Dec 222013

We’ve talked about December’s Bad Rap (in Alaska); now I want to talk about December’s Good Wrap (worldwide). As if I could resist that word play. Yep, I’m talking wrapping paper, what with December being a gift-giving month for many people.

This post has appeared elsewhere before, but it’s one of my faves. If you’ve seen it, I hope it’s a welcome reminder. If you haven’t seen it, enjoy!

Best Gift Wrap Ever!

Yarn and sock-in-progress

Hand knit wool socks are awesome, but still…they’re socks. Wrap ‘em in a puzzle for extra fun!

Got a boring gift you want to spice up? What one can get with a gift card is great, but let’s be honest, the gift cards themselves are kinda boring.

Got an impossible-to-wrap gift? Say, a kitchen remodel or a new bike?

I’ve got you and your gift covered.

No need to dig out the paint or the giant roll of butcher’s paper. We’re not going to recycle newspaper. I’m talking about wrapping a gift in a puzzle. It’s the most entertaining gift wrap I know. A gift in itself, to boot. And it’s a snap. Let me show you.

Wrap Your Present in a Puzzle

  1. Choose the gift you will wrap in a puzzle, and then choose a place you can hide it. You might put a gift card under a lampshade or lamp or under the recipient’s pillow after she has gotten up. You might hide a bike in the trunk of a car or in the garage.
  2. Think of a clue describing the place you’ve hidden the gift. If you hid it under a lamp, you might say, “Got any bright ideas where I hid your gift?” If you hid it under a pillow, you might say, “I hid your gift. If you get tired of looking, I suggest you sleep on it.” If it’s in the trunk of the car, you might say, “A ride in the car might unlock the mystery of your gift’s whereabouts.” Extreme cleverness is definitely a bonus, but, clearly, it’s not required!
  3. Now turn that clue into a puzzle. We’re going to use a letter-substitution code to make a cryptogram. You can write out your own code or use this one:
    Letter substitution chart for making a cryptogram

    To create your cryptogram gift wrap, use this letter-substitution code or create your own.

    Now, where there’s an A in your clue, you write a D instead. Where there’s a B, you write O. So “GOT ANY BRIGHT IDEAS WHERE I HID YOUR GIFT?” becomes “YKU DTS OEWYMU WJQDX NMQEQ W MWJ SKGE YWCU?”
  4. Write the clue on a piece of paper along with instructions for deciphering it.

    Each letter in the code represents a different letter of the alphabet. Once you’ve figured out what one letter or word is, use those letters to help decipher other words.

  5. Seal the clue in an envelope, or wrap it in pretty paper, and put it in the recipient’s stocking or under the tree.

In addition to the joy of receiving the gift, the recipient will have the added entertainment of solving a puzzle and searching out the gift. So fun! So memorable!

Now, if you’re giving this gift to a child, you might want to offer some hints to help solve it. You could, for instance, provide a few letters to get him started, say Q=E, U=T, and Y=G. Maybe point out that the one-letter words are a good place to start solving.

You can also add another layer of fun by cutting the piece of paper containing the code into pieces like a jigsaw puzzle and putting the pieces in the envelope. Now she’s got to put the pieces together, solve the cryptogram, figure out what the clue means, and find the gift. Fun, fun, fun, and more fun!

Best Gift Ever!

Got a new car hidden in the garage or a trip around the world to present? (Oh, please let me be the recipient!) Wrap it in a puzzle, and put it under the tree. You can wrap anything in a puzzle.

So…who’s game?

Dec 202013

After posting about our short days and limited direct sunlight, friends sent their sympathy and reminders that the days will soon get longer.

Alas, friends, I am grateful for your concern and support, but your sympathy is misplaced: I love this time of year! I’m in no rush for longer days.

Colored lights on the ceiling, candle lights and candle in the window, beaded snowflake on the window.

These aren’t up for just the holiday; these are up for winter.

I adore getting up in the dark and having several hours of quiet, cozy time to read and write. Colored lights on the ceiling, fragrant candles, warm tea, the heater by my side, and time to think and create—what’s not to like? It’s not uncommon for me to sneak out of bed at 4 a.m. to get a jump on the morning’s writing or to sneak off to bed at 8 p.m. for some extra reading. Only when it’s this dark and cold is this permissible.

That’s not to say I don’t like summertime. I love summer equally. But summer is different. It’s light all the time, and I’m outside early and late, and writing and reading and creating take a backseat to growing and harvesting.

Aurora borealis--northern lights

Let’s not forget these winter lights. When the sun’s here all the time, we don’t get to see these.

One of the things I like about Alaska is the dramatic difference between the seasons, of which I tend to think there are two: summer and winter. Spring and fall last about a week each. The change in conditions and activities results in a nicely balanced cycle that makes me aware of the passage of time.

I know many people dread the snow, cold, and dark days of winter. I’m not one of them. Welcome, winter! I’m glad you’re here.

Sunslide, Sunslip

 Posted by  Alaska
Dec 172013

Sunslide, sunslip. Swiftly flow the days…

So how swiftly do the days flow in Alaska just now, on December 17, 2013? We have about six hours of daylight, from roughly 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Because of our location on the north side of the Chugach Mountains, our direct sunlight during this time of year is significantly less.

Sunslide: 1:49 p.m.
Sunslip: 2:15 p.m.

I can’t bring myself to call it “sunrise” and “sunset” because that implies some sort of vertical movement, and that is not what we have. The sun doesn’t rise above the mountains. Rather, it slides into view from behind one mountain and soon slips behind another.


Alaska sunrise: the slides out from behind a mountain


Alaska sunset: the sun slips behind a mountain

That’s all there is.

Moose Munch

 Posted by  Alaska, Gardening
Dec 162013

Moose tracks in the snow and munched raspberry stalks

Every winter, a moose stops by to prune the raspberry stalks.

Raspberries pruned: check.

Moose: Quality, dependable service, year after year.

I used to dread this and wish we had a real fence around the raspberries and strawberries, but this year, I don’t care. You see, I had a lesson in Growing Raspberries and was advised to cut back the first-year stalks at the end of the season. I’ve never done that, and thanks to our dependable moose, I don’t have to.

Our moose-munched and scrawny raspberries produced better than ever this year, so I’ve stopped worrying about winter moose pruning. I will still make an effort to keep them out of the berry bed during the summer and fall, but they seem far less interested then anyway, what with the abundance of yummy willows and fireweed.

This gardening-with-moose situation is working out all right.

Moose in snow, munching on branches

In December, raspberries are better than aspens.

Nov 182013

Who knew that rush hour could be such a gas—and not a waste of it?

The Rush Hour game.

A sliding block logic game for ages 8 – adult.

Along with Chocolate Fix and Solitaire Chess, Rush Hour was one of the games I tested for ThinkFun. Once again, I find the story premise behind the game delightful: The object of the game is to drive the red car straight out of rush hour gridlock.

It’s a sliding block logic game. You set up the game board according to one of the challenge diagrams. Then you move gray and black blocking cars forward or backward to open a path for the red car. There’s a simple example of how this is done on the website, but don’t be fooled: The 80 challenges grow from easy to difficult, and the solutions sometimes require much pulling forward and backing up to make a tiny bit of progress. The red car sometimes inches out—which is a lot like real rush hour gridlock, no?

The goal is to get the red car out in as few moves as possible, but I confess I’m just happy when I get the red car free. I’m not so much a study-and-plan player as a shove-pieces-about-and-figure-it-out-along-the-way player. I think the fewest-moves aspect of the game is easier to track when using an online or app version because the computer keeps track of the number of moves. That’s a good way to make the game competitive, though—either with another player or yourself. You know how I love competition.

Despite the number of small pieces, the game is small and durable, and I think it travels well. Just find a storage bag for it—a Ziploc will do. I’m not an app user, so my tolerance for this might be higher than normal.

It’s also a great game to have in the secret gift drawer for presenting on a moment’s notice: It’s accessible to kids as young as 8 and challenging enough for adults, so it’s appropriate for a wide range of ages. The small size makes it easy to stow.

The Rush Hour game is great for developing and exercising brain power. From now through 12/31, use the code FUNKWEBER (all caps) at checkout for 10% off your order at

Nov 062013

Chocolate Fix game by ThinkFun

An addictive sudoku-like game. Finally, a sweet treat that actually makes you fit!

Last year, I was invited to test and offer feedback on some puzzle-y brain games made by ThinkFun. The opportunity arose through one of my puzzle-making connections. In my typically altruistic fashion, I offered up my time and brain to further science, education, and world-wide fun by playing games for 15 minutes a day during the testing period. Being the devoted world-improver that I am, those 15 minutes were more often 20 or 30 or more minutes. Even now, long after the testing period has ended, I continue to test these games. The mental challenge is sometimes grueling, but I persevere, knowing that my contribution will one day make the world a better place. Today just might be that day because I’m going to tell you about this company and one of these games. (I’ve also got a coupon code to give you, so stick with me!)

Of the three games that I tested, Chocolate Fix was my favorite. It’s a logic game which just happens to be my favorite kind of brain game.

What You Get

  • 3 pink strawberry pieces in three shapes
  • 3 white vanilla pieces in three shapes
  • 3 brown chocolate pieces in three shapes
  • 18 shape and color place holders
  • 1 candy tray
  • a booklet of 80 challenges with solutions
  • smarter!

What You Do

The visual clues for a Chocolate Fix challenge

Note that this challenge is from the older version of the game. The booklet in the new version looks different, but the content is the same.

The object of the game is to arrange nine candy-coated chocolates in the tray in a specific way; there is just one solution to each puzzle. The nine plastic chocolates are each a unique color/shape combination so no two are the same. You’re given a series of visual clues from which you logically deduce where each chocolate goes. The instructions are clear and concise, but the visual clues are fairly intuitive by themselves.

The game booklet contains 80 challenges beginning with easier ones and getting progressively harder. The graduated challenges enable players to develop the thinking skills required, which makes this game accessible to a wide range of ages and skills. ThinkFun recommends the game for ages 8 to adult.

What I Think

I think this game is super fun, i.e., challenging and entertaining.

It’s like sudoku in how logic and deductive reasoning are used to solve the challenges, but the color and shape visuals and the tactile procedure are different. I like sudokus, and pencil puzzles are my thing, but I also like playing with these images and manipulating the pieces. I’d love to know what differences this makes in the brain. I wonder if dyslexic people and others who find sudoku difficult because the numbers get garbled might find this game doable and fun.

The game is small and durable which makes it delightfully portable. It’s easy to toss in my bag or briefcase for use in the car, in a waiting room, and anywhere there’s a spare moment.

I like leaving it out where visitors can pick it up for a quick play. Plus, games and puzzles make great home decor, no?!

It would be great in a classroom for a filler activity or reward.

While intended as a solo game, with two sets or a stopwatch, this game could be competitive.

I also think it would be fun to give one person the booklet and another the board and pieces and have them work together. The person with the booklet has to describe the clues verbally while the other person manipulates the pieces. The person with the booklet can only talk—s/he can’t touch any of the pieces—and the person with pieces can’t look at the booklet. They solve the puzzle together.

The game that I tested had only 40 challenges. The new and improved version has 80. Testers asked, ThinkFun delivered. Way to go, ThinkFun!

A Delicious Deal!

ThinkFun logoWant to get your own Chocolate Fix? How would you like 10% off that Fix?

From now through December 31, you can use the code FUNKWEBER to get 10% off when you check out at ThinkFun. This discount is not limited to Chocolate Fix; it’s good for any ThinkFun game and your entire order. Gift-giving season is upon us, but you don’t have to wait for Small Business Saturday or Cyber Monday for this deal. How’s that for sweet?