Category Archives: Puzzles

Another reason for choosing Palin

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She has a more crosswordese name than McCain. I don’t care what that article says — she’s too new on the scene to look at past puzzles. It’s only a matter of time before we see the clue “2008 VP candidate who can see Russia from her home state.”
Nixon probably picked Spiro Agnew for similar reasons.
Also, I keep meaning to blog about the AL Central pennant race. I wish tonight’s Twins-Bad Sox game was on national TV! (I’ve got a post about the Red Sox coming too… but I’m not sure how popular it will be.)

MH2K8

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I finally have recovered from my annual return-to-MIT-for-the-Mystery-Hunt excursion. (Well, in a literal sense that’s not quite true… I still have laryngitis, but it’s more likely that I caught it pre-hunt from a fellow Glee Clubber. If members of my team find themselves losing their voices in the next few days, I apologize profusely.)
The hunt was a little strange for me this year as certain hunt regulars opted to hunt remotely for various reasons instead of being there in person. But it only took about five minutes to get over being the eldest putz alum (with the exception of Benoc, who by all accounts including his own, seems to live on 2W these days and is therefore more familiar to the undergrads than Harvey). After all I still had Amittai to mock me endlessly upon learning my AIM screenname. (It’s Dutch, okay?)
Quality-wise, this was probably the worst hunt since, well, the hunt we wrote. The theme was dull and unimaginative (a murder mystery) and the structure was needlessly complicated and somewhat broken. (It turns out that because of the way they released puzzles, solving one of the layers of metas (grouping the suspects) gave you absolutely nothing.) I was also shocked to hear that one of the puzzles (Underpants Gnomes) was missing an entire page of clues and Dr. Awkward didn’t feel the need to issue an errata to rectify this, even after they noticed it. I can say from experience that if your puzzles are broken, you need to own up to it as soon as you recognize that. Other puzzles weren’t broken per se but involved so many “A ha!” moments that they were essentially unsolvable — I still don’t know how Knots and Crosses works, even though I listened to the author explain it at the wrap up.
I also have a gripe about the webpage format of the puzzles — if I’m looking at puzzle and want to tell, say, a remote solver to look at it, I should be immediately able to determine what round the puzzle is in based on the header of the page. At the very least, I should be able to look at the round page and tell the name of the puzzles without having to mouse-over each link. This is a really easy thing to implement and it makes a huge difference.
But despite the fact that many were severely flawed, I did have a number of favorites. The puzzles themselves haven’t been archived, so I’ll have to go back and add links later.

  • Nationwide Hunt — This puzzle had six very straightforward clues which were ungoogleable (except for one) and required you to be in a different city, such as “The fourth word is located in SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA. Looking out from the front steps of the City Hall, there is a row of flagpoles on the right that extends forward. On the fourth flagpole, there is a plaque. Take the second word on the plaque.” I contributed to this puzzle by calling Breath and sending him to San Francisco’s City Hall to get that word. But the highlight on our team was one of our undergrads getting a hold of a directory listing for an apartment building in New York and cold calling strangers until one of them agreed to help us.
  • Cursed — This was a cross-sum (aka Kakuro) where you looked for factors instead of sums. As an added bonus, it was in Hexadecimal (as clued by the title). Galen refused to let me go work on the cryptic puzzle until I finished solving the grid.
  • The World’s Tallest Cryptic — The aforementioned cryptic, this puzzle is an absolute work of art. I am only disappointed that a) Anand and I goofed level 1 and didn’t notice right away and b) I was so exhausted that I had to pass out before said error was noticed and we could appropriately solve it. But seriously, this is the most amazing crossword-type puzzle I have ever almost-solved. I cannot imagine what went into constructing it.
  • Cross-Examination — Another cryptic. Not as nice as the infinitely repeating one, but still fun.
  • Propaganda — I have mixed feelings about including this as a “favorite” as it was nearly identical to Land That I Love from the 2006 Spies Hunt, but instead of getting the “facts” from America: The Book, they were taken from the Caltech hacked version of the MIT Tech. Still, I hadn’t been aware that it existed before, so it was fun to read through it as I searched for “answers.”

I also heard that Subservient Chicken Loves the 80s was fantastic, but I never got a chance to look at it as Benoc decompiled the Flash animation thereby making it ridiculously easy to solve.
I do give Palindrome credit for attempting to have a lot of MIT-type puzzles even though they have a lack of MIT-types on their team. However, I’d just like to note that having a bunch of puzzles that have pictures of MIT’s campus is not what defines “MIT-type puzzles” for me. I miss the ones that require knowledge of MIT culture (hence citing Propaganda as one of my favorites). I also miss the music puzzles — not the “Identify these songs” puzzles, but ones where you need some actual musical knowledge. My pitch pipe was woefully underused (except for the Scavenger hunt).

Crossword Coincidence

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The Michigan Daily carries the LA Times puzzle on the weekdays. Today there were two stacked clues which made me smile (and probably no one else).
20 Across: Celtic land
23 Across: Some entourage members
Unless I become really famous, this might be the closest I get to having my full name appear in a published crossword.

Puzzles

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No, I’m not dead, just highly distracted by actual grad school work, though not at the moment, obviously.
At the moment, while I should be working on a write-up to send in before I leave for the airport tonight, I am distracted by puzzles because Mystery Hunt is this weekend. (If you’re in Boston, I’ll be in town starting tonight at about 11 pm until next Wednesday.) For anyone interested, here’s a set of baseball themed puzzles from the New York Times. They’re Mystery Hunt-ish with one glaring exception — they have directions written on them, making them much easier. (Jeff and I breezed through them in under two hours, including a portion where I went to class.) But there’s a meta and everything.
And speaking of baseball, I neglected to say anything here about the AL MVP, Justin Morneau. But that gave the Twins the Cy Young (Santana), the batting champ (Mauer), and the MVP out of three different players. The last team to do that was the 1961 Dodgers (or maybe it was ’62? I should confirm these things before I spout them off). So, hurray for the Twins.

College Puzzle Challenge

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Yesterday was the third annual (and second for me) Microsoft College Puzzle Challenge, held at college campuses around the country, including MIT and UMich. My team from last year regrouped, fittingly naming ourselves “The Return of the Cryptic Orchids,” with a goal of doing better than we did last year (which meant we had to be first at our school and/or be the grand prize winner). We met our goal and took first at Michigan by a wide margin (21 out of 22 puzzles vs. 18 for the second through fifth place teams). As a result, I’ll be getting one of the not-yet-released Microsoft Zunes in the mail in the next few weeks. A team from MIT (Quarks and Gluons, who I think were from Random Hall) won the grand prize.
This year’s event (which I kept referring to as a “hunt” even though that’s not how anyone else refers to it), consisted of 22 puzzles, two of which were metas, one of which came on the back of the free shirt they gave us, and not including the opening puzzle, which gave you access to the first 11 puzzles. (Essentially it was a mini-meta using the answers to the five pre-huntevent puzzles (which they went over just before the event started), plus answers to two other quick puzzles, which we never bothered solving.)
The theme involved being stranded on a desert island… with Gummi Bears. One of the flavortexts read “I’m starting to feel like I’m in a Disney cartoon. All over this island, Gummi Bears. Bouncing here… and there… and everywhere.” Immediately I went looking for the theme song on the internet, only to find that it’s been removed. That didn’t stop it from being in my head ALL day, only to be replaced by “Kokomo” upon solving Island Golf Classic (solution). This one I happened to have the mp3 of.
In general, I thought the puzzles were much cleaner and in some respects easier than last year’s puzzles — no ridiculous leaps of logic. In fact, in filling out the post-challenge survey, I had to stretch to name a puzzle I “liked the least.” (I picked Lost in the Mail (solution) because it was more of an ad for local.live.com than a clever puzzle.) But at the same time, I had hard time picking a favorite puzzle, because none of them jumped out as being really spectacular. I wound up saying Rock Formations (solution), a less frustrating tetris puzzle than the one from the SPIES hunt that involved some (very easy) calculus. It was probably the most well constructed puzzle, as well as the last one my team solved, but even that one didn’t make me go “Wow, that puzzle is really clever.” In fact, my reaction to the entire suite of puzzles was similar to my reaction to last year’s Mystery Hunt puzzles — everything was nice and clean and nothing was horrible, but nothing was so fantastic that it will go down as one of my all-time favorites either. (With all due respect to Phys Plant, I’m only talking low level puzzles — their presentation of the theme was one of the best ever.) Maybe I’ve done so many puzzles that it just takes more to impress me… I’m not sure.

Random Trivia I Observed Today

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While filling out some paperwork, one of the department secretaries asked me to confirm that MN is the correct abbreviation for Minnesota. As I thought I about the other possibilities, it occurred to me that every other choice (where the choices are defined as the first letter of the state followed by a second letter occurring somewhere in the state’s name) is the abbreviation for another state. (MI = Michigan, ME = Maine, MS = Mississippi, MO = Missouri, MT = Montana, MA = Massachusetts) This is equally true of Maine and Montana, and no other states.
Of course, this bit of knowledge is completely useless. That’s why it’s called trivia.

Night at the Movies

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I caught Wordplay at the Michigan Theater last night, an entertaining documentary on the world of crossword puzzles. As most people reading this probably know, it features a brief cameo by The Dan and a few other folks you might recognize if you’re a mystery hunter (like Kiran Kedlaya of Setec). Even if Dan hadn’t had a cameo, I still would have been highly entertained by the film — Jon Stewart has some hysterical scenes explaining his love for the Times Crossword and it’s fun to watch Merl Reagle’s thought process as he constructs a puzzle. Also, if Mike Mussina didn’t pitch for the MFNYY, I think he would be the perfect man — a Stanford alum with a 90+ MPH fastpitch who does crossword puzzles in the dugout? I think I’m in love (except for that whole Yankees thing).
There’s also something oddly charming and comforting about watching a bunch of quirky nerdy types getting together in their element. I felt the same way watching Spellbound (the spelling bee documentary, not the Hitchcock film), and it reminds me of ARML meets from high school. (Oddly, it didn’t remind me of the Hunt that much — probably because of the individual vs. team competition aspect.) All in all, I highly recommend the film to everyone, even the non-crossword nerds.
But the best part of going to see the movie? A preview for this!

Da Vinci Code Quest: Final Phase

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Last Friday I completed the final phase of the Google Da Vinci Code Quest. It was pretty much exactly what I expected, in that it was five puzzles which were all trickier versions of the puzzle types seen in the first phase, sans observation puzzle. One difference was that once you completed the puzzle, you were done with it and there was no need to use a Google feature to find something obscure or to know something about the book/movie. (I did have this lingering fear that there would be an observation puzzle that required you to go out and see the movie — I’m really glad I was wrong.) I finished in 42 minutes, which I’m fairly certain was way too long to be in contention for the grand prize. (In fact, I know at least one person who beat me — Anand finished in 37 minutes.)
The first puzzle was a symbol puzzle which was really just a 9×9 sudoku with no real twist to it, other than the fact that it used symbols, rather than numbers. It wasn’t particularly hard — no need to do any expansive iterative deepening search in my head.
The second puzzle was what killed me — a “restoration” puzzle that was much, much harder than anything I had seen in the first phase. For those who didn’t compete, the restoration puzzles were similar to the old peg jumping game, except that it was a hexagonal grid and instead of jumping over a peg and removing it, you slide two pegs (well, smudges) that were exactly one space apart into the hexagon between them. The goal, like in the peg game, is to get down to only one remaining smudge. I spent a half an hour on this puzzle, more than two-thirds of my total completion time.
The third puzzle was a chess puzzle (checkmate the black king in three moves — and one of the moves is a stupid move by the black pieces), which, unlike in the first phase, you couldn’t bypass by knowing random facts about The Da Vinci Code. The fourth puzzle was a “curator” puzzle — hang multiple paintings on a wall so that they all fit, with added constraints due to the positions of the “hooks” on the walls that paintings can hang from. I never really found this puzzle-type to be that hard, though Anand said differently. The last puzzle was probably my favorite twist on an old standard puzzle. It was a jigsaw puzzle of moving images — the shapes of the pieces stayed the same, but the images rotated through screenshots of the movie preview.
The cryptex was, of course, completely unneccessary for the final phase. But it makes for a nice little prize. Now I just have to figure out what I have that is small enough to keep in there… and how to change the combination so that anyone with an Internet connection can’t figure it out.

Da Vinci Code Quest

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Well, last Wednesday I finished the last of the 24 puzzles in Google’s Da Vinci Code Quest about three minutes after it was released. None of the 24 puzzles were all that hard — one of the sudoku variations took me about 20 minutes and every other puzzle I had done in under five minutes. The way the “Quest” was set up, your speed on the first 23 puzzles didn’t matter as long as you had them finished before the last puzzle was released.
The final puzzle itself, the only one where your speed really mattered, was a joke as far as puzzles go. “Watch this Da Vinci code trailer and answer three questions about what you saw,” was essentially the puzzle. For the second two questions, I barely needed to see the clip. As it happens, Anand, who was participating in the challenge having never read the book, asked me what “So Dark the Con of Man” anagrams to about ten minutes before the 1 pm start time. “Some painting in the book,” was all I could remember. He then ran it through an anagram finder and reminded me about “Madonna of the Rocks.” By random coincidence, the second question answer was “So Dark the Con of Man.” The third question was “What does the answer to the second question anagram to?”
Thanks, Anand. I probably would have had to resort to using the Internet Anagram Server without your question.
The google servers noticeably slowed around the time I submitted my answers, and I realized that if a Google server was being affected, then well over 10,000 people were probably trying to play. Scanning various blogs all over the web, it seemed that this thing was huge and I quickly lost all hope of being in the top 10,000 and allowed to continue to the final phase. Thursday night everyone who finished got an e-mail thanking them for playing with a note that finalists would be notified on Monday.
Monday morning came and I had no e-mail from Google. But then I got an e-mail from Dustin Rabideau, another frantic competitor who had finished right around the time Anand and I did. He had been monitoring forums and blogs and it seems that the finalists weren’t being notified by e-mail — they were just getting cryptices (my preferred pluralization of cryptex) in the mail. With this in mind, I popped back home and there on the porch was a white box from the USPS with my name on it.
And inside…

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