Sunday 19 April 2020

Hip Flask

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

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

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

Aloha Kākou Puzzlers,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here we go...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hip-flask bids you a good day.

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

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

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

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

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