Saturday, March 3, 2018

Cube Club

I have a cube collection--Meaning a collection of puzzles centered around Rubik's cubes.

I remember very clearly when Rubik's cubes arrived in the United States in the early 80s.  I wanted one.  It spoke to me in a way few things did.  I liked that it was colorful and compact and could fit nicely in your hands.  I liked that it was something that would take time to figure out.

I also come from a family of collectors, so in my home growing up it was accepted and even encouraged that if you liked something for you to collect and save anything related to it.  So I didn't just have a cube and a solution book, I had all the cubes and all the solution books I could find.

I kept a scrapbook, I have official materials from the Ideal Toy Corporation, I took sixth place in a cube racing contest that happened to be on my birthday and won a T-shirt...

(A couple of notes about that t-shirt:  First, this seems a questionable slogan for a prize in a contest for kids.  And second, it always bothered me that the cube in the middle does not match the other two in terms of color arrangement, so it was obvious that no one who actually played with cubes had any hand in that design.)

When my husband and I backpacked around Europe for a few weeks after college the item I took along with me to keep myself entertained on the trains was a 5x5x5 cube.  There were no solution books for it that I knew of, so I thought it would be a fun challenge to figure it out on my own.  It took 10 days.  But as happy as I was to have figured it out, I was then left wondering what I was supposed to occupy myself with for the rest of the trip, so I decided to see if I could write down my solution.

Explaining what you do intuitively is much harder than simply doing it.  I've never completely finished my book.  The problem for me with the 5x5x5 puzzle is that I when I get down to the last pieces that need to be fixed, I can only solve them in odd numbers.  I can move anything in threes, but if it comes down to two things I have to just essentially mess things up again until I get a combination of three to solve and then I can finish the cube.  This is inelegant at best, but someday I will get it.  Time for such things is just harder to come by anymore.

The other cube related event from that trip to Europe was that we managed to track down the Rubik studio in Hungary.  I got to see the space where the puzzle engineers work, and I bought a few things including a traditional cube which I asked someone if I could get Mr Rubik himself to sign.  They took it behind a large leather door into a big office and returned a moment later with a signature on my cube, but when I asked if I could peek in and say hello they said no.  It was kind of like the cube version of being denied a meeting with The Great Oz.

My collection includes a variety of picture cubes, including one I had to save box tops of Chex cereal and send away for.  Most were gifts, but I think my favorite is the one I got for participating in the last Amazing Milwaukee Race, because the organizer told me he threw a cube challenge into the event with me in mind.

The original cube to hit the market in the US was made by the Ideal Toy Corporation, and it's still what I think of as a correct cube.  I always liked that white was opposite blue on that cube (and green from yellow, red from orange).

The cube I raced with, however, was a "Wonderful Puzzler" knock-off cube.  I greased it with Vaseline, and it moved really well without coming apart.  Those cubes were the only imitations that also had white across from blue.  Now all the cubes are white across from yellow (blue is now across from green) and it always just looks wrong to me.

One of the weird things about all those cubes is that the orange stickers are always bad.  Didn't matter what brand, the orange stickers wouldn't stay.

(The one on the right has a replacement sticker)

Today good racing cubes don't have stickers at all.  The colors are built right into the pieces.  They are also far superior in construction and feel.  I just got a new set of cubes in the mail today by Mo Yu and I love them.
The Rubik studio invented other puzzles, some of which took off (like the pocket cube which is all corners) and most of which didn't.  I always kind of liked the Snake but it doesn't hold my attention for long, the Missing Link was too easy, and Rubik's Game I have never bothered to figure out.

My favorite game is Rubik's Race.  You shake up a little box of color cubes to create a pattern, and then slide squares around to copy it in the center of your side of the board.  When you get it, you slap the divider down to display your finished pattern.  I don't remember ever losing at this game.  I also don't remember anyone ever wanting to play it with me for very long.  My brother Barrett I think stuck it out the longest (he was/is a good brother) but I don't blame him for eventually not wanting to do it anymore.  When I showed it to Quinn the other day he was nice enough to do about a dozen rounds before he finally looked sort of hopeless and I told him we could stop.

They still make this game.  I spotted an updated version in a store not long ago.  But my vintage version has a shaker box so cloudy now that it makes more sense to take the lid off like a Boggle game in order to see the colors.

Some cubes are sparkly.

Some puzzles are just slightly altered cubes, and you solve them the same way, they are just awkward to hold.  Some variations are different shapes entirely.

I think the most attractive spin-off puzzle was the Alexander's Star.  It's not comfortable or fast, but it's not hard to solve; it just takes a little while to sort out how the patterns on it work.  (I have a book for that one simply for collecting's sake--I've never needed to read it.)

Some things are just fun and are barely puzzles at all.  Probably the prettiest thing in my collection is this weird shiny box that is really a pair of star-like objects that interlock.  It's the first thing anyone wants to pick up when I open my cube box.

I haven't had a reason to open my cube collection boxes in many years, but a couple of weeks ago a notice appeared in the school newsletter announcing the first meeting of the Rubik's cube club.  A cube club!

I looked at Quinn and told him he needed to go with me to cube club.  I could have probably gone alone, but that felt just too ridiculously weird, so I needed Quinn along as cover to not feel like I was completely absurd.

But how could I not want to see the cube club?  I'm astounded and amazed that over 30 years later there are still kids solving cubes.  It's up there with the fact that Star Wars is still a thing that elementary school kids know, even though I was introduced to that at the same age they are now.  I contacted the organizer of the club and asked if he thought anyone would be interested in seeing vintage cube stuff, and he thought that sounded fun, so I literally dusted off my boxes and brought them to the school.

Most of the kids understandably had no interest in cube information from the 80s, and it was hard to keep them from scrambling particular puzzles that I don't really want to figure out how to solve again, but it was fun for me to revisit my stuff, and remember what interested me and what I was like when I was Quinn's age.  I still think the funniest thing I came across was in my scrapbook of articles declaring the craze to be dead (in 1982).  The kids at the club were confused about that, since there they were, learning algorithms that would help them put their puzzles in order.

Here's the thing about solving a cube:  You have to be willing to let things you've put in order go temporarily into disarray before you can go forward.  While learning to do any of it you have to risk that you will mess things up and have to start over.  Some people can do that in life, and some people can't.  In my experience, success in anything depends on being able to embrace mistakes.

Most people I've met who give up can't handle that part of solving a cube.  They may learn to complete a side, but then they get precious about it.  The idea of altering what they accomplished enough to create a finished layer rather than just a side seems like too much, and then beyond that watching that work seemingly unravel in order to get to the next step is too uncomfortable.

Solving a cube is not a trick, or one single piece of knowledge.  It's a process, based on a variety of possible methods.  People want there to be a single series of moves that put everything reliably back into place, and that's not how it works.  Analyzing what's in front of you, applying what you know to the current situation, looking ahead to the next step, are what make it interesting, and those things change each time you scramble the puzzle.

Someone once asked me why after solving a cube would you do it again?  It's a good question if you don't know what goes into solving one.  The goal isn't the point so much as the process of reaching it and seeing how much better you can do it each time.  So my answer for that person was, "Once you've played a piece of music why would you play it again?"  It's a challenge and a joy.  It's not for everyone, but it's for me.

I even have violin store cubes.  When we first opened ten years ago I started looking at promotional material, but nothing seemed right.  My parents always had pens for their art gallery, and I always liked those, but there was nothing that jumped out at me as being a decent item to put the violin store logo onto.  Until I found out you can customize cubes!  When they arrived I mailed some out to my family, and I think they were all happier for me that I had my own cubes than my own store.  I'm pretty sure we're the only violin store that offers free cube solving as a service.
My one big cube dream for the store is to someday find an affordable supply of cheap cubes in bulk that I can use to completely fill a display window.  I'd like to create a giant pixilated image by arranging the colors on a side of each cube so that from across the street it looks like a scroll or a pair of f-holes or something.  Wouldn't that be cool?

It's been fun having an excuse to dig out my old boxes of puzzles.  And the organizer of the club let me take home his nice 5x5x5 cube for a couple of weeks to try and solve for him.  People leave cubes for me to solve on the doorstep of our store occasionally, and a couple of years ago there was a 5x5x5 for me to work on and I got to dig out my old notes and put it back together.  This time around I'm trying to improve upon my old solution a little bit.  I'm kind of impressed with my old notes, frankly, because some of it I don't completely know how I figured it out all those years ago on the train.

I don't imagine going back to cube club (other than to return that man's cube I'm working on) because Quinn has little interest and I already know how to solve a cube.  I love that there is one, though.  And I have loved revisiting a bit of my puzzle obsession, but I should probably attend to other things.  Diving into the Rubik's cube was the perfect sort of activity to try and master as a kid, back when there were long stretches of time and few responsibilities.  I picture myself one day in old age, no longer feeling competent with violin maker's tools and not required to work anymore, sitting in a rocker and still clutching a cube.  Maybe in that second childhood I'll figure out those last couple of formulas I need for my personal solution book.  Doesn't sound like a bad way to go.


  1. I never liked the Cube, which was weird, because I liked puzzles. But my friends and I enjoyed Drive Ya Nuts, which was a set of 6 or 7 hexagons with numbered sides which you had to arrange so the adjacent sides all matched, number-wise.

  2. My nephew William is obsessed! Never without a cube of some kind. He just went to his first contest (entered the 3x3) and it had people from all over the world! His record so far is 32 seconds. I think it's pretty amazing.