My Hench Life: Part 2

Saturday: Lunch

Just south of the Carquinez Bridge, we parked in the lot of The Dead Fish restaurant. Someone from GC was handing out clues on the bridge walkway, halfway out. Or so I hear. By the time Erik and Sarah had jogged out to the middle, I'd just walked to the base.

Fortunately, the whole team didn't need to head out there; and so we all headed back to the van so that the team could gather around our next puzzle.

Thus we stood around in a parking lot by the van's open back hatch. In the background were rumbles of the freeway, the whistles of trains. But we focused on our puzzle: a rubik's cube. It was scrambled; there were crosswordish-clues on the squares. There was also a piece of paper with some letters and numbers on it, each number with a + or -.

There were a few minutes of minutes of wandering in darkness before we figured out what to do. "Guys, you don't think it's as simple as we solve the damn thing first?" "Maybe the numbers are telling us how to rotate it." But soon we'd buckled down on a better method. The clues on the cube faces were oriented such that we could see that if we solved the cube, they'd all be right-side up. That meant that we could figure out which face was which without solving the cube. So we started reading off faces. Making guesses at the clues, we spotted the gimmick: Each face of the cube had one blank square and four pairs of anagrams: SEARCH, CHASER. Each word like SEARCH, CHASER had six letters. We cranked through the clues over a few minutes. Most of them were pretty simple, and since we'd spotted the anagrams, the others were pretty easy to backsolve. Crank, crank, crank.

What to do next? It was an anagrammy puzzle. SEARCH and CHASER were on the red face. Should we anagram them with RED? That didn't lead to anything. Sarah unfortunately let herself get talked into solving the cube. The piece of paper had six letter-pairs, one for each face. Maybe we were supposed to anagram those with the faces' anagrams? One of the letter-pairs was SEARCH+IM, which (Puzzle Pal noticed) anagrammed to CHIMERAS... but there wasn't a consistent system that worked that way. And then, fortunately, one of us thought to try semaphore. It was pretty constrained, but it seemed more likely than all the other crap we'd tried. Grind, grind, grind, we ground out the semaphore, different people decoding different faces. That gave us four letters per face. Oh, we could combine those with the two-letter pairs from our piece of paper to make six-letter words. That would fit the six-letter-word theme. And that worked, giving us words like VIRTUE. Applying the +/- numbers as alphabet offsets to those numbers. It took us a minute to talk ourselves into using this right approach: the offsets were from -12 to +13; sure that hinted at offsets within the alphabet, but it caused some offsets to "wrap around", was that OK? (Yes, it turned out, that was OK. In hindsight, it's surprising that we ever worried about this.) It took us a while to crank through it: we'd recorded a couple of rubiksquares out of order. Again, we bickered a while about whether to allow wrap-arounds in our offsets. But after some minutes of talking ourselves out of the right approach, we finally tried it and started getting English... and soon had an answer that the laptop liked.

The laptop rewarded us with another communique and directions to our next puzzle: Marina Bay Park in Richmond. We remembered to close the van's back door, piled in, and were off. Someone was reading "communiques" that the laptop was giving us. Apparently, for the previous one, we'd got some information about a supervillian named The Victorian. For the upcoming puzzle, we got some information about The Cowboy.

The van rumbled along, as did conversation. In that puzzle, we'd had three garbles that slowed us down: two semaphore decoding errors and two squares some of us had recorded in switched positions. Should we devote more time to checking steps? But there was an opportunity cost: those error-checking folks wouldn't be thinking about the next step. Then again... towards the end of this puzzle just past, there'd been folks just standing around watching other folks. If the watchers had been checking instead, maybe their checking would have found our errors. Since we'd already been working on the correct approach, that would have helped. But what if we'd been working on the wrong approach, and one of those folks was destined to figure out the right one? Could they be thinking about other possibilities while they checked? Maybe? Along with this philosophizing was more mundane conversation: how many devices could we recharge from the van's power supply without overpowering the power converter? (Answer: not all of them.)

We talked about the previous puzzle. Since my method of solving a Rubik's cube is to bust it apart and put it back together again, I'd been ready to get started on this puzzle just as we had with the glass eye: tossing it at the ground. Of course, if one of the busted-off cubelets had fallen off the bridge and hundreds of feet down to the water, we would have been out of luck.

Alexandra looked over our progress in the laptop, and strangely there was none: it was prompting us for the start code for Friday night's activities. I've been over-simplifying when I said we'd been entering our answers and start codes into a laptop. Actually, we'd been entering them into two laptops, albeit being kind of lackadaisical about entering them into the "backup" laptop. Still, we were glad that we had a backup at this point, because it was during this van ride that our primary laptop's app crashed and lost all of our data. That was unsettling. Was the app going to occasionally crash all weekend? We went through, re-entering the start codes and answers, glad that we hadn't played far through the game yet and could still remember all the start codes and answers.

Saturday: Smells

It was about 1:30 when we got to the park. GC, in the form of Kiki Bragg and Mike Holzbaur had set out sandwiches on picnic tables. And even better, they'd set out 33 little laminated photos on sticks in this area of the park for us to data-gather. They also gave us sheets of paper with... 33 stills from TV shows and movies, each showing a character. Uh-oh, we would have to identify pop-culture things again; we'd done poorly at that earlier. We went through, ID'ing them as a group. Were they in alphabetical order or not? We wavered; if we'd been right when we identified the first of those characters, we would have known they were in alphabetical order. Failing to identify characters was discouraging. Most of the team wandered off for stuff that played to the teams' strengths: looking at the planted photos. Each photo clued at a word, a fightin' word. Sarah and I had Google Goggle on our phones, and went to work identifying the rest of the character photos.

It was cold and windy. Brave GC volunteer Mike Holzbaur was coming down with a terrible cold. One of our team wandered back to the van just to sit inside and not be chilly. But soon most of us were standing around a picnic table with a set of words and a set of TV/movie characters, wondering how to put them together. We stared for a while, not coming up with any plausible theories.

I wandered down to the park's porta-potty. I was a little sorry to see someone else go in just before I got there—I would have to wait. Except, no, he jumped right back out again. He had a conversation with the guy who'd left just before him: "Aheh, I don't know if I've ever smelled a bathroom that had that– sort of like BO or, I don't know, vomit I don't know what it is." "I don't think I can stand it." They looked over at me. Someone said "Good luck!" I wandered in, took a test sniff... and didn't smell anything. The cold and wind and my usual host of allergies had worked together to plug my nose. I was grateful.

When I was done being grateful, I headed back to the picnic table. We were pretty stumped. We had a list of fight-ish words. We were looking at the papers with the movie stills. The wind was making this tricky. I didn't have any ideas on how to fit fighting words to characters, so I started taping down sheets to keep them from blowing away. While I was taping, we were saved: Allen got a phone call from our teammate in the van, who had one of the laptops, reminding us to look at our laptop for automatically-released hints. Allen powered up the backup laptop, where a vital hint had been waiting for us: "Before you say 'screw who' about this rough stuff, think hard about what this clue is trying to..." Rough stuff, it was rhyming words. "We have a character Ash, do we have, like 'mash Ash'"? Soon we were reading off pairs, putting them into a spreadsheet. Each character picture had a letter on it, and we put that into the spreadsheet too. We cranked through mash-Ash-ish phrases. Mike Holzbaur of GC drifted by and fixed a typo on one of our puzzle sheets. More phrases Slice Dice, Clock Doc,... Minutes passed, grind grind grind. Box fox. A message was emerging from the letters: shift left one... but then garbage. Oh, what if we shifted the garbage left? Oh, that seemed less garbage-y. Something about a pillow. Smother? The laptop wanted to know who we were smothering. Mother? The laptop suggested something more fratricidy. Smothers Brothers? Something like that. Someone had entered a right answer.

Beware of Grays Bearing Gift Horses or Something

We headed back to the van. The laptop had a new communique for us to read, but we could do that in the van while traveling to the next clue site. And soon we were on our way. The communique gave us some background about the supervillain The Cowboy. Our destination was a place called the Old Gray Mare by Berkeley's Golden Gate Fields racetrack. That was strange—I'd lived in Berkeley for years, but hadn't heard of a place called the Old Gray Mare. Allen had brought chocolate chip cookies, but didn't want to be judged by them. He was a major baking enthusiast, and these cookies weren't up to his standards. Fortunately, they were full of sugar and fat, and thus made some darned tasty snacks. Soon, we were at our destination, which wasn't an establishment called the Old Gray Mare. It was the entrance to The Albany Bulb, the park where the Apprentice Zorg game had started and, further back, had picked up a chicken wire puzzle in the Justice Unlimited game. So what was the Old Gray Mare? Oh, now we could see:

The Old Gray Mare, photo by Curtis Chen

Following up on a dare suggestion from a teammate, I hopped out, hustled over to the Mare, and asked "Why the long face?" The Mare had been holding out a puzzle towards me, but now clutched it back and turned around. How was I supposed to get the puzzle now? Maybe teasing GC wasn't such a great idea after all.

The Old Gray Mare relents, photo by Curtis Chen

Oh, wait, I knew what angry horses could do if they turned away from you I henchmannishly cringed away. And I said "Hey, you didn't kick me, that's good!" Wow, if I'd known it was Melinda Owen inside that costume, I probably wouldn't have been brave enough to pull that kind of crap, but fortunately she decided not to beat me up. (Since she was in that horse costume, beating me up probably would have been pretty difficult anyhow.) She relented and handed over a puzzle. Curtis Chen, another GC volunteer, snapped our photo. (Well, actually, he was shooting a short video, but we didn't realize he was doing that, so we stood and posed and waited for him to tell us he'd got the shot... which he didn't because he was video-ing us, hoping that we'd do something interesting instead of just standing and posing. But eventually...) We realized we'd stood around enough and headed back to the van.

Our puzzle was a set of puzzly betting slips. The top of each slip had some crossword-ish clues. The bottom of each had a small square grid of letters with some blanks. Except that one slip just had a blank 4x4 grid. We handed around slips, everyone had one. The clues solved to numbers, like et tu for two. Oh, rather they solved to letter-number pairs like C3, D2, A-1. Except that a few were just struck-out "Loser", which didn't seem to solve to anything. So, using those as coordinates and reading letters out of the letter grids, gave garbage. My grid had an obvious DIAMOND in it, what could we do with that? Did we have any repeated numbers? Did we have repeated letters? We pursued various wrong ideas.

An automatically-released hint nudged us: We should look at the "boggle grids". Oh, they were boggle grids. It also implied something, though we didn't really pick up on it. The first hint talked about the grids, not about things like A-1. We should concentrate on the grids first. But we were stuck in a groove, trying to solve the top of each slip before looking at the grid on the bottom of each slip. Stuck, stuck, stuck. I looked harder at the "DIAMOND" in my grid. It was in there like a boggle word, all right, just as the clue implied. But I still interpreted the clue as something to use after having solved the A-1 thingies. So I looked at where DIAMOND started in my boggle grid. Hmm, did the other A-1 thingies point out where other words started? No. I didn't realize it, but my thinking was still stuck. Skilled bogglers found more words bogglishly in the grids, but it wasn't clear what to do with them. (And I forgot that the puzz collection of open-source Python puzzle aids had a Boggle solver, so didn't use it. Argh.) We talked over more wrong ideas for a while longer.

Eventually one of us spotted the vital thing: in his boggle, he had SAGE, PARSLEY, and ROSEMARY. So we were looking for sets of words. At the same time, Alexandra checked our automatically-released hint: it refered to "sets". Oh, and the word we didn't use—THYME in that example, had the same number of letters as we had "clues" up top. We use those to fill in the grid: if the S of a word went with B-2 clue, we knew to put it S in the B-2 square of the blank grid. And soon the "blank" grid was filled in. We knew we were looking for quartet-words. Nothing leaped out for a minute. I thought to an anagram solver for a list of words using those letters. It found a lot but even scanning through the list, I eventually got down to PESTILENCE which seemed like a good thing. Sure enough, two more horsemen of the apocalypse were in the boggle, giving us the answer.

Didn't Wade

Soon we were driving south along San Francisco bay, heading towards Oakland. This reminded Alexandra of a previous time Team Mystic Fish had been on this road. This was in the Justice Unlimited game, after we'd solved that chicken wire puzzle. We'd been driving south, had driven up next to Team Blood and Bones' van and tossed a Hostess fruit pie through their window into their van. Ah, good times. There was a discussion of Stanford's sports teams that went over my head. Soon Erik and Sarah were watching a game on a smartphone. There was a side conversation about new technology allowing us modern folks to watch TV anywhere and anywhen.

Soon we'd arrived at Crab Cove, a park on the edge of the bay on Alameda island. It was cold and drizzly. It was a sizable park, but we knew we were looking for a duck pond, and soon we'd found a pond with a viewing platform full of nerds. On the other side of the pond were some little signs on colored balls. It was time for us to use our binoculars. (Brave GC site volunteers Robert Cheng, Chris Roat, and Sue let us know that it wouldn't be kosher for us to just walk around the little pond to look at the signs close up.) It would be kosher for one of us to wade across—but ducks had obviously been in that water. Nobody'd want to sit in van with you after you waded through that.

See those teeny-tiny things on the other side of the pond? We were looking at those. Photo by Robert Cheng.

Unfortunately, we only had one set of binoculars with us, and they turned out to be not-so-powerful, closer in spirit to opera glasses than to outdoorsy binoculars. My off-kilter eyes were no good with binoculars anyhow, so I lazily talked with Chris Roat instead of helping my teammates gather data. Back when Google's "Latitude" location-sharing service was a new thing, we'd started sharing locations. So I pointed out, "Hey, Latitude says you're in South San Francisco." Chris Roat had forgotten that we could see each others' location updates, but fortunately, his last update was sufficiently out-of-date that it hadn't given away any Game logistics.

The team solved and found a way to keep Joe's laptop out of the rain.

I was no help with data gathering. Unfortunately, even folks with correctly-aligned eyes didn't have much luck seeing what we needed to see. There followed forty minutes of uncertain data-gathering and false theories built upon faulty data. I chatted with Girts of Code Yellow a little. I checked in on the team: trying to indentify little pictures. I transcribed things that they said, but there was a lot of "maybe" and "I think". Some were legible, and suggested rebus: things like -G. But other stuff, "It's like a crude horse statue, but too angular?" Chris Lopez' team had finished, Chris dropped by and took some pity on us. Oh that photo was of Nick Cage, it was "Nick". And he identified a black blob: a panther. He told us a couple more before jogging to catch up with his team. We thought to trade data with other teams, but they weren't interested.

After forty minutes of flailing, we threw ourselves on the mercy of the GC volunteers. We asked for confirmation of the ones we thought we'd figured out—and of the few we thought we'd figured out, we had a bunch wrong. So we soon asked for more mercy. We weren't going to to make progress unless we could see the pictures better. They took pity on us and let us send one member around to the other side of the pond (without wading through it) to take notes. Alexandra went over to take notes. (We should probably have been marked as taking a hint on this puzzle, but we weren't; I guess that's a side effect of begging GC volunteers for mercy instead of using the laptop app.)

When she got back, she brought a much better set of data. We knew that the name of the puzzle was "Contaminate the Water Supply". We were pretty sure we were doing rebuses: in fact, we got a hint saying "Each rebus is formed from three images". There was a little flailing: we were trying to figure out what to do. Folks brainstormed; other folks forgot not to poop on an idea before it pooped on them, so wasted some time bickering back and forth about what wasn't worth trying instead of trying stuff. But Sarah got us to stop bickering and back to exploring.

"Contaminate—do you think it might be, like, chemical names?"

"I'm thinking it's more likely to be like guano or birdshit. But I dunno."

"'Sidecar' minus 'scar' makes 'ide', that could be a hook."

"Maybe we assume water is part of each rebus."

Some progress, some red herrings. But pretty soon someone spotted RRRR+sun+Nick as a way to make "Arsenic" a poison. And he remembered that someone had mentioned "cyan" and someone else had made "ide" from sidecar-scar... oh, cyanide. Thus, after a handful of hints and a big pile of mercy from GC, we were on track. Several rebuses, each using three pictures. Each picture was on a colored ball either red, green, or blue. So we had three values from 1-3, so each rebus-triad could encode a letter in ternary. So for the next several minutes, we kept finding poison rebuses, a couple of people decoding the ternary to letters using a couple of potential ways of ordering the colors (as they appeared in along the shore or as they appeared in the rebus). Soon we had the start of the answer, it was something like TOXICOLOGIST or TOXICOLOGIES. Someone was entering guesses into the laptop, someone else decoding the last letter, and it was solved. Yay! We could go back to the dry, warm van.

Before we left the pond, we stopped by with GC so that they could give us a CD of music. There was a start code on it, it was a puzzle. We entered the start code before taking the few minutes to walk back to the van. You never know: we might be glad that the automatically-released hints were released that much earlier.

In the Crab Cove parking lot, I found a player's badge. (Now I forget whose.) Fortunately, our badges didn't just list our names, but also had our team names. And we all had magnetic signs on our vans with our team logos. So I found the right van and left the badge under the windshield wiper. Maybe the badges would be important later. (They weren't.)

When I got to our van, we'd put the CD in and found it was one of those puzzly CDs with different music playing in the left and right stereo tracks. Someone with the CD case had searched it for hidden stuff and found a piece of paper with a string of random-looking letters on it. We had Shazam ready to identify music that we humans couldn't. And Google ready to look up lyrics of things too obscure for Shazam.

The van headed south through the rain. It took a while to gather the data on songs we didn't know—the van's CD player didn't have a pause button per se, so getting songs into Shazam sometimes took a while. But we got it done. Along the way, we found out that Sarah had met Weird Al Yankovic at a Doctor Demento concert at CalTech, thus giving her more nerd cred than you. Along the way, someone noticed that the artists' names all started with different letters. And there were exactly 13 tracks, 26 if you counted left/right separately. The artists' names gave us a full alphabet.

We had some ideas of what to do. We were pretty sure that the letters from the nonsense piece of paper mapped to tracks we'd heard based on artist name. But then what to do? Take first letter of title or left letter of title depending on whether the song was on the left/right speaker? The nonsense text was 20 characters; maybe it was four letters in 5-bit binary based on left/right? Various ideas came along that I didn't even follow. Finally, two of us came up with the gimmick at the same time: the reason that the tracks weren't in alphabetical order on the CD was so that they could form a cryptogram. AC/DC and XTC played at the same time. That could make a cipher in which A=X and X=A. And that's what it turned out to be. Meanwhile, a hint came along telling us that there was something interesting in the CD's track lengths, but we never used that.

The van continued south through the rain. We changed course: when the laptop had our answer, it told us not to go to Union City, but rather to a railroad museum in Fremont. We had a couple of supervillain dossiers to read—we'd unlocked one when we entered the Contaminate solution, but instead of reading it, we worked on the music puzzle. Now we'd unlocked another... but we didn't read it out loud to the van. But someone with a laptop read it silently and reported that we should like the protagonist: he was named SalmonMan, and we were a fish-based team. (Later on, we'd figure out he was a fisherman, so he was more of a nemesis than a "we should like him", but anyhow.)

Next: Darkness Falls[next]

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