Sunday 22 November 2015

I Need to Think Outside of the Box

Road Blocks
Today's blog post is to show how two of my new puzzles forced me to change my thought processes and got me back to thinking "outside of the box".

I am pleased to say that I have survived the onslaught of the laser burning stare! In fact the present Mrs S did say to me that she had her eye on a particular handbag that she was waiting for the Xmas sale to start before purchasing. She told me the current cost and I gulped internally but didn't break gaze with her for even a second! After this complete lack of a flinch, she nodded internally and it would appear that my recent spending spree is almost forgiven as it hasn't impaired her ability to buy what she desires. She has also been watching me in the evenings and has seen how much fun I have had with them and grudgingly admitted that I seem to have gotten my money's worth. Phew!!! I haven't dared tell her about the next one that I have ordered! Whack! Ouch! Sorry dear.

The first puzzle was one of the pair that I bought from Tom Lensch (the website has not been updated in a long time) when he announced that he was making a limited supply of a few IPP design competition puzzles to order. Whilst I would have liked to have bought the whole lot, this was impossible for fear for my life at the hands of "she who must be cringed from". I chose two - the RackTangle (because I am addicted to N-ary puzzles) and the Road Blocks both designed by the incredible Goh Pit Khiam. This beautiful puzzle is made with a Maple box and pieces from Bocote, Indian Rosewood, Yellowheart and Canarywood. It arrived with the pieces separate from the tray/box and the goal is to pack the four blocks into the box. Now I know I am awful at packing puzzles and have said so many times and even threatened to stop buying them completely. The problem is that I have a very short memory (probably secondary to head injury from home violence) and I am also easily side-tracked by beautiful wood! I did initially think that this was going to be a sliding block puzzle because of the little tabs on the pieces and the space for them in the box.

Now here is where I prove myself yet again to be not terribly bright! I must have spent about 10 minutes trying to solve this as a sliding block puzzle - putting the pieces into the box one at a time and then sliding them about into different positions before attempting to put the next piece in. The 2 levels in the box do not line up vertically above each other and the 2 pieces of the blocks are also not aligned either. This has the effect that a piece will be flush with the lower rail in the box but there is a gap at the top. After that aforementioned 10 minutes I had my Aha! moment and decided that I needed to think "outside of the box"..... literally! I spent a nice few minutes examining the shapes of the pieces and how they can interact with each other and the penny dropped that I might have previously been attempting the impossible - that was Aha! moment number 2 and after a further experimentation there was a third one - great value for money! I have hidden the solved puzzle behind a button - click if you wish to see the final positions of the pieces.

I have taken this to work for a week and handed it to a few trainees and colleagues and have very much enjoyed watching the thought processes they go through. One took a very long time to think the obvious fact through but one plastic surgeon just jumped to the right conclusion straight away and solved it faster than me. One puzzler has pronounced that he thought it was too easy but I actuall disagree - it isn't particularly tough but it is fun to have those 3 separate discoveries that you need to solve it. The important feature is thinking outside of the box.

One Hole
The next puzzle to illustrate my point is the One Hole puzzle recently produced by Eric Fuller. The designer of this beauty is Bram Cohen (yes, the Founder and CEO of BitTorrent) and it is made with an Ash box and Shedua pieces which form a marvelous contrast. Eric said this about this puzzle:
I haven't made any of Bram's designs in a while, but this one caught my eye. A simple box with simple pieces that is anything but simple to solve. The interlocking solution is a unique level which if you're a nerd like me is kind of amusing. There's plenty of room in the box, and with over 40k solutions but only one assemblable, you'll soon be cursing Bram's name. Just remember to blame him, not me. I'm just the woodworker.
The construction of this puzzle is pretty badass. The box uses an elegant, labor intensive hybrid of shoulders and miters for excellent strength and visual appeal.
I have to agree about the workmanship - several colleagues have an interest in woodwork and they were very impressed at the joinery that went into the box.

I purchased this because of the interlocking nature and also because I wanted to see the joinery myself. I was surprised that the puzzle was to be sent out assembled as this would mean that the solution would be visible from the start and maybe ruin the puzzling. Silly me! I should have trusted Eric - the pieces are packed and hidden inside - there is no way to see how they are organised inside and this really lulls you into a false sense of security. Immediately after it arrived I investigated the movement of the first piece and saw the constraints caused by the 1 unit hole. A couple of moves were possible and then nothing more - was it broken? Had a packing peanut got caught inside? Nope! After a bit of frenzied shaking about more moves were possible and the first 2 pieces came out in quick succession.
"Better put them back now whilst I can for the photo", I thought to myself.
 Too late! Things had moved internally and I couldn't put the pieces back inside. After about 30 minutes of trying I abandoned it and took the full disassembled photo above. Of course there had been quite a lot of movement in the interim and I had actually managed to carry out some rotations too of the last 3 pieces having stuck my little finger through the hole. This meant that I had ABSOLUTELY NO IDEA how they should be oriented inside. But it is a packing puzzle with just a 3x3 cube, how hard can it be? After another 10 minutes of putting pieces in the box and losing them or rotating them and getting them caught in impossible diagonal positions, I decided it was again time to "Think Outside of the Box". Phew - you knew I'd get there eventually!

Thinking Outside the Box - NO! This is not the solution!
I made a few cubic shapes (obviously there have to be holes to allow movement) and then tried to put them in the hole. After a fair while attempting this I looked at Eric's product page again and had a little heart attack at the thought of having to try 40,000 different assemblies (knowing my luck, I would require all 40k before getting it).

This puzzle is definitely NOT a matter of luck - it HAS to be solved by pure logic and thought. Fairly early on I realised that certain pieces could only be placed in a limited set of orientations in order to allow them to pass through that hole and also there has to be a certain place for the gaps to be left to allow the initial movements of the first piece. I worked on this aspect for several days before I realised that there was even more to it than orientation. I suddenly recalled that I had had to shake the puzzle about a bit to allow subsequent movements after the first 2 - there is a gravity locking system in place inside here and of course, I needed to work it out from scratch! This is easier said than done!

During a rare lunch break at work, I got this out and with the help of one of the anaesthetic assistants, I gradually homed in on possible mechanisms for the locking pieces to move and how they could be manipulated blind to allow the shape to be assembled through the hole. I think it must have taken me 4 days of puzzling before I finally had an assembly outside of the box that would definitely work and after a fair struggle with my awful memory I managed to put it back together to take this picture:

This is NOT just a packing puzzle
I have given this to a couple of colleagues to pay with and allowed them to dismantle it first before working on the final pieces and everyone has struggled! I am not even certain that this should be classified as a packing puzzle! It is an interlocking solid or even a puzzle lock! It's JUST FANTASTIC! Thanks Eric and Bram!

Anyone with a 3D printer could make their own copy of this relatively easily but it is vital that the pieces are able to slide on each other under gravity so an acetone vapour bath to smooth the surfaces will be essential!

Finally I do have another puzzle that cannot be solved by "thinking outside the box" - the Packira also from Eric and designed by Tamás Vanyó.

Beautifully constructed from Wenge and Bubinga, Eric has said:
This is a very unique and fun puzzle, and probably my favorite design of the update. The box captures six sliders which move around to form an evolving maze for the four identical pieces to maneuver. Moderate in difficulty but over the top in enjoyment! If you haven't noticed I really liked this one, assembling them all was actually a pleasure.
The construction of this puzzle is excellent, with a perfect fit and very labor intensive joinery and design. While fairly simple looking, it took ages to make and a lot of skill to get everything to line up correctly.
This puzzle therefore, is a blind maze which changes during the solve process. It cannot be solved outside of the box and I have been playing using lock picking techniques for a week now and have so far failed to find even the first move of any of the burr pieces. Tamás has offered me some help but so far I have declined - but I am not sure for how much longer. My only criticism of this puzzle is that the maze sticks are very tiny and are really hard to move with a finger. Only my pinkie fits it the hole to push them out and I might end up scratching the varnish with my nails.

Have a look at my New additions page for details of a new puzzle that arrived with a box to contain all the pieces. A fabulous N-ary puzzle collaboration by Jack Krijnen and Goh Pit Khiam (hmmm! he seems to be quite prolific!)


  1. You've just given the solution for Road block puzzle because of the colors of the block in the frame...They will all look the same for any of these puzzles.
    You have even given clues about which kind the puzzle belongs to, which makes the puzzle less challenging if you know that :)