Sunday, 1 May 2016

Masterful Craftsmanship Leads to Hours of Fun!

Momus on its' stand
I've mentioned Johan Heyns quite a few times on this blog - he had stopped making puzzles for a very long time and focussed on other hobbies for a while but, dare I say it, thanks to encouragement from me as well as unfortunately losing his job, he has begun making puzzles again. Luckily for us in the community, they are available in small numbers for purchase. They are not cheap but they ARE very high quality and so far have always had something interesting about their design or solution. The Alfons Eyckmans' Cocoon puzzle is one of my all time favourites which remains on show in my living room. Today I will be focussing on another one that I couldn't resist as well as another delight that I received as a gift.

When Johan emailed out and posted on Facebook that he was going to make a batch of Momus puzzles designed by the rather prolific Terry Smart, I couldn't resist it. Terry is a Scotsman who spends much of his time working offshore on the oil rigs and hence has quite a bit of time away from his home and family which no doubt helps him hone his design skills. Having trained as a med student and junior doctor in Edinburgh as well as Fife and the Borders, I have a bit of a soft spot for anything that originates from there (yes, including Mrs S! Whack! Ouch! Of course I had to say that, dear) so when a puzzle by a Scotsman comes up - even Mrs S can't talk me out of it!

I have watched Terry begin to play with Burrtools and very rapidly become a real expert. The thing about using BT for puzzle design is that many people seem to get fixated on producing the highest difficulty level possible and the end result is a puzzle that is only solvable by super humans like Goetz (and a few others I know on Facebook). I personally only own a few very high level burr puzzles and expect that I will never be able to solve them - I top out at level 40-50 for the first piece! Terry decided to take a different route entirely in his design - he went for unusual shapes or interesting solution pathways. This interesting approach was so evident that Eric Fuller also couldn't resist producing one or two of his designs. Eric is not interested in super tough puzzles - he wants fun and interesting ones and he obviously agrees with me that Terry does just that.

Sunday, 24 April 2016

Hanayama Cast Hexagon

Cast Hexagon
I've spent a rather stressful Friday, Saturday and Sunday down in London spending many many hours sorting through my late mother's apartment and putting stuff for recycling, for charity and for the rubbish. She basically was a hoarder and never threw anything away.....EVER! I have found every birthday and Christmas card she ever received - not just from me and my brother but from anyone. There's every letter I ever sent her dating right back to 1985 when I went to Edinburgh University Medical school. I've found more shoes and handbags than even the present Mrs S has! Whack! Ouch! Yes dear, I know you will have to catch up! How many suitcases and holdalls does one woman need? What-is-more they're all full! I've made huge headway but it's a little heartbreaking to sift through somebody's life and be so brutal about what is kept and what is chucked/given away. I daren't even start on the photographs - there are 10s of 1000s of them! So I'm experimenting here - I'm taking a quick break from sorting to write a post for you! I have no wifi and only my iPad tethered to my mobile phone and using an app that is not the most intuitive to use. So here's hoping that we get something for you to read. After that there might be a wee drinkie coming my way - I think I've earned it!

Ooh! 3 new goodies!
It has been quite some time since I blogged about any new Hanayama cast puzzles - mostly because I haven't received any recently but a month or so ago I was contacted by a gentleman called Nic Picot who has started a new on-line puzzle store isn't the UK called Hanayama-puzzles.co.uk. Initially he didn't have the very newest ones in stock but promised that he would have. So I placed an order and waited. He got back to me a few weeks ago with the news and a bit of PayPal shifted. Three new toys suddenly came my way and I gleefully posted a picture on my Facebook wall and the Puzzle Photography page. I didn't want to zoom through them so I paced myself - I'm still struggling to get anywhere at all with the latest Cast Padlock. I am pleased to say that they were all well worth purchasing and I can vouch for the efficiency of Nic's site and his honesty. So if you are in the UK and wanting to buy any of the Hanayama puzzles have a look at His site. In North (or even South) America you are probably still best dealing with PuzzleMaster.

Sunday, 17 April 2016

In the Interim.....

Turn the Plug
This week has also been another rather busy one for me and not helped by the fact that Mrs S went gallivanting back up to Edinburgh to visit her family for a good few days. Now whilst this has decreased the risk of a Whack! Ouch! it has also meant that I have been left a list of chores and some DIY to do. It also means that the usual household stuff that she takes care of is left for me. This has left me rather short of puzzling time.

But in the interim I received something from Shane which I just could not resist! This is the Turn the Plug puzzle and is one of what he calls his interval puzzles i.e. they fill the gap between his major creations and in his words are not intended to be taken seriously and are just a bit of fun. I had heard about this one a while ago but never actually seen one in the flesh/wood before. It's a pretty hefty thing and for "just a bit of fun" it is beautifully finished. Apparently Shane has been chatting to a number of master craftsmen recently and been gaining knowledge about how to finish wooden puzzles. This particular puzzle has his old method and is stunning - Lord knows how beautiful things will be when he tries a new improved method! I am sure that Mrs S will not want this particular puzzle on show because of it's rather unusual hardware but it will HAVE to go on the sideboard in the dining room along with my now embarrassingly extensive Hales collection.

Sunday, 10 April 2016

Mike is a Saviour - Presenting the Tetris Octagram

This last week has been a really busy one for me with late finishes and not much time for puzzling. On top of all that, it was time, yet again, for me to write the consultant anaesthetists' on call rotas for our hospital. This is 3 separate rotas utilising 27 people with all their standing requests, one off requests as well as annual leave. When I left work on Friday night, I took with me 18 sheets of A4 paper printed double sided with all the information as well as ensuring that the various emailed requests were forwarded to my home email. Writing the rota this time took me a whopping 7 hours in front of my 24" iMac and absolutely exhausted me - I was in no fit state to solve anything or plan a blog post afterwards. To top it off, today I am on call myself and could be called in at any moment - so for this reason I am eternally grateful to my Hawaiian correspondent, Mike Desilets, for sending me a review during the week and taking the pressure off me - he didn't even know that I would be in need. This means that, if I don't get called in, I can do some of the DIY that I have been putting off for weeks - "she who must be feared" has been threatening me with another Whack! Ouch! if I don't reseal her bathroom this weekend and fix the mortice lock on the door too! So without further ado, I hand you over to Mike:

Jonathan Berindei’s Tetris Octogram. Euro in the background for scale. Looks small doesn’t it?
Aloha Kākou readers,

When you hear that greeting, you can always expect more puzzle talk from the islands. I’ve been in a writing mood lately and I find that its best to indulge the urge before it passes. It’s impossibly hard to write when you are uninspired. Thankfully, I have been greatly inspired by a few new puzzles recently, one of which I’ll cover today. This post was also stimulated by a comment on my last post from Steve (aka Boxes and Booze), which reminded me that my esteemed editor and publisher Kevin (aka The Mad Puzzler (Ed - I'm Puzzlemad not a mad puzzler! or am I?)) does not generally collect certain puzzle types—boxes for example (Ed - just trying to save myself from complete financial ruin). I was happy to realize that my post filled a gap in the blog. Thinking about it a little more, I recalled that packing puzzles also constitute a distinct minority at Puzzlemad (Ed - I just can't seem to do them). There are packers on this blog, just not very many relative to the abundance that exist. Happily for the blog, I very recently played with a great 2D packing puzzle that I think is Puzzlemad material.

I give you—the “Tetris Octogram”—designed, made, and sold by Jonathan Berindei (aka Iron Atelier) from his workshop in northern California. This very attractive version of the classic octogram is an original design. I know this because Jonathan told me so, and also because I searched high and low for similar designs and found almost nothing. The Tetris Octogram is, of course, a polyomino packing puzzle, a class which has deep historical roots. Octograms are so named for the fact that the packing space measures 8 units on a side. Other than that, there don’t seem to be any strict rules. From a design standpoint, one simply selects a set of polyominos that are challenging to pack and aesthetically pleasing. Jonathan has selected a diverse set of 13 polyominos for his puzzle consisting of 1 heptomino, 1 hexomino, 7 pentominos, and 4 tetrominos.

Pentominos are traditionally the most popular pieces for this type of puzzle (and arguably the most popular of polyominos period), but I think adding the larger hepto and hexo pieces, as well as the unassuming tetros, was a good choice. I would go so far as to claim that this is a completely unique arrangement. Of course, with all the possible combinations of polyominos available there are surely many hundreds of unique sets to choose from. All I can say is that this particular set works, both aesthetically and from a puzzling perspective. Jonathan’s original inspiration was a children’s polyomino puzzle, from which he drew some of the pieces. He then selected the rest to complement these such that the final design was “equal and proportional”. Another influence was Tetris, hence the name of the puzzle. There are four tetris-derived pieces in the puzzle, also known as tetriminos to us GenXers (Ed - that would seem to include me).

Polyomino breakdown for the Tetris Octogram.
When I first considered buying the Tetris Octogram, I was attracted to the unique construction and materials but wasn’t terribly concerned about the puzzling aspect. Polyomino packing seems somewhat mundane compared to the many highly innovative and cutting edge puzzles that populate the blogs. However, I must say that this puzzle has really grown on me. It is not easy to solve, nor is it terribly hard to solve. But it is always fun to solve. And replay value is literally unlimited. There must be thousands of possible solutions (making solving highly manageable) but it is highly unlikely that you will take the time to memorize any one of them. So each play is basically a fresh start. In typical packing fashion, you’ll get within a hair's breadth of the solution and then have to backtrack and rearrange until you can create the space you need. It’s a very satisfying puzzle with a good balance of frustration and release.

My admittedly limited research produced only one other Octogram design available on the market. This is an all-wood Octogram of quite different design (meaning different choice of polyominos) made by the Kiwis at Puzzlingworld. Their version is composed almost exclusively of pentominos and one lonely tetromino. At least two separate programmers have analyzed the Puzzlingworld Octogram, coming up with 16,146 unique solutions (excluding equivalent orientations). This gives you some idea of the order of magnitude of the solving possibilities for the Tetris Octogram.

The Tetris Octogram has its roots in the octograms of the late nineteenth century, particularly the checkerboard  puzzles. The objective there was to fit a set of polyominos into an 8 x 8 unit square such that a regular checkerboard was created. The component squares of the polyominos alternate red and white. The earliest of these, dating to the 1880s, was the Sectional Checkerboard which included 15 polys: 9 pento (2 of which are duplicated), 2 tetro (both same), 3 trio (all same), and 1 domino. This was apparently a VERY popular and long-lived parlour (Ed - corrected to the correct spelling with a U in it!!) puzzle, spawning well over 300 designs (see Slocum and Haubrich’s Compendium of Checkerboard Puzzles, or better yet, just go here).

3/16th inch iron goodness.
Laser cutters are fine, but I want a plasma cutter!
As mentioned, the appearance and materials of the Tetris Octogram puzzle really pulled me in and ultimately made me hit the “buy” button. You can see from the pictures that this is a very substantial puzzle; the exact antithesis of the jewel case packer. The packing tray is a 9.5 x 9.5" slab of ¾" oak and the puzzle pieces are 3/16" thick iron. Jonathan cuts the pieces with a computer controlled plasma cutter (Ed - drool!). The polyomino designs are created on the computer and then fed to the cutter. Note that the polyominos are very nicely rounded, making them pleasant to handle and easy on the eye. They also have a nice fit in the tray—not too tight, not too loose. Overall, it’s an excellent piece of modern craftsmanship. The puzzle looks as good in person as it does on the web page, which is not always the case these days. Given its stout construction, this puzzle will also make a great multi-generational heirloom - I’m quite sure that it will outlive me. And unlike the more obscure puzzles I own (and cherish), I believe my non-puzzling descendants will appreciate it and keep passing it down. For myself, I intend to bring this puzzle back to the family lake house (a very modest one, don’t get the wrong idea) in Vermont and play with it before a crackling fireplace, warm cup of tea in hand. Thanks Jonathan.

Hrmmmm.........?
Only three Tetris Octograms have been made to date and I am the happy owner of number three. Jonathan is not a professional puzzle designer and he does make a lot of other stuff with his machines, so I asked him if this was just a one-shot lark or whether there are more in store. I was very happy to learn that he has plans for more designs, and in more sizes. I’ll definitely be keeping an eye on that. This was a great freshman effort and I’m excited to see what else he can come up with in this rather unusual medium.

You can find the Tetris Octogram at Jonathan’s Etsy store. Price is $88 US (Ed - he doesn't seem to ship to the UK unfortunately) and he  makes them to order (pretty quickly in fact). This is not cheap, but you are getting a very high quality item of unique design. It is most definitely good value in my book. Jonathan spends upwards of three to four hours making each puzzle, plus material costs. Do the math. It’s a good deal. 


Ed - Wow!!! That looks absolutely stunning - whilst I am not a huge fan of packing puzzles because I struggle to do them and because there is just too much trial and error involved, this looks perfect. Hopefully someone will convince Jonathan to ship outside of the US so others can enjoy this great looking puzzle. I really will be interested to see what else he comes up with.
Thanks to Mike for letting me off the hook and for producing yet another stunning review - if you think you can also produce something equally informative then contact me on my Contact page.


Sunday, 3 April 2016

Gone to Bermuda......

and it ain't no holiday!

Bermudaminx - Venus is supposed to be the easiest!
I've actually been struggling to write a blog post for you this week - I have been busy at work and not actually been able to concentrate on puzzling very much. Then I caught the lurgy on Friday and felt like hell. In fact I felt so awful that I couldn't even find the energy to travel down to Birmingham and attend the 22nd Midlands Puzzle Party (sob!!) and meet up with all my mates! I must be pretty ill to miss the chance to meet the only people who actually understand and even sympathise with my madness!

The only puzzles that I have managed to spend time on have been to try a new sliding piece puzzle designed by the incredible Laszlo Kmolnar and not get anywhere at all with it and then in desperation to return to a bit of twisty puzzling. I have a bit of a backlog of twisties that I need to get through before I order some more. My friend Martin has recently lost his job with one of the city councils in England and to try and help support himself, he has set up a twisty puzzle store in the UK offering very good prices - I wanted to catch up with my backlog before ordering a few extras. If you are buying twisties and you live in the UK or Europe then have a look at what Martin has to offer - he's very reliable, in fact you will probably know him from his YouTube channel.

Quite a long time ago I decided to buy the Bermudaminxes and they arrived en mass requiring stickering which can only be described as a truly soul destroying process. But eventually I had all eight of them ready to go and even scrambled one:

Eight scary minxes - the scrambled Mercury has been like that since I got it!
I scrambled the Mercury which I just picked at random and tried to solve it for several weeks but every time I started to make progress, I made a mistake and needed to start again and then after a while I realised that I didn't really understand how I was going to go about it. It was too difficult for me! OMG - I had bought all 8 of them and they weren't cheap! I put them down for a while and promised myself that I would get back to them soon......ahem! it seems to have been nearly 2 years since then. I am slightly ashamed to admit that I have actually carried a couple of them with me every day in my workbag for the entire time and never gotten around to attempting them. Every time I picked them up I shuddered and put them down again. I know, I know, SHAME on me!

Eventually when I realised that I had a list of new ones to order from Martin, I decided it was time plus, believe it or not, I hadn't received any new wooden beauties for a while and the disentanglements that are backlogged in my queue are proving impossible:


I have put these aside for the moment and have decided to go back to the Bermudaminxes for a "refreshing change". I got advice from Jamie a while back for which order to begin them and he chose the Venus as a suitable start point. This may be the easiest but LORD! my head hurt for quite a lot of the week and Mrs S exercised the laser burning stare and the Whack! Ouch! many times due to my muttering and effing and blinding every evening.

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