September 03, 2007


A lot of people, when they learn that I co-founded a company, and that the company was eventually acquired by Microsoft, tell me that I must be a real entrepreneur. The whole start-up thing certainly was an undertaking, to refer to the original French meaning of the word, but since I wasn't the CEO of the company, or even directly involved in a sales or marketing position, it somehow just didn't feel all that entrepreneurial to me at the time.

Now, however, I do feel like I'm engaging in a bit of real entrepreneurship: I've decided to start trying to sell some of my mechanical puzzles online. As of a few weeks ago, I have officially registered the trade name "Pavel's Puzzles" with the state of Washington, paid for a business license, and set up a new blog that's also my storefront.

I'm using the free PayPal-supplied shopping cart service, which makes it really easy to put "Add to Cart" and "View Cart" buttons on the website and, of course, to take credit-card payments from buyers. I'm even dipping my toe into the world of online advertising, using the Project Wonderful ad-placement auctioning system. As I type this, I have (very simple) ads running right now on two web-comic sites: Girl Genius (a favorite of mine with lots of hits) and Help Desk (a cost-effective mid-volume site I found via Project Wonderful's search tool). I've had the ads up for a day or two now, and I'm getting a steady trickle of click-throughs at an ad cost of about a penny per click. (Mind you, I haven't had any of those click-throughs convert to an actual sale yet, but I've got a long list of rationalizations about that...)

Of course, this isn't in any danger of replacing my day job; it's just a fun way to explore the world of DIY entrepreneurship in the context of my most active hobby. Still, there is a certain thrill to the whole thing right now.

Anyway, head on over and check out my store, and help support yet another new small business!

June 25, 2006

A reprise and an inspiration

Returning to the subject of my very first blog enty, Kathleen and I went back to the Harvard Exit yesterday, to see the new crossword-puzzler documentary Word Play with our friends Natasha and Norman. It was a fine and beautiful day, if a bit on the warm side, and all was going fine driving there until we hit the police roadblock at 10th Ave. and E. Highland Dr. Apparently, we were wrong: the Raise Your Voice March, part of Pride weekend, was not going to be limited to the southern end of Broadway. It took us a while, but we finally backtracked enough to find a way down to the near vicinity of the theater, only to discover that (duh) it was all parked up solid. It turns out, though, that you can pretty easily find a parking spot on the street that only costs $35, paid to the municipal court system...

Anyway, the Harvard Exit remains a very comfortable place to see a movie, and the cafe across the street, Joe Bar, has changed their ways and now sells both sweet and savory crepes in the evenings. On the negative side, though, Joe Bar no longer appears to offer their "PB & J" crepe (formerly served with a glass of milk), so I never got to try out that delicacy.

The movie centers around Will Shortz, the crossword-puzzle editor at the New York Times, and various contenders in the annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament. It's a fun, quirky look at some really fun, quirky people and their passion for puzzles. The latter third of the movie gives good feel for the action and the ambience at the championships and the twists and turns of final rounds are surprisingly exciting.

Inspired by the movie, I suppose, I didn't skip over the Sunday Times crossword puzzle in the paper this morning. I'd never tried any of the NYT puzzles before, let alone the hardest one of the week, but somehow I couldn't resist attempting it. At first, as I slowly worked my way down the Across clues, looking for any that I could fill in (in pencil, I admit: I'm not totally rash), I began to despair: I could only fill in maybe half a dozen answers, and I wasn't particularly sure of some of those. I got a couple Down answers right off, though, and that opened up the upper-left corner, and that led to the answer to the first of the "theme" clues, and finally I was making real progress. I'm pleased to say I finished the puzzle in pretty good form, with only a few answers that I didn't understand (who knew there was a "Brooklyn-born rapper" named NES?), after about 45 minutes of work. Along the way, there were several wonderful groaners ("German crowd?" was DREI), some very nice bits of misdirection ("Tower, often" was REPO MAN), and of course a fun theme (recontextualized advice from "Dear Old Dad").

Boy, standard crosswords have certainly changed while I've been off focusing on cryptics! I may just have to check out this Sunday puzzle next week, too.

January 22, 2006

Samorost: A Gentle Delight

It's come to my attention that there are still some of you out there who haven't heard of Samorost, one of the prettiest delights I've ever come across in surfing the web. Samorost is a sometimes surreal, sometimes cute, always beautiful little puzzle/story told via interactive Flash movies using photographs of tree boles, moss, driftwood, rusty old metal parts, and delightful animated figures. Produced by Czech firm Amanita Design, this gentle tale begins with our plucky little hero discovering, to his horror, that his beautifully spaceworthy piece of driftwood is fatally threatened by collision with a second, oddly very birdlike, driftwood world. He quickly flies over to the approaching threat in his rusty drink-can shuttle pod to see if he can prevent the imminent disaster, and that's where you come in, helping him make his way through one strange, quiet adventure after another.

The gameplay of Samorost is clever, but not too difficult, and fun for players of all ages. Make sure, though, that you're playing on a computer with a sound card; the music and sound design for Samorost is so wonderful and so well integrated into the rest of the experience that it'd be a great shame to miss it.

After you've finished off Samorost, you can take heart; all is not over: Samorost 2 has been published now, and it's twice as long as the original while retaining all of its beauty, humor, and fun. Fair warning, though: Samorost 2 comes in two chapters, only the first of which is free; you'll need to buy the "full version" of the game for playing locally on your Windows or Mac computer to access the second chapter; it's only $9.50, though, and these folks certainly deserve that much for the magic they've given us already.

Finally, after you've made your way through all of the Samorost saga, head on over to the main Amanita Design website where you can sample their other animations and Flash games, the best of which is "The Polyphonic Spree - The Quest for the Rest", a Samorost-like experience celebrating and accompanied by the music of the Dallas symphonic pop band The Polyphonic Spree.

As you can tell, I really love this kind of quiet, beautiful puzzle exploration. If you know of more such, please add a comment telling all of us about it!

August 23, 2005

My new puzzle

My new puzzle

After collecting some 90 new puzzles in the IPP 25 puzzle exchange, and maybe another dozen at the puzzle party the next day, you'd think I'd be pretty well saturated with puzzles to play with, and that's true. So what makes this one (additional) new puzzle so cool? Well, there's a story behind that.

Six years ago, I attended my first ever International Puzzle Party, at a hotel near Heathrow Airport in London. (How I finally found out about, and got invited to, IPP is another story.) One of the several great organized excursions that year was a trip to the country manor home of Edward Hordern, who at the time had one of the two or three largest puzzle collections in the world. (Sadly, Edward died less than a year later. Now, the annual puzzle exchange is named in his honor.)

Edward's home, Cane End, was very large and he'd arranged for a huge tent to be set up in the "front yard" to house the tables for lunch and other activities. On each table, there were a few items from his vast collection of something like 25,000 puzzles. A copy of the puzzle shown in the picture, made from water-jet-cut Baltic birch plywood, was one of those. Given the materials and workmanship, it was probably from one of the Finnish contingent.

I couldn't solve it in the brief time I had with it there, so I jotted down the design on the back of a deposit slip from my checkbook, and it sat like that in my wallet for six years. A few months ago, I finally got around to transferring the design into Visio, in preparation for getting it laser cut by my local neighborhood sign maker, but never actually got it done.

Last weekend, at Foo Camp, the folks from Squid Labs had brought both a cutter and some 1/4" Lucite, and they announced Saturday night that they'd be cutting or etching whatever people wanted. I had my laptop with me, and the design was all ready to go, so how could I resist? It was pretty cool watching it do the cutting, seeing a sheet of plastic turn into an interesting puzzle in just a few minutes. Very cool.

The puzzle design

I don't know who originally designed this puzzle. If, by chance, you do, please let me know so I can thank them myself. Happily, it turns out to be quite a nice little puzzle.

In case you're interested, my copy of the design appears to the left. The smallest feature size should be equal to the thickness of the material you're using. In my case, it's 1/4" of an inch, which was the thickest acrylic the Squid Labs folks had at the time. For those of you with Microsoft Visio, here's the original design file.

Update on 8/31: More copies of the design file, in DXF format and DWG format. You're welcome, Andy.

July 25, 2005

IPP 25 Puzzle Exchange

Last Saturday, we held one of the three central events of the annual International Puzzle Party here in Helsinki, the Edward Hordern Puzzle Exchange. This is, in many ways, the most highly anticipated event of the party, with most participants beginning to prepare for it starting back in December, if not earlier. This year, we had 91 people taking part in the Exchange, out of about 170 puzzlers attending the party overall.

The Exchange was scheduled to begin at 10am, and we got access to the hall, to prepare, starting at 9:30. Tables had been laid out in long lines across the room, one table and two chairs per exchanger (one chair for each puzzle's presenter, and one for their assistant, if any). Every table had an exchanger's nametag on it, and there was a schematic map at the entrance, to make it easier to find your station. On the stage at the front of the hall, there was another, shorter, line of empty tables, intended to hold samples of all of the exchange puzzles.

At my table, my assistant Michael Powell and I got to work unpacking the big box I'd brought in containing the puzzles I'd had made back home and then shipped ahead of me to Helsinki. We needed to work somewhat quickly, because I'd discovered the previous day that, during shipping, the sharp laser-cut edges of the puzzle trays had rubbed against one another, slicing many of their zip-loc bags into ribbons. We had to check every single bag and, in half or more of the cases, remove the puzzle and repack it into a new bag, purchased the previous day, with some effort, at a Finnish supermarket. (Do you know the Finnish word for "zip-loc"? Me neither.)

By 9:55 or so, we were ready, with one copy of my puzzle tagged and arranged on the samples table, and the other 91 (including one as a thank-you gift for Michael) stacked neatly in front of us on my table. Michael had our exchange checklist ready; all that remained was to wait for the signal to begin.

The Exchange is a heavily tradition-laden event that grew out of an ad-hoc practice at the earliest puzzle parties. Several of those early invitees brought little puzzle gifts for everyone else and handed them out. As the party grew, over the years, the Exchange was formalized and the key rules were set down. First, not every attendee at the party need take part in the Exchange; it's strictly voluntary, and only allowed for people who've been to at least one party previously. Second, every participant must bring many copies of the same puzzle, one for each other participant and one for the samples table; many people bring more, to offer for sale or trade at the official "Puzzle Party" the next day. Third, all Exchange puzzles must be original, never available before the day of the Exchange. Fourth, and most ambiguously, these must be high quality mechanical puzzles; paper-and-pencil puzzles, like crosswords, and jigsaw puzzles are not included. (The term "high quality" is intended to refer to the puzzle-solving experience, not necessarily to the materials or craftsmanship; in particular, "high quality" does not necessarily imply "high cost".)

At about 10:02am, this year's IPP host Tomas Lindén stepped up to the microphone and gave the signal: the 2005 Exchange was under way.

Over the course of the next five hours, Michael and I walked around the hall, meeting each of the other 90 exchangers, chatting a little bit, describing our puzzles to each other, and finally exchanging them. From time to time, Michael would carry the puzzles we'd received back to my own table and pick up another armload of my puzzles to give away. Since my table this year was off in a back corner of the room, we had a lot more success finding new exchangers by walking around the room ourselves. We tried a few times going back to my table and waiting for others to come to us, but with only marginal results.

By the end of the five hours, we'd checked off everyone on our list and Michael had packed up all of my swag in the boxes I'd brought. Another Exchange had come to an end.

I haven't had a chance yet to really take stock of the puzzles I received this year. There's always a few disappointing ones, and usually some pretty special ones, and I don't expect this year to be any different. I've already solved a few of them (an amusingly misleading tray-packing puzzle, a simple "Finnish thematic" tray puzzle, a level 7-3 three-piece burr, and a 39-move sliding block puzzle), and I've brought a few more with us on our trip to Norway, but the big review will have to wait until we and the boxes I shipped both arrive back home in the States.

What a cool thing to look forward to!

July 18, 2005

Hello from Helsinki!

I'm writing this from my hotel room in Helsinki, at about 5:00am local time. Kathleen and I arrived yesterday afternoon and, of course, the ten-hour jet lag is causing a little sleep-cycle disruption.

We're here for the 25th annual International Puzzle Party (IPP), an invitational gathering of serious collectors of mechanical puzzles. The definition of "serious" is pretty vague, but is intended to exclude the merely curious. (Though, as anyone here would admit, there are a number of pretty curious people here nonetheless.) To give you a sense of how serious "serious" can be, though, my collection of 600-700 puzzles is well down at the low end of the size distribution. There are many people here with several thousand puzzles, and a few amazing collections of 25,000 or 30,000 puzzles or more, some dating as far back as the 13th century. Believe me, Kathleen's getting off easy in the "whacko spouse" department (as least as regards collections).

The party location rotates every three years among Europe, the United States, and Asia. There will probably be around 200 collectors here, many with their families, from 25-30 countries all over the world.

The party doesn't actually start for a few more days yet, but we decided to come early to give ourselves extra time to explore the area and to get over our jet lag. To our inexplicable surprise, several other folks had the same idea, so the puzzle conversations have already started echoing around the lobby here.

I hope to be posting pretty actively for the next while, so keep checking back for more on Helsinki, puzzles, and Norwegian coastal cruises!

October 13, 2004

A very impressive cryptic

A couple of years ago, knowing my interest in the Penrose "kite" and "dart" tiles, my friend Derrick gave me a paper copy of this cryptic crossword puzzle, photocopied from "The Enigma", the newsletter of the National Puzzler's League.

(If you've never heard of cryptic crosswords, you may not want to start with this one. The NPL has a nice guide to solving cryptics, and you can find puzzles of this sort all over the web. There are three cryptics every month in Games magazine, and there's a nice introductory book on them, too.)

For one reason or another, it took me until quite recently to finally get around to attacking this puzzle. It's pretty hard (or at least I found it so), but quite remarkable for its many layers of complexity and constraints. I recommend it to your attention (and, if you solve it, I have a couple of questions for you).