Friday, December 14, 2012

We have moveth

From now on, goeth thou towards the new blog.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The Secret Weapon of the Solo Puzzle Solver

I'd tell you what it is, but I'm not sure what it's called.  It's very similar to backsolving, and somewhat similar to guessing, and probably called "figuring out the answer after having done only half the puzzle."

For example, in the most recent issue of P&A Magazine, this is what I actually have for the puzzles (I think there's one or two sort-of spoilers here depending on if you've gotten the trick, so be warned):

  • Imperialism: 12/14 rows
  • Redistribution of Wealth: actually complete
  • Like Making Sausage: 33/48 total bubbles/boxes; 5/8 courses
  • King of the Jungle: actually complete
  • Country Is King: 9/12 identifications
  • Let Them Eat Gateau: actually complete
  • The Royal Touch: 5 letters
  • United We Stand: 20/25 circles (I think)
  • Class President: 6/7 quotations
  • Conspiracy: actually complete
  • The Emperor's New Clothes: 6/7 clues
  • Redaction: crossword complete; answer backsolved from meta
Leaving the last puzzle aside (since I'm not really sure how to score it) that gives me an average figure of 86% per puzzle.  The same thing works with finding the meta from the puzzle answers; this time I had 11/12 answers when getting the meta which is fairly high for me (often I start really looking at the meta when I have about 6-8 puzzles done; IIRC last issue I hit the meta with 9/12).  It's certainly expected to be able to finish a meta without every single answer (if you're stuck on a puzzle, you're stuck on a puzzle), but for some reason (probably just an overly-developed sense of guilt and paranoia) it feels wrong to me to do that for an individual puzzle.  (Perhaps this is the ACPT crossworder in me, where every square Must Be Filled.)  Not wrong enough that I don't actually do it, of course.

Am I the only one?

Sunday, September 09, 2012

Black Letter Game: They Think It's All Over

I can't really discuss the solving process for artifact five, as I did not solve the artifact so much as endure it, counting the days until the hints, and then answers, were sent to me (except, of course, for the one answer that was deliberately not put in the answer document--even in the lab writeup that you only get after submitting all the answers, they blacked out one of the answers, preventing you from finding it out unless you know the arcane "highlight text in a document and copy it").

So I thought instead I'd talk about the event as a whole.  (This notion was probably aided by the recent post here and here about trust and story in puzzle events.)  This was certainly an ambitious project; five "real-world" artifacts with puzzles embedded in them.  The claim of round-the-clock GC interaction, even if aided by automatic correct answer recognition and immediately gainsaid by telling you when you wouldn't get a response and when that response would take a while, required a great deal of manpower to maintain.  I have no idea how many people were behind this event, either in terms of writing puzzles or manning the e-mail queue or wrapping up mugs or anything else; I can say they made a good run of it.  If my e-mail filtering is working properly, I sent off in the vicinity of 200 responses (some of which made very little sense outside of my own head) and they sent back the correct response nearly 98% of the time.  That sentence looks very snarky, but actually I think it's very very good, especially since the responses that are more important to us solvers (confirmation of methods, intermediate results, nearly but not right) are the ones that can't be automated.  (I know this is the thing that gave me the most indigestion while running the Valentine's Day contest: "What if someone sends me something while I'm asleep!  They won't get an answer for a long time!  Oh no!"  It never made a difference, but I wish I had had the time to get a decent answer checker thing hosted somewhere.  I should probably pester Foggy to find out what he uses for P&A.)

I got the sense at the time, I'm not sure how, that the event sort of tripped over the finish line, went splat, and was content to lay face-down without the will to get up and acknowledge the crowd.  Looking back, I don't think there was very much going on during the last puzzle to give me that impression, just that I found the last artifact's puzzles to not make a great deal of sense.  However, now that it has been over a month since I "finished" (and it took me a month to do so as well) with no real expression of "hey this is over now" (such as congratulating winners, or coming out with the promised solution manual, or anything else), the sense is getting stronger.  I suppose people may still be working on things, but I fear the top ten is probably set.

What about the puzzles?  This is the part where I welcome the wisdom of my readers (both of you), but in my opinion the puzzles started out well done but tapered off towards the end.  I didn't have any real complaints about anything on the first three; the paperback was marred (IMHO) by using OCR text; yes it is easily available, but deliberately choosing "filler" that has more (both less and more subtle) "anomalies" than the "anomalous artifact" we are supposed to be examining can only lead to heartbreak.  And again IMHO, the puzzles on the map started out well, but they all seemed to take a left turn at Albuquerque (difficult to spot, since it wasn't on the map) that I didn't necessarily see any reason to take (this is probably just me not being on the designers' wavelength).  The thing that got on my nerves the most, though, was the "story".  During all the interaction I had with the BLG team, they stayed in character (and believe me I know how hard that is).  There are only two problems with that: the puzzles didn't see any need to "stay in character", unless you think that a puzzleartifact created in 1930 would reference cities (and worse yet, a feature-answer fictional character) that didn't even exist yet (you could argue that the library card created in 1943 replaced some previous physical accompaniment), a book created in 1943 would have a web address on the back, as well as postcodes that didn't exist at the time either (you could, I suppose, argue that this is a reprint; after all, this is not an organization that would feel obliged much to keep fidelity I suppose, explaining why a book printed in 1943 contains a chapter of Jurassic Park).  At the time I spotted an anachronism in the receipt puzzle, but I've forgotten what it was (maybe something about when the Whitney acquired the painting in question?).   The other problem was that the story greatly restricted what the team could do and/or say; when I complained (okay, whined) about the OCR text in the paperback, they were pretty much stuck with the (paraphrased) response of "We had to solve them ourselves when we intercepted them from the Seventeen, so we know just how badly they were constructed."  Perhaps they saw the point, perhaps they didn't; I'll never know.

I've never had to deal with running a puzzle event where I was relying on other people to make the objects (I'm pretty hands-on with my PDFs), so I cannot complain about typos cropping up during the process, as I suspect that's a guarantee.  I would have preferred an errata list, rather than the errors either being ignored or being mentioned in the automated response to the correct answer to the puzzle they were in.  Congratulations to BLG for owning up to the castle errata, even if only via Facebook.

All in all, with the bit of perspective that a month can bring, I think the whole thing was well done, overall.  There were a lot of puzzles, with only a few clunkers; the organization was mostly well-done and I know what to avoid, in terms of dealing with the organization, if there is a future.  I would likely do it again; I like to think that the next iteration would be smoother, but of course I have no way of knowing if the second iteration would even have the same people in it, let alone whether they'd learned anything.  Still, one has to have faith in something in this world.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Black Letter Games Artifact 4: The Book

I did a lot of working in the book itself (although it did take a while to get over my internal taboo of writing in a book), so this time we'll go through my submissions to BLL.

back ten mins: Why not start at the cover?  I had to guess whether it was type on the given keyboard and see what would happen on the normal one, or the other way around; and of course I guessed wrong at first.

very loud annoying bohemian: BLL do love their acrostics.

Alice in Wonderland: Kudos to the writers here; when I first read that very first page, it hung together as a single excerpt.  I didn't recognize any of the first sentences, although the "misgiving" line did tickle a very faint memory.  Only when looking up that paragraph and realizing the sentences came from two different works did the basic idea click into place.  I didn't actually look most of them up--the first five gave me "Alice", I counted that there were the right number of lines to get "in Wonderland" and ran with it.  (Only much later did I find yet another acrostic in the short story titles sending me here.)

Balto: I got here by combining two clues I (apparently) wasn't supposed to combine and quite frankly in retrospect I'm not sure why I combined them: the pangrammatic lipogram clue (I knew what "pangrammatic" went, but not how it combined with "lipogram"; I knew of Avoid and the idea but not the name) and the one-page story "clue", both from the author bio.  In any event, I went to that story, recognized that it was written in nearly-pangrammatic paragraphs, and obtained "Balto".  I didn't recognize the name, but Wikipedia did, and so I submitted.  I got the first "rejection letter" for my troubles, which is when I wrote "BASTARDS" in my solving notes (those of you following along on Twitter may remember that).  I recognized it as a parody of a rejection letter, and had at this point already noticed the URL under the UPC code, and assumed (I don't know why) that I was being pointed to that.  I had no idea how to relate a ship to Balto, though, so I put it aside.

Montgomery Burns: Worked out LEPTON WARP first, then GLOW of DEATH.  That was enough to figure out who we were talking about there.

hint alpha: Eventually I succumbed to temptation.  Oh, you crazy people and your library cards.

Harry Shearer: An attempt (a bit meta) to apply the "whodunit" clue to Montgomery Burns.  At least they were ready for it.

More than pulp fiction It invades your cranium And can't be un-read: I went back (just for fun) to the Amazon page for the book, and noticed the haiku.  I had not noticed it previously (not sure whether it was added later, or I'm just inattentive) so I thought I'd try it out anyway.  I got a rejection letter for it.  (I went back to Amazon again just now; someone has created a store "Overpriced Used Books Inc" and is offering a copy for sale at only $1499.99 instead of the list price of $1700.  Also, I was hoping that the review comments would become a bit more like a sign-in in geocaching or whatever; but only a few of us left a comment.  Shame.)

Matt Groening:  Still a bit meta, but at least I recognized that the name was anagrammed on the page.

Maggie Simpson: Now we've got it.

BALTO error: Somewhere around this time, the BLL people noticed the BASTARDS tweet and sent me a message as to what was up with that, and I explained the reasoning behind the submission.  At this point, they decided that that was actually an answer to a puzzle after all, so I got a replacement message that BALTO was on track for where.

binary->hexadecimal: My attempt to circumvent the "only two words" restriction on method submissions.  It appears to have worked, as I got the "interesting" email.

Red Olson Trail Monument: A very bizarre answer, it looks like.  I had successfully converted the true/false in the author bio to binary, then to ASCII, and gotten ... DOG.  I currently had a dog answer (see "Balto", above) that was supposed to lead to where, and so this happened.

Royal Observatory: This was a combination of looking up the postcode given for Greenwich Press, plus the idea of GMT (clued by the title).

HINT one came at this point.

very loud annoying bohemian dog: I was completely, utterly, and totally flabbergasted to earn points for this answer.  I was still stuck on what to do with "dog", and since the other puzzle on that page had also given an incomplete-looking answer I stuck them together.  I didn't really know of any bohemian breeds off the top of my head, but whatever.

solfege: An attempt to do something involving notes.  I had noticed a few solfege notes in the titles, and one of the review hints had mentioned notes, so I tried this.  It failed.

Indian Q Hunter: I had finally worked out more of the "enumerations" -- the only ones I knew off the top of my head where prime, abundant, and deficient (I knew of Ulam but not that he had numbers).  I found some references for more of the numbers and got the pangrammatic business sorted out.  However, one of them I failed at--I missed the Q in a paragraph and got the answer above instead of the desired answer.  They didn't recognize it at the other end.

Cleopatra's Needle: I had looked up my answers from the pangrams and found the common location, but initially misread what I was looking at.

Central Park:  I quickly figured out what I actually had though, and corrected myself.

Alice in Wonderland statue: And now we combine with one of the much earlier answers to earn some points.

Braille double bar: I had looked at the tic-tac-toe grids, and noticed that most of them would be valid Braille characters.  So I looked them up and got SHARPSHARPSHARP.  One of them, however, was oversize; looking it up (and especially looking up musical symbols, since we're dealing with "notes" + "sharp" + #) I found it was the symbol used to represent a double bar in Braille.  This submission got a rejection letter.

Science and fiction Together will be the end We see what's coming: Finally noticed that all the capitalization gave clues.  The giveaway, of course, was "A FEMININE PRONOUNcement".  Took a while for me to look at that page, I guess.

missing punctuation: I had spent a lunch hour (which naturally is not a whole hour) circling missing/extra quotation marks and commas and the like, particularly in "The Happy Ending".  That was a lunch wasted.  (Well, I did eat a sandwich.)  As a note I wrote in afterwards, saying something resembling "you appear to have picked some stories that didn't OCR well.  That was a bother to work through."  The response was something resembling "Don't blame us--that was what the Seventeen created; we spent a lot of time on it too."  I'm happy they're staying in character, but I was rather annoyed by the response anyway.

ROYAL OBSERVATORY error: At this point, BLL decided that Royal Observatory wasn't complete nonsense, so I was told that its location might be useful.

23:50:  I had "back ten mins" still.  I thought that zero GMT might well refer to midnight, and took ten minutes off it to get the answer.  This is when I discovered that wrong time submissions got a different e-mail than general wrong answers.

prime meridian: Just to sort of confirm the GMT + Royal Observatory "response", except it got a rejection e-mail.

04:30: I had a bright idea that "notes" might refer to currency notes, so I used the price on the back cover as a time.  That got a slightly insulting e-mail back, but at least it was hand-done and not automated!  (As a bonus, that e-mail had "SOrry" in it, which led me to go around again about solfege for a while.)

10:55: I don't remember any more where that came from.

01:30: Finally realized to use the numbers on the keyboard being pointed to.  (Of course the keyboard goes up to 12!  Wait....)  This still didn't earn me any points until I submitted...

1:30 GMT: Because every other attempt to use GMT failed.  (I have no idea whether 13:30 would have been accepted.)

forward ten: I finally noticed that the ISBN on the back didn't match the ISBN listed for the book; I looked that up, then downloaded a barcode-reader app for my phone and read the barcode which was for another different book.  This got an "are you sure you have that in the right order" response, so...

ten forward: I submitted this and got it right, so then I had to figure out what it meant.  Apparently this is something in the Star Trek universe.  This is right above the URL with a "ship" in it, so I replaced "ship" with "enterprise" and got a picture of ...

pinky ball: Whatever that is.

THREE hints came and went with me not doing anything.  (I know for a while I was in St. Louis.)  So I didn't actually have to solve the back cover puzzle since eventually the answer came in a hint.  The rest of this is going to be a bit unfortunate, but here goes:

Musical staff: Eventually I had it beat into my head that each of the marginal notes represented a note, somehow.  I was originally going to try to write it down on a staff, but: no.

Bass clef: I was trying to make the initial sharps line up on a key signature and I thought I had a way to do that on the bass clef.  But: no.  However, there was a hint to look on the copyright page.  I finally sounded out the other author there the way I was supposed to and got

Piano keyboard:  Which is where I was supposed to be.

Key signature: Still trying to interpret the sharps as a key signature.  Hint: no.

cfabaggbd#fecccafcbccccebcd#cbbabeg#bbabef: Yes I really submitted that.  I was a bit desperate.  The Lab asked for clarification, which I gave, and "admired my tenacity", and then for whatever reason tried to hint me back to "piano keyboard" (despite my having just told them in the clarification that I was using a piano keyboard).  I think I still have somewhere on my computer (maybe I'll link to it if I can find a way how) the sound file that I generated from this.

d#g#b: This submission elicited the information that the Lab would not respond to submissions of musical notes (apparently they learned from the last one).  But also that lining up the book with a keyboard was a good idea.

Westminster chimes: This was seeing some sort of a pattern in the chord structure at the beginning.  It isn't all that close to the Westminster chime progression, but I was feeling the answer e-mail breathing down my neck....

August 16: I submitted this, based on number of symbols between # signs.  Obviously it had nothing to do with the answer, but I wanted to at least submit something before I was told that the answer was...

November 22, 1943: which email went to my spam folder somehow despite my having set up a filter in Gmail.  (The reason cfa etc wasn't right?  I was holding the book "upside down" and had the higher notes on the top instead of on the bottom.  Or maybe it's the other way around, I've forgotten.  No I somehow did not recognize an "upside-down" version of Happy Birthday To You, even with the right rhythm.)

So: not a very "clean" experience, for me anyway; it got to the point where you couldn't trust "no"--if it was just method-check I could live with that (since verifying a path still feels like a "bonus" to me), but somehow not knowing the answers to the puzzles left a funny taste in my mouth.  I heard rumors that one of the automated e-mails gave an answer to another puzzle, but either it was edited before I got it, or I never submitted the answer, or something.  I imagine that the BLL team is listening to criticism (or, in my case, whining), but by their own conceit (that they didn't write the puzzles) aren't allowed to acknowledge any of it, which also leaves a funny taste.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Artifact #3: This Time It's Real

Well, really a live "blog" anyway, as I have (almost) all the notes I took as I solved the puzzle here next to me as I write this.  (The first page I kept online, and then it got eaten in a surprise reboot, but I have recreated most of it.)  Inspiration, tenacity, or sheer stubbornness?  Read on.  (Note: this took a week in real time, and I haven't really distinguished things like days changing much.)

First Impressions

We definitely have four postcards.  First one has a "Bland Jury" on the front; writing on the back.  Thank heavens we're not using that same disastrous handwriting font from before!  Fake address, I suspect (or at least no postal code); numbers and lines along the bottom.  Maybe an acrostic?  "Skipoverallspaces".  Definitely an acrostic.  Should recognize the actor in the stamp, but don't.  There's a smudge on the D in "Movie Postcard" that I can't get rid of -- won't scratch off.  Annoying.
Next was Vorgaukeln Torten.  Torten I know -- Vorgaukeln at least looks adjectival from what I know of German, but I don't recognize it.  Flipping it over; I've never actually been in Boston but I feel pretty confident that "7 Carpetbag 35E" wouldn't fly.  When seems slightly bolded.  "Ignorepunctuation".  Legit German in the middle -- "The Dresden Zwinger stands with its front side on the outside Festungsmauer".  Or something like that.  We have what seems to be a hopscotch board on the bottom.  The stamp says it's Pershing, but gives the wrong nickname -- "Tenacious" when he was known as "Black Jack".  Also it's a 21 cent (well, pfennig) stamp, so BLACK JACK gets submitted as an answer, which comes back as "on track".
Next is London double-decker buses, with some words on the outside.  Those ads on the buses don't look real.  On the back, a Rose Bowl postmark, a stamp with numbers on it.  The acrostic "Youcancountfromus".  For whatever reason one side has Stéf while the other side has Stèf.
The last one is art, apparently, with a line on it.  The back claims it is Matisse; checking up shows that there is a missing building (and submitting NOTRE DAME CATHEDRAL confirms).  "Valueourcharacter".  Maps on the stamp, and why are there all these hearts?  You know, one of the other postcards said something about canceling candy hearts, and maybe that goes with this?

Now Is The Time We Work

The numbers seem like an excellent place to start.  The left side says "2nd Letter"; the right corner says "Mosaic by Mendeleev", which means we must be on the periodic table.  The fact that the "2" and the ":L" are really big compared to the rest to me suggests that we should be taking the second letter of the chemical abbreviation, which idea holds up until we get to #92 Uranium, which is just "U".  I switch to thinking that maybe it's the second letter of the name after all; the names give SIHRO / UERNI / RARLI / RROET / CINLE (assuming we're using the "new" name of element 114).  Just for completeness I also write down the second letter of the abbreviations, but ignore it since it can't be right (it has a space in it!).  It is TIMRO / BB UI / RNSTI / MROBB / CINLS.

As I basically come to a crashing halt on this puzzle, I look over a bit and notice the Rose Bowl postmark next to it, with a Jan 1 postmark date (which is the date of the Rose Bowl).  That leads me to, well, the Rose Bowl.  I go online and write down the teams and scores of the Rose Bowl for each of the six years given.  There were some repeated teams, but not enough to see a pattern.  I then look at the other postmarks; I see New Orleans, know that the Sugar Bowl is played there, submit SUGAR BOWL, and get an "on track" response for my troubles (as well as the additional fact that that belongs to the WHO puzzle).  This one gets a little sticky to me, as the date given is "Dec 31", but the Sugar Bowl is played in the New Year -- do we use the game from the year listed, or from the season listed?  (i.e. for Dec 31 1998, do we use the game in Jan 98, between Florida State and Ohio State, or from Jan 99 (the season of Dec 98) between Ohio State and Texas A&M?)  I realize that until I decide what to do with the numbers it's not going to matter much and put it away for a while.

Back to the map stamp.  I can recognize Virginia easily, and maps confirm Southern Australia, Jordan, and Honduras, although I am somehow completely unable to match up the top-left map.  I realize that the FR in the corner means I should be looking for two-letter abbreviations, so I have VA, SA, JO, and HN.  That's definitely a John, and a Sava.  I figure it should probably be "John Savage", so I start looking for things that have a GE abbreviation and still don't come up with anything.  I submit JOHN SAVAGE anyway, and it is correct -- well, it is an actor, one of four.  I quickly realize that maybe my BLACK JACK should be JACK BLACK and submit that too and now I have two actors.

I make another fruitless search for the guy on that stamp.

I go back to the Mendeleev stamp and try some more things -- sorting?  I try a stab at doing something with the colors, but the colors match the usual way periodic tables are colored (or at least, each group that should be the same color is), so nothing happens there.

I Need a Hint

At this point I get "Hint Zero", the starting hint, from the BLG people.  Not much seems useful right away, other than if the ads on the buses are photoshopped it doesn't mean anything anyway (hence they probably aren't) -- the main thing that stuck out was that the WHO was four things, all encoded the same way.  I knew the stamps were giving me WHO, and the postmarks also gave me WHO (according to the responses).  Ergo the other stamps, and the other postmarks, would also matter.  I had to look up what bowl game was played in Memphis (Liberty Bowl) and El Paso (Sun Bowl).

I realize I hadn't looked at the crostic yet.  Given that I'm supposed to skip all punctuation and spaces, I figure I'm getting one letter out of each line.  I try to do the seventeenth letter out of each line, but that gives nonsense.  "Value our character" to me suggests ASCII, but there's not nearly enough characters on a line for that.  I write a program that gives me all the "columns" but none of them read much.  I also check the diagonals visually, but don't find anything there either.

My roving eye takes me to the hopscotch grid; those colors are the same colors as on the outside of the London postcard.  This gives me several letters for each box, but I don't have a way to put them in the boxes so that goes nowhere yet.

I go back to the postmarks.  I confirm that the FOOTBALL SCORES are important.I start looking for ways  to use the scores with the names.  At this point I have one "set" -- Sun Bowl scores and Jack Black and try to combine them.  Some of the years are parenthesized.  I want to use the winners' score for the regular ones, and the losers' score for the parenthesized versions, but that's only seven numbers and I've got a nine-letter name.  There are two other numbers I can use, specifically the date, so that gives me the nine I need.  I try to use the numbers by moving forwards, backwards; nothing.  I realize that I might want the margin of victory instead (parentheses often mean negative after all), and try that.  Also nothing.

I look at the postmark again ... "Sunny Days and Starry Nights".  Well I've got seven letters, Starry Night is by Van Gogh, let's try that.  That get's me not only a "No" response, but the additional "And what are you trying to accomplish" response.  The back-and-forth elicits the info that the "motto" around the Rose Bowl postmark is supposed to be meaningful.

At this point I go back to look at my grid from the Mendeleev stamp and OMG it's Tim Robbins!  There are some extra letters in there, plus that dratted space, but there he is.  Twice.  The live blog notes save the day!

Another Day

Technically it's the same day, since I had been working past midnight, but let's just say "after a night of sleep" I decide it's time to deal with the names and addresses.   Clearly the names are just as bogus as the addresses; I fire up the anagrammer, and decide to start with "Co-Prof. I. LeSurage" as that is the most unbelievable of the lot.  I type in "coprofilesurage" from the postcard, look at the screen, and say "That's Profiles in Courage!"  (Yes I can speak in italics, it's the secret of quiz bowl moderating.)  Looking at the other postcards, we have ... well, we almost have Frankenstein, we have Three Men in a Boat, we have ... we have The Alien In Time?!?  I try to get fancy and submit JEROME K JEROME, but that is "too far".  I confirm Three Men in a Boat, and then confirm The Alien in Time because I have no idea what that book is.    

Now I know the real titles, I start with the addresses.  The places listed are all the settings-ish of the book, I think, so I ignore that and look at the E/W.  I try counting from the beginning or ending of the book title, but I just get AENH.  I am definitely confused by this last book; a Google search shows nothing for it; Amazon does pull up a book by that title, and lo and behold there's a review from Lis Pendens herself, which makes it clear that we need to be looking in the actual books.  Doing that gives me UNDER BEARDED MEMORIAL MONUMENT, which is good enough for ... well, no it isn't.  It is the location answer for WHEN but I won't get the points until I can say which monument it is, which will require knowing the city.  So, almost points.

Back to the acrostic.  The phrase "value our character" is still there.  Maybe instead of ASCII it's just straightforward 1-26?  We tweak the program to index by the first letter (do we count the first letter itself, or start afterward?  I don't know, so we have the program do both).  Out comes "dark prints in lies" (I was doing one postcard at a time).  That was confirmed as "on track", so we do all the postcards and assemble the signature and finally get some points.

The text around the bold keywords in the postcards seem to be hints -- there was sugar bowl in there, hidden a bit; there's all that stuff about candy hearts that seems to refer to the other address.  The WHAT (London) postcard has the lines "Remove you from every damn snapshot! Then once that's handled Oh, I'll dump your letters."  I know that Notre Dame is missing from the front of the Paris postcard.  The text on the back of the London postcard is all wrong for the photo, so I start trying to remove NOTRE DAME from there.  That doesn't quite get anywhere.  I look up the Dresdner Zwinger and ... there's something missing from that photograph too.  I try to place the London postcard, eventually come up with Piccadilly Circus, and find something missing there as well.  (I assume that means that somebody is missing off the "Bland Jury" postcard, but I don't recognize any of those people or the setting so whatever.)  The London postcard is confirmed as SHAFTESBURY MEMORIAL and a little bit of fishing gives me the official answer of KRONENTOR.  What to do with Notre Dame?  Closer examination shows that there is some writing down there: "Cet Mal Vend Mord".  My French is basically non-existent, but something about bad and death.  (I always want to think "Vend" means "vend", but I think it's actually something like "go".)  It doesn't really matter what it means, though: I just have to remove the letters of NOTRE DAME from it.  It leaves MDCLV, which I am told should actually be MCDLV / 1455.  I then try to remove KRONENTOR from Vorgaukeln Torten and I get VGALTEN.  I try to read it as a cryptic clue (Love Triangle? Strange Love?) but nothing.  I move on to London; removing those letters leaves LOVBEPYMATE, which again I try to read for a little bit before anagramming to MOVABLE TYPE.  The year is awfully early, so after a bit of research to confirm I submit GUTENBERG BIBLE for what.  (They helpfully tell me the other two answers: VULGATE, because I had misread an u for an n, and b42, which must come from the other postcard.)  I spend a little bit of time trying to untangle the missing letters off the other postcard, but the name doesn't come.

The hints tell me that the where is also on the front of the postcard.  There is that line on the Paris postcard.  I notice a matching line in the lower left of Dresden.  Looking carefully (especially on the Bland Jury postcard) I see the rest of an X.  X must mark the spot, then.  I have London in the upper left, Paris in the lower left, Dresden in the upper right, so the last postcard must refer to something south-ish of Dresden.  So, not Hollywood then.

I bring the postcards in to work.  I ask an old film buff colleague to identify the stamp, and he immediately says "Burt Lancaster" (and is naturally astonished that I would not know such a person as Burt Lancaster).  I then try to match Burt Lancaster up with the postmarks, the bowl games, something like that.  He was in The Rose Tattoo, but that sort of match doesn't work with the rest of the actors.

Finish It Off

The Rose Tattoo submission had again prompted me to read the circular motto around the Rose Bowl postmark "Clear plots with great actors lead to good movies with memorable characters", as well as giving a sign-off with some key words in it: "coordinate" and "make your mark".  The phrase "Clear plot" along with the other postmark "Starry Nights" suggest perhaps constellations (ie clear weather).  Constellations gets a "maybe" from BLG.  I try plotting the scores, turning the parenthesized years into negative numbers, and comparing to constellations (despite being a farm boy, I don't actually know my constellations, so I am using several online sources here). I'm tempted to use the back of the postcards (they have numbers on the edges you know) but I need numbers that go up to 45 and the postcard only goes up to 20, so I use Excel instead.  The Sun Bowl gives me something that looks like the Big Dipper (but right-to-left); submitting that gives not just a NO response but a STOP GUESSING response.

(At that point, I wrote "Whatever." in my notes.)

Looking at the postcards again, I am drawn to the hopscotch board.  Somehow, my brain finally makes the connection between those symbols and Candy Land, and we're off again.  I don't have a board, so I make a note and go back to the X.  I decide, based on the word "Jury" and the sort of grim appearance of the card, that the postcard represents Nuremberg.  I get out Google Maps, get a map of Europe, screen-shot it and get it into Paint, and then draw an X on it.  It appears to go through Frankfurt, so I submit that.  I am told I am in the neighborhood, and that other answers on the card may give a clue as to the exact location.  At this point I have the Gutenberg bible, so after a brief side trip to Heidelberg (I might have been thinking Luther? Not sure) I end up in Mainz, which earns points.  I can then turn the monument above into the Gutenberg Monument for more points.

Back to Candy Land.  I find an image of a board online that's got enough detail on it that I can see what's going on and play the game.  Some of the newer ones don't have the same sort of Neapolitan ice cream so I find one that does.  I try counting squares to turn into letters again, but I get something like EKAACD and that's not very helpful.  A really wrong submission to BLG yields the info "Did you use the 1949 board?" which I hadn't.  Once I found a 1949 board, and noticed it had gray squares instead of the pink, the connection to the front of the London postcard clicks.  Making sure I figure out where the traps are and the goodies are in relation, I play the game given on the squares around the edge, and they spell out PASSOVER.  I figure the thing underneath has to be the year.  I'm tempted to send in 2009 just because that's what it says, but I stick with it until I actually figure out the letters too: two thousand, zero hundred, zero ten, nine ones, common era.

All that's left is the shouting -- and by that I mean WHO.  I decide to confirm everything: use scores as coordinates (check), use parentheses as negative (no), use parentheses to swap scores (check), the date itself is plotted (no).  When the e-mail person suggests using the postcards, I realize that maybe I could stick the four postcards together, instead of just plotting each set of numbers on its own postcard.  I think about getting acetate or something on top, but decide "I can do this" and therefore try to eyeball it.  First things first is to figure out how they go -- one of the postcards has ORIGIN in the corner, which is a big hint, and the only way to get the lines to match up is to put the beige ones on top and the white ones on the bottom.  I start with the Rose Bowl, try to find (45,14) ... and there's a dot already there.  That's the dot in the D!  At this point I didn't know whether to cry, laugh, or scream -- fortunately I couldn't do any of them since I was sitting watching my class fail their statistics finals.  This makes the eyeballing much easier; the letters come out DURHAM.  I submit that, get a "Nice plotting!" response, and then remember that Tim Robbins was in Bull Durham.  I look up his character name, submit that, and earn ten points.  The rest follow: Kong, Deer, and Local to give the other characters.  Whew!

Hey, What About....

The movie postcard?  Eventually I went back to the Bland Jury postcard, stared at the letters for a long while, and eventually came up with Judy Garland.  The movie was Judgement at Nuremberg after all.
The constellations?  I had been bothered by the fact that there were "blanks" in the spelling-out part at the end.  I realized only when writing this that the missing word in the film might refer to a constellation; Bull is definitely Taurus and Hunter is definitely Orion.  King?  Hero?  Not sure.  Can you get Taurus out of the dots?  Not that I can see (either by constellation or by astrological sign) using the six from the Rose Bowl.  Perhaps if you look at just the dots that end up on an individual postcard?  Maybe, but I haven't tried it.
The candy hearts?  No idea.  The clue is supposed to get you to Candy Land (that's where the when puzzle is anyway), and I guess the candy hearts we're just placed on that other postcard to get some letters in the right place.
That other country in the map?  Didn't even bother to try to find it.
The extra letters in Tim Robbins' name?  Didn't find any meaning in them.

Program note: The next one won't be a "live" blog, as the notes are in the artifact and not in solving order, so to speak.  Maybe the next one will just be story time.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Starting Small, the Puzzle Community, and Puzzle Events I've Never Been To

Or: Thoughts Occasioned by Reading a Blog Post
Every year, I predict that the MIT Mystery Hunt will finally collapse under its own weight.  (Every year so far, fortunately, I have been surprised.)  The Hunt started as a two-sheet page of a dozen puzzles for individuals (or maybe teams), as you can see at the Hunt history page.  Since then, it has grown a little bit every year, as people basically refuse to stop coming.  The most recent version had (so far as I can tell) 130+ puzzles, with teams of half-a-hundred or so (again, so far as I can tell; I've never actually gone myself) participating.  Each year, the puzzles get a little bit harder, and often a little bit more self-referential (you often need to know solutions of prior years' puzzles in order to do one of this year's puzzles), and there's always a little bit more people on the teams.

The other big puzzle event every year is the NPL convention.  I'm not a member of the National Puzzler's League, and so have never been to the con, but it sounds like an action-packed (relatively speaking) weekend: there's a puzzle "extravaganza" (a set of related puzzles leading to a pay-off, like a 1/32nd scale version of the Mystery Hunt), some puzzle contests (both solving and creating) and many many many "unofficial" events and just random puzzles people plunk down on a table.

These two, plus the West Coast-counterpart-to-MIT "Game", give you a pretty strong (IMO) community of puzzlers.  Now, I like to think that I like puzzles, and am reasonably good at them, and perhaps am starting to come around to creating them.  I know (at least virtually) quite a few people who are in this community. The question is then: why have I never joined NPL, and why have I never even considered doing Mystery Hunt?

The NPL answer is perhaps less defensible, so we'll start there.  My first contact with the wider puzzle world was showing up to the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, which would have had to have been 2001 (I knew of it when I was an undergrad, but spring break schedules didn't line up until I got to grad school).  There was always a plug for the NPL, but it definitely fell flat for me at the beginning--being berated for not wanting to do charades ("Why did you come to Stamford if you don't like charades?!?") was easily written off as just a weirdo, but the nom tradition seemed off-putting (I like spy stories as much as anyone else, and I did my playwriting under a stage name, and I have a "handle" for online stuff, but for some reason I couldn't really get behind noms) and the sample from the Enigma was ... dull.  (I'm a wordy-puzzle kind of guy, but I've never really got the hang of flats.)  I've been told that the Enigma has other things than flats in it, and obviously there's more to the NPL than the magazine, but ... registering has just never seemed to happen.  Every year I think I should, and every year I never quite get around to it.

The answer to why I've never gone to the Mystery Hunt is easier: fear and despair.  Even when I first looked at the hunt, the Hunt seemed so massive as to not be worth my time.  (The first I remember reading contemporaneously was the Matrix hunt (2003), which has about 110 puzzles.)  I could join an established team (of mostly strangers) and not assist much, and maybe only see one-fifth of the puzzles.  I could try to somehow form a team out of thin air, and then maybe only see one-twentieth of the puzzles (as we would probably solve approximately one puzzle in the weekend). Or I could just sit at home and wait for the puzzles and answers to be posted online and gaze in awe, which is what I do.  (I usually make a serious attempt at a few puzzles every year, but I have never yet solved a single one.)  I've known people who have just jumped in to a team even at this late date, but that's not me, psychologically.

This brings us back to the linked blog post above, about "Beginner's Events": where are the beginner's events, these days?  What events are out there that are the early MIT hunts?  There seem to be some candidates: the Post/Herald Hunts of Dave Barry are short six-puzzle affairs that fill an afternoon.  (The last puzzle is released at a fixed time, so that more-or-less removes any time pressure on the first five, which is good from a beginner's perspective.  However, that means that a thousand people are trying to solve the last puzzle at the same time, which can perhaps be overwhelming.)  NPLCon sounds (to me, a non-member) as a fine place to do this sort of thing, as a bit of community outreach, but so far as I know there are no "open" (let alone "beginner") events at the cons.  There are definitely some "regular-difficulty" events out there: I cut my teeth on P&A Magazine and the Puzzle Boat, basically spending a year not solving them until I got my skills up; I did some crossword-based extravaganzas from Eric Berlin and Patrick Blindauer as well as some extravaganzas at ACPT, which is fine for me (as a wordy-puzzle type) but not perhaps desired by the physical-event type.  BLG started out regular-difficulty, although the last set was perhaps a bit more than that.  (And there are definitely the "hard" puzzle sets: Mark Halpin's Labor Day puzzles seem to me to be an extra challenge, and I thought the last Intercoastal Altercations was on the hard side as well.)

Those with more team-solving experience than I can jump in on how well mixed-level teams work; my limited experience suggested that having a "novice" on a team of "skilled" doesn't give the novice much chance to "do" so much as "watch".  This might be a way to get them some experience as to how the mind works, but probably not as good as actually struggling with it themselves.

The ultimate question then is: are beginners' events a good thing?  I think the answer is "yes", as I think we need to have a way for people to find their level and to see improvement over time (other than just failing at things for a while).  Expectations do have to be communicated: a super-team coming down for a puzzle event and finding it to be disappointingly easy will not be very happy (they will enjoy themselves, but only for twenty minutes).  (This is the part I didn't necessarily do very well with my Valentine's Day set of puzzles, but fortunately since it was an online thing people could then move on with their day.)  Can such a thing be done?  I don't know, but I think I will make it my next puzzle (writing) project.  I would like to avoid the "word puzzles on location"-type event, but since I am a wordy-puzzle person, it may end up being rather like that anyway.  Where?  When?  I have no idea.  I would definitely want to sit down and dream up a story-line and some puzzles first (just to make sure it's feasible) before doing any of that kind of planning.  But if you have ideas for where or when, then I'm open to hearing them.  (The obvious place would be something like ACPT, since the average crossword solver is not necessarily big on the creative-type puzzles, but we'll have to see.  I have an idea for wordy-type puzzles that I'd like to bring to ACPT, but I suppose I could try this first.)

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Bracketology (in a very real and very literal sense)

Or: What Happened To Double Elimination?

Earlier today I was playing in an online tournament that was run using the Challonge! website (for the morbidly curious, you can see the bracket there at the link).  It was a double-elimination bracket, and as I had a couple of bye rounds in a row, I was watching the bracket fill in when I realized a couple of weird things.  First, all the first-round losers (including the "first round second round" games such as mine, where both players had a bye during the first round proper and so played our second round game while the others were playing their first round game) were separated -- after the first round games were finished, no one could play a consolation game as none of the bottom games were filled in.  (It's a little hard to see now in the finished bracket, but if you trace down all the first-round losers you will see that none of them play each other.)  The other realization took a little while: the losers dropped down in a nice neat pattern -- but in every other round (rather than immediately after they lost).

Now for our purposes, that's actually a good thing: the consolation bracket was run using 60%-length games, so getting through two of them in the time the championship bracket could get through one was not a completely outrageous idea.  But in a "normal" situation, this would lead to some sitting around in the top bracket.  I don't remember ever coming across this in my more active running-things-on-a-double-elimination-system days, other than a mostly-serious proposal to FIDE to change their single-elim to a double-elimination tournament in this same two-for-one style (literally, as the main matches were two-day affairs, and he proposed putting in two one-day consolation matches for each).

I had myself, once upon a time (in graduate school), made a program that automatically created brackets for any size group (well, up to 64 anyway).  Granted, it was not fancy on the web (it was definitely a command-line program, which cranked out a .tex file that could be converted to PDF), and the version that I found on my computer didn't have the consolation bracket part in it (I think I never quite got the layout right anyway).  But I remember what I did, so I thought I'd compare what I did (with the losers dropping down immediately) compared to the current state-of-the-art.  I've put a spreadsheet up with the two versions (each in their own sheet) on the web via GoogleDocs, so you can follow along.  (Or, if you happen to need a 32-team double-elimination bracket soon, well, now you've got two to choose from.)  Here I am just comparing the effect of the two-for-one round system, ignoring the effect of how I treated byes differently at the beginning (which is why I am using a 32-team bracket: no byes!).

The championship brackets are basically the same for each (not much you can really do with those).  In the Challonge version, the consolation rounds go as: 16 R1 losers; 8 winners + 8 R2 losers; 8 winners; 4 winners + 4 R3 losers; 4 winners; 2 winners + 2 R4 losers; 2 winners; 1 winner + 1 R5 loser.  There are some advantages here, especially for automated bracket building: every round has a 2^n number of teams (meaning no additional working out of seeding--almost), and in each round where teams drop down from above, there are exactly as many winners coming through from the previous consolation round, so each matchup features one loser from above playing one winner from before.  A downside is that the seeding works a little too well: if you follow the seeding exactly, every single drop-down round will feature a rematch between two teams (so you have to do some fiddling: instead of (say) 15v18 and 16v17, you do 15v17 and 16v18).  In my version, the consolation rounds go as: 16 R1 losers; 8 winners + 8 R2 losers; 8 winners + 4 R3 losers; 6 winners + 2 R4 losers; 4 winners; 2 winners + 1 R5 loser.  You do have the same seeding problems in the second consolation round, plus the "4 winners" round towards the end.  However, you finish in one fewer round (that is, if you can handle all 16 first- and second-round games at the same time, you can finish my schedule in 10 rounds, but you need 11 for the Challonge version).

I thought about running some simulations to see what the types of results would be, but I would need some sort of function that tells me how often seed m beats seed n in a game, and I don't have a well-tested one to hand (or, really, any at all).  I may still do this simulation, with the caveat that it will be for entertainment purposes only.  (Well, I'll be entertained.)  But you can still do a little bit of analysis about the results of the two brackets: the Challonge version definitely rewards winning championship bracket games more than the mine (as a result of the extra byes).  For instance, a team who wins two and then loses (ie loses in the "quarterfinals") would be guaranteed a four-way tie for 9th in the Challonge version, versus a six-way tie for 11th in mine; a team who wins three and then loses (ie loses in the "semifinals") would be guaranteed a two-way tie for 5th in the Challonge version versus a four-way tie for 7th in mine; the losing finalist is guaranteed bronze in the Challonge version, where I only guarantee 4th place.  Also, the teams who go farther in the championship bracket will play fewer games (with the extra byes) in the Challonge version: to win, you must go 10-1 if you lose in the first two rounds, 9-1 if you lose in the third round, 8-1 if you lose in the fourth round, or 7-1 if you lose in the fifth round.  (In my version, you play virtually the same number of games no matter when you lose, if you come up through the consolation bracket.)

Which is better?  Well, obviously I prefer mine, as I don't like standing around and I'm not sure I think that winning championship bracket games should be worth double winning a consolation bracket game.  I don't see a good tournament-related (other than convenience of drawing the bracket) reason for skipping the rounds, but if you can come up with one I'm willing to hear it.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Black Letter Games Artifact 2: The "Live" "Blog"

I had had the idea to keep solving notes as I went before the second artifact arrived; however, in the heat of battle when opening artifact two I forgot about the plan.  So this is still a bit after-the-fact (although not very much after the fact) and still in narrative form.  When we get to the next one, that will be an honest-to-goodness as-written-down-while-solving experience, I promise.

On to the artifact!

The First Pass

After restarting my "assessment clock" with the code on the package, I look over the card.  The interesting features I see:
  • Hey that's a QR code behind the player!
  • Oh it's that horrid handwriting font again.
  • A bit of gibberish at the top of the back of the card.
  • The stats look all wrong.

The Code

I started by dealing with the QR code.  My phone is not QR-aware (yet, I guess), and I didn't feel like finding out how to make it QR-aware, so I looked for some online decoders, used Paint to cut the code out of the corner of the image (thanks BLG for providing a digital image of the artifacts!) and submitted it to several different online decoders as a check.  The first line read "Throw out the man behind the man in the mask" and was followed by three lines of nonsense.  The three lines suggested the haiku was to be found here, but the second line was very short despite needing the most syllables.  My original interpretation was that I needed to remove "umpire", not that I could really find that in the nonsense underneath.  Submitting that as a check revealed that that was a common misperception.  At this point, I put this aside.

Second Base

I decide to focus on the top where the cryptogram is.  The personal info listed is clearly nonsense.  A quick check shows that there are fourteen numbers listed, and the cryptogram is fourteen letters long.  This suggests that the numbers are a one-time-pad type of key, and the main question is whether the numbers are used to encode (i.e. add the numbers to the real answer to get the cryptogram) or to decode (i.e. add the numbers to the cryptogram to get the real answer).  A bit of back-of-the-envelope calculating shows that the first method keeps all the letters in the range A-Z without having to wrap around, so we begin with that method.  This turns the team QRVQTHBBP GSLKQ into MINNESOTA TWINS.  I don't submit that as an answer, though, since that's ... well, that's a team.  A quick glance back at the front of the card confirms that our player is listed as belonging to the Twins.  I decide this means that this is confirmation that I have done the right thing, but I need to also translate something else.  "2nd BASE" is clearly not gibberish.  "Emmett Earnnell" is also not gibberish, but it does have the same number of letters.  Attempting to perform the same mechanism on the name gives "adebeerscarhop".  I'm not sure what that means, so I leave it there for the moment.

First and Third Base

We now have the batting records information to look at.  The years are given in nonconsecutive order, although they do come in pairs.  I originally focus on the phrase at the bottom "Touching Each Base Counts Towards Letterman Awards" and calculate the total bases for each year.  I only get about three lines done, however, before I notice that all the numbers given are between 1 and 26.  I then scrap that completely and change over to converting the numbers to letters.  I get more gibberish.  I decide to sort by year in an attempt to fix that, but I still have gibberish.  I then remember where I started: each of the 2B, 3B, and HR columns have exceptionally small numbers, so I can convert each number (individually) to total bases.  I then get a series of mostly-well-known players: Joe D., J. Cronin, Yogi B., Billy M., Whitey F., J. Bench, Munson, Cal Jr.  Each of these players has had their number retired (which is clued by the blank column "RET #" on the card, which I did not notice at all until I started writing this up--I instead noticed the huge retired-number symbol while looking up the Wikipedia article on Thurman Munson, whom I had erroneously believed was active a lot earlier than the 1970s listed on the card).  I was planning on turning those numbers into letters, in accordance with the rest of the puzzle, although I became concerned when the first few I looked up were 4, 5, and 8 (since I still had them sorted by year), worried that I was getting the proper ordering and still had to determine what the actual clues were.  Fortunately I got a 15 and another 8, so keeping the letters idea and putting the people back in their original order gave me HOPE and HEAD.  Submitting those answers, I got a confirmation that I had the first and third base answers.  I surmised that the second base answer must come from the top of the card, and I noticed that if I put diamond (suggested by debeer) in the middle I get (somebody) Hope, Hope Diamond, and Diamond Head.  I decided it must be Bob Hope, and submitted those answers rather quickly.  (Too quickly, as it turned out, since the system on the other end apparently discarded my Diamond Head answer and I had to resubmit it.)  As I was waiting on those confirmations, I went back to the cryptogram and checked my work, and found my errors in the original attempt, and was now looking at "A DeBeer's carbon" which definitely clued diamond.


After another bit of time spent looking at the results of the QR code again with no new insight, I turned my attention to the comic.  The answer to the "riddle", "On that same date, exactly 100 years after his revenge!" definitely looked like a big clue to the when.  I needed to come up with the "he" that was referred to, who had struck out and then had a revenge.  The picture showed a pitcher, a batter, and an umpire.  There appeared to be an arrow drawn from home plate to third base, with "...AC" written underneath it.  Brainstorming with all of that, eventually I came up with Mighty Casey--I knew there was a sequel or two running around, and I thought third base might represent C, so I had "CAC" to sound out and get Casey from as well.
I submitted "Mighty Casey" as a method confirmation submission, despite the lessons from last time--at least I was worried about it at the time, and I rationalized it to myself by convincing myself that "Mighty Casey" was so unambiguous that it couldn't go wrong.  As I was waiting for the response, I realized that if I followed the arrow (so the word would read backwards), I would have YESAC filled in, and I would have written "YES" in the dots, which seems like a very clever little confirmation to me.  I did receive e-mail confirmation back, looked up the publication dates, assembled the answer (the date of the original publication of Casey at the Bat, with the year 100 year's after the publication of Casey's Revenge), and submitted it.


I had two seeming clues remaining to puzzle out the haiku: throwing out the man behind the man in the mask from the QR code, and the handwritten "I will possess you!" on the front.  I was completely flummoxed by what the "man behind the man in the mask" would refer to, or what could be possessed; so I decided to ignore both clues and look at the actual lines of letters to see what, if any, patterns would jump out at me.  After a day or two, off and on, the best I had come up with was a series of suffixes in the letters: -matic, a couple -one, a -nova, etc.  However, I couldn't make the whole set of letters turn into suffixes, nor decide  how to pick between all the options for the generic suffixes; and a method confirmation submission came back negative, along with a gentle chide that the hint says to "throw things out", not to add them.

So: it was time to focus on removing something.  The only problem is that I had no idea what to remove.  The lines start with an m, an a, and an n, respectively, so I briefly consider removing those letters throughout, or the letters directly "behind" them, which gets nowhere.  I decide I need to remove a man of some kind, so maybe I need to remove a specific man, i.e. a man's name.  The first line starts with matic, so I try to remove a Matt; there's another t on the line, but it's a long way away with a lot of gibberish in between.  Mack doesn't seem to get anywhere, but Michael does.  If I take out Michael, what's left is "at work or" which is a very good start.  Flipping mentally between "famous Michaels" and "what leaves sensible words" leads me to remove Michael Keaton and uncover "at work or at home".

Next step: Why Michael Keaton?  A small amount of brainstorming (while staring at a picture of a baseball player!) eventually leads to "Batman".  Sure enough, the next line contains Adam West hidden inside it, while the last has Val Kilmer.  The middle line of the haiku (which seemed dangerously short) reads "A Y B A B T U" which takes me several attempts to parse as standing for "All Your Base Are Belong To Us".  I almost replace the initials with the phrase, but at the last minute I remember that this is supposed to be a haiku, and the phrase has eight syllables instead of seven.  So the letters it is.


The QR code will have to play the "spy story" role for this artifact, I suppose.  Some really neat puzzles here; the second base puzzle I liked, with the slight misdirection and/or confirmation.  I suspect in the final analysis that I am actually missing a puzzle, as presumably there is a "Home Plate" puzzle that leads you to Bob.  (I would guess it would have to come from the part of the card labeled "Catcher", somehow.  My best attempt--and best is definitely a relative term here--is to somehow try to relate "Twins" to "Bobbsey Twins" and if we are being possessive, then we have "Bob's".  Alternatively, perhaps "Bob's your uncle".)  Perhaps you are meant to come up with Bob purely as the only famous Hope, but I expect more out of my artifacts than that (even if that's exactly what I did anyway).  I was not fully on the author's wavelength for the signature puzzle, but I had enough to be able to basically brute-force the rest, so it will do.


From this puzzle, the lesson I came up with was "Do things first; rationalize them later".  This is most clearly seen in the signature puzzle (where I needed to come up with one of the people first before I could figure out who the people were), but can also be seen with the CASEY/YES clue (I can't imagine anyone being able to figure that out "forward", so to speak; but once you have come up with the name Casey then filling in the blanks gives you the clue).  I am notoriously bad at these sorts of things (I want all my clues to be "forward" clues), so I need to keep that possibility in mind.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Black Letter Games Artifact 1: The "Live" "Blog"

The BLG gang have allowed Internet discussion of the puzzles/solving paths after a suitable amount of time has passed (basically 6-7 weeks).  So to document my own progress, and maybe get some discussion started, I'm going to be "live" "blogging" the puzzles.  The first one is definitely written retroactively; I was planning to do the second one (or at least keep notes) in real-time, but I kinda forgot.  But I wrote it up reasonably soon after, so it's kind of live.  Anyway that one will come in about a month.  Right now it's time for installment #1!

The Website and the Key

The official start time arrives! With ... nothing in particular. Facebook/Twitter friends tell me that the go signal has been given, and eventually it shows up on my Facebook page, so away we go.

The box says "Black Letter Labs", so I assume that I should be heading towards that website. I inadvertently type "" into Google search instead of my browser bar; all the results I get are about that domain being added to spam blacklists. With not as much confidence as I might have felt, I visit the blackletterlabs website, and am presented with what appears to be a photography company website. I notice that "/key" is added to the end of the URL, and that the login box accepts my BLG username and password (but tells me I haven't found the key). When I return the main page, the quote has changed, which helps focus me to that area of the page. It was a quote that I knew (although I don't remember now what it actually was), and the blather about last names was enough to give me the key and get me in (where I had to log in again). At about this point I received the official start e-mail telling me that maybe I should visit a website to get started.

The Receipt: First Pass

After reading through the introductory material online, I proceed to examine the receipt. The interesting features I see:
  • The address looks like, essentially, words. "President" is pretty clearly spotted in the "Cross Top Resident" portion, and the rest looks like it can be re-spaced to form a phrase of some kind.
  • The phone number is given old-style. I suspect I would have tried to make a word out of the phone number anyway, but with two letters already there it becomes even more obvious.
  • The items have things like "(3/14)" after them. I at first suspect they could be dates until I get to "(18/18)", which is clearly not a date. At this point I strongly suspect them to be indices into ... well, whatever the items all represent.
  • "Our tax"? Why our tax?
  • The final total is missing.
  • The words when, who, what, and where are bolded in the bottom bit of text.
  • The back contains some poetry-like text, in a handwriting font that I very quickly come to loathe. Since "signature" didn't appear on the front, and this is "handwritten", I anticipate this will be the signature part of the artifact.


I decide, based on a whim, to start with the items. I recognize a couple of the items as animals used in ads: Spuds should be Spuds McKenzie of Bud Light, and Nipper is from RCA, and McGruff is from ... whatever organization does those crime ads. I look up the others and find that they're all dogs. To get the letters to come out, we have to use companies, rather than products (for example, Spuds needs to be 14 letters, which is Anheuser-Busch instead of Bud Light). Taking the indexed letters gives HECATMORRIST which if we start in the middle for whatever reason gives MORRIS THE CAT.


I then move toward the top, as that looks like the next easy thing to work on. The address as given is

75 Cross Top Resident # 4

Secorn, Ermanna Hata

(843) WH4-8639

(The numeral 4 in the first line is in a rather different font from the rest of the receipt, very obvious in the online hi-res image but still apparent in the printed copy, but that appears to be just a coincidence. At any rate, trying that as a method-check didn't get me anywhere.)
This can be re-read as "75 Cross to President #4, SE Corner, Manhattan". Getting Google Maps to show me the corner of 75th and Madison (who is the fourth president) shows that the southeast corner of that intersection is occupied by the Whitney Museum of American Art, which contains modern art (fitting with the supposed business name), so that answer gets submitted.

I then try to get some extra information from the phone number, but the phone number simply spells out (THE) WHI-TNEY, so that merely confirms my previous answer (at about the same time that the official response was coming in from the e-mail).


My next best bet seems to be the back of the receipt, so I spend some time deciphering the writing on the back. The phrases "Count Seventeen" and "each syllable is surely significant" suggest to me that I need to examine every seventeenth syllable. (I'm a bit hesitant as Seventeen could simply refer to the name of the organization, but barring any other candidates I go with it.) I'm not sure of the starting point, so I open up Excel, size my window so that I can see seventeen boxes across the screen, and type one syllable in each box going across and then down. This is tricky, as I have a tendency to mentally turn "small word" into "single syllable", which leads to me having to redo some spots. I'm expecting a phrase to phonetically read down a column, although I don't know which column (the first and the last are the likely candidates, but really it could be anywhere). It quickly becomes apparent that the last column is the important one after all (which helps find those pesky syllable-counting errors before getting too far), and the haiku "All those who consume Consider this your receipt You shall be consumed" appears. This gets submitted as the signature and is confirmed as correct.

A New Day

The previous sections took about three and a half hours Saturday afternoon, and that was the end of progress Saturday afternoon. (A nap may have been involved.) Sunday afternoon brought another look. The next thing that I noticed was that not only were the key words bolded, but the phrase also contained a hint as to where on the receipt the puzzle was located: "our address has never changed, so you always know where we are" confirms that the where puzzle is in the address, and "We source all our products from large corporations so you can be sure who you're dealing with'' confirms that the corporations from the list of items ("products") would be needed. The two remaining phrases are "We provide up-to-the-minute prices from day one no matter when you shop", which suggests that the when puzzle uses the prices, and "We carry the perfect spectrum, the ne plus ultra, of what you want" for the what puzzle. I decide, against all seeming reason, that since I can see the prices I should spend some time figuring out the basis for the what puzzle, since I have no idea what that could be referring to. Nothing in the receipt appears to relate to a spectrum, or even colors. (I suppose that the dogs have colors associated with them, but that feels like reusing a clue a bit too much.)

The inspiration for the what puzzle actually strikes when I consider making a "funny" Twitter post about how stuck I am: "it says it has the perfect spectrum, but I think I need infrared and ultraviolet too!" At that point the ultra in the clue clicks with ultraviolet above. I send the confirmation request of "black light" to BLG, and they confirm that a black light is indeed necessary. I then e-mail a bunch of colleagues who I suspect might own one to see if they could bring one to work on Monday. One of them confirms they have one, and I put the receipt aside until then.

Monday: The Highs, The Lows

After getting to work on Monday, I get the black light from my coworker and run it over the receipt and see a Campbell's soup can, specifically tomato soup. After a painful moment of thinking "the what is a can of soup?!?" I recognize that this probably refers to Andy Warhol's painting. After a quick Google check that Warhol's painting resides in the Whitney (which, given the alternative reality that the puzzle is based in, would be irrelevant anyway) and that it has some sort of a name, the answer is submitted and confirmed.

At this point, I probably did some actual work.

That afternoon, I then examined the prices, which is where the final puzzle should be. They quickly show themselves as likely dates; the tax isn't, but looks very much like a time (which with the "our" for hour seems like a good place to leave it). The clue tells me that the prices are from day one. Day one could represent Jan 1, or it could represent the first day on the receipt. By a funny coincidence, the very top of the receipt shows a date, and that date is Jan 1 1964, so both approaches lead to the same place (although we now know we are dealing with a leap year). Getting out a 1964 calendar shows that all the dates given are "holidays" that year—things like Labor Day, Easter, Halloween, etc. The only non-holiday is Election Day, which is at least a named day. This is a good sign, the prices must certainly represent dates (and specifically dates in 1964), and I'm now ready to take Julian dates for each of these dates (and then subtract one, of course, since we are measuring "from day one"), and since the total is conspicuously blank, I guess I'm going to add those dates to get a total and take that many days after Jan 1 1964 for my final answer.

Fortunately, I own a financial calculator (okay, several financial calculators), and I can easily do date calculations. I find the Julian dates (minus one), add them all up, and then count that many days forward from Jan 1 1964 and get November 23, 1970. At this point, I am expecting the answer to also be a "holiday" since all of the clue dates were, and my initial reaction is "That must be Thanksgiving, so that's okay." I then notice the "1" at the end of the calculator display, which is my calculator's way of telling me "Monday". I am concerned, as I really really want the answer to be a holiday. I am concerned enough that I send a method-confirmation submission for "Julian date".

The response I get is "That would not be a productive path."

Four Days Later

For the rest of Monday, and the rest of the week through Friday noon, I attempt several different paths with the prices: picking one of the dates off the receipt (the date where the M was in Morris the Cat, along with a couple others that I no longer remember the reason for), adding up the prices as actual prices and then converting that to a date somehow, and several others. My initial response had contained "10:45pm" and that part had been confirmed correct.

Friday noon, in response to yet another incorrect submission, and after either seven days or a certain amount of flail in my guesses (I don't know which), BLG sent a hint. It was written backwards, in case I wanted to keep going on my own (I didn't) and was a little cryptic (i.e., you would have to be thinking in those lines already to get the hint). Deciphered and interpreted, the hint was "Use Julian dates."

At this point, my co-workers started to fear for their safety.

Muttering various curses, I then went home (it was the usual time for me to leave on a Friday anyway) and re-did all the calculations to get November 23, 1970 and submitted the answer and finished the artifact.

The Aftermath

Eventually I calmed down enough to write a mostly-sane e-mail to BLG complaining about the Julian date response, and suggesting that if we end up playing keyword bingo, perhaps they could relax their two-word restriction on a confirmation e-mail. I considered adding something to the effect of "If this is the first shot in a meta about a mole in your organization, then I take it all back", but I decided against it. Their response was apologetic, but they weren't going to change the two-word limit. They also added "Julian date" to the list of keywords for that puzzle moving forward, and claimed that "The analyst [who read my original e-mail] has been sacked", which at least made me think of Monty Python and the Holy Grail and so made me laugh.

Finishing the artifact also brought me via e-mail a "lab report" with the alternative reality backstory behind the artifact, which was a cool touch (and added a secondary thread to the total backstory, which I think has some potential for a meta if there is one). I keep forgetting that the link to that is not available on the website and if I want to look at it I have to go to my e-mail, but I can't hold BLG accountable for my failing memory.

In terms of the puzzles, I thought the puzzles were pitched fairly for a first "round" in a series, and the UV definitely brought out the advantages of a physical medium. (This is the sort of spy stuff I envisioned from the backstory! Black light secret messages!) I thought the puzzles were all well-clued, even with the date puzzle fiasco, although there will always be an element of personal "being on the same wavelength as the puzzle writers" in that sort of assessment—so far, anyway, I feel pretty confident that this is going to be a good set of puzzles.


  • If you have an answer, submit the damn answer. You can worry about what you did wrong once you know the answer is wrong. Save confirmation submissions for situations when you would need some serious research or actual props (e.g., the black light).

Monday, March 19, 2012

ACPT 2012 By The Numbers

Here comes another year's worth of score data (thanks due to some combination of Will S, Doug H, Matt G, and probably some other people for getting the full data on the web) to play with.  First the median scores (plus my scores because, well, it's my blog darnit):
Puzzle 1: median 1065, corresponding to finishing perfectly with 7:xx on the clock (me: 1165, 7th overall for the puzzle)
Puzzle 2: median 800, corresponding to 80 out of 100 words with 0:00 on the clock (me: 1385 -- 20:xx on the clock, but 3(!) errors in 4 words)
Puzzle 3: median 1160, corresponding to 116 out of 118 words with 0:00 on the clock (me: 1730 -- clean with 16:xx on the clock)
Puzzle 4: median 1255, corresponding to finishing perfectly with 13:xx on the clock (me: 1330)
Puzzle 5: median 680, corresponding to 68 out of 102 words with 0:00 on the clock (me: 1420 -- clean with 10:xx on the clock)
Puzzle 6: median 1575, corresponding to finishing with one error and 16:xx on the clock (me: 1700 -- one error with 21:xx on the clock)
Puzzle 7: median 1875, corresponding to finishing perfectly with 13:xx on the clock (me: 2450 (36:xx), 9th overall for the puzzle)

So the typical contestant finished four of the seven puzzles, albeit one incorrectly (down one finished-but-wrong puzzle from last year).  The completion/"oops" statistics are:
Puzzle 1: 92.4%/17.2%
Puzzle 2: 41.3%/35.7%
Puzzle 3: 51.0%/36.2%
Puzzle 4: 97.8%/13.9%
Puzzle 5: 26.7%/32.7%
Puzzle 6: 88.9%/64.2%
Puzzle 7: 76.4%/35.6%
In each of these, the first numbers are the percentage of solvers (who turned in a paper) who completed the puzzle (defined as either time on the clock or 0 errors+0 time), while the second is the "oops!" rate: the percentage of the first group who had an error (by def they are people who had time on the clock when they turned it in).  For comparison, last year's completion numbers were 97/50/67/88/17/95/69, so it looks like puzzle 3 got tougher and 5 got easier (although that's definitely a relative term).  Puzzle 6 had a huge error rate, and we all know which square that was.  The completion stat for puzzle 2 is a lot better than I thought it was just looking around the ballroom (that's my poor visual estimation skills again).  The error rates around 35% seem a bit high, but I have no historical data (I didn't quite extract the same data in previous years) to compare it with.

Other score notes:  I added a column to the spreadsheet calculating how many points each person "gave away" on errors.  My 460 points given away was not, this year, enough of a difference to get back on stage, which means I will need to pick up speed again.  And congratulations and/or commiserations to Benjamin Aisen who was the lowest-ranked scorer to make no errors, finishing 132nd (top of the D division!).

Maybe one year I'll make some graphs.  If you have a graph you'd like to see let me know.