Story Time with Uncle Tyson

Cube stories from around the world

Posts Tagged ‘Caltech

The Origin of the Mystery Puzzle

with 2 comments

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

The Valentine Cube Incident

leave a comment »

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