Tuesday 24 December 2019

Christmas 2019 Puzzle

I've traditionally put up a puzzle of some description on Christmas Eve for my puzzling mates around the world to amuse themselves with - I didn't really have much time to come up with a good puzzle this year, so I've made a hard one instead. 

It's a bit of a developmenet of the ideas in last year's puzzle, which not many people liked. 

I expect even fewer will like this year's puzzle... 

But hey, there are going to be two prizes again! 

One for the first correct entry I receive and a second for a random entry received before 2020 reaches these shores. 

<Having said all of that, you should be able to find enough clues in there to confirm that you're doing the right thing and even what you're after.>

Wishing you and yours a wonderful Christmas and a fantastic start to 2020!


Sunday 15 December 2019

Heavy metal gifts…

Over the past couple of months my good friends Steve and Ali have given me a couple of rather puzzling lumps of brass…

I got a prototype copy of their remake of Oskar’s Hyperboloid Burr  for my birthday. 

The original wooden Hyperboloid Burr had been Naoki Takashima’s Exchange puzzle a couple of years ago. It was presented as an interesting burr assembly with six identical pieces, each shaped with hyperboloid curves – part of the presentation was that a further unanticipated assembly had been discovered allowing an additional identical piece to be added – at which point Takashima-san produced an extra piece from his pocket and handed it over for the additional challenge… it made not only a nice (true!) story, but made the puzzle even more intriguing. 

It often got foisted on visiting puzzlers and judging from the number of times I’ve come across it at others’, I’m clearly not the only one who enjoyed it. 

The Two Brass Monkeys took on the challenge of making them up in nice, solid, brass – and pretty soon they realised that the original material was a heck of a lot more forgiving than their chosen form… and the resulting hunt for the perfect tolerances turned into a real world binary sort as they tuned the tolerances between “too loose – falls apart” and “too tight – can’t assemble”!

What they’ve ended up with is an excellent compromise to within 0.03mm of either falling apart or not being assemblable (Yes, it IS a word, damn spellchecker!). Both assemblies work neatly – with the six-piece, assembly is on the looser side – you can’t pick it up by a single piece- but the seven-piece assembly locks together with a satisfying little clink. 

Looks terrific in either assembly and makes for a damn fine piece of desk furniture. 

A couple of weeks ago the boys presented me with a copy of their newest endeavour – something I’d been allowed to coo over at a previous get together. They’d taken a design by Scott Elliott called “It’s Nuts!” (exchanged by Jerry Slocum a couple of years ago) and produced it in brass… that doesn’t sound very impressive, unless you know “It’s Nuts!” or you’ve seen one in the flesh… the premise is simple: you have a large threaded bolt with two nuts on it. Turn the bolt and the two nuts head off in opposite directions!

Just think about that for a little while… it’ll sink in… and you’ll be left wondering a little…

The back-story on the original design, as I’ve heard and remember it (feel free to correct me in the comments) was that Scott originally stumbled across a video of this being presented in a language he hadn’t understood – a magician was demonstrating that the nuts on this bolt behaved rather oddly and Scott was hooked. He spent a while working out how to get it to work and then duly printed some on his trusty 3D printer… Jerry was totally bowled over by them and insisted on using them as his exchange puzzle that year so Scott 3D printed hundreds of them. Since then it turns out that the original video he’d seen had all sorts of trickery and couldn’t be demonstrated in the clean, open manner that Scott’s version works – in short, he’d seen a magic trick and then made it work in real life – he’s a bright lad is our Scott!

“It’s Nuts!” becomes a bit of a standard and from time to time Scott would offer them in different 3D printed formats, including a small number of quite impressive (albeit rather dear) 3D printed metal copies. Being 3D printed, some of the subtler points weren’t quite as subtle as he might have liked… enter the Two Brass Monkeys who duly challenge their tame engineer to do better – and boy does he!

The Monkey’s Nuts!” is a big old solid brass bolt with a pair of nuts threaded onto it… spin the nuts and they head in opposite directions… and it is beautifully made – the clever stuff is wonderfully subtle, to the extent that you’d need a very close inspection to spot the trick – most people won’t!

This one probably stretches the boundaries of what a puzzle is – it’s more an impossible object – or a downright confusing one at least – it begs to be fiddled with and challenges everyone’s assumptions about a simple everyday object. 

<And make sure you read the little card that comes with it - there's some important info on there, there is also some excellent humour and wordplay!> 

Thanks lads!

Sunday 8 December 2019

A puzzling weekend…

[Sorry about the hiatus – life intervened. 
Some of it has now calmed down, a bit.]

When my mate John told me he was thinking of coming to visit for a weekend, I’ll admit that my first instinct was to check whether he was serious, and whether he was swapping emails with the right Allard – John lives in Ohio, after all.

Turned out he was (on both accounts) so we laid some plans for a bit of a puzzling weekend, inviting some slightly more local puzzling mates to join us…

John duly arrived in Birmingham on the Friday morning, having survived some long flights, a technical delay because an aircraft door wouldn’t close (arguably quite important!), the London Underground and Virgin Trains. I found him at the station, took him back to Puzzling Times HQ, let him grab a shower and then gave him some lunch – although at this point his body-clock must be somewhat confused having jumped 5 hours ahead while running on a distinct lack of sleep. 

We had a quiet couple of hours thrusting various puzzles at one another and then spending time in between contemplating their solutions… or, in my case,  just bemoaning my severe lack of solving skills. During the course of the afternoon and evening John ended up giving me several puzzles to add to my hoard, including a neat new collaboration with the Kosticks, a copy of Hoffman Jr, a metal copy of George Bell’s ball pyramid and a thoroughly horrible jigsaw – which I shall bring out when the family arrive for Christmas… ought to keep ’em happy for several hours – and it’s only about 400-odd pieces… it is evil though! [Thanks John!]

Somewhere during the course of the afternoon Gill reappeared from her shed (she’d been hosting a candle-making workshop for a bunch of friends) and Frank arrived from up north – yes, the traffic had been awful as usual. Gill treated us to a yummy homemade pizza before yet more puzzling ensued in the cave. Frank had carefully sought out some lesser known puzzles to bring along and we had a good laugh when one of them turned out to be a puzzle that I’d literally received four days earlier – Mine’s Square with Wonder – type 1 in case you were, errm, wondering. 

Next morning we’d more or less tidied up the breakfast stuff when the gang began arriving for some serious puzzling. Rich and Oli had car-pooled separately as they didn’t fancy their chances of getting into Ali’s pickup truck with Big-Steve and Michael… possibly for a shorter trip? Shane and Chris completed the gang for the day.

Steve and Ali had thoughtfully both brought along their massive entanglements, keen to see if we could out-do our previous (world record, surely?!) loop of entanglements – Ali had been away on holiday for the last MPP so we “only” had 4 links… this time we had 6 – and it didn’t take long for some enthusiastic puzzlers to hook them up into a rather large necklace… which languished on the floor for most of the day (it was too bluddy heavy to move!) only moving when it was time for four of the links to head home that night.

John’s copy of Hoffman Jr was passed around and some of my visitors managed to solve it significantly faster than I had – I know, no surprises there! John had mocked up a set of regular cubies of “the same” assembly for folks to fiddle with afterwards and it is quite remarkable how easy it is to start on the regular cubie version and make some progress before finding that the last piece is the wrong shape, whereas the Hoffman Jr pieces behave exactly the opposite: finding how a couple of pieces fit together is really hard, but once you’ve done that, the puzzle virtually solves itself – isn’t that interesting?

Mine’s Square with Wonder kept a couple of people amused for a while, with Michael remarking that at first it seems as though the pieces are cut rather roughly, but then when you actually start solving it, it’s clear that they’re actually perfectly precise. It’s a fun set of challenges with a basic set of pieces and a pair of extras that get used selectively for some of the assemblies.

Michael had brought along a copy of a symmetry puzzle he’d been working on for a bit: three triangles (two obtuse and one right-angle) will make a symmetric shape. Several people tried and failed, and I’ve been trying since then as he left the pieces behind – and (to date) I have failed too. One of these days there’ll be a loud “A-Ha!” from the puzzle cave. (Don’t hold your breath! If Michael hasn’t solved it…)

Somewhere around lunchtime a couple of us did a run into the village for kebabs, pig rolls and fish suppers - you can't beat a good local tradition! It was nice actually having enough space around the dining room table for all of us to enjoy lunch together. (The puzzles had been temporarily shifted somewhere else, and straight after lunch they returned!)

I brought out a wooden crate I’d received recently for the Hastur Kickstarter from the Mysterious Package Company – I thought it would be fun and that I would be able to leverage the assembled puzzle-solving capacity in the living room at the time. I got a crowbar out of the garage and we duly opened the crate and spread the artefacts among the puzzlers – some of them obviously had a lot of effort put into them: nicely aged manuscripts and documents, old newspaper clippings, a mysterious ring and a rather menacing looking gargoyle of sorts. The gang threw themselves into trying to make some sense of the documents, there was a shed-load of information to trawl through and ultimately we ended up giving up on it, not having found a way in to any of the puzzles that have obviously been rather well hidden among the various artefacts… at some point I’m going to have to try again when I get a stretch of relative calm and some spare time.

Bill Sheckels’ puzzle clock and book had a good outing with a few people solving them and enabling me to put a battery in the clock and set the time – I hadn’t solved it yet! :-)

Rich spent quite a long time reassembling a recently acquired Kim Klobucher box that I’d managed to open, but hadn’t managed to close… over the course of a number of weeks. Thankfully Rich dispatched it fairly rapidly – and I now have some helpful sketches of the different paths dotted around the sides of the box itself – thanks mate!

Frank had brought along an experimental “Make a T” puzzle that he tried on a bunch of us over the course of the weekend. We helpfully found a couple of unanticipated solutions and he’s taking it back to the drawing board for some tweaks.

Gill made a couple of pots of homemade soup to go with some freshly baked rolls for dinner – damn good winter fare!

The boys all left at fairly sensible hours given that some of them still had a few hours’ drive ahead of them and we managed to crash at a reasonably sensible hour.

Frank left the next morning after a fine breakfast of too many croissants and plenty of bacon – Jim would have been proud of us! 
John and I spent the rest of the day walking the hounds, playing with puzzles, chatting about puzzles and then putting the world to rights and comparing our paths through life. I found it really interesting to see just how similar our approaches to solving problems in a business environment were – even though we were working in different fields on opposite sides of the world. It was great getting to spend some time just chatting with John and getting to know him – I’m really glad he had this whacky idea to fly halfway around the world to spend the weekend over here. Thanks for coming, John!