Sunday, 18 August 2019

I Am So Bad at Boxes!

Yes, it's a box and it doesn't look too difficult!
I am sure that the majority of you will recognise the box pictured above and you will all laugh at me when I say that I could not open it! For those who don't immediately recognise it, it is a burrset made by the Doctor of Wood, Eric Fuller. A few months ago he released a bunch of these in different woods and due to work pressures, I was not quick enough off the mark to get one of the more gorgeous sets. However, I was just able to buy a copy of the Cherry, Ash, Walnut and Birch set just before they all sold out and have to say that I am not in the least disappointed. It is simply gorgeous even in the more mundane wood choices. Eric has put all of his usual magic into the manufacture of this set - the joinery is simply perfection itself and it looks beautiful. The lid lifts off to reveal a lovely ordered set of burr sticks which have been perfectly engraved with their piece number for selection according to the booklet of challenges.

27 beautiful burr sticks plus a "filler"
How many burrsets does one need? This is slightly embarrassing to answer - at the moment, I must say that at least 4 is the correct number!

The "42 piece burrset" by Jerry McFarland - aka the Caramel Case
314 solid burrs as well as many many additional holey burrs! Plus Jerry added an extra stick

The Ultimate burrset - by Jack Krijnen
637 challenges varying from Level 1 to level 8

The Level 5 burrset Mr KY Wu
162 possible level 5 assemblies

Eric had made this set using the exact same pieces as the Ultimate burrset which I already had above. So why did I buy it? Apart from being unable to resist Eric's work, this was named the Pen-ultimate burrset because it had been modified. The ultimate set was based on sticks made from 2x2x8 stock. The extra length on each stick made the assembly challenges quite a bit tougher in places as the lateral movements during the solution can be quite restricted. For this set, Eric had created the burr sticks from 2x2x6 stock and to enhance the puzzling the set had been analysed by the amazing genius that is Ken Irvine (check out his brilliant new blog here).

So having established that I already have more six-piece burr challenges than I will ever be able to solve (have I told you all that I am rubbish at assembly puzzles?), the next question must be where is that booklet of challenges for Eric's set? Yes, I asked that too! I had not actually read the full description of the item before clicking buy and only after it arrived did I realise that this Burrset was also a box. Apparently, there is a hidden drawer in the box which contains a booklet of challenges - hence this is a box too. It is very well disguised but when looking and feeling the box closely it is obvious where the hidden drawer is and of course, it is locked tight. So no puzzling until I can open the box...GULP!

I take out all the burr sticks from the set and admire them and search for hidden mechanisms inside...NOPE! Then I realise that stick 0 and the red stick are both solid and hence one is superfluous...or is it? Eric would not just put an extra stick in for nice packing in the box. After all 28 sticks pack as a nice 7x4 array but if there were just 27 sticks then that could easily be nicely arranged in a 9x3 array and not need the extra stick. Plus, why is one made from a different (and rather gorgeous) Padauk piece? It's pretty clear by the presence of a magnet embedded in it that that is critical for unlocking the drawer. There must be a hidden mechanism that requires the use of the magnet. I set to exploring what I could find with this magnet and there were several very nice Aha! moments. I found hidden magnets, I found that things could be done by using magnet on magnet and there I got stuck! For ages and ages! All over the internet, I saw puzzle friends opening their drawers and starting on their burr puzzling and I couldn't begin. My howls of anguish spread wide and I was encouraged by others to continue and not over-think it. The puzzling continued...but not with success.

Eventually, Eric was on FB and saw that I was on-line. He sent me a message and asked what I had found and could do. I gave a hypothesis of what else I thought I ought to be able to do and he indicated that I was correct...but my set would not do that. I was sorry to inflict pain on Eric but his response was one of absolutely superb customer service, he told me that in my set I obviously needed a stronger magnet and the following day he posted out a replacement key-piece (no extra charge at all). A week later I received another stick with a MUCH stronger magnet embedded in it. I immediately put it to the test and the much-expected movement that I had been unable to perform with the smaller magnet was now easy for me. So I did it and tugged on the drawer and...and NOPE! Aaaargh! As I said, I am RUBBISH at boxes. Yet again, I spent several evenings with my usual game of doing the same trick again and again and again and, like a mad man, expecting something different to happen at some point. Of course, it didn't and I still could not play with my burrs! Eventually, I caved in and asked Eric for a bit of help, wondering whether there was another issue with my burrset (it is very common amongst us addicts to state that if we cannot solve a puzzle then it must be broken - that gets stated many many times at the Midlands Puzzle Party).

Eric confirmed that there was more to the opening than I thought and gave me a particular but not descriptive clue which I (surprisingly) understood but could not immediately follow through with. He then said something key:
"Remember that I like to make things look like they don't move when they do 🙂"
Within a few moments of that I responded:
"Holy shit! Just found it! Damn! That's well hidden!!!!"
I have to say that I feel that I got my money's worth out of this puzzle and that is before I even got to play with the burr sticks!

OMG! At last!
Now I was able to explore the set further. There was a nice Cubic Dissection logo sticker in the booklet and the booklet itself provided the full analysis that Ken had made of the Ultimate set with shortened sticks and also including the assemblies that do not end with solid burrs:

There are rather a large number of challenges to work through:

  • The Ultimate burrset with stick-length of 8 had 535 unique solutions with voids whereas the Penultimate set here has 708 - that alone will take me most of the rest of my life!
On top of this, there are an enormous number of other assemblies possible which will provide interesting puzzling - potentially another 20,322! Homing in on the slightly more challenging ones, Ken's analysis states that there are 3,479 piece sets that require a minimum of 2 moves and a maximum of 3 moves to remove the first piece, 51 sets that require a minimum of 4 and a maximum of 5 moves for the first piece and 3 sets that require 5 moves.

Not only is the analysis an amazing and very complete piece of work, but it has also been beautifully set out in the booklet and, as long as you have good eyesight (a problem for us "older" puzzlers), then it is a work of art as well as a fabulous puzzling resource:

At last! Very small print but gorgeous and a lifetime of puzzle challenges in there! Don't tell Mrs S!
Finally, I have been able to challenge myself to assemble something. As you would expect from Eric, the burr sticks fit together absolutely perfectly! It is a pleasure to play with this set - I will assemble a few and then it will be stored for my retirement when I have a whole lot more time on my hands.

A burr assembled and the Cubic dissection sticker proudly stuck on the interior of the lid



Still unsolved - probably a box!
Finally, as proof that a puzzle is a box...Juno's Slammed car which has now sold out after it won the Jury Grand prize in the design competition in Japan, was sold to me as a Sequential Discovery puzzle which I adore. However, Juno insists that it is also a box which we have established today that I am truly awful at solving! He says:
"The puzzle has an internal cavity and it is also categorized as a puzzle box. To make the definition of the puzzle clearer, we put a loaf of bread in the cavity and it helps you to realize the goal of the puzzle."
The loaf of bread is another dig at me after George Bell stated that a puzzle is a box if you can put a loaf of bread in it and there have been several of Juno's puzzles where he has had a joke at me with this. I received my copy of this a couple of months ago and have watched in amazement as everyone has solved it around me (including my completely blind friend Ed) and I zoomed off to almost the end of the challenge and have been stuck there for weeks. Yep! It is definitely a box - not because of the bread but because I am completely unable to solve it! I will keep on working on it and hopefully before the year is out will have opened it - some puzzles take me months or even years of effort! Thanks, Juno!




Sunday, 11 August 2019

Jerry Makes a Fidget Toy

Oh, and It's a Puzzle Too!

Fidget Burr
Yep! Free the lady is the aim.
Jerry McFarland and I chat quite frequently and I was most pleased to hear that he is being kept busy making BurrNova 3D (aka Magnetic Madness) puzzles after it won a prize in the Nob Yoshigahara design competition at the 2018 IPP. After the prize was won and I wrote my review (review of the 2D version here) many people contacted Jerry to get copies and he has been kept very busy producing copies for people. At the same time, his mind never stops - he has improved my version 0.8 (prototype) a number of times and is currently on version 2.5. Whilst discussing the possibility of upgrading my prototype to the latest (mine had seized up due to weaker magnets and British high humidity), he also dropped on me that he has been thinking about other ways to use wood and magnets and make fun puzzles. He has a mind like a trap that just never stops! In fact, he told me that he struggles to make lots of copies of older puzzles because he gets easily bored.

After some too and fro by email, a pair of boxes arrived much to the anger of Mrs S and much to the eager pleasure of the furry boy cats who lurve my boxes! The first one contained my new improved BurrNova and I could see the improvements immediately and also appreciated the use of Mahogany in place of Maple:

Version 2.5 on the left and prototype (now returned to Jerry) on the right
The new puzzle was in the second box and when I showed it off to "she who is getting rather pissed off with the constant puzzle deliveries", she did state that she was sure that I had one of those already. I corrected her but I can sort of understand - Jerry's work has a certain look...it is completely unmistakable. Yes, she is right, I do have several of Jerry's masterpieces in my collection and hence a number of puzzles that look similar. I emphatically stated that every single one of them was extremely different and she sort of grumpily accepted it.

This latest puzzle (prototype again) has a number of names: Fidget burr, Dollar burr, Chin burr or BurrNova parallel - reasons for most of these later but I think only the first 2 may stick. Yet again, Jerry added a little whimsy to the whole thing by adding the free the lady in distress element to it. It is very offputting to pick up the puzzle and see a girl staring out of it at you - Mrs S says he's got a sick mind! Immediately I found out why it is called the Fidget burr - pushing that very inviting central key piece results in a wonderfully loud and (if you're not expecting it) surprising automatic sequence of moves of 4 pieces around the edges:

Just one push leads to a whole sequence
After this, something else is possible...or not, depending on which direction you pushed the key piece and then nothing, nada, nichts and bugger all! There are inviting notches in pieces and the appearance that other pieces of the puzzle may move. I spent a day or so exploring these other pieces and realised that all is blocked. It is at this point that the name comes into play. I was singularly failing to get any further in solving this but had a wonderful time pushing it all back to the start and then Thrrrrrrrrp! setting it off again! This is a beautiful fidget toy with the added bonus of making a lovely racket that annoys the hell out of the present wife. I seem to recall that at one point she threatened to throw it out a window - disgraceful!

I fidgeted away with it for nearly a week and thought. This is an exercise that does not come easily to me and I find quite painful. I recalled other puzzles that Jerry had made and decided to try something that had worked in one of them. Suddenly I had a new move! Yessssss! In my surprise, I sat back and reset it by accident. Slightly stupid and disappointing but at least I knew what was required. It would appear that this is a fidget toy, a burr and a dexterity puzzle.

Having made the crucial hidden next move, I wondered whether any more like that might be required. Searching for them just ended up with me resetting the puzzle a few times so I looked elsewhere. The next move requires either knowledge of others of his puzzles or a very close examination of the pieces that are visible. Surprisingly, I managed this step quite quickly and found myself with a partially dismantled puzzle and a frightening step to do next...I had to remove the automatic section with its very strong magnets. All is there to be seen and it quickly came out and was set aside.

Finally, after nearly 2 weeks of play, I had a nice pile of pieces or "kindling" as Mrs S has taken to calling these sorts of puzzles:

Fabulous! The mechanism is edited out so no use peaking!
The attention to detail is wonderful, right through to the initials and year as well as a perfectly cut out hole for the princess to sleep in:

Such attention to detail!
No clues here - all details edited out

Of course, this puzzle was going set me a further challenge! How to put it back together. Jerry expected this to be quite tough and even sent a sealed envelope with a suggested approach on it. I initially tried without the instructions but could not remember what went where and looked at them after a short while. Jerry's approach did not help me at all! After an hour of trying to repeat what he had said, I gave up and went back to searching for my own method. I was eventually able to work out where the specific pieces went and then using a fair bit of dexterity I was able to assemble the automatic section in the centre of the frame in a rather fun 2 or 3 stage process which led to another of those wonderful Thrrrrrrp noises again and the rest of the puzzle was assembled. Finally back to the beginning and I had to report back. Jerry, this puzzle is a winner! Lovely idea, beautifully made and quite a challenge of both thought and dexterity in several places. I loved it.

But...........why is it called the "Chin burr"? Apparently, the reason for this name is that the final step in the reset of the puzzle needs more hands than we have. Jerry solved that by using his chin! I laughed at how dense I was but had to admit that in my case I would have called it a "nose burr" (think about it!)

This puzzle is NOT available as yet - please don't pester/ask Jerry for a copy as he is not making them for sale just yet. He is still working on it and may improve it further and it will probably be seen in an IPP design competition occurring in the next year. When it eventually does reach a stage where he is happy with it, it will definitely be worth buying.

Now I should probably put it away before Mrs S goes ahead with her threat to chop my fingers off if I keep making that Thrrrrrrp noise!





Sunday, 4 August 2019

A Puzzle that Smells as Good as it Looks

...and is a Wonderful Challenge!

Ternary/Quinary Cube
As I write this the IPP is coming to a close and the prizes have been given out. I will leave the winners announcements to the official channels but the winners are well deserved. I try to keep those of us who cannot attend amused with tales of puzzling, failure and eventual success (no violence on my person this time).

The boyz are always keen to investigate any boxes that arrive - who knows, maybe there might be treats inside for them or, failing that, there will still be a box for them to sit in. This week, however, they were particularly interested in this box. It came from South Africa and maybe it had some of my (and their) favourite Biltong inside...Drool! They went crazy sniffing at the box and kept pestering until I eventually got around to opening it. I think they might have been slightly disappointed in the lack of meat inside but I was truly delighted with the puzzle I received. My good friend Johan Heyns has collaborated with the incredibly talented designer Aleksandr Leontev (Александр Леонтьев) to produce a stunning copy of his Ternary/Quinary Cube. I was delighted with my copy of the 136-minute cube and 205-minute cube (variations on the Sequence cube) which I reviewed here. Aleksandr seems to be the current Master of the N-ary puzzle which I am completely addicted to.

When Johan offered this puzzle for sale, I immediately said yes and hoped that it was possible to manufacture it. This type of puzzle can be fraught with unexpected difficulties. The original Sequence cube proved impossible for Aleksandr to produce in a stable fashion and the Ternary/Quinary cubes have not been without significant challenges and a setback. Luckily for me, Johan persevered and I received a wonderful puzzle in the post. Why were the cats so excited? I'm not entirely sure but Many of Johan's puzzles smell absolutely wonderful. This particular puzzle has a lovely cinnamony smell - I had no idea the cats would be attracted to that aroma but they definitely gave the puzzle a good investigation when it was freed from the packing.

It is made from Angolan Kiaat (corner blocks and smaller sliders), South African Kiaat (large sliders) with the maze plates made of Wenge separated by Pau Marfim. There are also brass side brackets and steel screws. It is a decent 9cm cube with a few protuberant screw-heads - very tactile and pleasant to play with. Also in the box was a small Allen key (only Johan and Eric have ever provided a tool with their puzzles before) and a leaflet with a little information on it as well as instructions on how to change between the two setups. The puzzle arrived setup for the Ternary challenge which is a nice easy level 170.2.2.2 challenge.

The evening that it arrived I set to work. The very beginning of the Ternary cube was immediately unusual because it had an entry sequence before the N-ary component began - I don't think I have ever come across that before. After about a ½ hour, I had come to the end:


At the end of the Ternary solution sequence
Interestingly, the maze pathways are completely hidden for almost the entire process with only the very early segments visible at the very end. I removed the four sliders and balanced them on the sleeping lap-cat to examine how the puzzle was constructed.


Incredible design and construction
I had not paid any attention to the sliders that came out and where they had originated. I assumed that they were identical...STUPID BOY! At this point, a small expletive might have left me as I realised that I could not put the sliders back in and reverse the process to the beginning. The next 10 minutes required a fun and very close examination of the pieces and the pathway and how they may interact at the very end of the solution. Another Aha! moment arrived when I understood how it had been constructed and I was finally able to embark upon the reverse process. That evening I was happy with my progress and went to bed reassured that I was able to finally solve something. The following day I went to the end of the solution, took the sliders out again and then read the first step of the instructions to set up the next (Quinary) challenge. I was a little alarmed at the instructions
DO NOT DISASSEMBLE THE COMPLETE PUZZLE! You have been warned!
I disassembled the parts that I was supposed to and marvelled at the tremendous skill in the design and construction:
Two halves separated releasing the maze plates

Details of the maze pathways (Quinary)
It is possible at this point to see how clever they have been in creating this masterpiece...the maze plates are held tightly onto the separation plate by small (but strong) magnets. Without paying much attention I pulled the plates off and set them back on the separation plate with the Quinary mazes pointing outwards. I quickly put it back together only to realise that I had absolutely no idea how it had all been oriented when I took it apart and, you guessed it, I could not put it back together again! I repeat...STUPID BOY!

I disassembled it again and rotated a plate and...nope! I tried again and rotated the other plate and...nope! OMG! I was in trouble! I reset it back to the Ternary setup and...nope! Aaaargh! I really should have paid attention to how it came apart. I spent the whole evening trying to assemble the puzzle and was rewarded after an hour or so with finally getting it back to the puzzle that I had already solved...PHEW!

The following evening I tried again - unscrewed all the nice screws that the instructions told me to and then removed the maze plates but left the sliders in place. The maze plates can be rotated either horizontally or vertically so I picked one and put it back together. Yes, you guessed it! That's a nope! Aaaargh! At one point I did manage to get to a conformation that would allow the screws to be screwed tight and with some relief, I went to work on the Quinary challenge (level 1251.2.2.2) only to find that after 4 moves, I was blocked from doing anything else - NOOOOOOOO!

So I took it apart yet again! Looking at the maze plates, I realised what I had done wrong (it took me another 20 minutes) and rectified the situation. That was the end of that day's puzzling. Yesterday I was finally able to have a play at the quinary solution. It is interesting that I found the longer challenge much more confusing than I was expecting. I have solved the Kugellager 7 (septenary) and 8 (Quinary) puzzles and apart from getting lost due to not paying attention, I solved them without difficulty. The Quinary cube took me by surprise with the confusing sequences in the solution. The fact that it is a blind solve makes it really difficult to predict the moves and it requires constant exploration. I was watching a film with the current wife, Whack! Ouch! and did find myself getting lost on several occasions and only realised it when I reached a position that was very obviously not a progression. The Quinary solve was VERY enjoyable and took me the best part of 2 hours (probably 2500 moves).


At the end of the Quinary solution
I am truly delighted with my purchase - Aleksandr continues to prove that he is a master of N-ary design and Johan is an incredibly talented craftsman. The fruits of the collaboration are revealed properly when the puzzle is solved and disassembled:

Inscription on one side of the separation plate

Johan's stamp
Intellectual Craft
I recommend a regular visit to Johan's store to see whether there is anything of interest to you. His workmanship is wonderful and puzzles are always a bonus when they smell nice and let's not forget that many come with a nice stand too. I still have my copy of Matrix next to my armchair taunting me - one day I WILL solve it!

Doesn't look like much - I have failed at it for 2 years!

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