Sunday, 14 July 2019

25 Years of Marriage Have Turned Me Into a LunaTIC!

LunaTIC pieces
Well, I survived! Friday was my 25th Wedding anniversary and despite everything, I have survived, more or less intact! She has threatened me with "serious words", significant violence aka a Whack! Ouch! and even mild murder (can you have a mild murder?) including an offer to burn my body on a pyre of flaming wooden puzzle pieces. She has you remember this?

Luckily I have hidden the matches since this famous moment!
To appease the wifely Gods, I purchased her some significantly beautiful (and expensive) jewellery and she seemed rather pleased with the gift. I even earned a few Brownie points for the nice things I wrote in her anniversary card. Unfortunately, in this household at least, Brownie points expire after just 1 week - GULP! Her gift to me? I have been sitting in the living room for a few months looking longingly at her gift to me but definitely not allowed to touch...A Berrocal Goliath puzzle sculpture awaits. Now I just need to find some time to play!

80 Pieces of beautiful polished brass

Today, however, I need to write about yet another of Andrew Crowell's designs, beautifully made by Brian Menold, the LunaTIC. The most recent batch of Andrew's designs have caused me a huge problem...I couldn't solve them! It took me weeks to finally dismantle the GalacTIC cube and then the reassembly was also a massive issue for me. As soon as I had solved that one, I moved on to another in that batch, choosing the LunaTIC partly because it only had 5 pieces. I sort of figured that if I am really REALLY bad at assembly puzzles then I should probably start on one with only a few pieces.

Brian had felt confident enough to send it out in pieces and both he and Andrew felt that it was doable as an assembly challenge - the descriptive blurb said:
"LunaTIC is another TIC with relatively few pieces, only 5. And with only 2 rotations, it would seem to be a good challenge for a new puzzler. But I think it will also challenge the rest of you too. I like the look of these woods with the darker, richer look to them. Made from Moabi, Padauk, Cambodian Ormosia, Wenge, Monterillo Rosewood or Lacewood."
He said it is a good challenge for a new puzzler! That would describe my skills very well so I packed it into my work bag and off I went. My workload has recently seemed to focus more on big high-risk operations with no breaks during the day giving me little opportunity to play but every time I had a few moments of downtime, I set too. I assume that I am not much different to most of you better puzzlers in that I start out by trying to work out how these pieces will all eventually fit together once complete. Usually, this approach quite quickly produces an awareness of what goes where but with this one, quite a few of the pieces will fit together in a number of orientations. Not very helpful...especially when I have something promising which looks great but then none of the other pieces can possibly fit in that group. Two days go by before I have worked out how the puzzle can form a cube shape! Damn! I am not very bright!

Having found the positions, it is obviously time to work out how they can reach that final resting place. I have previously taken a pair of pieces and put them together and then try to introduce a third and then a fourth and then... This time it fails rather spectacularly! I spend a week (which would be a LOT of hours) trying to find a sequence to introduce all the pieces in order. After trying every order I can think of, even being mathematically rigorous, I decide this ain't going to help me. Either I am being more than usually dim (which Mrs S would not argue with) or Andrew has been a sneaky Bastard! I developed the sneaky suspicion that this one would go together as 2 separate sub-assemblies - but which ones? Was it two 2s and a single or a 2 and a 3? If so, which pairings were the correct ones? Aaargh! Logic and thought do not come naturally to me! I worked on it for even longer than the GalacTIC and after 2 weeks I still had not managed to solve the damned thing. I had a sneaking suspicion that I was on the right track but was getting a little frustrated. I asked Mike, who has begun his own puzzle blog and who had posted about this very puzzle for a little hint. All I wanted to know was the pieces that are used in each sub-assembly. I didn't want to know (at least at first) what the sub-assemblies looked like. He replied very fast with a picture of 2 groups of pieces. I would love to say that this was a fantastic Aha! moment but all it did was confirm that I had been right all along. It also confirmed that I was being particularly thick - I had the pieces correct, the order correct and still could not manage it.

At least I knew that I did not need to go right back to the drawing board. The puzzling continued for another few evenings and suddenly, on Thursday evening, I had a huge Aha! slid together smoothly into a lovely little (5.7cm) cube.

At last! Nearly 3 weeks of toil in one puzzle!
The final sequence was absolutely beautiful! The fact that there are "only" 2 rotations in this puzzle and that the rotations are not the main challenge does not detract from it in any way - if anything, the new approach was a very nice refreshing change. The voyage of discovery and thought was a wonderful experience. Reading back over Mike's assessment of the same puzzle, we seemed to have gone through exactly the same torture and process - he just seems to be better at it than me.

The cube looks gorgeous in all those wonderful woods and I am torn now, as to whether I should store this in my shelves as a made-up cube or as pieces for future challenges. It won't take long for me to forget the sequence and then I will have a nice fun puzzle to solve as if it is new. DON'T tell Mrs S or she will stop me buying anything else!

Sunday, 7 July 2019

MF8 Takes it to the Max...or is it Plus?

Skewby Copter Plus
At the back an edge turn, diagonally a corner turn
Here I am again, fresh from a day of DIY yesterday replacing light switches, sockets and fused connection switches and actually managed to NOT electrocute myself for once! I usually do a batch at a time and test them as I replace them. Sometimes I forget to switch off the mains before moving on to the next and, bloody hell, it hurts when the shock spreads across your chest! Here in the UK, we use 240V which really is quite powerful and, as we say in Yorkshire, it "smarts" a bit! I have set a record of completing a whole day without any pain (apart from the quadricep agony of doing 300-400 squats) - who knows, with this kind of luck, I might even manage to solve a puzzle soon!

Just a month ago, I discussed how I was going to extend my advice to progressing twisty puzzlers to include a special group of new puzzles that consist of two different twisty puzzles combined into one. So far in this group, the amazing Chinese producers have made the Grilles II cube and the 4 Leaf Clover Plus cube. Now the ultimate in this group (at least so far) is the Skewby Copter Plus cube has been released and after an initial period when it was in very short supply, it is now generally available. This puzzle, as the name suggests, is a mixture of the Skewb, a simple deep cut corner turning cube and the favourite of mine, the Curvy Copter. Not just the plain old Curvy copter but the Curvy Copter PLUS which allows a whole lot more movements than the original. The Curvy Copter plus was mentioned in my article on the extreme forms of edge-turning puzzles but has never been properly reviewed by me because of some major flaws in its' design.

Curvy Copter Plus cuts across the centres
Allows swapping centres and corners
The extra cuts in the plus version allow the centres and corners to be swapped which really adds to the fun but the design leaves the protruding pieces sticking so far out that they interfere with further turns and it quickly becomes completely locked up after inadvertently pushing past blockages.

This new Skewby Copter plus can be used as a Curvy Copter plus with the advantage that the puzzle has been fully redesigned such that the overhang bandaging has been completely eliminated. This is the puzzle that should have been released in the first instance - as just a Curvy puzzle it is FANTASTIC! What-is-more the additional Skewb cuts are possible even after all the Curvy Copter moves have been made and, on top of that, it is possible to perform half Skewb turns and then STILL make edge turns! This can lead to an amazing scrambled mess which looks impossible to solve. To show how amazing this puzzle is, I created a video showing how it moves and how to perform a full scramble - it takes a good 15 minutes to scramble it but you don't have to watch the whole thing to get an idea of how it moves.

Having learned how it moves and worked out the approach to get the best scramble - yes, it is always fun to have a twisty puzzle that is so complex that you need to plan the way to scramble it, you end up with an almighty mess that looks almost impossible to solve:

Dear Lord, what have I done?
Despite this horrific appearance, if you are brave enough to buy this puzzle, you really MUST perform a full scramble! It is actually very solvable! In fact, I would go as far as to say that this puzzle requires no more knowledge or fancy algorithms than are required to solve the base puzzles that it is based upon. Yes, if you can solve a Skewb and a Curvy Copter then, with a bit (maybe a LOT) of thought, you can solve this monster.

The first challenge is to get it back to a vague cube shape which means reconstituting the edges into the correct diamond shape like the one above. Then put the corners back into corner places and centres back into centre positions. Just thought alone and logical movements are required. At this point, some of the centres will appear to be sitting not quite flush with the cube surface and they will need to be temporarily taken out of position to a corner and rotated around the cube before placing them back into position and this time sitting flush. Finally, you will have a cube shape - this took me a few hours the first time but now I can do it in about 15 minutes.

Zachary and I worked for ages to get this far
I took advice from my Burmese boy and we had a fun time pairing up the triangular centres with the rectangular centres and the outer rectangular centres (each needed a different technique but no fancy algorithms) to produce complete petal-shaped pieces. At this point, it looks like I was well on the way to solving it but...take note of the diamond-shaped edges...they consist of 4 pieces and none of them matches up. Despite discussing it for a few hours Zachary could not come up with a way to fix the edges so it was back to the drawing board. Ignore the centres/petals, and make the edges first.

Recreating the edges was a huge challenge! Again, there are no fancy algorithms, just a combination of skewb setup moves then Skewb pairing of pieces and Curvy Copter moves to store the pieces - this left me with all of the small dual cloured pieces paired up and in the correct position. FABULOUS! Next to place the single colour diamonds within the edges. I was stuck for a while. A long while! Then I remembered what happens to the centres when making corner moves on a Skewb. A fantastic Aha! moment occurred and I was suddenly able to move them about at will. The hardest part was remembering my setup moves. It took me a couple of days but Zachary and I finally recreated all the edges:

That is one talented cat!
As you can see, the forming of the edges did break up the outer centre pieces from the inner two parts but putting them back together is almost trivial for anyone who understands the jumbling moves and orbits of a Curvy Copter. Another day and my puzzle had been reduced to a simple Curvy Copter solve and away I went...except this happened:

All solved except 2 corners out of place
In the normal Curvy Copter this is impossible - In fact, the "law of the cube" states that it is impossible to have a requirement to swap or move just 2 pieces - there MUST be a third piece that needs to turn or swap position. I will not give it away here but if you think about it, it is quite obvious where the third swappable piece might be and luckily that fix is quite simple without disrupting everything that has been done before. Zachary was very smug when we finally managed this:

Simply brilliant! Both cat and puzzle!
Of course, one has to solve a puzzle several times to prove that it was not simply luck as well as to ensure that other nuances have been found and understood. I scrambled it at least a half dozen times and convinced most of the nursing staff at work that I am crazy when I showed them how it moved and how mixed up it got. On my third attempt, I was rather shocked to find this at the very end:

Just one turned corner
The solution to this is definitely NOT straightforward - it requires a massive disruption of the puzzle and then resolving it with the corner placed correctly. I have subsequently worked out that this can be checked for earlier on during the solve (just after the edges have been created) and fixed before doing much more that needs to be undone.

In conclusion, both Zachary and I think that this particular twisty puzzle is one of the very best puzzles ever to have been created! I would go as far as to say that everyone should own one. It is the Curvy Copter plus that should have been released from the beginning (and if you wish can just be scrambled as one) as well as providing a massive challenge for any twisty puzzler when they introduce the Skewb turns. It is probably not suitable for beginners but I would hope that you would grow your skills into it with time. Just BUY it! It will be appearing in my top ten(ish) of 2019.

Phew - Now I need to solve something else quickly for next week!

Enjoy the rest of your weekend guys and gals.

Sunday, 30 June 2019

Cast Trinity - Redux from our Foreign Correspondent

Cast Trinity (again) a new point of view
I have abandoned hope!!!!! I have just spent nearly an hour trying to provide remote computer support to the Mother-in-law which, at one point, included her managing to pull the power cable out of the computer and shutting down everything with a bang and even crashing my remote support software in the process! All is finally working but now I need a gin! A VERY large one!

Luckily for me (and you) my wonderful "missing in action" foreign correspondent, Mike Desilets, has recently been found (he's had a lot going on in his life) and has sent me/us a nice little reprise of a puzzle that many of us have struggled with this year. It is definitely interesting to compare his experiences with mine. This has really taken the pressure off me - work and home life have been overwhelming and I actually don't have a puzzle to review for you this week. If anyone would like to write a guest post then please contact me and we can get something organised. I always edit so don't worry about your writing skills.

Now on to Mike...

Aloha Kākou Puzzlers,

Thanks to a generous research sabbatical granted by Puzzlemad’s senior editor and CEO (Ed - snort!), I’ve gone completely offline for these past many months, ostensibly to work on various important metagrobological projects. Following the advice of a certain academically-accomplished friend, I’ve spent most of this time in a hammock sipping fine scotch (Ed - sigh, I wish I could drink Scotch...I ruined it for myself by drinking a whole bottle as a Med student!). I was assured this approach would lead to great productivity in the long term. As it turns out, I’ve completely squandered my sabbatical and achieved precisely nothing. I did manage to purchase a few puzzles and then solve even fewer. But that hardly needs to be said.

At any rate, I REALLY need to get back on track. This little review signals my intention to do just that. Hopefully, it will give Kevin a slight breather as well (Ed - thank you!!!). These long absences show why I do not deserve my own blog. As always, a heartfelt Mahalo goes out to Kevin for providing me with electronic space, and also for his unrelenting puzzle coverage. (Ed - it is always my pleasure to help and entertain all puzzlers.)

Today we will be looking (again) at a relatively new and widely available puzzle known simply as Trinity. Everyone is surely aware of this puzzle by now, and many readers have doubtless already locked horns with it. You may have even read about it right here at PuzzleMad. I have been away so long, I did not even know Kevin had reviewed it when I drafted this (Ed - I am surprised that anyone reads any of my drivel!). His original post forced me to go back and clarify a couple points, but the review is basically intact. If you are reading this, then the good doctor has determined this second opinion is worthy and of at least marginal value (It certainly is!). Sorry in advance for any redundancy. You’ll find our takes on the puzzle to be pretty similar overall, with perhaps some interesting differences in the final analysis.

As you’ll recall, Trinity is produced by the incomparable Hanayama Company and is the invention of veteran Hong Kong puzzle designer Kyoo Wong. You may know Mr Wong from his previous Hanayama designs, Cast Delta (reviewed here) and Cast U&U (reviewed here). These are a couple of my favourite Hanayama puzzles. Delta is one of only a very few of its class in the Hanayama catalogue. I can’t say the class because that information could definitely be a spoiler. U&U is in a class of its own, unique in all ways, as well as being great fun and challenging to solve. Both offer high replay value and I particularly enjoy repeating the clever movement of Delta. Cast Trinity is a move in yet another direction by Mr Wong and confirms his great versatility as a designer. The puzzle has received critical acclaim of the highest order, having been awarded a Jury 1st Prize in the design competition at the 2018 IPP in San Diego.

A very attractive version of Mr Wong's Trinity
Image from John Rausch's 2018 IPP Design Competition Page
Hanayama’s version of Trinity is cast in a zinc alloy, unsurprisingly, and finished with a bronze-coloured plating. This is not a bad choice of finish and seems to work aesthetically. Behold, however, the trichromatic, ultra-smooth finish of the IPP version. Very beautiful, but perhaps unrealistic to mass produce.

Trinity consists of three pieces which, at first glance, all appear identical. Closer inspection reveals that they are, in fact, quite unique. I can’t be sure, but I suspect that Mr Wong’s original concept called for identical pieces. Identical elements are usually a designer’s first preference because it contributes significantly to design elegance. As it happens, however, creating a non-trivial puzzle with identical elements is a formidable challenge. Cast Quartet is an example of success (review here). So is the venerable bent nail and its countless variants. But regardless of original intent, the final Trinity design comprises three significantly different pieces. Most noticeably, the orientation of one of the “heads” is rotated 90 degrees relative to the heads of the other two pieces. Less apparent are the subtle differences in the little projections running down the “arms.” There are six arms in all, two per element. If you look closely, you will discover that no two are exactly alike. Inspecting the cross-section of each arm all the way to the base of the “U”, you can see how dissimilar each of the pieces really are. These flowy blips and blops are what designers, and more often marketers, mean when they speak of “organic” design. Contrast Trinity’s curvy irregularity with the highly angular, geometric, and vaguely crystalline design of Quartet (for example). But although we generally speak in terms of irregularity, asymmetry, and fluidity of form for “organic” puzzles, I think the term is also an apt descriptor for the design process that creates them (fittingly). For Trinity, one can imagine the designer utilizing, perhaps unwittingly, some kind of natural selection process to get all those little knobules (Ed - interesting word choice!) and gaps just exactly right; trying and discarding different variations, retaining things that work until they don’t anymore, backtracking to earlier versions and trying again. The ultimate objective being to minimize tolerances along a unique, narrow pathway and sequence belied by the apparent similarity of the pieces. It seems to me that a LOT of manual trial-and-error tweaking must have gone into this design. And probably also a small fortune in 3D printing. The end result is an idiosyncratic puzzle whose final design probably could not be predicted from the initial state. The chances of the Trinity design being independently invented again in the span of human existence is negligible. A puzzle like Quartet seems like it could come forth again, either on our planet or some other. Hmmm . . . interesting thought. Kevin, we may need to initiate a separate exo-metagrobology blog. (Ed - erm...I think I might leave that one to you mate!)

What were we talking about? Oh yes! Mr Wong’s Holy Trinity. The objective of Trinity is to disassemble the three pieces and then, of course, return them to the initial state. What could be simpler? Hanayama rates the puzzle at a 6 on their 1 to 6 scale, making it theoretically among the toughest of the line. It is notoriously difficult to evaluate puzzle difficulty and one should, therefore, treat ratings as only a rough guide. They are fun to haggle over and are required ground in a proper review, but they tell you precious little about the intellectual or emotional value of a puzzle. In relation to disassembly, I believe Trinity should probably be a 5 on the Hanayama scale (Ed - I agree). Reassembly is another matter altogether and will receive closer attention later on (spoiler – it's not a 6 either).

Trinity in hand.
Although I have brazenly downgraded Trinity’s difficulty rating, I think every normal person will have a tough time with disassembly. It is not easy at all. There are many different configurations and it is very hard to keep the pieces straight. You will tend to try the same movements over and over if you are not careful. My trick with Trinity and many other Hanayama puzzles is to pay close attention to the stamped words. Puzzle and company name can almost always be found somewhere on Hanayama puzzles; in this case, Trinity is on one element and Hanayama is on another. Using this to keeping track of the pieces may help you to work a little more systematically. It worked for Kevin and me, at least.

The disassembly process includes one major transformation that is particularly difficult to find, and of course, there are many seemingly similar moves that lead only to dead ends. Persistence is the key. You might be lucky (or smart) enough to get it apart in one session, but I would plan for a couple at least. This is a great pocket puzzle to be worked on in spare moments. Although all Hanayama puzzles are technically pocketable, I wouldn’t want to endanger myself with, say, Cast O’Gear (review here). Trinity is smooth, round, and surprisingly collapsible. No poking or chaffing whatsoever.

Despite its recent IPP fame, I was not initially excited about Trinity. This based solely on its appearance. I know that doesn’t sound very enlightened, but that’s the way it is sometimes. Being a Hanayama product, I knew I was going to buy it eventually anyway, so I was in no particular hurry. My first impressions upon playing with it were mainly frustration and confusion, trying to figure out some pattern to the movement. To be honest, it was not a lot of fun at first. The “organic” quality seemed to make the whole thing appear arbitrary, especially when I fully grasped the fine-tuned dissimilarity of the three pieces. The more I played, however, the more enjoyable this puzzle became. This was partly due, no doubt, to increasing manipulation skill over time, but I think that the movement of the pieces also became smoother with play. Trinity seems to wear-in exceptionally well.

They look similar but don’t be fooled.
After much struggle, I finally managed to release the pieces. Once two of them are unlinked, the rest is very simple. Having plenty of experience with vexing reassembly, I paid very close attention to the disassembly process. This represents an uncharacteristically high level of forethought on my part. I subsequently found reassembly to be fairly straightforward, but I, unfortunately, can’t credit my puzzling skills for this. The reassembly process highlights a certain limitation of the design, at least in my estimation. Although I had properly interlinking all three elements, I am almost certain that they are not in the original configuration. I first suspected this because reassembly seemed so much easier than disassembly. Furthermore, I could now quite easily disassemble and reassemble from my particular “solved” configuration. It seems that the tricky transformation largely responsible for the puzzle’s level 6 rating can be bypassed to achieve an alternative interlinkage. This means that according to established PuzzleMad doctrine (I had to sign papers (Ed - I have them stored safely!)), I have not fully solved the puzzle. I have not actually returned it to its correct interlinked configuration, the one it started at, out of the box. Ed - Get to it, man - you have an unsolved puzzle!

Not being able to properly solve a puzzle is nothing new to me. I have a certain shelf in my house that groans under a seething mass of unsolved objects. But I am not so certain I should add Trinity to this shelf. According to the Hanayama packaging, I only need to take Trinity apart and put it back together. But does that mean back to the exact initial configuration (YES it does!), or to any fully interlinked configuration? Three objects, each with a binary set of states (positions), results in eight possible combinations. That should be the math for Trinity. It is unclear to me how many of the eight possible interlinked combinations are actually solvable. I think I have done three. I doubt that I have the patience to test all eight. Ed - Aaaaargh!

The problem for the puzzler is that, with three pieces designed to appear very similar, it quickly becomes unclear what exactly the original position was. I paid attention to the disassembly, but not THAT much attention. And like Kevin, I immediately discarded the box, so I couldn't study the pictures (yes, of course, I could have googled it and looked at the package online, but I didn't, and now I refuse to). Ed - surely you take photos of the puzzle before you play with it? It is tough to try to get back to a state you cannot visualize, and it seems somehow unfair to expect the puzzler to study and memorize the starting state. The solved state of any puzzle should be intuitively self-apparent. In fact, one could argue this as a cardinal design rule. Maybe this quirk is simply a feature of the puzzle, the component that drives it to a level 6 difficulty. I’m not convinced, however. I think this aspect of the puzzle was unintentional. It is highly significant that the original package includes a small note stating, in part:
A puzzle that interlocks each piece with the two other pieces via an elusive, organic design. There are numerous possible combinations other than the ones shown here, giving you plenty of room to enjoy some puzzling experimentation.
I think that sums it up. Unfortunately, it means that the puzzle is effectively, for the average Joe or Jane Puzzler, an irreversible process. The difficult state will be partially solved (unlinked) and the puzzle will thereafter almost certainly be returned to the simpler solution state for 99.9% of casual puzzlers. It would take tremendous foresight to observe and document the correct starting state prior to disassembly, and truly exceptional motivation to systematically attempt each theoretically possible configuration. I guess with this blog post the odds of the former increase, to the extent that Joe and Jane Puzzler are reading.

I should acknowledge that Kevin, for some unknown reason, DID know the original configuration and could differentiate that from when he had mistakenly achieved an alternative configuration. It will be no surprise to anyone that Kevin is a more advanced solver than myself, by an order of magnitude (Ed - nope I just take photos and get very VERY lucky!). So perhaps it all makes sense. One commentator to Kevin’s original post mentioned that the pieces if in the correct configuration, will lie more or less flat. This is a great observation, and may very well be true, but I seem to recall at least one of my alternatives lying pretty flat as well. I don’t know. If true, it seems like this would have been critical information to include with the puzzle.

If I have some free time (unlikely), I will try to find that really tricky (correct) solution again. Or maybe just mark each of the arms with coloured tape to keep them straight and then explore some other combinations. The original colour scheme from the IPP entry would have been helpful for this.

Realistically, I will likely leave it in the simple solved state. This makes the puzzle effectively a level 3 to 4 on the Hanayama scale. Puzzles at this level are some of my absolute favourites. They can be tricky and I would guess that for most people, as a general rule, they receive much greater replay than the high-level stuff. The puzzle industry, and I guess a goodly portion of the general public, seems to have a fetish for difficulty. It's a psychological issue that bears closer consideration. Most people I know actually give up on hard puzzles surprisingly quickly. But that packaging language is pretty seductive in the store. As a piece of friendly advice to the novice puzzler, the sooner you get beyond this fetish, the more enjoyable your puzzle experience will be. I do like to solve very difficult puzzles, but that kind of hard-won triumph is just one aspect of the puzzle experience and not the most important by a long stretch. There are cheaper and more enjoyable ways to punish oneself.

This is the part of the blog were I say that the statements of the guest blogger are his own and do not reflect the opinion or policy of Puzzlemad. Especially for a post on a previously reviewed puzzle! These are just my thoughts at the moment. Ask me about it tomorrow and I may have a completely different take. For now, I will just conclude that you SHOULD get a copy of Trinity and have a crack at it. This is a very interesting little puzzle, and as you can see from the above, it has obviously captured my attention.

Buy it for the level 6 initial challenge, keep it for the more accessible level 3-4 replay. Take Hanayama and Mr Wong’s advice and do some exploration. Your discovery process will likely be as organic and unpredictable as the design itself. Back over to you for the wrap-up Kevin...

Thank you so much, my friend! I enjoyed your struggle and your discussion - I am pleased to hear that others also spend a lot of time failing to solve things and that they still enjoy them despite that. I have not yet recovered from my computer support experience. Gin gin gin here I come! Splash!

Enjoy the rest of your weekend everyone.

Sunday, 23 June 2019

Rotating on a GalacTIC scale

GalacTIC designed by Andrew Crowell and beautifully made by Brian Menold
I have not really managed to do an awful lot of puzzling recently - a lot going on at home and at work - life just gets in the way. I am working on the Trauma operating list all day today and this one puzzle was all that I managed to write about for you - in fact, it is all that I have managed to solve and fully understand this week. Hopefully, things will settle down and I will have something good for you next week.

Brian Menold (aka the Published Professor of Wood) recently released another batch from the fevered mind of Andrew Crowell. The world of the TIC (Turning Interlocking Cube) was, until recently a fairly stable one about which Bernhard had managed to publish a series of 3 articles encompassing the whole lot. Along comes Andrew and we are up to our eyeballs in TICs and Bernhard's articles need a major update. When Brian releases new stuff, I pay attention, they are well made of beautiful wood and he always chooses the right difficulty level and always chooses puzzles that will be fun.

The GalacTIC was sent out assembled (different to the others released the same day) and here is what he wrote about it:
"This is one of Andrew's few designs that he recommends as a disassembly puzzle. It is easy to see why when you see that the last piece takes 19 moves and many rotations to remove!! I found myself actually wondering if all of this was necessary when I was assembling these! I will say that the first few moves are rather easy, then things get interesting. And good luck getting it back together. Moves - with 10 Rotations"
How could anyone resist that? I know of at least one genius/sucker for punishment who asked for it to be sent out disassembled! I am not very bright and not very good at assembly puzzles and just went with the flow.

It is a lovely little puzzle (it is classic Menold in its' look) and nice to see that Brian has added some half-lap joints for strength as well as a brass pin for the most complex joint. The wood choices are a delight and this will look great on display.

I started with this shortly after the delivery arrived and spent a good few evenings on it and have to say that I am really glad that this was sent out assembled - there is no way on earth I would have managed it from pieces without first having taken it apart. The first 3 pieces come out fairly easily without rotations. It has been pretty humid here in good old "Blighty" for the last few weeks i.e. it has poured pretty much continuously for days! This has meant that the puzzles are a little tight and it took a bit of doing to find which pieces would move at all at first. After those first 3 pieces are removed then it starts to get interesting - we begin to need turns and then another piece comes out. At this point, with the last 3 pieces in place, I began to took me a whole evening just to release the next piece! Now just an "easy" matter of disentangling the last 2 pieces - one is a nice open frame and then the other is a relatively small solid piece with "sticky-out" bits. How hard can it be?

OMG!! The separation of the last 2 pieces took me over a week! There are so many turns that I began to get dizzy! It is rotation on a GalacTIC scale! Not only are there very specific and often hard to find rotations (one is really tough) but also there are blind endings after some rotations requiring backtracking! I got lost and in a panic a few times! After that week of toil I had my pieces:

GalacTIC pieces
Next, I did my usual (with some trepidation) and scrambled the pieces and set them aside for a night. I went back to the assembly challenge the following evening and had an absolute ball trying to reassemble it! Luckily after so much time on the disassembly, I knew the order for the pieces to be inserted and went straight to the difficult challenge of those first 2 pieces. Only one insertion position is possible but after that...hell! That was a struggle. A good 90 minutes of pain and swearing and I had it done. Phew!

This is an absolutely stunning design! I really do not know how Andrew does it - his mind is completely warped (I am sure that Mrs Crowell will vouch for that!) I am very grateful to Brian for bringing these marvellous puzzles to life for us and hope that more will be coming in the future. In my future, I see an attempt at assembling another batch of TICs that are taunting me in my puzzles to be solved pile! I just need some time!

Sunday, 16 June 2019

Packing with Purpose

Box Rebellion
This post follows a little discussion I had with my friend Dave Holt (of the Metagrobologist) who has an absolute fixation on packing puzzles...the more complex the better! He had shown off a picture of one of his recent acquisitions from Tom Lensch, the CRUMB/Melting Block puzzle designed by Bill Cutler and John Rausch.

Dave's CRUMB puzzle
The CRUMB consists of a full set of 28 lettered pieces shown above in their larger storage box with one non-lettered piece as a small spacer to fill the box. There is also a standard box to work on all of the many puzzle challenges and a 3 sided 'corner' box with dimensions of the bottom, sides and depth of the box (created to avoid 'in and out' attempts (as called by Bill and John) which eliminates reaching in and out and easier to slide pieces around). There are 76 doubly-unique solutions to the packing ranging from the 10/11 piece CRUMB (which is relatively easy) to several 13/14 piece ones, which are very difficult to solve manually. Whilst I really appreciate the beauty of the craftsmanship and the incredible variety of puzzling provided by this amazing multi-puzzle, I commented that I am not a huge fan of packing puzzles with so many pieces in them as there is far too much random trial and error and not enough deduction in the solution process. A wonderful and far more eloquent follow up comment from George Syriaque stated it beautifully:
"The issue is that ‘figuring out where the pieces should go’ requires far more effort than ‘figuring out how to get them there’"
This sums me up with packing puzzles entirely. I did eventually solve and review the Melting block a long time ago but have seldom attempted such a complex packing challenge since. I definitely prefer my packing puzzles to be about getting the pieces into position rather than finding where they should go - this sort of follows on from my love of interlocking puzzles. One example of this is the Box Rebellion pictured at the top of the post.

I was very proud to get a copy of the Box Rebellion puzzle (Coffin #195) from Tom Lensch quite recently. Tom had made a bunch after some discussion with my friend John Rausch who had reminisced that the 4L puzzle had been getting a lot of attention recently and that he had exchanged Stewart Coffin's Box Rebellion (#195) at IPP24 in Tokyo which had a number of similarities. I had absolutely adored the 4L puzzle back in 2016 and would always seek out something similar if it came up for sale. By the way, if you don't yet have a copy of 4L then get one NOW - Eric has them for sale here - they are an ESSENTIAL purchase.

John's original exchange puzzle had been made by Walt Hoppe. Like 4L, it has 4 L-shaped pieces that must fit into a restricted-entry box. Unlike the 4L, the acrylic top is not fixed in place, it can slide back and forth 5/32" (Lord, why can't the US embrace the present and the future and go Metric?),  which is enough to allow an L piece to fit on one end, and enough for one cube of an L piece to raise up on the other. Unlike 4L, the L pieces for this puzzle are made from three cubes.

Tom's lovely version is made with a Walnut box (complete with small finger sized holes in the ends to allow manipulation inside and an oddly shaped acrylic top which has a little movement to it. The 4 L shaped pieces are beautifully made from Yellowheart. The premise is very simple and with only a little thought, it is obvious how the pieces are to be positioned in the box. Getting them there is another thing altogether. If you have done the 4L before then you will not be overly troubled by this one because the thought processes are similar. But it still takes a bit of planning and a fun little struggle with moving the pieces around using just the little holes and gravity.

Very clever - I will be storing it unpacked though, to allow torture of colleagues at work
If you have never solved 4L then this is will be a much greater challenge but still possible without spending weeks on it and it may be a nice work out for when 4L finally comes your way.

Next up os another packing puzzle with very few pieces and a placement challenge:

Petit Ring
Of course, I cannot buy just one simple little packing puzzle from Tom and have it shipped 1000s of miles! He also offered me the opportunity to buy one of Osanori Yamamoto's latest designs, Petit Ring. Made from the same woods as the Box Rebellion it is another "simple" packing puzzle with just 3 relatively simple pieces to be put into a 3x3x2 box with oddly restrictive but wide open holes in opposite corners of the top and bottom. The fact that there are holes in both sides gives an idea that this is going to be quite a challenge. Again, it is more interlocking puzzle than packing and I love the challenge. It looks at first that the holes are wide open and that this will be easy but that diagonal half voxel is a real problem - the end result of it is that the entry holes are L shaped which is seriously restrictive.

These 3 pieces do not completely fill the cavity of the box but I assumed that the final result should have the entry holes completely filled and any gaps are concealed inside. The similarity to Pack 012 (also by Osanori) and the false solution to that one made me quite wary. There are a few ways that the pieces can slot together in a 3x3x2 shape and it is a fun challenge to work out which of those are physically possible to get inside the box.

I came up with a very promising way to put the pieces together quite quickly and then moved the puzzle to the box packing part and quickly ran into trouble. The larger shape will only go into the box in a few orientations and needs a lot of manoeuvring space to get it in. As soon as the other pieces are introduced that manoeuvring space disappears very quickly. After a bit of thought, getting 2 pieces in is achieved and then the final challenge is how to get that final piece inside. I could find 2 possible orientations for it but it was terribly blocked. Changes to the entry order were no help and I struggled with it for a few evenings.

Eventually, I had a thought© which is an unusual event for me but as is more common, that thought had an error! Many of Osanori's puzzles have very ingenious rotations in them and I wondered whether that was required for the Petit ring? The tolerances in Tom's craftsmanship are fabulous and rotations are almost impossible. After another evening of experimentation I had finally achieved the final puzzle state:

Solved it! This photo was taken after a rotation
I was really pleased with myself for solving it and then I had a look at the page on PuzzleWillBePlayed only to see that I had solved it but in the incorrect way. It states that there are 72 assemblies of which only one is achievable and, crucially, it makes no mention of the need for rotations. Now Ishino san is very meticulous in his maintenance of the pwbp pages...if a solution needs rotations in the solution then it is always described (have a look at the listing for Osanori's Galette puzzle here - it clearly states that rotations are required).

The lack of this mention forced me to go back to my puzzle and spend another few hours on it. Finally, I got it! That is a wonderful design - not really one for trial and error but requiring planning and thought©.

If you have a copy of Petit Ring then your challenge is now to solve it both ways. Can you find the correct solution and then do it all over again with rotations? It is brilliant and I cannot wait to get more of his fabulous "low number of pieces" designs.

Sunday, 9 June 2019

An Extension to my Advice for Twisty Puzzlers

The Mo Fang/Qiyi 4 Leaf Clover Plus Cube

4 Leaf Clover Plus
4 Leaf Clover Plus movements
One of my all-time most popular blog posts is one that I am most proud of - it is my advice to twisty puzzle beginners post which I published way back in 2012. It is what I send to puzzlers who have taken time to work out how to solve a basic 3x3 and 4x4 Rubik type cube and want to know what path to take next. It is in no way a didactic set of instructions, I just walk through what many of the options are and discuss why one might want to go that route. I suspect that I should probably redo that post in the light of more recent developments in the Twisty world.

I still stick my initial advice that the first tentative steps beyond basic cubes should probably be the shape modifications to get your head around pieces that "don't look right" and then move on to the other geometries like Megaminx (dodecahedron) and Pyraminx (tetrahedron) but after those, there is a sudden increase in options which can be chosen between...for example the cuboids and those with alternative piece movements like the Dino cube (Shallow cut corner turn), Rex cube (Deep cut corner turn), Skewb (Very deep cut corner turn) and Curvy Copter (Edge turn) - each of these can also be multiple layers too.

Today's puzzle that I am reviewing is definitely not a basic puzzle for a novice but is a really nice example of a recently appeared new group of puzzles on the market. I am not sure what to call this group - maybe it could be called the "Combo puzzles"? These are puzzles which are effectively a combination of 2 different basic puzzles into one with 2 different turning mechanisms combined. I already reviewed one such puzzle, the Grilles II cube which is a combination of a standard 3x3 cube and a shallow cut Master (4x4) Dino cube:

3x3 turns and 2-level deep corner turns
The solving process for this was great fun and my main criticism of this puzzle was that the mechanism was quite unstable and had a tendency to explode into rather a lot of pieces if you were not extremely careful how you rotated it. If you want a copy of this (recommended if you have patience) from PuzzleMaster or HKNowstore.

These combination puzzles really intrigue me - there is a whole lot more scrambling possible with these than the individual base puzzles and then you have the probability that you can get into positions that are completely impossible with each. The approach to solving could be to try something totally unique and find your own commutators to shift pieces around or to try to reduce to one or other of the base puzzles and then solve that. The fun part of this is that there is a distinct possibility that the reduction can introduce parities where a piece has been reformed in an impossible position for the base puzzle - for example in the Grilles II it is possible to be left with a single turned corner which a 3x3 can never achieve. Resolving these parity situations can be one of the most fun parts of these puzzles.

There have not been very many puzzles with combined mechanisms released yet. The 3x3 Curvy Copter by MF8 is one that I have not bought because it was reputed to be so unstable as to be almost unusable

The puzzle I am specifically discussing today is the Mo Fang/Qiyi 4 Leaf Clover Plus cube (available from PuzzleMaster here, HKNowstore here, and UK Puzzlestore here) which is a combination of the wonderful edge turning of a deeper cut Curvy Copter and a 2x2 face turning Rubik cube. I originally got mine from Calvin's HKNowstore and they mistakenly sent me the plain 4 Leaf Clover Cube (no plus) which is just a deeper cut Curvy Copter but no face turns. It was a nice puzzle and fun to play with but not a new challenge. They were very good about sending me out the correct one I ordered with the next order that I placed with them.

I bought the Stickerless version which has the advantage of the Curvy Copter corners to be solved hidden inside the puzzle:

You can see the hidden corners sunk inside - an extra challenge is to solve these too even though they are not externally visible.

The puzzle turns fantastically well and is a joy to scramble. All the usual moves are possible including the jumbling moves that are the fun part of the curvy copter - jumbling to you non-twisty puzzlers or novices is the ability to take a piece out of its' orbit by partially turning an edge and combining it with another edge turn (all edge turners have jumbling as part of their abilities).

Back right is a face turn
Front left is a trio of moves ending a jumbled puzzle. 

After an initial fiddle about I just went for it! I usually spend time working out techniques and maybe a few algorithms but this time I figured I had enough background to these puzzles:

Fully scrambled, it looks quite fearsome!
So how would you approach such a puzzle? For me, the obvious thing to do was to return it to a cube shape and then solve the base 2x2 first which effectively reduces the puzzle to a plain 4 Leaf Clover/Curvy Copter Cube which should be solvable in the standard fashion (unless there were any Parities introduced).

Returning the Curvy Copter to cube shape can be a horrific experience as it gets very blocked but in this particular puzzle the 2x2 moves are unimpeded and using these it is a simple matter to move the edges into the right positions so that the jumbled pieces sticking out can be made flat again. Next step for me was to reduce the multicoloured edges - in the picture above there is a blue/white edge combined with a red/yellow edge at the front. Pairing up the edges is initially pretty easy and done purely with intuition. Having done one face of edges, I moved to the next layer up and this simple too - getting confident now! The next layer up the sides also wasn't too bad with only a little bit of fiddling about. The final face of that was quite a challenge! The first solve I went through, it just happened to work out that they were all just in place or on opposite faces of where they needed to be and I was lulled into a false sense of security. My second and all subsequent attempts at this puzzle have been a humungous challenge with edges in all sorts of places. It requires all sorts of moving 2x2 cubes about and rotating cubies and edges to finally get them back to either in place or opposite to where they should be. I have done this 7 or 8 times now and I can always do it but it is always a huge challenge which requires quite a bit of planning and moving pieces around.

Who would have thought that the toughest part of this puzzle would have been the 2x2 cube part? It is a brilliant challenge which I have yet to find a definitive sequence for. Maybe a better puzzler than me can manage it more quickly?

Having reduced the puzzle back to cube-shape and then recreated all the edges, the Curvy Copter solve process is exactly the same as normal. You have the choice whether to solve the hidden internal corners last or whether to solve them as you go like the usual CC puzzle - each choice has its own special challenges.

This is an absolutely brilliant puzzle and I can heartily recommend it to all twisty puzzlers who want to go beyond the basic cubes. It should probably be step 4 in your journey - I would recommend learning the basic cubes, then the shape mods and then the alternative turning puzzles before jumping on these. The progression is wonderful.

I think I will need to think about obtaining the Curvy Copter 3x3 to add another combo twisty to my collection.

Coming sometime in the future will be a review of a terribly fearsome puzzle - the Skewby Copter Plus:

Holy shit!
Curvy Copter edge turn AND a Skewb turn 
This beast is a fearsome thing - it is a Curvy Copter PLUS (described in this article) which can swap out the centres and the corners as part of the jumbling process combined with a Skewb (deep cut corner turner). So far I have been too frightened to do any more than turn this thing!

If you are a puzzler who is hesitating over getting into twisty puzzles then don't! Do it! The learning process is quite steep at first but there is plenty of help out there and then once you have developed an arsenal of basic techniques then you are off and running. These puzzles are hugely challenging, have high repeatability and are pretty reasonably priced until you branch out into the hand made mods. Try it, you will probably like it...a LOT!

Sunday, 2 June 2019

Thinking Outside the Box? Not Always That Helpful!

Or Laszlo Does It Again!
A TIC, a Packing Puzzle and a Dexterity Puzzle All in One!

Rollercoaster by Laszlo Kmolnar
Very nicely made by Brian Young
My friend Laszlo Kmolnar is one of the best puzzle designers around today. This blog is littered with posts gushing about his wonderful puzzles and he has made my top ten of the year with a few of his wonderful designs and I suspect that this one will make it to that exalted list at the end of 2019. Let me say up front that this is AN ABSOLUTELY ESSENTIAL PURCHASE! Before you read on, you MUST go and buy a copy from Brian and Sue Young's MrPuzzle site - it is available in 4 different kinds of wood:

  • Blush Alder - This is a hardwood with a pinkish brown colour. It weighs lighter than the heaviest wood like Jarrah. 
  • Saffron Heart - This wood grows in Australia and Papua New Guinea. The wood has a distinct yellow tinge to it.
  • Jarrah - A dense and heavy wood grown mostly in Western Australia this wood varies from light to much darker red in colour.
  • Black Wattle - A lovely brown wood that mostly has darker streaks in it.

I think that mine is Jarrah and there is the 67 x 67 x 67mm perspex box. I bought my copy from Wil Strijbos when he was visiting the UK for a Midlands Puzzle Party and he may have a few copies left if you are ordering something from him anyway. When bought from Brian it apparently comes with the solution - mine from Wil did not! I try never to look at a solution and if you do buy from Brian then throw the leaflet away! DO NOT be tempted by it - you DON'T need it! This fabulous puzzle is only $19US as I write and so an absolute bargain.

As you can see it consists of just 3 oddly shaped pieces of wood which must be placed completely within the 3x3x3 box with no piece protruding out. The box is rigid, does not dismantle and has a single 1x1x1 hole in a corner to allow the pieces to be placed inside. Don't dismiss this simply because the box is perspex - it has been beautifully made too and actually looks lovely in itself.

Very clear - box and instructions
On the MrPuzzle site, it also says to solve without putting your fingers inside! OMG!
A simple puzzle I can hear you claim? Only put 3 pieces in a regular box? That must be pretty easy! Hell! No! This little bastard kept me busy for 6 months! There is a lot more to the solving of this puzzle than you might think which is why I am so overwhelmingly enthusiastic. Brian Menold made a copy last year with a wooden box that I think must have been almost impossible to solve - the inability to see through the walls of the box will have made this immeasurably harder. This puzzle was an entry in the IPP design competition last year (2018) where it missed out on a prize (I suspect this will have been because of the sheer number of amazing designs that were entered).

New to puzzling - look at that smile!
I have carried the puzzle with me everywhere for 6 months and only just solved it last week! Many many people have been consumed by it and all have failed. They don't let me loose in the Day surgery suite very often but every single time I go down there, I am immediately asked to hand it over and the nursing staff spend a whole day playing with it. I love watching the annoyed looks on the surgeons face as the pieces clunk about in and out of the box! It drives them mad hearing the nurses have some fun. I have given it to a few of my anaesthetic trainees to keep them occupied whilst I write my chart or prescribe the post-op medications. The premise of this is so simple that no-one can resist the temptation - even a new trainee who has never tried puzzling before.

In general, I am not a huge fan of packing puzzles because there seems to be too much random trial and error during the solution process. The Rollercoaster, on the other hand, will never be solved by random movement. It requires thought© and purposeful movement with a decent amount of dexterity to solve this - no chance that you will manage it by accident. Not only is it a packing puzzle, but it is also a dexterity puzzle as well as a wonderful Turning Interlocking Cube (TIC) too. Yep! As if that weren't requires rotational moves too. Brian and Laszlo are going to force you to make rotational moves of pieces through a small hole and barely within reach. Yay! Bastards! 😂

The first of the Aha! moments occurs early on when you realise part of the order in which the pieces must be placed in the cube, then another Aha! moment arrives as you work out the specific orientation that the large piece requires when inserted. Having made what you feel is good headway with discoveries, then you hit a wall! I did! Many many times.

Time to "think© outside the box"? I thought so too - this is often helpful for these puzzles but remember that Laszlo has a history of making "out of the box" thoughts unhelpful! Obviously, a 3x3x3 cube has 27 voxels inside but this puzzle has pieces with only 15 voxels which means there will be lots of empty space inside when it is complete. This also means that there are dozens and dozens of ways that the pieces can be fitted into a 3x3x3 shape when you do not have the constraints of the walls and the single hole to work through. After a month or two of thinking outside the box and not really getting anywhere plus allowing everyone who wanted to try it a good while to play/fail, I went back to thinking inside the box...that didn't help much either!

Another difficulty with this is that the 2 small pieces look very similar and when you think© that you have an idea, by the time you have made a first move or two, you are completely confused about which piece should be where and oriented in which direction. I took to drawing weird little stick diagrams on pieces of paper that I would leave lying around. At this point, you have a real idea of what to do (or so you think) and then you find that the little buggers move around in the box completely of their own volition and nothing you can do will keep them where you want them! So, you cannot work out what to do, cannot keep track of which piece is which and then cannot control where they go whilst in the box.......Aaaargh!!! This is AWESOME!

Having described what sounds like a nightmare, you have to realise that all this contributes to something that needs yet more Aha! moments. The first 2 or 3 are not enough! I continued to get nowhere and increased my frustration very frequently when the pieces would spontaneously rotate whilst I was trying to manipulate them within the box and frequently I would find myself unable to advance any further and then couldn't pull the bloody pieces out again......Aaaargh!!! Again! I must have come close to a heart attack on several occasions.

Last week I attended a rather good Anaesthesia conference and, as I usually do, took a few toys to play with on the train and in my hotel room in an evening. I failed every time but on the train home where I met one of my orthopaedic surgical colleagues by coincidence, I threatened him with it and when he started to cry (I tortured him for a year when he was a trainee!), I let him off and played myself. Much to the bemusement of a young lad further up the train, I had my final Aha! moment during that journey and managed this:

Yes - it can be done - this picture is of no help to you whatsoever!
The elated feeling lasted for days! Interestingly, the challenge does not end there! Disassembling it is still tough as the pieces rotate and block you without you being aware of what has happened and then eventually when you do take it apart, it is still damn tough to redo the puzzle. After another 5 or 6 solves, I had got to the point where I have worked out the quickest and most efficient method of packing the pieces inside. Phew! The next challenge (which is incredibly tough is to do the whole thing without sticking your finger inside the box! It can be done but be prepared to lose a lot of hair in the process! Yet another challenge - is there no end to them?

When I told Derek (the genius) about my eventual solution, he was rather impressed - at that point, he told me that it was a really difficult puzzle that he had solved with the aid of Burrtools. I have to admit that with the rotations involved, it had never occurred to me to even try using that miraculous program.

This puzzle is simply awesome! It should definitely be in any serious puzzler's collection and everyone should take some real time to actually think© and come up with the solution. There are quite a lot of Aha! moments to find and the final feeling of success is amazing! Don't be tempted by Burrtools - just solve it...even if it takes 6 months!

It is still available from Brian and Sue and maybe Wil still has a few copies - go and buy it. You will see why it will be rather high up my top ten of this year.

I think I need a rest now! Maybe something easy like a twisty puzzle?


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