Friday, 28 October 2016

Celebration of Mind 2016

Just over a week ago I had a message from Simon Bexfield to check that I’d received an invitation to his Celebration of Mind in Letchworth last Saturday. It turned out I hadn’t and I’d thought it was the following weekend (when I’d been planning to be in The Hague for DCD), so after I’d checked with management if there was anything important happening that weekend, I told him I’d be delighted to join the gathering…

…and so I found myself tooling down to Northern London on a Saturday morning – delighting in the relatively light traffic, even if there was a 15 mile section of road works with average speed cameras along the entire length. In Letchworth my sat-nav and I had a little bit of an altercation when it helpfully took me to the wrong end of the road I was trying to find … with an impassable railway bridge between me and where I wanted to be… a few minutes and a short detour later I’d found the school building I was looking for and recognised Simon unpacking as I arrived… nothing like the sight of a familiar face to confirm you’re in the right place after all.
Grabbing my plastic crate of wonders, I joined the queue inside to get a custom-made name badge from the senior junior Bexfield… complete with its own code to be solved during the course of the day…something I failed at totally!

I found an empty table and laid out a pile of Indian trick locks (and one or two recent wooden puzzles for the more hardened puzzlers) in the hopes of attracting one or two new converts to the joys of trying to solve trick locks… before wandering off to catch up with old friends.

Steve was walking around with his half-brick in a bottle – which looks a lot more impressive in real life than on FaceBook, FWIW – pointing out that it was just a half-brick, because a whole brick would obviously be impossible!

Several tables of interesting games (most of which I’d never seen before) had quite a few takers during the course of the day – at one point someone was being taught to play Hive and I should have paid attention and picked up the basics (I’ve been meaning to learn to play for a while!) but I probably got distracted by something shiny somewhere…

Simon had printed off several odd semi-spherical shapes for us to play with… they look pretty odd until you put a light source (like a camera- phone flash)  in the right spot and notice that the shadows unexpectedly cast a regular rectangular lattice…

Louise Mabbs had a wonderful display of mathematical quilting and fabric knots – hands-down the most colourful table!

Most folks got roped into giving a short talk on something vaguely Martin Gardner-related – mine was literally the briefest possible introduction to Indian Trick Locks and an invitation to play with the dozen or so I’d brought along… especially if you haven’t played with them before… and I’m delighted that I had a good few folks settle down for a good spell of puzzling…

The talks ranged from the really simple (mine!) to the wonderfully complex (Alex’s talk on counting partitions of integers had me Googling several things he’d mentioned during the following week and enjoying a little trip down a mathematical memory lane), Louise talking about her quilting designs and Natasha talking about her book on the development of the chess mind, Tim demonstrating his latest toys and Alison telling us just how interesting the number 2016 really is…

Simon set us a lovely statistical challenge: you have a tea caddy with 100 tea bags in it – they’re joined in pairs initially (it must be a North London thing!) – you successively dip in and take out a tea bag… sometimes you’ll get a pair, in which case you separate them and replace one of them in the caddy, using the other… Now clearly your first draw is never going to be a singleton, and the last draw must be a singleton… but what about the chances along the way … and when you get to the end of your supply of tea bags, what was the average probability of drawing out a single tea bag during that process?

(I should admit to feeling very silly when I checked my answer… I had massively overcomplicated things as usual!)

In between all the talks there was a cracking bring-and-share lunch and plenty of coffee to keep us going throughout the day….

Stimulating company (there were some VERY BRIGHT people there!!), toys and games, interesting talks – a damn fine thing to do in memory of the guy who did more to popularise our vices than anyone else. :-)

Sunday, 23 October 2016

Little Kenny & Little Bruce

I have a new go-to puzzle to give to unsuspecting puzzlers when I’m around and they don’t seem to already be working on something else: Little Bruce. 

Little Bruce joins Little Kenny in that category of puzzles that I know I can give to virtually any puzzler and they’ll enjoy solving it. Both have been designed and made by Ken Irvine. They both consist of just four pieces, they share a common size and shape (4*4*3) and even share an unusual little half-block somewhere that really confuses things. And they’re both named after his grandsons.

Little Kenny was a gift at IPP in Ottawa and Little Bruce was thrust into my puzzling paws in Kyoto earlier this year. Now I know that I’ve written a little about them in my various IPP blog posts, but I’ve been feeling for a while that they really need their own blog posts to give them their rightful place… so here goes!

Now, the first thing you need to know about these is that Ken is a big fan of using rotations in his puzzles – I’ve written about a couple of his designs in the past and the one thing they share, is a rotation somewhere along the way… now ordinarily, that might seem like a bit of a spoiler… trust me, it isn’t!

With both of these puzzles, the eventual shape is pretty clear from the start… as is the positioning of the various pieces – your only challenge is to work out how to get there from having a pile of pieces in your hands. 

Now when I first got my hands on Little Kenny back in Ottawa last year it took a couple of days of fiddling on and off before I finally managed to assemble it for the first time… I went through my usual stages of solving puzzles:
1.    Thinking “this should be easy”
2.    “I must be missing something obvious”
3.    Thorough bafflement
4.    Believing it isn’t possible, until finally
5.    Solving it!  

I spent quite a while on steps 3 & 4, at one time wondering if Ken was having me on and was substituting an assembled copy just to convince me that 4 incompatible pieces would actually go together… 

The final “A-Ha!” moment was worth it though!

… and a year later I was delighted to see that he’d entered it in this year’s design competition – exposing it to a whole new audience and hopefully getting a few new fans in the process!

While they were all playing with Little Kenny, Ken had given me a copy of Little Bruce which had me confuzzled all over again. 

Four pieces, a couple of spare voxels inside somewhere – lots of ways to assemble some of the pieces – and no way in heck of getting the final piece into the right place… it definitely requires some Think©ing and it rewards experimentation and rigour… and everyone I’ve given it to so far has not only solved it, but enjoyed solving it… you can’t really ask for more than that! 

[…before you ask, my copies were made by Ken and I don’t think he makes puzzles for sale… the copy of Little Kenny in the Design Competition was made by Tom (who does, and might be open to a polite request or two)… that's Tom's version on the left in Lacewood... and recently a chap called Eric has posted a picture of a Little Bruce prototype... so watch that space. You're welcome.]

Saturday, 15 October 2016


I should warn you before we start, this blog post is going to be a little different! 

Trust me, there are no spoilers in here - I know that some people will still be thinking about buying one, and MANY will still be playing with this puzzle...

I spent months on this box (on and off, as you do) and I failed to solve it… I needed help… TWICE! It is a BEAST of a puzzle … and I’m a big fan!

The SMS Box, or to give it its full pedigree name: SMS Box sequential discovery Limited Edition puzzle is Brian Young’s latest special project. While the design is credited to Brian, he makes no bones about the fact that its very existence owes a lot to Junichi Yananose’s skills at both CAD-ing and crafting. 

Getting the design properly ironed out and making 130(!) of these beauties has taken up a lot of their time over the past year… 

I resolved some time ago that I wouldn’t ever miss out on any of Brian’s limited editions again – since I started collecting puzzles more or less seriously, I have passed on one round of them and immediately regretted it, and I’ve been trying to pick up copies of those puzzles in auctions ever since – no luck yet! When Brian first offered the SMS Box, I piled in and ordered one, along with a couple of other goodies that I’d been meaning to get from him for a while, you know, to make the postage from down under worthwhile?

That package duly arrived in early July and the SMS Box really is a statement piece – it looks brilliant! Brian has literally crafted an old-fashioned telephone out of wood and hidden some puzzly-bits in the gubbins. The goal of the puzzle is to use the phone to receive an SMS… which sounds quite hi-tech for a wooden phone, but hey, I reckon Brian can do just about anything with wood… 

There’s obviously a handset on the top – which when lifted shows a couple of sprung buttons – one of which appears temporarily disabled – hopefully that wasn’t shipping damage! The cord attached to the handset tugs out of its hole in the side of the phone without showing much interesting… and there’s a huge dial on the front – beautifully made, looking rather realistic (albeit wooden!) and it turns quite freely, with the occasional interesting sounding noise…

You’ll find all of that in the first 15 seconds of playing with one of them, and that’s about as much as I progressed for several days! 

I couldn’t find anything interesting on the handset and for all I knew, the dial was purely decorative and I’d bought a solid block of wood with some strange noise-makers inside it… surely Brian wouldn’t be THAT evil, would he?

After a chat with a mate, and a little more inspiration I managed to get the dial to play a different tune, and then actually managed to make something interesting happen… PROGRESS! I had finally managed to get something to actually happen, and not only that, I could undo and re-do it at will… 

That tiny little step (a positive step, but as I now know, an infinitesimally small part of the total solution) was all I managed in my first month with this puzzle…

At about this stage I found myself in Japan where I bumped into Brian and Sue in the back streets of Japan’s second city… and as you’d expect at some point the conversation turned to the SMS Box – and I admitted to my virtually non-existent progress on said puzzle. Brian was quite sympathetic, and said that not many people had made much more progress, and then the conversation moved onto something else more interesting – probably “I’m hungry. Let’s find some dinner.”

Not much the wiser on my return from Japan, I’d pick it up every now and then and try something different… in fairness I also kept trying the same old things expecting something different to happen (yes I know! I’ve used that quote myself in the past in this very blog!). Once or twice I’d even had some brilliant flashes of inspiration in my sleep and then tried them out in the morning, only to be disappointed, again. 

One or two of my similarly confused mates would send the odd email now and then sharing their tribulations, but none of us was getting anywhere at all…

... and then an angel sent out a partial solution, suitably spoiler-warned with zero chance of anyone unwittingly seeing anything they didn’t want to… but by that time, I wanted to – so I worked my way through the document – pausing at several critical junctures to think to myself “Good grief! I would never try that…” 

Now to put things in perspective, this document talked you through the first main lock – and then stopped – that mechanism alone is thoroughly evil, brutal even… and I feel no shame in not solving it myself… if I hadn’t been given the solution to that bit, I’d probably still be where I was before I toddled off to Japan. 

Solution in hand I walked through opening the first main lock and it’s perfect… now that I understand it I can open it repeatedly – but there is NO WAY IN HECK that I’d have worked that out myself… Respect, Mr Puzzle. Deep. Respect.

From there on I was back on my own again… I had more to play with, I’d even found a use for a rather esoteric tool that I suspect many will have overlooked… found something important and I was pretty sure what needed to happen next – but I couldn’t find the right secret sauce to make it happen… 

Of course one of my mates did and duly sent me a photo proving he’d finished the puzzle – without any spoilers… he taunted me for a little while before giving me a hint – just enough of a hint to allow me to discover all manner of magic myself and experience the final reveal – which is a magical little piece of revelation all on its own – complete with Brian’s great Aussie wit. 

A lovely end to the journey…

So what do I think – of the puzzle where I needed a step-by-step solution for the first part and a hint for the second part? 

It’s terrific! 

Cheap, it ain’t. 

Brutal as a puzzle, it is. 

Buy one, you should. 

Saturday, 8 October 2016

The Bernoulli Chest # 1

One of my puzzling mates recently commissioned a rather special puzzle chest - the pictures he sent me looked spectacular, so when he offered to write up a guest blog post on it I dodn't take long to mull it over. Here it is - over to Matt:

A very special thanks to Allard for letting me ramble on in his place in the interwebs.

I’ve been seeking an everyday functional trick chest that has a few drawers that open rather simply and a few more drawers that have a vastly more complex opening sequence.

As I was pondering what type of wood I wanted the chest to made out of and look like I was reminded of the very complex and beautiful yosegi (bits of different wood formed in such a way to make geometric patterns) made by Mr. Yoshiyuki Ninomiya of the Karakuri Group. 

After searching the internet for yosegi for a while I happened across a beautiful wood jewelry chest with a strip of yosegi going around its front edge. This beautiful jewelry chest was made by Mr. Nicholas Phillips of Affine Creations and is currently the cover photo of Affine Creations Facebook account

I contacted Nicholas to see if he could make me a special trick chest with different yosegi on the drawer fronts. He was very enthusiastic about the potential project and mentioned he is fond of making Japanese style puzzle boxes and the challenge of making tricks for the chest is something he would love to take on. Based on his past work and enthusiasm I decided to take a chance and commission him to make me a trick chest.

After a few back and forths with Nicholas on drawer layout we decided on a 14 drawer layout that would bring the chest to a size of 17-1/2" tall x 14-1/4" wide and 11" deep.

Next we discussed that I would like multiple differing yosegi patterns covering the front of the drawers on the trick chest so when the chest is not being played with it will look beautiful and mesmerizing. Nicholas quickly began sketching out yosegi patterns and started building. The woods chosen for the chest were figured cherry, kiaat, and Caribbean Rosewood.

The tricks to The Bernoulli Chest # 1 vary from somewhat simple for easy access to a drawer when I’m half awake in the morning to vastly more complex for puzzling. For example, the second row has four drawers that work together in a sequential discovery puzzle in order to unlock the drawer, but to get to the key item in the first drawer that will help one open another drawer in that row one must learn how the drawer opens by itself. 

One drawer is a separate entity unto itself inasmuch as it's a self-contained Japanese-style puzzle box with sliding keys and panels. 

The last 2 rows contain a total of six drawers that work together in a kind of binary logic puzzle that releases one drawer when its corresponding drawer(s) is closed or open. 
One of the cool pictures of Nicholas building the chest on his tumblr shows how the aforementioned binary logic mechanism works, but even with a picture of the “mechanical computer” it's still quite puzzling to figure out its operation.

I’m very excited to have this trick chest in my collection and use everyday as a functional piece of art. I hope Nicholas Phillips of Affine Creations continues to make trick chests and puzzles into the future. 

 [All photos copyright of Nicholas Phillips / Affine Creations.]