Larry Hosken: New

obscure joke

What does one say to an urban drifter who lacks snacks?

  "You're" a "flâneur" without a "flan".

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Novice, Novicer, Novicest

I was site-monitoring at a puzzle hunt. Things were quieting down at the site: Most of the teams had solved and gone on. Not all, though. Those that remained were novices, still learning the puzzlehunt ropes.

This was at DASH, which uses ClueKeeper. In interest of fairness, GC was not to give hints; instead, ClueKeeper was to give all hints. If teams from Some City received bigger nudges from GC and thus surged ahead in the nationwide worldwide rankings, that would be unfair.

But I gave hints anyhow. (Hi, haters!) Not to the front-runners; not to the, uhm, middle-runners, either; but to the back-of-the-pack novices. I figure/hope that folks who care about rankings (and inter-city fairness) are watching the front of the pack. Maybe? Let's hope. Anyhow.

I'm remembering one of my hints now. Someone brought up the topic of getting novices to playtest novice puzzles. And I'm remembering a feeling when watching wrong-guesses for Octothorpean. I'd watched novices play through some of these puzzles, thought I'd made the right things obvious. But different novices are ignorant in different ways. When you look at the wrong-guess logs, and you realize how a team's reasoning could lead to that wrong answer… and it's a valid track of reasoning, if you haven't learned the "right" track from experience. At DASH, I encountered such a track.

This puzzle had a message for teams to find partway through, telling them to "shift" some letters. You, I, and everyone reading this blog post sees that "shift" and thinks "shift cipher". I walked past a novice team reading aloud their message telling them to "shift". I thought, "Well, that team is on the right track. They will solve, get up, and head out in a minute or two."

But minutes later, they were still sitting and solving. A note of frustration had crept into their voices. I shamelessly eavesdropped. They were novices. They had a few theories of what "shift" might mean; they were working it out from first principles. Their winning theory was a sort of constrained anagram. E.g., you can "shift" a letter of pYre to make preY. It was a neat trick of wordplay, and I would be proud to make a puzzle out of such a thing. But of course, it wasn't what they were supposed to get from the word "shift".

If this had been a front-runner or middle-of-the-pack team, I would have let them continue struggling. But in this case, I stepped in, said they might be mis-interpreting that "shift". And they piped up with some of their other theories for that word's mysterious meaning; the correct meaning was among those; and that novice team was soon on track.

Maybe there's a variant of the Anna Karenina principle at work. Experienced teams who have learned to "spot" the right track are all on the same right track; inexperienced teams are all on different wrong tracks. GC, being mortal, can come up with automated hints to get many many teams on the right track; but site monitors can still keep an ear out. Or something like that.

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tough question

Someone asked me how to authenticate a painting. Put your contact information on your web site; you'll get some interesting, albeit misdirected, questions.

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Book Report: The Great A&P

A surprisingly interesting story about selling food in the USA, featuring lots of government regulation. I said "surprisingly", right?

The story of the USA's first big chain store, the food merchant A&P. At a time when chain stores were rare and families bought food from mom & pop bodegas, the A&P grew and grew until you could say, 1/7 food dollars in such-and-such city were spent at A&P stores. They were big enough such that they could bypass warehouse and broker middlemen, going right to food producers; that helped squeezed down prices. They were big enough such that they could ask for big discounts, some of which were legal but some of which were darned sketchy. At various times, they drew government ire and/or investigations, which overlooked the sketchy stuff and tended to try to punish the company for useful things the company did.

Computer programmer nerds might be interested to learn that "Hello, world!" was the catchphrase of radio host/demagogue William Kennon Henderson of KWKH. He got listeners to send him money by (a) saying unironically that chain stores are evil, (b) asking folks to send him money so he could do something against chain stores. He spent that money getting himself out of debt from his past sketchy schemes.

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Puzzlehunt Pacing

I bumped into Allen Cohn on BART yesterday. We got to talking about puzzlehunt pacing. If you have some easy breezy puzzles and some tough slog puzzles, how do you order them so that players have fun? Allen pointed out (and I agree with him) that puzzle designers don't think so much about the emotional arc of solving these things.

I figure that a hunt's first puzzle sets a team's mood for the first few hours of the hunt; front-load the hunt with an easier puzzle so players get an early morale boost. I also like an easier puzzle at the end so that when players emerge from their puzzling frenzy and reflect on whether they enjoyed themselves, they remember the triumph of crushing that last puzzle.

Some folks like steadily increasing difficulty so that newer teams can see lots of puzzles they can handle. I used to think that way—and I still like the idea of the overall trend-line getting more difficult—but I kinda like alternating between easier and tougher puzzles. Two tough slog-puzzles, one right after the other, can be a downer. An easy-breezy puzzle in between can lift your mood.

So… "overall trend-line getting more difficult"… maybe I shouldn't say I like an "easier puzzle at the end" in the sense of "easiest", but, uhm, like easier than the penultimate puzzle. Maybe the last puzzle is a "medium", but it feels like you crushed it because the next-to-last was a monster.

Maybe that's part of the reason I've been liking minis-and-a-mini-meta puzzles lately. The team gets the mini-satisfaction of solving the minipuzzles, but by the time they're done solving the mini-meta, they also get the (deeper?) satisfaction that comes from solving something more substantial. (Those mini-ahas don't only come from mini-meta structures, of course. Figuring out one answer phrase in that cryptic crossword also yields that zing. But maybe the minis can have that one-phrase level zing, and a quick puzzle-level zing? Maybe?)

Anyhow, my opinions have changed over the years. No doubt they'll change more in the future. I dunno. How should one order the tough and not-so-tough puzzles?

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Home internet is out. Phone wifi tethering not working. Guess I will sit and fill in crossword puzzles with a pencil like a caveman.

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From February through this morning, I have had the high score at the ClueKeeper Palace of Fine Arts puzzle hunt. Just mentioning that now in case it's no longer true this afternoon…

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WE CAN BEAT THIS THING i hope anyhow here's an animated GIF

Original Image: Pear & Walnut Strudel, Kitchen Ghosts

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Puzzlehunts are Everywhere, even Austin

Once again I site-volunteered with the first DASH GC who responded to an email. This year: DASH 7 in Austin TX. This was my first time in Austin, so I took a few days to wander around and gawk at all the slackers.

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Team Archimedds Boogs did not win the bar trivia. But we didn't come in last place, either. This was especially impressive since (a) we missed the first round and (b) there was a whole round of golf trivia which we knew nothing about so we just entered Jack Nicholson* for everything.

*Yes, the golfer is Jack Nicklaus. He wasn't the answer to any of those questions either.

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