Puzzle Things are Everywhere, with Local Witnesses

A while back, I blogged about Stuart Landsborough's Puzzling World, a tourist spot in New Zealand with a big maze and other weirdness. Why do I bring this up? Local gamist Chiu-Ki Chan went there, and took some awesome photos. So I guess it's real after all.

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Book Report: The Snowball

It's a biography of Warren Buffet. It's pretty long. But there are some good stories in here, the writing is good, and it smells well-researched. It edges around some touchy topics, but it's pretty easy to tell when that's going on; there are plenty of touchy topics it doesn't edge around, but dives right into.

["Jet" Jack Ringwalt's] first break had come when a bank asked him to guarantee that a bootlegger—presumed murdered—would not return to Omaha, because the presumptive widow wanted to withdraw his account without waiting the legally required seven years. Ringwalt figured the alleged murderer's lawyer might have a pretty good idea whether the missing bootlgger's blood no longer pulsed. He had helped the accused murderer beat the rap, but the dead man's widow (and the bank) suspected that was mainly just good lawyering, not exoneration. Still, the lawyer couldn't say whether his client had confessed to him. So Ringwalt got him to put up some of his own money on the guarantee, on the thory that unless the bootlegger had croaked louder than a bullfrog, the lawyer wouldn't take the risk. Sure enough, the cash told all; the bootlegger never reappeared, and the bank never made a claim...

Puzzlehunt fans even get a relevant phrase: Another Ringwalt story illustrates "Only Game Control thinks that's funny" conflict-of-interest:

...then he put up the stakes for radio-station treasure hunts, hiding the clues in lipstick cases, burying them himself, using clues so obscure that only one prize was ever claimed.

A story about Warren Buffet as he cleaned up after an illegal trading scandal at Salomon Bros: he cut loose a P.R. firm that had been newly hired to shape news about the scandal.

"It wasn't that we're misunderstood, for Christ's sake," said Buffet afterward. "We don't have a public relations problem. We have a problem with what we did."

A note about the power of computer games--as of 1991, Buffet still wasn't using a computer to do his research, his writing, etc. He hung out with Bill Gates who tried to convince him to use a computer, but nothing doing. But he finally started using a computer when his bridge partner told him he could practice (and play) bridge by computer. People talk about Visicalc, but once again, computer games are really what got folks to sit down at the monitor... yeah, anyhow. A fun read.

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Puzzle Hunts are Everywhere, even the world of corporate training... hey, don't fall asleep when I say that

At work, I work in a training group. I was just listening to one of my fellow trainers talk about an outfit that makes some service for education/train-ish folks. It's called Moving Knowledge. It's useful if you've set up some training material for self-paced training.

The system sends the students a message that the educator composes, a message containing an assignment like "Go read the chapter about Thermodynamics. Respond to this message with the word that fills in the blank: The second law of thermodynamics tells us that _____ always increases". It has a few ways it can send messages.
Students reply with answers. If the student gives the right answer, the system congratulates them. Otherwise the system prompts the student to, you know, get it right.
The system sends out more assignments to students as they progress.

And it all sounded to me like, you know, an automatic answer-handling system from a Game or scvngr's software or the control system for some kinds of pervasive games. But repackaged as an educational tool. Neat trick. (Of course, that's probably not how it went. Probably both the educational-messenger and the game-messenger applications are specializations of some general-messenger application. But anyhow. (Or maybe not, as I hunt further around their site, I see mention of them running an alternate reality game.))

Wow, if only the people at work wanted to learn Morse Code instead of parallel computation algorithms, I could probably apply a lot of this puzzle-huntish stuff to my career...

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Book Report: Lewis Carroll in Numberland

This book is about Lewis Carroll/Charles Dodgson as a mathematician. There were errors in the parts that I understood. So I didn't trust the other parts to help me to understand new stuff. Maybe I could have learned something about math if I'd tried harder. Or maybe I would have wasted time chasing my tail around the author's mistakes.

The book's intro points out some places where math came up in Carroll's kiddie lit. It's nice--but for this you of course want Gardner's annotated Alice books, which have the math-y stuff and the other stuff as well. Once you get past the introduction, the rest of the book is organized in fits, a nice Snarky tribute.

The first chapter fit is about Dodgson's childhood, concentrating on the math-y bits. He learned geometry. Good for him, I guess. The second chapter is about college life. He took exams. He did well at them. Good for him, I guess. In the third chapter, he's still an academic. He tries to teach some young kids math, tries using recreational math to keep them interested. The book seems to be looking up...

And then, there was the cipher. It was around here that I had a crisis of faith with this book.

...two days later, Dodgson recorded that he had devised another [cipher], far better than the last:

It has these advantages.
(1) The system is easily carried in the head.
(2) The key-word is the only thing necessarily kept secret.
(3) Even one knowing the system cannot possibly read the cipher without knowing the key-word.
(4) Even with the English to the cipher given, it is impossible to discover the key-word.

This new one was his matrix cipher, which is based on the following grid:

E K P U/V *

...Following Dodgson, let us suppose that the keyword is GROUND, known only to the sender and receiver, and that the first word of our message is SEND.

  • to encode the letter S we go from G (the first letter of the keyword) to S: this is 2 places to the right and 1 place down, and we encode S as 21;
  • to encode the letter E we go from R (the next letter of the keyword) to E: this is 2 places to the right and 3 places down and we encode E as 23; ...
...and he finishes the example. I'm not a master of cryptography but when I look at this encoding scheme and look at the claim "Even with the English to the cipher given, it is impossible to discover the key-word", I call bullshit. Did Dodgson claim this? Was Dodgson wrong? That would be worth pointing out in the book--but that doesn't happen. Did the book explain the encoding scheme incorrectly, and maybe the real scheme really did have a way to keep folks from learning the key? Maybe.

A short while later, there's a sentence, in the context of Dodgson dispelling a rumor: "No British newspaper reports have been found that support Dodgson's account, so perhaps it was true after all..." This sentence--there were a few ways to interpret it, contradictory ways. Does he mean that British newspapers are unreliable so we should trust Dodgson? Does he mean that British newspapers are more reliable than Dodgson, so perhaps it (the rumor) was true after all? What is the author trying to tell me? Around here, I gave up on the book. I was just moving my eyes over the pages.

Maybe a good book to give to a budding nerd who liked the Alice books. On the other hand, you might do better to give that nerd The Annotated Alice.

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Link: Stuart Landsborough's Puzzling World

Puzzling World is a tourist destination in New Zealand. It started out as a big maze for people to wander around in. Then they added some strange attractions. Some of the ad copy worries me, though.

Because [the] Maze had been created using wooden fences, Stuart became the first person in the world to be able to thoroughly understand the psychology of mazes and therefore continue to change and improve the design.

Wow, all of those people who grew hedge mazes must be gnashing their teeth now. "If only I'd used wooden fences, then I would understand the psychology of mazes!"

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Puzzle Hunts are Everywhere, Even the Marin Headlands and maybe the Seat in Front of me on the Bus

There was that awesome Shinteki Decathlon game a couple of weeks ago. One of the clue sites was Hawk Hill, a high hill in the Marin Headlands. It seemed like a neat site, so... yesterday I went back there. I tried to snap a photo once every 5-10 minutes and mostly stuck to that. Well, every 5-10 minutes of travel. I think I waited half an hour for the Sausalito ferry, but I didn't snap so many photos of that.

So you ask, why am I calling this a "Puzzle Hunts are Everywhere" blog post. Well, most of my time in the Marin Headlands has been, uhm, for puzzlehunts. So I kept hitting these spots and thinking Hey, why do I know Battery Spencer--was I here before? Maybe in the dark? (Yes.)

Furthermore, when I was looking over these photos to caption them, I noticed something. I think I was sitting behind puzzle champ Tyler Hinman on the bus. (And you're going to make fun of me for not noticing this at the time. But I'm telling you, that was a distracting bus ride--a Haight Street bus on its way to the annual Haight Street Fair. Imagine the Haight. Now imagine a bus ride. Now squish them together. Now: street fair. Some folks had got a head start on their inebriation. Yeah, it was like that.)

Oh yeah, I guess the link would help: a page of photos showing how I got to Hawk Hill and back.

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Book Report: Super Spy

It is a comic book, a collection of little spy stories. I bought it because it was an Amazon recommendation (albeit a tepid Amazon recommendation) and it had Morse Code on the cover. I didn't like it much, though, not the parts I made it through. I read some brief stories of love and loss amongst spies and informants. Nothing gripped me. Maybe the stories were too quick? I couldn't sympathize with a character so quickly sketched? If I'd kept going, apparently the stories intertwine. But I didn't stick with it.

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White Ninjas-Specific Show Report

Hey, somebody tell Bay Area Night Game Team White Ninjas that I found the perfect band to play their theme song. It's Leather Feather! Most of the people in the band dress up as white ninjas! (Or else maybe as some characters from THX 1138. But let's say ninjas.)

Let's see if I can figure out how to embed one of their videos:

What's that? You say the team changed its name to the League of Extraordinary Puzzlemen? Uhm... OK. Dang. I don't know any bands for that. Never mind. But Leather Feather is still pretty rockin'.

(Oh, and Holy Fuck is another rockin' band, albeit one whose name doesn't obviously relate to any team that I know of. And 'Shreck played some School of Seven Bells afterwards, and that was pretty good too.)

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Jotting notes on Scott Blomquists' GC Summit 2009 Lecture "An Analytic Framework for Estimating Puzzle Quality"

[I re-watched another 2009 GC Summit lecture. In this one, Scott Blomquist of Team Sharkbait talks about measuring puzzle quality. It's kinda a measure of puzzle simplicity--avoiding putting stuff in the puzzle which suggests red herrings. As with my previous set of notes, I paraphrase the speaker except that I have my own comments in [square brackets]]

  • Fair warning--this isn't something that lets you plug in a puzzle and get back a difficulty number. It just helps you subjectively judge.
  • He really wants our help fleshing out the idea. [Now I feel bad. I thought about this for a few minutes and then stopped.]
  • We're talking about information reduction puzzles. [Start with a huge field of dots, reduce it to "GO TO PULGAS WATER TEMPLE"]
  • We're not talking about constraint puzzles, though the Theory might cover them. [Theory vs Sledgehammer: Fight!]
  • How can we describe these puzzles?
    • Information Streams. The starting data is an information stream. But we'll create more of them through...
    • Transformation Steps. Transforming information from one form to another. [_ _ .   _ _ _ -> "GO"]
  • Sample puzzle for analysis: a bunch of automobile mfr logos scattered. E.g., 8 Mercedes Benz logos.
  • What's our information stream? Audience starts calling out
    • page of car badges
    • information about mfrs
    • position of logos
    • counts of logos
    Whoa whoa hey you guys are getting ahead of things. Let's start with just one stream: a page of car badges
  • OK, those things that you people were yelling out. Those are actually transformations. E.g.,
    • identify mfr names
    • describe locations
    • count
  • Information streams accumulate; they don't go away. You might hope that teams will forget about the "extra" streams as they tunnel through the next layer of your puzzle, but teams still get distracted by those streams.
  • This puzzle was originally on a grid. Teams really, really wanted to use location. They wasted a lot of time. [Argh]
  • OK, let's look at counts. And mfr names. And using count to index into mfr name. Also ordering by count. Hey, cool, we solved the puzzle!
  • OK, so how do we measure puzzle quality?
  • Teams are faced with decisions. Let's look at their decision tree.
  • page of badges
    • describe locations
    • count logos
    • id mfr names
      • order by count
      • index by count
        • order by count
  • Q: How do you decide that teams won't follow location branch? A: Judgement. [I hope he's right. I thought about constellation, ordering by "northmost" logo.]
  • Danger signs of a bad puzzle: Broad tree. Links of tree are weak--non-obvious, error-prone. Lack of confirmation at intermediate steps. Obvious streams not used. Abuse of the "Aha!" transform.
  • If you hand teams a CD, that's a broad tree. [Heck yeah.]
  • Unfortunately, don't know a way to measure a good puzzle.
  • Projects another sample puzzle: So what would be a minimal puzzle withou (brief interruption as someone calls out the answer)
  • There's a Puzzle Theory Google Group. There's a Puzzle Theory Wiki.
  • Queston time!
  • Q: Corey points out: red herring removal ain't automatic. If you give teams a bunch of text strings, sorted alphabetically, a good team will say "oh, it's sorted alphabetically, so this order doesn't matter", but a not-so-good team will still wonder "why did alfa come before benz here?" A: Yeah. Lay out your tree. Then playtest and find out about transforms you didn't anticipate.
  • Sean Gugler points out: I call those steps "layers". [Yeah.] If there's a red herring branch, maybe you can tweak it to a mini-solution that redirects to the right way. I've been calling those "signposts".
  • Teresa points out: We have this phrase "billions to three". You start out handed a puzzle, there's a billion options. And the team reduces that. Also, This graph seems like a great start for your help system.
  • Q: Corey brings the discrete math: Teresa called this a graph and I think she's right--it's a graph [vs always a tree], because teams will try to re-use products of previous "dead ends". A: Yeah, and do teams worry about the dead-ends that they don't use? Like, if there was a signpost that they never hit, do they wonder why that extra data was in there?
  • Red says: We think about it this way, in tems of layers. Have talked w/John Owens about how you even talk about this stuff. Might want to think about how you represent the solution. [hey yeah in car logo example, maybe I ordered the mfrs, and then indexed. I still get the answer out, but I took a different path through the tree. Maybe that's what Corey was getting at?]

Has anyone tried mapping out everything that teams could try on a puzzle and turning that into a help system? That seems hard when I think about it, but maybe no harder than coming up with a help system in general.

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Link: Ken Jennings roolz San Francisco

City Hall runs this town. And who runs city hall? Not Gavin Newsom--he's bumbling around, grooming himself for a gubernatorial run. Fortunately Jeopardy star Ken Jennings stepped in to keep city hall on course and/or using the stairs.

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Zine Report: Wired 17.05 (May 2009)

I picked up the latest issue of Wired. A bunch of famous puzzlers made puzzles for it. There's, like, hidden puzzles inside. I didn't make it very far. There's a lot of stuff in Wired magazine. You can get tired of looking for hidden stuff. Ooh, look, there's some bold letters here, they spell out a message. Hey, these ads look fake. But there's just so much to slog through. Do I want to read an article about the Kryptos statue? I've read some about that statue. Do I want to read an article that introduces it, one that assumes I know nothing?

I got bored. I took a break from hunting, started idly riffling pages. My eyes fell on this snippet

Skip to the next article. You certainly could--you could skip the whole magazine.

It was a sign. I put it down went on to other things.

There was good stuff in the magazine. I enjoyed the puzzles that I saw! Thank you for making them! And there was a Clive Thompson article about ARGs and group-solving puzzles that quoted Jonathan Blow. Hooray for quoting Jonathan Blow. I also noticed a welcome lack. I noticed the lack of the crap that made me stop reading Wired years ago. The glowing reviews of unaffordable audio equipment--they're gone! Maybe Wired has turned into a worthwhile magazine. Maybe I shouldn't have looked at Loganbill so funny when he said he wanted to work there.

Still, though. Too much work to hunt through the whole darned thing looking for puzzles. I guess I could let Clive Thompson's article convince me it would be fun to look for other people on the internet. And we could shard up the magazine, each person searching one section for hidden stuff! And we could say "Look me made a communities!" and all collaborate around the magazine and... and...

To heck with it. I've got a new issue of Giant Robot. And I already watched J.J. Abrams talk about his $&#*ing mystery box on his TED video, and it wasn't that interesting then. On to the next zine.

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Link: Warren Spector, Playing Word Games

Warren Spector does not, as far as I know, play uppercase "T" The uppercase "G" Game. But he designs lowercase "g" games. He worked on some good stuff for the Paranoia pencil-and-paper RPG... uhm, and you young'uns might have heard of a computer game he worked on more recently called "Deus Ex". He has a blog, and he wrote a fun post recently on word games. He mentioned a game played around the offices of Steve Jackson Games which reminds me of the four-letters or less game from Apprentice Zorg. (Said four-letter word game maybe having come from Harvey Mudd college if I'm remembering an old conversation correctly.) Anyhow: Playing Word Games.

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Book Report: Going Postal

Skott raises an excellent point: The diskworld novels also have golems.

E.g., I read Going Postal. I read this Diskworld novel because it's where the puzzler team "The Smoking GNU" got their name. Aha, it all fits together. The book was nice. It was a fun read. It had golems in it.

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Jack O' Lantern Hidden Message

Pumpkins? This year, I can't deal with pumpkins. This year, I'm leting Hallowe'en slide. My free time goes into BANG 19. Puzzles and logistics, logistics and puzzles. That's plenty to think about. But last year... last year at around this time I went to a pumpkin-carving party. The people were fun. We carved pumpkins. It was fun. Here's a photo: [Photo of pumpkins by Steven Pitsenbarger]

I hid a message in one of my pumpkin carvings. Can you find it? (Don't guess "Who me?" The "Who me?" pumpkin wasn't me. (Appropriately, I can't remember who carved the "Who me" pumpkin. (Hey, give me a break; it was a year ago.)))

In the name of art, scholarship, attribution, and citationship, I should point out that I didn't take this photo. Steven Pitsenbarger did. Yeah, that same Steven Pitsenbarger who takes photos of plants and then develops the photos using plant juices. If that guy were really hardcore, then this photo would have been developed via pumpkin juice. But it turned out pretty well anyhow.

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Not exactly Puzzlehunts

Tom Lester and Annie Burnham got married today. You might remember them from BANG 13... but it's been a couple of years, so you don't have to feel bad if you don't remember. But they're married now, which is cool and also there was a reception party where I got to see a bunch of people I hadn't seen in... in years, in some cases. Some of them were up to interesting things.

Dave Litwin is making puzzles. These are not Game-ish word puzzles. These are physical-manipulation puzzles. You read about these gatherings in which puzzle freaks get together and trade the puzzles they've made. Dave phrased it "After a while, to support your addiction, you have to start dealing."

Not at all puzzle-related but arguably interesting: Kiem's become interested in antique sock knitters. They're these devices kinda like if you take the cross product of a loom, a cylinder, and a set of knitting needles. Kinda. She says a lot of them were sold at some point in history through a sort of pyramid scheme about as evil as Kirby vacuums. This outfit sold knitters and yarn to ladies across the country as an investment, the company would buy socks produced. Except that it didn't buy many socks--it turned away most as being low quality. So there's a lot of these knitting-devices out there.

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PuzzleHunters.com : Register or be Anti-Social

Behold a lovely forum for discussing puzzle hunts, puzzle magazines, and stranger things. It's new, so there's not much there yet.

Scott Blomquist set it up and seeks your frankest feedback. He writes:

Hey, all, I’ve been meaning to start down the road toward building up a community of all you puzzle people out there, whether you call your puzzle addiction Puzzle Hunt, Mystery Hunt, Treasure Hunt, Games Magazine, or The Game, I’ve set up exactly the site for you: http://www.puzzlehunters.com.

Please check it out and give me the frankest feedback you can on what’s missing. I also admit that I’m not 100% sure how to quickly get to critical mass, and, once I’m there, how to sustain it. Your thoughts on that also appreciated.

Some thoughts... I'm guessing that forum activity will be bursty. Like, in the events areas, lots of excitement when a game is announced, a flurry of "Yay, thank you" posts after a game... but not much else. Games Magazine, P&A don't come out super-often, so... bursty again. I bet folks won't get into the habit of swinging by the site once per day. So it's good to get notified when there's activity. The site supports notification, but it seems like I have to sign up for notification in each forum separately. That's a minor hassle, but it's a hassle. So... in terms of getting people to check back when there's new activity I'd suggest:

  • Don't go wild adding new forums. While there's still small numbers of people using the site, probably no single forum will get much traffic.
  • Does this phpBB support RSS feeds announcing forum activity? There's a non-trivial chance I will overlook email notifications.

To grow the community quickly, you might encourage an event organizer to use a forum as part of a pre-game puzzle. If each team needs to post their answer, that's a few people subscribed right there... A lot of folks who run games think about community, so they might go for it. To keep people coming back, trick your friends into posting content occasionally. Maybe occasionally post some philosophical questions, try to stir up a lively discussion. "Hidden Pre-Game puzzles: Wacky fun times or unhelpful annoyance?"

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Puzzles from Down Under

I don't know anything about the puzzles announced at the Google Australia Blog which is a little frustrating because I'm apparently not supposed to register to look at them.

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Puzzle Hunts aren't really Everywhere

I saw a campaign poster for Obama. It read

Fired Up
To Go

...laid out with those line breaks. I'm so acrostically minded that I found it crudely funny. I blame the puzzle hunts. (I am trying to use the time-delayed publishing feature again. We'll see how that goes.)

[Edited to add: the line breaks, without which this post didn't make much sense]

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Puzzle Hunts are Everywhere, I Get Tired Just Reading About Them

Dave Hill posted his write-up of Hot Springs Midnight Madness 2007, which sounds like it was pretty awesome. These people are outside, at night, in the snow solving puzzles, if I'm interpreting those photos correctly. Oh man.

The MIT Mystery hunt was this last weekend, and there are some fun write-ups. Some I spotted... Gamists Tigupine + JessicaLa. Remote Mystic Fishie devjoe posts about the GC experience. An interview with one of the few student members of this year's GC. Some guy named 530nm330hz was pretty funny. There will probably be more write-ups as people recover...

In tangentially-related news, puzzler Wei-Hwa Huang appeared in Fortune magazine wearing a shirt with a collar. I'm pretty sure that means that you can put him on your start-up's board of directors; you might even be required to.

Speaking of puzzling co-workers, Curtis of Team Snout ain't my co-worker no more. When he announced he was leaving our place of work, I started to say I was sorry to hear it--but then I stopped myself and asked, "Hey, does this mean you'll have more time to write games?" He said other people asked that, too. He was cagey about answering, but I think we can bring him around, perhaps via kidnapping and brainwashing.

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Not-exactly Puzzle Hunts are Everywhere

Item: Saturday, I wanted to vote, so I walked through the Haight and down to City Hall. In the Haight, I noticed some young folks in matching t-shirts scurrying around. So I observed and eavesdropped. It was Cal Berkeley students, doing some sort of a hunt. I think it was called something like the "Bear Hunt". But it didn't look puzzly. It looked like they were just getting riddly clues that would point them at some storefront. Bah. I wasn't interested. But there was another batch of students with similar t-shirts close to city hall. Was this a city-wide hunt? I don't know. I kinda stopped paying attention when it looked like there weren't puzzles.

Item: In theory, Ravenchase held a treasure hunt in San Francisco on October 20. I exchanged mail w/someone from Ravenchase a while back--I volunteered to playtest their puzzles for the then-planned SF hunt. And they wrote back. But they didn't write back w/a playtest. And their hunt doesn't seem to have generated any blog items or any entries on their forum.

Item: My challenge for today was nothing to do with puzzles. I ate at 17 cafeterias. That's all of my employer's cafeterias in Mountain View, CA. And then I went back to one of them for dessert. I was done by 1pm, but at least one person was faster than I was.

Item: In hindsight, this blog post doesn't have much substance, not much of interest to most of this blogs' readers. I'm sorry, but I'm really too full to do anything about that now.

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Puzzles are Everywhere, Maybe Even mental_floss

I work at an internet search company. I think that the awesome part about internet search is that you don't have to remember stuff anymore. If you might need to know the capital of California in the future, don't bother trying to memorize that kind of stuff. You should devote those neurons to something more useful... like maybe IMSpeak decoding. Just look up the capital of California when you need to know it.

Surprisingly, there are many people at work who cache facts in their heads. These people know the capital of California--they know it really well. And lots of other stuff. The deepest lake in South America. The 19th century American poet known for wearing a straw hat. Which European monarch witnessed the greatest loss of population to his/her country during the course of his/her reign. These people, they like trivia.

mental_floss is a magazine for people like this. It's also a website, a line of books, ... The magazine's founders, Mangesh and Will, came to my place of employment to talk to give an Authors talk. I'd heard about mental_floss... was it from Ken Jenning's Brainiac? Or maybe from his blog? Or maybe via osmosis from hanging out with so many puzzlers and geeks? I dunno. Anyhow, I attended their talk.

They talked about how they founded the magazine while they were in school. They talked about how popular it is now, their success with the trivia books. More background blah blah blah. They asked some trivia questions. Look, if you're a trivia fan you probably want to check out the magazine. If you're not, but if you're a regular reader of this blog, then there was still something...

After the talk, I went up to the front where Mangesh and Will were chatting with a few folks. Tom introduced Wei-Hwa to them, pointing out that Wei-Hwa. was an international puzzle champion and everything. Will perked up at that, and asked him if Wei-Hwa wrote puzzles. Because they were thinking that mental_floss could have a puzzle feature. And you might be thinking "Oh, probably they just want more trivia quizzes", but when Wei-Hwa said that he had just made a bunch of Sudoku puzzles for the upcoming championship, Will didn't blink but said that he and Mangesh would love to hear about puzzles for the magazine. So anyhow, that's another place to send your puzzle ideas if you'd like to make them visible to a wide audience.

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Book Report: Brainiac

It's a book about trivia by Ken Jennings, that guy who kept winning at Jeopardy!. Fortunately, this book is about a lot more than just Jeopardy!. The author explores the world of trivia--the history of trivia books; a little game show history; that town in Wisconsin with the nutso annual trivia radio contest; more.

I had two favorite parts:

  • He describes college quiz teams. I had no idea that this sort of thing went on. Teams of college students roam the country, battling each other in trivia games. One league of these kids writes their own trivia questions, and those questions are twisted and esoteric.
  • And he mentions that the International Corned Beef Eating Championship takes place in... Hot Springs, Arkansas. That place has more going on than just Midnight Madness.

A fun, quick read.

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Link: Changing Roles of Katakana (and Italics)

I just read an article with some conjectures about the cultural significance of the rise and fall of katakana amongst Japanese writing systems. Hey, gimme a break, I'm waiting for a slow download, I'm going to read weird stuff. But the interesting part was when he pointed out that in Japanese semaphore code, it takes more than one, uhm, stance to encode each symbol. It takes a variable number, from one to three. In many cases, the stances are supposed to suggest the strokes of the katakana syllable.

Oh now I want a big pile of Japanese text that's been parsed into syllables so I can measure the frequencies, maybe come up with a simple huffman encoding. Oh, my download finished, never mind.

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Puzzle Hunts are Everywhere, but I guess they get lost anyhow

I don't read Eric Harshbarger's LOGOLOG blog very often. Hey, give me a break--it doesn't have a feed. Thus, I have to remember to check it. I checked it today, thus finding some week-old news. He's talking about putting together some big puzzly thing happening in a few months. I thought I'd point that out just in case you, like me, don't tend to hear about things that aren't mentioned in feeds.


Book Report: Ilium

Raymond Chen, celebrity blogger, gave a talk at my place of employment yesterday. Afterwards, I went up to ask him a question. (Well, OK, to request that he apply his combination of knowledge of English, Swedish, and puzzles to blog a report of what goes on at Rebusrally.) But before I asked, he looked at me and asked if we'd already met. That was spooky. And he looked at me pretty closely. Spooky. He was just trying to figure out if/how he recognized me. Still, spooky. I haven't spent that much time in the Seattle area. And it's been a couple of years since my last visit. Spooky. I think that was the feeling that Dan Simmons went for when he wrote Ilium.

This book is sci-fi. It starts out pretty strangely. I wondered how the author was going to explain how things had reached such a strange state. Then I reached the explanation. It was pretty dumb. It might not be the "real" explanation, maybe just a wrong theory by one of the book's characters. Maybe I'm supposed to pick up the sequel to find out what's really going on. I don't think I'll bother. Still, I have no regrets about buying this book--it was something to read during a flight from Chicago when it was too cloudy outside to look down at the geography sliding past.

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Not exactly a Book Report; Not exactly PuzzleHunt-Related

If you've always meant to check out the magazine Giant Robot but never got around to it, now you have some more motivation. Issue #44, in stores now, has an interview with Tetsuya Nishio. Yeah, the guy who invented Paint-by-Numbers/Nonogram/whatever puzzles. WPC dude. Yeah, him. It's not a long interview, but he does present a couple of cute little riddles, and we learn that he likes alcohol.

I'm not that much of a puzzle-head, so I thought the interview with the guy who makes donuts with fresh fruit was more interesting. He mentioned that the Harvey Mudd unicycle club rides to his donut shop annually. I'd heard something like that before, but assumed it was a tall tale.

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Link: Iron Puzzler

If you're on the Bay Area Night Game mailing list, then you already know that Iron Puzzler is coming up. So I don't know why I even mention it.


Puzzle Hunts are Everywhere / Sad News

If you've played in bay area puzzle-hunt games, you might have met a sweet dog named Libby. She traveled in the company of Alexandra Dixon, captain of Team Mystic Fish. Libby died on Friday night; she'd had cancer for the last few years. It will be sad not seeing her around.


Puzzle Hunts are Everything I Read About, Even When They Aren't

Saturday, there was a lot of puzzlehuntish activity on the peninsula. I wasn't playing in it. Well, not much. I knew that a bunch of folks were gathering for that PerplexCity hunt--people would run around San Francisco solving clues; others would solve clues on the internet. I didn't especially want to play--the thing revolves around trading cards. I try to avoid activities that involve trading cards. I try to eschew some geeky activities, just so I can remind myself that there are some depths I have not sunk to. Sure, I wander around with a headlamp and a clipboard, but I can still sneer at the trading-card fanatics and curl my lip at the gawddammed furries.

Still, when my breakfast feed-reading on Saturday morning uncovered one of the PerplexCity puzzles, I figured I should try to contact some of the people playing in the game. I'd read about some of the big communities that had cropped up around the trading card game. Maybe I could find contact information for one of them, point them at this puzzle. Or just give them the answer. Solving the puzzle took less than a minute.

"Find a radio. Tune it to the Fahrenheit equivalent of 36.28 Celsius. If the station you're listening to owned a cat, what would be the cat's name?"

Celsius to fahrenheit conversion, Google does that. Look up a radio call sign, Google does that. Oh, it's that "Alice" station. Name of Alice's cat, I knew that, Google confirms it. Boom, boom, boom. Finding contact information for one of the game's players was not so easy. The next item to read in my morning feeds was actually a post from someone announcing that they would attend the San Francisco PerplexCity hunt. I tried posting a comment to the blog item--that would probably send the author an email. But would they check their email? They were traveling to this hunt. So I tried following links, trying to find some place where I could leave a more immediate communication. There was a wiki--which only allowed members to post. And to become a member, you had to contact an administrator. The administrators didn't have obvious contact information. But they encouraged everyone to contact them on IRC. I was on the verge of downloading an IRC client program when I realized I was running late for, you know, the things I actually meant to do on Saturday.

On my way out the door, I was kind of glad I didn't get sucked in. I'd "solved" that "puzzle," but really I'd just followed directions. Were all of the "puzzles" like that?

That evening was BANG 16. I didn't go. Continental Breakfast did. coed astronomy did. Someone from SPIES did. This sounds like more fun than PerplexCity. I read about that in the days afterwards.

Jessica Lambert writes about game paranoia, thinking I have GOT to stop reading Game-related stuff into everything he does. But I swear, Sunday I saw the Game in everything I read. Well, two things. I tend to read a lot about Game things, but I tend to read a lot about other things, too. In theory. In theory it's not all about the Game. And yet. And yet. Laura Lemay forwarded a story about phrase Here be Dragons. That phrase specifically, not hic sunt dracones. And the referenced article is talking about maps, but of course I was thinking about the gaming team. And there's an upcoming Game which says that players should bring, of all things, empty egg cartons. And since then, I've been obsessing: what could a Game possibly ask us to do with something as non-standard, non-uniform as an egg carton? And Andi Watson posts a photo of an egg carton dragon and I'm sitting there muttering "of course, of course we're going to make egg carton dragons!" And a few seconds later I'm shaking my head because, on reflection, this makes no sense at all.

Maybe any hobbyist would have this problem. Heck, both of those articles were about dragons. I'd probably get excited by those articles even if I was a gawdammed furry.

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Puzzle Hunts are Everywhere as Is Music

Yes it is the Shinteki Decathlon II report, in which team Underlying Metaphors ("We will not be understood until it is TOO LATE") sweats a lot. Fair warning: there's not much in there about puzzles. There is a lot of kvetching about the heat.

I took a stroll on my way home tonight, walking through Noe Valley. And who did I run into but Fred Crimi, who worked at the same place that I did, uhm, many jobs ago. Ah, Geoworks. The kind of place where you can work and years later when someone posts to a mailing list sarcastically suggesting writing a web browser in assembly language, you say "that's not funny!" Anyhow, Fred and I hadn't seen each other for years, and we were comparing the names of people we both knew. For each of these people, if one of us had seen that person in the previous 12 months, the other had not. With one exception: Andrew Chaikin. Apparently, the world revolves around Andrew Chaikin. Fred sees him around at musician parties. They're both musicians. I see him around at puzzle-gamy things. We're both puzzle-gamists. I don't really know Andrew. From the way Fred talked, I guess that Fred doesn't either. But there's the connection, Andrew Chaikin, lynchpin.

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Puzzle Hunts are Everywhere I Go

Long day at work; long bus ride back to my neighborhood; I blearily walk along Irving Street, thinking about dinner. But then I recognize the map-festooned jacket ahead of me. It's Dwight Freund, fellow Mystic Fish. He's with his daughter Rachel; they've just seen a play and now they're looking for dinner. Which sounds like an awesome idea, and soon we're slurping down noodles at Hotei. Conversation turns towards a few things. But you, I assume, want to hear about the games. I, as you recall, missed the Paparazzi game. But Dwight was there, and he told me some parts of the Mystic Fish story I hadn't heard.

The limo from Dateway dropped teams off at the nightclub Ruby Skye. The team's mission: to find someone from Game Control dressed in pink and pick up a compact disc from her. And so our dapper dudes made their way through multiple floors of clubbers, searching for a puzzle. They got separated. Dwight walked up a stair--and found himself face to face with the lady in pink. She looked at him expectantly. Dwight asked "Am I supposed to get something from you?" She asked what he was looking for. "A CD" She asked what was on the CD. Dwight was wondering how much bantering is was going to take to extract a CD from this lady. And then Brian and Wesley ran up: "OK, we found her, we got the CD, let's go." So the lady that Dwight was talking to--she wasn't with Game Control after all. She said, "Yeah, thanks for telling me what was going on--people have been coming up to me all night."

The other story hypothetically involved a race to the finish line--two vans zipping along at high speed through the streets of Cupertino, zig-zagging through traffic, negotiating awkward parking lots. The other team took a route through a strip mall parking lot, while the hypothetical Mystic Fishies stayed on fast-moving city streets--and got stopped by a traffic light. So the other team prevailed, hypothetically. Of course, no team would ever ever in a million bazillion years disobey traffic laws, and that story was totally a speculative piece of fiction.

Wow, it's late. Dwight and Rachel kept me out past my bed-time. Wild party animals I hang out with, night-clubbing drag racers...

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Links: Quality Content on the Internets

Wow, it's a blog entry with a small pile of misc links. That's so retro.

If you're into puzzles, set up your Personalized Google Home Page, and add some content to it. What content should you add? Wei-Hwa's Puzzle Challenges. (You can search content for "Wei Hwa" and you'll find it. Actually, that won't work. To get Wei-Hwa's puzzles, follow these instructions from the estimable Jessica Lambert. Disclosure/Disclaimer: Though I work for Google, my opinions are mine and I can't always figure out our software.) The first puzzle went up today. It was too hard for me, so you know he's not dumbing it down for a mass audience :-)

Your favorite Giant Robot magazine contributors now have blogs at the Giant Robot site. Assuming that your favorite Giant Robot contributors are Eric Nakamura, Martin Wong, and Claudine Ko--and they should be. Sign up for the feeds, read what you need.

My favorite YTMND is definitely the self-referential The ULTIMATE search result!

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Hiding Data in Metadata

I'm flipping through this telegraphic code book which E. E. Morgan's Sons used for encoding messages long ago. Most of it consists of code words to convey phrases. E.g., instead of sending "one hundred tins", you would send the code word "waver".

But the people using this book used a trick to embed data in their signatures. Only a few people were composing messages. So the person's signature didn't convey that much information. But the people at E. E. Morgan's Sons didn't necessarily sign their names. On different days of the week, you would sign a different name. On Monday, Hargrove would sign his name as "Harford". On Tuesday, he would sign as "Harive".

Thus, they encoded both the signator's identity and the day of the week in the signature.

Does this mean that the telegraph service did not charge money for the signature? Otherwise, I would thingk that they would want to choose shorter names. Does this mean that telegraphs sometimes took a few days to arrive? I don't know. But I am jotting this note none-the-less.

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