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!


  1. "bemoaning my severe lack of solving skills"....
    You're a bluddy genius compared to me!


  2. Thank you and Gill for opening your home to me. You are not just down the road, but it was worth the trip to get to know you better and be overwhelmed by your puzzle collection. inviting other puzzlers over on Saturday was a bonus. A special thanks to Gill for cooking. It was not expected.

    What is she going to do when you take over her "shed"?

    1. I'm not sure I'm brave enough to even consider asking THAT question, John! :-) [It was great having you around!]

  3. I want to clarify that the only collaboration with the Kosticks on my part for the puzzle I brought was to help with some beveling, sanding and finishing. The puzzle was designed and prototyped by John Kostick, Jane cut and sized the pieces in her typical perfection and glued them together with the tiniest bit of help.