An Unexpected Puzzle

Puzzles have been a popular pastime during the pandemic lockdown. We’ve only done one, though: Megaplanet, which was pretty neat both because of its vivid colors and its round shape. We finished it over the course of a week – and found we were missing two pieces. Since we have young kittens, we suspected they might have been the culprits, and indeed I found one piece under the couch. But no luck finding the other one so far, so we eventually gave up and took it apart. Would definitely recommend, though.

But this weekend we found ourselves with another puzzle to unravel, as it were:

Like most people, we now own a bunch of cloth masks. Debbi puts them through the laundry in a lingerie bag, which seemed great until she took out the latest load with eight masks in it. In addition to the ear loops, many of our masks have loops to hang them over your neck when not using them. (This is pretty handy when driving from place to place.)

The problem is that the eight masks their loops all tangled up in a big mass. After quite a few minutes Debbi was able to free one mask, but after another while she got frustrated and handed it to me.

It took me several minutes to figure out how to tackle the problem: Pulling at the tangled mass wasn’t any good, as pulling on one end just tightened another end. But eventually I figure it out:

I laid the masks on the counter, with the mass in the center, and arranged them in a circle around the mass. Then I realized that it was a puzzle with two “moves”:

  1. Undo a twist in the loops of two adjacent masks, and
  2. Push one mask through the loop of an adjacent mask.

So the trick was basically to figure out which masks were “adjacent” to each other, and then to take whichever two masks had the “outermost” connection and perform one of the two moves. Every few moves I’d rearrange the masks slightly (basically a simple form of undoing a twist), but this technique made it really easy to methodically untangle the mass. Two masks got freed after a number of moves, and then after a few more moves the other five were freed from each other.

It was actually a pretty neat little puzzle! Not one we need to do every time, and we’re trying to figure out how to wash the masks without this happening again. But it gave me a nice little feeling of accomplishment.