MITMH 2020: Saturday

Careful: I'm pretty blasé about spoilers for this year-old hunt. If you haven't already solved the puzzles you wanted to solve, maybe don't keep reading.

I woke up early to be ready for my pre-dawn shift as Dispatcher. I got my stuff together and headed out into the cold Boston winter night.

In the weeks leading up to Hunt, I'd found out that one of our skit characters, Dirham, was a wizard. I happened to have a wizard hat at home. I'd brought it with me to Hunt. Ostensibly, I'd done this so we'd have a spare wizard's hat for emergencies. As it happened, I was darned glad to have that hat with me; it's the warmest hat I own.

On Duty

Back at HQ, I was soon on Dispatcher duty. Teams who hit certain Hunt milestones would receive visits from our actors. The actors would perform a skit to tell the team how they were progressing through the hunt's story. The dispatcher (that's me) watched the hunt server to see when teams were ready for visits, then dispatch actors via Slack. (Each troupe of actors was accompanied by a handler. The handler didn't act, but watched the Slack channel, helped the actors with costumery, etc.)

In theory, I was on Dispatcher duty. In practice, it was darned early in the morning and not much was happening. Most teams were sleeping instead of hitting hunt milestones, and thus there was little call for milestone-celebrating skits.

There wasn't much going on in general, really. Nina was in charge of HQ ops during this quiet time. That is, she was my boss and the boss of a whole lot of other aspects of the hunt where not much was going on because most players were asleep. Nina was very, very capable and there was not much for her to do. Thus, in theory I was on dispatcher duty, but in fact Nina did all this. I'd check on the server, notice that a team had hit some milestone—and as I started on Dispatcher tasks, I'd see that Nina had already taken care of them.

A few hours into my shift, players were waking up. Then something really amazing happened: Nina was distracted for a few seconds and thus I actually did some dispatching. My shift was over pretty soon after that.

Character Breakfast

Duty-less, I asked for something to do. Soon I was on my way through the cold to Lobdell Dining Hall, a big event room at the MIT student center. Here, some Left Out teammates were already setting up for the Character Breakfast event.

This event's gimmick meant that teams would need to play Pictionary in the medium of pancakes. That is, instead of drawing with a pen on paper, the team's "artists" would dribble pancake batter onto a hot griddle, cook the result, and then show it to the rest of the team for interpretation.

Thus, setting up involved laying down plastic sheets to protect the carpet, setting up many electric griddles along a wall, washing many spatulas, …

And then we weren't setting up. Teams were coming in. The event was starting.

[photo: Setting up the Character Breakfast]
Setting up the Character Breakfast

To prevent overexcited artists from blurting out the Pictionary answers to their teams, they were kept apart. Some of us Left Out folks were waiters, carrying completed pancake-art from the arists to their teams. I was a waiter.

There was a TV crew at the event. Joshua Foer, the author of Moonwalking with Einstein, was on a team, and a TV crew was following him around. When I saw them, I thought "Grrr, they will be in the way. How irresponsbile to bring a TV crew in here, interfering with my waiterly duties." But the crew was astonishingly adept at staying out of the way. Maybe they were accustomed to covering events which involved a lot of scrambling around? Anyhow, I soon realized I was worrying over nothing.

[photo: Two top chefs]
Two top chefs at the character breakfast. Photo by Charlie Graham

Instead of being grumpy at interference, I was amazed at teams' performance. Some of these "artists" were real artists, quick to adapt to this new medium. Some of these artists were real chefs, quickly grasping how to achieve visual effects with cooked batter.

Partway through the second shift of teams, it was time for me to hang up my apron. Noon was approaching. Soon teams would be able to ask for hints. Thus it was time for me to report for hint duty. I bundled up into my warm clothes and made my way through the cold back to HQ in the Bush room.

Hints

Back at HQ, I sat down at the designated Hints Team table with my fellow hint-givers. We didn't know what to expect. Many, many teams would be eligible for hints starting at noon. Could we keep up with them? Most folks on team Left Out are reluctant to ask for hints. If all MIT Mystery Hunt teams were like us, the Hints Team would be mostly idle, and would have an easy time handling all hint requests. But what if MIT Mystery Hunt teams asked for hints aggressively, then asked for follow-up hints aggressively, and then kept asking for more follow-up? Then we were doomed to being swamped.

Probably we would land somewhere between "mostly idle" and "swamp-doomed", but I didn't know where.

Some good news: Teams were figuring out the emoji gimmick for our emoji puzzle round. Maybe they wouldn't be too grumpy when dealing with us.

As noon approached, the hint-dispensing team hunkered down. Noon ticked by. Around campus, various teams noticed that they had hints available, figured out the hint-request UI on the web site. The hint requests popped up. We hint-providers pounced on them one by one. Hint requests flowed in faster than we could answer. A few minutes after noon, I looked at the list of to-be-handled hint requests on my laptop. The list filled the screen. Were we swamped? Were we doomed?

We kept dispensing hints. And then I noticed that the list of hint requests didn't fill up my laptop screen. There had been a rush of hint requests in the minutes right after noon; but that rush had slowed to a trickle. We hint-dispensers were now catching up. We weren't swamped. We weren't doomed. Several minutes later, we'd dispensed all of the hint requests. Every few minutes another request popped up; Someone always pounced on it quickly.

I noted that Misha was very quick to pounce on hint requests. Our team, Left Out, got its name because so many of us played remotely, on the USA's "left" coast. Misha was even more left out, playing in another country. But now, thanks to the internet, Misha was very much participating. It wasn't easy to pounce on a hint request before Misha.

Some hint-dispensers wandered off to work on tasks that weren't so over-staffed. I ostensibly stayed on hint duty, but mostly I was watching hunt status, catching up on hunt-related social media, and otherwise idling. It was good to decompress after that rush of hint requests.

Not Exactly Idling

Watching hunt status, I saw that my Whirlwind mini-runaround puzzle was the first to be solved in the Cascade Bay round. On the one hand, this suggested that my puzzes continued to skew towards the easy side. On the other hand, it was reassuring to see proof that the puzzle was not totally broken.

Eagle-eyed puzzlers caught an erratum in the Hackin' the Beanstalk puzzle. The mistake was in some Javascript code, and here I realized a problem with how I, Production Czar, had handled JS in puzzles that used it. To avoid players getting spoiled by just looking at the JS, we obfuscated it. But I didn't keep a copy of the unobfuscated JS with the puzzle. Thus, when eagle-eyed players spotted a problem, I didn't have a good way to fix it in code: Yar and I had left our development machines back in San Francisco. I dug around in Slack history to find a copy of the JS file that Yar had sent me, but that took a while. Closing the barn door after the horses had run out, when I uploaded the fixed puzzle, this time I included the unobfuscated JS (in a file with a difficult-to-guess name).

(Puzzlers inclined to worry about such things might point out that JS obfuscation isn't so difficult to defeat. By using obfuscated JS instead of hiding secrets in server code, we let computer nerds skip some puzzling by hacking. We were OK with that. But I wasn't OK with making it tough for myself to make changes to JS…)

I wasn't totally distracted by errata and social media. I did still occasionally pounce on a hint request before anyone else did. And when I was watching hunt status, that wasn't 100% goofing off. Nobody could ask for hints on a puzzle that had been solved by fewer than 30 teams. But when the 30th team solved a puzzle, suddenly a few teams would be eligible to ask for hints. So it was good to scan the hunt status for puzzles that had been solved by 28 or 29 teams. If you spotted one of those, then you knew it was time to study up on that puzzle: you might have to give hints about it soon.

In early evening, it was time for me to head back to the hotel and for bed so I could be awake frightfully early Sunday morning. I lingered a bit: the lead teams were making quick progress. I experienced fear of missing out: When I woke up Sunday morning, would some team already have found the coin?

But if I didn't sleep, I'd be no use to anyone on Sunday. Even if some team did find the coin, I wouldn't be able to enjoy it if I couldn't keep my eyes open. I put on my scarf and cozy wizard's hat and walked back to the hotel, where bed awaited.

Sunday [>]

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