Category Archives: Puzzles

What is Anti-Climactic, Alex?


Well, I just took the Jeopardy online contestant test. As advertised, it took me under fifteen minutes to finish. When it was over, I didn’t get my score or anything… just a pop window with Alex Trebek thanking me for participating and telling me that if enough people have passing scores, they may have to go to a random selection and I should stay tuned.
Reading the fine print, this was not the contestant test I expected. When I first heard about it, I assumed it was the alternative to going to the contestant audition, which I’ve previously done back in Boston. (I didn’t pass — recent pop music and the bible was my downfall then.) In reality, the online test is the new alternative to the old random drawing of people who’d like to audition. And now they’re telling me that they might have to do a random draw anyway.
Ah well… at least it was sort of fun.
(For people in different time zones, there are more tests tomorrow and Thursday. You can register here.)

Meta Puzzles


During the Mystery Hunt off-season this year, my team has decided to try something new: practice puzzles. This week I was assigned to post two meta puzzles. Instead of culling from previous hunts, I decided to write two of my own. Now that they’ve each been test solved, I’ll post them here for people that Big Jimmy didn’t fantasize about to solve.

Read the rest of this entry



I just returned from Boston/Cambridge/Somerville for the annual MIT Mystery Hunt, this year run by Phys Plant (aka Random Hall), which was won by the Midnight Bombers What Bomb at Midnight (aka The Dan’s team). This year, we hunted as “Big Jimmy’s Secret Sex Fantasy,” a fitting tribute to our beloved nightwatchman who died shortly after last year’s hunt. I was anticipating a long hunt, possibly with a lot of snags in it, so I was surprised when it was actually too short. The hunt ended at about midnight Saturday/Sunday… my ideal length is to have the hunt go into Sunday afternoon. As Anand said to me, we were still having fun and we were neither frustrated nor worn out. A few teams even kept hunting for a few hours — I kind of wish we had done that. Unlike last year, we didn’t set unreasonable goals or try to follow unreasonable rules, and as result we both had more fun and solved more puzzles. However, I did puke for the fourth year in a row.
The hunt started with formal dress in Lobby 7. (And yes, Jeff, that was my only formal dress.) There we were told that we were recent graduates of S.P.I.E.S. and how wonderful and — Oh no! The Evil Dr. Moriarty has a plan (described through his power point presentation) and we’re going to have to find spies around the world to help foil him! Well, it wouldn’t be mystery hunt if there wasn’t something to do. The layout of the hunt was very elegant with maps indicating the rounds and puzzles (somewhat reminiscent of our hunt, but computer graphics instead of hand drawn Feldmeier originals). At each new city, solving the meta allowed us to meet spies at various locations around campus, such as Ethan Hunt (Mission Impossible), James Bond, Dana Scully, and… the Swedish Chef? I didn’t quite understand why he was a spy, but his skit was amusing. (“You take-a de flip-flip!”)
And now for my favorite puzzles of the weekend (solutions not yet available):

  • 783658 — A combination diagramless crossword and sudoku puzzle using phone spell.
  • Mysterious Cry; Quiet Habit — A picture cryptic that I solved with Zoz et al at 3 AM. The clue for TABASCO was particularly clever (can you find it?).
  • Second Time’s the Charm — Fairly straightforward for a Mystery Hunt crossword, but still fun.
  • Blue Steel — I was asleep when we solved this, but from what I heard it was awesome. Headquarters gave us a 3-inch floppy and Quinn and Josh deduced that a) there was no reason for them to give us data on a floppy when everything else is on the web and b) there were allusions to Zoolander, which implied that maybe we should tear the disk open. So we did, without bothering to solve the puzzle on the disk (though we did back it up). Sure enough, on the inside of the disk was a piece of paper with “The Answer is…” written on it.
  • Grid With a Hole in the Middle — What can I say… I like (good) cryptics.
  • Hollow Man — The opening part of this puzzle was kind of weak (make links to Kevin Bacon and then index into the names), but the second part (MAKE A SPY MOVIE FOR HQ) was a lot of fun. (That’s me ducking out of the way after I hand Big Jimmy to Matt.)
  • Land That I Love — The actual puzzle is kind of uninspiring, but the “A ha!” step more than makes up for it. And there’s something about a puzzle that legitimately causes you to think that the answer is “FUCK.” (It was actually “PAT BUCHANAN.”)
  • The Cock Conundrum or the Greatest Joke Ever Told — This had the potential to be really fun, but we ran out of time. (We really need to get more people who can identify cute boys. Laura Lopez, where are you?)
  • Sacred and Profane — I had a love-hate relationship with this puzzle, because we didn’t actually solve it. But I was told later that we did everything we were supposed to, but we were two letters off and failed to see the word… and we triple and quadruple checked our work too.

Mystery Hunts of Yore


The Dan was recently requesting topics for “Top Five” lists, and I suggested that he list his favorite mystery hunt puzzles of all time. He counter requested that others post their lists, so in anticipation of the 2006 hunt, I made my own list, including one from each of the five hunts I’ve done. (As a warning, these are mostly sentimental favorites — just because I had a memorable solving experience with these puzzles doesn’t mean that others will.)
5. Hum a Few Bars (2002; Brian Tivol) — My first two hunts both involved me spending far too much time on a song puzzle. Kay Sullivan and I took this puzzle to a practice room and made a recording of all the tunes. We went through soap opera themes, Beatles songs, nursery rhymes, and played them all repeatedly for everyone in the room before that wonderful moment when I looked at jrandall and sang “Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes!” After that, it took about fifteen minutes to get to the solution.
4. We Have Enough Twists, Thank You (2001; Andy Latto and Cally Perry) — It’s not that this was a particularly brilliant puzzle, but it was the one that really hooked me into mystery hunt (and caused my first hunt all-nighter, as I refused to sleep until it was solved). I broke into by looking up where a more famous Highway 101 than the one near my parents’ house might be. “San Jose? *hums*Do you know the way to…*hums* Oh! They’re all questions from songs!” It was a really satisfying moment for me. This puzzle also introduced me to the song “How Can You Believe Me When I Say I Love You When You Know I’ve Been A Liar All My Life?” which became a cult favorite on putz. The great irony is that I never actually solved this puzzle — Zoz backsolved the answer, just as we were getting close.
3. Sneakers (2003; Jennie Hango and Rebecca Christianson) — My favorite runaround ever (and the only one I’ve ever actually done). Galen, cposs, jjhu, and I wandered all around main campus while listening intently to the audio track, trying to avoid the VILE agent who seemed to be following us. Of course, we made it more fun because we sent Galen out onto the roof at the end, before we realized that we were supposed to index into the NO TRESPASSING sign. He found a pair of frozen socks out there, so we called that in before discovering that the actual answer was (coincidently) ARGYLE.
2. Quagmire (2004; Mark Feldmeier) — I test solved this one with jrandall in front of Mark during the final push before the hunt started. After spending over an hour solving the maze, we quickly recognized the hands. When I realized what they spelled, I looked at Mark in complete and utter disbelief. It’s the best puzzle answer ever.
1. Take Me Out (2005; Greg Pliska and Chris Morse) — Is it that surprising that my favorite from last year is a baseball puzzle? This was also the cause of one of my favorite hunt memories: playing “baseball” with amittai and jcbarret using scraps of paper, complete with color commentary. The Microsoft Puzzle Challenge included a very similar puzzle, which I also listed as one of my favorites from that competition.

In the words of Frosty the Snowman…


In honor of the fact that I turn 24 today, I’m posting a puzzle that Deb posed to me, Anand, Breath, and Resa at a dimsum outing in San Francisco back in June. She really should have known better than to do this at a table of MIT alums, as the rest of the meal was very quiet while we all stared into space trying to figure it out.

Using only basic arithmetic operations (+,-,*,\), represent the number 24 using two 10s, a 2, and a 4. For example, representing 26 can be done as “10+10+2+4” or “2*10+10-4” (and if I was cool, like Anand, I’d write those equations in a LaTeX font — but obviously I’m not).

After two days of none of us getting it, Breath actually wrote a python script to solve this. In the meantime, my dad gave it to a guy at his work who solved it using his own brain power in 15 minutes. And how will you solve it? (The aforementioned people are not allowed to answer.)
And for a more historical look on this day that is sure to be a holiday at some point, check out last year’s entry.

Microsoft Puzzle Challenge


I was waiting for the puzzles to be posted before I wrote about this, but last weekend, I participated in the Microsoft Puzzle Competition and took second amongst the Michigan teams and sixth overall (out of 170), winning a $100 gift certificate to Best Buy as a result. (First prize was a non-iPod MP3 player and the grand prize (first amongst all schools) was an Xbox 360, which I probably would have ebayed.)
I was a little worried going into the competition, because the puzzles from 2004 weren’t that great — lots of leaps in logic, non-intuitiveness, and a meta puzzle that didn’t use the lower puzzles’ answers. Still, a guy I know in the physics department really wanted the Xbox and, having heard my stories about Mystery Hunt, asked me to do it, along with a guy we know in the math department. I asked around the CS grad students and found a guy in one of my classes who was interested, and we registered as Cryptic Orchids. (By the way, I’m really evil and didn’t tell them where the name came from until we had already registered.) I figured that even if the puzzles were terrible and unsatisfying, it would still be at least mildly good practice for the Hunt this January.
But it seems that the people at Microsoft have learned their lesson. With one glaring exception (which I’ll get to), this year’s puzzles were all pretty decent, and some of them were even good. A few of them I was able to backsolve — and was the only person at Michigan who seemed aware of this concept. One of the members of the “ground crew” (Microsoft employees who are physically on the campus and distribute the puzzles and make sure we’re having fun) was amazed that I had “thought of it.” I had to explain to him that it’s a tried and true method for long hunts.
There were 20 lower level puzzles, of which we solved 16, and one ridiculously long meta puzzle of which we finished about 40%. (The length of the meta puzzle was something that even the groundcrew complained about at the after meeting — only one team (from MIT) solved it.) My favorite were the following (puzzles are in pdf format — I’ll try to avoid spoiling the answers for those who want to try solving them):

  • Granera Parsley All Star Game (solution) — This was my fastest solve by far. When the puzzle came out, Sam was looking at it first and said, “Does anyone know how to read a baseball scorecard?” And I took the puzzle from him and solved it in about five minutes, earning us three bonus points for being the first to solve it amongst all teams.
  • Elementary, My Dear Watson (solution) — I didn’t solve this one quite as fast, but it was enjoyable from start to finish.
  • Mangled Works (solution) — Without giving away the twist, this was one of the few puzzles that our team actually solved as a group. Our “a-ha” moment came as a result of off-handed comments made by each one of us, at least one of which (mine) wasn’t intended to be a serious suggestion. That’s not to say that it was a great leap in logic — just that when I corrected Aubrey about a pop culture reference, I never thought it would lead to the solution until Sam combined it with something Tony said.
  • Don’t Drink and Derive (solution) — Just a simple, clean puzzle.
  • Sudoku (solution) — There are better Sudoku variations out there, but we did get a bonus point on this puzzle for solving it third fastest, so I should probably list it as one of my “favorites.”

And the glaring exception that I said I’d get back to? Avoid the Sharks (solution) — which really ought to be Avoid This Puzzle And Just Backsolve It, which is what we wound up doing. Because I disliked this puzzle so much, I’m just going to ruin it for you so you don’t waste any time on it. It’s a broken connect the dots puzzle, in which the connected whales supposedly spell “PODS” (which is questionable) and you have to recognize that the whales are orcas to get “ORCA PODS.” This was by far the poorest puzzle of the hunt, from start to finish, and the only one that I truly disliked from every point of view.



For reasons not worth going into, I was looking up city nicknames today and came across some rather bizarre ones. The best ones are mostly in the midwest. Some of my favorites:

  • The Birmingham of America: Pittsburgh, PA – Shouldn’t this honor go to, oh, I don’t know… Birmingham?
  • Hog Butcher for the World: Chicago, IL – Yeah, ’cause that’s what I think of when I think of Chicago.
  • The Icebox of the United States: International Falls, MN – Ironically, I’ve only been there in the summer when it wasn’t all that cold. But Frostbite Falls of Rocky and Bullwinkle fame was modeled after International Falls.
  • Mistake on the Lake: Cleveland, OH – It even rhymes. How cute.
  • Band Instrument Capital of the World: Elkhart, IN – I guess someone has to take that title.
  • The Catfish Capital of Iowa: Linn Grove, IA – Belzoni, MS already took the title for Catfish Capital of the World, so poor Linn Grove had to settle for whatever it could get.
  • The City That Refused To Die: Sanford, ME – Hey, Dustin, aren’t you from there?
  • Cow Chip Capital: Beaver, OK – What kind of city would proudly nickname itself after dried shit?
  • Goat Ropin’ Capital of the World: Gotebo, OK – The next time I want to rope me some goats, I know where to go.
  • Home of the World’s Largest Cheeto: Algona, IA – It looks like a cancerous growth.

Mystery Hunt


The MIT Mystery Hunt was this weekend, and as such, I spent my entire weekend on campus, most of it in 56-154. While it was a good clean hunt (no hinting required) and I got to see friends from out of town, this may have been the least amount of fun I have had during the actual hunt itself, due in large part to the fact that we had grossly overestimated our team’s ability. Well over half of our team members were first or second time hunters, an artifact of running the hunt for a year — freshman and most sophomores had never hunted before and the juniors had only hunted once and that was two years ago. A common complaint amongst those of us with lots of experience was that we were being stretched too thin — too many people wanted our help on too many puzzles at once. And as a result, I think we did a poor job of teaching the newer hunters good techniques. Had I realized before the hunt that we would have been so non-competitive, I might have focused more of my energy on being somewhat social and having fun, rather than spending all of Sunday angry about having to start the cross-sum over.
That being said, Setec wrote a good hunt and there were a number of puzzles that I really enjoyed working on.

  • Take Me Out – A baseball puzzle that I would have solved faster had I not thought that the 19th letter of the alphabet was R. But the end result was jcbarret, Amittai, and I playing out a baseball game with pieces of paper in order to calculate RBIs. This was quite possibly my favorite moment of the hunt.
  • Track 12 – This was mostly cposs, me, and someone I can’t remember. We managed to identify nearly all of the songs without using google and I very quickly noted that they were on Rolling Stone’s Top 500 songs of all time. And any puzzle that uses the song “Imagine” gets my vote.
  • Heavenly Hash – Just a nice clean word puzzle. I saw the method quickly and breezed through most of it, although lizd took over the last step, as I failed to notice the alphabetical order of the words.
  • Concerto Delle Oche VolantiAnand, frosh-liz, and I solved this one. I may have liked it primarily because I was the one who broke into it, and that’s always a good feeling.
  • The Red Meta – Again, I liked this one because I solved it on my own five minutes after I woke up on Saturday (very early) morning. That doesn’t usually happen with metas.

Despite the stress (note to self: remember to eat during the hunt), I am looking forward to next year with the great hope that Phys Plant doesn’t fall into the same traps that we ran into.

Forgive Bless Me, Father


While in the process of applying to graduate schools, I read a lot of papers (okay, mostly abstracts) relating to natural language processing. Including this one, which suggests that using search engines is a good way to determine how popular a given phrase is — the more hits, the more popular. With the amount of material out on the Internet these days, that seems more than reasonable, and I have in fact used that technique. But, unsurprisingly, it turns out not to be entirely failsafe.
When brainstorming names for our MIT Mystery Hunt team this year, someone suggested “Forgive Me Father, It Has Been Two Years Since My Last Mystery Hunt.” However, someone (possibly even Matt) suggested to me that that was the incorrect phrase and that Catholics say “Bless me, Father.” And so we did a quick comparison with Google, and determined that “forgive me father” was more popular, and thus correct. And then our team opted to not select my favorite suggestion, “Guillotined Priapism,” and “Forgive me, Father” became our name. But Matt McGann actually looked at Google’s results and it turns out that Catholic’s do say “Bless me”.
So… Bless us, Father, for we have sinned. We’re still going to be called “Forgive me, Father” anyway.