Sunday 26 April 2020

Lockdown with Pelikan

Released from quarantine!
This week I had some annual leave. Of course, I had nowhere to go and I offered to cancel it if the hospital needed me and I continued my admin tasks whilst at home but told that I should take my booked leave because when all this virus stuff is finished with, we are going to have an enormous backlog of work to do to catch up and they don't want a huge amount of leave owing. I, therefore, had a week at home with a plan to move from kitchen to living room and then to explore the conservatory and then even attempt some DIY! Wow! What an exciting life I can lead whilst at home! Exercise was also a major pull - as my earlier workload and the closure of the gym had curtailed my fitness regime. Walking the streets of Sheffield was to be the most adventurous thing I did!

At the weekend a nice box had arrived from Jakub and Jaroslav - yes, Pelikan puzzles are about to release some more wonderful toys to keep us occupied whilst locked up at home. I was told in no uncertain terms by "she who is more frightening than a deadly virus and more painful than full PPE" that the box had to stay in the porch for a full 24hrs before I would be allowed to open it. I protested that I was certain that Jakub was a very clean boy but she was not so sure about the postal workers! For fear of my life, I waited until she gave the word, then I tore open the package to be confronted by 2 new puzzles by the amazing Osanori Yamamoto, 2 by the brilliant Volker Latussek and one by the very prolific Lucie Pauwels. Which to try first? Jakub was particularly keen for me to work on and write something about the Osanori puzzles and I cannot resist them - I started straight away on Pumpkin 1:

Pumpkin 1

Pumpkin 1
Pumpkin 1 consists of 3 pieces to be fitted inside a box - I guess that you have gotten the hang of these puzzles over the last few months/year. They look so simple and yet are such a great challenge. A lot of the earlier puzzles by Osanori and Pelikan have consisted of a smaller cavity to be filled but more recently they have been made more complex by the need to fill a 3x3x3 cavity and have the opening completely filled (any holes in the shape must be hidden out of sight inside). Initially, I did not expect that this would be too much trouble - the pieces are fairly complex and I was sure that forming a cube shape would be fairly restricted. Oh boy, I was very wrong! Much to the annoyance of Mrs S, I spent almost a whole day of my leave playing with this and swearing under my breath. There are actually quite a few ways that the shape can be formed and the presence of the single diagonal edge to the hole made life harder. It limited the entry of the pieces (most would consider this a helpful thing) but it also completely hid a voxel and opened up a huge number of possible assemblies.

At the end of day one, I had tried dozens of assemblies and orientations and was obviously missing something - I was certain I had been systematic but the solution eluded me. The first thing the following morning, I was able to bound out of bed and try again - YAY! I had nothing else to do! Whack! Ouch! Actually, I do but I chose to carry on playing with the toys! I had to help Jakub! Somehow, I found an alternative assembly of the cubes that I had not tried before. I am not sure how my systematic approach yesterday had missed it but this was definitely new. With each assembly that I had found, I had had to try 3 different orientations of insertion (rotating around the protruding corner). This new assembly had the pieces in a way that would allow insertion of them all with no restrictions - I was on to something.

Phew! It took me 2 days - a great way to while away the lockdown
Finally, after a total of about 5 hours of play over the 2 days, the final piece slid into place - the final assembly sequence is a beautiful dance with the pieces moving around each other. Wow! That was a huge struggle!

I created a Burrtools file to investigate and discovered that there are 54 possible assemblies that will create the final cube shape with one 2x2x2 corner intact but only one insertable through the restricted opening - amazing!  with a disassembly level of 9.2.2 which is pretty impressive for such simple pieces. That is a very tough puzzle!

Triangle Cube 3

Triangle cube 3
Triangle Cube 3 looked to be a bit easier (silly boy!) the pieces were generally smaller and there were 2 triangular openings on either side of the box. Again, a 3x3x3 cube shape is required but this time only a small triangular face needs to be filled diagonally opposite each other. Whilst I had Burrtools open I quickly checked on the potential number of assemblies and rocked back in my seat to see a horrific number of 275! OMG! That was going to be a very long challenge! Of course, I did not try and use BT to find the solution - I was just trying to get an idea of how much pain Mrs S was going to inflict on me for a very long duration solve.

My initial plan of systematically finding possible assemblies before failing to insert them in the box quickly proved to be ridiculous. There had to be a better approach - one of the reasons that I am not a huge fan of many packing puzzles is that there is often too much random trial and error. I should have realised straight away that this is not a feature of Osanori's puzzles - he always ensures that they are solved mostly by thought. A proper look at all the pieces shows that there is a huge restriction on how they could possibly be assembled (Think© about it) and once I had realised this I set to some more careful "out of the box" assemblies. It was still pretty tough but all of a sudden there was a wonderful Aha! moment. Yes! Again, with a wonderful sequence (level I had my puzzle solved - at least it would be theoretically possible except for one problem...a quick email to Jakub and I was informed that a rotational move was definitely needed. That is VERY clever - the last part of the assembly can be done just by rotating the puzzle and allowing gravity to move the pieces. I love it - one of the best and most logical puzzles I have solved in a while.

Take my word for it - the other side is filled too
Euklid for Kids

After my success with Triangle cube 3, it was with some trepidation that I moved on to Volker Latussek's Euklid for kids:

Euklid for Kids - just 3 blocks to fit in a box!      Child's play? Hell no!

This beautiful puzzle is made from a  lovely combination of woods and looks easy. Just put 3 blocks inside the box so that nothing is protruding through the opening! After my experience with the original Euklid, I was rather afraid of this one! nothing that Dr Latussek creates is easy! Mrs S was not terribly pleased with me whilst I played with this - it transpired that it is quite a noisy puzzle to play with which interferes with her concentration. Yet another Whack! Ouch! was going to happen soon.

One interesting feature with this is that one of the pieces cannot fit through the opening without being rotated through. This was going to make insertion of the remaining pieces even more of a struggle. The pieces all share a common dimension which lulls you into a false sense of security. Let me warn you that knowing this really does not help you at all! A full 3 evenings of play was required before I had my breakthrough with this puzzle - the Aha! moment is fabulous. It is nowhere near as difficult as the original Euklid puzzle and to my mind, the puzzle is all the better for it. This particular version is still a great challenge but is also worth giving to non-puzzlers to play with. They probably won't solve it but at least stand some chance. The easier premise will keep them trying.

Rota #

Rota # by Lucie Pauwels
Lucie Pauwels is a very very prolific puzzle designer - she shows a huge number of designs off on her FB page (her blog has not been updated for quite a while, unfortunately). Everything she designs has something interesting about it and I could not resist the Rota # puzzle when Jakub showed it off. Why the odd name? That will become clear when you solve it and I am not going to spoil that for you. It is not particularly difficult but the way that Jakub and Jaroslav have made it is just gorgeous - Wenge and Maple fit together with absolutely perfect precision to make something stunning:

This explains part of the name
Once assembled there are no gaps at all - on display it is wonderful!

X-Ray Cube

A beautifully constructed box
It might have been a mistake to just pour the contents out!
X-ray cube is another challenge from Dr Latussek - the box has been beautifully made from Cherry and the pieces inside are Dark oak. I think it's named this way because the holes in the top and bottom of the box allow you to see inside. I was feeling cocky after solving the previous puzzles and so I just slid off the lid and upended the box to provide me with the challenge - no, I was brave/stupid and did not look at the assembly (I am told by Jakub that this will be sent out in an alternative assembly so that none of you gets the chance to peek at the solution before working on it.

Brian's Blockhead from 2012
X-ray cube pieces
Once the pieces had been revealed I was slightly horrified - they were all odd block shapes with all sorts of funny angles. It actually reminded me of one of the earliest puzzles that I bought from my friend Brian Menold - Blockhead designed by Bill Cutler. In that amazing puzzle, there were just 4 odd-shaped pieces to be inserted into a tray and despite such a simple premise, it was bloody tough for me as a new puzzler back in 2012. The X-ray cube was going to have a whole lot more pieces and probably a whole lot more challenge.

I settled down with these in our rather sunny south facing conservatory (I could get used to this lockdown thing - it's actually quite pleasant here) and started to play. There is a fundamental difference from Blockhead - the sides of the box are all vertical. This is really helpful for finding the assembly. It took me about 45 minutes to realise that something wasn't right - I could not find a piece to fit the bottom right corner of the box! What was going on? Looking at the picture above now - I should have realised - I had only 7 of the 8 blocks! What had I done with the other one?  One thing about a sunny conservatory in the spring is that it produces perfect cat conditions - they spread out everywhere! It took me another minute or so to find a rather well-camouflaged puzzle piece and complete the challenge:

Can you spot the missing piece?
This puzzle is another perfect difficulty level for beginners and advanced puzzlers alike. It is a nice little challenge to while away half an hour and looks lovely when assembled in place inside the box.

These beauties will be being released on the Pelikan Puzzles site quite soon. I am certain that they will also be available from PuzzleMaster as well if you live in North America.

This lockdown has really not been that bad! I have managed to solve a few great puzzles. Unfortunately, it is back to work for me tomorrow - I have quite enjoyed my time off and am going straight back to having to anaesthetise a friend and colleague for a VERY big operation tomorrow! I suspect my puzzle-solving ability tonight may be a little impaired!

Sunday 19 April 2020

Hip Flask

Hip-Flask by Felix Ure. Dice not included.
Dear puzzle maniacs,

Here I am still in lock-down! Except that I am one of the few that are allowed out. Actually, I am forced out and I have to admit that working in a hospital is not much fun anymore. Everything we do has to be done with so much attention to detail that the stuff we took for granted now requires proper concentration and it does become rather hard work. We are doing a lot of good but very very slowly. The good news is that we are finding that a lower number of patients than expected are requiring intubation and ventilation because using CPAP or BIPAP seems to be working better. The bad news is that this still requires a massive amount of manpower to facilitate and procedures like this are counted very high for the risk of aerosol generation which means that a lot of time has to be spent wearing PPE and uncomfortable as a result. The time spent at the hospital means that I seem to have less time for puzzling just now and whilst at work have no access to my toys to solve something to review.

I am so grateful to my good friend Mike Desilets (the official PuzzleMad foreign correspondent) who has stepped into the breach to bring you something this weekend - he always is there just when I need him with something absolutely fascinating for you. Over to you Mike...

Aloha Kākou Puzzlers,

Strange days indeed. Who would have expected the present situation a mere few months back when we were glibly reading Kevin’s annual Top Ten? At times like these, a certain degree of escapism is in order. In the interest of that, and of giving Kevin a much-deserved break (you know where he works right?), I give you something to fill a small portion of your otherwise nondescript Sunday afternoon. You can take your mask off for this (Ed - yay!)

The PuzzleMad Foreign Office, Hawaii Branch, has been on a run of older puzzles recently. To remind everyone of how achingly current and hip the remote branch office really is, let’s look at a VERY new puzzle. This is Hip-Flask, the latest puzzle by up-and-coming designer Felix Ure. In fact, with this new puzzle, I think Felix has arrived. I just received my copy last week, hot off the CNC machine, which was a tremendous surprise given recent events.

As you know, some puzzles come in the door and march dutifully to the back of the queue; others jump to the front and demand your attention. Hip-Flask was the latter for me, and that’s lucky for you. If not, you would have had to endure my dissertation on a little-known peg sequencing puzzle from the Eisenhower era (it’s coming, and you’re gonna love it! Ed - I can't wait).

Hip-Flask and accoutrements.
My first impressions of Hip-Flask: this is a very high-quality puzzle; this is a very beautiful puzzle; this is a very heavy puzzle. Those are all good qualities. They describe some of the best puzzles in my modest collection. Hip-Flask is nearly 100% brass, with only one very small internal piece excepted. It is, needless to say, fashioned in the shape of a hip flask, minus curvature. This shape was not necessary and I’m sure it could have gone other ways, but I think it was an inspired choice. Proportionality is optimum and finish is beautiful, although I suppose technically it is “unfinished.” The exterior consists of the raw surface produced by the milling process. I have always considered this to be the best finish, mitigating factors aside. If you love precision machine work, you will probably also enjoy seeing evidence of it. I have a heavy Arts and Crafts bias and raw milling patterns really scratch that itch. Needless to say, it was a very successful unboxing (Ed - you mean it successfully came out of the box?). Hip-Flask is a beautiful object, no doubt about it. I also appreciate the high-quality packaging and the nice velvet bag with brass-capped drawstrings. Very classy Felix!

I am going to remain characteristically cryptic in this post because I don’t want to spoil anyone’s experience. It’s also a PuzzleMad policy (Ed - sort of!). In fact, it’s pretty much our only policy. But that makes this a tough one to review and means that our description will be restricted to the exterior. Any description I can think of regarding internals would definitely tell you something about the mechanism, so we just won’t go there. The externals are quite fascinating though. The two principal parts of the puzzle are the flask body and the “cap”. The objective of the puzzle is to completely remove the cap from the flask body. 

The rules. Not too fussy.
You immediately find that the cap spins freely, and has latitude to rise slightly from the body, at which point the spinning becomes more restricted. Something is holding this cap in place, but what? Immediately on either side of the cap are two brass rods which slide freely within precisely drilled holes. These rods feel like they should come out, but are blocked by the cap, which cannot rise high enough for them to escape. Clearly, they need to come out at some point. Turning to the base, we find a hole with a diameter matching that of the rods. Something to keep an eye on, no spoiler. Finally, there is another hole in one of the sides, but this one is occupied with a hex-head screw. This may be the designer’s entry point for inserting mechanism components, or it could be part of the discovery sequence. Or maybe both. I’m not at liberty to say (Ed - me neither seeing as I don't own a copy of this puzzle). It is, however, a very important feature if you are going to approach this puzzle deductively, which you very much should do.

That’s all you learn from inspecting the puzzle. Its massive heft (750g) suggests that there is no large internal space. This flask will not hold much alcohol, at least not the quantities that Kevin and I require (Ed - at this current time, I am getting through the pandemic with gin!).

Cap and rods rise tantalizingly.
Beyond this, you will have to work.
Usually, at this point in a post, I attempt to regale the readership with information picked up from a hurried Wikipedia search. I was sure there would be abundant cool and interesting historical factoids about hip flasks, of all things. Negatory my friends. They are exactly what you think they are, clear in purpose and intent, consistently since the medieval dawn of the very flask itself. I did come across what I think is the best and funniest explanation for the existence of hip-flasks: they facilitate drinking in inappropriate places. That sums it up nicely! 

Titan - they say it's tough
Since I cannot tell you any more about the physical properties of the puzzle, nor entertain you with historical trivia, let’s shift to intangibles. First off, full disclosure, I do not own Felix’s previous puzzle, Titan (by the time you read this I may; Ed - I don't own it either!). While I was definitely intrigued, my impression was that there might be too much randomness for my taste. I didn’t hear many people talking online about the actual solving processes; it was mostly about the raw, often substantial, solve time. There were indications that it might be a hindsight puzzle—the intellectual enjoyment coming after the “solve” when you get to find out what exactly you did and how the mechanism works. To this day I do not know if that is a fair assessment, and perhaps it isn’t, but first impressions count for a lot once you pass the $100 mark. So I gave Titan a soft pass. When Hip-Flask came along, it was billed as “a multi-stage sequential discovery” puzzle. Between that and the solid brass construction, Felix finally had my complete and undivided attention. Hip-Flask leap-frogs (say that ten times fast) Titan in price, but that is hardly worth a mention for this class of puzzle. These are the puzzles you set aside for throughout the year. 

Your next question, Kevin, will be: does it meet expectations? (Ed - it certainly is!) One can easily slap a “sequential discovery” label on a puzzle, but that does not necessarily make it so. It could very well be that Hip-Flask is sequential, but with little discovery. The process of getting from sequence to sequence could come down to random trial and error stuff. That was my post-PayPal fear.

I am here to tell you that Hip-Flask does NOT disappoint as a sequential discovery puzzle. And more importantly, it is definitely susceptible to deductive reasoning and thus “solvable” in the strictest PuzzleMad sense. There is some fiddling required to make it reveal its first secret, but that is a straight-up exploration and standard procedure for the beginning of any sequential discovery puzzle. These types of puzzles, whether locks, boxes, or flasks, generally need to hold themselves together and present an implacable front initially. The first discovery is most often stumbled upon. Thereafter, a “good” puzzle can be attacked with creative THINKing©. This is the experience I had with Hip-Flask. I admit to a certain consternation at the beginning and I struggled to understand exactly what was happening. Thoughts of gravity pins and little ball bearings were running around my head. Felix said no “significant force” in the instructions, so perhaps there is some subtle, tasteful, magnetism involved?  I didn't quite know what I was dealing with.

Hip-flask remains dignified, even when exposed.
Finally, something released or aligned, and the cap rose significantly. It was a thrilling moment, even though mostly a chance occurrence. Of course, the cap immediately went back in and locked. I then spent a good amount of time figuring out how to release it consistently. Getting that accomplished was a big moment and gave me needed momentum. I didn’t fear inadvertent flask closure anymore. This is the first phase. I recommend mastering it before you move on. Mastering this phase also sets one up for the next, harder phase (Ed - harder? OMG - I think it is beyond me already). You should be starting to understand the puzzle mechanics by this point. Also, you will have joyfully released one of the rods as well. It’s a nice little reward and a good design choice. It shows that the designer was thinking experientially, not just mechanically. 

The second phase is the heart of the puzzle, and it is where most people will have a devil of a time.
I realized at some point that I should start using my brain more (Ed - that's always a problem for me!), and thank goodness because there is virtually no other way to solve Hip-Flask. I can safely say that random action is very ineffectual on this puzzle. Shaking it or spinning the cap around aimlessly is not going to help you, and for the love of Mrs S, please don’t bang it or hit it (Ed - or she will hit you - or worse, me)! All the information you need is provided if you are open to it.

I eventually was able to deduce the exact nature of the mechanism and the exactly required movements. I used a piece of tape to keep track of my cap movements, an old and very widely accepted aid. A piece of tape is not an external tool (Kevin, please double-check the PuzzleMad policy paper we wrote on this - Ed - tape is fine because it is just a means of record-keeping). When you solve the second phase, you are very close to home. It allows you to extract the second rod and the cap is now WAY up, although still locked somehow. The two rods are obviously tools and you will need to use them somehow to solve the third phase: full release. It’s very clever how this works. Simple but perfectly effective. I believe it is a Ure original. 

Alternative reassembly via hex screw.
Reassembling Hip-Flask by reversing the solve is allegedly not difficult, but I did have trouble with it. Felix assures me it is possible and is actually how you are supposed to do it. I believe him. However, you can also reassemble by removing the hex screw on the side and gaining access that way. This works fine, you just need a 3mm Allen wrench and normal care. So no, despite my coyness previously, you will not sequentially discover a hex key. I plan to go on-line and find a nice small 3mm brass wrench to keep permanently with the puzzle (Ed - that's a nice idea).

I would be remiss if I did not mention that for a certain highly dedicated and specialized sub-segment of the community, this mechanism may seem derivative. If you think that may apply to you, contact Kevin for a hint before you purchase (Ed - I will be totally unable to help as I don't own the puzzle!). On the other hand, folks in that sub-segment may uniquely NEED to get this puzzle, though they will likely make short work of it (compared to their usual solve times at least). For everyone else in the world, this will be a challenging puzzle and a thrilling solve.

We always try to give you something a little extra at PuzzleMad, which is why you put up with our high fees, after all (Ed - fees? Are you charging behind my back? Can I have a share of them? Pretty please?). This week Kevin and I are thrilled to present you with another PuzzleMad Q&A Session: Ure-Edition! Felix was kind enough to sit down with me (electronically) and answer my trademark stream-of-consciousness questions. It’s truly very special to get a glimpse into the mind of a current designer. Thanks for giving us a piece of your mind Felix!    

Here we go...

MD:  Ok, let’s get the formalities out of the way Felix. In any PuzzleMad interview, I am contractually required to ask: What are some of your personal favourite puzzles? And is there a puzzle you love that others might find unexpected? 

FU:  I don’t think I have a favourite puzzle. I’m a massive manufacturing and engineering nerd, so if anything has been made nicely in a way that I find elegant or unusual, that does it for me. The Popplock T8 is a perfect example (not that I can afford one – I just saw a video) – it’s a very simple mechanism, but when turned into a puzzle it’s genius. I like most Hanayamas, the Cast Nut-case would have been my favourite if it was made more accurately and didn’t get stuck all the time. Basically, if I can fiddle with it and it’s heavy, I love it. I’m really not a fan of disentanglement puzzles and burr puzzles though – my mind just doesn’t work that way. That being said, I got into puzzles 2 years ago so I’m sure there’s plenty of great ones I’ve never tried.

MD:  What are the major influences (spiritual/intellectual/mechanical) on your design work and your basic conceptualization of a potential puzzle?

FU:  It’s really just anything that moves – a ratchet, an engine, a corkscrew. I’m obsessed with knowing how something is made, so by being able to completely visualize the mechanism of something, I have the perfect building blocks for a puzzle. It’s then usually in the hour or so I’m in bed before going to sleep that they somehow work themselves into something useful.

MD:  I know some designers studiously avoid tracking what other designers do, I think in an effort to maintain creative independence. Do you follow this practice, or do you take the other approach and study the work of other designers as a source of inspiration? Or something else entirely?

Hip-flask with some scale.
Good lord is that how my hand looks!
FU:  Not at all, I religiously follow everything that I can that’s out there, in the hope that I might come across a design principal or clever mechanism that I’ve not seen before. This isn’t in an attempt to get ideas for puzzles, but purely for my own curiosity and to build up my knowledge of how things move and interact. It might then help me with a design further down the line, but by then it’s far enough removed from where I saw it that I don’t think it detracts from any sort of creative independence.

MD:  Some puzzle people are heavily into solving, others mostly collect and display, another group delves into historical aspects, yet others are taken with geometrical/mathematical beauty, and some even focus on designing to the exclusion of everything else. Philosophically speaking, where does Felix Ure stand? What is it about mechanical puzzles that drives your interest, and has it changed over time?

FU:  I really only got into puzzles a couple of years ago, and while the history of them is undoubtedly fascinating, for me it’s entirely about having a nice ‘thing’. For example, on my desk, I have a brass sterling engine (which can spin from the heat of my hand), and 50mm ball of pure tungsten. Both absolutely pointless things, but both uniquely awesome. This is what I want from a puzzle – a beautiful object that you’re not sure why you want it, but you want it. 

MD:  I love that answer, and I can definitely relate (Ed - that applies to me too!). Now let’s get to an actual puzzle. Hip-Flask is your newest release, but it follows Titan, another beautifully produced brass puzzle. I’m guessing there was a lot learned in the process of designing and producing the first puzzle. What did you take away from the Titan experience and apply to Hip-Flask? 

FU:  I learnt some usual lessons about supply chain management, i.e. honesty is more important than price etc. But the main thing I learnt from a design perspective is that it’s impossible to make something that appeals to everyone. I’ve produced two puzzles which are very different; some people like one, some like the other, some hate both and some love both. And for future puzzles I think as long as the design is as elegant and well-engineered as it can be, that’s a success in my eyes, as I know at least some people will like it.

MD:  As you know, I really enjoyed Hip-Flask as a puzzle. But I think it is an aesthetic triumph as well. The flask shape suits this puzzle very well. Removing the “cap” makes perfect sense as an objective and, more broadly, the puzzle seems to strike a perfect balance between the abstract and the familiar. But given the mechanism, you could have gone any number of different ways with the overall form, even maintaining the sphere from Titan. What inspired you to use the flask shape? Where did that come from and when did you know it was “right” for the puzzle?

FU:  I’m glad you liked it, Mike! I fully realized the mechanism before figuring out what shape it should fit into. Then when working on the shape, I approached it from a machining and value perspective i.e. what is the minimum amount of material I can machine off of a stock-sized brass bar to achieve an enclosure which will contain this particular mechanism. The hip-flask shape came almost by definition as a result of the shape of the mechanism. It could have been a perfume bottle, a hand-grenade, or just an abstract form, but I liked the simplicity and, like you say, the familiarity of the hip-flask shape.

MD:  As a follow-up, what beverage would you put in your Hip-flask?

FU:  I’m usually a beer guy, but as it’s not really a hip-flask drink I’d probably go for a nice Gin (Ed - mmmmmmm gin!).

MD:  You just made Kevin very happy. Hip-Flask has three main stages, by my count. Was this arrangement the original intent, or did the multi-phase design evolve over time? Did you consider adding more complexity, or reducing it, at any point?

FU:  The original intent was to make a puzzle with a sequential element, and the idea of the mechanism getting to a certain point to release a tool was always intended to be part of it. The concept of the sequence being split into two sections really came about slightly by accident – I drew out an idea that had a ‘stop’ point partway through, and I realized that gave me the chance to release two tools, which worked out quite nicely I think. Regarding adding more complexity - it’s always hard to stop designing a puzzle; I thought about using the removed lid as a tool to unlock a further section, but then the costs start to spiral out of control, and the elegance and appearance of the puzzle is compromised to some extent. I’m happy with the difficulty level and complexity that it ended up at.

The camera loves Hip-flask.
MD:  Among high-end metal puzzles, brass, stainless, and aluminium are the holy triumvirate. I think I understand why you chose brass (cost, workability, beauty), but did you flirt with stainless or any other alloy? 

FU:  I love using brass because it machines beautifully. Aluminium (or aluminum! Ed - nooooooo!) is usually marginally cheaper but its density is nearly a third of that of brass or steel, and I love a dense puzzle. I’ve got nothing against stainless steel, but as it’s quite a bit harder than brass, the machining costs are a lot more, and I don’t think people would pay maybe twice the price for what’s basically a different colour. The amount of material machined away really defines what materials it’s cost-effective to make something from.

MD:  Follow-up, can PuzzleMad members special order Hip-Flask in tungsten?

FU:  I could look into it if a few people were interested! Ed - I might be interested!

MD:  For the technical folks, is Hip-Flask C36000 brass? Because I am always close to saltwater, I must also ask, did you consider naval brass as an option?

FU:  It’s CZ121, which is the British standard free-machining brass, I think it’s pretty much the same as C36000, which I believe is the North American equivalent. I’ve never tried naval brass as I’m not sure how it machines, so just make sure not to leave your Hip-Flask outside for long periods of time, unless you want it to go green!

MD:  I’m glad you left the puzzle “unfinished” straight from the mill. I love the patterns and texture and I suspect that it will form a very nice patina. It was probably as much an economical decision as anything, but still, what was your thinking on finish? 

FU:  I want the puzzles I make to last for decades; and from experience, if I polished them to a mirror shine they would have gone brown again within a couple of years on a shelf, or within a few days of handling. I thought it better to supply them all in the machined finish, and in a few years, they’ll all look the same anyway. Also, like you, I love the machined finish, and I think it’s a testament to the quality of the machining and the puzzle itself that I don’t need to polish out any imperfections.

MD:  I’m very intrigued by the final release mechanism. I’ve never seen it done that way before and, simple as it is, would never have occurred to me. How did you come up with that? Was it a late addition to the design, or was it always in the plan?

FU:  It was always an idea I had floating around – I can’t really remember where it came from, but it was fairly early on in the design process that I realized it would be a good, simple way to achieve what was needed, and it worked well I think.

MD:  Final Question! Now that Hip-Flask is out in the wild, will you take a breather and collect yourself, or just push on to your next project? Can you give any hints on what direction you will take next? 

FU:  Oh definitely not, I’ve got another 7 puzzles which I’m working on. Most of them are waiting for a final stroke of inspiration (some have been waiting for a year, so don’t hold your breath!) I hope to get another one finished and released this year though. I’m also working on a couple of non-puzzle things – a brass spinning top, and a high-quality ballpoint pen, but time will tell whether these amount to anything.

Thanks so much for doing this Felix. These behind-the-scenes interviews add immeasurably to my enjoyment of the hobby, and I know I am not alone. I will definitely begin stashing funds for your next release. One final word: Tungsten!  (Ed - droooool!)

That wraps up this edition. Go get yourself a hip-flask for a little drink, and then go buy Felix’s puzzle, Hip-Flask. Available at all the usual places. It’s great and I think you will enjoy it. Alright Kevin, please drag yourself away from the Benny Hill reruns for just a single moment and give us our epilogue.

Hip-flask bids you a good day.

Benny Hill reruns? Where? They are great stuff if you can find them anywhere! Totally non-PC but hysterical. Remember that they came from the 70s - a simpler time when we only had 3 TV channels in the UK.

Thank you so much, Mike and Felix! Once my finances have settled a bit and I have hopefully survived the pandemic, then I hope to get a copy of Hip-Flask myself...especially if it is available in Tungsten!

I have a week off from tomorrow - this was planned last year and I now have nowhere to go apart from to move between kitchen and conservatory and then on to the living room! Maybe I will even make it into the garden? Mrs S has decided that I need to risk my life even more, continuing with DIY and she wants me to do some exercise to prevent me from getting fat. It was "for better or worse" not "fatter or thinner" when we uttered those fateful vows! Who knows, maybe she will even let me do some puzzling?

Stay safe everyone and stay at home if you don't have to go out!

Sunday 5 April 2020

It’s Amazing How Important it is Where Your Balls Are Located

Scissors I
Scissors II
I'm making the most of one of the last weekends off that I expect to have for a while. I start a full shift system from tomorrow, beginning with a night shift. I hate night shifts...I am much too old for that as it wipes me out for days afterwards but the service needs it. Our core group of 30 covering 3 rotas has been whittled down to just 9 of us as people are redeployed to ICU or off sick. I will be providing emergency and trauma services alongside my remaining colleagues - a stressful time but the camaraderie is fantastic. The theatres are all zoned, all the PPE and protocols are available and phase 3 of our plan starts. For those of you who think it sounds like fun, let me describe the scenario...airway manoeuvres are the riskiest procedures of all for COVID-19 spread so we have to wear a waterproof gown, a polythene bib around the exposed neck above the gown, 3 pairs of gloves, including one long pair, an FFP3 mask which is fit tested to provide a good seal, a visor and a hat plus plastic washable shoes. This is worn under surgical lights for hours on end. After about 15-20 minutes the pressure of these masks hurts, after 2 hours it feels like your face is going to peel off and it takes quite a bit of effort to breathe through them so you feel like you are suffocating. Then, and this is the really bad bit...remember that you MUST NOT touch your face. AT ALL! I really don't want to be doing this for too long so take my advice:


This week, I have been continuing to work on equipment supplies and rotas and have had a little time to play with a toy or two. I found a couple of puzzles in my bag that had been there for absolutely ages (months) - The Scissors disentanglement puzzle duo made by my friend Aaron Wang and designed by Shuai Chi. The last batch of puzzles that I had received last year from Aaron had mostly had huge lengths of string in them and had completely beaten me but this duo were wire only and I was determined that I was going to solve them. They both look very similar and indeed, the difference is quite subtle - the position of one of the balls changes. The aim is to remove the shuttle from the bottom:

Both are described by Aaron as level 10
Now my friend Steve is a Urological surgeon and he can tell you in great detail how much of a difference it can make if your balls are in the wrong place! It is so important that surgery may be required.

I started work on these last year after I got them and initially was full of string so they should be easy. Oh, you stupid boy! After about a week of effort, I did solve version one and took my photo:

Scissors I solved
However, I was unable to put it back to the start position. Something had moved and I had lost my pathway. Many people find that the key to solving disentanglement puzzles is to think of how to re-entangle them. This NEVER works for me. I could not for the life of me put it back together. Luckily Aaron has been sending out most of his puzzles for the last few years with quick-release mechanisms to aid with problems like this. I used the keyring on the lower ball and reset. Another few days and I was able to solve it at will. Phew - I understood a puzzle and therefore it was solved. Time for version II.

Oh my goodness! Version II was much MUCH tougher. In fact, I could not solve it. I played with it on and off for several months and eventually, it just got left in my bag to be picked up sometime in the future. That "eventually" came around just now. This week, whilst spending so much time in my office thinking of rotas and equipment supplies (getting hold of 70 extra ventilators is not an easy thing to do), I picked these back up again. Time to start with version I again and off I went. Of course, I had no recollection of the solution and it took me another 2 days to find it. At least this time I was able to reassemble it. Then on to version II. Nope! Couldn't do it! As the title of the post says:
"It’s Amazing How Important it is Where Your Balls Are Located!"
Moving that upper ball on to the upper ring adds a huge extra level of difficulty to this puzzle. After 4 days, I disentangled it:

OMG! Sooooo difficult
Yet again, I could not put it back together again and I had to use the quick reset mechanism and start again. I have taken it apart 3 times now and never managed to reset it without cheating. Each time I have solved it, I cannot understand how I have done it. This puzzle is one that I have to admit that I have never properly solved - my criteria for a true solution has been stated a few times - a puzzle has to be do-able several times at will before it can be considered solved. Whilst I can solve Scissors I at will, version II seems to be a matter of random movements which eventually work and only works in one direction.

Having a ball at too high a level can really create unforeseen difficulties for a puzzler (as well as a parent). What this has also taught me is that a disentanglement puzzle with no string can still be incredibly challenging. If you get a chance to buy any of these from Aaron in the future then you really won't be disappointed. I will keep playing with this one in the hope that I will one day understand it.

Having established that the position of your balls is crucial, I must also tell you that the TwoBrassMonkeys have been at it again and you need to push your rod into the hole carefully to "stuff the monkey". I know! I'm sorry but I couldn't resist it!

I received a package last week which "she who must be feared" put into quarantine in the porch for a few days and when it finally was let out contained a rather heavy banana:

Monkeys love bananas
Inside the banana is Steve and Ali's latest challenge for the puzzling world - Feed the monkey:

The monkey has so far been unable to swallow it all
Inside are a lot of rods/bananas
This is absolutely stunningly made (as we have come to expect from Steve and Ali). The monkeys are available in both male and female varieties (I think the presence of eyelashes is the only way to tell). At present they are fulfilling the preorders from Facebook and then later this will be available on their store. I have been merrily stuffing rods in the Monkey and have realised that his GI tract has something confusing about it as the final rod will never fit all the way in. Intriguing! Keep an eye out for this coming up for sale - you won't be disappointed. Now available here.