Category Archives: Puzzles

Mystery Hunt 2015: 20000 Puzzles I Didn’t Have to Edit


I’m only a week late in reporting on the annual MIT Mystery Hunt.  Unlike last year, this year’s hunt was a fairly stress-free affair for me.  After spending my entire 2013 awash in all aspects of directing a hunt (except for finances, I suppose), I had no interest in winning this year, lest my 2015 be similarly swallowed up.  And thus, when I woke up at 7 am on Saturday morning and looked at the clock, instead of forcing myself up and getting back into the puzzles right away, I rolled over and slept another hour or two — after all, I’d only gone to bed at about 3 am.  That extra bit of relaxing more or less set the tone for the weekend for me, save for a brief panic Saturday night when our team had a bit of drama resulting from the fact that not everyone had accepted the “we don’t want to win” memo.

Hunt began Thursday night for me this year, when I, along with a few other members of Alice Shrugged — notably David Wilson and Seth Bisen-Hersh, gave a pre-hunt talk on how to solve puzzles.  We attempted to stream it online, but it turns out Pranjal is a terrible A/V guy and there is no video.  However, the slides are up here.

The actual hunt started on Friday at 12:17 pm instead of the typical noon because Random Hall loves the number 17.  Lanthe Chronis, who I’d been in touch with a few times throughout the year to give advice, came out to introduce the theme: 20000 Puzzles Under the Sea.  One bit of advice I had given her was to milk the moment in which she introduces the hunt and the crowd cheers — which she took with aplomb, stepping in front of the podium and throwing her arms in the air to announce the start of the 2015 MIT Mystery Hunt.  Everyone cheered and we were off to the races.

As we grabbed our now traditional first-aid kit — without a puzzle in it — and new-this-year T-shirt, I quickly noticed that the T-shirt had a puzzle and that I more or less knew what to do with it.  I grabbed it and started running back to our HQ with Harvey shouting at me to remember my promise not to win this year.  I fully intended to keep my promise… it’s just that I also fully intended to get back to HQ and start cutting up the shirt!

The puzzles came out at 1:17 pm (again with the 17) after we had pieced together the shirt puzzle, without knowing what to do next [it turned out to be the final step of a different puzzle].  We’ve been asked not to blog spoilers, so I’ll try to keep my specific comments on the puzzles brief, but in general, they were all very clean, with a lot of really great grid puzzles and cryptics, including the first puzzle I co-solved, Erraticism.  Unfortunately, after being very helpful and productive on a few puzzles, I then spent about seven hours with Feldmeier staring at — and getting nowhere with — the Machine Room meta.  We just never thought to use… right, no spoilers.

At some point, Jason insisted that I stop staring at the meta I was clearly not going to solve and told me to turn around and introduced me to fish puzzles.  Holy cow, fish puzzles.  Taking a cue from our MIT round of puzzles last year, Random had included a 56 puzzle round of very easy and straightforward puzzles.  In about 45 minutes, I had helped solve 3 of them — 3 more puzzles than I had solved in the previous 7 hours.  It was a fantastic confidence booster.

And somewhere in there, without even the aid of alcohol, we started getting silly with our answer call-ins.

You see, someone on our team was, legitimately or not, trying to solve a certain puzzle by calling in an answer every 10 minutes or so.  Laura, who was manning our phones, asked in an exasperated tone who it was, to no avail.  Sensing the opportunity to yank her chain a bit, I submitted “LAURA DO YOU KNOW WHO I AM YET” as the answer to the aforementioned puzzle… and of course, this drove her nuts.  Someone else (and I honestly don’t know who) started helping with a few other Laura specific answers.  And then I started looking up Laura related songs — “Tell Laura I Love Her,” Billy Joel’s “Laura,” some Frank Sinatra song I’ve never actually heard — and started submitting lyrics.  Someone else made a Serial reference.  I heard later that this caused Random’s HQ to panic a little bit as they thought their puzzle had an unintended Laura-related red herring.  No, no red herrings… just a lot of silliness.  Hunt is a different kind of fun when you’re not trying to win.

Eventually, after solving at least one non-fish puzzle, backsolving a few more in order to crack a meta, and going to meet “Spongebob Squarepants” for thematic reasons I cannot remember, I slept — and “slept in” — and woke up to solve the tail end of a cryptic with Anand and Laura.  The puzzles continued to be smooth and clean throughout the hunt, for which I give Random [and especially Lanthe] a lot of credit, but I started to notice a disappointing theme: I had yet to run across a puzzle other than the Athena printer runaround that actually required MIT knowledge.  There may have been a few that got solved quickly, but in general, this was a hunt that could have been held anywhere.  And thus, it is unsurprising to me that the two teams that finished the meta-meta first, within 11 seconds of each other, had very little to no MIT people on them.

And then there was the runaround.

Fast forward past most of Saturday, including the part where I met baby Henry, and suddenly we were set to go on the runaround much faster than expected.  As had happened with us, Random was short staffed and had too many teams on the runaround at once, putting us into a holding pattern. Anand and Harvey and a few others opted to skip the runaround and just go to bed, figuring that the main puzzles were done.

It turns out, that was the right call.

The runaround was long, to say the least — it took our teams between 5 and 6 hours to complete, and this was not only standard, but the intent of Random.  And unfortunately, I wasn’t having a lot of fun.  Plotwise, the runaround seemed disjoint from first portion of the hunt: we weren’t using any of the meta answers or objects we had been given, and it wasn’t at all clear why the Kraken had decided to put us through the equivalent of five corporate team building exercises.  Some of the individual stages had potential to be fun, but all of them suffered from taking an interesting idea and dredging it into something tedious.

Fishy Feud a la Family Feud?  Okay, there’s something there… except that the answers don’t build to any sort of puzzle and you just have to earn 75 points as a team while going in a neat orderly fashion?  That one just turned into busy work, as we waited our individual turns to guess fish that started with a certain letter without any real payoff.  Human pictionary on the floor of lobby 7?  Seems fun, but again, it would have been a lot more interesting if the answers had formed a puzzle of some kind and if we didn’t have to do it ten times, swapping people in and out of the viewing area upstairs, which only took more time.  I actually opted to collapse in a corner of Lobby 7 and sleep for the final six of the Pictionary games, as it didn’t seem like I’d be missing out on anything.  When stage 3 started and I learned that we were supposed to run around building 37 looking for 200 fish stickers plastered on the wall and upload selfies of us with the fish, I decided to take my tired body and go back to the hotel and sleep.  Matt Cain, one of the organizers, was kind enough to fill me in on the remainder of the runaround, and I decided that I really wasn’t going to be missing much of anything other than more grueling slog.

Again, I think each stage of the runaround had the kernel of an interesting and fun idea in it, but with none of them — save for the word search I was asleep for — being actual puzzles in the hunt style [i.e. with an answer] and all of them far outlasting their initial fun, the whole thing felt like busy work.  In my opinion, runarounds should be at least one of two things, if not both: a mercilessly short victory lap or some actual puzzles that tie together everything that’s happened in the hunt so far, so that you feel like you’re getting actual closure on the hunt.  I know the Alice runaround failed at being short (although we meant it to be — our testsolvers just had better luck with the bed for some reason), but at least you were using objects and answers from the puzzle rounds such that nothing felt tacked on artificially.  The Heist hunt also followed this model, and even though we were the only team to go on it, I can honestly say that it was the best part of that hunt.  For Random, their runaround felt like a completely separate event from everything we had done thus far and it took a very pleasant hunt and ended it on a rather down note.

Only not really, because I inadvertently saved my favorite puzzle for after the hunt: Foamy.  When Foamy came out, I immediately asked for a print out because paint-by-numbers are one of my favorite puzzle types.  (See A Rose By Any Other, which I wrote last year.)  I was given a print out, but was also told that a large group of people were working on it in the other room and I should join them.  I find working on logic puzzles in groups to slow me down and, well, they claimed to be making progress.  Plus, Karen had opened a nice bottle of scotch and there were a few other puzzles to be solved in the other room, including Mashup, Cryptic Golf, Benny Lava [“and there were seven sudoku…”] and the Graveyard meta, all of which were great.  Not to mention that Elias was hanging around, and how can you turn down the opportunity to play with a three year old that can sing the Greek alphabet song?!  So I let the other group work on Foamy and figured that even though I might solve it faster, they’d probably get it eventually.

Only they didn’t.  Foamy remained the only puzzle our team never solved during the hunt.  I saved my printout and tackled it on the plane on the way back and solved it solo in just under five hours, far less time than the group had spent on it.  It was really great and my favorite puzzle of the hunt… and we don’t get credit for my solve.  So it goes.



A Mystery Hunt Design Philosophy


The night hunt ended, Anand started making slides for wrap-up.  He was going over them with me and I noted a blank slide towards the beginning with just the title “Design Philosophy” and nothing else.

“What is that slide?” I asked him.

“That’s where you’re going to talk about your design philosophy in running this hunt,” he said, as if that explained everything.

“My what?  I don’t have a design philosophy.  I just ran the hunt by the seat of my pants.”

“Yes you do,” he insisted, “and it led you to run the hunt the way you ran it.”  Which led to us having an extended conversation about what this supposed design philosophy might be and what I was supposed to talk about.  And it turns out, he was right — I did have a design philosophy, even if I wasn’t cognizant of it at the time.  It also isn’t solely mine — it’s mostly a shared vision that most members of Alice Shrugged believe in.  I just was granted the ability to make the final decision on things that did or did not facilitate said philosophy.  (And to incorporate more baseball than usual into the hunt, which was a vision mostly shared only by Jason and Harvey.)  Given how well-received our hunt was, I’m writing this down with the hope that One Fish Two Fish Random Fish Blue Fish reads it and considers many of these issues when designing the 2015 hunt.

As a preamble, a lot of this stems from my personal belief that the ballooning team sizes of recent years is a problem.  We did intentionally bottleneck the end of the hunt so that large teams wouldn’t have an advantage solely based on manpower.  Our release rate was designed such that a team should have ~15-20 puzzles open at a given time and no more (and maybe less), but that they should simultaneously advance through the story of the hunt at a faster rate.  (And so puzzle release was done on a round-by-round basis — solving puzzles in the Mock Turtle round would not help you open puzzles in the Tea Party and vice versa.  But once you advanced past the MIT round, you probably had three Wonderland rounds open at any given time… or you were approaching the end of the hunt.)  There were some large teams that complained about this.  To this, Alice shrugs.

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Writing a Mystery Hunt


As has been obvious, I more or less gave up blogging in 2013.  This was closely related to the fact that in January of 2013, my team won the MIT Mystery Hunt and voted me as director of the 2014 Mystery Hunt.  As a result, all excess creative energy was spent on a project that I couldn’t talk about publicly… until now.  I have many many thoughts, but for now, I’ll start with a list of the individual puzzles that I wrote or co-wrote.  I plan on later writing a post about why we focused on the small teams and how I think that worked or didn’t work, with the hopes that the winners of our hunt, One Fish Two Fish Random Fish Blue Fish, take notes.  But for now here’s what I did…

  • The White Queen Meta (Solution) [with Harvey Jones]: I pulled off a backwards round about baseball and the Beatles.  I consider this a major coup of self-indulgence, and yet it was really well received.  I have but two regrets on this one: the White Sox are involved and the Twins are not and, if we really had had the writing prowess (which I don’t think we did) more of the puzzles would have been like Puzzle With the Answer WILLIAMS and presented as a solution where you actually had to deduce the title, instead of just including the “answer” as a red herring.
  • The Mock Turtle Meta (Solution) [with David Wilson, primary author]: This was dwilson’s idea initially — I just stepped in to help him flesh it out with the addition of GRAPHIN’->GRYPHON, FLEMINGS->FLAMINGO, and the much reviled FISH FOOD CAN->FISH FOOTMAN (which I stand by and still think is great).  There were many many e-mails sent back and forth between the two of us trying to get an answer phrase to fall out relating to fixing table schema (what a pun!).  Eventually, we settled on what we have… but somewhere in the post-production process, an old version of the meta was uploaded to the server and no one noticed.  That included the clue “How _____ keep their hair” instead of “How ‘these _____’ were preserv’d.”  The answer LOCKS fits in the latter, but doesn’t fit in the former — that was intended to be the answer word SIKHS long long ago in a meta puzzle far far away.  I really don’t know how this happened or why it was never fixed.  Mea culpa.
  • The Clubs (Caterpillar) Meta: I don’t have a lot to say about this one.  We needed a third MIT meta and this one came to me in about two hours.  The intent was to make a caterpillar out of the words.  During the running of the hunt, Anand pointed out that “HASH TAG” would have been a much punnier bait than TOBACCO.  Ah well — if I had done that, DON’T WORRY BABY wouldn’t have been an answer and Bumblebee Tune-A never would have happened.
  • The MIT Meta Meta (Card Deck) [with Dan Katz]: At some point early on, I decided that we needed a better capstone on the MIT round puzzles so that the puzzles associated with the highly backsolvable metas would serve another purpose and thus be more likely to be solved.  I came up with this idea of actually giving teams a deck of cards and adding the “Your Princess is in another castle” twist with the false beast.  (The beast was always meant to be Alice, but having the Jabberwock as the red herring wasn’t added until later.)  I roped Dan in to write the actual logic puzzle of the cards layout, came up with all the nonce words (MIMSIER… eh, whatever) and designed the cards once Teasha drew me a Jabberwock.
  • Bumblebee Tune-A (Solution) [with Laura Martini, et al]: I spent more hours writing this puzzle than any other by a very wide margin, and thus it is my favorite.  Mostly, I just wanted to sing a bunch of oldies a capella — the bee costume was a bonus.  I knew “Don’t Worry Baby” was sitting around as an answer word and started to brainstorm ways to use it.  When I learned that it was actually a B-side to “I Get Around” (despite being a much better song), I knew I had the angle.  The finance team gave me permission to spend $15 on a bee costume and we were off to the races.  The whole thing got more hilarious once I learned how to distort voices in GarageBand to make me sound more like a bee.  There was a period of about three weeks where I would come home from work and either arrange a song or record myself singing.  Major thanks to Martini for the many, many hours spent editing all the video together.  Amusingly, I heard a few reports of smaller, younger teams struggling with this puzzle because they had never heard of a B-side.
  • Technical Program Committee (Solution) [with Anand Sarwate, Jason Juang et al]: My official credit here is “a little help from” because I only wrote the one anagram/review about communism.  I did, however, talk through the initial idea with Anand.
  • Local Shorts (Solution): This puzzle was inspired by a Sporcle quiz written by Chris Morse.  The whole thing was set up and designed so that the Loons (i.e. one letter off from the Lions) would wind up on Minnesota because it’s the state bird.  Despite my easter egg, I heard no reports of this throwing anyone down a wrong trail.  Also, the Pi Kings are definitely my favorite.  (The Twine nearly made it in, but I was trying to avoid using the final S as a key letter.)
  • I Came Across a Japanese Rose Garden (Solution) [with Jason Juang]: This was actually originally conceived as a back-up puzzle when we made a final puzzle writing push.  When we had to move it to a different answer, Jason ran a bunch of scripts to determine the best Toyota makes that would use existing cartoons I had already drawn.  Yes, I know some of the colors aren’t particularly close.  I don’t have a good defense for that, other than… nail polish is strange.  Fun fact: I originally misread the name of “Here Today, Aragon Tomorrow” as “Here Today, Aragorn Tomorrow” before realizing that my crude sketch of Viggo Mortensen looked nothing like the region in Spain.
  • Now Let’s Create Melodies (Solution) [with Seth Bisen-Hersh, primary author]: Puppets singing parodies of songs done on The Muppet Show is actually all Seth Bisen-Hersh’s brainchild.  I just swooped in to make this an actual puzzle by constructing the unique crossing grids at the bottom of the puzzle to output the answer phrase.
  • A Rose By Any Another (Solution): I conceived of and wrote this puzzle in a 24 hour period while home for Christmas when another puzzle was failing to get any reasonable testsolves.  (Although yes, the fact that GTA is the genetic code for V is a great observation; the puzzle just failed to come together, unfortunately.)  As soon as I finished it, I pinged Jason and asked him to testsolve it.  Once he pointed out two bugs, I fixed it and sent it to a half dozen other people and the puzzle that went from idea to fully fact checked in the fastest amount of time was complete.
  • Round Tripper (Solution) [with Jason Juang and Harvey Jones]: Yes, I wrote one backwards meta puzzle about the Red Sox with an “answer” WILLIAMS standing in for Ted Williams.  I wrote another meta and purposefully included TED WILLIAMS as an answer so that I could write a proper baseball puzzle with Jason and Harvey.  I do not apologize for this.  I tried very hard to get more Twins players in this, but Puckett and Hrbek only faced people in All-Star games that they also faced in the regular season or World Series.  Carew and Killebrew are better for the pie chart identification anyway.
  • Puzzle With the Answer LYNN (Solution) [with Anand Sarwate]: A few people commented on how similar this puzzle was to Stage Lines from 2012.  That’s because Stage Lines was one of my favorite puzzles from that hunt.  So, I flipped through the Guide to the Enigma, found a flat type (backswitches) that would work for this puzzle structure, pinged Anand about co-authoring it with me, and after much work with some python scripts, we had a puzzle.
  • Puzzle With the Answer LOVE ME DO (Solution) [with Elaina Present]: This was originally Elaina’s idea, but given the many instruments I own, I kind of took it over.  I even bought and taught myself how to play the toy accordion.
  • Puzzle With the Answer I WANT TO HOLD YOUR HAND (Solution): Inspired by ARML relays, this is the only puzzle I wrote that got a 1 for fun.  But it also got a 5 for fun from another team.  I think this is closely correlated to how much you know about MIT Course Numbers and your willingness to run up and down the Infinite Corridor a few times.  I don’t really apologize for an event on MIT’s campus being more fun and accessible to those who are of college age and/or actually attended MIT.  If you’re going to participate in the MIT Mystery Hunt, you’re going to have to accept that the event is primarily for MIT students and that you might be at a disadvantage if this doesn’t describe you.
  • Puzzle With the Answer A HARD DAY’S NIGHT (Solution): I wrote a curling puzzle.  Are you surprised?  Thanks to Feldmeier for being the other skip’s voice.  I showed him some footage of the Brier to demonstrate what he should try and sound like and the response was: “yeah, i can do this, although watching the video, i really couldnt tell what the hell they are yelling.  should i just put my nuts in a vice and record the ensuing sounds?  with a canadian accent of course, eh.”
  • Puzzle With the Answer GARCIAPARRA (Solution) [with Chris “Scooby” Lyon and Laura Martini]: Martini wanted to do a State Fair based bring-us-food puzzle.  Editors were non-plussed and I came up with the GeoGuessr tie in.  And then somehow I was responsible for hacking the GeoGuessr interface to generate challenges that only drew from major US cities, exactly one per state with no repeats.  Omnigraffle is a godsend for generating that map — and Scooby, who came up with the list of foods, swears that green Jell-O is the state dish of Utah.  Setec (my money’s on Ann) won the best food award for the wild rice pudding.
  • Thank Heaven For Little Girls (Solution) [with Anand Sarwate]: When I was in Chicago filming the Yuki Nagato puzzle, Aaron Bader, Anand, and myself were lamenting that an answer word like BABY WIPE was never going to get assigned.  Somehow, walking through the Art Institute of Chicago, Anand and I came up with the idea of basing a puzzle around popular baby names.  At one point, it was going to involve diapers, but that fell through.
  • Hole Wizard (Solution) [with Harrison Bralower, primary author]: Using drill bit sizes and generating a Solidworks file that overlays on a crossword grid was all Harrison’s idea.  But a crossword grid was needed and with the addition of Kevin Der on our team, I hadn’t had a chance to flex those puzzle writing muscles yet, so I volunteered to write a hole themed grid for him.
  • Magic Mushrooms (Solution) [with Brandy Buckingham (primary author), Dan Katz, and Jason Juang]: My authorship on this one was pretty minimal — I wrote the slitherlink.  Oh, and I guess I generated all the pdfs and designed the mushrooms.
  • The White Queen’s Record/The Duchess portion of the final runaround [with Usman Akeju and onsite organization by Jonny Surick]: Usman had an idea for an audio puzzle that worked meshed very well with my idea that the White Queen round give you a record that you would have to figure out how to play on the final runaround, old school Mr. Wizard style. (In fact, I tested the idea of manually playing the record with my cousins’ kids over Thanksgiving and they were bowled over by the old school analog technology.) And so, working from Paris and San Francisco, Usman and I collaborated on creating an audio track of us simultaneously talking over each other in opposite directions. Meanwhile, Jonny Surick, king of the runarounds, gathered all the random objects, including a snow globe I bought at the Minneapolis airport on my way to hunt. You can see Lucky solving the record in the highlight video we link to.  A major shout out to Mike Dixon of for producing the records for us at a reasonable cost — they turned out great!
  • The Walker puzzle (solution) [poem by Anand Sarwate], Killian Court (solution) [poem by Anand Sarwate] and Building 37 (solution) [with Rob Rucinski, primary author] puzzles in the MIT runaround: I wrote these during our fall retreat. They are quite intentionally unsolvable unless you are on campus. (Mostly… I think the information to solve Killian is available on line.)

And finally, here are some puzzles I didn’t actually write, but played a role in producing:

  • The Humpty Dumpty Meta (Solution): I lent Hanna a pile of random objects to use in the photo, including my curling broom, the skull from 2004, and an ostrich eggshell that was decorated to be Humpty, which later broke.  I foolishly attempted to super glue the egg back together and let me tell you — nursery rhymes don’t lie.
  • A Mad Cocktail Party (Solution): The brainchild of Usman and Anand, I played the Butterfly with a think Sarah Palin-esque accent.  When a California group testsolved it, krobinso didn’t recognize that it was me.
  • Stalk Us Maybe (Solution): Primarily Jenelle’s baby, I am someone to be stalked in this puzzle.  You can actually find my fact in an old post on this blog.
  • The Revenge of Yuki Nagato Episode 00 (Solution): This puzzle is almost all Chieu.  I was in the movie and I still don’t understand the references to the source material.  But I am far too amused by the scene of Anand and Karen sitting on the bench swing.  Once you see what I’m referring to, you won’t be able to unsee it.
  • Cruciform Heraldry (Solution): I came up with the rather punny clue phrase for this one.  That’s all I did.
  • The Circle of Life (Solution): This was originally my idea on the day we got together to write quick back-up puzzles, but I outsourced the construction to Chris Lyon.  It was supposed to be a back up to A Mad Cocktail Party, where it had a much more fitting answer word.  However, once Anand and Usman finished their puzzle, this one sat on the back burner, despite being adored by testsolvers, until it was revived when another puzzle went down.  I found Queenie Leonard for Chris so that it would be doable with the new answer word and painstakingly watched the scene in 101 Dalmatians with the cows multiple times until I was certain I had screenshot Princess correctly.

The Annual Mystery Hunt Post 2012


Another year, another Mystery Hunt.  Our team, Too Big To Fail, didn’t win this year, but we did finish second, finding the “coin” (a piece of paper) Sunday at about 3 AM.  (But Manic Sages had already been there five hours earlier.)  The theme this year was based around the movie The Producers and after each of the six rounds, we had to write a bad musical which would annoy a specific critic.

For the first five musicals, we were still busy solving puzzles so the musicals were written by an undergrad and I never saw or cared much about them.  But one of the rules was that after you solved the two metas for each musical (which told you what you had to include to make the musical bad), you had to make an appointment a minimum of 45 minutes afterwards to perform the musical… meaning that after the last meta was solved, we had 45 minutes and no other puzzles to solve.  As a result, our last musical, The Ogre of La Mancha, was epic and featured a 40+ person chorus, Dan Katz as Andre the Giant, Amittai Axelrod as Hamish the Big Fat Ass (donkey), Anand Sarwate as the Jolly Green Giant, and yours truly as the Hooge Moogende.  (It’s Dutch, damn it!)  While Amittai and I were nominally the script writers, shots of bourbon and sleep deprivation should probably get a credit here as well.  We were awarded “Best Musical” at the “Tony Awards” (hunt wrap-up) probably for the chorus of singing windmills singing a parody of “I Don Quixote,” masterfully penned by Dan Katz, as our finale.  (I can’t find the lyrics or script right now and I fear it’s not as funny as I thought it was Saturday night.)  Johnston took some widelux photos, and as soon as he develops them, I’ll post them here.

During the final runaround, we had to perform one final bad musical, Jesus Christ Super Star Wars featuring the “hit” song “I Don’t Know How to Love Him Because He’s My Brother.” Despite the fact that we knew this was going to happen, we didn’t actually plan ahead. Luckily the organizing team had provided us with some Star Wars costumes (and I threw my hair into some lame Princess Leia buns). We then us ad libbed our way through something that made no sense (but with brilliant casting of Feldmeier as Jesus). Laura took pictures and I got the big (blurry) musical moment (fed to me mid-show by Dan/Luke Skywalker).

Jesus Christ, Super Star Wars

Mark Feldmeier as Jesus, Dan Katz as Luke Skywalker, Erin Rhode as Princess Leia, Zoz as Darth Maul

I Don't Know How to Love Him Because He's My Brother

Princess Leia sings "I Don't Know How to Love Him Because He's My Brother"

Oh, and there were puzzles, of course. There were a number I liked, but I’m not sure I could come up with a definitive list of favorites, particularly because I still haven’t looked through all the puzzles I missed during the hunt. However, here’s my unordered attempt (outside of the first one).

  • Evil Influence – This is my favorite puzzle: a cryptic/masyu combo puzzle that Jason Juang and I smoked through quickly.  I’m a big fan of well constructed grids and this is one of my favorites.  (See also this year’s Paper Trail below.)
  • Star Search – The first puzzle I sat down with Friday afternoon, that I solved with lalopez, Mike, and a few others with some big help from Jason Juang’s anagram code.  It’s a word search, but as you would expect, there’s a twist.  This puzzle breaks my streak of having the first puzzle I grab be the puzzle that no one can figure out how to solve for the remainder of the hunt.  This one only took us about an hour to crack.
  • Paper Trail – A really beautiful diagramless… again with a twist, which involved using Friday’s Washington Post crossword puzzle in a rather ingenious fashion.  But there is something slightly scary when you get “FRIDAY ????ST” and you think that it might legitimately be cluing Rebecca Black as the artist of Friday.  *shudder*
  • Odd Voided – A straight forward word puzzle that I solved with Anand (and Liz?? I can’t remember who else was there).  It was one of those puzzles where I figured out what to do pretty quickly, which is always satisfying.
  • Keeping Records – To be fair, I only solved half of this one with Roger and then went to sleep.  I woke up and it still wasn’t solved, but sometime thereafter Jamie picked it up and figured out the cipher we were stuck on.  This is definitely a puzzle for people who like to test their cryptography skills.
  • Stage Lines – Senile Gats is probably another possibility for this puzzle’s name because it’s all about reversals.  Galen, Anand, and I had some fun groaning through the odd answers… CROSS ARC/CRASS ORC may have been the strangest.
  • The Signs They Are A-Changin’ – It’s pretty well known on my team that I love cross sums and cross sum variants.  This one was hard… I would gather the best four logic puzzle solvers on our team (Dan, Jackie, Jason, and myself) were working on this and it was slow going, but oh so satisfying when we finally got it.
  • Picture an Acorn – I didn’t see this puzzle during the hunt, but I heard it was pretty funny… and having read through the solution, I agree.

My nomination for this year’s WTF puzzle is The 25th Annual Putnam County Debate Tournament.  Oh, a mnemonic system developed by medieval scholars for logical syllogisms.  I can’t believe we didn’t see that!

Congratulations, Sarah and John!


I’m back in my old stomping grounds of Ann Arbor for the weekend, to celebrate the wedding of Sarah B and John.  The wedding was de-lovely; held at a farm outside of town with an outdoor ceremony, tented reception (just in time for the rain), and dance in a barn with a jazz band.

Also, there were puzzles provided by yours truly.  If you’d like to try your hand at them, they can be found here:

No knowledge of the bride and groom is required…

But back to the band… I heard them warming up, playing strands of De-lovely by Cole Porter, which I once arranged for SSAA and sang A2 on.  (I also knew it was the wedding song as I wrote a puzzle around it.)  So, I walked over and chatted with them for a bit where I learned that the Easy Street Jazz Band has been playing continuously as a band in some version or another for 40+ years and they were even nominated for a grammy in the early 80s, playing with Bonnie Raitt.  And they learned that I have some singing experience, especially with De-Lovely.

After that, I had a brief chat with the bride and groom, and the next thing I knew, I was on for singing with the band during the bride and groom’s first dance, entirely unrehearsed and completely sight-reading the second bonus verse written just for the wedding.  The key was a touch high, but I managed.  I got a few compliments — the biggest of all probably being from a friend who didn’t realize it was me and had just figured that the band had a vocalist.  Later I went back and sang Blue Skies in a key a bit more fitting for me.  It was a hoot… and the band leader actually asked if I live in Ann Arbor and wanted to come out to their regular Tuesday gig.  I’m a little sad that I don’t — that band is phenomenal!

So, thank you to John and Sarah for allowing me to indulge in one of my fantasies (just jumping in with a band like that) and for letting me be part of your wonderful day and your de-lovely moment.  Congratulations on a wedding I’ve seen coming for years and best wishes on what is sure to be a long and happy marriage!



Here’s my annual recap of the MIT Mystery Hunt. This year we hunted as “The Team Your Team Could Smell Like,” which may be one of our most brilliant team names ever. While we did manage to find the coin, we were the third team to do so. Thus, the brilliant hunt theme harveyj and I are planning will have to wait until 2013.
This year, the theme was Mario — he was finally going to marry Princess Peach, but Bowser kidnapped her at the wrap up and, what do you know, the wedding is in another chapel! No wait… it turns out it was all masterminded by GLaDOS from Portal through a convoluted chain of video game villains all controlling each other in a hierarchy. (I’d be lying if I said I knew who GLaDOS was before hunt, but there were members of my team who guessed the Mario theme with a tinge of Portal just based on the invitation we received before the hunt to a wedding between M&P where cake was promised.)
While the theme was perhaps not up my alley, though well done, there were a number of puzzles I did like.

  • Good Vibrations — Yes, this puzzle is about that Good Vibrations. I cracked it off of “Rubber Duckie.” I am not embarrassed that I knew that and it was hilarious to solve once we figured it all out.
  • Walkthrough — This led to one of my favorite reasons for the a-ha moment. When the puzzle first came out, a bunch of undergrads, convinced it was a runaround, asked me to join them on the trek to Kresge so that someone experienced was with them. (Plus, I had asked for an excuse to leave HQ.) So, off we trekked, but when we got there, nothing seemed to match the second step. I read the rest of the puzzle and decided that we probably weren’t going to find an island of Chinese pirates on MIT’s campus and directed us back to HQ, brainstorming along the way about what the puzzle might actually be. First we called HQ to let them know we were on our way back and asked them to check the page source for any clues we may have missed — nothing. Then James, a sophomore, noticed all of the Wikipedia signs around campus for the 10 year Wikipedia anniversary and suggested that maybe it was a “Wikipedia runaround” of sorts… which of course, it was. It was the sort of brilliant serendipity that I approve of — if I had read the whole puzzle first, I would have talked us out of going to Kresge and James probably wouldn’t have seen the signs that led us to the actual solution. Plus, it was fun to solve.
  • Flat Head — I completely forgot this puzzle existed until thedan reminded me that I solved a bunch of it. Hurray for NPL flats… and Canada.
  • The Word — Okay, to be fair we only solved one of the three puzzles in this one, but we solved it fast. This made it somewhat disappointing when we realized that there were two other puzzles embedded in it.
  • Drafting Table — It’s not that this puzzle was particularly amazing, but it is the only one in which I was the first person to look at it (with a few others… amittai, dwilson, and mehtank, I think) and we solved it without needing any additional fresh eyes.
  • Soooo Cute — I didn’t actually solve this because too many people jumped on it right away, but it worked basically the way I expected it too. Plus, ZooBorns is one of my favorite blogs.
  • The Mega Man Meta — Again, I didn’t solve it, but it is one of the most beautifully constructed things I’ve ever seen.

And a few additional honors go to…

  • Crowd’s Chant — I really want this to be my favorite puzzle ever, but I think it needs a slight tweak in the flavortext to be a good clean solve. That, and I need to remember from now on that the cheap toy keyboard I have is a half-step flat. ‘Cause that screwed us up for awhile. But still, a puzzle about music theory and baseball? What’s not to love (besides the actual execution)!
  • Fascinating Kids — This wins the WTF award. Just read that solution and tell me it is at all a reasonable thing to do. “Near-integer grade level”? From an obscure metric that is clued only by its initials? Yeah, no.

In the end, GLaDOS was defeated and we found the companion cube… well, what was left of it after Codex got there first. Next year, we’re prepared to be that much faster!

Things I didn’t blog about this month


I will attempt to make up for more than month of blogging by trying to summarize things I would have blogged about had I remembered to.

  • Hockey at Fenway — Courtesy of Jeff Roberts, I got a ticket to see college ice hockey at Fenway Park. Unfortunately, Sheeva was coming in for a visit that night so I couldn’t stay to see the much touted BU vs. BC (men’s) matchup. Instead, I got to see UNH vs. Northeastern women’s teams play. And it turns out that not only is my sister right and women’s hockey is just not as interesting as men’s,* but the way they set up the ice at Fenway was to run it diagonal across the infield from first to third. As a results, there were literally no good seats as the only ones anywhere near the rink where near the ends and no one sat at center ice.
  • Mystery Hunt — This really deserves it’s own lengthy post, but I’m never going to get around it. That being said, much fun was had despite the fact that I lost my voice to the point that Sunday morning I was Skype chatting to people sitting next to me because it was easier and less painful than trying to talk. While going to sleep was probably the healthy option for me at that point, there were too many people around who aren’t normally and I figured I’d sleep when they left. And oh, did I! There were a number of puzzles I enjoyed, but the one best suited for a blog post was Peek Yrrej Tuo. Our task on this puzzle was to remake the Godfather without saying the title of the movie. (I misinterpreted that rule and made a silent film.) Initially a group of undergrads were set to make it on their own. However, when I went to check on them, it turned out none of them had actually seen the movie and they were basing it on things they had read on wikipedia. This was taking too long, so I jumped in to direct and made the masterpiece embedded below.
  • Cheese and Biscuits — I taught myself how to make cheese from a Minnesota State Fair recipe. It was kind of like cream cheese and I infused it with garlic and chives. When I was finished, I wound up with a bunch of leftover whey. From this, I made a ridiculous amount of biscuits: first a batch for a potluck and then multiple batches for an impromptu biscuit party I threw when Breath was in town unannounced. No one who has had the cheese has died and everyone loved the biscuits, so I call it a success.
  • The Vikings choking in the NFC Championship game — Actually, I don’t want to talk about this.
  • Brandi Carlile — I just got back from Portsmouth, NH where I saw Brandi Carlile sing for the second time in the past year. It was a sold out show, but I managed to grab a ticket from someone on Craigslist this morning. And it was an amazing show and so worth the hour drive. If her voice doesn’t give you chills, something is wrong with you. (I actually much prefer the live arrangement of “Oh Dear” with five voices and a ukulele instead of the more fully orchestrated version on the album.) In my fantasy life in which I became a singer instead of a scientist/engineer sort, I sound like her. After the show, I waited around and got her autograph and we even talked about the State Fair ever so briefly! Oh, and the opening act, Katie Herzig, was pretty good too.

Now, without further ado, “The Internet” presents The Godfather starring Harrison Bralower as Marlon Brando, directed by me (as you can hear at various points):

* It’s the no-checking rule.

The Best Crossword Clue Ever?


I don’t normally solve the Boston Globe crossword (and by “don’t normally,” I mean “haven’t since 2004”), but I did come across a blog post proclaiming that today’s puzzle contained the best crossword clue ever.

69 (across) – “The _____ mightier than the sword.”

Yep, that’s pretty good. (On the other hand, I own this book, so it’s not the worst/best I’ve ever seen. But it is the most suggestive clue I’ve seen in mainstream print.)

New President and Mystery Hunt


Longer MH2K9 post to follow later in the day, but for now, thanks to the Bombers for a fabulous hunt. We did surprisingly well — second place with the final runaround reverse engineered such that it probably would have taken us less than a half hour to finish had we only thought to play checkers with the last meta.
In other news, today we have a new president. I came into work only to find an e-mail from Friday (which I never saw because of the Mystery Hunt) telling me that no one had to come in until 1 pm today because of the inauguration. As I was already here, I went over to the hospital cafeteria to watch Obama’s speech. It seems that all the people attempting to stream the coverage over the Internet has slowed down the network dramatically today — IS even sent an e-mail to that effect, requesting that people please try to find a television instead.
I heard stories of doctors delaying their patients’ appointments while they joined them in lobbies to listen to the new president. It sounded like the patients didn’t really mind. I watched a black cafeteria work cry and then applaud wildly. Everything’s moving a little bit slower today — everyone seems aware of a massive attitude shift in our country. We’ve gone from an administration that hides behind lies and fear tactics to an administration which maintains its own blog in order to make We The People feel more involved with our government.
Perhaps the “change” that’s come won’t be the magical band-aid that some people expect it to be, but after years of failed policies and lies and incoherent speeches, I can’t help but think that we are a far better nation than we were yesterday.

MIT Alumni Puzzle Challenge: We won… sort of


A couple of weeks ago, I and three other members of our hunt team (Liz D., Brandy, and Martini… wow, I just realized the alcohol connection there) took part in the MIT Alumni Puzzle Challenge where we took fourth place, just behind third (and the money prizes) by a whopping 13 minutes. However, we’ve just been informed that we won one of the $200 raffle prizes… which means I’m getting a $50 giftcard in the mail next week, along with a spanking new T-shirt. It’s like coming in third, only $12.50 short.
However, this also means that my new Engineer’s Drinking Song verse probably didn’t win the Rockband II bundle:
“An engineer was solving puzzles late into the night,
And started on a run-around that was an awesome sight.
When he found the coin he knew his year he’d have to punt,
Because he’ll be writing puzzles for the next year’s Mystery Hunt!”