It’s Puzzle Magic!

[Crossword constructor and magician David Kwong wows an audience.]

There is a certain sense of wonder that accompanies a well-constructed puzzle. The skill and artistry it takes to craft a quality crossword or brain teaser, weaving together words and leaving a finished puzzle in your wake, rather than a bundle of crosswordese and obscurities is truly something remarkable.

But that’s not the sort of puzzle magic we’re discussing today. No, instead, we’re returning to the CW summer series Penn and Teller: Fool Us to observe the magic of another puzzly entertainer at work.

For the uninitiated, Fool Us is a show where magicians and performers from all around the world present their best tricks, illusions, and bits of magical wizardry to try and stump the famous duo.

And on a recent episode, magician John Michael Hinton performed two acts of magical trickery involving a Rubik’s Cube.

Check out this video where he dazzles Penn and Teller:

That final reveal was a thing of beauty!

You can check out more of John Michael Hinton’s magic on his YouTube page! And let me know if you’ve seen any other acts of puzzle magic! I’d love to check them out!


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Computer Program Teaches Itself to Solve Rubik’s Cubes!

I tried to warn you, fellow puzzlers.

I wrote posts about computer programs that play chess, Scrabble, Go, Atari games, and Jeopardy! I wrote posts about programs that solve crosswords. I even wrote posts about robots that solve Rubik’s Cubes in a fraction of a second.

And they’re getting smarter.

Say hello to DeepCube, an AI program that is now the equal of any master Rubik’s Cube solver in the world at solving 3x3x3 cubes.

And unlike other AI programs that have learned to play games like chess and Go through reinforcement learning — determining if particular moves are bad or good — DeepCube taught itself to play by analyzing each move, comparing it to a completed cube, and reverse-engineering how to get to that move.

It’s labor-intensive, yes, but it also requires no human intervention and no previous information. Chess-playing programs like Deep Blue work by analyzing thousands of previously played games. But DeepCube had no previous history to build on.

It started from scratch. By itself.

And became a Rubik’s Cube master.

In only 44 hours.

Compare that to the 10,000 hours it supposedly takes for a human to become an expert in anything, and that’s a mind-blowing accomplishment.

[Image courtesy of YouTube.]

From the Gizmodo article on DeepCube:

The system discovered “a notable amount of Rubik’s Cube knowledge during its training process,” write the researchers, including a strategy used by advanced speedcubers, namely a technique in which the corner and edge cubelets are matched together before they’re placed into their correct location.

Yes, the program even independently recreated techniques designed by human speed-solvers to crack the cubes faster.

The next goal for the DeepCube program is to pit it against 4x4x4 cubes, which are obviously more complex. But supposedly, deposing human puzzle solvers as the top dogs on the planet isn’t the finish line.

No, this sort of three-dimensional puzzle-solving is only an intermediate goal, with the ultimate endgame of predicting protein shapes, analyzing DNA, building better robots, and other advanced projects.

But first, they’re coming for our puzzles.


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What Can YOU Solve In Under a Second?

Oh yes, it’s Rubik’s Cube time once again.

Every time I think I’ve seen everything someone can do with a Rubik’s Cube, a month or two later, another amazing video appears on the Internet, proving me wrong.

We’ve covered Rubik’s Cubes a lot on this blog. We’ve seen them solved underwater, while being juggled, during a skydive, and yes, we’ve seen them solved in increasing faster times.

As of last year, the record for a robot solving a Rubik’s Cube was .637 seconds. That robot, Sub1, has been the Guinness World Record holder ever since.

Until now, it seems.

That’s a right, a pair of engineers — Ben Katz and Jared Di Carlo — have nearly halved that world record with what they call their “Rubik’s Contraption.” This cube-solving bot posts a solving speed of .38 seconds.

Their machine is so fast that they had to program it to only allow one motor to move at a time. You see, in previous runs, more than one motor would try to move, and the cube would be RIPPED APART.

This lightning-fast robot is still waiting review by the team from Guinness, so, for now, Sub1’s record stands.

But for how long?


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It’s Follow-Up Friday: Rubik’s Race edition!

Welcome to Follow-Up Friday!

By this time, you know the drill. Follow-Up Friday is a chance for us to revisit the subjects of previous posts and bring the PuzzleNation audience up to speed on all things puzzly.

And today, I’d like to return to the subject of Rubik’s Cubes!

You know, every time I think I’ve seen it all when it comes to Rubik’s Cube, some enterprising solver proves me wrong yet again. I mean, in writing three blog posts a week here for years, I’ve seen a LOT of cool things done with Rubik’s Cubes.

I’ve seen the world’s largest Rubik’s-style cube being solved, a building turned into a solvable Rubik’s Cube, a new speed-solving world record of 5.25 seconds, and a Rubik’s Cube solved one move at a time by strangers across the globe.

And now, we’ve got our first cross-disciple Rubik’s race. Anthony Brooks, a Rubik’s speed solver, pitted his twisty puzzle skills against the speed of Usain Bolt from his 9.81 second run in the 100 meters at this year’s Summer Olympics.

So…how did he do?

Granted, I think it would have been a fairer fight if Brooks was running on a treadmill or something at the time, but it’s still a funny comparison. Apparently, not all contests of speed are created equal. (Says the guy who just ate eight chicken nuggets in the time it took Bolt to run 100 meters. I don’t know if that means I won or I lost.)


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It’s Follow-Up Friday: Rubik’s Magic edition!

Welcome to Follow-Up Friday!

By this time, you know the drill. Follow-Up Friday is a chance for us to revisit the subjects of previous posts and bring the PuzzleNation audience up to speed on all things puzzly.

And today I’d like to return to the subject of puzzle magic!

Oh yes, puzzle magic is most definitely a thing. Arguably the most famous practitioner is friend of the blog and crossword constructor David Kwong, who not only contributes both puzzles and magic to television shows and film projects, but has created some truly mindblowing magic tricks involving puzzles.

The other night, I was watching Penn and Teller: Fool Us, a show where magicians and performers from all around the world present their best tricks, illusions, and bits of magical wizardry to try and stump the famous duo. And lo and behold, another master of puzzle magic appeared!

But where David Kwong works his magic with crosswords, Steven Brundage uses a different puzzly tool: Rubik’s Cubes.

Check out this video where he dazzles Penn and Teller with several quick solves and feats of puzzly manipulation:

That behind-the-back trick was pretty fantastic, wasn’t it? You can check out more of Steven’s magic on his YouTube page! And let me know if you’ve seen any other acts of puzzle magic! I’d love to check them out!


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Twist and shout…

Invented in 1974, the Rubik’s Cube is probably the most famous puzzle toy in history. For four decades now, it has been an instantly recognizable symbol of one’s puzzly ambition. Whether you’ve mastered it or you have it sitting on a corner of your desk mid-solve, it shouts to the heavens “a puzzler resides here.”

Originally known as the Magic Cube or the Hungarian Magic Cube, the Rubik’s Cube is tied up with some truly staggering numbers. Hundreds of millions of Rubik’s Cubes have been sold, and that’s just a drop in the bucket compared the number of possible patterns you can make with the cube. According to Rubiks.com, there are 43 quintillion ways to scramble a Rubik’s Cube. (That’s 34 with eighteen zeroes after it.)

And yet, some truly tiny numbers are also associated with the tiny, sometimes frustrating puzzle cube. For instance, 6. The top speed cubers — people who compete in speed cubing competitions, complete with special techniques, lubricating oils for their cubes, and cubes designed especially for speed solving — have solved a Rubik’s Cube in under 6 seconds!

(10 years ago, the World Record time for solving a Rubik’s Cube was more than three times that, at 20.00 seconds. And I haven’t even mentioned the people who somehow manage to solve them blindfolded.)

It’s become a universal part of the pop culture lexicon. (I’ve featured Rubik’s Cube Halloween costumes here in the past.) There is even Rubik’s Cube art. Images made from patterns formed with numerous Rubik’s Cubes.

It boggles the mind.

Now available in 2×2, 4×4, and 5×5 permutations in addition to the classic 3×3 cube, plus speed cubes, customizable cubes, and other variants, this twisty, beguiling puzzle shows no signs of slipping in popularity anytime soon. (I have an Australian friend who collects different kinds of Rubik’s Cubes, including ones with different pictures, different shapes, keychains, and so on.)

“Solve a Rubik’s Cube” is actually on my bucket list. If I ever manage it, you’ll be the first to know, fellow solvers.

Thanks for visiting PuzzleNation Blog today! You can share your pictures with us on Instagram, friend us on Facebook, check us out on TwitterPinterest, and Tumblr, and be sure to check out the growing library of PuzzleNation apps and games!