March 29, 2012

Washer Cylinder

Well I finally ended up purchasing this puzzle from Wil Strijbos at NYPP! I had heard a lot about it since Wil was keeping track of who had solved it and sending regular updates to the NOBNET email list. Plenty has been written about it (Allard's Puzzling TimesOli's Mechanical Puzzle BlogPuzzleMad,  and Jerry's Small Puzzle Collection), but I tried not to read too closely for fear of getting accidental hints.

I fiddled with it on and off for a few days, rotating the lid this way and that and shaking it around. I felt that I had a fairly good idea of how it was supposed to work, based on a few observations, but I couldn't quite figure out how to accomplish it.

At one point, I thought that pressing the lid down onto the base might be helpful, and indeed it did cause the lid to spin less freely. Unfortunately, it eventually seized up completely! With quite a bit of muscle and cursing, I managed to free it, but I was quite worried that I had ruined it. Just to make sure I wasn't on the right track, I emailed Oli to see if that type of motion was required, and he assured me that it was not.

With a bit more puzzling, I was able to get it to open: indeed it did open the way I expected, but it took me a little while to figure out the method needed to do so. When I had it open, I could see what a mess I had made of things by pressing the lid down on the base: the lip where they meet had gotten all chewed up! Fortunately, I was able to clean it up pretty good with a file and some sandpaper. Using increasingly fine sandpaper (used for returning the clarity to acrylic windows), I had the finish looking as good as new, aside from a few pits that were fairly deep. Don't squeeze the lid down!

The mechanism itself is quite precise and well crafted, as well as being an interesting concept. It is one that you could spend quite a while on if you don't come up with the correct idea, but you may guess it fairly quickly if you have a knack for this sort of thing. Overall, a nice little puzzle that I'm glad to have purchased, but I probably won't be tormenting any of my guests with it, since it is quite challenging!

March 28, 2012


As much as I love fancy puzzle boxes, I'm always keeping my eye out for ones that are more reasonably priced. Puzzle Master is currently selling the Schmuckdose puzzle box designed by Jean-Claude Constantin, and they were kind enough to sell me a copy at a discount to review.

It is a rather innocuous looking box, with a somewhat irregular shape. It is a bit hard to tell in the photo, but it has eight sides of varying lengths. The wood I'm guessing is maple, and has a nice smooth finish on it. There are two brass hinges on the back side. The inner compartment is circular, about two inches across, with felt on both sides. A nice touch, probably to cover up the center-point hole left by the drill bit. In case you were wondering about the funny name, Schmuckdose means jewelry box in German! Indeed, it would make a good jewelry box for some earrings or small necklaces.

I fiddled with it briefly, and probably had it open in under a minute. The mechanism has a graceful simplicity that I liked, and I liked how you make a little discovery first that will eventually lead to the solution. Most people will find this property fairly quickly, but it may take a few minutes to figure out how to take advantage of it if you're not a puzzler. I agree with Puzzle Master's difficulty rating of 6/10.

Overall, Schmuckdose is a  nice, simple box that would be good for a new puzzler or if you prefer something simple.

March 19, 2012

Paper Cryptex Puzzle

Recently a reader, Brad Pyle, contacted me and offered to send a puzzle that he had made. Of course, I gladly accepted, and was quite curious as to what it could be. I guess I could have asked, but I thought it would be more fun not knowing!

It arrived in this very small box, which was decorated like a puzzle box! Since he told me to use caution with the puzzle, since it was delicate, I wondered for a bit whether the box might be the puzzle. As it turns out, that wasn't the case, but it is an interesting thought for you puzzle designers out there.

What was inside was this nice little paper cryptex puzzle, along with a two pieces of paper. For those of you not familiar with this type of puzzle, it consists of a number of dials which need to be placed in the appropriate position to reveal the contents inside. The word was coined by Dan Brown (writer of The Davinci Code) in 2003 to describe a portable vault used to hide secret documents. It works much like a cylindrical combination lock commonly used for bikes.

Usually I like to solve these types of puzzles by picking them: applying some amount of force to the drawer while rotating the dials. However, due to the delicate nature of the paper version (and so as not to spoil the fun), I solved it as intended, by decoding the clues Brad sent.

You can see the coded message at the top of this photo and the key down below. You'll notice, however, that there's some missing information! This makes it a bit trickier, but still pretty straight-foward. Give it a try if you'd like! The code itself comes from The Oak Island Mystery, a real-life mystery involving treasure and a coded message.

Decoding the message reveals a riddle, which leads to the eventual solution. Pretty cute! Here's a photo of the cryptex opened. Inside was congratulatory note and a link to Brad's new website: Brad's Brain Teasers and Puzzles.

If you're interested in making one for yourself, you can check out this website for plans. It takes quite a bit of careful cutting and pasting, but in the end you'll have a neat little paper cryptex.

If you'd like something a bit more sturdy, there's a number of places to buy nice metal versions online. Here's a cheaper one, and fancy one from Amazon, as well as a site that only sells cryptexes. Brad has a nice collection of these that you can see over at his site.

Thanks to Brad for the paper cryptex!

March 8, 2012

Zen Magnets vs. The NeoCube

The NeoCube (left) and Zen Magnets (right)
Way back in October 2009, I wrote about a set of spherical magnets called The NeoCube. Recently, the folks over at Zen Magnets set me two sets of their magnets, so that I could compare Zen Magnets vs. NeoCube. Zen Magnets claims to have superior dimensional tolerance, coating, and strength, so I tested each of these. I didn't expect to see much of a difference: I was quite happy with my NeoCube magnets, so could Zen Magnets be that much better?

Upon very close inspection, it is noticeable that Zen Magnets does have a smoother coating. From a distance, they look quite similar though The NeoCube looks a bit darker.  After having NeoCube for years, I haven't had any trouble with chipping, the difference is likely only aesthetic, and even then it is quite hard to see.

The NeoCube (left) and Zen Magnets (right)

Since I couldn't find my calipers, I performed a test of the dimensional tolerance described in this video, a rather amusing video from Zen Magnets in response to Bucky Balls' voicemail threat of legal action over Zen's claims of superior quality. Definitely worth watching! Bucky Balls is another brand spherical magnet set that I haven't tried.

In this test of dimensional tolerance, I didn't notice a difference between Zen Magnets and NeoCube. For this test, we're looking for whether the magnets are in a straight line in this stick formation. Both looked quite straight, with only minor deviation.

The NeoCube (left) and Zen Magnets (right)

I should also note that NeoCubes are slightly smaller (4.8mm vs. 5.0mm), though again this difference is only barely noticeable if you have the magnets right next to each other. When you string them in a line, these differences add up, so you can actually see that a string of 100 NeoCubes is a bit shorter than 100 Zen Magnets. Similarly, in a cube formation they are slightly different sizes.

The NeoCube (left) and Zen Magnets (right)

Finally, I tested their strength both through the test suggested in the video above and also by testing how many of my business cards I could stack up and still have one magnet support another one below it. Somewhat surprisingly, in both tests, the results were identical.

The packaging on Zen Magnets is quite nice, with a little embroidered velvet bag and PVC card that helps you manipulate the magnets more easily. They also offer an option with a small gift box, that includes a nice instruction sheet, microfiber cloth, and metal building platform. The NeoCube comes in a blister pack, which isn't quite as cool. The packaging doesn't really matter much to me though, since I'd rather have them out in the open rather than tucked in a bag or box. The PVC card is quite helpful though!

In conclusion, I think you'd probably be happy with either of these brands, since playing with spherical magnets is a blast and the amount of fun you have won't likely be impacted by the minor differences I found. Zen Magnets do appear to be superior at least in terms of their surface coating, so I'd probably go with those if all else were equal. However, there is some difference in the price, NeoCube is a bit cheaper, so it is a tough call.

Here's The NeoCube website and Zen Magnets website. Check out the Gallery section at Zen Magnets, it is pretty impressive! Also check out Gabriel's review of Zen Magnets.
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