Larry Hosken: New

Book Report: She's Just Another Navy Pilot

A memoir by Loree Draude Hirschman about being one of the first women combat pilots for the US Navy, mostly about her first voyage as such on the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln. As if learning to land planes on a ship's deck isn't stressful enough, try it while under the scrutiny of everyone with an agenda. And indeed, just about everybody had an agenda—this was soon after the Tailhook scandal. Our narrator becomes a good pilot. Depending on where she is, her peers are rooting for her to fail or succeed. Perhaps unsurprisingly, she's unhappy when surrounded by people who hope she fails; she thrives when surrounded by people who hope she succeeds.

Maybe "hope she succeeds" isn't the right phrasing? In the book's appendix, she included other folks' take on events in the book. (This is a darned awesome thing to see in a memoir.) There's an element of men pilots saying they still don't think women should be USN combat pilots but they were glad Lorree did well.

But it's not just that; there's also the story of learning to live aboard an aircraft carrier, learning some darned tricky flying, shipboard shenanigans. An interesting read.

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Happy New Year! Here's a couple of frames from the old silent movie Salome that might enhance your understanding of the novel Medusa's Web. Or might not. I'm only partway through. I just wanted to stash this image someplace I could find it later.

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Book Report: Prisoners of Power

I wanted to try a book by the Strugatskys, who I keep hearing good things about. Unfortunately, they were novelists. I bet this book was pretty good for a novel, but I'm mostly into non-fiction these days. I didn't finish this one. I don't need a novel to tell me that war is hell and mostly pointless. Maybe if I'd kept going, there would have been some startling new insight on this theme? Maybe? Maybe. Anyhow, I stopped.

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Kind of amazed at my parents' story of unsubscribing from Blue Apron. Not 100% sure that that half-prepared meals aren't piling up in a warehouse somewhere, earmarked for them.

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When we ran that Telegraph Hill Hunt game a few months back, we started in San Francisco's Washington Square. Not wanting the cops to roust us from the park, we sought permits. But in the end, we didn't get permits. This is the story of how we failed to get permits, mixed in with not too much ranting, maybe?

We knew the Shinteki folks ran excellent legit permitted games in San Francisco, so we asked their advice. Did we even need a permit for 100 people in a big park? If so, what kind of permit did we need, and how should we get it? Linda suggested that I head over to the Parks & Rec office in Golden Gate Park's Pioneer Cabin to ask around. This was probably good advice, though it didn't turn out so well…then again, it's not like there's some other plan that would have worked better—sorry, am I getting ahead of myself? I'm getting ahead of myself. Anyhow:

When I asked at the Pioneer Cabin, I just got a lot of shrugs. Folks suggested that I fill out a permit request form online. (I'd balked at doing this: it costs the applicant $60 for the city to process the form and I still didn't know if we'd need a permit.) And I should do it soon: in theory, I should have submitted it two months ahead of the event. For a little event like ours, probably one month would be enough. Fortunately, we still had a month. So…I'd visited an office, just to be told to fill out an online form. So… that wasn't so useful. You might wonder: Why do I still think Linda from Shinteki gave me good advice telling me to visit that office?

On my way out the door of the office, one of the workers chased me down and handed me a business card. The card was for a certain Parks & Rec worker who wasn't in the office that day. But she was a good person to talk to—maybe I should talk to her before I filed that form. It would be a pity to pay to file the form, only to find out that someone else had already reserved the park for the day. This worker would know whether the park was available.

I didn't do that—in theory, I was already late to file the form. Waiting a few more days for that lady to come back would have made us even later. But in hindsight, now I wish I'd waited. In hindsight, the impression that I get of these folks were that there were many of them who didn't know what was going on and a few who did. If you asked a question and none of the knowledgeable folks were around, all you got back were shrugs. In hindsight, I wish I'd gone to that cabin three months ahead of game day—two months for the form-time and a little extra wiggle room. And if I couldn't get answers to my questions, I would have had time to come back when one of the knowledgeable folks was back from vacation or whatever.

Instead, I filed the form. Several days later, someone from Parks & Rec looked at the form. After some back and forth, she had bad news: We couldn't use Washington Square as the start of our hunt because 100 people was too many to fit in that park. Folks who were at the hunt or folks familiar with that park (which takes up a city block) know it's plenty big enough to hold 1000 people, let alone 100.

So we came up with an alternate plan to have teams start the hunt at an intersection a few blocks away and then go to Washington Square. If the game didn't start in the park, maybe there would be room? The Parks folks had me submit a map of the park showing where I expected players to be. So I got to exercise my computer paint skills. I was kinda expecting the outcome of that to be a sheepish parks person saying "Oh, a hundred people? I misread the form and thought you had a hundred thousand people. Of course they'll all fit in the park." But this was not the case. Instead, the Parks folks wanted hundreds of dollars for costs including a bunch for re-seeding an area that players couldn't go to because it was fenced off so it could be reseeded after the Columbus Day Parade oh have I started ranting I promised myself I wasn't going to rant.


In the end, we ran the game without a parks permit. We started at Washington Square, not a few blocks away. Nobody hassled us; police saw us but didn't come over to ask about permits or anything. We had "too many" folks in Washington Square and the world didn't end. We collected money from teams, which I later on found out was against park rules, so I'd do that differently next time. Yeah, that and try harder to talk with a knowledgeable parks person ahead of time. (Or instead of filing a parks permit, just reserve a picnic table… if it's in a park with reserve-able picnic tables, unlike Washington Square.)

And I still don't know what the rules are for what sorts of events require a Parks permit.

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Book Report: Collaboration

It's a book about things that can go right or wrong when a big organization encourages or discourages collaboration. Done well, it can help. Done poorly, it can harm. This book didn't really help me to figure out which are which, though. It says some common-sense things. There are plenty of examples, but it's hard to apply those examples; the examples are summarized with issues 20/20-hindsight-highlighted, and it's clear what to do. I feel no better prepared for real-world situations having read this book.

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Today's mail brought a batch of Kickstarter goodies from Oubliette Escape: a booklet of short stories and some pretty postcards.

I remember that some of these are puzzles and some aren't. I don't remember which are which, though. What do I do?

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Dave Litwin is doing OK

Ex-Geoworks folks might be interested to know that I bumped into Dave Litwin on SF's Embarcadero today. He works around there; Autodesk has some Maker-y 3D-Printing-ish development at a pier building. There's a TechShop there with some heavy equipment for maker-ing things. It's a good fit for combining his professional interest in programming with his hobby interest in making 3-D puzzles. When he's at home, Dave's teaching his kids to program by writing a text adventure game in Go. He has a Facebook account, but never uses it, let alone posts updates. So if you want to hear what's up with him, you'd better hope that someone chatty bumps into him from time to time.

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Book Report: Progress Principle

This book's cover is misleading; the book is good, but I almost returned it to the library without bothering to read it.

The cover shows a Post-It attached by a thumbtack, which seems like the result of someone who doesn't understand Post-Its. And the Post-It has a smile drawn on it. Oh no—is this another management book telling managers to cheer workers up with cheerful little notes and happy-face stickers?

This book's thesis is much more sensible: Workers are motivated when they see that they're getting closer to their goals. If they do something useful and can tell it was useful, they cheer up and do better work. If they hit a barrier, they get discouraged and do worse work. This leads to virtuous and vicious cycles.

In some kinds of work, it's easier to measure progress. A garbage collector can track trash-bins-emptied-per-hour. But what about folks working on more abstract problems? A Gore-Tex engineer trying to figure out a way to get a new coating to cling to fabric can lose sight of the overall goal as they wallow in the mire of details. If you're a manager, it's all very well to motivate with praise and raises and such. But removing roadblocks can motivate even more.

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Puzzle Hunts are Everywhere, even Cambridge/California

This past weekend was the annual MIT Mystery Hunt. I played for the first time. I joined up with Team Left Out, a team on which This hunt is a "conference room" game. It's mostly puzzles you can solve at home on your couch, though there are some where you want to be physically at MIT. (It isn't always obvious which are which. I (and other California folks) sought meaning in some strange colors for hours, not realizing they represented an MIT architectural feature.) It's longer than hunts I'm used to. It's even longer than weekend-long "The Game" games. The MIT hunt starts Friday noon Eastern time and tends to go to late Sunday. I think of 40 hours as a long hunt, but Mystery Hunt is more like 60.

I had fun! I want say that early. Because as I spew out more notes, they're mostly notes to myself about things I want to do better next year. And so they're things where I wasn't satisfied with what I did. So it sounds like I wasn't satisfied with the hunt. But I was! I had a good time. Solving was fun. Hanging out with puzzle nerds was fun.

One skill I need to improve: sleeping during a hunt. I'm used to staying awake all hunt; I can stay functional for 36 hours, then catch up on sleep afterwards. But there's no way I can stay up 48+ hours. So I slept. Except I can't sleep when full of puzzle-solving excitement. Friday night, I tried to sleep but only cat-napped. Saturday, I was pretty bleary. Saturday night I really did sleep; I don't think I was getting better at sleeping, but previous sleep deprivation helped to put me under.

I mostly didn't move. I sat and solved. When I woke up each morning, I walked to the local coffee shop. This was partially for the espresso but partially just to force myself to get up and moving. One more-experienced puzzler went for a jog each day. That seems like a good idea. My body's used to exercise, and felt bad from lack thereof. I bet that a brisk evening stroll would have helped me sleep better on Friday night, e.g. At the time it didn't seem like I could just get up and take time for a walk: there were puzzles to do! But it's a marathon, not a sprint. It's not like the hunt ran out of puzzles before I ran low on energy to work on those puzzles.

I wish I'd brought a change of clothes; I wish I'd showered. Probably other folks wish I'd showered, too. I can make it through a 36-hour van hunt without getting too… Uhm, maybe let's skip the details, OK? But while I'm taking notes on what I want to do better next year, one is: bring a change of clothes and use it.

The first day, I helped a bunch. I did grunt work, I had some insights. The second day, I wasn't so useful. That was partially sleepy-headed-ness. But it was also the puzzles getting tougher. I did gruntwork, but had few insights. Let's hope the gruntwork I did freed up some smarter folks' time to swoop in with insights and solutions. Yes, let's hope.

My favorite puzzle that I worked on was probably All History is Local because [SPOILER REDACTED]. That was a second-day puzzle. Which just goes to show that even when I was a sleepyhead, I was still having fun.

Mostly, I looked at confusing puzzles. Our team was big and there were many, many puzzles. If there was an easy puzzle, probably other folks solved it quickly. And thus I never looked at it; it wouldn't have been helpful to do so. But if the first batch of folks to look at a puzzle couldn't solve it, then that puzzle stuck around. More folks would look at it, hoping to have the necessary "a-ha". So if you're an MIT Mystery Hunt puzzle author and you want a wide audience for your puzzles, make them impossible. (OMG don't do this.)

Because our team is bi-coastal, there's a lot of incentive to work online instead of on paper. If a Californian carefully decodes a stream of data only to realize that someone on-site at MIT needs to compare that data to some local wall carvings or what-have-you, it helps if that data is already some place where MIT folks can look at it. And if there's a confusing thing which you want 50+ team members to look at in hopes that one of them will have the "a-ha, these are all obscure superhero sidekick names" or whatever realization, it's easier to get that list in front of their eyeballs if it's already online. When I say "grunt-work", that means that often the first minutes of working on a puzzle was copy-pasting its contents into a shared workspace. In a neighborhood-scale hunt, in which you solve clues in half an hour, those minutes would be wasted. But when organizing dozens of solvers on a team to solve hundreds of puzzles, that time is well-spent.

A neat feat possible for a bi-coastal team playing a multi-day hunt: one team member solved a puzzle in California, hopped a plane to Boston, then kept solving puzzles at MIT.

Another neat feat for long hunts: Our team has a couple that both enjoy puzzlehunts; they have small kids. They play in shifts: one hunts while the other stays home watches kids. Partway through the hunt, they switch off. Thus, they appreciate it when the hunt structure gives some idea how long the hunt will last: they can trade places closer to the half-way mark.

Oh, and I want to remember to bring Mi-Del Ginger Snaps because they are (a) yummy and (b) not made with/near peanuts.

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