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!

Sunday 10 November 2019


This one was extra large in some senses, and small and intimate in others… but it was still a whole lotta fun, or rather, that was the majority view… 

The motorways were rammed so it turned out to be a good thing that Stefan’s flight from Munich and Rob’s flight from Amsterdam had been delayed just a little bit - the universe smiled on me and they were both delayed by virtually exactly the same duration and ended up walking out into the arrivals hall within three minutes of one another – I like it when arriving puzzlers are that co-ordinated! Heading home the motorways were even more jammed so we ended up taking the round-about-hardly-scenic route to Barnt Green. 

We assigned the boys their rooms and Stefan was allowed an actual bed for the first time – well, for the first time while he was visiting us – I’m sure he has a bed at home… Gill laid on a scrumptious meal and a grand dessert before the puzzling began in earnest. 

Nick put in a brief showing and had some success on an early Strijbos Cola bottle that he’d been meaning to try. (Other Nick’s may be available.) I spent some more time unsuccessfully trying to solve a number of things I’ve been working on recently while Rob and Stefan skipped through a bunch of things they hadn’t tried before, including a number I’d been trying unsuccessfully to solve for absolute ages.

Next morning we opened up the hall and set out the tables, and got the tea and coffee station up and running…. with plenty of biccies – puzzle-solving fuel!

Dale was first to arrive, bringing along a crate full of puzzling goodness for anyone to help themselves to…. Steve, Rich and Oli rolled in soon after and they proceeded to unload a serious pile of puzzles: Steve had brought along a number of seriously extra-large puzzles in keeping with the theme – I don’t think I’ve ever seen a ball that big! Rich went in a slightly different direction and brought along three large boxes of puzzle pieces, disassembled and already mixed across the three boxes – we know this because Steve offered to "help" him by scrambling the pieces among the different boxes only for Rich to tell him not to bother as he’d already taken care of that. 

Kevin arrived looking somewhat shattered after the drive down and presented Steve with a bag full of Happiness – or rather pieces of Happiness – left over from his last visit where they’d oscillated between being assembled, and not, as we took Kevin on a bit of a rollercoaster ride – they ended that day disassembled, a state that appears to have pervaded until now…

Steve seemed to know exactly what to do and immediately ran over to Rich’s boxes of bits and distributed all this Happiness among the three boxes more or less evenly. (I may have been encouraging him and waving around a twenty-pound note… safe in the knowledge that the Happiness pieces are reasonably distinctive and Rich’s bits of Happiness were in a separate bag at the time – I’m not a total bastard!) 

Kevin didn’t immediately see the humour in all of this. In fact it’s probably fair to say that crest-fallen would be a reasonable description – he seemed to be in a pretty dark place – so Steve lightened the mood by mixing up the pieces in the boxes so the Happiness wasn’t just lying on the top. Kevin took himself off for a cup of something warm and something chocolatey. 

Normal service resumed: we sat around and puzzled a bit. Occasionally someone would say something to Kevin and he’d give a muted response – glancing across at the boxes of un-Happiness every now and then and muttering something about shoes – it sounded a bit like “-soles”.

I collected Ed from the station and he began fondling and solving puzzles we thought he might enjoy, or not. Some wag gave him a copy of Tower of London – something I’ve been struggling with for ages… suffice it to say that Ed solves puzzles way better and faster than me and he was soon demonstrating to all around that he’d solved it, before resetting it again for the next victim. 

Steve and I had both brought along our massive disentanglements that he’d procured from Japan, keen to see whether we could make one really big disentanglement… luckily for us we had an entanglemaster in our presence – and he was just about talking to us – so we challenged him to make a long chain – he did that easily! And then we wondered out loud if it might be possible to make a chain – something that would probably have been a lot easier if Ali hadn’t been in Cyprus and had brought his copy along too. Turns out Kevin made that look pretty simple too so we gave Steve a bit of a workout by asking him to pose in various positions with 12kg of disentanglement. (For some reason it took ages to get the camera properly focused.) 

We tried to goad Ed into having two kebabs on the grounds that it was after all XL day – he didn’t fall for it, but did justice to his usual single kebab… some of us stuck to the usual pig rolls – others were tempted to try the kebabs and wraps from Peter’s Pan. Nobody was disappointed with their choices. 

After lunch someone pointed out that Steve’s big ball was now rattling – something it hadn’t been doing earlier that day… further inspection showed that some of Kevin’s Happiness had transmogrified into Steve’s big ball… Kevin muttered and set about removing several pieces of said ball to retrieve his lost Happiness. [Hey! That works on so many levels!] Having retrieved his Happiness (sadly only literally, not figuratively) he kindly reassembled Steve’s big ball. 

Steve brought along the medium-sized Nova Plexus and we were pretty keen to assemble it, having seen how easy Ali made it seem on Rob’s dining room table a couple of weeks earlier. Out came the massive rubber bands, the hammer and a set of three-times-normal-scale Nova Plexus bits. Several people had a bash – quite literally – at assembling it – most of us coming reasonably close, but never quite able to get the last one or two joints to line up properly… at one point Steve and I managed to come close enough to remove all the bands and still have it hold together – and we were moderately proud ourselves – at least until Kevin took a hammer to it and reproduced the start position with some loud clanging – apparently he hadn’t quite forgiven us, yet. 

At some point in the afternoon Rich and Chris sat themselves down among much Happiness and reduced it to a mere handful of Happiness Cubes, which Kevin literally pounced upon and secreted away to avoid a repeat of the previous two occasions when they’d been rapidly disassembled again at this stage in the process. I’d like to think that he ended up going home with less Happiness than he arrived with, but he may disagree. 

Amy stormed through a huge number of puzzles and seemed pretty happy to take on just about any sort of challenge the guys could throw at her, including some well-dodgy banter that probably managed to stay just about on the right side of harassment. 

Adin and Oren popped in for a few hours in the afternoon – successfully bringing out Steve’s inner kid and giving him a better-than-usual excuse for rolling around on the floor, much to Steve’s Oren’s delight. 

John had brought along a lovely little selection of antique puzzles and he entertained folks with stories of puzzles getting in the way of the real business in the family store and cluttering up the storeroom. 

As per my usual strategy, I took along a couple of puzzles I’d been struggling with and sure enough, I manged to con someone into solving it for me. In my defence, it took Rich quite a long time to solve my copy of BioTIC… I’d been struggling with it for weeks and it took him at least half an hour to show me just how rubbish I am at solving these damn TICs!

I think Kevin left almost as happy as he was when he first arrived – although there may have been a noticeable dip somewhere in between. John and Dale opted to head home before the darkness set in and then somewhere around five thirty the rest of us packed up and headed to chez Walker for fish suppers and more puzzles. 

[At this point I’d managed to avoid any news of the Rugby World Cup Final, but when I was paying Shawn for the hall, the rugby-mad Irishman couldn’t help himself from saying how well my boys had played and how chuffed I must be with the result… I watched the recorded game on the Sunday afternoon and he was right. Turns out that deep down I’m still a Springbok supporter at heart.] 

The fish and chips go down well and the puzzling gets serious. [Lovely little aside for you here: I'm collecting the fish suppers at Peter's and the proprietor asks me where Ali is? - Ali has clearly made a huge impression at my chippie!] 

Amy’s been encouraged to solve Brian’s Houdini Torture Cell and Mount Fuji before some wag suggests she’ll really enjoy Shane’s Viper – Steve keeps count of the number of times she shrieks with “enjoyment” before solving it…

When I take Ed to the station, I leave him in the care of a number of young folks dressed for some serious partying – they promise to get him off the train in Birmingham for his connection – I’m sure they did. 

Apropos of absolutely nothing, has anyone heard from Ed recently?

Back at the house, Stefan and Amy have graduated to the serious stuff: Stefan is probing Katie and Amy is in search of Wil’s Angel’s heart. At one point I’m in the box room when Amy comes in to borrow an endoscopic surgical instrument … earlier someone had asked if I had a really strong magnet so they could help Stefan who’d done something he probably shouldn’t have to Katie. 

Later that evening a shot of Amy with a partially disassembled Angel Box makes it onto social media, along with a large pair of pliers and said endoscopic instrument in the foreground – she’s smiling at least… and I think the box ended up properly back together again. Katie managed to withhold her secrets… and it’s probably fair to say that the SMS Box thoroughly defeated Rich. (Is that a first?)

At some point Amy decided she wanted a go on a Hokey Cokey Lock. After a good while of trying all she could think of, we encouraged her to go through the dance because that would make everything clear – helpfully Steve was free at the time – so the entrance hall became dance hall and the interweb was duly blessed with footage of Amy and Steve dancing the Hokey Cokey, much to my hounds’ amusement. 

Everyone left at a vaguely sensible hour and the locals crashed almost immediately thereafter.

A few hours more puzzling in the morning, interrupted by a smashing bacon and cheese croissant brekkie before I took the lads back to the airport for their flights to AMS and MUC en route to SOF. That afternoon I settled down on the couch to watch SA take the world cup from my current country. The roots are still strong. 

It may have been smaller than usual, some of the usual crowd might not have been there, but the banter and giggles were definitely extra-large. 

Yeah, it’s probably worth doing it all again sometime in the future.