (!) and solve it in a couple of minutes from there… I’m allowed a tour of Saul’s basement which is crammed with all manner of woodworking machinery and hand tools for crafting wood, electrical work and plumbing…  as well as the largest collection of bits of wood I have ever seen… “for the next couple of projects” – I reckon he could build a few houses with the wood he’s got stockpiled in there! 

I give him a wotsit and manage to get him to ponder it for a while.

Lunch is ice cream from Downriver Ice Cream – they’re good, although they do have some unusual names for their flavours: snail trails or kung fu grasshopper anyone?

After lunch there’s more puzzling and Saul lays down the gauntlet with a copy of Tado Muroi’s Threaded Dodecahedron… while I’m struggling with it Saul admits he’s only ever assembled it once and it was way too fiddly to ever try again… I get it 97% assembled, lacking a tiny bit of string for the last corner because I haven’t threaded the first few sections sufficiently tightly – we agree I’ve beaten it and I gleefully disassemble it again. 

We wander into town for some great burgers from A&B Burgers in Beverley.