My Hench Life: Part 3

Like the Golden Spike but more than one and not so golden

I wolfed down a sandwich. GC was being nice about feeding us and not-skipping teams. But we were slower than some teams, and our meals were further apart. Over the course of the game, I wouldn't eat all the "emergency sandwiches" I'd packed, but I'd eat a few.

We talked about Shazam, which we'd leaned on pretty hard for this music puzzle. (Shazam, of course, was a phone app that used the phone's microphone to listen for music and would identify songs.) Erik sung the praises of Intonow, a similar app that identified TV shows by sound. (Which I'm downloading as I type this... (oh weird, it's a Yahoo! app that doesn't use Yahoo! accounts, but does use Facebook?! Oh, it's an acquisition.) Anyhow.)

This led to a discussion of AI, and then on to Watson, AI scourge of Jeopardy. Watson had just looked up text, but was "told" electronically when it could buzz in. What if Watson had been forced to guess at when it could buzz in by listening to Alex Trebek's voice? As it was, the game wasn't satisfying, since Watson could always beat the humans to the buzzer. Instead of grumpily dwelling on this, Sarah got out her phone and we quizzed Siri.

Soon we were on the porch the Fremont Railroad museum, where brave GC volunteer Amber(?) gave us a puzzle to work on: There was a page of sheet music. And two pieces of foamcore, each piece with a letter grid on it and 18 holes punched through... some of those letter squares were colored in. And a set of 18 golf tees connected by a chain, each tee with a +/-  numbers on top. And our laptop showed us an application with many many buttons; each button toggled segments on a simulated LED segment display. Wow, this puzzle had a lot of parts.

Erik got us off to a fast start on this one, because he read sheet music. He recognized "I've Been Working on the Railroad", and figured out that the extra rectangles on the sheet music corresponded to words in the lyrics. So that gave us a list of 18 words: railroad, day, working... Then it took us several minutes just to explore all the other pieces of this puzzle: boards, tees, app. There were many possibilities to explore. But eventually someone spotted that one of the grids was a wordsearch containing railroad... and the other song words, each word with just one colored-square peg-hole. So put the tees in there in order, use the tee-top offset numbers with those letters to get a message: USE COLOR AND LENGTH. "To do what?" Now we went to the other board, to find corresponding links: if we had a 3cm string connecting a peg in a blue square to a peg in a yellow square, find a corresponding connection on the other grid. We ground through that. Applying tee offsets to our new letters gave us ANGLES ARE SEMAPHORE. Ground through that, trying a few ways (every angle, every second angle, every third...). AEIOURED. We looked at the grid, found the vowel squares, ground through toggling the corresponding buttons on the laptop app, and the LEDs lit up with our answer: DERAILED.

The laptop rewarded our efforts with a video to watch. Amber the GC volunteer wandered over. Most teams were solving in their vans, so Amber hadn't had a chance to see this video they were working so hard to unlock. And she didn't get a chance to see the whole thing over our shoulders—another team showed up.

Saturday: Dinner

The video advanced the plot. If we'd been reading our communiques, we would have read dossiers on several supervillains. They were all in the Evil League of Evil, and the video showed us some office politics. The League's mysterious leader—always cloaked in shadow—Big Boss, reported that there was a traitor in their midst (not too surprising in a villain organization). The Mentalist, who was maybe the villain we were supposed to be henching for, told us to find the traitor at our next stop. We got somewhat mixed up by this video: there were much-appreciated captions so that we could tell what people were saying; but whenever they said a villain's name, the caption for that name appeared in color. We spent a while trying to "solve" the video before figuring out that our best bet was to hope that the color wasn't a puzzle.

Time to get back in the van. And so we drove on through the falling rain and falling dark and not-falling Fremont. There was conjecture: would we have a "murder mystery dinner"? The logistics for that seemed forbidding. But we probably would be interviewing each of the supervillians. We re-watched the video, tried to make sense of the colored words some more. We hadn't read the dossiers very closely, would we be sorry that we didn't know the details? We got to talking about laptops and power strips, reminding ourselves to bring a powerstrip into our destination restaurant. That got us to thinking about how the laptop app had crashed; the app was our only list of the puzzles and answers we'd seen. We made a paper backup.

The van trundled along.

We reminisced about the railroad puzzle. It was nice, because we hadn't ever become totally stuck. We'd pursued some false trails, but we'd never been out of ideas. But it had taken us a while. There was some conjecture: were the Burninators already done with dinner? Oh, right, the Burninators weren't playing today, they'd played up in Seattle. (We didn't know it at the time, but the Gipper Advillians, the fastest team on our weekend, had finished dinner an hour and a half before.) Sarah remembered "breaking the game" a couple of times with Blood & Bones. In the Goonies Game, they'd reached a puzzle before GC was ready for them, and GC got mad at them. So GC gave them a tough puzzle to solve and said "Don't talk to us for at least three hours". It was the Chester Copperpot puzzle, a stack of business cards. A lot of data, a lot of things to try. So B&B beat their heads against that puzzle for hours, forbidden to ask for a hint, no longer having fun, getting demoralized. Meanwhile, other teams had come and gone. Lesson learned: don't break the game unless you think GC will take it well.

Soon we were at City Beach, a combination restaurant/games place, with pool tables, a climbing wall, and other activities. A brave GC volunteer encouraged us to wander around, find five supervillains, collect puzzles from them, then grab a restaurant table to sit, solve, and eat. (She also let us know some areas of the place where there weren't any supervillains to find. This was wise, as anyone who's seen a bunch of puzzlers search a place can attest. E.g., she was careful to let us know the rock climbing wall was off-limits. No fair pulling ordinary citizens off the wall to puzzlishly interrogate them and confirm that they weren't supervillains after all.) She also gave us a 12-sided die and a set of pentagons, each with five little punny crossword clues on it and a +/- number in the middle. (One pentagon didn't have a +/-, just a plain "1". Aha, that must correspond to the "1" face on the 12-sided die.)

And so we bumbled around City Beach. It was loud with the sounds of kids having fun. Voices over intercoms echoingly announced activities. "Over here, we have the monkeys with the slingshots." Distractions abounded, and it was hard to talk, but we muddled along. We made our way around, dodging waitresses who wanted to seat us. We found the supervillains (albeit with the Internet Troll's assistant standing in for the Troll himself). Each villain gave us a tale of woe and a puzzle to solve. E.g., The Cowboy complained that The Internet Troll's constant mispellings meant that the Cowboy couldn't make head nor tail of what the Troll was saying... and so here was a puzzle to solve. Or something like that. Did I mention that it was really noisy in this place? But eventually we collected five puzzles, headed to the table area, and got seated.

There were five puzzles to work with, so we divvied them up to work on in parallel. "Does somebody like these 'Spiral Galaxies' puzzles?" "No." "No." "No." "No." "I do." Thank goodness Joe liked them. One of them was really weird: a puzzle where we could insert words, but there weren't clues about what words to insert; just some flavortext about the Invader Zim and one word filled in: Abducted. That puzzle got passed around over the course of dinner, nobody could figure it out. We ordered food. Erik looked around, noticed when three folks were all working on the same puzzle, saved us some redundant effort. Drinks showed up. The group of three was anagramming, then they were done anagramming, and ready to show their puzzle to The Cowboy for a reward. That freed up Alexandra; we showed her a semi-solved puzzle, and she was able to extract an answer from it. So now we had two solved mini-puzzles.

I trotted a puzzle over to The Cowboy.

Him: "Howdy."

Me: "Howdy."

"So, you got anything for me?"

"Uhm, maybe, I see HAY and I see RAISIN BRAN and it occurs to me that the people who actually worked on this one could maybe have brought it, uhm, to you. Hmm. Any of those sound like something you might be interested in?"

Brave GC volunteers probably have to put up with crap like this all the time.

Him: "Well, one of those does sound like something I might be interested in."

"Uhm, you want I should go back to my table and ask them what I—"

"You know what, it's close enough, the whole time I been thinkin' he was tryin' to say BARN. But BRAN, you know, that makes it all come together together for me somehow.

On our sheet of paper, I spot a BARN scribbled by the BRAN. "Uh, OK."

Him: "I tell you what. If y'all found some way to pin this entire shindig on the Internet Troll, that'd make my life a lot easier. So I wouldn't have to go around decipherin' all of his Tweeters and whatnot."

I've been taking notes as he says this. So he says

"You don't have to write that part down, I'm just sayin', I'm just talkin to you."

"Uh, OK, I think I can remember that much."

"Yeah, but, one thing I would like to give you for doing such a fine job, figurin out that BRAN-BARN thing. You might find that useful."

He handed me a piece of paper with a four-letter word on it printed in colored ink.

Me: "Awesome. Oh, it's even the right color. Production values. All right, thank you very much, I'll carry on."

"Vaya con diós."

I'll let you figure out which of us was better at the role-play acting bit.

I went back to the table and reported. I asked the guy who'd brought over our Poison Ivy puzzle: had she encouraged us to pin things on anyone? And yes, she had: SalmonMan. We noted this stuff down, in case it was useful later. (It wasn't; it was just flavor.)

Not Done Yet

I sat down next to someone staring at the Zim puzzle; he was exasperated. After another couple of minutes without progress, he trotted over to SalmonMan to make sure we weren't missing a page. We weren't. Sarah came back from passing an answer to Internet Troll, and getting another colorful four-letter word. Joe finished the Spiral Galaxies. We got a hint: do an internet search for the Invader Zim characters and the word Abducted. Folks did some searches. "Is this something that I'm supposed to know about?" "No, I asked the guy and he said 'no'." "I've got the transcript of the entire episode. It's called 'Kidnapped', I assume that's the one." "Does the word 'Abducted' appear in it, maybe towards the end?" "There's an episode called 'Abducted', too." "Any references to moose in the episode? Because that's in the flavortext, too." "So I'm looking for an episode name that would fit here."

Meanwhile, a couple of us were concentrated on the pentagons, figuring out the punny crossword clues. That was more fun than breaking brains on Zim. (And the folks on Zim did figure it out soon after: they were looking for episode titles that would fit into the (constrained) grid.) Alexandra had got a head start: she'd found triples. E.g., there were three punny clues that solved to "Peking Duck" or punny homonyms thereof. Someone who had stared at Dungeons and Dragons dice too m^W^W^W^W^W^W^W^W learned some things about platonic solids knew that if we built a twelve-sided figure out of our pentagons, three of them would meet at each vertex. So our puns would tell us how to put this thing together: find matching triples and put them together. We set about solving and matching. Food arrived. There was a shuffling of puzzle pieces to make way for food. The good news was that we'd solved a bunch already, so we had plenty of table space. The rest of the team finished off Zim. I was happy to be working on puns, aided by my university studies of rec.humor. When someone quavered "A frayed rope?" I could say with certainty "Afraid not"

When the Zim group came back with another four-letter word, we were all free to concentrate on the dodecahedron. We'd solved about half of the punny clues. We talked about what we had so far. We (late) got around to entering our answers into the laptop. We tried getting more brains working on the remaining puns, but it was tough collaborating: if you read them out loud, not everyone could hear. In hindsight, we should have started assembling the pieces earlier than we did instead of trying to collaborate on the puns. Ah, hindsight. Sarah tried to nudge us toward that, but we kept on with the puns. But eventually, we saw the wisdom of her nudging. Assembling the 12-sider made solving the puns easier—we could see which ones went together. We spilled a drink and had to do some quick puzzle-rescue. But soon we were assembling quickly: someone assembling, someone passing along bits of tape.

With the solid assembled, we used the +/- numbers to get a string of 12 numbers in 1-26. Mapped to letters, ASK FOR THE KEY. There were a few seconds of confusion as someone asked if this meant that we should ask for the key, but I'd learned to recognize this conversation and was already scooting out of the booth to trot over to the nice GC volunteer by the front door to ask for a key. She gave us a big sheet of paper listing phrases like "afraid not" mapped to colored numbers; the colors were the same as those of the colored four-letter words we'd "won" from the super villains. So the red one was probably the first letter of the red four-letter word, which we could now "place" on a vertex. We went around face "1", reading off the letters of its vertices, giving us BEMAL. Oh, that wasn't promising. Until someone pointed out that if we'd gone widdershins instead of clockwise, it would be BLAME... and thus we BLAME. That was exciting, but we then got lost, figuring that we should trace a continuous path along the edges of the solid, and thus lost several minutes. We gave up on that, sunk in despair. And it was in despair that someone just kept on repeating the decode face with other faces, though they gave us nonsense... but there wasn't a better idea. And then another face gave us HORSE. ONEAL... O'Neal? That wasn't promising. How about BLAME ONEAL HORSE? There followed a few minutes of staring and increasingly inventive wrong ideas, until we noticed that ONEAL could have been ALONE if we read it the other way. That used 15 letters, but our solid had 20 vertices. We still thought that "BLAME..." was just to let us know we were on the right track and that we were looking for three more words. But after a few more minutes of bickering, someone tried entering BLAME HORSE ALONE in the laptop and that was it. But not quite done with the bickering: "But why did you put that in?" "Because those were three words that we had." "Oh no." But we'd answered it and we'd eaten and GC was picking up our dinner tab, so it was time to gather up our stuff and head out.

We checked out with the GC volunteer, who'd now been joined by Chris Roat and Sue. It was after 9pm, after my bed-time.

Laundry Night

Back in the van. There the laptop showed us a video: The supervillain "Dark Horse" was led away; in the background, the shadowy Big Boss looked on approvingly. Then our laptop told us we were going to a coin-op laundry in Milpitas. This was very exciting; a couple of Dr Horrible's great scenes happened in laundromats. The back seat started watching Dr Horrible. There was some slapstick as I tried to extract my phone recharger's power cable from under Joe as he drove; we eventually figured out that the cable was dangling out the door. This reminded Alexandra of when she'd been riding a train in France and the pneumatic doors had closed on her backpack, trapping her until the train reached its next stop. Dr Horrible's "Freeze Ray" serenaded us, dulling the pain of our recent drubbing. We were ready to play in a laundromat!

So we were cheery as we arrived at the laundromat. (I was extra-cheery when I saw that my recharger cord had survived its running-board ride.) Inside the laundromat, there were teams! And there was brave GC volunteer Jeff Wallace! But Jeff didn't hand us a puzzle, he said we had to find it. Teams seemed to be looking at piles of money, but they each had their own pile. Apparently, we were looking for money. Ah, money laundering.

You might think I was frantic; I'm usually not too happy to be searching an area for a puzzle. (I like it when the puzzle's physically tricky to get at; I'm not so happy when the puzzle's hard to find.) But... I was glad that GC had found a warm, inside puzzle site. Often, late-night puzzles get cold. I was glad not to be cold. I was glad that Jeff wasn't cold. I thought about Sarah getting rained on for Ghost Patrol. Being inside was good.

Me: "Howdy. Are you having a good time?"

Him: "Well, as good as I can have standing around in a laundromat for a very long period of time."

"This is a good spot."

We searched a few minutes. I assumed we were looking for a packet of money, which was dumb. Eventually, someone thought to look in a drier, where there were delicates-bags containing money. Aha. We took the one with our team's name on it.

The money wasn't exactly money. It was a bunch of money-shaped pieces of paper. On one face was a picture of some foreign paper money, but with some identifying marks obscured. On the other side were smaller photos, set up to make analogies like X-Ray is to Whiskey as Papa is to... Maybe we were looking for Oscar somewhere... and here was a little picture of Oscar on another piece of paper. But the analogies weren't all based on NATO phonetic alphabet; they were all different.

Nudged by the flavortext, we started with the analogies, using them to pair up pieces of paper. When we had a bunch of those figured out, we started to flip over papers. We wanted to identify currencies. Here, Google Goggles really came through; we soon had more than one person scanning bills, making quick progress. We were stuck on a few of the analogies; in the end, we didn't figure all of them out (we didn't spot the POPCORN/COP PORN anagram). Hmm, DINAR and RAND were on analogy-paired pieces of paper, and were anagrams of each other except but needing one letter: I. So we kept goggling; and somehow Joe figured out a way to order the letters we were extracting, and figured out that they made a message something about COUNTRY LOON which sounded like CANADA, which the laptop liked as an answer.

Next: Back to Work[next]

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