Metal Puzzle 7 – Bird

This is the third of the new puzzles I picked up from the Daiei capsule dispensers. It shares enough similarities to Clover that just by looking at it, I was sure that I already knew the solution. 20 minutes later, I was wondering if I really had the right idea or not. I was able to get the ring past 60% of the bird shape, but that remaining 40% just kept getting in the way. I knew that the starting move had to go one specific way, but there apparently had to be some kind of complication preventing the bird from moving the way it needed to for my solution to work.

After another 20 minutes, I shook the puzzle out, tried again, and suddenly it got a lot easier to complete. That’s when I discovered that I did indeed have it right, but I was making a very obvious and fundamental assumption that turned out to be dead wrong. After correcting the assumption (hint: this puzzle is one-sided), I solved it in 20 seconds. I assembled and disassembled it a few more times just to verify that I could, and I’ve got the total time down to one minute. Again, it’s all about misdirection and making the puzzle so that the intuitive moves take you the wrong way.

Metal Puzzle 6 – Butterfly(b)

(Normal positioning of the ring as shown in the pamphlet.)

Butterfly(b) has nothing to do with Butterfly(a), outside of a vague similarity in shape. The figure folds both forward and backward along the spine, but the movement is limited by the little rings at the hinge points at the top and bottom of the puzzle. Rotating the little rings to point to you, or away, makes a big difference in how the rest of the puzzle reacts. I’ve been able to solve, and reassemble this thing multiple times, but it’s really more a matter of luck than actually knowing the answer for how to do it. There are two approaches to (b) – the brute force method, and the elegant way. With brute force, you fold the body one way, and rotate the ring over the top of the wings, then fold it back the opposite direction and rotate the ring back the way you had it before. The drawback to this approach is that the ring rubs against the antenna tip sections, and I got lots of little flecks of plating on my hands.


The elegant way is to only partly fold the wings, and push the ring along the path they create, so that the leading edge goes first (rather than pulling the ring by the edge farthest from the puzzle). I think I’ve spent two hours on this one, and every time I feel that I’ve finally got it right, I mess up. This is the kind of tricky that I’m not good at…

(My preferred positioning of the ring.)

One last comment. The capsule pamphlet shows (b) with the ring sitting in the middle of the butterfly. I rather prefer my ending position, with the two rings together down at the tail. It makes the puzzle look a lot more formidable this way.

3D Puzzle Series 2, #4

I’m going to call this one Ball. It took me under a minute to figure out the trick to disassembling it, and then it just came apart under its own weight. Which was kind of a problem because I couldn’t see how the pieces were fitted together for reassembling it. Putting the puzzle back together again required the better part of half an hour.

There are 6 pieces, all different. All of them have large full notches running from the center to the outer rim. #1 – one small notch width-wise. #2 – one wide notch radially. #3 – one small notch width-wise and one wide notch radially. #4 – two small notches width-wise and one wide notch radially. #5 – one extremely wide notch width-wise and one wide notch radially. #6 – the piece that looks like #5 and has a beveled edge.

(#3 and #4 together, but rotated 180 degrees from the way you want them.)

Put #3 and #4 together to have the small notch at the top right and the combined wide notch at the bottom of the circle.

(#1 in place.)

Pull #3 and #4 apart enough to put #1 in the combined wide notch at the bottom, and #6 in the small notch at the top.

(#1 and #6 in place.)

Push #3 and #4 together again, and rotate #6 so it is lying on its side with enough room for #2 and #5 to slide into place under it.

(With #6 rotated to make room for sliding #2 and #5 into place.)

Slide #2 in from the front.

Slide #5 in from the back. Then rotate #6 to lock the puzzle together.

Even knowing the solution, Ball is kind of tricky, and it takes me 1-2 minutes to disassemble and reassemble it again. For 200 yen, I’m impressed.

There’s no reason to write up an entry on the remaining puzzle. It’s just a re-issue of Galaxy from series 1 (AKA – Falling Star). They’re the exact same puzzle, so I’m annoyed that I had to spend money to verify that it’s a repeat, especially since I had to get 2 extra copies of Ball in order to get the capsule containing Galaxy. Sigh. Anyway, if you want to see the write-up on series 2 puzzle #5, just revisit the entry on Galaxy.

Metal Puzzle 5 – Butterfly(a)

At the end of the last metal puzzle series entry, I’d written that the capsule dispenser had been removed from the Capsule Cafe after I’d gotten only 4 of the 10 puzzles in the set, and that I couldn’t find that dispenser anywhere else in the city. Some weeks later, one of the students mentioned that he’d seen it at the big Daiei department store (now Aeon) down at Korimoto. I’ve been to that location before, but it’s an hour walk from my apartment (20 minutes by street car, and I hesitate to spend 340 yen for the street car just to get a 200 yen capsule). Occasionally, though, I have to ride the street car to Minami Kagoshima, and then I can justify getting off the car, visit Daiei, and then get back on to return home. Anyway, I did stop at that Daiei one day, found the bank of capsule dispensers on the second floor, and bought 4 puzzles – 4 new ones out of 4.

The first new one is Butterfly(a) (there’s a variant, called Butterfly(b)). It was a major challenge, but not so much frustrating as simply confusing. It’s a cross between Star and Bell, so if you know the key to solving Bell, you know the first thing you’re supposed to do with Butterfly. After that, you need to move the bar loop through the rings ala Star. I was able to remove the loop after a few minutes, but putting it back together took almost three times as long. Then when I tried disassembling it again, I got lost. I spent at least an hour and a half practicing on this puzzle until I finally figured out the pattern. I can now take it apart and put it back together again in less than 1 minute, but it’s still easy to forget the moves.

So, I’ll put hints to myself here. “Bell.” “Through two, walk to the right.” “Out of one and through the other, walk back.” “Fold like Star and exit.” “Re-Bell.” To reassemble: “Bell.” “Enter, over one like Star.” “Through one and walk around.” “Through two and walk back.” “Re-Bell.”

I keep telling myself that I don’t like these kinds of puzzles and that I should stop buying them, But there is kind of a thrill and self-satisfaction in solving them. So, I’ll at least try to do the other three I already have.

3D Puzzle Series 2, #3

For the lack of a better name, I’m going to call this one Diamond 2. It really is the same puzzle as Diamond from the first series. The only difference is that there’s a dedicated locking piece, meaning that the cuts on the pieces more closely resemble the Thai soccer ball puzzle. In other words, Diamond 2 is based on Soccer Ball, and Diamond 1 is a simplified self-locking version of Diamond 2. 200 yen, about 2″ to a side.

For assembly instructions, check the blog entry on Soccer Ball. The one nice thing about Diamond 2, compared to Diamond 1, is that because of the lacquer on the wood, if you push the pieces together hard enough, they lock pretty well. Loosen them up and the puzzle disassembles under its own weight.


Metal Puzzle 4 – Star

I had a bit of spare time one day, and figured that I might as well get one more metal puzzle to see how difficult it would be. Again, these are 200 yen ($1.80 USD), so they’re cheap entertainment. The one I got this time is “Star” in Japan (in the U.S., it’s being marketed as Star Trap, but there’s really very few hits on it, and no pages showing solutions). I spent about 10 minutes on it before I had to teach English classes. Then, during the afternoon I’d come back and work on it for another 10-15 minutes at a stretch, then do something else. In total, I had at least an hour invested in it, and I was getting concerned that I wasn’t finding anything useful on the net in the way of walkthroughs.

What’s interesting is that I got two related books at the same time for Christmas. The first was Professor Hoffmann’s “Modern Magic” (the first true comprehensive text on stage magic and sleight of hand, printed in the 1800’s). The other was “Brain Works”, from National Geographic, with a forward by magician David Copperfield. “Brain Works” also focuses on illusions, and how the brain can trick itself into seeing or not seeing something. Almost immediately afterward, I encountered the below picture from Dudolf, titled “Can you find the panda?”

It’s all connected. The brain tricks itself and you find yourself looking in the wrong place at the wrong time trying to find something that’s right in front of you. And, magic is about getting you to intentionally look at one point while missing what’s actually happening under your nose. And metal puzzles? The designs are all about misdirection. The puzzles are made to draw your attention away from specific parts of the design, yet if you deconstruct the puzzle, you have to ask yourself, “Wait, why is this piece this shape? Why are these two interlocking rings instead of one long rectangular piece? Why is one piece narrow enough to fit within the rings, yet long enough to go around the entire rest of the puzzle?” How much of this is distraction and misdirection, and how much is solution?

Going back to Star, I suddenly found myself approaching it as a magic trick, rather than as a puzzle. I visually traced out the path the long piece would have to follow if I’d freed it already and I was instead putting the puzzle back together again. Then, when I picked it up and started working on it, I solved it within 1 minute. The trick is so blatantly obvious when you know it that I can again take this one apart in 5 seconds, and reassemble it in 3. And, yes, the design is intended to misdirect you, just like with any magic trick. It’s all connected.

Final comment: I was thinking of getting one more puzzle when I had more spare time, but when I went back to the capsule shop, it was shuttered. I guess the owners simply decided to close the place one night, and that was that. There are capsule dispenser banks in a few other places around Kagoshima, but none of them have the wire puzzles that I can find. So, the question of whether I should keep buying them has been taken out of my hands. Sigh.

Modern Magic

(All rights belong to their owners. Images used here for review purposes only.)

When I was a teenager, a magic shop opened up in downtown St. Paul. At the time, I got around on bicycle, and the shop was 3 miles from my parents’ house, so I’d visit on the weekends, when I didn’t have school. (Also, I had a part-time job in my senior year working as a janitor at the Civic Center, the events arena a few blocks away next to the Mississippi river. If I had to work there on the weekend, I’d go to the magic shop during my break.) The place was co-owned by two younger professional stage magicians who weren’t all wrapped up in the personae of “great magicians,” meaning they were easy to talk to and very approachable. To increase their customer base and promote the goods they were selling, they offered classes on stage and closeup magic in the evenings and on Sundays. I signed up for everything I could afford, and was one of their only students. This worked out in my favor because I got offered a job as a salesclerk working in exchange for shop credit. I worked there for one full summer, and had amassed over $200 worth of props and magic supplies by the time I was done (that represented a large box of stuff back in those days), plus the classes. The only reason I didn’t grow up to be a magician is that I have hyperhidrosis – my hands sweat – and that got in the way of doing close-up work. Instead, I went on to become an electronics engineer.

Magic isn’t so much of a hobby as it is a peripheral interest. I don’t practice any of the illusions, but I’ve gotten pretty good at understanding how most of them work just by watching them one time. I like Penn and Teller, but I’m not really interested in following most of the more recent magicians because they’re more about the flash than the illusion. That is, it’s the difference between watching Lady Gaga versus Cheap Trick. I prefer Cheap Trick.

Anyway, one of the stories in the Q.E.D. manga had the main character carrying around a volume of Professor Hoffmann’s book, “Modern Magic,” and getting into a bet with a stage magician over whether the magician could develop a trick that even the hero couldn’t figure out. I’d had a book on coin magic by J. B. Bobo (1910-1996) and the first volume of the Tarbell Course (Harlan Tarbell, 1890-1960), and at that time it was really hard to find good books on magic, and most of them were pretty expensive – $80-$100 in 1970’s dollars. I’d hadn’t known about Modern Magic until reading the Q.E.D. story, so I decided to ask for it as a Christmas present last year.

Modern Magic, by Professor (Lewis) Hoffmann
According to the Genie Magazine wiki article, Louis Hoffmann was a British lawyer who worked under the pen name “Professor Hoffmann” because he didn’t want his professional prospects as a lawyer to be affected by the perception that he practiced deception as a hobby. There’s little information on him as a magician, but Louis is credited as being the first author to really document stage magic in English. He also wrote three sequels – More Magic (1890), Later Magic (1903), and Latest Magic (1918) – a novel for kids entitled Conjurer Dick (1886), and The Haunted Hat: A magical short story, first published in Chambers’s Journal, 1905. Modern Magic first came out as a series of articles in the magazine Every Boy’s Annual before being collected in book form. The copy I have is from CreateSpace Independent Publishers, and seems to simply be a scanned version of an original edition copy (print flaws and all). I’m annoyed that there’s no publisher information on or in the book, except for the ISBN, and the Amazon entry for this edition has the author name spelled as “Hoffman”. It’s like someone grabbed something in the public domain and just threw it between cheaper covers to make a fast profit.

Up until about the 1800’s, most stage magicians wore flowing robes reminiscent of an Egyptian mystic or medieval alchemist primarily to carry around all their apparatus and to hide what they were doing with their hands. Hoffmann writes that “professors” (as he called illusionists) had long switched to top hats and tuxedos and that the last guy in robes he was aware of was the one hired to work at the Crystal Palace (built in 1851, destroyed by fire in 1936). Hoffmann’s goal was to finally record on paper the methods and techniques of magicians in English, and his focus is on what you can do with the proper tux. The first chapter talks about what you’ll need (the clothes, a table and a wand) and why. The second chapter explains cuts and passes for a light-weight deck of cards, then goes into tricks you can do with a prepared deck while you’re still practicing hand movements. This is expanded to sleights with a deck, coin tricks, stage illusions, and so on. Most of the cuts and passes for the cards are accompanied by illustrations where needed, as are the sections on box tricks. Otherwise, a lot of the illusions are just text-only.

One thing that’s interesting about magic is that it really hadn’t changed all that much up until the 1970’s. How the trick works and what you need to do to prevent people from seeing that was still the same. What did change was the patter (how you set up the audience and explain what you’re doing) and how stiff the magicians looked in front of the audience. More recently, there has been the addition of a LOT of technology (servos, motors, latches) and the need to make bigger and bigger things (i.e. – New York City) to disappear. But still, if you know how to make a coin pass through a table, restore a torn-up card, and how to do the cups and balls routines, you’ll still make a living at magic, and most of those bits are in Modern Magic. Brian Anderson, creator of the Dog Eat Doug and The Conjurers comics is also a magician. He once commented that even though they’re dated, he still refers to the older books on magic for ideas and information on how to do a trick. I see that as a recommendation for Modern Magic, Bobo and the Tarbell Collection.

Summary: Professor Hoffmann’s Modern Magic (1876, 512 pages) was the first attempt at documenting stage magic illusions in English, and is still useful now, as long as you ignore the patter, the assumption that both the “professor” and the audience will be male, and the older writing style. And, if you just happen to find a first edition printing of the original hardback, I may be persuaded to take it off your hands if you ask nicely.

OK Go – Upside Down and & Inside Out

If you like machines, art and Pitagora Switch, then you like OK Go music videos And you’re going to love Upside Down & Inside Out, which was shot in Zero-G.

3D Puzzle Series 2, #2

I’ll call this one Cube. This is more of a brain teaser than a 3D wood puzzle. The pieces are all held together by a length of elastic cord that runs through holes in the blocks to create only one solution for forming a 3×3 cube (actually, two solutions, but they’re mirror images of each other). I have to admit that I was not able to remake the cube again once I got it out of the plastic packaging. So, it is a challenging puzzle, but I’ve said before that I’m not that good at these kinds of puzzles.

On the other hand, when I tried getting the next puzzle from the capsule dispenser, I got two extra copies of Cube, so it’s a simple matter now of videoing the extra Cube being opened up, and just using that to reverse-engineer this one. I will say right now, though, that Cube looks better as a Cube while it’s still in the packaging. When sitting on its own, the elastic cord causes it to self-disassemble.

Take 2: Ok, a few days after I wrote the above description, I had a little spare time, so I took my camera and one of the extra cubes, and recorded the process of unraveling it after removing the plastic. The result was absolute and total failure. Even with the photos in hand, I could only get halfway through the solution before running into the same wall – the first half of the assembly (the “outer shell”) was in the way for my rotating the rest of the puzzle (the “inner core”) 180 degrees in order to put the core within the shell. The problem is that it’s easy to figure out how to start at the “head end” of the snake and make the 3x3x3 outer shell. But if you try from the “tail” end, there’s no recognizable structure for approaching the core.

(The outer shell portion complete, leaving the “inner core” part unfinishable.)

In a way, once the outer shell is formed, what you have is positive and negative space. The positive space is the shell, and the negative space is what the core is supposed to look like if you move the pieces around the right way. But, if you take the remaining pieces and make them look like the negative space, you can’t easily rotate them 180 degrees so that the core slips inside the shell (I say “easily”, because if you do it right, you can stretch the walls of the shell apart enough to swing the middle part of the core into the gap of the U, and you can finish the puzzle that way. However, that’s kind of damaging the cord and increasing the chance it will snap some time later.)

(The inner core mostly assembled and ready to be rotated 180 degrees into place. Shame it’s not designed to rotate like this…)

One of the books I’d gotten for Christmas is Shing-Tung Yau’s “The Shape of Inner Space“. Yau is a mathematician that co-developed the Calabi-Yau manifolds that are central to String and M(Membrane)-Theory. The book is part autobiography, part history of String Theory development, and lots and lots of talk about the math revolving around Calabi-Yau manifolds, and how they relate to astrophysics. In it, Yau frequently says that the ability to switch between different domains is central to solving complex problems. Having a transformation (like mirroring) lets you move from one domain and then back. And that a problem that is almost intractable in one domain may be really easy to solve in the other.

(Starting over mid-way, with the core rotated into position correctly, but the outer shell partly unraveled.)

I was thinking about the book as I was walking to work, and about the Cube puzzle, and it struck me that the Cube is kind of an example of approaching a problem from both directions, and meeting in the middle to massage the two halves together to make a finished whole.

(View from the other side, where the inner core joins with the outer shell.)

So. Take the snake as before and start from the head. Create the U shape, and keep bending the pieces to get the outer 3x3x3 shell. There’s really only one direction the pieces can turn to form the shell.

(And, rewrapping the shell around the core, working backwards this time.)

When you get to the stage where you have to stop, look at the gap in the middle top of the shell. There’s going to be a double-back, with one segment that is 3 pieces long, folded back under an adjacent segment that is also 3 pieces long. This is the heart of your core. And this is what the outer shell is going to wrap around. Get the double-back ready, hold it in the orientation it needs to face to fill the existing negative space within the shell. Then, let go of the shell and shake it out a bit.

You have the connecting piece on the side of the core in the location it’s supposed to be in. All that’s left is to build the U-shaped shell backwards around the core, and finishing with the head of the snake to complete that half of the Cube.

(Almost done now.)

To make things a bit simpler, I left the last few pieces of the tail to the end. Turn the cube around so the tail is facing you, and it should be pretty obvious how they need to be routed to wrap up the puzzle. After you solve the puzzle a few times, you’ll know how to fold the tail so it’s in the right place relative to the core double-back, as you’re building up the rest of the shell.

(The “tail” of the snake to the left, the “head” – and very last portion of the outer shell – to the right.)

Anyway, the point is that this kind of puzzle is a lot easier if you start from the end of the snake that forms a 3×3 U square, continuing up to where you’re about to form the core, make the core so that it will fit the negative space of the cube, and then shake out the shell and start again. The second time, though, you’re building the shell backwards around the core, and part of the U shapes will still be in place in the snake, so you’ll be able to see more easily where they go. Trying to start at the tail end, and make the core at the outset is possible, but it’s much more difficult to get it right. The first few times you try to solve this puzzle, that is. Eventually, I’ve noticed that I can begin at the tail end, identify where the double-back occurs, and then continue through the full solution. Oddly, even having solved it 10 times, I’ll still suddenly feel my mind go blank and nothing will make sense. I’ll go through several false starts before I figure out the problem. Strange.

One other thing I consider interesting about Cube, after having thought about it for a while, is that this design is a variant on the traveling salesman problem. Draw a 3x3x3 matrix, putting little spheres at the line intersections. Now, draw a minimum-distance path that connects the dots such that you go through each dot once and only once, the paths don’t cross, and that the path only connects neighboring dots (that is, you can’t jump directly from one corner of the cube to the opposite one. You can only connect dots that are next to each other). When you’re done, the spheres will represent the centers of the cube block pieces, and the path will be the elastic cord. Straight-through paths will turn into holes that go straight through a wooden block, and paths that take right-angle turns will be right-angle holes in the blocks. (The ends of the cord are held in place in the end blocks by pounding small wooden plugs into the holes.) Armed with this traveling salesman solution, making and solving a real-world Cube like this will be relatively easy.

(All that’s left is to rotate the last of the tail into place.)


Metal Puzzle 3 – Bell

Back in December, I had to teach English lessons at the school on Christmas Day, which is also when I got paid for the month. As I was coming home, I decided that I’d get one more wire puzzle from the capsule dispensers. There’s 10 in the series, and I was hoping I could avoid duplications. But, for 200 yen ($1.80 USD), that wouldn’t have been a crippling problem. Anyway, the shop still had the puzzles in that machine, and I ended up receiving Bell on the first try.

It looks complicated, but having solved Clover, I had a bit of an edge with this one. It took me about 3 minutes (less than 5 minutes, tops) to figure it out. Once I got the answer, I was able to disassemble it and put it back together in under 10 seconds, total. So far, I’m doing much better with the wire puzzles than I ever have before. I might end up talking myself into getting one or two more…