March 15, 2004

Geek scandal goes national

The AP wire has picked up the story about the scoring snafu (though the Jennifer Turney issue still isn't mentioned). You can read it in Newsday, although the article has a little bit of that playing-telephone problem, implying that the problem affected every contestant's score, when it only really affected about 20 (although it delayed everything):

The problem began Saturday when the students helped with the scoring of the sixth puzzle by watching a big digital clock and jotting down contestants' finishing times.

Students mistook the numbers that showed seconds for the numbers that showed minutes.

See, that makes it sound like all the students made the mistake, when I believe it was only one student. And, later:

About 500 contestants were told of the mistake Sunday and were asked to estimate how much time was left when they finished their sixth puzzle.

...which totally makes it sound like all 500 contestants scored themselves on puzzle 6. The Stamford paper does a much better job of explaining the somewhat more limited extent of the problem.

In the Stamford Advocate article, Will Shortz says, regarding the scoring problem, "That's never happened before." But, of course, it would have been impossible for it to happen before, since this is the first year we had a digital clock keeping time. In previous years, big ol' analog timers were used, and Will held up numbered cards which indicated how many minutes were left, so there was no potential ambiguity.

Posted by Francis at 12:46 PM

"In previous years, big ol' analog timers were used, and Will held up numbered cards which indicated how many minutes were left, so there was no potential ambiguity."

Believe it or not, I think there may have been more scoring inaccuracies last year than this year. With the room as crowded as it was, it was tough for judges to get to a contestant, look up, make a guess whether the second hand sweeped past the minute before the contestant's hand had raised, and write down the time with accuracy. When the judge looked to Will to see the full minutes or to get a "thumbs-up" ruling, he might well have been facing the other half of the room, or not been able to accurately judge every instance himself. I know of at least 2 overscorings at my table alone last year, plus one round where a minute time card was skipped, so extrapolate from that as you will.

For what it's worth, Doug Heller told me that he believes just about all of the errors were fixed, and in the few cases where they weren't 100% sure, they gave credit to the contestant. In none of those cases were any of the final rounds affected.

Not that any of that excuses the colossal screwup, of course. I also believe that a proper C rematch would be a great Friday or Saturday activity at the next Stamford; let's see if we can convince Will that it's a good idea.

Posted by: Trip at March 15, 2004 01:43 PM

As Trip indicated, the analog clock era was hardly error-proof or even major-annoyance-proof.

On the other hand, I wasn't there, but it sure sounds like the minutes/seconds problem of this year's puzzle 6 caused some serious aggravation and delay but is likely to be a one-time, i-can't-believe-we-needed-to-make-sure-they-understood-it-but-didn't sort of problem.

On the other hand, the analog clocks were hard to read especially from some parts of the room, and there always seemed to be confusion when the judge didn't know if you raised your hand right at the end of one minute or the beginning of the next. (of course, let's be honest, who, especially among top people, is going to turn in the puzzle with 58 seconds left to check it?)

re the above, it relates to one of my suggestions for the judging - i think it's time for Will to officially ask each competitor to confirm with the judge the time being written down. the digital clock will help, but if i know i raised my hand with the 12 still up and the judge accidentally writes 11, then the time to hash it out is right then and there. of course, that would require more judges, which brings me to my second suggestion, which is to deputize early finishers to collect puzzles after they hand in theirs. the top 10-20 finishers could make a HUGE difference if they could cover even 2 tables each (there are, what, about 100 tables in there?) during the next 5 or 10 minute period when the next 100 or so solvers submit. I'm usually not going to finish quite that quick, but I'd be happy to forfeit some of that break time to make things more manageable, and I suspect most of the top people would as well.

PS - Congrats, Trip!

Posted by: Ken/Cazique at March 15, 2004 07:38 PM

Oh, yes, I love the digital clock -- it's a huge improvement over the analogs. I'm just saying this was a particular sort of error that we would never even have realized we had to be on the lookout for, because not only does it seem completely impossible that someone would make such an error, but that specific error was previously impossible to make.

Posted by: Francis at March 15, 2004 08:01 PM

According to Eric's blog, there were plenty of people who were happy to help pick up papers, but for some reason the judging committee is a super-secret-awesome club. Hopefully next year they'll take on willing (and competent) volunteers for judging before they go to high school students.

I'm sure this will all be discussed at NPL chat tonight. Where I will consider using the screen name Controversy Boy.

Posted by: Dan at March 15, 2004 08:02 PM

Everyone should carefully check that the judge writes down the correct time. I always do this. Making it official would be nice - the judge should write down the time in front of you and you must then nod to confirm it (a lot of whispering would not be a good idea).

I don't like the suggestion that the top finishers then suddenly become judges. At all.

I would find having to run around to pick up papers tiring (I am not in good physical shape) and stressful (the need to accurately record the time and determine if the hand was raised before the minute passed). In fact, if I do retire (probably not next year, but perhaps in the future) and become a judge, I would specifically request duty in the puzzle reading/computer entry area which I am much more skilled in anyway.

So no, the LAST thing I'd want to do after the stress of doing a puzzle is pick up papers. I don't go outside the room after puzzles 1-2 and 3-4 anyway, but stay and unwind (and train) by continuing to do puzzles.

Posted by: Ellen at March 15, 2004 08:29 PM

While I know very little about this whole thing, it seems to me that they would be able to find more voulenteers. What about all those folks that come to the competition and don't compete? I had considered doing that and, while I didn't go this year, I would be perfectly happy in the future to have something useful to do if I wasn't competing.

Posted by: WesleyJenn at March 15, 2004 09:12 PM

I exchanged e-mails with Will today. I made a similar suggestion about asking non-competitors to be runners if they wanted something to do during the rounds, and if they didn't mind not being paid or getting food comps or anything. He said that he was not short of judges this year, so this wasn't an issue. He says that the reason the teens were picking up papers was not because of a judging shortage, but because the kids had been in the judging room all day and he thought it would be a nice change of pace for them to be more directly involved as runners. He admits that this was a mistake and that he wouldn't do it again.

Posted by: Trip at March 15, 2004 09:57 PM

Ellen, you have a good and fair point - i definitely wasn't suggesting that it be required, merely that people be able to volunteer. thinking about it more, i suspect that others would feel the same as you do.

I also don't see what the problem is with noncompetitors helping out in collecting puzzles; it's not rocket science :)

Posted by: Ken/Cazique at March 15, 2004 10:17 PM

Ellen suggests that "Everyone should carefully check that the judge writes down the correct time." In fact, I did just that...on every puzzle except for number six, where the high school student that picked up my paper held it slightly curled away from me, so I couldn't see what she wrote, and when I reached out to try to flatten the paper, she pulled it away from me and walked off. Ironic, isn't it. I've no idea whether she was the one writing things down wrong, but, man.

Posted by: Lance at March 15, 2004 10:44 PM

Well, that raises a whole other question, Trip...why were there a bunch of teens in the scoring room all day?

Posted by: Francis at March 15, 2004 11:44 PM

ironically, it's probably because they didn't want to delay things because scoring was taking too long, so they enlisted them (or accepted their offer of volunteering) to help in that regard.

Posted by: Ken/Cazique at March 16, 2004 02:55 PM