February 26, 2011

Australian Flood Relief Fundraiser

Just wanted to announce a special puzzle auction at Puzzle Paradise that is running through March 12th for the purpose of providing disaster relief to Australia. 

Australia's Great Barrier Reef was recently hit by brutal flooding that wiped out many low laying communities. Those who survived were again hit with extensive damage from Cyclone Yasi the following week. The entire region is in a very desperate state, with very little in the form of relief from the government or even insurance because the majority of damage is due to flooding.

Puzzle craftsman and collector Dave Cooper was caught in the thick of it and has received substantial damage to his home and community. His job as a police officer puts him in the perfect position to help out those who are in the most desperate of needs, and any spare time off duty has also been spent out with a chainsaw helping to clean up debris.

Unfortunately, Dave has been hindered in the amount of aid he can provide due to his own home and family being affected by this crisis. All proceeds from this auction will be going primarily to Dave Cooper to provide him with the bare essentials necessary for him to focus on a community that desperately needs his service without him having to continually address the concerns of his own family’s needs. Excess funds will be given to his community in whatever way that Dave feels would best provide the most relief.

There are some incredible puzzles listed at the auction, including puzzles by Robert "Stickman" Yarger, Stephen Chin, the Pelikan Workshop, and more! Items were generously donated by members of the puzzle community.

All the money is going to a very worthy cause, so bid generously!

If you have any puzzles to spare in this effort, their contribution would be greatly appreciated. Pictures and descriptions of such puzzles can be e-mailed to John Devost at johnandbarb@eastlink.ca and will be applied in your name to this auction. To make things easier to process, those willing and generous enough to part with any of their puzzles for this cause should also consider absorbing the shipping costs to the highest bidder, or at least make arrangements to receive a separate payment for shipping costs. 

February 25, 2011

2011 New York Puzzle Party (Part 3)

It was getting pretty late at this point, but I still had a bit of an urge to puzzle, and there were plenty of puzzles to choose from! One that caught my attention was The Wave, by CMC Puzzles. Unlike many puzzles which have a lot of right angles, this one has nice curves.

The object is to get the balls from one side to the other and back again. It is a bit hard to describe, but the balls interact with both the curved grooves as well as the straight grooves below, and you can slide the panel with the curved grooves up and down in the frame.

In the photo, the top ball prevents the slider from moving any further down, but it can make it over the hump and move to the left, while the other balls keep to the right.

This seemed very similar to the classic binary puzzle (e.g. Patience Puzzle), but it didn't work quite like I expected. I'd need to study it a bit more, but I think it is somewhat different.

I had a good time with this puzzle, it was much better than my experience with their puzzle boxes. I think laser cutting lends itself more readily to puzzles of this type. The clear acrylic top was nice, and I liked the curved design. It is a fun puzzle to fiddle around with, though pretty challenging. It took me maybe 10 minutes to solve, but it could take a bit longer if you're not as familiar with this type of puzzle. Laurie Brokenshire also did it quite quickly.

Up next, I was excited to try a type puzzle that I had seen a lot of photos of recently on the puzzle forums. This is a Coin Jigsaw Puzzle by Jeremy "Grin-an" Barret". Check out his website CoinCutArt for lots more photos and to purchase these remarkable (and inexpensive!) hand-made puzzles.

Cutting coins to make interesting designs is not a new art, but Jeremy decided to take it to the next level by cutting the coins into jigsaw puzzles. This requires an extraordinarily thin blade (half as thick as a human hair) in order to minimize the material removed. Jeremy developed a special technique to reduce the number of blades he breaks, but he still goes through several on each coin!

I found the story behind these puzzles to be quite interesting: after developing his technique, Jeremy tried selling these puzzles at a craft fair disassembled in small jewelry boxes with pictures on top, just like a regular jigsaw. Unfortunately, buyers didn't believe that the puzzle would actually assemble! It seemed impossible that the pieces could be cut so small out of an actual coin.

After an unenthusiastic response by buyers, he reassembled some of the puzzles and put them in transparent coin flips. He noticed that now the puzzles looked like coins again, so perhaps buyers would be more likely to purchase them. Indeed they were: customers were amazed and baffled that such a feat was even possible! Jeremy quickly sold out, and now coin puzzles are his most popular item.

You can get all different coins and numbers of pieces: dimes are 12 pieces and the silver dollar above is 25 pieces, which take between one and three hours to make. Jeremy spent 18 hours making a 52-piece puzzle out of a 1921 Silver Morgan Dollar!

I guess that's enough background: on to the puzzle! Most people will be content just marveling at how these coin jigsaws were crafted, but I wanted to see how hard it was to put it back together. Brett was kind enough to let me disassemble one of his, and I decided to start with a large one, the silver dollar shown above.

It was very neat seeing the tiny pieces as I scrambled them up. I quickly realized that one of the main challenges is recognizing the front and back of the pieces! Both sides are silver, and since they are so small it is hard to see patterns. I started out with the edges and any words I could find, since those were easier. I think it took me about 15 minutes to get it back together. Probably not something I'd do over and over again, but I was happy to see that it was doable! Some folks may prefer using tweezers (particularly on smaller coins), but I liked using my hands.

If you're ever trying to solve one of these, I would suggest assembling it in the case it came in! I did it on a table and it was a pain getting it back in the case! I tried to just move it, but half of it fell apart and I had to put it back together. The second attempt, I was smarter and used a piece of paper to make the transfer. Phew!

I think the last puzzle I accomplished Friday evening was an exchange puzzle that Laurie Brokenshire brought, named CuBeAll. Laurie had exchanged it (I think) at the IPP two years ago in San Francisco, and it is designed and crafted by Vaclav Obsivac (a.k.a. Vinco).

The objective is to create this cube shape. There are eight pieces, one of which is a hexagonal loop! The others are either three balls in a row, or three balls at an angle. Laurie told me a clever story about how pool cues went through the set of balls and got stuck, but some ended up getting bent. It was fairly elaborate, but that's all that I remember!

As a puzzle, I found it to be top notch! I was puzzled for a while, but eventually I figured it out by using logic, which is the most satisfying type of puzzle. I have a really hard time with puzzles constructed using spheres, such as George Bell's designs, and this one was no exception. I've found that it really helps if I look at a picture of the completed puzzle. Even though it is just as "simple" 3x3x3 cube, it helps me to be able to look at the completed form and visualize how the pieces can fit inside it.

It is expertly crafted by Vinco to have a nice tight fit. The final piece snaps into place and holds the whole thing together. Very cool! Once I had solved it, Laurie cruelly informed me that I didn't have the checkering pattern! Fortunately, it turned out to be a fairly easy thing to fix, and as you can see in the photo above I got it!

At this point, it was well past midnight and we needed to get to sleep for the puzzle party, so folks headed to bed. Next up, I'll cover the actual puzzle party!

February 24, 2011

2011 New York Puzzle Party (Part 2)

While hanging out at Brett Kuehner's house before the New York Puzzle Party, I also had the chance to try a few puzzles made by Brett's brother and son! His son Kai Kuehner is a Lego master, and he created some interesting puzzles out of Legos. They're not quite puzzle boxes: each one has a goal of revealing a jewel/shiny part of some sort.

This first one had a pretty simple appearance, and the goal was to reveal a jewel. You'll immediately notice that there's a little rod that can be removed on the right. Perhaps it is a tool! I do like puzzles with tools involved.

The solution is fairly simple, but satisfying. There is a spring-loaded mechanism: I always like it when something pops into place, quite satisfying! This was also the sturdiest of the three Lego puzzles, which I liked. You don't want to be afraid of breaking a puzzle while you're working on it!

The next one I tried is very unusual looking! It looks like some strange machine of some sort, with struts for support on the right hand side, and a spring-loaded mechanism on the left. The goal of this one is to reveal some clear green pieces.

I studied it for a bit, wiggling things here and there, and eventually found the solution. It is not too hard to find, but the mechanism is clever. Kai removed a panel so I could get a better look at the mechanism: he said he was most proud of the mechanism for this one! I agree that this mechanism is the most interesting of the three, though all of them are cool.

The last one I tried had a cute appearance, it reminded me of an elephant, though I guess the ears are where the eyes are supposed to be! This one was fairly fragile, but I managed to solve it without breaking it.

The solution for this one is a bit simpler mechanically than the others, but it was more like a puzzle box mechanism than the others. In fact, it is a bit similar to one of the Karakuri Creation Group small boxes. Very cool!

I hope he keeps it up! It is always exciting to get to try a puzzle that is one-of-a-kind! You never know what to expect. While I'm on the topic of Lego puzzles, you should definitely check this out. It is a multi-compartment Lego puzzle box that used about $800 worth of pieces. Incredible!

The next Kuehner creation that I tried was a puzzle made by Brett's brother, Soahn Kuehner. It is a beautiful, large, egg-shapped puzzle with a stand. It had a great finish on it, and the grain of the wood was very nice. Since it is mostly solid wood, it has a hefty weight as well.

The goal of this puzzle is to open the egg. I had tried some other puzzles by Brett's brother, so I knew this one wouldn't be easy. I tried the usual things (whacking, shaking, spinning), and spinning ended up working! I checked with Brett, and unfortunately it wasn't the intended solution. No spinning required!

The actual solution is quite a bit more clever, but I didn't really figure it out since I saw the mechanism. It is pretty subtle, but I think if I had spent more time with it, I could have gotten it. The one thing about this one is that the mechanism is a bit unreliable, which can be frustrating if you don't know what the right sequence of moves is. Still, it is a beautiful puzzle and a clever mechanism that I haven't seen before!

Well, that's all for now, but I'm still not through all the puzzles I worked on Friday night! One more post should do the trick, then I'll get to the actual puzzle party. Stay tuned!

February 23, 2011

2011 New York Puzzle Party (Part 1)

The weekend before last was the annual New York Puzzle Party! Brett Kuehner was kind enough to invite me to stay at his house again this year, along with a few other puzzlers: Rob Stegmann, Laurie Brokenshire, and Tanya Thompson. With all these awesome people, it was sure to be a good time!

I took a half day at work and headed down toward Brett's place a bit early because I wanted to stop by Jose Grant Jewelry to look for puzzle wedding rings. I guess I should have written that post first, but I think I'll save that entry for when I get the final ring!

I think I arrived at Brett's around 5:00, and I was very glad to have come early. It turns out that Oskar van Deventer and his wife also there, though he would be staying at Tom Cutrofello's home that night.

The first puzzle that caught my eye was this interesting geared 2x2x2 design by Bram Cohen and Oskar van Deventer. There are four "big" corners and four "little" corners. The big corners mesh with the adjacent little corners, so if you rotate one, all eight corners will rotate! However, since the big corners have more teeth, the small corners rotate faster.

If that was all there was to the puzzle, then it would be impossible to scramble it since there is only one move: everything rotates at once, so just keep rotating till you get back to the start. However, as you can see in this second photo, you can also expand the cube along any of the three axes. This causes the left and right halves (for example) to rotate independently!

If you scramble it with these moves, it becomes a challenge to get it back together. Unlike most of these fancy cubes which folks won't let you scramble because they're too hard or time consuming to solve, this one was already mixed up when I found it, so I was able to try solving it!

I was able to get all but two corners done fairly easily, but any time I would fix those two I would end up messing up two more! Eventually, I figured it out, but I'm not sure I could reproduce the feat any quicker the second time. I think if I analyzed this puzzle more, I could probably come up with some algorithms to solve it more easily, but I was having fun just playing with it. The movement was nice and smooth for a 3D printed puzzle! You can purchase it (unassembled) on Shapeways for only $130, which is pretty reasonable.

Next, I saw gleaming on the table a T3 Popplock by Rainer Popp that Rob had brought for me to try solving. Rainer makes some beautiful puzzle locks that are machined out of brass. So far, I've only had the chance to solve T4 Popplock, which was incredible! Check out my review here.

I was particularly eager to try this lock because a new puzzle blogger named Oli (Oli's Mechanical Puzzle Blog) mentioned that this was his favorite out of the three he has tried so far T2, T3, and T4 (click for his reviews). I really loved T4, so it was hard to imagine that T3 could be even better!

I found this one to be challenging! The first move wasn't too bad, but then I hit a wall. I was able to fiddle with it a bit, but nothing really seemed to be productive. After a short while, I made an observation that I thought would be critical to solving the puzzle, though I wasn't quite sure what to make of it. After setting the puzzle aside and returning to it later, I revisited this observation and discovered the next and final move! It is pretty unusual and unexpected. In all, I think it took me a good 45 minutes to solve this one.

It was good, but I have to say that T4 is still my favorite! I found T4 to be more difficult, but the solution to me was more unexpected and interesting. Both are very cool though! I'm still on the fence about buying any of these, since they're quite expensive. You can purchase T3 and T5 on PuzzleMaster, but T4 is currently sold out.

I was excited to see that Tanya had brought copies of some of ThinkFun's newest puzzles. One puzzle was Tilt, which I helped test a few months ago. It was very neat seeing how it ended up working physically, since I had worked with a software version. Full review to come soon, but the short version is that it is a great puzzle! It is for sale now on Amazon.

Amazingly, Laurie managed to plow all the way through another game Tanya brought, called Pathwords, which I had also helped test. I think this one also turned out very well! I'll be providing a review of this at some point in the future as well.

After checking out these puzzles, I tried out a puzzle that Robert brought called Diagonal Cube. It a Stewart Coffin design that George Bell created to be printed at Shapeways. You can purchase it from his Shapeways Shop here.

I thought this one would be pretty easy, your typical coordinate motion exploding cube, but this wasn't the case! All six pieces are actually different, which makes the assembly a good deal more challenging.

I worked on it for a good 20 minutes or so before I figured out the correct assembly. When I finally did figure it out, then came the challenge of actually getting the last piece in place! It required some tricky coordinate motion to maneuver it into the correct spot.

Here's a dyed version created by George. I love the way it looks with multiple colors, sort of like a harlequin pattern. It reminds me of a square juggling ball. However, since he's colored opposite pieces the same color, that would help you figure out the solution.

Definitely worth checking out for a very reasonable price (about $26). I hope George makes more Coffin designs on Shapeways!

That's all for now! Next up, I'll be writing about a beautiful puzzle by Brett's brother, and some Lego puzzles made by his son Kai! (Here's a photo Brett took of the group during dinner.)

February 11, 2011

Visit to Saul's House

Saul Bobroff is a puzzle collector with a great collection who lives fairly close to me, and a month ago he was kind enough to invite me to his house! I had been there about a year and a half ago for a Boston-area puzzle party that he hosted, which I wrote about here.

My main reason for stopping by was to test out a puzzle he is producing. It was quite cool, but I can't give you any more info than that for now. How mysterious! I brought the Karakuri Club Christmas presents and Gordian Knot Puzzle Box, which kept Saul busy while I was working on his puzzles.

After working on the mystery puzzle, he brought out this puzzle by Hirokazu Iwasawa (a.k.a. Iwahiro). Iwahiro has created some very cool puzzles that I wrote about previously, such as award-winning Odd Packing Puzzle, MMMM, and Dinghy.

As you can see from the diagram in the photo, there are seven pieces that you're trying to fit into a box with holes in it. As is frequently the case with Iwahiro puzzles, it involves coordinate motion (moving multiple pieces at the same time).

I think it took me about 5 minutes to solve this one. I could sort of tell how it was going to work, but actually implementing the solution took quite a bit of dexterity, since six of the pieces need to move at once. Also, there are holes on every side of the box, so it is quite easy for something to accidently fall out while you are working on it.

The one thing about this puzzle is that the frame is made out of particle board, which gives it a rough feel. This is the same material he used for ODD Packing Puzzle and MMMM, but due to the motion required in this puzzle, I found the roughness somewhat more annoying than usual. It lacks the elegant simplicity of the previous three puzzles I mentioned, but is still a fun little puzzle and a good challenge!

Next, Saul brought out a box that contained a number of puzzles by Frank Chambers! Frank has created a number of interesting puzzles out of corian, which is an unusual choice of materials.

This was his exchange puzzle for IPP 22. It consists of a cylinder with a ball in it, and the idea is to get the ball out of the cylinder. On one end of the cylinder is an opening, but it is obstructed by a plastic part that the ball won't quite fit through. There is a plunger on the other side, but it isn't long enough to give the ball a good push through the plastic obstruction.

This one had me stumped for a little while, but eventually I figured it out. I think it took about 10 minutes. It seemed impossible, but indeed there is a clever solution that I eventually discovered. Getting the ball back in was another problem, because you don't have the plunger to help you out! That took a bit of doing, but eventually I got it back in.

Here's another puzzle by Frank called The Oriental Toothpick Safe. It was his IPP21 exchange puzzle. This is a puzzle box, so I was intrigued to see how it would work.

The lid will slide left or right and sometimes it will slide a bit further, but it won't quite come off! Quite perplexing. After about 30 minutes, I started to see what the pattern was, and shortly after that I was able to open it. Still, I wasn't quite sure what the mechanism was, and probably wouldn't be able to reproduce the feat again quickly at that moment.

The mechanism is hidden even with the box open, but by removing the black plastic stopper, the lid will slide all the way off, revealing the mechanism. Saul was kind enough to let me do this, and I was quite surprised to see that the mechanism is actually the same as Maple Chest by CMC Puzzles! However, since the construction is better, the mechanism works as intended much more reliably. Also, since there is no gap between the lid and the box, my solution to maple Chest would not work. This makes for a much more subtle and interesting puzzle. I really liked this one because it requires you to pay attention to what's going on as you manipulate it.

There were a few others I tried, but the highlight of my visit was the chance to work on a Stewart Coffin original Rosebud! As you can see from the photo, it is a beautiful-looking puzzle! Check out the link above for nicer photos. Also, check out this link to Stewart Coffin's description of this puzzle in The Puzzling World of Polyhedral Dissections.

The really amazing thing about this puzzle is that if you position your hands in just the right place, all six pieces simultaneously expand outwards, like a rose opening. Beautiful! There is a small pin that keeps the puzzle from coming apart accidently as you do this, because it is a real beast to get back together!

Here's an excerpt from Coffin's description that really intrigued me:
A few of these puzzles were produced some years ago and sold unassembled. After sufficient time had elapsed and almost none had been solved, the customers were given the opportunity to purchase (for an outrageous price!) an assembly jig and directions. With these, it is easy. Without the jig, it can be done with patience, using tape and rubber bands. Without such aids, it has been done but borders on the impossible.
That sounded like a challenge to me! This puzzle has come up for sale at various auction sites, but never at a price I could afford, unfortunately. I really wanted a copy since it is such a beautiful design! Also, I wanted the chance to try something that borders on the impossible.

Saul was kind enough to give me this chance: I was thrilled when he said that I could take it apart completely, just as long as I got it back together eventually. He said I could always take it home and work on it if I got stuck. It turns out that I'm actually the first person to have taken this puzzle apart, he bought it directly from Coffin and hasn't been foolhardy enough to take it apart yet.

So, with some trepidation, I removed the safety pin and expanded the puzzle to the point where it collapsed. What had I gotten myself into! I was soon left with six pieces, and little idea on how I would restore them to their original position.

After I had gotten oer the shock, I started to put the pieces together again. I assembled three pieces to form the top, and three pieces to form the bottom, but of course you can't just put them together, they need to be expanded to the point of collapse in order to fit! Much like the way I solved Spinning Icosahedron, I tried putting in one piece at a time. The first three were easy, then the fourth, but the fifth was really difficlt to get in!

You have to push the pieces out in the coordinate motion while keeping them from falling out of place, and then slide the piece in. Phew! Here's a photo of me after about 30 minutes of working on this damn puzzle, looking a bit haggard. Now how do I get the sixth piece in? Surely this would be even tougher.

Indeed it was! Again, I expanded the puzzle to the point of collapse, and tried to insert the sixth piece ever so carefully. Unfortunately, luck was not on my side and the whole thing collapsed!

This happened a few times, but after about an hour, I finally got it back together. Saul was over in the kitchen, and I proclaimed with glee that I had done it. Here's a photo of me beaming after I had done it.

I was pretty proud to have done it with no tape or rubber bands. I tried using the bubble wrap in front of me to give the pieces a bit more traction when setting the puzzle down, but the final piece was placed using just my hands. Needless to say, I will not be trying to do this again anytime soon, it was quite an ordeal!

I can't express how thrilled I was to finally get to try this puzzle. I had been wanting to do this since I first read about it in The Puzzling World of Polyhedral Dissections, so it was great to finally get a chance to do it. I'd still love to buy a copy at some point (not necessarily a Coffin original) so let me know if you have one you're willing to part with!

Thanks again to Saul for inviting me into his home! It was great seeing him and chatting about puzzles.

February 4, 2011

Meffert's Megaminx

Previously I have reviewed the Megaminx offered by ThinkGeek, and thought that it was an interesting puzzle but it jammed frequently. Puzzle Master recently sent me a version of the Megaminx produced by Meffert's, a manufacturer of high-quality twisty puzzles. I was quite interested to see how this version compared to the version I already owned.

The first thing I noticed is that the movement is much, much smoother. The ThinkGeek Megaminx locked up incessantly, but this one jams quite a bit less. It still is an issue, but it is much better in this version.

Meffert's Megaminx has PET stickers, which are known for wearing out and falling off, so that's a bit unfortunate. Serious speed-cubers will want to replace these stickers with better ones, but that's not my cup of tea so I won't be bothering to do that. Here's a photo of the ThinkGeek Megaminx stickers for comparison. You can see that they're thick plastic, and aren't likely to fade or peel. They could fall off, but you can just glue them back on.

Another gripe I had about this puzzle is the color choice. Generally, it is not bad, but for some reason they chose to have two shades of orange on adjacent faces, which is quite confusing. I found myself needing to move to an area with better light so I could tell the difference. There is also a blue and teal that are quite easy to confuse. The ThinkGeek version also had this issue, but at least similar colors were not adjacent. I guess it is hard to choose 12 colors that you can't confuse!

There were also a number of spots where the stickers were pretty far off center. Not a big deal, generally, but some are close to the edges which makes me worried that they'll get caught and peel off.

With all the gripes I'm pointing out, you'd think that I didn't like this puzzle! Despite all of this, I'd definitely recommend getting a copy: it is about $30 while the ThinkGeek Megaminx is $10, but the much smoother operation is defnitely worth it.

If you haven't tried a Megaminx, this is definitely a good twisty puzzle to try if you want something significantly more difficult than the Pyraminx. I think most people will be able to solve a good amount of it by thinking their way through it, but the last layer is difficult. If you get stuck, there is a great solution algorithm posted here.
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