So, how was your weekend?

So, how was your weekend? Hey, thanks for asking. I spent it up at MIT, helping to solve 126 of the nastiest puzzles that you ever did see. This is what I do instead of taking drugs. The crack addict scrapes and scrimps and lives a life of misery, desperate for the satisfaction of that next big high. The puzzle lover goes to MIT, and stares with mute astonishment and growing frustration at, for instance, a long series of seemingly unrelated pictures. Except they are not unrelated. In fact, not only are the pictures related, but they artfully contain a hidden message. And if you could just figure out what the $#&*@&$#* is happening, you too will experience a high — the elation that comes with jumping, in a single leap, from complete ignorance to total enlightenment. For puzzlers like myself, very little is as satisfying.

To experience this, I am willing to do just about anything. I’ll stay up all night. I’ll lock myself into a small classroom with 30 other people who have also stayed up all night. (By the end of the weekend, houseflies coming within 50 yards of our headquarters simply dropped dead.) I’ll eat Chinese food that the poor, addled Bostonians seem to love, but which I would not, under normal circumstances, feed to my dog. All so I can solve puzzles, and maybe, maybe put all the puzzle answers together so that they reveal the location of a hidden coin, the possession of which gives its owner the right to organize next year’s Hunt.

We didn’t find the coin, although for a while there I think we were in the lead. When it was all over, we were in third place. Not what I hoped for, but a long way from bad. Along the way, there were some truly wonderful puzzles: (SPOILERS GALORE, so avert your eyes if you’re planning on solving anything…)

  • A series of highly amusing clues (“Programs designed to encourage Bolshevik weight loss”; “Incidents of public disorder caused by Jerry Garcia”) which, when paired together, formed spoonergrammed phrases. (RED DIETS, DEAD RIOTS)
  • Four lists of standard, crossword-style clues, leading to perfectly normal answers, many of which contained repeated letters. (AS SLOW AS MOLASSES — gee, but that’s a lot of S’s.) This might be my favorite puzzle of the Hunt, simply because I was the one who figured out that the repeated letters were either S’s, or Ds, or Cs, or Hs — in other words, spades, diamonds, clubs, or hearts. And also Ns, for no-trump. In short, the lists of words represented bids in a game of bridge. This is exactly the kind of gestalt I go up to MIT to experience.
  • A series of java applets, each displaying a thick web of interconnected letters — essentially, the Boggle board from hell. By tracing the paths from letter to letter, you could spell out members of a set — colors, say, or the Nine Worlds of Norse Mythology. (I figured out the colors one; I did not have much to do with the Norse Mythology one.)
  • An excellent puzzle in which clues led to a list of people, each of whom (it turned out) could be mapped to one of the cards in the Major Arcana of a tarot deck. (Penn Jillette = Magician; Pat Sajak = Wheel of Fortune, and so on.)
  • A tour of MIT, in which you had to pay close attention to certain details. However, the person giving this tour was running at top speed, and God help you if you lost him. As Mystery Hunters are not known for their physical fitness, this puzzle unfortunately killed five people.
  • And of course, there was a puzzle about blogs. (Which, dammit, I didn’t get to solve.)

Most of the puzzles I personally worked on were more or less sane. Hard — very hard — but sane. But an MIT Mystery Hunt can always be counted on for a share of jaw-droppingly insane puzzles as well. Would you like some examples?

  • One puzzle was simply a series of DNA sequences. To solve, the sequences had to ordered properly, and then “fed into a nucleotide sequence translator.”
  • A puzzle consisting, in its entirety, of a number 1,364 digits long.
  • A bewildering scenario involving “five waterfowl from different worlds,” who “gather, march across the Field of Feathers, and execute the odd behaviors and intricate motions leading to the utterance of the Sacred Word, lost for centuries upon centuries.” You have to help the ducks complete the ritual, by following pages and pages and pages of instructions. Sample instruction: “Move one square in the orthogonal direction which is not towards one of the aforementioned two ducks or a terrifying monster.”
  • One puzzle consisted of a montage of 12 Playboy centerfolds, which had been cut up into teeny, tiny, 1/4-inch squares. It took three hours for six people to assemble this puzzle. (You may not have realized this, but one Playmate belly-button looks a hell of a lot like any other Playmate’s belly-button.) It was worth the trouble, however, when the punchline was revealed: By identifying each Playmate and taking one letter from each of their profiles, one arrived at the answer word AUGMENTATION. Cute.

For a while, I truly thought we were going to win. We had pretty much solved 125 out of 126 puzzles. But the one puzzle we had to solve stymied the full team for over 24 hours. In retrospect, we made a colossal oversight: Six important “metapuzzles” all made use of a map, which we were given at the very beginning of the Hunt. One area of the map had not been used in the previous five metapuzzles — mightn’t we have figured out if we could somehow apply that sixth area to the puzzle we were all stuck on? And yet nobody thought of doing this, and by the time someone figured it out — with grudgingly given hints from the Huntmasters — another team had rocketed into the lead and found the coin.

Oh well. The coin isn’t the point, although it would have been nice to find it. The point is in co-solving, with very smart people, puzzles that you never could have solved all on your own. And to occasionally make a contribution so large that everybody else feels inclined to cheer, because you deserve it. Because you figured something out.

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  1. Posted January 18, 2005 at 12:51 pm | Permalink

    Glad you liked Gag Me. It was a blast to write. :)


  2. Scott
    Posted January 20, 2005 at 1:51 pm | Permalink

    I’m glad to see I’m not the only one on our team who doesn’t understand the Mary Chung’s fetish. Speaking as someone with a Chinese girlfriend, this is bad Chinese food, people.

    And, for the record, the 9 Norse Worlds wasn’t actually that hard to break into. One of the strands began JOT(A/U) and a quick dictionary search turned up JOTUNHEIM (and very little else), which jogged my memory of the existence of 9 Norse worlds, which I then looked up.


  3. Dan
    Posted January 20, 2005 at 3:34 pm | Permalink

    On the Chinese food front: we Massachusetts folk are very unlucky when it comes to Chinese food. In my almost 10 years here, I have found exactly two Chinese food places (outside of Chinatown) that I would deem “quite yummy.” Mary Cheung’s is actually fairly reasonable when put next to some of the others in the area. The most troubling aspect of Massachusetts Chinese food: instead of giving you Chinese noodles with your meal, most restaurants give you bread. BREAD?! Sheesh, I still can’t get used to that.


  4. Posted January 20, 2005 at 4:01 pm | Permalink

    Somebody (Al I think) did long ago suggest using the boxes and noted that the star lines (using exactly the right idea but wrong set of starting points) passed through those boxes. One issue was the browser-dependency of that puzzle. In Mozilla on the PC which I was running, nothing at all showed up mousing over those points so View Source was the only way to see them. By now, with such a thing, View Source should be a standard thing to do and I think only exhaustion explains why none of us did it, but this did make it harder. I don’t know how many people were using browsers where the mouse-over worked. Interesting, it also worked quite differently in different browsers even when it worked at all. In Firefox on the PC, it show up quickly if you just bring your mouse in a quick pass over it. In Mozilla on Linux (my work browser), it shows up but only if you hold your mouse over the exact location for a half-second or so.

    Anyway, great job Setec/Normalville and, also, I think Acronym was frustrated for even longer than we were.


  5. Posted January 21, 2005 at 1:26 pm | Permalink

    Acronym was frustrated for a long time, but not nearly as long as Random (the winning team) was.

    (Of course, that’s not counting the whole year 2005 that Acronym will be frustrated about making a huge comeback over the early Sunday AM hours, then taking so long to solve what was a very solvable puzzle, then being the only team to do so without a hint, then making up half the decifit we started with on the runaround, only to come up short in the end. Not counting that, Random was frustrated for longer (as was another team or two). :))


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