Saturday, November 28, 2015

Relatively Speaking

Let’s take a moment, relatively speaking, to ponder the physical concepts proposed 100 years ago which reshaped our understanding of the universe.  Einstein first presented his theory of general relativity on November 25, 1915, in front of the Prussian Academy of Science, which makes this Thanksgiving season one with some serious gravity.  General relativity upped the ante from “special relativity”, which he introduced 10 years earlier, by adding acceleration to the mix.  One of the many insights his theories provide is that there is no “fixed frame” of reference, meaning that everything in the universe is moving relative to everything else.  As a result, both time and space can appear differently depending on your point of view, and how fast you are moving.  One of the most fascinating aspects to this phenomenon, for me, has always been time dilation, which refers to how time appears to pass more slowly for a fast moving observer than for a (relatively) slower moving observer.  

Brothers by Kanae Saito

I always love the example of the two young brothers who are approximately the same age.  One jets off on a rocket ship which travels near the speed of light for a year before he returns home.  He is one year older, but his brother back on earth is now an old man, because time has passed differently for each due to the rate of speed they were moving relative to one another.  To commemorate and celebrate the anniversary of this cosmic conundrum I present the “Brothers” by Kanae Saito of the Karakuri Creation Group.  This whimsical puzzle box pair is one of my all time favorite karakuri box works.  The two brothers are adorable with their silly expressions, dapper duds and flapping arms.  The older, who obviously stayed behind on earth, sports a seriously respectable moustache.  His younger brother, who hasn’t aged much after his year in space, has an impish “I just defied space-time” grin.  But even after all those light year(s) apart, they are still inseparable.  Saito says they are “thick as thieves”.  Like the ambidextrous hexduos, these two will need to work together to reveal their hidden secrets.  The “Brothers” are a lot of fun to explore, right here on Earth. 

Saito's hanko (signature) wins the cutest award

I would think that a particularly special new cocktail should be in order for the 100th anniversary of general relativity as well, wouldn't you?  I've taken a cue from the astrophysicist Katherine Freese, who describes the ingredients in her book “The Cosmic Cocktail: Three Parts Dark Matter.”  According to Dr. Freese, the cosmic cocktail is made with 3 parts dark matter and ½ part helium and hydrogen.  I’m taking a bit of mixological license here in assuming that actual dark matter doesn't taste very good.  It’s also impossible to measure precisely – terrible for true craft cocktails.  Therefore, representing the “dark matter” here will be a special bourbon infused with browned butter, some Madeira, and some apple cider.  Add to that the half part “helium and hydrogen” – represented here by Hum liqueur – and you've got the space-time continuum calming “Theory of Relativity” cocktail.  

Theory of Relativity cocktail - 3 parts dark matter plus a half part HeH 

The drink is delicious as is, but if you find yourself sitting patiently by the fireside, waiting for your long lost sibling to return from his interstellar pub crawl, you just might want to add some hot water to this cocktail in a big mug, and enjoy it as the “Toddy of Relativity”, which is arguably an even better version, if I do say so, relatively speaking.  The cocktail may appear to be longer or shorter, depending on how fast you may be moving.  It may also appear to be heavier.  If you place it behind a massive galaxy, you might be able to see two of it due to gravitational lensing.  It should taste the same, however, although we really don’t know much about dark matter, so I can’t be sure.  At any rate (of speed), here’s hoping we all experience some time dilation on this Thanksgiving weekend as we enjoy family, friends, food and fun.  Cheers!

The Brothers sharing a Hot Toddy of Relativity

The Theory of Relativity:
1 oz brown butter infused bourbon (or regular bourbon, of course)
1 oz madeira
1 oz apple cider
½ oz Hum liqeuer (the drink still tastes good without this …)
 2 dashes of Angostura bitters

For the Toddy:
Add above to a mug and top with 3 oz hot water.  Stir in 3/4 oz maple or demerara syrup.

For more about Einstein’s Theory:

For The Cosmic Cocktail: Three Parts Dark Matter by Katherine Freese:

For more about Kanae Saito:

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Two Hands

Get ready to exercise both sides of your brain for this installment.  You’ll need the logical left side and the artistic right side to fully appreciate this particular puzzle pair pairing and potion pair pairing, and puzzle and potion pairing.  Hmmm, perhaps I should explain myself.

A puzzling friend of mine, who also hails from Houston, Texas, has been quite successful developing his unique ideas into reality, with the help of many different artists.  Matt Dawson has contributed designs and concepts behind the scenes on many well known works.  His collaboration with Yasutoshi Makishi on the Pagoda puzzle series even spawned his own puzzle moniker, “MakDaw”.   Another of his highly successful collaborations was with the brilliant puzzle maker Robert Yarger, who has his own well known moniker, “Stickman”.  This pair of puzzlers did not, thankfully, lead to any more monikers, such as “DawMan” or “StickDaw”, but you never know.  

The Ambidextrous Hexduos by Matt Dawson and Robert Yarger

Matt worked with Robert in preparation for IPP 30 in Japan to prepare his exchange puzzle that year, the “Ambidextrous Hexduos”, which he designed and which Robert brought to life.  The “ambis” are a pair of small cubes, which have a secret opening mechanism, of course, but with quite a twist.  As the name might suggest, the trick involves a bit of ambidextrous dexterity with this duo of right rhombohedrons.  In fact, neither box can be opened without the other, simultaneously.  The majority of the puzzles were made from basswood for the exchange; however, Robert also created a limited set of pairs made with exotic wood inlays left over from prior Stickman designs.   These inlayed versions have strikingly colorful, contrasting angled stripes around each box which make for a very distinctive look.  The boxes are moderately difficult to solve and present a unique challenge, and a great aha moment once you understand how they work.  Your artistic and logical brain will enjoy the beauty and mechanics at work by this pair of puzzler’s puzzles.

One box opened ... ?

Of course, we need a well crafted cocktail to compliment these dynamic duos, says the right brain.  Actually we need two cocktails, replies the left brain – one for me and one for you.  How creative of you, compliments the right brain.  It’s only logical, demurs the left.  The left brain then reaches for the “Right Hand” cocktail, a combination of aged rum, Carpano Antica sweet vermouth, Campari, and 2 dashes of chocolate bitters.  This tasty treat was created by Michael McIlroy from Milk and Honey and Little Branch in New York City.  The left brain analyzes these ingredients and suggests that the combination of a base spirit (rum here), vermouth and Campari makes this a variation of the classic Negroni cocktail.  The right simply enjoys this incredible variation, which balances the rich flavors so well, and calls it, “just right.”  

The Right Hand by Michael McIlroy

On the other hand, Sam Ross, also from Milk and Honey and Little Branch in NYC, suggests using a fine bourbon as the base spirit here instead of rum (or gin, as in a classic Negroni).  His variation, featured in Jim Meehan’s fantastic PDT Cocktail Book, is known as the “Left Hand” cocktail.  He describes it as a marriage of a Manhattan (rye and sweet vermouth) and a Negroni.  Of course, a bourbon based negroni is also known as a “Boulevardier”, a drink we have discussed in detail previously for the “Red, White and Bourbon” cocktail.  The right brain thinks that it is acceptable artistic license to rename the drink after the simple addition of some chocolate bitters, as it reaches for the “Left Hand” cocktail.

The Left Hand by Sam Ross

While comparing these two different but so similar cocktails, the brains have a hard time deciding which they like better.  The fine aged rum tastes almost like aged whiskey, but smoother (and you know how I love aged rum), while the bourbon adds a spicy kick which is so nice.  Whether you prefer yours with gin, aged rum, bourbon, or an altogether different base, this cocktail platform always seems to work out.  Now, as you contemplate these excellent offerings, you are left (right?) with the age old drinking problem of two hands, one mouth.  If you’ve solved the ambidextrous hexduos, however, you can probably work this one out as well.  Cheers.

Right Hands and Left Hands required ... Cheers!

Right Hand by Michael McIlroy:
1 ¾ oz aged rum
¾ oz Carpano Antica (sweet vermouth)
¾ Campari
2 dashes Bittermens Xocolatl Mole Bitters
Stir with ice to chill / strain into a cocktail glass

Left Hand by Sam Ross:
1 ¾ oz bourbon
¾ oz Carpano Antica (sweet vermouth)
¾ Campari
2 dashes Bittermens Xocolatl Mole Bitters
Stir with ice to chill / strain

For more information on the Right Hand Cocktail:

For more information on the Left Hand Cocktail:

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Writer's Block

At the risk of becoming boxed in, I present a box which turns things inside out for me, as I find myself inside of it.  The creative woodworker Tracy Woods Clemons, from Rochester, New York, has been making her designs in wood for many years.  Recently, she began to produce personalized puzzle boxes for a few collectors.  Her “Aurand” box, created for Jeffrey Aurand, had a few seasoned puzzlers quite entertained at the Rochester Puzzle Party earlier this year.  There were so many pieces I wonder if they got it all back together again properly.  Jim Strayer shared some nice photos of the “key” box she made for him as well, with its many, many drawers.  Otis Cheng discussed the box she created for him on Kevin Sadler’s blog, which is worth a read

The Writer's Block (aka "Into the Drink") by Tracy Woods Clemons

Tracy recently sent me a box as well.  The box is very impressive and has her signature style of wood contrasts and rustic details.  It has the appearance of a typical box, or even a chest of some sort, with an imposing wooden padlock keeping things well secured.  There is no name or announcement across the top, as in some of her work, but only a decorative frame about the top.  Tracy has named this the “Into the Drink” box, and I have taken the liberty of giving it a second name as well, “The Writer’s Block”.  Both names reflect the functioning and concepts hidden within.

First we will need to unlock it!

A hinge at the back suggests how things might open up, but that padlock will have to be reckoned with first.  Perusing the box reveals some lovely details which may or may not be helpful.  If you have seen her work before you might have some thoughts on this, but I will keep things semi cryptic here.  Taking a cue from Puzzlemad, I have placed some more revealing photos on a separate page, linked to at the end, if you are curious for spoilers.  Suffice it to say that a bit of exploration leads to the discovery of a few tools which are required to open that padlock.


Once removed, the box swings open and you discover that this is an old fashioned writing box.  Unfortunately, the internal sections are still securely fastened, of course.

An old fashioned writing desk!

The lower portion has an inviting keyhole ... but where is the key?

Hmmm, a keyhole, but no key ...

Persistent searching pays off eventually and an old fashioned metal key is discovered which fits the lock. 

The key fits ....

Lifting the lid reveals a surprise!

There is storage space for papers, pens, maybe a tablet for the modern wordsmith?  The two side compartments are locked up tight.  In the center is an odd, mostly hidden assortment of puzzle-like pieces, covered with sliding panels which only reveal a bit at a time.  You also discover that one of the tools you have found fits into these puzzle pieces perfectly.  The side panels are linked to this clever puzzle, which must be solved twice, once for each side, in order to open them.   

Now, what's in this top section?

The top of the lid has two sections.  A hidden keyhole admits the same trusty key to get you halfway there, revealing a space for storing some ... liquid inspiration.

The muse is calling ...

But should we imbibe straight from the bottle or be a bit more civilized?  A final trick with the versatile tool pops open the last compartment, where two old fashioned rocks glasses are stored and waiting.  The box reveals itself as the ultimate puzzle box and spirit lover's secretary - a true box and booze box.  Let's have a proper toast to this beautifully crafted, perfectly puzzling writing box and its creative designer.

Now, we are talking, as the saying goes.  Anyone care to join me?

Along with the bourbon, I present a delicious treat made with gin, green Chartreuse, simple syrup and egg white, created by Andrew Volk of Maine's Portland Hunt and Alpine Club.  Egg whites can add exceptional depth and texture to cocktails, as I have explained previously (including in the inauguralpost).  Chartreuse is an herbal liqueur from France with a long and colorful history.  As the story goes, the order of Chartreuse monks was already over 500 years old when an ancient manuscript was given to them in 1605, containing the secret recipe of 130 herbs and plants needed to create the “Elixir of Long Life”.  It wasn’t until 1737 that the manuscript was completely understood and the elixir was finally created.  A milder version, the green Chartreuse of today, was developed in 1764.  

The "Green Eyes" Cocktail by Andrew Volk

There’s more to the story, of course, but rumor has it that even today, the ancient recipe is known to only two old monks who initiate the complicated process in secret, each aware of only half the recipe, who have both taken a vow of silence.  Shhhhh.  They may even be the very same monks since 1605 ….  Here’s a toast to long life, secret recipes, ancient monks, modern marvels, writer’s block and puzzling pursuits.  Cheers.

This writer's block has the cure right on top.  And the inspirational solution hidden inside!

Green Eyes by Andrew Volk:

1 1/2 oz gin
3/4 oz fresh lime juice
3/4 oz green Chartreuse
1/2 oz simple syrup
1/2 oz egg white

Dry shake (no ice) then shake with ice, strain and garnish with a lime wheel.

For "spoiler" photos of the opening mechanisms see here.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

The Little Things

To acknowledge that the days are getting smaller now, I’d like to reflect a bit on the very small puzzle box.  Small boxes are not uncommon.  In fact, the Karakuri Creation Group has a whole series of small boxes, each with a unique and often unexpected mechanism.  The diminutive size can add to the difficulty of finding the right movement, as your fingers try to get out the way.  Small boxes are also remarkable for their craftsmanship, as they often spare no detail despite their stature.  For many designers, the small box may be an aside, an experiment, or a “small” addition to their portfolio.  For puzzle crafter Allan Boardman, the small size defines his entire style.  His professional education was in aeronautical engineering, and he enjoyed a long career in the aerospace industry.  As a hobby, he also had a passion for woodworking and puzzling.  From the infinite vastness of space, his mind settled on creating the tiniest of puzzles out of wood, using traditional techniques on a microscopic scale.  Puzzlers are fondly known as metagrobologists (a puzzling word, indeed).  Allan describes himself, a designer and maker of tiny wooden puzzles, as a microxylometagrobologist.

The AHA Box by Allan Boardman

Allan has made all sorts of tiny puzzles throughout his life, most designed by others and recreated at a fraction of the original size, and some which he designed himself as well.  His smallest wooden puzzle is a 3-piece burr which comes apart and fits back together again, all at 1.5 millimeters in size.  As if that were not impressive enough, he once created “The World’s Smallest Puzzle”, which was a 2x2 crossword puzzle etched onto the head of a pin, only visible with a scanning electron microscope!  

With a quarter for scale reference

Alan’s “AHA” puzzle box is easily visible with the naked eye, on the other hand.  It is a beautifully crafted little box made from figured maple wood with simple but elegant attention to the small (!) details.  The box is 2 ¾ inches long and has a lovely contrasting stripe running around the top and precise splines along the corners.  Depending on the level of puzzler acumen, the box might remain a small wonder for quite some time as you move it this way and that, generating a puzzling noise from some internal moving component.  This little box provides a large amount of puzzling satisfaction.

The perfect box in which to store a little something

In honor of this tiny treasure I will raise a tiny toast with Allan’s favorite tipple, the “dirty martini”.  The martini is considered to be an American classic, dating back to the late 1800’s when it was known as the “Martinez” and included gum (sugar) syrup, orange curacao and bitters along with the gin and vermouth.  It is also possible that it got its name from the Italian vermouth “Martini & Rossi”, which was available and in use at the same time period.  The first printed mention of the martini is in the 1888 “New and Improved (Illustrated) Bartenders Manual” by Harry Johnson, where it is identical to the Martinez.  Original martinis were quite a bit different than some modern day counterparts, due to the use of an older style of gin called “Old Tom” or even Dutch genever, the heavily malt wine based precursor to what we know today as London style gin, and a larger proportion of vermouth (up to 50% of the drink).  Notice there is no mention of the “V” word there, and we will keep it that way.  

A minuscule martini

The concept of the “dry” martini is also old, from the turn of the 19th century, when it meant the drink had a 2:1 ration of gin to vermouth.  In more recent times “dry” has often been interpreted as a drink which is almost entirely gin.  That reminds me of an old joke my father told me long ago: A man walks into a bar and requests a very dry martini.  The bartender nods knowingly, pours a glass full of gin and gently whispers “vermouth” across the rim.  The man takes a sip, puts the glass down, and disapprovingly comments, “Loud mouth.”  Another common but misguided modern myth of the martini is in its preparation.  Ordering a martini “shaken, not stirred” may make you feel dashing, but this drink was meant to be stirred.  Many modern bars have now returned to the original recipes and offer a martini much like what you would have enjoyed during its inception days.  Allan Boardman enjoys his martini with Bombay Saphire and olive juice (aka “dirty”).  However you like yours, I offer you a small toast to the small wonders in the world.  Cheers!

Does this make me a metagrobolomixologist?

For more information about Allan Boardman, see this excellent interview by Saul Symonds:

For more martini history and some variations:

For an inspired dirty martini recipe try: