January 21, 2004

I went to the Mystery Hunt and it was fine

(Puzzle-heavy entry follows. Don't even try it if this sort of thing doesn't interest you. I will include some background anyway for the intrepid.)

Got back from the Mystery Hunt tonight, which took the heat off my former team for running the longest hunt ever in 2003, by running one that was even longer. My team did not win this year, to our disappointment and (at least for me) relief. (The prize for winning is that you have the write the next year's Hunt.)

Now, 2003 was the first year in quite some time that the Hunt was won by an all-student team (Kappa Sig), which was a big deal in some quarters, since the Mystery Hunt did start out as a student-run affair. Over the years, teams have expanded to include a lot of non-MIT people, because the Hunt is very very difficult, and so people frequently invite their friends to join them on their teams. I first competed in the Hunt in 1998, when I joined the Setec Astronomy team through the auspices of my friend and MIT alum Mark Gottlieb.

So nowadays you have teams that consist of some percentage of MIT students, alums, people who work at the school, and friends of MITers. But some students (although, obviously, not all) resent the presence of people with no direct MIT connection. In particular, I am told, they resent (or, at least, are intimidated by) the NPL presence, which is somewhat quixotic, given that so many of the NPLers at the Hunt were MIT students who joined the NPL. (We're thinking about starting our own mock controversy about how MIT is ruining the NPL.) My response to that is -- man, MIT students shouldn't be intimidated by us, especially the ones who do the Mystery Hunt, because they are exactly like us. Anyone who is willing to sit in a room for three days straight and subject themselves to the hardest freaking puzzles in the world is a very unusual type of person, and we are apparently all that type of person. This is why so many MIT students end up joining the NPL. Can't we all just get along?

Of course, on some level, I can completely relate to feeling like someone is coming in and walking on your turf...but then again, that's something else that can go both ways. Students have a perfect justification to feel like MIT is their space, but what about people who've been doing the Mystery Hunt for a decade or more? Students shouldn't be surprised to find that an event which has evolved to include a larger community feels very important to that community, and that the people in that larger community feel defensive if they hear a rumor that they shouldn't be included any more.

That's one way of leading into mentioning that the rumor mill was pretty active this year, with there being scuttlebutt (unfounded, as it turned out) that the team running the Hunt was going to ban non-student participation, etc., etc., and some of the resulting (and kind of inflammatory) discussion about what to do should such a ban take place got back to the team running the hunt, and they got kinda pissed off. So pissed off that at least one of them indulged in some rather poor behavior, joining one of the team's mailing lists without permission, apparently to monitor their communications. That's not cool.

So tensions were running high. What I find sort of ironic/irksome about all that is that back in 2003, we all really wanted to write a hunt which would be won by a largely student team, or at least someone who hadn't won before, because we thought it would be a good idea to get some fresh blood in there to keep mixing things up. So I was actually a little offended that I, who had spent an ungodly amount of hours throughout 2002 writing a hunt that Kappa Sig ended up winning, was starting to feel a little unwelcome.

In practice, pretty much everyone on Kappa Sig that I dealt with in person was very friendly and helpful (especially our various on-site hinters, who were deputized to speed the Hunt along as it became clear that there were too many puzzles in the Hunt and they were all too hard -- something we had also had to do in 2003, alas), but we did have to deal with some pretty bad attitudes over the phone. My favorite example of this was when the aforementioned Mark Gottlieb, now on the Acronym team with me, called in the answer FEANEL, which he had arrived at due to mistranscribing something at some earlier step in solving the puzzle. (The actual answer was FENNEL.) Now, obviously this wasn't a very promising-looking word, but we'd gotten some pretty non-word looking answers before, so he called it in anyway and was roundly taunted with catcalls of "That's not a word! What the hell are you thinking?", which is a bit rich from people writing puzzles whose answers are RECTION, HUERFANA, and ACQUIL.

Anyway, one of the reasons I had been wanting a student team to win was my hope that a big ol' bunch of young and energetic students would come up with some swell new innovative structure for the Hunt. While they did have a great theme (Time Bandits, which allowed for a lot of variety from round to round -- I was especially amused at the Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas round) and a unique method of going from one round to the next (teams could choose which round they wanted to go to next, so the order of puzzles wasn't fixed), on the other hand, the theme didn't always feel very well-integrated, and in a lot of ways it all felt like a rerun of the Hunt we had run the previous year. Our Matrix hunt started out with the pretense that it was a corporate hunt; this hunt started out with the pretense that it was a pirate hunt (a reference to 1992's pirate-themed Hunt). We had a knitting puzzle; they had a crochet puzzle. We had a subway puzzle; they had a subway puzzle. We had a puzzle with a bunch of sentences whose words had been mixed together and resorted; so did they. Our hunt was too long; this hunt was too long. And so forth.

That wouldn't have been so bad in itself, but the puzzles were frequently broken or basically unsolvable as written. A frequent refrain we heard when calling Hunt HQ to ask for hints was, "Oh, yeah, we couldn't solve that part when we were testing that puzzle." So...maybe you should have rewritten that bit?

Having gone on at length about why the Hunt had problems, I should find some good things to say. The metapuzzles were excellent. (Metapuzzles, for any non-puzzle masochists still reading, are puzzles where you take the individual puzzles in a given round and put them together in some fashion to get a final answer.) The Hunt looked great -- each round included a physical prop and a map for each team, and the graphic design was generally excellent. It was disappointing, though, that the props didn't get used until the very end of the Hunt, so most of us never got to find out how they were supposed to be used (although we did smash our plaster skull to see if there was anything hidden inside, which there was -- awesome). In many ways, it sounded like we would've liked the Hunt more if we had won, if only because so many of the coolest bits were back-loaded toward the end of the hunt, which most people didn't see.

Here's a list of my favorite puzzles from the Hunt:

All the Wrong Places: my least favorite of my favorite puzzles (if that makes sense), this was a cute puzzle that involved visiting Craiglist's missed connections bulletin board and looking for pirate-themed posts; sending e-mail to the address gave you a response which requested unusual objects, which you also had to search Craigslist for (and it took us an unconscionable length of time to think of this). The final step after that was kind of annoying but since someone else ended up working on that step, it didn't especially diminish my amusement vis-a-vis the parts that I saw.

Marooned Man's Pants: Hey! A puzzle where the thing I thought was the right thing to do actually turned out to be the right thing to do! It was a paint by numbers puzzle; solving it gave you a maze; you then overlaid the maze onto the color field and looked at the colors in the dead ends; if you looked at the RGB values of those colors, you got numbers between 1 and 26 in the R field, which spelled the answer.

Dead and Gone: I never saw this puzzle during the Hunt (other people solved it while I was working on something else), but someone told me about it later and I was sorry I had missed it. Each set of pictures represents a retired Ben & Jerry's flavor. Cute.

20,000 L. Under the S.: This was an entertaining twist on the now-traditional Equation Analysis Test in which all the equations were MIT-thematic. Obviously I didn't do much work on this one, but I had a fine time watching the MIT students on our team rip it up, and the equations were pretty amusing when solved (54 = C.L. for F.S.F. translated as 54 = Credit Limit for First Semester Freshmen, for instance).

In a Manner of Speaking: Two girls chat via instant message, and refer obliquely to a lot of songs that use different figures of speech in their titles ("Wild Wild West" = alliteration; "Like a Virgin" = simile; "Black Hole Sun" = oxymoron).

Temple of Tezcatlipoca: This puzzle took me and Rose forever and was torturous, but in the end, I still liked it. We spent hours going through Sandman books in the MIT science fiction library, finding the 12 images of Dream from the ten Sandman collections. The tiny images on the clocks came from the same pages as the large images, so each clock corresponded with one of the above images. Then I got stuck for a while. After a hint many hours later, I realized that the hour hand on every clock corresponded with a particular character that appeared on the page with Dream (1:00 = Destiny, 2:00 = Death, etc.); taking the nth word spoken by that character on the page, where n is the number the minute hand is pointing to, gave you a message. Part of the reason I really needed a hint to solve this puzzle was that the image file that included all the clocks was too wide to fit on the page, and I miscopied the last clock so it read 10:20 instead of 4:20, which changed everything. So I'm annoyed at the lack of user-friendliness in not making sure that the puzzle could be printed out properly (and further annoyed that the Huntmasters apparently changed the puzzle instructions to make it harder to solve without telling the person who wrote the puzzle about it), but it was still a cool puzzle.

Temple of Macuilxochitl: Identify songs by trying to read the lips of the singers. Fun. (Two of them were nigh-impossible, but a satisfying puzzle nonetheless.)

Snowfield: Didn't work on it, but saw it get finished and liked it. You might want to try this one yourself, if the smiley face at the top of the puzzle and the grid of numbers ring any bells for you.

Pinecone Creek: Another one I didn't solve, but which I was told was worth doing. I may go back and solve it later, even though I know the theme now.

Campfire Stories: The best puzzle in the Hunt. Fun, accessible, funny, satisfying. Recommended.

Rant: My second favorite puzzle in the Hunt, and not just because I had the first necessary insight on how to solve it. The trick was to take the .wav file and invert the waveform of the sound in one speaker so the waves would cancel each other out and get rid of the voice. What was left after that was done was a series of quiet tones; amplifying them revealed them to be the sounds of a push-button phone. The answer was the word that those phone buttons spelled out. Very nice.

And here are the puzzles I most loathed:

Leftovers: This puzzle was a jigsaw-style puzzle consisting of mostly identical strips of paper. (The shapes were the same, but they were shaded differently.) Given that we hap no idea what image we were attempting to create, and the shapes didn't interlock in any way, this was a completely unsolvable puzzle. Fortunately, it was obvious that it was unsolvable, so we didn't waste too much time on it.

Whirlwind: A puzzle that could have been fun if they had bothered to make it solvable. At one point, when we were asking for hints on it, the person we were talking to said, "Oh, that puzzle is basically impossible. I would just skip that one if I were you." At that point we had already been told that the 14 strips of paper provided needed to be separated into two 7-by-7 squares, and that arranging them properly would give you a path of words that wound around the grid in no particular pattern (none of which was indicated in the original instructions). Later, we found we really needed to solve it to finish one of the metapuzzles, so I insisted we get a usable hint, like: what strips of paper were the leftmost strips in each square? They told me that and a couple other things besides, which was enough to get started on...even though the puzzle was still pretty tricky even given all that extra info. Once we actually got moving on the puzzle, I enjoyed it, but the hell we had to go through to get to that point wasn't worth it.

Come to think of it, both those puzzles share a problem -- they're puzzles that take almost no effort to construct and take forever to solve. If I'm given an incredibly hard puzzle to solve that takes me hours to finish, I like to feel like "oh! that was very elegant!" when I'm done. I feel that the puzzle writer should have had to put in at least as much effort as I was expected to put in while solving it. But writing some words in a grid with no constraints, cutting them up, and rearranging them -- that takes very little effort. (Not to mention the problem of failing to make it solvable when, apparently, many people among the Hunt runners thought it was way too hard.)

I hate Far From Home, for Rose's sake. The puzzle involved identifying the given fonts (hard, given that they're not shown at a good resolution; like, that fifth font is Impact, which looks nothing like that -- and I should know, since it was the We're All Dead font), oh, but that wasn't all. It also entailed finding the Italian word or phrase hidden among the dummy Latin text (also hard, since Italian consists in large part of Latin cognates). Getting the right Italian words took Rose forever (especially with the unhelpful hinting she had been receiving, and the bad kerning of the text that made "de cifer" look like one word), but she finally determined that the Italian words read something along the lines of "code with font names and read down column". I noted that this presumably meant that the text had to be encoded with a Vigenere cipher, and she looked none too enthusiastic about dealing with it, so I did the encoding by hand to get the final clue. Tedious.

Now, I know all the puzzles in the Hunt were written by a wide variety of people, but the huge disconnect between the final clue for "Far From Home" and the final clues for some of the others cracked my shit up. A lot of the puzzles to this point had the problem that you'd get to the final clue, and it wouldn't be very specific. One final clue was "QUANTIZED EARLY MODEL OF H" (or something along those lines). Apparently Niels Bohr quantized the first model of hydrogen (whatever that means), so the guys working on the puzzle called in "Bohr". No good. Then they called in "Niels Bohr". Then "Bohr atom". Then we went to the web and found that Schrodinger had also done the same thing, but later -- maybe that was early enough? No. At some point, while calling in yet another possibility, our HQ phone liaison said "We suggest you try 'Bohr theory'." Ken replied, "Uh, is the answer Bohr theory?" "That is correct." Ken hung up and informed us, "The Hunt is now officially running long." Anyway, you generally want to write clues that have only one possible answer. "Far From Home" did not have that problem. Its final clue was: MORE DEADLY, ONE WORD, ADJECTIVE, EIGHT LETTERS. Answer: DEADLIER. Taking no chances that time.

And then there are the puzzles I should have liked, but didn't, because of one problem or another. Like, I thought I would love Sonar and Nerves of Steel because of its punk rock theme, but I kept getting gibberish for the answer, and after spending too much time staring at it, I got very frustrated. When Hunt HQ walked me through my work, I discovered that the reason I had been thinking I was getting gibberish was because the answer was HUERFANA. Where I come from, if your puzzle answer is something as off-the-beaten-track as HUERFANA (the Spanish word for orphan, apparently), you should write a Spanish-themed puzzle around it.

I also liked True Unholy Puzzle in theory, but not in practice. The puzzle was to look at the incomprehensible Inversions-like logos of death metal bands and try to figure out their names. I figured out the second (Luciferion) and the one that's a tattoo (Unanimated), and someone else got a couple others, but after a while, I just got really bummed out looking at long lists of bands with names like "Exposed Intestines" or "Exploded Fetus" or whatever.

Girl wasn't a bad puzzle, just a mysterious one. Why provide us in this puzzle with full-length clips of songs that are (mostly) easy to recognize (and would certainly be possible to websearch off brief lyric snippets), while providing us in other puzzles with tiny tiny tiny snippets of jazz instrumentals or techno songs, which are practically impossible to research if you can't just recognize them off the bat? We had a major techno fan on our team, and even she had to throw up her hands at identfying all the songs from that puzzle.

All that's as may be. In the end, even if the Hunt that Kappa Sig wrote wasn't exactly the Hunt I wanted to solve, I'm glad they got the chance to write it, because running the Mystery Hunt really is a fun thing to do, and they by-god earned the right to do it however they wanted.

Posted by Francis at 02:48 AM

Hear, hear.

A few other notable puzzles:

A Sudden Downpour was also relatively easy and elegant, I thought. (And one of the few that I solved myself.) A word search grid (with no word list, of course) where you find a bunch of dog breeds; there are then 100 letters left over, which you rewrite into a 10x10 grid and then find a bunch of cat breeds (and the remaining letters then give the clue to the answer word). This insight wasn't that big a leap, since two of the cats were acrosses, thus noticeable in the original grid's unused letters.

The Jeweled Fowl, a Scrabble-themed puzzle, could have been a lot of fun except for one basic problem: the clues sucked. And without all the clues properly solved, you could never figure out the grid you needed to construct. Once you got to that point, you had to reconstruct the grid based on the words' scores and then ... something, I dunno, I'd lost interest after the sucky clues.

Oh, and take a look at The Property of Ones, in the round we never got to. Sure, put the puzzle you and I would have *really* enjoyed somewhere we won't reach it.

Posted by: Trip at January 21, 2004 10:25 AM

I think you have a lot of good points (I want to personally apologize for the people in the call center who were getting attitudes with the hunters - that was totally uncalled for). This year's hunt had plenty of issues to go along with its good points. I think it's ironic, though, that you pointed out the similarities between puzzles as a problem, particularly Mud-Soled Lubber vs WIK Eschatology. I wrote Mud-Soled Lubber, and I hadn't even seen Eschatology. I *was*, however, inspired by a puzzle from the 2000 Hunt, An Exercise in Futility. Did you guys realize you had one similar to that? I think you just have to expect a few similar puzzles here and there, particularly when you're dealing with 100+ puzzle hunts.

Posted by: Brandy Evans at January 21, 2004 12:49 PM

I completely agree that, well, there are only so many ways to write a puzzle; rearranged words is one of them. I didn't have a problem with "Mud-Soled" vs. "Eschatology" (the latter didn't have missing words; in that respect, the former was much more like the Treehouse of Horror puzzle from the 2001 Hunt). And there were some cases where the puzzle wasn't a ripoff, it was a clear tribute: a crocheting puzzle that gave you befunge, as opposed to a knitting puzzle that gave you perl, for example. And, heck, the "come bring us food" puzzle, we were hoping would be borrowed into future Hunts.

There were some similarities between this year and last year, but I think they tended to be more structural than puzzle-specific.

Posted by: Lance at January 21, 2004 03:16 PM

Upon reflection, it's unfair of me to characterize the new hunt as a mere copy of the previous hunt, but that feeling, justified or not, certainly affected me in the course of working on solving it. I let someone else work on the subway puzzle because I felt like -- dude, I looked at way too many subway maps last year, I don't want to look at *any more*.

Eschatology and the other puzzles mentioned from previous Hunts did have similarities, now that you mention it, but I also didn't really notice them in the course of writing Eschatology, which was built around its answer phrase ("the last shall be first"). Obviously, though, it's a puzzle idea which is easy to come up with independently. Mud-Soled Lubber felt more similar to Eschatology in its solving method, except harder, because Bibles are searchable online and Harry Potter books aren't (at least, not until someone installs a file sharing program and downloads .txt files of all the books, which I wish we had thought of doing sooner).

I was, I must admit, predisposed to feel unfavorably toward puzzles which reminded me of the ones I'd seen for months on end while working on the Matrix hunt; I'm sure the details of those puzzles were much more memorable to me than to someone who had only seen those puzzles over the course of a weekend. Whenever I ran across one, I felt like, dude, this Hunt is long enough -- if you took out all the puzzles reminiscent of last year, you'd still have plenty of puzzles left for a Hunt and it would seem more original, because there were plenty of great puzzle ideas in there (like, someone just told me about the hidden set of metapuzzles that was discarded due to the length of the hunt -- a great idea, very innovative, but sadly done in by the puzzle avalanche).

Posted by: Francis at January 21, 2004 10:01 PM

Little did Brandy know that when I wrote An Exercise In Futility, I'd recently returned from the future where I ripped off Eschatology.

I have to agree with Trip; A Sudden Downpour was one of the most elegant puzzles in the hunt. I also thought Nagano was very nice, although the final clue was a bit inaccurate/racist.

I liked Property of Ones, except it prevented me from writing a very specific Homestar Runner puzzle next year which would have also required knowledge of David Byrne, Twin Peaks, and professional wrestling.

Posted by: Dan at January 22, 2004 01:54 AM