Chip Brown, our latest Geek of the Week, spends his days immersed in puzzles and technology as the chief architect for Puzzazz, the Seattle-area startup known for products including puzzle e-books for Kindle. But his personal life is just as interesting, with hobbies ranging from beekeeping to a playing a challenging variation of Scrabble known as “Clabbers.”
And then there’s the clock he’s trying to build from scratch — and when we say, “from scratch,” we mean it in a way that would have made Carl Sagan happy.
Continue reading for details on puzzles, clocks and everything else Brown is involved in.
Name: Chip Brown
What’s your day job? Chief Architect, Puzzazz Inc.
Coolest thing about what you do: I get to work with puzzles all day, every day, in an office full of puzzle enthusiasts just like me. At Puzzazz we apply a mix of technology and hand crafting to produce really good puzzles. There is a lot of software out there to generate Sudokus, word searches, etc., but it usually falls short in terms of the quality of puzzles generated. For example, in the space of all Sudoku puzzles the vast majority are just not fun or interesting to do.
We develop algorithms to allow us to guide the generation of millions of decent puzzles, sift through them for a hundred good puzzles, and then choose and hand-tune a small number into great puzzles. Then we do a really good job in our software of making the user experience as natural as possible, letting the puzzles themselves shine through. The puzzles come first.
What do puzzles mean to you, and what role do they play in your life? For me, puzzles are interactive art. Someone had a clever idea and took the time to lovingly craft it into a puzzle — something which is a pleasure to unwrap and appreciate. Many geeks like myself shy away from more traditional arts, probably because they tend to play more on emotions than many of us are comfortable with. I do puzzle hunts instead of going to see a symphony, or do a crossword instead of going to an art museum. I should probably do those too though.
Tell us about this clock that you’re building from scratch, and how you define “from scratch.” The “steampunk” aesthetic is big nowadays, but I have always found mechanical contraptions fascinating. You can look at them and figure out how they work, though oftentimes it is a puzzle to figure out what the parts actually do. Many are beautiful works of art in their own right.
I decided that the precision clock was the pinnacle of the art of mechanical engineering — building one from scratch became a goal. I don’t have access to the tools that clockmakers used in 1750, so this begs the question of where to draw the line technology-wise.
For me the obvious choice was to start with no technology at all and see how far I could get. By “no technology” I mean “walk into the woods naked and come back with a grandfather clock.” The number of disciplines involved is amazing: mining, foundry work, lubrication, botany, leather tanning, smelting, metallurgy, metalworking, on and on. I can’t claim any great depth of knowledge in any these areas, but the goal is to learn enough about each to build a clock. Then there are the details about the mechanisms themselves, from how to make a precision screw out of a stick all the way up to gear design.
At this point I can identify copper ore, though I have not collected any real quantity. I can make charcoal and have built a clay smelting furnace for casting brass, though for now I am experimenting mostly with aluminum. I made my own casting sand and molds. I have all the math and drawings for the clock itself done, in another 20 years or so I’ll have worked my way up to a foot-powered lathe. From there I can build a milling machine, and then. …
I could talk about this for hours, but I don’t want to use up too many pixels on your web site. If any readers out there want to talk about it, they can feel free to contact me by email at email@example.com.
In a similar vein, I am building a grandfather clock out of Legos. It is being re-engineered a bit right now so the best picture I could come up with is the new mechanism (at right).
It keeps pretty decent time!
We hear you’re good at the game “Clabbers.” What the heck is that? Clabbers is a variation of Scrabble, kind of like Scrabble crossed with Jumble. The problem in normal Scrabble, when you find a beauty of a word, it might just not be playable anywhere. Either none of the words out there can be extended by one of yours, or your play would go off the edges of the board. This is frustrating, because you have this gem, but you can’t play it.
In comes Clabbers. A play in Clabbers only needs to be anagrammable into a word, hence the name, which is an anagram of Scrabble. This change in the rules makes many, many more plays available to you. In fact it is pretty easy to play several words at once (see below). Clabbers has the added advantage that when you make a play, your opponent doesn’t know what word you played, or even if the play really does anagram to anything. There is a great temptation to just play a bunch of plausible letters and hope your opponent finds a word in them.
This variation makes bluffing more fun and challenges more difficult. A challenge in Scrabble is a claim like: “TURODIA” is not a word”. The challenger wins this one. A challenge in Clabbers is like: “There is no rearrangement of the letters in TURODIA which is a word”. In this case the challenger loses, because the challengee says “AUDITOR”, and there is great rejoicing.
What makes a puzzle “good?”
Just like more traditional art, there are many levels on which I enjoy them. The most basic is simply to have fun solving it. A puzzle designer has to tune the difficulty according to the skill level of the solver. The puzzle should also be visually appealing. For instance, all New York Times crosswords have a symmetry to the blocked out squares. But there are deeper levels at which I appreciate a puzzle:
- How difficult was it to create? Some puzzles are so highly constrained that the real genius in creating them is to suspect it is even possible to make one. For a bizarre and wonderful variation of Sudoku, see this puzzle by Sudoku champion Thomas Snyder.
- How original is the puzzle itself? Many pieces of art are difficult to categorize precisely, they simply are what they are — think about a Picasso or Pollack. Some are a mixture of many kinds of more traditional art. The same is true of puzzles. There are hundreds or thousands of different varieties of puzzles out there, and more are being created all the time.
- How clever is the wordplay? Some New York Times crosswords stand out as having particularly witty clues. Many of the clues in a good crossword are little puzzles in their own right. You have to find the right way to interpret the clue in the first place, then you can tease out the answer.
How did you get into beekeeping? I’m a nature lover, so when my wife asked if I had any interest in beekeeping, I realized that I had no idea how honey was actually made. I had heard all about bees’ complex social systems and communication, so they had always been interesting to me. It ties in with my compulsion to know how things work.
There are other food production technologies which I have tried: brewing beer, making cheese, distilling. But unlike these you really can do honey from scratch in your backyard, and there is something magical about working together with these little insects. You begin to think of the bees (“the girls”) as pets — pets you handle while wearing protective gear. I highly recommend it — it’s fun and good for the environment.
Mac, Windows or Linux? Mac. I started on Apple, then worked on Solaris Unix machines in my early career. Reluctantly I was dragged onto Windows when it was clear that this World Wide Web thing was catching on and that Apple was stagnating. I had completely written Apple off by the late 90’s. Then MacOS X came along, and revitalized the platform. It was beautiful like all Apple products, and based on a rock solid underlying OS. What more could you hope for? I guess I could hope for a lot more, but for now the Mac is, in my estimation, the best overall computing environment.
Kindle, Nook or iPad? Kindle, the screen is just stunning. I am a graphics algorithms guy by training, so every little rendering artifact drives me batty. Those little jagged crystals in e-Ink displays trick the eye into thinking they are higher resolution than they really are. I find that very appealing. I also find the ambient light illumination easier on my eyes. That said, have you ever tried to watch a movie on a Kindle? You can’t. :)
Kirk, Picard, Janeway or Sisko? Kirk, duh. BTW, “duh” is a valid Scrabble word. :)
Your geek role models: Richard Feynman, a genius by any measure and fully aware of it, he was profoundly confident with an ego to match. Despite this he was a legendarily nice man, supportive of his students and colleagues, somehow humble in his own way.
This is an important skill that many super-bright people don’t have; most feel the need to compete with each other, to show other people how smart they are. Feynman showed his true genius by showing other people how smart they were. He has left a mark on the history of science as a result, not only with the discoveries he personally made but with the discoveries of the students he inspired.
Greatest Game In History: Zork, hands down. Then again I was thirteen and it was the first interesting computer game for the Apple II. It would not surprise me if something of nearly that caliber has been made since (tongue in cheek), but none of them will ever ring my bells the way that one did.
Best Gadget Ever: The wheel of course. In more modern times though I saw this guy at Lego Brickcon a few months ago with an all Lego “kinetoscope” (an early moving pictures technology). It showed an image of a Lego man juggling. It was tiny, elegant, and remarkably decent animation-wise. A gadget doesn’t have to be useful to be great!
First computer: An Apple II, all 48Kb of RAM with its audio cassette tape drive storage. I upgraded to a 140Kb floppy a couple of years later. You know, I make fun of it now, but that machine could do real work. It is shocking how much you can accomplish in 48k.
Favorite app: I hate to admit it, but Angry Birds is just really great. It goes to show that a trivial game mechanic can be utterly captivating if it is packaged well. Kudos to the artists and level designers at Rovio.
Favorite hangout: Any table where cards or Scrabble is being played; or bars with Trivia Nights, like the Wilde Rover in Kirkland.
Favorite cause: Increasing awareness of the costs of over-consumption.
Most important technology of 2011: If it pans out, the new DRACO vaccine technology from MIT. It sounds too good to be true, and probably is, but there is cautious optimism that it may be able to cure essentially all known viral diseases. Wow….
Most important technology of 2015: I hope something more spectacular comes up, like nuclear fusion or something, but short range wireless power transmission is within the realm of possibility. Bluetooth and Wi-Fi got rid some of the cables cluttering our desktop, it is time to get rid of the rest.
Words of advice for your fellow geeks: Just because something has not been done doesn’t mean it is impossible. And just because something has been done doesn’t mean it can’t be done better. If you encounter a problem that needs to be solved, don’t walk away because you don’t know how to solve it. Educate yourself; oftentimes the state of the art is not as deep as you might assume.
Geek of the Week is a regular feature profiling the characters of the Pacific Northwest technology community. See the Geek of the Week archive for more.
Does someone you know deserve this distinguished honor? Send nominations to firstname.lastname@example.org.
[Geek of the Week photography by Annie Laurie Malarkey, email@example.com.]