Sunday, May 13, 2007

Food Puzzles: Kamei's Spinach Can

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What is this? See here if you missed the first one.

Even if you don't collect mechanical puzzles, you've probably seen Japanese puzzle boxes. Eye-dazzling, hand-crafted marquetry on the surfaces of these wooden boxes hides panels that shift and slide until you find your way inside.

And then there's Akio Kamei.

Kamei diverged from the path of traditional secret boxes to make karakuri, or trick, boxes that rely on new-for-Japan locks. (Many have existed in Western puzzles for a while.) Magnets, pins, and centrifugal force rods that fly apart as the box spins are just some of the mechanisms he uses, and he marries them with fine Japanese craftsmanship to produce some of the world's most sought-after mechanical puzzles. His work has inspired a small squadron of other Japanese box makers, the members of the Karakuri Creation Group. Kamei's hand-crafted puzzles aren't cheap—though you can buy passable commercial versions of some of them—but the ones I own are the treasures of my collection.

Among his most famous puzzles are the figural boxes, where the real-world model provides clues to solving the puzzle. Looking at Kamei's "old radio" box? It doesn't seem to be working, so how would you get it going again? Looking at his "dice" puzzle box? What do you do with dice? Think this way, and you'll be on the road to the answer. A few involve food, so you'll see Kamei's name here again.

His spinach can, a cylinder with a marquetry spinach leaf on the "label," follows in the footsteps of his other "real-world" puzzles. Get the spinach can open, and you'll find a deep compartment. As with all my secret boxes, this is where I store the solution that comes with the puzzle. This is one of the few Kameis where you see the mechanism: Usually you can only guess at the locks hiding in the wooden walls, even after you open it.

I like to share puzzles with my friends and dinner guests, but the spinach can rarely emerges from the puzzle drawers. I worry that the fragile mechanism will give out sooner rather than later.

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Friday, March 30, 2007

Food Puzzles: DoveTail Bar

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Photo by Melissa Schneider.

Many of you know that I collect and design mechanical puzzles—think Rubik's Cube and wire puzzles instead of jigsaws. It may shock you to learn I own about 700 puzzles, but my collection is tiny. The largest United States collection, whose owner is bequeathing it to the Lilly Library in Bloomington, Indiana, has about 30,000 puzzles. The largest in the world, a private collection in England, has about 35,000.

Most of mine come from International Puzzle Party, the annual, invite-only meetup for the 500-600 mechanical puzzle collectors around the world. Designers and collectors bring puzzles to IPP to trade and sell, and most of these teasers will never appear in a store. Each time I go I bring home anywhere from a couple dozen puzzles to more than a hundred.

Some of the items in my collection have food or wine themes, and I decided to post about them here from time to time. I'll still write about edible food and wine, but I hope you'll indulge occasional tangents about the way that food influences a single art form. Food's ubiquitousness makes it a wellspring of analogies and metaphors that work across cultures. I've seen solvers from around the world acquire these thematic puzzles and instantly get the joke. Far more so than, say, jokes about politics or sports that show up in other puzzles I own.

I won't share any solutions; it's bad form among puzzlers. If you ever find yourself holding one of these puzzles, you'll have the pleasure of solving it yourself.

DoveTail Bar
Norman Sandfield's "DoveTail Bar" is one of many dovetail puzzles that he and his brother Robert designed over the course of several years. The classic dovetail "puzzle" is more of a curiosity: A block of wood appears to have perpendicular dovetail joints. Norman and Robert jumped from this classic object into true puzzles that used new shapes and locks, and they worked with craftsman Perry McDaniel to explore new dovetail movement. Until you solve it, you're never quite sure how the sections of a Sandfield puzzle will move.

In the Sandfield dovetails, you're usually hunting for a hidden compartment, but in the DoveTail Bar you need to "take a bite" off the top. If you're holding the puzzle, you can see the joint, but you'll need to work through some steps before you can separate bar and bite. Melissa's setup for the photo obscures any part of the lock mechanism.

Perry used walnut and maple for this faux ice cream bar, and Norman presented the puzzle in a paper bag reminiscent of ice cream bar wrappers.

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