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.

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