A Riveting Puzzle Full of Whimsy (and "Whimsies")

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Nov. 11 2010 2:53 PM

A Riveting Puzzle Full of Whimsy (and "Whimsies")

From time to time, a Slate staffer or critic offers up a favorite cultural pick for Procrastinate Better readers. Today's endorsement is from Slate columnist Emily Yoffe .

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At a neighbor’s house a few months ago I saw a half-finished jigsaw puzzle on a game table. The image of a game table, let alone a jigsaw puzzle, was powerfully evocative of my childhood, during which I’d had a passing infatuation with jigsaw puzzles. This puzzle had some pieces I now know are called "whimsies" – representational shapes that usually refer to the subject of the puzzle (shells and starfish for a puzzle about the sea, for example). I had to have one, and when I got home I started searching the web. I found Artifact Puzzles , which makes beautifully crafted wooden puzzles full of whimsy and whimsies. Getting my husband and daughter involved in our first puzzle, a 1592 map of the Atlantic , was not easy. Why should we sit together trying to reconstruct an old illustration when we had a new television with a premium cable package in the other room? They promised to give me 15 minutes, but two hours later we were happily laboring over this infernally clever puzzle. Finding matching pieces was disproportionally satisfying to the task.

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Artifact puzzles was started last year by Maya Gupta, a professor of electrical engineering at the University of Washington who studies artificial intelligence. She said she got into jigsaw puzzles as relief from long days pondering theoretical issues. "Jigsaw puzzles are a small, feasible problem. At work I deal with research problems that are hard and often unsolvable." I like her puzzles because the images she chooses are lovely and the laser-cut wooden pieces are intricate and feel substantial in your hand (and when you open the box, there is a slight whiff of sandalwood).  My family is now working our way through our second Artifact puzzle (they average about $50), a lithograph of hummingbirds by Ernst Haeckel . Though I could be spending my spare time doing something more apparently useful like reading the Economist , or cleaning out the basement, my hope is I’m stimulating my neurons by forcing them into all this pattern recognition. But mostly it’s olden times fun.

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