Larry Hosken: New

Puzzle Hunts are Everywhere, even Cambridge/California Part II: Electric Boogaloo

This weekend, I once again joined up with team Left Out to play in the MIT Mystery Hunt. It was a lot of fun! Once again I played with the California contingent of this distributed team. Beforehand, I prepped by reading my blog post from last year, the first time I played. There, I'd left reminders to myself about things to do differently next (i.e., this) time:

This year, I slept great on Friday night. Following my note-to-self from last year, I got out and walked a bit before turning in, letting some exercise wear me out a bit & letting endorphins knock me out of puzzling frenzy. Also, though I hadn't noted it down last year, I remembered while packing: bring earplugs this time.

This all backfired: I went to bed on Friday night so that I'd be refreshed and a big help to the team on Saturday morning. But by the time I woke up, the rest of the team had solved all the metapuzzles; there wasn't much point to solving more puzzles. Most of the California crew had gone home, leaving just the solve-every-puzzle-even-if-unnecessary diehards. (I am not such a diehard.) If I'd stayed up a few more hours, I would have been only bleary half-conscious help… but at least I would have been some help. I can't even blame Game Control for my mistake: The hunt's web site made it pretty clear that we were 80+% done when I went to bed. But I "knew" that there would of course be a "surprise" twist in the game that revealed a whole 'nother hunt section… ahem But that didn't happen.

I brought ginger snaps. A few people brought ginger snaps. Also: this year, most of the team played in Cambridge, not in California. We had a lot of people in California, but not as many as before. But I think we kinda shopped for the old # of people. And some people brought home-made treats because home-made treats are awesome. And… And the resulting snack:puzzler ratio was very high at California HQ. I ended up lugging most of my ginger snaps back home with me. (And you're wondering "Hey why not leave those extra cookies behind as a thank you to the charming California Left Out hosts?" And I'm telling you: there were a lot of leftover snacks. We were definitely getting up into "Don't do me any favors" territory.)

Note to self for 2018: ignore notes to self from 2016, derp.

I worked on a puzzle with Stribs. This experience was properly humbling. We were slowly slogging through a bunch of internet TV trivia research, hunting down some show episode titles. We'd found a bunch, and were obviously going to need a lot of time to find the rest. Stribs was able to look at a few out-of-order letters and a bunch of blanks and wheel-of-fortune his way to the answer. It was kind of stunning to witness. Stribs and Jessen, accustomed to playing The Game-style overnight puzzlehunts as a two-man team, liked to measure their effectiveness via the ratio puzzles solved/puzzler. Later on, when we heard that we'd been bested by bigger teams, we could take this measurement as a consolation.

Saturday morning, it's not like there was nothing to do: we had a video-chat set up between California and Cambridge. When Game Control came to visit our room in Cambridge, us remote folks still got to watch. Even better: for the final run-around, Linda Holman carried her phone with her the whole way. Thus, us remote folks got to see an honest-to-goodness MIT runaround accompanied by Linda's commentary. (It turns out that MIT campus cops are rather blasé about a bunch of nerds walking around with a guy in a wizard outfit; who knew?)

My memories of individual puzzles are pretty hazy. I'd forgotten about the puzzle Net Work until I read about it in someone's (devjoe's?) writeup. And when I remembered it, I thought maybe it was my favorite puzzle from this hunt. I do remember the Dancing Girls puzzle, but for a kinda embarrassing reason: I remembered the relevant literary key to the puzzle while I was sitting on the toilet taking a break from staring at the puzzle slack-jawed… so I had to tamp down my instinct (to leap to my feet), force myself to finish my business, remember to zip up, wash my hands… and only then scurry back to the table of nerds to say omigawsh, it's the [redacted].

I got home Saturday afternoon. Though I'd slept plenty the night before, I still ended up taking a big nap. It's like my body has expectations about how a big puzzling event is supposed to work: afterwards, I will be exhausted, whether it makes sense or no.

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As previously threatened, I've updated the phrase and word lists linked from the phraser page with more modern language. E.g., podesta was the 82,350th most "common" word on the old list, but with newfound fame it's the 78,048th word on the new list. Boy howdy it's that kind of startling difference that underlines just how vital it is to keep these lists fresh. Erm. Well, it was good practice anyhow.

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Guesses about this year's MIT Mystery Hunt Theme?

I'm preparing to update the commonly-used-word list and commonly-used-phrase lists at the phraser page. The MIT Mystery Hunt is approaching rapidly. So I'm freshening the "raw material" for those lists. So far, all that means is that I'm downloading a more-recent copy of Wikipedia. But if you have a strong hunch that this year's hunt is all about, uhm, Thomas the Tank Engine (or whatever) and you think I should also be downloading all the TtTE material I can get my hands on, pipe up. Ideally you'd pipe up before tomorrow morning, when this wikipedia download should finish and I get on to the next phase of generating those word and phrase lists.

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Book Report: Work Rules

It's a book about business people operations by Google's Laszlo Bock. (Ex-Google, but at Google when he wrote the book…) There's important advice in there even if your company doesn't have geysers of advertising money erupting up through the floor. There's important advice in there even if you don't set any policy for any organization at all.

Whether or not you set policy, if you're pulling down enough money to live on, then Laszlo wants you to save for your retirement. Get into the habit of putting some money aside. You might appreciate the peace of mind later more than you enjoy that $22 plate of fancy restaurant pork trotters now.

If you do set policy and want a place with a Googley attitude but maybe don't have Googley money, you can: set policies that remove obstacles. Don't require so many approvals for things. Give people permission to do their jobs. Sometimes they'll fall down and do embarrassing things that make you want to put up lots of signature-requiring policies again. But on average, the agility you get makes the chaos worth it.


When he gets into how these things have played out at Google, there's some Trust But Verify going on. People are messy. Google has a lot of people.

E.g., riddle-me-this engineering interview questions are silly. If you ask someone to Fermi-estimate how many golf balls would fill the Grand Canyon, that's not a good way to gauge their ability to estimate where to shoehorn a caching layer into your whatsit server system. Instructions to Google interviewers specifically point out not to ask these unhelpful questions (and point out some kinds of questions that do correlate with nerdly competence). But some Google engineers "know better" than to trust the instructions, bless their naive arrogant hearts. They have their favorite Fermi-ish questions and ask those questions. But the interviewers aren't the folks who make the hiring decisions. Those decision makers get a summary of the interview. When they see that an interviewer asked unhelpful questions, they don't use that interview. (And they tell the interviewer to get his act together for next time.)

Mind you, those decision makers aren't just hiring managers. They are individual contributors in those meetings too. So… maybe the "trust" message is that management should trust the non-management. And if there's some process so important that one bad apple could ruin it, like interviewing, then instead of throwing in manager approval you might toss some peers at the problem.

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I've been lurking on some right-wing websites, hoping to get a view outside my bubble. I was especially curious about voter fraud. There are some specific things that keep coming up—maybe the fact that I don't know what those things are means I'm living in ignorant bliss? Well, so far, not so much. Case in point:

I thought I'd been led to evidence of voter fraud by the case of Scott Foval. In a hidden-camera video, he revealed that he was a dirty-tricks man for the Democrats. He talked about disrupting events and voter fraud. But the video was pretty awful propaganda—giving little snippets with no context. The video was so bad that I didn't actually watch much. And the investigators who made the video didn't release their full footage—just the little snippets that suited their message. Instead of watching that drek, I just read other folks writing about the video.

At first I thought the video really revealed voter fraud! That sounded like an interesting thing to learn more about. Most methods of voter fraud you hear about seem dumb: lots of risk for a pretty-small change to the vote count. A practical method would be interesting. But when I kept digging, I didn't learn methods. Instead, I learned that the video showed Foval's speculation about how he might try to rig the vote if he were stupid enough to try it.

I'm not surprised that there's an echo chamber that passes this video around, claiming it shows evidence of voter fraud. It's pretty hard to figure out exactly what the video is presenting evidence of. If you skim an article about the story, it's pretty easy to skim over "could have rigged" and read it as "rigged". If you go in assuming it's about vote rigging, it's easy to keep thinking that. You're not so likely to bump into a fact-check unless you look for one. It's not like the Democrats want to push a counter-message about this video: that video caught them doing awful stuff, just not voter fraud.

Politics: where there are two sides to every story and the truth is worse than either of them.

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Scrubbed my to-read list of books I realistically won't get around to reading. Is that the opposite of a New Year's Resolution?

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Book Report: The Powerhouse

It's a book about advanced battery research in the USA. I learned that this field is favored by "charismatic thieves, swindlers, who are tricking people." Not all such researchers are charlatans; some are merely dupes wondering why they're having trouble making progress on their research (building upon what turns out to be false experiments by charlatans, whoops).

At one point, the book points out that Elon Musk, the Tesla car guy, "thumbed his nose" at cutting-edge battery researchers by choosing some tried-and-true battery technology. But after reading about what passes for business-as-usual shenanigans in this field, I'm thinking maybe he wasn't "thumbing his nose" so much as carefully backing away from a horde of confidence tricksters. Well… maybe only 25% confidence tricksters, but who knows which 25%?

I hoped to learn some History of Science, and was pleased. Fans of the True Crime genre might be surprised how much they find to enjoy in this book as well.

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