Story Time with Uncle Tyson

Cube stories from around the world

The Origin of the Mystery Puzzle

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Author: Tyson Mao

I remember when we first started doing Mystery Puzzles. With the crowd cheering on the stage of the Exploratorium, it was really quite an experience. At the US National Championships 2006, I believe we had 500+ spectators at one point. But how did it all start?

The Sunday Contest
To learn the origin of the Mystery Puzzle, we have to go back a long time ago, back to 2003. Sadly, we now have competitors born after 2003. And that makes me feel a bit old. So back then, we used to use this timer made by Jess Bonde. Jess, of course, set the 3×3 WR single solve of 16.53 at the 2003 World Championship. He had written an online cube timer that provided 25-move scrambles and would calculate an average of 12. This was already the home standard then.

Before my time, there was a Sunday contest run by some French guy. (I think… and I’m not actually sure I remember. So if someone remembers who was running the Sunday contest back then, please let me know.) The idea was that people would do an average of 12 with the posted scrambles, and the results would be posted every Sunday and there would be a winner. This competition had died, but in 2004, I learned an interesting skill: I learned how to access web server spaces on and, and I realized that I could make web pages in MS Word by saving files as HTML and uploading this. So I decided to revive and host the Sunday contest. Results were all e-mailed to me, and I manually edited my MS Word document and uploaded it every week. I did this for a bit, and then Jon Morris offered to take over the process. I figured he was more technologically inclined than I was, so I was more than happy to hand it off.

Caltech Cube Club, Dan Lo, and Ball-in-Cup
In the spring of 2005, a prospective student came to visit Caltech. His name was Daniel Lo, and he was interested in the cube. He was visiting Caltech one week early because he had an orchestra trip during the actual admit weekend at Caltech. I saw Daniel Lo and immediately determined, because I was a junior, soon to be senior in college, that he would be my successor and run cubing at Caltech for the next 3 to 4 years. I invited him along to WC 2005 in Orlando, Florida, and sure enough, I did get a good 3 to 4 years out of him before Caltech was handed off to Ambie Valdés. Dan Lo had started running a bunch of competitions for me, and we were sitting around in my dorm room when I started musing that it would be funny to have a Sunday contest that featured some random puzzle every week, instead of the standard 3x3x3 speedsolve. We could do a 3x3x3 blindfolded Sunday contest, a one-handed Sunday contest…and then the ideas started to get more ridiculous. Beating your roommate with a pillow, running a mile and solving a cube–we were throwing out every crazy idea. Dan Lo then made the comment that the Rubik’s Magic was a silly puzzle, and was in fact not a puzzle at all and had the same complexity of putting a ball in a cup. After all, putting a ball in a cup is the same physical motion every time. We liked the idea, so we found a ping pong ball and started practicing, and I think I got my time to around 0.38 second. The technique, of course, was to throw the ball in the air, stop the timer, and hope that it lands in the cup. This method was terrible for averages but good if you were aiming for the best single.

Ball-in-cup has since spread to other North American competitions. Here’s a video from Toronto Summer Open 2009:

The First Mystery Puzzles
The mystery puzzle idea also started up around US Nationals 2006. The Cubefreak documentary was being filmed at that time, and the producers had made trading cards of us. We all had our own trading card, and it was pretty cool. We eventually started trading with each other (I think I needed an Adam Zamora to complete the collection) and the idea of Pokemon was thrown out. That I could play my Adam Zamora against your Chris Hardwick, and that not only could we play this card game in the back at the competition organization tables, but we could make these battles happen in real life on the stage. So after the first day of the championships, I split our organizers into three teams, and they drafted players. And we started coming up with different events for these players to compete in. Sometimes, I would tell the team captains exactly what the event would be. Other times, they only had a vague idea of what the event would be. Chris Dzoan, at that time, was one of the top one-handed solvers, and I remember his combination with Bob blowing away the entire rest of the field. My brother played his Chris Hardwick and Ryan Patricio card, but they argued over how to approach the team solve (two solvers alternating a single move). It turns out the Chris Dzoan’s strategy of “I do everything and Bob, you do what I tell you to do” was especially quick given that Chris was one-handed solving the cube.

Here are some other memorable mystery puzzles that have been captured on tape.

Caltech Winter 2007 (Exploratorium, SF) Lightning Reaction Extreme

Caltech Fall 2007 Mystery Puzzle

Name that Dzoan
I’ll end with some Dzoan stories. Name That Dzoan was probably one of the dumber Mystery Puzzles that I came up with. Though I would implore the public to give me a break. I’m allowed to come up with one dumb idea every now and then, right?

How I first met Dan Dzoan is a pretty funny story in itself. It must have been Caltech Winter 2006. This new crew of cubers from Berkeley had come, but I hadn’t really met any of them. Winning Moves USA had sent me a crate full of puzzles, so when it came time for awards, I started giving out random prizes. I proceeded to announce the prize for the fastest person who did not make the finals. In other words, you’re the number one loser. Well, you could argue that the number one loser is second place, but okay, roll with me. And coming in 17th place…Dan Dzoan! And out of the audience I heard someone shout, “I KNEW IT!” Dan jumped up, came up on stage, accepted his Rubik’s Snake, and that’s the first time I ever met Dan Dzoan. From there, Dan expressed interest in getting UC Berkeley involved with the WCA, and I expressed interest in expanding the WCA’s activities to other schools.

This picture here captures the first moment I met Dan Dzoan. It’s a beautiful moment.

How Tyson met Dan Dzoan

But now, onto Name That Dzoan. Dan has two siblings, Chris and Brittany, both also cubers. They lived in Fremont, which wasn’t far from me in San Mateo, so when I was home we would get together and hang out. Since there were three of them, and we decided that everyone should know their Dzoans, the Name That Dzoan Mystery Puzzle was born. It was one of those things that was hilarious in my mind, but in actual practice, quite stupid.

The Dzoan stories live on, and when Shotaro Makisumi finally wins that big math prize, I think the world will get to see more Dzoan. There are obviously stories to be told here, but most of them transcend the Mystery Puzzle realm.

Written by macky

October 8, 2011 at 12:17 am

Stefan Pochmann and the Rubik’s Revolution

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Credit: Sven Gowel

Background by Stefan himself:

Great times we had there. US Open 2007 in Chicago, that was in a donut&icecream shop behind the hotel, I think. I had been bashing the revolution online in the previous weeks for being much advertised as a “new and improved Rubik’s cube” when it really didn’t even turn. Even rejected one I was offered as prize for a mystery puzzle. But in the evening, when I got my hands on one, I did like it for what it actually is and came up with more and more methods. I am competitive, after all. This must’ve been method 4b or so. I went on to win its side event at WC2007 with Dror, we both got the maximum score of 999. Then won with 2854 at US2009 (by then they had taught the sound chip to count higher), which got crushed by Toby’s insane 4334 at WC2009. Quite a journey from first hating the thing (and now I have that song in my head again, Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” which Dan and others enthusiastically sang in the hotel there… such great times we had).

Written by macky

July 25, 2011 at 12:37 pm

The Valentine Cube Incident

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Author: Tyson Mao
Narration: Shotaro Makisumi (macky)

macky: Cubers who were active in early 2005 will probably have heard rumors of this infamous incident at the California Institute of Technology, which involved a certain then-astrophysics major named Tyson Mao. Reproduced below are his posts (linked) on the Yahoo! speedsolvingrubikscube group around Valentine’s Day, 2005.

Tue Feb 15, 2005 12:42 am

Hey Everyone,

I’m either the victim of a really funny prank, or… or else?!?

The Valentine Cube

(On the sheet of paper.)

to feel your hands holding my sides firmly
the same way you grab Rubik’s cube to solve
to let you try your finger tricks on me
and have my will, with lubricant, dissolve

i’d pull the first two layers off myself
’cause that’s the algorithm that i know
but you would need to do the PLL
maybe give the z-permutation a go

after the initial inspection is done
let me know the orientation that you want
i promise that it will be lots of fun
just like your tournaments that i haunt

i yearn for you like you a sub-fifteen
for you’re the best solve i have ever seen

Tyson Mao
MSC #631
California Institute of Technology

Tue Feb 15, 2005 4:33 am

So I was in lab and I came back to my room and it was on my desk. I actually didn’t notice it at first because Macky was in my room using the computer but then suddenly, we realized it was a cube. Then, we realized it wasn’t just a cube, but it was actually a solve state on the cube.

The hand writing is definitely from a girl but it could easily have been a guy’s idea and they asked a girl to write it. Still no idea who did it. When I find out, I’ll put a mug shot of them up or something.

Tyson Mao
MSC #631
California Institute of Technology

On Feb 14, 2005, at 11:47 PM, Terje Kristensen wrote:

> I think it’s very romantic :) Let’s hope it’s not a prank :)
> Terje

Tue Feb 15, 2005 7:54 am

Yeah, it would be nice wouldn’t it? To have someone in love with me like that? I went around doing some handwriting analysis. My friend has a burned CD with a message written on it by a girl who lives very close and is good friends with Leyan Lo… so we might be getting somewhere. Of course, it’s still under investigation. I should scan the handwriting sample sometime.

Tyson Mao
MSC #631
California Institute of Technology

Wed Feb 16, 2005 9:47 am

It goes on. I was working on physics today. I left my room (I left the door open) for about 10 minutes and went two doors down the hall. When I came back, a yellow rose was placed on my desk. I’m getting kinda scared now… all my friends so far have denied any involvement with this whatsoever.

Tyson Mao
MSC #631
California Institute of Technology

macky: To this day, the origin of the Valentine cube remains surrounded in mystery. But I can reveal one thing: I was responsible for the yellow rose!

Written by macky

January 10, 2011 at 4:05 pm

You Can Thank/Blame Me for…

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Author: Shotaro Makisumi (macky)

I went to a couple of European competitions this spring while studying abroad in France. At one of these competitions, I met a cuber who used my site back in the day to learn PLL. Apparently, he still does the T-perm as FRU’R’URUR2’F’RURU’R’ (the inverse of the current standard) because that’s how I used to do it until Stefan corrected me. Oops. Come to think of it, I also heard this once from someone in the U.S.

I held a bunch of world records in 2004-2005, so a lot of cubers at the time probably at least occasionally visited my site, Cubefreak. Because of this, there are a couple of notable things in cubing today—not contributions or influences, but rather quirks and accidents of history—that I seem to have inadvertently popularized, or that can be traced back to me. Depending on your view, you can thank or blame me for these things.

The JSCC OLL Numbering System

I frequented the JSCC (Japan Speed Cubing Club) forum (now basically dead) when I made my website in 2003. For my OLL/PLL pages, I adopted the numbering system used by all the Japanese cubers, most notably Katsuyuki Konishi (Planet Puzzle), numbering the unsolved OLLs from 1 through 57 and PLLs from n1 through n21. The prefix n- for PLL stands for naitsu, the screen name of the JSCC founder and the first sub-20 Japanese cuber, and serves to distinguish this system from the system, which used P1 through P21. Although Jessica Fridrich’s lettering system has become the standard for PLL, there seems to be no clear consensus for OLL because of the larger number of cases. The closest thing we have to a standard is the wiki’s OLL page, which uses the JSCC numbering. Along with Katsu, whose site was also popular among English speakers, I was responsible for popularizing this system in the western cubing world. Sorry.

Oh, and some of you probably know OLL 22 as the Air Jeff because of me.

The w Notation

JSCC also had their own extension to the standard David Singmaster notation (UDRLFB MES 2′ xyz). They used (f) etc to indicate rotations (Katsu, being the maniac that he described himself to be, even used (f15) etc for tilts) instead of xyz. For wide turns, JSCC had the -w (“double”-u) suffix for double-layer (for 3×3 and up) and -t for triple-layer turns (for 4×4 and up). For my site, I stuck to xyz for rotations but adopted the w notation because it avoided the conflicting use in big cubes of the alternative lowercase notation. Again, Katsu and I were probably largely responsible for first familiarizing this notation to the rest of the world, though it received renewed exposure through the CUTEX team’s website around 2007. Among notable historical cubers with websites, the w notation was used by Gungz (Yu Jeong-Min) and Sébastien Felix. While many American cubers understand but don’t use the w notation for 3×3, it’s been adopted by the WCA as the official wide-turn notation for 4×4 and 5×5. Sorry.

OLL Images

Since I brought up the wiki’s OLL page, I’ll talk about these images:

OLL 46

You’ve probably seen this style of OLL images on a couple of different websites. Well, I made these back in 2004 or 2005. That’s right, I took the blank 3×3 image from Katsu’s site, carefully added twelve lines on the sides, then for each OLL, erased and shaded the appropriate lines and facelets…in Microsoft Paint. I made my PLL images around the same time using Paint and PowerPoint, but those didn’t get around nearly as much. You can thank me for this one.

3OP Edge Orientation Definition

My “A 3-Cycle Guide to 3x3x3 Blindfold Cubing,” first written in 2005,  was and probably still is the most widely-read (so non-video) guide for 3OP (3-Cycle Orientation Permutation). The method involves defining a correct orientation for each piece as one that can be brought to the correct position and orientation using moves within a certain subgroup of the Cube Group. While there’s only one obvious choice of subgroup for the corners, there are two for the edges: <U, D, F2, B2, R, L>, meaning no quarter turns on the F/B faces, or <U, D, F, B, R2, L2>, meaning no quarter turns on the R/L faces. For the first two versions of the guide, I used <U, D, F, B, R2, L2>, which was also used in stiff_hands cube page, where I had learned 3OP. In 2006, Leyan Lo and others pointed out some advantages of using <U, D, F2, B2, R, L>, and I updated the guide to use this subgroup. The change turned out to not matter much because the next years brought the BLD revolution, with Stefan Pochmann’s M2/R2 and freestyle popularized by Chris Hardwick and others, but many blindfold cubers who learned 3OP before 2006 still use the other definition because of my guide. It certainly sucks if you want to learn ZZ. I’m actually kind of sorry about this one. My bad.

The cubing community is still small enough that there are many random things that can be traced back to certain individuals. So, what can we blame/thank you for?

Happy Holidays,

Written by macky

December 27, 2010 at 11:22 pm

The Stryker Z

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Author: Lucas Garron

John George and Stryker Langdon are two professional magicians in LA who come to some competitions with the California crew (and also to some Nationals, where they are known for their magic shows). When Stryker was learning PLL, I’m told, he saw Dan Dzoan using a 2-gen alg for the Z-perm, and said “I have to learn that.” He didn’t care how long it was, 2-gen was just that good.

Apparently John George agreed to ask someone for the alg and send it to Stryker. However, when many of the organizers (but not Stryker) were at John’s house after a 2008 DSC competition, he decided to pull a prank on Stryker. He asked if anyone could come up with an extra-long 2-gen alg that he could send to Stryker, pretending it was a good 2-gen alg.

I immediately set to work and used a little trial-and-error to create the following 32-move alg:


I came up with the idea immediately; if you rotate the alg by z’, you can see that it’s actually a sideways 2-gen solve in disguise. It took a while to find a version that obfuscates its actions using proper cancellations:

2x2x1 block: L2’ULUL’UL2UL’
Pair: U’L’UL
U-perm: L’ULUL’U’L’U’L’UL’U

The alg was written down, tested by Adam Zamora (?), and summarily emailed to Stryker. He wanted an awesome 2-gen alg; he got one.

Most of this process was caught in the audio background of this YouTube video.

Stryker was a little reluctant to learn the alg. It seemed nice, but longer than he thought it looked.
So, here’s what we did: I practiced the alg a lot, and filmed a short video of me executing the alg in about 3 seconds, which John sent to Stryker. He explained that Lucas *even took the time to make a video* just for him, and it would be impolite not to learn it.

I don’t know how it went from there, but eventually Stryker found out that this was not a real Z-perm that we use, and learned a shorter one. However, he also learned that this joke alg had now entered folklore as the “Stryker Z,” so he actually took the time and learned all 32 moves. He showed it to me at another DSC competition, and was even wearing a shirt with the Stryker Z that Ambie had printed for him.

Stryker wearing the Striker Z shirt

And that’s how the world’s most infamous and obnoxiously long alg came to be.

P.S.: At Joey’s request, I later created the Gouly U, but it was never posted on the internet and my computer lost the log files where I had written it down. But I can’t just make up a new one, so it seems to have been sent to the same place as unwanted Turing machine tape and forgotten lambdas.

P.P.S.: There’s also a picture of John and me with 8 large cubes. We were helping him re-sticker that night, and that’s why Andrew and Adam were trying BLD in the video.

John George and Lucas Garron with 8 Large Cubes

Written by macky

December 25, 2010 at 12:20 pm

Posted in Anecdote

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Meeting THE Breandan Vallance

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Author: Anthony Brooks

It hadn’t even been a year since I had first solved the cube, but I already couldn’t imagine life without it. When I found out that my family was going to visit my uncle in Monaco during Spring Break ’09, I practically sprinted to the computer. Minutes later, after verifying that the French Open was going to take place while we were in Europe, I had already laid out an entire “game plan” to my brothers as to how we were going to convince our mother to take a detour to Paris. Even after executing my plan to perfection, it took relentless begging to convince our mother to commit, but eventually she conceded and as soon as she began making arrangements, we began practicing.

Now to put things in perspective, at the time, Yu Nakajima was the 3×3 world record holder and sub 12 was the current sub 10. Breandan Vallance, however, was still a relative unknown outside of the UK. Sure, he was ranked in the top 40, but then again, many of today’s active cubers don’t even know who Kanneti Sae Han is (but that’s another story…). As the competition drew nearer, Breandan became a hot topic on the forum as people began realizing how fast he was (particularly at PLL). When I checked the website one day and noticed that his name was added to the “registered competitors list”, my brother and I flipped out. We were going to get to meet THE Breandan Vallance.

Several weeks later, totally jet-lagged after getting off the plane in Paris, we all headed straight to the hotel for a much needed nap. Upon arrival, we were too exhausted to even cube in the lobby as our mom checked us in. However, a sudden surge of energy appeared when we heard familiar clicking sounds emerging from around the corner. I didn’t know who the first few visible people were (The Hungarian group), but as I saw a kid with long, curly hair turning the cube unbelievably fast, a chill ran through my body. As they proceeded to walk out of the lobby, THAT guy noticed me staring and gave a polite smile and wave as he departed. When I turned around, pale and out of breath, my mom quickly asked what was wrong with me in a tone you would only expect to hear from a paramedic. I was at a loss for words. When I finally mustered up the ability to speak again, “Bre-brean-breandan just walked by…” was all that came out.

My mom’s never let me forget it.

Written by macky

December 8, 2010 at 12:26 pm

The Rants of a Bitter Old Man, or: A Brief Interlude on the Evolution of Cubing Technology

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Author: Vincent Sheu

“Type-A? What is that?” Andy, Alexei, and I had recently started a cube club at our high school. Andy, the fast one, had lofty goals of eventually going to tournaments (back then, I thought there was no way I would ever reach the holy grail of sub-15 seconds). Despite my exclamations of doom, the three of us progressed, albeit rather slowly. I always felt that we were limited by hardware. The best cubes any of us had ever touched were the Rubik’ DIY’s (not including the original cube that Andy had gotten for 40 bucks on Ebay, and immediately destroyed with WD-40). Studio cubes were viewed as rare artifacts, to be displayed rather than played with.

Due to our limitations, we trained ourselves to turn slowly. “Lookahead above all!” Macky’s adage about most cubers having the most to improve in F2L lookahead was always at the forefront of our thoughts.

One day, Andy brought up the Type-A, B, and C cubes. The B version, apparently, was disgusting. The C was a Chinese knockoff of the Rubik’ DIY’s that we had been faithful to. But the Type-A: words could not begin to describe how that cube supposedly was going to transform cubing. Apparently the top cubers had tried it and many were considering switching, we heard (keep in mind that we were a small isolated pocket of cubing; much of what we heard was probably false). We eagerly ordered a few, and awaited magic.

I confess, I was disappointed. The new Type-A cube was hard and heavy. Compared to my Rubik’ DIY cube, it seemed unwieldy. I stayed resistant to change. The Type-D and Type-F came out. The A-II. New type-A. Through all this, I stuck with my trusty Rubik’ DIY. Little did I know: a revolution was occurring. No longer did cubes lock up every other move. No longer did cubers strain muscles trying basic fingertricks. Cubes could now be described as “creamy” or “crispy”. Screws were no longer a feature in cubes – they were a standard. Cubies were given teeth to prevent them from popping too easily. Others had built-in track guides to achieve a similar effect. Cubes came in light hollow varieties, as well as dense, heavier models. Sticker manufacturers printed stickers in a multitude of colors, giving cubers choices to allow them to optimally distinguish pieces during solves. In short, cubing technology had improved to the point that the new generation of cubers could have an insanely high TPS count and get a sub-15 average with average look-ahead skills.

Today, there are so many different brands of cubes on the market that whole websites have been devoted to exhibit the selection available to the average cuber. Endless debates rage about the “best” cube. From the GuHong to the Ghosthand, to the Edison, to the former Type-A series: a cube seemingly exists for every possible cuber, with every possible combination of strengths and weaknesses. It amazes me how the “little kids” at the tournaments at run can keep track of them all.

I’m happy that the influx of cubing innovation has made it possible for a new wave of cubers to improve their times relatively quickly. At the same time, I feel nostalgic; as well as saddened, that a style of cubing, which once dominated the landscape, now seems to be ebbing in influence. Foresight and look-ahead have fallen prey to blinding fast turning, made possible by new technology. One day, when I have the time, I, too may convert.

Written by macky

December 8, 2010 at 12:14 pm