Saturday, November 25, 2017

The Turing Chest

Art Deco meets Japanese tradition in this masterpiece by Nicholas Phillips.  Nicholas is an American furniture maker and woodworker, who holds a PhD in theoretical physics and worked as a mathematician with NASA for much of his life.  He studied the Japanese marquetry technique known as yosegizaiku with seventh generation master Ichiro Ishikawa (the direct descendent of Nihei Ishikawa (1790-1850) who invented the technique) in Hakone Japan and uses traditional Japanese tools to create his yosegi.  He crafts beautiful wooden boxes and chests adorned with his stunning yosegi, and his background lends itself to the creation of ciphers and mathematical puzzles, which he occasionally builds into his creations.

The Turing Chest by Nicholas Phillips

The Turing Chest features six Cherry drawers covered with colorful patterned yosegi including tri-color kikkou (tri-weave), single color kikkou (Redheart, Yellowheart and Holly), and a special Redheart and Holly asanoha (hemp leaf pattern) from a block he made with Mr. Ishikawa.  There is also Yellowheart asanoha yosegi hidden on the sides of one of the drawers.  Line accents on the yosegi are of Ebony and Holly.   Drawer pulls are of Chechen (Brazilian Rosewood).  The chest case, made from Bloodwood, features Art Deco inspired radius corners with outlined double dovetailed joints of Curly Maple and African Kiaat.

Stunning Bloodwood case with Art Deco inspired double dovetail radius corners 

Each beautiful drawer is locked in place.  There are many keys secretly hidden away inside the chest, each one unique and required to open a specific drawer.  One of the drawers is actually a stand-alone puzzle box, discovered once it is removed, which of course contains another key required to proceed hidden inside.  The puzzle box, crafted from Cherry, White Oak, Big Leaf Maple, and covered in the red and yellow asanoha yosegi, is in the style of a traditional Japanese himitsu-bako but features a unique secret mechanism.  It employs a very clever trick of Phillip’s invention not seen on any prior known puzzle box, which he developed specially for this chest.  Once the puzzle box has been solved, and the key inside obtained, the final drawer can be unlocked – but is it truly the final compartment?  Perhaps all the secrets of the Turing Chest have not yet been revealed, and there is more here than meets the eye.

The puzzlebox drawer - featuring a fantastic novel mechanism

Phillips wanted to name the chest after a mathematician involved in the theory work behind cryptology, as its mechanisms depend on keys and locks.  From Phillips: The chest is “named for Alan Turing, whose work at Bletchley Park during World War Two formed the groundwork of modern cyphers."  The Turing Chest is also a play on words referring to one of the ideas in Computer Science for which Alan Turing is most famous.  The “Turing Test” is often used to determine if a computer can be considered to have true artificial intelligence.  The test is conducted by a human typing questions into two different computer terminals.  Each terminal is “connected” to either another remote human, or the computer which is being tested for AI.  The tester is aware of this, and is attempting to determine which computer is which.  If the tester is fooled, the computer can be considered to have true AI.  The Turing Test, conceived of by Turing in 1950, was successfully passed in 2012 by a computer named “Eugene” which had been given the personality of a twelve year old boy.  Eugene was last seen impersonating an adult home bartending puzzle box collector.
The fine woodworking on the chest and drawers, the hand-made internal lock and key mechanisms, and the gorgeous Japanese yosegi work reflect the pinnacle of the maker’s art.  Phillips used the Turing Chest in 2017 as his show piece to attain Master Artisan in Wood status in the Pennsylvania Guild of Craftsmen.  Congratulations, Nicholas, and well deserved.

Flavors of Japan

It seemed appropriate to continue the theme of Japanese yosegi for a toast to Dr. Phillips’ fine creation.  I wove together a classic sour using elements which are all from Japan.  Starting with a fine Japanese whisky, I chose the Yamazaki, from Japan’s first and oldest distillery.  I only break out my prized bottle of Distiller’s Reserve for special occasions.  For the citrus, I used Japanese yuzu, the super tart, seed packed cousin of the lemon.  Finally for sweetness I used a decadent Umeshu plum wine syrup.  Ratios for a typical whiskey sour need to be adjusted to account for the tartness of the yuzu and sweetness of the plum wine syrup.  For diehard sour fans an egg white can also be added for texture and foam.  A simple lemon twist will do for garnish, but I was inspired to create a little yosegi of my own to toast this fine creation.  I enjoy making intricate citrus peel garnishes for my cocktails, and while this is not technically yosegi in the manner of its creation, I think it retains the spirit and the kikkou pattern came out quite nicely.  Here’s to a fine masterpiece, by America’s own Japanese master.  Kampei!

The Yosegi cocktail

The Yosegi

2 oz Japanese whisky
¾ oz yuzu
1 oz Umeshu plum syrup
½ oz fresh egg white (optional)

Shake together with ice.  If using egg white shake without ice and finish shaking with ice briefly.  Strain into a favorite glass.  Yosegi garnish.

A taste of Japan

For more about Nicholas Phillips see:

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Doing a Good Ternary

I lived in New York at one point in my life.  Everyone had a triple lock on their apartment.  There was the regular lock, for the key, but inside there was also the deadbolt, and the chain.  Some people had even more elaborate affairs.  If you wanted entry, you had to navigate all those locks.  It would have been even more puzzling if the key only opened the lock every so often.  There would have to be a repeatable pattern, for sure, but it wouldn’t be obvious and turning the key wouldn’t always have the expected outcome.  I’m pretty sure if Robert Yarger had designed it, that’s how it would work.

Stickman No. 8 Puzzle Box (3-Lock Box) by Robert Yarger
The Stickman No. 8 Puzzle Box is known as the “3-Lock Box”, and you probably get the idea.  Sliding certain panels seldom seem to have the same effect each time they are moved.  Initially one or two panels might move a bit, but after some experimentation (trying the same thing you just tried, which normally has everyone quoting Einstein’s theory of insanity at you, but in this case has you pointing out this box to those hecklers) suddenly another panel just might move.  Whoops, now it won’t move anymore.  There are multiple layers of security going on here, with at least three “locks” which need to be opened, which in turn each require multiple repeated moves (perhaps three?) to achieve.  Keeping in mind that all the movements are integrated together, so that a single moving panel may be functioning in multiple ways at once, and you have a brilliantly confusing puzzle on your hands.  Miss one step in sequence and you pay the price of repeating multiple steps over again.  If that wasn’t enough, there is a logical but very clever hidden move required at one point which will keep the best of thieves locked out of the secret drawer.  

The mechanism inside the box is based on a ternary calculating machine which Rob had crafted with no specific purpose in mind, until its use in this box materialized in his brain.  It sat in his “maybe later” drawer for over a year, and even other puzzle makers could find no use for it, which is just as well, since he ultimately came up with this incredible puzzle.  The box is strikingly beautiful, covered in glossy Wenge with bold ribbons of Purpleheart and Maple wrapping it up like a present.
This is truly one of the more unusual puzzle boxes due to the changing nature of what appears to be the same exact move each time.  

Rob has added a challenge to the solver, in the instruction manual, which also makes the box unique in his series.   Because one false step can send the solver back to the beginning for certain moves, there are levels to the efficiency of movement possible, and it remains quite a challenge to determine how to open it from the starting locked position in the least possible number of moves, even after you know how.  The solver is awarded a certain “status” (e.g. novice, expert) depending on how efficiently this can be accomplished.

Wrapped up like a beautiful present

Something about a triple-locked box must be especially compelling to human nature.  Around the same time that Robert Yarger’s 3-Lock Box was being produced, Eric Fuller was also producing his own Triple Lock Box.  Eric pointed out that although Rob claimed the name for his box came from a popular Jimmi Hendrix song (as well as the mechanism), the song was actually by Sammy Hagar.  Rob insisted it was Hendrix, and to this day still retains that description of the puzzle on his website. Even though Eric was right!

One more nice touch here is a little known back door into the box.  Once the box is solved and its mechanism understood well enough, it can be manipulated in a certain way to allow the lid to slide completely free so the fascinating internal mechanism can be admired.

A toast to this trifecta of puzzle box locks comes in the form of a classic cocktail triple play as well.  The storied Negroni is one of my favorites, in all its forms and flavors, as evidenced by its many appearances on these pages.  It may be the cocktail that I have featured more than any other.  I suppose it’s appropriate to be using one to toast another Stickman box, whose work I have probably featured more than any other.  The original Negroni, to refresh your memory, is a combination of gin, sweet vermouth and Campari, and was likely invented in the early 1900’s in Florence, although maybe not.  For the full semi-factual and fun filled story you can read my prior history of the drink when you need to procrastinate about something.  

This drink is on lock-down

For the 3-Lock Box I was feeling like a fall Negroni was in order, both because the cooling weather calls for fall spirits and because the rich dark woods on the box feel appropriate for the season.  I’ve therefore swapped out the gin for a fall favorite – Laird’s Apple Brandy, from America’s oldest distiller.  Aged and complex, it can be substituted for bourbon or cognac wherever those may be called for – and wherever else too!  Instead of Campari, I used a different amaro which is lighter, with more citrus and spice.  I’d like to make a disclaimer here, that unlike solving the 3-Lock Box, enjoying this drink does not require imbibing three of them in a row.  Although if you do, please leave a comment, as we’d all love to hear what you have to say at that point.  Here’s three cheers to the things in life that keep us guessing, and that aren’t always what they seem, or at least not all the time.  Cheers, cheers, cheers!

Autumnal Equilocks - a fall flavored Negroni

Autumnal Equilocks

1 oz Laird’s Apple Brandy
1 oz Carpano Antica Formula Vermouth
1 oz Amaro Montenegro
Stir ingredients together with ice and strain into a favorite glass.  Garnish with 3 locks.

A pair of triples

For more about Robert Yarger:

For prior Negroni variations see:

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Natural Born

Every time I review one of this craftsman’s boxes, I feel “born again”.  It’s a great feeling so I’m always glad to get the chance.  Jesse Born is a talented young fellow from Rome, New York with the knack for making great puzzles, the skill for making beautiful woodwork, and the desire to perfectly merge the two together.  His prior puzzle boxes have all been gorgeous and enjoyable, and his skill simply keeps improving.  He is constantly driven to learn new methods in production, precision, and technique.   For his “Yosegi Pattern Box”, his primary goal was to produce a beautiful “standard” type of box, at least in shape and size, which he has certainly achieved. He was inspired by traditional Japanese boxes and the work of master Ninomiya.  Like all of his creations, Jesse poured his heart into this one.  Each box required over one hundred cuts with his table saw, and he went through numerous batches of yosegi while learning and perfecting his vision for the box. The secondary goal, according to Jesse, was to incorporate a unique puzzle element not seen on any other puzzle box.  He has achieved that goal as well, and the result is a delight to behold. 

Yosegi Pattern Box by Jesse Born

The box is a hefty square affair made from either shimmering light Maple or dark Mexican Ebony on the base, with the complimentary wood found in contrast on the lid.  The top is also adorned with strips of yosegi, the traditional Japanese marquetry technique which Jesse has experimented with in different wood types and patterns.  Along the sides of the box are abstract zig-zag like patterns which add another nice dimension and overall aesthetic touch to the piece.  Inside, the box has a chamber made from beautiful Purple Heart wood, but you won’t get to appreciate that for a while.  The lid is firmly fixed in place.  There’s a lot of rattling going on inside the box, and sometimes it even seems to be repeatable.  Perhaps there’s a method to this madness?  The box requires a few steps to open, and is immensely satisfying to solve.  I enjoy all sorts of puzzle boxes, but the ones that employ hidden movements which can’t be seen, requiring something inside to move here or there just right, often leave me feeling ambivalent.  I prefer to deduce the solution, or discover something which has been very cleverly hidden in plain sight.  Which is why I love this box.  It fooled me into thinking it was something else entirely, when in fact it’s completely logical, with a wonderfully surprising and unique mechanism.  Everything is waiting in plain sight for you to discover, if only you are as clever as the designer.  The box provides just the right amount of misdirection, is instantly understandable once the AHA moment hits, and rewards the solver with a beautiful interior to complement the beautiful exterior.  Like other Bornwood designs, once inside the mechanics and mystery are all revealed, which is a nice touch.  All of his boxes have been great, but this is his best yet.

Interesting yosegi inlay adorns the top

The patterns on the sides of the Yosegi Pattern Box made me think of the “Zig-Zag CafĂ©” in Seattle, former home of famed bartender Murray Stenson who in 2004 resurrected a pre-prohibition cocktail classic known as the Last Word.  The story of that cocktail dates back to the Detroit Athletic Club in 1915, where it was the drink of choice for a celebrated stand-up comic of the day who was known to always have one (the last word) – on stage and in the bar.  It’s incredibly versatile and easy to make, with equal parts gin, lime, chartreuse and maraschino liqueur, and it lit up the cocktail scene during the recent renaissance.  It’s been described as cocktail “lasagna” – meaning there are scores of different recipes which tweak the ingredients, but as long as the basic formula remains the same the drink is always good.  

Born Yesterday

Here’s a delicious variation apropos for the season which I call, “Born Yesterday”.  Ironically, it features apple brandy from America’s oldest distillery, Laird and Company.  Their classic Applejack is also fantastic this time of year.  In addition to swapping the gin for apple brandy, the maraschino is exchanged for another incredible seasonal treat from a newer American craft distillery, St. George Spirits Spiced Pear liqueur.  This magical fruit brandy liqueur tastes like a freshly pressed Bartlett pear sprinkled with cinnamon and clove.  The combination of fall flavors blends effortlessly and you might be fooled into thinking this is an inspired new creation when, in fact, it’s merely the latest word. But you weren’t born yesterday – cheers!

Treat yourself to some natural born delights

Born Yesterday

¾ oz Laird’s Old Apple Brandy
¾ oz lemon
¾ oz Yellow Chartreuse
¾ oz St. George Spirits Spiced Pear Liqueur

Stir together with ice and strain into a favorite glass.  Garnish with a twist.

For more about Jesse Born:

For prior Last Word variations:

Saturday, November 4, 2017


“Once upon a midnight dreary, as I pondered, weak and weary …” – Poe

Ah yes, this indeed describes my sentiments well as I attempted to open yet another fine puzzle padlock.  Welcome back to “Locks and Libations”, the erstwhile scribblings of a box collector who finds himself in possession of something distinctly … not a box … yet wishes to share the wonderful prize with the world, nonetheless.  Plus I love to highlight the brilliant work of my friend Shane Hales, that master of wood and metal, and many other fancy titles which sound quite impressive.  Shane’s puzzle lock series was inevitable, since he is a master locksmith, a puzzle lock collector, and an admirer of the inner workings of locks in general, both old and new.  Add his penchant for puzzles and viola, the Haleslock was born.  Following up on the Haleslock 1 and Haleslock 2 (which I have also featured here – Shane, when are you going to make a puzzle lock puzzle box so I can stop pretending these are boxes? I’m becoming the opposite of puzzlemad …) is the surprisingly named Haleslock 3, which debuted as Peter Hajek’s exchange puzzle during IPP 37 in Paris. 

Haleslock 3 by Shane Hales

“Let my heart be still a moment and this mystery explore...” - Poe 

This lock certainly stands out from a crowd, with its unusual shape and style.  A key is attached to a chain, which is shackled to the … shackle.  There is a much more prominent lock plate on the front of this padlock, with a pleasant little door which slides open to allow the key entry.  Not that it does any good.  I feel like I say that a lot with these locks. Haleslock 3 is a modified old English lever lock, and according to Shane it’s one of the oldest types of its kind still in production, with little change to the inner workings in 200 years – that is, until Shane got a hold of one. There’s definitely something moving around inside, and a certain move seemed to be reproducible, which is not the same thing as seemed to help, but that’s about all I could discover.  I stared into the keyhole, looking for clues, for a long, long time ….

“Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing …” - Poe


I should learn my lesson with these puzzling locks, and listen to the raven (“Nevermore”).  But there’s something so appealing about a secret lock which doesn’t open like it should – I suppose it’s the same something that draws me to boxes that don’t open the way they should, and hidden mechanisms in general.  So I’ll ignore the raven, and raise a toast to it, and this fine installment in the Haleslock series, instead.  

The Raven - a brooding, melancholy drink

The “Raven” cocktail is my take on a recipe from “Alison’s Wonderland Recipes”, a delightful blog whose author’s creations are all based on works of literature.  I took the liberty of increasing the atmospheric melancholy and funk, if you will, by using an agricole rhum, which is made from pure sugarcane rather than molasses.  The resulting “rhum” is incredibly moody and delicious.  Plus a special dose of dark rum to really set the tone – Poe is rather dark, after all. Finally my version needed a little amaro, that bitter Italian herbal potion, to capture the bittersweet depths of despair evoked in the poem … fine, and the lock, too.  Thanks Shane, and cheers!

Locking at my chamber door

The Raven – adapted from Alison’s Wonderland Recipes

1 ½ oz white rhum agricole
½ oz Plantation OFTD
1 oz fresh lime
½ oz pomegranate juice
½ oz simple syrup
¼ oz Averna
3 blackberries

Muddle the berries with the syrup and add the remaining ingredients.  Shake with ice and double strain into a favorite glass.  Garnish with something apro-Poe …

For more about Shane Hales:

N.B. Special thanks to Jeff Aurand for reminding me about this great poem …