November 2004 Archives

The most phenomenal run in game show history ended today as Ken Jennings finally lost, after 74 victories and $2.5 million. And the tragedy is, he just faded away. He wasn't outplayed, he simply had a bad day. He dominated the game as usual, but he found and then missed both daily doubles in Double Jeopardy for a loss of $10,000 (and a swing of twice that), and then went on to miss Final Jeopardy while his opponent got it correct. Had Ken bet $0 on the daily doubles, he would have been unbeatable in Final Jeopardy. Not to take anything away from the player who beat him-- she played fine. But she didn't wipe the floor with him, or just edge him out in a hard-fought see-saw battle of trivia giants. She just drew the lucky straw. Rather an anticlimax.

But bravo to Mr. Jennings for a remarkable run and a well-earned place in television history.

Comments (6) | last by Chris M. Dickson, Dec 2, 12:49 PM

Fowl Play

This week I carved a turkey for the first time. And by "carved" I mean "committed brutal acts of post-mortem dismemberment to forcibly remove meat from a dead bird's carcass." There was nothing pretty, elegant, or civilized about it. The turkey had been lovingly brined in a mixture of salt, brown sugar, bourbon, cloves and peppercorns, then seasoned with care and roasted to succulence. Nothing in the bird's culinary journey could possibly have prepared it for the oafish brutality that awaited it on my cutting board. Except, perhaps, that one fateful moment as the axe-- or whatever mechanized equivalent Frank Purdue's people employ-- cleaved its head from its neck.

It's not like I didn't come prepared. I came armed with a sharp, quality Sabatier chef's knife which, all my sources assured me, would be ample for the task. I had my laptop nearby, the step-by-step illustrated carving guide from Cooks' Illustrated's turkey site loaded and ready. But that guide assumes the user earned a certificate of merit from an AP turkey anatomy class, and my education was mysteriously lacking in that department.

It seemed so simple. Separate the legs and thighs, then do the same with the wings. Slice down the middle of the breast, then slide the knife under the breast meat and separate the breast from the rib cage. Slice on a bias across the grain and presto: elegant, picturesque slices of delectable holiday goodness. A Martha Stewart moment.

So. The leg bone's connected to the thigh bone, but where the heck's the joint? I knew it had to be there, somewhere beneath the dark meat slowly dripping its juices onto my hand, but I'll be damned if I could find it. Once I did, I had no doubt the Sabatier could cleave it in twain in no time. But a hammer's no good without a nail. I flipped the bird over, turned it forwards, backwards, and on its side, examined it from every possible angle and would have called Mr. DeMille in for a close-up if I thought it would help. I wedged the knife in where I thought the joint should be, only to meet solid bone. Even with great leverage I wasn't going to cut through that; with the knife twisting in my now-thoroughly-lubricated-with-turkey-juices hand, it was a disaster waiting to happen. Even with no salmon mousse on the menu, death lurked outside the door.

Frustration mounted. Flayed pieces of turkey were beginning to pile up, and I still hadn't carved a darn thing. So I punted. I grabbed the leg with one hand and gave a mighty twist, popping out the leg joint. From there I twisted some more to uncover the elusive thigh joint. It only got uglier from there as, emboldened, I got medieval on the turkey's carcass. In a thought bubble above my head, Alton Brown looked down disapprovingly. "Now that is definitely not good eats." But in the end, I got the job done. A platter of respectable white meat slices and... irregular dark meat chunks made it to the table. And the meat was, in fact, flavorful, moist, and tender.

This is why I don't eat lobster. I love the process of cooking. I love the process of eating. Foods that throw up obstacles between those two steps are more trouble than they're worth. Next time I'll just slap the turkey on a platter, bring it to the table with a few sharp knives, and tell people to carve their own damn dinner.

Comments (2) | last by Danielle, Nov 29, 10:25 AM

All Shook Up

It's about time Scout, Twila, and Eliza woke up and smelled the pecking order. It was abundantly clear for quite some time that Ami, Leann, and Julie were the alliance within the alliance and that the other women needed to band together with the men. Frankly, I didn't think Eliza had enough sense to grab the life preserver Chris threw her way. It's a crying shame Ami won immunity, because it would have been great to see her blindsided tonight instead of Leann. Is Eliza smart enough to realize her only chance of winning the game is to stick to Chris like glue, since Twila and Scout will never vote each other off?

The show desperately needed something like this to happen, because up to this point it's been a pretty predictable progression. Tonight the game finally got interesting.

Comment (1) | last by Jesse, Nov 26, 1:05 AM

Rules Are Good

Donald Trump may not like playing by the rules, but rules are essential in a competition. Are there any for The Apprentice? The guy seems to be able to do whatever the heck he wants-- firing people before a boardroom showdown, firing two people at once... where does it end?

Meanwhile, someone please wake me when Survivor gets interesting, or when Ami gets booted.

Comment (1) | last by Stephen Glenn, Nov 19, 8:41 PM

Basic Research

If you were going to be in a race around the world for a million dollars, do you think you might do a tiny bit of research about what you're in for? Like, say, watch some of the past five seasons of The Amazing Race? Some of these people sure didn't seem to. If they had, they'd have known the #1 rule of The Amazing Race: Never, ever choose the "search" task at a Detour. No matter how much closer it is, or how much easier it sounds than the other option, it's guaranteed to screw you in the end.

By the way, please excuse me if I occasionally burst into short fits of gleefully hysterical tittering. Every now and then I think ahead to when Jonathan gets eliminated and I can't help myself. Congratulations are in order to the show's casting director. I didn't think it'd be possible to get a contestant more abusive and reprehensible than last season's Colin, but barely ten minutes into the show Jonathan had already seized the crown.

Comments (4) | last by Scott, Nov 20, 2:43 PM

Shinteki: Untamed

Last weekend I went to San Francisco to participate in Shinteki: Untamed, a 12-hour Game event. This was explicitly for teams for 4 players, and I joined three of my fellow players from Justice Unlimited so that Team Briny Deep could set sail once more.

I'd heard nothing but raves about the organizers' two previous efforts, the full-length Jackpot and the beginner-level Shinteki: Aquarius, so my expections for this event were high. Unfortunately they were not met. I enjoyed the experience, but there were a number of very easy ways its flaws could have been eliminated and the experience improved dramatically.

We-- and thirty other teams of four-- gave up a big part of a weekend to participate. Fundamental to these kinds of events is trusting the organizers to be fair and keep player entertainment as their top priority. We put ourselves in their hands. The expectation was that Big Fun would ensue.

The opening was great-- a team scramble within the San Francisco Zoo to match clues to animals and locate the letters affixed to their exhibits. We got to see sleeping elephants and hyperactive birds and unflappable chimps and many other forms of wildlife, if we were willing to pause in our frenzy and appreciate them.

Things started going downhill from there. The biggest problem with the event was that it required too much Googling. The next clue had only a moderate amount-- we ultimately needed to identify eight professional athletes from their team and uniform number. With no Wi-Fi access at the golf course where this was needed, we had to rely on friends and family we had standing by at home. We'd been pre-warned to have phone support lined up, and it was simple to define the search terms over the phone and get the desired results without putting those helpers to too much trouble. One could argue, however, that it was completely unnecessary.

At the start of the event each team was issued a Palm device. Upon receiving each clue, teams entered an ID string into the Palm to start the clock. After a predetermined amount of time (which could be different for each puzzle), an alarm would sound and a new hint would become available on the device. When teams solved a puzzle, they entered the solution into the Palm and were told where to go next. The device worked flawlessly-- the first device in three Games I've played in to do so. And it would have been trivial to add to the device the ability to enter search terms and get pre-canned responses. So entering "Chargers 12" would give the name of player 12 on the Chargers, if that was the right player to ask for. Any other Chargers query would get no response or, if they wanted to be thorough, the entire roster of the team could have been available. Presto-- no Google, and teams get the satisfaction of solving the entire puzzle themselves without having to call out to friends for help.

A later puzzle couldn't be de-Googled so easily. Unless you're at a music store, identifying sixteen audio tracks and matching them to album covers will entail quite a bit of internet search. Distributing that CD atop a mountain overlooking the Pacific coast was not a terribly bright idea. While the organizers verified that there was ample cell coverage at the location, they completely missed the point. The four of us in the van are the players. Our friends and family at home should be used only for emergencies. Being tied up on the phone and the computer for an hour is not only above and beyond the call of duty for them, but a real drag for us. It is Not Fun. Forcing friends to gather large quantities of data for us is nothing close to fun. A puzzle where that gathering of data represents 95% of the solving time and no real creative thought is required is Not Fun. Planting a red herring message within the data-- intended to steer teams away from useless information but worded poorly enough to itself seem potentially meaningful-- was not smart design. This puzzle should simply have been axed.

But the most frustrating design gaffe had nothing to do with Google. The puzzle was a hard-boiled detective story with some very odd turns of phrase. My first thought upon seeing it was that there were cryptic crossword-style clues embedded in the text. But the content of the story also alluded to Gilligan's Island, with a margin annotation calling attention to that reference as well as two other parts of the story. That strongly suggested some kind of TV theme to the puzzle, but it was a complete red herring-- one that had us sidetracked for a long time. The real puzzle was actually quite clever-- the string "Shinteki Untamed" was anagrammed in multiple different ways and embedded throughout the text, and counting words between these markers yielded values in the 1-26 range. And while I came close to the correct approach right out of the gate, there were so many red herrings in the puzzle that it took a few hints before we got there. And the hints themselves were vague enough to send us on entirely new wild goose chases. The first one, "Hint: unmake edits" seemed to reinforce my cryptic theory, since "unmake" is a cryptic signal for anagramming. Anagramming EDITS yields, among other things, DIETS-- and the text contained an explicit reference to Atkins. "Aha!," we thought, "we're looking for names of diets in the text." Argh!

This puzzle would have been brilliant if only it had contained some internal clues to steer solvers to the right path. Perhaps all it needed was a title of "Shinteki Untamed" or an anagram thereof, and the elimination of that dreadful Gilligan's Island blind alley. As it stood, it was highly improbable that any team would have the necessary "aha" to solve the puzzle unhinted. And a puzzle that a) requires hints to be solvable, and b) so ofuscates the correct path with false trails that it's impossible to zero in on the right approach has significant design problems.

The last puzzle our team saw was essentially a crossword involving a mix of common and obscure facts. All players were required to wear nametags in plain sight throughout the event, and each tag contained a "secret word" assigned to that team. During the game, players were constantly trying to spy and record other teams' secret words. These words were answers to many of the clues in this puzzle. Since teams were spread out from the get-go, nobody was able to collect them all-- so even the best spies still wound up with obscure facts that needed researching. Which meant more Googling over the phone. Let me reiterate this for posterity and for the benefit of future puzzlemakers:

Googling is not fun. Calling a friend and having them Google for you is even less so.

If your puzzle in a mobile event relies on internet search to be solvable, it needs to be redesigned. Find a better way. Limited Googling is more acceptable in a stationary puzzle event where players have high-speed internet access, but even there it should be used sparingly.

Some might consider the above to be nitpicky. On a charitable day I might agree, but I spoke to some teams for whom this was their first Game-like event who were very turned off by the same issues I mentioned above, and are disinclined to participate in future events as a result. My feelings are less extreme. Except. There was one design decision the organizers made which, independent of any other problems, is sufficiently and egregiously wrong-headed as to make me seriously reconsider whether I'd ever be willing to trust them with my time and money again.

At some point during the day, the top two teams were given a puzzle that was completely unsolvable-- not through an error in design, but by intent. It was specifically designed to offer many intriguing avenues of approach, but to have no actual solution. After some time bashing their heads against this wall, these teams got the hint that "You're overthinking it." After over an hour of this for the top team and forty minutes for the team close behind, the Palm informed them that their time on that puzzle was up and simply directed them to the next location. As a result of this boondoggle, one of those teams missed a clue they otherwise would have seen because they ran out of time. The organizers called this "The Demoralizer." Having claimed that Shinteki's challenges were mental, physical, and psychological, this was their psychological challenge-- to give the leading teams the taste of frustration that trailing teams often experience.

Ok, class-- all those who think this is Fun, raise your hands.

Torturing the players who paid you money for a challenging, yet ultimately fair puzzle experience is so fundamentally wrong-headed I don't even know where to begin. The key here is that players did in fact pay an entry fee to participate. What might-- and I strongly emphasize the word might-- be acceptable in an event run at no cost is unforgivable when you're charging me for the privilege. The players aren't there to entertain the organizers-- they're there to be entertained. Being intentionally demoralized does not qualify.

There were some very good puzzles in Untamed. I loved the nighttime sound-sensitive Braille puzzle that had multiple teams gathered atop a hilly clearing screaming into the night at the top of their lungs (apparently the neighbors loved it quite a bit less, as the police shut the place down not long after our team left). Another puzzle involving threading a series of characters along a Celtic braid pattern was very well clued internally and was therefore satisfying to solve. The locations we passed through were terrific-- we had some great views of the Golden Gate Bridge, we walked among giant redwoods in Muir Woods, and enjoyed passages along the coastline. Our team was dressed as pirates and our van decked out in full buccaneer regalia, and the hearty "Yarrrrr!"s we dished and received from passers-by (players and bystanders alike) were tremendous fun.

People whose opinions I respect loved Shinteki: Aquarius. But after Untamed, I'm far less likely to shlep down to the Bay area for another 12-hour event. It's not just the distrust I've developed for the organizers. Around 6 or 7 PM, our team finally started firing on all thrusters. When time ran out at 10, we were just getting revved up. We could have gone a few more hours easily, and were eager to do so. I think I prefer the more epic 24-hour experience, even with the spanking that awaits around 5 or 6 AM.

I'd love to hear comments from other Shinteki players about their view of the event.

Comments (5) | last by Sonya, May 7, 7:17 PM

This is cute.

Comments (3) | last by Brian L., Nov 12, 7:25 AM
  1. If everyone's special, nobody is.
  2. Always demand to know who you're working for.
  3. Nothing brings a family together like a surface to air missile attack.
  4. Spend your dying moments etching cryptic information into the wall even though, if anyone finds it, it'll probably be too late for them to figure out what it means, much less use it.
  5. Working in a cubicle crushes your soul.
  6. Being elastic would be way cooler than Mr. Fantastic makes it look.
  7. Big person + small space = funny.
  8. Always make sure you're smarter than your doomsday robot.
  9. Follow your dreams, even if it means breaking the law and keeping secrets from your loved ones.
  10. No capes.
Comments (4) | last by Creford, Mar 11, 5:16 PM

Advice

Dear Ann Landers,

I need advice about a friend of mine-- let's just call her U.S. She's been in an abusive four-year relationship with this guy. He's lied to her repeatedly, and because of him many of her old friends are no longer speaking to her. He's stubborn and prone to unprovoked violence. U.S. used to have a tidy nest egg in the bank, but shortly after coming into her life he somehow managed to not only spend it all but run up a huge debt to boot! He treats her like she's an idiot, but she only hears what she wants to hear. He's no good for her, but she just can't see it.

Lately she's been checking out a new guy. I don't think this new guy is right for her either, but she'd definitely be trading up. I was sure she was going to dump her old man tonight for him, but she got cold feet and now it looks like she's going to stay in this unhealthy relationship. I hate who she's become since hooking up with him. What can I do?

Sincerely,
Chad in Blue


Dear Chad,

I hear Vancouver is lovely.

Best wishes,
Ann

Comments (4) | last by Stephen Glenn, Nov 5, 8:56 PM

Bite-Size Me

Is it just me, or do today's kids get shafted on Halloween? Many of their parents lived through the Tylenol scare of the eighties, which through some leap of logic that baffled me even then somehow rendered Halloween candy suspect and made for some very lean years on the suburban Jersey trick-or-treat circuit. Now those parents fear for their children, and in many cases substitute a sanitized door-to-door in their sterile office building for a good old-fashioned romp around the neighborhood.

But the real screwage comes from the candymakers themselves, who have found a way to sell less candy and more wrappers. My pillowcases used to get reliably stuffed with miniature Milky Ways and Baby Ruths about a third the size of a normal bar, but such treats seem to have gone the way of the PBMax and Starbar. All I've seen this year are "bite-size" morsels you swallow in a single gulp, providing barely enough buzz to keep you awake an extra 5 minutes. What a rip! Was I just shopping in the wrong store (Costco)?

Comments (8) | last by Dug Steen, Nov 8, 5:26 PM