Puzzle Hunts are Everywhere, Even the Hearts of True Loves

Dave Blum of Dr. Clue writes:

...And every year, on the anniversary of our first date, we write treasure hunt clues for each other. ...

It's a wonderful thing when two geeks--whose geekiness overlaps--find each other. If you want to read the rest of an article about anniversary puzzlehunts, then go read Traditions.

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Book Report: Against the Gods (the Remarkable Story of Risk)

Last night, I went out to a musical performance dealie. It was TV on the Radio. I'd heard their most recent album, and it seemed OK but not great. But Rob Pfile wanted to go see the show. Rob has pretty good taste, so I went to see the show too. Wow, they're good live. I'm glad I went despite my earlier misgivings. Sometimes risk is rewarded. Oh, right, that was my point. I read a book about the history of risk.

Specifically, it's a book about the history of math, probability, statistics, actuarial science, and thinking about risk. The math part--the early history when the whole idea of probability hadn't really emerged--wasn't much fun because it was a bunch of material that I halfway knew already. But the later chapters contained more things that I didn't know. If the idea of a history of statistics doesn't appeal to you, you probably won't like this book. I liked it. I'm not sure how much of it I retained, though.

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Book Report: The Railway Man

The good news is that Gene Wolfe has a new book coming out with "Pirate" in the title: Pirate Freedom. The bad news is that book isn't scheduled to emerge until November, months after the pirate-themed BATH3 game. So I guess I can't use it as the basis for a Beale cipher, forcing each team to buy copies of the book and support one of my favorite authors, the guy who wrote Shadow of the Torturer. Speaking of torture, how about a book report?

Torture is wrong, and yet it is also stupid and useless. If you notice someone forgetting this, you might encourage them to read The Railway Man, the autobiography of Eric Lomax. He was a prisoner of war during WWII. He was tortured, but it didn't help his torturers.

If you already realize that torture is useless, this book probably won't help so much. But it is short and has some jokes in it, so you might pick it up anyhow. When you're done, you can say that you read an Important Book and impress all of your friends who listen to public radio.

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Book Report: Parallel Distributed Processing

Based on the title, I hoped that this heavy two-volume set of books containing a number of articles would teach me a lot about how to write programs that run on several machines at once. After reading a couple of sections and skimming further, I figured out that these articles are about what we nowadays call "neural nets". Maybe these are great articles about neural nets, but that's not what I wanted to read about. I stopped.

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Book Report: Anansi Boys

I watched the no-more-secrets application videos that have been posted so far. I found the toy sharks very funny, funnier than I would have expected from the verbal description "well, there are toy sharks". I was impressed by the fire engine. But that's not why we're here today. We're here today because I'm still trying to clear out a backlog of book reports. Like this one for Neil Gaiman's Anansi Boys.

Every so often, you're traveling in some city and you realize that the books you've brought won't last. They looked so substantial, but then you opened them up on the airplane and you notice that the margins are large, as is the typeface. And then you realize you'll need more books before this travel is done. If you're lucky, the bookstore you pop into will have a book as amusing as Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman. It's good. And it's ubiquitous. So you won't really feel bad about leaving it behind in a hotel room--you can always pick up another copy elsewhere.

Oh the book--it's a sequel to American Gods, another book in which gods don't so much walk the earth as creep around in the world's back alleys. The gods plot and our hero must unravel their plottings, twist those plottings around to his own ends, then untangle the results. Unlike American Gods, there appear to be many forces at work in this novel that don't rely on belief. There is a crazy bird lady, but I haven't noticed anyone worshipping a crazy bird lady recently, nor telling stories about one. Then again, maybe I'm not moving in the right social circles.

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Book Report: The Tapir's Morning Bath

This book, by Elizabeth Royte, is about a cluster of scientists at a research station on an island in the middle of Gatun Lake, an area flooded during the creation of the Panama Canal. The scientists study animals and plants. Royte wrote about them, volunteering her services as an unpaid research assistant. The book was interesting, though I suspect that these scientists are not much fun at parties. Royte stayed with them for a year, on and off, and manages to pull out some great anecdotes from her time there. Bert kept mostly to himself but followed the gossip. Chrissy chases spider monkeys and collects their poop so that she can measure hormone levels. Bret (not to be confused with Bert) observed bats and decided that we can grow old or dodge cancer, but not both.

I don't try to figure out my annual "fave reads" anymore. And it's only march. But I bet that if I tried to figure out my fave reads for 2007, this book would be on it.

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Book Report: Travesties

I walked partway home tonight; stopped on a narrow road. The streetlight wasn't on, but I was stopped by brilliance: some tree flowering full. Would I have noticed it if the road hadn't been darker than usual? I looked up at the blossoms, and beyond them the stars. And I thought let all the lights go out, I'd rather look at trees than lights.

I kept walking, walked around a bend. This road is up in the hills, not up where Twin Peaks become peaks, but most of the way up there. So I walked around a bend, and in the gap between buildings, I looked out at a panorama--city lit up at night. There was a heat shimmer in the air, and the city twinkled. Streetlights, bridges lit up, places of business with their bright signs. And I thought let all the trees fall down, I'd rather look at lights.

I don't know what my point is. I had a nice walk home. Just another blogger going on about his day. Don't mind me. I'm just stalling because I don't have anything clever to say about "Travesties".

It's a play by Tom Stoppard.

The name-brand characters are James Joyce, Tristan Tzara, and Lenin. Joyce wrote a work which is famously unintelligible because it's so carefully crafted. Tzara wrote poems which are famously unintelligible because he created them through random methods. Lenin wrote works which are famously unintelligible because every two-bit political hack chooses to interpret them differently. Wait, I guess that last one is a symptom, not a cause of unintelligibility. Anyhow.

What happens when you throw these characters in a play loosely following the structure of the Importance of Being Earnest as remembered by a clotheshorse gone senile?

I'm not sure how well I followed this play. Maybe I'd have an easier time making sense of it if I'd seen it instead of just reading the script.

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Puzzle Hunts are Everywhere, Even my Head

Last weekend was a puzzle playtest party for BATH3. BATH is a sort of pot-luck puzzle hunt in which each team makes up one puzzle. Game Control strings all of the puzzles together and runs a game around it. Part of running the game: organizing play-tests. I went for a few hours, wrestled with a few puzzles. There were a couple which made me think "Well... that's why you playtest." E.g., the one where we commented "The puzzle activity was fun, once we figured out what we were supposed to do, ahem, 55 minutes after we received the puzzle."

But there was this one puzzle that was just so elegant it made the whole day worthwhile. I shouldn't say anything about the puzzle, of course. All these things are still secret, secret until the game happens. I shouldn't even say which team's puzzle it was. Otherwise, teams trying to solve it would have a big hint: "Hey, guys, this is Team Such-and-Such's puzzle. I read about this one in a blog. If you find yourself considering a solution that is anything less than totally elegant, you're on the wrong track." I worked on it with Justin Graham and some guy named Josh. As the puzzle unfolded, I was so overcome with joy that I came as close to hugging Justin Graham as I ever expect to in my life.

On Sunday, I worked on constructing little puzzles. The BATH3 folks could use some mini-puzzles for pre-clues and such. So I've been picking up piece-work. I've been trying to make puzzles of various standard types. Some puzzle types which I always assumed to be nigh impossible to construct are easy. At least one which I thought would be easy to construct is nigh impossible. I wasted hours on Sunday on one puzzle which was easy to construct--but nigh impossible to tweak in the elegant way that I wanted.

One of my little puzzles got rejected because it was too similar to a regular puzzle which a team had made. During the play-test, I noticed that another team-submitted puzzle used a similar pirate-y puzzle-y gimmick as one of my little puzzles. Maybe I should be sad that we won't use my ideas. But I'm happy to find out that I'm starting to think like these people do.

But just starting. That elegant puzzle? I wouldn't have thought of that in years. For that, I think I need to watch the world around me, keep my eyes open. If I'm ever going to come up with something really creative, I need to think about everything.

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Book Report: India Unbound

In this book, Gurcharan Das whines about life in India under the "License Raj". For many decades, India's government was over-regulated. The government was in charge of everything. Bureaucrats had great power--but not enough time or enthusiasm to carry out their duties. So anyone who wanted to run a business neeed licenses, and would probably spend about two years (a) figuring out who they needed to bribe, (b) bribing them, and (c) figuring out who they needed to bribe next. Corruption reigned. If you succeeded in business, your taxes were likely to be around 97% and could go over 100%. Perhaps this tax rate was fair punishment--you were probably a criminal if you'd made this much money, considering how many people you'd probably bribed. This state of affairs did not turn out well. In recent years, many of the regulations have gone away. Many new small businesses have sprung up. Mr. Das says this is pretty significant, and makes a good case.

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Puzzle Hunts are Everywhere, Including the Googleplex

I am not a hardcore puzzler. I found out that even if the puzzles are great and fun and elegant, I go stir crazy if I try to sit in a conference room and solve puzzles for 24 hours.

Now some folks are setting up a sit-and-solve puzzle hunt at Google. In June. So that folks can sit inside on a nice day. And night. And then another nice day.

I'm glad you kids like puzzles so much. I hope you have a lovely time. Just don't forget to go outside and play amongst the trees occasionally, right? I worry about you.

In tangentially-related news, I think the phrase "Shoe's on fire", uttered with a proper calm, may approach the essence of mad science.

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Book Report: Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?

Last night, I watched Word for Word perform Lorrie Moore's short story "Which is More than I can Say About Some People." Wow, what a great short story. It was fun seeing it performed, but it was also fun remembering reading that story the first time.

After the performance, Lorrie Moore got up on stage and conversed with local author Dan Handler. One thing she mentioned is that many short story writers get people pestering them: "You should write a novel." She said that she herself had never been so pestered. Anyhow, I read her Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?. And it was nice, but not so exquisite as the stories in Birds of America. Am I damning Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? with faint praise? I hope not.

This novella has symbolism--our heroine has a job working at a place called Storyland, an amusement park of illusory innocence. When she grows up, she gets kicked out. It's about learning to live with acknowledged imperfections, about figuring out what doesn't matter, about friendship. If I were a high school student taking an English class, I'd probably prefer to read this book than to read, say, A Separate Peace.

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Site Update: Chicago Photos

I finally typed up my notes and uploaded my Chicago photos. I don't know if they're coherent. But I'm calling them done for now, because I think I'm about to get distracted with other tasks.

In other news: Pi Day approaches. That might explain why Michael Naylor was roaming the internet looking for Pi stuff, sending me email.

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Book Report: American Gods

Did you know that "No More Secrets" is an anagram for "Cosmo Re-Enters", and that "Cosmo" is the name of the villain from the movie "Sneakers"? Why yes, I have been staring at Game application materials for several consecutive hours, how could you tell? Maybe it's time for another book report that I wrote a few weeks ago but only got around to uploading today. Maybe this one about American Gods.

I enjoyed this book by Neil Gaiman.

It was a bestseller. You probably already read it. You probably already tried to talk to me about this book and then I stuck my fingers in my ears and said "Laylerlaylerlaylerlaylerlayler! I'm not listening! Spoiler warning! Go away fan[boy|girl]! I'm not listening to you! I haven't read the book yet!" Anyhow, it took me a few years, but I finally read it. I enjoyed it.

I hope that you enjoyed it, too. Sorry about the whole "layler" thing.

(Wow, that was a short review. Why did I wait so long?)

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Book Report: Valencia

Still pretty busy with game stuff--applications, puzzle ideas. It's been far too hectic for the last few days. Sometime yesterday afternoon, things turned a corner and I started to dig out from under. This evening I even started to catch up on personal mail. 180 pieces of personal mail. OK, I'm not caught up yet. But things feel soooo less hectic now. As part of the game application, I helped make a video. The guy with a video camera lives on Valencia, so Dwight and I headed over to Valencia to make this movie. Which is kind of a lame seque to say that I'm about to paste in this previously-composed book report about the novel Valencia. So sue me. I'm going to bed. I'm sleepy. It's been a heck of a week.

This novel is by Michelle Tea, but I've never heard her speak, so instead I'm going to start out by talking about Gerald Sussman, who I did hear speak a few weeks back. He's one of the authors of SICP, the Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs. If you are a computer science geek, you may know this as the MIT intro-to-computer-science textbook. We used it at Cal, too. I remember that it was full of strange things to think about: the metacircular evaluator springs to mind. An interesting topic, but one that makes a naive frosh think, "What is the point of this?" Years later, I'd have some more perspective. Ah, he wanted to expose us to this concept and that concept, thinking that they'd come in handy later. Too bad that, at the time, I just thought that the textbook authors were crazy.

Sussman came to talk at work. He was worried about the state of computer progamming today. People creating code libraries, people designing APIs--they were all doing it wrong. There were these complicated interfaces for getting these gobbets of code to interact with each other. He sought inspiration from biological systems. In DNA, there's a reason that arms are like legs, but different. There is some DNA that controls how all limbs grow. But there is some DNA that is "triggered" based on where a body feature, uhm, sprouts from. Thus our legs are a lot like our arms, but are set up to be thicker, capable of supporting our weight all the time.

Modern software libraries aren't set up to fit together so easily. Sussman wanted components that could be combined more easily. To illustrate this, he put a diagram up on the board. It would be good if there was some way that in one stage of computing, a component could look at many thingies, figuring out something about each of these thingies; and then it would be good if there was some way to combine all of these results. So if you wanted to compute the sum of squares of many numbers, then you could say "well, for each number, the many-thingy operation is: compute the square; then when that's done, to combine the answer, we want to add those numbers together". To compute the average height of NBA athletes, you would say "for each athlete, the many-thingy operation is: extract the height from the data that we have about each athlete; then when that's done, to compute the answer, we want to add up all of those numbers and then divide by the number of athletes". This framework should exist; people writing software libraries should design those librarys' interface functions to "snap" into such a framework.

He had a few of these frameworks in mind, not just the many-operations-combined, but that's the one he showed. If he wanted to show us an idea that hadn't taken hold out in the world, that was the wrong framework to show. It was MapReduce. Folks at work use it all the time. I used it a couple of weeks ago for a project where I didn't have to--I could have used a loop. A year ago, I would have used a loop. But no, I used MapReduce. It was just the easiest way to solve the problem. I am not the sharpest programmer at work, not by a long shot. I have spent little time in the ivory tower of academia. But I'd been exposed to this idea for a while, and it had sunk in. As more coders get exposed to this stuff, they'll use it. I'd heard that the ideas for MapReduce came from the dread buried knowledge of the Lisp hackers, and of course Sussman is one of those. Anyhow, I can't claim that all of computer science has advanced to the point that Sussman dreams of, but... Perhaps we are closer than he thought.

After the talk, he took questions. I think that MIT's intro-to-CS course changed recently. Sussman's book will, presumably, be replaced by something else. I get the impression that various afficianados of novelty and fans of stability had been nattering at each other about whether or not this change was good. Maybe that's why someone asked about the future of education. I forget what the question was. But Sussman decided to talk a bit about the future of education. He pointed out that right now kids go to university because it's the ticket to a job. But jobs keep going away, and will do so more rapidly. As machines get better at tasks, it's not so important that humans do things. As the necessities of life become cheaper, we will have more idlers. If these people don't need jobs, how can we motivate them to educate themselves?

I thought about Michelle Tea's novel Valencia. This book is full of alternative youth falling in love, altering mental states, falling out of love, wandering city streets, wandering the nation. Occasionally someone holds down a job for a while, but most people seem to drift along without such. It would not be correct to call this book a lesbian version of a collection of Aaron Cometbus stories; but you suspect that these writers' characters would understand each other pretty well. These people drop out; when they have jobs, those jobs do not exercise their educations. That tattooed bartender's degree in comparative literature has not helped her career.

Sussman thought of this as an edutainment problem: how do you fool young people into learning if their education doesn't help them? I'm thinking, "Maybe that world is closer than you think." I don't have a great solution to this problem. I figure: if education becomes irrelevant, maybe we shouldn't continue shoving it down people's throats.

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Book Report: The Best Software Writing

This weekend has been hectic. I attended a Game Control summit. I haven't listened to the audio I recorded. It could be interesting; it could be white noise. I stopped by the start of the Chinese New Years Treasure Hunt; post-hunt reports say that this one was less suck-tastic than the previous one I visited. Today, I worked on making a video with an unlikely number of Freunds. I guess I'm not going to find the time to write about any of this in the next few days. And my Chicago photos are lurking in a corner somewhere. And.. and... and after this weekend, I think I need a second weekend to recover. Meanwhile, please enjoy this pre-recorded book report about The Best Software Writing.

I finally got around to reading this collection of belles e-lettres. I felt a little silly paying for a book that basically printed articles which were available for free online. Then again, I was thankful to the editor for digging through lots of crappy writing about software development in order to unearth the good ones. So I bought a copy, and hopefully a nickel of royalties and karma will trickle over in the right direction.

Oh, the book. The book is about programming and projects and working together. That "editor" link up there links to the introduction. It also has a list of the articles if you want to seek them out and read them online.

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Link: Travelers Storybook

I have mentioned this before: When I was growing, I spent a fair amount of time with Bob & Kelly Wilhelm, friends of the family. Bob was and is a storyteller. I don't just mean that he can relay anecdotes, though he can do that. I mean: he's a traditional storyteller. There is an art to telling these stories out loud; they were composed and passed along with this delivery in mind.

Bob and Kelly moved out east to the Washimore area. Thus, I didn't get to hear stories so often. For a while, I had some stories on audio tape. I think I still have them. But an audio tape player... uhm, oh whoops.

Now, tradition gets an update: Bob has a podcast. I just found out about it yesterday. This was sufficiently exciting that I sought out a computer with a working sound card. It was worth it. I work with written words; I believe in the power of the written word--but I remember the power of the voice. I listened to Ivar's Tale from Iceland, and the voice was there.

Check it out. Really, go listen.

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Link: We have Metonymy and They Are Ours

The Brain Fist webcomic is often funny.

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