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:


  1. Beautiful box! I still don't have any puzzles from Allan and should probably remedy that before he stops making them.

    Thanks for explaining what the 'dirty' meant in Dirty Martini - I have wondered about that for years. Now where on earth can I buy Olive juice? I love a Martini! For a plain G&T I prefer a better gin than Bombay Saphire - my current favourite is Edinburgh Gin but I am really wanting to get my hands on a bottle of Pink Pepper which is the nicest gin I have ever tasted.


  2. Sounds great, Kevin! The liquid in which your olives float is usually what is added to the "dirty" martini. Some cocktail snobs suggest that just removes all the lovely flavor from you martini and "frown" on the dirty ... to each his own, I say. Those gins sound excellent! Cheers.